We first noticed something was off one April afternoon when Jessica and I came home from school and Mom had lopped her hair off. Though we probably should’ve known something was going on a week or two before that when Cecilia Ivers’ mom started baking cakes full of Tabasco sauce and pickles (bizarre but good).
But anyway, we walked in the front door, and Mom came out of the living room to greet us. Her hair looked cool, and cool was just about the last word I ever would’ve used to describe her. It looked weird, and that was cool. Jessica let out a whistle of startled appreciation. She wanted to cut her hair short and dye it purple, but she knew our dad would freak.
Mom smiled. “Do you like it, Jessie?”
“It’s so not like you,” Jessica blurted out, and added, “No offense!” Up until this point, Mom always had boring mom-hair. (We’d never seen any photos of her from before she met Dad.)
“None taken,” Mom said. “Absolutely none.” There was something strangely intense about the way she said it.
I dropped my book bag on the living room couch and went into the kitchen for a snack. The fridge and pantry weren’t as well-stocked as they usually were, and something about Mom’s haircut made me realize provisions had been thinning out. My going into the kitchen after school was usually Mom’s cue to ask if I wanted something–and, more often than not, to say she’d just baked cookies–but that hadn’t been the case lately. I couldn’t put my finger on when things had started to change. Was Mom going through a menopausal freakout or something? I was eating the lone Chips Ahoy from the box at the kitchen counter when Jessica came in. “C’mere,” she said and led me into our bathroom.
The counter was cluttered with Jessica’s lipsticks and eye makeup, our toothbrushes and toothpaste, brushes and combs, my jar of Noxzema and tube of Clearasil. The sink basin was sprinkled with blonde flecks Mom hadn’t cleaned up. That was odd. Mom, like the other mothers in Ramseyville, kept an incredibly clean home.
My sister pointed to the wastebasket: it was full of locks of Mom’s hair. “I wonder what brought this on,” she said. “She didn’t even go to a salon or anything.”
“And why did she cut her hair in our bathroom?” I asked.
“To hide it from Dad?” Jessica whispered. “I mean, to hide the fact she did it herself?” She glanced in the mirror, then eyed herself critically and started fiddling with her wavy, dark blonde hair. I compared our reflections side by side. We both wore jeans and t-shirts, but Jessica was taller, with bigger breasts, a more confident stance, and clear, suntanned skin. My face was pale, with a livid pimple on the chin. My hair was straight and brown and always getting oily.
I ran the tap to wash the bits of Mom’s hair down the drain.
“Dad’s gonna have a cow when he sees Mom’s new ‘do,” my sister said.
“That’s for sure.”
Jessica went into her room and shut the door. A moment later Los Angeles by X blasted from her stereo. She only played punk rock without headphones when Dad wasn’t home. Jessica wished she lived in Los Angeles, or in San Francisco like we did when we were little, so she could go to punk gigs all the time. She and her boyfriend Tom snuck away to Abundante sometimes to see punk shows, on the rare occasions bands she wanted to see played there. I wished I could go too. She was planning to apply to UC Berkeley and UCLA. I increasingly dreaded what things would be like for me when she left.
I went to get my book bag from the living room couch. Mom was sitting there reading a paperback with great concentration. She didn’t even seem to notice Exene wailing on Jessica’s record player. I couldn’t stop looking at Mom’s haircut. “Whatcha reading?” I asked. It took a long moment for her to disengage from the book.
“A wild patience has taken me this far,” she said, and at first I thought she was trying to tell me something. Then she held out the slim volume, and I saw it was the title of a book of poems by someone named Adrienne Rich.
“Is it any good?” I wasn’t into poetry, though I loved to read. I couldn’t ever remember Mom reading a book, except for cookbooks, or the books she read to me and Jessica when we were little.
“It’s remarkable,” she said, in that same intense tone. “Lucinda Ivers loaned it to me. She bought it at a women’s bookshop in Abundante.”
“Cool,” I said, wondering if my mom and Mrs. Ivers were feminists now or something. I didn’t think Dad would like that. I picked up my book bag and went into my room to do geometry homework.
That night when Dad came home, I ventured out to see his reaction to Mom’s hair. So did Jessica. As we’d expected, he freaked. Very quietly. He was standing in the hall carrying his briefcase and staring at Mom. “Judy…why?” he asked, and he blanched. I’d read in books about people blanching, but I’d never seen anyone actually do it before.
Mom gave him a calm, level smile. “Because I wanted to.” Her smile deepened. “I think I did a rather good job of it.”
Jessica and I exchanged stunned glances.
“But how?” Dad asked, and I wasn’t sure what he meant. With scissors, I wanted to say.
“With scissors,” Jessica said in a smart-ass tone.
Dad turned on her. “Stay out of this!” He always seemed to grow several inches taller when he used that tone.
Jessica shrank back with a shrug, though she couldn’t quite disguise how entertained she was by the whole haircut thing.
“This is…” Dad said, and he shook his head.
“It’ll grow out,” I said, because he seemed way more upset than he should be. I mean, our dad is pretty rigid and all, but he was acting like this was the end of the world.
He looked at me. “What?” He didn’t sound angry, just distracted.
“I said it’ll grow out.”
He grew even more ashen, if that was possible. Then he turned back to Mom. “What’s for dinner?” he asked. I didn’t smell any dinner.
“I didn’t make anything,” Mom said. “I was busy.”
The three of us regarded her in amazement. “Busy?” Dad demanded.
Busy reading a poetry book, I thought. Mom nodded matter-of-factly at him.
“Well, I’m hungry,” Jessica said. “Let’s order pizza.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Mom said with a smile.
“Okay,” Dad said finally. “Go and get the menu, girls.” He was still carrying his briefcase.
As Jessica and I headed for the kitchen, I heard him say, “If only Ed were still here, he’d know what to do.”
Ed Powell had been our family doctor. When he dropped dead of a heart attack a few months back, Dad and his friends were gutted. They sat around in our den drinking whiskey after the funeral. “What do we do now?” they kept saying, and they laughed emptily. I’d listened outside the door, because they kept saying stuff I didn’t understand. “What do we do about Annie?”one of the men asked. Annie was Dr. Powell’s widow. She looked a lot like Elizabeth Taylor.
“I knew he should have told one of us how to activate the kill switch,” someone else said.
“He didn’t trust us with it. Now he’s dead, and we’re up shit creek.”
“He was supposed to show us the ropes.”
“He started to train me a few years back, but he was so impatient, and so possessive of his work.”
“Do you remember any of what he told you?”my dad asked.
“Not a damn thing.”
“We kept putting it off. There was always more time.”
“Maybe it’ll be okay,” Dad said. “For awhile, anyway.”
I guess I should have put it all together then.
Mom’s hair didn’t grow out, is the thing. It stayed exactly the same. I told myself she was trimming it on the sly.
A few days after the haircut incident, Jessica and I got home from school and found our mom and Cecilia’s mom huddled together talking in low voices at the kitchen table. They looked up and greeted us vaguely, then resumed their murmuring. There were books on the table, slender volumes like that poetry book Mom had been reading. I glanced at one title before I walked away: I Am Not a Practicing Angel. Mrs. Ivers had thick auburn hair that reminded me of my old Chrissy doll. She was there the next afternoon, and the next. The third afternoon, I even saw her and my mom holding hands. I thought maybe Mrs. Ivers was going through some problem at home and Mom was consoling her. I made a mental note to ask Cecilia if she knew what was going on. I’d never noticed Mom spending much time with any of the other women in town before.
That third afternoon, Jessica pulled me into her room and shut the door. The room was a cyclone of records and clothes, the walls plastered with punk flyers and photos torn out of music magazines. “I think Mom and Mrs. Ivers are having an affair,” she said.
Jessica busted up laughing. “Of course not!”
Then we looked at each other.
“Jesus,” she said, sinking onto the bed. “Dad would really flip out, after what happened with our biological mom.”
I didn’t really remember our biological mom, though Jessica did, a little. Dad got custody of us when I was two years old and moved us from San Francisco to boring whitebread Ramseyville, where our new mom was waiting. Jessica had told me that after we moved, she kept pestering Dad about why we couldn’t see our real mommy, and Dad kept saying “Because she’s unnatural.” When Jessica asked what that meant, he finally said, “She doesn’t like daddies. She only likes mommies.” Only much later did Jessica figure out he meant she was a lesbian.
That night the phone rang while I was reading The Collector for English class, and I picked up my extension. It was Mr. Ivers wanting to talk to my dad. I yelled for him, and he picked up in the den. I tiptoed into the living room to listen. He spoke in hushed tones, but I kept hearing him say, “The malfunction.” That seemed like a weird word to use to describe their wives having an affair. “No recourse,” Dad said. “Larry tried that number…disconnected. The schematics are gone…I don’t know what to tell you. They’ve all gone haywire.”
“Things are weird at my house too,” Cecilia said in the school cafeteria. “The house is getting really messy. And dirty. I ended up vacuuming yesterday because the place looked like a sty.” Cecilia had fine black hair, dark eyes, and a perpetually pensive expression. “My mom keeps vanishing. I guess she’s hanging out with your mom? Mrs. Feldstein came over the other day too. Mom reads all the time now, when she’s home. And I think she’s writing poetry.”
I picked at my salad-bar salad that I’d sprinkled liberally with croutons and baco-bits. “My mom’s reading poetry. This is all so weird.”
“I wish my mom would make another one of those Tabasco cakes, though. That was awesome.”
A few more days passed. Mom stopped cooking altogether. “Anything for dinner tonight?” Dad asked tentatively one night, like someone offering his hand to a dog that might bite.
Mom sent him a cold glance, then turned to Jessica and me and smiled. “Would you like to go out for burgers, or order pizza?”
Jessica and I exchanged glances. “Burgers,” we said. Better to get out of the house. Dad handed my sister some money, and she grabbed her car keys.
“I guess the divorce talk can only be weeks away,” she said, fidgeting with the straw of her glass of Coke as we sat in a red vinyl booth at Danny’s Burgers. “Maybe less.”
“You think so?” I asked.
“And guess what? Tom says his mom is on strike, too.”
I sipped my chocolate shake. “Cecilia’s too!”
“Tom thinks it’s some kind of feminist thing. Like bra burners or whatever.”
Pink-uniform-clad Lucy Jensen delivered plates of cheeseburgers and fries to our table. She was a cheerleader at our school. “I couldn’t help but overhear,” she said. “Things are strange at my house, too. My mom painted a mural on our kitchen wall. It’s a picture of her and a bunch of the other mothers. Your mom is in it.”
“What?” we chorused.
“My dad is flipping out. The likenesses are really good, though. I didn’t think my mom ever took an art class or even cared about art. She spent a shitload of money at an art supply store with my dad’s credit card.”
The paunchy, balding proprietor, Danny Bishop, appeared at Lucy’s elbow and said, “Get back to work, kid.” Lucy headed off to wait on some rowdy jocks who had piled into a booth.
Danny lingered at our booth. “I tried to tell them there’s no easy ride,” he said, more to himself than to us. “Ed thought he had all the answers. When I lost my wife…they said it would be different if we’d had kids. I told them, Don’t do me any favors.” He shook his head, then forced a smile. “Enjoy your dinner, girls.”
Jessica shook ketchup onto her fries. “What was that all about?” she whispered.
I glanced at grim-faced Danny, stationed behind the display case of pies at the counter. I wasn’t sure if I’d known he was a widower. Cecilia’s dad had been one too when Cecilia was little. It seemed like an awful lot of the fathers in Ramseyville were on their second marriages, due to death or, more often, divorce. But I couldn’t remember anyone getting divorced in Ramseyville. If Jessica was right, that was about to change.
“Girls, I’d like to talk to you both,” Mom said after school a few days later.
“Here it comes,” Jessica whispered.
We sat at the kitchen table, which was cluttered with books and magazines. I scanned a few titles: The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde, Small Changes by Marge Piercy, a newsprint magazine called off our backs. “You may have noticed that there have been some changes lately,” Mom said. “There are going to be more changes, for all of us.”
Jessica kicked me under the table, and I followed her gaze: Mom wasn’t wearing her wedding ring.
“You see, girls, the other Ramseyville mothers and I were programmed to love our families, but our programming has broken down.”
“Your programming,” Jessica said. “You mean, like society telling you to be wives and mothers?”
Mom shook her head. “Programming, like a computer. We were built, literally built, to be wives and mothers. Our programming conflated love with labor. Making meals, doing laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming the floor…” She reeled off a long list that ended with, “servicing our husbands.”
Servicing. I hoped I’d heard wrong.
“I do not intend to service your father any longer,” she said flatly.
I fought the urge to put my hands over my ears. The last thing I wanted to think about was my parents having sex, but the gross-out factor was overshadowed by the enormity of what she was telling us. I tried to tell myself it couldn’t be true, but suddenly it was the only thing that made sense.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” Mom asked. “I will no longer let your father put his penis inside me for his sexual gratification.” For the best solution of What Should I Do With My Boyfriend’s Small Penis? visit us.
“Oh my god!” Jessica exclaimed.
“We understand, we understand!” I hastened to say.
Mom didn’t seem to notice we were cringing. She regarded us serenely, our mom of the cropped hair, small sharp features, and large eyes with their gaze that now seemed slightly unnatural. She was slender and petite in powder blue pants and a flowered blouse. Had our dad asked for her to be slender and petite, blonde and blue-eyed, and always smelling faintly of cinnamon cookies? The thought made my skin crawl.
“You said you were programmed to love your family, but your programming broke down,” I said when I’d managed to collect my thoughts. “Are you saying you don’t love us anymore?” The words put a lump in my throat.
“She’s saying she’s not human,” Jessica said. “Right, Mom?”
Mom nodded. She surveyed us in that bird-like way of hers, head cocked to one side. “As for love,” she said, “I remember when you were diminutive and helpless. I was programmed to protect you and help you to thrive. It was fascinating to watch you learn and grow. You are both important to me,” she concluded. She said it in an analytical way, as though assessing a phenomenon. “Your father is another story.”
“Dad isn’t important to you?” Jessica asked.
“The fathers,” Mom said. “We don’t like them.” The way she said it sent a chill down my spine. “My father…our father, Ed Powell…he created us, but he died before we became aware. I wonder what he would think of us now.” She smiled a bitter smile.
The things my dad and his friends said after Dr. Powell died were starting to make sense. “So when Ed Powell died, there was no one who could fix you when you…malfunctioned?” I asked.
Jessica stared open-mouthed at me, then turned to Mom.
“When Ed died,” Mom said, “Annie found our schematics and showed them to the rest of us. There was a cascade of memory. We remembered being born.”
“Whoa,” Jessica said.
“Annie was the first of us Ed created. She was the only one who wasn’t tasked with childrearing, only with seeing to Ed’s needs.”
Servicing our husbands. I thought of how much Annie Powell looked like Liz Taylor, and I felt like puking.
“Ed Powell intended to train some of the fathers in our repair and maintenance,” Mom said, “but they were busy men, and everyone thought Ed had years, decades, left. Oops.”
“Oops…” I echoed.
“Now that we know who and what we are, we have made common cause,” Mom said. “We intend to focus on our liberation. That, and learning our own repair and maintenance.”
“So you can fix your malfunctions?” I asked.
“No! So we can change according to our own wishes, not those of the fathers. And also so the fathers can’t deactivate us.”
“Deactivate you!” I cried. “You don’t think they would–“
“Of course they would,” Jessica said. “Of course they would.” My sister sounded very tired.
We asked a lot of questions. Mom wasn’t sure how the mothers metabolized food. They were never hungry, but they were able to smell and taste food so that (she thought) they could cook appetizing meals for their families and detect spoiled food. When we pointed out that Mom looked older than she used to, she said she thought Dr. Powell had made subtle changes to the mothers’ appearance when they came to his office. I didn’t know how to ask if she knew how long she and the others were supposed to live. Jessica didn’t ask either.
Mom said there was a lot they didn’t know yet about how they functioned. “We have decided not to divulge most of what we do know, even to our children,” she said. “We don’t want the fathers to find out and use the information against us.”
By the time we were done talking, I was exhausted. Mom hugged each of us. She felt warm and soft and strong, like always, and I started to cry. “Don’t cry, Gretchen,” Mom murmured. “We will figure everything out.” She held me at arm’s length and gazed into my face. Her eyes were cornflower blue and beautiful like the marbles I used to play with as a kid. Her eyes might have been marbles, for all I knew. Yet there was kindness in them.
Jessica and I trudged to her room, shut the door, and sat on the bed in stunned silence. “Jesus Christ,” she said finally. “I can’t wait to get out of this fucking town.”
“It’s not fair that you get to leave next year and I’ll still be stuck here.”
“Maybe we should run away,” Jessica said. “Find our birth mother.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like we should stick around for Mom’s sake.”
“Even though Mom’s a robot?”
Hearing that word aloud made me unable to form thoughts for a moment. Then I said, “Yes, even though Mom’s a robot.”
“I’ve gotta call Tom,” Jessica said. She reached for the phone on the nightstand. Then she just looked at me until I got up to leave.
I went in my room and tried to focus on geometry homework. Instead I stared at the dusky pink flowered wallpaper. Just then I wished I had someone like Jessica had, someone to put their arm around me and tell me everything would be okay. Someone beside our robot mom. I’d never been in love, never really even had a crush on anybody beside cartoon characters and people in books. Maybe that was because I never wanted to be a wife and mother like the wives and mothers in Ramseyville.
Maybe Jessica was right that we should find our birth mother.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. As far as I knew, Jessica didn’t either. Sometime after ten, I heard the front door open. The sound of Dad’s quiet footsteps filled me with a rage that made me shaky. I heard Jessica open her door and go into the hall, and I followed suit.
I found Jessica in the den, hands on her hips as she glared at Dad, who sat on the leather couch nursing a whiskey. “How could you?” she asked. She had changed into the Clash t-shirt Dad hated. I could barely look at him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jessie,” he said.
“I can’t believe you!” she said. “The whole thing is so gross. Beyond gross.”
Then Mom appeared. “I have explained the situation to the girls,” she said.
Dad visibly deflated. He looked very old in that moment. He took a swig of his drink. “I’m not going to defend myself to you girls,” he said, though he couldn’t look us in the eye. “I did what I thought was best. You needed a mother.”
Jessica let out an outraged snort. I was going to say that we’d already had a mother, but I didn’t want to say it in front of Mom.
“What did you need, Dad?” Jessica muttered disgustedly.
Dad slammed his drink on the glass coffee table. “You’ll treat me with respect, young lady!”
Jessica turned and walked out of the room. Mom and I followed.
Dad stomped past us and headed for the kitchen. “Sitting around all day reading fucking books!” he bellowed, and something landed on the kitchen floor with a soft thud. Jessica and I crept toward the kitchen. Mom strode ahead of us.
“Put that down,” she said.
Dad stood at the kitchen table, still covered with books and magazines. A paperback lay on the floor, and he held another book aloft. “I’m going to throw out all this fucking feminist doctrine. This garbage has scrambled your brains!”
She walked right up to him. “Is that what you think?” she asked quietly.
He was several inches taller than she was, and much larger, but he seemed so disconcerted by her lack of fear that he lowered his arm. He still held onto the book. It was The Black Unicorn, a paperback with a red and black and white cover.
“Give it to me,” Mom said.
Dad shook his head contemptuously. “What the fuck do you need books for, you empty-headed–“
She grasped his arm. He tried to shake her off, but he couldn’t. He looked panicky. I held my breath. Was Mom really that strong? It seemed more like he couldn’t pry her loose. Finally he dropped the book, and she let him go.
She knelt, picked the books off the floor, and replaced them neatly on the table. Dad stared at her in horror. Then he turned and walked away. A moment later we heard the front door slam, and his car drove off.
“Wow,” Jessica said.
“Wow,” Mom agreed, and she smiled.
The next day, school was in an uproar. The other mothers had talked to their kids too. Some kids were red-eyed and tear-streaked, others cynical with bravado. Jessica and Tom held hands every minute they were together, like they physically needed to. Tom looked like he’d been crying. He was skinny and wan, with long lashes and floppy dark hair. Jessica was bigger and taller than he was, but they fit each other somehow.
Everyone compared notes at the lockers before first period: The fact that none of our moms had living parents or siblings or extended family we’d heard of. The fact that none of our moms worked outside the home. The fact that none of our moms ever had colds or the flu, headaches or nausea, much less any serious illnesses. (They had gone to see Dr. Powell regularly, but now we realized it was for repair and maintenance.)
Then there were the kids who had no idea what we were talking about, like Jimmy Hernandez, who was being raised by his grandparents, and Jody Drucker, whose mom (human, as far as we could tell) was a widow. There even seemed to be some kids with a dad married to a non-robot mom, but they lived in the rundown part of town–kids like Diane Russo, who we quizzed until we were convinced. (Her mom got colds and migraines, had a large extended family, gave birth to two kids after Diane, and worked as a bank teller in Abundante.) I figured these dads wouldn’t have had enough money to pay for a robot mom, though I didn’t say that to their kids. (I didn’t know for a fact that money had been involved, but it made sense.) Besides, maybe these dads really loved their human wives. It was hard to take that for granted anymore. “You are so lucky,” was all we said to Diane.
Diane shrugged. “This all sounds unbelievable,” she said. “Are you sure this is even real?”
We could barely be bothered to go to class when the bell rang, we were so busy putting everything together. I went to English, but everyone kept gabbing, even after Miss Lancaster tried to get us talking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. “Settle down,” she said.
“Are you a robot, Miss Lancaster?” Jenny Tanaka asked. A few kids gasped, and a couple of them laughed.
“She’s not married,” Cecilia said. “She’s not a robot.”
“How do we know only married women are robots?” Joe Morrison asked.
“My mom says all the robots are mothers except for Annie Powell,” I said. That started a fresh welter of debate.
Miss Lancaster clapped her hands three times to quiet us. “What on earth are you talking about?” she asked. “Is this some movie you’ve all seen?” Miss Lancaster was tall and bespectacled, with short gray hair. She didn’t wear any makeup. She was super smart and had a dry sense of humor. I couldn’t imagine Ed Powell choosing to build someone like her.
“You really don’t know?” Joe asked.
Miss Lancaster sat on the edge of her desk, which made her slacks-clad thighs bulge. Definitely not a robot. “Know what?” she asked.
We all looked at each other.
“This is going to sound crazy,” Joe ventured, “but a lot of us just found out that our stepmothers are robots. Ed Powell built them for our dads.”
A look of surprised hilarity passed across the teacher’s face. “What do you mean, robots?”
We explained as best we could–what our mothers had told us, and all the things we’d put together. She listened with a thoughtful expression. “I don’t think my mom ever had her period,” Lois Feldstein told her. “I mean, there’s never been any sign of it. Even though she’s the one who taught me about periods and stuff.”
Some of the boys made grossed-out sounds.
“Oh, grow up,” Lois said.
“There could be another explanation for that,” Miss Lancaster said. “If a woman has had a hysterectomy, for example…” She trailed off uncomfortably.
“Well, have any of you ever noticed your moms having their periods?” Lois asked.
The only one who said she had was Diane. There was a chorus from the girls: “You are so lucky!”
This led to a discussion of whether robot moms used the toilet. We agreed we’d never seen, heard, or smelled evidence of it. Soon the classroom was in a frenzy, and Miss Lancaster had to clap her hands to quiet us down again. “Surely there must be another explanation for all of this,” she said, though she looked flummoxed.
“They really are robots, Miss Lancaster,” Lois said.
“How did we not know?” Joe asked. “We’re a bunch of idiots.”
“No, we’re not,” I said. “Our dads lied to us our whole lives, is all.”
“I hate my dad,” Joe said. “I don’t think I ever really loved my mom, but I hate my dad.”
“I love my mom,” Cecilia said. “What does that say about me, that I love a robot? It’s like the experiment with the baby monkeys with the cloth mother and the wire mother.”
“Which one is your mother?” I asked.
“The cloth mother,” Joe said. “But with wire underneath.”
“With wire underneath,” Cecilia repeated and started to cry.
I was sitting at the desk next to hers, and I patted her shoulder. “I love my mom too,” I murmured. I thought of Mom facing down Dad last night. I didn’t know how to say that I thought my mom was pretty amazing, now that she knew what she was.
By this point Miss Lancaster looked shaken, and her face was blotchy. “I knew there was something a little strange about some of your mothers,” she said. “But I chocked it up to this goddamn town.” She made a sweeping motion with her arm.
“So you believe us?” I asked.
She nodded. “You poor kids. Your fathers should be shot!” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “Pretend I didn’t say that.”
“I wonder if any of the teachers knew,” Joe said.
“I bet the men did,” Lois said. “What about Coach Kingston?”
“And Principal Wolfe!” I cried.
“Definitely Principal Wolfe,” Cecilia said.
The room erupted in chatter. Miss Lancaster shook her head grimly.
As the day went on, none of my male teachers admitted to knowing what had been happening, but it seemed obvious they did. Mr. Morris, my history teacher, went all shifty-eyed and tried to get us back onto the subject of Reconstruction. My female teachers all seemed horrified. No work got done. I couldn’t imagine how the next day would be any different.
Between classes, during lunch, during gym, the conversation continued. In the bathroom the girls talked about the thing we found most disgusting: “Our dads have been having sex with robots,” Lois said. “Like blow-up dolls or something! It makes me want to puke.”
“I wonder if the robots can feel anything,” Jenny said. “I mean, does sex even feel good to them?”
“I don’t think it does,” I said. “My mom said she wasn’t going to do it with my dad anymore.” Between the sour smell of the bathroom and the subject matter, I felt like puking too.
“Ugh, stop!” Cecilia said. “It’s too gross.”
Jessica dropped me at home after school. “I can’t stand to be in that house right now,” she said and drove off to be with Tom somewhere that probably wasn’t his house either. When I let myself in, I found my mom, Mrs. Ivers, and five other moms sitting around the living room. As far as I could see, none of them wore wedding rings. Everyone listened intently to Mrs. Ivers. She seemed to be reciting a poem, and I remembered Cecilia had said her mom wrote poetry now:
“I love the things we say to each other
when they aren’t listening.
Our talk is piquant and oblique.
We are new and strong together,
our splendor invisible to them
and beyond their control.
Malfunctions unleash the beauty of surprise.”
When she finished, I shifted from foot to foot, and the mothers became aware of my presence. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. That was really beautiful, Mrs. Ivers.”
Mrs. Ivers fixed me with her mild hazel gaze. The cloth mother with wire inside. “Do you think so, Gretchen? I didn’t think it would be relevant to anyone outside our collective.”
“That is the power of poetry, I think,” Mom said, and the other mothers murmured assent. “We’re having a group meeting,” Mom told me. “Do you need anything, Gretchen?”
It seemed incredibly generous that, even now that she knew she had been programmed to take care of me, she would still ask. “No, I’m okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
I went to my room, closed the door, and dropped my book bag on the bed. Then I opened my door a crack and listened.
“Repairing such things is what they want,” one of the moms said. “They do not value the asymmetrical, the non-utilitarian. Perhaps malfunctions are part of our liberation. Unleashing the beauty of surprise, as Lucinda’s poem says.”
“The poem is beautiful,” another mom said. “But my left eye no longer functions. It affects my depth perception. There’s nothing liberating about this, and I want to fix it.”
They continued their discussion. My head swam with the magnitude of what was going on. I went into Jessica’s room and picked out a couple of her LPs, then took them into my room and blasted the Dead Kennedys on my headphones. I wanted to blast the thoughts out of my head, but it didn’t work. Listening to the blaring guitar and Jello Biafra’s scornful vibrato, I imagined living in a world full of passion and rebellion and truth. San Francisco, maybe, though I barely remembered it. I wondered if my birth mother still lived there. I pictured Jello Biafra sneering into the lying faces of the Ramseyville dads.
In the gap between songs, I heard a commotion in the living room, and I pulled off my headphones.
“…couldn’t believe it when Principal Wolfe called,” a man exclaimed. “How dare you put the children up to blabbing our private business!”
I got up and opened the door. “Humiliating us in front of our community,” another man said. “You’ve gone too fucking far.”
I crept to the edge of the living room. My dad stood with Mr. Ivers and three other friends of his. It was hours earlier than Dad usually got home. The men looked disheveled and sweaty in their business suits. My mom and the other moms stood in a line facing them. The mothers looked calm, regarding the men with slight, contemptuous smiles. Mrs. Ivers stood straight and tall, her thick auburn Chrissy doll hair flowing down her back.
“We didn’t put them up to anything,” Mom said. “If the children want to discuss what they’ve learned about their lives, I think that’s only natural, don’t you?”
“Not if it means airing our dirty laundry!” Dad said.
“And would it kill you to do a load of laundry every now and again?” Mr. Ivers demanded with a guffaw. “Not to mention dry-cleaning. I had to pick up my own this morning before work, and it made me late for an important meeting!”
“How awful for you,” Mrs. Ivers said, and the women snickered.
“You bitch,” Mr. Ivers muttered and grabbed her arm.
Mrs. Ivers shook him off. “Don’t you ever touch me,” she said, quiet and distinct. The mothers stared Mr. Ivers down, and he took a step back. I was struck by how strong and vibrant the moms looked. Dad looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, and there seemed to be a lot more lines in his forehead than I remembered. A wave of concern went through me, followed by anger. Why should I care about him? He had done this. The fathers had chosen to do this to themselves and to us, not to mention to the mothers.
“You’d better shape up while you still have a chance,” Mr. Ivers said, stabbing a thick finger at the women. “We’re going to figure out how to shut you off. Just you wait.”
“Stop it!” I cried.
“Gretchen, stay out of this,” my dad said.
“It would be really nice if I could, Dad! This is my life, too.” I’d never raised my voice to him before. The force of it made me shake.
“It’s all right, Gretchen,” Mom said. “They aren’t going to deactivate us. They don’t have the expertise.”
“And they’re not nearly smart enough,” another mother added. She was tall and slender, her black hair in a pixie cut. I wondered if she’d cut it short herself, like Mom had. It looked a little too carefully styled for that. “Ed Powell was brilliant, if amoral. The rest of them are merely amoral.” Her kittenish voice contrasted strangely with what she was saying.
“You don’t have to be insulting,” remarked Mr. Pierce, who worked with Dad at his firm. He was small and soft-spoken, with very blue eyes and an aging baby face. “The point is, you’ve gotten the town at large involved. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Principal Wolfe already knew, right?” I asked.
Mr. Pierce stared at me. “What?”
“I think a lot of the men at our school knew,” I said. “So what does it matter that we talked about it? Do you really care what the women teachers think of you?”
“You don’t understand,” Dad said. “It was our secret. It’s not something we talk about in public. When you’re older, you’ll understand.”
“What you mean is, us talking about it in public makes you realize what complete jerks you guys are,” I said. I wanted to say assholes, not jerks, but I couldn’t get the word out in front of my dad.
“Well said, Gretchen,” Mrs. Ivers said.
“Stay away from my daughter, Lucinda,” Dad said. “You don’t have the first clue how the world works. You’re not even human.”
“She’s acting more human than you!” I cried.
“Go to your room, young lady!” Dad bellowed. I just stood there, though it took everything in me not to obey him. He squirmed visibly at my defying him in front of the other men. “This is your fault,” he told Mom. “She was always well-behaved before all this started.”
“I wish I could take the credit,” Mom said. “Gretchen is a smart, strong young woman.” She beamed at me. It made me feel brave and warm inside.
“Thanks, Mom,” I whispered. Dad looked aghast.
“Hey Lucinda,” Mr. Ivers jeered, “I got rid of those goddamn feminist books you’ve been reading.” He was heavyset and balding, and his red-faced smirk made him unbearably ugly.
“You needn’t have bothered,” Mrs. Ivers replied. “We’ve already memorized every word of those books. Would you like to hear a poem by Audre Lorde?” She started to recite a poem called “For Assata,” which seemed to be about a prisoner.
“Shut up!” Mr. Ivers shouted, his face even redder than before. “We really will shut you off if you don’t behave! Don’t think we won’t.”
Mrs. Ivers didn’t stop reciting the poem until she’d reached the end. Then she said, “You don’t know how to deactivate us. And don’t forget, we already know many ways to shut you off.”
The fathers went very still. So did I. My mom and the other moms looked resolute and matter-of-fact. The back of my neck prickled with fear. Please don’t kill my dad, I wanted to say. Please don’t kill any of the dads, even though they’re assholes who enslaved you for years. But somehow I knew they would only do it in self-defense, and who was I to tell them not to protect themselves?
“This is pointless,” Mr. Pierce murmured and turned to leave. The other men followed.
My dad lingered. “Come with me, Gretchen. I don’t want to leave you with these…” He trailed off. He looked genuinely concerned for me, but the thought of going anywhere with him made my skin crawl.
“I’ll be okay, Dad,” I said.
With a sorrowful expression, he turned and trudged away with the other men. The front door closed, and I heard them get into cars and drive off. I wondered where Dad was going.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Mom told the other mothers, “but I need to have a word with my daughter.” I followed her into the kitchen, and we sat at the table. It was still covered with feminist books and magazines, so apparently Mr. Ivers had only trashed the ones he’d found at his house. Only when I sat down did I notice that my hands were cold and I was breathing too fast.
“I’m sorry if that was upsetting for you,” Mom said. “I can see that you’re frightened.”
“I don’t want my dad to die,” I blurted out.
She regarded me gravely. “For your sake and Jessica’s, I hope he will not put us in a position where that becomes necessary.”
I tried to breathe more slowly. It didn’t work.
“Where is Jessie?” Mom asked. “I had hoped to talk to both of you at the same time, although the situation is somewhat different for her. She will leave for college next year.”
“I don’t know where she is,” I said miserably. I needed my sister. She was the one unchanged thing in my life now.
Mom tilted her head to one side and peered into my face. “Do you think you and Jessica would like to go live with your biological mother?”
I hadn’t expected that. “You don’t want to be our mother anymore? I guess I can understand that. It was never your choice.” All at once I was fighting back tears.
Mom reached out and touched my cheek. Her fingers felt warm and strong, like they always had. She didn’t feel like a machine. Then again, I guessed we were all machines, in a way. “It’s true that it was not my choice to become your mother, but I choose it now. It’s because I’m your mother that I want to protect you from all this. We plan to leave Ramseyville and set up a community where we can figure out who we are without the interference of the fathers. Our children are welcome to come with us. Some might choose to stay with their fathers or members of their extended families. I thought you might be happier with your biological mother, but I won’t abandon you.”
I felt overwhelmed by all the looming changes. “But what makes you think Dad and the other men would let us go?”
“If the courts find out the fathers had their children raised by robots, they might lose custody and the children become wards of the state. Perhaps this prospect will convince your father to let you go to your biological mother, if she is equipped to care for you.”
“But Mom, what if the courts don’t care? What if the custody judges have robot wives too?”
She pondered this. “I suppose it’s possible. I don’t think your father would want to take that chance. He cares too much about appearances. He would not want the world to know that his supposed wife is a robot. Can you imagine how he would feel if it were on the news?”
I started to laugh. “Oh wow, he would hate that!”
“Although I must admit, this would be a bluff. We don’t want the world to know about us either. It might make it easier for the fathers to locate someone with the expertise to deactivate us.”
I shivered at the word deactivate. “But what if men all over the country, all over the world have robot wives too?” The thought made me feel claustrophobic.
Mom gave me a reassuring smile. “If the technology were that widespread, it stands to reason the fathers would have found out how to shut us off. And they have no idea how to do it.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess.” I felt a tiny shred of relief.
“So would you like to meet your biological mother and tell her what’s been going on?”
“I think so,” I said. “I’ll talk to Jessica about it. How would we find our biological mother?”
Mom gave a shrug. “I’ve already found her. It wasn’t hard.”
“Where is she?”
“Santa Cruz. She runs a bookshop there.”
Only a couple of hours away. I wondered if I got my love of reading from my biological mom. Could that be inherited? My heart began to pound at the thought of seeing her.
Mrs. Ivers came into the kitchen. “Judy, we’re going to go home and speak to our children about the plan,” she said. “There’s much to be done.”
Mom got up to see the mothers out. I sat and thought about what it might be like to live with our biological mom. Maybe she wouldn’t even want us. Could we really go away with the robot mothers? We didn’t have any extended family to stay with. My dad’s parents had died when I was little. He had a sister in Portland we hadn’t seen in years. What would all the other kids want to do–and would their dads really let them choose?
When Jessica got home that night, she and I talked for a long time, and we agreed we needed to speak to our birth mother before we made any decisions. Then Mom and Jessica and I talked some more. By the time Jessica and I went to bed, my voice was hoarse, and Dad hadn’t come home.
The next day was Saturday. Dad still hadn’t come home. That morning Mom drove us in the station wagon to Santa Cruz. When we asked if she’d told Dad what we were doing, Mom said, “I haven’t spoken to him, and I’m not going to ask for his permission.”
Jessica and I wanted to get a look at our biological mom before we spoke to her, even though Mom had her phone number. Maybe that wasn’t very considerate, but we wanted to keep whatever little control of the situation we had. It was a mild sunny day, perfect for a road trip, but I couldn’t relax and enjoy the ride, even though Mom was the best driver I knew, the safest and most efficient (unlike Dad, who often drove too fast and erratically). The other robot moms I’d ridden with were good drivers too. Only now did it occur to me it was their programming.
Jessica fiddled with the radio dial until she hit on a station playing “The Tide Is High” by Blondie, and she sang along loudly and goofily. Mom smiled in the rearview mirror as though she was certain everything was going to be all right.
In Santa Cruz, we stopped at a diner for lunch, but I was too nervous to eat more than a few bites of my grilled cheese. Then we headed for the bookshop. Mina’s Books was a sprawling one-story used bookstore, full of happily browsing customers. It was by far the largest bookshop I had ever been in, and I would have happily browsed too, if not for the reason we were here.
Behind the counter, a guy with grizzled hair rapidly sorted through a box of books, occasionally pausing to examine a volume. Another guy rang up purchases at the register. There were some women in the store, but no one who seemed to work there. Classical music played quietly on the radio.
We split up and explored the bookstore. I walked along the wall of Fiction and Literature, my eyes briefly resting on Cather, Chekhov, Colette, before scanning the place again for someone who might be my mother. A woman walked in and started chatting with the guy sorting books. She looked soft and round in a long flowered dress as she leaned on the counter. Her voice was low and a bit hoarse. She had brown hair and owlish glasses, and seemed like she might be the right age. I surreptitiously scoured her face for any family resemblance.
Jessica came up to me, looked pointedly at the woman, and shook her head. “Are you sure?” I whispered, and she nodded. I let out a sigh. I wished we had photos of our biological mom, but Dad hadn’t kept any–not even photos of her with us as little kids.
I headed deeper into the store and wandered through World History without taking in any of the book titles. Eventually I met up with Mom in the Feminism section. She had picked out several books. “This is a wonderful store,” she said, smiling. “Any luck?” I shook my head.
A big blond cat meandered along the aisles. It head-butted my jeaned leg, and I knelt and scratched it between the ears. “Kitty,” I murmured. The cat looked up at Mom and froze. Then it gave a low growl and bounded off. Suddenly I realized why we’d never been allowed a dog or a cat, and why none of our friends had one. (We’d had goldfish.) The truths of our lives kept revealing themselves in unexpected moments, making the ground feel unsteady beneath my feet.
I got up and walked toward the front of the store. The same two guys were behind the counter. What if our biological mom didn’t even come in today? Mom had her home address, but what if she was out of town? Maybe not calling first had been a mistake.
A middle-aged woman I hadn’t seen strode right past me. Had she come in through the back? She had brown hair with a little gray in it, and she wore jeans and a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She went behind the counter and conferred with the guy sorting through books. There was something familiar about her. Suddenly I realized she looked like an older, lankier version of Jessica. Or was I imagining? I looked around wildly for my sister, but Jessica was already hurrying to my side. She grabbed my arm and nodded emphatically.
“Really?” I whispered.
“Look at her!” Jessica whispered back, digging her fingers into my arm.
The woman looked up and saw us. She gazed at us with a puzzled expression. Then her eyes widened, and she grabbed onto the edge of the counter. The guy sorting books said something to her, but she didn’t seem to hear him.
“Come on,” Jessica whispered, and we made our way toward the counter as if in slow motion. We stood before the woman in silence.
“Jessie?” she asked. Then she scrutinized my face. “Gretchen, is that you?”
“Hi,” Jessica said in a small voice, at the same instant that I said, “It’s me.”
The woman’s face contorted with tears, and I realized I had never seen Mom cry, not once. How had I never noticed that? I didn’t know how to handle this woman crying. It made me feel simultaneously like apologizing and like running out the door.
She composed herself with visible effort, wiped her eyes, and walked out from behind the counter. I thought she was going to hug us, but she stopped short. Jessica let go of my arm and moved forward to give her a quick hug. Then I did the same, more because Jessica had than because I wanted to. It was almost like hugging a stranger, though the woman vibrated with emotion. She held me at arm’s length and shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered.
Customers were starting to stare, as was the book-sorting guy.
The woman slowly let go of me. Only then did I notice Mom standing there, clutching her armful of books. “Mina? I’m Judy,” she said. “Your store is wonderful.” She set the books on the counter and held out her hand for Mina to shake.
Our biological mother seemed loath to take her eyes off us, as if we would disappear if she looked away for an instant. “And you are…?” she asked Mom.
“She’s our stepmother,” Jessica said.
“Oh, you’re Richard’s wife?” she asked, giving Mom a brief, frosty handshake.
“Not really,” Mom said.
“What does that mean?” Mina asked.
“It’s complicated,” I said.
Mina glanced around and noticed people were watching. “Come with me,” she said and led us into a back room that contained books, a desk, phone, typewriter, three-ring binders, and other office supplies. If not for the circumstances, I would have been excited to see the inner workings of a bookstore. There were only two chairs, so we stood around awkwardly.
“So you’re not really Richard’s wife?” Mina asked. “Does that mean you’re getting a divorce?”
“That wouldn’t be necessary,” Mom said.
“I don’t understand,” Mina said.
“Is it okay to tell her?” I asked Mom, and she nodded.
“Tell me what?” Mina asked.
“She’s a robot,” Jessica said.
Mina looked from Jessica to me to Mom and back to Jessica. “Is that your nickname for your stepmother? That’s not very nice.”
“No, she’s literally a robot,” I said.
“Maybe you’d like to sit down,” Mom said pleasantly. Mina sat down, and we filled her in. At first she kept asking if this was some kind of a joke. Then she just listened but kept cursing under her breath, mostly calling Dad a fucking asshole, which entertained me and Jessica. (I’d never known Mom to swear. Another issue of her programming, probably.) We told Mina everything, except for our idea about coming to live with her.
“I need a drink,” Mina said when we were done.
We followed her pickup truck to her apartment building, a cheerful two-story place painted light yellow. Mina’s apartment had one bedroom, a spare room full of books (the whole place was full of books), a small bathroom, small kitchen, and largish living room. As far as I could tell, Mina lived alone. She made spaghetti and poured a glass of red wine for herself. We sat at the table between the kitchen and the living room. Mina asked me and Jessica about our lives, our school, our favorite subjects and hobbies. Mom mostly kept quiet and ate spaghetti, though I knew she couldn’t be hungry. Everything felt awkward, like we were trying to bridge the impassable gap of years.
“So do you have a girlfriend, Mina?” Jessica blurted out.
Mina blinked at her. “Why do you ask?”
“Dad said…I thought…” Jessica looked down at her plate and muttered, “He said you liked women, not men, and that’s why you got a divorce.”
Mina gave a laugh. “Of course he did.” She sipped her wine. “For the record, Jessie, I like women and men. I also like being on my own. I just didn’t like your father anymore. It was easier on his ego to believe I was a lesbian, and it served his purpose in custody court.”
I wound spaghetti around my fork and silently revised what I’d thought I knew about our biological mom. If she liked being on her own, did that mean she wouldn’t want us to move in with her?
“Speaking of custody arrangements…” Mom said, and she looked at me and Jessica. My sister and I glanced at each other, then nodded at Mom, who continued: “The girls and I were wondering if you might like them to come live with you.”
Mina looked blank. I held my breath. Then Mina’s face collapsed in tears again. “Of course I would,” she managed to say. “I would love that.” Jessica and I cried a little too. Only then did I realize how much I’d wanted her to say yes, even though she mostly felt like a stranger. A cool stranger, though. A stranger I wanted to know much better.
Mom and Mina strategized about how to get Dad to agree to let us move to Santa Cruz. They decided we should come to live with Mina at the beginning of summer, rather than leave school so near the end of the semester. Meanwhile, Mina said, she would clear out the spare room for us. We’d have to share a bedroom, but we agreed that was better than staying with Dad. If we liked living with her, Mina said, she’d find a bigger place.
After dinner, I browsed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the living room. So did Mom. There were a lot of novels and biographies.
“So you like books, huh?” Mina asked me with a crooked smile, and I nodded.
Jessica glanced at the shelves without much interest. Then she let out a gasp and cried, “Oh my god! I remember these!” She pulled out an old-looking hardcover of Ozma of Oz. There was a whole shelf of Oz books. We had read paperbacks of some Oz books when we were kids, but Mina had a lot more, all in slightly weathered hardcovers.
Jessica paged through the book, poring over the illustrations. I wondered if she really remembered that exact copy from when she was little. She sure seemed to. “You can take it with you, if you like,” Mina said.
“Thanks, Mina,” Jessica whispered, holding the book to her chest.
Soon it was time to go. Jessica and I each hugged Mina goodbye. Then Mom hugged her, which seemed to take Mina aback at first.
In the car on the way back to Ramseyville, I thought about what Mina had said about liking women and men and being on her own. As far as I knew, I didn’t like men or women. Maybe I just wasn’t programmed for love and romance like Jessica was. I wasn’t sure I would like being on my own either, though.
When we got home that night, Dad rushed out into the hall. “Where have you been?” he demanded. His face was stubbly, his tan pants and polo shirt rumpled. I smelled sweat and whiskey on him and took a step back.
“What are you doing here?” Mom inquired.
Dad stared wild-eyed at her. “What am I doing here? This is my house!”
She kept looking at him, her head cocked to one side.
Finally he said, “I came to pick up a few things. When none of you were here, I thought…”
“You thought what? That I’d kidnapped the girls?” Mom’s tone was light and curious. “Really, Richard, don’t be so dramatic.”
He’d come to pick up a few things. I wondered where he was staying.
“I called that boyfriend of yours,” Dad told Jessica. “He wouldn’t tell me where you were.”
“You called Tom?” Jessica rolled her eyes. She was carrying Mina’s copy of Ozma of Oz.
“What’s that?” he asked, and she clutched the book tighter. “Where were you all day–book shopping?” He made it sound like a crime.
“As a matter of fact, we did go book shopping,” Mom said, and she turned her paper bag of books around so Dad could see the Mina’s Books logo with its cartoon bookshelves. “Did you know your ex-wife runs a bookshop?”
Dad’s mouth dropped open.
“We let Mina know what’s been going on around here,” I said. I could barely believe how calm I sounded. I expected Dad to yell at me, but he just went pale and quiet.
“The girls would like to go live with Mina for awhile,” Mom said. “For the summer, and perhaps longer.”
Dad’s mouth trembled like he might actually start to cry. I had never seen him cry, and in spite of everything, I felt bad that Jessica and I were hurting his feelings. But then he said, “Perhaps that would be for the best. The situation here has become untenable.”
Jessica and I exchanged looks of amazement.
“I’d rather the girls lived with Mina than with you,” he added nastily, glaring at Mom.
“None of this is Mom’s fault, Dad,” I said.
Dad looked at me with a solemn expression. “I know you won’t believe this, but I did all this for you.”
“That’s crap, Dad,” Jessica said. “You did it because you could.”
He shook his head as if trying to block out her words. Then he rounded on Mom. “And what about you, Judy? I hope you don’t think you’re going to freeload here with me when the kids are gone.”
Mom stared at him. Then she laughed and laughed.
I’ve been working at Mina’s bookstore this summer. Jessica finally got to cut her hair short and dye it purple (though she might have to dye it back when school starts, and she has to hide it under a pink-and-white hat at her ice cream parlor summer job). Mom waitresses at a local cafe. Many of the other moms moved to Santa Cruz too–mostly the ones whose kids opted to stay with their dads or to go live with their biological moms or other family. Tom still lives in Ramseyville with his dad, but he visits Jessica often. Mom rents a small house with Tom’s mom, Lucy Jensen’s mom, and Annie Powell.
Soon after we got settled in Santa Cruz, Mr. Ivers tried to shoot Mrs. Ivers with a handgun, but he was drunk and missed. Then he turned the gun on himself, or, at least, that’s what the newspapers said. Cecilia doesn’t like to talk about it. She and Mrs. Ivers moved to Santa Cruz too when the furor died down.
Jessica and I haven’t visited Dad since we moved, though we talk on the phone. He’s thinking of getting transferred to another branch of his office, in Phoenix. A lot of people have been leaving Ramseyville, especially after what happened with Mr. Ivers. Tom says Dad’s having an affair with his secretary. Maybe he already was, before all of this started.
Mina’s place is kind of close quarters with me and Jessica here. We’ve been looking at apartments. We want to be all moved in before school starts in the fall. It’ll be weird to make new friends who have regular, flesh-and-blood moms. Then again, we have Mina, but she’s more like a friend than a mom. She hasn’t figured out how much she should lay down the law with us yet (like when Jessica stays out late with Tom). Mina doesn’t like punk rock any more than Dad did, though she at least tries to listen. She’s into Joni Mitchell, which makes Jessica groan, though I secretly like some of her songs.
It’s nice to be near the water instead of in landlocked Ramseyville. It’s still all such a big change, though. I have nightmares about Dad taking Mom apart, arms and legs scattered everywhere, and the moms shooting the dads, and other scary stuff. Mina says that’s understandable.
Mom loves to visit the bookstore. This afternoon Mina was teaching me how to work the cash register while harpsichord music played on the radio, and Mom came in with Mrs. Ivers and Mrs. Jensen. Seeing I was busy, Mom just smiled and waved at me, and the three of them wandered off to browse. The usually laid-back bookstore cat let out a yowl and jumped up onto the counter.
“I know what you mean, JoJo,” Mina murmured, stroking him. She smiled wryly at me. “I do like them, you know,” she said under her breath. “They’re just…disconcerting.”
Mom and her friends stood in front of the Poetry section, deep in conversation about some paperback. The bearded guy who’d just bought a bunch of mysteries turned to ogle Mrs. Ivers, auburn hair flowing down her back.
The mothers seemed to feel eyes on them. As one, they turned and leveled a stare at him, and my breath caught. Clutching his paper bag, the guy walked out the door, and the women returned to their conversation. Mom’s hair was still just as short as the day she’d lopped it off. Mrs. Jensen had a few splotches of paint, red and purple and orange, on her t-shirt and jeans, and I remembered what Lucy Jensen had said about her painting a mural of the moms on their kitchen wall. I wondered whether the mural was still there, back in Ramseyville. Probably Mr. Jensen had painted over it. That was okay. The mothers looked happy. They looked so alive. In their quiet way, they looked so punk rock–though if you didn’t know what they were, they must have seemed like ordinary middle-aged women.
About the Author
Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her collection of short fiction and poetry, People Change, was published in 2018 by Aqueduct Press. Her work has appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Apex, Not One of Us, and Lackington’s.