I watched Genie with great admiration and love as she whipped up our pancake breakfast. She had a perfectly symmetrical face, a sturdy jawline, kind eyes, and a perpetual soft smile. Her lustrous brown hair was always tucked neatly into an impeccable bun.
Genie was part of our family for as long as I remember. When I was a baby she was the only one who could get me to stop fussing. My parents said she had the magic touch. She always had a way of soothing me when I’d get hurt, whether it was a scraped knee, a stomach ache, or a heavy heart.
“Can you make heart shapes today?” I said, picking at the sliced banana and blueberries on my plate. Genie made me eat fruit or I wouldn’t get my pancakes. It was our deal.
“Of course, my little Olive,” she said.
It made my heart swell when Genie called me that. The nickname stuck even after I turned four and learned my name was actually Olivia.
“Your appointment was rescheduled for one, Ella,” Genie said. She handed mom her coffee, prepared just the way she liked it.
“Thanks, Genie,” mom said, quickly taking a sip as she scrolled through emails projected by her watch onto the surface of the table.
Dad ambled in with his tie loose around his neck. He stood next to Genie and waited as she poured batter on the griddle. She turned to him and tied his necktie in a perfect Windsor knot.
My brother Caleb coasted in on his hoverboard.
“What did I tell you about riding that in the house?” Mom said.
Genie playfully ruffled Caleb’s hair as he tried to steal a pancake. She was the only one allowed to touch his hair without receiving his teenage attitude.
“You have the dentist after baseball, Caleb.” Genie leaned in closer and used her hushed voice, though it wasn’t as hushed as she thought. “I found some personal items while cleaning your room. I put them in your sock drawer.”
Caleb smiled devilishly and gave Genie a high five. “You’re the best, G.”
“Here’s your permission slip, my little Olive.”
“Thanks,” I said, shoving the paper into my backpack. I totally forgot about that.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” Genie said.
Dad and Caleb joined me and Mom at the table.
Our kitchen was equipped with the latest gadgets, but Genie kept things a bit old school. It took a little longer, but we didn’t mind. She flipped pancakes with such flare. A big smile spread across her face.
There wasn’t a single wrinkle on Genie’s face. Even though she was getting on in years. She always looked the same. It was comforting actually. Genie was an early Genesis Model. A household AI robot. When I was little I didn’t understand what that meant. To me, Genie was as real and human as we were. But it started to become clear that Genie was a machine. And she was indeed aging.
It started with little things. Genie was helping me with homework. She tried to show me a math equation with her built-in projection system. But the image kept flickering, dancing across my teal bedroom wall. I figured she just needed a replacement lamp or a lens cleaning.
One day when Dad came home late and the rest of us were asleep, I woke to him scolding Genie for not properly securing the house. I guess she hadn’t interfaced with the security system to lock up and activate the alarm. Dad rarely got cross with her like that. I pulled my blanket over my head but was unable to stop my tears.
Genie was an amazing cook. She had access to every recipe book imaginable. I could tell she had fun in the kitchen. But that energy faded away. The food started tasting off, like she used a wrong ingredient or left some out. We all noticed but nobody wanted to say anything. I believed she had feelings, even if she wasn’t made to. She always sat with us for family meals though she didn’t eat. So we ate the food and smiled at Genie.
I noticed Genie wasn’t as quick as she used to be. She used to glide around and move with such efficiency. Her hands developed slight tremors. She could no longer give Dad a hot shave, or catch Caleb’s pitches, or paint Mom’s nails, or color in the lines when we did art projects.
I sat with Genie in the back of our car. She nervously gazed out the window. I didn’t blame her. I didn’t like going to the doctor either. Dad sat up front reading on his tablet while the car drove us.
“I spy with my little eye something green,” I said, trying to take Genie’s processor off the situation. We played until the car came to a stop in front of a repair shop with signs that read “Parts and Maintenance” and “We repair all robot models.”
A scrawny guy in a work shirt and oil smeared jeans gave Genie a once over and hooked her up to a diagnostic program. I didn’t like the way he rubbed the scruff on his chin as he said, “To be honest, sir, it ain’t worth it.”
“She’s not an ‘it,’ her name is Genie,” I said. He smirked at me, indifferent.
Dad handed me a credit card and nudged me to a flashy vending machine that sold all kinds of goodies. He nodded to Genie to accompany me. I took Genie’s hand and we shuffled over. Normally I’d be deeply invested in what to get from this delightful machine but we could still hear the guy.
“You’re gonna sink a buttload of money into repairs that won’t make much difference. Don’t even know if we could get the parts. Might as well just get a new model.”
I squeezed Genie’s hand tighter and she squeezed back two quick squeezes. That was our thing. Two quick squeezes meant it’s all going to be okay.
It was a quiet and tense drive back home.
Within a week our new household AI robot arrived. I passionately spoke out against this at our family meeting but my parents assured me Genie would remain with us.
Neko was sleek and had many features Genie didn’t. But I didn’t care. We were all standoffish at first. Neko was likable. She just wasn’t Genie.
Genie followed Neko around and told her how she was doing everything wrong. She didn’t appreciate Neko messing up her methods for completing chores and changing the way the household was run. Neko tried to be patient but they were both insistent on their own way. Nothing was getting done with them undermining each other.
Mom and Dad deactivated some of Genie’s settings so Neko was solely responsible for running the house. They were quickly won over by Neko’s efficiency. Caleb’s allegiance was earned with some younger model robot cleavage.
Genie became more like an old senile grandma, sitting there smiling but not fully there. Taking away her purpose aged her even more.
I still cherished our time together. I’d read her stories and some nights we’d sleep under a blanket tent I made. This could work I thought. Genie could be retired and still be part of the family. But soon we discovered that couldn’t be.
I was the only human home when it happened. Neko was in the basement doing laundry. Genie sat with me in the kitchen as I struggled to do my homework.
“I would like to reward you for your good effort, my little Olive,” she said. “Would you like some fresh baked cookies?”
I nodded vigorously. Genie got to work, humming as she prepared the ingredients.
I was in my room putting pajamas on when the smoke detectors went off. I rushed downstairs.
Smoke and flames shot up from the stove where a potholder caught fire next to a burning pan of caramel sauce.
Genie paced, fretting and wringing her hands. “I left it too long. I forgot.”
Neko rushed in. She grabbed the fire extinguisher and tamed the flames.
Mom and Dad weren’t happy to see the kitchen when they got home. But more than that they were scared for our safety.
I was surprised when a week later, with the kitchen restored, my parents invited Genie to make pancake breakfast for us.
“Genie, would you like to join us on an outing to the beach?” Dad said. It was as if he were forcing a cheery disposition. I could see a sadness in his eyes.
“We know it’s your favorite place to go,” Mom added.
“But being by seawater isn’t good for her internal rusting,” I said.
Mom looked at me with a gentle smile. “It’s okay. Today will be a fun day with no worries.”
I had a feeling something was up but I didn’t want to believe there were other motives, like guilt, behind my parents’ plan.
That night after the beach the five of us sat in front of the projection wall in the living room and watched old family videos. Genie cheering me on as she captured my first steps, Genie preparing the first solid food mom fed me, Genie teaching me my ABCs, birthday parties, first days of school, all the milestones in my life with Genie there. Genie appeared to be bursting with pride as she watched. I think if she could have, she would have cried.
The next morning Dad had us all pile into the car. I thought perhaps we were going on another family outing. We were. Just not the kind I imagined.
Mom and Dad were quiet up front. I sat next to Genie and noticed her face drop. I followed her gaze to the car’s navigation screen with the address for “Robot Retirement Facility” as the destination. Genie sat quietly resigned. I clenched my fists as my heart was pounding out of my chest.
The car stopped in front of the building.
“We’re so sorry, Genie, but we think it’s time,” Dad blurted.
Mom could barely look at her. “You know we love—”
“I understand,” Genie said. “I want the family to be safe and happy.”
“No!” I said. “You can’t do this.”
Dad dragged me kicking and screaming.
The inside of the retirement facility was drab and industrial. There was an area full of all different robot models that were powered down. They looked creepy. Especially the ones whose eyes were still open. There was another area in the back where they were being dismantled for parts for refurbishment. Something I’d later have nightmares of.
I saw Genie’s eyes flick around, taking this all in, taking in her fate. I wondered if she was scared.
A middle-aged woman came over and ushered us to a private room where we could say goodbye and witness Genie’s shutdown.
It was clean and bright. Soft classical music played. My parents shared their gratitude and said goodbye. I knew they genuinely meant it but I rolled my eyes at them for this betrayal. I noticed Caleb tearing up. He never cried. He and Genie did their secret handshake and he gave her a quick hug.
I stepped up to Genie and buried myself in her chest. “I’ll never forget you.”
“I know, my little Olive. I’ll always be with you.”
Genie lied down on a cold metal table. The woman plugged a USB cord into the control panel on Genie’s side. She strapped Genie’s arms and legs down.
Through tears I pleaded, “Please don’t do that.”
“I’m afraid it’s a safety precaution,” the woman said. “Sometimes there are involuntary reactions during system shutdown.”
I moved closer to Genie and held her hand. Genie squeezed two quick squeezes.
The woman began the shutdown process. I watched as the life drained from Genie. She was more real than ever to me in that moment. And then she was gone. Her hand went limp in mine.
As we left the building the woman handed me a small box. “I think she would want you to have this. Her heart and soul.”
Inside was a computer chip. I picked it up, closed my hand around it, and gave it two quick squeezes.