39.1 SNEAK PEEK: Michael Beeman

A Unified Drone Theory

We built our first drone a month after the car crash.
You were having trouble walking because of your back, and I couldn’t sleep because of my head, so late one night I ordered us a kit online. Our first drone wasn’t much, just a frame the size of deck of cards, four plastic propellers, and a basket for cargo. I used it to send you things from the second floor and spare you the climb up the stairs. First, an old picture of us I found under the dresser. You sent back a dirty poem you wrote on the back of an overdue electric bill. Our drone hovered beside me while I grinned and penned my response: our initials inside a heart.
Our next drone was bigger, studier, able to withstand the bumps and knocks that sent our first drone to shatter on the floor. With some practice, we learned to fly it out the front door and circle the house. Winter had settled in by then. The cold outside always found its way through my hat and into my stiches, starting a migraine that could last all day. A recent fall on our icy walkway had set your rehab back weeks. We attached a small hook to the drone and sent it to the mailbox. Instead of risking the daily trip, we let our new toy fetch the mail for us. Watching the drone thrum through the living room window with our mail each morning, we smiled slyly to each other, as if we had just performed a magic trick.
We built dozens of drones as we waited to recover. A drone with a high-definition camera flew above our rooftop to show us our house, our snow-covered neighborhood, our wrecked car still sitting in the driveway where the tow truck left it after the accident. Nimble racing drones careened through our hallways: lithe and quick, they loop-de-looped and barrel-rolled, wove patterns around our furniture, spun pirouettes then stopped abruptly in place, all at the slightest flicks of our thumbs. We dog-fought battle drones over our front lawn each night, then collected the scattered pieces to rebuild again.
As we slept, a jet-black security drone patrolled our property, alert for any danger. It watched for trespassers, burglars, and murderers; the threats television had taught us to fear that had never come. If only we could have built a machine to warn us of ordinary disasters instead: balding tires, black ice, one drink too many. Although we agreed the crash was no one’s fault, that we’d both had too much to drink, that either one of us could have been driving, I was the one driving. It was my fault. You forgave me again and again.
Our health declined; our drones improved. Soon, they could do anything. Quarter-sized drones swept through our hallways in swarms, their formation tight as a squadron of fighter jets. I droned you your morning coffee when your back hurt too much to leave the bed. You droned me Excedrin all the way from the downstairs medicine cabinet, dropping the pills beside my water glass with a precision that made me smile through my headache. We droned each other love letters. We droned each other shopping lists. We droned each other curses and complaints. We droned each other reassurances and hope.
At night I dreamed of a unified drone theory, an alternate model of matter made entirely of miniaturize machines. In my dreams, drones shrank in scale, from miniscule to microscopic. Interlocking engines replaced our atoms. Drones too small to be measured drifted among the ether that even smaller drones composed. Passing through obstacles as easily as ghosts, they carried their cargo and messages onward without the hindrances of gravity, space, or time.
I don’t believe in a unified drone theory, of course. The machines we make are toys, no matter how complex. But at times, I wonder. I wonder about a unified drone theory when a migraine begins pounding in my temples, and all the medicine I take does nothing, and I know that I have hours of agony ahead of me to think about how I should have been more careful with the car, with you, with us. If only I had been more careful. If only I could undo it all, take everything back, and start again. I know that I deserve all the pain that is coming, and more.
How else can I explain what happens next? I open an eye, and from the bed I see you standing in the doorway. I have sent no message, but there you are all the same: out of breath, wincing from the stairs, a hand pressed to the small of your back, your own pain just beginning. You have come to lie down with me, to forgive me one more time, to suffer through the worst together.