WIP – Part 2, story 10

A few days later, there was the quarter, and there was the creature.

He was only three inches tall. I didn’t get a good look at him that first time. It was only in the following months, as he grew more careless, perhaps convinced that I was not as observant as the other human who loudly moved about the house, that I actually gathered enough detail to describe him well.

Three inches tall, knobby, like a twisted branch, and his skin was mottled. His ears were tipped in purple so deep and dark that they faded delicately into his black hair. He would have blended right into a shadow had an observer not been looking directly at him when he moved. His eyes were solid black. It made reading his expressions and moods as we later became friends difficult, but I liked the way they stood out on his face. We would discover later that he blended perfectly into the shadow my hair created against my neck – black hair and skin dark enough to create few if any highlights. We were almost a matched pair if you took away the distinctly twig-like appearance of his body and the purple highlights he was sporting.

“Hello,” I murmured one morning when I saw him skirting the spine of Great Expectations. I had briefly thought of pulling it down to read that morning but decided ultimately that I did actually want to know what was going on in the world. The book had stood there, half pulled from the shelf and nearly flush with the edge of the shelf, when he crept from the shadow over the volume next to it.

I watched him clamor up the spine of Middlemarch easily. Like Spider-Man, his hands seemed to naturally adhere to the cloth binding of the book he was descending, and he was soon on the shelf, edging around the Dickensian spine carefully, his bare feet just fitting on the space between pure air and leather.

He jumped so at the sound of my voice that I reached out a hand next to the shelf so he wouldn’t fall. There was the slightest of pressure on the edge of my palm, one bare foot had barely landed before he was leaping back to the Eliot, and he was gone, disappeared before my eyes could even process what I had seen.

“I only wanted to say hello,” I whispered to the empty room, sure that small, purple-tinged ears could hear me somehow.

“Love, have you seen my cufflinks?” Henry asked from the bathroom. “Well not both of them.” I could hear him fumbling through the small dish of accessories on the vanity. “I seem to have one but the other is gone. Is it on my table?”

“No, I don’t see it.” I answered, shuffling through the detritus of his evening reading, water glasses and eye drops. “Did you leave one at the office?”

Henry’s tall bulk blocked the light from the bathroom. He was fastening another cufflink – not the normal plain gold pair with a small leave embossed on its face – to one wrist distractedly. I found my husband to be a handsome man. Others have told me he’s too imposing, too tall and broad and bear-like, but the skin around his eyes is gentle and soft, and he smiles easily through a smattering of beard.

“These will do, I suppose, but can you take a look today?” He was across the room in a moment, one arm wrapping around my waist and the other my shoulders before he dipped me and smacked a kiss to my cheek enthusiastically. “You always can find the things I misplace, absent-minded professor that I am.”

“Of course,” I said with a smile as he set me back on my feet. “I’ve got to run into the library, but I’ll have a look when I return.” Henry winked and released me with a gentle squeeze.

My day was structured for once, and I was looking forward to it more than normal. My computer was silent on the desk in the study where it had been mocking me for days, and I wanted out of the house with a project on my hands rather than to be derided again by Siri and her peers as they railed against my procrastination.

A few more minutes and Henry was out the door, and my bag had a stack of books piled in the bottom, a sweater for what was sure to be an over air-conditioned library, and at the bottom, a light snack that I’d have to smuggle past the dragon lady at the front desk.

I volunteered regularly enough to have my own plastic pin with my name cut into the blue front in sharp relief. The guards had gotten over formalities months ago and called me Penny instead of Mrs. River. And the circulation kids had been pulling new releases for my previewed glances for years. No matter what I did or how much I was there, Mrs. Devonshire would not bend. As head librarian, she policed all comings and goings, check outs and check ins and made sure that no rules were broken.

How this single woman managed to strike such fear into my heart, I couldn’t explain.

I was completely convinced she hated me.

She’d probably sniff the stupid apple and crackers out before I even reached the circulation desk and then slipped past her into the back room.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when I slammed the door to the old red Fiat in the driveway. Later I wondered if I hadn’t heard another breath hitch as I dropped the bag unceremoniously onto the passenger seat, but at the time I pretended it was just the wind.

We lived on the outskirts of a big town. There were shops, restaurants and easy access to the main thoroughfares to get into a nearby city. But there were also quiet tree-lined streets with sidewalks, and further out, silent, meadow-lined streets with no sidewalks so that I could claim country living even if those meadows butted right up against a freeway. The town itself was as depressed as the economy. On a sunny day, it was almost adorable. But this was New England in the fall, and days were usually borderline grey.

The streets were empty this morning. Leaves muddled the gutters and the sky threatened rain but aside from a damp chill to the air wasn’t actually dropping anything on the car. I pulled into the library slowly, smiling and waving at Mrs. Kalry as she slowly made her way to her own vehicle, one hand on the car beside her for balance. The window was up so I could pull past without getting a full update on all the grandchildren. I dawdled gathering my things until I saw her car door slam before slipping from the warm exterior with my tote clenched in one hand.

I had to get research done for a commissioned piece on the local holiday festival that was only weeks away now. The city magazine wanted five hundred words on the traditions and the history of the carnival that included costumes and a parade with small children caroling through the town. And I had to return all the books I had been hoarding for six months. I was starting to get dirty looks from the other volunteers.

“No coffee in the research room, Penelope. You know the rules.” Her crackly voice voice followed me past circulation.

“Just water, Mrs. Devonshire,” I answered with a timid smile. Like I would break her precious rules that openly. I dropped the seven hardbacks on the desk and pushed them towards Kelly to check in while I slipped the now empty tote into my purse.  Henry would crack jokes later tonight about how the bedside table looked downright sad without its towering stack.

My hand clenched momentarily around the handle of my purse, snapping the ribbing together unexpectedly. A small gasp made me glance over my shoulder, but no one was there. The research room called my name, and I thought little more of it as I turned towards the microfiche disks that would hold the town records I was after. Hours would pass before I looked up again.

That’s the only reason he stepped out of my purse, I think. He was so sure that I wouldn’t notice – that I wouldn’t see movement from the corner of my eye let alone see the small figure creeping from the darkened corner of my bag around the edge of the ribbing.

He sat down slowly, back to my bag, and stayed under the shadow of the dark leather, blending in perfectly with wood of the table and the camel-colored wall behind him.

I did everything in my power not to move, not to jump, not to turn my attention from the words flying by on the screen in front of me. We stayed that way for an hour. Me pretending not to see him and barely moving. Him looking around the library from his fold of my purse. I got next to nothing done except hitting the print button whenever I saw a year I thought was relevant and hoping no one made off with my stack of papers.

This was by far the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me and nobody would ever believe me.


WIP – Part 1, Story 6

“Why is there hair on your pillow?”

She ignored the question, slowly walking across the boudoir and entering the bathroom to check her makeup. Sallow skin bled through the foundation she had patted carefully from neckline to hairline. Pink globes of color stood out on her cheekbones, and the only saving grace was that her hand had been steady as she’d applied her eye makeup this time.

She almost looked healthy. Almost.

When the question came again, Baron was standing in the doorway, blocking out the natural light that the bedroom windows provided, and holding a small handful of blonde hair in his perfect hand.

“Why is hair on your pillow? It should be in your scalp.”

The cadence of his voice and the use of correct terminology rather than colloquialisms were what actually gave it away, and she stood back, a hand on her hip, and contemplated her creation.

Baron wasn’t a real human. He looked like one. Perfect synthetic skin and real hair covered his body. She had paid top dollar for the materials. The wiring and fiber optics that allowed him to move and speak and interact with the human race were so delicate and advanced that you would only think he had a twinkle in his eye or had placed his hand too near a light when you saw a glimmer of a flash through his palm. He was nearly perfect.
How could she make him more perfect?

“Well I suppose you’re as good as you’re going to be today,” Arlen mumbled under her breath before moving towards him. He stepped back a pace, an arm still cocked and fingers still clenched around the hair that had come out of her head last night.

“Don’t worry about it Baron.” Proceeding back into the bedroom, she saw him drop the hairs precisely into the garbage can near the door, and turn towards her smoothly to follow. The benefit of a robot was that he did actually do everything that she told him to when she told him to do it.

“Are we going out today?” he asked smoothly, his voice a perfect balance to her own.

“Yes, I am.” She did not include him in the sentence, knowing that she could not take him with her no matter how much he had begun to want to see the world outside the walls of her spacious apartment. Without looking into his eyes, she gathered her purse, slid her feet into the flip flops by the door and checked to make sure her car keys were still at arm’s reach on the hook by the door.

“I will be back in a few hours. You may rest.”

Anyone passing in the hallway would have seen only an attractive woman, perhaps wearing too much makeup, exiting her apartment and a handsome man sitting down on the sofa within and closing his eyes. They would not hear the soft whir of his joints compressing or the faint beep that signaled his brain had gone into hibernation mode.

Arlen knew that Baron would forget the hair by the time she returned. Well, he wouldn’t forget it because he forgot nothing, a benefit of a hard drive instead of a brain, but his powered down self would not move the pieces of hair he had picked from her pillow back to the front of his “brain” unless she brought it up. And post-treatment, the hair loss she was fighting to hide more and more these days would be the last thing she wanted to talk about with her companion. It was really quite amazing in her mind that she could create a robot to service her every need, but scientists and doctors had yet found a way to prevent or cure cancer with a single pill.

The human body was infinitely more complex than the any robot, even one as perfectly detailed as Baron.

The outside world knew her only as Arlen, robotics expert with privacy issues that rivaled Steve Jobs. That anyone walking past her apartment would have seen Baron was not a concern for her because she owned the whole floor even if she only lived in one section of it. The rest of the world thought she had combined the loft apartments into one gigantic home, but no one ever entered it who was not explicitly invited and the people who were knew better than to gossip about the parts of her apartment they accessed when they were there.

Her inner circle – they were few and far between and almost all related by blood or financial vena cava – knew the truth. She simply liked privacy. Baron was her greatest invention, and she would do nothing that threatened her use of the nearly perfect AI specimen. She lived in one roomy corner apartment as far from the elevator as possible, and the rest of the apartments sat vacant, untouched since they were gutted to studs and rebuilt when she bought the floor. Someday she would want to sell and make a profit after all.

Since robotics revolution, Arlen’s skills had been in demand. In demand enough that she could retire tomorrow, break every contract she had, pay out the ass for it, and still live as a millionaire for the rest of her predictable life span. Her quadruple doctorate degrees in biology, chemistry, engineering and English ensured that she could lose every penny of her fortune (unlikely) and sell her eggs to the rich and powerful and not change her style of living in the least.

She was, to put it crassly, set for life.

The world had changed drastically from her youth. While pop culture continued to permeate every social interaction that Arlen had with her minions, her robots and the general public, it was no longer simply something that people absorbed from 8 PM to 10 PM on weeknights and via marathon session on the weekends. It was in everything they did. Since the government had allowed the infrastructure to collapse completely while they fought over petty problems in the nation’s capital, opportunities had arisen for the enterprising, the brilliant, the ones who would rise from the suburban ashes to put America back on the world map as a super power, something they hadn’t enjoyed since the late twentieth century. Arlen had been one of the few to answer that call. While her environmental and social counterparts had fixed the water supplies and fed the poor, she had inhaled the problem of infrastructure much like a starfish, wrapping her entire brain around it and attacking it from all sides simultaneously. The simple biochemical robot she created was part earthworm, part spider, spawning hundreds of thousands of children that consumed, regurgitated and solidified a national roadway system in less than a year.

In other words, the only reason that trucks were able to get supplies from one state to another, from one side of the country to the other, was because of the cement-like, biological component the robots had laid down on top of the existing map of roadways. They were solid. They did not crack or expand with the heat or cold. Holes were not picked in their surfaces. Water did not freeze into dangerous black ice.

Granted, human beings had to be scrapped from their surfaces with special machinery that sucked their blood and interstitial tissues from the pores of the surface, but it was a lot more dependable than the old system had been before the collapse.

Arlen was practically a national hero when it had been completed. The President had even taken an inaugural drive from New York to Philadelphia. She had fixed the roads, not the crime problem, and his armored limo could only withstand so many threats.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was very little crime on the road itself. Danger only seemed to present itself when people got too close to people in power out on the open road. Travel on your own. Mind your own business. People left you alone.

She had done it all before she turned twenty. The degrees came later. What? She fixed the country’s roadways from one end to the other, and they weren’t going to make her a national hero? Had they not, there would have been a number of lovely European and Asian countries eager to pick her up and support her for the rest of her life.

Now, at thirty, Arlen was tired.

Tired of the celebrity that came with her achievements, she’d gone into a sort of seclusion in the last four years. She only worked three days a week, hardly leaving the complex of her apartment on the other four.

Her critics and fans may have thought she was working on something mind blowing and incredible in an apartment-sized laboratory but the truth was much more mundane.

She wasn’t kidding with the tired line. At some point, before the collapse, she had seen an animal documentary that posited large cats – the extinct kind like lions and tigers – slept so much that if they were alive for fifteen years, they had actually slept for twelve of them. At this point, Arlen was pretty sure she was averaging two days of sleep and two days of productivity in her “days off” but no one was complaining. No one knew.

In the two days she was functioning and awake, there was little to do but give into the desires that had driven her to birth Baron in the first place. His construction had been partially whim and partial self-challenge. She had wanted to see if she could actually create something that completely and totally passed for human when put to the test. She had yet to take him outside but her friends and family were all pretty convinced that she had shockingly met a man who adored her, was presentable and not the stereotype of the smart guys she usually found in her social circle.

He had taken more than a year of microscopic tweaking before she was happy enough to allow him to walk around her apartment unsupervised. It was another six months before she allowed anyone to “meet” him. He was turned off and shoved in a closet, much like an oversized doll or a victim of abuse.

But Arlen knew the time was coming. There were few things she’d be able to do for much longer completely alone. The chemotherapy (seriously she had fixed the vehicular infrastructure of the country and there wasn’t a pill for this shit yet?) was weakening her dramatically. She had a hard time driving home from the treatment center and the arm she was so used to reaching out for on a regular basis now was stuck at home, sitting by himself on the couch and was no use to anyone.

WIPs – Part 1, Story 3

Sam’s Stag Night is winding down by the time her shadow crosses the bar. A few of the groomsmen notice nothing more than the silhouette and start hooting and clapping Josh on the back, assuming that he’s the one who has shelled out for the stripper what with him being Best Man and all. The jaunty angle of the bowler hat over one eye, the casually unbuttoned neckline on her conservative little black dress and the spike on her heels all point in that direction.

Then she giggles, and Sam spins with a grin to grab her by the waist and lift her onto the bar in front of him.

“Thank God you’re here, Katie.” His eyes droop with beer, and his jaw slackens under her gentle palm. “They were gonna make me do shots.”

Katie oohss and aahhs and pinches his chin between her finger and thumb, waggling it back and forth playfully.

“Oh no! No shots for my Sammy on his big night!” Her hat is tossed in the air and the mess of curls he remember mooning over as a teenager fall around her plump shoulders much to the delight of Sam’s friends. The men who trooped down from Scranton look confused. The guys who helped Sam survive four years at Notre Dame are putting the pieces together with conspiratorial grins and beginning to nudge each other in the ribs. And him? He leans against the bar beside the only other adult from the old neighborhood and works on forgetting the raging crush he’s always had on his big brother’s best friend.

Nick’s hand falls to his shoulder from nowhere and squeezes tight, ready to inflict whatever torture he can before Sam or Kate notice the standoff. Nick was always a prick – made nicknaming him easy as a kid.

“Finally gonna tell her you love her Josh?” He isn’t as loud as he could be and Josh is momentarily mollified but still on guard.

“Please. Why would I take away from the festivities that surround me with thoughts of an unrequitable childhood crush?” He scoffs and raises the scotch to his lips just in time to wink at Katie over the rim with what feels like class but probably comes off as awkward and childish. It draws her attention if nothing else.

“Joshua!” she shouts from his brother’s embrace. “Where have you been all my life? Get me a drink!”

“Yeah Joshua! Get the woman a drink!” Sam is drunk, but Josh is willing to forgive him. It’s his last night of freedom before marrying Miss Perfect.

“Double Blantons, please. One ice cube.” He orders from the bar with a nod towards the lone female in their group who is now being introduced to all the friends she never knew she had. Sam’s boys are lining up for the honor to meet the legendary Katie – the girl he never slept with, never dated, never even kissed. She is the only girl who makes Miss Perfect shake in her stilettos and all of Sam’s friends love the very idea of her.

She never visited when he was in college. Flights were too expensive from New York and then London, and they both were home in the summers anyways. There was email and the phone. They didn’t need to be in the physical presence of the other for the shorthand to apply. There are some things that even time and distance cannot wrench apart thanks to technology. Somehow, even Miss Perfect had managed to miss Katie except for the occasional phone call until last night.

Sam’s phone call at 2 AM – dead sober and not completely awake – to tell him to come and collect Katie and her luggage from his doorstep before his bride invited her to move into the bridal suite with them had brought goosebumps up along Josh’s arms. His confused face at the door, a confused face mused with sleep and not at all with it had landed him with an armful of Katie. She had been completely wired, caffeine practically vibrating from the whites of her eyes, and had launched herself down the thickly carpeted hallway when he turned the corner.

He wasn’t going to protest an armful of Katie.

“You’ve grown up, Joshua.” He had barely caught her murmur an hour later when he deposited her on her hotel bed, removed the knee high boots and the intricately-wrapped sweater, and tucked her in. It had taken about that long for the caffeine high to wain, for them to find her room, and for her to quiz him on his love life.

Katie was the only one who was allowed to call him Joshua. Joshua was the only one allowed to call her Katie. It was their thing. Growing up in Sam’s shadow hadn’t always been fun, but with Katie as his best friend, Josh had always at least known he had an ally.

Now he swirled the glass in his hand, feeling very grown up for twenty-five, and watched the men whose hair was beginning to thin and paunch beginning to show try to impress his brother’s best girl. Kate still got carded.

When the last sweaty older guy had kissed her cheek, Kate rose to her feet. Well, her heels were looped through the rung of the stool she’d been perched on, and Sam’s hand at the small of her back may have been the only thing that kept her vertical.

“Alright boys!” she shouted over the crowd, “It is Samantha’s last night as a free man. You will buy us drinks. You will not make him do shots. I promise you, he will barely remember his name in the morning as it is.” Her fist rose in the air with each order. Her neckline nearly gave the group more of a show than Josh was sure she wanted. Drinks began arriving at her elbow.

Josh had elbowed his way through the crowd to his brother’s side, bolstering him beside Kate for the next 20 minutes until he saw her plan. The plan was not a good one. He had to look for reinforcements in the crowd and found himself raising a judgmental eyebrow in Nick’s direction in short order.

Sam was already only a drink or three away from calling it a night, and Kate was determined not to let a drop of the amber liquid go to waste as it was laid before her. Nick took Sam’s left arm, and he stationed himself at Kate’s right, sliding shots and drinks behind his elbow as frequently as possible. It was high school graduation all over again except Kate had the tolerance of a trucker now and was much more quick witted a few doubles in than she used to be.

A soft arm looped around his neck and her moist breath made his hair dance.

“Joshua. Are you withholding liquor from me?” she breathed into ear. He could practically feel her lips on his skin. His knees wobbled like a thirteen year old, and he did nothing to hide the finger he threw at Nick behind her back when the other man guffawed.

“Nope,” he lied with a completely straight face. Regardless of the crush that was well known and documented in the old neighborhood to everyone except Katie herself, Josh wasn’t about to take advantage of a woman who he was pretty sure looked at him like a little brother anyways. Plus, she belonged to his big brother in a way that no other girl ever would. They had been playmates as infants, toddled to kindergarten together, survived high school, and managed to get through every single first beside each other but never with the other. It was the kind of intimacy that even Josh’s genetic ties couldn’t challenge.

“Just making sure I get my fair share, Katie love. God knows Sam had to teach one of us how to drink.” He waggled a shoulder and raised an eyebrow, challenging her a little. They both knew that she could drink him under the table. She was the only one of the three of them who had ever learned how to hold her liquor, and they each had a horror story of hangover memory to remember all the occasions she had removed yet another set of training wheels from her tricycle. She giggled now at his bravado and dropped a loud kiss on his cheek.

“Pass me one of those shots or I’m telling your brother what really happened to his mitt,” she whispered. In a move that was much smoother than he ever thought he would be able to pull off with forethought, he produced a glass from his far side and handed it over to her.

Kate Blarvel became the girl who grew into the heads she turned after college. She had been a short and pudgy child with wild dark brown hair, hazel eyes and more freckles than she knew what to do with. She survived high school mostly on the bulwark of the quarterback’s friendship. No one could say a thing against her. And Sam fulfilled so many of the ridiculous stereotypes of high school stardom that he was nearly recruited to model for Abercrombie & Fitch his freshman year of college. No one would say a thing against him either.

“Thank God we have each other Joshua my love,” she said later after she shoved Nick away from her shoulder and wrapped one arm around his waist on the curb. “Where would I be without your side to wrap myself around?”

Her question was asked so musingly that he nearly laughed, but he could feel the tension in her arm and the way she tilted into him, leaning at an angle that should have been impossible given the height of her heels. Under his arm, she felt small and soft. The pudgy child had added a sheen of polish to make the curls shine and the eyes sparkle, but much of the confidence she outwardly exuded had the stench of bravado to those who knew her best. He rubbed her shoulder briskly before answering.

“Oh Katie. Where would I be without you to keep my head on straight? You know we have to stick together. Sam loses all our loyalty tomorrow. It’s just you and me against the world.”