I think I’m the only person who likes this story–other than Gordon who has to say he likes it or I’ll bawl. But maybe I shouldn’t say that. I showed a draft of the story to some people at a writers’ group here in Los Angeles and have seen bits and pieces of the idea in some TV shows. There must be something good about if it’s worth stealing. Anyway, here it is.
Phyllis Sorenson, a slender woman in her mid-50s, sprawled in a lounge chair on the pool deck of her La Canada home. She stared at the carpet of lights overlooking the Los Angeles Basin, sipping champagne from a decorated flute, and fingering a strand of pearls around her neck. She abruptly upended the flute, wiped inadvertently dribbled wine from the front of her silk evening dress, and reached for a champagne bottle on the deck next to her chair. She poured the last of the champagne into the glass then plunked the empty bottle next to a silver funeral urn. She sipped and burped while staring balefully at the urn. Then she leaned down to clink glass to urn—after clumsily catching herself with her free hand when she overbalanced–and murmured, “Happy anniversary, Jim. I never got to go to Europe and it’s all your fault.” Which wasn’t exactly true but Phyllis was in no mood to admit it—and Jim, the urn’s resident, was in no shape to argue.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Her friends had always told her she led a charmed life and she’d agreed with them. When her college friends went to grad school, she married a young attorney, Jim Sorenson. He was fun, he was interesting, and he seemed to think it was his job to take care of her–which was a pleasant change for Phyllis; she’d always been the one who took care of everybody else.
Three children followed shortly. Her friends were appalled that she chose to stay home and take care of them. “You should get a career of your own,” they advised. “How can you fulfill yourself as a woman?”
Phyllis just smiled. Her friends sent her invitations to law school and MBA graduations and Phyllis sent them birth announcements. The friends attended conventions and Phyllis supervised piano practice, helped earn merit badges, and oversaw the construction of the La Canada house. She served as a noticeably pregnant matron of honor at weddings and never gloated over divorces. She provided a shoulder for them to cry on and organized their downsizing to condos.
“Thank God you know how to do this stuff,” they cried into their wine glasses as they watched Phyllis pack boxes. “Thank God you don’t work.” Phyllis just smiled grimly, remembering the early years of Jim’s practice when she’d typed and proofed his briefs. She thought of all the hours she’d spent supervising and correcting homework for her children. And the time she’d spent arguing with bureaucrats over permits for her home–and the tact necessary in dealing with architects and artisans to make sure the house was completed on time the way she wanted it. Her friends’ jobs seemed easy compared to that but she didn’t want to hurt their feelings. She ignored the slighting comments and loaded boxes into U-hauls.
Time passed. The children grew up, married, and moved away. Her now thrice-divorced friends urged her to find a career path. “Better late than never,” they drawled wisely over cocktails. “You can’t just sit in that big house by yourself.” Phyllis didn’t argue. She just took their keys and drove them all home.
But Phyllis had a secret. Jim had decided to retire and take her to Europe! “We were too poor for a honeymoon when we got married,” he said. “The kids are grown, our retirement is secure…let’s have some fun and see the world. Aren’t you tired of listening to your college buddies brag about their trips to Paris? Don’t you want to go, too?”
Of course she did! Phyllis got busy. She visited travel agencies and collected brochures of romantic vacation spots designed to resurrect waning libidos. Jim’s contribution was a prescription of Viagra and they practiced making love in every room of the conveniently empty house. That’s when Phyllis discovered the mole on the back of Jim’s neck.
“How long has that been there?” she asked lazily, stroking Jim’s neck after a particularly satisfying love-making session.
“I never noticed it,” Jim said.
Phyllis forgot about the mole. There were so many other things on her mind—like passport photos to take, itineraries to plan, and appropriate clothes to buy. Two months later she noticed the mole again as Jim was dressing for an evening out.
“The mole is changing shape,” she observed worriedly.
“It’s nothing,” Jim insisted but Phyllis knew better.
By the time Jim agreed to see a doctor the melanoma had mastasized. Phyllis put away her travel brochures and learned about cancer treatments instead. “We can go to Europe later,” she assured Jim.
Phyllis confidently drove Jim to his chemo and radiation therapies, convinced he would beat the disease, but Jim’s 6’ frame shrank to 120 pounds. It became distressingly easy for Phyllis to support him to and from the car.
On their 29th anniversary weakened, bald, skinny Jim presented her with the pearl necklace. “Pearls for the 30th,” he said. “Thought I’d better give it to you now.”
Phyllis put the necklace in her jewelry box. “We’ll wait til next year,” she said brightly. “I’ll wear it then.”
Jim smiled sadly. “Honey, I think it’s time to accept the inevitable,” he said gently and stroked her face. “I want stop the treatments.”
Phyllis argued desperately, but Jim didn’t have the strength to fight anymore—either the cancer or her. She finally accepted his decision. She rented a hospital bed—big enough for two—and placed it in the living room where Jim would have the best view. She hired a part-time nurse to help during the day but took care of everything herself at night. Except for brief errands to the pharmacy and grocery store she stayed by Jim’s side and they reminisced about their wonderful life together until he went into a coma. She held his hand until he died and the nurse said, “He’s gone, hon. You have to let go.” Phyllis, tears inching down her frozen face, said, “I can’t.”
Her son’s teary voice asking, “Dad’s gone?” startled her. She turned to see her daughters sobbing and her son looking lost. She kissed Jim’s now cold hand and placed it on his chest. There was work to do.
She comforted her children, returned the hospital bed, paid the nurse with thanks, settled all the legal matters, and followed Jim’s instructions for his funeral (“No burial, honey, I want to go out like a Viking. Cremate me.”). She sat dry-eyed through the memorial service, accepted everyone’s tearful condolences, and went home alone. She put Jim’s urn on the mantle in the living room.
Weeks went by and Phyllis became an insomniac, drifting around the silent, empty house. To enable sleep, she pretended that Jim was on a business trip.
Phyllis’ single friends, the ones who showed up for drinks after the funeral, soon disappeared. She wasn’t fun anymore. She kept talking about Jim. Oh sure, she’d always listened to their problems and helped them move and drove them home after too many cocktails but that was different. That’s what housewives did.
Her married friends disappeared too. They didn’t know what to talk about in front of a widow and it was too soon to try to arrange dates. Besides, a pretty widow who tugged at the heartstrings of their husbands was too dangerous to have around.
Phyllis’ insomnia became chronic and she started sleeping in the living room where she could see Jim’s urn on the mantle.
After a particularly quiet evening Phyllis reviewed her situation. She apparently no longer had any friends. Maybe the Episcopal Church could provide some solace. She hadn’t been involved with the church since her kids left home but she and Jim had continued to support the place with money…and they’d had such a lovely funeral there. She joined the Women’s Group hoping for spiritual comfort but the ladies spent the hour bleating about SOCIAL JUSTICE and planning activities that involved signs and megaphones before getting into their luxury cars and retiring to The Club for Happy Hour.
“The farmers should be ashamed they’re not unionized,” declared one particularly well-upholstered member before turning to her neighbor. “We can have the after-party at my house when we march. I’ll tell the girl who cleans to stay late so she can serve.” She noticed Phyllis’ shocked look. “Oh, I’ll throw another ten bucks at her. She’ll be glad for the extra money. What do you pay your girl anyway?”
“I clean my own house,” Phyllis admitted. “I’m from a small-town. My parents never had help so I never felt comfortable hiring someone to do housework.” The woman gazed at her, slack-jawed, so she added brightly, “Besides, it’s good exercise.”
The woman clucked condescendingly, obviously assuming Phyllis was hiding poverty. “I’ll give you my girl’s number. She probably has a sister who works cheap.” She leaned in with a wink and whispered, “After all, that’s why God made Guatemalans.”
Phyllis’ back stiffened. The ladies were offended when Phyllis announced that she found it hypocritical for them to picket businesses while they hired illegals to tend their children and clean their large homes for a pittance. No one was disappointed when Phyllis dropped out of the Women’s Group.
The church was no solace. She quit sending checks.
That night Phyllis took the urn to bed with her. Why should she be uncomfortable on the couch when she had a king-sized bed?
Of course, Phyllis’ children worried when they found out she slept with their father’s ashes. And they knew they had to do something when Phyllis started bringing the urn with her when she visited. Her oldest daughter had an idea that would benefit them both.
“I’ve been thinking of going back to work, Mom,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be comfortable with strangers taking care of my kids. And it costs so much! Would you like to babysit?”
Her presumption startled Phyllis out of her normal forbearance and she tartly told her oldest daughter that she, Phyllis, had raised her family and expected her daughter to do the same.
Phyllis’ second daughter hurriedly interceded. “Mom, we’re not trying to take advantage of you but we’re worried. You’re starting to look a little crazy carrying Dad’s ashes everywhere. Maybe you could buy a double cemetery plot. We could put Dad there now and you’d be together when…well, you know.”
Phyllis stared at her second daughter. “I’m only 55. I’m not dead yet,” she retorted coldly. “And I’m not crazy either.”
Her son suggested that he could move in with his family. “We’d all like the pool and you could teach my wife how to manage a house,” he said tactlessly.
The look on the daughter-in-law’s face assured Phyllis that the daughter-in-law didn’t feel that she needed lessons and she resented the implication that she did. Phyllis smiled as she remembered Jim in the first years of their marriage. Like father, like son, she thought and patted the urn. She didn’t envy her son when he got home that night.
Shouting brought her out of her reverie. “You’re just trying to steal Mom’s house!” the oldest daughter screeched at her brother.
The yelling and name-calling stopped when Phyllis sternly announced, “Nobody is moving in with me and nobody is taking my house. You’ll all have to take care of your own families and wait until I die to get the property.”
Her children were so embarrassed by their insensitivity and exposed greed that they dropped the subject entirely. When they talked among themselves they wryly referred to their father’s ashes as Jimzurn—Phyllis smiled when she overhead; her children were so clever!–and tried to ignore the urn when Phyllis placed it on the dinner table.
Phyllis forgot and forgave her children’s cluelessness but her daughter’s idea of going back to work intrigued her. Her fair-weather friends had nagged her for years to get a job, maybe it was time. At least it would get her out of the house. But she’d been out of the job market for so many years, what could she do? It was time to call in some favors. She dredged up her contact list, reminded her old friends that she still existed, and told them she needed help finding work. Now her fair-weather friends said, “Oh, why do you want a job? They’re boring. You always wanted to go to Europe. You just go and and enjoy yourself!” They seemed embarrassed that the woman who’d helped them so many times needed help. They hurriedly hung up on her.
Phyllis next made an appointment with a partner from Jim’s old firm. She sat Jimzurn on the partner’s desk–his eyebrows climbed at that–and chatted brightly about past Christmas parties and golf weekends before she brought up the subject of a job. “I’m a college graduate, I worked for three years before I got married,” she said. “Maybe there’s something I could do here. Even part-time,” she offered. The partner gave the urn a sideways glance and escorted her to the Human Resources Department. While he and the HR woman exchanged meaningful looks at the urn, he explained his association with Phyllis, said, “I’ll leave you to it then,” and hurriedly left. The woman politely asked Phyllis into her office, questioned her briefly about her background and skills…and firmly announced that they had no place for Phyllis.
“Your skill set isn’t current,” the woman said then pointedly looked at Phyllis’ expensive bag and shoes. “And you obviously don’t need the money,” she added, envy shading her voice.
Phyllis left without shaking hands. She didn’t know what annoyed her more–being thought crazy for traveling with Jimzurn or being resented because of her accessories.
On the drive home Phyllis concluded that there was no place in the world left for her. Her identity seemed to have been incinerated with her husband—the Western version of suttee.
Today would have been their 30th anniversary so she’d put on an evening dress and the pearls Jim had given her a year ago. Then she dug out a bottle of Dom Perignon and guzzled it by the pool. She felt very sorry for herself.
Phyllis finished the champagne and tossed the glass in the pool. The night was warm so she tucked the urn next to her on the lounge, kicked off her shoes, and settled down to sleep. The only disturbance was a bright light overhead. Phyllis squinted up, annoyed that a police helicopter would be flying so low. Phyllis shaded her eyes with one hand. Was it a helicopter? It couldn’t be; it was too quiet. God, why’d she drunk so much wine? She wasn’t used to it…..
Phyllis slowly opened her eyes. She was puzzled by the softly-lit metallic ceiling overhead. What happened to the night sky? She carefully sat up and looked around the small room she found herself in. There were no windows. A bank of lights blinked on one wall and a door-sized depression was opposite. The only furniture was the gurney she sat on. Phyllis swung her legs over the side and noticed that she was naked except for the pearls. And she was still clutching Jimzurn.
She chuckled. It all seemed so silly.
The depression hissed open and two gray-skinned, big-eyed figures entered. Phyllis smiled, pleased. She must be having an abduction dream! What a nice change from her usual nightmares of loss and desolation! She patted the urn and murmured, “We should drink champagne more often, Jim.”
The figures stopped in front of Phyllis so she stood to face them (she irreverently thought she probably looked like an aging Venus rising from the waves…with urn). She was grateful she’d worked hard to keep her figure. Not bad for an old broad, she thought smugly. On the other hand, she was old-fashioned enough to feel that one didn’t flaunt nudity, even in a dream. She covered her crotch with the urn, shivering at the metal’s chill. Then she arranged a polite smile on her face and studied the two figures.
They were both smaller than Phyllis and had large, bald heads (“They must be doing chemo, too,” she whispered to the urn) with small mouths, rubbery-looking skin, and thin arms and legs. They were unclothed so it was easy to see they had no secondary sexual characteristics. I guess this isn’t a rape fantasy, she thought, slightly relieved. Then it occurred to her that maybe a sex fantasy wouldn’t be such a bad thing; Jim had been ashes-in-a-can for months. Of course, if she were to have a rape fantasy, she’d want the rapist to be good-looking, like Fabio. These two looked liked latex robots. And they were both staring at her.
She felt self-conscious standing naked except for the pearls, clutching her urn. Well, it was her dream; it was probably up to her to make the first move. Years of corporate wifedom came to her rescue. She smiled graciously, placed the urn on one hip and presented her right hand for William to shake. “I’m Phyllis Sorenson,” she said, “and you are…?”
“William,” the taller creature responded, touching her fingers briefly. “And this is Fatima.” His companion blinked her huge eyes. “Welcome to our Protected Living Environment,” William continued, waving a spidery hand.
“I thought it was a space ship. Silly me,” Phyllis said, amused at herself. “So nice to meet you,” she added to Fatima who glanced at William, shook hands with Phyllis, but just nodded in reply.
“Doesn’t she talk?” Phyllis asked William.
“When necessary,” William replied. “She assists me.” Fatima nodded again.
Phyllis’ frowned slightly. “You’d think in my own dream I’d make the woman the dominant character,” she mused quietly.
William’s face crinkled into what passed for a smile. “You’re not dreaming, you’re drugged,” he explained.
“Really? Drugged?” Phyllis repeated and fought an urge to sit back down on the gurney. But she had no chairs to offer her guests. Or were they her guards? “This is some drug.” she murmured and shivered.
“Are you cold?” William asked.
“No,” Phyllis replied, befuddled. “Um…why……?” Why am I here? Who are you…people? Am I really drugged? Followed closely by: Or am I crazy? And is it better to be abducted or nuts? And, of course, the big one: Why did Jim leave me and where did he go? Phyllis had lots of questions. The problem was picking the right one.
“This must be confusing for you,” William commented, interrupting her internal dialogue. Ya think? she thought sarcastically but just nodded and tried to arrange the urn to cover more territory, unsure what to do next. The silence dragged on until Fatima diffidently suggested, “Perhaps a tour of the Environment would be a good idea?”
William agreed with relief but Phyllis, startled out of her fidgeting, objected.
“Like this? Naked?” she asked. Phyllis may be abducted and drugged but she wasn’t about to go prancing about in the buff. She’d need a few more urns—or a lot more drugs. “Not that I don’t want to see your…er…Environment,” she added, “but I’d prefer to do it in clothes. Where’s my dress?”
“It was damaged in the decontamination process,” William apologized. Phyllis ran her hand through her hair in consternation and silvery-blond strands showered down. “I’m afraid your hair is brittle, too,” William said, responding to her look of dismay, and added encouragingly, “but it should grow back.” He turned to Fatima. “Perhaps you could find something?” Fatima nodded and left. William turned back to Phyllis. “As you see, we don’t need clothing. Our human bodies were replaced with these receptacles. The information sensors are synched with our brains. I find them superior to human organs.”
“You’re human?” Phyllis exclaimed, surprised.
“Of course,” William replied, seeming miffed. Phyllis apologized and William, mollified, offered to explain the mechanics of putting a human brain in a cyborg body. If it was one thing Phyllis had been immersed in the last few years, it was medicine, so she had lots of intelligent questions. William was happily explaining sustenance and waste removal in a complex form of dialysis—sludge in and sludge out, Phyllis thought distastefully while keeping a smile on her face, I hope they use separate tubes –and other supposed advantages of being a cyborg when Fatima returned carrying metallic fabric.
“I found a sack and some cord from the hydroponics unit,” she announced.
Fatima pulled a scalpel from a gurney drawer and poked holes in the sack for a head and arms. Phyllis put the urn down, allowed Fatima to pull the bag over her head, tied the cord to make a belt, and re-tucked the urn under her arm.
William frowned. “You can leave that here,” he said.
“I feel better having it with me,” Phyllis said, apologetically.
William nodded unhappily and his eyes drifted from the urn to the improvised sack dress. “Perhaps hydroponics is a good place to start…” he said and led the way from the room.
So Phyllis, barefoot, dressed in a futuristic potato sack, trailing strands of broken hair and carrying her husband’s ashes, walked with a chattering William, followed by Fatima. As they toured the watery garden Phyllis, awed, compared it to her own small tomato patch.
“I just put out a few plants,” she told William. “And I didn’t even do that this year because…” she hefted the urn in explanation.
William sniffed dismissively. “The power plant really displays our technology,” he said. William chatted about fission and fusion as they entered the plant but was disappointed at Phyllis’ lack of interest. “I never even knew how my car worked,” she finally admitted.
So William escorted her to a Library that contained an impressive array of computers. “Our technology will be available Down Below in the future,” William said, waving a hand with pride.
“Oh?” Phyllis commented politely, wondering why he was trying to impress her.
“We sometimes pass on ideas to our guests,” William explained. “For instance, James Cameron based a movie on our cyborg technology.” He paused. “Although we never understood why he made his cyborg a murderer,” he added, puzzled. “He’s shown a marked propensity for biting the hand that feeds him. Jules Verne never did that.”
William sounded so aggrieved that Phyllis nodded and smiled sympathetically. Before William could continue an alarm sounded.
“There must be trouble in the waiting room,” William said, glancing down the hall then back at Phyllis, obviously torn. “You should probably come with me.”
He hurriedly ushered Phyllis and Fatima down the hall and stopped before a window that showed naked people milling about a large room. Phyllis stared at them with distaste. Thank goodness she’d insisted on her potato sack; most undressed people weren’t very attractive. A frolicking pair had separated from the group and had huddled in a corner. “Oh, no,” William said, annoyed. “The drug sometimes releases the inhibitions of the subj…guests. They have sex and then claim they were ‘probed’, or some such awful word, by us.” He looked at Phyllis uncertainly. “I don’t want to leave you…” He reached his decision. “Fatima, you’re in charge of our recru…guest.” Fatima raised imaginary eyebrows in faint surprise but nodded. William hurried away.
Phyllis watched William enter the room and wave his hands at the couple. The pair separated and ran from William, giggling. He looked like a little gray dog herding hippos. Phyllis squirmed as she watched the naked apes being chased by an exasperated William. The only difference between her and the people she was gawking at seemed to be an urn, some pearls, a potato sack, and thirty pounds.
Fatima lightly touched her arm. “Perhaps you’d like to see a study carrel?” she offered and Phyllis agreed in relief. She spared one last glance at the jolly, naked, bouncing humans before trotting after Fatima.
Fatima ushered her into a small domed room containing a padded chair (“It looks like your Lay-z-Boy,” Phyllis whispered to the urn). “Sit down,” Fatima said. “I’ll show you how it works.”
Phyllis sat and tucked the urn next to her so Fatima could raise a screen from one armrest. “This downloads study materials and entertainment; the forerunner of your iPad.”
Fatima showed Phyllis how to recline the chair then she typed into the screen. Phyllis gasped as stars appeared on the dome.
“It’s magnificent,” Phyllis breathed. “Can I see Earth from here?” Fatima typed again and the Earth slowly drifted into the center of the dome. “Look at all the lights,” Phyllis marveled. “Can I see the Great Wall of China?”
“I can focus in on it,” Fatima replied, typing.
Phyllis watched interestedly as the Wall appeared. “Very nice,” she commented. “Tell me, why do you abduct…terrestrials?” she asked. Phyllis felt very proud of herself for her use of terminology. All those years of raising a science-fiction-addicted son finally paid off.
“William monitors the earth and the population’s relationship with it. He measures the effects of environmental contaminants. He tests for mutations and pathologies. He prefers to take people who lose consciousness due to alcohol or drug use. They’re usually not missed and, even if they do remember some of their experience, no one believes them. If their problems are a result of chemical imbalance, he adjusts them. If their problems are a result of a personality defect there’s nothing he can do, of course, but we learn a lot.”
Phyllis fidgeted uncomfortably. “I don’t remember being tested.”
Fatima crinkled. “There are several levels of consciousness. We need you capable of making decisions now. We were surprised when we tested you for pathologies. We found nothing obvious. You’re not an addict. Your surroundings indicate success. Also, we found your attachment to the urn intriguing. It indicates a depth of commitment and solicitude necessary for our work. We didn’t realize the attachment was so…profound.”
“Everybody at home thinks I’m crazy,” Phyllis admitted.
“Do you think you are? Crazy?” Fatima asked.
“Probably,” Phyllis replied cheerfully. “I think I’m on a spaceship.”
“Protected Living Environment,” Fatima corrected. She paused then asked diffidently, “Why do you carry the urn?”
“This is all I have left of my husband—and my life. My kids think all I’m good for is babysitting or the grave. My friends dropped me. I’m so out-of-date and unskilled I can’t even get a stupid job I don’t want,” Phyllis explained.
“But when we tested you, you demonstrated a remarkable intelligence quotient and situational flexibility,” Fatima commented.
“You’re the only one who thinks so,” Phyllis replied. Then she smiled and patted the urn. “But I still have Jim.” Fatima just stared. “I sound pathetic, don’t I,” Phyllis said, embarrassed.
“You sound sad,” Fatima said. “You must know you don’t really have Jim.” Phyllis shrugged. Fatima paused as though unsure how to phrase her next comment. “My previous religion promised an afterlife,” she finally said. “Don’t you have a religious philosophy to comfort you?”
Phyllis thought about the picketing Episcopal ladies. “Not really,” she said. “Do you know if there’s anything after death?”
Fatima shrugged. “Isaac Newton is convinced of it.”
“Isaac Newton! He’s here?!” exclaimed Phyllis.
“Not on this particular Environment but he’s one of us. He was a devout Christian until he met Jesus. Now they’re good friends and study physics and the nature of God together.” Fatima returned the view from the Wall to the stars. “There’s a theory that the increasing population on Earth is related to the expanding universe; perhaps what we call the soul is part of that outward migration. There is evidence of reincarnation although that’s not my area of study. Some of us are investigating alternate dimensions. I’m studying the theory that the soul is a quantum wave that will appear in another dimension when the body dies. When Stephen and I were working on Hawking Radiation we discussed the possibility of an entity surviving the trip through a black hole and then returning. If radiation can escape a black hole maybe other forces can. I’m going to a black hole to conduct experiments.”
“Hedging your bets on an afterlife?” Phyllis teased and smiled.
“Something like that,” Fatima crinkled. “But everyone agrees that the soul survives in some aspect or other. Even your rudimentary science tells you that nothing is destroyed; it just changes.”
“Can you die? Or are you like this forever?” Phyllis asked, curious.
Fatima’ face crinkled again and she said, “We can die but I’ve never known anyone who has. Of course, I’ve only been here for 150 years.” She contemplated the stars. “It’s not bad working for William. He’s taken me to strange and wonderful places and I’ve seen so much….” Fatima paused before turning back to Phyllis. “I wasn’t allowed to be educated where and when I came from so this was literally a heaven-sent opportunity. It will take me a millennium to learn enough to ask the right questions.” She crinkled. “Fortunately, I have time.”
Fatima was interrupted when William bustled into the room and announced, “We’re starting the returns and time is short.” He directed his attention to Phyllis and motioned that she shouldn’t get up. “Did Fatima mention why we separated you from the others?” Phyllis shook her head and William continued, “Well, my young colleague here” he gestured grandly at Fatima who bowed slightly, “is leaving to study on another Environment closer to the center of the galaxy. Your nurturing and organizational skills make you a worthy candidate to replace her.”
Phyllis blinked and smiled doubtfully. “What would you expect me to do?”
“Observe and collect data. If conditions turn critical, mediate. You’d be a caretaker of a sort.”
The offer, once she digested the import of it, made Phyllis feel special. She’d been culled from the common herd to hobnob with Isaac Newton and Jesus. Talk about eating lunch at the cool kids table! She wished that patronizing HR Manager from the law firm could see her now—HA! Then again, Newton would probably think she was stupid–she’d hated algebra–although talking with Jesus could be interesting, and he seemed like such a nice man. But being William’s assistant for 150 years? She’d hated the minimal time she’d spent being a flunky in her youthful jobs. And after refusing to take over the care of her own grandchildren, did it seem right to assist a little gray fussbudget as a cosmic babysitter? Phyllis’ nose wrinkled. She’d spent too much time nursing a dying husband to enjoy anything more in the caretaking line. But was she in any position to refuse?
Phyllis eyed William, considering. “What if I reject your offer?”
“We’ll modify your memory and take you home,” William said simply. Phyllis looked at Fatima who nodded.
Phyllis settled into the chair to consider. If she accepted their offer she’d get a gray robotic body. She wouldn’t need clothes. Or shoes. She wriggled her bare toes. She loved shoes. And much as they annoyed her on occasion she’d miss her children and grandchildren. And her lovely home and pool. She hadn’t seen a pool here. And she’d miss food and wine. Those sludge tubes sounded disgusting. Then again, she’d die someday and have none of those things anyway.
Her attention returned to the view. The starlight was nice but she preferred the blues and greens of earth. And what if Jim was being reincarnated someplace? Or speeding away on a galactic migration? If she didn’t die soon she’d never catch up. Suddenly her decision was easy. She’d take the possibility of Jim over the reality of William any day. Not that she was in any hurry to die, now. Fatima was right; she had a lot to offer. She’d spent her life taking care of others; it was time to explore possibilities for herself. She wanted to travel and learn and think. If she kept her health, she still had thirty or forty years to do it all–which was probably a blip on the cosmic scale. She could catch up with Jim, wherever he was, and still have plenty of time to buy shoes, even if they eventually were orthopedic oxfords.
“Thank you for your offer,” she said firmly, “but I want to go home.”
William seemed disappointed. “I’d like to spend the time to convince you, you’re one of the most promising candidates we’ve seen in years, but I have to start returning specimens. Fatima, can I leave her to you…?”
Fatima nodded and William hurried away.
“Is he mad?” Phyllis asked.
“No, just busy. I wish you’d change your mind. You have tremendous potential. And we have so few women here.”
“No, thank you,” Phyllis declined politely then impulsively grabbed Fatima’s hand–which felt like a bicycle tire and reinforced her decision. “Fatima, are you sure I won’t remember any of this?”
“You’re not supposed to.”
Phyllis shrugged philosophically. “Well, thanks again for the offer. It’s nice to be wanted. You know, this is the best I’ve felt in a long time. Maybe it’s the drugs.” Phyllis mused then brightened. “Could I have some to take home?”
Fatima crinkled. “No. You have enough drugs on Earth.” She stared deeply into Phyllis’ eyes. “But perhaps an anonymous admirer will send you champagne. William still needs to replace me and he prefers working with women.”
Phyllis humphed as Fatima’s huge eyes eclipsed the stars. William probably found women easier to boss around. But as consciousness faded she concentrated on remembering being wanted…and having worth…and hope…
Phyllis woke in the pre-dawn light on her lounge chair by the pool. She yawned, stretched, and slowly sat up. She felt surprisingly good until she noticed she was naked except for the pearls. She quickly glanced around for her clothes but found only the empty champagne bottle, her shoes, and Jimzurn. Fortunately, she didn’t see any of her neighbors. She grabbed the urn, ran inside for a robe, and was startled when she saw her hair in the mirror as she took off her pearls. Her previously shoulder-length hair was now a uniform inch long. She looked down at her pubic area. Yup, that hair was short too. But she had no bruises, lacerations, or suspect discharge so she probably hadn’t been raped. She sighed in relief and walked to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
So. What were the facts? She’d been suicidally depressed last night and had drunk a bottle of champagne. She woke up relaxed and optimistic—and surprisingly unhungover, thank God–but naked and almost bald. Should she call the police? And tell them what? That she passed out and someone took her clothes and her hair but left her pearls? She could imagine how that’d sound. She couldn’t talk to her children; they already thought she was certifiable. Maybe she should call a priest? She smiled. She didn’t think she needed an exorcism. What she needed right now was food. She scrambled some eggs.
Phyllis enjoyed her breakfast, cleaned up the kitchen, showered and dressed. Then she took Jimzurn and one last cup of coffee into the living room. She sat on the couch with the urn on the coffee table in front of her. She wanted to discuss her mysterious transformation but with whom?
Restless, she walked to the door overlooking the pool, her attention caught by the champagne bottle near the lounge chair. She touched her hair. She had the feeling that she’d remember something wonderful if she tried a little harder…but nothing. She shook her head; it would come to her eventually. But it was probably best to keep her blackout to herself. For the moment it was enough to feel at peace. The new hairstyle was becoming, however she got it. She’d find some way to explain it without sounding nuts. And she still had Jim’s pearls.
She returned to the couch and stared at the urn. “So what should I do today, Jim?” she asked but of course Jim didn’t answer. She snorted at herself. It was time she accepted that she was alone. She didn’t have to worry about money so she might as well plan that European vacation. And if she got bored she could always go back to school for another degree; that would be interesting. She might enjoy studying something new…like astronomy. The possibilities were endless. And I’ll quit talking to an urn, she scolded herself. No wonder people thought she was nuts. If she was that damn lonely she should get a dog. As a matter of fact, the first item on her agenda this morning would be the animal shelter.
She jumped up to get her purse, rummaged for her keys, found her phone and checked for messages. There was one missed call.
“Phyllis,” sobbed a “friend” she hadn’t heard from since Jim’s funeral. “I’m sorry I haven’t called but Jim’s death was so unbearable….” She babbled on about losing her job and condo and finished with a plea for help as she moved to a smaller place.
Phyllis smile grimly. Jim’s death had been unbearable but so were mooching acquaintances. It was time for everyone to move on. She deleted the message and popped the phone in her purse. She grabbed her keys, checked her short hair in the mirror by the front door with a smile, then stopped, puzzled. She turned back to see Jimzurn sitting on the coffee table. Phyllis took a short detour to place it on the mantelpiece. She kissed her fingers and touched them to the urn.
“Bye, Jim. See you later,” she said. Then she walked out the door.