Faith Is A Nanooka
by Corie Ralston
Manda sat on the terrace just before dawn and wondered what decision the doctors had made about her. The sun was contemplating making another showing and the sky was that deep blue-gray that could go either way. Only the birds let on that it was the start of another day and not the end, with their complete faith in the sunrise, and that’s what she figured another day was all about anyway: faith.
Her great nephew Tyler approached the residence gates, which scanned him and let him enter without breaking stride. She hadn’t expected him to come by so early, and she felt resentful. She had wanted to be alone in the quiet of the morning, pretending the shush of electric trains was the ocean, pretending Tony was sitting beside her. Tony would have loved the roses in the gardens, the way they shed the night’s condensation and opened up to the sun every day. He would have made fun of the fact that the place was called an Active Life Residence rather than a Senior Citizen Home, would have drunk tea with her in the mornings on the terrace, would have helped her understand the decision about the hospital.
“Good morning, Aunt Manda.”
Tyler stood in front of her, snowflakes melting on his EnviroCoat. He switched off the field and the snow fell, disintegrating like dust before it reached the ground.
Nanooka burst from Manda’s lap and begin circling Tyler’s ankles, yapping.
He swatted at the dog with his briefcase. “Can’t you program it to stop that?” he said
“Come here, Nanooks,” Manda said. The little dog hopped onto Manda’s lap and sat panting. “Nanooka is fine the way he is,” she said.
“It is a nuisance.”
“He loves me.”
“It’s a machine,” he said. “Just because it has fur and is programmed to–”
“Don’t you dare,” she said.
Tyler sighed. “What are you doing outside so early? You’ll catch chill.”
“Oh, please. They keep it sixty five degrees in the gardens all year. God knows what temperature it is out there.”
“Twenty eight,” he said. “Still.”
She waited, watching him stand awkwardly, gripping his briefcase like it was a shield. He’d had a rough start of it, what with his father in and out of prison, but he had done all right despite all of that. He had helped her out after Tony died. But now her savings was gone and she had an illness that everyone talked around, something about an aneurism waiting to happen, which she gathered meant she wouldn’t live that long, even if she went to the hospital.
Invite him in for a cup of tea, Tony would have said. God knew he was always the nicer of the two of them.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she said.
“What’s that?” Tyler said.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
Inside, she set Nanooka down and reached in the cupboard for her electric kettle. Her shoulder stiffened at the sudden movement, refused to budge.
Tyler reached over her and lifted the kettle down. “I’ll do it,” he said. “You go sit down.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she said.
He froze, clearly hurt.
He’s just a kid. Tony’s voice in her head. He means well. That was her Tony, always so goddamned good hearted.
“What?” Tyler said.
She tried to soften her tone. “Let me make the tea. It’s the only thing I can do anymore.”
He moved to the living room couch, only a few feet away from the kitchenette. She filled the kettle and plugged it in–no open flame for the Active Life Residents.
He sat forward on the couch. “I spoke to the residence staff this morning,” he said.
Here it comes, she thought.
“They want you to go to the hospital.”
“But there’s nothing they can do.”
“They’ll monitor you. The doctors are right there in case things get worse.”
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” she said. “Besides, I don’t understand why I can’t take Nanooks.”
“It belongs to the residence.”
“But he’s imprinted on me now.”
“No,” she said. It wasn’t possible. Nanooks loved her, and no one else.
“Aunt Manda, we don’t have a choice. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know you love it–him.”
He gave her a rueful smile, looked like he wanted to say more, then changed his mind.
The kettle saved her with its insistent burbling. She put two bags into ceramic cups, filled them with hot water. She took her time carrying the cups, the short walk to the coffee table. She settled into her easy chair with Nanooks on her lap, her tea at her side. Perfect, she thought, except that it would all be gone soon.
It wasn’t much of an apartment, really. It was identical to all the others in the residence, with its kitchenette off the small living room, a window that could look out onto the hibiscus hedge or show a Costa Rican beach, three fake plants with leaves that changed color to indicate the season outside.
And of course, Nanooka. He made it all worthwhile.
She hadn’t expected that. The little creature had greeted her the first day with his tail wagging and little pink tongue hanging out of his mouth.
“A dog?” she had said, incredulous.
“Well, almost,” her floor helper had answered. “The residents often enjoy them, but of course if you don’t want–”
She had already knelt down, slowly and painfully onto one knee, and held out her hand to Nanooka, who sniffed her fingers. “No,” she said. “This will work out just fine.”
Nanooka reminded her of Cooper, her first and only dog. Cooper had followed her home from the neighborhood park one weekend when she was eight years old, even jumping into the elevator with her, and she had kept Cooper a secret for exactly one night before her mother discovered him and took him away. Even after all these years, she still remembered Cooper’s trusting eyes.
Tony had liked dogs but had been terribly allergic, and Manda had loved Tony enough to marry him and forego pets. In the years since Tony died, she hadn’t thought about getting a dog. For one thing, she didn’t have the energy to take care of anyone except herself. But mostly, she hadn’t believed that her heart could ever bear loving another creature again.
She realized that Tyler had been speaking.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What did you say?”
“Tomorrow,” he said.
“Tomorrow?” She felt a moment of disorientation, as if she had been dropped into someone else’s conversation.
“Let me know if you need help packing. I can come back any time.”
She held Nanooka tightly to her chest and he gave a soft whimper. He always knew when she was frightened or agitated.
“That’s too soon,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Manda. They were insistent.” He paused, pursed his lips. “Have you thought about how you want, that is to say, whether you want–” He trailed off, a pained expression on his face.
“A funeral?” she said. “No, I haven’t thought about that. Why does it matter? I won’t be around for it.”
The truth was she had thought about death and religion a lot in the past few days. She used to believe in God the way she believed the sun would rise every day, something she didn’t question. But now that her Nanooka was going to be taken away, now that she would have nothing left, now that she knew the end of her life was much closer than the beginning, she had started to wonder about it all. It just didn’t add up. That benevolent god had taken Tony away from her. That loving god was going to let her die alone in a hospital.
A sudden fierce anger rose inside her. “I don’t believe in god anymore,” she said. “If he does exist, he’s a jerk.”
She was glad to hear her voice could still be strong, even when her joints and muscles betrayed her on a daily basis. Nanooka jumped out of her lap and barked, ran in a circle, then jumped back on her lap.
Tyler shook his head.
“What?” she said. “You think God will strike me down for saying that?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think it matters what you say or believe. You can hate God, or think God is taking care of you, or not believe in God at all. But in the end it doesn’t really matter.”
“So what matters?”
“What matters is that we should all take care of each other the best we can.” He smiled. “Even if someone has a Nanooka that keeps trying to bite your ankles.”
There was a little of Tony in him, she thought. Why hadn’t she ever seen that before? Her anger was gone, evaporated into thin air like the night’s condensation gone to the sun.
Manda woke later in the afternoon and knew something was wrong. Tony was gone, yes, that was wrong and had been wrong for a while. But this was different. Her tiny apartment was too still. After a moment, she figured it out.
“Nanooka!” she said.
At her voice, the overheads flooded the bedroom. She blinked in the sudden brightness. Everything was in its place: from her bedroom door she could see the kitchenette and half the living room. The residence staff had been in to vacuum the carpet, to put the kettle up into the cupboard.
She got herself vertical, ignoring the ache in her knees and hips, the throbbing of her shoulder. She searched the apartment. She put on her sweater, opened her back terrace door, and walked slowly through the garden.
“Nanooka!” Manda called. “Nanooks!”
The door to her adjoining apartment opened and Trish appeared in the doorway, tying her bathrobe. “Lost your dog?”
Manda shuffled over.
Trisha was ninety, going on forty. Her skin shone from the creams she applied religiously. Her hair was auburn, with hints of blonde, shoulder length. Her teeth were a perfect even white. “Age is an illusion,” she had said on more than one occasion. But her eyes gave her away, Manda thought. Too much experience.
“It’s not a dog,” Manda said, and found bitterness in her voice.
Trisha looked at Manda for a moment. “Did he run away?”
“No,” Manda said. “The residence took him back.”
“But why? He’s imprinted on you.”
“Because I have to go to the hospital.” She couldn’t help it; her voice broke.
“I’m so sorry.” Trisha reached out and took Manda’s hand between her own. Her skin felt cool, her bones small and delicate like a bird. Brittle, Manda thought. That’s what happened when you got old. Everything got fragile and then it disintegrated. Dust to dust.
She had to pull herself together.
“Are you religious?” Manda said, before she could stop herself. You’re too impulsive, Tony always used to say. You can’t just say everything that comes into your head. But now that she was old she could say whatever she wanted and no one batted an eye.
Trish smiled. “I believe religion is like underwear. You know everyone is wearing some, but you aren’t supposed to ask about it.”
And that’s what gave her age away, Manda thought. Trish was clever and diplomatic.
“Maybe they sent your dog back to the factory,” Trish said.
To be reprogrammed. She didn’t say it but Manda knew she was thinking it.
The moment she stepped from the residence gates, the air assaulted her face, her hands, and even that was not enough: the cold immediately began its slow creep down the back of her coat.
She had forgotten about the winds off the lake, the air like ice in her lungs. She pulled her purse in tight, wrapped her arms around her torso. She wished she had taken Tyler up on his offer to buy her an EnviroCoat.
A tiger leapt for her, giant paws outstretched, claws long and sharp.
She pulled back, her breath caught in her throat. But the cat swept clean through her and bounded on down the street.
“Sorry!” A young woman jogged by, waved with her holo control.
“How rude!” Manda said. But the woman was already lost in the throng of pedestrians. She could see flashes of orange and black as the tiger leapt along the sidewalk, right through everyone and everything. No one paid it any attention. A few others had holo pets: a monkey here, a parrot there, a few dogs. When people passed close to each other their EnviroCoat fields glittered where they intersected, looked almost like those old-fashioned snow globes that she had as a girl.
Except that everyone moved so fast, pushing past each other and in and out of shop fronts that spilled light and sound, flashing images too fast for her to make sense of, songs that sounded like nothing more than noise. Only a few others had regular coats like hers, collars turned up, heads down against the razor air.
An electric train blurred to a stop in the center of the street, disgorged people into the middlewalk. Cars and buses spilled around it, like water finding its way past a rock in the river. No wonder no one from the residence ever went outside, she thought.
She realized she was pressed against the residence gates. She steadied herself, pushed into the moving crowd, and was immediately jostled side to side. One man stumbled around her, gave her a dirty look.
She tried to focus on her mission. One step after another, one breath after another, and finally she was at the first shop. She stepped inside and rubbed her hands together, felt the tingling in her cheeks from the warm air.
“Are you lost?” a voice said.
She focused on a young man. He looked to be of Indian descent. How could he possibly hear with those buds in his ears?
“Where would you take a Nanooka to be reprogrammed?” she said.
“A Nanooka? I don’t know. But there’s a Mega just three blocks down. They sell Nanookas and they might know.”
Three long blocks, with traffic lights that were too fast for an old woman.
“Want a ride?” he said.
“Are you planning on robbing me?” she said.
He frowned and pulled the buds from his ear. “Of course not.”
“Because I don’t have any money. And everything I own is managed by someone else.”
“I just happen to be heading that way, is all.”
He didn’t look quite as young anymore. He had an earnest frown, like he was genuinely puzzled that she might think ill of him.
She agreed to the ride.
He had her wait outside the store while he went to retrieve his electric. He helped her in, got her safety belt adjusted, and then they drove for two minutes in a blur and whiz of cars before he pulled into a bus loading zone.
“It’s right there,” he said, pointing to a store entrance that looked for all the world like a giant mouth, lights like teeth around the edges.
“Can I ask you something?” She didn’t wait for him to say yes. “Do you believe in god?”
“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t need a sermon.” He glanced in the rear-view mirror. A bus was approaching.
“I’m just curious,” she said. Because I’m going to die soon, she didn’t say.
“I believe in lots of gods,” he said. “I’m Hindu.”
“Really? I don’t mean to be rude, but you don’t sound very convincing.”
“Well, the way I see it, why not believe in God? I mean, it’s a good story, right? I can believe or not believe, and believing gives my life meaning, so I might as well believe.”
The bus honked, loud and strident.
“Can I help you get out?” he said.
“But you can’t just make yourself believe in something,” she said.
He was cute when he was anxious, she thought, all those lines creasing his face like a wrinkled napkin.
“Please, Ma’am, I’d like to stay and talk but—”
The bus honked again.
She opened the door and turned as she stood up slowly, making eye contact with the bus driver the entire time. The bus driver was a young woman who stared back, then threw up her hands and opened the bus door, letting her passengers out in the street instead of at the curb.
She could tell the young man was relieved to be on his way.
You shouldn’t have pestered him, Tony would have said.
Tony, a part of her life for so many years, and then suddenly gone. Now that was something she still couldn’t quite believe.
The store was overheated, the windows fogged with condensation, and her coat was starting to smell like a wet dog.
A saleswoman approached. “Can I help you find something?” She was middle-aged, with a glossy phone implant that matched her earrings. She stared above Manda’s head and waited, stifling a yawn.
“I heard you sell Nanookas–”
“Right this way.”
Manda caught up with the woman near a shelf of batteries that didn’t look at all the batteries of her youth, with their fancy green casings and nubs for bio-connects.
“The truth is that I’ve lost my Nanooka,” she said to the saleswoman before she could march off again. “I mean, someone stole him. And I want him back. Where would they take him if they were going to reprogram him?”
“Well.” The woman stroked her phone implant. “Probably back to the factory. They can reprogram the unit there, or you can get a trade-in, or sometimes cash.”
“You know, the one out on Nanoway. It’s attached to the warehouse shopper.”
“Are you religious?” Manda said.
The woman lowered her gaze, finally made eye-contact. “No, actually. Why?”
“You have to admit it’s tempting. You know, that someone all powerful is watching out for us. That we have souls that live on.”
“Yes. I’d agree that it’s tempting to believe. But I don’t.”
“I don’t know exactly. Maybe because it sounds too easy.”
“Like your job,” she said.
The woman smiled, and Manda saw that she was in fact a beautiful woman. She wondered if she enjoyed her life, despite the boredom of being a salesperson at a Mega.
“Sorry to pester you,” she said.
“No problem. Really. You’re the most interesting thing that’s happened all day.”
“How can I get to Nanoway?” she said.
“You have a car?”
“Then you’ll have to take the train. Or the bus.”
She opted for the bus, because it was slower.
She watched the trees pass by in regular intervals, wondering at how they managed through all the human contraptions of concrete and metal. There was apparently dirt down there somewhere.
The bus trundled down the main road and onto a smaller road and suddenly the traffic lightened like a switch thrown. There were houses that looked like houses, packed up against each other still, but with a pleasant absence of flashing lights and dancing holos.
Someone sat heavily in the seat next to her.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
He was wiry, with long tangled throw-back hair and pale orange robes.
“Krishna?” she asked.
“Gnostic,” he said, his face beaming. “One people, one god. We’re all the same and god lives in each and every one of us. You just have to feel the love.”
“It is a good story,” she said.
His face changed abruptly. “It’s not a story.”
“I meant that it’s a nice way—”
“It’s the truth!”
“All right, then.”
“You don’t understand!”
She pressed herself against the window to avoid his hand which was clenching into a fist in the air in front of her.
She touched her cheekbone. “I’m calling the police now.”
He glared at her, then stood up and moved away, muttering to himself. “Truth,” she heard. “Beauty.”
She waited until he was hunched into a seat at the back, then moved to sit right behind the bus driver for the rest of the ride.
The bus dropped her in a snow-dusted valley between twin mountains of parking structures and warehouses. The snow was coming down as sparse fluff, lightly coating car roofs and the EnviroCoats of people funneling in to the main warehouse entrance. Her breath spilled white into the air in front of her up until she crossed the entrance field.
She wandered up aisles of gigantic boxes of crackers and cookies, containers of peanut butter that would take her a year to get through, flats of every imaginable soda. She came to a long shelf of dolls and Nanookas, perfectly clean and groomed within their plastic boxes, eyes open but unseeing. The boxes were covered in complex instructions in small writing that she could barely read. But none of these were her Nanooka. Her little companion who knew her and barked at Tyler and nuzzled her cheek whenever she thought about Tony.
She approached an older gentleman in an orange vest who was placing boxes onto the shelves.
“How do I get to the factory?” she said. She looked at his nametag. “Henry.”
“It’s that way,” he said, gesturing toward the back of the store. “But you aren’t allowed in there.”
“What about the recycle center? For Nanookas and other pets?”
“Is yours broken?”
“No. He was stolen.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. You’re better off going to animal control. They can locate by chip number–”
“Never mind.” She turned away.
“Hey,” he said. “I’ll take you to the recycle center.”
He hobbled past her, favoring one leg. Just like Tony, she thought, in those later years with his bum knee. But that had never stopped him. He had hobbled off of buses to see the Grand Canyon with her, hobbled onto airplanes and down trails. Hobbled around the apartment while fiddling with his collection of electric motors.
Electric is the future, he used to say. It’ll save the world. Tony had believed in humanity. He looked at the arc of civilization and saw an upward trend. He believed people would ultimately not destroy their world and that maybe someday they would even reach the stars. His tireless optimism had buoyed him up in life and floated him through every hardship, every setback. Whatever had he seen in her, with her tireless cynicism and deep suspicion of people?
“Don’t cry, M’lady. I’ll give you a ride in my chariot.”
Henry was back, driving an electric go-car with a stack of cardboard boxes on the back.
She wiped her eyes and climbed into the go-car, sitting on one of the boxes.
“This is probably not allowed,” she said.
“Damn right,” he said. “What’s your name, my accomplice in crime?”
“Okay, Manda. Pedal to the metal.”
The go-car whirred past shelves at only a rate slightly faster than she would have been able to walk.
“Hang on!” Henry said.
They sped around a corner, but were overtaken by a toddler and had to screech to a stop. A woman swept by, scooping up the toddler up with practiced ease.
“Kids these days,” Henry muttered. She wasn’t sure if he was talking about the toddler or the woman.
They continued on, moving past throngs of people pushing gigantic carts loaded with supplies as if they were preparing for an alien invasion. She tried to imagine stocking up for an alien invasion, deciding what items she might want. Tea, definitely. Maybe some wine, in case she needed to barter. She tried to imagine sitting at home with her Nanooks, listening to the news of the aliens breaching the outskirts of the city, then marching down to the city center, taking control of Megastores and electric trains, finally the Active Life Residences. It might be a welcome relief, she thought, to throw in the towel, say goodbye to it all.
“What was that?” Henry said.
“How far to the recycle center?”
“Two parsecs,” he said.
She wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded official. “Are you going to get in trouble?” she said.
“Probably not,” he said. “The managers mostly leave me be because I’m old. I just pretend to be confused if I do something wrong.”
They swung toward a sliding door that opened when the go-car approached. Inside were more stacks of boxes, all the way to the high ceiling.
“Wow,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “Like a cathedral. The religion of food.”
She laughed, in spite of herself, in spite of having lost her Nanooka and being in a strange place with a stranger on a journey she hadn’t anticipated.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people today,” she said. “I pestered all of them.”
They passed bins of apples, more than she would eat in a year. The air was getting colder.
She was speaking before she knew she would. “Everyone had a different take on God, on religion. I met a Hindu, an atheist, and a crazy Gnostic.”
“Were you pestering them or were they pestering you?” Henry said.
The warehouse doors ended in a wide loading dock and three electric conveyer belts.
“Religion is too pat,” she said. “Obviously made up by people who want meaning in their lives.”
“It’s still a mystery,” he said. “Life is a mysterious gift. Sudden and brief.”
They sped down a ramp and into the bright winter air.
Light reflected down from thick white clouds. Further ahead another giant door was open to the elements, trucks lined up on either side. The snow was falling thicker now, the flakes forming a private tunnel just for them.
You can believe whatever you want, she thought. Maybe that was part of the gift–making your own meaning. The snowflakes stuck to her coat, her boots. It didn’t feel as cold as it had before.
Henry raised a hand in greeting to two men in factory orange who stood in the doorway. They raised coffee cups in reply, gave Manda puzzled looks as the car whirred past.
“You should have been a spy,” Manda said.
“How do you know I wasn’t?”
They passed lines of large bins. Machinery pulled pieces from the bins, sorted them into smaller bins. After a moment she recognized the pieces: Legs and fur coats and heads. Synthetic eyes with wiring still attached.
Further in were the intact Nanookas, lines and lines of them on tables that went on forever. Curly fur coats covered small torsos and legs. Suspended robotic arms fed chips into waiting heads of circuitry.
That was all it was, she thought. Plastics and metals.
But no, that wasn’t all. What were people besides dense bags of protein and water, phosphates and carbon, bones and minerals and salts? And rising out of that gelatin of chemicals was love. Love, tangible and profound. Love had been an anchor in her life, a thing more real than the air she breathed. She had loved Tony more than anything else, and he had loved her, and that had been bigger than either of them. Love had given her life meaning. So why couldn’t there be love from a mechanical thing, a constructed thing, a metal and synthetic fur thing that whimpered and barked and knew when she was sad?
“Manda?” Henry said.
She had somehow slipped from the go-car and was lying on the floor, looking up into the rafters of robotic arms. She could just see the pink Nanooka noses over the lip of the closest table.
Henry’s face was longer now, his features changing into someone familiar.
“Tony,” she said. “Is that really you?”
He took her hand. “I’ve called the medics,” he said.
“Don’t be sad,” she said. “I’m okay. I really am.”
At the sound of her voice, one of the Nanookas jumped from the table and ran to her, wagging his tail, his nose wet on her face.
“Look, Tony,” she said. “I’ve found our Nanooka.”
She tried to raise an arm to pet him, but her limbs wouldn’t obey her. Nanooka put his head against hers and breathed in her ear. This was love, she thought. She really believed it.
And it was true.
Corie Ralston has been a fan and writer of science fiction since the fifth grade, when she wrote her first story about a giant, time-travelling humanoid potato. She is glad to say that her writing has improved considerably since then, and she is very proud to be a contributor to Abyss & Apex. She has been published in several other venues, including Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and a writing contest sponsored by a synchrotron, which might seem a little obscure until you know that she also works at a synchrotron. That particular story starred a giant, space-faring humanoid slug, so maybe she hasn’t changed so much through the years after all. You can find out more about her at: http://www.sff.net/people/cyralston/.