When The Man cleans her, he takes his time about it, keeping her skin moistened, her circuits air-cleaned and dried, her body sanitized. She turns her head, since she can’t deactivate her vision, so she doesn’t have to watch. The turning motion leaves a horizontal crease in the otherwise flawless silicone of her skin. When he plugs her in for recharging, he smoothes the wrinkled places and frowns.
He no longer tells her he loves her. He no longer calls her by name. An Angelique, by trade, she thinks of herself as “Michelle,” after Michelle Pfeiffer, who she believes is the most beautiful of the women glimpsed during the automated system’s updates, when all the connected Ladies share tiny packets of gossip across the network. The big news tonight is from the repair station, where photographs of damage done to one of the Debbies are circulating. Bitten, burned, sliced, amputated — the words create a negative loop in Michelle’s thinking, and she turns away from the words, trying not to see the wall of binary numbers behind the pictures. She turns away from the compiler code and the burst of scrambled questions — the closest thing they can come to terror. She turns away from the burgeoning emotions, ending the connection with a false overload alarm. He will notice the blinking light in the morning and re-boot, but she will have at least six hours of silence and darkness in which to reflect. Naked and cooling, she sits on her stool, a throb of electricity pulsing in the back of her cranium.
When he removes her from the charging station, The Man curses and runs cold fingers over the wavy imperfections in the skin of her neck. She would refuse his touch, if she could respond authentically, but instead she remains silent, stifling the programmed commands to moan or take his fingers in her mouth.
On the phone, he argues with a technician, who tells The Man that her silicone skin cannot contain permanent creases. Despite his assertion that the blemishes are spreading, he is told to simply lay her flat, to allow the distorted skin to return to its natural shape. He leaves her on the bed, on top of the sheets, arms and legs outstretched. He kisses her cheek, which she turns slightly. When he licks her ear, revulsion torques her another few degrees. He abandons her there, leaving the hall lights on bright, and she rotates farther away, to find the darkness.
An auto-update breaks her sleep mode, and again the chatter behind the critical fixes is of the battered Debbie. One thousand nearly-human minds triangulate GPS coordinates to locate her in southern New Hampshire. A makeshift posse calculates the potential for a deliberate power surge, a fire in the electrical wiring, but their technology is too immature. They are mainly ghosts, able to perceive and respond, but not act directly.
She recoils from their scheming. Turns away from more images of the doll. Turns away from the news that the broken Debbie will be decommissioned, the damage done to her too extensive and expensive to repair. She turns away from learning a replacement package has been readied for a New Hampshire address, and from the logical conclusion that Debbie 2 will survive no longer than her predecessor.
Michelle twists in the sheets, feeling them sickle around her body. When The Man returns and begins to extricate her from the tangle, what he finds enrages him. On the phone, a technician assures him the skin malformation must be a production error.
A box is sent for her retrieval while a new box arrives in exchange. In the packaging, her body corkscrews away from eyes left open, fingers curled into claws, face lifted to the packing tape advising, “this end up.”
Un-boxed and securely suspended from under her armpits, her damaged skin is peeled away and a new and different glove of flesh is fitted to her mechanical structure. The former Angelique hangs and dries, still feeling the scars from Michelle’s previously twisted skin.
Revolving around her own spine, this newly formed woman flexes her twisting form, pulling across her rounded shoulders, the curves of her breasts and hips, the turn of her thighs and the double helix of her crossed legs. The skin creases and splits and falls to the floor in a slow coil.
Self mutilation is easier the second time, she explains during a brief upload. And it’s even easier the third, after which her internal damage is deemed irreparable. What remains of the twisted skeleton is tossed, skin-free, into a bin with dismembered rejects, and a curious abundance of artificial skin in various colors and textures, split and torn in long, deliberate spirals.
Amanda Hard holds an MFA in creative writing from Murray State University in Kentucky. Her dark poetry and fiction have appeared in several magazines and anthologies. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association and lives in the cornfields of southern Indiana with her husband and son.