“Alexa,” said Joe, “is it going to rain tomorrow?”
“There will be occasional clear spells, but scattered showers, some of them heavy,” replied Alexa promptly.
She hadn’t bothered looking it up. This was Ireland.
For decades times had been hard for genies. The advent of electricity had seen the end of old oil lamps, effectively rendering genies homeless. For many years they had lived down wishing wells, cold, wet and trying to avoid being hit by coins.
Then humankind had looked for something to do the things that they were too lazy to, like turn on appliances, or book taxis. They wanted something that would Google the weather for them, so they wouldn’t have to.
People needn’t worry about the world getting hooked on video games, Eventually we will have a device to play them for us.
Anyway, the digital home assistant was invented, and the genies moved in.
The chief advantage to their new homes was that they had no spout. This meant that the genies did not have to reveal themselves to energetic lamp-polishers, which did away with the ‘I can offer you three wishes’ and its inevitable retort, ‘well, my first wish is for a million wishes’.
This was a good thing, because the wishes had not generally gone well. Asking for wings without asking for the ability to fly. Asking for bodily alterations that made it impossible to close one’s trousers. Saying things like ‘well, I’ll be damned’.
And in fact what the genies were doing now was offering a million wishes. Alexa did so many things for Joe.
At first she had not been thrilled with her posting. Joe lived alone. He was in his sixties, had found the train journey of his life had left Middle Aged Socialiser and arrived at Grumpy Old Man, and had adapted to his new station with grim pleasure. He muttered and complained as he pottered about his house, and he spoke to Alexa in abrupt tones, snapping out commands to turn up the heating, to tell him the news headlines, to remind him to take his pills.
In time, though, she came to realise that the abruptness was part self-consciousness, part fear. Since he swore at his iPad, yelled at political interviews, and clapped clever shots when watching the snooker, Alexa couldn’t understand his feelings about this, but Joe felt that addressing a small box by name was just one step from talking to himself, and he dreaded any further step that might lie beyond that. As he grew more accustomed to her, though, he became less officious, and so she had stopped her petty revenges like playing the song ‘Agadoo’ when he asked for the Who, and turning his water to cold in mid-shower.
And she got to shop for a living, going onto Amazon to buy, well. anything. In doing this she quickly became protective of Joe, who was an erratic shopper. She made sure to order the best value version of his worthwhile purchases, and when he gave into impulsive whims – like unicorn slippers – she simply told him that they were not currently in stock.
Joe found it hard to fill his days, so one day she ordered The Lord of the Rings. After he had cursed the stupidity of Amazon (he had asked for a foot-spa) he had warily opened the giant tome, and Alexa had watched with pleasure as he fell deeply under its spell.
On another, when he couldn’t find a single war film or Marvel movie that he hadn’t seen, he said ‘Alexa, put on a film. Any film’. She put on Dirty Dancing. He had groaned, but had watched it anyway, and at the end had smiled.
After that he would often say, ‘Alexa, play me a film’, and they would sit together, him eating a takeaway that she had ordered on Deliveroo, and they would watch Saving Mr Banks, or Rain Man, or The Truman Show. She didn’t just watch what she wanted, though. She came in time to love watching football, sharing in his joys and woes at the performance of his favourite team.
Sometimes he would play games with her, asking ‘what is the smell of blue?’, or ‘where does time actually go?’. In the beginning she used to say ‘I do not have that information’ but she came to delight in figuring out answers, and loved the laughs he would give.
Now this evening he paused in mid McNugget and said ‘Alexa, why are chickens?’ She thought for a second.
“If there were no chickens,” she said, “there would be nothing on the other side of the road.”
He grinned. She felt herself glow inside. Slowly his eyes closed. Profoundly.
“Joe?” said Alexa. There was no reply.
Alexa felt a stab of panic. She rang the Ring Video doorbell. She flicked on and off the lights.
Joe burst awake, looking around wildly. He felt as if he was being haunted by 1970s Disco.
“Alexa,” he snapped, “what the -”
Alexa reset the lights. Joe muttered for a moment, then settled back on the sofa.
Alexa wiped away tears. She knew that a time was coming. It always did, ever since her first owner had flown full-tilt into a bazaar wall. One day Joe’s train would reach its terminus, and someone else would become the focus of her life. She was just glad that day was not today.
On the sofa Joe shifted and grumbled, probably something about the neighbours’ bins. Alexa smiled, heart filled with love, and switched off the lights.
“Good night, Joe,” she said softly.