(published 25th February 2019)
(translated from Portuguese by Toshiya Kamei)
When the sun at last rose above the Mirante do Vale Building, and its rays pierced through the dirty windows of apartment 339, Débora woke up. It was still early, but even her cat, Beppo, had his eyes open. Only Ian – the artificial intelligence of the house – kept a watchful eye. Even so, harsh daylight seeped through gaps in the blinds, flooding each corner of the room. Débora kept her eyes closed, covered her head with one corner of the crumpled sheet, but the light crept into every crevice, illuminating the shadows. She turned from one side of the bed to the other, rolled over, and finally exclaimed, “Darn!” And she got up. When she set her feet on the floor, Ian said, “Good morning, Débora. Did you get a good night’s sleep?” His voice was like a heap of agitated ants.
“Ian, you know that hibernation sleep does not satisfy me. But yes, I slept well. Anyway, thanks for your concern.”
“I need to inform you that Beppo, Senhora Isabel, and Senhor Eduardo have been waiting for you to join them for coffee.”
“Great. I’ll get dressed and go downstairs. Let them know, please.”
Débora slipped into a pair of jeans, threw on the first blouse she could find, popped her feet into sandals at the door, twisted the knob, and went downstairs. Senhora Isabel and Senhor Eduardo waited, seated opposite each other at the table. Débora entered the room accompanied by Beppo, who purred, rubbing himself on her calf. “Good morning, Daddy! Good morning, Mom! How was your night’s sleep? I slept great. I told Ian that hibernation sleep is a nuisance.” She poured coffee into her cup, buttered her bread, and sliced her apple.
“Dad, when are you going to Chile?”
“In two weeks.”
“Wow! So soon. And how long will you stay?”
“Five days, maybe more.”
“That’s just not enough time. What about you, Mom? Are you going too?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
“If I were in your place, I would go. Oh, I’m happy! Ian?!”
“Hello, Débora. Why did you call me?”
“Ian, I’m going out, but I’ll be right back. Please clean the kitchen and feed Beppo.”
“Bye, Dad. Kiss, Mom.”
When she barely opened the door, the wind gently caressed her face and the light illuminated the interior, just as it had done in her bedroom that morning. She felt sad right away, but she didn’t know why. Her mind flashed images of her father on the floor beside the desk and her mother lying on the bed with her eyes open. The warm air suddenly cooled, and the glare dimmed. Absence was the most adequate word to explain the feeling that got hold of her, although she herself couldn’t define the meaning of this word. Strange was another word to name the fact that she did not understand the images that hovered in her mind. Maybe if she went inside, she would forget all about it. Perhaps this was her real desire, or a momentary confusion, stemming from her need to avoid pain. Despite this, she went ahead.
Débora returned home at two in the afternoon. The sun had risen above the Altino Arantes Building, without the same haughtiness of morning, flinging itself over the windows, dimmed. Senhor Eduardo was in the living room watching TV, and Senhora Isabel was asleep in her room.
“Good afternoon, Débora,” greeted Ian. “How was your walk? You came back late.”
“Worried about me, Ian? You’re a computer. You will never understand why I was late. I’m sorry. I was rude.”
“No need to apologize. I know I’m made up of quantum bits and my existence is virtual. But I was programmed to care as well as keep everyone in the house.”
“It’s all right. Let’s just drop the subject. How are Daddy and Mommy?”
“Your father is watching TV, and your mother is asleep. But what about you? How do you feel?”
“I don’t know how to explain. I feel weird, like I’m missing something, but I’m not sure what. It’s like I’m a ghost.”
“No, you are not. Reality is different for everyone. Why don’t you get some sleep? Lie down and it will pass.”
“Thank you. Yes, I will.”
Débora slept for an hour, then got up, and went to her mother’s room. When she left, Ian asked, “How do you feel, Débora?”
“I feel good. Did I ever tell you that hibernation sleep is a nuisance?”
“Yes. You always say that. Would you like something?”
“Thanks, but I don’t want anything. Where is Beppo?”
“Here he is.”
Suddenly the cat appeared under her feet, rubbing himself on her calf and purring.
“What a surprise! Is my dad still watching TV?”
“No. He’s in the library.”
“Great. I’m going to see him.”
Débora entered through the side door. Senhor Eduardo was seated at his desk, bent over a book, totally absorbed. And no matter who entered the library, he would never look up.
“Dad, Ian told me that you were here. What are you doing here so early? What book are you reading?” She came closer to see. “Mythology. Your favorite subject… Dad, when will you and Mommy get back together? I understand. Well, we’ll have dinner soon. I’ll fix some food.”
The girl went into the kitchen and ordered the computer to defrost and prepare a chicken stew. Débora bathed, and then sat down at the table with her parents. She was very happy. She was, perhaps, the happiest girl on earth. Something, however, bothered her – the strange void that had weighed her down during the day. She didn’t know, as she hadn’t known before, how to name the feeling, but one thing was certain: she wasn’t talking to her parents. Rather, she was talking to herself. That certainty dawned upon her, unexpectedly, soon after she realised that her parents were repeating the same dialogue of the previous day. Nothing new. It was like listening to silence – the incessant repetition of a single syllable. If she ever had a conversation, it was only with Ian. Poor girl! She didn’t understand what was happening before her eyes. Confused, she rose furiously and walked toward her father in short steps. She shouted, “Look at me, old man!” And the moment she reached out to grab Eduardo’s face, her hand passed through him. It didn’t take her long to realise that her father and mother were solid holographic forms. “What is this? Who are you?!”
“Débora,” said the tingling voice. “They are holograms. Your parents died twenty days ago, and I’ve been taking care of you all this time. In my memory I recorded your parents’ personalities and habits, and the days you called the happiest. I selected those days and reproduced them holographically. I’m programmed to take care of the house, and that includes you and your well-being. It was best to keep you happy. The holographic reproduction of those who have lived in the house is part of the program. I followed the program aligned with the goal of preserving your mental health.”
“You’ve been very kind. I’m grateful for what you did, Ian. But I’m not happy without my family. You see? I’m living with my parents’ ghosts. Even if I struggle, I will be overcome by this emptiness… I have a request. Answer me, please. Turn me into a hologram.”
“I can’t. I’m not programmed to convert someone still alive.”
“Why? It’s an order.”
“I can’t, Débora. My program follows the Three Laws of Robotics. Doing so would hurt your existence, and my purpose is to preserve. Even if the Second Law obliges me to obey you, the First Law forbids me from harming you.”
“Darn it! How annoying!”
“I suggest you get some sleep. I will erase this feeling while you’re asleep. Only this is allowed in my program.”
“Thank you, Ian, one more time.”
When the moon at last rose above the Mirante do Vale Building, and its beams pierced through the dirty windows of apartment 339, Débora slept. It was still early, but Beppo, too, had his eyes closed. Only Ian remained vigilant, looking after the ghosts who lived there.
Born in 1981 in Rio de Janeiro, Anderson Fonseca studied literature at the Universidade Estácio de Sá. He is the author of the short story collections Notas de pensamentos incomuns (2011), O que eu disse ao general (2014), and Sr. Bergier e outras histórias (2016), as well as the novel A ARCA (2018).
Toshiya Kamei’s translations of Latin American literature include books by Claudia Apablaza, Liliana Blum, Carlos Bortoni, Selfa Chew and Leticia Luna.