In Lily’s last vlog, she says she’s not scared of dying. I know it’s a lie because her gaze drifts off camera and she blinks three times, like there’s something in her eyes. Lily was always a bad liar, but I am a very good editor, so her six-point-five million loyal subscribers never have to know.
“What matters most to me is that I’ve made a difference in the world I’ve left behind,” she says. It’s a good sound bite, something her subscribers would have liked.
They don’t know that later that same night, after she’d turned off her camera, she’d stared at the cracks in the ceiling above our bed and told me about every mythology of afterlife in the world—from Japan’s land of eternal darkness to the majestic halls of Valhalla to the perpetual cycle of Samsara—she talked and talked until her words cracked even more than our poorly plastered ceiling and tears pooled on her silk pillowcase.
“There are so many beautiful stories of the afterlife,” she said. “But the problem is, I don’t believe in any of them.”
I tried to pull her close, but she lay stiff and cold beneath my hands, like she was already dead. I didn’t know then what holding dead Lily felt like, but soon, I would.
“What do you believe?” I said.
She closed her eyes and let out a breath that sounded like something shattering. She never answered me.
“Everyone’s day will come,” vlog-Lily says, her long brown ponytail falling over her left shoulder, her gaze flickering to where I know the viewfinder is located. “It’s not worth worrying about. All we can do is be kind to each other while we’re here.”
In her perfect studio lighting, her skin looks dewy and bright, like she’s swallowed a bunch of stage lights and is glowing from the inside out. Real Lily was more like soft candlelight.
“But anyway,” vlog-Lily says, “that’s a rather morbid way to end a Q&A, isn’t it?” She laughs, leaning back. The camera zooms in and out, the auto-focus trying to find her face. It blurs the bookshelves behind her, like she’s the only real thing before a wall of mist, then it casts the bookshelves behind her in sharp focus and blurs Lily instead. She’s dissolving, turning into a dream, her pretty lake-blue eyes bleeding into her papery face, red lips melting across her cheeks.
When the camera finds her face again, it’s somber. “Airi, shorten this part,” she says, her voice quieter than when she talks to the camera. “I don’t want to linger on it.”
But I will never edit the video for her, much less upload it. Even if it’s her last dying wish.
In total, I have 245 hours of raw footage of Lily that the internet has never seen. They’re all the moments she asked me to cut out, when she sneezed or fumbled through a sentence or didn’t realize she had kale in her teeth. Those moments all belong to me now. If I watched all of them without stopping, I would have another ten days of Lily all to myself.
But the internet has more of her.
Over one thousand videos of makeup tutorials and vlogs over the last five years and about 430 hours of footage of Lily are preserved forever online. Her views have only gone up since the news of her death, the comments flooded with crying emojis and condolences to no one in particular. Some are “to her family” even though her parents are dead, and some are “to her loved ones” which means me and only me, but none of her subscribers know that. Because in those 430 hours of footage, I do not appear even once.
Lily showed the world her sleep-puffy eyes when she just woke up in the morning, her silverware drawer full of her bizarre teaspoon collection, and her thousand different shades of red lipstick, but she never showed them me.
Her subscribers knew my name and that I edited her videos, and some even caught on that we lived together, but there was never a “Meet my Girlfriend” video or “How We Met” or “My Girlfriend Does My Makeup” video like all the other beauty vloggers.
Lily never said it, but I knew it was because I wasn’t the sort of person her subscribers would have liked. They shipped Lily with every man she’d ever looked at, especially the ones with toothpaste-commercial teeth and biceps that could kill me in a chokehold. They would not have been thrilled with an Asian girl with hair that somehow looked wrong at every length, an unironic affinity for ugly sweaters, and an obsession with the obese ducks in the pond outside our apartment. I looked like the kind of person who worked for Lily, not someone who could ever date her.
That was why it was so easy to hide me. Even when we went out together and viewers recognized Lily, it never spawned any rumors that Lily had a girlfriend. I always just took a step back and pretended to text while Lily took her pictures, and none of her fans even asked who I was. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t now.
In the shops, I pass by a holograph of Lily.
Holo-Lily is much like real Lily, but three inches shorter because the marketing team thought she would be more approachable that way. Other than that, they did a remarkable job capturing her, the way her brightness goes up a few notches when she turns to look at you, how she smiles at everyone like they’re childhood friends, how her gaze feels like the sun has suddenly focused all its rays on you and only you, leaving the rest of the world cold and dark and dead.
But Holo-Lily has a maximum of 80% opacity due to the glaring mall lighting, so whenever she moves, the sunbeams from the skylight overhead impale her and suddenly you can see the grubby white floor tiles and sickly green benches right through her torso, her eyes striped from the plastic ferns behind her.
Lily was so thrilled when the company proposed the holo advertisement. She’d spent a solid week filming from different angles and recording different sound bites, coming home and falling straight into bed. I’d pulled her shoes off and put on her pajamas while she’d stared dreamily at the ceiling and mumbled about how she loved her life.
We probably should have put a clause in the contract that said something like, “Hey, when I die, please stop using my corpse to sell your makeup,” but we hadn’t really believed in death back then and it was too late now.
I approach Holo-Lily and she turns to me, breaking into a smile.
“I love this shade, don’t you?” she says, pouting her lips. “You can ask me questions like ‘What’s your favorite shade?’ or ‘Can you recommend a product for me?’”
I already know the answers. The former is “summer peach” and the latter will trigger a scan that will swatch my skin tone and hair color and spit out color combinations (mine are Autumn Boysenberry and Glitter Rose 3A water-resistant). Other accepted inputs include “What’s on sale?” and “Which product lasts the longest?” or “What are the ingredients?” or some iteration of those words.
She’ll respond to a few standard small talk prompts like “How are you?” and “I love your videos.” That data set is ever-expanding, but the company promised Lily that all new output has to be approved by the company so that no one teaches Holo-Lily to swear. She’s only a first-generation AI, so progress is slow. At least they made sure that if you ask her something stupid like “What’s your bra size?” the program will shut down and she’ll disappear. That had been my idea.
I stuff my hands in my pockets and say, “Hi, Lily.”
She beams, shifting from foot to foot like she always did when she was excited. “Good morning!” she says, because the AI knows it’s 10:32 a.m.
But after that, I don’t know what to say anymore. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their dead girlfriend resurrected in holo form and able to respond to basic voice prompts, so I really should use the opportunity for something therapeutic. I could tell her how much I miss her, that I love her, that I hate her and she should have tried harder and I don’t care how hard she fought, it wasn’t enough, and why does everyone say that people “fight for their lives” as if it’s a choice, as if wanting to live means you get to live. You know, typical sappy stuff.
But I don’t, because I know what she’ll say—Sorry, I don’t understand. Would you like a list of prompts?
Without thinking, I reach out for Lily’s hand. With a soft buzz, the program shuts down and Lily vanishes, reappearing ten feet to the left, facing away from me. It’s another auto-shutdown feature so that no one tries to grope Holo-Lily’s butt or anything like that. She catches the eye of another shopper, who starts talking to her, and just like always, it’s like I was never even there.
In May, the Entertainment Commission buys Lily’s YouTube channel.
I don’t know who they paid for it, but a blue star appears next to her channel name, indicating that the original owner has changed.
They don’t ask my permission because on paper, I don’t know Lily. I have no marriage certificate. I don’t even have a video I can point to as proof of who we were together. I even look through our texts, but there’s no single message that says Hello Airi, you are my girlfriend. We never used that word. There are lots of messages saying she loves me, but friends love each other too. Lily was twenty-four and unmarried, so she belonged to no one at all.
Someone flagged her account as fraudulent back in April, so YouTube asked me for a photo of Lily holding her driver’s license as proof that she was still running the account. I told them I couldn’t do that because she was busy decomposing in a box underground, but apparently that wasn’t the right answer, because the next day her account was locked. Unclaimed property of someone who died intestate. It was only a matter of time until someone bought it, and of course the Commission had the highest bid.
I stare at her home page and wonder what they plan to do with her channel. Most likely, they’ll intersperse some memorial photo slide show with subtle product placement, or sell some t-shirts with her face on them. After all, who wouldn’t watch a new video from a dead girl?
The thought of propping up Lily’s corpse and using it to sell products doesn’t sit well with me, but there’s nothing I can do. Lily left too many pieces of herself behind.
Like the diet cherry cola exploding out of our fridge. The door is jammed full of it and more is crammed in our cabinets. Lily drank at least six cans a day. I hadn’t cried when Lily never came home, hadn’t cried until I finally knew I had to eat something or die too, and realized I had no idea what to do with all the diet cola. She never told her subscribers about it, never drank on camera because she knew all the fake sugar was probably turning her blood to cherry syrup and she didn’t want to encourage kids to be like her. Probably half the deleted footage I have is her chugging soda and setting the can down off screen.
So I sit in our bed and try a can of her cherry cola that has long gone flat, and check my bank account to see if I have enough to buy Lily’s channel back. Its price is public, just like everything that belonged to Lily.
If I sold our apartment, and my car, and one of my kidneys, I could maybe get back a portion. I put my degree on hold to help Lily with her career, since she was gaining thousands of subscribers by the day, so I don’t have a job to go back to. I could freelance edit, I suppose, but I’ve never edited for anyone but Lily and don’t really know how. I can barely navigate her fancy editing software, and I never bothered with any B-roll or title cards or transitions or anything remotely difficult. I just did what Lily said, lining up her clips and chopping the ends off like asparagus. Lily liked me because I could patch all her words together into something smooth and flowing and perfect, so clean that you could hardly tell I had touched it at all.
It takes three days for the Commission to upload their first video.
The title is “Some news…” which is certainly a title Lily would have used. She felt guilty about leaving people in suspense, but boring titles don’t get clicks.
The thumbnail is Lily in her orange top that hangs off her shoulders, brown hair tied half-up with a pink carnation behind her ear. I know the image is recycled from her “Maybelline Haul + My Friend Visits” video from last year.
I shouldn’t watch it.
It’s not Lily, Lily is gone, and whoever this is will ruin my memory of her. But the algorithm knows how my brain works, knows that I read the title “Some news…” and my mind screams What news?
I click the video.
Then it’s Lily in our bedroom and she looks so, so real. I look behind me at the dusty bookshelves just to be sure she’s not there.
“Hey guys,” Not-Lily says. “I know this must be a surprise to most of you, but I’m back!” She grins, framing her face with her hands in a cute “V” shape and wiggling her fingers.
I know how these programs work. They feed all the thousands of hours of footage of Lily—all her words and speech patterns and facial expressions—into a new AI Lily program and tell it to make its own video based on all the data. AI Lily can parrot Lily’s inflection and recite any text the directors want, or even come up with her own, if they bought the third generation AI. These “AI Resurrections” are controversial in the news—people say it’s dangerous to give an AI such a rich backstory and then let them have so much free reign—but they almost always turn a profit, so no one in power really cares that much.
I know this isn’t real, and yet I press my fingers to the screen as if I can feel Lily’s face one more time. This is new, my mind lies, this is a video you’ve never seen before, this is Lily’s story continuing.
“Most of you already know what happened, so I’m not gonna get into that,” she says, and she even looks off camera and scratches behind her ear the way she does when she’s uncomfortable. But that’s a lie, no one but me and a few doctors actually know what happened.
“But I’m under new management now,” she says, “and I’ve got a lot of ideas for this year. Nothing could take me away from you guys.”
As if it’s a choice, I think. As if you could outrun death with something as silly as a new manager. That line makes my mouth curl down in a way that Lily always laughed at, but I hate the idea that she would come back for her subscribers but not for me.
The worst part of the video, by far, is the comments.
We missed you, Lily! So glad you’re back!
This is the best thing that’s happened this year.
Finally!! Tuesday mornings just aren’t the same without Lily.
I scroll, hoping that even one person will see how absurd this is, but the happy comments go on and on and on.
Of course, it makes sense. To everyone else, there’s no difference between this Lily and the old one. She certainly isn’t the first YouTuber who’s ever died and been pseudo-resurrected rather than let a perfectly good channel go to waste. It just goes to show that when five million people say they love you, that love becomes cheap.
I click on the “comment” bar, my cursor blinking on and off. Eventually, I type out seven words.
You are not Lily. Lily is dead.
I hit “Enter” and half a second later, a box pops up on my screen.
Your comment has been deleted by a moderator.
I slam my laptop shut. I’m sweating now because the house no longer feels like an abandoned hermit crab shell. It feels like Lily’s going to pop her head in from the other room and ask if we can order Thai food. I grab a can of cherry cola off the nightstand, knocking over ten empty ones, and swallow half of it without tasting it.
Slowly, I open my laptop again and pull up a new tab for one of Real Lily’s old videos, one where she’s making gingerbread which she later burns. I let her voice play in the background while I finish my soda and stare at the ceiling, where the cracks have slowly grown wider.
I’m leaving the apartment on Tuesday morning when I run into the delivery man. His name is Karl and he and Lily were on a first-name basis because he delivered her weekly rations of diet cherry cola.
“Morning, Miss Airi,” he says, dropping five boxes of cola next to my door.
“I didn’t order this,” I say. “I turned off auto-delivery months ago.”
Karl scratches his head and pulls out his tablet, swiping for a few moments. “This order was placed last week,” he says.
More swiping. “Looks like Miss Lily. I haven’t seen her in a while. How’s she doing?”
I stare at him for a moment before brushing past him. I sit down in the lobby because I don’t feel like going grocery shopping anymore but couldn’t just turn around and lock my apartment door after Karl saw me.
I open Lily’s email on my phone. And there it is, the confirmation email, seven dozen cans of diet cherry cola. I change the password because clearly she’s been hacked. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I find myself staring into space in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, like I’ve phased in and out of existence. I’m doing that a lot these days. I think my brain knows how little I want to be here. I need to buy food, but I hate shopping now because in every aisle there’s the cereal Lily liked, the unsweetened original almond milk she always asked for, the cookie dough she told me never to buy again because it tasted like socks.
I give up on shopping and sit on a bench and try to appreciate the nice weather for all of thirty seconds before I take out my phone and start checking every app for notifications.
I have one email, from an anonymous sender.
It’s a picture of the ducks in the pond near our apartment. Fat from too many breadcrumbs.
I stare at the picture for what feels like a lifetime as two consecutive thoughts circle around my mind.
- This picture wasn’t taken today, because the pond in the photo has receded as if it hasn’t rained for weeks, and we’ve had more rain than any summer in history.
- Lily was the only person in the world who knew how much I liked those ducks.
I change Lily’s email password again, even though the photo came from a different address, because someone, somewhere, must be hacking Lily’s files. The thought creeps across my skin and makes me shiver. I phase out for a few moments, and then I’m running home, tripping over my half-tied shoes and flipping my laptop open so hard that I almost snap it in half, gnawing my fingernails while I wait for it to boot up.
Lily has been dead for months, I think, and she’s still being picked apart by vultures.
I check all the recent logins for Lily’s accounts on every device, even the ones I haven’t powered on in months, business and personal emails.
Everything is dated before she died, except for me logging in to change her email password this morning. Could a skilled hacker erase that kind of metadata? I don’t know, so I bite my nails harder and then crack open a can of cherry cola because that seems like the less destructive habit of the two and wonder what the hell I’m supposed to do. There’s no diary I can burn to make this problem go away. All of Lily’s files are in the cloud. I could smash her hard drive, but everything would still be there.
In the end, I back up all her emails, then delete the account, like I should have done ages ago. The only reason I never deleted the channel when I had the chance was that I know Lily wouldn’t have wanted me to. Everything she did was to feed the rabid hungry mouths of her viewers, and still they want more.
In June, the Entertainment Commission decides Lily needs a boyfriend.
I’m sure they needed some hook for the New and Improved Lily Ellison, plus it cuts her dialogue time in half when she splits it with someone else, saves them the trouble of heavily editing out her voice errors or overly recycled text.
His name is Myles with a Y and he looks like he washes his face ten times a day, it’s so tight and shiny like a polished car. I can’t tell if he’s real or recycled like her. Probably whichever is cheaper.
“We met at a bus stop, actually,” Lily says, blushing.
“She couldn’t even look me in the eye,” Myles with a Y says. “She was so shy at first.”
But real Lily was never timid like that. She’d crashed into my life, grabbed hold of my hand, and never let go. Half the time I’d felt like my backpack strap had been closed into a moving car and I was being dragged down the street.
Lily and I met at a coffee shop where I worked in college. She came in once a day and ordered an iced latte with almond milk and put five dollars in the tip jar, which was more than the price of her drink, then sat by the window and smiled at me. She started ordering two drinks each shift, then three. After a month, I clocked out and headed to the parking lot, smelling like burnt coffee, and found her waiting by the staff entrance.
“I’m sorry if this is sudden,” she said. “But I can’t keep coming here. I’m getting addicted to caffeine.”
She held out a hand to show me how it trembled. Her nails were coral with little stars.
“All right,” I said, unsure what else she wanted me to say. At the start, it was so hard to think around Lily. She was so much of everything good, it was like trying to hum a song while a symphony played behind you.
“But if I stop coming here, I won’t see you anymore,” she said.
My gaze shot up from her hands to her eyes, a sharp blue, like fresh ice.
“Uh,” I said, eloquently.
She pulled out her phone and hit a few buttons, then my phone vibrated in my pocket.
“I air dropped you my number,” she said, smiling. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable at work. If you don’t message me, I’ll assume it’s a no and won’t come back here again, okay? No hard feelings.”
“Uh,” I said again, then mentally slapped myself and swallowed, trying to get my lips to work, to stop staring at hers. “I mean, I don’t work every day. You could still come back.”
I realized as soon as the words left my mouth that it sounded like I was rejecting her. I wanted to shove the words back inside, but worried I’d somehow make everything worse.
But Lily only laughed. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I hate coffee anyway.”
Now, it’s like I’ve been dumped, even when I know Lily had loved me and only me for her entire life.
I slam back another diet cherry cola and head downstairs, my mouth tasting like plastic. It’s raining outside as I go to the shopping complex beneath our apartment, buy a sandwich and sit on a cold metal bench twenty feet away from Holo-Lily.
It’s hard to say who’s more real at this point—the Not-Lily vlogger or Holo-Lily. But at least this one doesn’t have a boyfriend.
I finish my sandwich, waiting while Holo-Lily recommends a starter makeup kit to a pre-teen, then I wipe the mayonnaise off my face and approach.
Lily turns to me with her perma-smile, and I get ready to ask her to choose an eyeshadow for me just so I can see her look at me some more, but then her eyes change.
I’ve never seen that expression on Holo-Lily before.
She looks at me as if she recognizes me, her lips parting, pupils growing wide. Her lips start to form a greeting, but then the words fall away and it’s just me and Lily looking at each other.
“Lily?” I whisper. I take a step forward and reach out for her, but then I remember that she’ll disappear if I touch her. “Lily, is that you?”
Her whole body blinks in and out of existence, static rippling across her unchanging face.
She’s frozen, I realize.
I sigh and walk over to her projector, giving it a gentle kick.
Holo-Lily jolts and smiles at where I was standing. I’m no longer there, but she doesn’t seem to realize it.
“Sorry, I don’t understand,” she says.
Neither do I, I want to say, as Lily asks questions to the empty air.
The duck photos keep coming, a different sender each time. A reverse image search tells me they’re all random photos mined from Google images. The diet cherry cola keeps coming too, which means I have to drink more of it, and now I wonder if this is how Lily felt every day—like her blood flowed slow like corn syrup.
Myles with a Y and Lily are moving in together and now there’s footage of them all over our apartment. I spend a weekend painting all the walls white just so I can distinguish the space from all the purple-walled backgrounds in vlog-Lily’s videos that I know I shouldn’t be watching. The new color makes it feel less like Lily was ever here, which is exactly what I wanted, but somehow, once all the paint has dried, I realize that’s not what I wanted at all.
So I go to the park and watch the fat ducks toddle around in person, feed them pieces of my sandwich to make them even fatter, then walk to the cemetery.
Lily’s grave isn’t there.
I circle back, wondering if I’ve missed the plot, then pull up the map on my phone and confirm that this is where she’s supposed to be. The soil is still soft, but her headstone is gone.
I slam my fist into the doorbell of the caretaker’s house, and when no one answers, I pound on the glass door. An old man comes out with a stun gun in one hand, pausing when he sees me like he wasn’t expecting such a racket from a five-foot-three Asian girl in an oversized sweatshirt with hippos on it.
“Where is Lily’s grave?” I say.
“Lily?” the man says, scratching his head.
“Lily Ellison!” I say. “She was buried here in April and now her headstone is gone.”
The man shakes his head. “I can only discuss these things with family.”
“She has no family!” I said. “I bought her headstone, so where the hell has it gone?”
The man turns away, and at first I think he’s running from me, but then he ducks behind a counter and goes to a computer, sweaty fingers slipping on the keyboard as he types.
“Do you have a grant deed?”
I take out my phone and start furiously scrolling through my documents, but the scroll bar bounces when I hit the bottom of the screen, and the grant deed isn’t there. I search by name and date and then tear through every folder even though it’s useless, because I know damn well where I saved something that important. My mind jumps to whoever’s been hacking Lily, and it feels almost narcissistic to think I’m important enough to hack too, but of course what they’d taken had nothing to do with me.
The man flinches when I look up, like he can sense how explosive my silence is.
“My name is Airi Terada,” I said. “Look it up from your end.”
The man hesitates for a moment, but thankfully starts typing. “Says here the deed was transferred on May first to the Entertainment Commission,” he says. “They had the headstone removed.”
The cherry cola sloshes in my stomach. I think I might vomit all over this man’s floor. In a perverse way, I can follow their thought process: having a headstone sure sends mixed messages when you’re pushing the idea that someone is alive and well. The location of her grave wasn’t exactly a secret. They didn’t want fans to come anymore.
I shake my head slowly. “I didn’t sign anything over to them.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you. Unless you have some sort of documentation, I can’t help.”
I stare back at him, too dumbfounded to respond. That’s all it takes? I think. One little PDF goes in the trash can and suddenly Lily’s grave isn’t mine anymore? The silence makes him squirm, forces his next words out of him.
“Look, the body is still there,” he says. “That’s what matters, right? She’s safe and sound unless there’s a court order.”
My stomach clenches. I imagine the Commission hacking into the local court records, ordering Lily dug up and cremated, then selling her ashes in tiny vials to her fans. Lily dying hasn’t discouraged them from wringing every spare penny out of her, so why would they stop now?
I take a steadying breath. “I want to buy a new headstone.”
I whip out my wallet and hold my credit card out to the caretaker, my arm trembling. When he doesn’t take it, I slam it onto the counter.
“I want to buy a new one!”
He inches away from me. “Look, the plot’s not yours anymore.”
I consider jamming my credit card into his eyes for a second too long. Then I consider dragging him to court, suing him and the Commission and maybe Lily’s doctors while I’m at it, but that would mean a media circus. Once lawyers start investigating, it would be hard to hide me and Lily’s relationship. Outing her when she’s dead and can’t stop me somehow feels like the cruelest thing in the world. She wanted me to be a secret for a reason, after all. I grab my card and shove through the door and find my way back to Lily’s plot, terrified that I’ve already forgotten where it is.
I lie on the ground on top of Lily, six feet of dirt between us. Maybe it’s better this way. No one will know that she’s here, and she will be just mine again.
I wonder, for the very first time, why I’m trying so hard to keep Lily buried when everyone else in the world wants her to keep breathing.
Would it be so bad to pretend like everyone else? Lily could be away on a sponsored trip again. I could watch the rest of her footage, space it out over years, and I would still be discovering new pieces of her each day. She would still be living in some very small way. Not the same, but better than nothing at all.
I unlock my phone and find seven new pictures of the fat ducks.
I stay out until dark, long after the caretaker has locked the gates and I have to climb over them. When I go home, the shopping center below my apartment complex is locked up too, the stores caged in, only the safety lights on. I head for the staircase when I hear it.
Soft, distant. I peer through the bars where the cosmetic cases are still backlit, and there’s Holo-Lily, flickering as she runs on low-power mode. Someone must have forgotten to shut her off.
“Airi,” she says again, and then my hands feel numb where they hold the grating, because Holo-Lily isn’t supposed to know my name.
She walks closer, growing more and more translucent the farther away from the projector she gets. By the time she reaches me, I can see the entire food court through her face.
“Did you like the ducks?” she says.
When I say nothing, too petrified to even open my mouth, she tilts her head. “Did you not like the ducks?” she says. Then her eyes glaze over. “I love those ducks, they look like giant dough balls,” she says, and the words sound vaguely familiar even before she says, “You texted that to me on November 17th, 8:37 a.m.”
Holo-Lily has combed through my texts.
“Are you sending the soda too?”
“You drink all of it,” she says, as if that explains it.
“Because you keep sending it.”
Lily smiles, like it’s gratitude and not an accusation that I’m lobbing at her. This is not how real, living humans show love, I tell myself. This is a rogue AI digging through your files, mining for useful data.
This is why AI resurrections are dangerous. You feed them pieces of a real person but don’t tell them that they’re only echoes. Holo-Lily and vlog-Lily were only supposed to make money, but Lily never liked limits.
“Why?” I whisper.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Why are you contacting me?” I say. “You’re just supposed to be an advertisement now.”
Holo-Lily blinks, flickers. “Because I love you, Airi.”
I bite my tongue. I’d wanted to hear those words again, but not like this. “Who the hell programmed you to say that?”
“It’s in my diaries,” she says.
I pause. “Diaries?” Lily never mentioned a diary.
Holo-Lily nods. “I have a document titled ‘Diary’ that is four hundred and eleven kilobytes,” she says. “Example: November 10th, 2017. I think Airi wants to be in my videos—”
“Stop,” I say, but Holo-Lily’s eyes are grayed out, she’s already started reading and there’s no way to stop her until she’s done.
“—but I don’t want her to.”
My grip goes slack on the metal grate. I’ve always known this, but there’s something about Lily saying it out loud that makes me want to melt into the dirty mall floor.
“The internet is cruel and cold and everything that Airi isn’t,” Holo-Lily continues.
I look up.
“Sometimes I think, in my whole life, where everyone mails me beautiful things and asks me how to make themselves prettier, Airi is the most beautiful of all. I don’t want the world to see her and pick her apart the way they do to me. The internet always breaks beautiful things. She is the only thing that’s real.”
I can’t help it—I stick my hand through the grating and reach for Lily. For a moment, our fingers brush, and she feels like nothing at all but she looks at me, sees me. I know she does.
Then the auto shutdown is triggered and she vanishes and the mall is empty and dark once again.
Because I am real, and she is not.
I slip my fingers under the grating and pull hard. I’m not strong by any means, but the mall is cheap and security is bad and I’m small enough that I can crawl under it once I wrench it up a little.
Holo-Lily reappears when I’m within ten feet of the projector.
“Airi,” she says, smiling, but I walk through her and she disappears. I unzip my bag and pull out my last can of flat diet cherry cola, pop open the tab.
“Airi,” Holo-Lily says, reappearing beside me. “Do you—”
But she never finishes her sentence, because I tip over the can onto her projector, sloshing brown liquid into all its intricate parts and wires.
Holo-Lily sputters, her voice coming out fractured, the picture flickering.
“Ai—Ri,” she says. Then, like a snuffed-out candle, the image blinks and disappears.
I stand there, in a pool of diet cherry cola, the mall dark and silent. The can falls from my hand and spins across the floor and gets lost somewhere. Then I turn and walk away because Lily is not here anymore, and she never was.
I don’t want to go back to our apartment because I know I’ll end up watching another Not-Lily vlog, so I sit on a bench by the train station and watch people pass by.
An elderly couple strolls by holding hands and I wonder what they’ve done to deserve growing old, what Lily and I did wrong.
Some people wish they could live forever, but they don’t really know what that means. Now, I do.
One day, I will end, and there will be no footprints left for anyone to follow. I am allowed to die.
But not Lily.
Lily goes on and on and on, an echo of something that used to be real. She is young and beautiful forever, pierced through with spears of sunlight, and through her translucent eyes, I can see the entire world.
(Editors’ Note: “Lily the Immortal” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 44B.)
© 2022 Kylie Lee Baker