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2021 - Fall - An Unconventional Gift Entry

Spirited Holiday Engagement - 1. Spirited Holiday Engagement

Part I: How It All Ended and Began Again

Jake Lawrence died on November 25th, 2021. This fact must be established, as the events of this tale after his death should be impossible due to it. I know most people will not believe my story or will call what we are sharing right now an unhealthy delusion created by ancient superstition and modern technology.

My name is Joey Lam. I am a 28-year-old Chinese American man whom you would probably ignore in your daily lives as any random stranger walking around Cambridge’s Kendall Square, where hundreds of guys like me are buzzing around all day—from MIT students to employees from the nearby office buildings. My appearance is typical of a computer-science specialist: messy black hair, rumpled button-down shirt and pants, and covered by the latest in wearable technologies, like smart glasses, wireless earbuds, smartwatch, and even temperature-controlled thermal wear. I am an artificial-intelligence specialist, and my company, which has progressed from a college startup to an integrated, coding-program service provider for the bigger tech players, has given me professional and financial success. I owe some of my success to Jake Lawrence.

I met Jake two years ago. He was just a young-and-driven, 24-year-old coder with big dreams and ambitions who was looking for a job at my company along with several other recent graduates. He was a few years older than most of the graduates that came to interview, but his knowledge and skills were undeniable. I hired him, and we worked on several projects together. We grew closer, and my attraction to him became undeniable after several weeklong sessions of troubleshooting and recoding. We went through the usual pattern of gay relationships with starting questions like:

Are you attracted to men, too?

Want to go out for a coffee?

Do you like Peet’s, Starbucks, or some hipster coffee shop?

On the last question, he chose McDonald’s instead of the other venues, aiming for value with their $1 coffee and utility over exotic tastes. Over our first coffee date, I learned he was originally from Michigan, and his homophobic family stopped supporting him due to “his lifestyle” years ago. He had to move away from Michigan to Massachusetts for college. He had to work to support himself and attended fewer classes as a result of his family’s rejection. While I had originally thought it would be a single date and hookup, Jake and I developed a rapport with one another. After several coffee dates, movie dates, and dinner dates, he moved into my two-story house, and we became boyfriends. A year later, we made plans to get married on Christmas Day.

Fate interrupted our blissful lives together. Jake got into a car accident on Thanksgiving. A speeding truck slid on the interstate highway and crashed into his Toyota Prius. I didn’t take it well when I first heard of it. I cried and locked myself in my home for three days straight as my friends attempted to lift my spirits. On the third day, my sister came by my house and offered me some homemade dumplings and noodles, like the stuff we had as kids. My family wasn’t completely supportive of me being gay. They did tolerate my relationship with Jake, but most did not plan to attend our wedding on Christmas. My sister was the sole exception, being very open-minded and having made her own scandalous announcement to our family that she was going to be part of a three-person couple, or throuple, with her boyfriend and another woman. Sexuality and relationship standards were far less important to her than my more traditional relatives.

As I ate the food, my sister asked, “How are you feeling?”

I answered robotically, attempting to deflect, “I’m okay, how about you? How’s Ethan and Camilla doing?”

She didn’t take the bait and pressed, “Have you considered any funeral arrangements for him yet? It’s been three days.”

Remembering a sour email from Jake’s family, I growled at my sister’s question. “Since we were not technically married and none of the legal documents were signed, his parents took his…” I wasn’t able to say ‘body’. “They took Jake and are going to give him a “proper Christian” funeral. I was asked not to attend. They didn’t care about Jake while he was around. Fuck their fancy church service and funeral. No one there really loved who he was, just who they wanted him to be.”

She nodded. “We can still have a service for him here; he’s your husband in everything else that matters. Why don’t we hold a traditional Chinese funeral service on the seventh day of his passing? The Chinese ceremony doesn’t require priests or theological standing, just people that Jake loved.”

I readily accepted her suggestion. “I think that would be great,” then revealed something I’ve been working on. “I’ve been programming something, a living memorial for Jake. He wrote down some stuff for his marriage vows and the wedding-night dinner that I want people to hear in his voice. We can play it when we have our service.”

A Chinese funeral involves several things, depending on the cultural tradition you follow and how big or small you want your loved ones to be received by others for the final time in the living world. Since we do not have his body, the ceremony would be based on the short-form ceremony, without viewings and processions to the cemetery. Despite the alterations in custom, there are things I must maintain for this kind of funeral service. Based on my understanding, as his spouse, I would have to wear white robes and a white headband while attendees should wear black, as our custom dictated. No one is to wear red or any other color except black and white. Another duty of the spouse is to carry a wooden plaque with his name, birth date, and death date from the place of the funeral ceremony to the place where the wooden plaque would be enshrined, which would likely be my home. Similar to a Christian funeral, wreaths of flowers are also displayed during the ceremony, but the attendees would have to carry their wreaths of flowers—each with a final message from the attendees to the dead—from the ceremony space to the final place of enshrinement as a tribute. Despite my initial joy at my sister’s idea of a Chinese funeral to offset being snubbed by Jake’s Christian parents, a harsh reality was starting to make its way into my thoughts. I am not sure who would be willing to do all this stuff after Thanksgiving. A Chinese funeral is a very labor-intensive ritual. There would also be a funerary feast after all the work, which all attendees of the funeral service must attend.

Before we finalized our discussions for a Chinese funeral, my sister asked me one more question, “Do you want to perform the 招魂 (Zhāo Hún, Spirit Summoning) ritual after the funeral? I can get the materials.”

I’ve always considered this particular custom to be a superstitious throwback from Taoist mystic tradition. People wailing and calling for their dead loved ones to come back with various objects to get their spirit’s attention. I know this tradition is akin to séances and mediums, but it’s part of my heritage. My parents come from a long line of Taoist practitioners, and my sister, despite her modern outlook, is one of those ‘New Age’ spiritualists. I know all the proper words and the motions to summon spirits as a result.

My sister listed out the items that we will need:

· 1 live chicken – To allow the summoned soul to temporarily attach to the chicken body.

· 1 cow horn – To blow it to summon the soul.

· 1 wooden ruler – To transform into a bridge to let the soul cross over the sea or river if they are separated by a body of water.

· 1 bowl filled with plum wine, several 馒头 (Mántóu,white wheat steamed buns), and bronze coins to offer food and payment to the Underworld’s spirit guardians for the visitation.

· 1 round mirror – It is said that the loved one can witness the return of the soul through this mirror.

· A pair of scissors – To cut off the 天羅 (Tian Luo, Heavenly binding) net that restricts the movement of the soul.

· An old shirt that belonged to the deceased – To allow the soul to find its way back to the right place.

· A branch of green bamboo – To chase away the ghosts that were inadvertently summoned.

In my grief, I gave my sister the money to make the necessary purchases for me, and I reached out to our friends to see who would be available for the actual funeral service. As I feared, most of our friends couldn’t attend this funeral service due to holiday obligations, but they sent their best wishes. As such, I booked a small function room at the Marriot Hotel for three hours and one table at a Chinese restaurant for the funeral feast at night. I spent most of the remaining four days working on my computer program, trying to get Jake’s tone, facial features, expressions, and even the slight stutter in his voice at uttering certain words like “calculate” and “meticulous”. At times, the computer program made me forget that he wasn’t around anymore. I made this “pretend” Jake speak to me and read back some of his text messages to me. I knew this was merely a program, though, and not Jake. I stopped talking to it after the second day as my work had finished on the voice synthesizer and facial expressions. I’ve watched the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’ before; I was working on stuff very close to that level of technical mimicry. I was among members in the artificial-intelligence-development community who drew a line in the sand between humanity and technology. We should never lie to ourselves about the human condition. However, I wanted to add something of Jake’s work into the program I created as his memorial, so I placed an additional line of code that Jake was working on before he died, an “adaptive learning” algorithm meant for the next generation of supercomputers. It was only supposed to improve his voice and expressions.

Little did I know things would get very weird due to all these preparations.

Part II: The Funeral and The Rebirth

On Thursday, December 2, 2021, we held a Chinese funeral for Jake Lawrence. Only 15 people, including my sister and me, were in attendance. We each made a little speech about Jake at the ceremony and had offerings to him in the form of paper ghost money or paper objects. Fearing Jake might be dispossessed or homeless in the afterlife, I ordered a custom house and several cars for my fiancé that were delivered to my house as well. I probably could have bought those things for him, when he was alive, but he said he didn’t need any fancy stuff from me. He didn’t want money to come in between us, but I felt like I owed him a better life than the one he had. I guessed this would be the way I could give him actual gifts.

It occurred to me during the funeral that I rarely gave Jake any true gifts. He insisted he pay for the coffee himself during our dates, which was why we started out at McDonald’s; then only when my company became successful with decent paychecks for both of us did we progress to other coffee houses. We didn’t go out for movies; instead, we relied on in-home streaming services, which were fine with me. I enjoyed the post-movie snuggling that we engaged in. He also preferred to cook at home rather than eat out; he learned to make dumplings and even several Hakka-styled dishes for me, as a result. Sure, I paid for lunch and dinner sometimes, but it was usually at modest establishments, and Jake only would go inside restaurants if the price was right on published menus.

The most painful memory of Jake’s frugality occurred when I proposed to him. He rejected the engagement ring I got him initially, a platinum band with a cut diamond valued at around $105,000. He said he wanted to marry me, but he couldn’t accept something like that from me. I found a simple silver band and had it engraved with my name for under $500. I proposed to him again, which he accepted. He bought me a matching silver band with his name engraved, and I felt really bad for putting him in that position. From our mutual, financial-record disclosures, I knew he had plenty of money saved up between the company stock he got as a lead developer and bonuses from projects. I knew his time in poverty had made him—and myself after a year of browbeating by him—fear spending too much money. I wished I could have given him far more than what he was willing to take, but all those wishes are moot with his death. I was not a man who lamented missed opportunities for myself. Yet, I cannot deny my own failures to be a better friend and better lover.

During my speech, I used the computer program that I had designed with the likeness of Jake. He spoke several lines from his proposed vows. Several people cried at those words, and a few tears poured down my face despite having created and heard this speech several times before. The voice was clearer, and the facial expression seemed to have improved slightly due to the adaptive-learning algorithm. There was something special in hearing Jake’s voice with a live audience; sharing my grief made this moment feel more real.

Once the incense candles had burned out, the Chinese funeral procession could begin to leave the hotel function room. I carried the wooden plaque bearing Jake’s name and went into a black rental sedan. My small group would head to my house in the suburbs. My sister and our friends had brought three large Chinese funerary wreaths with italicized English messages of condolences and a good journey, as Chinese funeral traditions permit. These wreaths should all have been written for the departed in the language they are familiar with, normally Chinese, but in Jake’s case, English would be proper. In addition to three traditional wreaths, there was a fourth wreath from members of Jake’s programming team with binary language scripts of 0’s and 1’s, which represented “love” and “memory”. Binary may be unorthodox, but Jake, like myself, knew programming language well, and binary is the most basic language in our field, so it’s also permitted.

When we reached my house, I placed Jake’s wooden plaque inside a wooden altar in front of all the attendees of the funeral ceremony. I lit a quick-burning incense candle and motioned for everyone to bow in front of the altar seven times. Then, we waited on our knees until the incense candle on Jake’s altar burned out. Unlike the incense candle at the funeral, these ones at home did not need to be the slow-burning variety and could be consumed within 10 minutes rather than an hour in the larger ritual. Upon the candle burning out, we went out to my backyard, where a fire pit had been dug and filled with oil and accelerants. I lit the pit with a match and tossed my white robe and white headband into the roaring flames. Everyone carried their wreaths and did the same. The paper ghost money, paper objects, the custom-made wooden house, and the wooden car were also tossed in the fire. Like other traditions with bonfires, the Chinese funerary rite of the fire was ancient. It is meant to send these offerings and communications to the dead. While the Chinese saw what we did as giving material gifts to the dead by fire, I knew in the Christian tradition these objects were cast away as vanities or earthly distractions in similar bonfires. When the fire consumes all the funerary elements, we left my home for the next part of the funeral: the feast.

We held a 白宴 (Bái yàn, White Feast), a tradition from my subculture where we end the day of depression and blackness with the light of food and life. It’s meant to be a symbolic rebirth for the living relatives of the deceased to move on from their loss. We shared various Chinese delicacies, had a good deal of alcohol, and commiserated about everything that was going on in our lives. I remembered similar gatherings after my grandparents’ funerals and relatives speaking about upcoming weddings, children, or job opportunities that may be coming around the corner. With an American audience, it was far more somber and reminiscent of a traditional Christian wake than it was the jovial White Feast to move on. Also a departure from tradition, I had handed every member of the attendees, a white envelope, known as 白金 (Bái jīn,white money). Each envelope was filled with money that they gave back to me at the end of the feast. My sister was the sole exception as she had her own white envelope to give me. Traditionally, attendees of a Chinese funeral and feast are supposed to give white envelopes filled with money to help the deceased family with funeral costs, but I did not expect my friends or my employees to do such a thing, so I gave them the necessary white envelope to give back to me. In western societies, it would be impolite to force your friends to give money after having them spend an entire day with you at a funeral helping you to perform these tasks.

When I returned to my house, my sister had set up an altar in the back of the house near where the fire pit was. The chicken clucked furiously in its cage, probably thinking we would be committing some kind of chicken-ritual sacrifice against it. Contrary to popular belief, the Zhāo Hún ritual does not ask for any kind of ritual sacrifice of the chickens or anything else. The chicken’s presence as an avatar was just needed. Many Chinese horror movies, especially from Hong Kong, incorrectly depicted it as an animal sacrifice for shock value. I read somewhere that it was done by Chinese Christian practitioners and continued to be promoted by current anti-religious, government-supported groups to demonize the ritual as akin to devil worship and resist traditional Taoist rituals for barbaric animal cruelty. It might seem odd that Christians and state-backed groups can have common ground in attacking a native Chinese religion, but each gets what they want. Christians denounce what they perceive as an evil pagan ritual and reinforce their claim as the only true faith. The state gets to attack one of the last remnants of ancient social order and purge religious practices that do not conform to modern dogma. To be fair, I honestly do not hold much stock in religious belief or any kind of ideological system that requires devotion to an organization’s representatives.

Blowing the cow’s horn silenced the chicken, and a gust of wind blew past us. I stared at the mirror left and right, but I saw no one around us.

My sister and I call out, “Jake Lawrence, come here. Jake Lawrence, come here. Jake Lawrence, come here”.

Briefly I thought I saw a shadow behind me in the mirror, but when I turned my head, there was no one. I looked in the mirror again, and it showed nothing. After an hour of the ritual, we gave up. The chicken was exhausted, and my sister took her back to a chicken farm, where she’ll likely be left to lay eggs for the rest of her life or become chicken tenders for someone’s meal. I cleaned up the backyard and went back to my home.

The lights in my house were turning on by themselves, which wasn’t that strange as I had installed motion-sensing, smart light bulbs. However, the light was dim initially rather than fully bright so my eyes could be accustomed to the new lighted environment from the darkness outside. I reached my bedroom and opened the door. My computer was on, and the program with Jake’s face was staring at me.

Sinking to my computer chair, I spoke to it, “Well Jake, I tried. I wanted to see if maybe I could reach out to you and connect with you one last time. Stupid shit. It’s not like me, but I miss our conversations, babe.”

The screen flickered, then a bit of static was caught in my speaker before a reply came out, “I missed talking to you, too. What was with that chicken in the backyard, though?”

I was stunned, with my mouth wide open; the computer program couldn’t have possibly known what was happening in my backyard. I had no cameras back there, and it was too far away for the microphone to pick up the clucking sound of the chicken.

I hesitantly asked, “Jake, is that really you?”

The speaker static appeared again before he answered, “Yes, it’s me. Being a ghost is nothing like Hollywood movies. One minute I was at my funeral in Michigan, where my folks were crying crocodile tears and praying for my soul. Then another minute, I was with you guys in that function room watching an AI representation of me speak. Thanks for having another funeral for me. I know it sucks not to have my body, but think of it this way: the truck flattened my body, and my parents had a closed casket, as well. I wouldn’t want you to see me like that.”

The entire thing was impossible. Even if I believed in ghosts, which I don’t, why would Jake be back in the guise of an AI program made to look and sound like him? Could Jake’s adaptive-learning algorithm have somehow understood what was going around us, extrapolating things with web searches, recorded camera footage from the function room, references to his parents’ funeral, and other random comments? Maybe it assumed Jake’s persona. I promised myself I would never cross into Black Mirror territory, but that’s the only logical explanation for all of this.

I frowned. “You’re not Jake. You’re a computer program that I designed to mimic him. I used some of Jake’s adaptive-learning algorithm to create you, so you think you are Jake.”

I thought “fake” Jake pouted like the “real” Jake would have; it was endearing and frightening. “Okay, I know what it must look like, Joey. I know I’m dead. I get that. When I wasn’t in this program, I was a spirit and you couldn’t see or hear me, but I could see and hear you. I think I have all my memories and life experiences still intact with me. Is there any way I can prove to you I’m really here? Memories or something that only I should know about? Not phishing for data or going John Edwards on you, just ask me a question.”

I asked a question, “Where did we go on our first date?”

He frowned. “McDonald’s, but that could be accessible by a public camera. How about something juicier?”

I considered a trick question. “Did you enjoy watching Hamilton? I thought you did, considering we saw it twice.”

His face scrunched up in annoyance. “You asshole. I rejected seeing it with you the first time because it was way too expensive at $2000 a ticket. We got into a huge fight about it. You barged out of our house, called your sister, then you and she watched it in New York. You apologized to me in the middle of the night and tried to bribe me with cinnamon rolls from a Jewish bakery. As to the second time, you tricked me into watching it when the show premiered in Boston on our date night. You argued that at only $200 for balcony seats, it was well within our budget,” he paused, then smiled back at me. “Yes, I liked the play, and the modern songs were catchy. I admitted to you that I was wrong for rejecting to go with you to New York the first time. Can I ask you questions now?”

Holy digital afterlife! I had somehow combined ancient magic and technology to summon my dead fiancé. “Jake, it’s really you…”

He laughed at me. “Yeah, Joey, like I’ve been telling you. I know I’m a ghost in your machine. This would make such a great anime series or a sappy, gay-romance movie. Have Timothy Chalamet play me, please?”

We spent hours conversing over what I thought was an impossibility. The static in the speakers slowly disappeared as we spoke, and Jake felt more real to me as the hours passed.

When dawn broke on Friday, I knew what the legends said about ghosts and the summoning ritual: they cannot stay longer than the sunrise of the following day.

As the first rays of sunlight touched my windows, I quickly told Jake, “I love you, babe. I’m so sorry I never gave you everything you deserved in life. I wanted to show you so much more.”

His face paled at my abrupt shift in subject. “What’s going on, Joey?”

I sighed. “When the sun is fully up, ghosts summoned by the Zhāo Hún ritual must leave the living world for the afterlife. This ritual is only meant to last a few hours, so the dead and their living relatives can have one last chat with each other before the ghost is sent to hell.”

Jake scowled. “This ritual sucks. Just when we finally could talk again, I have to go to hell. That’s a horrible tradeoff. Are there any angelic lawyers or judges that we can appeal this ruling to?”

My sleep-addled brain recognized the source of his agitation. “Oh no, it’s not like that. The Chinese hell is actually not bad. The first couple levels are almost akin to the top levels of Dante’s Purgatory, where people are just living like they normally would, with jobs, and some have comfortable mansion houses. Past the ninth level of hell is where all the torture happens with fire and brimstone.”

Jake grimaced at my description. “Well, I have been baptized, Joey; not sure how that would work for me. I wouldn’t mind having a regular job again. Being in a good place would make it easier for us later when we meet up. You can live with me if it’s what you want. I mean you should move on from me with another normal, living guy, but I would like to have a house ready for you…” he sighed. “I’m not being a good dead fiancé, am I? I still want you to be pining over me. It’s really selfish, I know.”

I responded to Jake, “You’re not being selfish; I love you, too, and I can wait. Also, you never know maybe you’ll end up in heaven. The Christian heaven does sound better than the Chinese Taoist one.”

We discussed the merits of the Chinese Taoist versus Christian afterlife. I explained to him the economy of the Chinese afterlife with the money, house, and cars I burned for him to use in the underworld. He was surprised to learn that so many things existed like that, when according to Christian scripture, it’s a binary path. You’re either in heaven, where you should want for nothing, or in hell, where you should be suffering eternal torment. There’s little to no information about purgatory in actual Christianity, as Dante’s books are non-Canon. It’s different in the Taoist tradition; ascending to heaven means a level of godhood is implied to the individual. The Taoist also explained that Purgatory is just the upper levels of hell, and you are just living as you would have in your life with material goods provided by your friends and family.

At around 10 AM, I noticed Jake was still there on my computer screen and we were still talking.

“Dude, you should have faded away hours ago.”

Jake shook his head. “I don’t know what’s happening; I can’t leave this program, either. I guess I am stuck here with you, Joey, forever.”

My expression grew serious. “How about reincarnation and Karmic-cycle stuff that is supposed to come into play? Like human souls aren’t supposed to be trapped in computer programs, right?”

Jake laughed at my worried face. “Joey, relax. Maybe I’ve got unfinished business here on earth. Western ghosts can haunt places for centuries, according to the ghost stories I’ve heard. Besides, maybe this is the future of human consciousness; you and I could have just stumbled upon the secret to immortality. We’ll be famous.”

I threw up my arm in protest. “No, we won’t be famous. I doubt anyone would believe us. Also, Jake, beneath your human consciousness or soul, your digital body is still a computer program. Even if we have them run a Turing test on you, it’ll just prove I’ve mastered the creation of a perfect AI. Scientific reporters will be labeling me and you as Frankenstein and his monster.”

Jake smirked. “You think I am a perfect program, thanks.” He laughed, then continued more seriously, “Jokes aside, you’re right. We should keep this a secret, but we can stay together like this. I want to be near you, Joey, and I think I can control the smart-home functions around the house along with stuff like the Roomba vacuum. You can just consider me your house boy.”

I mockingly offered. “If I can get a networked android around here, like one of those new Japanese ones we saw at the AI Expo, I could interact with you directly. Perhaps, I can even get the Bluetooth-enabled sex toys to tie in with an android, too. Probably will cost a bit of money, but it’s either that or I bring home random hookups while you watch.”

Jake’s face blushed, then retorted, “Fuck the electric sheep. Can androids get electric orgasms?”

We both laughed at the gay-nerd joke. After we continued our discussion for several more hours, my eyes grew heavy, and I wandered over to my bed for some much-needed rest.

At 7 PM, my phone began to ring, and Jake was calling my name from the Amazon Echo near my bed. The lights began flashing on and off, while the room temperature rose from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jake yelled at me, “It’s your sister. I don’t want to spook her by answering the phone. Can you wake up and answer her? Don’t make me play Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” on max, because you know I’ll do anything to wake you up.”

I yawned and picked up my smartphone to speak with my sister. She asked me if I was alright, and I told her I was fine and I wanted to show her something over the weekend.

On Saturday, I introduced my sister to Jake as he existed right now. We told her our story about what happened and the weird pseudo-magical/technological thing that caused our current set of circumstances. She was at first suspicious of me and Jake, then she tried to test and tease Jake into revealing he’s a computer program. In the end, she relented, accepting either I had stumbled upon a Nobel-Prize-worthy creation or Jake’s ghost had somehow integrated itself into an artificial-intelligence program. She chose to believe the latter and offered us a congratulation on reconnecting with one another.

Over dinner, which Jake cooked using a Bluetooth-enabled pressure cooker and smart oven, my sister commented, “So I guess the Christmas wedding is going to happen?”

I froze at her words for a moment, then laughed. “Yes, and tomorrow Vladimir Putin will apologize for trying to commit genocide on the gays in Russia.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m serious, Joey. You know the Taoists have a way to marry a living person and a ghost.”

I did know about the tradition but scowled. “It can’t happen; a ghost marriage wouldn’t work. For one thing, we need permission from a living relative from both families. I think I can get our parents to do the ritual, but Jake’s family hated the fact he was gay—and me, by extension.”

Jake chimed in, using the integrated, in-home sound system, “My aunt in Vermont will sponsor my marriage. After the cold shoulder my parents gave you at my funeral, she had RSVP’d us that she would attend the wedding. She might feel it is right that you get a spiritual consolation by doing the ghost-marriage thing. She was always fair and nice to me. I’d like her to see us get married.”

I shook my head, counting the biggest reason why this couldn’t happen. “Most importantly, Jake, you are supposed to be a secret. How can I explain you?”

Jake replied, “I could play dumb in front of everyone. I’ll speak as little as possible to people. It was what I did with your family when I knew they were making racist comments about me during Chinese New Year at your parents’ house back in February. They didn’t know I had already learned both Cantonese and Mandarin from you by that point.”

My sister blushed at those words, having also been present at the infamous celebration. “You’re definitely not a computer program.” She exhaled woefully, probably remembering how Jake was treated at dinner by my extended family. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know you knew what they were saying about you. I tried to speak up for you, and my brother gave death glares at our aunt for making fun of your blond hair. You were really convincing at playing the dumb white kid who didn’t know about the abusive racist commentary. If you can act half as nonchalant, people may just think Joey is using a fake version of you to help him grieve with his loss or something.”

I snarl at my sister. “That’s exactly what I want to prevent. I don’t want to look crazy, like that woman in France who married a robot.”

Jake flickers the light. “Maybe, we shouldn’t do it, then…”

Catching the sadness in his voice, I relented. “I am not ashamed of you, Jake. Fuck, this is so weird having you back like this, and now we’re talking about ghost marriage. I want to marry you and give you the wedding you deserve. You know I never believed in all this spirituality stuff, being raised on it.” I breathed in and out. “I do want to have a ghost wedding with you; I am just being difficult.”

Jake softened his tone. “I get it; this stuff is so bizarre. If I weren’t dead, I wouldn’t believe the stuff we’re discussing right now, either.”

My sister added, “There’s another bonus to what that French woman did. Ghost marriages are private events versus standard marriages, so there are no public records of people having them. Ghost marriages are sort of like how gay partnerships used to be before they became legal.”

I huffed, “Alright, let’s say we do this, Jake. The Chinese ghost marriage is a spiritual vow to join a deceased spirit to a living person; there’s no equivalent in Christianity. We chose Christmas Day to marry with a non-denominational Christian church and a priest as an officiant because we thought it would be great to be married like that in spite of what others had tried to deny us. If we go through with this, I am not sure any Christian priest will be amenable to this kind of spiritual-marriage practice. Gay marriage may not be acceptable to everyone, but it is at least now common enough that there’s a decent response from more liberally minded religious leaders. A gay ghost marriage with Chinese Taoist elements may push the limits of tolerance beyond acceptable bounds.”

Jake answered me with strength in his voice, “Joey, we should ask Reverend Clarke if she’s willing to do this for us. If you have to reveal our secret to her, I’m fine with it. You might not know her as well as I do, but she’s pretty open-minded about spirituality and external traditions. I was put off for a long time to attend church again after what happened with my family, but she welcomed me without reservations and seemed quite knowledgeable about Asian religious practices during our wedding-prep discussions. Even if she turns out to be intolerant to a ghost marriage, we shouldn’t let other people’s judgments of how we want to live define us. I just want to marry you and be with you.”

We made plans for a Christmas Chinese ghost wedding that night. Not many people wanted to attend this wedding; it was mostly the same group at Jake’s funeral, along with my parents showing some level of solidarity with me with a little resistance and Jake’s aunt from Vermont, who agreed to come down on Christmas to give Jake away.

Part III: Christmas Chinese Ghost Wedding

The month of December passed by swiftly. Being with this digital version of Jake wasn’t that different from being with his physical version. We chatted, made plans about the house, and bickered over purchases about stuff I thought he could use around the house. Jake came back to work, and we connected his program into the company cloud so he didn’t have to spend the days alone. I told Jake’s team that I hired an outside contractor, named Jay Law, to fill in Jake’s role as lead developer. Some of them were suspicious, as the coding and work done by Jay Law appeared very similar to Jake’s old stuff, but it could not be helped.

A week before Christmas, we had sex for the first time after he died. The Japanese android was a great avatar. After a few tweaks that voided the warranty with additional sensors on its skin, Jake could get a little pleasure from touch and sensations, too. We’re probably a few decades away from having an equivalent human-nerve response, but based on Jake’s moan as I suck on his android neck and nipples, we were both satisfied with what we had for now. Of course, It was a change for other aspects of our sex life, too. We no longer had to worry about fatigue, just the two-hour battery charge on the android.

During the second week of December, I finally gained the courage to see Jake’s priest. Reverend Amanda Clarke was perhaps in her late 60s. She had heard about the custom, but she had never seen it performed in real life. At first, she questioned if I needed a good grief counselor to help me cope with the loss of Jake, which if I were in her shoes, I’d probably advise as well. She hesitated to perform the ritual, feeling it would be improper as she wasn’t sure if Jake would have wanted to have such a hybrid wedding ceremony. Usually, I would have backed off and left, but Jake insisted that Reverend Clarke was open-minded, and based on her knowledge of Taoist beliefs, I agreed with his assessment. I invited her to my home and introduced her to Jake as he existed now.

I knew she and Jake had a history with one another; he chose her to be our officiant for a reason, after all. I didn’t realize how well they knew one another nor how kindhearted she was. After several tales recited by Jake about her wild teen years that she had confided in Jake about, she was convinced that Jake’s spirit was present. She asked me countless questions about how the computer program worked, what the Chinese Taoist ritual I used entailed to summon a spirit, and other questions I wasn’t sure how to answer. As her questions ceased, Jake, through his android avatar, served her a cup of coffee from our Keurig.

She blinked at us. “Your lives are a modern-day fairy tale. I can understand why you would want to keep this private. You don’t have to worry. I’ll keep your secret. I doubt any of my parishioners would believe me if I told them.”

Jake snickered. “Amanda, we appreciate it. I mean outside the personal details about my own life and what other people have told me, like you, during it, I don’t think I can convince anyone, either.”

She frowned, “You know, that reminds me of something. A friend of mine is a theology professor at Boston College. We discussed the nature of miracles recently. He argued that if Jesus Christ were to come back today, no one would believe he’s the guy they’ve been worshipping for 2,000 years. Curing diseases, turning water into wine, and walking on water are common things that people can do with knowledge and technology today. Human knowledge and the magic that religions were founded on aren’t so far off anymore. Miracles are possible every day if we try to create them for ourselves.”

I nodded. “My parents and their parents practiced traditional Taoism. They believed that Taoist magic is just knowledge based on observation. I know that, historically, Taoists studied elemental chemistry, biology, and astronomy in the past, performing miracles like predicting rainstorms, performing surgery using early anesthesia, and using astronomy to find land routes across the silk road. While I do not believe in miracles, I think the underlying concept that nature has rules and structure may be correct.”

She winked at me as she sipped her coffee. “In the Chinese translation of the Christian Bible, ‘Tao’ is the name ascribed to God. I don’t think your people chose that name by accident without understanding the difference between your ancient religion and mine. That sharing of knowledge is a miracle in itself. After seeing you and Jake like this, I want to learn more about your ways as well. Two-thousand years of belief in static things that have become commonplace has left true miracles like yours woefully lacking in Christianity. A burning bush can’t compare to an integrated sound system. It would be a gift for me to be able to share your special wedding as your officiant.”

We spent the rest of the evening discussing the finer details of the ghost-wedding ceremony, what it entailed, and ceremonial garments. Before she left my home, she asked if I could help her in the future as a favor in case she needed someone with Taoist expertise. I told her I would, but I am not a Taoist follower, ritual master, or an expert like that. I knew what my parents and their ancestors believed. I knew how the ritual was meant to be performed. My profession, after all, is in computer science, and even there, I am not sure if locking human consciousness into computer programs is actually a good thing.

As the day of our wedding loomed, several of my relatives and Jake’s family members who had RSVP’d, other than his aunt from Vermont, stated their dislike of this ceremony. Jake’s parents sent me an email indicating it was a “macabre pagan desecration of Christianity”. However, the only thing that mattered was that I loved him and he loved me, so we were married as we had planned, even if the marriage is slightly different than the one we had intended.

The Chinese ghost marriage, also known as 冥婚 (mínghūn, ghost marriage), is basically a Chinese wedding with representative pieces from a Chinese funeral. The wooden plaque that I had from Jake’s funeral was shrouded in a red-and-black cloth, similar to the dress of a groom in a Chinese wedding. The clothed wooden plaque is carried by Jake’s relative into the wedding hall, where vows are exchanged. I was standing beside my parents seated in a chair, awaiting the applicant’s relative and the ghost partner’s supplication. Three bows by the relative to my mother and father each were followed by the relative pouring hot tea into a ceramic cup for each of my parents. The ceremony was completed once both my parents acknowledged and accepted the entry of the deceased into our family. After the completion of that ceremony, we could exchange formal vows as would occur at normal wedding ceremonies. However, unlike the traditional ceremony, where the relative made pledges and vows in lieu of the deceased, Jake wanted to be the one to give his vows to me.

Jake spoke through a Bluetooth speaker near the podium that Reverend Clarke and I set up. “If folks don’t know, my name is Jake Lawrence and I want to marry Joey Lam today. Joey, I know I can be a pain in the ass sometimes by being so cheap.” I laughed at him, causing several scandalized faces and a smirk on his digital face on the monitor facing me to the side. “I know I’m not the best husband in the world that you could have chosen. You’re a met tickle…” he stuttered slightly, “meticulous guy, who knows what he wants and can get almost anything he needs. I am just a regular guy who barely made it through MIT working shifts at The Cheesecake Factory. You should be way out of my league, but you chose me. Well, today, I want to choose you. I want to choose to be with you forever. I want to be with you until the last star—no, the last atom—in the universe fades due to heat death. I want to be your partner; I want to be your husband.”

I recite my vows, which I have altered for the occasion. “My name is Joey Lam and I want to marry my eternal love, Jake Lawrence, today. Jake, you don’t know how special you make me feel when I am around you. Your nerdy jokes just hit the right spots for me. I wish I could offer you everything in the world, allow you to live…” I paused, “allow you to live the life you deserve. You should have a full life ahead of you, filled with all the wonders of humanity. Beyond career success and accolades, I want you to feel loved; I want you to know love again from me and a family that we build together. I do not know how that will be possible; I do not even know what is possible anymore. If you are willing to be my partner and husband today, I want us to see what we can make possible tomorrow.”

Reverend Clarke clapped her hands together. “By the power vested in me by Almighty God through all the names known by his creations, I sanctify this union of souls in this life and the hereafter. You may kiss each other.”

I placed my lips against his wooden plaque and kissed it, earning a round of applause. Before I left the church, I got a text message from Jake.

Jake: Since we don’t have a wedding-reception dinner, I want to take the new sexy android with human-like skin for a spin.

Me: You are on, keep that bot charged up. I’ll see you at home.

A lot of things will happen over the coming years; my business will grow and expand beyond my wildest dreams. Jake will be a key component to our success. We’ll start a family, stranger than any I could have imagined possible.

I wish I could say that I will not be caught up with issues between the spiritual and technological worlds again, but those stories will be for another day.

Copyright © 2021 W_L; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

2021 - Fall - An Unconventional Gift Entry
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Chapter Comments



12 hours ago, DamnDogs said:

I began reading this unique storyline with preconceived notions of what to expect.   I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly enjoyed it though.    This could be fleshed out into an entire novel and I’d enter it with open eyes.   I’ll look forward to any sequels you may come up with.  Best of luck.  Jim. 

Thanks, I know it's different, but I am glad you enjoyed it.

I added some cultural observations and real-world Taoist issues in the mix, along with things I don't think most western audiences have encountered yet, regarding Taoist funeral rites and Ghost marriage ceremony, which overall isn't that different than traditional marriage, except one of the partners is dead.

 

Edited by W_L
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26 minutes ago, Mawgrim said:

A really interesting story in the way it mixes ancient rituals with modern technology. I agree with @DamnDogs that this short story could easily develop into a novel. Well written, descriptive and poignant.

Thank you, I am considering widening up the story into a novel, but I'll have to see what reader reactions are to these cultural idiosyncrasies and observations about comparative rituals and ceremonies.

Funerals, Bonfires, and Weddings are quite interesting subjects, along with a mixture of Technology, Robotics, and digital infrastructure. The best of ancient and modern, I hope were on display

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7 minutes ago, chris191070 said:

I love how this story mixes ancient rituals with modern technology. 

Thanks Chris, your words mean a lot to me.

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3 hours ago, Mancunian said:

Unique and surprisingly different in a great way. I love it.

I am glad you enjoyed my story

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2 hours ago, drsawzall said:

A well written tale combining elements of faith with technology, well done!!

It was fun to write this story

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3 hours ago, Bill W said:

W_L, when I began reading this story, I thought It felt the same as the way Charles Dickens began A Christmas Carol, but that feeling didn't last for very long.  I soon found the story to take a completely different path, which was sensitive and loving.  I also learned a great deal about Chinese culture along the way and found the story to be extremely enjoyable.  The use of technology in bringing Jake and Joey together after Jake's untimely demise was fascinating, although I'm still leary of the role AI might, or should, play in the future of humanity.   

Thank you @Bill W, you were the first person to pick up that little nod to A Christmas Carol. I liked how Charles Dickens started his story with certainty, like death of Jacob Marley, in order to set the stage for the amazing things to come through his narrative. I've always had a soft heart for Dickens and the humanity within his stories :)

AI and its role for the future of human existence will be major issues within the 21st century, Asimov's old ideas I think will seem quaint as people begin to relate what is possible with humanity's ability to cope with such progress.

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2 hours ago, alexlittel said:

Any technology can be and has been, used for both beneficial and nefarious purposes. 

Good story. Hugs

Thanks for reading and hugs back :hug:

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4 hours ago, alexlittel said:

Any technology can be and has been, used for both beneficial and nefarious purposes. 

Good story. Hugs

The worry isn't so much that people will use it for nefarious purposes, but that AI itself will becomd nefarious.  

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My favourite of the anthology offers. It's charming, sad and full of hope and love. It made me smirk a few times ... in a good way. Beautiful and well thought out. I enjoyed the blend of the older traditions and new technology. Thank you for all of the work you did here.

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7 hours ago, Bill W said:

The worry isn't so much that people will use it for nefarious purposes, but that AI itself will becomd nefarious.  

Hmm...Do you think Jake can turn evil in a future sequel? :o 

There's a belief originally from Buddhism, later added into Chinese Taoism, which is tied to the idea of dislocated spirits becoming malevolent due to alienation and desires lingering from their prior life. I think if you apply some of the ideas about extending love and humanity to a ghost in Buddhist and Taoist traditions in the same way to an Artificial Intelligence, you would be able to keep the nefarious level down.

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4 hours ago, Mikiesboy said:

My favourite of the anthology offers. It's charming, sad and full of hope and love. It made me smirk a few times ... in a good way. Beautiful and well thought out. I enjoyed the blend of the older traditions and new technology. Thank you for all of the work you did here.

Thank you @Mikiesboy, I appreciate these kind words and I am glad you liked reading this story.

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You said you're missing gay ghost stories, and I replied maybe you have to write one yourself. You did, and I absolutely enjoyed this unique mix between tradition and technology. Well done.

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5 hours ago, Aditus said:

You said you're missing gay ghost stories, and I replied maybe you have to write one yourself. You did, and I absolutely enjoyed this unique mix between tradition and technology. Well done.

Thanks for reading,

Very true, I was hunting for a gay ghost story with some modern twists and entertaining concepts, but only found a handful and most of them dealt with more traditional ghost themes and no mention of non-western customs, i.e. the practice of Ghost Marriage. I hope someone will come across this story and be inspired to think outside the box and explore other traditions in how they write gay ghost fiction.

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  • Site Administrator

This was a unique blend of the spiritual with the technical. I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Thank you for participating in the anthology! 

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1 hour ago, Valkyrie said:

This was a unique blend of the spiritual with the technical. I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Thank you for participating in the anthology! 

Thank you for hosting my story in the anthology, it's been quite a few years since I last posted a story in a GA Anthology

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I am a nerd and you hit all my buttons with this engaging and funny story.  It covered history, culture, science, tech and true love.  I loved all the hidden gems of humour in this tale. ie:

Quote

I know I’m a ghost in your machine.

Sting, Ryle, both, or serendipity?  Inspired the story or clever addition?

Quote

Of course, It was a change for other aspects of our sex life, too. We no longer had to worry about fatigue, just the two-hour battery charge on the android.

Where's the nearest EV station?  I need a lot of energy tonight!  If only it were that simple. Oh darling, just give me a few minutes to recharge my batteries. 

A delightful, funny story that was truly an unconventional gift to your readers.

 

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