In an unsettling near future, the dead can be uploaded to machines and kept in service by the living…
We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Katie M. Flynn’s debut novel, The Companions—available now from Gallery/Scout Press.
In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead can come in—and they come in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for human. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people—a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.
Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.
Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view—some human, some companion—that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.
Del Norte County, California
The day the companions came was always exciting. The residents would never admit it, but I could see their busying, their nice clothes, smell their brushed teeth, their too-strong perfume. I liked companion day because everyone made an effort, most of all me.
It was my job to build buzz around the event, posting daily reminders to the rec room’s screen, arranging the reception table, making sure to have extra chargers on hand in case the ones the agency sent were bunk (that had happened before, what a disaster). Most importantly, I contacted the agency in neighboring Crescent City, made appropriate selections—age, era, sophistication. I tried to get the companions who’d died suddenly—car collisions, freak accidents. No one at the Jedediah Smith Elderly Care Facility needed to hear about the process of dying.
The best models were beyond our meager budget, but low-end would do. When the companions told their stories, the residents listened with rapt attention, hands folded, nodding along. It could be anything—a trip to the market, standing in line for a movie, getting a teeth cleaning—as long as it was from before. The residents found the past tense soothing. It was something I noticed, how they bristled when I spoke of now. We didn’t show them the news and they didn’t ask for it, not that I blamed them. Last time I tuned in, I’d learned that quarantine had come down statewide, borders shut, for our safety, they said. Not exactly comforting. If I wanted the headlines, I had to catch them on my own time, and at night I preferred the quiet—caretaking took a lot out of me. I would meet James in the redwoods past curfew. In the caretaker’s handbook, breaking curfew was a fireable offense, but behind the tall perimeter fence of Jedediah Smith, nestled in twelve acres of dense redwood forest, six and a half hours north of San Francisco, we hadn’t had a stray visitor in all my five years of service. And so far, well, Tina, our middle-aged supervisor, hadn’t complained about the couples who congregated in the woods behind the dorms. To avoid the others, James and I met below the residents’ windows, knowing they’d never hear our knocking sex, sending me to oblivion.
James grinned at me as he gave the rec room a final sweep of his push broom. I smiled back shyly, making a point not to talk to him. Professionalism—that was of the highest order to me.
Tina caught me at the refreshment table. She was wearing a new suit for the event, pinstripes and pale pink. “Have you set out enough refreshments?”
“No one’s eating. They’re all too excited.”
“Excited, well, I can’t tell you how much it pleases me to hear that. What a wonderful job you’ve done, kiddo.” It was important to us all that the day went well, especially the children of the residents. They couldn’t come in person, given travel restrictions, so they paid extra for the companionship program and expected to hear positive results when they screened their parents. If not, Tina would get an earful, and there would be a cascading effect, blame and anger making waves through the whole facility.
“You did a sweep of the rooms?” Tina asked.
“Good. I want them to enjoy themselves, but not too much.” She shifted her attention to the Hernandez couple staring glumly at the refreshment table’s array of healthy beverages and snacks, mostly plucked out of our own garden by the resident doctor— Dr. Tim, he insisted we call him. He was the only one of us with a green thumb and interest in growing things. Even he was in the rec room, watching out the window for the Metis van.
In addition to arranging companion day, one of my responsibilities was to confiscate the residents’ sweets and booze, their porn, anything that might overexcite them or mix unpredictably with their meds. It was a mystery to me how they got the stuff since there were rarely any visitors and all packages were inspected upon delivery. They must have had someone on the inside—a staff member, I figured—smuggling it in for them.
When I found their stashes I liked to give them one last chance, one last sip or peep or bite. They liked me. I liked being liked.
The bell sounded, and James was at my side. “You look hot,” he said.
“Stop it—they’re here!”
Following protocol, I slipped on my mask. The odds of the Metis drivers being carriers were low—no doubt they were tested regularly—but the precautions were not optional. I unlatched the door and stuck my head out, struggled my hands into gloves, enjoying the flood of cool breeze.
“Got your companions, ma’am.”
“Wonderful.” I looped in a signature on the man’s tablet with my latex finger. So unsatisfying, those interactions, masked, maintaining safe distance, no touching whatsoever. Here I was with a stranger, someone who lived out there, who got to be in the world, and I could never think of anything to say.
The rec room went quiet. The residents’ faces were so eager, so hopeful, as they watched the plastic wheeling procession—all low-end identical twins save the scars their stout white bodies had taken on since companionship, the perfect height for visiting with a seated person or child, their hooks not good for much besides holding hands. That’s the other reason I liked companion day. I might be able to encourage a smile, but happiness, that was harder. The companions—they could do that, light the residents up from the inside. It was—I was certain—the best kind of therapy.
I did a sweep of the residents’ quarters, walking the twin arms of the facility lined in windows, potted plants giving the impression of outdoor exposure. Doors were open, rooms empty, all residents accounted for, except Mrs. Crozier, whose door I found characteristically closed. She always had to be difficult. Ear to wood, I listened to her usual grumbling. Then I knocked loudly. The door was not locked; at Jedediah Smith, the residents’ doors were more gestures than actual barriers. “Mrs. Crozier? Everyone is enjoying themselves so much. I wish you would give it a chance.”
“Leave me alone!”
“Tina has asked me to bring all residents to the rec room.”
“Come and get me,” she taunted.
“Mrs. Crozier, please don’t make me call them.” Them, the orderlies, two brawnies in scrubs. Tony’s arms were spangled with tattoos. José was mute physical force when met with an uncooperative resident.
That was when I saw it hiding in the shadow of a potted window plant. We were paying good credit for companionship and it irritated me to see the thing wasting our purchased time, not to mention listening like that, a hard drive absorbing memory. “Why aren’t you with the others?”
“I want to talk to her.” Sometimes it was difficult to tell the age of a companion, but not in this case. The voice that came out had the impatient pang of a teenage girl.
“There are many others for you to talk to in the rec room.”
“No. I came to see her specifically.”
“Mrs. Crozier? Do you know her?” A companion had never requested conversation with a resident. Certainly it was possible to have a return visit, but to develop a relationship? It didn’t seem likely.
“I knew her before. Please. My battery is very low.”
“I have chargers in the kitchen.”
The companion wheeled forward, peeking out from the fern’s enormous fronds. The plant had taken well to indoor living. “High humidity—that is the key to life,” Tina always said.
As the companion came out of the shadows, I could see it was damaged. It moved shiftily, something wrong with its wheel belt. Its white plastic body was dinged and dirty, and its left eye—it looked as if it had been struck, the lid caved in, the light gone out.
“I need to see her. Then I swear I will take a charge, go talk to those old people.”
“You need a tech.”
“No techs. Please.”
“Did they damage you in transport?”
It shook its square head vigorously.“I knew her—when we were kids. I can get her to come out. I can make her smile.”
I was a sucker for that sort of scenario, the long shot, the impossible case. It was my weakness, wanting to be a hero. “Okay. Two minutes.”
I opened the door, standing back far enough that Mrs. Crozier couldn’t see me. She was the kind of resident who never let you see her smile. Her misery, it was part performance, I was sure of it.
“Who’s that?” Mrs. Crozier bellowed. “I can’t see you.”
“I am down here.”
“What’re you doing in here? Get out.”
“I came to see you. It has been a long time, since high school, the cliffs, you remember?”
Silence. No one had ever quieted Mrs. Crozier like that, not without a sedative anyway.
“I know you remember,” the companion persisted.
“You—you’re a can.”
“Well, you are old. Someday I will get skin. Young skin. Beautiful skin.”
“What do you want? Did my son send you? The shit stain.”
“Your son is dead.”
I sucked back a quick breath. Not what I was expecting, not exactly therapeutic. Naturally Mrs. Crozier had been informed, but dementia was taking her as it had so many others, time morphing past into present, whole memories cleaved, lost, sometimes for the better.
“Get out,” Mrs. Crozier shouted, her voice ragged. I knew I should intervene, but I wanted to hear what the companion would say next.
“You were the last person I saw with my own eyes. The shovel— you hit me—pushed me off that cliff—Nikki—what did you do to Nikki?”
I heard shattered glass and ran into the room, smack into the reek of spilled booze, the crunch of broken bottle underfoot.
“Get it out of here!” Mrs. Crozier spat at me, crying, she was crying, wiping at her face with wayward hands. The companion’s square head was bent forward as if it were in sleep mode. I tried its reset button, but I could see that the bottle had split the plastic plate above its eye, the shower of booze causing it to short-circuit.
In the dorm that night, I walked in on my bunkmate, Jude, masturbating. She went still, pretending she was asleep. I grabbed my robe and raced off to the communal shower, had a good cry. I don’t know why I was so affected. It was a machine, after all, but what happened when it broke? Was she gone, the girl inside? While she was carted off by the Metis drivers in their masks and gloves, all the residents were sequestered in the rec room, Tina in a tizzy. She didn’t like it, those Metis people coming in, the rogue companion. It stunk, she said, unnecessary risk—she even threatened to squash the program. “No,” I pleaded, “it was my fault. I let her in to see Mrs. Crozier.”
I didn’t notice Jude until the showerhead next to me went on. “What are you so worked up about?” she asked.
I reached for my towel and wrapped up as Jude put her head under the water, watching me from its spray.
“It was awful. Mrs. Crozier—” I stopped, not wanting to start a rumor. Jude was a terrible gossip, and Mrs. Crozier had a bad enough reputation as it was.
“I heard. A stowaway? Did you get its story?”
“It happened so fast.”
Jude groaned. “Companions don’t just run away—they’re command-driven. It’s, like, exciting, and you don’t have a single detail for me?”
“What’s going to happen to it?”
“I thought you were our companion expert.” Jude had a menacing smile; I hadn’t noticed before how much I didn’t like her. “My cousin Trixie’s a companion. Did I ever tell you that? Killed herself a few months shy of her sixteenth birthday. Did it at home, the idiot, so my aunt found her in time to upload. Used all her savings to get one of the top models, skin and all. Sometimes Trixie screens me in her new body.” Jude shivered even under the steamy spray.
“The broken companion—they won’t junk it, will they?”
“I don’t know what happens if the hardware is damaged. Under normal circumstances, I’m sure Metis would repair, but it sounds like there was a breach of contract. My bet? It’s a goner.”
I felt responsible, or at least involved.“Could someone—buy it?”
“Are you serious?” Jude said. “No one owns a companion. For lease only.” She wrapped a towel around her scrawny frame. She was in her late thirties, but she had the body of a girl, flat-chested, all limbs, a tiny bulge of belly. “It has no soul, Cam, only a consciousness. It’s not the same.”
I met James in the redwoods, where we had sex standing up, my face pressed into the moss side of a tree. After, we shared a joint shoulder to shoulder. I never asked him where he got it. Probably from the same person who smuggled in contraband for the residents. Better not to know, I reasoned, taking in a chestful of smoke. James tugged on the dirt-colored curls above his ear, fingers wishing them longer. His nose was crooked, broken in a collision on the football field and never right again, his neck stubbled with ingrown hairs, but I liked many things about him. His smell, for example, like sweet bread on his arms, strong and tangy when he sweated, the narrow spread of his chest, fragile, bony, running a finger along his rib cage, charting the territory of his precious internal organs. He had strong arms, ropy and veined, calloused hands, rough when I needed them to be.
Still, I did not love him, not the way I thought I should at my age, twenty-two, a child, though I hadn’t lived with my mother for six years, not since I took a mentorship with career possibilities in the growing eldercare field.
“So I’ll go to live with them?” I’d asked my mother.
“Not only that. You’ll go to learn, to hone skills that can carry you through life. You’re a natural caretaker, Cam. It’s your calling.”
“But what if I want to stay here?”
“Here” was our Outer Sunset duplex, so close to Ocean Beach I could hear the waves slamming against the seawall when Grandmother was taking her nap and the trio of cousins from Chengdu were off at their corporate jobs. They had plenty of credit, but they couldn’t take up residence in one of the towers until their corporate-sponsored citizenship had been fast-tracked through approval. One by one they found housing, and then another came from Great-Grandmother’s home region, and another, always three; that was the number of mattresses we kept in the back bedroom.
“Sweetheart, this is your home. You are always welcome. But I can’t guarantee as good a future as this track offers. Are you willing to jeopardize your future?”
I’d been at Jedediah Smith ever since. I tried not to let it hurt, Mother wanting me gone. She was just being practical—she needed the room.
I was only four hundred miles north of San Francisco, but it was as if I’d been shot into space or stranded on an island. Those first years were hard. Abandoned, I felt abandoned, yet I had chosen to leave. No, I felt tricked, duped—the word, the feeling, it changed with age and time and experience. I felt many things when it came to that transaction. Even before travel restrictions, the cost of fuel made the trip home impractical, and Mother wouldn’t hear of me wasting credit.
At least I could go outdoors. If I’d stayed in San Francisco with my mother and grandmother, I’d be sequestered in my home, a bubbled existence—airborne virus number whatever letter tag we’ve all heard enough. What I heard when I turned on the news was a low hum, cell death, a certain shade of dying that didn’t seem to matter much in the towering redwoods.
I told James about the companion. “She knew Mrs. Crozier before, when she was alive, I mean, not a companion.”
“Really. I can only imagine what that beast must have been like.”
“The companion, she said something I can’t shake.”
“You can’t tell anyone.”
“Not a soul.”
“I think Mrs. Crozier killed her.” And then there was this Nikki—what had happened to her?
“Holy shit.” James choked out a cloud of smoke, wafting up and around the great columns of trees.
“The whole thing, no consequences.” I was shaking my head, shaking all over.
“Hey, you don’t know that. She could have gone to prison for all we know.”
“I read her file.”
“You did what?”
After the companions’ procession back to the van, Tina had called me into her office to give me a good scolding. Then she left me to think about my poor choice. Through the tears and shame, I’d slunk around to her screen and found it unlocked—she must have really trusted me! I felt a tiny guilt stab as I pulled up Mrs. Crozier’s file. No criminal record. No allergies. No living relatives except a daughter-in-law who’d been placed on the do-not-call list. Under career, it said homemaker. “She didn’t go to prison. She was a housewife.”
“Well, according to my mom, that’s a prison in itself.”
“So I see.” He grinned, tousled my hair. We were like that most of the time, playful, buddies. “I’m thinking of leaving.” I could tell by the way he blurted it out that he’d been waiting for a chance to say it. “It’s starting to make me crazy, staying here.” He had only been at Jedediah Smith two years, so the itch to be in the world was still strong with him. Over time, well, it had to fade.
“Have you applied to another facility?”
“No. I’m thinking of going it alone.”
“But—you can’t.” I was practically breathless with reasons. “If you go out there without the proper paperwork—without a job— they’ll—they’ll never let you back and—”
“I don’t want to hear about life expectancy out there. I know.” His voice changed. Frustrated, he was frustrated with me.“Forget it.”
An icy silence wedged its way between us. We never fought. “Uncomplicated,” that’s how James described our relationship.
Maybe we weren’t the best communicators, but I knew some things about him. I knew, for example, that he was from Maryland, that his father was a college football star, that James was a terrible athlete, an embarrassment, a clod of shit, his father called him. It wasn’t the worst of scenarios—he wasn’t beaten or abandoned or orphaned, just bullied, not good enough, never gonna amount to a thing.
James took a mentorship in South Dakota to get away. His exams had put him on the caretaking track, but he swore he’d just bubbled in “whatever.” And it was obvious that it didn’t come naturally. He couldn’t keep the disgust from his face when one of the residents had soiled her pants, and he always overlooked the booze and porn and cigarettes. It was in those small ways I could see that he was not fit for this work, yet I did not want him to go. We sat, shoulder-pressed and still, and I did not tell him not to leave me.
Three weeks later he was gone. No note, no goodbye, just gone. I cried in the shower, in our redwood grove, in my bunk when I was certain Jude was asleep. I scripted messages to him in my head, furious messages that I would never send—how could I? I had no idea where he’d gone. I found myself getting impatient with Mrs. Crozier’s antics, her awful moods, strangling the happiness right out of Jedediah Smith. She’d zoom into the rec room in her chair, bump into the couch where a resident napped, into the legs of a nurse balancing a tray full of meds or the table where the more alert residents played bridge. She liked to bump into things, people—we all knew she was doing it on purpose. She never bothered to apologize, gliding on as if nothing had happened. When I brought it up to Tina, she told me, “It’s probably senility. I’ll have James—sorry, José—take her chair down a notch. That’ll slow her down.”
Mrs. Crozier didn’t appreciate her chair’s adjustment. As she inched into the rec room, she shouted,“Who did this? I have rights, you know, human rights, even in this place!” She inched up to me, pinning the rubber tip of my running shoe under her wheel.“Fix it.”
“Fix it,” she pleaded. I could see it, the sorrow, the everlasting dread—she was drowning in it.
“I don’t know how. José might be able to—”
Her face shifted, going wide-eyed, terrified. “Where is she? Is she here?”
She was talking about the companion—I could feel it—but I said it anyway: “I don’t know who you mean.”
“That fucking mock trial, I had to defend her friend! Harry Truman,” she spat. “Wouldn’t even look at me.” Mrs. Crozier was hitting herself, smacking her head with open hands—I had never seen her do that. I shouted for the orderlies.
“Useless!” she screeched at me. “You’re useless!” And I could think of nothing comforting to offer. She was right.
After that, she started soiling herself daily. It wasn’t my responsibility to change her, but I felt for the ones who did. I found myself fleeing every time she came into the rec room. Afraid, I was afraid of her, repulsed. It was the first time I’d ever felt that way about a resident.
Tina called me into her office shortly after the incident. She was wearing her pearls, her strawberry jam–colored sweater. Behind her, the sky was an anemic brown, smoke traveling in from the east. The window was closed, but the white sill was filthy with new ash from the latest brownout, some adjacent forest burning. There was nearly always an adjacent forest burning, but never once had the fires come here. In that way, we were lucky. “You’ve been dragging around this place for weeks. What’s eating you? Is it James?”
That was part of it, sure, but no way was I going to admit it to Tina—she wasn’t supposed to know about that. “Have I not been fulfilling my duties?”
“Sure you have. But, how do I put this? You lack your usual warmth, the brightness you bring to the residents.”
“Have there been complaints?”
Something passed over Tina’s face, a tightening effect. “You know full well that this job is about more than meeting responsibilities. You are in the field of care. If you do not fix your attitude problem, we will find a replacement, just as we did for James.”
“I thought you knew. He was smuggling in contraband. He had to go.”
I hyperventilated behind the dorms, sucking in the charred air, the redwoods circling above me. A scrub jay hopped down to the ground not a foot from me, whisked away a discarded candy bar wrapper. I couldn’t go home, not with travel restrictions, not after six years. I’d have to be a San Francisco resident to join my family in the tower where they now lived—my mother so excited it was like she’d won the lottery—and I was no longer a resident. And no other facility would hire me, not once I’d been let go from Jedediah Smith.
I was deep in my despair when I heard the yelling. A shaken Mrs. Hung flung the back door open. I nearly screamed in surprise. Had I left it unlatched? So reckless!
She clutched my hand, her skin dry and paper-thin. I could feel her heightened pulse, veins throbbing on the inside of her wrist. Then I saw the blood on her cheek, the collar of her powder-blue cashmere sweater.
I ran into the rec room, followed the howling to the residents’ quarters. I knew that the sound was coming from Mrs. Crozier’s room. She had cut herself. I could see the gashes from the door-way, along her wrists, somewhere under her housecoat. Blood pooled at her ankles as she stood—by God, she was standing— shaking off José and Tony, howling, a terrible sound, animal frenzy, anguish.
I did not stay to watch her die, hiding in the kitchen, head planted in the fold of my arms on the crumby counter. The back door whined open,Dr. Tim, knees soaked in mud, a basket full of garden treasures.
I told him what had happened, and he dumped the basket onto the counter. “Why didn’t someone get me?”
“She’s dead,” I said, because what was he going to do, bring her back?
He ran down the hallway toward the infirmary—I had never seen him run, a strange sight, the way he leaned into it as if he were carrying an infant or a sports ball, as if he might tip over.
No family to call, we followed protocol, incinerating the remains, burying them in the cemetery of uncollected we’d started deep in the woods. Most plots were so grown over that the nameplates marking them had disappeared entirely.
As I boxed up her things for disposal, I found an old photograph, a young girl, high school age, with long orange-yellow hair. “Red,” that was what the companion had called Mrs. Crozier. I could see no signs of ill will, no ill omen; she was beautiful, glowing, smiling—she was smiling. What had happened to her? I slipped the photo into the box for disposal and taped it shut.
That night I fell asleep to some terrible movie starring that smirky Jakob Sonne, about a pirate who falls in love with the companion he’s captured. Seen it a dozen times. I found myself laughing at the serious parts, breaking down during the sex scenes. I went to the kitchen and stood at the back door, daring myself to run, pulled back by my bed, by warmth, by exhaustion and the sweet bloom of dreams no matter how strange, no matter who visited.
Excerpted from The Companions, copyright © 2020 by Katie M. Flynn