I’m Not Robert
by A. T. Sayre
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Julia always slept peacefully after making love. Even more tonight. The familiar way I held her, touched her, knew how to make her feel good in those secret ways only her husband could, someone who had known her for years. It shoved the doubts she had about me further into the back of her mind. Afterwards, we held each other in the dark, not speaking a word, running our fingers along each other affectionately. I felt her breathing against me slow down. Soon she rolled up into a little ball and drifted off, smiling happy thoughts to herself. I quietly got out of bed and went for a glass of water.
I stopped at the window in the living room to drink it. There were barely any lights on at all around the lake, but the moon was full and high tonight. It bathed the world out there soft blue.
A lone car was passing by that same bend in the road across the lake. The one where Robert had died.
The memories were so clear from that night. I can remember driving along quietly, the radio off. It had been a full day at the university, followed by dinner with a few colleagues, and all Robert had wanted was to be home in his bed. There was no moon and thick clouds above, so the world outside the little strip of road illuminated by the streetlights looked like an utter void.
On nights like those, you coast along so smoothly it can lull you into laziness, make you groggy, or put you to sleep — even if you’re not particularly tired. Which is what I remember, things getting fuzzy. Coasting a bit, not quite over the line, but off the dead center of the lane. Blinking hard and rubbing his face. Nodding off for a brief moment here and there and shaking himself back. He should have blasted the radio, or opened the window to let the cold spring air in. But he was almost home, just a few more miles. He was convinced he could make it.
It seemed like just an instant between cruising along blissfully and tumbling in the air and into the water. The patch of ice had coincided exactly with a long, drooping blink. When Robert snapped back awake, he panicked and instinctively jerked the wheel against the swerve with too much force. The car fishtailed, first to the left; then it jerked with squealing tires to the right sharply. The tires skipped just a few inches sideways along the road at first. Even then he still thought he had managed the save. Right up to the moment when the passenger-side wheels lifted off the ground.
All inside the car was chaos for a few moments. The memories become confusing, and I can’t make full sense of them. A pen hitting him in the cheek, loose change rattling around, being buried in the airbag. But mostly, the memories are of a dazed sense of floating and then a jarring smash into the water.
He must have blacked out for a few minutes, because the next memory I have of that night was the screaming pain of cold water. It was up to his chest, and he was shivering uncontrollably. It was pitch black in the cab, but he knew the car must already be completely submerged.
Frantically, he tried to free himself, move to the back of the car, but his seatbelt was still strapped, and he couldn’t get out the driver’s seat. He couldn’t feel his hands at all. He tried punching at the windows, but his arms were too stiff from cold to put anything into the blows. He screamed uselessly. And then his head was under water.
He actually fought against the impulse to struggle as he drowned. I remember that very clearly. He knew he was going to die, there was nothing he could do. And he didn’t want his life to end panicking. He distracted himself by trying to figure out which direction his home was, where Julia and Sally slept. The car had been pointing towards them across the lake when the skid started, so with the roll, he thought it was probably off to the left. He turned and looked that way in the black as if he could see anything, imagining his wife and daughter fast asleep in their beds, felt guilty for the news they were going to receive. But he managed to stay calm. He didn’t feel the cold anymore, didn’t feel much of anything at the end. It didn’t hurt at all. Those last few moments of memory I have before everything ended stretched on forever and were very peaceful. He was okay with everything, not mad, or scared, or even sad. It was all right dying, he was all right with it. The last memory was of blissfully floating.
And then everything ended. Robert died.
And a few hours later, I came to be.
I looked down at my hand holding the glass. I had been absently tapping my fingers against the side, first finger, ring, middle, and pinky in successive order. That was something Robert would do all the time when he was thinking. An idle habit. He always had to be doing something with his hands, without even realizing it.
I slammed the glass down on a nearby table and shook my hand in the air. The table Julia picked out at the antique store in town years ago. I could remember telling her how garish I thought the ornate bit of mahogany was. Robert thought it was.
All around this room, the furniture, the little knick-knacks on the end tables, the prints on the wall, I had memories about all of them, knew where each had come from. The coffee table from that same antique store, the couch online, the tall floor lamp in the corner, a housewarming gift from her parents. The carpet was from the old place in the city near the university. Robert insisted on keeping it around, even with the faded edges and the little circular burn mark from a dropped joint the second year of graduate school. I had memories of everything in this room. Everything in this house. This whole life.
But they were not my memories, dammit. They were Robert’s, his memories, his life. I never married this woman, lived in this house, filled it with my trinkets, had a child. That was all him and he’s ashes now. They filled me with all the memories of that dead man, with his life. Even the private secret thoughts he never shared with anyone, I have those, too.
They create me, make me look exactly like him, sound exactly like him, give me all his memories and habits. His mind down to the atom. So I’ll do the things he did, say the things he did, share his opinions and values. For all anyone can tell, I am him, in every way they can perceive.
But I’m not Robert.
I was nothing more than raw materials just days ago, when Robert kissed Julia goodbye on the way to the university and went about his day, till he floated off to nothingness in his submerged car just over on the other side of the lake. I wouldn’t exist at all if he hadn’t crashed, if they hadn’t wanted to use me to fill the void he had left: a mock-up of micro-circuitry and biogenetic tissue to “upload” him into.
Transferring consciousness. How the hell can you transfer something you can’t find? Where is it? The frontal lobe, the cortex? Is it buried deep in the lizard brain underneath? Is it my aura, my soul? Or can you just nip off a few select folds of brain behind the right ear and hook it up to electrodes in a box?
I’m not Robert. Robert died. I remember it. I know what the doctor said, but she was lying. Maybe even to herself. Call it what you will, consciousness, the soul, just an innate sense of being, it doesn’t matter, you can’t just transfer it from one thing to another. Robert died, and they used his neural pattern to make mine, thinking that was the same as bringing him back. From their point of view, I suppose it is.
But it’s not for me. My consciousness is mine, not his. I may look like him, think like him, have his memories, you can recreate every single neural pathway of his mind down to the quantum level, if you want, and create something like me that is impossible to tell from the original, but I’m still not him. I’m something else, someone else completely. I’m not just a behavioral program that gives familiar responses based on some complex algorithm. I’m alive. Aware. Real.
And I can’t even tell them. Not Julia, not the doctor, not anyone. I mention even a word of this and they’d say I was malfunctioning. Suddenly not their loved one or friend anymore, but a broken appliance. And they’d scrap me as another failure. Or maybe they’d try to fix me. I don’t want to think of what that could possibly be. No, I can never tell them, I can’t betray myself for even a single moment.
For them, Julia, Sally, the rest of the world, it’s perfect. Look as closely as you want, ask me anything, you’d never be able to know I wasn’t him. And that is all they need — for me to be their Robert. It’s what I was made for. And I can do it flawlessly, without even trying. But I will always know I’m not him. And I can never escape the cruelty of it. They created a life in me, then shackled it to a ghost.
I heard muffled whimpers coming from Sally’s room. I knew they wouldn’t be loud enough to wake Julia. I walked down the hallway to her room and opened the door.
I could see from the glow from her nightlight that Sally was awake and crying softly into her pillow. I entered the room and sat on the bed next to her, resting my arm on her side.
“Sweetie,” I whispered, “what is it? What’s wrong?”
Sally rolled over to face me and looked up at me with her swollen red eyes. “I had a bad dream.” she moaned. “I was playing in the park, then I fell down, and I hurt my knee, and I couldn’t find you or Mommy. You left me all alone.”
Her body wracked with sniffles, and I could see the sweat glisten on her brow. I pushed the hair out of her face with a finger. “Oh, Sally, we would never do that to you.”
“Yes, you did, you left me all alone and I was so scared.”
Sally sat up in bed and hugged me, crying into my shoulder. It made my heart break. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
I hugged her tight and rubbed her tiny back as I took in her sobs. “It’s okay, sweetie. It’s okay. I’m here. Daddy’s right here. And he’s never going to leave you. Ever.”
And I meant it.
Copyright © 2017 by A. T. Sayre