She arrived disoriented as usual at the workshop to see the head engineer. Every morning she awoke with her dead husband’s kiss lingering on her mouth. It was the same today.
But the guy she privately called the tinkerer wasn’t there yet. His assistant shooed her into the far corner as if to get her out of his space and out of sight. “I don’t know when he’ll be here, but you can wait over there in the corner with all the junk. Sorry. With the other recalcitrants.” He waved her to the shadowy end of the lab and turned back to the computer at his bench amid a jumble of electronics and what seemed like parts of a human hand.
She crossed the unseen line from approved to slightly questionable, from legitimate, paid research to the experimental ones, with private money or a damn intriguing premise, as the old tinkerer described hers. His specialties were mechatronics, biology, neurology and some others, but she trusted him not for his credentials, but because the project grabbed his skepticism. “What would you do with him if it works?” he asked. She didn’t want to tell him, and he looked back at her with unreadable eyes.
The corner where the shunted bots waited was dim and she didn’t know where the switches were. In that light, it could have been a solemn group of people clustered respectfully around a taller one at their centre.
She approached carefully. It did look a lot like him, standing there, half done, but somehow half undone. She could see that his torso and head, shoulders and arms were perfect. They even had his height and breadth absolutely right. She didn’t have to embrace him to know that, but her arms, all on their own, wanted to.
There he stood in that ignominious corner of the cavernous room as if he were real and waiting for her to rescue him from this second death. She took him in. Her eyes watered at the corners, remembering him in the hospice, the children as shocked and quiet as he had been, laying on the bed, waxen, unable to move, no kiss awakening him this time, before he died.
On the other hand, he was upright here, half turned away from her in the corner as if speaking to the others, their faces turned up to his. She’d seen this stance in life countless times at meetings, speeches, or dinners. Even now he waited in the midst of his admirers, almost like he was still fomenting a rebellious political scheme, flirting, or defending some tantalizing, outrageous idea. But no, she shook her head. This was not him, not the real man.
She peered at the back of his neck. She could see the characteristic tuft of his hair – silver now and not pure black as when she’d met him – creeping down the base of his skull into a tiny point in the centre of his neck. Her fingers longed to ruffle that soft hair, lift it so she could let her lips graze the tender skin at the base of his neck the way she had countless times, laying beside him, her face pressed to the exact centre of his back, the indentation where his shoulder muscles met over his spine. She shivered.
She looked him over, not yet touching, then impulsively reached out and lifted his inanimate hand to check the long elegant fingers, and the telltale nails. A jolt of energy, small but discernible, leapt from his hand to hers, or hers to his. She couldn’t tell, but let the hand drop back.
The engineer still wasn’t there. Good. She could look on her own, unwatched and unjudged, except by the eerie huddle of hushed figures.
She reached out again and this time swiveled him toward her to fully examine the face of her dead husband in the gentle light. A shimmer of expression seemed to pass over the faces of the others. She stared deep into his eyes, or rather, up into the perfect replica of his eyes, stuck open, not really contemplating her, but with a dreamy look she thought he would have had as a boy. It was without doubt, a reproduction of his face – the bones, the eyes and eyelids, the brow. They had been entirely faithful to the slope of his cheekbones and forehead. She had to stop from reaching up and pressing the beloved skin covering those bones, or laying her mouth on it, as she used to do. She reminded herself it was not really skin, but something else, a petroleum product, no doubt.
His lips especially were exact, and his jaw was perfect, as if, just like the original, formed not only by genetics, but by all the battles he’d fought in life, those crusades into chambers of law and government, boardrooms and meeting halls, those defeats and occasional victories. She wondered how the tinkerer and his crew had done that, making such a perfect copy as struggle itself had made of him, like the lab was the very crucible of his own particular life. It didn’t seem possible. She almost expected to see him smile, gesture emphatically as he did, clench his fists in that characteristic manner relishing another battle, or even reach out to stroke her own cheekbone.
No, this was not the latest iteration of her dead husband. It was only a reproduction, encasing electronic impulses and the flickering of all they had downloaded from his videos and digital traces left behind. He was a good candidate, having left so much, not just social media, but a wide and long repository of the way his mind worked, the way he’d looked, sounded and acted. And she, lost in the throes of regret and grief, bewitched by emotion, had given them everything she had, recordings of his old speeches from decades back, all the raw material to make this hybrid of memory and digital traces. She’d even given them samples of his DNA. And now, there he stood, towering over her as in their somewhat younger days before he was laid low and finally stopped by age, disease, and weariness.
He stood wearing the same clothes he’d worn, that sweet sardonic smile, those lips, quivering with a scheme, a joke, an idea or desire. She could see the vein on his forehead, not pulsating now, but laying ready to fill and fire up with some new kind of motive power. Their children had that same vein as on this robot’s forehead.
What possible errors had they made, what had they lacked, making them give up, she wondered. The engineer hadn’t told her in his email.
She leaned toward this half-man so familiar to her. She could almost sense real flesh waiting within the perfectly tailored suit, as if fed by a heart beating beneath the fine cotton shirt, the carotid arteries pumping blood, sustaining a brain that had once created so much good as well as all that drama. He’d been a real man, engaging with life wholeheartedly: grabbing it and shaking it, caressing it, refusing to let it say no to him, just as the first time he’d kissed her.
Examining his face, her eyes settled again on that mouth, his lips perfectly formed, at rest. She remembered that first kiss, as she always had, throughout decades whenever she looked at his lips. It seemed as indecent here and now, as in life, to have those lips on display for the world to see.
There was nothing indefinite about their shape. Just looking at them, she felt their whole life together: decisions that carried them though such confrontations and conflict; the controversy that accompanied everything he did, caused by words issuing from those lips. He never could let his words be unspoken. Those lips could not be still, either causing trouble and controversy, or else laughing, and teasing and kissing their way through the world.
Every night since he had gone, she fell asleep with his kiss on her lips, memorized, lingering, reluctant to leave, and she woke every morning, the same way.
She wished she could hear his singing or his whistle one more time, or the particular sound of his footsteps creaking along the hallway, the sound of his voice. But most of all, she wished she could kiss him just one more time.
She had walked up to him all those years ago, slowing as she came closer, saying nothing, drawn to him as he’d leaned to her. Would he reach out for her, take her in his arms? What were they made of, these arms occupying the fine material of a suit just like he’d worn then? The workshop was quiet and the light receded. No one else was there and she could almost see Bill’s kitchen again in her mind, the farmhouse style cupboards and appliances, the worn but clean linoleum, the man standing in the middle after the meeting, making everything around him seem like it was only half-sized. The edges of reality faded away. The other bots seemed to back away.
He stood above her, close enough so she could feel his breath. Yes, they stood breath to breath with each other, and she felt his exhalation on her worn skin. What did he see now, his vision stripped of memory? What would he think about her aging skin, wrinkles honed by the life he’d given her, that they’d led together, and more since he’d abruptly quit and departed? She was no longer the untried and untested one he’d kissed that evening after the jubilant meeting.
It still lived in her cells, not just within her mind, but she could even feel it in this very room, right now, here with him, in the cells of her brain and body, and of course, her lips. That memory waited in her lips, tickling and worrying the nerves, overflowing with remembered sensation.
There he waited, his height exact, the same broad chest and strong arms poised to draw her closer though they had not even touched, because of course, he could not move.
She could almost see that vein pulsing, his eyes the same twilight blue and stubble surfacing on his jawline like at the end of a long day. And would he say to her now, as he’d said to her all those years ago, “Well, did you have fun?”
She balanced on the edge, unable to discern the look in his eyes, so instead she closed her own and leaned closer to him, standing again on tiptoe as she had then. She turned up to him as she had that first time, and all times afterwards throughout many years. She lifted her mouth to his and felt them join as perfectly as those long years ago, strangers but not really strangers, with some kind of deep cellular recognition.
She felt the nudge of pressure and motion, firm, gentle pressure, but especially she felt the shape of his mouth that matched her own lips exactly. Some creator had taken his knife through clay, making his mouth and making hers from the same piece, then animating them, sending them off into the world to live and dream. They had stumbled around apart until at last by that kiss, found each other again. And afterwards, they’d always reconciled their two lives and views with a kiss, all those kisses that had solved everything, solved nothing, really, until with the last one, they were separated again.
Except now it seemed he was kissing her as he’d always done. Her eyes still closed tight, she murmured, “Just like in Bill’s kitchen.” She felt him pause and in her husband’s voice, sonorous and low, he asked, “Bill who?”
She stopped, drew back and opened her eyes, looking into his eyes that had not lived. She searched, trying to locate all that he had been. Where were those common experiences, the memories, inhabiting the deepest part of his brain that could not be faked or recreated. He paused, then drew back also. He seemed to grasp her arms in a light caressing hold, strong enough that she didn’t pull away and turn to leave. She held still and looked up into his eyes, those eyes that looked almost exactly like his.
It was like sitting again at his deathbed. This effigy looked more like him than the real man had in those last hours. He’d never belonged there in the faked homey hospice room. After the children finished their last words with him, she’d re-entered to have her own, summing up a lifetime of farewells with the last one. One last kiss, a shadow of all the others, but still their lips had matched.
He waited for her to make the first move. Her husband would never have done that. She could almost hear the robot saying next, “Just tell me what you want, tell me what to do and I will do it.” He was indeed perfect, just as she’d hoped, exact and quite true to the uploads. The tinkerer had done a great job, as far as he could. But that capricious, infuriating, imperfect man was truly gone.
She closed her eyes and tried to shake off the last bit of hope that clung to her body, the shadows of a thousand kisses. Maybe she could teach him. It was better than giving up. She closed her eyes to kiss him again.
But he spoke to her again, “Who is Bill? Should I know Bill?”
She shook herself away from his feeble hold and his mild, puzzled look, then turned and fled.
The head engineer emailed her again, apologized for missing her at the lab. Instead of going back there, she met him at his office instead. He was there, this time, waiting for her and almost pounced on her the moment she walked through the door.
“What did you do to him?”
“What do you mean?”
“You visited him. What did you do to him?”
“You did. And whatever it was, you should tell me, you know. But in any case, now we could, if you like, resume the build.”
He looked at her in a manner she thought was a little too cunning and he edged a tiny bit closer to her, looking into her eyes, as she tried to look back, straight at him, but only succeeded in a sideways glance.
“But the problems have resolved. He’s working.”
“Oh, no. Sorry.”
“What’s the problem? Where did we miss? Tell me.”
“Oh, he’s perfect. He’s a paragon. Don’t know how you did it.”
“But it might be better to pick some Joe off the street, some real guy.”
“For what?” The tinkerer studied her closely, frowning.
“Never mind,” she said, pulling back from him. He was in her body space, too close, except that suddenly something connected, something without words, not electronic, not electric, not digital, but a jolt of something potent and unexpected.
She looked at him this time, couldn’t help but see him for the first time, she thought. He didn’t look the way she’d thought a specialist in all those fields should look, but short and burly, and yes, a hands-on type of guy. She looked at the tinkerer’s hands. They were blunt and strong and vital, and he spread them, palms open, at her. Without thinking, she almost stepped closer toward them, into their range and grasp, then stopped herself and looked into his eyes.
“Ah,” he said, more like a breath than a word. She stepped deep into the unfamiliar territory of his look, part compassion, part something else. Humor perhaps, but unpredictability, more than a hint of that. He was a bit of a wild man she thought, and she could feel the impulses fighting inside him, ungovernable, electric, and capricious. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him.
— Keltie Zubko is a Western Canadian writer, based on Vancouver Island, BC. Her work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines (digital, print, and audio) in Canada, the U.S., and internationally.