Koru, by Casey Reinhardt, appears in our Aggregate anthology.
Casey Reinhardt is the lead editor for the Timeworn Lit Journal. She is also a writer of historical and speculative fiction. You can find her toiling away at a desk in Buffalo, NY where she dreams up madness, most of which makes its way into a story or poem. Her work can be found in Apparition Lit and Exoplanet Magazine among others. Find her on Twitter at @yoscully.
There’s a slowness to life in the winter. White silence hides everything of interest from view, save for a brilliant snowy landscape. It sprawls away from this house in every direction.
I sit in an oversized chair, in a bay window overlooking the lake. There’s nothing to do but stare and wonder. There’s a landline is screwed into the wall, its curled cord dangling. I wonder what the virtue of this idea was to begin with. I see myself as a slightly stained and battered notebook with entries on quarterly dates. The world is out there now. It’s separate from me entirely.
I packed for this adventure like a hiker. Rations of dried fruit and cheese. Raisins and peanut butter. Rice-a-roni for months. I grab a packet of almonds from the kitchen and wrap a blanket around myself before settling back in the chair. I chew slowly. Each kernel snaps when I bite down, carrying an eerie sensual twinge. I don’t even know if I’m comfortable with the way I’m chewing these almonds.
Why am I chewing like this? Did I always?
The sun is already behind the trees at three in the afternoon and the darkness reminds me of the gloom as a thunderstorm rolls in. I’m not sure how to adapt to life with this new solitude. I’m not used to this person I am. I’m not even sure I like her. If this is the me I’ve always been, I can understand why I chose distraction. I close my eyes and decide a nap is the best course of action. The almonds remain in my lap. They’ll probably spill, but I don’t move to prevent it.
At six in the evening, well after dark, the lights edge me awake. Two white lights whisper across the sky in a beautiful display of romance, chasing one another like lovers. They remind me of Isak, charging at one another in a rhythm I can’t count. As they fade away behind the trees, I wonder where they came from, but feel so relieved after seeing them it doesn’t matter. It makes me feel I’m not alone. As if this nagging feeling of being unbalanced has dissipated and I’m thankful.
I pull myself together and decide to paint. This is what I should have been doing all day, instead of wandering, and now I’ve lost the light. Tools litter the hallway on top of boxes, a paintbrush here, roller there. The bedroom walls are a blank canvas waiting for some life to be spilt onto them. I oblige.
My body is thankful and it moves while my hands bring life to a room left vacant since my grandfather died. I remind the house that I’m here to love it. I treat it tenderly, like a child I’ve decided to love for the rest of its life.
I roll on the last of the second coat with a stroke of exhaustion and step back.
Dark blue-gray. The same color as my eyes.
Nowhere to go tomorrow. Nowhere to go for a while.
I clean the tools, watch the paint coat my hands before scrubbing them clean. I feel pleased with the progress, already eager for the paint to dry so that I can have a proper bed. The chair in front of the window is nice, but it’s really nothing compared to stretching into horizontal bliss. Slow life at its best.
The landline rings and I’m startled into a heart palpitation. It’s the only sound other than the paintbrush in hours.
“Hello?” I’m out of breath, I’m grabbing my side and bending over like I’ve run a marathon.
Isak’s voice is sleepy, “No cell service?” I realize I have absolutely no idea what time it is and smile into the heavy mouthpiece. It feels good, not knowing.
“Only if I walk to the top of the hill in two feet of snow.” He laughs, I laugh. We’re shaking off our loneliness. “I painted our bedroom.”
“Did the color turn out the way you hoped?” His voice is raspy and I know he couldn’t sleep.
“It’s still wet, so I can’t say for sure, but I’ll tell you tomorrow.” I want to tell him I miss him, that I’m tired of talking to myself, but I can’t. I’m in too deep and this was all my idea.
“I hope it’s blue so we can pretend we’re sleeping right in the water,” he says. I can hear the blanket rustling as he moves around. I want to climb in and feel the heat of him.
“It’s dark blue, so it’ll be like we’re all the way at the bottom.” I stretch the cord all the way, but still can’t reach the chair and lean against the wall instead.
“That sounds perfect.”
“I miss you,” I say.
“That’s an understatement,” he says. “It’s only been three days and I feel lost.”
“Don’t be. Only a month until I get a week off.”
“You’ll be okay?” I ask.
“I’m more worried about you out there all alone.”
“Oh, I’m fine.”
“You’re sure?” he asks.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Same time tomorrow?”
I laugh. He knows me too well. “Yeah.” Silence lingers as we hesitate to end the conversation. I hang the phone in its cradle and return to my chair, looking out over the lake. The almonds are scattered all over the floor, but I’ll deal with them tomorrow. I wrap myself up in the blanket and settle in. The moon is up and the sky is crystal clear. Those two lights are back and I watch them. As I drift off to sleep, I see a small red light join in for the ride, this one just a little closer. Across the pond, waiting on the other side of the ice. But it’s late and I’m alone. It could be anything, I think, before drifting off to sleep.
Dreams used to keep me restless at night, vague plots dragged along by the pull of my lower mind. Maybe it’s the silence that keeps them at bay. But there’s something new here with me now. Whispers from within that I can’t ignore.
I pull the blanket up to my neck and squirm until I’m comfortable. The sky is big and blue, lit by a sun only hinted at, keeping its distance behind the towering pines. It’ll come out of hiding soon enough.
I stretch, head upstairs to check the paint. Morning light bathes the room, giving it a whole different color than the parts hidden in shadow. There’s a bit of green in there too, but it’s subtle.
It does feel like water.
I imagine Isak and I tossing between the sheets. His raspy voice tickling my ear. Our bodies warm one another in a featherbed cocoon. A smile lingers as I walk to the window. The wood is curved at the top in a sturdy arch, glass separated by wooden cross-beams. French doors open onto a small balcony facing the lake, but right now it’s full of snow. The cold air seeps in making me shiver. From above, the lake’s surface is still, solid. It can’t be real. Nothing could be this beautiful.
But here I am, and there it is.
I drop the blanket and get to work. There’s no one around to judge my paint-splattered clothes or my unbrushed teeth. I tie greasy hair up in a half-assed bun.
It takes the whole morning to get the bed in and set up. As I spread the sheets out over the mattress, I imagine waking here, day after day, the window welcoming me to this magical wilderness.
The red light is still there, to the right. A short repeating blink of muted orange, dulled by the sunlight. I wonder if it’s Morse code. Even if it was, I wouldn’t know what it meant.
The sun dips behind the trees and light dims by the minute. I flick on a lamp and it pools the room in a yellow glow, an electric security blanket.
Tomorrow. I will go across tomorrow.
I’ve got all the gear I’ll need.
I pull a book down from the stack, spread the heavy tome spread across my lap. I’ve been biting my nails. If I don’t stop, they’ll bleed.
What could it be, out there? Is it watching me? Waiting? I peel my thoughts away and throw them back towards the words on the page but my eyes won’t stay open.
The stairs creak as I climb toward bed. There’s a song in my head I don’t quite remember. A loop I’m humming over and over.
How do you find something if you don’t even know what you’re looking for? I imagine this thing as a piece of beautiful art buried in the snow, something mechanical with wires and colors spreading beneath translucent skin. By the time I’ve got it uncovered, the wind just blows the white dust over it again. I have to grab my shovel and start over.
Every day, I do it again.
Outside, I pull cold air into my greedy lungs. I’m already sweating. I have about ten layers, three pairs of socks. The lake may not look that big from the window, but it’s a hike to the other side.
I’m high up the side of a mountain. The lake fills the space between three peaks. Two lower ones I can see in the distance, and the other stretches tall behind me, its girth blocked by the cascade of pine trees. If an avalanche happens, I’ll be dead.
“That’s why we don’t fuck with the trees, Mouse,” is how my grandfather used to put it. And to his credit, the house is still standing. I remember those long drives down the mountain to buy wood from Gord, his friend. It wasn’t about fear of an avalanche to me then. It was about the milkshake on the way back.
I always found my grandfather to be a bit of a hypocrite. After all his talk about minding the trees, he would pierce the maples late in winter for the syrup, bleed them dry.
“Papa, do you think it hurts the trees? When you bleed them?”
“Naw, Mouse, they’re only trees.”
“But, you said not to mess with them.”
“That’s true, but this is a business arrangement we have. They give us syrup and we don’t cut them down. It’s alright, eat your pancakes.”
I swim through memory as I grab branches to pull me along. The snow is halfway up my thigh. I breathe into my scarf so my lungs don’t burn. It’s going to be a while, but I’m happy for it. I let the trees distract me from branching thoughts spawning in every direction. I don’t have to work so hard to corral them when trudging through the thick snow toward the light.
The woods are so quiet I sound like a giant. Every step violates the forest’s hibernation, but I need to know what the hell that light is, or I’ll never sleep again. Not even The Count of Monte Cristo can keep me distracted at this point.
The snow is so densely packed it’s hard to move. I should have brought snowshoes.
I move to the side, keep to the shore where the snow is sand-like and blowing in bursts over thick ice. Maybe on the way back, I’ll cross the lake. Maybe I’ll be brave.
The light is brighter.
I’ll be there in a few steps.
I reach out my hand.
Everything shifts. My surroundings are similar, but feel different. The slope I’m on is steeper and I stumble backward as my feet take hold of the new ground. The lake is nowhere in sight. I made sure to always keep it view so that I couldn’t get lost. Yet, I’ve managed to. Panic prickles in a wave beginning in my fingers and toes. My scarf slips from my face and the icy air gets pulled in like an icicle to the lung.
I’m farther downhill, so I start walking up. The trees are thick here in the middle of the forest, pines laden with a canopy of heavy snow.
I tread lightly.
It isn’t long before I find the road. There’s only one out here, and I know I’m in the same woods. The smell and the silence are familiar. Even though I can’t have been outside for more than a couple of hours, it feels late. It feels like time has run out. It’s the dead of winter and I’m chasing a red light that doesn’t want to be found.
I want a nip of whiskey. I want cell phone service. I want Isak to come with a cigarette and a warm blanket. Step by step I climb the road my grandfather drove me up and down so many times. It’s nearly dark by the time I’m climbing up the rocky driveway.
I collapse in bed and shiver until I fall asleep.
I’m trying not to think about the light. I have to keep it from taking over my mind and occupying all waking thought. I wish I had a dog or a cat, something to keep me company. It’s just me and this house, now, and the faraway projection of Isak.
I daydream about skating across the pond. It always ends the same, with me falling between cracks. Flailing for purchase as my body turns blue. The skates are heavy on my feet and drag me down, down, down until the world goes black.
There are two windows in the kitchen where the kitchen table is. One facing the lake, and another facing the mountainside. It’s ten degrees colder when you sit near a window. My blanket droops and I pull it tight.
I’m going to have to get the wood stove working before I freeze to death. The garage is full of wood, but I’m terrified of insects swarming in there. I imagine myself lighting the fire in the stove and the house burning down.
The garage door is just a few steps away, but I hesitate, like there’s a monster lurking and I need time to find the proper weapon. I slip my boots and jacket on and hold my breath before opening the door.
Nothing moves, nothing shifts. The wood is stacked against the wall under a bright blue tarp. There are a few windows that let the light in.
Nothing in here has changed since I moved out twenty years ago. The same tools are organized with a haphazard system of nails jutting out of the wall. It’s in this moment my composure slips. I sway backward as bottled grief lurches.
My grandfather is there, at the workbench, calloused hands holding wood for me to nail. “You don’t need me, Mouse, you can make it all by yourself.” He’d shoo me off with that hearty laugh that seemed to be his singular answer to anything I ever did.
I pull myself together, wipe away tears before they freeze on my face.
“I still have that damned box, you old fool.” I say this to his spirit, which I imagine floats around somewhere in here.
I grab as much wood as I can carry, grateful the carpenter ants kept away. Something about how large they are, like tiny monsters. I shudder and hurry back into the house before they appear.
I mutter to myself as I load up the stove. There’s a little burner for a tea kettle on top. He used to heat up water for hot cocoa on here, when I was a kid. Maybe I’ll do it again, for old times’ sake. Maybe set a cup in the garage.
The untidy nature of the human race.
The alien nature of reality.
Uncrumpled and re-crumpled newspaper dated with a time he’s both alien to and uncomfortably familiar with.
A daily inventory of her stockpile in the kitchen.
He doesn’t know what to focus on, so he just keeps making lists, checks them off, folds them up into little origami fish which are scattered all over the floor in his metal hut.
What am I still doing here? He asks himself this same question every day.
The time is over, it’s passed. You need to move the fuck on, brother. That’s what Number Three would say, if he were still alive, but he isn’t. He’s been decommissioned, deconstructed. Parts hawked at a back-alley flea market.
What would father say? He’d say he messed up on the emotional capacity of “that one.” Koru tries to convince himself it’s an endearing nickname, but it still stings. “That one” is the only one left. He wants to say it to his face, but Father isn’t around anymore to be told. He’s long dead like the rest of them. And Koru? He’s just stuck.
The furnace is at full blast. The windows fogging up makes the light look brighter, because it’s dispersed behind a filter of vapor. It goes and goes in regular intervals all day long. I’ve been trying to keep that scattered, anxious part of my brain quiet. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants. It contradicts everything.
You know what it is. It’s just there. Look at it.
I grit my teeth and fall back on the bed, close my eyes. My body feels worn-down. Like it’s being filed by the wind, despite the house’s protection. I can’t feel it, but I know it’s there. An omnipresent gust.
At three in the morning I’m still sitting on the edge of my bed staring out the window. I feel Something enormous wrap itself around me, like I’m microscopic.
I see him. With my own eyes. He’s standing across the lake staring up at my window.
The next night, I pull on my boots. I feel heavy and slow, but I’ve got a crowbar, lighter fluid and a Zippo.
I head out across the lake. The ice is solid and steady. I jump on it to build my confidence and pick up speed as I shift my feet to slide across. The wind whips against my face and every breath feels like I’m inhaling solid water.
This time, when I reach the light, I stretch out my hand just until I’m touching it, but pull back at the very last moment.
There is a vibration there. I can feel it looming, rigid and tall.
“Hello?” I call out into the silent white forest. My voice dies as the mounds absorb it.
I turn around. His voice is smooth; he’s standing there, in a t-shirt, face placid. He knows my name. “Why are you watching me?” I hold the crowbar tight in my gloved hand.
He raises his voice to get it up over the wind. “It’s complicated and I’m afraid you won’t believe me.”
“Why don’t you have a coat on?” I shout.
He sticks his hands in his pockets and steps forward. “Come with me, out of the wind. I’ll try and explain it again”
I pull my scarf down and shout, “Are you going to murder me?”
“No.” He says, simply.
“What’s your name?” I ask as he’s leading me to a small metal hut that was not in these woods when I was a child. It’s hidden behind a ring of trees. “Why can I walk back here now? Where’s the thing that shot me miles down the mountain?”
He says nothing, just slides a card into a little black plastic reader before opening a metal door.
Inside, there’s a compact room. A bed, a computer. It’s my house he’s been looking at. There are at least three cameras pointing at it. There’s a list on the table.
“Is that an inventory of my kitchen?” I use the crowbar to punctuate my words, waving it to remind him I’m armed.
He’s scratching his neck like he’s embarrassed.
I narrow my eyes. “Start answering my questions.”
“Abigail, can you sit down?”
“Fuck no, I’m not sitting down.” He’s got a picture of me on the wall, near his bed. He’s got a picture of Isak and my grandfather, too.
When I look back at him, he’s rubbing his hand through his hair like it’s hard for him to do this, like he’s the one struggling.
“Alright, look. My name is Koru and we’ve been through this a thousand times. Listen to me Abigail, listen close, because this is important, because tomorrow when you wake up, it’s going to start all over. There’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’ve been in this room in an archival warehouse for 106 years, watching you follow the same loop again and again. I try to reach out to explain, I try to help. I can’t make it stop without destroying it.”
He looks like he’s going to cry, but I can’t help him now. I’m dizzy and these snow clothes are stifling in this hot room. I’m dripping in sweat. I sit down in the desk chair and unzip my coat, pull my scarf off. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I locked you in this memory almost three hundred years ago. I’m trying to fix it. I’ve destroyed all the rest of them, but I can’t destroy you.”
I throw my head back and laugh. This is what I came out here for? Some madman. “You’re insane.”
“You say that almost every time.”
“What about Isak? He’ll be here soon.”
“Isak is dead. Everyone is dead. The only reason you’re alive is because I recorded you before the Earth collapsed. We were trying to catalogue life on Earth before it all went to hell.”
I look at my hands and swallow.
“Am I still me?” I ask. I don’t know why I believe him, but I do. I should be on guard. Hell, I should be burning this hut to the ground.
But I can’t because part of me remembers.
Koru clears his throat. “You are, that’s the problem. I didn’t know this then, but when you’re recorded with the Dead-Eye K4, it locks a copy of yourself in a loop, a physical clone. It was a marvel in its time, rave reviews from anthropologists around the system, but it’s not right. I’ve spent three hundred years destroying everything I’ve created.
“But I can’t destroy you.” His eyes are big and green with these little flecks of yellow. I can see how I may have fallen for them, in different circumstances, but right now I’m fighting for the memory of myself, of Isak.
I fight back the tears so as not to show my weakness. But I’m a terrible liar and I know it’s all over my face. “All of them?” I ask.
“They’re all gone. Everyone but you.”
“Tomorrow I’ll just go back to the beginning?”
“Yes. As you have, thousands of times.”
“But, I never remember all the way.”
“No, you don’t. It goes so many different ways. But every time, you start the same. You paint the room. You eat the almonds, you read a book, you get the furnace going. I watch you every time, and at the end you come to me. The red light is a reminder. You always figure it out at the end and then I feel compelled to tell you. It would be wrong of me not to.”
“If I figured it out sooner, would there be a way to save me?”
“I don’t know!” It’s an admission for him. He stands up and it looks like he’s going to tear his head off. Instead, he pulls up his shirt.
I lift the crowbar. He shows me the translucent skin the mechanics are hiding behind. I put my palm against it and feel the vibrations of the gentle whirr keeping him alive. There is a familiarity there; it floods my memory. “You’re a robot.”
“Android, but yeah. I was made by an artist, though.”
“If I stay here, instead of going back, what will happen?”
“We’ve tried that, didn’t work.”
A dead end. Now I’m agitated. I stand up, round on him with the crowbar. He flinches backward against the wall. “Then what’s the point of bringing me here?”
“I know it’s selfish. I know it is. But I care about you. I want you to live.” He hesitates, he’s trying hard not to touch me, his palms are against the wall. “I love you.”
“How can you love me? You don’t even know me.” The venom in my words dissipates.
“I do, though. I’ve known you so many times.”
“What about Isak?”
“He was never here. It was too late for him.”
“But, you’re a robot.”
“Android. And I still have feelings.”
I look around to find the time. “It starts over at midnight?”
“One-thirty in the morning.”
“We need to find a way to stop it.” I look around, like the answer is laying around in this little metal room, waiting to be discovered.
“What about my body, is it whole, biologically speaking?”
“How can you be sure?”
“I am, trust me on that.”
My hat’s off and now I’m raking my hand through my hair. “What’s on the other side of this room?”
“How will you get out?”
“The Historical Society on Titan intended on airlifting me, but I cut off contact forty years ago.”
“Do they know where you are?”
A hesitant nod. “Maybe. If the same people are still there. Maybe not. They’re not great at paperwork.”
“Could you re-establish contact?” I keep looking behind me like it’s a monster we’re running from. Like it’s going to jump out from the shadows and eat me.
“Even if I re-establish, it’ll take them two weeks to get here. Space travel is not instantaneous.”
I shake my head again, unable to comprehend. “Space travel?”
“Yeah, the headquarters is on Titan.”
“Titan? The moon?”
“When the hell did space-travel happen?”
“Just before the Earth went to hell. Everyone evacuated to Mars.”
I lean back, hold my head in my hands. “Just, give me a minute. This is just…” My eyes glaze over as I try to understand. “It’s just insane.” I pace the area inside of the room, trying to gather thoughts up, sort them out, make sense of it all. I want to run back to the house, crawl into my chair and wrap myself in the blanket, pretend none of this is happening.
I look at him again. He’s got a mop of fake-hair on his head that looks real as anything. He looks nothing like a robot, or an Android. With his shirt on, he looks like any man.
“Koru.” I stop pacing and call his name and he abandons his thoughts and turns to me. “How long are you gonna let this go on?”
He opens his mouth but nothing comes out. He closes it again and looks away. He can’t say it. He can’t say You’re going to die. “If I can’t get you out…” He almost said it, but the words trailed off into the space where unsaid things sit and fester.
“I’ll die.” I finish it for him, because I want it out there. If it’s the truth, I want it on the table.
“Can we clone me again?” I’m just spitballing now. I’ll think of a thousand implausible solutions.
“I’ve destroyed all of the cameras. Even if it were possible, we’d run into the same looping scenario you’re in now.”
“How about another android? Can you download people into them?”
“Not an Android like me. Our neural networks are handcrafted and personalities manifest naturally. I can’t just supplant their mind for yours. It would be unethical.”
“I see. That makes sense.” I feel bad now, for suggesting it. But I’m desperate.
The chair I’m sitting in has wheels and I start rolling around the room. “What if we got far enough away that it glitches? Or leave and shut it down?”
“What if you just disappear?”
“Why would I disappear? I’m flesh and bone, like you said.”
“We can’t risk it.”
“Thousands of times I’ve done this, you said. Thousands. Would it be so bad if I disappeared?” He’s bending down on one knee. He’s holding my hand and looking up at me like he’s about to propose. My stomach twists in knots. I can feel Isak over my shoulder, hovering like a ghost. I can’t reconcile this pull and push.
“Abigail, listen.” He drops his head, pulls it up again, like it’s full of lead. Those heavy glass eyes bore into my soul. “I could never forgive myself.”
“Well, it isn’t your choice, it’s mine. Either come with me or don’t. Do you have any water?”
“Yes—You don’t understand. It’s a wasteland out there. We won’t survive.”
“We have a little over an hour.”
He wasn’t lying. I’ve got a heavy oxygen mask on. I’m afraid to open my eyes but it’s hot and I have my snow clothes on to keep my skin from exposure. The goggles I’m wearing are heavy and my head already hurts.
“The radiation out here is terrible.” Koru yells. His words are garbled. He’s scared. But we’re running. There isn’t even a hint that a forest was ever here. Instead of mountains it looks like a flat, exploded desert. The wind blows and blows because the trees are all dead sticks sporadically poking up from the rocky surface. The wind is hot like the air all around and it’s hard to breathe.
“Are we on Earth?” I ask, screaming.
“Where can we go?”
“The next lab is probably five, six miles away. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. We’ll never make it.”
“We will.” I shout and we shift our focus inward and run with all the strength we can summon.
We’re in a very steep valley—large cliffs loom on either side, sealing us into an ever-narrowing corridor. I slow down, take a second to catch my breath.
“The oxygen tanks are only going to last one hour, maybe a bit more.”
“Stop telling me everything that could go wrong, please.”
The space between the cliffs is so narrow now, it barely fits the two of us side by side.
Koru grabs my hand, holds it tight. It’s warm and there’s a gentle vibration that I find comforting. A mechanical pulse.
There’s a door at the end. A small keypad on the side, which Koru starts working on. I catch my breath and falter at how massive the cliffs are. Like a river ran for billions of years to get this deep. A different kind of natural beauty. A beauty borne out of decay.
The door opens, I take a step forward.
I hear Koru call my name, desperately, but there’s four men in suits and they’ve already got me by the arms. They’re pulling me in.
Koru’s screaming for me, fighting them off but I can see the door closing and he’s still outside.
His screams linger in my head as I struggle against the bodies holding me back, as I’m being dragged down a hall. And then the world flickers out like a TV set.