EP489: Uncanny

by James Patrick Kelly
read by Dani Cutler

author James Partick Kelly

author James Partick Kelly

about the author…

James Patrick Kelly is an American science fiction writer born April 11, 1951, in Mineola, New York. He began selling science fiction professionally in the mid-1970s, and has subsequently become one of the field’s leading writers of short fiction.

He has won the Hugo Award twice, for his 1995 novelette “Think Like A Dinosaur” and for his 1999 novelette “Ten to the Sixteenth to One.” His 2005 novella “Burn” won the Nebula Award. His novels include Freedom Beach (1986, with John Kessel), Look Into the Sun (1989), and Wildlife (1994). Also with John Kessel, he co-edited the anthologies Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006), Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (2007), and The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009).

A prolific teacher, Kelly has taught at most of the major science-fiction writing workshops, including Clarion, Clarion West, Viable Paradise, and Odyssey. Since 1998, he has served on the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts; he chaired the council in 2004. He is the Vice Chair of the Clarion Foundation, which oversees the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop; he has served on the Board of Directors of the New England Foundation for the Arts; and he is currently on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He also writes a column about SF on the internet for Asimov’s SF.


narrator Dani Cutler

narrator Dani Cutler

about the narrator…

Dani Cutler last narrated for EP in 454: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One. She has been part of the podcasting community since 2006, hosting and producing her own podcast through 2013. She currently works for KWSS independent radio in Phoenix as their midday announcer, and also organizes a technology conference each year for Phoenix residents to connect with others in the podcast, video, and online community.


by James Patrick Kelly

A month after I broke up with Jonathan, or Mr. Wrong, as my mother liked to call him, she announced that she’d bought me a machine to love. She found it on eBay, paid the Buy It Now price and had it shipped to me the next day. I’m not sure where she got the idea that I needed a machine or how she picked it out or what she thought it would do for me. My mother never asked advice or permission. I dreaded finding the heavy, flat box that UPS left propped against my front door.

I called her. “It’s here. So what does it do?”

“Whatever you want.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“You always say that, but it’s never true. We all want something.” I hated it when she was being patient with me. “Just give it a chance, honey. They’re more complicated than men,” she said, “but cleaner.”

I muscled it into the foyer. I retrieved the box cutter from Jonathan’s neurotically tidy toolbox and sliced carefully through the packing tape. I decided that I’d try it, but I also intended to send the thing back, so I saved the bubble wrap and styrofoam.

There was no manual. The assembly instructions were in twelve pictographs printed on either side of a glossy sheet of paper. They showed a stick figure woman with a black circle for a head building the machine. Black was just how I felt as I attached the arms and headlights, fit the wheels and drawers into place. It stood five feet, eleven and three quarter inches tall; I measured. I had to give Mom credit; she knew quality when she saw it. The shiny parts were real chrome and there was no flex to the titanium chassis, which was painted glossy blue, the exact blue of Jonathan’s eyes. It smelled like the inside of a new car. I realized too late that I should have assembled it closer to the wall, I had to plug the charger into an extension cord. The power light flashed red; the last pictograph showed the stick figure woman staring at a twenty-four hour clock, impatience squiggles leaping from her round, black head.

I didn’t sleep well that night. My bed seemed very big, filled with Jonathan’s absence. I had a nightmare about the dishwasher overflowing and then I was dancing with the vacuum cleaner in a warm flood of soapy water.

When I came home from work the next day the machine was fully charged and was puttering about the apartment with my dusting wand, which I never used. It had loaded the dishes into the dishwasher and run it. There were vacuum tracks on the living room rug. I found the packing materials it had come with bundled into the trash; it had broken down its cardboard box for recycling. At dinner time, it settled at the other end of the kitchen table, dimmed its headlights and waited while I ate my Weight Watchers Chicken Mesquite microwave dinner. Later we watched The Big Bang Theory together. I thought it wanted to follow me into the bedroom when I was ready to go to sleep, but I turned at the door and pointed at the hall closet. It flashed its brights and rolled obediently away.

My mother called on Tuesday. “Well?”

“I suppose.” I hated it when she was right. “You know how my toilet always kind of dribbled? Fixed.”

“Accessorize,” she said.

That night I shopped online. At first, all I wanted was to reward it for all the work it had done around the house. I bought an eight ounce bottle of Royal Carnauba, The King of Waxes. According to Amazon its polymer formula “created chains that cross-linked, allowing the polish to fill and level the micro-valleys in your machine’s paint.” I’d brushed up against it occasionally while we did the dishes and I’d been impressed by how sleek its finish was. At the bottom of Royal Carnauba’s Amazon page, in the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought section, were all kinds of aftermarket add-ons. I couldn’t resist adding a refurbished Audiostar voice card to my cart. It was on sale for half price and featured eleven accents including British Nigel, Irish Liam, Jamaican Desmon and Australian Heath. Then I discovered that customers who wanted to hear what their machines had on their minds also bought accessories of a more intimate nature.

I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. Maybe it was because I had never wandered into the libidinous precincts of Amazon, or even suspected that they existed. I spent a pleasant half hour unable to stop reading the Most Helpful Customer Reviews or to ignore the fizzing at the base of my skull. The machine parked itself behind me, its headlights demurely dimmed. I was also surprised at how easy it was to imagine attaching these sex toys to the machine and making proper use of them. And why not? I was thirty-six years old. I could vote and I had a 401(k) account and my very own office. With a door. I settled on Lucid Dream’s Rebellious Ryan, a “sensually designed, power packed 3-speed arouser with an unbelievable fluttering butterfly.” With my Amazon Prime account, two day delivery was guaranteed and my mother didn’t have to know.

Unless she already did.

I awoke the next morning to find the machine in my bedroom, sorting clothes from a laundry basket into my dresser drawers. Not only had it ironed my jeans and tee shirts, but it was folding my panties. I noticed several unmatched socks in the trash bin. They had been living in the bottom of my sock drawer in the hope that their mates would return from laundry exile someday. When I went into the bathroom to shower, I discovered that it had lined up my shampoos and conditioners in size order on the edge of the bathtub. I turned the shower on and, as I waited for the hot water, I leaned into the door until it clicked shut.

When I came home that night it had made rosemary-encrusted roast chicken for dinner. Sides were garlic-mashed potatoes and sautéed asparagus sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

“How was the gravy?” asked my mother.

“Creamy.” I knew the machine was listening to my side of the phone conversation. “Better than yours.”


I had a late meeting the next day and didn’t get home until well after dark. There was a crab-stuffed Portobello mushroom and a Caesar salad waiting for me, as well as the package from Amazon. By the time I finished dinner it was eight-thirty. As I sliced the box open, I told myself I was too tired to try to install both of the new accessories before bedtime. Which would be simplest?

That night the earth wobbled on its axis. Rebellious Ryan had me shivering with pleasure. Then shuddering. Then quaking. I think it must have been after three in the morning when the tremors finally began to subside. I flopped onto bed, sated and sore and blessedly alone. I slept like a dead woman.

Hours passed. Perhaps epochs. Eons.

“Jennifer?” I had never heard my name spoken quite so tenderly. The voice was mellow and rich and unfamiliar. “I let you sleep in, love, but soon you’re going to be late for work.” Sonorous, plummy, British. I bolted upright and the machine was standing by my bed. “I’ve drawn water for your bath. What kind of cheese would you like in your omlette? We have cheddar, provolone and Swiss. ”

“You’re talking.”

“You’re surprised. Brilliant! I had some trouble detecting the voice card, but once I updated the drivers, everything was fine.”

I pulled the sheet up to my neck, throat tight, cheeks burning. Had I really clamped my legs around that sleek blue titanium chassis and yodeled? “I think I’d like some privacy.”

“Of course.” The machine rolled toward the door, then paused. “You know,” it said, “I wonder if we don’t want to change the color scheme in this room. Beige is so … beige, don’t you think? I was thinking of something in a raspberry.”

I waited until it had rolled down the hall before I called my mother.

“Can you email me the receipt?”

“Really? Returning it so soon?”

“Yes. It wants to redecorate.”

“At least it got your mind off that man.”

I hated it when she was wrong.

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