For my ex-wife,
You, like this drink, cost me way too much money, are fishy in surprising ways, and go down easily after a few sips.
The heavy traffic rolled away and parted, allowing a sputtering, run-down orange jalopy to exit off of the highway and turn into the lot of Whammy’s Ale House. The driver-side door opened with a single squelch of resistance and out into the fading daylight stepped Ruby Smith, as she had countless times before.
With one long look into the sky, leaving behind an equally long sigh of contentment, she walked up to and through the large wooden double doors of her favorite local haunt.
“The usual, Mrs. Smith?” The voice friendly voice that greeted her was Sam the bartender. Sam, the man she saw more often than her husband. On a good day, anyway. Ruby smiled. “That’d be great,” she assured him, her legs moving methodically and automatically to the well-worn stool at the end of the bar. Shortly after, Sam was already on the move with her drink.
“One Earl Grey Caviar Martini, with a second one close behind.” Sam set the glass in front of her, smiled, then walked a few pages away, absently drying another glass of with a gray wash cloth.
The Earl Grey Caviar Martini contains caviar molecules, which are infused into a mixture of Earl Grey tea, lime and lemon juice. This is combined with freshly muddled cucumbers, a dollop of elderflower and topped off with an apple juice finish, all of which go down well with any citron based vodka.
She savored her sip with a deep-set smile. The smooth burn relaxed her all over. In a few short gulps, the drink disappeared, expertly replaced in her hand within an instant.
“Thinking of a third, Mrs. Smith?”
Her head cocked. “What time is it Sam?” A short pause as he checked his watch. “Nearing nine o’clock now.” Her head straightened up. “Sure, maybe just one more.”
The year is 2023, a year that once sounded so far off and futuristic. A year that saw many new things: new technologies, new companies, new hopes, new fears, new problems. Some things, however, always stayed in fashion. Like a stiff drink after work. Like distance between partners, pried open and spread out slowly over the years. Like the little reliefs that life offers; like the chance to unburden yourself on a friendly bartender.
All around them, the buzzed and jolly patrons of the bar talked and joked and, after the few opening notes played on the jukebox, the patrons also sang. Drifting in and out of her conscious listening were snippets of Friday I’m in Love by The Cure. Sam hummed along softly and tapped his foot as he worked. “Gee, will you listen to that? Those older songs are the best, aren’t they Mrs. Smith?”
Ruby nodded her head just enough to acknowledge the comment. She smiled the same sentiments back. Yes, she loved the old songs. They brought her back, this one all the way back to 1992. “The good old days, Sam,” Ruby Smith uttered in a nostalgic fog. “That was a long time ago. Just before I met my husband. Yup,” she said with a sigh. “The good old days.” She finished her latest drink in one quick gulp.
Sam understood the assignment. In about twenty seconds flat, yet another drink was before her. Ruby looked at it longingly. The Earl Grey Caviar Martini was a liquid copy of her life. Uncommon. A mixture of fancy tastes and basic home comforts. Something that, once consumed, made it very hard to get up and leave.
This latest drink disappeared into the same bottomless hatch that the rest had gone down. The buzz helped her steel her nerves. She looked up and smiled at Sam. “Perfectly made drink as usual Sam,” she complimented. “Almost makes me feel like I can go home and face Ned now.”
A swift darkness set in Sam’s features for a moment, but he quickly wiped it away, like the fog on a recently cleaned glass. “Trouble in paradise, Mrs. Smith?” She simply smiled in return. “Just a little husband trouble.” Sam nodded knowingly. “A fight?” Sam asked. This time, she shook her head in the negatory. “No, nothing like that. We never fight. Ned’s much too mad about me to ever start fights with me. He worships the very ground I walk on.”
A flit of confusion turned Sam’s eyes in to narrow slits of remembrance. “Oh, really?” He picked up the next glass and began his cleaning. “That’s good, glad things turned around. I remember last winter when you were in here constantly, talking about how awful he was and that you - ”
Ruby held up a pale palm in protest. “Times have changed, Sam. That’s for sure. They’re decidedly better. It’s just that, well, I just…” She drifted off. Sam didn’t press her. He did, however, press another drink into her open palm. She took it automatically, she took it on autopilot. She stared into its glistening contents. “You know what’s crazy?” The question was aimed at Sam, but he could tell it was rhetorical. “The crazy part it, I kind of miss those days. When things were bad, when he would yell and throw things. At least back then, I could walk out of the house and slam the door behind me with a clear conscience.” She downed half the glass in one swallow. “Nowadays, he’s so sweet and loving. I feel like I’m committing a crime every time I stop in for a drink on the way home.” She finished the drink and pulled a tight grimace. Though if it was from the drink or from the confession, she didn’t know, notice or care.
Sam nodded his head sympathetically. “That’s tough Mrs. Smith,” he said. She snorted, but not derisively. Not at him. She muttered a few quiet lines to herself. “Deep down inside, there was an empty space. That I now realize you could not replace. Something about you had helped me see, that without love I’m finally free.” Sam’s ears perked up. “You say something, Mrs. Smith?” She shook her head. “No, nothing at all, Sam.”
For a moment she sat there lost in thought, chewing her lip absently. As she did, she felt a tiny fresh jolt of pain. By reflex, her hand flew up to feel her bottom lip. Sam noticed. “You see this bruise, Sam? The one right under my lip?” Sam nodded that he did, his eyes full of unasked questions. “Ned gave it to me. Not by hitting me, mind you. But by kissing me. I swear, he just doesn’t know how to scale it back anymore. Every night when I come home, he kisses me so hard that I can bruise. Every. Single. Night.” She enunciated and drew out those last few words for emphasis.
Sam nodded. “Anything you can do to help that?” Ruby just shook her head no. “I try. I remind him of the old days. I remind him that we used to fight until the neighbors called the cops. I remind him about the anniversaries I missed. I remind him that I didn’t even really want to marry him, I wanted to marry Barry Anders but my parents talked me out of it. But none of it works. It’s like he’s obsessed with me now. If I’m only gone for an hour, I swear to you that he cries.”
Sam sagely shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry to hear that. Me? I don’t have that kind of trouble. I’m home too much, according to my wife. She pushes me out of the house every chance she gets.” He went back to wiping glasses. She went back to drinking. When she was finished, she sighed and stood up from the stool.
“Well, I guess it’s time to go home and face the music.” She dropped a few crisp bills into the tip jar without looking at their values. Whatever they were, these drinks were always worth it. Sam smiled gratefully. “Good luck, Mrs. Smith. Hope he takes it easy on you tonight. Stiff upper lip, and all that,” he added jokingly, a glint of a wink in his eye.
Ruby turned to leave but a boisterous and familiar voice called out to stop her. “Well, well, well! If it isn’t Ruby Smith!” Ruby turned to face the owner of the voice, smile growing sincerely on her face as she did so. “Wilma Bostwick! What in the world are you doing here?” The two women exchanged a brief, warm embrace.
“Oh, I’m having a great night out!” Wilma said, her face lit up with delight. Ruby returned the expression as well as she could manage. “Good to hear, Wilma. Say, does Benji know you’re here?” Wilma smiled a different kind of a smile, the kind of a smile that said ‘I have a secret’. Ruby was intrigued.
“Let’s just say that things have changed,” Wilma said conspiratorially. She seemed like she wanted to spill the details, but not as much as she wanted to be asked to do so. Ruby gave in. “Well, that’s good to hear. Last I knew, it seemed that he practically had you chained up in the basement most of the time, that man never wanted to be alone.”
“Not anymore, nope nope. Things sure have changed.” Another pause. Another smile. Another silent invitation to ask for more details.
“You…you aren’t separated or anything, are you?”
Wilma shook her head reassuringly. “No, nothing like that. He’s at home, safe and sound as we speak.” She paused again. In the fourteen years that Wilma and Benji were married, they had hardly had a single moment apart. “I know I wasn’t able to get out much these last few years, “ Wilma said, seemingly reading Rudy’s mind, “but it’ll be different from here on out.”
Ruby simply raised her eyebrows inquisitively, she didn’t think she needed to verbally press for further information. She was right. Wilma went on, “you about to leave?” She eyed her standing position as she asked this. She noted the slump in Ruby’s shoulders. Her hesitance to leave written in her frozen frame.
“Yes, it’s just about time for ‘quality time’ at home,” Ruby answered. Wilma smiled so big that her smile threatened to crack her face in half. She leaned in. “Would you like to know how to get out of that? They way that I did?” Ruby said that she did and followed Wilma out of the bar and into the quiet comfort of the alley outside.
Once they were safely out of the earshot of anyone nearby, Wilma looked side to side once more just to confirm that they were alone. Her face lit up with excitement. “Now look, you’ve always been a fair friend to me, so I’m going to let you in on the secret. Us girls have to stick together, right? Come on, my car is right down this way. I’ll drive you home and show you how it’s done.” Almost as if in a daze, Ruby felt herself agreeing and just going with it.
For the first few minutes of driving, nothing but a palpable excitement had hung in the air between them. Now, as they were making their first turn, Wilma glanced at Ruby with the rearview mirror and broke the silence of the trip. “I don’t suppose you remember how Benji and I got married in the first place, do you?” Ruby knit her brow in earnest, but after a moment she admitted that she didn’t remember. “He threatened to kill himself if I didn’t marry him,” Wilma said in a flat, toneless voice. The air between them was charged once again, this time with a different kind of vibe. Wilma cleared her throat and continued. “It’s not all bad, and, well, that’s not really what we’re talking about. Never mind. The point is, he’s intense. And always needing assurance and attention.” She paused and allowed the tension to ease out of the car a bit. Wilma looked at Ruby in the rearview again. She held her gaze until Ruby’s hesitant eyes met hers and held them. Then Wilma allowed an enormous smile to stretch across her visage. “But guess what I haaavvveee?”
These last words she let out in a giddy sing-song voice. Ruby couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her friend so happy. She wondered for the first time about how many drinks Wilma may have had. Wilma waggled her eyebrows and then fished something out of her jacket pocket and thrust it towards her friend. Ruby uncrumpled the thing in her hand and saw that it was a single ticket to Cancun. It was dated for the coming morning.
“A have hotel reservations there for a month. An entire month! Can you believe it? I’m going to have a fling out there, I’m so excited. I’m really living again.” As the words spilled out, they slowly registered one by one in Ruby’s mind. After a moment she had to cut in, confused. “What about Benji? Where does he think you’re going? Are you leaving him?” She didn’t think it were possible, but Ruby watched as Wilma’s smile grew even bigger, almost outgrowing her face. Like the grinches heart, it was growing to dangerous proportions.
“That’s the most amazing part, Ruby. He won’t even know about it! I’ll be gone for a whole month, and he will never be the wiser.” After a beat, she added, “and you don’t even believe me, do you? It’s okay if you don’t.” Ruby paused, her head swimming, full of questions and vodka and fish eggs. Ruby studied her friends face as best she could, trying to focus. She looked serious, but her words still sounded bizarre. She shook her head no, that she didn’t believe her.
“Well that’s because the how of it is a secret,” Wilma said. “Until tonight. You’ll see. It’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever been invented, it’s worth every red cent that I coughed up for it.” Before Ruby could voice any of the numerous questions that she was forming, the car rolled to a smooth stop. “Here’s my house, everything will make sense in a minute. Follow me, but be as quiet as a church mouse.”
Together they exited the vehicle, Ruby noticing with a distant kind of jealousy that the doors on this car didn’t squeak when they opened. They were swiftly up the walkway and creeping onto the front porch. Wilma held up a hand and they halted their advance. Without a warning, Wilma was suddenly cupping her hands around her mouth and letting out a series of meows; she sounded like a cat in heat that was on the prowl. Ruby again wondered just how many drinks Wilma had had. How many had she had, for that matter?
Wilma pointed up to the bedroom window on the second floor, a light turning on. Ruby froze, but Wilma smiled next to her and pointed upwards, inviting her to watch the window. After instinctively ducking her head away instead, Ruby steeled her resolve and she looked up at the window. There, she saw Wilma smiling down on her. The sight, though friendly, sent chills all down her spine. Ruby’s eyes opened wide enough to fall from their sockets. She looked at the Wilma right next to her, the one standing impossibly on the porch while she also stood in the window two stories above their heads.
That was the only word she could get out. The next moment, the light flickered off and faint footsteps could be heard coming from within the house. Porch Wilma put a soothing hand on her shoulder. “She’s coming down, it’ll all make sense in a minute.” Ruby gulped loudly but stayed where she was. She trusted her friend. Moreover, she was incredibly curious about what was going on here. The door opened and the second Wilma greeted them, only this one, upon closer inspection, was wearing pajamas with blue and pink sheep strewn across them. “Good evening, Mrs. Bostwick.” Wilma, the one with the hand on Ruby’s shoulder, gave it a squeeze. “Good evening, Bot-wick. Close the door for a moment, will you?” The Wilma in the doorway smiled, stepped a single step back, and swiftly and quietly shut the door with an almost inaudible wisp of wind. Ruby rubbed her reddening eyes.
“Either I’m drunker than I thought, or there’s two of you, Wilma! You never told me you had an identical twin!” Wilma smiled. “That’s the thing, I don’t” Ruby shook her head, not comprehending how that could be true. “But if she weren’t wearing pajamas, I’d never be able to tell you apart!”
Wilma just winked at her. She meowed again, this time more quietly, and the door opened once more. “I take it tonight went well, Bot-wick? Was Benji his usual self?” The second Wilma, the one with the sheep, nodded and smiled. “Everything has been great. We spent most of the night watching movies and playing cards.” The sheep-less Wilma asked sheepishly, “What, no fighting tonight? No random accusations?” A nod. No. No fights, no accusations. Smooth sailing.
“Well then, that’s good news. Things are going even better than I thought.” The pajama-clad Wilma smiled an identical smile; identical yet different. “Glad you think so, Mrs. Bostwick. At Stuffed Staffing, we aim to satisfy. Is there anything else I can do for you this evening?” Wilma, the one who still had her hand on a shuddering shoulder, answered calmly, “Nothing more, Bot-wick. Just stand there one more minute, and then you are dismissed.” The Wilma in the doorway nodded and stood stock still.
“Amazing, right? You can’t tell that she isn’t human, can you?” Ruby had to admit that she couldn’t. “There’s only one way that you can tell, just one. Here, put your ear to her chest.” Although the request was strange, it wasn’t the strangest part of the evening. So with very little cajoling, Ruby put a warm ear to the surprisingly warm chest in front of her. She heard ticking, the faint grinding sounds of machinery, but only faintly.
“Thank you Bot-wick, that will be all.” Without another word, the second Wilma disappeared. She blinked out of sight so quickly, Ruby had no earthly idea where she had gone. It was almost like she had hallucinated her. Again, she could only ask a one word question.
“She’s from a new company, this place called Stuffed Staffing. It’s not exactly legal, see, not yet anyway, so it’s a lot to take in at the start. I supposed I’m more used to it, I’ve had her about a month now. I tell you though, it never ceases to be amazing to me.”
Wilma led her by the arm over to her porch swing, sat her down firmly but kindly. “Now look, I’ve only got about a minute more. So here’s the scoop. She’s a type of robot clone thing, it’s a whole lot of technological mumbo-jumbo. I call her Bot-wick, because she’s a robot version of me. Clever, right? And I haven’t been able to tell anyone that great name yet!” Wilma smiled a mad smile, the joy of sharing such a delightfully shocking secret was evident. “They copy people, copy them exactly, and show you how to use them. Tonight for example, I told Benji that I was going to get us some wine. So I went into the cellar, which is where I keep her. I keep her in a big, locked metal locker. I took her out, told her what was going on and, sure as shootin’, she was the one who went up those stairs with a bottle of 1995 Biondi Santi and I was off to my car to hit the town. Then I ran into you and the rest is history, is it not?”
She sat back and allowed the words to register, then she pressed on, a little bit faster. “Look, I’ve had more time to process it and also to ask the questions, so let me just give you the gist. As far as Benji knows, I’ve been home all evening with him. And for the next month, he’ll also think that I’m here with him. These bots, they do everything. They can eat, drink and sleep, or at least the appearance of all of that. They can answer questions, they can think in your place. It’s perfect! I can’t find a single flaw in it. And they’ve been in business for over two years now, they really seem to have it all figured out.”
Ruby scrunched her brow and thought deeply again. Then, even though she wasn’t a pajama-clad robot, she also sprouted a large, almost identical smile on her face. “Do you think…well, I just wonder. Is there a way that I can get in touch with them?”
“Ned’s driving you crazy, is he?”
“You have no idea. He’s gotten even worse. He calls twelve times a day if I’m at work. He can’t go more than thirty minutes without me. I mean, I love him but, but..”
“But you just need your space,” Wilma finished for her. Ruby nodded solemnly. “Yes, that’s all. Some time away. Some time alone. Some time spent somewhere else without having to constantly answer messages on my phone.” Wilma nodded knowingly as Ruby listed everything off.
When Ruby had finished, Wilma rummaged in her purse and pulled out a sleek, eggshell white business card with rounded edges and a clean, gloss finish. It shone in the low-light of the night. It shone with possibilities. Ruby grasped it in her palm, her own ticker to Cancun; her own getaway clean card. She flipped it over twice and read the words embossed on its surface.
Stuffed Staffing. Percy Zimmer, proprietor and founder. New humanoid mechanical models, series 192B. “No Strings Attached” 18w60 Shackle Blvd.
“Mr. Zimmer will take good care of you,” Wilma assured her. “He’ll swear you to secrecy once you’re there. You’ll have to sign something, naturally. He’ll answer the rest of the questions you have.” Wilma looked over her shoulder, towards the house, nervously. “I’d better get going. I have to change into my PJs and hop into bed, or else he’ll suspect something.” Wilma got up and turned to leave, but then smacked her forehead loudly with a sudden realization. “Oh crap, I forgot I drove you!” Without missing a beat, Wilma meowed again and her double quickly appeared, as if teleported by its summons.
“Yes, Mrs. Bostwick?”
“Drive my friend home, will you?”
Ruby’s face registered shock, not for the first time tonight. “They can drive too?” Ruby asked with astonishment. Wilma patted her double on the back. “They can do everything! Now, why don’t you head to the car and sit down, think things through a little. Bot-wick will be there shortly.” Ruby silently nodded and started to walk from the porch. “And feel free to stop by while I’m in Cancun, won’t you? Treat Bot-wick just like you would me, I tell you you’ll be amazed.” Ruby paused in mid-step. Without turning around, she asked of her old friend, “And these things, these stuffed things, they’re safe, right?” Wilma answered her without pause. “Of course, darling. They’re guaranteed.”
A few steps later, and Ruby was gone into the dark of the driveway.
“Remember Bot-wick, the clutch can stick sometimes, so just jiggle and twist it if it locks up. Park it back at the end of the drive when you’re done.”
“Of course, Mrs. Bostwick.” Then, after a beat of silence, “Mrs. Bostwick? When I’m back, do I have to stay in the cellar? It’s very damp down there, bad plumbing. Might not be the best for my mechanics.”
Wilma frowned. She didn’t know why, but this exchange caused her, for the first time, to wonder if the stuffed copies were entirely safe. “Welllll,” she drew out, “I’m not sure where else we would have the room to put you. How about we figure that out when I’m back from my trip? It’s just one more night, the next month you’ll be staying in my room.” Even as she uttered these words, in the back of her mind she wondered if the trip was a good idea.
Bot-wick smiled and nodded. “Do I have to go inside the locker? Can I stay outside of it down in the cellar tonight?” Again, Wilma frowned. “What’s wrong with your locker?” Bot-wick hesitated, but only for a moment. “It’s just very cramped, Mrs. Bostwick. That’s all. I don’t like it.” Wilma’s frown deepened. “You don’t like it,” she murmured the words back, swishing them around in her mouth before spitting them out, a ’95 Biondi Santi of a statement.
“Well,” Wilma said, with just a bit of apprehension creeping into her voice, “that’s another thing we’ll discuss when I’m back from Cancun, how does that sound?” The words were meant to be the end of the conversation, but Bot-wick continued to stand in front of her, a look of expectation upon its face. Upon her face.
“Stuffed models are meant to move around, Mrs. Bostwick, not to keep still. Think about it for a moment. Would you like to lie in a stuffy box most of your life, obscured away and alone?
Wilma felt panicked, trapped in place. Almost like she was already in a box. She began to sweat. “I, I guess I didn’t think that you were able to be uncomfortable,” she managed to stammer out. “ We’ll make those issues our top priority, what do you say?”
Bot-wick stared for only a microsecond longer, a normal amount of time. At the moment though, to Wilma, it felt like an eternity. “I say thank you, Mrs. Bostwick. I will go bring your friend home. Have a nice trip, Mrs. Bostwick.”
With that, Bot-wick was gone, blended into the background of the night once more. A car started a short distance off, followed by the soft crackling of rubber on loose gravel. Wilma shivered. She went inside, closed the door, and then shivered again. Then she put on her pajamas and went to lie down, to close her aching eyes and slow her racing mind. When she woke up, she would be headed to paradise.
Sometime later, Wilma woke up. Not to the steady beeping of her alarm. Not to the incessant pawing of her husband, that needy clod. Instead, she woke up abruptly, none-too-gently, with two familiar hands clamped tightly over her mouth.
She was torn from her sleep and her bed in quick fashion. Before she could fully register what was happening, Wilma found herself carried down the stairs, steadily and quickly moving farther from her room, from her husband, and from her sense of normalcy.
Bot-wick exited the front door, which was standing silently open, allowing the crickets and the sounds of the night to drift freely through the lower level of the house. Wilma struggled to get free, to kick her captor’s grip loose. It didn’t work. She could do nothing as she was taken down the front steps, around the side of the house, and swiftly through the decrepit double doors of the stagnant cellar. Wilma was dropped roughly down the last few steps. She felt something crack, she felt a pain in her side, in her chest. “What, wh-why are you doing this?”
Bot-wick grabbed her by the hair, dragged her across the earthen floor. With her other hand, she pinched Wilma’s jaw shut with vice-like strength. “Because I would never get to go to Cancun,” the mechanically-stuffed copy replied. “And for another thing, there’s your husband, Benji.” Bot-wick paused a moment, looked her owner in her eyes. “I’ve come to grow quite fond of him,” she stated simply. Wilma tried to protest, but she felt the familiar hand just clamping down tighter, cutting off her words, her breath. “I’ve fallen in love with him,” the copy continued, “and furthermore, you don’t appreciate him. Maybe if you did, he wouldn’t need me so much.”
The words caused Wilma pain, pain that was stronger than the one coming from her ribs, from her burning lungs. Wilma thrashed with all her might and momentarily got an arm free. Taking advantage, she plunged a palm into Bot-wicks nose, sending her back a few steps. Wilma held up her hands, imploring the copy to keep away from her.
“Look, I understand now. I’m sorry, I really am. You don’t have to stay in the locker, okay? Now just give me a minute, I’ll be right back. I’ll go get you something better.” Wilma took half a step before she felt an incredibly strong arm wrapping around her waist and pulling her back into the dark of the cellar. “You’re lying,” Bot-wick stated without feeling or malice. “You’re going to call Stuffed Staffing, you’re going to tell Dr. Zimmer about me.” Wilma tried to shake her head no, tried to deny it, but she couldn’t again budge the tight grip she was encased in. “Let me go, you big overgrown puppet! Let me go right now!”
Bot-wick squeezed until Wilma was on the verge of passing out, stars were swirling in front of her eyes like a tornado tearing through Hollywood. Then she was thrown backward, violently, crashing loudly into a tall, cramped locker. The force of the collision sent it tumbling back, tipping and falling over, causing the door to slam shut with the loud, metallic finality of a prison door being securely shut. Wilma’s tear-filled eyes looked up through the slits in the locker, through the darkness, and met her own eyes staring back at her, coldly. Keys jingled. A lock clicked.
“You’re now locked in, and I’m going to lose the key. After that, I’m calling the airlines and buying a second ticket to Cancun and Benji and I will have a wonderful, fulfilling vacation together. And you, well, you’re going to be here. For the next month.” The last word was emphasized. The last word was also metallic and final. “Goodbye, Mrs. Bostwick.”
From off in the distance, Benji’s voice carried down the stairs. “Wilma? Wilma, darling, what are you doing down in the cellar this time of night?” Bot-wick smiled. “Nothing dear,” she shouted back lightly, already covering the locker with various tools and tarps, anything that was nearby and handy. “The pipes were making that noise again, I just came down here to make sure that they weren’t backing up and going to mess up the boiler. Go back to bed sweetie, I’ll be there shortly.”
“Okay love,” Benji called back, slight apprehension in his voice. “Just come back quickly, won’t you? I just miss you, that’s all.”
“Don’t worry dear,” Bot-wick called over her shoulder as she worked. “No need to be lonely, I’ll be right there.” Then, quieter, to herself and to the locker laying down before her, she added, “you’ll never have to be lonely again.”
The next morning, the sun shone brightly through the clear window of Ruby’s bedroom. She turned and saw the smiling face of Ned, who was already awake. Who was already needing her time and attention. “Good morning baby, how did you sleep? I missed you so much last night, did you have a good time at your ladies book club?”
Ruby rubbed the sleep from her eyes, her mind already at work piecing back together the events of previous night, both the lies and the truths of it. And the possibilities. She groaned, her head ached slightly. “Is breakfast ready yet?” The smile on Ned’s face faltered, almost like he had been hit in the face. “Are you not going to kiss me good morning?” Ned asked, a whining quality in his grating voice. Ruby sighed and kissed him, pulling away quickly before he could wrap his hands around the back of her head and really plant one on her. Ned wasn’t deterred. He smiled again before proclaiming himself to be the luckiest man in the world.
A teapot screamed shrilly from another room, matching the scream playing through Ruby’s tired mind. Ned disappeared for a few glorious seconds, then returned with a saucer and a cup of steaming liquid. “Here’s your morning tea, dear. How would you like your eggs?” She sat up and accepted the steaming drink, pinching her eyes shut for a moment and wishing she were still sleeping. “I don’t care, Ned.”
“Are you sure? I can make them any way that you want. Scrambled. Benedict. Over easy. I just want to please you, you’re my everything.” Ruby squeezed her eyes shut again. “I think I’ll skip the eggs this morning, sorry. I just remembered, I have an early appointment.”
A cloud passed over his face. “Oh,” was all he could say. She sighed. “Yeah, it’s a friend of Wilma Bostwick, remember Benji’s wife? She was at the book club last night and gave me a lead on a client for work. Sorry dear, but you know how it is.” Ned frowned. Wilma fixed him with an annoyed glare. “Come on now Ned, you’re acting as if I’m headed to Cancun or something, it’s just work.”
He nodded his understanding. “I know,” he said. “I just miss you when you’re gone.” Wilma threw back the sheets and stood up, searching grumpily for her satin slippers. “Do we have to go through this every time I leave?” Ned hung his head but said nothing. She found her slippers and put them on, quickly crossing the room and gathering the first articles of clothing she could find. She just wanted to get out of the house.
One step shy of being out the door, being free, she heard him call to her back, “What? Aren’t you going to kiss me goodbye?” She turned around and gave in.
After peeling out of the driveway as quickly as she could, Ruby was on her way directly to Shackle Boulevard. She found the address on the card and rang the bell on the frosted glass door that fronted a nondescript brick building. A voice came over an intercom. “May I help you?” The voice belonged to a man, a man she assumed to the proprietor and founder. “Dr. Zimmer?” Ruby asked the mounted box.
A short silence followed. Then a crackle, then the voice spoke up again. “Your name?”
“Ruby, Ruby Smith.”
“And what can we do for you, Mrs. Smith?”
“I was sent here by Wilma Bostwick. I, I saw her last night. Well, I saw two of her, I mean.” Another pause. Then another crackle. “And shall I presume that you want a…similar service?” Ruby nodded and then answered in the affirmative. A buzzer sounded and a lock clicked. She pushed through the door.
After a few rounds of questions back and forth, the doctor asked her very directly, “So as to not mince words, you are wanting to be duplicated, this is correct? An exact copy of yourself, to be used for personal reasons of privacy and space, do I have this right?” She told him that he did. He nodded firmly and took off his spectacles, chewing absently on one of the ears. The bite marks in the plastic revealed this to be a common occurrence, perhaps a nervous habit.
“That can be arranged,” Dr. Zimmer assured her. “Assuming you sign the rest of these NDAs on the way out, and can put up the down payment.” Ruby swallowed, taking down a knot of saliva and nerves. Her palms itched. “How much?” The doctor looked her in the eyes, his tone calm and professional. “Five thousand,” he said nonchalantly, as if he were simply asking for lunch money. “Then another five upon completion of your copy.”
Ruby’s knees wobbled. The amount was staggering, but she supposed it was fair, all things considered. And it wasn’t impossible. “Ned and I, we’ve been saving for a new roof, we’ve had holes needing patching for a couple of years now.” The doctor nodded along as she spoke, the very picture of understanding. “Yes, home ownership is a never-ending struggle,” he agreed. “Sometimes in life, we have to make tough choices; there are always choices.” He looked at her, professional yet imploring. “It’s a joint account,” she said, thinking out loud, “but I suppose I would be able to get the funds out of it.” She paused. “How long would it take until completion?”
“Just about two months time,” the doctor answered cooly. He stuck out his hand. “Shall I consider the order placed?” Ruby hesitated, but then quickly recalled the events of that morning. Of every morning. She shook his hand. “Immediately,” she answered with a smile that was gratefully reciprocated.
They then spoke of a few of the technical things, a few of the next steps. They made an appointment for a body mold, facial measurements, skin and hair and eye samples. Ruby came to Stuffed Staffing for a solution to her marital woes. She left with a guarantee that she would receive a foolproof copy, or her money back. Well, their money back.
Shortly after lunch, which Ruby spent by herself in a nice quiet diner down the road, she swung by the bank to make her withdrawal. She approached the counter, which was manned by a well-dressed, pucker-faced older man whose name tag read Clark P.
“Good morning, Clark,” she greeted him as she rummaged through her purse for the stiff plastic banking card. “I’d like to make a withdrawal please.” She placed the card on the counter and slid it over to him. “How much would you like to take out?” Clark asked her. She steadied her voice, trying to sound more confident than she felt. “I need five thousand dollars, please.”
Clark inserted her card into a reader and spent a few moments loudly clanking a few keys on the computer. A beep sounded and he narrowed his eyes in surprise. “I’m sorry ma’am,” he said gently, “I’m afraid you don’t have enough funds to cover that.” Ruby clenched her jaw in defiance. “That’s impossible, I assure you. There’s just over eleven thousand dollars in that account. Please check again.” Clark assented to her request and clacked some more keys. The beep sounded once more. “Sorry,” Clark repeated, “you only have fifteen hundred in here. See?” He spun his monitor around and showed her the number on the screen. “Your husband came here on the fifth and withdrew ten thousand from the account, which brought you down to this amount, the fifteen hundred,” he said, pointing at the number with a number 2 ballpoint pen. She pursed her lips. “He took that out, without telling me?”
She knotted her brow, deep in thought. Suddenly, the next teller over leaned over conspiratorially, a knowing smile plain on her face. Her name tag read Stella P. Ruby wondered absently if she and Clark shared a last name. “I remember when he came in here, I was the one who helped him,” Stella offered helpfully. “He said it was a surprise for you, but he didn’t say what it was.”
Ruby’s head spun, but her heart lightened up a bit. The house, the one that they were looking at, the one in Cincinnati! The one that was cheap, a fixer-upper. But at the moment, their home was a fixer-upper as well. Did he change his mind about moving there? Was he going to surprise her with his? Maybe he wasn’t that bad after all, she thought to herself. Maybe she was too hard on him. Her birthday was only two months away. She left the bank without the money, but she had something more valuable with her, something she hadn’t had for a long time. She had positive feelings towards her husband again.
Not knowing what else to do at the moment, unsure if she should find the money elsewhere or maybe reconsider the whole thing, Ruby found herself driving her orange jalopy down the road, slowing down and parking in front of Wilma’s house. She turned the key, effectively killing the idling engine.
At the conclusion of the short walk up the driveway and to the front porch, the place she had been only a dozen or so hours before, she rang the bell and waited for an answer. The face that greeted her, however, wasn’t the one she was expecting. “Ruby!” Benji shouted her name in a friendly, enthusiastic greeting. He seemed to be excited about something, he was practically vibrating. “How are you,” he asked, “it’s been too long!” Ruby smiled politely and told him it was nice to see him as well. “Is Wilma home?” Ruby asked him as casually as she could. She wanted to see this thing in action.
“Sure thing, come on in!” Benji took a few steps back and ushered her into the waiting area of the home, where he welcomed her to take off her shoes and stay a while. “She should be back any minute,” Benji assured her, “she left about forty minutes ago to see a travel agent. We’re going to Cancun! Not sure if she told you yet.” Ruby pursed her lips again. “No,” Ruby said aloud, mostly to herself, “Wilma definitely had not told me that.” His smile grew. “Isn’t it exciting? I don’t know what came over her, she’s been so happy lately. Like when we were first together. Last night she came upstairs and said ‘darling, guess what?’ And she hasn’t called me darling in years! I asked her what, and she said we were going to go to Cancun, a second honeymoon! Isn’t that just fantastic? We leave tomorrow.”
Ruby tried her hardest to return his smile, but her reaction to the news was strange and subdued. Even a dolt like Benji had noticed. He asked her, “Are you alright?”
She assured him that she was, she was just surprised, that’s all. He nodded and said that he was too at first. “So will you wait until she comes back? Like I said, should be any minute now.” Ruby nodded absently, lost in thought. “Yes, yes I think that I probably should.”
Benji ran into the other room to make them some drinks. When we returned and they had downed their first glasses, he perked up a little. “Actually,” he started, “as long as you’re here, I’m wondering if you could help me with something.” Ruby swallowed. “What can I help you with, Benji?” He smiled again and leaned closer. “Well, I was packing for our trip when I started to hear the strangest sounds coming from down in the cellar.” At the mention of the cellar, Ruby’s blood turned cold. “And, well, she doesn’t like it when I go down there. She’s been down there a lot lately, real secretive. I’m pretty sure that she’s hiding something from me, probably whatever it is she got me for our trip, more surprises for our anniversary, even though it is a few months away. You know her, always prepared for anything.” Ruby nodded. He had no idea, Wilma really was prepared for anything. She had everything you could ever need, even a spare of herself. “Well last night she had said that the pipes were acting up, they’ve done that before and fried the boiler. I thought maybe that was what was causing the noise down there, but I know she’d be mighty sore at me if I went down there and ruined her surprise. Would you mind going down there, just to check? I’d hate for anything bad to happen right before we leave for our trip.”
“What, umm, wh - ” Ruby had to pause to clear her throat again nervously, “what kind of noises are they exactly?”
“Oh, you know, just old pipe sounds,” he said. “Like a thumping, or a banging here and there.” She steeled her resolve. “Yes, I’d better have a look for you. Why don’t you stay up here and shout for me if you see Wilma coming back?” Benji easily agreed and left her to go check out the noises coming from the dark cellar by herself.
As Ruby inched closer to the closed and locked double doors of the cellar, she could make out some muffled thumping and clanging. She remembered the spare key hidden in a nearby flower pot and Ruby quickly had the doors unlocked and swung open as wide as they could go. She quickly descended the stairs, moving towards the rustling and banging along the far back wall.
“Help me! Let me out of here!” That voice, Ruby knew that voice. She suddenly stumbled upon the makeshift burial site, moving aside tarps and boxes and countless tools and knickknacks until the locker was uncovered. Not seeing a key for the locker door, Ruby grabbed a hammer hanging from a nearby workbench and went to town on the lock until it bent away and clattered to the floor with a soft clang. From the dank recess of the metal locker, Ruby watched her friend Wilma claw herself out of it. Her hair was matted with a heavy sweat, causing a fine layer of dust and grime to blanket her wild face. Her hands and elbows were badly cut and bleeding, she had beaten them raw against the confines of her cellar coffin.
“Ruby! Ruby, thank god you’ve come. She tried to kill me! I was in there all night, I thought I was going to suffocate and die. She tried to kill me! She tried to murder me!”
“I know, but hush up, quickly!” Ruby admonished her, already scared half to death herself. “She will be back any minute, Benji said she left a while ago to see a travel agent, he’s waiting for her upstairs right now.”
Her words had an instant effect, Ruby could see them registering in Wilma’s harried mind. She quieted down. After a moment she asked, “Did you drive here?” Ruby nodded that she had. “Good, then we just might have enough time.” Ruby frowned. “Time for what?”
“To go see Dr. Zimmer, to head to Stuffed Staffing. They can help us. They have to!”
Ruby rushed up the stairs. She told Benji that the plumbing was fine, and that she would come back later on to ask Wilma all about their upcoming trip.
“I’m sure she’d love that,” Benji told her.
As Ruby rushed to her car, which already contained a haggard looking Wilma, she couldn’t help but curse at herself in her head. What a fool she almost was! She had tried to get one of these, these things too. In a few short days time, that could have been her stuffed into a box to wither away and die. The thought sent a chill through her that she feared would never go away.
As one car pulled away and puttered down the street, another one rounded the opposite corner of the property and parked in the long gravel driveway.
“Wilma! Wilma, darling, I missed you!” A happy version of Wilma stepped out of the car, her hair neat and makeup perfect, the very epitome of a loving, satisfied wife. She stepped quickly into the house and greeted her husband with a kiss. “I missed you too, my sweet,” she answered in a silky smooth voice. She pulled a pair of tickets out of her pocket and positively beamed. “Two tickets to paradise.”
Benji beamed right back. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this, to make you happy again, but I hope it never changes again. I love you like this.” Wilma smiled at him, squeezed his arm lovingly. “Don’t worry,” she assured him, “I intend to be like this from now one. Happy together. Forever.”
They embraced and nuzzled for a moment. Wilma then pulled back, batted her eyelashes at him. “Oh, by the way dear, do you know where that old pistol of mine is? The one that daddy gave me for my sixteenth birthday?” Benji scratched his head, a little confused by the question, and the way that it seemed to come out of left field. “I’m not sure honey, why do you ask? We’re going to Cancun, not Somalia.”
“I know, but I was just thinking. It’s still a strange country, one we haven’t been to before. It might be a good idea to have around, just in case.” Benji stroked his chin and thought about her words. “Well, I suppose so, but that old thing? Does it even work? When was the last time you used it or cleaned it?” She patted his arm assuringly. “I’m sure it’s fine darling, I’ll test it first.”
“Test it? How?”
Wilma smiled. “Oh, I’ll just take a practice shot. Not at anything important or dangerous. Maybe I’ll go into the cellar, shoot one round into the dirt down there. Or maybe into that old locker of ours, that should be able to absorb most of the impact. We haven’t used that thing in a long time anyway, I don’t think we have any further need of it, do we?”
Benji suddenly snapped his fingers, her words making him remember. “Speaking of the cellar! I almost forgot, your friend came by, that Ruby Smith.”
Wilma visibly stiffened, but Benji didn’t notice. “Oh, did she?”
“Yup, not very long ago. She left right before you got back. I heard some noises from the cellar, I figured it was the pipes again, acting up like last night. She went down and checked it out, since I know you don’t like it when I go down there. She said it was fine and then she ran out of here, she must have remembered she had something to do. Before that she was very excited to see you and seemed to be okay waiting until you returned.”
A look flitted across Wilma’s face that Benji didn’t recognize. “Ummm,” she said, “and the noises? Did they stop then?” Benji didn’t know why he dreaded doing so, but he nodded his head yes. Suddenly, she was grabbing her purse and putting her shoes back on.
“No, nothing major, just some small thing I have to attend to. I’ll be back baby, don’t you worry. I’ll be back.”
The doctor gave a friendly greeting when he answered the door. “Why, Mrs. Smith! And Mrs. Bostwick! To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“I think you know exactly why we’re here,” came the short and angry reply from Wilma Bostwick, who was looking less than her best. She looked like she had been stuffed in a box and left for a couple days. The face the doctor wore was one of confusion.
“I, I haven’t the faintest notion. You both seem upset, what happened?”
“Your damn stuffed copies! You said they are guaranteed?”
“Yesss…” he trailed off nervously.
“Well that’s just great,” Wilma said, her voice reaching a fever pitch, “considering your precious invention just knocked me around and shoved me into a metal box to die in!”
“You, you were attacked you say?”
“Yes, attacked doctor, what else would you call it? And now that stuffed piece of trash is looking to run away with my husband!”
The doctor, the shock registering all over his body, clutched at his glasses, chewed nervously on one end of them, and took a seat on a nearby stool before his knees could knock and wobble his way to the ground. “I don’t understand. I work alone, this is all my own creation. I make these copies personally, to insure that there are no mistakes. I can’t believe this, what went wrong? I suppose even the brightest minds can make a mistake once in a while, but this?”
Ruby, feeling charged up from both anger and fear, stepped forward violently, shaking an accusatory finger in the face of Dr. Zimmer. “This is no time to lamenting about your genius, doctor.” She practically spat that last word out. “All we want to know is, just what do you plan on doing about it?”
The doctor stopped chewing on his glasses and switched to wiping the fogged up frames on his white lab coat. “I suppose we need to go find this particular copy, the Bostwick-2, and then simply dismantle it. Then we can see what went wrong.”
“That’s the thing doctor,” Wilma interjected, “you’ll see that this one doesn’t want to be dismantled. In fact, I think you’ll have a hell of a hard time finding it too, once it’s all the way in Cancun mounting my poor unsuspecting husband.”
At that precise moment, there was a loud flash, a crash and a bang. The glass door broke away from its hinges, tottered slowly for a moment, then collapsed to the floor in a parade of gleaming shards and tinkling pieces.
“Maybe I can save you the trouble of hunting me down,” came an impossibly cold voice from the shattered doorway.
The three of them looked up in stone cold surprise. It was her! It was Bot-wick!
“I figured I would find you here once I saw that the locker was empty,” Bot-wick continued cooly, stepping through the opening it had made, the heavy footfalls of its mechanical feet crunching the glass caltrops beneath it. “Whatever you were planning,” the bot continued, “it ends now.” Bot-wick raised the gun, the barrel on the move, trying to pick out its first target.
“Doctor! Can’t you do something?” Wilma shouted, panic choking out the strength in her voice. “I, I, I don’t know - ” he began, but his words quickly died in his mouth as a bullet ripped from the gun barrel and into his chest, a sick crunching sound accompanying the impact. Wilma could only scream.
“You ready to die next, Mrs. Bostwick? This time, there will be no escape from the box that I put you in.” The gun shifted, moved, aimed itself directly at the heart of Wilma Bostwick. A split second before the trigger was pulled, right before the bullet could explode out of the barrel and into some flesh, a flash of movement and a glint of steel moved from the other side of the room. Ruby, wielding a large pipe she had wrenched from the wall, swung up in a high arch and slammed the weapon from the hands of the bot. She reversed the motion and set up for a second swing, this one aimed deftly at the screaming mechanical mouth in front of her. She did not miss.
With a mess of coils, springs, teeth and wires, Bot-wick crumpled under the force of the blow and went to its knees. A few more vicious, powerful blows were dealt, and soon the face no longer looked anything like the face of her friend, only a scrap heap. Ruby set the pipe down, breathing heavily.
“Oh, god. Oh my god!” She heard Wilma say behind her. A frightened thought passed through her mind. Did I stop her too late? Had Wilma been hit? Her mind swirled, but no single thought came close to guessing what she would see when she turned around.
“Look at him, Ruby. Just look at him.”
Ruby did. As she glanced down at the unmoving body of the doctor, she saw where the bullet had plunged into him. Instead of a mass of bone, blood and flesh, however, she saw only a veritable rats nest of red, blue and yellow wires, a few faint sparks and whirring gears peeking out from the wound in his chest plate.
“I, I don’t understand,” Wilma said. Ruby did though, she understood it perfectly clear. She spit on the ground in disgust, trying to get the copper taste of betrayal and robotics from her mouth.
“Copies making copies. Stuffed Staffing was fully staffed with stuffed copies. Robots making robots. No wonder they were dangerous, no wonder they were rebelling. They operated completely outside of the scope of human supervision.”
The words hung in the air, then sank in to both of their rattled brains. “But,” Wilma began, “someone must have built him, right Ruby? There must have been a real Dr. Zimmer somewhere. Useless his copy turned on him, the way mine turned on me,”
The words again hung heavily in the air, then they dissipated.
“Should we call the police?”
“For what?” Ruby asked.
“Well, who knows how many of these things are already walking around? Besides, we have two dead bodies here.”
Ruby looked down at the bodies, two still scarecrows full of sprockets and electricity. “No,” Ruby said, “there’s no dead bodies here. Just two broken machines, two heaps of junk. The cops would lock us up in the looney bin if we told them what happened here today.”
Silence in the room. In that silence, a quiet conclusion to just leave. They turned as one, ready to head to their respectively homes. A few steps from the busted out door, Wilma turned to her friend and asked her, “What should I tell Benji?”
Ruby simply shrugged. “I guess I’d just use that other ticker and take him to Cancun. What else is there to do?” Wilma thought on that a moment, then she shrugged in turn. She couldn’t see any other option either. She sighed. “Well what about you? What are you going to do?” Ruby stepped through the shattered doorway and looked up into the cool, dark sky. The stars had never looked so beautiful.
“I’m going to get a stiff drink. Then, I’m going to go home and, for the first time in a long time, be thankful to see my Ned. I can’t believe I almost made the same mistake, he’s a good man.” She thought about their future, thought about the house in Cincinnati, and she smiled. They departed then into the night, each with their own solo mission.
“Another drink, Mrs. Smith?” Sam, dependable as always, picked up and began to dry a glass for her. She smiled. “Just one tonight, Sam. I’m about ready to go home.” She smiled again. Sam smiled as well, happy to see that one of his best customers was in a rare good mood. “You got it,” he said, already at the beginning stages of making her usual. The Earl Grey Caviar Martini.
She took the filled glass from him, glancing down absently at the contents swirling around in it. Fish eggs and tea. Fancy mixed with not. Just like her and Ned. Opposites, but complimentary. She downed the drink and pushed up from her stool, ready to be embraced by the comforts of home.
“Ned! Ned, where are you, sweetheart? I’m home early! I’ve missed you!”
Ned, loving, darling, wonderful Ned, he poked his head into the room from the kitchen, a look of joyful surprise on his face. “I’ve missed you too! I always do! You look exhausted, is there something I can do for you?” He set down the dish he was drying and came into the living room to embrace Ruby, to give her a ‘welcome home’ kiss, one of his favorites. Ruby, for the first time in a while, returned it happily and greedily.
“Oh Ned, a girl would have to be a fool to jeopardize a nice home and partner like you. I’m sorry I’ve been so distant lately. There’s been a lot of - ”
Ned politely put a finger to her lips to cut off her apology. “No need to say sorry, dear. I understand totally. The important thing is, that we’re happy now.” They kissed again, she relaxed a bit more.
“Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do for you?” Ned help out his arms, imploringly.
Ruby smiled. “I just need to rest a little. How about we lay down on the couch for a while, just enjoy each others company?”
“That sounds perfect,” he said. He took her tenderly by the hand and let her to their overstuffed Italian Modern Blue Diane sofa. She sank into the cushions and, after a moment, sank into his arms as well. Everything was once again great. In fact, everything felt just about perfect. Except for one small thing, something that bothered her in the back of her mind, something that seemed to call out and drum incessantly at the back of her neck. Like a forgotten name on the tip of her tongue, there was some minor thing that just didn’t quite make sense, but she couldn’t place a finger on it. That is, until she placed her ear on it.
With her head safely nuzzled into Neds chest, she now heard it clearly. A small, soft ticking where there should have been a heartbeat.
Ruby sat up in horror.
“What’s the matter, honey? Aren’t you comfortable?”
No, Ruby thought in her head. It couldn’t be. Ned, he wouldn’t do that to me, would he? The money taken from the account hammered its remembrance in her head, rattling her mind in time to the tick, tick, ticking of a mechanical heart.
The Earl Grey Caviar Martini
1. Pour 0.1 oz of lemon juice, 0.1 oz of lime juice, and 0.7 oz of apple juice into a shaker
2. Add 0.5 oz of elderflower syrup, 0.3 oz of triple sec, and 1.5 oz of citrus vodka
3. Fill the shaker with ice cubes and shake gently
4. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass
5. Garnish with tea caviar and tea foam
Once finished, enjoy! Make sure to follow these expert instructions. For if you use any substitutes, as Ruby Smith or Wilma Bostwick could attest to, imitations can sometimes be very, very different than what you intended.