THE SECRET • by Joe Zabel

They’d told me the cottage was empty, but that wasn’t exactly true. After hiking a quarter mile to get there, I was unnerved when I saw a drape move in the front window.

I loudly announced that I was the owner of the place and wanted the current occupant to clear out. Promptly the door opened and a figure emerged.

“Greetings, Emily, I’m Todd.”

I was surprised. Todd was the Galaxy 9000 that performed the housekeeping. What was he still doing here?

I shuffled past the slender robot and entered the cottage. Inside, the air was wholesome and inviting. A vase of fresh lilacs was set out. The grandfather clock had the right time and pendulum swaying. The routines of the living were still being observed in this house.

I explained to Todd that I’d be staying overnight, and he took my coat and bag. I went to the den to begin the inventory of Dad’s things. Todd came in with coffee and I asked to speak with him.

“Todd, you do understand that my father is dead?”

“I know that the paramedics came and took away his body.”

“So why didn’t you return to the Galaxy Corporation?”

“I have stayed because your father still lives here, as a spectral manifestation.”

“What? Who told you this?”

“No one did, Emily. I have witnessed it myself. He appears to me often.”

I dismissed Todd and went back to work, not giving his revelation much thought. Dad’s obsession with the paranormal must have infected Todd’s cloudware, but it was not my concern. Galaxy Corporation would have to sort it out.

I worked steadily throughout the afternoon. Todd brought me biscuits and jam for supper, and afterwards I found myself nodding off at my father’s old desk.

I awoke to the sound of voices in the living room. I rose to investigate.

Todd was preparing a fire in the hearth. Reclining in a favorite easy chair was a ghostlike presence whom I immediately recognized.

“Dad! This is unexpected.”

“Emmie! It’s so good to see you!” He rose to greet me. “I’d give you a hug, but I’m afraid it’s impossible.”

That was odd. Dad had never been a hugger. “Back at ya,” I said.

“Sit down, dear, and tell me how you’ve been. I want to hear all about your career and your life in the city.” Again, very odd; Dad had never approved of my becoming a lawyer.

“Dad, why are you being so nice?”

“I’m just happy to see you, of course.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, taking a seat. “So, tell me about the afterlife. Did you go up or did you go down?”

Dad smiled blissfully. “Heaven is impossible to describe. It’s pure love and joy.”

I didn’t need to hear any more. “Todd, my father and I would like some privacy.”

I watched the robot stand up and go to the kitchen. When I turned back, my father had vanished. Naturally — Todd couldn’t holo-project Dad’s image from another room.

I sat there trying to figure it out. Why would Todd concoct this creepy hoax? I refused to believe that he came up with it on his own. Was this a posthumous prank cooked up by Dad?

I went to the kitchen to confront the robot about it. “Todd, what was the last command my father gave you?”

“He said, ‘Don’t let me die, Todd.'”

That stung. I’d felt guilty, letting Dad have his way, living out here in complete isolation. They told me he died in his sleep, but he must have suffered more than I’d known.

What effect did that last request have on Todd? It must have twisted him up quite a bit, being given a command he didn’t know how to obey. But somehow his cybernetic brain had found a solution.

He’d worked so hard on it, the least I could do was to give him some pointers. “Todd, when Dad talks to me it’s just like when he talks to you. He’s not ‘nice.’ He’s a splintery old bastard and makes no apologies for it.”

“Yes, I see.”

“And furthermore, Dad didn’t believe in heaven, and would be very annoyed if he ever found himself there.”

“Thank you for this information, Emily.”

I asked Todd to set up a chess match in the dining room. We sat with the lights down low, like supplicants at a séance, Todd waiting for his former master to appear.

Presently, Dad showed up at the table. “Profoundly stupid game!” he said. “Addicting as hell, though.” We started playing, Todd moving the pieces for Dad.

And I had to admit, it was just like old times. Except that Dad’s game had improved enormously.

Joe Zabel is a comic book artist living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He is best known for his work illustrating American Splendor, by the late Harvey Pekar. Under the company names Known Associates Press and Amazing Montage Press, Zabel has also published his own series of mystery comics, The Trespassers.

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