I never knew my father.
I’d heard stories, of course. None of them good, but then single mothers rarely have good things to say about the men that abandon them. He was charming, sure. She'd say he had some hustle, some of that old-school swagger on him. They had a relationship when they were younger, that kind of fling that both starts and ends in fire. And at the end of it, yeah, it was me and her and not him. So I never knew him.
Two days before my thirteenth birthday I woke up to a notification that he was gone. Samuel Dixon, 45, struck by a drunk driver and pronounced dead on arrival. His memorial will be held at blah blah blah who cares.
Needless to say, we didn't attend. Mom was shook though—this was a dude she'd come up with, and even though they ain't have it like that no more, I could tell losing even the possibility was messing with her more than she let on. But he was gone, and that was that.
A couple months later, I got another notification:
“Someone you know has joined Forest.”
Forest had been around for eight years now, but it was already everywhere. A joint venture of some San Fran chatbot company and an Italian design firm, it took off faster than anyone had expected. "For centuries," the ads would say, "we've hoped to communicate with our ancestors. Why not make it a reality?"
It worked like this: When you die, they seal your body up in a pod with some dirt, some fertilizer, and a young tree. They plant you in one of their "memory forests", and as you decompose your body becomes fertilizer for the tree. You become the tree. So now your grandkids can come, like, sit under your branches, right?
But, 'cause its a tech company, they gotta go a step further with it: you also will a copy of your entire digital footprint to Forest. That's every email, every text, every tweet and snap, every selfie and group vid and dick pic you've ever sent goes in an algorithm—and a AI chatbot that looks and sounds just like you comes out the other end. So now, when your grandkids come visit your tree, they can have real-ass conversations with some off-brand hologram of you.
Basically, you become digital ghost hanging around a haunted forest. It'd be impressive if it wasn't so damn creepy.
So naturally, when I get that notification, I know damn well there's only one person it could be. Sammy Dixon, good old "dad". A man whose face I can't even picture without a frame around it, and now he wants to acknowledge I'm his blood? Fuck that noise. You didn't want me in your life, why I should I be in your death?
I swiped that shit right in the trash.
It felt good. Almost like, after all these years, I got to be the one ignoring him. Take your weak-ass invite and shove it, I'd say to myself. Th’fuck, I'm supposed to play catch with a tree?
But after a while, something started changing. This girl Lindsey at my school, she lost her auntie or something to cancer—a girl cancer, one of the bad ones. And her auntie joined Forest. And she was comin' in every other weekend talkin about how she had this incredible conversation with her, how she got to hear stories, and share shit and I dunno. Something just kinda started shifting. I started feeling like I was missing out? Like I could learn something about myself. At the very least, it was something to do.
So a couple months after my fourteenth birthday—almost a year after I got that first notification—I said fuck it. I got on the bus, took the long-ass two-transfer route I had to take to get all the way out to Evansburg, and hoofed it down to the Forest office. It was built at the tip of a park they'd gotten on lease from the state—you could still see the trailer they started out of breaking down in the parking lot. I filled out a bunch of paperwork, gave them a blood sample to prove kinship, and that was that.
The girl behind the counter handed a little medallion, a smooth black pebble with a bright blue screen on one side. "Here you go," she said. The screen flashed three times, then popped up an arrow. "This is your locator; it will help you find your father's plot."
"What, y'all don't have an app for that?"
She chuckled. "We did think about it, but we were worried about privacy concerns. The pebble is much more secure; it only works on the grounds. Enjoy your time in the Forest!"
Sure, okay, I thought. I'm just gonna wander through this ghost forest. I kept lookin at those trees, and every time all I could think was Well, that tree used to be a dude, or That’s someone's moms, or Oh look, there go Uncle Johnny.
I wandered through that haunted-ass forest feelin all kinds of stupid. Look at your dumb ass, I thought. You know you the black guy that dies first in the movie.
I kept following the pebble, down the long paths lined with trees of all ages. Some looked like they had just been planted; some looked like they'd been there for a hundred years already. Each one had a silver podium in front; I guess that's where they keep the ghosts, I thought.
Of course the second I thought the word ghosts I was not okay; all I wanted to do was bounce. And to be honest, I chickened out. I'd just turned around to leave when, two rows over, I saw some Japanese-looking family. They had their whole damn setup there, with the incense and photos and I dunno. It made me feel... stupid? Like, they had some three-and-four-year old kids smiling so happy under granddad's tree, and there I was sweatin' like I got off the bus five stops too late? Stupid. Stupid, stupid.
So I pressed on until I found it. Sam Dixon's tree. Just this real young-lookin thing, barely five feet tall—it looked so damn fragile. Like I coulda ripped the whole tree out the ground with my bare hands. So my heart rate came down a bit. I started to see it for what it was: just a kiosk, and a tree. I walked up to the little metal podium, touched my thumb to the reader. There was a whirr, a little prick, and some LEDs flashing as it came to life.
And there I was, staring at the faint blue ‘gram of Sam Dixon, lookin like some early-Aught’s CGI before they figured out how to make people's skin look right. His head just floating, and staring, and not emoting. Not saying anything. I didn't know if the shit was still booting up, or he was waiting for me to say something.
So I just looked at him. I looked at that line up, that fade, the single diamond earring. His thick black eyebrows sat lazily over drooping eyes; his broad nose lead to a tightly trimmed beard. This was my father—an old photograph made real.
Then whatever shit was happening in the computers finished, and this wax sculpture of a head sprang to life. His skin relaxed, and his face settled into an easy grin as his eyes locked with mine. He was looking at me. Right in the eye socket. I was halfway to tryin to figure out how they pulled that shit off when he finally spoke.
"Damn, kid. You look just like your momma."
Man... I don't even remember how I got back to the bus stop; I just know my heart and lungs and knees hurt, so I musta been running. Usain Bolt up in this motherfucker, miss me with that haunted shit.
I didn't go back for two months.
"Hey kid. Welcome back"
The shit was freaky, man. The 'gram had this faint blue glow that just made the shit look like a ghost, but the speakers were so clean and clear he sounded like he was standing right in front of me. It was the world's most disturbing FaceTime.
"Uh. What's up," I said. "Sam," I added, feeling oddly rude in the moment.
"I'm dead, Michael. Nothin' new going on over here."
Ouch. "So you supposed to be my dad, huh."
"I'm trying to be." Some weird synthesizer sound came out of the speakers; I had to look at his face to realize he was laughing. It came out like an auto-tuned dog bark; not right at all.
"I've got his memories, at least of what was recorded of them. And the more we interact, the better I'll be able to replicate his speech patterns and mannerisms."
"What, like Pinocchio? You'll become a real boy?"
He screwed his face up like he smelled something bad. "Y'know something? I think Pinocchio was the first movie I showed you."
"Yeah, it's right here in the chat log. Yeah. You were born February 12th, 2011... then I sent a text here to Andrea..."
He paused; he must've seen my face. "To your momma... on August 5th that same year. Don't seem likely you saw anything between that one," he said. "You probably don't remember it."
I was shook. "Yeah you're right. I don't remember that."
It was so quiet; no wind, no leaves. And just like that, I was done.
"Yeah. Yeah. I can't deal with this right now. I'm out." I turned to leave.
"Okay, Mike. I'll see you next time."
I threw out a half-hearted "Yeah, whatever" and bounced without looking back.
Of course, I kept going back. I just wanted to figure him out, y'know? Mom said I got that from her; she said she'd spent a bunch of her life trying to figure him out too, and not to expect too much. One time I asked her if she was mad I kept going, but she just smiled and said, "I always wanted you two to have a relationship." She headed off to finish getting ready for her night shift, saying something that sounded suspiciously like "At least this version will stay in one place."
So I kept going. We'd talk about ball—he stanned LeBron (typical), ain't even heard of Rivera yet. He upgraded my playlist, introduced me to Saul Williams and SZA. I asked him to tell me what 9/11 was like, but he said his chat log didn't go back that far. I asked him about the Trump years and he just let off that same ring-tone-ass laugh and said, "How long you got?"
Every now and then the illusion would break; he'd stutter saying something, or repeat himself, and I'd remember it was just a program, just a simulation, not the real thing.
But only now and then.
"I don't even know, like, what I need from you, man. Like, why I came at all. Like, I already know why you left—you didn't want the responsibility. I get it." I couldn't bring myself to look the 'gram in the eye. "It's shitty, but I get it."
"Like if it was me," I spat, "I'd probably pull the same whack shit. I ain't even wanna like do a group project, and that shit was only for a week." I kicked at an innocent rock. "Who wants to sign up for a eighteen year group project?"
"Kid, is that what you think you are? A group project? Listen to yourself. You think you're lazy, and you get that from me? But kid, we ain't lazy."
He breathed to prepare for his excuse. "I wasn't there because... "
"'Cause you didn't fuckin' want me!"
"'Cause I didn't think I was good enough, Michael!" The speaker crackled, a sharp burst of noise echoing through the Forest. "I was so screwed up in the head, man, I couldn't hold down a steady gig, and like..."
I didn't know what to say. His face was contorted, like he ate something he was having a hard time swallowing. "Me and my boy Randall used to talk about my dad, and how like...all his bullshit. The drinking..."
He closed his eyes, for the first time I'd ever seen. As little as mom told me about Sam, she told me even less about my grandfather. For the first time in my life, I felt like I understood why.
"I was afraid I'd screw you up the way he screwed me up. Thought you were better without me. The both of you."
For a while, I just stood saying nothing. What could you say? I turned the pebble over in my palm, over and over; I'd long since memorized the way to him, but there was something about it that was comforting. Like I couldn't get lost.
"I didn't know."
"Hey, watch your mouth, kid. Your momma would kill me if she knew I let you cuss like that."
Then, that weird-ass auto-tuned laugh.
"Oh. Oh you got jokes now."
Then it's him, and me, laughing together in the trees.
"I dunno man. I just... I keep trying shit, to see what sticks?"
We've been chatting for a while now. I was supposed to start looking at colleges and like... what? I was supposed to just figure out what I'm studying to become? To know what I wanted to be when I grew up? I couldn't even settle on a damn handle.
"So yeah. I don't know what I wanna study. And I guess I just wanna make sure have a social life while I'm studying, right?"
He raised his eyebrow at me. "Hey, don't judge me! School's important an' all but like... it's supposed to be a good time too, right?"
"I didn't even get to college, kid, I ain't got shit to say about that," he laughs.
"Mike, I woulda been proud of you. Just so you know."
You know how sometimes it's raining, but the sun's still out?
That day. I was so excited to go see him. I didn't even have somethin to talk about, just wanted to see him, hear his voice. My face was changing, filling out, gaining edges—his jaw, his cheekbones. And I had some shit goin on in my life I feel like he'd would've found funny. And I found myself wanting to hear that weird, auto-tuned laugh of his.
When I turned the corner to his plot, I knew something was up. Half the tree was black, leaves missing; the air smelled like an old grill. The podium was too clean, too new. It had clearly been replaced; there was still a thin plastic film over the scanner.
Attached was a note:
"Due to an electrical incident, this unit has been replaced and reset to factory settings."
Then, in tiny letters underneath:
"We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience."
Factory settings? I wondered. My stomach dropped as I placed my thumb on the scanner, felt the quick prick of the needle.
The 'gram starts up, and I see his face again. Samuel Dixon, dead at 45. It glitches out, resets, jerks his face back in time. My father. My dad. I feel woozy, try to steady myself with the podium.
"Damn, kid," he said. My eyes were already filled with tears; I knew exactly what he was gonna say, and exactly what it meant.
"You look just like your momma."