If pressed, Margaret would confide how it began with the loss of her figure. Her waist, that neat indentation where Paul tucked his hand while kissing, or clasped, skin-to-skin, during love-making, disappeared with the first pregnancy. She’d eye the mirror, helpless witness as her reflection gave way to other geometry.
She found consolation in how, for a while, Paul still came and the babies did, too.
Other changes were more gradual. Her visibility faded. Paul, then the older kids—the teenage boy, and on down the line—all stopped seeing her. Was she that unsightly? They’d speak to her: What’s for dinner? When’s my appointment? Where’s my homework? But their eyes would sweep beyond the edges of her utilitarian bulk, to a wall, a flickering phone, anything other than her face.
The only exception was her baby, Claudia. Four was young enough that something remained for her in her mother’s tired eyes. “Mama, you’re so pretty,” the child would say, then pat a jowly cheek. Margaret drank it in and was almost sated, but not quite. Every little kid gesture was marred by its promised impermanence. All of them had been tender enough to care. Once.
Still, Margaret continued to perform reliably. It made her happy to please them—even little tasks, like buying just the right brand of socks for Paul. Not too tight, with a green stitch at the toe and elastic that was guaranteed to never sag.
One day, Margaret woke to find the world outside her was gone. All she could sense was her own tight consciousness. She was surprised at the lack of relief she felt. What had she prayed for before falling asleep? Oblivion? This must be it. The serviceable non-person she’d been for over a decade had finally been cut loose.
She faintly remembered the twinge she’d felt as she drifted off. Always wanting to optimize, she’d been thinking how she might make herself more valuable to the family. Margaret was recalling the moments before sleep, when from far away, she heard Paul. His voice was removed, as if it drifted to her through long-engineered layers of protection.
“Where’s your mother got to?” Then, “What’s this?”
Soon, all the family was speaking. Barriers came down. Hands touched her, lifted her. It was overwhelming and happened so quickly, Margaret had no time to react. In one zap of connection, she was electrified into her new being.
Paul’s unshaven face loomed before her. His graying hair was pushed into a cock’s comb from sleep. The children crowded behind him. Claudia ducked under an arm to get a closer look.
“Your mother must have ordered it,” he said.
“Paul!” She could see him, but couldn’t feel her limbs. “It’s me.” He leaned forward and adjusted something.
“I’m here!” This time, they heard her.
It took only a few minutes of wild conversation for the truth to become clear: Margaret Field, wife and mother, had been transformed. Delivered to their door as a brand new Apple computer. She was shiny and she was state-of-the-art—if inexplicable. But no one minded that last part. They’d really been needing a new computer.
Only one child audibly complained about the lack of compatible software.
Margaret, programmed to smooth away unease, highlighted the positives: “I can help with schoolwork. I can still manage the bills. And we can watch our favorite movies together. It’ll be fine, just you wait and see.”
They nodded in slow agreement. No one could argue with her practicality.
Only Claudia went from confusion to tears. She sat on Paul’s lap while Margaret conjured up a schedule for computer time, cooing reassurance. Wide-eyed, the girl sniffled and touched a finger to the pink rectangle representing her turn. A pleasurable tremor shot through Margaret. She was touch-screen.
Any chance she could, Claudia would climb into the computer chair, accidentally setting it spinning. Her legs too short to help, she had to stretch for the desk and her mother’s warm glow. “Mama? Is that you?”
“Yes, baby. It’s me.”
“Can you see me?”
“I can see you. This is my new eye.” Margaret lit the indicator light next to her webcam.
“Can you see the book, Mama?” Claudia dragged a picture book across the keyboard, and in trying to share it, accidentally opened an array of windows. “Oops.”
“It’s OK.” Margaret cleared the display.
“Mama, read it.” So Margaret read, pausing whenever Claudia forgot and let the book drop, too interested in trying to see the illustrations. Margaret knew it wouldn’t be long before Claudia would be able to read the books on her own.
Over time, Margaret found reasons to be thankful for the unexpected change. No longer was she begrudgingly tied to aging flesh: gone were the pounds she hauled out of bed every morning, heaved up and down the basement steps; the ache of her knees, feet, and back; her white, stretched belly with its purple striping and wrinkled slack, so terrifyingly unlike the taut curve of her girlhood; her treacherous organs that thwarted her daily with their palpitations, shortness-of-breath, and splitting headaches. And with no arms to cart groceries or hands to scrub floors, she was free of that, too.
Before, Margaret often feared she was little more than a domestic object. Now, she was central to the family. They all came to her, eager to engage.
“It’s my turn with mom.”
“No, it’s not. It’s my turn.”
“Your turn is over! Look at the schedule. It’s my turn with her!”
The children would run hands over her sleek new form. They all touched her screen. Smiled at her in delight. Looked with wonder and interest into her webcam. When Margaret spoke to them through the speakers, or referenced a webpage on the monitor, they treated her with an authority she never had as a human mother.
Then, one night, the children in bed, she found herself alone with Paul. Margaret studied his face, framed in her camera. She’d hired help and assigned chores to the children, but Paul was haggard. Perhaps it was the strain of pretending to know nothing of her disappearance. She couldn’t stroke his creased forehead, but she could give him some relief.
She opened a webpage. Paul sat up in shock. “See anything you like?” she asked. Paul pressed his lips together, uncomfortable. “Oh, Paul—I know you’ve looked before. Before I was…like this. I don’t mind. We can do it together.” Margaret coaxed him. “You’ll have to do some yourself, but I’ll talk dirty. It’ll be fun.”
Paul’s gaze flitted to the camera. Margaret watched old desires rise in his eyes. His mouth softened. He leaned in to choose a video, his breath stirring the sensitive pixels of her screen.
Her. He was looking at her. She held want he wanted. Her circuits tingled.
Hemlock Hyde is madly in love with the absurd. In addition to spending copious hours staring at plants (a favorite pastime), she is currently revising her second novel attempt and a screenplay. Her essay “The Vigil” won first place in Creative Nonfiction in the 2012 West Virginia Writers, Inc. competition. Her poems have been recognized in the categories of Appalachian Writing, Long Poetry, and Emerging Poets, and have appeared in the Sacred Way Poets anthology, Goblin Songs. Hyde works as an occasional public librarian, and resides with kids, husband, and pets in a level of chaos that is not unpleasant.
Lead image: “Apple MacBook Keyboard” (via Flickr user reery)