With growing detachment Anne watched the evenly spaced yellow dashes pained on the surface of the asphalt road stretch themselves out before disappearing under the car. Her eyes were drawn to the hypnotic visual rhythm and as the world around her narrowed her mind began to drift into the place where memories become living dreams.
The chattering phantoms grew louder, and their muffled voices became clearer and each one more distinct. Anne’s dead eyes weren’t seeing traffic and pavement. Reality was just an obscured and quiet backdrop happening at the fringes of an encroaching nightmare. Her sense of dread became a physically creeping sensation that crawled up her body through the fibers in her muscles and into her bones. Her stomach tightened, every breath became sharp and painful, her pupils dilated into ebony voids.
“Hey look a school bus!” Charlotte announced.
The child’s high pitched voice snapped Anne back to the present. She exhaled sharply and looked around the car with bewildered eyes. She took a moment to collect herself.
“See the bus mommy?” Charlotte repeated as she waved to the children watching out the windows.
“Oh, yeah that’s great Char,” Anne said dismissively. She was instantly sorry she took that tone. Charlotte was supposed to be nine, and she doesn't go to school. It just one of those things that reminded Anne that no matter how she rationalized it or thought about it what she and Charlotte had wasn’t real.
Her silky black hair was cut into a perfect pixie, her cheeks had just enough baby fat left to plump them just a little bit, and her perfectly shaped eyes with their onyx pupils rimmed with emerald green she was a living snapshot.
“Hey want to stop at Target and pick out a toy,” suggested Anne.
“YEAH!” Charlotte replied, her dark eyes gleamed with excitement.
“That always sounds like a good idea right?” Anne grinned.
“Yeah,” Charlotte agreed. “Mommy I think I already know what I want to get.”
“What’s that?” Anne asked.
“You know the show with--”
There was a deafening crash. Then the sound of shattering glass. Anne could feel her body tumbling, but she couldn’t control any of her limbs. The car tumbled off the road and landed on its roof. Once the rolling 2-ton vehicle stopped rolling Anne vomited onto the ceiling before slipping into silence.
When Anne’s eyes opened, it felt like she’d blinked and life skipped a few scenes. The room was dark except for the electronic glow of various monitors. Tubes hanging from her arms snaked there way up metallic poles to hanging plastic bags.
“Charlotte” was Anne’s first coherent thought
She felt around the bed for a call button. She clicked the red button over and over until she heard footsteps. The door opened, and a nurse walked in.
“Is everything ok Ms. Lee?” The nurse asked gently.
“My daughter where’s my daughter?” Anne asked on the brink of hyperventilating.
“Don’t worry Ms. Lee Intelligent Life took her after the accident. They’ve been trying to reach you. If you want I can tell them you’re ready to talk to them,” the nurse reassured her.
“Yes please right away,” Anne snapped.
Anne waited nervously. She refused to take any more painkillers she needed to have a clear head if she was going to be there for Charlotte. The muffled throbbing morphed into terrible twinges and muscular spasms.
Worse though was the mental anguish that was becoming more vicious as the fog tranquilizers was dispelled. The hospital room gave Anne a horrifying sense of dejavu. The image of her daughter stretched out on a cold metallic Gurnee, her bloodied face was bloated and bruised beyond all recognizability. Her beautiful hair was matted with dirt and the rusty color of dry blood. Anne bit down on her finger and tried to keep herself from screaming. SHe wondered if had been the same this time. Would there be as much blood, or would there be blood at all? Did frayed wires burst from her wounds? Charlotte shuddered at the thought and decided to ask the nurse for a Xanax.
There was a lite knock at the door. Anne was grateful for the distraction. “Come in,” she called.
The door opened, and a rambunctious and entirely unscathed Charlotte came barreling at Anne with her arms stretched out in front of her.
Charlotte ran over to Anne and threw herself in her arms. Anne clutched the little girl tightly fresh tears streamed down the grateful mother’s face. She was startled by the sudden flash of a camera.
“Oh, my god that is just too much precious at once,” a vivacious young woman said standing in the doorway as she captured the reunion with her phone.
“I think I’ll tag this all love is real,” she said proudly.
“I’m sorry who are you?” Anne asked.
“Oh, I’m Rebecca Heartfield I’m in client relations at Intelligent Life.”
“And I’m Adam Wise,” a man in wire-frame glasses and a pinstriped suit introduced himself from behind the chattery PR woman. “I’m from Intelligent Life’s legal department.”
“Legal department?” Anne said confused.
“Don’t worry no one’s suing you,” Adam Joked. “Can I sit down and talk to you a moment?”
“Sure,” Anne said.
Adam walked past Rebecca who was busy uploading the hear warming pictures she took across the various social media platforms. He opened his wallet and took out a dollar. He walked over to Charlotte and bent down next to her. “Here get something from the vending machine,” he said handing her the bill.
“Thanks!” Charlotte said as she dashed out of the room.
“That’s a pretty good job they did,” said Adam “It’s like nothing happened at all.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” Anne said wiping away the tears.
“Oh don’t worry about it,” Rebecca said glancing up from her phone.
“Well, there is the matter of cost though,” Adam said.
“Cost?” Anne repeated.
“I’m afraid the damage was extensive and since part of your package includes an order to repair even if you can’t be reached for permission we honored our agreement and the bill came out to thirty-seven thousand dollars.”
“Thirty-seven thousand dollars?” Anne said clearly shocked.
“Well, she was badly lacerated they basically had to make her a new epidermis, as well as new hair and realign the spine and there was some limb reattachment.”
Anne cringed as the attorney callously listed the ways Charlotte had been mutilated in the accident.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” Anne choked. “What happens if I can’t pay?”
Adam shrugged, “Well, then it goes to collections.”
Anne was stunned. “You mean you’d take her? I already lost her once I can’t lose the same child twice,” Anne sobbed.
“It doesn't need to come to that,” Adam said. At Intelligent Life, we know how important this type of human bond is, and that’s why we worked out a human solution.”
“What solution?” Asked Anne.
“Once we fixed Charlotte up and people saw her there was instant interest. The bouncy hair, the vaguely Asian eyes, she was an instant hit. It turns out everyone wants a Charlotte.”
“So what are you getting at?” Anne asked unable to restrain her hostility.
“We want you to sign the right to her image over to us so we can start making more Charlotte's,” Adam said.
“You mean you want to mass produce my daughter?” Anne said horrified by the thought. “No, I’m sorry I can’t.”
Adam’s friendly eyes became menacing. He leaned in close to Anne and talked in a hushed voice. “I’ve seen your file I know you had to chose to remake her instead of your husband. If you give this up, you’ll have neither.”
Reluctantly Anne signed. SHe got Charlotte back after a few days she was released. It was as good an outcome as she could have hoped for. Time went by, and Anne slowly recovered from her wounds. She was spending an idle afternoon on the couch watching tv with her casted leg elevated on the armrest. The show she was watching ended and the commercials for prime time started running the first was the local news.
“Child Robot Brothels?” The words appeared on the screen in bold crimson.
“Police have raided a house they say was a brothel where paying customers could have sex with artificial children.”
Charlotte gasped in horror as the b-roll showed a row of girls identical to her daughter with bruised and dirty faces huddling in a dark room.
“What are you watching mommy?”
Anne quickly turned off the tv. “Nothing,” she said. “Want to get outside for a while?”
Anne got her crutches and took Charlotte over to a city park and watched her play from a bench. The scene from the news clip played in her mind over and over again as she contemplated the horrors those little Charlotte doppelgangers must have endured and seeing it that way made it feel like it had happened to her own daughter to her own Charlotte. How many more were out there and what was happening to them?
“Hey, mommy look at this!” Charlotte shouted from across the park
Anne looked up and saw her standing next to an identical girl with the same silky black hair cut into a pixie and with the same dark green eyes. The child she had made with her late husband and had rebuilt she had done so to extreme specification. She remembered every detail about her daughter. Charlotte was the result of an exclusive union and nothing not even a very convincing synthetic version came close to the real thing, but it had been a start. Charlotte had seemed irreplaceable there could never be another like her again and now she was only a design.
Now, a little note from the author:
About seven years ago two stories I submitted were printed by an Australian based literary magazine called Skive. Just a few months later more of my work was accepted by a publisher in Scotland and another in Kentucky. That’s when I knew the first time hadn’t been just a fluke! From then on I wrote as much as I could and submitted work anywhere I could.
As it stands, my work has been printed in 11 different volumes and has been featured in numerous ebooks as well as distributed on literary-themed websites. I try and be as industrious as possible and strive for at least two short stories a month. Usually, these are about 1,000-3,000 words. I have no plans to commit myself to a novel my style just works best at that length. So take a look at my work. If you donate, you have my undying gratitude! Even if you don’t but at least come back and see what I’ve written from time to time that would be greatly appreciated as well.