Their father lived in St. Louis in a ranch-style house under a clutch of willow trees that were constantly shedding limbs onto his roof. When he first heard Joey had died, he demanded a funeral. Jeanette kept having to call the funeral home to cancel his plans behind his back, but this only redoubled his efforts.
"Come and visit," she begged. "Come and see her. You’ll understand."
He didn’t believe it. He didn’t comprehend it. He pictured it like life support, or like Joey’s brain was floating in a jar. If she couldn’t call him, he complained, she wasn’t alive in any manner to speak of. He told his living daughter he wanted closure.
"Then come," she said. "Don’t make us wait till next Christmas."
So he took a day off work and drove to their city. Jeanette led him to the kitchen and poured a cup of herbal tea that made his mouth pucker. She had just gotten her hair chemically relaxed, and was adamant that she needed a lot of fluids to keep it from drying out. His other daughter was, as best he could understand, trapped in a clock radio on the corner of the table.
"Was the drive alright?" Joey said.
He clinked his glass on the saucer Jeanette had provided. “It was fine. Snowy, people scootin’ around on the ice like jackasses.”
He stared out the kitchen window, though the only view it afforded was of the neighboring building’s brick wall.
"Jose," he began, "what topic did you do for the science fair in second grade?"
"Nah, it was about medieval castles."
"I did castles," Jeanette said, wrapping her hair in a dishtowel. Both girls had inherited their father’s dark skin and tight, curly hair. Joey had always gone natural while Jeanette had dabbled in a variety of colors, textures, and cuts, all of which she ultimately loathed.
Their father rubbed his chin and looked back and forth from one daughter to the other. His face was a minefield of ingrown stubble. “Jose, what happened to that boy you used to see?”
Jeanette picked the tea kettle up and slammed it on the range. “Um. Dad.”
"It’s fine. I found him giving a chick some face in the stairwell of our building."
He pushed away from the table.
"Do you know what that means?" Jeanette asked. "It’s slang for-"
"I got it!" He raised his hands as if warding off a blow. They didn’t usually discuss relationships with him whatsoever. "I just…always wondered. Shit. He was a nice fella."
"He wanted litters and litters of kids," Joey said flatly. "It wasn’t going to work anyway."
"Well, it’s a moot point."
He paced between the kitchen and the living room, slapping his hands together contemplatively. Jeanette looked at Joey and could only assume that Joey was gazing back. She was probably looking at everything, actually.
He stood on the precipice. “You’ll never have kids now,” he said, as if clarification was needed.
"Dad. I’m dead."
He threw his hands up and craned his head back so far Jeanette thought she’d have to run up and catch him.
"She’s dead! What did I tell you! She said it herself!"
He still wanted a funeral. Jeanette refilled his teacup, turned away, and fiddled in the silverware drawer noisily, he suspected to cover up the sounds of sniffles. He approached her and squeezed her shoulders, making her jump and tense up; it was an old trick he’d used to get them off the computer when they were younger. She turned.
"I’m sorry," he mouthed.
She shook her head. “It’s fine. I mean it’s not fine, but yeah. Just try to understand.”
They spent the rest of the night conversing in the kitchen, their father firing questions at Joey in an attempt to demonstrate she wasn’t truly conscious. He asked her about memories old and new. He pried, in detail, into her old job, her boyfriends, her friends, her habits. He even asked if the fire had been an accident. He asked for her appraisals of films and songs, and her opinions on political matters they hadn’t candidly discussed since Joey had shaved her head and claimed to be a Black Nationalist Muslima-agnostic Marxist in eighth grade, whatever that was.
He listed while Joey delivered her answers, an implacable expression on his face. He didn’t pick up the box. He just leaned forward and stared deeply into its glowing white abyss.
"There is no way to know for sure," he said with resolve after his fourth cup.
"Know what?" said Jeanette.
He was sweaty and exasperated. “If she’s really in there, or if this is just a speakerbox reading transcripts from her memory. Cold tapes with no life in them, I mean.”
"I can respond to the environment and produce novel responses," Joey said. "But only you can determine your own threshold of proof, here."
“What do you mean?” He looked at Jeanette when he asked. Relating to the box was still tripping him up.
Joey began to explain the Turing Test to him, but after a few sentences Jeanette nudged her and said she wasn’t doing herself any favors. The father asked for something stronger to drink, but all the girls had on hand was Joey’s old weed.
They smoked and played UNO. They played Trivial Pursuit. Joey shut off her wi-fi to make things fair. Their father slumped in his chair and gave gruff answers in a low voice; he was always correct. It was an old deck of questions, and only he understood all the historical and pop cultural references. Winning seemed to provide a small comfort, and as the game wore on he became more gracious about moving Joey’s piece and rolling the dice for her. Jeanette got thirstier and thirstier, filled a pitcher with Kool-Aid, and drank from the spout.
"You girls have always been the best of friends," the father said.
Purple juice was trickling down Jeanette’s chin as she listened and fumbled with the cards.
"It’s my proudest contribution. I figured, hell, even if there were skills I didn’t give you, confidence I didn’t give you, even if I didn’t raise you right all the time, I gave you each a companion for life.”
He stared meaningfully at Jeanette. “Most people don’t have that,” he finished.
Their mother left when they were small. Their father hadn’t dated ever, as far as they knew, and he certainly didn’t have a habit of bringing friends around when they were little girls.
Jeanette picked Joey up and drooled Kool-Aid over her top. “I’m so glad I didn’t lose you.”
Both the father and the living daughter’s eyes were streaked with red, their irises taking on the watery jewel-toned hues of the wasted. Joey watched them, one camera fixed on her sister’s slobbering mouth, another studying the intricacies of the folds around the father’s eyes. The arrangement of the folds suggested tears. Normally, the father only cried if he was watching a film where a loyal animal companion was harmed in the process of being noble.
"I owe you," Joey said to her sister. "I mean, forever. I can’t pay it back, what you did. Literally, figuratively, monetarily, whatever."
That was when their father asked how much the procedure cost. All the regrettable questions came after that. Soon Jeanette was explaining how Joey’s body had ignited, was describing the exact extent of the damage to Joey’s face, torso, lungs, and other internal organs; the intricacies of the operations, the infections and sepsis that had set in, the blood poisoning, the agonizing moment when she flat-lined, the telescoping bleak eternity Jeanette spent curled up in a waiting room chair digging her nails into her palms to keep from fainting.
Their dad laid palms-down on the cool tile of the kitchen floor. He moaned that he was going to be sick, and Joey demanded to be plugged in. Jeanette put them to bed and did the dishes.
The next day, they all went to the zoo. Jeanette carried Joey in a clear plastic tote bag to keep the rain off her chassis. They watched the tropical fish and felt the previous night’s high radiate through them and grant them a fresh calm. The father pulled quarters from his pockets and bought duck food from a machine with a crank. He dropped half the crumbs in Jeanette’s hand and took the rest.
They leaned on a bridge above the duck pond and threw crumbs one-by-one to the swans, ducks, geese, and flamingos and were careful to make the rations last. It was an expense he’d never afforded them as children. It was better to let the animals fend for themselves, he said. If you fed them, they would grow torpid and pollute the water. Human food wasn’t healthy for them, and it was hard enough to keep the two girls fed without throwing meals away on wild animals. He hadn’t complained of poverty since they’d left home, though.
"Look at that mallard with the blue streak," Jeanette said dreamily.
"It’s a Spotted-billed Duck," Joey said. "They aren’t native to the U.S."
"What about that one?"
"That’s a Reyard’s Duck. They’re from the Vancouver area."
Their father covered the crumbs in his hand and said, “Let’s quit feeding these aliens.”
He took them to the cat house. The leopards, servals, tigers, and pumas all circled in narrow spaces dotted only with artificial-looking rocks and toys made of rope. There were bars on the outward-facing sides of their cells, instead of the greasy plexiglass used to hold most of the other animals. The cats all paced in tight figure-eights, their eyes never leaving the crowds of gawking humans. Their movement was as fluid as flight or swimming. To Jeanette, the cats had always appeared to have a conspiratorial manner.
"Cats are so smart," she said in awe. She held Joey up in her sack, and pointed her at a spotted civet.
"I’d like to see ‘em go toe-to-toe with those wolves back there," the father said. "These kitties are all too independent, that’d be the death of them. Couldn’t last against an organized pack, even if dogs’r dumb."
"Cats aren’t smart," Joey said. "If you sever their cerebral cortex from their brainstem, they keep moving, eating, and hunting as if nothing changed. Their brains control very little of their behavior, its role is almost purely inhibitory."
Jeanette groaned. “I thought you liked cats.”
"You really think they’re dumb? Didn’t you always want a cat?"
"They’re cute. It’s just a fact that they’re dumb."
"I think your sister wants out of here," the father said.
"What do you mean?"
"Come on," he mouthed, like it was obvious.
"I’m fine," Joey said.
Jeanette lowered the bag out of the civet’s view. Joey glowed a dim yellow.
Jeanette said, “Joey, is it true? Are the cages, um, freaking you out?”
"What? Are you kidding? It’s fine."
Their father pulled them out of the cat house by Jeanette’s hand. They stood outside the ape house and a light drizzle fell over them.
"You’ve been so weird. I’m sorry, I didn’t think about how this might disturb you."
"It doesn’t. Listen, these animals aren’t unhappy, I don’t think. They don’t know any better. Animals live for stasis, and that’s what a zoo is all about."
Their father suggested, in that case, they should get out of the rain and go visit the primates. They were in the ape house mezzanine and wicking water from their bodies when Joey flashed bright red and cried, “NO! No. No. No.”
Jeanette pulled the BrightBox from the tote. A fat family in rain slickers was staring at them and their screaming prism.
"Baby are you okay?"
"Let’s get out please. Okay? Okay. Okay let’s please just get…out."
Joey’s voice was rapid and thin, and it sounded like she was genuinely hyperventilating. The glow on the box rose and fell, shifting from red to a bright orange. Its colors pulsed with the rhythm of a failing heart. Jeanette turned the box over and examined it for water damage.
"System report?" she asked dumbly.
"Systems are fine. Let’s leave. Now. Everyone is staring at us. That woman is going to fetch security. Let’s just go."
Their father turned to the woman in the rain slicker. “Really, what the hell could security do? Really, ma’am. We’re harmless.”
The woman gulped and nodded, pulling one of her children’s stout fingers into her own.
When they made it to the parking lot, Joey’s light cooled into a steady teal. Jeanette’s face was flushed and puffed-out in a manner suggestive of eminent puking. Her breath matched the unsteady, anxious thrum of Joey’s artificial one. The father pulled Joey from his living daughter’s arms, allowing Jeanette to drop to her hands and knees in the lot. She heaved and coughed but didn’t produce any fluid.
"I’m fine," Joey said, a little bewildered. "Jean I’m okay, cool your motherfucking jets."
She wiped her brow and rose with a sigh.
"That was embarrassing. I just got worried about you."
Joey reiterated that she was waterproof, shockproof, was loaded with anti-virus software, and had a battery life of three days.
"But still, you can feel fear," their father said. He smiled approvingly as he said it.
“Does that make me enough of a person for you?”
“You…well, you girls were always more than enough.”
He thought the botanical gardens would ease their anxieties and salvage the day. They walked a path along the river and climbed the grassy steps to the greenhouse. It was a massive, bulbous structure like a series of interconnected sacks, each hospitable to foliage from a unique corner of the world. The rainforest displays were decorated with polymer statues of dark-skinned children in tattered loincloths, stereotypical crap that Joey was normally inclined to grouse about. This time she didn’t complain. One of the black-girl statues, their father pointed out, looked just like the girls had in their own preadolescence.
Jeanette wanted to see the miniatures. Tiny trees and hedges had been sculpted and deliberately grown to accommodate an elaborate fairy castle. She was ashamed to admit it, but she still occasionally imagined herself as Thumbelina, shrunken and left to inhabit a tidy little world.
In the same room there were bonsai trees of every conceivable shape, each held firmly in a wood box by layers of sand and grit. Each was trimmed carefully every day by botanical garden associate, according to the signs. It was painstaking work to maintain the right scale. Beside the trees were rows of bonsai melons, which (the signs said) had been grown into perfect geometrical shapes through a process called “organic space restriction”. An ashen-faced botanical gardens employee with fingers like tendrils offered them a sample of square cantaloupe.
"It’s better than a regular melon," their father observed.
The woman nodded. “The tissues on the insides are more compact, so there’s more sweetness per volume.”
Jeanette held a piece up to Joey’s sensors. With a fingernail she squeezed a bit of the juice out for her to taste.
"I need to get the fuck out of here," Joey said suddenly. Her bright blue light shut off and an mp3 of nature sounds blared from her speakers.