Her husband sat at the head of the table while she sat to one side and their son directly across from her. In between, them was an array of taking out containers. The Bergman’s hadn't put too much stock into the arcane concept of the daily family meal. Not until the recent passing of Allan Bergman. Ellen’s husband and Ethan’s father.
Allan had been buried sixteen days ago, noticeably absent from his wake and funeral was his son Allen. Religious customs and ceremonies were other things Ellen hadn’t given much thought to until the day she had to plan to bury her husband.
Ethan didn’t know what was sitting at the table was not his father but a digitally crafted representation that nearly mimicked reality to perfection. The software reverse engineered the man known as Allen Bergman and created a phantom that could more than a match for the perceptive powers of 6-year-old Ethan.
Ellen had decided the cyber puppet was a way to give her some breathing space. Allow time for Ethan, and admittedly for herself to get used to Allen being gone. When Ethan was older, and she had less on her plate then, she could find an opportune time to gently break the news. The comfortable alternative to reality offered by the machine dulled the pain for her. Its motions were lifelike enough. Every tick and repetitive, involuntary movement were all recreated by the algorithms. It responded reasonably well to conversation and even on occasion said something that made Ellen smile. She could see nothing wrong with keeping her husband and Ethan’s father around just a little longer and now that he didn’t have a conflicting schedule it was easier to do things like sitting the family down at the dinner table.
“What did you see at the museum today?” The Alan projection asked.
Ethan was too busy curling the noodled on his plate around the teeth of his fork to reply.
“Ethan, your father asked you a question honey,” Ellen gently reminded him.
“We saw a spacesuit and a car that drives on the moon,” Ethan said still looking down at his pan fried noodles.
“A car that drives on the moon?!” Allan said playfully feigning disbelief.
Ethan nodded and began a slow, disjointed account of his day the museum.
Ellen was too afraid to let Ethan go back to school. She knew inevitably someone would tell him what happened and she wouldn’t be there to give her distraught and innocently naive son any context, but she was also afraid the more time Ethan spent interacting with the digital rendition of his father the more likely he might be to start noticing something wasn’t right. Her days were spent keeping Ethan at a distance from the house where the truth was one glitch away from revealing itself while at the same time keeping him from seeing anyone who might know his father was decaying in a pine box under six feet of dirt.
Ellen was watching, but she could no longer hear the words. She was drifting into a waking nightmare. The anxiety swelled in her chest like fire, and her suppressed grief was clawing its way up her throat. She felt her body drifting away as if she had disconnected from time itself and she was in limbo watching everything pulled further and further away.
Ethan seemed to have reached the climax of a story. He was using packets of soy sauce as props to explain something he learned. His tiny fingers clasped tightly around the small plastic sleeve. Ellen could see the dark liquid bulging out from the packet. It tore open, and the sauce sprayed out. Allen recoiled and held out his arm in an attempt to block his face. The splatter passed through his arm and splattered on the chair.
Ellen ceased to breathe. Her eyes darted from her perplexed son to the Allen avatar that in an inexplicable way to her seemed to know the ruse had been discovered. Tears burst Ellen’s eyes, and her chest heaved in a painful spasm of pent up sadness. It was her greatest fear; she had lost any and all initiative. Her plan to mitigate her and her son’s emotional reaction in the face of life changing loss had been foiled. When she watched Ethan put his hand through the electronic phantom and touch the drops shimmering on the seat Ellen knew despite all her efforts a part of her life had come to an abrupt and tragic end.