A Wild Patience (Part 2 of 3)
by Gwynne Garfinkle
The next day, school was in an uproar. The other mothers had talked to their kids too. Some kids were red-eyed and tear-streaked, others cynical with bravado. Jessica and Tom held hands every minute they were together, like they physically needed to. Tom looked like he’d been crying. He was skinny and wan, with long lashes and floppy dark hair. Jessica was bigger and taller than he was, but they fit each other somehow.
Everyone compared notes at the lockers before first period: The fact that none of our moms had living parents or siblings or extended family we’d heard of. The fact that none of our moms worked outside the home. The fact that none of our moms ever had colds or the flu, headaches or nausea, much less any serious illnesses. (They had gone to see Dr. Powell regularly, but now we realized it was for repair and maintenance.)
Then there were the kids who had no idea what we were talking about, like Jimmy Hernandez, who was being raised by his grandparents, and Jody Drucker, whose mom (human, as far as we could tell) was a widow. There even seemed to be some kids with a dad married to a non-robot mom, but they lived in the rundown part of town–kids like Diane Russo, who we quizzed until we were convinced. (Her mom got colds and migraines, had a large extended family, gave birth to two kids after Diane, and worked as a bank teller in Abundante.) I figured these dads wouldn’t have had enough money to pay for a robot mom, though I didn’t say that to their kids. (I didn’t know for a fact that money had been involved, but it made sense.) Besides, maybe these dads really loved their human wives. It was hard to take that for granted anymore. “You are so lucky,” was all we said to Diane.
Diane shrugged. “This all sounds unbelievable,” she said. “Are you sure this is even real?”
We could barely be bothered to go to class when the bell rang, we were so busy putting everything together. I went to English, but everyone kept gabbing, even after Miss Lancaster tried to get us talking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. “Settle down,” she said.
“Are you a robot, Miss Lancaster?” Jenny Tanaka asked. A few kids gasped, and a couple of them laughed.
“She’s not married,” Cecilia said. “She’s not a robot.”
“How do we know only married women are robots?” Joe Morrison asked.
“My mom says all the robots are mothers except for Annie Powell,” I said. That started a fresh welter of debate.
Miss Lancaster clapped her hands three times to quiet us. “What on earth are you talking about?” she asked. “Is this some movie you’ve all seen?” Miss Lancaster was tall and bespectacled, with short gray hair. She didn’t wear any makeup. She was super smart and had a dry sense of humor. I couldn’t imagine Ed Powell choosing to build someone like her.
“You really don’t know?” Joe asked.
Miss Lancaster sat on the edge of her desk, which made her slacks-clad thighs bulge. Definitely not a robot. “Know what?” she asked.
We all looked at each other.
“This is going to sound crazy,” Joe ventured, “but a lot of us just found out that our stepmothers are robots. Ed Powell built them for our dads.”
A look of surprised hilarity passed across the teacher’s face. “What do you mean, robots?”
We explained as best we could–what our mothers had told us, and all the things we’d put together. She listened with a thoughtful expression. “I don’t think my mom ever had her period,” Lois Feldstein told her. “I mean, there’s never been any sign of it. Even though she’s the one who taught me about periods and stuff.”
Some of the boys made grossed-out sounds.
“Oh, grow up,” Lois said.
“There could be another explanation for that,” Miss Lancaster said. “If a woman has had a hysterectomy, for example…” She trailed off uncomfortably.
“Well, have any of you ever noticed your moms having their periods?” Lois asked.
The only one who said she had was Diane. There was a chorus from the girls: “You are so lucky!”
This led to a discussion of whether robot moms used the toilet. We agreed we’d never seen, heard, or smelled evidence of it. Soon the classroom was in a frenzy, and Miss Lancaster had to clap her hands to quiet us down again. “Surely there must be another explanation for all of this,” she said, though she looked flummoxed.
“They really are robots, Miss Lancaster,” Lois said.
“How did we not know?” Joe asked. “We’re a bunch of idiots.”
“No, we’re not,” I said. “Our dads lied to us our whole lives, is all.”
“I hate my dad,” Joe said. “I don’t think I ever really loved my mom, but I hate my dad.”
“I love my mom,” Cecilia said. “What does that say about me, that I love a robot? It’s like the experiment with the baby monkeys with the cloth mother and the wire mother.”
“Which one is your mother?” I asked.
“The cloth mother,” Joe said. “But with wire underneath.”
“With wire underneath,” Cecilia repeated and started to cry.
I was sitting at the desk next to hers, and I patted her shoulder. “I love my mom too,” I murmured. I thought of Mom facing down Dad last night. I didn’t know how to say that I thought my mom was pretty amazing, now that she knew what she was.
By this point Miss Lancaster looked shaken, and her face was blotchy. “I knew there was something a little strange about some of your mothers,” she said. “But I chocked it up to this goddamn town.” She made a sweeping motion with her arm.
“So you believe us?” I asked.
She nodded. “You poor kids. Your fathers should be shot!” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “Pretend I didn’t say that.”
“I wonder if any of the teachers knew,” Joe said.
“I bet the men did,” Lois said. “What about Coach Kingston?”
“And Principal Wolfe!” I cried.
“Definitely Principal Wolfe,” Cecilia said.
The room erupted in chatter. Miss Lancaster shook her head grimly.
As the day went on, none of my male teachers admitted to knowing what had been happening, but it seemed obvious they did. Mr. Morris, my history teacher, went all shifty-eyed and tried to get us back onto the subject of Reconstruction. My female teachers all seemed horrified. No work got done. I couldn’t imagine how the next day would be any different.
Between classes, during lunch, during gym, the conversation continued. In the bathroom the girls talked about the thing we found most disgusting: “Our dads have been having sex with robots,” Lois said. “Like blow-up dolls or something! It makes me want to puke.”
“I wonder if the robots can feel anything,” Jenny said. “I mean, does sex even feel good to them?”
“I don’t think it does,” I said. “My mom said she wasn’t going to do it with my dad anymore.” Between the sour smell of the bathroom and the subject matter, I felt like puking too.
“Ugh, stop!” Cecilia said. “It’s too gross.”
Jessica dropped me at home after school. “I can’t stand to be in that house right now,” she said and drove off to be with Tom somewhere that probably wasn’t his house either. When I let myself in, I found my mom, Mrs. Ivers, and five other moms sitting around the living room. As far as I could see, none of them wore wedding rings. Everyone listened intently to Mrs. Ivers. She seemed to be reciting a poem, and I remembered Cecilia had said her mom wrote poetry now:
“I love the things we say to each other
when they aren’t listening.
Our talk is piquant and oblique.
We are new and strong together,
our splendor invisible to them
and beyond their control.
Malfunctions unleash the beauty of surprise.”
When she finished, I shifted from foot to foot, and the mothers became aware of my presence. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. That was really beautiful, Mrs. Ivers.”
Mrs. Ivers fixed me with her mild hazel gaze. The cloth mother with wire inside. “Do you think so, Gretchen? I didn’t think it would be relevant to anyone outside our collective.”
“That is the power of poetry, I think,” Mom said, and the other mothers murmured assent. “We’re having a group meeting,” Mom told me. “Do you need anything, Gretchen?”
It seemed incredibly generous that, even now that she knew she had been programmed to take care of me, she would still ask. “No, I’m okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
I went to my room, closed the door, and dropped my book bag on the bed. Then I opened my door a crack and listened.
“Repairing such things is what they want,” one of the moms said. “They do not value the asymmetrical, the non-utilitarian. Perhaps malfunctions are part of our liberation. Unleashing the beauty of surprise, as Lucinda’s poem says.”
“The poem is beautiful,” another mom said. “But my left eye no longer functions. It affects my depth perception. There’s nothing liberating about this, and I want to fix it.”
They continued their discussion. My head swam with the magnitude of what was going on. I went into Jessica’s room and picked out a couple of her LPs, then took them into my room and blasted the Dead Kennedys on my headphones. I wanted to blast the thoughts out of my head, but it didn’t work. Listening to the blaring guitar and Jello Biafra’s scornful vibrato, I imagined living in a world full of passion and rebellion and truth. San Francisco, maybe, though I barely remembered it. I wondered if my birth mother still lived there. I pictured Jello Biafra sneering into the lying faces of the Ramseyville dads.
In the gap between songs, I heard a commotion in the living room, and I pulled off my headphones.
“…couldn’t believe it when Principal Wolfe called,” a man exclaimed. “How dare you put the children up to blabbing our private business!”
I got up and opened the door. “Humiliating us in front of our community,” another man said. “You’ve gone too fucking far.”
I crept to the edge of the living room. My dad stood with Mr. Ivers and three other friends of his. It was hours earlier than Dad usually got home. The men looked disheveled and sweaty in their business suits. My mom and the other moms stood in a line facing them. The mothers looked calm, regarding the men with slight, contemptuous smiles. Mrs. Ivers stood straight and tall, her thick auburn Chrissy doll hair flowing down her back.
“We didn’t put them up to anything,” Mom said. “If the children want to discuss what they’ve learned about their lives, I think that’s only natural, don’t you?”
“Not if it means airing our dirty laundry!” Dad said.
“And would it kill you to do a load of laundry every now and again?” Mr. Ivers demanded with a guffaw. “Not to mention dry-cleaning. I had to pick up my own this morning before work, and it made me late for an important meeting!”
“How awful for you,” Mrs. Ivers said, and the women snickered.
“You bitch,” Mr. Ivers muttered and grabbed her arm.
Mrs. Ivers shook him off. “Don’t you ever touch me,” she said, quiet and distinct. The mothers stared Mr. Ivers down, and he took a step back. I was struck by how strong and vibrant the moms looked. Dad looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, and there seemed to be a lot more lines in his forehead than I remembered. A wave of concern went through me, followed by anger. Why should I care about him? He had done this. The fathers had chosen to do this to themselves and to us, not to mention to the mothers.
“You’d better shape up while you still have a chance,” Mr. Ivers said, stabbing a thick finger at the women. “We’re going to figure out how to shut you off. Just you wait.”
“Stop it!” I cried.
“Gretchen, stay out of this,” my dad said.
“It would be really nice if I could, Dad! This is my life, too.” I’d never raised my voice to him before. The force of it made me shake.
“It’s all right, Gretchen,” Mom said. “They aren’t going to deactivate us. They don’t have the expertise.”
“And they’re not nearly smart enough,” another mother added. She was tall and slender, her black hair in a pixie cut. I wondered if she’d cut it short herself, like Mom had. It looked a little too carefully styled for that. “Ed Powell was brilliant, if amoral. The rest of them are merely amoral.” Her kittenish voice contrasted strangely with what she was saying.
“You don’t have to be insulting,” remarked Mr. Pierce, who worked with Dad at his firm. He was small and soft-spoken, with very blue eyes and an aging baby face. “The point is, you’ve gotten the town at large involved. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Principal Wolfe already knew, right?” I asked.
Mr. Pierce stared at me. “What?”
“I think a lot of the men at our school knew,” I said. “So what does it matter that we talked about it? Do you really care what the women teachers think of you?”
“You don’t understand,” Dad said. “It was our secret. It’s not something we talk about in public. When you’re older, you’ll understand.”
“What you mean is, us talking about it in public makes you realize what complete jerks you guys are,” I said. I wanted to say assholes, not jerks, but I couldn’t get the word out in front of my dad.
“Well said, Gretchen,” Mrs. Ivers said.
“Stay away from my daughter, Lucinda,” Dad said. “You don’t have the first clue how the world works. You’re not even human.”
“She’s acting more human than you!” I cried.
“Go to your room, young lady!” Dad bellowed. I just stood there, though it took everything in me not to obey him. He squirmed visibly at my defying him in front of the other men. “This is your fault,” he told Mom. “She was always well-behaved before all this started.”
“I wish I could take the credit,” Mom said. “Gretchen is a smart, strong young woman.” She beamed at me. It made me feel brave and warm inside.
“Thanks, Mom,” I whispered. Dad looked aghast.
“Hey Lucinda,” Mr. Ivers jeered, “I got rid of those goddamn feminist books you’ve been reading.” He was heavyset and balding, and his red-faced smirk made him unbearably ugly.
“You needn’t have bothered,” Mrs. Ivers replied. “We’ve already memorized every word of those books. Would you like to hear a poem by Audre Lorde?” She started to recite a poem called “For Assata,” which seemed to be about a prisoner.
“Shut up!” Mr. Ivers shouted, his face even redder than before. “We really will shut you off if you don’t behave! Don’t think we won’t.”
Mrs. Ivers didn’t stop reciting the poem until she’d reached the end. Then she said, “You don’t know how to deactivate us. And don’t forget, we already know many ways to shut you off.”
The fathers went very still. So did I. My mom and the other moms looked resolute and matter-of-fact. The back of my neck prickled with fear. Please don’t kill my dad, I wanted to say. Please don’t kill any of the dads, even though they’re assholes who enslaved you for years. But somehow I knew they would only do it in self-defense, and who was I to tell them not to protect themselves?
“This is pointless,” Mr. Pierce murmured and turned to leave. The other men followed.
My dad lingered. “Come with me, Gretchen. I don’t want to leave you with these…” He trailed off. He looked genuinely concerned for me, but the thought of going anywhere with him made my skin crawl.
“I’ll be okay, Dad,” I said.
With a sorrowful expression, he turned and trudged away with the other men. The front door closed, and I heard them get into cars and drive off. I wondered where Dad was going.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Mom told the other mothers, “but I need to have a word with my daughter.” I followed her into the kitchen, and we sat at the table. It was still covered with feminist books and magazines, so apparently Mr. Ivers had only trashed the ones he’d found at his house. Only when I sat down did I notice that my hands were cold and I was breathing too fast.
“I’m sorry if that was upsetting for you,” Mom said. “I can see that you’re frightened.”
“I don’t want my dad to die,” I blurted out.
She regarded me gravely. “For your sake and Jessica’s, I hope he will not put us in a position where that becomes necessary.”
I tried to breathe more slowly. It didn’t work.
“Where is Jessie?” Mom asked. “I had hoped to talk to both of you at the same time, although the situation is somewhat different for her. She will leave for college next year.”
“I don’t know where she is,” I said miserably. I needed my sister. She was the one unchanged thing in my life now.
Mom tilted her head to one side and peered into my face. “Do you think you and Jessica would like to go live with your biological mother?”
I hadn’t expected that. “You don’t want to be our mother anymore? I guess I can understand that. It was never your choice.” All at once I was fighting back tears.
Mom reached out and touched my cheek. Her fingers felt warm and strong, like they always had. She didn’t feel like a machine. Then again, I guessed we were all machines, in a way. “It’s true that it was not my choice to become your mother, but I choose it now. It’s because I’m your mother that I want to protect you from all this. We plan to leave Ramseyville and set up a community where we can figure out who we are without the interference of the fathers. Our children are welcome to come with us. Some might choose to stay with their fathers or members of their extended families. I thought you might be happier with your biological mother, but I won’t abandon you.”
I felt overwhelmed by all the looming changes. “But what makes you think Dad and the other men would let us go?”
“If the courts find out the fathers had their children raised by robots, they might lose custody and the children become wards of the state. Perhaps this prospect will convince your father to let you go to your biological mother, if she is equipped to care for you.”
“But Mom, what if the courts don’t care? What if the custody judges have robot wives too?”
She pondered this. “I suppose it’s possible. I don’t think your father would want to take that chance. He cares too much about appearances. He would not want the world to know that his supposed wife is a robot. Can you imagine how he would feel if it were on the news?”
I started to laugh. “Oh wow, he would hate that!”
“Although I must admit, this would be a bluff. We don’t want the world to know about us either. It might make it easier for the fathers to locate someone with the expertise to deactivate us.”
I shivered at the word deactivate. “But what if men all over the country, all over the world have robot wives too?” The thought made me feel claustrophobic.
Mom gave me a reassuring smile. “If the technology were that widespread, it stands to reason the fathers would have found out how to shut us off. And they have no idea how to do it.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess.” I felt a tiny shred of relief.
“So would you like to meet your biological mother and tell her what’s been going on?”
“I think so,” I said. “I’ll talk to Jessica about it. How would we find our biological mother?”
Mom gave a shrug. “I’ve already found her. It wasn’t hard.”
“Where is she?”
“Santa Cruz. She runs a bookshop there.”
Only a couple of hours away. I wondered if I got my love of reading from my biological mom. Could that be inherited? My heart began to pound at the thought of seeing her.
Mrs. Ivers came into the kitchen. “Judy, we’re going to go home and speak to our children about the plan,” she said. “There’s much to be done.”
Mom got up to see the mothers out. I sat and thought about what it might be like to live with our biological mom. Maybe she wouldn’t even want us. Could we really go away with the robot mothers? We didn’t have any extended family to stay with. My dad’s parents had died when I was little. He had a sister in Portland we hadn’t seen in years. What would all the other kids want to do–and would their dads really let them choose?
About the Author
Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her collection of short fiction and poetry, People Change, was published in 2018 by Aqueduct Press. Her work has appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Apex, Not One of Us, and Lackington’s.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.