Pushcart XLII: Matthew Fogarty, “Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely” from Stillhouse Press

Jordan Shields: “R1”

Jordan Shields: “R1”

And just because his skin is steel doesn’t mean he feels nothing. Maybe they’re at a beach and she’s in with the tide. Or maybe they’re at the tops of skyscrapers, a city between them, and all they can see is each other: her with the curls that fall in a tangle over her shoulders and the dress that drapes her fins, him with the earnestness of a logic board. Wherever it is they find each other, he has to believe in the possibility, because if this isn’t possible, what is?

Speculative fiction typically includes elements outside of realism, from vampires to Martians to future histories. But what if, layered on top of that, the fiction itself speculates: what if this happens next? Or, instead, this? This is what if. It’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure story, without all the page-turns.

So robot meets mermaid – we don’t know how, it’s flash fiction – and, maybe, they fall in love. “He says, ‘I’d rust for you.’ She says, ‘You leave me breathless.’” But they are of different worlds. He sadly watches her return to the sea – then gets an idea for a wetsuit, and heads out to find her.

He wonders whether robots can drown. He wonders whether she’s forgotten him, or whether maybe he’s in the wrong ocean, or if it’s all just a cruel glitch. She’s a failure of programming; she doesn’t exist. Maybe this is what happens in the night, when the factory is closed and it’s dark—idle robots dream of love and mermaids.
Or maybe that’s when she catches him, thrashing for life, fishhooks her arms under his. He says, “I’m sorry. I’m not programmed to swim.” And she smiles, takes his hand, says, “Then don’t let go.”

If this reminds you a bit of a certain 30-year-old Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah romcom, well, sure; it was a charming movie, after all, and the story is just as charming. What if you add “what ifs” to let the reader decide between the tragedy of loneliness, or the joy found in the willingness to cross any divide to share life with another? What if you just read it as a technofable?

In an interview with Tara Laskowski at Smokelong (one of the finest flash fiction sites out there), Fogarty said, “I love entering through the whimsical and finding the serious.” I’m not certain I see the serious here, but the whimsy suited me just fine.