“Behind” by Cameron Biondi

by Cameron Biondi

He made an effort this time. As he walked along the worn path, he made sure to not drag his feet, to keep his cold hands out of his pockets. He nervously practiced his smile, managing to curve one side of his mouth in a confused smirk. His fragile stare scanned the path before him. Stop it. You should probably head back.

The early morning sun gazed down on the park, making his skin tingle in anticipation of the burn. It was crowded that day. Mothers and fathers chased and cheered on their children. They don’t care. An aging dog prowled through the trees, its nose close to the ground, ready to stalk the next unsuspecting squirrel that would dart across its path. A tattered man lay on a bench, snoring enthusiastically. The lively scene made Adin tense, a slow-moving statue of quiet nerves. He was a tiny drop in a bustling stream, but he liked it that way, for the most part. In some ways it made his excursion easier.

Adin had spent many slow, creeping days entombed in his studio apartment. But this was him trying. This was his weekly trek to the supermarket, a begrudgingly necessary evil for something like him. His shadow crept along with him. It gave him the precious attention denied him by the park’s lively inhabitants. Occasionally, someone would pass him as he moved down the path toward the far edge of the park, where the market lay waiting. A young woman with a striking red jacket approached, her glasses darkening to adjust to the sun as she looked up in his direction. A child passed on a small rusted bike, using his newfound freedom to torment his parents in violent, shaky turns. As they came and went, Adin attempted to fill in the numerous blanks. She was uncomfortable. Didn’t you see her pick up the pace as you passed each other? Don’t. It’s done. These kids have nothing stopping them. It’s dangerous. You were never like that, though. Is that a problem? They’re gone. It’s done. It was unclear to him whether he was doing better than last time.

The faded green of the supermarket sign was easy to spot from the edge of the park across the street. The automatic doors cheerfully greeted him with a swift shuffle, then opened to reveal several narrow aisles, each lined with tired merchandise. Adin went for the basics: a heavy bag of rice, a few bulbous heads of broccoli, some questionable faux meat. This doesn’t have to take long. Let’s be out of here in five. The store felt eerily empty, save a few wandering shoppers. He fumbled through the basket, double-checking his spoils, when he realized he’d forgotten cooking oil. He was by no means an avid cook, but every week he had to replace the oil in the cupboard. To keep the piteous cycle going.

In a dimly lit aisle he moved slowly with his hand dragging on the edge of the shelf. He scanned for the oil. Vegetable, no. Canola, nope. Sesame, definitely no. I guess it’s not here this time.

“I have some right here.”

Adin’s head twitched and his shoulder blades jolted towards each other. For a moment, his eyes bulged, but he quickly closed them to present some composure. He turned around.

“I think this is what you were looking for. Right, Adin?” Adin shuttered imperceptibly under the gaze of two sharp, yellow eyes. Rob had been assigned as the store clerk several weeks ago, and though he never actually left the store, his presence there was always a surprise to Adin. Rob stood there, full of energy, holding a green bottle of olive oil. He was standing perfectly straight. He was relatively small for a bot, but his small frame held a strong presence in a room, as if he stood in command of an invisible multitude just behind him. It made Adin uneasy.

“Oh, thanks Rob.” Do you remember telling him your name?

“No problem, Adin, my friend.” The electric yellow eyes made a quick flash to emphasize the word “friend.” Rob passed him the bottle. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Just as he did with people, Adin gave Rob a quick rundown. The dark blue of his metal frame was a pathetic sketch of the human form. The solid structure was supported with soft, luminescent pads that covered its innate rigidity. As Rob stood there, the pads gave off a slight glow that ebbed and flowed, complementing the darker frame with a more gentle sky blue. His face, in an attempt to comfort people with familiar expressions, was bright and responsive, the calculated mosaic of a social chameleon. The yellow eyes found accomplices in occasional red flushes of the cheeks and a small nose produced by a shadow effect. Most peculiar to Adin was Rob’s mouth, like the mouths of all bots. Here, instead of some spectacular creation of carefully activated lights, a simple projection of sound waves sufficed. Perhaps the great Inventors still fumbled with the accurate recreation of human speech, or perhaps they deemed it unessential. Regardless, each byte of verbal data escaped in purple waves that rose and fell with Rob’s enthusiasm. The intonation was energized, though imperfect. At the mention of Adin’s name, Rob sputtered out the first syllable, making it a lopsided “Á-DIN” that flourished in violet and then subsided. Adin didn’t correct him.

“No, thanks. Hey, Rob?” Why are you still nervous?

“Yes, what is it, Adin?” It was difficult to not feel trapped under the cold, analytical crosshairs of those yellow eyes.

“How’d you know what I was looking for? I never told you what I needed, did I?” Stop. I know it’s a bot but you went too far asking that. Just pay for your things and leave.

“Patterns, Adin. Every week for the past month you have come to buy olive oil. I was watching you search the aisles, checked your basket to determine what you were missing, and suggested the appropriate item.” His eyes and illumined cheeks were smiling. Without a mouth to complete the portrait, his smile looked strained, a millimeter deep.

They moved down the aisle and reached the register, Adin slouching along while Rob stepped with a machine’s intention. “Oh, I see. You’re pretty clever, Rob.” Feeling he had played his part, Adin pulled a card out of his pocket and tapped through the self-checkout. Rob watched him, a few steps back. Once Adin finished up, he took a step to leave when Rob responded.

“Patterns, Adin. It is not about me being clever. They are everywhere, for you and me to see. To learn from. To act on. Anyone or anything that can pay close attention can analyze all of their pieces and respond accordingly when similar situations arise.” Adin had stepped between the automatic doors to leave, but he paused there to hear Rob’s explanation, letting the doors continue half opening, half closing around him. Why is he telling you this? You should find a new grocery store.

“I’m not so sure any one person can do that much, Rob. It sounds difficult to me. But it’s an interesting thought.” He started to get anxious, ready to rush home and secure himself inside for a while. “Maybe I’ll see you next week. Thanks again.”

“Oil see you next week. Do you understand?” The pronunciation was slow, deliberate. The violet voice savored the first sentence in a gradual swell of light.

“Oh. Nice one, Rob. I’ll see you later.” The automatic doors opened one last time and Adin slipped through. Across the street, through the park, and back towards his apartment he rushed, careful not to draw any critical gazes.

He had never heard a bot tell a joke before…