Phillip Lavender eases into his chair, hoping its plush cushioning will inspire him to tear into his long-overdue review of the architectural plans for his client’s summer home.
Pushing the chair closer to the computer screen, Phillip feels something scrape against his left knee. Looking underneath the desk, he sees an envelope taped to its side.
Opening the envelope, he finds an undeveloped roll of film and a note. The note, from Frank McCool, reads:
YOUR LIFE IS A LIE.
Johnny Casio, the seventeen-year-old zit farm in charge of CVS’ Photo Department on weekends, laughs at Phillip’s roll of film.
“Wow, old school! I didn’t think they even made film anymore.”
“I’m surprised you know what it is.”
“Sure, I seen my grandad use some,” Johnny replies. “But you’re gonna have to wait until the manager comes in on Monday to have it developed. He’s a magician with old stuff. What’s on it?”
“I don’t know. Probably shots of old buildings and houses.”
“You sure you wanna bother?”
As Phillip leaves the store, he notices a bushy-haired man with sunglasses staring at him through the side-view mirror of his worn Toyota. The driver’s side window is open, and the man is smoking a pungent cheap cigar.
The stomach-churning scent of the cigar triggers a memory. Phillip recalls seeing the same Toyota parked near a green and white two-story house, a place he’s never been in.
Phillip sips his coffee at the kitchen table. He’s about to open the envelope when his wife, Sandy, comes in carrying a bag of groceries, announcing gleefully, “We’re gonna have tacos tonight!”
Yum. My favorite.”
“Don’t I know it. You wanna whip up a batch of your famous margaritas and call it a date night?”
“I’m all for it, as long as…”
“Easy, tiger, that’ll depend on how many margaritas I have,” Sandy says, winking at him.
To everyone else, Phillip and Sandy are a mismatch. Their marriage seems more like a frat house flirtation than a serious relationship. A teacher and a ceramic artist, Sandy is a tall, athletic, freckled blonde who enjoys being outdoors. A few inches shorter than his wife, Phillip is dark-haired, husky, soft-spoken, and more likely to ride a couch than a horse.
Phillip smiles at her, still unsure what she sees in him after eight drama-free years.
“Whatcha fidgeting with?” she asks.
“Just some old pictures of construction jobs I was involved in.”
“Ugh. That’s related to work, buddy. Put them away and get that blender gyrating.”
Sandy rummages through the grocery bag. “Aw, shoot. I forgot the most important thing, the taco shells! Be right back.”
“I’ll have a margarita ready when you return, my liege,” Phillip says.
“You better, and it’s my queen,” Sandy replies.
Phillip opens the envelope.
Looking at the photos he wonders if he has the right set of pictures.
The first three photos capture a smiling, long-haired brunette with placid, light blue eyes blowing kisses at the camera.
Phillip is surprised by the next shot, a slightly crooked selfie. He has his arms around the brunette’s waist. In the next shot, she’s kissing his cheek.
A warm feeling of intimacy rushes over him. “Who are you?” Phillip asks aloud.
He smiles at the next set of pictures, which show the woman at a beach wearing a big floppy hat, sunglasses, and a captivating, loving smile. She holds a spinning pinwheel in her hand.
Phillip’s amused smile fades when he sees another picture of himself with the woman. The two of them are standing next to a mailbox in front of a two-story green and white home. The address on the mailbox reads:
233 West Street
Phillip is also captivated by a seemingly innocuous shot of a chocolate cake with the inscription:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANASTASIA, MY WIFE, MY WORLD, MY HEART.
Phillip searches the Internet for the house and any trace of the McCools.
Sandy bursts into his office, fumbling with her pocketbook and briefcase. “I’m teaching three classes today. Can I count on having dinner with you two nights in a row?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Great. Hold the margaritas. I feel like the Hindenburg - gassy, and explosive. Love ya!”
Phillip clicks on the property record for 233 West Street. The record indicates the house is owned by Presley Laboratories. The only occupant listed is thirty-four-year-old Anastasia McCool, a lab technician for Presley.
Philip surveys his surroundings as he rings the doorbell.
Green and white. Two stories. This is the home in the pictures and his waking dreams.
He gazes at the manicured lawn, the copious flower beds, and the surrounding pine trees, hoping they will shake loose a memory.
“What do you want?” a pleasing voice asks.
The front door opens. The brunette in the photos steps outside, eying him suspiciously.
For a moment, her agitated stare seems to soften, as if she recognizes him.
“I’m Phillip Lavender. I know this may sound crazy, but please bear with me. I think we know each other.”
“I’ve never seen you in my life.”
“I’ll get to the point. We were married.”
Anastasia’s eyes widen, her pale skin turning crimson as her anger explodes.
“HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND? I DON’T KNOW YOU, MR. LAVENDER.”
Philip reaches in his jacket for the pictures. “Perhaps you’ll think differently when you look at these.”
Anastasia thumbs through the photos, pausing to study the shots of herself at the beach.
“…Gilgo Beach…,” she whispers to herself.
“I said, I don’t go to the beach. I burn too easily.”
She stares at the photo of the two of them standing next to the mailbox, then studies Phillip’s features.
“You went through a lot of trouble to fake these photos,” she says. “What’s your game, Mr. Lavender? Extortion? Well, you’re too late. My husband, Frank, died eight years ago.”
“He had a heart attack while visiting his mother in Mashpee, Massachusetts.”
“Was he buried here, or in Mashpee?”
The question seems to confuse Anastasia, who hesitates before saying, “He’s…He’s buried there.”
“You said your husband died eight years ago?”
“That’s when I got married.”
“To Sandy, my wife.”
Anastasia’s bright eyes widen. “I thought you said I was your wife? You’re not only crazy, Mr. Lavender, you’re also a bigamist. Who put you up to this?”
“No one,” Phillip insists. “It’s real. It happened.”
“Really? Where did we meet? Where did you propose to me?”
Phillip stares blankly at Anastasia.
C’mon, Mr. Lavender. If you’re going to shake me down, you should have all your fake facts on the tip of your tongue.”
“…I don’t remember… In fact, right now I can’t remember anything. I don’t remember if I went to college, I don’t remember any of my childhood friends, or what my mother or father looked like. All I know is I loved you once, and I still do.”
Anastasia hands the photos back to Phillip, who grabs her arm. Pulling Anastasia toward him, he kisses her.
Anastasia pulls away from him, her stare intense but unsure.
“You’re not my husband. He’s dead,” she says.
“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself, Anastasia? I think it’s ironic and appropriate that your name means resurrection.”
“I don’t care if it translates to the goddess of free fur coats. Frank is dead. And you have as much time as it takes for me to call the police to get out of here.”
Anastasia watches Phillip back away, his yearning eyes still locked with hers.
Leaning against the door, Anastasia tries to steady her nerves.
Closing her eyes, Anastasia remembers Frank kissing her at Gilgo Beach.
“FRANK! COME BACK!”
Anastasia tries to run after Phillip, but his car has already turned the corner.
Anastasia searches the living room closet, finding the pinwheel on the bottom shelf. Spinning it, she hears the surf and her laughter mixing with Frank’s.
Broly Nash had thought shadowing Phillip Lavender would be a breeze. Lavender worked from home, seldom went anywhere, and when he did, he never broke the speed limit.
Now he’d lit out of Anastasia McCool’s driveway like he was standing on the accelerator.
After calling one of the other units to follow him, Nash dials Dr. Xander Mann’s cell phone number.
“They’ve had physical contact.”
“Can you see her?” Dr. Mann asks.
Nash crosses the grass, puffing his cigar as he looks in the picture window. “I feel like a Peeping Tom.”
“Never mind that. Can you see her?”
“She’s sitting in a chair in the living room, just staring straight ahead. It’s weird. She’s got a pinwheel in her hand.”
Dr. Nash cups his forehead in his hand, running his hand across his bald spot. Taking a deep breath, he adjusts his glasses. He can feel the nervous tick in his right eye go into overdrive. Agitated, he turns to his assistant. “She’s got the pinwheel P-12 bought for her.”
“I thought it was harmless enough for her to keep it,” Rain Kendrick replies.
“It’s triggered another episode. How does she look, Nash?”
“Like she’s in shock.”
Rain takes the phone. “Bring her to me, Broly. Bring her home.”
Phillip closes the front door, surprised he doesn’t hear the usual clamor of music or Sandy’s off-key singing.
He pauses in the living room. Closing his eyes, he remembers Anastasia’s warm touch.
Memories seize his mind. ...Taking pictures in the front yard…Going to the beach… Buying Anastasia a pinwheel… Her birthday cake…
Yelling Sandy’s name, he searches each room, but she isn’t home.
Thinking she’s at a neighbor’s house, Phillip heads to the refrigerator for a beer. He wonders how he can tell Sandy he had another life, one filled with more passion and love than their own comfortable relationship.
He notices an envelope propped up on the kitchen table.
Phillip’s hands shake as he opens the envelope and reads the note.
We have Sandy. We have no desire to hurt her.
You’ve been asking a lot of questions about your past. If you want answers, come to Presley Laboratories, 391 Devoe Road, Room 107, IMMEDIATELY.
Phillip glances at the pithy science fiction posters lining the hallway, pausing at the poster for “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The main character, played by actor Michael Rennie, is pointing toward Room 107.
He passes rooms with bulky, coffin-shaped equipment, sterile metal gurneys, defibrillators, and heart monitors.
A woman with short chestnut hair and glasses wearing a lab coat and a plaid skirt is at the end of the hallway, beckoning him.
Eyeing Phillip closely, she opens the door for him.
“Sandy had better be safe.”
“She’s unharmed,” Rain answers.
The office is crammed with books on anatomy, psychology, and behavioral studies.
A balding man with glasses gives him a penetrating look.
Sandy is seated in a chair next to him, staring vacantly.
“You drugged her.”
“She’ll be fine, once she’s reprogrammed,“ Rain says.
“You on the other hand…,” Dr. Mann says sternly.
“Maybe we should proceed slowly, Doctor,” Rain says. “He’s already had to process a lot. I think P-12 is still worth saving.”
“P-12?” Phillips asks. “What’s P-12?”
“You are,” Dr. Mann replies.
“I’m assuming the ‘P’ is for Phillip. But Sandy and I aren’t lab rats. Why’d you bring us here?”
“I’ll ask the questions. Where did you get the photographs?”
“So, Anastasia told you about them. I found them taped under my desk. They were addressed to me by Frank McCool. And judging by the photos, I was once known as Frank McCool. I hid the photos so I could find them later.”
“You sent a message to yourself,” Rain says. ”You hid them to remind yourself of a past memory.”
Dr. Mann shakes his head. “Impossible. He’s compromised. Just like S-1.”
What do you mean by compromised?” Phillip asks.
“We paired you with S-1, who you know as Sandy. We implanted memories of your life as a child, a teenager, and your college years,” Rain answers. “You were supposed to forget Anastasia. But whether we pair you with Sandy, Brenda, Claire, or Colleen, your memories of your time with A-1, Anastasia, always return. And now you’ve started leaving messages and clues behind to trigger those memories. It’s like you’re doing it intentionally.”
Dr. Mann’s right eye twitches. “He is, which is why he’s compromised.”
“Why are you saying that? Because we failed some experiment you inflicted on us without our knowledge? Why did you create a false life for me with Sandy when I should be with Anastasia? I like Sandy. But I love Anastasia.”
”That’s not possible.”
“I know what I’m feeling.”
“You don’t have feelings,” Dr. Mann insists.
“Of course, I do. I’m just like anyone else.”
“No, you’re not. You’re no more human than the Tin Man,” Dr. Mann snaps. “You’re a synthetic being. We created you.”
The realization stuns Phillip, who balls up his fists, glaring at Dr. Mann.
“In the end, the Tin Man’s heart proved bigger than everyone else’s.”
“What are you saying, Phillip?” Rain asks.
“I’m self-aware. I feel joy, happiness, sorrow, and grief. I sense your frustration with me. And I just felt the shock of you telling me I’m not human.”
“Consciousness isn’t like a flower, P-12,” Dr. Mann says. “You can’t be built without it and suddenly grow one.”
Dr. Mann’s eye twitches as he let out a dissatisfied grunt. Rain smiles apprehensively at Phillip, unable to answer.
“Why did you create us?” Phillip asks.
“The pandemic taught us that we need to be able to continue to put food on the table, run our hospitals, unload our ships, govern properly, or we’ll perish as a species. The government feels we need to prepare for an uncertain future. We need a being who is impervious to disease who can survive a plague, even a nuclear war. So, we have been trying to create suitable synthetic men and women. Our greatest challenge has been trying to solve your inability to follow instructions or retain implanted memories.”
“Why give us any memories at all?”
“So, you can automatically access a situation and know what to. But so far, the only memories you retain involve A-1. Your memory of A-1 blocks all our efforts to program you.”
“Then you need to build a better male synthetic.”
“We’ve tried,” Dr. Mann says earnestly. “Twelve other times.”
“Even a variety of partners hasn’t changed the results,” Rain adds.
“I didn’t choose to be part of your experiment. What gives you the right to play God? I’m independent. I make my own decisions!”
“No, actually, you don’t,” Dr. Man says.
“Sandy and I have jobs. I speak with my partner every day.”
“Don’t you recognize your partner’s voice?” Dr. Mann replies.
“Sandy teaches art classes three times a week.”
“She drives here for maintenance. We erase her memory of coming to the lab and send the clean slate home to you.”
“She’s also a successful ceramic artist.”
“Yes, my office is full of her pieces,” Dr. Mann says. “As for Anastasia, we have programmed her to think she works here. We program and monitor every aspect of your existence.”
“What about our neighbors, our friends?”
“Your relationships with them are real,” Rain answers. “We have to gauge how synthetics will interact with humans. But we watch you all the time.”
“…The man in the Toyota…”
“And a dozen others follow you, Sandy, and Anastasia’s every move.”
Phillip’s eyes narrow. “Do you watch us having sex?”
“Anger. He’s angry, Xander,” Rain points out to Dr. Mann.
“You know as well as I do that P-12 has been programmed to react when offended. You wrote the program.”
“But anger isn’t part of it.”
“The way I feel about Anastasia can’t be programmed either,” Phillip says. “I love her.”
“You saying the word perverts its very meaning,” Dr, Mann replies.
“No. Every time I think of Anastasia, I feel warm, and content. I have a memory of the two of us at the beach. I bought her a pinwheel.”
“That was a genuine experience,” Rain answers. “We took pictures of you and Anastasia at your house, went to Gilgo Beach, and had a birthday party for Anastasia to see how you would react.”
“That was when I realized how much I loved her.”
“But when we separated you again, Anastasia malfunctioned,” Rain says. “It was like she was committing suicide. And no matter what we asked you to do, your thoughts always returned to that day with Anastasia.”
“That’s because we’re lonely,” Phillip says. “We want to be together.”
“That’s the answer, Xander. That day was an actual, tangible experience for Phillip and Anastasia. We have to let these beings form their own memories, rather than programing their thoughts.”
“That will be like raising a child.”
“Phillip has developed emotions, a conscience, and feelings. He’s a sentient being.”
“Nonsense,” Dr. Mann says scornfully.
Dr. Mann moves closer to Sandy. “This is what you are, P-12.”
Wrapping his arm around Sandy’s head, he twists it off.
Phillip looks down inside of Sandy’s headless torso at her clicking diodes, wires, and gears.
“You can’t feel love, P-12. You can’t feel at all.”
“Then why do I feel like killing you?”
Swiftly moving forward, Phillip wraps his hands around Dr. Mann’s throat.
“You have no right to play with people’s lives!”
Phillip doesn’t notice Rain sneaking up behind him. He lets out a quiet gasp as Rain sticks a needle in his spine.
Dr. Mann and Rain watch from his car as Phillip comes home from work.
“Taking into account the variables, such as love and emotion, do you think this test will work?” Rain asks.
“I’m confident it will,” Dr. Mann says.
Anastasia comes out of the house, running into Phillip’s arms.
“Good luck, Phillip,” Dr. Mann says.
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