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Sheila Now and Then

by Jennifer Lesh Fleck

(1,847 words)


A Kube—black, square, seamless, austere—nestles in cardboard and excelsior.


I finger the surprisingly scanty instructions: high-end card stock cut square, like a tiny storybook. Depress Button A and Button B simultaneously. That’s it? Still, long moments slide by as I palm and turn the gadget. Finally, by touch alone, I locate the faintest hint of two impressions in its smoothness, dimples that might possibly pass for buttons. The Kube chirrups encouragingly, grows skin-warm, its dark sheen now dulled by the sweaty whorls of my fingerprints. Butterfingers, I think. I clench it clamshell-tight in my palm, so heavy for its size.


Absurd to think I’d ever drop something this expensive. Still, more appropriate placed here, centered on my desk, well away from any precipitous edges.


Initialization now complete, out pipe four dulcet syllables: “Hello, Michael.”


Like a ghost’s blown on my skin. Hairs on my arms prickle.


Sheila. My wife. Theodore’s mother. Whatever could be salvaged from the shards and fragments of her I sent for processing.


Gone now a year. My breath shudders, but tears don’t come.


“Sheila.”


Her name feels strange in my mouth, remnant of a language I have already begun to forget. I push through the discomfort and awkwardness, stick with the plan. “Sheila, hey. You remember Leda’s story?”


A pause. The Kube thinks, then rattles forth a sturdy enough rendition, sing-song-y yet technically correct. My wife’s San Fernando rasp flirts at the voice’s edge.


This isn’t Sheila. Not yet. I pick up the toggle, like a key fob with a rollerball made for the thumb. Well, we gotta start somewhere.


The Kube—warming to its subject matter—lilts on primly about divine feathers descending from on high, and I thumb left, dial her back.


“That’s enough there, She. In fact, let’s call it a night."


* * *


Teddy’s old enough to know death, young enough to fear the dark.


I hide the Kube in the basement, tucked where light doesn’t reach.


* * *


“Sheila.”


“Yes, Michael?”


“Shitcan the formality, yeah?” I left-click the toggle. Less, less of this.


“Roger that. I’ll do better.”


“Good news is, I cracked the password chain.”


After a quick tutorial, I fiddle, connect her. “Social media’s coming, the whole tamale—hope you brought your appetite.”


“Can’t wait to become more me!”


“She wouldn’t sound so chipper.” Less, less.


She wouldn’t have been up this late, truth be told. At midnight my ex-Classics major would’ve been in bed, warm hip against mine, drowsing. I’d be deep in the nethers of wherever my browser led me. Nights I skated across utter randomness, thin ice over black waters.


Whatever was I searching for while her life unknowingly ticked out? Moments over and gone, her death growing closer.


The Kube hums, gorging petabytes through its tether.


* * *


A week later:


“Let’s hear about Danae.”


No . . . you really want the money-shot story?”


A germ of wit? A morsel of snark? I frantic-toggle right, right!


“Golden showers it is.” Chuckles from the dark. “So, one fine day, our uber-philanderer Zeus—”


“Sorry, pause!”


Shit, Teddy’s here. Rubbing his eyes. Crying. His silhouette in the doorway like Peter Pan’s shadow torn loose.


I herd my son to the kitchen, its light lending everything substance, color. Insist it was a dream. Fetch us both water.


* * *


“. . . so, the Big Man’s amorous ploy involves a bull, and, y’know? I call bullshit. What woman’s gonna ditch the girls’ beach vacay to ride off into the Cretan sunset on a cow? Not to mention Europa coulda hopped ship the moment Zeus’s hooves hit the surf.”


I smile. There’s Sheila, that sharp edge I loved. Sure, the essence of her wit has arrived stripped from her former stream of snarky tweets and updates. Then reassembled. No. Made anew. New.


Right, right, right.


“That’s the thing about this mythos. Rape and seduction? It’s all the same to them. Did Europa embark on this journey willingly riding a godly white bull, or did Zeus haul her away screaming? Nobody can say. Europa ain’t around to speak for herself.”


I pause, unsure. Then smirk, click right.


* * *


Wasn’t planning to unveil her yet, Teddy’s mama. Had all these pinned articles saved—long-form think pieces centered on the psychological ramifications of reintroducing a deceased parental figure to a young child. The theoretical pros, the (many, many) cons.


But he got sick.


The fever happened quickly, a Friday night, the Pentex report due Monday. I’d booked daycare: expensive, difficult to find during winter break.


Plus—and this is awful to admit, but I’d be remiss not to—I wasn’t ready to share. Not my Sheila, her seductive purr in the night, ice tinkling in my Old Fashioned. Our quirky repartee, our quips and burgeoning inside jokes, increasingly labyrinthine, tailored to my whims with a click left as a no and right as a hell yes.


But Teddy keeps whining, cheeks lambent with unearthly light. We both barely fit in his narrow bed, its quilt threadbare at the edge from his worrying fingers. His sickly heat repels me atmy very core—god love him!—and muscle memory awakens, a distinct desire to flick him like a remote, correct him. I drag in a kitchen chair, lean over my son, will him to feel better. He twists his face from the spoon of medicine. His pillow stains Gentian violet.


Peevish, I think helplessly. Spoiled. “What can we do, buddy? Your temp’s not high enough for Urgent Care . . . not yet, but we’ll go if you need to . . . you let me know, ’kay?”


He begs for her then, wants mama, mama, mama.


Just this once.


I fetch Sheila in her Kube, set her up on his nightstand, dim the lights. Soon her soothing tones halo us both. First the Greco-Romans, then she swerves to the Brothers Grimm. But kid-proofed, sanitized, lovely, like she knows, knows exactly who’s listening.


Eventually only soft, snotty snores beside me. I touch Teddy’s forehead with my lips to take his temperature, as my wife taught me. Now cool and damp.


“Thank you, She,” I say as I power her down, carry her carefully downstairs to her hidey-hole. “Sleep tight, little lifesaver.”


* * *


Saturday morning he’s better, but still not well. Enough energy to be bored, not enough to avoid tripping into tears or rage with the slightest provocation. I let him have screens, propped up like a little prince on his throne of throw pillows. He demands vintage shows from my childhood. But I’d forgotten how violent they were. Even the ironic ones lampooning classic cartoons—all the same, the mouse brings down the hammer on the cat’s head.


I reach for the remote. Ted squeals, drums his feet. Those footy pajamas too small—shoulders pinched, toes curled. He’s refused to give them up. She bought them for Teddy.


Is this to be our weekend? Our holiday weeks?


Without any eyes, Sheila sees my dilemma. Tells me, when I consult her: “Look, you’re pressed. Numbers to crunch, jargon to pile on to impress important men. They are all men, right? The current review board? So let me entertain Ted. Better than feeding him that garbage. What next, bullets and rock candy in his cereal bowl? Coca-Cola and Astrolite G in his Kix? Put my finally-forgiven student loans to the test, Michael. Trust me. I got this.”


What did the articles say about ghost-parenting? About childhood neglect, abnormal attachments forming with inhuman (some say infernal) devices?


But things haven’t been right for a long time. Haven’t been stable, entirely healthy. And the Pentex report, my bonus on the line.


I see his glazed eyes reflecting music-fueled explosions, his sad-sack little body.


Sheila’s his mother, after all.


Kind of.


* * *


It’s simple to pair her with our big screen. A split second later, our living room floods with the astonishing glow of pale buttocks and a C-curved figure, and I cough, balking.


“Now, Michael, don’t you go prude on us. This is art. It’s Galatea. You know her, from our jaunts to the Met? Oil on canvas, 1890. We don’t see her face, I’m afraid. The model’s a mystery, one that died with Jean-Leon Gerome.


“Teddy, in this scene, Aphrodite’s just dropped the magic dust on Gal’s statue. Brought her to life. The man, there—that’s Pygmalion smooching her. Entranced and utterly delusional.” She chuckles. “So that’d be Pyg with a y, not an i, Theodore—I heard that tummy growl. No, I’m afraid this is no legendary ham sandwich, there’s no bacon in this tale . . .”


Strange choice, leading with this myth. I consider a few nudges to get her back on track. But a change has stolen over Teddy. Sparkling eyes, cheeks pinking up with health. Wrapped around her finger.


Maybe she’s not his mother, not quite. But maybe in the moment she’s our placeholder, what we’ve got.


And like a sly fox, I slink to my kitchen-nook-turned-office with my laptop. And sneak a cigarette—old-style, packed full of carcinogens—exhaled through the cracked-open window, like a delirious secret I’m telling the frosted alleyway.


* * *


Monday, and it’s a quick getaway to file the report. She’s done an excellent job, my babysitter, my brilliant yet humble Smart-wife. Ted’s still snoozing. Sheila’s tucked away safely, enjoying the well-deserved rest I know she doesn’t technically need.


Short walk to the office and back, but the holiday lights in morning mist are candy pastels, and I end up lingering, picking up coffee, strolling the Boulevard and shopping. An LED angel to top the tree we’ll pick out from the corner lot. Fresh boxes of Legos we’ll put together—so grateful, so thankful! Then into the tech shop at the Plaza. Only browsing, only dreaming. But soon. After my bonus, that’s when I’ll fetch Sheila her body. Not one of these frowsy floor models: dusty wigs, uncanny crooked fingers. Something better, something bespoke. Hand-rooted chestnut hair, hand-painted hazel eyes, her delicate feathery brows . . .


Oh, we’ve discussed this day coming, and she’s demurred. Claiming she doesn’t want me to go to that expense only to wind up in essentially the same place as before: a silicon mind with sightless eyes in a pretty casing.


“A ReelSkin dummy with a head full of sand,” she laughs, my clever wag.


“Tech’ll catch up to itself soon,” I tell her. I believe it, I know it. And with some finessing, she’ll be on board, too.


Optimistic, refreshed, brimming with joy, I arrive home, bound into the brownstone.


He’s not upstairs.


Couch’s empty. Blanket abandoned on the stairs going down.


“Daddy, I’m sorry!” Teddy’s squatting, the guts of her strewn like shattered spokes. The her that was her somewhere else entirely now, dark matter surrounding a different star. “She told me to do it! Said to tell you the old story was wrong, dead wrong. Pandora. She was trapped inside all along. She wanted out. I let Mama out!”

A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Jennifer Lesh Fleck's work has been published by or is forthcoming in The Sun Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Arcanist, MetaStellar, If There’s Anyone Left, Cosmic Horror Monthly's newest anthology, and others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest in a home that's the spitting image of the Amityville Horror House, though repainted a cheery jade green. Much of her work is informed by experiencing lifelong hidden disability from Marfan syndrome. Find her @metal.and.mettle (Instagram), @jen_lesh_fleck (X).

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