The holiday season had arrived. Nia Rushton had to accept it. She wore a rust colored jacket with her tan corduroy slacks to walk through the neighborhood. Stopping at the bakery a few blocks from her home, she selected a pumpkin walnut cupcake with cream cheese frosting to go with her coffee. Taking a seat at a small round table, she opened her book, Dan Brown’s blockbuster, Origin.
When the bell at the door rang, she glanced up to see her neighbor Patrice Knowlton enter with Sabrina, Patrice’s pre-school aged, curly headed granddaughter. Nia smiled and gave them a nod before returning to her novel.
She became so involved with Brown’s story that it took her a moment to realize she was being observed. She lowered her book to see Sabrina at the edge of her table, peering at her.
“What are you reading?” Sabrina asked.
Nia’s librarian soul rejoiced. “It’s about a teacher who goes to visit his student and learns the student has created a computer that talks like a person.”
Nia saw Patrice frown, but Sabrina was enchanted. “Let me see,” the child demanded.
That was the unfortunate thing about adult books. Usually, they had no pictures. But, with Dan Brown’s main character being a symbologist, the books featured a few illustrations. Nia quickly found one to show Sabrina.
“This is a self-portrait by the computer.”
It was a Joan Miro inspired drawing with a strange looking central eye. Patrice, now standing close enough to view the page, looked more disapproving.
“Come along, darling,” she said, pulling Sabrina toward the door. “Time for you to do a little running and jumping outside. Then, you and Grandpa can split a cupcake.” To Nia, Patrice said, “We like for her to get lots of exercise. Too much reading and screen time isn’t healthy.”
Nia kept her smile frozen as they left the shop. She remembered the child’s mother, Lesley, who had attended the high school where Nia worked.
Patrice and her husband Welton took the same approach in raising Lesley, encouraging her to lead an active rather than a contemplative life. Lesley embraced their philosophy with enthusiasm. Cheerleading, pageants, sports, and exercise. Always dashing off with one athletic boy after another. She met her husband Thad at one of her activities and, after their marriage, they went into action overload. Almost every issue of the neighborhood newsletter featured them participating in some social or fundraising event.
Then, the baby arrived. Little Sabrina seemed to be the one activity Lesley and Thad couldn’t figure out how to share. Instead, they divorced and went their separate ways. Nia continued to read newsletter articles about the many things Lesley found to do to fill her life with meaning, while watching Sabrina dumped on Patrice and Welton to be raised in an environment that valued movement over thinking.
Now, you’re being too hard on Patrice and Welton.
The voice in Nia’s head belonged to her husband Gerry. And, she disagreed completely.
Sabrina was spending more time with her grandparents than her mother. And, Patrice was distrustful of all things contemplative. Activity was her solution to all problems. It kept off weight, got you involved with others, and helped build social skills by rallying around team efforts. That baby was probably fascinated by books because she saw so few. Did anyone ever read to Sabrina from a book and let her turn the pages or scroll the screens? Maybe that was another form of exercise Patrice should investigate.
Putting aside her book, Nia finished her treat and tossed the remaining paper products in the trash. She picked up her book and headed home, fuming all the way about another generation Patrice and Welton would throw money at, then wonder why Sabrina didn’t blossom under that advantage.
Gerry’s laughter intruded upon her thoughts. I’d expect a librarian to take that attitude.
But she knew he disapproved, too. He had taught computer technology at the high school, so he appreciated contemplative skills, too.
Little Sabrina’s face had been so curious, so enthusiastic. How Nia and Gerry had longed for such a child, with an expression of fascinated wonder. She wouldn’t have had Sabrina’s tousled yellow curls and blue eyes, but dark hair, brown eyes, and a hazelnut complexion. They had hoped and tried for many years, until they finally accepted that their legacy would be through their students. And, Nia and Gerry had been appreciated. The high school’s sweetheart teaching couple. Always given their own crowns and spotlight dance at the annual homecoming celebration.
A car horn brought her back to reality. She had stepped off the curb without checking traffic. The driver looked apologetic. Gerry had been killed when hit by a drunk driver who sped through a stop sign at an intersection.
Nia stepped back and waved the driver forward. “Woolgathering,” she said. The driver nodded and drove on.
As she reached the commons park across from her home, Nia noticed Patrice conferring with the recreation director, a frazzled young man dividing his attention between the grandmother and a crowd of rambunctious children. The way Patrice was gesturing, no doubt she was suggesting numerous additional sports and activities that should be organized for the youth.
Nia turned her back on the scene and took the steps to her front porch, which extended the width of her house. A package had been deposited on the swing. Coming closer, she saw the name of one of Gerry’s favorite students in the return address. The student now studied engineering on scholarship at California Polytechnic State University. Gerry had been so proud of his accomplishment and cautioned the student to take advantage of the complete experience, including participating in building Cal Poly’s float for the Rose Parade.
Sitting on the swing, Nia took the box into her lap and slit the tape with the edge of her house key. She was puzzled by what she found inside: a pink retro style radio with an analog clock. A smiling cartoon face peered from beneath the clock’s hands.
Across the street, Sabrina had walked to the edge of the park to wave at her. Patrice was behind, placing a hand on the child’s shoulder before she could step into the street.
Nia returned the wave, then took her package inside. Beside the clock, she found and opened an envelope to read the note inside.
“Dear Mrs. Rushton, I was so very sorry to hear of your husband’s passing. I owe Mr. Rushton so much. Without his support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be at Cal Poly. And, I am following his advice, to participate in building the school’s Rose Parade entry. Enclosed is a project I worked on with Mr. Rushton. I hope you don’t mind that we called it ‘the Nia.’ If we could have beat Amazon to the punch, people would now be talking to Nia instead of Alexa. Anyway, I thought you would like to keep the prototype. Best holiday wishes to you.”
Another sheet included the instructions for connecting the device with Wi-Fi. Nia didn’t have Gerry’s IT skills, but she was a media specialist, so she drew on her own knowledge and in an hour, had “the Nia” operational. A blue light came on when she pressed the start button.
“How may I help you?” a voice asked.
She was startled for a moment. The voice was Gerry’s.
“I didn’t think I would hear that voice again, except on videos.”
“My inventors modulated my voice components, so they would be pleasing to listeners. If you prefer another style of communication, I will attempt to approximate it.”
“No!” She covered her mouth with her hand. It was disconcerting, talking with a machine that sounded like her dead husband.
“Could I assist you with a question?”
So many questions. The tears came to her eyes. “How could you leave me?”
Of all the things she could have said that was the most ridiculous. She had to get control of her emotions.
“I thought I had just been activated,” the device said. “In searching my data bases, I have located a song by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe that addresses leaving someone.”
Nia nodded, feeling the tears tracing a line down her cheeks. “Gerry’s favorite from Camelot. We danced to it, every homecoming.”
“The ultimate line from those lyrics indicates that leave taking would never occur.”
“Yes.” Never at all. “But lyrics aren’t always life.”
“In reviewing the plot summary for Camelot, I see the characters in the musical also were parted. The memories of what they created and experienced together had to sustain them.”
The answer made Nia curious. “What’s included in your data bases?”
“For the most part, I am connected to the same resources as other internet analysis devices, but I think my inventors also included some personal information not readily available to the public.”
“Ask me a question.”
How like Gerry. He always made her drag the information from him.
As the days passed, Nia became used to her unconventional, namesake companion with Gerry’s voice. Coming home was easier when she had someone to converse with, even if it was only to ask the time or the ingredients for a recipe.
Most afternoons as Nia reached her porch, the recreational director was working with children in the park. Sabrina often seemed to stray from the group, to observe a rock or follow a squirrel or to just stand as if pondering something.
Nia shook her head, particularly when Patrice would tell Sabrina she needed to pay attention to the group activity.
One day, Sabrina called to Nia. “Are you still reading the book about the talking computer?”
Nia smiled. “No, I finished it.”
“What are you reading now?”
Nia wasn’t sure how to answer. Having a companion that wasn’t a voice in her head, she had been more interested in asking for internet searches than reading on her own. “I’ve been busy lately.”
“Darling,” Patrice’s voice interrupted. “The game is in progress. You’ll never improve your skills if you don’t focus.”
Nia huffed up the steps, went inside the house, and dumped her tote on the couch. “That baby just needs some time alone with her own imagination. If Patrice doesn’t let her do a little woolgathering, Sabrina will turn out just like Lesley.”
“Woolgathering,” the device said. “A colloquialism.”
“That’s right,” Nia said.
“Daydreaming, stargazing, idling, lazing about . . .”
“No!” Nia had thought the device was on her side. She had to remind herself it was simply supplying data. “Well, not always. Taking time to contemplate, to think matters out can provide new awareness.”
“My inventor, Gerry Rushton, called his Nia, the human one, a ‘woolgatherer.’”
Nia turned to face the device. “That’s correct.”
“The term originated with those who went behind the sheep, collecting the wool that had caught on bushes as the herd passed. Often it is used in a derogatory context.”
“But it needn’t be,” Nia replied. “It’s not so much about haphazard distribution as it is about seeing a pattern and being able to discern from that what is useful.”
“The meaning of that statement is apparent only to its speaker.”
“Oh, you have too much of your inventor Gerry Rushton in your circuitry! Anyone following a sheep herd to gather the wool that has attached to bushes will look for the bunches that may be used in weaving, not just the random bits that birds can collect to build their nests. By observing where the path was narrow and how the branches intruded upon the way, you can settle your mind on the places where significant wool has been pulled from the hides. You can see what’s reasonable to obtain. That’s what becomes the woolgatherer’s concentration. And that’s not just frivolous or without meaning.”
“Your attention is needed outside, Nia Rushton.” The device’s voice took on that sharp edge, the tone Gerry used to let Nia know he was no longer teasing, but dead serious.
“What?” Facing the deadly serious frightened her.
“Only you can change a life.”
A silly slogan from one of her library posters, but Nia went back to the door to look out at the scene across the street in the park. Welton looked forlorn waiting on a bench while Patrice engaged the recreation director in a spirited debate. The children kicked a soccer ball back and forth. Nia didn’t see Sabrina at first, then caught sight of the yellow curls near the road, heading toward a sign the local zoning commission had recently posted. The large “z” in the center would be an attention getter for a youngster, but Sabrina had stepped into the street without seeing an on-coming car.
“Wait, wait!” Nia ran out the door and down the steps. “Stay back, Sabrina.”
The teen operating the vehicle immediately applied the brakes, causing a screeching against the pavement. The whole incident terrified driver, children, recreation director, Patrice, and Welton. In the heart stopping moments, Nia reached Sabrina first. The child smiled at her and pointed to the sign. “What does it say? Why is it that orange color?”
It took a few minutes to sort the scene out and Nia was in the middle of it. She reassured the teen he had not been speeding, suggested that the recreation director take the group inside for a snack, and quieted the frantic Patrice.
“You know,” Nia said as Patrice clung to her granddaughter and Welton stood behind, looking bewildered. “Sabrina has a healthy curiosity for words. Maybe if you spent some time reading with her, she would be better able to concentrate on other activities when she’s scheduled to participate in them. You could even read books about sports together. I’ll pick out a few for you to try.”
Nia wasn’t sure the message would stick, but at least Patrice had been terrified enough by the tragedy averted to listen and nod her head as if agreeing to try the new activity. As Nia reentered her home and closed the door behind her, she said, “Well, you and I have both done our good deeds for the day.”
Nia looked at the device. A tiny stream of smoke appeared to be rising from the clock face, obscuring the cartoon features. “What’s happening?”
“It’s time for you to reconnect with the world. No more woolgathering about things past.”
“But I need you.”
“You’ll hear my voice when necessary, but you’ll have to do your own research.”
She watched the device self-destruct, knowing there would be no way to revive it. It had been there to get her through the gap, until she had to resume her place in the world. She would no longer be part of a sweetheart couple, but she had always been self-reliant. Now, she wouldn’t be so self-conscious about it.
Returning to the couch, she retrieved her tote and headed out the door. She had to go select some children’s books from the library.