Five years after her husband died, two years after she moved to a cabin in Montana, and six months after the world ended, Marie opened her curtains to discover her front garden overrun with roving, stumbling advertisements. Marie hadn’t seen one since she’d sold her condo and moved out to her isolated cabin. She shuddered.
There were at least twenty of the ads, and for all it seemed they were doing their damndest to step lightly, her red and yellow tulips were completely trampled. Marie had stubbornly continued to cultivate those flowers despite the certainty that she ought to be using the gardening space, and the captured rainwater, to grow food. Not that it mattered what she’d been growing there. It was all mud now.
The ad nearest her window looked quite a bit like a tall, lanky teenager. It moved like one as well, and might have fooled her except that its forehead was stuck in price scrolling mode. Faintly glowing red letters crawled across its forehead from right to left.
TOILET PAPER…2 FOR 1 SALE…RECYCLED….
Marie could only recognize the daffodil bed by memory. She snapped the curtains shut.
She wrapped a floral print terrycloth robe around herself and hustled from her sparsely furnished bedroom into the kitchen. She was relieved to see the fences she’d put up to keep the deer out of her vegetable garden, while never quite successful, had at least managed to keep her vegetables safe from the ads.
That, of course, would not bring back her flowers.
She glowered at the ads through her kitchen window and filled a glass from the pitcher of well water she kept by the sink. She fumbled open the Tuesday box on her medication canister. Like most mornings, she was thankful that she had filled her prescriptions prior to the end; otherwise she would have none by now.
She would have to go to the garden, and although the advertisements were designed to be perfectly harmless, Marie found she was frightened by the way they lurched over the ground. She suspected this was due to the uncomfortable way their silent progress reminded her of zombie films.
Robert would have been fascinated. A year or so before his death, an advertisement had come up to their door. In those days, the ads had acted more like people than those that now plagued her gardens, and it had stood obediently on the front step until they’d opened the door.
Marie had argued that it was better to leave the door shut, because if an advertisement left without delivering its pitch, it would learn not to come back to the house. The way she figured it, and the way several of her favorite independent video bloggers figured it, listening to the ads was like feeding a stray cat.
Robert did not seem to be overly concerned that they would never get rid of the ads. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “They’ll last maybe another few years at the most, and then the companies will all move onto something that costs less. Right now, they’re cheaper than sending employees door-to-door.” He opened the door, despite Marie’s protestations.
“Hello,” the advertisement said, hands clasped before it. “I was wondering if you had a few moments to talk about your retirement?”
Marie just shook her head and turned back into the house. She busied herself with embroidery, although she still kept an eye on Robert to be sure he wasn’t buying anything. No matter how clever her Robert thought the ads were, she did not want to encourage the companies to make more of them.
After a few minutes of animated conversation, the ad left and Robert came into the dining room. He asked, “Have you ever wondered how sentient they are?”
Marie shook her head. She didn’t like the ads, and the best emotion she could muster toward them was similar to the way she felt about mosquitoes. Other people thought they served a purpose; she didn’t, and it was not worth the argument.
It became apparent that Robert was actually waiting for her answer, and he sat down heavily in one of the other dining room chairs. Marie finished a particularly difficult stitch. “They aren’t. They just recognize patterns.”
“Yes, but so do we,” Robert said. He put both hands on the table and sat up straighter. “How close are they to sentience? They’re so much more sophisticated than a recorded ad. They’re art.”
A few more stitches. Marie laughed. “Art? They’re advertisements, not art. It can’t be art if it’s just meant to sell things.”
Robert had looked thoughtful. He’d leaned over the table slowly, put his chin in his hands and looked at her. “And yet you like Mucha prints, and those were all selling something,” He’d said.
If Robert were still alive, and the world had not ended, Marie supposed he would have gone out the front door and immersed himself in a sea of advertising conversation. As it was, she faced the corporate-orphaned menace alone with an old broom and her largest hammer.
She had hoped they would simply wander off on their own, but after watching through the window for a few hours, she determined they knew where she was. Marie suspected her RF chip was still broadcasting her ID number. She and Robert had bought them before they truly understood how much advertising money had subsidized the price.
She stood on the threshold of the home she’d purchased with her retirement and the last of Robert’s life insurance pay-off, ready to defend it against even the most pernicious of sales pitches.
Marie hefted the hammer over her head and held the broom out like a lance. At least thirty ads were in the front garden now, and more stumbled up the gravel road to her home.
“Get off my property!” Her voice only shook a little.
The ads turned to face her. They were designed to understand when they were told to leave. This was meant to limit the annoyance factor. Even in the best of times, the command had rarely worked.
Forehead screens changed from flesh colors to scrolling text. The subtlety had gone out of advertising entirely. She wondered if that was a function of being away from human contact for months on end, or if she was just surrounded by a crowd of defectives.
The ads crowded in closer, becoming an ocean of words and prices and mark-downs, factory blow-outs and Email addresses for the next get-rich-quick scheme, male enhancement drug names, tag lines for movie sequels that shouldn’t exist, and cash advance loan shark promises.
“Marie…it’s been so long.”
At the corner of her cabin, just behind her favorite rhododendron, she saw a figure she recognized immediately and might have known by voice alone.
Robert as he’d looked when they’d first met, back in the twentieth century, when they had both been younger and he had been alive. He—it, the ad, wore a very simple black two-piece suit, and held a hat under its arm. It looked like the suit Robert had worn to their wedding, but the shoes were different, as though the advertisement had not fully accessed the public files on their marriage.
Through the first three years after his death, Marie had never grown used to the way the ads shifted to Robert’s form. Now the image spread out like ripples on a pool, the skin of the ads universally deepening almost to a shade of olive, hair lengthening and straightening and taking on that blue-black sheen she’d fallen in love with.
The forward press of ads stopped just outside of her reach, processing the shift from advertising bot to facsimile of her husband. The ads stopped broadcasting on their foreheads, all except for the broken one, which was now fidgeting from one foot to the other in a way that would have tricked Marie into thinking it was actually human if the sale on toilet paper hadn’t been scrolling from one temple to the other.
They were all malfunctioning.
“Have you been waiting?” one of the Ad-Roberts in front of Marie said. She poked it in the chest with her broom handle, and it didn’t seem to mind.
Another ad said, “Have you missed me?”
“Lonely out here,” said a third.
Marie picked up her hammer and slowly, careful to avoid tripping on the door frame, backed into her house.
She shut the door.
The first time Marie had ever seen an ad take on the appearance of Robert had been only a few weeks after the funeral. She had opened the door one morning to find Robert standing just outside. There was a split second when she found herself wondering if she’d imagined the past few weeks. Then she realized she was looking at an ad. Marie thought about Robert rotting in the ground, dead and alone.
The ads were not meant to use the likenesses of the deceased. What they could do was almost as bad, but far less illegal—taking those likenesses and shifting them ever so slightly until the ad looked familiar, but not sufficiently to be recognized.
Whether it was an act or not, the ad looked just as surprised as she was. Its eyes opened wide as it accessed her file and, for an instant, it looked like Robert had when he realized he’d said something he shouldn’t have. The ad opened its mouth as if to speak, but Marie hadn’t wanted to know what it was about to say. She’d slammed the door shut.
It turned out later that the malfunction had been semi-common. Marie could have gotten in on a class action lawsuit but, instead, she’d packed up and sold the condo. She’d moved to the cabin shortly afterward, wanting a place that wouldn’t remind her of Robert, who had always loved cities.
All the ads except for one shifted back to their default appearances after Marie returned indoors, but they didn’t go away. She kept her shades down and tried to ignore the tromp-tromp-tromping noises of footsteps outside her house.
The gardens had seen better days.
The most curious thing was that no matter how content she had been with her hermit’s life before, now the ads were outside her door she missed the sound of Robert’s voice. She wished she could hear it again, as long as it wasn’t a haphazard lead-in to a sales pitch.
Marie sat alone on these mornings, extremely alone, now she had the rustling sounds of the ads to remind her.
That was why, on one fine Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, Marie invited an advertisement in the guise of her dead husband inside for lunch.
They sat together at a white table with a blue checkered tablecloth and a plate of tiny sandwiches inside Marie’s small kitchen. Ad-Robert had attempted to pull her chair out for her, but she would not allow it. She had placed her hammer under her seat before letting the ad in. Even though she didn’t think it was dangerous, Marie thought it best to be prepared. Once they were seated, she poured mint tea for them both.
Marie had cultivated the mint herself, of course.
The ad that looked like Robert smiled dumbly at Marie, and the sunlight that filtered into the room lanced brightly across faintly silvered hair. When it smiled, crow’s feet spread from the crinkled skin around its eyes. Try as the ad might, however, the months without upkeep had so eroded its ability to keep up with its reference recordings of Robert’s inimitable gestures that the resulting attempt looked like a badly choreographed farce.
Marie sipped her tea, watching the ad in silence. It had asked her a leading question, as they’d walked through the front room: something about stock options, which would never draw Marie’s interest, even if stocks or money had meaning anymore. Ads were designed not to speak again until the thread of conversation was taken up by a human. She looked out the kitchen window. Ads still filled the back yard. She wondered if they were sharing her location, like bees dancing to show each other the path to fresh flowers. The ads wandered back and forth through what was left of the pansies.
Marie sighed, and Ad-Robert cocked its head.
Either the conversation lag had been too much for its memory banks, or it parsed the sigh as an answer.
The ad asked, “I mean, I don’t mean to pry, dear…but you have thought about retirement, haven’t you?”
The ad sounded like Robert and, at the same time, sounded like the ad that had spoken to Robert six years before. Marie thought of the hammer under her chair and had to wait to respond because of the sudden thickness in her throat. “Of course I have.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, but at the same time, the question was moot.
Ad-Robert looked down at its tea but did not drink. It held the cup a few inches above the table and let it steam out into the air. “You ought to be buying biotech. I can help you find the right companies.”
Marie said, “I’m sure they’re not in business anymore.”
The ad tried to do one of Robert’s dismissive hand waves, but its wrist motors jerked and the effect was lost. The ad didn’t seem to notice. “Of course they’re still in business!” Its eyes focused on the space above Marie’s left shoulder, as it tried to connect to the Net. Marie was fairly certain that, with the exception of any identification chips she may have, there had never been a wireless connection in a twenty mile radius.
Marie finished her cup of tea and maneuvered the conversation into a realm she cared for a bit more than imaginary finances. She poured more tea and dumped a spoonful of honey into it. “I’ve been thinking about planting corn soon, but it’s hard to get to a flat patch of ground that isn’t constantly underfoot these days.” She’d heard rumors that some of the ads were able to carry on regular conversations if prompted properly. A few companies had discovered their ads had been held hostage by lonely people for weeks or months on end.
Ad-Robert didn’t move, frozen with what would have been confusion if it had been human.
Marie waited, but the hope she had for a decent conversationalist faded when Ad-Robert only asked, “So, about your retirement?”
Marie had tried to look for survivors a week after the satellite television signals had gone out. She’d loaded up her old pickup truck with water, emergency bandages, and even a few fall vegetables to share with her neighbors.
One eye on the road and the other on the gas gauge, she made her way down the mountain, looking for turnoffs to the isolated cabins of her neighbors. She hadn’t known them well before everything went to shit, but she figured now was a good time to make an exception. It was a beautiful, quiet day. She pulled onto the highway, and no cars passed her in either direction. All the cabins were empty. This confused Marie, since she hadn’t taken the people who lived in them to be the sort who would run for civilization at the first sign of trouble. She supposed she had been wrong about them, for whatever that mattered. Marie filled the back of her pickup truck with canned and dried food from their pantries and tried to ignore the smells that emanated from their closed refrigerators.
She only made it halfway down into the valley before the wind shifted to come up out of the south. She gagged, slammed on the brakes of her truck and pulled over onto the shoulder. Even a few miles away, the collective stench of several hundred thousand bodies, rotting sour in the early September heat, was too much for her.
She couldn’t imagine anyone living closer. Reluctantly, she had turned the truck around and headed back to her house.
Marie couldn’t destroy the ads. She had trouble even thinking of it because, no matter how wrong their gestures, every ad looked too human.
The ad she kept indoors at least pretended to listen to her from time to time. She could almost ignore the outdoor ads, except for when she had to pass from her house to the well, from the well to the garden, or from the garden back to her house. She had given up on her makeshift pump system the second or third time the ads had trampled holes into the hose. She’d forgotten how hard it was to carry water from the well to the garden by hand, and it didn’t help that the ads were always underfoot.
“Get out of the way,” she said, exasperated, when the ads stumbled into her few well-worn paths. Even if the ads were not in her garden, it was hard to get enough water to the plants. Every trip with the bucket took twice as long as it should have.
In the evenings, she did not embroider as much as she used to. She was too tired, now, and too worried about whether or not she’d be able to keep her food crops alive and healthy enough to give her a harvest that would last the winter.
Marie grew used to the indoor ad’s, “Good morning, sweetheart.” It said the same thing every morning, as she passed from her bedroom into the kitchen. The ad always sat in the same chair at the table, in the same position, waiting for her to wake.
When it became apparent that Marie wasn’t interested in the ad’s sales pitch, it was confused for a long time. It sat and listened, nodding absently to her words in the way Robert had done just before he’d died, when she hadn’t been able to tell if he’d understood or not.
She remembered how her own grandparents had spoken exclusively about the past in their old age. She’d still been studying for her math degree, and she hadn’t had any time for those stories.
Marie told the ad about other things, about how to know when it was time to pick a pear, about the earth-poison smell of tomato vines and the acid-sharp taste of the fruit.
She was trying to explain the particular crumbling feel of good soil and the moist smell of fresh potato when Ad-Robert interrupted.
It was the only time the ad interrupted her. At all other times, it had been perfectly behaved.
“Have you ever considered your death?” it asked.
Robert had once asked her that. They’d been young, and it had been more a joke than anything else. Marie couldn’t look at Ad-Robert when she answered, so she stared out the window at orange-tinged clouds that hung over the forested mountains around her home.
“Yes,” she said.
She had been planning to go grocery shopping the day the world ended, after she’d weeded the gardens and picked some zucchini. But she’d turned on the news that morning to pick up the one local channel available from her satellite dish.
Biological agents. Super bug. Nobody on the channel or in any of the borrowed clips they showed could determine if they thought it was terrorism, or just freak random chance. It was a virus, then it was a bacterial infection that antibiotics couldn’t touch. Masked and suited reporters questioned the sobbing, quarantined mothers of sick children. Scientists or doctors postulated that if the illness killed its victims so soon after infection, then it couldn’t spread much farther.
The rebuttal was simple: there was no way to know how long it gestated, and how long it was contagious. The rebuttal sparked more panic, because the man giving it finished by pointing out that the entire human race could already be infected and not know it.
Marie had turned off the television and sat on her porch in the late summer sunlight for a few hours, and when she’d turned it back on, she hadn’t gotten any reception.
A day later, the electricity had been cut off.
One morning when she walked into the kitchen for her medication, the ad did not greet her as it had for the past month. Instead it sat, silent and dark, a life-sized doll made out of LCD and carbon. It no longer appeared to be anything like Robert. It was just a lifeless machine that had grown tired of masquerading as her husband.
She stared at it for a long time, expecting it to come to life with another skewed economics lecture. In case it had a sleep function, she prodded it with a wooden spoon, poking it resolutely in the stomach, the arm, the face. Nothing.
Marie sat down on the other side of the table, leaned far over it and stared at the ad. The face was not really human, but she traced the features with her fingertips, over the smooth hills and valleys that gave the ad a physical presence when it was on. The screen itself was cold to the touch, and she left little skin-oil smudges behind.
Down the neck and across the chest, she could see scratches and scrapes from tree branches and possibly animals. Places where she might have noticed pixels out if she’d looked at it more closely.
Marie sat back in her chair. When she had finished crying, she was left with the problem of disposing of the body. She felt foolish, too…Hadn’t she meant originally to kill the stupid things?
The ad was lighter than she’d thought it would be. For all it was nearly the size and build of Robert, it was made of far lighter materials than flesh and bone. Marie was able to drag it with one hand under its left shoulder. She carried her lightweight shovel with her other hand, prodding or swatting any of the outdoor ads that got in her way.
They were still as obnoxious as ever, hovering, surrounding, circling Marie and the dead advertisement like sharks around a sinking boat. The air filled with pitches, slogans, prices.
“We don’t have to pay until 2045!”
“I really think you’d like these perfumes, honey.”
“Come and visit, the alcohol’s free!”
Marie trudged along the thin dirt path that led from her little house, until dry pine needles crackled under her clogs and under the feet of the ads that followed her in a herd. When the ground went flat for a bit, she dragged the ad through a few feet of sparse sword fern.
She dug a shallow grave under a tamarack, and covered the ad with just enough dirt to hide it from view. She didn’t think anything would dig it up, but she felt a little bad for not making the grave deeper when the other ads walked over the mound of dirt mixed with pine needles.
Marie wiped her face on the sleeve of her rosebud blouse, and then she took her sweet time walking back down the mountain, still ignoring the advertisements that seemed entirely unaware of the loss of one of their number.
Marie found the second dead advertisement a few days later, toppled over on the front walk-way to her house, scuffed from the feet of the other ads, as motionless and empty as the one that had died in her kitchen.
She thought very seriously about burying it with the other ad, but then she looked at the crowds of them that filled her yard and thought better of it. So Marie dragged the second advertisement out to her shed, and she propped it up between a rake and a hoe, leaving it for the dust to collect on. She realized she could have left it out among the other ads, but she didn’t like the idea of her home being surrounded by forgotten bodies.
Every few days she found another, sometimes only toppled over as though its batteries had simply quit, and sometimes sitting tucked against the side of her house as though it had powered down.
She filled her shed with them, and started setting the others up as scarecrows, guarding her vegetables from the birds, though they did nothing to keep away the smaller animals and deer when they didn’t move.
The month lengthens and becomes two months, then three, four, five. The ads still come, but there are fewer, and as time goes on, Marie finds that sometimes weeks pass between appearances. Now, when the ads arrive, they are very little danger to her gardens, and she is able to harvest what she needs without them getting in her way.
They come to her to die and sometimes, when it has been a long time between visits, she lets the ads inside, and she listens to them while she serves sandwiches and tea she has made from what she can grow on the plot of land behind her house. The ads that make it to her mountain are moving slower and slower, and Marie is not surprised. She is moving slower these days, too, though she is not sure if that is the weather, leaning in toward winter, working cold into the ragged edges of her joints, or what is left to her now the pills have run out.
Every so often, the ads look like Robert. Sometimes they look like her friends; sometimes they look like her mother. Sometimes they look like nobody she has ever known, and sometimes they look like she imagines her children would have if she and Robert had ever cared to try.
Maybe when the winter is done, she thinks, she will climb down from her mountain to see what is left. The smell of the dead in the city will have gone by then, and there may be other survivors on other hills, looking for her. She holds the slightest of hopes that there are fewer ads because they have found others, and not just because they were never meant to last for so long, lost and alone in a dead world.