SHELBY • by Joshua Joseph Barella

It’s the little things.  Those that you have to be still to value.  Silent.

Like the swirling of dust in a shard of light.  Or the melting of snow on a windowpane and the bead of water it leaves behind.  Or when you’re talking about Shelby, it’s the freckles dotting her nose.  Because, after all — I’m always talking about Shelby.

Even though she’s right here, within arm’s reach, staring into the sun from a lawn chair in our backyard, she’s not really seeing, is she?  Shelby is not Shelby.  She’s only the way I remember her.  How I assume she would be at 35.  56.  And this year we’ll be 72.

When I hold her she’s only skin deep.  There’s nothing real beneath her expensive, simulated flesh.  Any more mechanical and she would be an automobile: heart the engine, lungs the intake, liver the carburetor.  You must understand: It’s the only way I could keep her.

She’s preparing dinner in the kitchen and she keeps dropping things, I can hear them crash from the basement.  I call up to her a couple of times.  She tells me everything’s fine.  I know it’s not.  That’s why I’m soldering new RAM slots onto this motherboard.

After we eat she wants to play cards.  She likes a game called ‘31.’  Dealer deals 3 cards to each player, leaves the rest for draw.  Discard every turn.  Three-pair (good) or two tens and an ace for 31 (instant victory).  You knock on the table if you feel you have a strong hand.  Stops all play the next time around.  I don’t win, and that’s never on purpose, but now I’m beginning to think that I just lose out of habit.  Shelby’s talking about something to do with caterpillars, but she isn’t looking at me.  She’s never looking at me when she talks.

If it wasn’t for the big payout after I discharged I wouldn’t have had the money to mortgage the 10 acres out here in west Wyoming.  Nor for the furnished and fully operational sentient-robotics workshop I installed in the basement.  But it’s true what they say, and what’s still said: Money can buy happiness.  I just know now that it’s only temporary.

In the beginning there were so many problems.  I knew how I wanted Shelby to be.  I had this perfect picture of her.  But she was nothing like that.  One year we had a hell of a storm roll through.  Tornado with it.  Shelby ran out to meet the damn thing like it was an ice cream truck.  Found her the next day a few towns over, missing just about everything.  There was a new version of her once a month for a while there, until I got the definitions right.  Now, it’s every few years or so, depending on when her memory lapses.  They’re always quick.  The Company.  Coming out to get her.

Shelby and I met in school.  We were both studying engineering.  She was pregnant with our first when I went away.  I joined the NMF–National Militia Force–because of the signing bonus and how easy it was for someone like me to recycle in and out of a world like that.  The moment I got on that plane to go I remember thinking:  I’m leaving my family behind, and it’s the dumbest thing anyone’s ever done.

We put the cards away and then it’s upstairs for a shower and some sort of erotica that I still have yet to get used to.  She says that she’s tired once we’re dressed, but repeats herself two or three times, removing her clothes and putting them back on, only to remove them again, over and over.  She wants to be tucked in.  She tells me she loves me.  Her lips are cold on my cheek.

When are you coming to bed? she asks.

Most nights I don’t.

Especially on nights like this.  I can’t sleep next to her.  She’s so vulnerable.  My heartbeat is all I can hear.  Like a clock hand, tocking, hour to hour.  Minute to minute.  Right down to that wrinkle in time where her world goes dark.  Again.

I take a break from the workshop and just stand barefoot outside, under the vault of stars, the grass turning wet with dew between my toes.  I wish there was some other way to have all this.  But I know there’s not.  The dead are dead and the living can only ever join them.  I’ve not much longer to go myself, and perhaps that’s what I’m really looking forward to.  The end.  To see if I’ve been right all these years.  If Shelby is who she should have been all along.

The accident happened when I was away.  Word of the news was received not in the form of a sim or vid-call.  It was so impersonal, so arcane, the matter-of-fact letter, explaining to me that my wife and unborn child had been killed by a drunk driver in broad daylight.  I left R & D that day and never went back.  I was up for ETS in a few months anyway.  Who cared what happened after that? I didn’t.  But killing myself wasn’t the answer.  Neither was drinking myself stupid.  Just ruined my brain.  That was all I had left.

In the morning, I make a vid call.  Shelby’s wobbling down the hall toward me, clothes mismatched.  A line of black fluid is coming out of her nose, dripping onto the hardwood.

What are you looking at? she asks me.

You, I say.

I catch her as she collapses.  Begins to convulse.  An unearthly sound escapes her throat as she goes limp.

The Company cruiser is a fast-moving line at the horizon.

I wait for them in the foyer, holding Shelby, watching her face.  One of her eyes loses pigment.  That’s never happened before.

It’s the little things.  Those that you have to be still to value.  Silent.

Joshua Joseph Barella writes in New York, USA.

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