Alex lived to take care of his daughter. Ever since his ex-wife left, Erica came first. He didn’t date. Worked and took care of Erica.
It was enough.
At least until Lisa rode her cargo bike up the hill. A gleaming metal figure sat motionless in the cargo bin. Maybe the future held more for him than he imagined.
It was July 7th, a Sunday evening, when Alex saw her for the first time. She was riding a front-load cargo bike up the hill, with something bright in the bike’s bin.
It was late and hot, and he had gone out onto the porch to sit on the porch swing. He used to do that with Anne back when they were first married and full of plans. Since Anne left, not so much, but Erica was finally asleep and he had thought that the cool air might help with his headache.
The sun still hadn’t set. Alex pressed his fingers against his temple. The vein throbbed beneath his thumb. The dry air stunk of the fireworks that the idiots one street over persisted in setting off, even as the temperature continued to hover in the mid-nineties. With all the parched lawns it was a miracle that they hadn’t already managed to burn down the neighborhood.
At forty-three, Alex Bell was thin and in relatively good shape. At least his doctor always acted thrilled when he came in for his annual physically. Dr. Steinberg almost waxed poetic about having someone in the office that was in decent shape with no allergies, no chronic health conditions, and no addictions. Not counting dark chocolate and a perfect cup of coffee. Both expensive habits, but common enough in Olympia.
His headache spiked like needles the back of his eyes. Stress, that’s all it was. He kicked against the porch rail, setting the swing rocking again. The water in his glass was still cold, though the ice had melted.
The stress came with being a single-parent barely able to scrape together the money for the bills each month. Before Anne got tired of living one month to the next and left him alone with Erica, it had almost seemed manageable. With two incomes, and two sets of hands and eyes to look after Erica, the world was a little less daunting. They couldn’t do anything about global warming or the wheat blight, but going gluten-free wasn’t that big of a deal.
A loud bang rolled across the neighborhood, loud enough to shake the windows. Erica had only just gone to sleep, so help him, if those fucking idiots woke her up—
He’d what? Go over there and beat the crap out of them?
No. He wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t have Erica to think about, he’d never do something like that. Violence didn’t solve anything. There’d been enough of that in the world already. He sipped his water and rocked the swing.
That was the moment when he saw the woman. Movement on the street drew his eye.
His house was on a quiet street on the east side of Olympia. Older homes, but a good neighborhood. The woman rode a red cargo bike, climbing the hill at the end of the street. She stood on the pedals, each push making one slow revolution. In front of her handlebars was a big bright blue cargo bin filled with something metallic. It caught the late sunlight and sent bright bolts stabbing into Alex’s eyes.
He squinted and turned away, shielding his eyes with his fingers. When she’d come a bit closer the glare had shifted and he could see her a bit. She looked young, at least from this distance. She was short and muscular. Her blond hair was pulled back from a narrow, attractive face. She wore a dull green tank top, wet with sweat down the front where it clung to her chest.
Despite the obvious effort, and it had to be hard to ride that cargo bike up the steep hill, she was smiling. He couldn’t see any sign of an electric assist motor, but it was hard to see with the clutter on her bike. Well, not clutter, but stuff. It wasn’t only whatever metal thing she had in the bin, but there was a rack on the back of the bike covered with bulging bags. Another bag filled the triangle middle of the frame, and another was attached lengthwise across the front of her handlebars. Two big liter bottles of water caught the evening sun as they hung from the front of the bin.
All of that, and a smile. She was magnificent. She wore brown shorts almost the same color as her tanned, powerful legs. Legs that moved smoothly, with a hypnotic rhythm as she rode closer.
She picked up speed, having crested the hill, and continued on down the street. She was obviously going to pass his house. He hadn’t seen her before. He would have remembered.
Alex couldn’t take his eyes off her. She reached the Coldsmith’s next door and looked right at him, catching his eyes.
Her eyes were dark. Green, brown? It was too far for him to tell but she was lovely. Real, without any artifice. Her face was clean and radiant in the evening sun, which also lit up her golden hair like a halo around her head.
He hadn’t gone out, dated, not since Anne left. Between Erica and work, and his freelance design business, what time was there? His parents and friends kept asking if he was dating. They didn’t get it, that he was okay right now. Being between what had happened with Anne, and whatever the future held, that was okay.
The woman’s bike slowed as she rolled in front of his house. He was still looking at her, staring, really. Her smile widened and she lifted a hand.
Alex blinked and slowly lifted his hand in response. She stopped on the side of the street, where his weedy lawn ended in a courtesy garden of tomatoes, carrots, and radishes. The catchment spout on the drip barrel was yellowed with age.
“Hey there,” she called, smiling.
The cargo bike rolled to a stop and she kicked down a thick stand that braced the bike.
Alex’s breath caught in his throat. “Hi! Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”
Still smiling, she lightly bit the end of her index finger and studied him.
Alex stood up, rather than seem rude. Up close she had that indefinable something that made his heart hurt. As if in response, his head cleared.
A loud bang exploded in the air. She jerked around, her eyes widening. “What was that?”
Alex pointed down the street. “Neighbors the next street over, still setting off fireworks.”
She twisted on her seat. “It’s loud.”
“I know. I wish they’d stop.”
Why? “Because my daughter is asleep. I hope it doesn’t wake her up.”
The woman nodded, her smile widened. “We’ll ask them to stop.”
She stretched, kicked the kickstand up and shoved the bike. In the same motion, she rose up on the pedals and pushed. Her muscles rippled with the effort and the cargo bike wobbled only a bit as it started moving.
He was watching her, still trying to process what she had said, when he really looked at the blue cargo bin, and at what she was hauling.
A metal torso, sculpted in smooth lines, sat propped in the cargo bin. One arm lay along the side of the bin, a black rubberized hand gripping the side, and the other hung down into the bin. The head was masculine, with stylized lines and bright yellow glowing eyes that almost looked like they were watching him.
A dummy? Movie prop? Gag? She was pedaling harder, picking up speed and almost past his yard already.
“Wait!” Alex ran out onto the dry lawn, crisp stems cracking beneath his bare feet. “Just a sec!”
She didn’t stop, but she twisted around and looked back at him, and chuckled.
He put on more speed. He left the lawn and ran across the cracked concrete driveway as he caught up.
“I’m Alex. Alex Bell.”
She smiled wider. Her eyes turned out to be hazel, and her ears were pierced, but she wasn’t wearing any earrings.
“I’m Lisa Rivers.” She pointed at the mechanical dummy. “That’s Clank.”
Then she pulled away and Alex hit the sharp gravel at the edge of the road. He stopped and watched her until she reached the bend in the street, then he walked back up to the house.
Maybe she said something to the neighbors about the fireworks, or maybe not, either way, he didn’t hear any more that night.
Alex was still thinking about Lisa Rivers the next day when he was at work. His work group was on the fourth floor of the state’s Natural Resources Building, a victim of the “collaborative environment” phase that stripped out any personal spaces in favor of an open floor plan and mobile stations. You only had to look at the dust to see how often people moved the adjustable workstations, or count the number of stools to see what people thought of working standing up.
He didn’t mind standing. At least some of the time. His work stand was near the big windows that stretched around the building and afforded him a view of Olympia. Right next to him was a work stand occupied by Tim McCleary, a fifty-something bald man with a big gut and a scowl cut into his forehead. When Tim had heard the news that Anne was leaving Alex, Tim’s response was, “It took her this long? I thought she left last year.”
Today Tim was wearing his typical loose hemp shirt and pants, sort of a dirty cream color, and huaraches on his feet decorated with beads. He looked like he was on his way to a yoga class, except the only stretching Tim ever did was filling his gut while getting stoned.
Despite Tim’s less appealing characteristics, he was the closest thing to a friend that Alex had at work.
“I met a woman last night,” Alex ventured. He pictured Lisa’s strong legs pedaling the heavy bike along the street.
Tim grunted and didn’t look away from his tablet. “You bang her?”
“No! Really? That’s your response?”
Tim shrugged. “What do you want me to say? I meet people all the time. Just this morning I met a woman asking for money to ride the bus. I wasn’t going to mention it, but if we’re talking about meeting people, why the hell not?”
“When someone says they met someone, it usually means that they meant someone they were interested in.” And he was. That was a surprise on its own.
“Duh, that’s why I asked if you banged her. I don’t see why you’re making this complicated.” Tim turned. He had little eyes and squinted a lot. “So you didn’t bang her, but you wanted to bang her, is that it?”
“Never mind.” Alex turned back to his tablet, gritting his teeth.
Tim laughed. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Tell me about her. Last I heard you didn’t think getting involved with someone would be good for Erica. This woman must have been something if you’re thinking about it.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it. I just keep thinking about her.”
“And?” Tim cupped his hands in front of his chest. “Was she?”
Alex’s tongue froze in his mouth. He couldn’t answer. Finally, he said, “You’re terrible.”
“I’m trying to get a mental image here.”
Alex remembered how her shirt had clung to her chest, wet with sweat. She was busty, especially given her height. Not that he’d say that to Tim. “She was fine, nice. And strong. She was riding a cargo bike up the hill, and passed my house.”
“A cargo bike?” Tim rolled his eyes. “Like with a box or something? What sort of junk was she hauling?”
“I don’t know, really. It was one of those bikes with a big box in front of the handlebars. Blue, in this case. And she had bags on the back and frame. She had this sort of robot mannequin thing in the cargo box.”
Clank, she had called it, he remembered. After she said that she’d talk to the guys setting off the fireworks.
Tom shook his head. “Man, she sounds like one of those Earth Nomads, those weird zero-carbon eco-nuts. You’d better stay away from her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Come on. How many women do you know that would have been out there riding something like that, with a robot dummy? Would Anne have done that?”
Alex laughed. There was no way that Anne would have ridden a cargo bike. Her idea of being ecologically responsible was paying her carbon tax. That was always her problem, that even with both of them working, they didn’t make enough to have the lifestyle she wanted.
“Look, I know you haven’t been getting any since before Anne dumped you.”
“I’m telling you the way it is. You haven’t, not that I and others haven’t tried to set you up. I think it’s fantastic that you thought this weirdo chick was hot. So bang her. It’ll be good for you, and then move on.”
Alex flicked through the reports on his screen without studying them. “I don’t even know how to contact her. I probably won’t see her again.”
Tim shrugged. “No loss then. Pat yourself on the back, stroke off thinking about her, whatever floats your boat. If you’re noticing women, it’s a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re ready to start dating. We should go out sometime, pick up some dates. My sister can watch Erica for you.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” Alex said. “Thanks anyway.”
“Whatever. Let me know when you change your mind. Now can we get back to work?”
“Sure,” Alex said.
Although when he flipped back to the beginning of the report, he was still thinking about Lisa riding up the street on that cargo bike.
Alex had his head in the car, reaching into the back seat for Erica’s bag, when she yelled. They’d just gotten home after he had picked her up from day care.
“Daddy! Come look!” Her tone perfectly matched Anne’s impatient tone, except pitched higher.
He straightened up and pulled the bag out. It was light-weight and covered in pink ink splotches like someone had spilled ink all over the bag. It shimmered with embedded photovoltaic scales which powered whatever electronics were carried inside. In Erica’s case that was both a tablet and her phone. Anne had insisted that she have both when many kids got by with a plain school phone.
Erica was seven and beautiful. If he looked at her objectively, he’d still say the same thing. She had a modern sense of style already and in addition to her mother’s mannerisms, she had Anne’s bright red hair. Hair which was currently trapped beneath a bright green sun-hat. Erica was pointing toward the hill.
Sunlight splashed across metal as the red and blue cargo bike crawled up to the crest of the hill. Even in the glare Alex recognized Lisa’s silhouette. He shut the door, and walked around the car.
“That’s a cool bike, isn’t it?”
Erica rolled her eyes as she looked up at him from beneath the wide brim of her hat, but she was smiling. Her freckles were dark against her pale skin.
“Cool? How retro.”
“What would you call it, then?”
“It’s completely shiny,” Erica announced. “I want one.”
He had no idea what a bike like that went for, whatever it was it was more than he could afford right now.
“When I get my Moon buggy.” Which is what he always said when they couldn’t afford something.
Erica grinned. “They wouldn’t let you drive a Moon buggy.”
Alex put a hand to his heart, wincing in pretend agony. Lisa was getting closer, and Erica wasn’t showing any interest in going inside. As Lisa’s bike approached the Coldsmith’s, Erica skipped forward to the edge of their courtesy garden. She picked her way through the stone path beside the little library, and stopped at the edge of the street.
He followed Erica. What should he say?
The whole day at work he had kept picturing Lisa until he convinced himself that he had to be making up most of it. Seeing her again, it was clear he hadn’t made it up. She looked the same. She was even dressed the same.
But Clank had moved. The robot dummy now sat in the bin facing forward, with a hand on each side of the box. Lisa smiled and waved cheerfully.
Alex lifted a hand in greeting. Erica turned around, saw him wave and looked quickly back at Lisa. As fast as the sun dried up puddles, her smile faded. She crossed her arms and faced Lisa.
“Hi Alex,” Lisa called.
Lisa brought her bike to a stop and kicked down the kickstand. She leaned forward on her handlebars, which caused her green shirt to gape and reveal even more of her ample cleavage.
“You know my Dad?” Erica asked flatly.
Alex put a hand on Erica’s shoulder. “This is my daughter, Erica. Erica, this is Lisa Rivers. We met yesterday when she rode past.”
Lisa straightened up, smiling. “Erica, nice to meet you. Did the fireworks bother you last night?”
“The people the next street over were setting them off after you went to bed last night,” Alex said. “Lisa was going to ask them to give it a break.”
Lisa waved her hand. “They had almost finished anyway. Clank convinced them to listen.”
“Clank?” Erica asked.
Alex looked at the robotic dummy. Its head was staring straight down the road.
Lisa leaned forward and lightly stroked the robot’s metal cheek. “This is Clank.”
The metal head turned toward Lisa’s hand, pressing against her palm like a dog seeking attention.
Erica shrieked. Alex pulled her back closer to him.
Lisa looked up, grinning. “Don’t be scared. Clank isn’t going to hurt you.”
Erica moved a small step away from Alex. “It’s a puppet?”
Clank shook its head.
Erica gasped. “It heard me!”
“Of course,” Lisa said. “Clank is an android.”
Clank lifted a hand and waved.
It was amusing. A good show. Obviously, Lisa had programmed the robot with some rudimentary functionality. The cart probably carried its batteries and electronics. She must do street shows. One of the many entertainers that moved around the city.
“That’s clever,” Alex said.
Erica laughed. She took another step forward. “What can it do?”
Clank turned his head away. He brought his arms in and crossed them, hunching away in the cargo bin.
Now that was impressive.
“I’m sorry,” Erica said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Clank turned his head slightly, yellow eyes dull.
“Really,” Erica insisted. “You’re completely shiny.”
Clank’s eyes lit up, growing brighter as he straightened up in the bin.
Clank bent forward, rummaging in the bottom of the bin. His movements disturbingly human-like and fluid. Despite his name, he didn’t clank or clatter. His movements were silent. Was it possible that there was actually someone inside the android? That this was nothing more than a costume?
Sunlight flashed off Clank as he straightened up. He was holding three bright chrome balls in his black hands. Lisa settled back on her seat, grinning, and crossed her arms. If she was doing anything to control the android, Alex couldn’t see it.
Clank tossed the spheres up into the air and began to juggle. The balls made a soft patter as they landed. The chrome spheres spun around and around, the pattern shifted, reversed and then one of the spheres bounced back and forth over the others.
He wasn’t done yet. Clank’s arms crossed and uncrossed, weaving a different pattern with the balls. Then two of the balls were in one hand and Clank moved his fingers, causing the balls to rotate around in his hand.
At last, he stopped, and dropped the balls into the bottom of the bin and bowed at the waist.
Erica clapped and laughed. When Clank straightened up his eyes were glowing brightly.
It was the first time that Alex had seen Erica laugh since Anne left. For a second she wasn’t a closed off young woman, but the bright and open girl that she had been until Anne left.
Alex wanted to say something, invite Lisa to have coffee, something, except Erica was right there. And the android. He still couldn’t shake the feeling of intelligence behind Clank’s glowing eyes. Was it real? Or someone in a costume. Both answers would be disturbing.
“Thank you,” Lisa said into the silence. “We appreciate it. We do shows down on the landing. You should come see some time.”
“Maybe we’ll get a chance to do that,” Alex said.
He tore his gaze away from Clank’s unyielding stare. Lisa was smiling.
Lisa looked away from him to Erica. “It was nice meeting you, Erica. We’ll see you around.”
Then Lisa shoved the cargo bike into motion, kicking up the stand, and Clank’s head swiveled around, looking forward.
Alex watched her muscular legs, shiny with a film of sweat, pumping on the pedals as the bike picked up speed.
He blinked and looked down at Erica. She smirked.
“Staring won’t take a picture.”
She pushed past him and headed for the house before he could respond. Her shoulders were pinched inward and she walked fast. Pissed off. Because she caught him looking at Lisa?
Alex swung her bag in his hand and followed. He’d give her space. Let her bring it up if she wanted. If he did start dating again, it was going to impact her too. He had to consider that.
The next day, at lunch time, he slipped his tablet into his bag and said to Tim, “I’m heading out for lunch.”
Tim rocked back on his stool. “Whoa. You’re going out? What happened to brown bag lunch man?”
“Just thought I’d get out for a change. No big deal.” He wasn’t going to say it was so he could find Lisa on the landing and get a chance to really talk to her.
“Whatever,” Tim said.
Downstairs, Alex walked out of the building. Hot air washed over his body, engulfed him, and drove out the air-conditioned chill. There was a thirty-degree difference between inside and out. Heat shimmered on the roads and sidewalks, creating phantom mirages that evaporated as he got closer.
Even with the heat, there were people walking outside. Only a few at first, but as he moved closer to downtown there were more people. Most wore loose, light UV-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. Sunglasses turned their eyes dark. He was dressed much the same, one of the many walking along the sidewalk. while cars and bikes sped along the roads. The crowd smelled of sunscreens and oils. The whole mass of humanity slowly frying beneath the hot sun.
Ten minutes after Alex left work he was down at the landing, walking along the crowded boardwalk along the harbor. The air was thick with salt and the rich odors of food vendors. Seagulls screamed and fought over scraps with crows. Street musicians filled the air with music.
With all of the hats and sunglasses, most of the crowd was faceless and anonymous, but Lisa wouldn’t be. The last times he had seen her she was dressed in shorts and a tank-top. One of those brave or foolish enough to show that much exposed skin. Between that, her big red and blue cargo bike, and Clank, she had to stand out.
Even so, he almost missed her. A crowd had gathered, watching her performance with Clank. It was sunlight sparking off Clank that caught his eye and drew him to the crowd gathered on the park’s dry lawn.
Alex made his way through the crowd. As he got to the front, he pulled off his shades.
Lisa and Clank were dancing. Not a waltz, but a fast, synchronized dance routine. Out of the cargo bin, Clank stood taller than Alex. The android was much taller than Lisa. The music came from a guitarist nearby. He was young, with long blond hair and what looked like a brown leather jacket. It couldn’t be, not in this heat, unless it had one of those internal cooling systems. He played a classic old rock song. Alex recognized the music, but couldn’t place it.
Watching Lisa move was mesmerizing. She threw herself about in wild, athletic movements, and each was mirrored by Clank. Despite his size, the android matched her step for step, but he didn’t copy her. In fact, they alternated who led and who followed. Back and forth they spun.
The crowd started clapping to the beat.
Lisa spun to Clank and he caught her hand, spun her around and then picked her up. He threw her up spinning into the air as easily as he had tossed the metal spheres yesterday.
Lisa came down and Clank caught her, lowering her gently to the ground as the guitarist ended the song. The crowd cheered and clapped as she spun away from Clank. They were still holding hands and bowed together. Then Lisa stepped away and pointed to the guitarist and clapped. The crowd joined in.
With the performance over, the crowd started to disperse, although quite a few people moved forward to toss money into the cargo bike’s bin, and the guitarist’s open case. Quite a few people wanted to talk to Lisa and gathered around Clank admiring him while he stood tall and aloof above the attention.
If there was someone inside that metal shell, he had to be roasting alive. Alex hung back from the crowd and watched. Lisa was polite and friendly to everyone, laughing openly with her admirers, but there was a reserve there. She held back from them just a bit and Clank stood solidly nearby like a tall metallic guardian. Once or twice he caught her looking past her fans at him. Their eyes would meet and there was that connection again between them.
Eventually, she broke free from her fans as they dispersed and she came over to where he stood. She grinned and looked up at him. She touched his arm.
“Hey Alex. You came by, what’d you think of the show?”
Her fingers played with his.
“It was fantastic. You were amazing. And Clank, incredible.”
The android was as still as a statue. Its gaze aimed at the boats out on the water.
Alex lowered his voice. “Is he really an android? I mean, there isn’t some guy roasting in that, is there?”
Lisa laughed. She leaned into his arm, smelling of sun-warmed coconut. “He’s real and has his own built-in AC.”
“Are you hungry?” Alex said. “Want to grab lunch?”
She gazed up at him. “I’d love to, really. But we’ve got more shows to do. Rain check?”
“If we wait for rain, that could be a while. If you’re coming by my place later, you could stop for dinner and something cold to drink.”
“Okay.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you came. I was hoping you would.”
Lisa released him and stepped back with a big smile on her face.
“Okay,” Alex said. He couldn’t help but match her smile.
He kept smiling the whole way back to work.
For the longest time, Alex had been going through the motions without really knowing what else to do. Go to work, take care of Erica. That was it. He was on the porch swing, kicking softly against the porch.
Erica dropped down into the seat beside him. She crossed her arms and pushed hard against the porch, rocking the swing back faster.
“Why is she coming here?” She kicked again.
“Because I like her,” Alex said. “I thought you did too.”
Erica shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“It’ll be nice to have company for dinner.”
“We never have company.” Another hard kick.
“Maybe we should.”
The swing rocked back and forth.
“Is the android coming too?”
He hadn’t really considered it. “I guess. Is that okay?”
“He was completely shiny,” Erica said. “You saw them dance?”
“Yes. They were good.”
“Would he dance with me?”
“I don’t know. We might find out. If we have them over. That’s the point, to get to know Lisa. You might like her.”
“She’s pretty.” Erica looked up at him. Her mouth quirked. “Weird, but pretty. I think she might like you more than Mom did.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“Sure.” Erica’s arm shot out. “Look! Here they come!”
She was right. Lisa’s bike crested the hill. As she got closer she waved and Alex lifted his hand in response. Clank raised his own hand and waved it back and forth too.
Alex put his arm around her as he stood and they walked out together to meet Lisa and Clank. They were moving forward again, into a completely shiny future.
This story is the 101st short story release, written in July 2013.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Deschutes Sasquatch.
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.