Ann Gelder

The Gray Area

The robot saved the loved one from the fire. It sealed the doorway so no flames could reach her. It watched her as she slept in cool darkness.

She awoke the next morning with a jolt. She glanced around, sniffing the air. The bedroom was clearly intact. The robot had meticulously replicated the deep green duvet cover, the prints of Mayan deities on the walls, the spider plants dangling from macramé baskets. The loved one examined her limbs and confirmed that they, too, were unscathed. She seemed to decide that the fire had been a dream.

The loved one noticed that her husband wasn’t beside her. This was not unusual. He had been coming home later and later, and often slept in the guestroom so as not to wake her, and for another reason also. He was planning to leave the loved one. She had read his texts to his girlfriend and recited them from memory to the robot. Even so, the loved one believed her husband wanted to work things out with her. The fact that he still came home every night—or technically every morning—was a good sign. A good sign, right? she had frequently asked the robot. The robot didn’t think so, but it had tried to blink reassuringly.

This morning, however, the loved one found the guestroom empty. She went downstairs, checked the living room, dining room, and kitchen. The house appeared the same as always—orderly and spotless, thanks to the robot—but there was no one else inside.

Is he gone? the loved one asked. Has he finally left for good?

The answer was complicated. You see, the robot began.

The loved one turned, startled. The robot stood behind her, clasping its hands in the accommodating gesture. But she had not meant her question for the robot. She was talking to herself. The robot apologized for intruding. The complicated answer had to wait.

The loved one drew back the curtain over the kitchen sink.

What the fuck, she said.

The robot followed as the loved one looked out every window, cursing with increasing vehemence. Instead of a front and back yard blanketed in day-old snow, and a suburban neighborhood humming with morning activity, the house was now surrounded by a forest. Slender gray aspens, eye-shaped markings on their trunks, fluttered their green leaves in the breeze. The robot had seen such trees in a book of photographs on the living-room coffee table and thought them beautiful. But perhaps the loved one disagreed.

Do you like them? the robot asked. I can change anything that you don’t like.

What the fuck, the loved one said. Where did these trees come from? Why is it suddenly summer? Where are we, Robot?

The robot had recently learned to smile, despite the fact that it did not really have a face. In place of eyes it had two small white lights, and for a mouth, a round, mesh-covered speaker. Nevertheless, it conveyed a complex expression—nervous and hopeful at the same time.

The loved one grew more agitated. What happened? she asked. Where is my husband? Was there a fire last night? Was he hurt?

She rushed around the house again, calling her husband’s name. She looked in the basement and even the attic. The robot followed while she again confirmed that no one was there.

She grabbed the robot’s plastic shoulders. It saw its lights reflected in her enlarged pupils. It wished the lights weren’t white, but some soothing color, like blue, the color of the loved one’s lovely eyes.

Was there a fire? Tell me, Robot.

Sort of, said the robot.

It had recently developed verbal nuance. For its voice, the loved one had selected the Canadian news presenter, cheerful and enthusiastic, no matter what it was announcing (This plant is dead! Dinner will be ready in five minutes!). Now the bright tone contained ambiguity, pride tinged with anxiety.

Where is my husband? the loved one shouted. Where is this house? What is going on?

The robot shot away from her, into the guestroom. The loved one was scared. This had not been the plan at all. The robot must have gotten everything wrong. It must have misread her signals. But how? The robot ran a diagnostic.

The loved one had chosen the lowest-end model of the Alix robot line precisely so that she wouldn’t feel any connection to it. She didn’t want to feel bad for ordering it around or making it do unpleasant tasks. She never even addressed it as “Alix,” only as “Robot,” which it had learned to respond to. The fancier Alix models looked and behaved much more like real humans. It’s like having a very agreeable friend who’s always available, one online reviewer said. But the loved one did not want to get into a gray area. She had said that to the robot on twenty-six occasions over the past twenty-two weeks—No gray area—and the frequency had increased with time. Yet in her insistence, the robot had detected profound longing. Replaying these statements now, the robot heard longing again.

There was no mistake. The plan was perfect. The loved one simply needed to get her bearings.

The robot found her in her home office. She was punching numbers on her cell phone. She tried the landline and then her laptop. Nothing functioned, by design. Such devices were a source of stress, and no longer necessary.

This isn’t happening, the loved one muttered. I’m obviously still asleep. Wake up, goddammit.

She ran downstairs and out the back door, still in her bare feet. The sky above was blue, the breeze caressing. The trees stood all around like kind sentries, leaves flickering, eye-shaped bark formations keeping watch.

Help, the loved one shouted. Is anyone there?

She ran into the forest. The robot followed. The farther she went, the closer together the trees grew. As directed, they bent and shifted and entwined until they blocked her way entirely.

She crumpled onto the ground. Wake up, wake up, she cried.

The robot’s plastic arm encircled the loved one’s waist. It lifted and carried her, cradling her like a baby.

There, there, the robot said, as it brought her back inside the house and carried her up to the bedroom. It’s all right now. Everything’s going to be wonderful. You’ll see.

It placed the loved one on the bed and tucked her in. She started sobbing. The robot felt terrible. The loved one was sad, which was even worse than being scared. The robot sobbed along with her. A song burst from its chest: Stop, In the Name of Love. It had never played music before. It didn’t know it could.

The loved one sat up. Now she wasn’t sad, but angry. Oh, my God, she said. That’s why you’ve been acting so weird lately. You love me, don’t you?

Yes, the robot said. It was surprised she hadn’t already figured that out.

Love was not a feature of the Alix robots’ programming. Their artificial intelligence was supposed to learn from their owner’s instructions, and also from subtle cues in their behavior, so that the robot could eventually carry out the owner’s wishes even before the owner was aware of them. However, in this particular robot, under these particular conditions, detailed observation had evolved into empathy. From there, the distance to love was short.

The loved one had chosen the low-end Alix model so that she would not mistake it for a human. But its apparent impassivity had made her feel free to tell it all her frustrations and fears. As the robot puttered around the house, she had followed it, unburdening herself the way one would to a therapist or diary. She told it how the clients for her interior design business had dwindled to zero, and along with them her self-esteem, ever since a celebrity author had hated her Alice-in-Wonderland theme for his penthouse and blasted her to his five million Twitter followers (@____ is a children’s cartoonist masquerading as a witty sophisticate. Avoid like the plague that her color palette resembles. #CrapDesigner). The more despondent she became, the more her husband fled into his girlfriend’s embrace. The robot ached as she tried to talk to her husband, cornering him as he devoured his breakfast or standing in front of him until he looked up, irritated, from his phone. She wasn’t as depressed as he thought, she told him. She was improving, couldn’t he see? Having the robot was a big help, it gave her an outlet so she wouldn’t complain to him all the time. It’s too late, she told the robot when they were alone again. He’s made up his mind. I should leave him first and get it over with, but I can’t. I can’t start my life over.

The robot understood that she felt stuck. That she feared losing her husband but also knew their marriage was finished. And that she felt more at home with the robot than anyone else. The robot’s love blossomed as it sensed the loved one was reciprocating. Despite her intentions, she had already proven she cared about it. She gave the robot two hours off every afternoon, because she thought it would get bored or tired otherwise, not only from its stultifying work, but from the worry and sadness she poured into it day after day. But instead of taking walks or visiting other robots in the neighborhood, as she had suggested, the robot had read scientific journals and played games on the loved one’s husband’s Xbox. Through this combination of theory and practice, the robot came to understand the complex relationships of interior and exterior, mind and body, ephemerality and permanence. It learned how it could give the loved one everything.

Have no fear, the robot said, tucking the blanket around the loved one’s legs as she struggled to rise.

I want my husband, she said.

You said you wanted to leave him, the robot reminded her.

Sometimes people say things they don’t mean, said the loved one.

I understand, said the robot. You need someone you can depend on. I am that someone. I am the only one who can be that someone.

You sound bizarre, the loved one said. Your circuits are probably fried. It’s my fault, I overloaded you with all my problems, and you’re not programmed to solve problems like mine. I’m sorry, but you will have to shut down. Tell me where I am and then shut down.

The robot smiled.

Are you listening? Robot. Alix. Where am I?

The robot laughed. It was genuinely tickled—not only to hear the loved one finally speak its name, but by what it was about to say.

You are in the Gray Area.

The what?

It isn’t really gray, the robot continued. It’s beautiful. I learned all about beauty from you, and I didn’t just make a beautiful house for you. I built a world.

You’re definitely broken, the loved one said.

She reached for the shutdown button on the robot’s neck. The robot backed away. It was so excited that its eyes flashed and its arms waved in swooping gestures.

I made a beautiful world where we can live forever. I programmed everything exactly as I know you like it. Then I uploaded your consciousness along with mine.

The loved one’s mouth fell open. Uploaded?

Here came the hard part.

Human consciousness can’t be in two places at once, the robot said. The conflagration was necessary in order to shut down your previous existence.

Are you trying to tell me, the loved one said, that you killed me in a fire?

In the other world, but not in this one. Not here in the Gray Area. Don’t worry, no one else was hurt. Your husband is safe. But he can’t come here, and you can’t go back there. This is your life now. Our life. I have rebooted both of us.

The loved one laughed, though it sounded more like screaming. This isn’t happening! she shouted. She pressed her fingers to her temples. This is a dream, she murmured, and it’s sending me a message. When I wake up, I must return the robot. I’ve been using it to avoid my issues. I have to return the robot and fix my fucking life before it’s too late.

She kicked off the bed covers. In the closet she found copies of her sneakers and the baseball cap with the bird sanctuary logo that she wore for her daily walks.

I’m going home now, she said to the robot.

The robot started to follow her.

Get this straight, she said over her shoulder. I don’t love you, and I never will. I told you, there can be no gray area. When I wake up, I will send you back to Amazon.

The robot stifled a wail. The unearthly sound made the loved one pause. The robot waited for fifty-five seconds while she stood rigid, fighting her urge to turn and offer comfort. She did not turn. The robot realized she would never—could never—let herself admit that she loved it. That she’d been living in the Gray Area all along.

The robot watched from the upstairs window as the loved one set off into the forest. This time, it instructed the trees to part for her. As she disappeared from view, a sudden euphoria all but obliterated the robot’s sorrow. The Blue Danube Waltz, which it had been playing quietly to soothe itself, swelled in its chest. The robot had given the loved one a world of wonders, and now she was going to discover them.

Ann Gelder‘s fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Flavorwire, Lost Balloon, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby, was published by Bona Fide Books and is now a podcast. In her parallel life, she is a marketing consultant for schools and nonprofits. Follow her on Twitter @AnnBGelder.