The following is an excerpt from Katie M. Flynn’s novel The Companions, available now from Gallery/Scout Press.
Del Norte County, California
The woods were a place we went, Andy and me, when the smell was too much, the roasting plastic and hair stink of slaughter day. It stuck to you far into the forest, through the curled sea horses of giant ferns, around the thick puzzled trunks of the redwoods, over “the bog,” we called it, a muddy creek bed dotted with fresh bear tracks that wound its way to the river. The smell—it followed—and I followed Andy, squelching loudly in the mud, not at all concerned about running into a bear. I tried to warn him they were dangerous, but all his books said otherwise. He thought they were fuzzy and loveable and fond of flowers and little boys. If we ever ran into one Andy would probably try to give it a hug.
We didn’t get far before we saw the brown coasting in like clockwork—we could count on it, just as we could sunup. Fires burned east of us, in the Shasta and Six Rivers and Klamath forests. It seemed like they could go on forever—as one fire went out, another blazed new. The smoke that blew our way usually came in faint gusts or a gentle brown haze, but sometimes it would get heavy and thick and could turn to soup quickly.
With each step through the bog, I felt a sucking sensation, pulling me earthward to the inside bits, the under-the-surface place. I wondered how far you’d have to go to hit liquid. I knew from school it was burning magma below us, but the surface was cool thick mud, and oh crap, Andy was crying.
A boot. He’d lost one of his boots in the mud and the smoke was thick now, wisping past us. Head back, he let out a hopeless cry. We both knew Pa would be upset. Deliveries to our far-off address were expensive.
I put a mask over his nose and mouth, my own, told him to stay put. Ducked low to the ground, I traced the mud with my hands, moving in growing circles around him.
I was thirteen by the time Ma got pregnant with Andy, our miracle baby. I’d assumed they’d given up; no one had talked about babies in years. But suddenly she was pregnant, and I had the feeling it wasn’t so sudden, that behind the thick curtain my parents cast between us had existed some great drama, with many trials, and I, on the other side, had gone totally unaware. When the baby came, I was in the delivery room despite the nurses’ concerns about what the experience might do to a teenage boy. Ma was old for a pregnant woman, labeled “at-risk,” and she knew she’d need me, that I needed to know from the very start just what it was we were getting ourselves into, and I saw it—the pain, Ma torn apart from the inside, all for this screaming red mush of a creature they put into my arms. It was mine, a miracle, and terrible too, a terror, all that crying. Pa had the farm to run, Ma would sleep for hours at a time, and it was my job to make sure Andy didn’t wake her. She was so tired, her belly bloated, wrists like twigs, gone before Andy could sit up on his own.
Finally I stumbled on the boot half-sunk in the mud, only when I turned to show Andy all I saw was brown. I broke out in a slick sweat, calling for him, pawing at the smoke, following his cries.
The way Ma told it I was my own version of a miracle. They flew all the way to Senegal to fetch me after my birth mother passed. This was when such a thing was affordable for a middle-class farmer and his wife (though I learned much later that they took out a third mortgage on the farm to pay for the trip and transaction).
It wasn’t until the smoke thinned that I found Andy, and ugh, he’d crapped his pants. I didn’t shame him—he was only three and a half. We removed his underwear and buried the accident in the bog with a stick, and I cleaned him with a trio of leaves. He liked that part, wriggling his bottom at me, nah-nah-nah-nahing. I spanked him good and he was crying again, but he had no idea how worried I’d been, and I told him so and he cried harder. Then I said I was sorry to get him to stop, and really I was sorry—I hated to make him cry. I plucked him out of the mud and delivered him to the far side of the bog.
When Ma was alive, she made sure I stayed in touch with my blood relatives, especially my older brother. But, at seventeen, I was no longer cute, hamming for the screen. Their connection was weak, our conversation stilted and spotty. My brother often made an excuse to step away while one of the cousins told me about life in cramped Thiès, where they’d gone when their home in the Saloum Delta went under in flood, or asked me questions about life in the US of A. I could tell my descriptions of farm life were not awe-inspiring. We talked less and less, and I felt it, how easy it was to lose people, Andy too, always getting into mischief. He liked to climb. Luckily redwoods were impossible. He had to make do with fallen trunks, hopping rocks on the edge of the river roaring by. Once we saw a pair of kayakers wearing masks glide past us on the water. They waved their oars hello, or maybe to tell us to get back, hard to say, but Andy nearly jumped in the water after them he so craved human connection.
We were headed back toward the house, Andy just starting to get over his fit, when I saw something moving in the mud. At first I thought it was a frog or a lizard, but then its little wings flapped open and it fell over onto its side, too covered in mud to steady itself. Andy saw it too, yelping and running. He was out of my reach, and I shouted at him not to touch it. Amazingly, he listened, stopping short, dropping to his knees to inspect it.
We brought it home, the baby bird, and got an old shoebox, filled it with shredded toilet paper. Then we brought Ma’s droopy flower-shaped lamp into our bedroom, removed its shade, and placed the baby bird under its warm bright light. She squinted and squawked at us and we agreed she was a girl, so delicate. We named her Winifred for our great-great grandmother who bought this land more than a hundred years ago. It had once been a grand farm, organic before there was organic, produce grown with love. In our farm’s heyday, I’d go with Pa on deliveries clear down to Mendocino. We’d leave before sunup and Pa would let me doze until we were coasting down the One and the sky was the perfect many shades and he’d wake me and say, “Would you look at that?”
I washed my hands at the kitchen sink and reheated the venison stew, set the table. Andy was singing a song to himself from beneath his chair when we heard Pa call from out back, “Help me with this, would you, Rolly?”
“Stay inside,” I told Andy.
The companion was struggling on the conveyor belt. It was a young adult model, female, with loads of hair.
Pa had managed to get its legs in the metal clamps, but it was sitting up, arms swinging wildly, trying to free itself.
“Turn it off, Pa.”
He raked a hand through his thinning hair. He was gaunt, cheekbones like mountain ridges, eyes like caverns. Sleep—he needed to sleep. “Don’t you think I tried that? The damn thing’s broken.”
It was babbling, no speaking another language—was it Russian? As I approached it lunged for me—God they were fast—seizing me by my shirt. We were staring at one another and its eyes, they didn’t look like a child’s eyes, and I wanted to ask, how old are you in there?
Pa thwacked its shoulder with a hammer and it squealed a machine frequency, huddling small on the conveyor belt.
“Take its arms,” Pa said, and I did, shushing it the way he taught me, into its ear, like the inner workings of a woman’s womb. Pa did a lot of shushing on the way to slaughter. This one had a blistered face—it was one of the main reasons they were disposed of. The skin, it started to deteriorate, just a blemish at first, then a sore. It didn’t matter how close you were to a companion, you wouldn’t want it around once its face had started to fester. Lots of people paid for a clean reboot, moving a consciousness to another body, but it was expensive, much more than a replacement. Whatever they decided, the bodies came here. Usually they were powered off, drained of battery, but occasionally we got a livewire, one that couldn’t be switched off, like this one here.
It was swinging its arms wildly, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get them into the clamps. Anger thumped hot everywhere, and I lunged for its wrist, grabbed hold of it, pressing into the seizing spot. It flapped like a suffocating fish for a full minute, and when it was spent, I eased its arms into the clamps, making the mistake of meeting its eyes. It pleaded to me in what sounded like Russian, and I couldn’t understand a word.
“I know,” I told it, “it’s going to be fine,” Andy curling around my leg to gawk—he never listened. I turned my back on the companion and plucked him up. He fought me some, crying and screaming, wanting to watch as it was carried into the chamber.
We incinerated at the beginning of the month but I could see by the gathering of compact boxes waiting at the top of the ramp for pickup that we’d hit our carbon cap. When that happened the machine switched automatically to compact mode. I knew this because shortly after my sixteenth birthday, Metis trained me to do the job in case Pa ever needed a sub, though he’d never once taken a sick day.
From the kitchen, we heard the scream as the machine compressed the companion. It would be barged with the others, buried somewhere, forgotten.
“Well, that was something,” Pa said as he washed his hands at the kitchen sink. He always liked the livewires, more action, more responsibility. I think it made him feel important. I had an itch to say something, but he was in a rare good mood, so I decided to enjoy it. Even Andy seemed to catch on, giving up his tantrum and climbing into his chair at Pa’s elbow.
Pa didn’t believe in prayer but he liked for us to take a moment to silently appreciate our bounty. It was an old farmer’s ritual, the best way to ensure a good harvest, he’d told me once, long before quarantine killed our farm, before the virus killed many of our patrons, before Metis figured out how to upload our dead and lease them back to us. Pa gave us a nod. Then we dug in.
Pa barely touched his stew, guzzling ale. “Did you do your schoolwork?” he asked me.
“Yes.” Andy said it with me, my echo.
“Yes,” we said again.
I spooned food into Andy’s mouth. Otherwise he’d forget to eat, humming and bouncing in his seat, doing silly dances to make us smile. Pa poured me some ale, laughing when I hiccupped. Andy never once mentioned Winifred, which was good because I was pretty sure Pa wouldn’t let us keep her. He’d have something to say about birds as disease carriers, you can’t be too careful these days. Besides, it was a good meal—I didn’t want to wreck it. We were all happy.
After dinner Pa went back to work, or so he said—I didn’t hear the machine. He was probably digging into his shed for another bottle of ale, drinking his mind soggy, prepping for blackout sleep. I tried to feel sorry for him instead of angry. I mean it wasn’t his fault they’d shut down the farmers’ markets, restricted travel. We’d had no choice but to let our crops die, all save what we needed to live. Pa argued on the screen a lot and sold off pieces of our property. That’s when he was approached by Metis. Until quarantine was lifted, they needed a local disposal facility for their Crescent City Companion Center. They wanted to buy our remaining land outright, but Pa said he’d only agree as long as we could keep the house, our few remaining acres of forest, and they hired him to run it.
At first, it wasn’t very time consuming. “A new product, well-conceived,” Pa said, “designed to last.” We’d get maybe one shipment every couple weeks and it’d take Pa a few hours of work to get through it. “Easiest job I’ve ever had,” he’d say, smacking his hands together. “Now what?”
We’d play card games and watch old movies and go into the forest with Pa’s rifle to hunt deer, and for a while there it was just fine.
Until the defects started popping up, first gens replaced by newer models, more advanced, more human. The work got to Pa, shipments coming in regularly, more than he could handle. He got accustomed to working long days, he got quiet and drunk, and we were alone again, Andy and me.
Once Andy was asleep in his pen, I started in on my homework. I’d lied to Pa, sure, but it was a small lie. I completed my lessons on the screen, and for kicks, checked to see if I could access a newsfeed. Nope, a parental control warning flashed across the screen. All Pa let me see were the school feeds; he said everything else was filth and violence.
I washed the dishes, set the laundry going, and went out into the yard to hunt worms. Winifred needed to eat.
In the morning, the worms were still there, limp and shriveled, and Winifred wasn’t moving. Andy was snoring in his pen, so I took her out back where we had a whole cemetery, four generations of dead, and dug her a grave. When I came into our room, Andy was standing over the shoebox, sucking on his pacifier—no matter what I tried I couldn’t get him to give it up. Everything I read said he was developmentally delayed, but Pa told me not to worry—Andy lost his ma, he’s got no friends, what do you expect?
Andy jabbed a finger at the empty box.
“She’s gone,” he said between sucks. Then his face crumpled and he was crying. It was not a weak cry, not one he would give up on easily. It was a real and good one, so I offered him the only thing I knew would make him feel better: an adventure.
I watered and weeded our garden, and Andy waited, wearing his boots. His mind was set—we were going back to the bog. I knew what he was thinking—we’d find another baby bird, as if they were falling from the sky. I wanted him to enjoy this fantasy. Soon he’d start school, and like me he’d have daily screen sessions, homework, placements and evals.
We found new bear tracks in the mud, a sow and cub, maybe two. Resistant to our diseases and appreciative of the quarantine, the bears were coming back, overtaking our shuttered towns, eating up our refuge. Pa said they were a nuisance, a danger; if we were to see one, we should turn around, head home straightaway. But Andy, he was so happy here—laughing and sinking and sucking himself out of the mud.
I made like a monster and chased Andy screaming into the trees. Once we were free of the mud he was fast and got ahead of me. I spotted his boots abandoned on the rocky beach of the river and I scooped them up, calling for him over the water’s roar.
I found him on the rocks, pointing and squealing. “It’s better! It’s a Pa!”
As I drew closer, I could see that it was indeed a Pa, a man lying face down on the rocks. Dead? I went to Andy, plucking him up, as he kicked and whined about his new friend. The man opened his eyes, shot a hand out, grabbing me by the ankle.
I was falling, Andy falling, when the man let me loose and I righted myself on the rocks, dropping Andy onto his knees.
“You gave me a start.” The man wobbled to standing.
“This is our land you’re on,” I told him. We wore masks at our necks in case of a brownout, and I bent to fix Andy’s over his mouth and nose, to slip on my own.
“How far am I from Oregon?”
“Another twenty miles if you head due north.”
Without so much as asking me, Andy handed the man our canteen. I wanted to scream, Germs! But the man had it to his lips, drinking deeply. We’d have to sterilize it now. Thank goodness I had on my gloves. I snatched the canteen back and whisked it into my bag.
The man dug a hand through his patchy beard. He wore jeans and running shoes, a slick black jacket, though I could tell by his oily skin and the frayed filthy neck of his t-shirt that it’d been a while since he’d showered.
“Where are your parents?” he asked.
“Ma is dead, dead, dead,” Andy screeched in his terrible singing voice. He didn’t know to miss her, but it made me angry, and I took hold of his wrist, squeezed it good.
“Our pa is at the farm working.” I pointed in the direction. “Not far. He can hear us if we shout.”
“Would he be willing to feed me, do you think?”
“I don’t know. How about you stay here and we’ll go ask.”
The man picked up his pack, hefted it onto his shoulder. I could tell by the way he sagged under the weight he was tired of carrying it. “How bout I join you,” he said, “what with that coming in.” He pointed at the wall of brown blowing in from the east. I knew Pa would be angry with me for bringing back a stranger, but what else could I do? Fight him off?
As we trudged toward home, the man asked, “What’s he to you?”
“So you were adopted.”
“Why do you assume I was the adopted one? Why not Andy?”
The man turned to watch Andy pluck up a slug and pretend to lick it. “My dad never wanted me, so I’ve always been kind of jealous of adopted kids.”
“They got picked.”
Pa was out front, watching a Metis van drive off. I expected him to freak out. Instead he asked calmly, “Who’s this?”
I told him about running into the man at the river. “On our land,” I added to see if he’d say anything about that.
But he wasn’t angry. He didn’t bother with a mask, sticking out a bony hand, not even wearing gloves. The man took it, introducing himself as James.
“Come on,” Pa said. “You look like you could use a meal.”
While Andy showed James his rock collection in the living room, Pa and I went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Venison stew. Again.
“If he’s a carrier,” Pa said in a low voice, “we’ll all know soon enough. No sense in being rude. Plus, aren’t you curious? We haven’t had a guest in a long while.”
I could hear the tinkle of Ma’s music box from the living room and I stuck my neck out the kitchen to get eyes on Andy. He was dancing, James spinning the crank, our Ma’s music coming out the tiny gilded box.
James ate his first bowl of stew in under a minute and I brought him a second, a third.
“Where you coming from?” Pa asked.
“I was shelving groceries in Crescent City for a time. Before that I worked at an elderly care facility.”
“Is that old Jedediah Smith?”
“That’s right.” The man’s eyes slid up Pa. I tried not to stare at his fingernails with their dark moons of dirt. “You work for Metis?”
“How’d you know?”
“Saw the van leaving.”
Pa explained what he did, only he made it sound a lot more interesting. “I do what I can to make sure their passing is calm, and if possible, ignorant. Better they not know, less suffering.” This sounded wrong to me given the livewire we had last night, struggling and burning to the touch she was so revved up. I’d seen something in Pa, and only now as I watched him offer James some ale did I understand: he liked his job—he was proud even.
Pa leaned back in his chair, patted his narrow chest, already a little drunk. “Where you headed?” he asked James.
“I have a connection in Eugene. I’m hoping to get a job, whatever he can hook me up with.”
“Sounds pretty loose,” Pa said and I could feel a speech coming, so I asked, “What’s it like? Out there I mean.”
James smiled. He had nice teeth. I thought maybe he was pretty young under that beard, not much older than me. “Mostly trees. I don’t see too many people even now that quarantine’s lifted.”
“Lifted?” I bigged my eyes at Andy, and even though he didn’t really know or care about quarantine, he bigged his eyes back at me.
“About a year ago. You didn’t hear?”
I looked to Pa. “Do we got any dessert,” he asked me.
We didn’t but he made me follow him into the kitchen anyway. “You didn’t tell me,” I started, my heart stuttering, hardly able to breathe.
“What difference does it make?”
“We could leave, visit town, go back to farming!”
“Not with the acreage we got.”
“Sure we’d be small, but—”
“We’ve got a good thing going here.” He headed for the back door, so skinny he’d had to pound a hole through his belt to keep his pants up. He called for James to find him out back and I listened long enough to hear him ask where the closest town was.
“Fort Dick’s a few miles west of here. Not much of a town. What do you need?”
“Just a place to crash for the night.”
A place to crash—he was lying! A man that dirty wasn’t going to get a room in a hotel. He was a grifter—I was sure of it—and Pa was the one who told me to watch out for grifters. But Pa wouldn’t hear of it, wasting credit on a hotel, and I was so angry I nearly flung open the door and threw the man from our stoop. Hell, I wanted to throw Pa off too. They were both liars.
I went into Pa’s closet and got his handgun and tucked it under my pillow. I tried to stay awake, Andy asleep in the pen he’d grown too big for.
Maybe I slept some. It felt like waking when I heard the thunk from downstairs.
I got Pa’s gun from under my pillow and took the stairs in my socks, another thunk, tiptoeing through the kitchen. Pa was struggling with James, hands around his neck. They fell onto the coffee table, Pa on top, gripping James by the neck, choking him. James’s hands fumbled along the floor, fingers wrapping around one of Andy’s rocks. He slammed it against Pa’s temple while I watched as if I wasn’t really there, floating like some useless apparition.
“Ah, shit,” James said, peeling himself out from under Pa, and I couldn’t move, couldn’t say a word. James hadn’t seen me and it was then that I remembered the gun in my hand. I raised the thing, cocked it, my ears hot and thumping blood.
James turned with a start. “Jesus,” he said when he saw me, the gun.
“Get away from him.”
James lifted his hands. I kept the gun trained on him as I checked Pa’s neck for a pulse, his wrist, put my ear to his chest.
“You killed him.” I said it, a sweaty sick feeling coming over me. Then I sucked in air, sucking it back inside just as I had Ma and getting trapped here and finding out Pa was a liar.
“Did I?” James fretted the dingy sleeve of his shirt. Sticking out his jacket pocket was Ma’s gilded music maker, the only sound we had left of hers.
I’m not certain I meant to pull the trigger. But the crack awakened Andy. I heard his cries from the bedroom.
I dropped the gun, stood over him, listened for his breathing, a stain forming on Ma’s rug. She’s gonna be so mad! Then I remembered with fresh pain that she was gone. Above me Andy wailed and I stood there longer, taking it in, what I’d done—I don’t know how long.
The wailing, Andy—I hiked up the stairs and scooped him up. “Just a pot falling to the floor,” I said, “nothing to fret about.” I rocked him until he was asleep, nestled him into his pen. He held tight to my hand as he sucked on his pacifier. I could see his open mouth through the clear latex, his little tongue pulsing even as he slept.