A Gift Unwanted
“Hi there! Welcome to The Lakeshore Inn, how are you doing tonight?”
My waiter greeting, give or take a few words to keep things fresh. Friendly, comfortably informal, minimalist and to the point, answer however you like. Overly chipper customer service personnel give me the creeps, so I keep my delivery man to man if that’s who’s going to pay, or personal without being presumptuous for the card carrying lady. Anything in between and I’ll play it by ear. The Lakeshore Inn is as upscale as it gets for my neck of the woods, which is to say expensive without being discriminating. It’s formal enough that I have to iron my shirt before a shift, but it’s casual enough that if I’m serving a family I might throw a ‘folks’ in between ‘you’ and ‘doing’.
So why am I giving you the rundown on my summer waiting job? If you’re taking the time to read this, you already know who I am and how this story ends. But I can’t start there and work backwards. If I’m going to tell this story I need to tell it right. Honestly, there were more than a few places that would make sense for a beginning, but one night in particular stands out.
It was the last hour or so of my shift that Saturday. It’s not a great night to work at The Inn, especially during the summer. Friday night fish-fry draws a bigger crowd, and Sunday brunch generates the big bills. Factor in all the people that stay home to grill out in the nice weather, and you’re not left with too many seated customers. I’m not saying it was dead. I’d had probably five or six tables in the past three hours, but we’d never hit a real dinner rush. I was working the lower dining room with the closer. It’s the smallest room, but it has the best view of the docks where some of the more ostentatious customers moor their boats. They’re also, remarkably, the worst tippers. It’s a pretty room, if you’re really interested in the layout you can look it up on the website.
I was punching a dessert order or something into the terminal when I saw Alyx, the hostess, heading for me from across the room. It was around the time of night where I was expecting to be cut and sent home. Understand then my surprise when she told me that I had been requested by a customer. That’s not entirely uncommon, but The Inn is expensive enough that we didn’t see too many regulars, even less so, regulars who bother to remember your name. Unless I’d made a recent impression on someone, this meant one of two things. Either it was Barb and Phil, an older couple that had taken to me for my charm and my willingness to compensate for Barb’s gluten allergy, or it was Ms. Lenhart. As it turned out, it wasn’t Barb and Phil.
She came down the steps into the dining room, The Inn’s owner Sylvia leading her by the arm. As a server, you dread one-tops. Almost the same amount of time and effort as serving a double, but half the tip. This time however, I was more than happy to make an exception.
Ms. Lisa Lenhart had been my high school math teacher. I’d had her for algebra and pre-calculus, and even though I’d been unable to have her for calculus I’d still attended the afterschool study groups she ran. She’d been an assistant coach for the boys swim team, and the summer following my first year of college we’d volunteered together with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. I’m not sure we were quite friends at that point, but I knew her pretty well. She was, as my grandfather would have said, a handsome woman. The least vulgar way I can think of to describe her would be remarkably full-figured. She was pretty too, beautiful really. Soft features, full pouty lips, large brown eyes, and chiseled nose which was at odds with her otherwise stereotypically German features. She’d broken it badly at Habitat the summer before; I was the one that drove her to the hospital. It looked good after surgery. If you hadn’t known what it looked like before you’d have no idea she’d ever broken it. Despite her being in her early forties, I’d always had a crush on her. Something which had occupied my mind heavily during math class in high school, and something I was conscious to ignore now.
Sylvia sat my newest customer at a window seat and left. Laying open her menu, Lisa flashed me a smile from across the room. When I was sure Sylvia had gone, I gave Ms. Lenhart the most formal mock bow I could muster. This made her pout momentarily, but the smile won out before she returned to her menu.
I had slice of cheesecake to prepare for another table and a bill that needed to be closed, but in general, greeting and getting a drink order for a newly sat customer jumps everything else in priority. Snagging a glass of ice water from a passing busser, I made my way over to Ms. Lenhart’s table.
“Hi there! Welcome to The Lakeshore Inn, how are you doing tonight?”
She cocked her head at that, her warm smile becoming wry,” I’m doing fine Jack. Don’t read me the specials please. I know what I’m getting.”
“The usual then Ms. Lenhart?” I asked with undue ceremony.
“Jackson,” she spoke slowly, a hint of threat in her voice,” It’s Lisa. My name is Lisa.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s Ms. Lenhart.”
“Hm,” she took a sip of her water,” Well, I’d like you to call me Lisa.”
“I don’t know, that seems pretty unprofessional.” I drawled with exaggerated uncertainty.
She beckoned me closer. I leaned in,” Jack, do I have bring that nice lady that sat me back here to have a word with you about the customer always being right?”
“Ohhh,” I hissed,” but she’s not really a nice lady.”
“Ohhh,” she mimicked,” I figured as much. She seemed very surprised that someone would want to be waited on by you. If you’re already in a spot of trouble at work, I’d hate to have to complain.”
I narrowed my eyes,” You wouldn’t. You were my teacher Ms. Lenhart. My teacher! It’s your job to help me succeed in life.” I scolded,” How did you know I’d be here anyways?” She raised her eyebrows at this,” I haven’t been your teacher for three years Jack. Don’t overestimate my dedication.” Then she added, her tone more serious,” And I didn’t know whether you were back for the summer, or even if you’d be back at all. I figured I’d see if you were.”
“Well here I am, ready to see if I can get Miss Lisa Lenhart something to drink.” I pulled out my pad,” Iced tea or decaf coffee for my favorite instructor?”
“Jack…” Lisa’s eyes were closed, her hand over one side of her face. She looked tired suddenly, really profoundly tired,” Please, just… I know you’re doing your thing, and I appreciate that. It’s been… I’d just like you to treat me like another human being and not your teacher right now.”
It was taken aback by this. Our interaction had always been playful, my measured impertinence to her patient doting. It had never occurred to me that she might want me, of all people, to start treating her like an equal.
“You want something to drink Lisa?”
“Yeah, get me a beer.”
I hid my surprise,” What kind?”
Lisa shrugged, “I don’t know. I don’t drink beer. What do you think I would like? Something sweeter, easy to drink?”
“Uh, well we’ve got a honey-weiss on tap. If you’re looking for something sweet-sweet, the house white-zin is decent.”
She nodded thoughfully, and after a moment’s pause,” Why don’t you bring me one of both? You want anything Jack?”
At the time, this floored me. I remember my mouth going on autopilot as my brain tried to process what had just been said to me. ” I’m working.” I said flatly.
The corners of her mouth twitched,” Well how about after you’re done?”
I’d recovered enough to nod and give her a smile,” Sure, that’d be nice.”
I don’t remember anything else notable happening for the rest of my shift. Lisa had her usual: salmon filet with a side of the polenta. I closed out my remaining tables, and kept Lisa’s wineglass refilled. In a place like The Inn, a one-top attracts attention. A one-top with a middle-aged woman that’s drinking heavily is gift-wrapped judgmental assumption. Several of my coworkers made unkind comments. The bartender Roy, the only other man working the floor that night and my at-work buddy, pulled me aside when I went up to get Lisa’s next glass,” That drunk coug’s been eyeballin’ you all night. She’s gonna want to take you home at the end of your shift Jacky boy.”
“I don’t think it’s like that man. She used to be my teacher.”
He barked a laugh at this, the bar being deserted enough for him to be vulgar,“ Goddamnit Jack. That’s even better! You know she was in here like two nights ago asking about you.”
“Yeah, wanted to know if you were back from school and when you’d be working. Sat down at that very table and ate that very same meal. Didn’t drink as much though.” He leered at me, grinning widely.
I think I told him something to the effect of ‘You wish.’ In reality I wished, but I was also uncertain how to proceed. She was an older woman, and being flirtatious was well outside the context of our relationship. I had to remind myself that the notion she was into me at all could just be wishful thinking. The invitation to buy me a drink wasn’t necessarily a come on
That proved to be a wise attitude. I’m sorry to say that despite what might seem like a buildup, the night ended in something of an anti-climax. I closed Lisa’s bill, she tipped me far too much against my insistence, and then after clocking out I drove her as far away from the prying eyes of my coworkers as I could. We had a few drinks at a generically soulless sports bar and then I offered to drive her home.
She invited me in, at which point I was certain we would have sex, but nothing happened. She made a pot of tea and we had a conversation in her sitting room. The house was for sale. I discovered she had been laid off from her job at the highschool, and was leaving town. Probing a little further, I found out her mother had died unexpectedly the previous February. Lisa had through inheritance become the landlord of her mother’s townhouse and several other rental properties in Madison, my college town.
She would be moving into her mother’s townhouse. Earlier that same day she’d been forced to evict the couple living downstairs for being six months delinquent on rent. It came up that I was still looking for a place to live, and that’s how I came to live downstairs from Lisa.
Looking back on that night now, knowing everything that would happen, knowing everything that Lisa would do, I still can’t honestly see it in her then. If you’re reading this, you know how my story ends. Please, believe me when I tell you there was nothing sinister . She was at point I think, above all else, very much alone. Lisa was in a very bad place and needed a friend. For some reason she chose me.
Sometimes I wish she hadn’t.
I saw a lot of Lisa that summer. She came into the restaurant at least once a week on nights where I was working, and I made an effort to give myself time to catch up with her. We worked on two or three Habitat builds together, but I wouldn’t say we ever hung out again like that first night. The next and last time I would visit Lisa’s house in Port Wright would be to help her move. I was the only person that showed up. It was at that point that I first realized how much her social situation had decayed since losing her job. She never talked about other friends, and I would later find out that her mother had been the last family member she kept any contact with.
It’s easy to bemoan my lack of wisdom in retrospect. I tell myself I was a much younger then. I didn’t have the lessons I have now. I was completely enthralled by Lisa. Though I would not have been able to admit it to myself at the time, I cherished the exclusivity of my friendship with this beautiful, fascinating woman. That blinded me.
Come August we moved in together. Ostensibly our relationship was landlord and tenant, but the Madison townhouse was not well-designed for sharing. My rental agreement gave me most of the downstairs. Other than a bedroom and bathroom, the entire area was open floor space roughly demarcated into a den, dining area, and the house’s original kitchen. Lisa had the upstairs which was four bedrooms and the master bath. The excess rooms had been reorganized into an office space, a sitting room, and a woefully inadequate kitchen/dining room. We shared the basement, a lightless cave useful for storage, and an entryway. It wasn’t a great place, but I did have a lot of space and the rent Lisa asked for made me feel like I was cheating her.
For the first week or so we were very conscious of each other’s territory, but that broke down almost immediately. The upstairs kitchen was useless and the ceiling of the ad-hoc shower in my bathroom was so low I could barely stand up. She started asking if she could use my kitchen, and that turned into us having meals together. Since she would already be downstairs and we’d be socializing, it was only natural that my den became a common area. For all intents and purposes we became roommates. Had it been anyone else been living upstairs I probably wouldn’t have tolerated it, but because it was Lisa I couldn’t have been happier.
I’d spent the last year living alone, and I’d not realized how much that solitude had worn on me. My courses were in computer science and electrical engineering. Hard classes, long hours, and a constant march towards deadlines and exams. Some people hate unavoidable social interaction in their home. I didn’t. Even on days we saw little of each other, I was always very grateful for someone to talk about my day with.
Were we friends at that point? Yes, I think so. Close friends even. I was still completely infatuated with her, and I don’t think that tension was entirely one-directional. I was young, I take good care of myself, and without being too arrogant, and I’m not unsuccessful with women. In retrospect I’m certain she knew I had a crush on her. What kept things from moving forward? There are some women Lisa’s age who would have viewed a handsome young lover as conquest. Lisa would have viewed it as a failing. Maybe even as an imposition on me. She was never forthcoming about her love life, but I knew there wasn’t much to tell. At the time this puzzled me. How could such an incredible woman have difficulty finding suitors? My eyes were too close to the ground, I didn’t realize how much she had isolated herself from the world. She was frequently out of the house, but that was for business. She was under a lot of stress trying to reign in and manage her mother’s rental business.
I should have seen it coming.
I remember the last night vividly. She’d come home in tears that afternoon. I don’t think it was anything specific, just Lisa reaching another breaking point of stress and sadness. I ordered Indian carryout, her favorite. She barely touched it. After dinner, I stayed on the couch to pick at a coding assignment; Lisa went up to take a shower.
Normally when Lisa was having a day like this she’d go to bed early, but that night she wanted company. She came down the stairs shivering. It was December and our central heat had been failing intermittently. I’m not easily bothered by the cold, but Lisa was always freezing. Her hair was still wet, badly dried; her clothes were nothing more than grey sweats and a red tee. There’s no bra, I can see her nipples through the shirt. If you’ve seen the media stock photos of her, and I mean any of them, they don’t do her justice. Her figure is stunning, pure hourglass. I had to remind myself not to gawk.
“Hey.” I called out over my shoulder.
I gave the couch cushion next to me an emphatic slap. She sat down next to me, much closer than I’d intended. Hauling a quilt over her legs, she handed me a corner indicating we should share. I took it, and she snuggled up until we were touching. I’d hugged Lisa plenty of times, we’d shared a lot of high fives, and she kissed me on the cheek on my birthday. This was something new.
“You smell nice.” I remarked.
She snorted rudely. Picking a lock of hair off her shoulder she sniffed it,” I think it’s my shampoo. You smell nice too, I like your cologne.”
“I don’t wear cologne, I think that’s just deodorant.”
Drawing the blanket up to her chest with her elbows, she covered her face and let out a long sigh.
“No.” she sighed,” not especially.”
“Just not doin’ so good?”
“Just not doing so good.”
Neither of us spoke for a few minutes after that. She asked me a few polite questions about the program I was writing, and I explained it as best I could. We lapsed into silence again.
“Lisa…” I paused, “It’s going to get better. Things will slow down eventually. You’ll get the hang of it. Winter isn’t going to last forever. You know, seasonal affective disorder is a real thing. If you’ve been feeling upset ” I didn’t want to say depressed,” lack of sunlight and the fact that it doesn’t really matter if we leave the milk out anymore could be contributing. You know that right?”
Lisa put her head on my shoulder, “I’m forty-three Jack. I haven’t had a steady relationship in ten years. I’m never going to get married, I’m never going to have children, I don’t have a career anymore, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life running a struggling business that I increasingly dislike. My purpose in this world has become managing upkeep of two dozen houses that are all rented to sorority girls.” And even if I did have money, even if I had all the freedom in the world, I don’t know what I’d do with it. There’s no place I want to travel, there’s no crap I wanna buy, there’s nothing I want to do.”
“You can’t think like that! There are things you want to do, you’re just not in the mood. Wright Property Management can go fuck itself. You don’t want to helm that ship anymore, I’ll help you get it in a position to sell and I’ll help you sell it. It’s not like you can’t teach again, tomorrow we could…”
“Shhhh…” she put her hand on my cheek, making me look at her. She kissed my cheek, softly the first time, then more aggressively, almost on the mouth, trying to get my attention,” Jack, stop. Stop talking. You’re twenty-one. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. I don’t so much. It’s not as easy for me to be optimistic.”
“Yeah, but you can’t just give up.”
It was so male of me. I was thinking like an engineer. I wanted to look at her problems rationally. Try to find solutions. It didn’t occur to me that they weren’t the issue. Lisa didn’t need dating advice or help with her business, she needed to be happy. She needed to know she was loved.
I should have told her.
I should have asked her if she was having dark thoughts. I should have asked her if she was going to hurt herself. I should have told her what that would do to me. I should have told her I loved her or kissed her or did any other fucking thing than what I did. I'd thought I had more time.
I put my arm around her and we cuddled together for maybe another twenty minutes, watching some documentary about bees that was on TV. Then she got up to go to bed.
“I’ll be fine.”
“I just need to get some sleep.” She paused at the door to the staircase,” Thanks for listening Jack, you’re sweet.”
I was handed her death certificate six days later by a lawyer her company kept on retainer. It was time stamped 47 hours after our last conversation by a doctor and clinic that were located in Zurich. The cause of death was listed as suicide in block capitol letters with no further qualifications or explanations given. I didn’t believe it at first. I didn’t even know she’d been in Europe. She’d mentioned leaving town for some vague reason, and had sent me a final text telling me she was going to be gone the first night she didn’t come home. The lawyer didn’t know any details. Despite spending five hours on the phone I was unable to get a hold of anyone in Switzerland that could tell me more information. I was read her will and surprised at the magnitude of the bequeathing she had left me. A small portion of her assets had gone to charity, several thousand dollars were left as college money to a niece I had never heard of, everything else went to me. I almost failed school that semester. It was finals week, but there were so many other little things that needed to be done. Bank accounts that couldn’t wait to be transferred, insurance accounts that couldn’t wait to be cancelled, seeing if I could coordinate some memorial service with the any friends or family despite having no idea what had happened with her body, and of course trying to figure out what to do with the property I now owned. It wasn’t until a week after the fact that I even started to truly mourn. I hadn’t had the time.
Lisa was suddenly and bizarrely gone forever, while I faced the monumental task of getting my ducks in a row over the month afforded to me for winter break. A memorial was held in my home town, a few teachers and several students from the school showed up to pay their respects. I gave a terrible eulogy that probably begged more than a few questions about the nature of our relationship to the mourners. After a few hundred phone calls I was able to put her multitude of accounts in order. I even hired a lady to manage the office and properties.
I was thankful for the work. Four weeks of time alone with my thoughts would have been too much to handle. It was in January, on the first day of class for the spring semester that it happened. Checking my phone after class I saw seventeen missed calls. All were from the same number made at precise five-minute intervals from a cell with an area code I didn’t recognize.
The walk home from the computer science building takes fifteen minutes. I tried calling the number back several times, but each time cut to a generic voicemail. When I arrived, I could immediately tell someone had been in my home. We’d had a light snowfall the night before, but though I’d not had the time, the porch, steps, and walk had all be shoveled and salted. Workshop traction mats had been cut to size and nailed down to each of the steps and the porch. I was surprised to find the door still locked. Objectively, walking right into my house was stupid, but to this day I still shiver to think of what would have happened had I called the police.
It didn’t look like a break-in, however my den had been completely reorganized. The coffee table and one of the couches was in the kitchen and the other had been backed up to block the door to my room. In the now open space were three neatly stacked piles of boxes, several large aluminum and plastic briefcases, and a huge metallic crate that was considerably larger than a refrigerator.
I called out, no one answered.
There was just too much stuff to look through. Several shrink-wrapped binders and packets were laid out over the boxes, but there was no clear indication on where to start. Lacking any better ideas, I examined the large container first. The siding was geometrically dimpled aluminum, the edges lined with matte black plastic. Heavy plastic handles were bolted to several points along the top and sides, and the opening seam was three quarters of the thickness from the back. Five steel buckles held the door shut, each with a keyhole in their center. A small key was chained to one of the side handles.
I decided I wanted it horizontal so that whatever was inside wouldn’t tumble out. A pair of wheels was implanted in the back bottom edge, so I moved it to an open enough piece of floor and tipped it back. I wasn’t ready for the weight. I almost threw out my back setting it on the carpet. My leatherman freed the key, and I set about unlocking each buckle and popping it open.
There was no obvious place to grab the door, so I slid my fingernails into the seam and wiggled it open wide enough to get purchase. The door itself was surprisingly light. Getting to my feet, I swung it open to see what was inside.
It was Lisa.
Author's note (now that you've read it): Again I know the pacing is kind of slow, but these are the stories I like to write. I have this outlined pretty far, and I can guarantee some robot fucking the upcoming installment. This was written in a few hours and save spellcheck is almost entirely unedited. I may go back and clean things up later, I may not, but if there's anything really egregious let me know. I hope you liked it.
Post posting author's note: I'm kind of anticipating this conversation so I'll get it out of the way.
DEAR READER: "But Captain Storytime, you said this would be a transformation story and it's looking an aaawful lot like built."
ME:" I know what I said, I know where this is going, I ain't fibbin no one, it's all coming down the pipe, be patient."
It’s difficult for me to describe my exact thought process at that point. Not because I don’t remember, I recall everything that happened over the next few hours with a great deal of clarity. Rather, the exact thought process is a little difficult for me to relate. It might be simplest to say that my brain jammed. A dozen or more independent trains of thought were racing around my head, all trying to explain what I was looking at.
I stood up.
I walked a lap around the kitchen, pulled a chair up to the now-open box, sat down, and swore again.
The body lay face up, recessed into a block of beige memory foam. She was dressed in a white cotton tank top and matching pair of athletic bottoms. Any place where the skin might directly contact the foam was loosely sheathed in a single layer of clear plastic, with the exception of her face which was exposed. It was Lisa, there was no doubt about that. She looked peaceful. Eyes and mouth closed, lips still pouting slightly. Though it went against my intuition, I watched very carefully to see if she was breathing. She wasn’t. Her skin was colored, her cheeks slightly flushed, like she’d stepped outside for a moment. She didn’t look dead, but then she didn’t look like she was asleep either.
I reminded myself that it was premature to think of the body in front of me as ‘her’. It looked like Lisa, exactly like her, but that didn’t mean it was. I was hesitant to touch anything more than I already had. I got up and looked around. I picked up a few of the technical manuals, most of which seemed to be related to some specific piece of as yet unopened equipment. I couldn’t focus on anything for long though, and in a few moments I was back in my chair beside the open box.
“Well, it’s not a robot, because that’s a stupid idea.” I spoke aloud to myself.
Understand, this was about six months before the Falun Gong videos were leaked. Almost four years before Jahn Napier was arrested for what he did to Marshall, Illinois. As an engineering student I was generally aware of technologies on the horizon, but this was obviously way beyond anyone’s ken at the time. The only thing I was armed with was my enthusiasm for science fiction and an active imagination. In light of that, it might seem odd that my first instinct ended up being so close. The only thing I can say is that given the state of my living room at the time it’d made a kind of sense. Those words said to an empty room were my attempt to force myself into considering something more plausible. So what did I consider plausible?
The best I could come up with was that it was either Lisa’s dead body or some kind of mannequin, and both of these went against my gut, but I forced myself to consider each one. If it was Lisa’s corpse I had to know, and then mystery or not, I’d have to call the authorities.
Pushing the chair aside, I knelt down and got a close look at her body. She was definitely not breathing, but then what if she was and I couldn’t see? What if she was alive in some kind of metabolic depression? That didn’t really make any more sense, but I still had to check.
Plastic sheeting was wrapped around her head and neck like a babushka. Finding an edge, I pulled it off as gently as I could. It came away without too much trouble, turning the head slightly to one side. I could see now that her long hair had been bound at several points with elastic ties, and was draped across her chest. It was when I saw the hair that I first started to get nervous. Not the braid, but the fine downy hairs down the back of her neck. That was too fine of detail for a doll. I realized I would have to touch her next, and my fear was split between the realizations that might bring and the prospect of her suddenly coming to life and shouting ‘boo’.
I gave myself a few seconds to work up the courage, and felt for a pulse. I’d felt a dead body before. Lifeguarding at the Y, I’d once had to attempt first aid on an older woman who’d collapsed in a changing stall. The skin on Lisa’s neck didn’t feel the same, it wasn’t freezing. It wasn’t dead. At the same time she wasn’t warm either, not enough to convince me she was alive. I felt around, her skin was warmer than the air in the room, but still cooler than my hand. There was no pulse. My hand was shaking badly, so I kept going back to try again, but after a few minutes I finally gave up.
At that point I was stumped. Lisa, and I found that I couldn’t think of the body in front of me as anything else, wasn’t alive. Even though I hadn’t expected much, I was suddenly deeply disappointed. There’d been flare of hope that was now crushed.
At this point I was also convinced she wasn’t a mannequin or doll or anything else unnatural. She just felt too real. I knew you could buy super-realistic sex dolls and that there was a lot Jim Hensen could do with silicon rubber, but this was clearly beyond either. She felt real. I slid a hand up Lisa’s top and felt her stomach. It gave a little when pushed. I slid my hand further up to her sternum, respectfully avoiding her breasts, in order to feel for stitches left from an autopsy. There was nothing there, just soft skin.
The dead body theory also seemed less and less likely. If Lisa’s death certificate could be trusted, she’d died over a month ago. I was no expert on human decomposition, but I knew she couldn’t be so pristine. Something should smell, either decay or embalming chemicals. As it was, she smelled… nice.
There was a small blue cornflower tucked into the hair above her ear. I have no idea how I missed it the first time. It was almost completely wilted, but I recognized the breed from a flower pot she’d kept on the kitchen table. I’d had to throw them out after it had gotten too cold in the apartment. I plucked it from her hair, rolling it between my fingers.
“You took this with you. Does that mean you knew you were coming back? Is this for me? Is it supposed to mean something?”
Of course, Lisa didn’t answer.
I figured if I did want an answer I’d have to explore the rest of the junk in my living room more thoroughly. There were a few small compartments cut into the foam down by Lisa’s feet, covered with hard plastic flaps. Flipping the lids, I emptied their contents onto the carpet in front of me. I ended up with a pile of coiled cables of various gages, a cardboard box filled with adaptors, and an identical trio of what looked to be smart phones wrapped in bubble paper.
I freed one and tried getting it to turn on. It didn’t look like any brand I recognized, and there were no logos anywhere on it. Other than a charging port and what seemed to be the battery hatch, there was nothing that could be manipulated save the screen. I poked at that for a while without much success, I even tried loudly telling it to turn on. My first success in provoking a reaction came when I wiped the flat of my thumb vertically down the screen, trying to find a hidden lockbar like there was on my iPhone. The entire screen turned bright white, and the words ‘STAND BY’ in tiny black arial script began to flash in the center of the display. Nothing else happened. I stared at it for about three minutes, got bored, and gently tossed it onto the foam.
Despite the box containing Lisa being the most interesting thing in the room, I knew I would have to look at everything else to find answers. My plan was to collect every manual, book, and piece of paper that hadn’t been in the den this morning, put them in a pile and see if any of them were obvious starting points. After that, I’d systematically go through every box and case in the hopes that something inside would serve to enlighten me.
This plan became irrelevant when I turned around and saw that Lisa was sitting up.
I made an unflattering noise that was somewhat similar to being punched in the stomach. I then blasphemed,” JESUS CHRIST!” not quite at the top of my lungs.
Her back was at a perfect ninety degree angle to her legs, a posture completely unsupported by her arms, her hands resting on her thighs. Her eyes were open. Despite a strand of hair that had freed itself from the braid and now lay across her face, her gaze was lazily focused at some point on the wall directly in front of her.
I’d reflexively backed away from her and into the kitchen, where I held to the doorframe in an effort to retain my balance. I’d been in car accidents, I’d done a sky-diving tour, and I’d been in a few fistfights at that point in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything before or since that matched my adrenaline response just then. I won’t even bother trying to describe the physical sensations, there are strong, heavy, painful-sounding words I could use to try and describe what my heart was doing at that moment. But if you haven’t felt something like that, I can’t really describe it to you. Immediate singing physical panic, there, I tried.
Every system in my body had instantaneously red-lined at the same time, all because I’d turned around to see her sitting up. It was unpleasant. However, the sensations began to ramp down almost immediately after they peaked, and I was left staring at her from the kitchen somehow in need of catching my breath.
And then she spoke, “Express activation successful. All critical systems nominal.” It was Lisa’s voice, at least in pitch and tone, but the cadence was wrong, the words too enunciated. ”Warning: not all Unit functionalities are currently enabled. Unit is unable to provide further information regarding this warning. Advise contact with unit administrator for more information. Unit will now proceed with on-activation diagnostic protocol. Priority override: Unit is to initialize Unit Transfer Protocol on activation. Initializing Unit Transfer Protocol. Stand by.”
The robot theory now seemed less absurd.
“Lisa?” I wheezed, still clutching my chest.
Her response came before I’d completed the syllable,” Stand by.”
I called her name several more times, tried starting a conversation, but each attempt at speech was cut off by an identical request for me to stand by.
So I did. I stood rooted to my spot in the door frame and waited for what felt like at least an hour, but in retrospect I can tell you with authority that from the point she first spoke, I’d waited exactly fifteen minutes.
“The support team cannot be located. Stepping to exception case ‘E’. The transfer protocol will continue.
“This unit is unable to locate the support team. The transfer protocol will continue.”
“What does that mean?” I paused and answered part of my own question,” Okay. I’m going to guess the support team is who left all this stuff here, but the transfer protocol? Lisa, is this even you?”
“This unit is unable to locate the support team. The transfer protocol will continue.”
“Uh, okay. I guess do that, then.” I pushed off from the door frame and cautiously stepped within a few feet of Lisa’s box,” Is there anything you need me to do?” I ventured hesitantly.
“The transfer protocol will continue. Please do not move. An attempt to move will result in Unit intervention.”
That sounded vaguely threatening,”Ok. Sure, won’t move.” I gave serious thought about running to the front door, but at this point my curiosity was too strong to do anything but see this through. I didn’t know how literally I was supposed to interpret Lisa’s instruction, so I stood rigidly still, trying to breathe as little as possible.
For the first time since sitting, Lisa moved. She turned her head from one side to the other. Lisa then pulled her knees into her chest, and rolled forward onto her feet, standing up perfectly straight, all without her arms ever leaving her side. On the uneven footing of the memory foam, she executed a flawless quarter -turn, before neatly stepping out of the box and onto the carpet. Then she just stood for a few moments. Drawn up to her full height, arms back, chest out. Lisa had always been a voluptuous woman, but now she was something else entirely. Her ass, hips, and waist had been re-proportioned so as to be almost doll-like, and what had been healthy double-D’s were now considerably further along in the alphabet. The breasts should have looked ridiculous, but they didn’t. They didn’t at all. Despite being almost the size of her head they weren’t absurd cartoonish balloons stapled to a porn-star’s chest. They looked soft and real, and hung naturally with all the height and firmness of an athletic sixteen year old’s. Her nipples were soft, but still ever so slightly visible through the thin fabric.
I took a small moment to marvel at my capacity for lecherous thoughts at what couldn’t be a less appropriate time. Then I remembered I should still be very afraid. This dissonance burst forth in the form of a nervous giggle.
Lisa seemed to respond to the noise. She executed another turn most of the Queen’s Guards would kill for, and faced me. She then broke me from my ridiculous immobility by grabbing shoulder, not at all gently, and maneuvering me to face her. I looked into her eyes for the first time.
I wouldn’t describe her impression as impassive. That’s a media word, the first piece of vocabulary any melodramatic journalist jumps on to build imagery in describing them. To a point I understand why that’d be the first thing to come to mind, but that’s just not what they look like. Impassivity connotes boredom or disinterest. That’s not what it is. You can see intensity their eyes, and I noticed it the first time I got a good look at Lisa. She was the opposite of impassive, her face was completely expressionless, aloof, and taciturn even, but I knew something in there was totally conscious of everything that was happening.
“Please state your name.” she formed the words with soft, but completely mechanical precision.
“I- Jack Wh-, Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith” I said as clearly as possible.
“Please state your name again.” Even as she spoke, she didn’t quite make eye contact. I was almost perfectly in the way of her stare, but our gazes weren’t quite mutual.
“Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith.”
“Please sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ also known as ‘The Happy Birthday Song’ or ‘Happy Birthday’. If you require, I can provide a transcript of the lyrics and a recording demonstrating proper execution of the song. If this cannot be accomplished, other verification will be selected.”
I didn’t have time to process that. Despite the situation, Lisa’s request that I sing ‘Happy Birthday’ was just too bizarre to wrap my head around. I reeled for a few moments, before somehow having the wits to ask,” Who should I sing it to?”
There was the slightest pause,” Lisa. After the lyric ‘dear’ please substitute the lyric ‘Lisa.’”
I stumbled a few times before starting, ”Happy Birthday to you… Happy Birthday to you…Happy Bi-“
Lisa’s hand shot up, cutting me off,” Stop.”
“Please refrain from blinking Jackson.” It was the first time she’d said my name. I searched for some deviation in her tone, something special to indicate the Lisa I’d known was in there. There was nothing,” Do not attempt to move.”
And then her hand was on me. She held my head in place, thumb on my jaw, little finger at the base of my skull, and she made eye contact for the first time. It probably lasted three full seconds, before she released me. I was so startled by the sudden physical contact, that I stumbled backwards a few steps.
That was a mistake.
She was on me before I really realized what was happening, and the swiftness of her motions caused me to reflexively back up further. This only made things worse. The next thing I knew, I was roughly pinned to a wall, in an awkward stance that clamped my cheeks between the stucco and one of Lisa’s now enormous breasts. I wasn’t maybe as strong as I’d been during my athletic height as a two-sport high school athlete, but any man my size should have easily overpowered a woman of her stature. You just need to understand that she was STRONG. She held me in place with her body and wordlessly forced my mouth open. I fought out of nothing more than reflex, but she pinched my cheeks in until I was biting them. At some point in her charge across the room, she had gotten something into her hand and it was thrust into my mouth to scrape against the back of my throat, slapping my epiglottis and making me gag.
Shoving me down to my knees, she released me.
She took one, two, three steps back, and I got a look at the thing in her hand. It was an overlong cotton swab. I put a hand to my throat and cleared it. I had no plans to move again and watched silently as she executed another precise choreography of marching maneuvers to un-box a small black device into which she inserted the q-tip before returning to attention. After a moment, something which looked for the entire world like a flash card popped out of the top. Inserting it into the phone-device I’d left on the counter, she stiffened one final time before turning abruptly to face me.
“Biometric data confirmed. You are Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith. Unit Transfer Protocol complete.”
I remember being dearly tempted to say something along the lines of ‘No shit’, but I settled for a nod,” I guess that’s probably good?”
Lisa didn’t respond, simply staring at the wall a few feet above my head.
And suddenly I was angry. My tenderness at apparently having my dear friend and dire crush returned to me from the grave faded in the frustration of simply not knowing what was going on. My tone became harsh,” Okay, biometric data, great, so that means you apparently now know who I am. Fantastic, you’re done with your transfer protocol, which means you’re going to do what?”
Once again, she had no answer.
“Alright, sure, well you apparently can’t fucking talk, whatever the hell you are. If I get up now, are you going to tackle me again?”
At the question she abruptly made eye contact,” No.”
“And I can move around freely?” my tone softening slightly.
“Yes.” again, fleeting eye-contact.
I took a deep breath,“ So can you explain to me what’s going on? Tell me what just happened?”
As I walked into the Kitchen to lean against the counter, she turned to follow me,” This Unit was given an activation command. The activation command was executed. During execution exception condition ‘initialrun’ was met and this Unit performed an express activation. An administrative command was issued to this unit by an authenticated system. The command was to initiate the Unit Transfer Protocol as configured. The Unit Transfer Protocol was executed. The Unit Transfer Protocol completed successfully.”
I think I just nodded,” Alright, that’s a little more helpful. Express activation… you said not all of your functions were working, that means you’re not turned on all the way yet, right?”
This seemed to give her pause,” It is highly likely your assessment of the Express Activation is approximately coincident with the known definition of Express Activation.”
“What?” I stopped her from responding,” Okay, so I’m just going to assume that you’re a robot of some kind at this point, because sure, why not? And I suppose in that light, the way I phrased that question might have confusing. Actually confusing is probably too generous a word for what just happened, but working on the assumption that you’re apparently some kind of AI I’ll attempt to be more direct in my phrasing.”
“This Unit may be incapable of rendering certain abstract assessments.” Lisa said in response.
“Ooo-kay, and I will keep that in mind from this point forward.” I paused to suck my teeth,” So before we go onto more pressing issues like what you are, why you’re in my house, and why you look like Ms. Lisa Lenhart, tell me more about this Unit Transfer Protocol that just happened. The part where you shoved me into a wall. Sorry, wait.” I took a moment to construct the phrase correctly,” Provide me with a succinct definition for the Unit Transfer Protocol.”
This time her response was instantaneous, “Execution of The Unit Transfer Protocol allows an administrator to modify administrative privileges for this Unit. Administrative privileges may be added or removed from a valid administrator object’s profile.”
Wheels began to turn very quickly in my mind,” And, I’m a valid administrator object?”
“And someone told you to make me an administrator? That’s what the identity test was for? To make sure I’m me?”
“Yes. This Unit was passed ‘add Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith, remove TRCP88, MJH9, Ratza43’ as parameters to the Unit Transfer Function upon activation. Biometric verification was used to compare present administrator object with stored profile: Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith. Current administrator object now has profile Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith. TRCP88 no longer has administrative privileges for this Unit. MJH9 no longer has administrative privileges for this Unit. Ratza43 no longer has administrative privileges for this Unit. Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith now has administrative privileges for this Unit.”
My mouth was suddenly very dry. I took a seat trying as ever trying to get my mind to catch up with the situation,” And what does me having administrative privileges mean?”
Something in her tone shifted, “This Unit will comply with any command you issue.” She was suddenly less formal, almost pleased,” You now have full access to all levels of this Unit’s programming." Her delivery was becoming almost chipper, as if Lisa was imitating a recording of someone else, "As an administrator and owner, you are encouraged to modify its drives, emotional responses, beliefs, thought processes, and any other aspects of its software, personality, or psyche you wish. This Unit’s current purpose and sole reason for existence is to serve and please you. You, Jackson Mitchell Whitesmith, are now this Unit's master. ”
“Uh… touch your nose.”
Lisa paused for a few seconds, before bringing the point of her right index finger to the tip of her nose. In two minutes of experimenting I’d already discovered that the less specific my orders, the more time it took her to decide how they should be interpreted.
“Okay, hands down. Now touch the bridge of your nose with your left middle finger.”
Lisa’s hand shot into position, inadvertently flipping me off.
“Alright Lisa, touch your nose with your right hand.”
This time she brought her right middle finger to the end of her nose. I was so far at a loss for the exact logic behind her parsing of orders. The engineer in me had briefly taken over, likely my mind’s attempt at coping with the profoundly bizarre situation I was now in. I took a moment to remind myself that if the problem was still interesting in an hour, I could start drawing out a flow chart. For now I needed to figure out what the hell was going on. I wanted to take a closer look at Lisa’s smart phone now that she was… on?
I ducked towards the living room to grab it, but paused at the doorway remembering something I’d wanted to try,” Lisa, stick out your tongue.”
Six inches of bright-pink tongue glided through Lisa’s lips to hang down past her chin.
“Huh…” I replied, and went for the phone.
- * *
Looking back, it’s a little strange that I didn’t immediately look for any physical proof to confirm or deny my robot theory. I didn’t have any particular urge to pry her open looking for wires or electronics or whatever I thought I’d find. I guess it just made enough sense that I ran with it for the time. Despite my explorations in the kitchen, the how’s of this strange being weren’t what I was most interested in knowing. I needed to know if this thing was actually Lisa.
I was, from the moment I opened Lisa’s case and saw her inside, totally certain that whatever was happening was real, and very serious. It wasn’t until well after the fact that I even considered the notion this could have all been some elaborate prank. My mind was all over the place trying to put together an explanation. I knew I was witnessing mad science, but I couldn’t think of anyone capable of that level of engineering. Sure, Lisa-bot maybe couldn’t pass a Turing test, but if nothing else her motor functions were decades ahead of the best bleeding edge tech I’d ever heard of. My best explanations kept coming back to time-travel and aliens, and I wasn’t quite ready to jump to either conclusion just because I had a functional android in my kitchen.
So what did I know? Lisa had, rather abruptly, told me she was leaving town for a few days. Somehow, she’d ended up in Switzerland and according to a half-dozen counter-signing medical professionals, died there. Somebody had declared it a suicide, and I didn’t have any more context except that I believed she had the will to kill herself. Now a month later, some guys drop off a huge pile of expensive high-tech crap in the middle of my house. Included is a box containing my deceased landlord who is walking around and talking to me, but acting like a robot. At some point during the day, this mysterious “support team” tries like hell to get a hold of me. Then they book it, leaving all their shit behind, something Lisa-bot made it sound like they weren’t supposed to do.
My thoughts aren’t quite racing anymore, and with a clearer head I start to recognize some of the equipment piled in the den. There’s a large power controller with foam blocks still attached to the ends, a pile of about eight brand-new laptops, and what looked exactly like the 3D printer in the materials science building, but the size of a microwave. Everything else was either too alien or obscured by non-descript packaging to give a worthwhile assessment to. With a start I realized that I knew one more thing, all of this stuff was intended for me.
The phone was resting on the back of the sofa, off. Remembering the hidden lockbar I’d found earlier, I was about to swipe it, but stopped myself. That’s how I turned her on, so what if that shuts her off? What if that shuts her off and she falls over and breaks? It would be hilariously terrible design, but I didn’t know what I was doing, and I wasn’t looking to take too many chances.
“Lisa?” I called through the door.
She motored into the den, once again assuming her stiff pose, “Yes?”
”What is this and what does it do?” I asked, holding up the phone.
“The object in your hand is a portable unit control console-”
I interrupted her, “Can I call it the puck?”
“Yes. Its primary functions are to enable convenient mobile administrator access of a unit’s systems, essential functions, and to allow the input of high-order commands that cannot be received as implied-verbal.” Once again her voice was slightly animated, as if reading from a script. “This specific portable unit control console is tethered to this Unit.”
“So it’s your remote, which is pretty much what I’d figured. Can you show me how to use it?” I held up a hand to stop her responding,” Actually, did you understand that request? That’s probably a little harder than throwing me a definition. If you need, I can try to rephrase it?”
“Executing your command.” was her only response. She stepped over to stand shoulder to shoulder with me. I was still a little jumpy after her last violation of my personal space, but I allowed her to take my hand holding the puck firmly into her grip. Her skin was warmer now, soft and alive. I failed to control a small shiver. “Access to this console is restricted to your thumbprint Jackson. “ If I’d been able to detect even a shred of emotion in her voice, that last line might have been almost personable. Taking my hand, she showed me how to unlock the screen and gave me a brief tutorial of the device’s most critical functions. There was an extensive interface for programming commands, access an index of customizable personality profiles, and most importantly access to her vital systems.
The tour was interesting, tantalizing even, there were dozens of menus and options I wanted to explore, but I forced myself to focus. Our initial difficulty in communication had made me believe this new Lisa might be stupid, or at least incapable of conversation. But suddenly she was answering more complex questions of her own accord. As long as I made my phrasing plain and gave her plenty of time to respond she started giving me answers that were too specific to be preprogrammed. At one point she even detected and solved a problem,” The keys on this screen will be too small for your fingers to reliably navigate,” she grabbed a coffee straw off the counter,” this should serve as an adequate stylus.”
I’d picked up the puck in an effort to search it for answers, but now the incredibly obvious occurred to me: I could just talk to Lisa.
Thanking her, I took a few steps back to lean against the couch, “So… who are you?”
“This Unit’s name is Lisa Lenhart.”
“Okay.” I’d been calling her Lisa, and at least now I knew that was how she thought of herself. I’d had some small hope her answer would take advantage of that potentially open-ended question, but evidently I’d have to keep pulling teeth,” So Lisa Lenhart, what are you?”
She paused for a long time. I’d expected something prompt and succinct, right along the lines of ‘I’m a robot Jack!’ but delivered with greater verbosity. After several long seconds, she made eye contact and, almost testily, answered,” Please clarify your inquiry.”
I realized there were literally dozens of contexts that question could be interpreted as. Trying to think fast, I came up with something else that wasn’t much better,” Lisa, what are you physically?”
“Please clarify your inquiry.”
“Lisa, are you a robot or cyborg or something robot-like?”
“Uncertain. Please clarify your inquiry.”
I think I actually threw my hands in the air in frustration. She seemed to have no common-sense understanding of natural language, except for the times when she suddenly did. I was going at this inefficiently, aimlessly experimenting like an academic. I decided to start behaving like an engineer. “Lisa, I need to talk to someone knowledgeable about you. Preferably an applications engineer if you know what that is. I know the support team isn’t here right now, but if there’s anyone else that can answer technical questions about you, I need their contact information. Specifically, I need their phone number. Can you get that for me? ”
As soon as I finished speaking Lisa turned on her heel, marched into the kitchen, peeled something off the other side of the door frame, and brought it back to me. It was a large ruled post-it note, the kind Lisa used to leave on the refrigerator to tell me to buy milk. There was a ten-digit phone number printed above a message that had been printed in block capital letters:
“JACKSON!!! CALL BEFORE YOU TOUCH ANYTHING!!!”
I guess Lisa’s support team assumed I would see it walking in. That wasn't good.
I punched the number into my phone, and hit the call button.