by Adam Matson
The first time you hang out with friends you haven’t seen in a while, you realize how weird they are. That’s how it was with Jerry and Reesie (rhymes with the peanut butter cup) Tolliver. I hadn’t seen them in almost ten years. This long hiatus in the friendship was nobody’s fault. Life drives people apart. You get a job in a different city, and the years slip away. That’s what I did. Got a job in a different city. I contacted Jerry and Reesie on a whim when I was back east visiting family. Immediately upon reconnecting with them, I discovered they had taken a turn for the strange.
The social outing we arranged was a picnic down by the river. Optimistically, as a single guy with no kids, I hoped this might be a drinking occasion. It was not. The Tollivers brought along Jackson, their five-year-old son.
I knew Jerry and Reesie had a kid. For a while I had been included on the new-child email chain. Each year in October, around Jackson’s birthday, the Tollivers sent out one of those email greeting photo montages, set to music, with an update on Jackson. The song set to the fifth birthday montage was- somewhat absurdly: “There Goes My Hero,” by the Foo Fighters. When I saw the montage, and heard that insipid song, I first thought that maybe Jackson had tragically perished. I was about to compose an earnest grief/support email, when I thought: maybe I should verify Jackson’s demise. I texted another friend, and found out that the kid was not dead. He was just his strange parents’ hero.
I met the Tollivers at the park, and together we all walked down to the river. Several families were enjoying the sunny day, but not so many that the park was crowded. Which was preferable for me. I don’t really like kids. It’s their screaming. It touches a point deep in my brain, and I become paralyzed with irritation, like when your neighbor starts using a chainsaw on a Sunday morning. But I figured I could handle one kid.
Jackson was a little ball of energy. He dashed around the park, touching, smelling, and sometimes tasting, everything.
“Not in your mouth, honey bunches,” Reesie cooed, as Jackson tasted what looked like a rock, but also might have been something unspeakable.
“He’s quite a little explorer,” I said, hoping a jovial supportive comment might prevent me from vomiting. I was pretty sure Jackson had just licked something’s turd.
“He’s learning the boundaries of his environment,” said Reesie. “Everything is a wonder to him.”
Jerry, my old college friend, watched his son with quiet admiration. Then a blue heron flew by, and Jerry watched that for a while with the same expression on his face.
“I brought a six-pack,” I informed them. “If anybody feels like a beer.”
“Not for me, thanks,” said Reesie.
Jerry turned his strange smile to my beer, but did not commit to one. I held one up for myself, raising my eyebrows to see if they’d mind, and they didn’t say or do anything. So I started drinking.
“So, you’re living in Oregon now,” Jerry said to me, as Reesie started pulling lots of little sealed Rubbermaid containers out of a cooler.
“Yes,” I said. “I like it out there. It’s different.” I thought about articulating the differences between the Pacific Northwest, and the East Coast, where I was originally from, but I realized nobody really gave a shit.
“How long are you back East for?” Reesie asked.
“Just the week,” I said. “My parents are approaching the downsizing phase. Looking at smaller houses. I’m helping my sister help them look.”
“Got a girlfriend these days, Max?” Jerry asked.
“Flying solo,” I said.
Reesie pointed at Jackson, who was standing by two other children, watching as they kicked a ball back and forth. “You still don’t want one of those, Max?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
“We tried for so long to conceive,” Reesie said. “Years. Jackson is our little miracle.”
“I don’t even remember you being pregnant, Reese,” I said. “Now he’s what- five? I can’t believe how the years pass. I hardly see anyone from the old days anymore.”
“We don’t either,” Reesie said, and Jerry shook his head absently, as if friends were only made to disappear.
Reesie checked her watch. “It’s three-fifteen,” she told Jerry. Jerry nodded. Reesie stood up, put her fingers between her lips, and whistled. Jackson turned away from the other children without a word and ran over to us.
“Snackie snackie,” the boy said.
“Please don’t use baby words,” said Jerry patiently.
“He likes them,” said Reesie.
“He’s five now,” said Jerry. “Time for a vocabulary upgrade.”
“I’m enchanted to meet you, Mr. Finderlay,” Jackson said to me.
“Enchanted, that’s a big word, buddy,” I said. “And you can call me Max. I’m not a high school principal.”
Nobody laughed at this. The kid just stared at me with a weird frozen grin. I chugged some beer.
“Mommy-Mommy,” Jackson said, taking his mother’s hand. “I saw a mallard and his mate down by the water. It’s mating season, and they’ve formed a match. And it made me think: I wuv you.”
“Aww,” Reesie’s eyes literally brimmed with tears, and I almost choked trying to keep from laughing.
“That’s a baby word, Jackson,” Jerry said.
Jackson turned to his father. “But Mommy-Mommy wuvvy-wuvs me.” He stood up, clenched his fist, and started marching in place. “Mommy-Mommy wuvvy-wuvs. Mommy-Mommy wuvvy-wuvs. Mommy-Mommy-”
The boy’s eye started to twitch, opening and shutting rapidly. Jerry and Reesie exchanged a glance.
“Jackson,” Reesie said firmly. “Refresh yourself.”
Jackson stopped speaking, closed his eyes, formed a completely neutral expression, opened his eyes again, and grinned, all within the span of about two seconds. Then he sat down on the blanket we had laid out, and inspected the containers of snacks.
I peered at them too, and saw that each container held some sort of unidentifiable bar. They looked organic. Like the kind of snacks you might special-order online. Jerry and Reesie seemed to be students of the Internet School of Parenting. That’s when you spend hours combing the Internet for parenting advice, instead of merely asking your own parents, and ultimately you end up buying lots of weird stuff for the kid. My sister attended the same school.
“I feel like fig mango,” said Jackson.
“Excellent choice,” said Reesie. She opened a yellow-topped container, took out the turdish bar inside, and handed it to her son. He plucked it from her fingers, slid it into his mouth like a disk going into a hard drive, and chewed mechanically. He swallowed and grinned.
“How was that?” Reesie asked.
“Rejuvenating,” said Jackson.
“That’s a big-boy word,” said Jerry. “Good job, son.”
“I’d like to go observe the mallards some more,” said Jackson.
“Go ahead, honey bunches of oats,” said Reesie.
The boy laughed, stood up, and ran down to the edge of the river.
“He’s certainly a precocious young lad,” I said, which was the kind of thing I said on my second beer.
“Just one of those bars gives him energy for two hours,” said Reesie. “It’s amazing.”
“Do you have trouble turning him off at night?” I asked.
“He came with a remote,” Jerry said. “But we think it’s weird to use it in public.”
I laughed. “Wait. What?”
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mother,” Reesie said, watching Jackson as he walked along the river’s edge, following a pair of ducks. “It’s such a commitment. You know, you spend your life trying to find the ideal work-life balance, and then a kid comes in. You can’t just put him away when you’re busy.”
“Well, you can,” said Jerry. “But it’s weird.”
“The more time I spend with Jackson, the more I want to be around him,” Reesie said.
“Think you’ll have another?” I asked, opening a fresh beer.
“They’re so expensive,” Reesie said.
“I’m up for a big year-end bonus,” Jerry said. “We’ll see if we can afford a little sibling for Jackson next spring.”
“What is it you sell again, Jer?” I asked.
“Virtual real estate.”
“Uh huh. That’s bullshit, right?”
“You’re in the C.I.A., aren’t you?”
They both stared at me, then laughed.
“No,” Jerry said. “I move digital properties in the metaverse.”
I had heard about crap like this. A friend from Seattle was always trying to get me to buy digital shit. Said it would be worth a boodle in ten years.
“So let me get this straight,” I said, laying back on the blanket next to two empty beer bottles. “You sell digital real estate?”
“Yes,” said Jerry.
“Like a house on a lot?”
“But it only exists on the Internet?”
“In the metaverse.”
“What do your houses look like?”
“Anything you want.”
“Swimming pool? Three-car garage?”
“Sure. Most of my clients are buying in Synerland.”
And what the fuck is that?
“And what, may I ask, is that?”
“It’s an exclusive community,” said Jerry. “Gated. Seven figures. Caters mainly to tech billionaires, and celebrities.”
“Cher lives there,” said Reesie.
“The real Cher?” I asked.
Jerry pointed a finger at me, and laughed.
“Maybe my parents can pretend to move into one,” I said.
“Hey! Hey! No!”
We all looked up. A woman was running toward the river, shouting.
“Oh, shit,” Jerry said, jumping up.
“Jackson!” Reesie cried. “Freeze!”
Jackson stood on the edge of a large rocky embankment, leaning over toward the ducks. His feet stood firmly in place, but his arms wobbled in wide circles. Jerry, Reesie, and the woman all ran toward him, and I jumped up to follow, getting to my feet just as Jackson pitched off the rocks into the river.
Now we were all running. Shouting. The river’s current was swift, sucking Jackson downstream. Reesie wailed his name. Jackson’s arms waved in frantic circles, but his facial expression did not betray fear or even concern. In moments he was a hundred yards downstream, tumbling through the accelerating current.
A man on the opposite riverbank heard the commotion. He stood knee-deep in the water, fishing with his young son and daughter. He was shirtless, and sunburned, as was the son. The daughter had scraggly pig tails. The man dropped his fishing rod and lunged into the river.
“No!” Jerry cried.
What do you mean, no? I thought. I fumbled for my cell phone, out of breath, my heart beating in my throat.
Reesie stood by the river, hands covering her mouth. Jerry stood on the rocky embankment, waving his arms at the man. Shouting unintelligibly.
The man dove into the current and started thrashing toward Jackson, who was already several hundred yards downstream. The boy’s arms stopped waving and he suddenly disappeared.
“Oh my god, Jerry,” Reesie gasped.
The woman who had screamed stood beside them. “I’ll call 9-1-1!” she cried, running off to retrieve her phone.
Jerry, Reesie and I watched the man chugging into the current. Water rushed over his face and head. I glanced across the river at his children. The girl was clutching the boy’s arm, and the boy was calling after his father. The son took a step into the river.
“Stay out of the water!” Jerry cried, waving his hands at the kids.
The man was so far downstream his head was only a black spot in the current.
“Should we go after him?” I asked. “Should I get the car?”
Jerry and Reesie just stood there helplessly.
The man vanished beneath the surface of the water.
“Jerry,” I said, loudly.
Jerry took out his phone. After a moment he said: “There’s a dam. About a quarter mile downstream. That’s where they’ll be.”
“Oh my god,” Reesie said again. She was crying now, clutching her hair. They started walking up the riverbank toward the parking lot, where their Audi was parked. I couldn’t believe their nonchalance.
The other woman ran over to us. “I called 9-1-1,” she said. “They’re on their way.”
I felt sick to my stomach. Thought I might throw up. Drinking the beer so fast had been a bad idea. Jerry and Reesie seemed so calm.
“Guys,” I said to them. “What do we do?”
Reesie said nothing, tears streaming down her face. Jerry turned to me. “It’ll be okay, Max,” he said quietly. “They’ll fish him out at the dam.”
Jerry took his wife by the arm and led her to the car. Over his shoulder he thanked the woman for calling 9-1-1. The woman looked at me.
“I can’t believe this,” I said.
We got in the Audi and drove down to the dam. Jerry and Reesie said nothing. I sat in the back, still thinking I was going to throw up. I couldn’t believe their son was dead. Five minutes earlier he’d been playing with ducks.
We beat the police to the dam by about two minutes. Then began a long afternoon. A fire truck arrived. An ambulance. A crowd. A police truck eventually showed up, the words “Underwater Recovery Unit” printed on the side. A man in a wet suit and scuba gear walked down to the river beneath the dam, disappeared into the water.
Jerry and Reesie and I stood by the riverbank, quietly watching the emergency crew.
“This is so embarrassing,” Reesie whispered.
“What?” I said.
“Max,” Jerry said, like he was about to tell me something.
Then the diver emerged with a small body. Now I really did throw up, retreating to the bushes. I felt like this was all my fault. If I hadn’t called the Tollivers, if they hadn’t proposed a picnic, if I had spent the afternoon house-hunting with my parents instead….
After a moment I felt Jerry’s hand on my back. “It’s okay, Max,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” I said, spitting a gooey strand of bile into the brush.
“Just take it easy,” Jerry said.
The diver gave Jackson’s lifeless body to a paramedic, who began CPR. Reesie walked over to the paramedic. “Sir?” she said. “Excuse me?”
Jerry led me over to where Jackson lay on the ground. He left me standing beside his wife and crouched on the grass over Jackson. “If I may,” he said to the paramedic.
He lifted Jackson up and turned him over. Pulled up the back of the boy’s shirt. In the middle of the boy’s spine was a tiny, round, flesh-colored button. Jerry pressed it, and a small electronic flap opened up with a faint buzz, revealing a control panel.
“Oh,” said the paramedic. He released a single snort of ironic laughter.
Police officers and firefighters gathered around. The crowd of onlookers pressed forward. Jerry pointed to Jackson’s gear box and sort of gave the police a deferential shrug.
“We’re so sorry,” Reesie said. “We should have been watching him.”
“It’s really no problem though,” Jerry said. “We can just order a replacement unit.”
The police and firefighters seemed to relax.
“Goddamn,” said one of the cops. “He looks just like my kid. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep tonight.”
“So, so sorry,” Jerry said.
The cop nodded. Whispers rippled through the crowd. “It’s an artificial,” I heard someone say. A moment later I heard actual laughter.
“Wait a minute,” I said, but one of the firefighters was ahead of me. He pointed to the river. A broad, white torso bobbed in the water below the dam.
The diver jumped back into the river and swam over to the body. He turned the torso over, revealing the face of the man who had jumped in after Jackson- pale blue, bloated, and unmistakably not alive.
“Let’s everyone get back, folks,” ordered one of the cops. The crowd shifted as the diver brought the body ashore. The paramedics began resuscitation efforts. The man’s body looked heavy and swollen. He had a rugged growth of beard, scars from a shoulder surgery, military tattoos. His children pushed through the gawking crowd. The girl ran over to her father.
“Daddy!” she shrieked. A firefighter immediately picked her up, carried her away, still screaming. The boy just stood and stared.
After about ten minutes, the paramedics discontinued resuscitation. One of them glanced up at a police officer, and shook his head.
I turned back to Jerry and Reesie. They were staring down at Jackson, whispering to each other.
I grabbed Jerry’s shoulder. “Hey,” I said, jerking a thumb toward the dead man. “What the fuck?”
Jerry looked at the man with a blank expression. “We told him not to go in,” he said.
The police came around and took witness statements. Jerry and Reesie explained that they had tried to warn and dissuade the man from going in the river. But he had either ignored them or been unable to hear.
“Who is he?” I asked the police.
The cops had no answer, but someone in the crowd recognized him, and after a moment the information wafted over to us. “Rick Flaherty,” said one of the cops. “Local landscaper.”
The crowd now started to disperse. The paramedics zipped the dead man’s body into a black body bag, and carried him into the back of the ambulance.
“Sad day,” said one of the firefighters as they loped back to their truck.
“Could have been worse,” said another.
I drove with Jerry and Reesie back to their house, even though I didn’t want to see them anymore. I helped them carry Jackson into the living room. Jerry set the boy down on the floor. Reesie pulled out her phone and started looking something up.
“It says they’re supposed to be able to fully submerge in water,” she said.
“But for how long?” Jerry said.
“I don’t know. We gave him baths. Baths never hurt him.”
“Maybe once he dries out,” Jerry said. “You know, like how if you put a wet phone in a bag of rice….”
“This happened once before,” Reesie told me. Her eyes were puffy from crying, but she was calm now. “Not this exactly, but…. When Jackson was three. A dog attacked him. Ripped off part of his face. We just discretely ordered another one. They come with a warrantee.”
“His CPU is backed up on the cloud,” Jerry said. “When the new one arrives, he’ll be exactly the same. I wonder if he’ll remember what happened.”
“Jerry,” I said. “Reesie. What about Flaherty? A real man drowned trying to save your fake son.”
“Jackson isn’t fake,” said Reesie. “He’s artificial. There’s a difference.”
“What about Flaherty’s children?” I said. “They’re not artificial.”
Jerry looked down at Jackson. A flicker of what might have been remorse passed across his face. Then disappeared.
“We told him not to go in,” Jerry said. “He didn’t listen.”
“He saw a child drowning,” I said.
Jerry nodded. Reesie crouched down beside Jackson. “Jackson. Refresh.”
The boy did not move.
“No, I think he’s gone,” she said. She started crying again. Jerry crouched beside her, wrapping his arms around her. “It feels so real, though,” Reesie sobbed.
“It’s okay, baby,” Jerry said. “Twenty-four-hour delivery.”
“I’ll show myself out,” I told them. “Good luck pretending to be humans.”
I didn’t get the musical montage email on Jackson’s next birthday.
Adam Matson is the author of three collections of short fiction, The Last Three Hours, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong, and Watch City. His fiction has appeared internationally in over thirty publications.