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art by Shane M. Gavin

Taking Care of Ma

Lee Hallison is a transplanted New Yorker who has grown roots in the Pacific Northwest. She has been published in Daily Science Fiction before, and has a story in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine # 53. You can read more about her at leehallison.com.

I stood in front of Ma's door and shifted the packages to get at my key. Before I could reach the lock, she opened the door. As usual, she didn't say hello, just turned and hobbled back to the living room.
"Ma, I have a key!" I said to her back.
She set her cane against the couch armrest and sat, pretending not to hear me sigh.
I put Ma's groceries away and walked over to her. Several narrow rows of white yarn hung from the knitting needles clicking away in her hands.
"What are you making?"
She ignored me. I sighed again. I looked around for the little round robot.
"Where's the S-V, the smart-vac?"
She lifted a chin toward the corner, where it sat with a chopped off broomstick duct-taped to its back.
"What did you do to it?" I got up and went to the machine. We'd spent $1,800 on the thing. Leave it to Ma, Luddite to the core, to wreck it. Jim would have a fit.
"Really, Ma, what did you do?" I wiggled the broomstick. "What's this for?"
She'd stuck it on good--lots of duct tape on both the stick and the top of the machine. At least the controls and sensors weren't covered.
"I want to push it when I clean. Like a real vacuum."
"It is a real vacuum. Just with extra features."
"I don't like hearing that thing mosey around by itself," she said, clearing her throat. "It's my house. My rules."
I made lunch, some small talk, and an early exit. Jim and I had spent extra on the robot vacuum--we'd upgraded to the model for "the elderly." The salesman had shown us how it would sound an alert if she fell, sending a signal to our computer and my left arm implant. It could guide her along, like a service dog. We could program it to beep on schedule--for medicines, time in the bath, etc. And the side benefit--no more dust bunnies.
Jim had been entranced. He was a gadget geek, no question. Ma snorted when we presented the S-V to her but agreed to give it a try. She called me the next day to tell me its eyes were looking at her.
"They aren't eyes, Ma," I told her. "They're sensors. To avoid obstacles and sense if you need help."
"Like I said, they're eyes. It looks like it's alive."
I had spent what I thought was enough time to calm her down, but now she'd stuck a stick on the thing.
What was wrong with wanting her to live out her days safely? She was impossible about progress. The robots weren't "taking over," they were machines. Even the new AIs were machines. And useful ones! I loved my tiny implant--it kept track of everything, and connected me to the web, to Jim, and to Ma's smart-vac. Malevolence was a human trait, not a vacuum's. I obviously hadn't reassured her.
Jim had me call the store in the morning. "What if she's mucked up the controls? What if she falls when she's pushing it and the alert doesn't work?"
The salesman told me the smart-vac's tiny AI chip would learn how to work around her "eccentricities." His shiny white smile bounced in the vidscreen. Smarmy fellow. He wouldn't be so jolly if it were his mother at risk.
The so-called mother at risk beat me to the door again, and I followed her in. She plunked herself down and picked up her knitting. A lumpy, green thing.
"What's that?" I didn't expect an answer, but she perked up.
"A sweater for Jim."
I wondered where yesterday's scarf had gone. My implant beeped and Ma coughed her annoyance. I stood up to answer it and as I swiveled, saw the scarf covering up the front sensors of the S-V.
"Ma!" I couldn't believe it. The thing looked ridiculous. A knitted scarf tied around its perimeter, a duct-taped broomstick waggling from its back.
"It was cold," she said.
"It's not going to work right!" I started toward it, but Ma moved faster than I thought she could.
She grabbed the stick and tapped an imaginary "on" switch with her foot. As she pushed the humming vacuum along the carpet, she smirked. I threw my hands up and stomped to the door.
I left, looking back to watch her push the machine back and forth. The scarf slipped slightly, and one sensor stalk peeked out.
And then it winked at me.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 25th, 2012

Author Comments

I have a mother who is a bit of a Luddite, although she is more tech happy than this Ma--she switched to digital for her (prize-winning) photo hobby and would probably laugh if I brought her and my dad a robot vacuum. The Ma in this story popped in my head when I saw a writing prompt at Codex Writers Group suggesting a strange rivalry between a human and a machine. Ma had her own ideas about where the story would go, and it was a lot of fun to write.

- Lee Hallison
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