TYLER MARABLE - #ME TWO
Tyler Marable studies creative writing at Google University. He enjoys good food, good beer, and good people. When he's not working to expose a government conspiracy called Grit: Mission Command, he's hanging out with his family, drawing, or watching anime. His psychiatrist says he has schizoaffective disorder. But he thinks she's just paranoid and moody.
I believed in clocking in each day ready to work, so I took Viagra each morning before I kissed Melissa on the cheek and left the house.
I stopped when I entered the laboratory. The king size bed had been replaced with an
emperor size bed. The first thing I wondered: Why?
I got my answer.
Cliff's voice came over the intercom. "Today, LaDarius, you're going to perform a fivesome. Four Racks at once."
"Four Racks at the same time, Cliff!?!" I stared at my reflection in the two-way mirror. The man in the glass had a look of disbelief on his face, standing there in nothing but boxers.
There was a short pause, and then Cliff's voice came over the intercom again. "That's what I said."
"I'm overworked and underpaid, you know?"
"You let me know that every day, LaDarius." I found Cliff's voice unnerving. There was nothing nefarious in his voice, but I often wondered what he did behind that two-way mirror while I performed my job. "A lot of men would do your job for minimum wage."
I just stood there, gazing at my reflection. "Well, I'm not a lot of men. I'm one man. Four units at one time is three too many."
"Your expression says no, but that bulge in your underwear says yes. I'm bringing in the Racks."
I sighed and laid down in the bed.
I stared at the fluorescent lights above. It cast the room in its bright glow. The entire room was white. White lights, white ceiling, white walls, white floors. The lab was called the Fishbowl because of the two-way mirror. The voyeurs who called themselves scientists, probably dropped their clipboards for a bottle of lotion once the action began.
The glass doors slid open, and the room got a lot whiter. Four units walked in, all the same model: five foot six, double d-cups with brunette hair, beautiful eyes, and great asses. The units were called Racks because of their breasts size. Bare naked, the quadruplets were wearing their production day suits; clothing were mere accessories for such toys and cost extra. Their synthetic flesh glared in the light. Their gaits were awkward and robotic, even so, I still had a hard-on.
"We are ready to serve your interest," they all said at the same time. I had suggested to the dialogue programmers to make the units better at conversing. There's nothing wrong with a little banter now and again. The dialect programmers said the units would only have rudimentary linguistic intelligence. I found it hard to get in the mood when the units spoke like the Borg.
"Commence intercourse," I said, feeling pretty damn silly. I guess when I pulled my boxers off I should say, Release the Kraken. Or perhaps, Release the ebony basilisk was more appropriate.
They all laid down on the bed. At home with Melissa, I performed my duties as fiance underneath the comforter, but at work there were no blankets or sheets. Cliff and the rest of the Quality Reviewers needed to see the products perform.
Cliff called out the positions. I'm pretty sure we went through half the Karma Sutra manual. The units had specially engineered metal skeletons, so they were remarkably light and flexible. I guess they had to be. No one wanted to be crushed to death under a two-ton android. There's no good way to die, but dying at work had to be one of the worse ways to go. Accidental death by snu snu sounds hilarious, but it's not funny to Patrick Gibson … He's not here to laugh about it.
Spent, I fell to the mattress, my body dripping with sweat.
"You have achieved climax. Do you wish to continue?" the unit lying beside me asked. Her synthetic vagina was equipped with sensors; it had recognized my orgasm.
I waited for Cliff's word. It wasn't my decision to make. Talk about being micromanaged.
"Tell the Racks you are done, LaDarius."
I followed Cliff's instructions. "I do not wish to continue."
The units all closed their eyes and shut down simultaneously.
"Ask them to make you a sandwich," Cliff said over the intercom.
"… What?" I asked.
"Tell them to make you a sandwich."
I shrugged. He was the boss. I was just a pencil pushing peon, only I pushed something that wasn't number two lead. "Make me a sandwich."
The units didn't budge.
"That concludes the first session. You have three more sessions with two-hour breaks in between."
I stared at my reflection in the two-way mirror; it had its arms in the air in shock. "Three more sessions? I have to have an orgy three more times? You're breaking my back."
"We have to work out all the bugs, LaDarius."
"Yeah, by working out all of mine," I said. "I'll be in the break room."
Work took the pleasure out of anything. I loved lemon meringue pies more than anything in world, but if I had to taste them for a living, I'm sure they would lose their appeal … Sex wasn't fun anymore.
I clocked out early and went home after the second orgy. I told Cliff I wasn't feeling well, didn't even bother to get the units back to their storage area. I just ran off; I left four Racks.
Yeah, I had a bad day, but I had Melissa Wong waiting for me. A martini, some of her homemade sushi, and everything would be fine.
I knocked three times on my apartment door. Melissa didn't answer. I figured she was in the shower. I sighed, looked like I would be making my own martini.
I unlocked the door and went inside. There was music playing. Ginuwine. I hated Ginuwhine. I thought it was strange. Melissa only played Ginuwine while we were having sex. That's when I heard it. A moan, and the squeaking of our bed. I shook my head and cussed as I went to the kitchen. This didn't call for a martini; this called for Coke and rum. I made myself a drink and walked down the hall to the bedroom. I slowly nudged the cracked door open.
Some guy, who looked like Terry Crews, was hard at work between Melissa's legs.
She was laying on her head back, whispering his name, her nails digging in his shoulders.
"Donatello?" I said. "He looks more like Leonardo."
They both looked to me.
Melissa gasped. "LaDarius, it's not what it looks like."
The guy jumped up and covered himself with a pillow. The damage was already done, though. I got a good look at his manhood. He looked like Terry Crews up high and pornstar Mandigo down low.
"Yeah, bruh, it's not what it looks like."
"He's my dance partner," Melissa said. "From the ballroom dance club you and I talked about.
I took a sip of my drink. "So you two were just doing the horizontal tango, with your clothes off, and his fully erect penis accidentally slipped inside you."
They didn't say anything.
"You can go home with this guy," I said, "to your mother's, your girlfriend's place, wherever. I don't care where you go, Melissa, but you have to get up out of here."
"LaDarius. It's just. I wasn't having fun anymore."
"Play Candy Crush."
"I was lonely with you working all the time," she said.
"Get a labrador and some friends."
"You changed. You never wanted to have sex."
"Buy a toy."
"I need the real thing."
By this time, Melissa's guest had slipped back into his jeans and polo shirt and was sliding by me. "I'm just going to see myself out."
I let him by. "You didn't even take your ring off."
She looked at the rock on her finger. "Yeah, that's right. Donatello banged me knowing I was engaged. We've been at it two months now, and you're not going to do anything about it."
She left the bed and put on her panties. She had lost a lot of weight; her ribs were showing. I should have seen the signs: weight loss through dieting, buying new dresses, getting her hair done, wearing expensive makeup and perfume when she went "dancing."
She wrapped her bra straps around her body and hooked them together behind her back. "You're pathetic, you know that. You just caught me cheating, and you're not going to do anything about it. You wouldn't even confront Donnie."
"Damn, so you even call him by his nickname?" I leaned against the door jamb, watching her put the rest of her clothes on. "In five minutes of sex, you threw away three years of my life."
"It was ten minutes," she said. "And it would have been a hell of a lot longer if you haven't come home early. The one day you choose to come home early from work."
"I came home early because I camed early at work."
She rolled her eyes. "I can't wait forever for you to marry me. I've been waiting long enough."
"I told you, once an opening becomes available in management I'll move up. I'll be making enough money to marry you and have children."
She grabbed her purse off the nightstand. "I just wanted a man who takes interest in me. A man who takes me out. You don't love me. All you do is work. All you do is drink martinis and read and play video games."
"A man shows you he loves you by being faithful to you and providing for you and taking care of your children."
"If I stay with you I won't have any children. I'll hit menopause by the time you decide to take off the rubber."
"I just wanted to be financially stable before starting a family."
She grabbed her keys off the wall and walked past me.
"I'm going to need my ring," I said.
She pulled it off and tossed it on the floor. "If you’re going to get mad about this, you better do it now. Don't call me two weeks from now, crying and carrying on."
I picked up the engagement ring off the carpet. Four weeks pay. My heart and soul just thrown on the floor.
"You still here?" I asked.
She left the apartment. I poured myself some more rum and Coke. I took a sip of my drink, put it back down on the counter, and drank straight from the bottle.
"What they got you doing today?" Trent asked. He spooned cold Chef Boyardee straight from the can into his mouth.
I took a bite of my ham sandwich. "Four Racks."
"Four Racks!" He put a chunk of meatball in his mouth. "Again! All at the same time!"
"I clocked out early last time. They said they need three more sessions from me. I think I'm being punished for going home early."
"You're being punished in more ways than one. I heard about Melissa. That's harsh, man."
Looking down at my lunch, I knew all too well it was harsh. I wasn't eating the fine cuisine she had made for me every day anymore.
I guess I had an odd look on my face because Trent asked, "You taking it well?"
Heck no I wasn't. Three years gone down the drain. I cried; I drank; I called her two weeks later and got her voicemail, all twenty-three times I called her. Yeah … I counted.
I changed the subject. "How’s everything's going with the Littles? They worked out the bugs yet?"
"Yeah, by working out all of mine."
"Would you like to trade? Try something different?"
"Nice try, LaDarius," he said. "Four Racks … No thanks. I'm fine with Tiffany."
I looked around the break room. No one had heard what Trent said. They were too busy gossiping or looking at their phones, thank God.
I leaned over the table and whispered, "I know you didn't name it."
He smiled and whispered, "Why not?"
"Because it's against company policy."
"They're going to give her a name when she hits the market."
"It," I whispered. "Not she."
"Her name's Tiffany, and that's that."
I looked around; no one was watching. I looked up and nearly sighed. There were no cameras in the ceiling. I still felt the need to speak on the sly, "You must really like working in the Little Department."
"I guess," he whispered. "I thought I wouldn't like it at first. You know, with the units being midgets and all. Then I met Tiffany."
I just took a bite of my sandwich and didn't say anything.
He leaned across the table. "I know guys in the Granny Department that feel the same way. I think guys are just like that. We would sleep with a lot of women if we could get away with it."
I laughed. The conversation was turning back into guy stuff and not "violating company policy" stuff.
"You know they did a psychological experiment at Jacksonville State University. They had a midget—"
"Little person," I said.
"Right, little person," he whispered; I had no idea why he was still whispering. "They did this experiment at JSU where they had this beautiful little woman sit on a bench in the quad. She just sat there with a textbook in her lap. When a male student walked by, she asked him to sit, made up some lie about not understanding some word in her textbook. The guy would sit; they would talk about academics. Then she would slip him a prepared note…"
He paused for effect.
I took a bite of my sandwich. "What did the note say?"
His eyes went a little wide; you could tell he was trying not to chuckle. "The note said she would like to have sex with him, that he could follow her off campus. They would leave in separate cars. No one would ever know they had intercourse."
"Yeah, and what happened?"
"Check this out." He chuckled a bit, snorting out his nose, trying not to laugh out loud. "The guy would follow her to the nearest hotel. She would go to the office and pay for a room. The note would tell the guy to wait thirty minutes outside in the parking lot if he didn't want to be seen together with the little woman. The note told the guy to knock five times on the door and say, ‘Pizza delivery.'"
Now we both snorted.
"The beautiful midget—"
"Little person," I said.
"Right. The beautiful little woman would open the door. She would ask the subject if he wanted to come in. She would make it known he didn't have to. If the subject did enter the room, she would ask him again if he would like to have sex. If he said yes, she would pull a condom out of her purse and ask him to open it and put it on. When the subject opened the condom the experiment ended. I'm talking about social psychologists, bursting out the bathroom like To Catch a Predator."
"They must have been pissed off," I said. "To be tricked like that."
"Yeah, they lost their erections. Talk about blue balls."
"That's what we're fighting for," I said. "We intrepid few. We brave souls who have shouldered this glorious burden. We fight to end the scourge that is known as blue balls."
Trent's spoon scraped the bottom of the can. He put a scoop of cold spaghetti in his mouth. "It's funny because it's true … Well, not that funny. Patrick's not here to laugh with us."
We both made the sign of the cross over our bodies.
"You know they did the same experiment with shemales?" he said.
"Shemale is derogatory. Say transexual."
"Right. Transexual. They did the same experiment with attractive transexuals. I'm talking about Miran, Ana Mancini, Sarina Valentina, Kimber James in her prime attractive. Hell, they had Sunshyne Monroe take part herself."
I didn't ask him how he knew so many transexual pornstars. "They didn't trick the subjects did they? Made them think they were women?"
He shook his head. "In the months running up to the experiment, they had college guys fill out questionnaires. They even followed the guys around campus to watch their behavior. They simply put the transexual in a place these guys walked by a lot. When one of the guys walked by the transsexual on the bench, she did the same thing as the little woman and asked him could he help her real quick with understanding a word in her textbook. She slipped the subject a note explaining her gender and sexual identity, all the things she likes to do to guys, you know? Fellatio, that kind of thing. Long story short, some of the guys followed her back to hotel and opened the Trojan, even if they said they would never have sex with a transexual on the questionnaire. And they were assured the questionnaire was anonymous, encouraging them to answer truthfully. Some of these guys were straight up homophobic, and they followed the tranny back to the hotel."
"That ain't cool."
He frowned. "I thought it was pretty neat."
"What if the subject got pissed and hurt her?"
"They had police standing by," he said.
"I still don't like it."
"A lot of men will have sex with women they otherwise wouldn't if they believe no one will ever find out. We got Littles and Racks and Almost Jail Bait and Grannies and whatnot. I was thinking Trannies. They can call the unit Sunshyne Monrobot. I'm thinking about putting a suggestion in the box in the supervisor's office, get that thousand dollar bonus, you know?" He wiped spaghetti sauce from his mouth with the back of his hand. "A few years back, Seth Rogen said a lot of guys are into transsexual porn. It's the sexy elephant in America's room. I even seen a video on Youtube, neuroscientists explaining why women like Edward Cullen and men like shemale porn."
"Transexual porn," I said.
I must have been making a strange face because he said, "It's not illegal, you know? It's not like I'm watching kiddie porn."
"A man's Internet browser history is his own business," I replied. "As long as he's not doing anything illegal."
The horn sounded, signaling the end of break. Everyone got up and walked past us. I changed the subject and spoke a little louder as our coworkers walked by.
"Who you think going to win the Iron Bowl this year?"
Trent shrugged. "I'm hoping Auburn will get the W."
"They won't," I said. "They'll come out half-cocked, going through the motion, playing with no sense of urgency. Alabama will come out with their hardhats on, already clocked in and ready to work. Alabama will have their money in their hands and their minds made up."
I stood, my legs shaking like jello. Only three more sessions to go. I threw my ziplock bag and Vienna can in the garbage and left the break room.
Cliff stopped me on the way back to the Fishbowl. "I'm going to need you to follow me, LaDarius."
I cursed under my breath. When it rained, it stormed. I was about to be fired. I didn't know why. Yeah, I had clocked out early, but I didn't leave without letting the supervisor know, and I only had three points. It takes nine to get terminated.
I continued to follow Cliff. We walked by the supervisor's office, the office I hoped would be mine one day. That confused me. If I wasn't being fired, where was he taking me? At any rate, at least I didn't have to work with four Racks.
I followed Cliff to a part of the plant I hadn't been in before. He led me to a steel door with a wheel on it, like a bulkhead door in a submarine. Steel crossbar barricades at the top and bottom of the door held it securely shut. Cliff placed his thumb on the fingerprint scanner on the wall. He then punched in his employee's number on the digital keypad. The crossbar at the top of the door slid into the wall; the bottom crossbar did the same. He spun the wheel and pulled the door open.
"Is this Fort Knox?" I asked.
He laughed as I followed him in. "No, no. Mr. Rosehall wanted the room secure because it contains valuable company property. He doesn't want people stealing from him."
They must got some mean staplers and ink pens in here.
I was expecting a top-secret vault but found myself in some sort of a bachelor pad.
Kenny G's Songbird was playing over the audio system. A leather sofa sat in the corner. A modern shag rug covered the floor in front of the sofa with a touchscreen coffee table sitting on top. The screen on the coffee table displayed the Windows desktop. Opposite to the sofa, a one hundred inch recessed flat screen had an NFL playoff game on it. Purple flames danced around in the recessed electric fireplace below the TV.
The living room opened up to a small kitchen complete with stainless steel appliances and its own mini bar. The interior decorators really went of their way, but the most beautiful aspect of the room wasn't the furniture, the TV, or the appliances.
A woman was sitting on the sofa, her legs crossed, humming to Songbird. Light chocolate skin, short boyish haircut, large hoop earrings. She looked like a young Vivian Green. If she had be humming to Emotional Rollercoaster or to I Don’t Know I would have lost my mind and asked her for an autograph.
"That's your new coworker, LaDarius," Cliff said. "We've taken into account your suggestion about the units' dialogue. We wish to study human behavior in a controlled environment that mimics home life in hopes of making the units more ‘ladylike' as you put it."
"So, what do I'm suppose to do?" I asked.
"Whatever," he said. "We just want to watch you two interact."
"So … no sex?" I asked with a raised eyebrow. My job description at Rosebotics dictated I ask the question.
"You two are adults. If you want to have intercourse then all means go ahead. That would definitely help our research. This is simply a case study in observing human behavior in order to make the units as real as possible."
Cliff's words didn't quite register with me because something caught my eye. "Is that an open bar?"
"Am I welcomed to it?"
"You're welcome to anything in this room, including the food in the refrigerator." He handed me his Ipad and stylus. "I need you to sign across the line."
"What's this?" I asked.
"It's a waiver stating you will not file a lawsuit against Rosebotics for this case study. It's similar to the waiver you signed when you started your employment here."
I scribbled my name on the line, thinking of Patrick. "You guys are going to be watching us interact?"
"We have cameras everywhere except in the bedroom and bathroom." He turned to leave then stopped. "When you're ready to go home for the day, place your thumb on the fingerprint scanner and enter your employee number in the keypad by the door."
Cliff left. He pulled the door shut. The wheel spun until I heard the click clack of the locking mechanism. I made my way towards the bar. I bet they stocked it with some looze. My suspicion was correct. There were bottles upon bottles of cheap booze from Aristocrat to Skol to Tanka. I hated cheap booze; you were going to lose the fight with the hangover the next day; that's why I called cheap booze looze.
I decided it was for the best. How would it look? Me drinking on the job in front of my new coworker? She was still sitting on the sofa, watching TV. She hadn't even noticed us come in the room.
I didn't know how to approach her. Twenty-six years old, and I still didn't know how to approach attractive women. I decided to man up. I ambled over to the living room and took a seat in the chair beside her. Seeing her up close, I felt a bit underdressed in my work clothes. She was wearing a red one-shoulder dress, hugging every curve of her body. My eyes ran down her unblemished crossed legs to her high heels.
"My name's LaDarius," I said. I caught myself staring at her legs and brought my eyes back up to meet hers. Her eyes were beautiful and light brown like her skin.
Cliff's voice came over the intercom in the ceiling. "Her last name is Elizabeth.”
I looked up. There were small dome cameras in each corner of the ceiling. Cliff did say he would be watching us interact. It was a bit unnerving, knowing we were being watched. I don't know why I felt that way. He had been watching me have sex with the products for four years now. But this was different. I didn't like it. Maybe that was because it was hard enough to talk to this beautiful woman without making an ass out of myself. I just knew Cliff would be snickering if I crashed and burned.
"Mary Elizabeth. That's a nice name." I felt stupid. What was she suppose to say to that? Well … it's the name my mom gave me.
She didn't reply.
Now I sure as hell felt stupid.
"So, how long have you been working here?"
"Not long," she said. "I just started today."
So, a new hire. I should have known by the dress. She had came in for an interview and wore her best Sunday outfit. She probably came in with a bachelor's degree, wanting a job in management, but they told her she would have to work into the position. They said the same to me. The only difference between me and her: I would have to go back to my dead-end job after this assignment was over, and they'd move her to the main office.
"Well, I've been here four years now," I said. "The pay's good. It's not such a bad job, but I would like to do something with my degree."
Cliff's voice came over the intercom. "I thought you said you were overworked and underpaid, LaDarius."
"Cliff, if you want to do this case study, you're going to have to stop butting in when I'm trying to get to know my coworker."
"Good call, LaDarius."
I shook my head. "It's crazy ain't it? Being watched?"
She shrugged. "I guess."
There was silence between us. I was bad at making conversation with people, especially when they didn't want to be a party to it. I hated such women. You go on a date, and it's all awkward because she won't open up. You ask this; you ask that, hoping to get her talking so she would feel the date was going somewhere. If it works out, and you get her to talking, you can sit back and nod your head, saying, Un huh … Un huh … Un huh. The difference between me and a lot of guys: I ask women questions because I genuinely want to know the answer. That wasn't working, so I fell back to the default tactic of looking around the room, trying to find something to talk about. This was easier done when on a date in some fancy restaurant. Not so easy when you were just thrown in an experimental studio apartment … at your place of work.
I looked around. The interior decorators were really on their game when designing the place. Maybe I should talk about that. No, I didn't want her to think I was a Nancy boy. Songbird was playing on a loop on the audio system.
"So, you like Kenny G?" Crap, I sounded like a Nancy boy. It was too late; I had already blurted it out. Had to go with it. "I heard you humming to the music."
"I really like Kenny G," she said. "Well, I don't know too much about him or his music, but I really love Songbird. I first heard it on a Super Bowl commercial a long time ago."
I laughed. "Hit ‘em with the Kenny G."
She laughed, too. Thank God.
"Super Bowl Forty-Five," she said. "Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Greenbay Packers."
"You like football?" I asked.
"I do," she said.
That's why she's watching the game.
I looked to the TV. The Patriots were playing the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots were up by three touchdowns. It was second and one on Carolina's thirty five yard line.
You're winning twenty-one to zero. You got the initiative. Don't play to protect the lead. Cover one, eight men in the box. The defense is obviously expecting run. Go play action and throw it to end zone.
"What do you think the Patriots should do here?" I asked Mary. "Second and one."
"They should go play action and throw it to the end zone," she said.
The ball was snapped. The quarterback handed the ball to the tailback. No. It was a fake. The linebackers bit on the fake. The cover one safety read the quarterback's eyes like any good free safety. The quarterback turned his vision to his flanker, looking off the free safety like any good quarterback. The free safety committed to the flanker running a streak to his left. The quarterback turned his vision to his split end running a post route and threw the ball to the end zone. The wide receiver caught the ball wide open for six points.
"If you go up by a lot of points, you can't start coasting," Mary said. "You don't play to protect the lead, you put the game away."
I think I was falling in love.
We watched the rest of the game. Then the game that came on after that. And then Sportscenter. She understood everything about the game of football. She knew the rules, the players, the head coaches. The type of offenses each team ran: from west coast, to smash mouth.
I looked at the clock on the wall.
"I've been having so much fun, I forgot about break."
It was nice. To have so much fun at work you stopped counting the minutes to break time. But my stomach was starting to growl. I had to go a whole another two hours without eating.
Mary stood from the couch. Her hourglass figure was something else. She was a sight in her dress.
"I'll make you something."
"You don't have to do that," I said.
She smiled. "It's my job."
"Oh, yeah, we're suppose to be interacting for the cameras." I winked at her. She winked back, getting my joke.
"What would you like?" she asked.
"What can you whip up for me?"
"Anything you want."
I laughed. "You're really good at interacting. I like shrimp fried rice."
She went to the kitchen and scrummaged around in the fridge. She pulled out a bag of shrimp, a bag of rice, and a bag of frozen peas and carrots. She set these items on the kitchen island and turned on the stove, heating a skillet. She went to the cabinet and pulled out salt and sugar and dark soy sauce. She cracked an egg into a bowl and whisked it with a spoon.
Damn, I was just kidding.
Before I knew it, I was eating shrimp fried rice while watching ESPN. They say if you like your job, you'll never work one day in your life. But what if your job was just living life? What if you got paid to have fun?
"You know how long this case study will last?" I asked Mary.
She shrugged. "I don't know."
"It will last until we have enough data, LaDarius."
I nearly jumped up and spilled my plate. "Cliff, you need to install some kind of announcement chime."
"I'll get on it," he said.
How much data did they need? Would this assignment last a week or a month? I decided I might as well milk Rosebotics as much as I could; the company did that to us.
"Could we maybe get a PlayStation 5, Cliff?"
He mimicked an airport announcement chime and said, "I don't see why not."
"Can we get some books?"
He mimicked an airport announcement chime.
"You don't have to do that everytime," I said.
"What kind of books would you like?"
"I read New York Times bestsellers, Manbookers, and Pulitzers, both fiction and nonfiction."
"I'll have someone order you some."
This was the work/life. I could get used to it. I just knew I was going to be disappointed going back to my Racks when the study ended.
I finished my plate. Mary reached for it. I pulled it away, still chewing on a mouthful of rice. "I can put my own plate in the sink."
"I won't allow it," she said. She took the plate and sauntered towards the kitchen, switching her hips. She looked like Jlo from behind. That dress. The way she walked. The way she talked. Her demeanor. She was a lot of a class with a lot of ass.
I really can get used to this.
"While I'm over here would you like a drink?" she asked.
"I make really good martinis," she said.
And I thought she had me at shrimp fried rice. "Do you think we should drink on the job?"
Cliff mimicked an airport announcement chime. "You can drink if you want, just make sure to call a cab if you have too many."
"You heard the man. A martini it is," I said. "Stirred not shaken. Screw James Bond. When you shake a martini—"
"It gets a little frothy and watered down," Mary said.
I hadn't known her for one day, but she might have been the best coworker I ever had worked with. At that moment, I wanted her to be a bit more than that. But Rosebotics frowned upon office romance.
She sat down beside me on the sofa and handed me the cocktail. I took a sip. The best martini I ever had tasted. "You should have made you one."
"I don't drink."
A lot of ass and a lot of class.
I looked at the clock. It read 6:15 pm. I nearly cursed. I know time flies when you're having fun, but I didn't hear the end of shift horn sound at 4:00.
I gulped down the rest of my drink and stood. "I lost track of time. The shift's over."
"I did, too," she said.
"Why didn't Cliff tell us it was time to leave?"
An airport announcement chime sounded over the intercom, a real one, not Cliff playfully mimicking one. "Whenever you're in this room, you're on the clock."
"So, I got overtime for watching TV and drinking martinis?"
Now I really knew I was going to be disappointed when the case study ended.
"So, how long can we stay here?"
"As long as you like," Cliff said. "But you'll only get paid while you're interacting. Sleeping is off the clock."
"Can I go to my car and make a phone call?"
"No, you cannot. You can't leave to take breaks. You have everything you need inside the Apartment."
"That's what you guys are calling this place?" I asked.
It was tempting to stay, but I needed to talk to Melissa. My phone only had reception outside the factory. "I'll see you guys tomorrow. Do I need to clock out in my regular department?"
"You're clocked out when you leave this room."
I got up and walked to the door, scanned my thumb and punched in my employee number. I spun the wheel on the bulkhead, feeling like a submariner. I pulled the bulkhead door open and crossed the threshold. It shut behind me. The wheel spun, and the crossbar barricades slide back in place. It looked like Mary was going to take advantage of the overtime.
I went to my car and called Melissa; it went straight to voicemail. It really was over between us. I cranked my car up but then turned it off. I didn't feel like laying around my apartment drinking and feeling sorry for myself, so I decided to go back to the Apartment to drink and lay around and feel sorry for myself. At least I would get paid for it.
I returned back inside the plant. Danny from second shift told me I was going the wrong way; I told I him I was working a double. He just whistled and shook his head and told me to have fun with my Racks.
I punched in my employee's number, scanned my thumb, and spun the wheel on the door. To my surprise, it opened. Looks like I can come and go as I please. Mary wasn't in the living room. I figured she called it a day. I guessed it would be a bit odd, just sitting around being watched by the cameras. I opened up a bottle of looze and turned on the TV and tried to drown my sorrows with cheap alcohol. It worked. You can't be sorrowful when you're passed out.
I woke to the sound of breakfast cooking, something sizzling in a frying pan. The smell of bacon and sausage wafted from the kitchen to the living room, filling the Apartment.
"You're up," Mary said.
"Unfortunately." I sat up, my head throbbing. I was about to fight a losing battle with a hangover all day. "You're getting down, aren't you?"
She raised a brow and asked, "Getting down?"
"Yeah, the food smells good."
"I'm glad you think so." She made me a plate and set it on the table. "Would you like to eat?"
I didn't really have an appetite, but it would have been rude to say no after all her effort. She had really gone out of her way. Scrambled cheesy eggs, bacon, sausage, a bowl of grits with a dab of butter melting in the middle, pancakes, I didn't think I could eat it all. On top of that, the table was set as if we were eating at a fine restaurant.
I sat down and placed the napkin on my lap. She stood there, waiting for me to take a bite of her cooking. I did, and her labor tasted delicious.
"Why don't you sit?" I said. "Make yourself a plate. Where are my manners? You slaved over that stove to make this fine meal; the least I could do is make you a plate."
I stood to get a plate for her.
"That's okay," she said. "I'm not hungry."
She must have eaten before work while my sorry ass was piled up drunk on the couch. I suddenly felt ashamed. I didn't say anything; I just shoved a scoop of eggs in my mouth. "So what's on for today?"
"I don't know. I'd like to do whatever you want to do."
I hated when women said that. Women want a man that takes charge; I want a woman that tells me what she wants to do so I can do it the best I can. That's what I call "taking charge."
"Well, there's not too much to do here," I said.
The airport announcement chime sounded. "We got the PlayStation 5 you wanted and some books as well."
"What kind of books?" I asked. I bet they were some $2.99 paperbacks pulled out of a bin in some two-bit bookstore. I bet the bin was by the door, too. The first thing you saw when you came in, trying to nudge you to buy the garbage they wanted to get rid of.
"New York Times Bestselling, Manbooker and Pulitzer prize-winning," Cliff said over the intercom.
That was great and all, but would Mary be fine with that? Just sitting there reading … acting like we're reading. At least I know I wouldn't be. It would be awkward silence of the worst type: the type caused by a sexy elephant in the room.
"I don't think my coworker wants to sit around and play video games and read all day."
"Mary was just telling me this morning how much she likes gaming and reading," Cliff said.
I turned to her. She smiled. "It's true."
"What games and what books?" I asked.
"I like first-person shooters and junior RPGs. I like to read a wide variety of books, both genre and literary."
"Game on, Wayne!" I said.
"Your games and books will be here by nine o'clock," Cliff said.
It was fifteen minutes to nine.
I had never met a female gamer, not one who looked like Mary. Would I kick her sexy behind in a first-person shooter or an arcade fighting game? Or would I let her win or purpose? Oh, decisions, decisions.
The bulkhead door opened. In walked Cliff with a few workers behind him. They were dressed too nice to be Grunters—that's what we Quality Testers called ourselves at Rosebotics. They were wearing business suits instead of casual street clothes. I figured they were from the front office. They rolled in carts filled with books and brought in a PlayStation 5 gaming system.
"Just how long is this case study going to last?" I asked Cliff off to the side.
"Until enough data is collected," he said.
I still couldn't believe what was going on, but I wasn't going to argue. Free drinks, free food, free books, free games, getting paid to lounge around, it sounded too good to be true. I was going to make the most out of it because I knew good things never lasted too long, especially when they were too good to be reality. Felt like I was being blue pilled. And I ain't talking about Viagra.
But there were more pressing matters than trying to distinguish between reality and a lie. I was being my silly paranoid self anyways. "Is there a place to shower in here?"
"Yes, in the bedroom," Cliff said.
"I'll need to go home to get fresh clothes afterwards."
"That won't be necessary. I can get you a change of clothes from Quintard Mall," Cliff said. He looked at his Ipad. "You're five ten, one hundred eighty-two pounds."
"Yeah, I said."
"I'll get someone to buy you a few outfits. We'll keep them here in the Apartment."
Man, they were really going out of their way for me.
They set up the PlayStation, pushed the carts of books to the wall, and left as quickly as they had come. The first game to be played was Street Fighter. I wasn't going to take it easy on Mary just because she was a woman, that would be sexist. I chose Ryu; she chose Sagat. Cool, a rivalry fight right off the bat. The first round started; I had a smile on my face. Easy peasy.
It was beginner's luck. We fought the second round and I lost it, too, and pretty poorly; she finished me with a special move. I cracked my knuckles and told her I was warming up and let her win out gentlemen's etiquette. She beat me again and again. We played Mortal Kombat. She got flawless victories and performed fatalities on me. We played first-person shooters; she went stupid with a kill death ratio like none I've ever seen. I asked Cliff if I could make an account to play online. He said it would be fine. I wanted to see Mary play others.
She destroyed the opposition in Call of Duty, winning team games by her own initiative. Her kill death ratio was absolutely ridiculous. I put in Battlefield, a game where it was a bit tougher to win alone. She had some trouble.
"I don't understand," she said. "Why would you be a medic but not revive people? An engineer but not take out enemy armor? A support trooper who doesn't provide ammo to his comrades?"
"Welcome to online play," I said.
I found time to take a shower and change outfits. We played video games all day, well, she did. I just watched. It was entertaining to watch a woman as gorgeous as her kick ass online. We even played Halo. She was a bit confused why her teammates would not help her control the middle on symmetrical maps and why they conceded the power weapons. I told her because they were not as good as she was. They only played with their fingers, not with their brains.
Another day came to an end. I decided to stay again. Racking up on overtime was better than racking up on Racks. Mary decided to stay, too.
It was pretty late, 10:23 pm. "You get the bed and I get the couch?"
"We both can sleep in the bed," she said, a smile on her lips.
I nearly choked on my martini. She was somewhat fast if I was reading her body language right. "I'll sleep on the couch."
"Okay," she said. "If the couch is not comfortable, you know where the bed is."
It was so tempting. But I still wanted to make things right with Melissa. It had been my fault, working all the time. If a woman cheats she has a good reason. And here I was still working all the time. I hadn't been the best fiance I could be. I thought of calling her again, but my phone only worked outside the plant.
"Can I go to my car and make a phone call?" I asked to the ceiling. Cliff didn't reply. He had long gone home. "Good night, Mary."
I left the Apartment and went to the car to call Melissa. She didn't answer. I sighed. I thought about going home but didn't. I walked back towards the Apartment. Second shift workers looked at me as if I was a lamb walking to slaughter; I was still at Rosebotics when my shift had ended hours ago. I walked towards a fat paycheck. No, it wasn't that. I didn't know what it was. Maybe the fact I didn't want to go back to my cold apartment when a much warmer Apartment awaited.
I went through the procedure to unlock the door to my home away from home, feeling like a CIA agent with a top-secret clearance pass. Cliff was standing in the living room talking to Mary.
"I thought you had left, Clifford," I said.
"I was reviewing the performance of other Quality Testers," he said. " We Reviewers work longer and harder than you think. And don't call me Clifford."
I loved ticking guys off who didn't like their own names. Hell, I didn't like my own. No telling how many times a human resources coordinator threw my application in the trash because my mother felt the need to be creative when naming me.
"Mary's about to call it a night?" I asked.
"Yeah, she's staying, trying to make the most of that overtime pay. We were talking about getting more luxury items added to the Apartment, things she might enjoy."
"I had a lot of fun gaming with today, LaDarius," she said.
"I did, too. Can I crash on the couch again? I don't feel like going home."
"You can sleep with me," she said.
She was a sweet woman, but I was a bit old fashion. I wasn't going to sleep in the same bed with her. We just met. "The couch is good."
"Well, I must be going," Cliff said, looking at his Ipad. "You two kids behave."
I laughed. "Funny, Cliff."
He nudged Mary. "This guy gets it. Behave. Behavior."
She laughed, too. "I like LaDarius."
"I do, too," Cliff said. "Ms. Elizabeth, the bed is yours, go get some rest. You, too, LaDarius. There's another long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Cliff bid farewell and left. Mary retired to the bedroom. I took my place on the couch and watched TV until I fell asleep.
I awoke the next day to the sound of cooking again. This time Mary made French toast from scratch and country fried steak and ham and biscuits with white gravy. I asked her where she got the ingredients; she said it was one of the things her and Cliff talked about.
I thought I'd take a look at the reading selection Cliff and his colleagues were so nice to bring me. Pure gold. I picked up a random book and couldn't put it down. Mary did the same.
This went on for days. I drank; I read; I played video games; I got bored. I called Melissa every day but got no answer. Hell, it went straight to her voice mail most of the time giving me the message: it's over. So I thought about asking Mary out. She was something else. I knew I had no shot, but it wouldn't hurt to try.
We were sitting on the couch, watching a movie from the Redbox Cliff had ordered. He literally had ordered it. I jokingly had said to put a Redbox in the living room, and he did it. My mind wasn't on the movie; it was on the gorgeous woman beside me.
"Would you like to go out sometime?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Like to the movies or something?"
"But we're watching a movie here," she said.
Shot down, just like that. "I understand. I thought it might be fun to maybe go out to dinner sometime, see a horrible movie, stretch our legs instead of sitting around the Apartment."
"If you think it would be fun to do that, then it probably would be," she said. "I'm tired of the Apartment."
"So, it's settled. We'll go out, have some fun, eat at a nice restaurant, and go dancing or something. What would you like to do?"
The airport announcement chime sounded over the intercom. "You know Rosebotics frowns upon workplace romance, LaDarius."
I knew the policy. I had often thought Rosebotics frowned at workplace romance because all the employees on the floor were men. Only a handful of women worked in management. That's where Mary was headed after the case study. I had often wondered if our sister factory had the same policies, the Rosebotics’ plant in Georgia that tested male sexbots.
"It wouldn't be workplace romance because we would be off company property," I said.
"I'll have to see what Mr. Rosehall would think about it," Cliff said.
Damn, this went way up. All the way up. Taeshawn Rosehall owned Rosebotics. I didn't think Mr. Rosehall would have the authority to tell Mary and me what to do, but I still liked my job, no matter how backbreaking it got to be. I would go along with every decision he made. I didn't say anything; I just sat there waiting for Cliff's reply. It took a whole thirty minutes. Corporate bureaucracy.
The airport announcement chime sounded again. "Mr. Rosehall agrees. He frowns upon romantic relationships in the office place because they can create a hostile work environment, leading to charges of sexual harassment, but he believes he ultimately has no say over what you do on your own time."
"Great," I said. I looked to Mary with a smile. "Sounds like we're going on a date."
Excitement beamed in her eyes. "Can we go now?"
I never liked doing anything spontaneously on impulse, but she seemed enthusiastic about going on a date with me. I had never had such an effect on such a beautiful woman. I always planned out my dates days in advance, but for her, I was sure I could wing it.
"Sure," I said. "Let's just go and do whatever. It's 5:35. The night is still young. In fact, the night is still in adolescence." I cringed at what I said. Pretty lame.
"Then let's go," she said.
I loved it, a woman who didn't need two hours to get ready for a date. I offered my arm to her. She hooked her arm under mine. I think my heart skipped a beat. My hands started to sweat. Ten seconds of contact with her for the first time and my hands were turning clammy.
I led her out the door, making sure to close it behind me. I didn’t want to lose my job if something of value was stolen from the Apartment. All the Grunters watched us as I walked with Mary through the plant. A woman that turned heads, being escorted by me. It was really something else.
We walked to my car. I opened the door for her. She slid in, looking pretty fine in my Dodge Charger. I started the car and turn the ignition. We were off.
There was silence as we drove down the highway. A white van followed about three cars behind in the slow lane. It made the same turns I made.
I asked her again what she would like to do.
"Whatever you would like to do," she said.
"I want to do whatever you want to do," I replied. "I know women want a man that takes charge. I'm not really one of those guys. Just tell me what you like to do, and we can do it."
She looked out the window as I drove. There was a carnival in town. A Ferris wheel turned in the distance, a red and blue spiral swirling in the night sky. "I want to go there."
"Great, looks like awesomeness on flatbread with chipotle sauce," I said. I did a U-turn, and we went to the carnival. It really was fun on the bun. I won game after game while my date cheered me on. I won Mary a giant sized teddy bear.
She squeezed it against her breasts as we walked. She really wasn't that hard to please. "So, tell me more about yourself."
She ran her hand over the teddy's head. "There's not much to know really."
"We all have our stories to tell. I'm sure your story is fascinating."
"Not really. My story would probably bore you."
"There's nothing you could say that would bore me. You're beautiful and you're kind. I'm all ears whenever you're speaking."
She smiled and blushed. "Well, I was born in Wedowee. A little town about forty miles south of here."
"Really?" I asked. "I grew up in Roanoke. We were practically neighbors. You were the girl next door, at least I wished you were."
She stroked the teddy bear's head some more. "You really like me, don't you?"
"You got to ask?"
"I like you, too, LaDarius."
It was my turn to blush. I hated my name but loved hearing Mary say it. I heard my name again.
That voice. I didn't like hearing my name all of a sudden. I wonder if my name tasted sweet on Mary’s tongue. I knew it tasted bitter to Melissa.
I unhooked my arm from Mary's and turned around. "Melissa, what do you know? It's a small world."
She was holding hands with Donatello, fingers interlocked. You know it's a serious relationship when two people have their fingers interlocked. She had a thin smile on her face; it vanished when she saw my date.
"Who's your friend?"
"Her name's Mary. I know her from work," I said. I turned to my date. "This is my former fiancee."
Mary extended her hand. "I can't believe you cheated on LaDarius. He's such a nice guy."
Melissa did not take Mary's hand. "You been talking about our business, LaDarius? I never talk about you behind your back."
"We don't have any business between us because there is no us. Besides, it just kind of came up while we were working."
"Is that what work is called nowadays? Gossiping? And I thought you were testing the sex toys."
"I got assigned to a new project. If—"
Mary cut me off. "What's worst, gossiping or cheating on your fiance?"
My hands got a bit sweaty. I hated drama. I sure as hell hated confrontation.
"Who this bitch think she is?" Melissa asked.
"I'm LaDarius' girlfriend. I intend to treat him like he deserves to be treated."
This was a first. Two beautiful women baring their fangs and raising their claws
… over me. I didn't like it. Donatello and I just facepalmed and shook our heads.
"Well, Melissa, we got to be going. I got work tomorrow," Donatello said. Sounded like he had had enough of the exchange as I did. He gave me a nod and tugged Melissa along.
"She seemed nice," Mary said.
"Yeah, upon first impression," I replied. I took her hand and interlocked our fingers.
"What did you ever see in her?"
"Let's not talk about her and ruin a nice evening," I said.
"It was a perfect night until that happened."
A little girl walked by with her parents with a gloomy look on her face. Mary’s eyes lit up when she saw the child as if she had never seen a kid before. She asked the girl why she was sad.
"We're leaving and didn't win any prizes," the girl said; she looked to be five.
"Well, we won one just for you." Mary handed over the giant teddy bear to the girl. The thing was bigger than she was. She hugged it and smiled the most wonderful smile.
"That's mighty nice of you," the girl's father said. "What do you say, Andrea?"
The girl snuggled the teddy. "Thank you!"
"Just when I thought you couldn't get more beautiful," I told Mary.
Mary hugged me. It was so unexpected I blushed again. I wrapped my arms around her. Two guys were playing the high striker game. They were a bit overdressed, wearing nice business suits. I wondered why anyone would come to the carnival dressed like that, much less play such a game; their jackets might rip like Chris Faley in a little coat. They were going to split their suits, swinging the hammer like that. I didn't think too much more about it because my date was overdressed as well. One of the men took a quick glance at me.
"Would you like to go back to my place?" I whispered into her ear.
"I would love to," she said.
We left the carnival and drove back to my apartment. I swore the same van was following us. I had bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I didn't think I was manic, but I felt paranoid.
I unlocked my apartment door and invited Mary inside, hoping the place wasn't a mess. Thank God it wasn't. The last time I had come home to take a break from the Apartment, I cleaned up. Don't know why. I barely spent any time in the place anymore, and I didn't have friends over. I thought deep down, I always had intended to invite Mary to my apartment.
"You have a nice place," she said.
I knew she would say that, such a polite woman. My stomach growled. I should have stopped and gotten us something to eat. I was a bad date. I had been so thrilled she had said yes when I asked her if she wanted to come back to my place, I didn't stop by a restaurant. I had other things on my mind instead of food. I had a different type of hunger that took precedence over eating. I was a man like any other, I suppose.
She heard my stomach talking, "You hungry?"
"Sounds like a lot." She went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. "You don't have that much to eat in here."
My refrigerator was stocked with the bachelor B’s: beer, bologna, bacon, beef, and more beer. "Yeah, I cook for one, so I don't have anything fancy."
"I'll see if I can I whip something up."
I wasn't about to let my date cook for me. "That's not necessary. I'm the one that took you out tonight. I'll fry us something."
She wasn't having it. We went back and forth, arguing over who was going to do the cooking. She won the argument and a made me a bacon cheeseburger patty melt. It was the best patty melt I had ever eaten. She didn't join me. It was at that moment I realized she had an eating disorder. Was she anorexic? She looked a healthy weight. Did that mean she was bulimic? She never ate around me. I didn't want to ask her about it. Would that be rude? No, being direct without being a douchebag is always an option. I thought it would be too rude to ask her if she had an eating disorder, but if she needed help, she needed help.
I blurted the question out: “Do you have an eating disorder, like anorexia and/or bulimia?
“No, of course not,” she said.
“Why you never eat in front of me?”
“I’m embarassed to.”
“You don’t have to be embarassed around me, “I said. “I’m the one that should be embarassed, asking if you have an eating disorder.”
“It’s quite alright,” she said. “I cook and maintain a proper weight for you.”
That comment made me uncomfortable for some reason. I couldn’t my finger on it, but I felt a little unnerved.
When I got done eating, she asked could she take a tour of my place. I was apprehensive about it. There were some rooms I didn't want to her to see. I brought her back to my apartment so she could see my bedroom, not the guest room, but she insisted on a tour of my place.
"I don't show everyone this room," I said.
"Then I feel honored."
I opened the door to the guest bedroom. There was no bed or any furniture whatsoever. I had often joked to Melissa when she complained about the guest bedroom, I kept it that way because I don't want guests to come back. Melissa didn't find the joke amusing; she went shopping for furniture; I always returned it. I keep the guest bedroom a mess for a reason.
Sketchings littered the floor. Paintings covered every space on the wall. A pile of manuscripts sat on the desk in the middle of the room.
"A mess," I said. "I don't really feel the need to clean this room, you know?"
"I was going to say it's amazing," Mary said. "Did you draw and paint all of these?"
"Yeah, I did."
"You're creative." Her eyes went wide when she saw the piano. She gestured towards it. "May I?"
"Of course," I said.
When she sat down at the piano, I immediately hid the painting of her, sitting on the easel in the corner of the room. Thank God she hadn’t noticed it. I put her portrait in the closet while she had her back turned to me. Her fingers hit the keys. The piano sang for her.
"Chopin," I said.
"Nocturne in E-flat major Op 9. No 2."
"I love it."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because it's universal music. Everyone's heard its beauty. And you're the one playing it."
She blushed. I loved her for it. I rarely made beautiful women blush. She finished Chopin's work and played Beethoven's Fur Elise. I became mesmerized. I thought I could not fall more in love with her, but I was wrong. She was a thing of beauty, like the instrument she played.
She asked me did I know how to play the piano. I told her a little bit. She got up, smiled, and said she wanted to hear. I told her I had to warm up. I bent down and touched my toes, stretching my hamstrings. Then I pull my feet to my buttocks, stretching my quads. I interlocked my fingers and stretched towards the ceiling. Mary giggled. I sat at the piano and cracked my knuckles.
"Will you just play?" she asked through a snort.
My God, she even snorts when she laughs.
My fingers hit the keys; a musical masterpiece filled the room, one which took me many years to conquer. A piece so awe-inspiring it had the power to bring men to their knees. I played Chopsticks. She gave me a round of applause when I finished. I thought I've give her an encore. I played and sang My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay, composed by Bo Burnham. She cracked up.
"Maybe we should get one of these at the Apartment," I said.
"You think they'd do that?"
"They've been spoiling us so far. It wouldn't hurt to ask."
I got up and smiled. I hugged her and pressed her lips to mine without even thinking about it. It just happened.
She wrapped her arms around me, and we stood there in each other's warm embrace, kissing passionately. What started as a base hit ended up an inside the park home run. We found our way to my bedroom and tore off each other’s clothes.
It was the best love I ever had made.
She asked if I wanted a sandwich; I told her I was going to gain a lot of weight if we kept dating. I politely declined the sandwich and went outside to smoke. There was nothing like a cigarette after a good meal or great sex. A menthol Newport was the exclamation mark on a wonderful evening,
I leaned against the railing of the second balcony. I took a pull and exhaled smoke and notice something strange. A white van was paralleled parked down the street. I've never seen that van in my neighborhood before. I had lived there for three years. Not once had I seen that van parked on my block. I went into the house and checked my pupils in the mirror. The first time I went manic, my pupils were dancing around.
My pupils were normal. It had been years since I had taken Risperdal. The stuff gave me erectile dysfunction. You can't be a Grunter at Rosebotics with ED. I stopped taking Depakote because I didn't want to stop drinking.
I believed I was paranoid. Even still, I put on jogging clothes and told Mary I was going for a run. I grabbed a sticky notepad from my nightstand.
I jogged down the street past the van and doubled over like I was trying to catch my breath. The van’s license plate read 56MC666. I made a mental note and jogged further down the block, rounding the corner. I wrote down the license plate number on the sticky note.
I stopped counting the days. That's saying something. Everybody works towards the weekend, but every day was Saturday at the Apartment. Every night was Saturday night. Mary and I were officially dating. Our relationship was a serious one; we didn't have casual sex, we made love. Having intercourse in the Apartment felt odd at first because I felt we were being watched. This was a result of being a Quality Tester. Office workers hear phantom telephones when they get home from work, Quality Testers felt the phantom eyes of scientist voyeurs who called themselves Quality Reviewers. Even when Melissa and I had been together, I always felt like someone was watching us in the bedroom. I checked the Apartment's bedroom for cameras; there weren't any.
I got ready for another date, staring at myself in the wall mirror. The man looking back seemed to be happy for a change. I finished putting my clothes on: a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and a pair of Girbrauds with green and yellow straps across the thighs, matching my shirt and Air Jordans. Melissa would have told me to change, that nobody wore Girbrauds with the straps anymore. Mary didn't mind. Hell, I could have went out looking all afropunk. Mary didn't care how I dressed or how I spoke, in fact, that's what she liked about me. Finally, I had found a woman who liked me for me, not a woman who loved my looks but wanted to change everything else. I hated such women. Date a man not for who is, but for who they can mold him in to. Mary wasn't like that.
We went to the movies and saw an action flick. She loved every minute of it. I took her to a nice restaurant. She finally ate in front of me. She covered her mouth while she chewed. I thought it was cute. You know I thought it was cute because I was grown ass man saying the word “cute.”
We laughed and sipped wine and had a good time. That is until I looked out the window. A white van sat across the street, parked a few cars in front of mine.
"I'll be back," I told my date. "I left my wallet in the car."
I left the restaurant and walked past the van. The license plate read 56MC666. I was afraid of that. I opened my car door and searched around the glove compartment, acting like I was looking for my wallet. I returned inside the restaurant and told Mary we had to go. I threw down a fifty dollar bill on the table. I guess the waiter got a good tip.
"Why?" Mary asked. "I haven't finished my meal yet."
"I'll explain on the way back to work."
She saw the look of concern in my eyes. "Is something wrong?"
"We'll talk about it in the car." I extended my hand to her. She took it and stood. I interlocked her fingers with mine and led her to my Dodge Charger. I opened her door first like I always did, being careful not to look in the van's direction. I pulled off and headed back towards the Apartment. The van pulled off a few cars behind us.
"We're being followed," I told Mary.
"Followed by who?" She turned.
"Don't turn around," I said.
She looked forward.
I signaled and changed to the fast lane, putting the van on her side. "Look in the side view. There's a white van three cars back. You see it?"
She looked in the side view. "Yes, I see it."
"It's been following us everytime we leave the Apartment."
"Who do you think it is?"
"I don't know," I said, astonished Mary believed me without a second thought. Melissa would have told me to take my meds.
"Why would they be following us?"
"If they wanted to rob us, abdupt us, or anything else criminal they would have done it already. I think someone is stalking you."
"Yeah, I think your ex-boyfriend is pissed."
"Exboyfriend?" she asked. "You're the first boyfriend I ever had."
I took my eyes from the road for a second, thinking she was joking. Her face had a confused expression on it. Something wasn't right.
I didn't follow the usual route back to Rosebotics; I took detour after detour. The van followed. I pulled onto Industrial Park Drive. There were three major plants: Mohawk, Trintex, and Rosebotics. I drove past the carpet and rubber plant and turned into Rosebotics' Avenue. I showed security my ID. The gate rose; I drove in and slowed to a snail's pace, looking in my rearview. The van pulled up to the gate. The gate rose for it.
The bastards work here.
I pulled into my usual parking spot and helped Mary out of the car.
"Is something wrong?" she asked. "Are we in danger?"
"Na'll," I said. "My mind was playing tricks on me."
We walked through the plant. Everyone eyed us as we strode by. I used to take pleasure at them staring at us. Now I didn't know what to think.
When we got back to the Apartment, I collapsed on the couch before realizing I needed a drink. I didn't ask Mary to make it. I got up and poured myself a glass of brandy and drank it straight. She asked had I gotten enough to eat at the restaurant. I told her yes, although I didn't. I left my steak half eaten and didn't get to start on the baked potato.
"Let's go to bed," I said.
"At this time of day?"
"Let's close our date with one of your special happy endings." I grabbed a stool from the bar and took her by the hand and led her to the bedroom.
"What's with the stool?" she asked.
"A new game." I pointed to the bed. "Lie down."
She did as told. "LaDarius, is there something wrong? There's something in your voice."
"Take your panties off."
"I don't want to," she said. "Not like this. There's something wrong. That van followed us here."
I got in bed with her and straddled her body. "Take your panties off, or I'm going to do it for you."
"I don't want to."
I wrapped my hand around her throat. Nothing drummed there in her neck. "Commence intercourse."
"No," she whispered. "Are you going to kill me?"
I jumped off the bed in bipolar rage. "You can't kill something that's not alive!"
I grabbed the stool by the legs and smashed it into the wall mirror. The mirror shattered to pieces, revealing a poindexter-looking scientist holding an Ipad. His pants were bulging.
"Is that a smartphone in your pocket, Cliff, or are you just glad to see me bang an android?"
Cliff was inarticulate with surprise.
"She has no pulse," I said. "She's a robot."
"LaDarius, this wasn't my idea."
"You still decided to go along with it." I turned to Mary. "I'm sorry I scared you, sweetheart. But we're leaving."
She raised from the bed. "LaDarius, what's going on?"
"I'll explain it on the way to the car."
"You can't take company property," Cliff said.
"Watch me," I replied.
I grabbed Mary by her hand and scanned myself out of her prison. Security was waiting for me in the hallway. Two men dressed in all black with well built imposing frames stood in my path. I guessed Cliff had called them.
"Step aside," I said.
"You're stealing company property," one said. "We can't let you leave with it."
"It?" I asked.
Cliff stepped between the two guards. "Return to your room, Mary."
"She's coming with me."
One of the guards grabbed my hand and wrenched it from hers. I nearly started swinging on him. I was hot. Being bipolar, I didn't get angry, I got rageful.
I shouted an impressive string of cuss words at the guards, telling them to keep their hands off me. Words didn't stop them. One grabbed my arm and put me in a rear wrist lock. They shoved me down the hall. Mary called out to me from behind.
She shouted my name.
"Let me go," I said.
"We will if you calm down."
"If you don't let me go, I'll file an assault claim against you for excessive force. I tore my rotator cuff playing high school football. I can feel my shoulder separating. My shoulder better not be injured, or I’ll file a lawsuit. You two blockheads will lose your jobs."
That seemed to worry them a bit. The guard behind me let my wrist go. "We're still going to escort you off the premises."
"All right," I said. "I understand."
We walked through the plant. Trent was in the hallway of the Little Department.
He saw the guards and asked, "What's going on, LaDarius?"
"You remember that hot chick I was dating?” I said. “She's no chick."
At fifty pounds overweight, Trent struggled to keep up with the pace of my brisk walk. "What, you mean like a transexual?"
"No, she's all woman, and she's not a woman. She's a new model."
Trent cussed in excitement. "You talking about that hot ebony tail?"
"Yeah," I said.
"What they calling the new model?” he asked.
"Mary Elizabeth,” I said.
"This man is being escorted off the premises. Return to your workstation," one of the guards said.
Trent didn't argue. He turned around after saying he hoped he had a chance to test the new model. At the end of the hall, about forty yards away, an elevator opened. Managers from the fourth floor got off the elevator. I bolted for it. I ran a four-five in the forty yard dash in high school, and that was coming back from ACL reconstruction. It had been awhile, but I kept in shape. Fortunately, I kept in better shape than the guards. Knocking over the janitor's bucket helped as well. The guards busted their asses when they slipped on the detergent.
Some higher upper got on the elevator. The door started shutting.
"Hold that elevator!"
I ran into it and immediately started hitting the close door button. The door closed in the guards' faces.
"Thanks." I bent over, panting for air.
"Was I supposed to do that?" the guy asked.
"You did it for a good reason. My name's LaDarius Welch. I'm a Quality Tester. It's nice to meet you."
"Dalton Palmer. I work in engineering." He extended his hand. I gave him a fist bump because my hands were sweating profusely.
"Do you know about the new unit?" I asked. "Mary Elizabeth?"
"Yeah, I was part of the team that developed its skeleton. We call her ME."
"That's it? That's all you know?"
"Is there something else I should know?" he asked.
The elevator opened. "You'll know soon enough. The entire world will."
I power walked down the hallway to the conference room. Mr. Rosehall always met with the junior executives on Mondays. The conference room's front wall was clear glass. They all were sitting around the table having a good laugh, eating donuts, drinking coffee. I don't like being a killjoy, but I was about to tinkle on their parade.
"You gave a sex toy artificial intelligence!" I heard the disbelief in my own voice.
They all turned and looked at me.
The guards walked in behind me. They still hadn't caught their breaths. "Sorry, Mr. Rosehall. We were just escorting him off the premises."
"No need to apologize," Mr. Rosehall said. "I actually wanted to talk to Mr. Welch." He turned to the junior executives. "How about we take an hour for break? I would like to speak to my employee in private."
The room cleared; they all stared at me as they passed. "Why don't you take a selfie with me and post it on Facebook? It'll last longer," I said.
"There's no need for that, Mr. Welch," Taeshawn Rosehall said. "Would you like a drink?"
"I think I would. Do you know what you have done? I haven't even had a chance to think about the ramifications this will have on human relationships."
He went to a mini fridge in the corner and pulled out a bottle of milk. "I know you prefer alcohol, but I don't drink myself. I saw what it did to my adoptive father."
Taeshawn's father had been a typical politician: a hypocrite. It had been five years since Senator Paul Rosehall had fled the country with his mistress and their love child. His wife, Lisa Rosehall, ended up winning his seat in a special election. The entire affair was pretty bizarre. I wondered if that's why Taeshawn was such a douche. He seemed like a guy who would fap then shake your hand without washing … on purpose.
He twisted off the cap and handed me the bottle. A glass of milk would be refreshing after my forty yard dash. I turned the bottle up then spat milk on the conference table.
"What the hell is that!?!" I asked.
He grabbed himself a bottle from the fridge and opened it. "That's Cambodian breast milk you just wasted. It’s hard to come by these days.”
"You keep a mini refrigerator full of Cambodian breast milk?"
He took his seat at the conference desk. "I suppose that's why people call me eccentric.”
“That stuff’s been banned. I’ll go to the media and tell the world Taeshawn Rosehall is importing illegal goods.”
“That’s my girlfriend’s breastmilk,” he said. I gagged. “Now, what can I do for you?"
"Mary," I said. "She's a sex toy, and you gave her artificial intelligence."
"It," he said.
"It. Not her. It, Mr. Welch."
"Mary Elizabeth isn't a thing. She isn't an it if she has intelligence, cognition, consciousness, self-awareness. She is a being."
"Its name is not Mary Elizabeth. Its name is Number ME Two. Manufactured Erotics Two. Not Three, not Four, not Five. Manufactured Erotics Two. That's how many tries it took me to perfect the unit."
"You can't do this, Mr. Rosehall. You can't put that unit on the market."
"And why not? Think about it, Mr. Welch. A sex doll that looks and feels like the real thing. A sex doll that'll do whatever you ask it to in bed and then make you a sandwich without complaining. It'll wash your clothes, cook you dinner, be waiting for you to walk through the door after a long day of hard work with a martini in its hand."
He took a sip of breast milk. “We’re performing the same experiment at my plant in Georgia. You know, the one that tests male androids. Think about it. A middle aged divorced white woman who fantasizes about being with a handsome young black man with a body like the Rock Dwayne Johnson can make her dreams reality by purchasing my unit. Eye candy that holds her hand in the mall. Holds her bags while she’s shopping. Listen to her nonsense prattling and gossiping and whining about her female coworkers with all ears.”
“Will that work?” I asked. “Would women fill comfortable having to pay for a partner? Would they feel comfortable with their friends asking, Is your man real? It’d be like toilet paper.”
He raised a brow. “I know you think outside the box. It’s your personality. But how in the hell is my units like toilet paper?”
“Men really won’t give a damn about being seen around town with a sexbot that looks like Mary, I don’t think. Hell, the product might be a status symbol like a fancy iPhone or a swanky car. Men will show Mary off like a Ferrari. But women might care. I can see the meme now: Is your man real? The guys who invented toilet paper couldn’t get people to buy it because they were ashamed to be seen purchasing it. So, they put the product in hotels, let travelers try it out.”
Why the hell I was helping this prick; I didn’t know. Helping was in my nature, I guess. This whole matter was tragically fascinating.
He leaned back in his chair and looked to the ceiling. “Hmm. Some female customers might be ashamed purchasing the units. Like toilet paper. Put it hotel rooms. Legal prostitution. The units aren’t human beings, so we can get around prostitution laws. You can rent a unit out, have it come to a hotel room confidentially.”
I cussed under my breath and shook my head. Now he was talking about being a CEO pimp. "You can't. With the intelligence the unit has, it's not just an object anymore. It's—"
"JD Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Taeshawn Rosehall. You're asking me to give that up because of what? Because of your romantic ideals?"
"Romantic ideals? Since when is doing the right thing been considered a romantic ideal?"
"Since billions of dollars became involved."
There was no reasoning with this man. Nothing I could say would change his mind. "I can't believe the last ten weeks of my love life has been an experiment."
"At least it wasn't ten years. You act as if you were psychologically tortured, Mr. Welch. You were pampered. Free food, free alcohol, free entertainment, free room and board, free sex."
"We never had sex."
He reached in his jacket and pulled out an iPhone. At least I thought it was a phone. He pressed a button on the device. A sixteen-inch monitor was projected in the air in front of Mr. Rosehall's face.
"Hardlight personal computer, no tower with AI assistant, fits in your pocket," he said. He stared at me through the monitor. "You should see the look on your face."
"Why not just sell that? You'll make billions. Sell Mary, too, without the AI." I shook my head again remembering the experience. "It felt real."
"That's the whole point, Mr. Welch, to make the vagina feel like the real thing. To make it feel better than the real thing."
"No, not that. I mean her skin and hair. Everything about her felt real. What is she made of?"
"It … is made of state of the art chemical and bio-engineering called confidential corporate secret."
He swiped the hardlight monitor and went through file after file. "I can't find it. Lisa, find the file named Sex Tape One."
The hardlight screen shifted itself, like a smartphone being swiped by an invisible hand.
“Stop,” I said. The screen kept shifting. “Stop.”
“The AI responds only to the owner of the hardlight computer,” Tashawn Rosehall said. “Stop for Mr. Welch.
The command was heard. “What do you wish now, Taeshawn?”
Taeshawn looked at me, his facial expression giving me the go ahead while he answered the AI question. “Lisa, you’re approved to talk to Mr. Welch. He’s the young man opposite of me at the table.”
“Of course, Taeshawn. Mr. Welch, what would you like me to do?” the AI asked.
“I want to open the video on the screen,” I said.
The AI obliged and opened the video; it was me asking Mary does she have an eating disorder. “You saw all of that.”
Mr. Rosehall nodded. “That’s why we put an artificial stomach in her and programmed her to eat, to keep us the charade as long as possible to get scientific data.
“So you had her eat at the restaurant to throw me off.”
“Precisely,” he said. “Lisa, find the video labled Sex Tape One.”
The computer screen shifted itself again. "I have found the file. Do you wish for me to open it, Taeshawn?"
It was a bit unnerving; the AI had the same name as his adoptive mother. I had seen them together at a company picnic once. There seem to be something between them. I had a sixth sense about people. He didn't look at her like she was his adoptive mother, and she didn't look at him like he was her adoptive son. They looked at each other the way Mary looked at me.
The file opened on the monitor. It was a video … of me. It was my home. My guest room. I was playing the piano. The camera shifted from me to around the room, panning across my drawings and paintings.
"ISFJ," Mr. Rosehall said, "creative introvert with a messy room. Big Five: seventy-ninth percentile in openness, eightieth percentile in conscientiousness, twenty-ninth percentile in extraversion, ninety secondth percentile in agreeableness, and you scored in the tenth percentile in neuroticism. Pretty laid back guy. According to the scores, there was extra feedback: You learn new things quickly and easily."
I didn't care too much about Mr. Rosehall knowing my Myer-Briggs and Big Five personality scores; my main concern was what was displayed on the monitor floating in the air. I was being filmed through Mary’s point of view.
"This is a violation of my privacy," I said.
"You consented to it."
"The hell I did!"
"You signed the consent form Clifford gave you," Mr. Rosehall said. "Lisa, skip to the good part. To the intercourse."
The film skipped scenes like a DVD then stopped. I couldn't believe it. Mr. Rosehall had been watching us with his state of the art tech. O brave new world that has such doucebags in it.
"I thought you said you two didn't have sex."
"We made love," I said. "We didn't have sex."
"I don't think it's funny. You filmed me without my permission behind closed doors. That's a crime in this state."
"I have the best lawyers in this country, Mr. Welch. You consented to it as being a part of the job."
"That'll never fly in court."
"You signed a waiver stating you would not file a lawsuit. You’d basically be a porn star suing the studio for being filmed doing the dirty on the job."
I cursed at myself. I really had to start reading stuff before I signed it. I could have ended up being a human centipede. I quoted Jim Kelly from Enter the Dragon. "Man … you come right out of a comic book."
He laughed. "I'm just a businessman, a robotic engineer. But you know what? I'm the best robotic engineer in the United States, and when I stay at my villa in France I'm the best robotic engineer in Europe. No one has given an android this level of AI. No one has given an android a true personality."
I realized why Mary and I hit it off so well. "You gave her the same Myer-Briggs and Big Five as me."
"Precisely. You took the Big Five and the Myer-Briggs when you applied here. They were part of the application. We use the Myer-Briggs to help assemble management teams. Since you applied for management, you were given the inventories."
"The Myer-Briggs is outdated and psychologists think it’s faulty. There are better tools out there. You should look into the High Potential Trait Inventory." I had no idea why I was helping Mr. Rosehall; it was akin to giving the Devil pointers on how to be more wicked.
"That's what I like about you, Mr. Welch. You're agile and adaptive. I can use a manager like you. Hell, I could use a junior executive like you. You just got a promotion. That's why I had Lisa close the elevator door."
I was baffled. "Huh?"
"I saw you running from the guards on camera.” He pointed to flat screen TVs in the corners of the ceiling. “I figured you were heading my way, so I had the elevator door shut in the guard's face."
"I hit the close door button," I said.
"Those things are a sham," Mr. Rosehall said. "I had Lisa shut it. I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to give you a promotion."
"I quit," I said.
"You'll do no such thing."
"You can't stop me from walking out."
"Along with your promotion, your salary will be raised to sixty thousand a year."
"You're turning down the promotion?"
“She said ‘no.'"
It was his turn to look baffled and say, "Huh?"
"Mary said ‘no.' She's not a toy. You gave her intelligence. She’s not a doll any longer. She plays video games like—"
“Yeah, we gave her the same interests as you: football, reading, video games, etcetera. People who have things in common tend to do better in long term relationships, so we gave her crystalized intelligence in areas you are knowlegable in.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” I said. “She beats Final Fantasy bosses without a guide, without Youtube. She had problems with team based online games like Battlefield at first. Now she commands her teamates. Literally. She plays in commander mode. She hasn’t lost one game in weeks. She’s taking the crystalized intelligence you gave her and is using it to exercise fluid intelligence. Hell, I can teach her how chess pieces move, and in two weeks she’ll be beating Magnus Carlsen devoid of any knowledge of opening, middle, or endgame theory.”
He took a sip of his breast milk. “And that’s a problem because?”
“She said no. What if the unit learns not to love the customer?” I ran my hand through my hair. Man, I hadn’t had the time to think of the full scope of the situation. “Hell, what if its abused by the customer? Psychologically? The Apartment is a prison. You should have seen Mary’s eyes when it was approved for us to go outside.”
He stroked his chin, lost in thought for a brief moment. "It said no?”
“I'll have to program that out. We can't very well have the products refusing to do their job, now can we?"
Did he not hear a word I had said? "I can't work here any longer. This is unethical. This is sex slavery."
He went up on his offer. "Seventy thousand a year, Mr. Welch. You want to put that business degree of yours to use, don't you? I want you to be my operations manager, but Raymond Gregory might object to that. I'll find a reason to fire him. How does making a hundred thousand a year sound, running Rosebotics' business operations?"
I said nothing.
"It's settled then. Take the rest of the week off. I'll show you to your new office next Monday."
I enjoyed my new position. The money was great. Six thousand dollars a month was more than enough to live on in Alabama. When I became operations manager, I was going to be ballin, making eight thousand a month. Melissa heard about my promotion through a mutual friend who happened to work at the plant. Things didn't work out between her and Donnie, turned out he was married. She wanted to get back together. I told her I was spoken for.
I pulled my Porche up to the security gate and showed the guard my employee's badge.
"You're here awfully late, Mr. Welch," the guard said.
"I forgot some important documents in my office. Working on a big project, and the deadline's coming up. I'll be in and out."
The guard raised the gate for me. I drove in and parked in my reserved spot. It was nice, seeing my name on the sign. You know you were someone when a parking spot had your name on it.
I sent Trent a text message, saying I was entering the building. I passed the elevator leading up to my office and walked through department after department. Everyone stared. I was a made man now, dressed in an authentic Lisa Rosehall business suit, carrying a luxury briefcase.
I sent Trent another text:
The submarine bulkhead door opened. Trent walked out, like he was ready to leave for the night. "LaDarius, what are you doing here?"
"I came to see Mary."
"I was told you were not allowed in the Apartment anymore."
I slugged Trent in the face. Hard. He hit the floor. "I'm taking Mary, and no one will stand in my way."
Trent winked at me. "Whatever, man, just don't hurt me."
I went to the bedroom and turned the light on.
Mary was sitting on the bed in the dark. "Not tonight. I know they're making you do this. But not tonight."
I turned the light on. "You'll never have to do anything against your will again."
"LaDarius!" Her eyes went wide, and she jumped up off the bed. She ran to me and threw her arms around me.
"We're leaving." I opened the briefcase. "Put these on."
She got dressed in the clothes I brought her: sneakers, a pair of jeans, an Auburn T-shirt, and a hat to pull down over her face. We walked through the plant. I explained each department to her as if she was a new hire taking a tour of the place.
When we got to my car, I opened the trunk. "You have to hide in here, so the guard at the gate won't see you."
She got in and lay down. I started to shut the trunk but stopped when she said wait.
"I love you."
"I love you, too," I said. I shut the trunk and got in the car and turned the ignition. I pulled off, not believing what I was I doing. I stopped at the gate, my heart pounding. "Got everything I need."
"Okay, Mr. Welch, you have a good night," the guard said.
The gate opened. I drove towards Mary’s freedom. When I pulled off Industrial Park Drive onto the main highway, I pulled over. I opened the trunk and extended my hand to the lady, helping her out.
She hugged me again. "How did you pull this off?"
"I had some help."
I wasn't allowed back into the Apartment. The code was changed, so I could not open Mary’s prison door. I didn’t think Mr. Rosehall trusted me with company property; looked like he had good reason. I had Trent put in his suggestion about Sunshyne Monrobot as well as a few more ideas to the company's president himself. Unbeknownst to Mr. Rosehall, they were all my ideas. Trent was chosen as my replacement in the case study. My co-conspirator. Following my wishes, Trent convinced Mr. Rosehall not to wipe Mary’s memory and change her personality. He said it would be an interesting experiment to see if the unit had become romantically attached to me. I had Trent purpose the question to Mr. Rosehall: What if there were two type of units? Sexdroids and companions. What if some customers wanted more than just a sex toy house bot? What if some customers wanted an actual relationship? He told Mr. Rosehall Mary’s attachment to me should be scientifically investigated. Had the android really fallen for me? Did it love me? And if so could this love be dissolved? How long would it take for this established behavior to become extinct? Could it learn to forget me and love Trent? These were the questions I had my spy whisper into Mr. Rosehall's ear, and the ego fapper never suspected a thing, too busy seeing dollar signs.
I opened the car door for her. "I know you have the same personality as me, so you're very shy, but I have to tell the world about this. I have to tell the entire world about you."
She smiled and nodded and got in the car.
We drove off into the night, ME and me.
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