Sammy read the card at the top of the package she’d just hesitantly opened.
Happy Birthday! The perfect helper for the one who helps everyone else.
There was no signature on the card, but the package bore the name of the only one of her friends who was bold enough to send her a personal package at work. He probably would have left his name off the package too, if he didn’t know that Sammy would have considered it suspicious and sent it back to her shipping and receiving department.
At least it wasn’t something huge that she had to go pick up at the loading dock. She’d found it on her desk when she came in. It was about the size that a package would be if there was a single coffee mug inside. A six-inch cube. She reached for the bunched up green paper under the card.
“What is it?”
Sammy looked up to find Bob peeking over her cubicle. She sighed internally.
“I don’t know. I haven’t opened it yet,” she said.
He nodded, still peering at the package.
“Go back to your desk, Bob,” a voice behind him said. “I’m not trying to get sick.” Sammy’s actual cubicle neighbor had returned with her usual breakfast of coffee and half a buttered bagel.
Bob shuffled off, and Sammy uncovered the gift. She saw the top of something’s head. She slipped her fingers around the edge of the thing, lifted it out, and set it on her desk.
The figurine was about the size of a coffee mug. Her face—Sammy just thought of the figurine as female even though there was no obvious indication of gender—had wide-set features. She reminded Sammy of a baby salamander. She was looking up, not quite smiling, but with twinkling black eyes and an upturned mouth, a pleasant resting expression. Her arms were casually crossed, and her weight was on her left leg, while her right leg was extended out, right heel to the ground and toes to the sky. Her complexion was tinged a lavender purple. She wore garden-green trousers under a long-sleeved dark blue tunic, and a hat that matched her outfit, green with blue trim. Tufts of dark purple hair peeked out from under the back of her hat. And a canvas satchel was slung over one shoulder.
Sammy glanced around her cubicle, which was bare of pictures and knickknacks for the most part. Currently the only item on display was the birthday card from her office mates and a neon pink stress ball whose origin she couldn’t recall. Most of the stuff on her desk, including the clutter, was work-related.
She wasn’t a knickknacks type of person, and her friend knew that. She figured there had to be some other gimmick to the gift. Maybe there was a button she could press that would trigger foul noises from a speaker hidden inside.
Sure enough, Sammy found an insert inside the box with further information and guidance.
“Congratulations on the purchase of your new helper,” Sammy read under her breath.
The insert went straight into instructions for how to activate the “helper.” She only needed to be activated once and she would immediately start learning Sammy’s preferences and customizing her responses to Sammy. That sounded more like a smart speaker to Sammy. She frowned, thinking she liked the gift better when it was just a harmless knickknack.
“Cute,” someone said. Sammy glanced up. Her actual cubicle neighbor, Reena, was now peeking over. “Is this the first of many?”
Sammy explained about the gift.
“Turn it on,” Reena said. “See what happens. Better here than at your place. If things get weird, you can always turn it off.”
“Can I?” Sammy held up the insert. “This says it can’t be turned off once it’s activated.”
“Let me see that.”
Sammy handed off the instructions, and reached for the figurine. Feeling reckless, she turned it on.
The figurine suddenly collapsed, then sprung up, wheeled her arms around, stretched them out, then up, then bopped up and down by bending at the knees.
She gazed up at Sammy. “Hello there!” she said. “Are you the one who needs help?”
Sammy said nothing. The figurine’s movements were smooth and graceful and quiet. She made no jerking motions, emitted no mechanical sounds of motors or gears. She blinked, and she breathed. She moved as if she were a living creature.
This was more than just a smart speaker. Sammy wondered how much her friend paid for the device. The helper seemed very sophisticated. She must have been very expensive.
“May I know your name?” the helper asked.
Sammy recovered herself enough to glance up at Reena, who was also gaping at the helper.
Sammy introduced herself and Reena. The helper turned around and waved at Sammy’s cubicle neighbor. Reena responded with more gaping.
“Sammy, may I have a name?” the helper asked. “You’ll need to call me something when you’re calling me for help. I’d prefer something other than ‘helper.’”
“Help?” Sammy said.
“Oh, of course. What do you need help with?” And somehow, the helper produced a tiny little book and pen and held the pen perched above the notebook as if ready to take Sammy’s dictation.
“Uh…nothing at the moment.”
“It says here,” Reena said, having recovered herself and returned to the instructions, “that she can help remind you of things—so planner functions—and she can do physical things, like chores that are within the boundaries of her strength. They give some examples.” Reena chuckled. “Drawing you a bath? That sounds good. Answering the phone, making travel arrangements, booking reservations—so assistant-type stuff. Oh, she can do some light cooking. Again, it depends on the weight of the dish, so no twenty-pound birds during the holidays.” Reena’s eyes widened. “She can pet-sit?” She shook her head.
The helper bowed to Sammy. “I can also juggle, tumble, whistle, and tell a few punny jokes.” She held her hand beside her mouth, as if whispering a secret. “Sometimes they’re even funny jokes.”
Sammy’s gape turned into a grin.
“Are you an artificial intelligence?” Reena asked.
The helper raised a brow. “No, my intelligence is quite real.”
Sammy laughed. “I like you.”
“Thank you. I like you too.”
“Roxie,” Sammy said, nodding. “Yeah, you look like a Roxie to me.”
The helper—Roxie—grinned. Her wide mouth opened to show tiny but perfectly symmetrical teeth. “Thank you! I like that name.”
Reena handed the instructions back to Sammy. “Good luck with that one,” she said. “And if she can really do all the stuff it says she can do, report back to me.”
Sammy gave her cubicle neighbor a light salute and sat down.
“So, no offense, Roxie, but I understand you have no ‘off’ button.”
Roxie founded a pile of manila folders to sit on and answered. “No, I’m like you. I’ll keep going, and then at some point, I’ll wind down, and then someday, I’ll just stop.”
“Wind down? Can you be wound up again? Or, can your power source be replaced?”
Sammy sighed. “No, and are you always going to be this sassy?”
Roxie’s brow formed little furrows as she thought about Sammy’s question. “Was I being sassy?”
“Seemed that way, but maybe you were just being curious.”
“Is that bad? Is it unhelpful?”
“Not at all.” Sammy smiled. “I’m curious about you too.”
“What do you want to know?”
“You said you would just ‘stop’ someday. I don’t know when I’m going to…‘stop.’ Do you?”
Roxie shook her head. “I don’t.”
Sammy leaned back in her chair. “Wow.”
Roxie glanced around at Sammy’s cubicle. “Would it be sassy if I asked if I could help you organize your desk? Or would that be helpful?”
Sammy crossed her arms and leaned further back. “Both.”
And off they went. Roxie, despite her size, was fairly strong. She could easily lift five pounds, ten with a bit of struggle, and maybe up to fifteen if she didn’t have to go far. If anyone came by Sammy’s cubicle, Roxie would take up her resting pose of crossed arms and kicked-out foot. Sammy hadn’t said anything to her. She had just learned from the way Sammy and Reena first reacted to her that the sight of her would lead to rumors that would draw people to Sammy’s cubicle. And that would be unhelpful.
Roxie answered the phone perfectly, without having to be taught what to say. She stated that it was Sammy’s phone, but Sammy was away and could she take a message, and how urgent was the request, and was there an action item, and so on. At one point, Sammy, who in the middle of typing up a report, slowly glanced over after Roxie hung up.
“You’re better at that than I am,” Sammy said. “I think I just learned a thing or two.”
Roxie grinned. “Happy to be helpful, boss.”
After work, Sammy stopped by the grocery store to pick up some essentials. She had dictated them to Roxie as she remembered things she needed during the work day. Roxie rode in the hood of Sammy’s coat, whispering reminders.
At home, Roxie helped Sammy fix dinner, doing the hard part, the preparation stage. And Sammy found herself marveling at how natural it felt already to have Roxie around, and wondering if she should be concerned about that.
“Good night, Roxie,” Sammy said, just before turning in for the night. “Don’t watch me sleep or do anything else evil while I’m unconscious.” She only half meant it as a joke.
“Will do…or won’t do,” Roxie said. “I need some rest too. My power source cycles daily, a little like yours.”
Sammy had set up a small makeshift bed in the living room, using a shoebox, a travel pillow, and one of her woolly scarves.
She watched Roxie settle into her makeshift bed.
She had learned that Roxie needed to eat, though only every few days, and that she could eat the same food as Sammy, but that she did not create waste materials. Her body was constructed to use everything she consumed. If she couldn’t use it, it would taste foul to her, and she just wouldn’t consume it.
And now, she learned that Roxie needed to sleep as well.
“Sweet dreams,” Sammy said, and she wondered if Roxie could dream.
If she could, she probably dreamed of helping out.
Sammy smiled and turned off the lights.
The next morning was great. It was great after Sammy stopped being terrified thinking there was an intruder or poltergeist in the house, after being woken by loud banging on her bedroom door.
Roxie’s wake-up call.
While Sammy got ready, Roxie prepared her breakfast and packed her lunch, including healthy snacks. Roxie said she’d already washed up, and was wearing a second outfit, which had come from her little canvas satchel.
Because the little helper had gotten her out of bed so early, Sammy had time to eat at home, instead of munching on a breakfast bar at her desk while she checked emails first thing in the morning.
And while she ate breakfast, Roxie curled her hair.
“Is this why you got me up so early?” Sammy asked, trying to hold still while munching on an English muffin.
“You said you wanted to do this, but didn’t have time.”
If Sammy had tried it, it would have taken her half an hour. But somehow, Roxie was finished in the ten or so minutes it took for Sammy to finish breakfast.
A quick look in the mirror revealed soft, even glamorous, waves that bounced and brushed against Sammy’s shoulders when she turned her head.
Roxie laughed. “Come on, boss. Don’t be late.”
She got Sammy out of the apartment fifteen minutes earlier than usual, which meant that Sammy arrived at the same time Reena did. And she received the first of many compliments on her hair.
That day was much busier than the previous one, and Sammy had a few meetings she had to go to that she obviously couldn’t bring Roxie to.
But whenever she returned to her desk, Roxie had something ready for her. A stack of detailed messages about phone calls, a new suggestion for not losing her pens, and one time, even a motivational quote written on a sticky note.
By the end of the day, Sammy was tired. But more than tired, she was drained. She started feeling a familiar sensitivity in her skin. Whenever her shirt rubbed against the skin of her arms when she was typing, it bothered her. It didn’t quite hurt, it just felt sore and tender.
By the time she had to clock out, Sammy knew.
“We’ll need to go on another quick errand on our way home today, Rox,” she told her little helper. “I’m pretty sure I’m getting sick.”
Sammy picked up some cold and flu medicine, the kind where half the box was for nighttime and half was for daytime. By the time they got home, she had no appetite for dinner. Roxie made her some tea, and fetched a blanket. Sammy took the nighttime stuff and went to bed. She woke up several times during the night. A few times she went to the bathroom. One time she noticed the toilet paper was almost out, but she was too dazed to remember to refill it before she returned to bed. But in the morning, when she went again, the toilet paper was refilled, and through her feverish delirium, Sammy silently thanked her little helper.
“I’m going to call in sick,” Sammy said that morning.
She was feverish and achy all day. She propped herself up on her couch and tried to watch a movie, having picked something she thought would be fun and frivolous, but she found herself just wanting to lie down. But she couldn’t sleep. So she lay down on the couch and pulled the movie up on her laptop so she could lay it on her chest and watch.
She didn’t eat the chicken noodle soup that Roxie made. She only sipped water. Anything else made the salivary glands behind her ears seize up.
“Sorry, Rox,” she said when her little helper sat beside the laptop, peering at her with concern. “I’m no fun today. I hope I don’t get you sick.”
“I’m not biological, so you can’t.”
“Is there anything else I can do to help?”
“No, I just need to rest.”
“Are you sure? Should I dim the lights?”
“No, the lights are good.”
“Are you feeling hungry yet?”
Sammy shook her head, her eyelids drooping. She coughed, frowned as shivers ran along her skin, and then closed her eyes.
“Should I moved your laptop off your chest, so you can sleep?”
Sammy’s eyes opened. She gave a weak smile. “I’m good.”
“All right, I will be sewing more clothes for myself using the materials you kindly allowed me buy.”
“Not kindness. It’s part of your salary.” Sammy smiled again, but Roxie didn’t return the smile, either out of concern for Sammy or because she couldn’t tell that Sammy was teasing her.
Both, Sammy thought.
The little helper started walking to the edge of the coffee table and Sammy let her eyelids slip down again. She heard a thud as Roxie landed on the ground.
“Maybe I can make you a cold compress for your forehead,” Roxie said.
Sammy opened her eyes again. She turned her head, wincing at the sensation of her robe brushing against the neck of her skin. She looked down at Roxie, who was looking up at her.
“Rox, I think I need you to stop helping me.”
Roxie blinked her tiny eyes. “But I can’t help but to help.”
Sammy pinched her brow. “What does that mean? That you’re programmed to help no matter what? Can you…change that so that sometimes you can take a break?”
“But I want to help. I enjoy helping.”
“Sometimes the best way to help is to not do anything.”
“But…helping requires action.”
“Are you sure?”
Sammy exhaled heavily. “I’m pretty sure. I’m definitely sure that applies to me.”
Roxie’s brows made those little furrows again as she looked to the side. She gave a single nod and walked toward the kitchen.
“Let me know if you need anything,” the little helper called back.
Sammy let her eyelids slip down once more. “Will do.”
“I don’t know why I’m still sick,” Sammy said. She was working from home, and had called in to do her daily briefing with Reena, which as usual, included some personal chatting.
She’d been home sick for over a week now, and for half of those days, she’d been too feverish, too weak, too unfocused to do any work even from home.
“Last year I forgot to get the vaccine and didn’t get sick,” Sammy said. “This year I was on top it. And yet… You know, I used to relapse like this when I was in college and didn’t take care of myself. But this feels different from that. I’ll feel like I’m getting better and then very next day I’ll wake up and it’s like I’ve relapsed back to the worst day.”
After Reena assured her that she had things covered at work, and that Sammy should take her time to get better, Sammy apologized and told her she’d do her best to rest and take medicine. It had became an almost daily ritual.
Roxie was waiting with a cup of broth when Sammy finished with her phone call.
“It’s a good thing I can work from home,” Sammy said, “or my boss would need me to get a doctor’s note at this point. I don’t want to go back though. I don’t want to get anyone else sick.”
“Is there anything else I can do to help?” Roxie asked.
“No, you’ve been trapped in this apartment with me. You may not be able to get sick, but you’re probably covered in virus. Sorry, I know that’s gross. If you wanted to leave, you could. You’d just need to go through some kind of decontamination process.”
“Then, I should stay with you.”
“You’re not a prisoner, Roxie, but if you do leave definitely wash up.”
“I’ll clean all the surfaces and do laundry. I’ll stay with you and take care of you. Should I make a doctor’s appointment for you?”
Sammy sighed. “That’s probably a good idea. But let me make it. I sound horrible. Maybe that will convince the nurse to get me in sooner.”
Sammy called and was able to get an appointment for the very next day. She hoped a good night’s rest would help and that she would have one of her better days. After taking three hours just to draft three sentences an email response, Sammy decided she wasn’t going to get any work done that day. She tried to stroll through her place to get some exercise, and slowly work on some light household tasks. All the while, she noticed Roxie working furiously on her laptop. She seemed to be doing more than just looking up different broth recipes.
Sammy did not wake up feeling any better. She had slept all right, only waking a few times throughout the night. But the toll of suffering aches and fevers and eating little more than one bowl of soup for days had drained her.
Her doctor’s appointment was for late morning. After brushing her teeth, Sammy was exhausted. She couldn’t make herself get into the shower. She went over the couch and lay on it. That’s when she noticed that the shoebox bed appeared to be undisturbed, as if Roxie hadn’t slept in it.
Sammy sat up and swung her legs around so she was sitting forward. She glanced over to the kitchen counter and found her laptop open.
She heard a thud and then the familiar tapping of Roxie’s shoes on the tile. Roxie entered the living area and scrambled up the coffee table.
“Sammy, I know what’s happened,” she said. Her face looked drawn in. “It’s all my fault. I’ve been…evil. But I didn’t mean it. But I couldn’t help it. But it’s my fault.”
Sammy weakly held up a hand. “Slow down. Explain.”
“I’m a helper. It’s in my nature to help. I can’t not help. And usually, it’s just my owner—“
“’Boss,’ I prefer ‘boss.’ I don’t own you.”
“It’s just my boss whom I help. But if someone is in close enough proximity, my instinct kicks in, and I just help. And there was something, many things, in close proximity to me when we first met.” She was breathing hard, her shoulders pumping up and down.
“They’re so small, so much smaller even than me, that I didn’t detect them at all. It’s only because I’ve been trying to figure out how to help you, and how you must have gotten sick, that I was able to trace the problem to me.” She sighed a heavy sigh, a hundred-pound sigh. “The virus you have. I was carrying it. I gave it to you without knowing, and because I am a helper, I…I helped it to infect you.”
Sammy shook her head and waved her hand. Inside, she felt relief. She was drained, but not too drained to have felt a twinge of panic when Roxie said she’d been evil. “That’s not how infection works. I mean it is, but it isn’t you fault that there was virus on you.” She frowned. “Gross, that means someone in the office touched you before I did. Someone who was sick.” She closed her eyes and felt a slight wave of dizziness. “Bob. Curse you, Bob.” She opened her eyes. “So, do you remember? Who it was? Was it Bob?”
Roxie’s face dropped. She hung her head and then shook it. “I wasn’t activated yet.”
“Rox, it’s okay. It’s still not your fault.”
Roxie looked up at Sammy. “No, that part may not be. But the rest of it is my fault. You would have fought it off and gotten better. But you keep getting sick again and again, because I’m helping the virus change…adapt…so when your body gets used to one version, it changes and infects with a different version.”
Sammy widened her eyes. Another wave of dizziness passed over her. She pressed her hands on the sofa cushions and steadied herself. “Wait, that sounds like…you’re talking about strains. I think that’s right. Like, that’s why vaccines don’t work well sometimes. The strains are different.”
Roxie nodded. “Yes, I am helping the virus become more infectious.”
Sammy put a hand for her forehead. Her skin felt hot. “Then, I can’t go to the doctor. If I’m carrying some kind of…super-strain.” Her eyes widened. “This isn’t going to kill me, is it?”
Roxie shook her head. “No, I wouldn’t let it go that far. I’m supposed to help you live your life, emphasis on live.”
Sammy huffed out a breath. Her mind felt foggy. “Okay, so…what do we do? Options. Plans.”
Roxie hung her head. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and I’ll end soon.”
Sammy frowned. “End what?” She thought she knew what Roxie meant, but she couldn’t find that knowledge through the fog. She searched and she found it. She glanced over at her little helper.
“I don’t want you to end.”
Roxie sighed, a full sigh, shoulders rising and falling. “Maybe I can help you by doing nothing.”
Sammy wagged a finger at her. “Yeah, yeah that’s a better plan. Do nothing. Stay away from me. The wardrobe. I can clear it out and you can hang out in there with my laptop. Watch stuff, read, eat, contemplate. Whatever you want. I’ll move the wardrobe next to the window. You can open it and hop out, take walks.”
“That will help you. But I won’t be helping them. The virus. Doing nothing won’t help them.”
Sammy frowned. “That’s fine. They’re not your boss. Why are you obligated to help them?” Sammy pressed her eyes together, trying to sharpen her thoughts by blocking out one of her senses. What Roxie just said made no sense to her. But it made sense to Roxie. Because she was a helper. Helping was the core part of Roxie’s identity. Sammy had to try to think like Roxie.
“What would happen if you chose not to help them?” Sammy asked. “Would you…would it become a mental burden that you’re not able to handle? Did your makers not think about this possible conflict?”
“In the event of a conflict, I must choose, according to what I’ve learned.”
Sammy opened her eyes. “Choose?”
“By helping the virus, I am hurting you. I am hurting humanity. But by helping you, I am hurting the virus. Because it will die out.” Roxie blinked. “Who is more important?”
“Whoa, good question.”
“I can make a decision if I can determine who is more important.”
Sammy leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “Well of course I want to say us, humanity. But to be fair, viruses can’t answer any of your questions. At least, I don’t think so.”
“Does that mean they are less important?”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of this before. They’re not less important.” Sammy sighed as a wave of exhaustion overcame her. “You know, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job at this conversation considering I’m half-delirious.”
“Are they your enemies?”
“They can hurt us, some of them. Some of them pretty badly, really horribly. But they’re just trying to live. Or to exist actually. I can’t remember if viruses are alive or not.”
“They are not alive?” Roxie’s face began to widen, her mouth began to turn upwards. “If they are not alive, then I can chose humanity.”
Sammy sighed again. The muscles in her back ached. She tried to straighten her back to relieve them, but she didn’t have the energy. And she went back to slouching. “Roxie, I know you need help deciding. But I’m in no condition to help you.”
Sammy coughed and winced as the coughing triggered a cramp in her back. She inhaled sharply. “I need your help. Please help me, Rox. If you know how to help me get better, please help me.” She shook her head. “That’s all I can say right now.”
Roxie gazed at her.
And Sammy leaned to the side and pulled her legs back up, and she lay down.
A few days later, Sammy woke feeling tired, sore, and…ravenous.
She ate all of the steaming omelet that she’d made for herself while Roxie continued to keep her distance. The little helper said she would stay away until she was certain the virus she carried was completely gone.
That morning, after breakfast, and after Sammy emerged from her room, showered and fresh, and fully dressed, Roxie too emerged from the wardrobe in the far corner of the living room.
She saw that Sammy was dressed. “Are we returning to work today?”
Roxie herself was dressed in her original clothes. Green and blue.
Sammy inhaled through her nose, both nostrils. “No, I’ve taken one more day off. But I do think we should get out of the house. Get some fresh air.” Sammy put her hands in the pockets of her coat. The pockets were large enough to fit Roxie. “Sound good?”
“And just checking, but…the virus is completely gone?”
Roxie nodded again.
“How can you be sure?”
“I learned how to detect them, when I was looking into how to help you.” She looked pensive.
“Are you sad that they’re gone?” Sammy asked.
“Not sad. But I feel bothered. I know helping you was right. I’m not bothered by that. I’m bothered that I didn’t find a way to help them too.”
“You were born to help, Roxie. But that doesn’t have to be the only thing you do.”
Roxie tilted her head to the right. “It doesn’t?”
“I don’t know. But I would like to help you to find out, if you want.” Sammy lifted her keys from the hook near the front door.
Roxie climbed up the accent table under the keys hook, so she would be at the right height to jump into Sammy’s pocket. “Perhaps my journey to finding out begins with my accepting help, instead of always providing help.”
“And taking me on this journey will make you feel good about yourself, which helps you.” She smiled with one corner of her mouth.
Sammy shook her head. “If I had a crumpled piece of paper or some popcorn, I would be tossing it at you right now.”
“Oh, should I make some popcorn?” Roxie made as if to jump off the table.
Sammy held open her pocket, and her little helper hopped in.
“So, you said you can juggle, right?” Sammy asked. “There’s a toy store a few blocks away. I think they sell marbles.”
“Why do you need marbles? Have you lost all of yours?”
Sammy sighed as she opened her front door. “This is going to be a long day, isn’t it?”
“I hope so,” Roxie said.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel