Fiction by Tracy Maxwell
Jon never wanted to leave. He’d stirred earlier, happier than he could remember.
With salt in the air, his mind curled into the soft feather bed supporting his hulking frame. The seaside cottage was his personal favorite of all the Bed & Breakfasts he’d visited, and the best according to this year’s B&B bible, Homes Away. Del may have disagreed, but her rhythmic breathing betrayed her comfort.
With practiced stealth he slipped from bed, peeking through the curtains at the endless shoreline and rocky cliffs. The waves that lulled him to sleep the night before crashed louder and more certain in the sun, inviting him to get swept away. But the sweet little bell from the kitchen rang out, and he realized his stomach had other ideas.
Gently kissing Del on her forehead, Jon slipped into a robe folded neatly on a shelf. He shoved his feet into a pair of fluffy slippers pulled from a handwoven red basket, shaking his head and marveling again at the authenticity. He made haste toward the smell of coffee and homemade biscuits.
Mrs. M was in the kitchen as usual, hair piled neatly atop her head like a sticky bun as she smoothly spun around her kitchen turning ingredients into gold. A feast spanned the table, far bigger than he and Del could consume on their hungriest day. He beamed as they said their good mornings, then sat at the old kitchen table, admiring the delicate craftsmanship while he poured a mug of coffee.
“You’re in your element, Mrs. M,” he said, not for the first time.
“Actually, my element is argon. Why? It’s a noble gas,” she chuckled. “And of course, it’s the preferred isotope in the nucleosynthesis of supernovas. Now eat your eggs.”
As he ate Jon wondered, as usual, about Mrs. M, trying to puzzle out her story. She was coy about her beginnings, so Jon tried to provoke her into slipping up.
“What does the M stand for again?” he asked.
“Mary Celeste,” she replied, eyes dramatically wide.
Jon laughed at the spooky joke. She laughed, too, and ruffled his hair. She’d never done that before, but now Jon could think of nothing else.
Del dragged herself into the kitchen, hair poking up at odd angles. She rubbed her eyes and frowned. “Why do you talk to her so much?” she yawned.
“She’s right here, Del. You’re being rude.”
Mrs. M said nothing, just sat Del’s plate down, smiling hopefully.
“Stop simulation,” Del said, voice now fully awake and more authoritative than necessary, Jon thought.
The B&B vanished, leaving Jon and Del alone on the bridge of their ship.
“I was really enjoying that biscuit.”
“J, I only said I’d go with you if you stopped engaging.”
“Are you jealous of a simulation? An old woman? You’re a logical being, Del.”
Del fumed. “We’re here because we’re supposed to be better than humans, Jon. We are better. Your sentimentality offends.”
“We’re not even halfway there yet, Del. If you could allow me the peculiarities of my human side as we tumble through this nothingness, I’d be much obliged.”
Jon quietly turned and headed toward his sleeping quarters.
“How many years did Pelican Bay place first in Homes Away magazine?” Jon asked aloud, lying in his featherless bed.
A smooth voice answered in his mind. “The Pelican Bay took first place two years in a row, and was top ten every year until closure due to the food scarcity epidemic of—”
“That’s fine, thank you,” Jon said.
Back at Mrs. M’s table, alone, Jon asked how he could help.
“You could be a dear and clean the rain gutters. Fierce thunderstorms last night,” Mrs. M said.
Jon knew there were no storms, but he was curious about the rest of the simulation. He understood everything was real while in it, and that it concerned Del, but he felt safer here than anywhere.
Outside, a ladder leaning against the house surprised him and he laughed. He’d never seen one before. He approached it and pressed on each rung, testing its sturdiness. Then he started climbing. From his top-rung perch he could see the horizon and other beach houses. People dotted the sand. His eyes felt wet.
He was so lost in yearning that a boat horn startled him. Jon tumbled down the ladder while desperately grasping for a handhold, slicing his right arm lengthwise on the way down. Even though he was a hybrid, he still felt pain. This was definite confirmation of that.
He ran into the kitchen and Mrs. M came quickly. She wrapped his arm in a dish towel and sat him down at the old oak table he so loved. She left to grab her “kit” and told Jon to keep pressure on it. He decided to have a closer look at the wound, instead. Layers of flesh, tendons, veins…and a small piece of metal in his wrist. Jon pulled the flesh away just enough to see a marking: M85.
Mrs. M hissed when she returned and saw what Jon was doing. She sat down, pulled out her cotton balls, and promptly dropped her stitching needles. Exasperated, she bent to retrieve them. When she reached down he noticed it. A piece of metal at the base of her skull. Jon reached out to touch her neck and Mrs. M swatted him away.
“What are you doing?”
“Who are you? Really?”
Mrs. M sighed and started on his arm. “The Great Famine drove technical innovation. I was a small contribution, an early hybrid designed to increase production during scarcity. I was later sold for parts, until a broker saw my usefulness and purchased me for simulation modeling.”
Jon reached out again; this time Mrs. M didn’t stop him. A metal tag hidden in her hair, small as a maker’s mark, also stamped M85.
He pulled his skin apart to show her the similar piece inside his wrist.
“They took those parts from me. Who knows how many children I have?” She laughed and cupped his cheek. “I hope they all turned out like you.”
Jon suddenly knew what the M stood for.
“Lock simulation,” he said to the ship. To Del. To his nearly human heart.
Tracy Maxwell is a lover of all things short-form–especially her children. Her poetry, fiction and screenplay work has been published and prized in anthology and competition, and she most recently made the Top Ten Writer’s Digest Short Short Stories of 2018. As an advertising creative, Tracy’s also written commercials you’ve probably fast-forwarded through. You can follow her on Twitter @tismaxwell for sporadic project updates, insomniac thoughts and hashtag shenanigans.