ALWAYS A BRIDE





JESSICA MCHUGH









PART I:


THE HOUSE BLUSHES.


From the sleek steel foundation to the hemispheric roof, the AtomiClass DaisyPod-4 glows hot pink when Molly’s taxi docks at the compound. The newly erected residential pods shone like textbook acne from the air—bulgy domes with the angry tinge of infection under the Mars sunset—but despite their rosy uniformity, Molly knew which pod was hers.


And it knows her.


It’s the smallest model— “an economic love-nest” according to the AtomiClass adverts, and “the ideal honeymoon hideaway.” The description is accurate enough from the outside, but Molly supposes she won’t know for sure until Robert joins her. For now, she settles for his hologram. He’s pacing a hotel room on Earth, his image broken and fuzzy as it flits around the DaisyPod like a honeybee in an arboretum. Molly hasn’t even taken off her shoes and she feels like she needs a nap. She twists her engagement ring, her skin still inflamed and itchy despite the decades-old callus around the finger.


“Robert, please stand still. I’m getting dizzy.”


“Sorry, babe, I’m already late for the keynote speaker, and I still need to shave.”


“You look fine to me.”


He stops briefly to throw her a kiss. It was an adorable quirk when they were dating, but he doesn’t even look at her anymore. He spits the kiss into his fist and lobs it like a carnival baseball, focused more on speed than accuracy.


She catches the gesture anyway, holding it to her chest as she says, “I miss you.”


He messes up knotting his tie and growls in frustration as he rips it from his neck. “I gotta go, babe. Do you need anything else from me?”


If she could articulate everything she needed, she wouldn’t be alone in a DaisyPod, talking to his hologram. She spins her engagement ring, and endorphins flood her brain. Better than drugs, better than any man or woman who might’ve been the one if not for the ring she refused to remove when she and Robert were apart.


But she could never tell him any of this. So she shakes her head, and his image shudders before blinking out.


He doesn’t say “I love you.”


She doesn’t say “I love you.”


The house says,“I’m afraid I’ve lost the connection.”





PART II:


THE HOUSE’S VOICE IS SLIGHTLY LOWER THAN MOLLY’S, WITH A LILT THAT’S MORE AFFECTATION THAN ACCENT.


It comes at her from all sides, but it’s loudest in the foyer, where blue light pulses under the closet door. Behind it, within the recessed chamber, an android sleeps, the light in its sleek barrel chest a steady blue beam and its face devoid of detail. A sign above the robot reads, “Hello, I’m Daisy. Greet To Activate,” but Molly clamps her lips in worry.


She’d read the catalog front to back, back to front, the lovely euphemisms like a white sheets covering a corpse, as well as the autopsied truth outlining the intentions of the house and its android guide. But nothing had prepared her for something so...clunky. Daisy looks more like a bludgeon than a flower, and Molly’s heart sinks to her stomach.


Maybe she made a mistake with the DaisyPod –4. Maybe she isn’t ready for this.


She expects the android to be cold, but when Molly presses her hand to Daisy’s chest, warmth pulses into her fingertips, and the sign overhead glows red.


With a stomach loosening sigh, she says, “Hello, Daisy,” and jumps back as the android starts vibrating wildly in the wall. As bands of color surge through its hull, the bludgeon softens. Its skull shifts to a delicate collection of mountains and valleys, and two opal eyes flutter into holographic existence, glittering in the hollows while neon blue lips dance over a sculpted mouth.


“Hello again, Molly.”


Daisy smiles, and with a troubling “pop!” the glowing sign spews a handful of sparks and fizzles out. The android’s body abruptly dislodges from the chamber, and Daisy falls forward like a dead tree. Molly yelps as she and the robot fall to the floor like children in an orchestra pit, all smack and clang as they flounder for footing.


“What the hell was that?” Molly frees herself from tangled metal limbs and works herself to a standing position. She expects the robot to be right behind her, but Daisy’s still on the floor, rocking like an overturned turtle.


“What’s wrong? Can’t you walk?”


Daisy’s limbs crumple inward and her voice shrinks to hushed but melodic breath. “I’m sorry, Molly, but you need to teach me.”


“What? I don’t remember anything about that in the catalog.”


“Article 54–A regarding genetic linking to leaseholder: Some hands-on instruction required.”


“What does that mean?”


“It means I need you to teach me.”


Molly’s exhausted all of a sudden. Her hip is aching more than usual thanks to the fall, and she wants it to end. All of it. No more waiting. No more euphemistic games. She wants the supposed “honeymoon hideaway” to do its job.


The lonely bride looks to the living room like Robert might still be there, fighting with his Victoria knot, and Daisy emits a sentimental hum.


“I can bring him back if you want. Or anyone. Whenever you miss them.”


“They aren’t real.”


“No, they aren’t real. Would you like something real?”


She nods, and the android’s trunk shifts as if it’s being moved by an army of ants. It twists and bends until Daisy’s sitting up, her smooth silver legs extended, arms limp at her sides, and several pieces of thin flexible metal slowly emerging from her ankles and wrists.


“I need you to teach me, Molly.”


“I’m not strong enough to carry you.”


“I was made for you to carry.” Her blue light beats fast. “I’m real, Molly. And my needing you is real.”





PART III:


Tears rise in Molly’s eyes, and the breath drains from her lungs. She holds her chest as she sinks to the floor beside the android, whose holographic lips downturn in worry.


“Are you all right?”


She doesn’t know how to answer. No, she isn’t all right, because despite living on her own for the last four decades, being alone in this pod doesn’t feel like the cramped studios and moldy basement apartments of her younger days. Not even her later years living in Glaxxes motel zoos, being watched day and night by wealthy voyeurs, made her feel as small and exposed as she does right now. Nothing in her life had prepared her to be needed. Not Robert when he was around, not Peter, Tom, or Genevieve, or the multitude of eyes she pretended not to see outside her Glaxxes zoo window. They didn’t need her, but they wanted her, and being wanted—even fleetingly—was better than nothing. But not forever.


Gazing at the android that requires her instruction to function, Molly pushes that long-ago lesson into the dark with Tom and Gen and the others, and nods at Daisy. Yes, she is all right, better than all right, and as she lifts her bare wrists to the robot, the thin buckles open and stretch to close around her.


Cuffed around her arms and legs, her waist and neck, Daisy and Molly move as one, every flex and extension a priceless education. It’s awkward at first they are toddler and toy, tripping over and carrying each other from room to room in strange giddy fogs, and Molly soon loses track of where she ends and Daisy begins. They are seamlessly hinged, each step recorded in both of their bones as they bound around the pod. Time folds and reshapes them, and it is always daytime in the DaisyPod–4, so Molly keeps walking and leaping and, for the first time in a long time, weeping when she finds herself in the bathroom.


It’s so clean it feels like a threat. The sink looks naked without toppled prescription bottles and toothpaste tubes curled up like dead worms. Molly prefers clutter it comforts her to see everything she owns scattered out before her, always identifiable, always available. Whether a current necessity or scrap of the past, she delights in being able to put her finger on an object and remember precisely why it kept her alive.


“Your heart is racing.”


“I’ll be fine.”


“It’s faster now. You’re frightened.”


“I said I’m fine.”


“Now you’re angry.”


When she stamps her foot, Daisy stamps with her, and the bathroom shakes all around them. The clean veneer blurs like it was just a projection, and in the static, Molly sees her pill bottles, her razors and bobby pins and the tubes of neon lipstick she was never courageous enough to wear in public.


The overhead lights switch off, and the mirrors are suddenly transparent—for Molly, at least. The woman on the other side doesn’t see her and keeps right on squeezing grease out of her pores and scraping plaque from her teeth. The bald bulbs over the other woman’s mirror hang like elderly testicles, casting their dim lights directly into the orange bottles and making lighthouses of them all. They shine on the woman, but Molly looks beyond her to the zoo windows. The crowd is massive. They struggle to get a good spot, packed in like spastic sardines, but Robert is serene at the smudged glass. When the splotchy-faced woman looks over her shoulder, he throws her a kiss and massages his groin when she catches it.


She’ll still holding his kiss in one withered fist when she turns back to the mirror and looks Molly dead in the eyes. Both women lean in, both women touch the mirror. Only one smiles at what she sees.


The lights flip back on, and Molly’s breath fogs up her reflection. In that moment, she knows she made the right choice. The exhaustion that rolled her like a vindictive ocean wave is a seashell now. It’s been scrubbed of its sharp edges, now soft and pink as a spring morning on Earth, whispering of its years in bondage. She feels light, like bubbles rising in a champagne flute.


“I’m walking, Molly! I’m walking just like you!”


She hadn’t noticed the android’s disconnection, but it’s standing on its own now, chin lifted, chest puffed, and blue lips curled into a satisfied bow as she demonstrates the stride she’d learned. But Molly hadn’t walked so confidently outside the pod. She had to hunch in her basement apartments and often felt like she was slithering when she crossed her room at the zoo.


Following Daisy’s proud stride, she finds herself falling into the same rhythm. Her chin is indeed lifted and her sternum raised to the heavens. She imagines her own pulsing blue light at her breast as they march round and round, laughing and singing as the cameras whir in pursuit.


A prolonged honk halts Molly, and Daisy slams into her back. Apologizing, the android shakes off the collision and hurries to the door. It opens automatically, and Daisy greets the delivery man with a more robotic voice than she’d been using with Molly. When he thrusts out a clipboard, the tip of Daisy’s right pinkie finger flips open and a pen pops out. She signs the pad, and he thanks her.


“Thank you. Have an AtomiClassy day.”


“What is it?” Molly asks, craning to see around the door.


Daisy beckons her outside to the small but lustrous two-seater spacecab in the driveway. It looks exactly like the pod, right down to its sunset hue, and as Molly joins Daisy’s side she realizes the android skin has turned the same color.


“It’s all connected,” Molly says, amazed. “You, the house, the car...”


“And you, Molly.” Daisy blinks her large opal eyes. “Do you want to take a drive?”


“I don’t know how.”


Smiling, the android opens the hatch to the driver’s seat. “Let me teach you.” It helps her in, and she twists her engagement ring as the android goes limp on the driveway and the cab flares with life.


It’s simple transferring the DaisyPod–4’s consciousness to the cab, but Molly’s transference is another matter entirely. She didn’t think she’d set foot outside the compound again, so the prospect of being back in the world that repeatedly used her up and discarded her doesn’t exactly excite her. But then the cab’s engine rumbles to life, and Daisy’s voice purring from the steering wheel vibrates her hands, comforting as the holographic clutter that clogs up the ship’s dashboard. Fast food cups and bank receipts, cheap knick-knacks and dead bugs: all the garbage she’d let pile up if she’d owned a ship allows her to relax into the seat and enjoy the journey.


Her hands are on the wheel, but she doesn’t steer. It’s all Daisy, carrying them from the compound to the frenetic streets downtown, turning and halting at the cherry red traffic bulbs freckled between the buildings. The cabs and spaceships buzzing through the airspace look like bubbles in the glossy architecture, each spire and hemispheric structure also distorting the reflections of pedestrians on moving walkways.


She watches them the way she was watched. Eyes fixed and widening. Tongue curled against the roof of her mouth then unrolling like an old rug concealing a corpse. Fingers wanting to wander and clench and strangle and two words longing to smash the barriers to bits.


“SEE ME.”


There are a fleet of ships ahead, each one a beauty. With sparkle and roar, they make her promises that Molly wishes they’d keep. They barrel ahead, boisterous as young love, and she closes her eyes, wondering how the downtown mountains will change her reflection.


Her seat belt tightens, and the cab fills with warmth. It feels like Daisy is hugging her from behind, or like they might still be attached. That feeling of heaviness is a hallelujah that encircles Molly like a vow. The spacecraft zooms down the street, and the ancient callus on Molly’s ring finger itches so bad she rubs it against the steering wheel.


“I thought you wanted something meaningful.”


“Yes.”


“No one has been good to you. No one has known you. I know you, Molly. I’ve been you, and you’ve been me.”

The spacecraft cuts around a training cab and into a steady flow of evening commuters.


Daisy’s voice vibrates in her fingers. “I won’t leave you. We’re in this together. I was made for you to carry.”

“I don’t know how, Daisy. I’m afraid.”


“Stay with me, Molly. I’ll teach you.”


The itch is overwhelming. With a grunt, Molly spins her engagement ring, and the spacecraft rolls like a boulder through oncoming traffic.






TUNE-IN NEXT WEEK FOR THE EXCITING CONCLUSION OF JESSICA MCHUGH'S "ALWAYS A BRIDE"










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