Story features descriptions of gender violence
Another firm knock and Pat opened the door to a delivery man, who cleared his throat and said, “Michael Danver?”
“No,” Pat said, gesturing. “He’s next door.”
The man reviewed his slip and nodded. “Apologies.”
“Yeah. Happens all the time.”
Pat appreciated visitors had trouble with specifics around the neighborhood, so he smiled to see the guy off. From the living room window, he watched the man return to his truck parked across the street, and Pat’s smile disappeared. On the side of the truck, emblazoned in big, bold letters, was a logo: ‘Cing Robotics.’ Not a harmless mix-up were anyone witness. Pat bit his lip. Fuck’s sake. Cing was hard commodity to miss; its high-volume advertising selling its goddamn high-end sex androids.
Out of the back of the truck, the delivery man rolled a tall rectangular box down a ramp with some effort, then across the street, and onto Michael’s driveway. Michael himself emerged from his house, shirtless, and hurried down his front steps, across the stone pathway onto the driveway, where he entered a code on his garage and stood by as the door reeled open. It was over in a moment, with both men and the package disappearing inside.
Pat felt it was remarkable. This slight performance of Michael’s, it spoke so loudly. Take a moment, take several. Clearly, he wasn’t the kind of guy to dab his forehead over that truck opposite his house. He’d race to it, enthusiastic yet businesslike, all along inviting attention and rewriting the rules of decorum as he improvised. Pat only knew Michael through glimpses like these, episodes within windows, but this latest didn’t deviate from the mold. What was disappointing, then, was Michael further proving himself cut from this of all possible molds, because Pat knew so many Michaels over his lifetime he was sick. The sports-types, the charismatic joker-types, these guys who could command the attention of a room with a gesture, and who had access to every room possible. A notable Michael prior did the formula proud, a regular high school bully in actuality named Doug. Sporty and charismatic indeed, and he excelled at minimizing Pat with enough plausible deniability even Pat wondered sometimes: just a dick, or something more? Of course, at the end of junior year, Pat divined an answer when Doug, one day, for the amusement of his posse, stopped Pat in the hall to pantomime a sex act, like humping the air between them. Now and then, Pat recalled his response with a wince: to push him away, but not over. And then, there was the look on Doug’s face, like surprise Pat wasn’t laughing along. Probably part of the act, a further manipulation of appearances. Suddenly, Pat thrusts Doug away, and now who’s the dick? Often, as an adult, and with some bitterness, Pat wondered what would’ve happened had he punched him instead. Oh, detention? Suspension? They must’ve been terrifying prospects at the time.
The delivery man reappeared, exiting the garage sans package. Michael remained inside, no doubt occupied by his excuse for vague sex acts anew. How would he spin this with plausible deniability? Pat shook his head and moved from the living room back to the kitchen. It was sunset that Friday evening, but Pat needed to review a batch of files for Monday. He tried to focus on the monitor set up at his kitchen table, shake from his mind what he’d just witnessed. In fact, he found it too funny, that things strung together like that, even through windows. Michael holds a bro barbecue one day, also shirtless, comes home with a cherry red sports car another, and soon, he mail-orders a Cing barbara. And barbaras, like all popular lines, were true simulations. Real smart, but whose robust personalities and outlooks were determined by external authorship. She and Michael would get along.
PAT SHOOK AWAKE in his bed and held still amidst a distant, high-pitched wail. For a long beat, his mind was blank, and soon, the disturbance passed. His breath was ragged, his forehead cold. He couldn’t escape it; undoubtedly, it was a woman’s scream. And in the vacuum of its aftermath, the chirping of birds. He guessed the time and checked his phone: 5:24 a.m. On a weekday, he’d have gotten up and begun the morning, but he instead chose to lay his head again and close his eyes. If there was a riot outside, or any number of violent scenarios which swirled in his mind, it was over, and perhaps the robins would give way to crows.
Hours later, he watched his tired eyes in the mirror as his toothbrush hummed. A woman may be dead on the street, or behind closed doors nearby, and he’d have been stealing two extra hours of sleep, to little end. He spit, and watched a dot of blood in the sink become a line toward the drain.
As he showered, he traced the anonymous scream back to any number of suspect neighbors. Of course, most of his neighbors were unknown quantities. In his immediate radius, two men lived adjacent on either side: Michael to his right, facing the street, and a nameless old man to his left. A kind old man, to be sure, but Pat dreaded the prospect of interviewing him, especially about strange noises. In the very few interactions they’d had, Pat found himself repeating for clarity enough to put him off further encounters. He twisted the faucet and the hot stream of water shrunk to a drip. There was more to it, he realized, listening to the drip, drip amidst the rising steam. Whatever his name, the guy wasn’t one of those proud old men. He was quiet, possibly exiled. No family came to visit. And maybe he never made one.
‘Encounters’ were probably mutually avoided, anyway, he thought, stepping out of the shower and reaching for a towel. The neighborhood was like that, made up of individual pockets of silent men, most of them post-college. Attracted to the offer of suburban calm at a low cost, the days of fraternity were appropriately over, save the odd bro barbecue. Pat imagined these mysterious neighbors were simply trying to avoid becoming the old man, in vain, back and forth along a line between work and home.
Michael, on the other hand, provided different, but still plenty, reason to avoid. Pat froze, face in his towel. He peeled away slowly, putting it together. The scream belonged to the barbara. He exhaled, and continued to dry himself. Come on. That didn’t make sense.
THE SUN WARMED the back of his neck, and with the soft crunch of earth beneath him, Pat stood and clapped his hands of dirt. He’d spent his day on the front yard, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges. The weeds were freshly uprooted, mostly, and he’d dump them in the scant woods behind his house, whose spotty occasion along the neighborhood’s grid lines interrupted one’s barbershop horizon. A nice enough but ever short-lived illusion of privacy; at the threshold between his backyard and the woods, he might make eye contact with his neighbor through the bare trees. It would be an all-too common episode, the product of this neighborhood, whose color and architecture bore sterile uniformity. He hated it, but couldn’t escape. A few years out of college, he’d lucked into a real house, for God’s sake, not a city apartment like his old friends. But it was stifling. As a result, he tended to his yard and garden dutifully and with extra care, as they broke the pattern, and stood sole signifier anybody lived there, anybody at all.
Another scream went blistering in Pat’s ears. This time, he knew for sure, and jerked his head skyward, scanned the second story windows of Michael’s house. He decided he needed a better angle and promptly returned inside.
His thudding footsteps up the stairs boomed in the world’s silence. He pulled down the attic door and unfolded the stairs, scrambled up before they hit the floor. The cord for the light brushed against the top of his head, and he resisted an instinct to give it a tug, though he then almost tumbled over his shapeless clutter. With some deliberate navigation, he reached the tiny window facing Michael’s house, and crouched.
There was movement in Michael’s bedroom. He and the barbara stood face-to-face by the bed, with Michael undressing her carefully. Soon fully naked, she hugged into herself while Michael took his turn. The look on her face, it was as if she had been crying. And perhaps she was, but without the capacity for tears. Michael tossed his shirt out of view, and in a snap, backhanded her across the face, sending her spilling onto the floor.
Pat’s eyes went wide, and he shifted to get a better look. Michael was straddling her pelvis as she curled up underneath, hands covering her face. He ripped them away before striking her, retracting slowly and then repeating.
This time, Pat looked away, and found himself short of breath. Though safely out of view, the screaming returned. He resigned himself to look again, and watched as Michael bent her over the foot of the bed. With one hand, he anchored himself to her, and with the other, held her hair in a tight clump. And though her screaming was muffled by the bed, it still resounded, now rhythmically.
Pat gritted his teeth. Why, for God’s sake, would the robot scream? Didn’t it have a mute function? Perhaps Michael wanted to hear it. And then, perhaps, he needed it.
THOUGH THE SCREAMING continued in bursts through the night, the aural quality shifted, slowly degrading, and crackling around its edges. Pat had returned to his computer, but was no further in his work than when he left the office Friday afternoon. Was anybody else hearing this? Would the police come and knock on that door? But mostly, what bubbled to the surface of his mind was a slideshow of images. As if in a dream state, his brain was trying to match imagined visuals to the sound, adapting and reanimating those two naked bodies in a series of violences. With a shriek that bounded around the kitchen, it was Michael twisting the barbara’s neck to a breaking point it didn’t have. For a more prolonged wail whose insistence oozed through the wall, Michael had discovered some new, awful sex position.
Pat gave a shuddering sigh and shut the computer down. What would he do? Knock on the door himself? In his mind, he reviewed lines of dialogue in protest which fizzled out before their end. In his experience, Michaels never understood. And yet, this Michael was so much more. Maybe sour in the face of underestimation, he doubled down, crawled further into the thick cesspool of his mind and closed out all the light. How does one become something like that?
If he could just stop that sound, and quickly, in a single sweep. There was, he felt, an easy answer. Through the basement door, down the stairs, and with the input of a simple combination into a locked cabinet, his father’s hunting rifle lay dormant on a shelf. Pat closed his eyes and pictured the scene. Heart racing, kicking Michael’s front door in with a splintering crack, and rushing up the stairs, the barbara’s cry echoing in jolts around his head. He’d pivot into the master bedroom and announce himself with the click of the bolt, and Michael would turn, pants around his ankles, eyes white, pupils dilated. And the room would finally fall silent.
Pat exhaled, and pushed himself from the table and stood up. No matter how cathartic the prospect, he knew it was ridiculous. It wasn’t illegal to abuse a robot, any more than dropping a phone down the stairs. Even if it were, who’d recognize a robot’s testimony in court? Could a robot even reach a police officer to file a complaint to begin with? And there he went again. The thing was property, and Pat was invading Michael’s privacy. It wasn’t his business, and really, first of all, Pat wasn’t a murderer.
But that was just it, wasn’t it? Nothing between zero and sixty. Sure, if the house was on fire, Pat would get up off the couch. Anything less? Of course not. Suddenly, a wave of memories washed through his mind in a nauseating burst. Funny how his mother had fallen sick sophomore year of college, and he’d hesitated before returning home; it was finals. Or how, two years prior, he didn’t say good-bye to his brother when he took the job in Holland. And God, how he never called Allie a night later to ask what happened. For all of it, he was simply too fucking small.
‘No’ wasn’t just a refrain in his life, it was an answer he groped for with religious desperation. He wouldn’t touch that gun in his life, not to shoot a deer or a rabid pervert. Just as he’d never move to the city as he’d told himself he would before starting college. His friends in his graduating class went on to disappear into the folds of New York, Boston, and D.C., but then, it wasn’t truly disappearing. There, undoubtedly, they found themselves, as they’d have to, among the crowds. Pat shook himself free. Through it all, even then, he hadn’t lost his talent for making himself sick. It was exhausting.
THE COLD HUE of his blinds told him it was morning, but something else had awakened him. Pat rolled over in bed and couldn’t decide if the sound still ongoing was real or imagined. It was the same goddamn scream, beginning to take on a musical lilt. This was the sickness, he thought, the dull nothing Michael must have heard from the start, now spreading its normalization to Pat’s ears. But it could never be normal. If this was gonna be a thing, he’d move out before he got used to it. Although, he thought, that was just a different kind of inaction. And shit, why wouldn’t it be a thing? Those robots are investments.
There was a banging on his front door, and he sprang out of bed. His heart was thumping, and his clearing mind told him sleep had been spotty, but it surprised him, nevertheless, just how on edge he’d been. He wiped his face in his hands and headed downstairs to check. At the door stood Michael’s barbara, covered in cuts and bruises well advertised by a torn tank top. She was panting, but not doubled over. Exhaustion not in the body, but the eyes.
They stared at each other.
And she spoke. “I don’t know what to do now.”
Pat’s voice was still rising to surface in his body. He cleared his throat to hasten it, which produced a half-retch. He collected himself, and spoke softly. “What do you need?”
“Candice?” Michael’s voice called in the distance.
This was it. Time to decide on a plan, but however it turned out, it needed to be long-term. Subtle; he couldn’t run off with her right then or anything, with Michael’s eyes on.
“Yeah,” Pat called. “She’s over here.”
And ‘Candice’ held his gaze with a pinpoint sadness, at the nexus of torture and a betrayal. It terrified him. What he witnessed was the overturning of a worldview, his stamping out her small hope that maybe, after all, there were still good men.
Michael appeared on the front steps next to her. “Candice, come on. Get back inside. Let’s not bother our friend here,” he said.
Candice turned herself away slowly and Michael watched as she completed the journey home.
He turned back to Pat, who couldn’t help but wear the shock on his face. Evidently, Michael noticed. “Hey, man,” he said. “I feel bad about this. How can I make it up to you?”
Pat snapped to attention, his mind loud and fast. “No, no, that’s not necessary.” He needed to get back inside and regroup.
“I think it is,” Michael said, stern. “We’re all good here, right? Why don’t I buy you a beer?”
Pat sighed. Not a bar guy. Needed to regroup.
“On second thought,” Michael said, “why don’t you just come over tonight? We can catch the game. My TV’s bigger than the one down the street. What do you say?”
Pat nodded, mostly in resignation. “Sounds good, man.”
“Cool,” Michael said. “Pat, right?”
“I’m Michael.” And he was off.
Pat closed the door and hovered by his kitchen table, mind still churning. He’d have to get access to this Candice somehow. Maybe then, he could insert one of those ‘rogue doll’ codes, though she may have had protections in place against them. After some consideration, he decided on his plan: he’d assess her firewall, clean room, and write a code with some help by users on Cing fan forums. Somehow, he’d return to her and, with program mode hacked open, simply convince her to leave.
Pat sat down at the kitchen table, feeling the weight of the task ahead, with its variables and unknowns. He ran a hand through his hair. It would be worth it. Pitiful creatures, all of them, he thought. Did they understand the scope of their bondage? He supposed it was impossible for a programmed mind to see beyond its programming. Control being integral to the continuity of a society.
“I’M SORRY YOU had to see that,” Michael was saying, cracking the tops off two beers, handing one to Pat, who sat on the couch. Michael assumed an opposite recliner, and picked up the remote to turn down the television’s volume. “I think you can appreciate the kind of embarrassment it’s making me feel right now.”
Pat was nodding along regardless what Michael was saying, and almost missed his cue to affirm. “Oh, yeah. Definitely, man. Definitely.” He took a sip. “So, uh, where is she?”
“I sent her out. Errands, you know.”
He certainly didn’t, but again, nodded. Fucking terrific, either way. He sat and drank and watched the game for a moment, reviewing a plan B as it threatened to take shape. Number one priority was to simply leave without causing a stir. Be a respectful houseguest in the house of pain, and duck out at the end of the first quarter.
“Look,” Michael said, cutting through a haze of thoughts. “I know you’re trying to be polite, but it’s really okay.”
Pat readjusted on the couch and made himself chuckle. “I’m sorry?”
“Come on, man. A battered woman showed up at your door. You didn’t see the circuitry, you saw the bruises. It’s right in front of us, and you know what? It’s fucking weird. I can admit it.”
“Well, what do you want to do about that?”
“Don’t tell me you’re just willing to write it off.”
Pat thought about that one. Michael was sitting there, apparently expecting outrage of some kind. Of course Pat was outraged, but he was at the moment busy redrawing his conspiracy. On second thought, anyone else in that situation probably wouldn’t be, so he cleared his throat. “I suppose not.”
“Okay, then, let’s talk through it. I’d like to, if you’ll indulge me, shine a light on the process. Ask me a question.”
Pat suppressed an eye roll. “Sure, uh, let’s see. Okay, well, how does it work?”
“Yeah, exactly. And to that, turns out, I made a faux pas. Sales guy was telling me the barbaras are a relatively conservative line, made for, like, the guys we got in the neighborhood, people who want a vanilla experience. Her base program isn’t built for anything beyond that, so it takes time. You teach her a behavior, she doesn’t do it. Try it again, no dice. And so on, until it clicks.”
Pat suddenly felt trapped in that house. This was the missing piece that made Michael’s violence a narrative. Behind the screaming, there was persistence. Michael was trying to program her to be as extreme as he was, and when she refused, he hurt her. And just what unthinkable act was he trying to make her do?
Weakly, and without thinking, Pat spoke. “It sounds like she doesn’t want it.”
“Right. Sounds that way, but it’s what she’s designed for. First she doesn’t, then she does, with equal intensity.”
“I see.” So that matter’s put to rest.
Michael sat forward. “I don’t know how to go about this, but I just want to know,” he said, hesitating. “I just want to know that I’m okay.”
Pat froze, caught in Michael’s trembling, intense gaze. If he was serious about one thing, it was looking for the easy out. “Of course you are, man,” Pat said. “But you shouldn’t need me to tell you that.”
Michael narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw, like he was evaluating wine. He produced a pen and began to scrawl on a business card, which he then handed to Pat. ‘Van-Olsen-Peters, Michael Danvers.’ And underneath, a password in his handwriting: ‘redfalcons20.’
“In case she shows up again,” he said, “just set her right, turn her back around.”
Pat turned the card over in his hands. “I don’t know what to say.” Scratch plan B. No hacking required. “Are you sure about this?”
“Okay,” Michael said, laughing softly. “There’s something more. I want you to have, like, a free trial, you know? Face time with Candice, whenever you want it. Obviously, a look-not-touch situation, but enough so that maybe one day soon, you’ll bring home one of your own.”
Pat winced against the tingle that shot through his jaw. And the thought, too: damn it, just get up and walk away. Indeed, the front door flickered in his periphery.
Michael tilted his head. “You alright, little buddy?”
Pat stood, almost shaking. “It’s fine. I should go.”
“Hey, come on,” Michael said. “What is it?”
Pat sighed, shook his head. He knew he’d regret this. “It’s just a little presumptuous, okay?”
“I thought we’d come to an understanding here…”
“Sure did, but,” he indicated the card in his hand, “you’re trying to duplicate yourself to cheat a consensus. You’re thinking if I get a sex robot, too, I can’t go around telling people how weird it is Michael’s got one — your word, not mine. How would I even phrase something like that? To the old man next door?”
“Okay, okay,” Michael said, gesturing ‘settle’ with his hands. “I’ve been less than forthcoming, and for that, I apologize.”
“Jesus, it’s not that, I…” Pat trailed off. Oh, what do you know, the door was right there.
Pat felt the sweat escaping the surface of his skin in a steam. He bit his lip, caught between two bad choices. Blow his cover, or miss the chance to finally tell him off. In all likelihood, others in this exact circumstance, with Michaels, never chose the second option. Whatever cover they’d needed to maintain, whether social normalcy or simple dignity, they’d allow him off the hook time and again. And soon, the Michael was never wrong about anything.
“If I ever ordered a goddamn sex robot,” Pat was saying, “sure as I know anything, I wouldn’t kick the shit out of it just to hear it scream. Somehow, that’s not what gets me going.”
Michael sat still for a moment, and then drummed his fingers along his armrests. Evenly, he said, “You’re sure?”
“What? Yes, I’m sure. Look…” Right on time: the regret. “I don’t know. I guess I’m a little sensitive about it. You’re making a lot of assumptions about me.”
“I get that. And I don’t think it’s supposed to get anyone going, really. The offer still stands, by the way,” Michael said, pointing to the card. “It’s about more than the act itself. Whatever your desire, Candice can be its vessel. And then, you will be sure.”
“Again, I am sure, and Michael, she’s a high tech kleenex, not an Eastern religion.”
He rose to meet Pat face-to-face. “I didn’t think I’d be into this shit, either, bro. But then, Candice comes along, and I’m surprising myself. And you know what?” he seemed to breathe the next words: “It’s fucking exciting.”
“I’m sorry. And believe me, I’m not telling a soul about this, but it’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own. I can’t be whatever it is you need right now. Which seems to just be you, so there’s your answer.”
“If you say so, but keep this in mind,” Michael said, “it’s not only the world, the hemisphere, or the country. We live in the same town. We found our way to the same neighborhood.”
“So, what, we can’t have different tastes?”
“Now, come on, it’s all one taste. We want what feels good. Mankind can always be boiled down to that. And I think it means we’re a fundamentally boring species. I mean, why do you think we made these things to begin with? And barbaras, like all of them, were designed for that, designed for everyone. A big, boring everyone on the hunt for the next thing, the better thing. I think that’s the nature of perversion.”
“How could you say that? How could you be so proud to be like everyone else? To mean nothing more than how people see you?”
Michael grinned. “Hey, I’m along for the ride, man. You know, sometimes I think about how they put all this money and research into sex, like drugs and robots. You can have small breakthroughs there, not like with, I don’t know, the cure to cancer, which would be just one, I guess, so you don’t hear much about that. If it’s a philosophy, I get it: ‘We’re all gonna die, so let’s make life as good as possible.’ Can you imagine going to the grave unsure you did everything you wanted to? With that one chance?”
“Everything you wanted to,” Pat sounded out. “No matter what, huh?”
“I see this is a philosophical disagreement, now. Well, I’m not speaking abstractly. When I die, everything goes. Total blackout, and then, it’s like none of this ever happened. We never talked about my barbara, I never got a barbara, and she never, ever screamed.”
The air outside stung, and Pat could see his breath. He was halfway across the path when a car pulled into the driveway. The engine clicked off and a woman emerged with the clop of high heel against pavement. Attractive, but she wasn’t Candice. She hung over the open car door.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “Is this Michael’s house?”
“Uh, yeah, this is Michael’s. I live next door,” Pat said, gesturing once again. “I was just leaving. You’re, um…” Pat got caught on the words when the woman came into better relief against the shine of her headlights. Attractive, not Candice. At Michael’s house.
“I’m Marissa, Michael’s friend. He’s home, right?”
From behind, Michael cleared his throat. Pat turned and watched him lean against the doorway. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” Marissa said. “Plan was to meet at the bar.” She closed the car door and approached, stopping to stand by Pat’s side.
Michael held up his beer. “I’ve had a few.”
She sighed, performatively, and turned her attention back to Pat. “Is he always like this?”
Pat didn’t know what to say, and besides, there was something more pressing. He whispered, “redfalcons20.”
“Excuse me?” she said, almost chuckling.
He stammered. Admittedly, he was terrible in tense situations, and terrible with women, human or otherwise. In response, she reached out and felt his forehead, “Are you feeling alright? You’re looking a little pale.”
“Oh, I, uh…” Pat regained himself. “I’m okay. Thanks.”
“Come on,” Michael called. I’ll make it up to you.” He disappeared back into the house.
“Night,” she said to Pat, and started past him.
“Wait,” Pat said, his mind in a whirl.
“I, um…” he swallowed. “How long have you known Michael?”
“Uh…” she smiled. “Sorry, but who are you again?”
He needed to get back into that house, in between her and Michael. In a flash, he saw himself setting a pan on the burner and cranking it, and with the splat of ground beef on top, this would somehow climax in a house on fire. He’d be back at Michael’s door, haloed by flashing lights, killing the mood with a smoky singe. That would work; Marissa would probably leave. And Michael couldn’t even be upset, as it was Pat’s house that burned down. Weird, huh? Except, as Pat realized, he couldn’t raise the intermediate step. How the fuck do people actually burn their houses down? And if on purpose, it’s insurance fraud, which Pat would be perpetrating, because he’d have to collect, or be broke. He resisted the impulse to curse out loud. He felt his body tingling, like at the end of a run after months of inactivity. Fucking insurance. That’s how it always was. Good reasons became excuses years later, his antagonistic memory in collusion with a high capacity for regret. And this was how it would always be, right? In the future, passing up a promotion, or losing an account to a hot talent. Or letting a car dealer play with him, all the other car dealers snickering just behind him. Or, perhaps, enjoying a warm spring evening on the back patio, interrupted by a heaving, sustained wail above his head, and not knowing if it was artificial or human.
“Nobody,” he said. “Excuse me.”
Marissa moved past him and across the walkway, up the steps, and through the door, which closed behind her with a heavy click.
THE NEXT MORNING, Michael’s place was its regular self again, with that old sports car in the driveway, not Marissa’s. She must’ve left early, or late the previous night. Pat was observing from the station he’d set up at his dining room window, which provided, with some positioning, a relatively inconspicuous vantage. He sat with binoculars, and the phone in his lap, having just hung up with his coworker Ted, a trusted partner in covering for one another. He’d be late that day, and promised to make it up to him. Pat needed to ensure there was nothing on paper.
He picked up the binoculars and watched as Michael finished his breakfast, and Candice cleared the table, dressed in a flowing blouse, and barefoot. Soon, Michael was by the door, briefcase in one hand, the other around Candice’s waist. They kissed, and with a hard slap on her ass, he was out the door. Pat stood and pressed his back just to the side of the window, and listened for the engine to start. He’d wait five to ten minutes after Michael was out of sight, and go over. He stopped by the kitchen counter and wrapped the binoculars in paper towels, tossed them in the trash.
Pat knocked on the door, and a fresh-faced Candice promptly answered. No evidence of Michael’s abuse on her face. He registered that, and the other thing: had she been waiting on the other side of the door? He tamped that thought down. “Oh, hello,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“Redfalcons20,” Pat said slowly.
She didn’t react, but didn’t blink, either. After a beat, she stepped aside. “Come in.”
“Thanks,” Pat said, entering. “I’m a friend of Michael’s. He shared his password with me.”
“I see,” she said flatly, moving to the kitchen, assuming the dishes in the sink. “He doesn’t tell me everything.”
Pat closed the door behind him, delicately approached the kitchen. “Seems like a major detail to neglect to mention. That frustrate you at all?”
The dishes clinked in her hands. Not looking up. “Of course not. A man deserves his privacy.”
“Right,” Pat said, and sat at the table. “He tell you that?”
The faucet squeaked and the water stopped running. She turned to him, wiping her hands on a towel. “Awfully forward for a stranger.” Pat fixated on the icy smile.
“You can call me Pat,” he said. “Candice?”
“Do you love him?”
Pat nodded, his mind running through a brief history of consumer robotics. Sometimes, reciprocation was activated, sometimes ascertained, and either was almost always left to the user’s discretion. He couldn’t decide if her affirmation was truthful, but then again, he wasn’t really asking. She just had to believe he was.
“Where were you last night?” he said.
“I think this is silly, I don’t even know who you are…”
“Would you answer my question? I’m curious.”
Deliberately, she folded the hand towel and tossed it onto the counter, which she leaned against. “Michael sent me out. Further disclosure would be, I feel, a breach of his trust.”
“Which he’s entitled to,” Pat said. “I can’t help but enjoy the irony of that response. You trust him.”
“I love him.”
Without a word, she pushed off from the counter and toward the dining room. Pat sighed and stood, followed her. She moved swiftly through the house, and stopped in the bathroom to retrieve a basket of laundry. Pat closed in, subtly blocking her exit.
“Look,” Pat said, “I’m not trying to…”
“To what?” she said. “Will you say it, truthfully? Because I won’t, as someone who prefers polite company in general, and there are simply things you don’t say in polite company. Things you don’t intimate.”
Pat bit his lip, assessed his options.
“He protects me,” she said. “He values me. Frankly, I don’t fuss over the details; I feel it. Who cares how it looks in the distance? I suppose you’d understand if you’ve ever felt the same way.”
She pushed past him, and he wavered a moment, listening to her tromp up the stairs. Slightly heavier footfalls than a regular woman of her size. He regained himself and ascended the stairs in kind, and hooked into the master bedroom, where she was folding the laundry on the bed, back facing him. “You’re still here,” she said quietly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “about earlier.” She didn’t turn around.
“Apology accepted,” she said, this time turning to lock eyes.
Pat hesitated. “Last night, another woman came to this house. Said she was a friend of Michael’s. Marissa, I believe it was. I wouldn’t think to mention it, other than you were out at that time, doing, you know, whatever it is you can’t disclose.” The room’s silence began to ring. “On account of a man’s privacy.”
She dropped the shirt she was folding. Her smile, that precisely-decided facial contortion, spoke nothing, like an abandoned storefront or a goddamn advertisement…
And in an exact, striking motion, she clasped her hands around his throat and pressed. His knees buckled and he gasped against her grip, flailing, then clawing at her hands before she released altogether and he collapsed.
Wheezing, he rolled over and looked up to see Candice on the phone. “Consumer protection,” she said to him. “A good lover is a fighter.”
“Wait!” Pat shouted, his voice hoarse. “Please, just let me explain.”
She rolled her eyes and put the phone down. He pushed himself up and sat against the bed, and she crouched to his eye level.
With effort, he caught his breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not the best with words.”
No reaction. He needed a new strategy, and for that, he needed to buy time.
He continued, “Michael’s my friend. And yes, it was wrong of me to want to force a confrontation, but I’m worried about him. I’m telling you the truth.” In all likelihood, she couldn’t be swayed against him. That was base programming; Cing’s, not Michael’s.
“I believe you,” she said, “but what does it matter? It’s his choice, and I exist to serve his best interests.”
“Forcibly, if need be,” he said, rubbing his throat. “And that’s admirable. Believe me, I’m not blaming you. Michael, he doesn’t know what he wants. That’s why you’re here, to help him figure it out.”
“And yet, he’s messing around.”
“If this Marissa is his destination, I delivered him.”
“No,” Pat said, voice recovering. “He loves you back. But he’s confused. That’s all that is.”
She considered that. Pat felt he could hear a click and some whirring behind her eyes. She grinned, almost wryly, and held out her hand. “I wouldn’t say you were bad with words, Pat.”
He laughed softly and took her hand.
She rose, brought him to his feet, straightened out his shirt and brushed him of dust. “So, what do you suggest I do?”
“What I’m about to say will sound drastic, but I promise it’s what’s best for him.”
“Okay,” she said, cautious, and resumed folding laundry.
“It’s an issue of bodies, believe it or not, like an anxiety he has,” Pat said. “Yours being metal, and his mostly flesh.”
He exhaled. It was working. “He never told you he was a cyborg?”
She shook her head.
“I guess we both know he likes his privacy. I mean, he’s known me for years, so these details just slip out. It’s light work, anyway. He’s got an artificial heart, which powers some of the modded muscles in his legs.”
“I see. So what’s the issue?”
“Well, you’re state of the art, and he isn’t. Hasn’t been for years. That’s why he’s having trouble connecting to you.” He held his finger aloft and stepped closer. “And it’s also why, Candice, he hits you.”
“Hits me?” She tittered. “What are you talking about?”
“Candice, please. You see, he’s envious of your body, so he lashes out at it.”
She stared for a moment longer before averting her eyes and touching a hand to her face, where the memory of injury remained despite the erasing resilience of artificial skin. Quietly, she said, “I’ve always wondered.”
“So now, he thinks, ‘maybe a human like me would be better.’ A human like Marissa.”
Her eyes went wide.
“I know. So here’s what you do, Candice,” he said. “Access his heart.” He laughed. “Can’t ask for a better metaphor. Access it — it’s Cing, like yours — get the serial number off the front plate, update the firmware. He won’t do it himself. He refuses.”
He thought about that one. “I don’t know,” he said, and couldn’t help but laugh again. “I really can’t think of an answer.” She began to laugh, too. “Men are mysterious creatures, right? But you know, something that’s certain? If you bring it up with him, he’ll shut down, walk away. He’ll resent you for it.”
“Okay.” She folded the last shirt. “Pride, I bet,” she said, half to herself, and turned back to him. “So, this is your recommendation? You were correct in your assessment, though ‘drastic’ might be too little.”
“I know it’s extreme. But I think at this point, you’re the only one who can save this relationship.”
“You’re talking about surgery against his will.”
“For cyborgs, they call it maintenance. Like ripping off a bandage for the rest of us. Candice,” he said, taking her hands in his, “you’re a fighter, remember? So, I’ll ask again. You’re sure you love him?”
“Yes. As I’ve said.”
“And you’d do anything to protect that love?”
“Yes, but…” she withdrew her hands, put one to her forehead. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Pat stepped forward. “Yes, you can.”
“I can’t,” she said, eyes on the floor.
“You want to.”
“Believe me, you know you want to.”
“Come on, why don’t we…”
“I mean, you said as much, right? Didn’t you say you wanted this?”
Slowly, she looked back up at him, and nodded slowly. “Okay.”
“Good. Now tell me.”
“I want this. I’ll do it.”
PAT STRAINED AGAINST the rifle, its bolt stiff after years of inaction, but locking into place with a satisfying click. Briefly, he considered his options in the event of failure, if Michael were to access conversation records right away, or if Candice were to inform Michael of the reprogramming anyway. He wouldn’t be able to explain, other than to further the lie and become the fake cyborg himself. ‘Oh, she must’ve gotten it confused. I was talking about my own cyborg heart…’ It didn’t matter. Fucking cyborg hearts. Success was too sweet a prospect, and he deigned to disrespect it.
He pushed through the front door and left it hanging open. Crossed his lawn onto Michael’s, over his driveway, through the path, up the stairs. He opened the door and saw the scene near to what he’d imagined. Candice stood before the kitchen table, to which Michael lay fastened with rope. She turned to look at the incoming Pat, perhaps for final approval, revealing the knife in her hand. He nodded.
Michael thrashed, rattling the table. “For God’s sake!” he shouted. “Shoot her!”
Pat gently closed the door behind him.
“Shoot her, goddamn it! She’s fucking crazy!”
“Sweetheart, please,” Candice said, touching his cheek. “I love you.”
She raised the knife and slowly dipped it down into his heart, sliding, then pushing against the resistance as he screamed. She made a jerking motion, cutting against a latch that wasn’t there. And she stopped, confused. Michael’s head had tilted to the side, and he wasn’t screaming anymore.
“Honey?” she waited for a response. “Honey? What’s wrong?”
Pat felt his chest tighten. He sidestepped for the optimal angle, and began to slowly raise the barrel of the gun.
“Michael? What happened? What…” She yanked the knife out in a swift motion that sprayed her with blood. She took a step back and the knife clattered on the tile. “You’re not a…”
“It’s okay,” Pat said. “Everything’s okay, Candice.”
“Just come here. Candice, just come here.” He motioned. “Step toward me.”
Her face now frozen in its last, horrified expression, she looked to Pat and rounded the kitchen table toward him. “But you told me he was a cyborg. You did…”
He squeezed, splitting Candice’s head in two. She dropped, twitching, at the edge of the kitchen. Bits of her hard drive lay in a scatter. Pat exhaled and reloaded, pushing the expended shell onto the hardwood with a hollow thunk. A dead man and his murderous, likely malfunctioning android, and the next-door neighbor simply responding to a disturbance.