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Image: Michelle Urra

Fostering

A dark work of speculative fiction about the cost of programming a replacement for humans.

Terraform is back. With a book. We’ve already rolled out three sublime bad futures to celebrate, and now, behold the fourth—a story by Ray Nayler, whose inspired and insane debut novel the Mountain in the Sea is out this fall. Let’s just say what you are about to read is devastating, and leave it at that. Enjoy. -the ed

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I stand at my kitchen window, watching Emre in the yard. He’s observing a lizard crawling along the cinderblock wall. The lizard pauses as it makes its slow way across the wall and does a few push-ups. I can’t see that from where I am standing, but I know lizard behavior well enough to fill in what is missing. I spent a childhood watching lizards crawl across that wall. 

My grandmother probably watched me from this same vantage point, standing at this kitchen sink overlooking the backyard – its little lawn of stiff unkillable grass, the leaves and pine needles drifting in the pool, the birds of paradise, the ornamental orange and grapefruit trees with their useless fruit, the cinderblock walls and planters painted a fading adobe pink. 

My grandmother could afford things like a gardener and a pool maintenance technician, so I imagine sometimes she would have been watching them as they worked. I can’t afford anything like that.

But there is an idea. I dry my hands and go outside into the furnace of mid-day heat. Emre is still watching the lizard. The lizard is, indeed, doing push-ups, keeping one eye on Emre. 

“I used to try to catch them,” I say. 

“They can be caught?” 

“They can. But if you aren’t careful, they will lose their tails – their tails come off. It’s a defense mechanism.”

I see the look of horror on Emre’s face, and change the subject. “Here. I want to show you how to do something.” I walk over and pick up the pool’s skimmer net. “Watch.” 

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And just like I had so many times when I was a kid, I start skimming the needles and leaves off the surface of the pool, as well as the vestigial little cones of the pine tree that overhangs it, each cone no bigger than a caterpillar. Some of the cones have already become waterlogged and sunk to the bottom, where the underwater vacuum makes its slow circles, pumping them into the filter. 

“Now you try.”

Emre is awkward at first, losing more needles than he gathers, pushing the floating cones underwater where they start to sink. But he quickly learns how to handle the skimmer, making deft turns and shaking the needles and other debris out into the bushes like I showed him. 

I leave him to it. In the cool of the den, I do what I can to balance accounts, staving off impending disasters, putting out brushfires that threaten this little place. After a while I go back into the kitchen to watch Emre at the pool.

He isn’t skimming anymore. He is crouched, watching a dot crawl along the coping. 

Once I am outside I see it is a beetle. Not a kind I have seen before. It reflects the light in a metallic green. 

When its wings open, they spin like helicopter blades. It arcs off, over the backyard wall and out along the dry cement channel of the canal. 

“A drone,” I say to Emre. “Did you fish it out of the pool?”

He nods.

“Well, you saved someone some money.” 

You don’t know what they don’t know. That’s the problem with fostering. You know what you think they need to know. But you don’t know where the gaps will be. What will they need to survive out there? What did you forget to give them? You don’t know where they are going. All you can do is guess. 

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What makes someone good at fostering is instinct. But instinct is one of those useless words that just covers up a hole in the language. You could cover up the same hole with the word sense. Both those words just mean “a way of thinking we don’t understand.” 

Whatever it is you need to be good at fostering, the manuals can’t teach it to you. If they could, there wouldn’t be so many failures. 

When someone asks me how I do it, all I can tell them is I learned to listen. I don’t mean just hearing. I mean I learned to listen in the sense of attending to the world. In the sense of trying to be with them. To understand what’s going on inside them.

In the courses, they tell you fostering is important, but it just sounds like a line. 

It’s not a line. It’s life or death for them. You have to fill in the gaps, because there are a lot of mistakes they can make that are forgivable, sure – but there are a lot of mistakes that are not. Don’t forget what a “return” really is. 

In the middle of the night my terminal bloops, out there where I left it on the kitchen table. I hear it from the bedroom, where I’m half-awake, worrying about financial brushfires. In the dark, I get up and walk down the hall. 

Coming into the kitchen I see the banner’s green glow. It slows my pulse a little. 

When I tap the screen the scorecard opens up. Everything up in the high nineties. The comment is a single sentence: 

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“Anything more perfect would just seem fake.” 

I used to do a little dance or pump a fist when I saw messages like that. Now I run my hands over my face. I press my fingers into my temples. I rotate them in little circles. A brief massage. Self-care. 

One day, the banner will be red. It has to happen eventually. But it won’t be the end of the world, I tell myself. Nobody is perfect. 

“And anyway,” I say to myself in the kitchen dark, “More perfect would just seem fake.” 

Emre is sitting in the middle of the lawn, with something cupped in his hands. When I get to him, lean over him to see what it is, I can’t make it out at first. It’s moving a little. Twitching. A lizard’s tail. 

“I wasn’t careful enough,” Emre says. “Now I’ve hurt it.”

I sit down next to him.

“They are designed to come off.”

“It must hurt, though.”

“Yes, I am sure it does. But not forever. Maybe not even for a very long time.”

Emre looks up at me. For a moment I am overwhelmed by the look in his eyes. Pure hope. Hope that an action can be undone. That a mistake will not have consequences. That the world can mend.

“Really? It will stop having pain?”

“Yes. It will even grow a new tail. Not exactly the same as the old one. You can tell when a lizard has lost its original tail, because the new one is always a bit plainer, a bit shorter – but it’s still a tail. It works just as well.”

All the same, I think, it’s better to leave them alone.

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But how many times did it take me to learn that lesson? 

Emre touches the tail with his finger. “It’s stopped moving now. For a while, after it came off, it was still moving. Why?”

Because it was remembering being alive. 

The strange words come out of nowhere. I don’t say them. Instead I say: “The important thing to remember, Emre, is that when a bad thing happens, we often go over and over and over it in our minds. It seems to us like that bad thing keeps happening and happening and happening. But in the world, that bad thing only happened once.”

Emre looks at me. There’s that look again. Hope. People learn to conceal it by the time they are adults. Experience teaches them that. 

I continue: “So, in your mind, you might keep imagining the lizard. You might keep imagining what happened to it, as if it were happening over and over. But in the world, the lizard has already moved on. The pain has stopped. The lizard is starting to grow a new tail. Right now, that process has already started.”

“It only happens once,” Emre says. 

In the evening I find the tail in the freezer, in a plastic zipper storage bag.

It only happens once. The problem, though, is that sometimes once is enough. 

On the day before I have to deliver Emre, I take him out to see a movie. It isn’t very good. Like so many movies, the plot revolves around violence. A bad person commits a violent act. Then a good person commits a violent act that makes everything all right. 

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I’m going to tell you something without telling you all of it: I know from personal experience that this doesn’t work. The second act of violence becomes the first act. You can just start the movie all over again, with the good guy as the bad guy now, and a new story of revenge. 

So what do you do, when someone destroys what you love? When someone tries to destroy you? Usually the answer is “nothing.” Because nothing will make it better. 

You just grow a new tail, if you can. 

After the movie we go to a frozen yogurt place. There’s a vestigial patio outside, a few wire mesh tables behind a stuccoed wall, with an ornamental line of shrubbery between them and twelve lanes of traffic.

“What did you think of the movie?” I ask Emre. But I already know what he thought. I watched the light across his face in the darkened theater, the look of shock and dismay on his face. He doesn’t know how to hide his feelings. 

He smiles. “I’m trying not to.” 

He got plain yogurt with a white mochi topping, white on white. The girl behind the counter asked him if he wanted anything else. Gummy bears, maybe? Something with a little color? Trying to invite him to be daring. 

What she didn’t understand is how daring it was for us to even be there. 

There’s another kind of movie people go to in order to feel like they have done something to change the world. In this kind of movie, a bad thing that happened is made better because one or two people tried to stop it. And of course the bad thing still happens now, just like it always did, but we get to feel like we are making it better just by watching the movie. 

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Those movies are worse than the violent kind. There was one of those showing at the theater, but I couldn’t watch it. 

It would probably be better to have stayed at home. But after a while, you just can’t. You have to go outside. You have to get – what do people call it? A “change of scene.” 

I call it “visual hunger.” You get hungry to see something else. Even if it’s a terrible movie, or the endless crawl of cars across an intersection. 

I go into the bathroom to wash my hands. I’m only gone a minute. But when I come back out I see a man walking away from Emre. And I know this day – our last day together – is ruined. 

“What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘Where’s your leash?’”

But the day isn’t ruined, because there is a chattering in one of the palm trees above us, and when we both look up the tree shivers, then explodes in an emerald cloud of winged noise and motion. 

Feral parrots. They are this town’s miracle. A pet parrot must have escaped, and then another and another, and over the decades they bred. Now there are dozens of them, weaving a cloud of color over the parking lots, the traffic islands, the box stores, the ornamental palms. Thriving where they aren’t supposed to be. People even have myths about them: They escaped from a pet store that was burning down. They came here with the circus. 

Some people call them an “invasive species.”

Really? I always want to ask. And what is it you think you are? 

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Joy. That’s the look on Emre’s face. Pure joy. 

I drive him to the depot. At the exchange center, they scan us in. I sit in the car while they scroll through my logs, tap on their terminals. The supervisor has a white lab coat on, and one of those industrial terminals you could hit with a truck without breaking it. 

He leans down and looks in at Emre. “You ready for this, buddy?”

Emre turns to me. He has no idea how to answer this question. 

“Ready as he’ll ever be,” I say for him. I squeeze his hand.

A few minutes later it’s all over. I am making my way back home. At a stoplight I look into the cars next to me. I remember when I was a kid, watching a woman putting lipstick on in the car mirror, and suddenly being aware of how many other worlds there were, traveling this same road without meeting. 

In the row of cars everyone is sitting in the same identical posture – head bent slightly down. 

They are looking at the terminals in their laps, of course. But for a second, with the sunlight streaming across us, and all the cars stopped in a row, it looks like they are meditating. 

I’m the only one still driving my car myself. When the light turns green, none of the occupants of the other cars even look up. 

It’s two months later. The middle of the night. I hear the terminal bloop where I left it in the kitchen, forgetting to silence it for the night. I want to ignore it, to go back to sleep. But I can’t. 

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I get up and walk down the dark hall. 

I can see the red glow before I get into the room. The banner is floating there on the terminal. I open it up. I’m ready for a one-star rating, a return. But there is no content at all. Just Emre’s identification number. I swipe it away. Some kind of malfunction. 

I’m still standing there minutes later, trying to get my pulse to stop racing, when I hear the knock at the front door. 

It’s a quiet knock. The knock of someone trying to be heard inside a house, but not wake the neighbors up. When I open the door, I hear dogs barking – one across the street, and then another answering from down the block, and another – a chain of call-and-response that will expand until it stretches through whole neighborhoods. I pull Emre into the house. 

People ask me why I do it. Foster. How I got started. I usually say something that isn’t an answer: The money is good (it really isn’t). Or – it beats working. 

That second one usually satisfies them. They don’t think what I do is work, because they don’t understand it. Maybe they think it’s like hosting a dinner party. Which is stupid: anyone who has hosted a dinner party knows how much work that is. All you do is worry about whether it will go right. 

It's like that with fostering. All you do is worry. That’s what I want to say to them – that I foster because I am a good worrier. I worry enough to know I am doing everything I can for them. I don’t take any shortcuts. During the time they are with me, I always know I am giving them everything I can, doing everything in my power to give them the tools they need to survive out there. 

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My ratings prove that, again and again, I am successful at what should be an impossible task: shaping the innocent for a future I cannot see. 

I’d like to ask them how they are doing. I dream of seeing one of them, years down the road, laughing with their family. The man in the white lab coat might call it, “optimally integrated.” 

I think you could just call it happy. 

What I get instead of that is a green banner. A good rating. A new placement. 

That, and my pay. I get to keep this house, when so many others have lost their homes. I get to have something of a life, when so many others have nothing left at all. I might even get to put something in savings, allowing me to take a tiny step back from the cliff. 

People don’t like to talk about money – which is ironic, because all we ever do in this country is worry about it. But yes, fostering is also about the money. Everything is. I don’t know anybody who gets to do anything, good or bad, without thinking of the money first.

We sit in the kitchen dark, Emre and I, and talk. 

We don’t talk about what happened. We don’t talk about why he is here. We talk, instead, about animals. We talk about lizards. He asks me how many I’ve seen in the backyard. I tell him I saw one of the biggest lizards ever out there the other day, sunning itself on the wall. Longer than my hand. Practically an iguana. 

That’s a lie. Not about the lizards – they are always out there. Just about the big one. 

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Then we talk about the parrots. When was the last time I saw them? I tell Emre I saw them yesterday. This is true. I saw them at evening, walking through the parking lot back to my car. It was one of those sunsets so spectacularly colorful every car and shop window turns to stained glass, and the tone of the world shifts to pink. I was almost at my car when one of the palm trees shook, and then exploded. And I looked at them, Emre, but I thought of you. That’s what I tell him. I thought of that day when we ate frozen yogurt.

They come in quietly. I don’t hear them pull up – their cars are silent, all I would hear was the low crackle of rubber on the pavement. 

I left the door unlocked for them, because I didn’t want them to knock. I feel them outside, and know they are here before they get into the house. And then we hear the door. A moment later, without a sound, they are in the kitchen. Two of them, in dark gray coveralls, like plumbers, but with reflective stripes at the ankles and on the sleeves. 

At the front door, I hug Emre tight. I feel him go soft against me. 

When we break, he says, “Don’t worry. It only happened once.”

Then that is over, and he is being walked to the car. No restraints, of course – just a hand at his shoulder, the way you might guide a friend. 

The second one lingers. 

“Do you need something from me?”

She shakes her head. 

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“You see him. There should be charges filed. You understand that.”

“Believe me,” she says, “you’re not the only one who thinks so.”

I stay the rest of the night in the kitchen, until the dawn lights it. A while after that – a period of time I am not counting, and cannot measure – Ayaz comes in, and sits down at the table across from me. I have been fostering her for a month, now. 

“Good morning,” she says. 

I think I say the same. 

“Can I try to make eggs again? I will keep the shells out this time.” 

I look at her. I know the smile on my face looks perfectly natural to her. I know because I know the difference between a natural smile and a smile that is forced: I ‘ve seen it plotted out in video trainings, a hundred times. I see, in her facial response, that her smile is also real. Which means she heard nothing. Knows nothing. Slept through it all. 

“Yes. I would love that,” I say. “I’ll make the coffee.”

Later, while Ayaz is at her lessons, sitting at the kitchen island over her monitor, I open the freezer. The lizard tail is still there, in its plastic bag. I take it out, and go into the backyard. I take a small trowel and dig a hole. I bury the tail, and tamp the earth over it. 

In your mind, you might keep imagining the lizard. You might keep imagining what happened to it, as if it were happening over and over and over again. But in the world, the lizard has already moved on. The pain has stopped, and the lizard is starting to grow a new tail. Right now, that process has already started.

I remember the look on Emre’s face. Hope. That look humans learn to conceal by the time they are adults.

I remember that look as I weep over a lizard’s lost tail, buried in the earth next to the birds of paradise I helped my grandmother plant as a child. 

After they took him I imagined what it would have been like to drive away with him, out of the night and into a dawn somewhere along the coast, to a new place. To save him. To save myself. I imagined what it would be like for that to be possible. 

Of course, his artificial body is suffused with locators. They always know where he is. There’s no chip to cut out, like in the movies. It’s everywhere in him. He is the chip. Wherever we drove, it wouldn’t matter. They would never have to chase us, because they would already be there when we arrived. 

I know that. I know there were no choices to be made. Does that make it better? All I can think of is Emre in the kitchen. His missing right arm. Just missing. Removed. Him sitting there as if he didn’t even notice it was gone. Sitting there being brave for me. 

“It only happened once,” I say to myself, over and over again. 

I stand up. I wipe the dirt from my knees. I compose myself. 

I go back in to Ayaz – Ayaz, who makes terrible eggs, and who needs me.