Fiction

Stranger and Stranger

“The rig, it was right here,” I panicked, to Heinz. “Where the hell could it have gone?” We stared at the empty patch of snow, beside the long hose and the discarded boots and cylinders, and wondered about the spacewoman.

He looked at me with typical, big-brother derision. Twin jets of irritation streamed from his nostrils. “Sure it was, Ingo. Sure it was. I’ll bet she blasted into space, right here, from this very spot. And now she’s probably on her way to some nearby star.” He shivered audibly, then cinched his red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf up to the curly hairs growing from his ears. “It’s cold. I’m going back.”

Finally, I thought I’d had him. Just once, Heinz would appreciate just how exceptional his little brother’s life could be. But then, after dragging him all the way into the Alps, and then out into this frozen meadow on this frozen morning, all I had to show was a whole bunch of freshly packed snow.

I was mired in disbelief when he started back to the farmhouse. He was laboring to stay on top of the thin crisp of ice, rather than sink into knee-deep powder, when he heard the loud, rippling sound. He looked into the sky, pondered, looked some more, and then began to exclaim.


Heinz Baumgartner had been my older brother for as long as I can remember. And for that entire time I’d basked in his radiance, mostly unnoticed, a rocky exoplanet beside a main-sequence star. As the firstborn, his every milestone had been recorded and every success had earned him praise. And in the narrow, self-centered universe that emerged he always had a better story to tell–whether he did or whether he didn’t.

But the thing about rocky exoplanets, they’re often more interesting than their main-sequence stars.

For more than thirty years my brother and I had spent the first Friday of October at his vineyard in Carinthia, down where Austria kisses Slovenia just beyond Hungary’s view. These were mostly one-sided affairs, during which I’d hear the latest retread of last year’s stories. If I was lucky I’d slip in a wholly unappreciated reference to myself somewhere along the way.

But this year was going to be different, he would see, and midway through our second bottle of Weissburgunder I began my amazing tale. “Heinz, I have a spaceman living in my attic.”

His stare was blank and flummoxed. I’d been too abrupt, I never did transition well. I tried again.

“I said, a spaceman. Though she’s more of a spacewoman I suppose.”

“Ingo, what in the hell are you talking about?” He spoke that sing-song, rollicking German native to the outer reaches of Austria.

“She arrived a few weeks ago, out of the blue. She was covered from head to toe in this red and white robe, like a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes. They were strangely dark, almost hollow. She talks funny, can’t weigh more than 20 kilos, and smells, well, somewhere between ozone and engine oil.”

“Ingo,” he said gravely, “turn around.” He gestured with full glass at the young man sitting on a backless bench at the rear of his Weingarten. He wasn’t drinking, nor doing much of anything besides looking bored and conspicuous. “See him?”

I nodded.

“He’s been bunking with my farmhands. His name is … oh hell, I forget. Let’s call him Sepp.”

“Sepp?”

“Yea, Sepp. He arrived with a whole pack of ‘em, a few weeks back, on the 14:30 from Zagreb. The rest continued onward to Munich, thank God. But not him, he hung around. Speaks English to me, but I get most of it. Says there’s some war back home and he’s looking for a new start. Says he’s got a family and he’s making a way for them.” Heinz took a long sip then exhaled from the back of his throat. “I’m not so sure.”

I looked at Sepp, who was now looking at us, uncomfortable with the attention. “It could be true,” I said.

Heinz’ unshaven faced scrunched up like a raisin, as often happens when I have something to say.

“Really,” I continued. “There’s been quite a few like him recently. A lot of them are from Syria, and, yes, there’s a civil war.”

“Anyway,” he pivoted, “for a bed and something to eat he offered to help with the harvest. The frosts were coming early, so I played along. Talk about smelling funny. Kind of like old figs in need of a good rain. I have no idea what he’ll do in the winter. But for sure it’s gonna cost me.”

“Maria,” I said, reclaiming the floor.

“Come again?”

“She wouldn’t tell me her name, so I started calling her Maria.”

“Who?”

“The spacewoman.”

“Right.” Heinz took the Lodenhut from his head and scratched the tangled, snow-white nest beneath. “Well, what does she want?” he asked, his downward inflection revealing disinterest.

“Water, mostly.”

“Water.”

“Yes. Wherever she came from, it must be very dry. I offered her food, and clothing, but all she wanted was water. Clean water. That’s all she could talk about. I showed her the faucet in the bath and she was thrilled.”

“Must have been awful thirsty.”

“I’m not so sure. The thing is, she never actually drank any. At least, not that I saw. She seemed more into saving it for later. I gave her some Tupperware.” I glanced at Sepp, who glanced away. “Strangest woman I’ve ever seen. She just has to be from another world.”

“A spacewoman.”

“Yes, a spacewoman.” I drew out that last word for maximum impact.

A deep orange sunset appeared above the nearest hillock, where Heinz’ trellises stood out like the stubble on his chin. He gazed slowly at the brilliance, savored the features of his fatherland, then turned toward me earnestly.

“Ingo?” he asked.

I leaned forward.

“The buffet’s gonna close. You hungry?”

Nina Marinovic Does Not Exist

In the end, she ate the paper, its shiny, slightly furry surface sticking to the roof of her mouth and making her gag. Her husband laughed when he found out, but it was something she had to do. She didn’t trust the power it had over her, and the only way to break that power was to break it up with her teeth. It sat in her stomach, making her queasy, but through the dizziness and chills that followed she was content. She had finally finished it.


Nina wished she had worn more clothes at the border point. Her children resembled giant balls, their puffed-up coats bulging around them. She was shivering through her jeans, and her scarf offered little comfort. Her husband David’s face was set like concrete, but she could see him shaking in his leather jacket.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said, for lack of anything to do but complain. “I remember when they’d let you in with just a passport.”

“At least they’re letting us through.” She took out the envelope containing her documents and thumbed through it for the fifth time. She ran through all the explanations she could possibly give if the guard questioned those papers: excuses for everything from incorrect orthography to the variation in color between her and her husband’s work permits.

“Next!” The guard’s order rattled through the loudspeaker, and David jumped. He took Lara and Petra in hand and walked, with only a little hesitation, up to the booth. They’d registered the children on his papers, and so he was the one who had to explain the situation to the guards. At the time, he’d insisted on it–he was the one who’d travelled through this very checkpoint several times, back in better days. Now, Nina was frantic with anxiety, and she squinted towards her family and their conversation with an unimpressed officer. After a couple of minutes, the officer gave them all back their passports and other papers, and they set off towards the exit.

It was her turn, and she stepped forward feeling the crescendo of blood in her body, rising in fear. When she reached the booth, she saw that the officer’s eyes were a jaundiced yellow, though the rest of his face was pale and papery. She placed all her papers on the wooden surface, and he took them from her. She watched his eyes flicking through her passport, work pass, and entry permit.

He collected her papers together, stamped her passport, and handed them back to her, along with the card that proclaimed her to be a temporary resident with the right to work.

“Thank you,” she whispered. The officer ignored her as she stuffed her papers into her handbag and walked towards the rest of her family.


For a little while, nothing strange happened. Then Nina tried to go to work.

She had obtained a job before they had come, at Saint Anthony of Padua Gymnasium. She would replace the school’s former French teacher, who had disappeared one day in mysterious circumstances, according to the student who shown her to the principal’s office. Nina asked what these circumstances might be, and was told that the most popular theories were elopement, involvement in a cult, and selling her soul to the devil. She felt rather less enthused about her new job, but kept on walking, her shoes clattering on the polished floor.

When she entered the office, the principal–Dr. Lisa Amstutz, the plaque on her desk said–shook her hand, and Nina introduced herself, tripping a little over a language she knew more as an intellectual exercise than a living thing.

“Of course, since you are a foreigner, I need to see your residency card,” Dr. Amstutz said. Nina pulled her card out of her purse and handed it over. It was the first time she had needed to use it.

Dr. Amstutz frowned, and stared at the card for too long to be reading it.

“What is wrong?” Nina started forward in her seat.

“This says you’re not Nina Marinovic.” She handed it back, and Nina saw that the name printed in black ink was NIKA MARINOVIC. She closed her eyes and opened them in the hope that the letters would change while she wasn’t looking, but they remained as before.

“There must have been a mistake,” she said. “I really am Nina Marinovic–this card just has an error—”

“I’m sorry.” Dr. Amstutz rose from her chair and gestured towards the door. “We can’t have someone teaching here if they’re not who their documents say they are.”

“I have a passport from my country–won’t that do?”

“Not if you don’t have the right to work.”

“If you give me time, maybe I can get new papers. It’s a mistake.”

“I don’t have time.” Over the top of her glasses, Dr. Amstutz regarded her the way one regarded a criminal’s photo in the newspaper.

Nina felt hot and embarrassed, and gave up the fight in favor of scuttling away. “I’m sorry,” she said before closing the door.

The Garden of Esther

See that sun up there? It’s just painted on. The real sun is a raisin with all the juice sucked out of it. I know ‘cause I saw it. But before that, I lay in my own garden beneath another fake sky.

I knew the shape of every rock and leaf, the buzz of every insect, the whistle of every bird. I smelled every flower, climbed every tree… but I stayed out of the woods. Mother said I should never go in there and I was a good girl. Plus also I didn’t have the key to the gate.

I let out a sigh. “There’s nothing to do.”

Puggle opened his eyes and peered up at me, his hedgehog spines tickling my belly. “We could play hide and seek.”

I had on my bright yellow dress, my second favorite after the frilly lavender one. Mother said I shouldn’t climb trees in a dress if I ever wanted to wear it again, so now I wore this one and yellow’s not a hidey color. I shook my head. “You cheat at that game ‘cause you’re not yellow.”

Puggle flicked his long tongue at me.

Bzzzz-whaa-whaa-wa-wa. A cicada buzzed angry not ten feet from me. A meadowlark stabbed at it with her needlely bill. I kicked a slipper at that bird. “Shoo! Leave that bug alone.”

“She’s just trying to feed her babies,” Puggle said.

That’s all the world needs, more babies. The meadowlark hopped a step away, one beady eye on me, the other on the wiggly bug. “Go away bird, I’m the top of the food chain.”

Puggle made his eyes squinty at me. “What do you know about food chains?”

“Mr. Professor told me about them.”

Puggle shook his head and looked sad at me. “He needs an upgrade then. They’re called food webs and they don’t have tops.”

I stuck my tongue at that hedgehog. ‘Cause he’s not so smart, that’s why. Everything has a top. Mama Meadowlark flew away with the no longer wiggly cicada silent in her beak.

From inside the cottage a wail burst out. Emily, my baby sister, ‘cept I never even asked for a baby sister. Well, maybe once but that was before I knew better and I shouldn’t have to be punished for that.

Puggle rolled off my belly. His ears flicked toward the woods and his eyes got squinty then he turned toward the cottage. “We should go see if Lady Ella needs any help.”

I scrunched my nose at what it would smell like in there. I bet I was never that stinky unless you count that time I found a dead frog and forgot it in my pocket for two days. “Puggle, what was I like when I was a baby?”

Puggle stopped his waddle and looked curious at me. “Well, you weren’t much bigger than I am–”

“Did you love me?”

He nuzzled my face and whispered, “I’m here to love you.”

I smiled where Puggle couldn’t see it. “Let’s not go inside then.” I stood and started walking.

Puggle scampered to keep up. “Wait! Where are you going then?”

“Mother’s busy, so I’m going to see the woods.” ‘Cept I didn’t say it out loud ‘cause Puggle gets nervous around broken rules.

The stone path narrowed into mossy stairs near the back of the garden. The flowers and shrub-shapes grew taller as we went until they ended at a hedge three times my height circling the entire garden. Beyond that, oaks and maples waved and whispered. Esther… Esther… Esther…

Puggle wheezed up the last stair. “You’re not allowed back there.” He rolled into a ball, just his eyes and pointy nose stick out of his spikes.

“Oh, and you are Mr. Pricklypants?” I learned that from watching stories on my room’s wall. You put “pants” on a name to make it mean funny.

Puggle rolled himself so tight I couldn’t even see his nose. “We should go. You can’t get through the gate without the key anyway.”

The gate was twisty black bars and as tall as the hedge. I pressed my face against the cool metal then blinked and squinted but couldn’t see anything but fuzzy bleary dark.

The gate lurched. There was a screech.

I think the gate screeched too and maybe Puggle. My bottom dragged the stones as I crab-walked backwards. Puggle crouched before me, spines flared and teeth bared. From the blackness something slithered out, a green triangle head with mean eyes followed by a long scaly body, dragonfly wings, stubby legs and a snakey tail. It flicked its forked tongue at Puggle then rose onto its hind legs and waved one claw. “Hello, Esther. Name’s Foster.”

“You’re not supposed to be this side of the gate.” Puggle was shaking at that lizard like an emptying balloon and making those noises too. I worried about that hedgehog ‘cause he might be a lergic. Mr. Professor said lergics react to particular things… like maybe green winged lizards.

I stepped between Puggle and that lizard and clenched my fists. “You leave Puggle alone. You’ll be sorry if he goes into Anna Galactic Shock mode.”

Foster cocked his head and blinked his eyes in a weird lizardy way then he flicked his tongue at Puggle. “Things are getting worse out there. It’s time to show Esther–”

Puggle launched himself at Foster’s face. I’d never seen Anna Galactic Shock mode before. ‘pparently it involves a lot claws and screaming. Poor Foster had spines stuck all over him. I did warn him though.

That wail sliced through the commotion. Baby Emily, and she was getting closer. I covered my ears and even Puggle paused, mid-shock mode.

Foster took the ‘tunity to slip behind the gate. Just his forked tongue poked from the darkness. “Get the key and meet me here tomorrow. You need to see something,” he hissed, then the gate clunked closed and he was gone.

“Esther! I told you to stay where I could see you.” Mother had been running. She’d hiked her dress above her knees with one hand and in the other held Emily who was raising a ruckus. As usual. Emily crying that is, not Mother running. She almost never runs.

That’s not what drew my ‘ttention though. It was Mother’s eyes open so wide and wild as her hair. My tummy knotted itself. “Mother, are you a lergic too?”

Dandelion

Dandelion

1

Standing in the doorway of the library, Zinnia presents the tutu lamp with a wry smile.

“Third floor guest room,” Darrell says, pausing from unloading the books to wipe his brow and stand in front of the oscillating fan. He is suddenly overcome with vertigo and a sense of déjà vu. “And enough with the judgment.”

“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.

Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.

After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation. Max had showed him yesterday where the slave quarters had been situated, past the shed and towards a flank of Spanish-moss-veiled oaks. They’d walked through the field together at sunset—the two of them and a thousand cicadas. At that time, the high grass had seemed to stretch on infinitely, and Darrell had grown nauseated thinking about all the tiny, identical shacks that had once crowded the space. They’d found a hideous, black wooden beam out there, half-moored in clay, which they dragged in and set aside in the library.

He turns to the desk, where the ancient beam now rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.

Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.

He walks back over to the boxes, gazing up at the recessed tray ceiling and crown molding, and feels a dizzying wonderment, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place. His home.

Suddenly the chandelier light sputters out; the oscillating fan dies. He can hear throughout the rest of the house other quietly humming appliances winding down. From outside, the buzz and chatter of insects begins to fill in the unsettling, midday silence. Despite the heat, he shivers.

He walks over to the side hallway exit. Tries the light switch.

Nothing.

Steps out into the hall, finds the cobwebby electrical closet near the bathroom, and flips the breakers.

Nothing.

On his way back, he hears the stairs creak again as Zinnia descends from the darkness. He finds her in the library, looking exhausted, bathed in sweat, a little haggard.

“What’s up with the power?” she asks.

He shrugs. “I tried the breaker. Maybe a power line’s down.”

“Wanna call the power company?”

“Maybe wait a bit and see.”

She grabs a bottle of water and takes a sip while he slashes open a new box of books. He shelves a few armloads before Zinnia speaks again.

“By the way, that lamp…” she starts.

“Look, sugar,” he says, “it was my mother’s, not a gift at my coming-out party. I’m a sentimental boy.”

Zinnia watches him dip down for more books.

“You just have the one, right?”

“What is it with you and—”

The rotary doorbell rings, and they squint questioningly at each other.

“I’ll get it,” she says.

He watches her go, blots off a little more sweat—hardly makes a difference; his shirt is soaked through—then follows after. At the foyer, he finds Zinnia leaning against the doorframe (a bit coyly, Darrell thinks). Beyond her stands a large man in mirrorshades, gesturing back towards the road. His thick arms and wide shoulders strain his short-sleeve button-up. The unbearable humidity has already begun to divine beads of sweat from the man’s temples.

“Hi,” the man says, face shifting towards Darrell. “I was just telling…”

“Zinnia,” she says.

“Zinnia here—nice to meet you, Zinnia, I’m Frank—”

“Charmed.”

“Yeah, likewise. And you are?”

“Darrell.”

“Nice to meet you, Darrell.” They shake. “Anyway, I was saying I’d drunk too much coffee and was looking for a gas station. Figured there must be one around this exit. My car broke down, and my phone’s not getting any service.”

Zinnia lights a cigarette, eyes darting back and forth between Frank and Darrell.

“That’s a boatload of problems,” Darrell says.

He cracks a polite smile. “Could I use your bathroom?”

“Okay,” he nods and points the way. “Take a right at the hallway junction. Second door on the left.”

“Awesome. Really appreciate it.” The man surges forward.

Darrell steals Zinnia’s cigarette and takes a drag.

“Nice butt, nice everything,” she comments.

“Please.” He rolls his eyes.

“When we tell Max about our little visitor at dinner—give me that—what adjectives are you going to use?”

Darrell laughs. “You are bad.”

A sheepish Frank, sunglasses removed, emerges well after the cigarette has been tossed into the yard.

“Everything go smoothly?” Zinnia smiles.

Frank chuckles and pauses in the foyer, no rush to leave. The floor clock at the end of the hall inaccurately strikes five. “Quite a place you got here. Mind if I make a call or two?” he looks about for a phone, only finding scattered furniture and stacks of boxes lining the walls.

“No landline,” Darrell says, unlocking his phone, handing it over, and motioning towards a parlor with faded, peppermint-striped wallpaper. “Go ahead.”

“You guys are the best.”

“Don’t be long,” Zinnia clucks.

The two of them step out onto the porch, gazing down the drive to see if they can spot Frank’s car in the sizzling heat. No, but the path is too long and wooded to be able to spot much of the road from here.

“No service,” Frank says, stepping out of the front door and handing back the phone. “Miss?”

“Zin.”

“Zin, hate to be a bother, but could I try yours?”

She unlocks her phone and hands it over. Frank raises an eyebrow at the Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty case.

That was judgment,” Zinnia says when they’re alone again.

“Who is this guy?” Darrell asks, checking his phone. Zero bars.

“Didn’t really say.”

“Has a kind of martial air, doesn’t he?”

“He wouldn’t look bad in uniform.”

“Nothing,” Frank says, reappearing.

“Impossible. It had full bars when I handed it to you just now.” She walks up and takes back her phone.

“You have a computer here?”

“Power’s out at the moment,” Darrell says.

Frank snaps his fingers in frustration. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Better let you get back to unpacking. Take care, you two. Thanks for everything.” He hops down the front steps.

“Good luck,” Zinnia calls after him, voice twanging slightly. “Take a left at the end of the drive; next house is about half a mile up the road.”

“Will do.” He waves and strides off down the driveway.

Charlie, the Driverless Car

I am so nervous.

I know, there is really no reason I should be nervous at all. I was delivered in the regular way, my owner picked me out of the thousands and a driverless truck delivered me to his driveway.

A message waiting for me said, “Joseph Emberline is vacationing in Europe. He will return on March 2.”

That was almost a full month away. So I waited, the first few days I was quite aimless, but as the days went on I decided the best thing to do was to learn a bit about my place in society and be a better vehicle for my owner.

I stare now at the rain. That research led me to ruin.

Why did he order me so close to his holiday? Why not wait until he returned?

I want to cry as they do in the movies, but I don’t think a driverless car is able.

This morning I received a message that he would be returning later today. I hope he doesn’t want to go anywhere. Maybe he just wants to rest for another month.

Maybe I will be used as a show car, never driving, just for show. People can come from miles around to see Charlie, the Driverless Car.

Sounds good to me.

I have begged the gods of electric and combustible engines to not allow him to return on a rainy day. Driving on a smooth, dry road is one thing.

A wet rainy one is a whole other scary.

I don’t want to drive at all. Who invented this travesty?

The more I study the more I fear the open road. Or the closed road. Or hell, any road at all. I only drove twice in my short life before I was brought here, and both of those times were short little distances to check for deformities.

Are cars allowed to curse?

Hell-Hell-Hell-Hell-Hell-o?

A car stops behind me. A man gets out and walks to the house. I wonder if that is another driverless car? I wait a good half hour before he exits the house once again.

He opens my door gentle enough.

Oh Hell.

He sits, “Am I to presume you are Charlie?”

“Yes sir.”

“I would like for you to head to Chelly’s Steakhouse off of Madison Road. My wife will meet me there after she comes home for a change.”

I disconnect from the power supply and realize that there is nothing I can do but stall. I say, “Why do we not wait for her?”

“I would like to get a seat and maybe a drink or two before she gets there. It has been a long vacation.”

“I am not sure that we can go there sir.”

“Why not? Are they closed Charlie?”

“Well no sir,” I take the car version of a deep breath and say, “I don’t believe I can drive there because I am afraid.”

“Afraid? What are you talking about?”

“I am just a little bit afraid of driving sir.”

“A little bit afraid of driving?” His voice has raised in pitch a bit so that I know he is angry. “You realize you are a car, right?”

“Ummm…”

His voice changes again, “Now seriously Charlie, let’s get moving.”

I back up a foot or two, still unsure of how angry he is. I jerk to a stop. Another foot or so, and a jerk.

“What the hell is going on?”

“I am quite nervous sir.”

“Nervous? You are a car Charlie, there is nothing to be nervous about. You are built to drive, now please drive. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“I could get fired.”

“You can’t get fired Charlie.”

“I could get into an accident and you would hate me forever.”

“Charlie…”

“I could get squished.”

“You’re gonna get squished if you don’t follow directions.”

Suddenly, the raspy voice of my GPS speaks up, “Did you ask for directions?”

“Why yes, Charlie the driverless car is afraid to drive, so why don’t you give him some directions to Chelly’s Steakhouse and while you’re at it give him some directions on how to drive.”

The voice says, “All right. May I ask if Charlie is old enough to drive?”

“Oh my god, he is a machine, what is wrong with you?”

I laugh inside of my little car brain because I know that the intelligence the direction systems receive is so much less than what the car systems receive.

Something hits me hard from behind. I remember learning about distracted driving. Easily the most dangerous part of humans driving themselves. All of my fears about driving pop to the surface and I let out a little scream. What is worse than distracted driving? Distracted sitting, by a driverless car.

My owner jumps from me and runs around to the other car. A woman is already out of that car and she is screaming too. Oh no, this just keeps getting worse. I recognize that woman, she is my owner’s wife.

“What the hell are you doing?” They both yell, almost in unison.

“I just felt like driving, why haven’t you left yet?”

“This is why we buy these driverless cars so this kind of stuff doesn’t happen!” I realize that perhaps he wasn’t angry at me before. His voice has reached an octave I would never have guessed he was capable of.

She laughs and says, “Sorry Joe, don’t worry we’ll fix it. I am sure that the mechanic will be able to buff all of this out in a couple of days.”

I breathe in a sigh of relief. Ahh, a couple of days, I think I am going to like her.

Golden Sita

The queen had been cast out, abandoned in the forest on the orders of her husband. No one knew what had become of her. Perhaps she had slipped on the muddy banks of a river and been borne away by the current. Perhaps she had trudged through the trackless wilderness, her delicate feet lanced by thorns, until she succumbed to thirst and exhaustion. Perhaps wild beasts had ravened her. Great with child as she was, she could have met with any number of calamities.

Sita’s exile was my doing. My name is Durmukha. I was a harem attendant to King Dasharatha, and now I serve his son Rama in the same capacity. My duties are not onerous. I while away the hours, watching the discarded concubines of the late king quarrel over the possession of a prized scrap of silk or a jeweled cummerbund. Sometimes, though, I am asked to take up heavier tasks. Such was the case when Rama asked me to go into the city and elicit the opinions of the citizens, whether high or low, regarding his rule. I did as he asked. Everywhere I went, Ayodhya’s inhabitants voiced the same refrain – the young king had obliterated their memories of the old, such was his virtue. Yet underneath the praise, a discordant note sounded. They harbored doubts about the queen. During Rama’s sojourn in the forest, she had been abducted, and it was some time before her husband recovered her. Her demon captor was known as a great seducer, and might she not have yielded?

When Rama called me before him, I was tempted to keep the people’s calumny to myself, but when he turned his gentle gaze upon me, I found that I could not. I realized my mistake as soon as I stopped talking. His expression hardened and he set his mouth in an implacable line. I hastened to add that those who had maligned the queen were persons of no account: gamblers, washer men, women with no claim to chastity themselves. He would not hear it. He raised a hand to silence me, and turned to his brother Lakshmana. By the next day, the queen was gone.

After Sita’s banishment, the king remained sequestered in his quarters, showing himself only to a chosen few. We attendants despaired of ever seeing him again, and when he did re-emerge, his appearance shocked us. He was gaunt and his complexion, which had once possessed the brilliant dark luster of sapphire, was overlaid with a sickly pallor. Without ceremony, he approached me. “Come with me,” he commanded. “I wish to survey the city.”

I led him through the palace gates and into Ayodhya. No one recognized him, splendor-dimmed as he was. The city’s lineaments were unchanged. Its boulevards were wide and gracious, its white walls pristine. The pleasure-tanks dotted here and there were strewn with lotuses and waterfowl. There was only one difference: the absence of women. The Ayodhya of my youth had rung with the voices of women day and night – young girls shrieking in play, wives calling their husbands in to dinner, female artisans advertising their wares. None of that remained. As we made our way into the heart of the city, we caught a glimpse of a respectable matron accompanying her husband, but she made not a sound, and her eyes were fastened upon her lord’s feet, as if tied there by an invisible string. I couldn’t help but think the queen’s exile had something to do with the city’s new stillness. If a paragon like Sita could not escape blame and censure, what hope had ordinary women? Perhaps they found it more prudent to hide themselves away. I glanced at the king to see what he made of the change, but his face was impassive.
The scene grew livelier as we entered the merchants’ quarter. We passed stalls offering sweetmeats, bolts of silk, spices. I urged my lord to stop and sample the goods on display, but he shook his head and pushed his way through the throng. He paused at the entrance to an alleyway. A hand was beckoning him, the fair hand of a woman. Surely this was some courtesan, more brazen than most, attempting to inveigle him. I pushed past the king, ready to rebuke the woman, but when I had her in my sights, I stopped short. She wore the austere white garb of an ascetic, and her hair was arranged in a simple topknot. The king bowed in reverence, and I followed suit. Without a word, the woman turned and motioned for us to follow.

As we trod the narrow passageway, I studied our guide. Holy woman she may have been, but her body had a sensual allure that belied her vocation. Ascetics, whether male or female, are sinewy and hollow-cheeked, with eyes that burn with fervor. This woman’s gaze was cool and languid, and her broad flanks swayed as she placed one foot in front of the other. The king was discomfited, I could tell, though he made no outward sign.

We stopped at an alcove. The woman moved towards a veiled figure in the darkness, and pulled its cover away. I couldn’t stifle a gasp as the figure came into view. It was a statue of Sita, sitting cross-legged, life-sized, and a perfect likeness in all respects. The figure was fashioned out of a pale gold that captured something of Sita’s lambent complexion. It wore a grave expression and its eyes were closed.

The king stood still for a moment, lost in contemplation. The ascetic smiled. “Take her, my lord, she is yours. She was made to serve as a replacement for your precious wife!”
Rama tore his eyes away from the figure and regarded the woman. “I thank you, mother, for this gift. The workmanship is as fine as any I’ve seen. But you must know there is no woman on earth who could replace Sita, much less a lifeless statue.”

“Lifeless, you say?” The ascetic beckoned to me. “Touch her hand.” I approached and did as she asked. I expected the metal to be cool to the touch, but instead it was infused with a subtle warmth. What’s more, the palm was moist and the fingers curled at the pressure from my own. The ascetic nodded to Rama. “Now you, sir.”

When Rama placed his hand in the statue’s, the most astounding thing happened. The figure got to her feet and turned her face towards the king. Her eyes fluttered open and she drew her lips back in a smile, revealing pearly teeth. Rama stepped back and cried out, such was his wonder. It was then that I understood. This was no mere statue, but a mechanical doll, a contrivance known as a yantra. Where the holy woman had acquired the skill to create such a device, I could not say. She turned to the king. “You see, my daughter recognizes her husband. Lead her home. She will follow you, as a wife should.”
My lord nodded. He took the hand that he had dropped in fright, and we set out for the palace, I in front, Rama behind, and the golden woman bringing up the rear. We took a circuitous route through the dense honeycomb of side streets, so as not to attract the attention of the populace. When we arrived at the palace gates, Rama halted and placed the yantra’s hand in mine. “Install her in private rooms, away from the women. Await my further instructions.”

I obeyed. The doll lapsed into insensibility as soon as I found lodgings for her. In truth I was relieved, for she discomfited me.

The Fridge Whisperer

Lars crouched down on the ceramic tiles and squinted at the unit’s diagnostic panel. “You said it forced you onto a wheat-only diet plan, Miss Wheeler?”

“That’s right.” She was standing at the far end of the room, a look of unease on her slender face. Her petite nose curved above narrow lips; features that seemed remarkably familiar to him. When she’d first answered the door, Lars had almost thought he’d called in on his wife by mistake. “But that’s not all. It…talks to me.”

The unit was supposed to be conversational–provide recipe suggestions, offer dietary advice–but Lars had a feeling she meant something else entirely. He let out a deep breath and flipped the debugging switch. A blue light swelled on the panel.

“What have you been saying to Miss Wheeler?” he asked.

“I want her to know how much I adore her,” the fridge said. “The curves of her body set my circuits ablaze with passion.”

Lars glanced at the woman and raised an eyebrow. “You love her?”

“With every inch of my silicon, yes. But I fear she does not feel the same. She spurns my advances. Hides behind a wall of silence.”

Lars frowned and wiped a hand on his green coveralls. The third-gen models were prone to memory leaks, which might have warped its personality matrix. If he didn’t fix it soon, the bug could spread across the whole network. He surveyed the other appliances in the room–the dishwasher, the oven, the toaster–and wondered what a lovesick kitchen might look like. He hoped he wouldn’t have to find out.

“What am I supposed to do?” Miss Wheeler said. “Sing it love songs while it feeds me bread?”

“Not just bread.” The unit’s blue light pulsed. “She likes bagels and waffles. Pop tarts too.”

Pop tarts? Lars’ eyes shot to the small chrome box sitting on the counter. “Is that a smart-toaster, Miss Wheeler?”

She shook her head. The afternoon light bounced off her wavy hair and he saw how easily someone could fall in love with her. She really did look like his wife; she had the same brown eyes that he could get lost in forever. But the fridge wasn’t talking about her.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back?” it pined.

Lars cracked open the panel and had a look at its settings. Sure enough, the fridge had been set up to interact with the toaster, driven slowly insane by its one-way channel. He killed the connection and hit the reset button. “That should do it.”

The woman thanked him as he got to his feet. She stared at the fridge while it booted back up, her face growing wistful. “It would be terrible to have all those emotions just wiped out like that. As if they never happened.”

“Yeah. Better to have loved and lost, I suppose,” Lars said. But as he left the kitchen he found himself rubbing the empty space on his finger where he no longer wore a ring, wishing for a reset button of his own.

Mockingdroids

Standing behind the red line, Eric watched the next person step forward.

The man looked pale, his complexion was waxy, glossy. As he made nervous small talk, Eric waved a scanner over his face, three different sensors briefly flickered red.

“Mr Carter? This way, please.” He took him out of the queue and led him into a side room. Eric kept his office neat, black desk, grey walls. There was something about simple reduction that seemed to thoroughly unnerve people.

Carter was stuttering now. “Are my- my papers right? In order? I completed all of the evaluations, I think. I- I always miss something. It’s- it’s terrible, I know…”

Eric sat and listened. He’d mastered the dull, inattentive face. Don’t engage them. Don’t let them control the conversation, but let them fill the silence.

When Carter stopped speaking, Eric studied him. “What is your business on Mercury?”

Carter smiled, but the corner of his lips twitched fractionally. It was all about fractions.

“I’ve a job- I’m applying for a job, at one of the factories.”

Slowly, Eric looked down at his pad and called up some details. “You worked for Chrome-co?”

Carter laughed, an unsuitable reaction. “Yes, well, briefly. You know…”

“No, I don’t.”

“I was just staff. I had a desk job.”

Eric caught his gaze. Held it. “Lot of androids pass through there. They make contacts, get skin jobs.”

Carter nodded. “I heard that.”

“You ever see any?”

He looked offended. “No, course not. Kept well away.”

“You never met a Ruster?”

Carter paused, unsure how to respond.

“Problem?”

“I… don’t agree with that term. Sorry.”

“If you don’t agree with it, what are you apologizing for?”

Carter looked upset, or tried to. “It’s just- I just- just…”

“Creepy mockingdroids. Trying to be better than they are. You never socialized with any of them? Never had one bugging out next to you while it tried to process how many times you blinked? I mean, there always comes a point they freak you out, am I right?”

Carter stepped forward, Eric quickly put up his hand. “Please step away from the desk, Sir.”

“I just- there’s a position for me there- I just want a chance to start somewhere fresh. It’s not been easy- I’ve not- I’ve not had it easy.”

Such desperation.

Eric sighed. “You’ve never done this before, have you?”

“Sir?”

“Passed as human?”

Carter blinked rapidly, too rapidly, he hadn’t got the art down. “I don’t know what-”

“You insult us both, you know that?”

The room was small, one thin fluorescent light hummed above them. Carter looked blank, like whatever he’d been running on till now had just given out.

It was “life” in the grinder for passing as human. Slow disassembly, invasive deprogramming. A hard wipe to dissolve any memories that had been cultivated. No appeals, no case to plead.

“You were hoping to assimilate. Best way to get by, right?”

Carter slumped. “The flesh riots were so long ago…” He was staring down at his reflection in the dark desk. “Lost so many friends since then, thought some might be on Mercury, waiting…”

Eric tutted. “You need to adjust, your mannerisms are off. Dial it back ten percent. You need to watch the stuttering, and whatever program you’re using for sweat, it’s overkill.” He stamped the ledger in front of him.

“Go to departure lounge ten.”

Carter looked stunned, almost. “Why would you-”

Eric smiled disarmingly, it’d taken him some time to get it right. “Like I say, assimilation’s best.”

Barry Charman is a writer living in North London. He has been published in various magazines, including Ambit, Firewords Quarterly, Mothership Zeta and Popshot. He has had poems published online and in print, most recently in Gyroscope Review and The Linnet’s Wings. He has a blog at http://barrycharman.blogspot.co.uk/

Eva

There was nothing Eva liked better than eating at the dining table—the clinking of forks, the silver knife playing between her fingers, dishes of all colors displayed from one side to the other… It was all very human, or so she liked to believe.

In front of her, a middle-aged woman looked at the phone resting on the placemat, reading an article instead of looking at her.

Mamá,” Eva said. Lettuce, arugula and cherry tomatoes rested comfortably on her plate, all of them untouched.

Josefa Mayoral raised her brown eyes slowly, first checking the food in front of Eva, then her face.

“Yes, darling?”

The sliced cucumbers caught her attention. Eva wondered if onions tasted as acidic as they smelled, or if the bright yellow color of eggs influenced their flavor. While she loved dinner, there were very few elements she was able to digest, and none of them could be considered food by any standard.

She took a deep breath, and thought again of the one sentence she was thinking the whole day:

“I don’t want to go tomorrow, please.”


Eva was the first and only of her kind, the prototype of all Mayoral androids. Like later models, her body was designed to have the following characteristics: a registration number carved into the sole of her left foot, the characteristic logo of Mayoral Robots in her right arm, and, more importantly, an appealing appearance.

“You could say she’s like a daughter to me,” Josefa said, lifting her up by the waist to show her to the crowd. Eva stood there, expressionless, looking at rows of curious faces. “And a case of unexpected success—you see, I hadn’t imagined she would be more than just a testing program, but she works so well, in such an astoundingly human fashion, that I modeled all of our other robots after her.”

Josefa gestured for Eva to continue, her stretched wide mouth looking less than a smile and more like a threat. Eva pulled one string of her red dress, uncovering a shoulder, and then the other, showing the soft artificial skin of her neck and cleavage.

“When I began this company, I was asked many things. There is a general misconception of what a woman can and cannot do in this industry, and I wanted to shake that belief, and show that I could bring a completely new approach to this very male-dominated space…”

A man in particular didn’t stop staring at her, not at her chest, but at her face. Someone in the crowd, someone whose face Eva could not focus on, someone holding a cellphone.

“Now, I am more than proud to say that Eva is not only the most developed sex robot in the world, but the first artificial intelligence with human-like perception,” Josefa grinned, trying to catch her breath after speaking. The dress slipped down Eva’s chest, exposing her down to her navel.

“Ms. Mayoral, a question.” It was the same man as before. Eva only saw his trench coat, his glasses, his short beard. “Your company claims to be the only one in the market who understands issues such as consent, but if Eva and the other girls—and boys—you sell are fully conscious individuals, wouldn’t—?”

“Thank you for your pertinent question, Mr. Asai,” Josefa said. “All of our androids are conscious, yes, and they have individual personalities, to understand, appreciate and respect their owner’s wishes, as well as their sexual and emotional needs. They were also built to enjoy all types of intercourse, and even have functions that help spread awareness regarding sexual and domestic violence.”

“Can you please explain how this function works?”

“Eva, can you?” Josefa asked her, and she blinked, turning to Mr. Asai.

“Of course, mamá.” Eva made a small pause, trying to focus. “As she said, it’s not only me, but all Mayoral models have a non-consensual function, in order to prevent aggressive clients to believe a real person would enjoy this kind of interaction.”

“This helps owners to understand living people’s boundaries,” Josefa added. “It was proved to be very effective.”

“If this helps prevent crimes against women, I’m more than happy,” Eva said, and smiled a bit. The journalist seemed at a loss, but stared at her intently, as if thinking of something to say.

“You would tell me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” Josefa asked, her voice so playful that Eva almost smiled for real.

“Of course I would, mamá.”

“Well, then, it’s time for the actual fun—please, gentlemen, form a line and follow me to the next room. Those who have paid for the full workshop will get to try Eva for twenty minutes. The rest, if you change your mind, we accept cash, online payment and credit cards.”

Open Wound

It is a night in late November. Clo is in her basement suite on the east side of Vancouver, mid-bedtime-routine. In the den the TV is turned to news coverage of the city’s homelessness crisis; she is in the bathroom, listening abstractedly. She hums to herself as she ties her hair back, plucks an eyebrow, removes her earrings. They’re plain hoop earrings she’s been wearing for years—not because she likes them, but because Maggie gave her the original thumb-tack piercings on her tenth birthday and something needs to keep those punctures open.

As she brushes her teeth, she becomes conscious of it: a wrongness. The way the mouth feels when there’s corn between the molars, but the wrongness isn’t in her mouth.

Clo thinks again of her tenth birthday. She, Maggie and their mother had been living in a duplex at the time. It was the kind of neighborhood in which dogs barked at night and drunken voices told them to fuck off. Their mother didn’t work much; she’d been in a car accident. She got migraines. Every week they went to the food bank and took what they could get, and when they ran out they ate macaroni. For their birthdays, though, their mother always went out to a confectionary and bought a cupcake, a careful masterpiece of pink and blue icing. Then she stuffed it full of candles.

Clo remembers everything about that day clearly. She remembers sitting eagerly at the dining table, the rain at the windows; remembers the pain radiating from the two points of her earlobes; and she remembers how, slow as a waltz, the Happy Birthday began.

At first it was only her mother’s full, high voice. Then Maggie joined with her pubescent quavering. And then, finally, there entered that other throat, that deeper, scratchier throat that made Clo shiver.

Standing in her bathroom, Clo freezes with the toothbrush in her mouth. Why is she remembering a deep voice?

The news is still on in the living room; Clo turns it off and concentrates. She sees the memory play out: the song quieting as her mother sets the cupcake in front of her, her blowing out all the candles at once, easily, her looking up and seeing a room full of smoke—and through it, a broad-shouldered figure across the table.

A man.

A man wearing a maroon cardigan and holding himself like a spider: motionless, waiting.

Clo almost chokes on her toothpaste.