He was an impulse purchase, like chocolate or gum, except he weighed 180 pounds and stood six feet tall. Sheila would buy anything that was propped up near the register. Plus, he was handsome. Dark hair and eyes, the kind of jaw real men so seldom had outside the movies, and perfectly groomed eyebrows. He wore a black suit and a bowler hat. He might have been wearing eyeliner. He was perfect. So, along with the Barbie for her niece’s birthday and a box of AA batteries, Sheila purchased the Simon. With the help of the checkout boy, she took him out of his box in the parking lot and sat him in the front seat, then drove home using the carpool lane.
She had to register him online. The website asked, Would you like to rename him? She clicked No. It said Simon on the box, and she’d already gotten used to it. There were probably better names out there, but Simon seemed fine.
He came with a velvet bag full of tokens with a paper slip inside. The slip informed her that to operate Simon, all she had to do was insert a token into the slot at the base of his neck. Each token provided thirty minutes of active time. Up to three tokens could be inserted at any given time, up to an hour and a half of activity. Then Simon had to cool down, rest at least twice as long as he had been active. His circuitry was prone to overheating, the slip explained. The tokens were a preventative measure. To retrieve the tokens, simply open the access panel on Simon’s chest and remove the silver box. Be sure to return the box to the access panel before attempting to operate Simon.
On the website, users complained about the tokens. An hour and a half wasn’t enough time, they said, though they never expanded on this. It was cute, they said, but wasn’t it a little too much work? To which the company replied, the tokens were part of the Simon aesthetic. Users could always buy different, more advanced, more expensive models. What about the Philip? Or the Byron? Or the Jake?
But those models weren’t as charming, Sheila thought. The Simon model featured a chest display, where the user could watch a set of brass gears and wires “operate” the unit. This was, according to the paperwork, purely for display. Other models had other such features. Allen featured glow-in-the-dark circuitry. Walter had a simulated heart, complete with heat and sound.
Sheila’s coworker, Edith, had a Walter. She had renamed him Cyrus but when she recommended him, she said, you should really get a Walter. Why get your heart broken when you could get a Walter?
But Sheila didn’t want a Walter. More importantly, she didn’t need a Walter. That was what her therapist said, anyway, and she was inclined to agree. It might seem like an easy way out, but would come with its own problems. Like artificial sweetener. But she couldn’t exactly say that to Edith.
Walter was the most realistic model. There hadn’t been any Walters for sale where Sheila bought Simon. She hadn’t seen any other models at all; it had been like Simon was waiting specifically for her, and who could say no to that? Plenty of women must have passed him by, snickering at his hat or ignoring him completely. He didn’t cry, “Look at me!” the way some models did with their smarmy expressions and false suntans. Simon simply stood there—patiently, Sheila thought. Of all the models she’d seen, he was the strangest, the least likely to be sitting next to you on a cross-town bus. For a moment she forgot the voice of her therapist, forgot her vow to meet new people—real people—and brought Simon home.
“Hello,” she said, once he was booted up and she had slipped in her first token. “My name is Sheila.”
He smiled shyly. “Hello Sheila.” His voice was soft, not robotic at all. She took his hand, and that was soft, too.
“May I?” she asked as she unbuttoned his shirt. She could have done this while he was powered down, but that felt wrong somehow.
He smiled and bowed his head.
The seams of the chest panel were subtly done, and the skin felt almost real, though too smooth and cool to truly trick her. He had no chest hair and just a suggestion of nipples, which slid out of sight when she opened the display. She watched the cogs and wheels for a moment, then leaned in closer to hear their clicking. They were guarded by a plastic panel, so if she wanted him to, he could walk around like that all day. Or up to an hour and a half.
She moved away from him and he looked at her, unblinking. She supposed he didn’t need to blink. She looked in the manual. Blinking was optional.
She asked if he would like to come to the bedroom and he smiled and bowed his head. He followed her down the hallway—his balance and locomotion were incredible—and she sat him down on the bed. For the next twenty-seven minutes, he watched her try on outfits, telling her how lovely she looked in each one.
“I got a Walter,” Sheila said the next morning at work, poking her head into Edith’s cubicle. She’d debated whether she should tell her or not. She hadn’t bought Simon because of Edith’s nagging, but Edith would think she had. Edith would never understand what it was to see a man in a bowler hat standing by the register and decide for no reason at all that you had to take him home. “I mean, I got a Simon.”
Edith swiveled her chair and clapped her hands. “It’s about time, honey. Which one’s the Simon?”
Sheila showed her on the computer.
Edith laughed. “Nice hat.”
“I think it’s charming.”
“Does he take it off?”
Sheila’s cheeks began to burn. She should have expected Edith to ask that. “I like his hat,” she said.
Edith showed her how to program him for certain tasks and phrases. He came with the basics; he swept and vacuumed, said you look beautiful. You could purchase a singing voice, complete with operas or pop songs. You could buy a ballroom dance package or tae kwon do. He could be waterproofed for bath time. Sheila wasn’t sure she wanted any of these things. She wasn’t prepared for the extra expense.
“At least program some phrases,” Edith said. Speech patterns, within certain limits, did not cost extra. There were fees for phrases like “I love you.” There was a profanity package, which was tempting, but Sheila didn’t want to buy that with Edith watching. She typed in your smile cracks me up and chose the softest laughter available.
“Make him blink,” she said, and Edith clicked a button. They downloaded everything to a USB drive, which Sheila tucked into her purse.
At home, Simon awaited her in the green easy chair. She had set him up that way, so he would be the first thing she saw when she walked in. She’d ordered dinner before leaving work, so it would be delivered soon after she got home.
“Hello, Simon,” she said, settling into his lap. The USB port was under his left arm, which meant she had to unbutton his shirt and balance his arm on her neck to get to it. She waited for the indicator light to turn green, then removed the drive. She slipped a token into his neck. When his eyes opened he smiled shyly again. She wrapped his arms around her and he seemed to understand.
“How was your day?” he asked. His eyes were a little robotic when they blinked, so she didn’t look straight into them. She looked at his hat, played with the buttons on his shirt, but didn’t close it. She wondered if the gears and rotors were still working inside his chest, or if they only turned on when someone opened the panel, like a refrigerator light.
She laughed at the thought of it.
“Your smile cracks me up,” he said, and laughed softly. It sounded better coming from him than it had from the computer speakers. She touched her forehead to his neck and wondered if she would feel a pulse, even a computerized one. But Simon didn’t come with that feature.
The doorbell rang and she rushed to answer it. She hoped Simon would be far enough from the door that the delivery boy wouldn’t see he wasn’t human.
It was a delivery girl. She handed over the bag of food, more boxes than Sheila could eat by herself, but she liked leftovers. The girl noticed Simon immediately, leaned past Sheila to get a better look at him.
“Oh my god I want one of those,” the girl said. “I’m saving up, actually. I’ve got my eye on a Simon, too. Don’t tell my boyfriend.” The girl laughed nervously, her shoulders rising toward her ears.
Sheila wondered if she should have renamed him.
“Would you?” The girl hesitated. “Would you mind if I touched him? Just to see?”
Sheila called for Simon to come over. He smiled shyly (she was beginning to wonder if he could smile any other way) and rose from the chair. The girl gawked as he walked toward her, his gait perfectly human except for a certain stiffness through the spine.
The girl took Simon’s hand and she petted his fingers, marveling at the synthetic skin. Soon she was all the way inside the apartment, and Sheila shut the door behind her. She asked if she had to sign anything, if there were other orders in the car, getting cold.
The girl said it was the end of her shift anyway. She looked at Simon and Simon smiled shyly. “I’ve never seen the, um…” The girl gulped. “The anatomy.” She offered to buy Sheila’s dinner if she would let her see it.
Sheila’s cheeks began to burn. She hadn’t seen the anatomy, either, but she hadn’t expected to take her first look alongside a delivery girl, with boxes of dinner getting cold.
“I guess,” Sheila said. The girl reached tentatively toward Simon’s pants and Sheila nodded her consent. The girl moved slowly and Simon watched her, his head cocked to one side like a puppy’s.
“I am registered to Sheila,” he said.
Sheila laughed. She wondered if he would blush, if he would guard himself. She wondered if you could program humiliation. “It’s okay, Simon.”
“Your smile cracks me up,” he said, and smiled shyly.
The girl pulled his pants down to his knees, then stepped back as if he might explode. Sheila watched his face as she did so, but his expression didn’t change. He didn’t move to hide himself, though he wasn’t wearing any underwear. Sheila looked at him, then looked at the girl looking. Like everything else about Simon, it was very nearly human, but smoother. She wondered if his hair was the same plastic as a Barbie’s. She wondered what it would take to break the skin.
“Wow,” the girl said.
“Simon,” Sheila said. He might have been calm but she could feel her throat burning. She still wasn’t certain which commands he knew and which he didn’t, but she figured she would try. “Please pull up your pants.”
He lifted his trousers back to his waist and stood there, holding them.
“Button and zip them, too.”
Once the girl had gone, Sheila realized she’d been holding her breath. She hadn’t felt this way in months, this boiling inside her, and she’d thought it had really gone away. She brought the food to the kitchen and took a butter knife from the drawer.
“How did that feel, Simon?” Her face burned but she kept her voice calm.
Simon blinked. “You look beautiful,” he said.
He went to the green armchair and sat. She sat in his lap, rolled up his sleeve. The butter knife made a small indentation in his arm, but the skin didn’t color or break. Simon blinked.
“Did you see what I did?” she asked.
“Take the knife.”
She offered her arm. “Do what I did.”
He dragged the knife across his own arm, producing another indentation parallel to the one she had made. She moved his hand and the knife toward her, guided the blade across her skin, which reddened under the pressure.
She tried to empty her head of thoughts, thoughts she should have forgotten by now. She tried to imagine a drain, like her therapist taught her, sucking everything that bothered her away, but there was too much. There was Edith’s laugh and Simon’s smile and the delivery girl’s eyes moving back and forth. There was the neighbor cooking something pungent and the kitchen clock ticking like a bomb.
There was more.
There was the first boy she’d really kissed, at least the first with whom she’d enjoyed the experience. She’d been almost twenty. He took her to his apartment where his roommates played video games in the living room, so drunk or high that their heads wobbled on their necks as if they would come unfastened. He’d had Simon’s coloring, sort of, but without the hat or the makeup, and his ribs showed through his shirt.
They kissed on the sleeping bag he used for a bed for at least half hour before he said in a low voice, “I’m going to have to attack you.”
She thought for a moment he meant that literally—that there would be scratching, kicking violence—and in all honesty, it excited her. She imagined punching him in the throat and clawing his face, escaping through the living room with his roommates’ glazed eyes on her, having to find her own way home in the dark, but he just pushed his hand under the hem of her skirt and she absentmindedly shooed it away. She’d been doing that all night without thinking.
She had worn tights, which would leave marks in her waistline, which was too large and soft to reveal to anyone. She’d have to excuse herself to the bathroom and flush the tissues she’d stuffed into her bra. Had he already touched her chest and felt them there? She couldn’t remember. He would make fun of her. He loved to make fun of her—when she fixed her hair after he’d mussed it, when she was too shy to kiss him in public—even if he meant it softly. He would say something about the birthmark on her breast or the flesh of her thighs and she would be reminded how wrong it was for her to be there, in a scene reserved for those more charming and beautiful than she.
He looked at her sideways for a moment, one eyebrow cocked, then pushed his hand up her skirt again. She grabbed his wrist, digging her nails in until they left welts along the blue lines of his veins. He didn’t cry out or struggle, but smiled, as he always smiled, as if everything were a game. He bit her shoulder, lightly, but enough to pinch. She smacked him. He pushed her. It wasn’t long before her bra stuffing lay strewn all over the floor.
He didn’t make fun of her then. She left while he was sleeping. The next week, his girlfriend flew in from the Midwest and stayed for a few days, which turned into a few weeks, which turned into Sheila never seeing him again.
“Sheila,” Simon said. He still had the knife in his hand. She thought she heard fear in his voice.
“For another thirty minutes, please insert another token.”
She went to the kitchen for her dinner and let him power down in the easy chair. She imagined the delivery girl at home with her boyfriend, comparing Simon’s anatomy to the real thing, or calling her girlfriends and laughing about the crazy woman who let her grope her robot, who ordered food for six when it was obviously one human and one android for dinner. Sheila’s stomach cramped. She ate a few bites and then took a bottle of vinegar from the cupboard, doused the rest of her meal until it was inedible.
“Simon,” she called, though she knew he wasn’t awake. She found the little velvet bag, dropped two tokens into his neck, and went to the computer while he booted up. She searched the website, but there weren’t any programs for what she wanted. Apparently, there were rules, the first of which stated that a robot may not injure a human being. Not even a little. Not a butter-knife nick or a cigarette burn or an intentional pull of the hair. She bought the phrase “I hate you” and a package described as brooding that looked close enough to anger. She stuck the USB drive under his arm and waited for the green light.
She’d put thousands of nail marks into men’s wrists since that first time, but nothing else had happened the same way again. She’d been slapped a couple times, out of genuine anger, and once her grip made a man cry. She’d nearly throttled that one just for the hell of it, without any hope of taking things further. She couldn’t remember when she stopped accepting dates, stopped perusing personal ads and checking for that boy’s name on the internet. It wasn’t for her, that was all. She didn’t even know what it was supposed to look like.
When Simon’s eyes opened, his face was still for a moment before reconfiguring. The eyebrows pulled together and the lips pursed slightly. There was a mechanical noise, and the shade of his eyes darkened.
“What’s wrong?” she said. She knelt in front of him and touched his cheek. His hands stayed on the arms of the chair.
“I hate you,” he said. He stood without warning and walked past her. She got in his way so he would knock her down. “I want to be alone.”
Sheila imagined Edith at home with her Walter, getting a foot massage and some dirty talk, then coming to work and telling Sheila everything her Walter did, every word he said, no matter how intimate, no matter how much it made Sheila want to slap her.
Simon stood in the corner, his arms crossed in front of him. He looked angry enough. She crossed the room and lifted his chin, then slapped him across the face. She wanted a handprint to rise there, hot and pink, but none did. She slapped him again, so hard her palm buzzed.
“I hate you,” he said.
She pushed him and he fell against the wall. She knocked his legs out from under him and he toppled to the floor.
She imagined the delivery girl at home with her boyfriend, curled up on the couch with a horror movie, the girl nestling further into his side with each scary scene. She imagined Edith brushing her Walter’s hair, sitting with him in a bubble bath (she’d had him waterproofed), sleeping next to his inert body at night.
Simon started to get up, but Sheila pushed him down again. The neighbors would probably call soon and ask her to keep it down, but she didn’t care. She put her hands around Simon’s neck and squeezed as hard as she could, pressing his artificial flesh into the steel of his frame, feeling wires and sharp edges where the muscles should be. She knew her fingers would bruise before his neck would, and that he would never fight back.
“I hate you, too,” she said.
LAURA ENDER earned her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. Her stories have appeared in One Teen Story, Indiana Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a young adult novel. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband and toddler son.