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Happiness for Sale

by Arthur Whitaker

The sky was the color of cinder on the morning the future found me. My nurse Anton had only just departed to auction off the last surviving Mantis religiosa (we had agreed to split the proceeds 60/40), and I had just begun swiping through images of sapphire lagoons and emerald forests, intending to update my wall art, when the motion sensor announced someone’s arrival.

“One female child of indeterminate origin.”

I sighed, resigned to the necessity of movement. I pressed my forefinger to the dispenser and shuddered at the needle prick, swooned as I felt the adrenaline flowing through my one hundred-and thirteen-year-old body. I tried to imagine myself as a young girl, swimming in a sapphire lagoon as I hobbled to the door to find a tiny girl.

Her blonde hair, long on one side and short on the other, was a stark contrast to her eyes, which reminded me of obsidian arrowheads I had seen in a museum once.

I said hello, waited patiently through the familiar silence. With a child’s astonishment, she gawked at my arms, my legs. Or at my equivalents, as they are commonly known. The morning air smelled like charred popcorn, its heat felt like an open oven. The polite thing to do was invite the child inside into the dim, cool foyer.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

“Here. This is for you.” The girl reached out, a blinking metal bracelet sliding down her slender wrist, to hand me an electronic brochure. On the cover was a graying woman, standing alone and facing the camera, smiling as though she had fallen asleep in winter and awoken on the first day of spring. When the heat from my palm activated the ad, the woman on the screen said, “I found happiness again, and so can you.”

“Nice to meet you, too, dear,” I said while flipping through the brochure.

“I’m sorry,” she admitted. “That was rude, wasn’t it? I’ve just never seen anyone like you before.”

Her large, opaque eyes remained riveted to mine. “You mean you’ve never seen someone part human, part robot?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. I got distracted because I couldn’t help wondering: is that because you got too old and your appendages stopped functioning, or was it a... congenital problem?” Her face reminded me of a desert landscape, constantly rearranging itself yet always, in essence, empty.

“How did you come to have such a sophisticated vocabulary?”

“My fluid IQ is 140. Intelligent enough to adapt, not so intelligent as to be paralyzed by over-analysis. My crystallized IQ is 180, meaning I retain everything I learn and am perfectly attuned to situations in which acquisitions of knowledge are possible. In other words, I’m a Genetically Modified Human.” As she said the last bit, she curtsied awkwardly.

It was my turn to scrutinize, for I had never to that point seen a GMH in person. “And do you have a name?” I honestly wasn’t sure.

“Of course. I am Nova. And you are Beatrice Underwood.”

“Why do they have you out here, Nova, doing menial tasks like shilling for pharmaceutical companies?”

Her lips contorted as if she had swallowed something distasteful. “It’s a standard component of training. We are exposed to a variety of situations, so that we will have ample reference points when we are sorted into our primary occupations.”

Then she pointed to a silver star pinned to her lapel. “Also, my interactions are constantly monitored. I am entirely too expensive to leave unattended.”

Behind her, waves of heat had become visible above the asphalt. It was then that I noticed her complexion, golden as honey and probably chosen by a committee.

“Well, honey, I’m sorry to say I don’t need this medication. What is it called... Beatitude? I’m quite happy as I am, thank you very much.”

Looking into her eyes, I noticed they seemed to harden, like volcanic glass. “But that’s impossible,” she protested. “You are one of three hundred residents in this city identified as ideal candidates for mood therapy. You have no children, you have never married, and you have been disfigured from birth.”

Now she had started trembling like a windsock in a shifting breeze.

“So you already knew I had a birth defect. So why pretend not to know?”

Her black eyes blinked, stared back at me impassively. “I am sorry. Customers are not supposed to know about their biographical data files. It would seem manipulative.”

I smiled despite my dismay. Was she being exceedingly honest and, if so, was it another sales tactic? “This sale is pretty important to you, isn’t it? May I ask why?”

Leaning closer to me, she rested one hand on my walker and with the other hand covered the star pin on her lapel. She spoke just loudly enough for me to hear her over the squeal of feedback from the microphone. “Up to now I have an eighty-eight point one success rate. If I am unsuccessful at too many tasks, I fear I may be euthanized.”

With her hand resting on my walker, we were momentarily at eye level. As we stood there appraising each other, I thought about what she said: Would they really euthanize her? Or was this only a sales tactic?

“You and I are not so different, I guess.” Then I motioned her to take her hand off the camera.

“You know, dear, actually I am quite sad. Because no one has ever loved me and, really, who ever would? I am kind of a freak, after all.”

As she realized my intent, the rigidity in her small body dissolved like a sugar cube dropped in a glass of tea.

“So, how many vials would you like to order today, Beatrice?”

“Put me down for one, honey. I need to see for myself how well it works. I may well order more if these free samples impress me.”

As I signed the paperwork, a charcoal grey town car pulled up to the curb. It was the first time in years I had seen a car that was not white. Nova noticed the car, too, and then I heard something, maybe one of her bracelets, beep three times.

“Well, I have to go now, Beatrice. That was all the time allotted for this transaction.”

She looked shocked when I hobbled forward and gave her a hug. She felt so slim and delicate, yet so sturdy and vital. The fleeting paradox of youth.

She smiled at me, then turned and hurried toward the gray car, adjusting the shoulder strap on her bag of brochures as she walked.

I couldn’t see her face when the car drove into and disappeared amidst the roiling waves of heat in the distance. I opened the free sample of Beatitude and noticed that one of the five tablets was missing.

I closed the door on the molten October heat. I didn’t know whether to smile or frown, but I did know that Nova needed that pill more than I did.

Copyright © 2018 by Arthur Whitaker

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