Drum roll, please….
This is the final version, rewritten top to bottom. As I was typing it all in from my handwritten rewrite (which you can win, by commenting on the “Contest” post before Friday), I found it interesting to have the original version open in a side-by-side window. When you look at them both, everything from the original version is here in this final, but it all (at least to my mind) has more depth, and the characters’ actions seem more thought out. Getting inside a character’s head is something I did not know how to do, twenty years ago (among other things!)
This has been a very educational trip, for me. Back when I started this series, I was writing down things that I’ve learned but never put into words. And, coming face-to-face with my former self, I could see all the things that editors were saying to me over and over. I never had a “light bulb” moment regarding these errors. Learning how to write, becoming a better writer, is an accretive process, not a sprint from one epiphany to another. You might “get” the concept in a flash, but learning how to do it takes time and practice.
Anyway, I hope you’ve found it as enlightening as I have, and now, the big reveal…
Cast in Stone
“Too hard, Chuck.” Ray shouted to be heard over the pneumatic chisel. “No. No!”
The chisel struck too deep, too hard, and a chunk of marble cracked off and fell, shattering on the workroom’s concrete floor. Ray swore and pounded on the arm of his wheelchair, thrashing his head from side to side. The chair rocked on its axles, thumping from one wheel to the other beneath his livid frustration. With his good hand he slapped the toggle switch to disengage his deader’s manual override.
Chuck, Ray’s deader, placed the air-tool on the floor and assumed his default stand-by posture: shoulders back, feet apart, hands clasped over his belt buckle.
“How may I be of service, Mr. Near?” came the standard inquiry from the deader’s ReaLife Domestic sub-routines. His voice was modulated to soothe, but the sound of it and the sight of the young, fit body standing there in the strong light of the California sun was too much for Ray.
“Anna!” he shouted.
The staccato of high heels on oak-wood flooring preceded Anna down the hallway. She stalked into the workroom accompanied by the slippery sound of nylons and a cloud of ersatz smoke. In one hand she held the sheaf of papers she’d brought for Ray to sign, and in the other, an e-cigarette and her massive ring of client’s keys. She drew on the cigarette and skewered Ray with a den-mother’s glare.
“What is going on in here?” she asked. “What’s the problem?”
“I’ll tell you what the problem is,” Ray said. He picked up his useless left arm and plopped it on the override console to secure it, then punched a finger at the controls on his chair to get it into motion. He crossed the room to where Chuck stood, as immobile as the block of stone he’d been carving. Ray could smell the sweat of the deader’s exertion, mingled with the dry sweetness of pulverized marble.
“This is the problem,” Ray said, jerking a thumb at Chuck. “Look.” He grabbed a stick of charcoal from his drawing tray and eased up to the tall block of bluish stone. “This is the head of the Mother,” he said, pointing weakly to the top. “And this–” He traced a long, descending curve down the flank. “This is her arm. Chuck and I seem to agree on these two points. But this–” He maneuvered his chair to the chunks and broken remnants of Chuck’s shattering mistake. “This was supposed to be the Child!”
“I understand these concepts, Mr. Near,” Chuck said, voice calm and even. “I remember exactly the sketches and photos you displayed, as well as your comments regarding them from earlier this morning.”
“Then why did you just lop off half of the Child? It’s supposed to be a Mother and Child, a whole child, not a Mother and Head!” He coughed. A rattling wheeze brought on another cough, then another one until he was seized by a fit of violent, retching gasps that bent him double and made him fight for breath.
He felt a cool cloth on the back of his neck and a firm hand on his chest. Through tear-filled eyes he saw Chuck at his side.
“Sit back, Mr. Near, and try to relax. My medical sub-routine recommends we get you away from all this dust. Would you like a cup of honeyed tea?”
Ray nodded, still breathing heavily.
“Ms. Cross, would you please bring Mr. Near to the breakfast room while I brew the tea?”
“Of course,” Anna said, walking to Ray’s side as the deader left for the kitchen.
“Are you all right?” she asked Ray.
He waved his hand and nodded.
“You know what Dr. Simon told you about losing your temper and getting too excited.” She leaned over to disengage the chair’s motor and stepped behind to push.
“I wouldn’t get so upset if he’d just do what I tell him,” Ray said as they left the sunlit workroom and headed down the shadowed hall. “He’s ruined that piece. I don’t know what we’re going to do with it, now.”
“You’ll think of something,” she said as she steered him into the breakfast room. Beyond the French doors, bright stonework and green succulents with yellow flowers framed a view of the dome-shaped rock in Morro Bay and the myriad boats moored at the marina.
“I hate to ask this,” she said as she pushed him up to the trestle-oak table, “but as your agent, I have to know. When you engage the console’s override, you’re the one in control of his movements. He’s just a puppet when that thing is engaged.” She sat down next to him; Ray smelled her Chanel and the minted-chocolate smoke from her phony cigarettes. She leaned forward and looked him straight in the eye. “So tell me: are you able to do this? That…that re-animated brain-dead man in the galley cost us a pretty penny, but if this isn’t going to work–”
“But that’s just it,” Ray said, his voice hoarse and gravelly from his coughing jag. “It works fine. We’re working along and then…I don’t know…it’s like the override just cuts out and Chuck goes off on his own. And these glitches are hitting us more and more.”
Anna looked up as the tea kettle started to whistle. “I’ll get in touch with ReaLife. If other people are having these hardware glitches–”
“No,” Ray said. “It’s not the hardware. Not the software, either.” He leaned closer. “It’s the wetware.”
She smirked. “What? You’re joking. You mean, Chuck? The man himself?”
“The man he was,” Ray said, nodding.
Anna shook her head and sat back in wicker chair. “That’s crazy,” she said.
Ray lifted his eyebrows. “I tell you,” he said, “sometimes it’s like he’s fighting me. Humor me on this.”
She gave him a sidelong glare, but relented. “I’ll give you a week.”
Ray grinned and rapped his knuckles on the table. “You’re a peach.”
“What’ll you do in the meantime?”
He half-shrugged–the most he could do, given his disability. “I guess I’ll have to teach him how to sculpt for me, instead. This will take forever, but I can’t afford to leave another piece of Apennine marble ruined on the workroom floor.”
Chuck entered with steaming cups of tea and pots of honey and cream.
“If I may, Mr. Near,” the deader said as he put the tray down and set out the mugs. “While I regret my unintentional mis-strike, I do not believe that the stone is a complete loss.”
“Oh, yeah?” Ray said, suspicious. “And why is that?”
Chuck poured tea for Ray and Anna, its herbal scent warm and soothing. “Last night, I downloaded Janson, Levey, and Pope-Hennesey from the Cal-Poly library, as you suggested. I catalogued the works and found that the ‘Mother and Child’ theme is already well-represented. I thought we might turn this piece into something different.” He reached for the honey and dipped a teaspoon into it.
Ray got a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. He glanced at Anna and saw a furrow in her brow. “Like what?” he asked.
The deader twirled the honeyed spoon, placed it into Ray’s cup, and met his gaze. Ray saw the Bausch & Lomb trademark spin as the pupils in Chuck’s deader eyes dilated.
Chuck’s lips tightened into a thin line as he placed the pointed steel chisel against the stone and raised the two-pound mallet. The marble, rough and pocked by his earlier work, glowed in the day-like light of the fluorescents overhead. The mallet came down swiftly, precisely on target, and chips of stone sang as they spun away to clatter across the concrete floor.
His lips drew back, revealing teeth as white as the stone he worked. The mallet lifted again, came down, and hit. And hit. He changed the chisel’s angle and the mallet swooped down to meet it. Centered. Exact. Perfect. The mallet rose and fell. The strikes increased in ferocity and speed. Chips flew, snowflakes of stone, each strike sending them farther from the deader and his work. At his feet, charcoal sketches of a woman protecting a child were soon covered by the scattered refuse of his carving.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a figure emerged from the block of stone. Then another figure suggested itself. Then a third.
The mallet struck. The stone rang. The deader’s breath seethed in and out past a grin made feral by focus and exertion. He chipped and chipped, roughing out the figures with growing passion until a stray shard flew across the room and struck Ray, waking him from his unintended slumber.
“No, no, no,” Ray said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Too hard. Again, much too hard. We’ve been through this before. You should have this down by now.” He pulled the override console from his wheelchair’s sidebag, settled it on his lap, and tapped the Engage toggle. Chuck jerked and stood at rigid attention.
“Let’s try it again,” Ray said and, gently manipulating the console’s touchpads, he made Chuck raise the mallet to shoulder-height. “This is marble, not granite, and this is the most force you’ll ever need to carve it.” The fingers of his right hand moved in tiny whorls on the touchpad, bringing Chuck’s arm down in a short, smooth arc onto an imaginary chisel. Satisfied, he disengaged the override. “Just that much, and the chisel will swim through your lines in the stone. OK, do you remember that move, that stroke?”
“Yes, Mr. Near,” Chuck replied. “I think I’ve got it.”
“Good,” Ray said, setting the console back in the sidebag. He touched the chair’s controls and motored across to the worktables and one of his earliest works, Visage of Troy. “You’ve got to coax the stone, not force it,” he said as he caressed the sculpted features of his Helen. “Force it, and it will fight back, twist your chisel, or snap itself in half.”
“Yes, Mr. Near. I can see that, now.”
Ray rotated the chair to face the deader and saw the three figures struggling within the stone. He stared at them, slack-jawed, until the words finally erupted. “What the fuck is this?” he thundered. “What the–this isn’t what I told you to make! This isn’t anything like the sketches I drew for you!”
“I am…I am unable to adequately explain,” Chuck said, his voice calm and unperturbed.
“‘Unable to adequately explain?’” Ray echoed. “The fuck you are! Make sure you tell that to Anna when she comes up next week for a progress report. Maybe she’ll be ‘unable to adequately explain’ why she’s carting your corpsified ass back to ReaLife for a refund!” He zipped the chair forward and leaned over to snag one of the dust-covered sketches that lay at the deader’s feet.
“You’re going to follow my designs or we’ll never get anywhere. Fuck me! This is almost as bad as with the damned console.” He threw the sketch to the floor and rubbed his eyes. Then he lowered his hand and stared at the stone. “Another idea, shot to hell. I swear to fucking God you’re doing this to me on purpose.” He felt a rasp in his throat and, with conscious effort, calmed himself until the blood stopped pounding in his ears.
“So,” he said with as much serenity as he could muster. “Tell me what you were thinking when you ruined this one.”
Anna tucked the manila envelope under her arm and knocked on the screen door to Ray’s beach-house. The Pacific breeze was cool, taking the bite out of the afternoon heat and surrounding her with the scent of seaweed and driftwood. A herring gull mewed as it slid by overhead, gliding out toward the fishing boats in Morro Bay.
As usual, no one came to the door. Ray’s ability to focus was one of the reasons she’d taken him on as a client, so many years ago. Focus and discipline, that’s what she wanted in a client, and when she found it, she grabbed hold and clung on for the ride. When Ray was “in the zone,” she could knock on his front door and call his name day and night without response. She smiled, happy to see old patterns re-emerge, now that the “he” of Ray’s artistic talent was becoming a “they.”
She opened her LV shoulder-bag and fished out her ring of keys. They jingled as she thumbed her way to the one labeled “Ray.” She pulled open the screen and reached for the keyhole, but the door opened, stopping at the limit of its brass safety chain.
“Ah, Chuck,” she said.
The deader stood in the gap. He wore one of Ray’s old phi-upsilon t-shirts, though the Greek equivalent of F-U was barely visible beneath the pallor of white dust and stone chips that covered the deader, head to toe.
“Hello, Ms. Cross. May I be of service?”
Anna disliked deaders on principle, this one even more so, knowing what she did. Itinerant siblings, spouses facing huge medical bills, families stunned by sudden loss, all were easy prey for companies like ReaLife that promised large amounts of cash for their brain-dead but otherwise sound-bodied relations. But looking Chuck up and down, she decided to keep her repugnance for this one in check. If this dead man’s body, revivified by software and implants, could keep Ray at the forefront of the neo-Hellenist sculpture movement, she was determined to live with it.
“It looks like you two have been working,” she said. “Good.” She dropped her key-ring back into her bag and pulled out a gold and black enamel cigarette case. “I came to check on Ray.” She took out one of her Eco-Smoke cigs and puffed it to life. She flicked a finger at the edge of the manila envelope under her arm. “I also came to give him this,” she said. She stepped forward. The door did not move, its chain taut.
“I apologize, Ms. Cross, but Mr. Near is napping just now. I don’t think it wise to disturb him.” A large hand, ghostly with dust, came forth through the gap. “I can deliver your envelope to Mr. Near when he awakens.”
Anna’s eyes narrowed as she inhaled the smoke-like vapor from her e-cig. “This is business, Chuck, not a social visit. I didn’t drive all the way up from Santa Monica to be turned away at the door by some overprotective zombie. Open the door and let me in.”
The deader didn’t move.
“Now,” she added.
The hand retreated an inch, then disappeared inside as the deader closed the door. She heard the chain slide and drop, and the door opened wide.
“Very well, Ms. Cross, but please try not to excite Mr. Near. He hasn’t been feeling too well lately.”
He stepped back from the doorway and Anna walked in, her heels tapping on the slate of the foyer. Chuck closed the door and followed her.
“May I mix you a drink, Ms. Cross?” he offered, once again the model domestic.
“Later, perhaps,” she said. She walked down the hall toward Ray’s bedroom to knock but found the door open, the bed made, unused.
She turned on the deader. “You said he was sleeping. Where is he?”
“Mr. Near is in the workroom, Ms. Cross.”
“Sleeping? In the workroom? You let him sleep in that damned wheelchair?” She pivoted and stormed down the hallway. “That medical sub-routine Simon had me install is worthless. Son of a bitch.”
The workroom was awash with sunlight and daylight fluorescents. The air was thick with the smells of marble, sweat, and salt air. Near an open window, bathed in sunshine, was one of the overstuffed recliners from the front room and in it, feet propped up on pillows atop the red leather ottoman, was Ray, sleeping peacefully.
His blanket had slipped off and lay in a heap on the floor, surrounded by a blizzard of crumpled sketches and marble chips. She heard the scuff of a footstep in the stony shards that littered the floor.
“I’m sorry, Chuck,” she said without turning. “I spoke out of turn.”
“No harm done, Ms. Cross,” the deader replied.
“No harm?” Ray said, rousing from his nap. “I was dreaming of that woman again.”
Anna smiled. “The one from the Athenian Society?”
“Yeah…” Ray said, dreamily. “That’s the one. What did she call herself?”
“Iphigenia,” Anna said with a laugh, and Ray chuckled, too, but his laughter led to a cough, which led to another. Chuck disappeared toward the house. Anna studied Ray as the spasms built, racking him.
The crash had ruined most of him. The beauty of him–a sculptor’s musculature with an enchanter’s smile–was gone, devoured by paralysis and the violence of the collision. Welted scars, still red and angry, stood out on his face, his scalp, his neck, his atrophied left arm. His legs looked like sticks bundled beneath the thin fabric of his scrubs. She swallowed a wave of pity.
“Christ, Ray. You look like shit,” she said, aiming for a more jovial tone than she felt. She took the glass of water and the little orange pill that Chuck brought to her. “Doesn’t this man-thing feed you?” She crouched at Ray’s side and helped him to drink. Beads of sweat stood out on the sculptor’s brow.
“Do I need to make an appointment with Dr. Simon?” she asked, more softly.
“What?” Ray said with the bravado of a lopsided smile. “And keep me from Chuck’s work?” Then he glared at her with the same fire that had first attracted her to him. “Without me,” Ray said, bitterness twisting his lips, “he’s just a walking side of beef. My ‘Chuck Steak.’ My personal pound of flesh. But with me, ah!” He struck his chest with his fist. “With me he’s a fucking genius! I tell him what to do, I sketch out what I want, I lead him through it all, teach him all I can about stone and tools and technique, and then?” He shook his head. “Then he ignores it all and does what he wants–what he feels! It’s like working with a God-damned artist!”
He finished off the water and threw the glass. It shattered against the far wall, and Chuck moved at once for the broom and dustpan to collect the shards.
Anna stayed crouched at Ray’s side. “You’re right about that, anyway,” she whispered, showing Ray the manila envelope. “He is–was–an artist. And not a painter. He was a potter, from one of those artists’ colonies up near the Russian River. He was branching out into ceramic sculpture before he wrapped his truck around a redwood tree six months ago. He was 23, without a dime. He had an older brother, who saw ReaLife’s offer as an opportunity to get back some of the money he’d lost supporting his kid brother’s ‘talent.’”
She saw the muscles bunch along Ray’s jawline. His nostrils flared and his mouth took a sour turn. “I knew it,” he said. “I knew it! Only an artist would–” He closed his eyes beneath a furrowed brow and clenched his fist. A cloud crossed the sun and the room dimmed.
“Ray,” she said. “You don’t think he still…”
“Of course I do,” he said. He waved his hand at the room. “For God’s sake, Anna, he’s killing me with this shit.”
Anna didn’t know what he meant, and looked around. On a wooden pedestal in the center of the room was a large work-in-progress, still being roughed out with the pneumatic chisel, but along the far wall stood three objects draped in protective muslin.
She turned back to Ray, hands gripping the recliner’s armrest, excitement in her eyes. “They’re ready?”
“Ready?” he blurted with a laugh. “Finished, maybe, but ready? Never.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Go,” he said. “Look.” He waved at them. “Try that one on the left. You remember it. It started life as a simple Mother and Child.”
Anna stood and walked across the workroom, brows knit in puzzlement. The statue was as tall as she and as narrow as a pillar. She grabbed the dusty muslin and carefully pulled it off. Her hands flew to her mouth as the muslin piled onto the floor. She dropped slowly to one knee, pulled by the beautiful, grotesque power before her.
Salome stood, carved and polished in blue-white marble. She looked down with an expression of–Anna wasn’t sure…love? grief? hatred?–upon the severed head of her dream lover. The woman’s face, aquiline and lovely, bore the geometric tattoos of a Middle Eastern tribeswoman, and beneath the thin cloth of her headscarf could be discerned the intricate braids of her coiled hair. The head she cradled, its lips still contorted in defiance, dripped viscous rivulets of blood down her arms.
Anna stared, stunned. Ray’s neo-Hellenist work had always been so reserved, so classical–so unlike the man himself. The accident, she realized, must have changed him profoundly.
“I can scarcely believe it,” she said, unable to tear her gaze away.
“Gruesome, isn’t it?” Ray said.
Chuck came back with the wheelchair. He lifted Ray easily and settled him carefully in the chair.
“It’s the best we could come up with after Michelangelo here put a chunk of it on the workroom floor.” He directed Chuck to wheel him over to the small sculpture that stood on the worktable to the right.
“This one was supposed to be a simple bust of a young woman. Nothing fussy, nothing dramatic. A learning piece as we started working without the console.” He motioned to Chuck and hesitantly, almost shyly, the deader lifted the cloth.
“But again I was saved by my budding protégé’s misinterpretation of my–what did you call them, Chuck? My ‘crude diagrams?’”
It was a bust, but not a simple one, and not of a young woman. Anna marveled at it.
From a block of pure white Carrara rose the head of a bearded man, mouth gagged, eyes blindfolded. The whole had been left rough-cut with a three-pronged Swedish chisel; all except a section where the blindfold had slipped low. There, the captive’s eyes were revealed: piercing eyes in high polish, eyes that could see all, Anna thought, even were the blindfold still in place.
“Chuck wants to call it Knowledge.” Ray said. “I want to call it Trash.”
Anna turned to Ray, mouth agape, brow still furrowed in confusion and surprise. She stepped over to the large work in the center and grasped the cloth. With a raised eyebrow, she questioned.
“Don’t stop now,” he said. “You’ll never guess what I wanted this one to be.”
Removing the cloth, she found a group of three life-sized figures: a woman lay struggling beneath a man, while a second man sat by with his back turned. The woman’s face was filled with a fierce terror, her body carved with tremendous attention to drapery and musculature. Her assailant was rough-hewn, as if out of focus or blurred by the motion of his attack. The third figure was carved as finely as the woman, except for his face which was a flat, truncated plane of polished stone. On the seated man’s lap was a first-generation deader control console.
A thought flashed through Anna’s mind. “That woman,” she said. “Five years or so ago, that woman raped by a deader.”
“Well done,” Ray sang. “You have correctly identified the subject of Ray Near’s latest collaboration: The Rape of Maria Brandt.”
Anna looked again at the piece and shivered at the memory of the woman, the deader, and the man who was never caught.
“Ray,” she said. “These pieces…They’re–”
“Look,” he said, apologetic. “I know they’re nothing like my old style, but what can I do? That damned console is too glitchy, and when I leave Chuck to do as I tell him, he goes off the deep end and twists around whatever I’ve set him to. I fell asleep in front of Niobe and her Children and woke up to Maria Brandt.”
Anna moved around the larger piece, taking it in from all sides. “I want five more by September,” she said. “Five more, and we’ve got the comeback show of the century!”
“Five more!” Ray exploded. “It took every bit of my strength to salvage these three! It’ll be September before I can train him to create what I want, much less anything in my old style.”
“I don’t care about the style,” she said, smiling broadly at him. “I like what I see and I want five more.”
Ray sunk back in his chair, mouth a snarl. “You like what you see? Heh. What you see is the perversion of every artistic impulse I’ve had in the past five months.”
“Who cares?” she asked him. “Who cares if it’s your old style or not? Let all those neo-Hellenists go to Hades or whatever they call it. These are spectacular!”
She came back to him and crouched at his side. She pointed at the statues. “Just drop your ego for a minute and look at them. See the power? the passion? that ‘frozen moment’ you’ve been banging on about for years? They’re fantastic, Ray. I’ve seen great work in my time–a lot of it yours–but nothing like this. We’ll have commissions coming out our ears!”
“But Anna,” he said weakly. “This isn’t what I want. This isn’t my work.”
She turned back to face him, her smile still fresh on her lips.
“Listen to me,” she told him. “I look around and what do I see? I see a talented, world-famous sculptor. I see a mobilized, brain-dead human. I see three magnificent statues.”
“If it’s not your work, whose is it?”
Anna was pissed off, now. She gripped the steering wheel and tried to keep most of her mind on the task of driving.
“Listen, Chuck. We have an exhibition in less than a month. You’ve put me off for two weeks already with this routine, and it’s ending, today. Put Ray on the phone. Now.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Cross,” the deader said, voice as flat as ever. “Mr. Near is unable to come to the phone.” His calm, dispassionate tone only infuriated her. “May I try to answer your questions?”
“God damn it!” You tell Ray that I’m–” She stopped, knowing she was wasting her time. She broke the connection and checked her rear view. The car’s phone trilled. The display read “Ray’s House.” She ignored it and pulled her Jag XK-S into a sharp U-turn. Horns blared. She tromped on the gas and headed for the freeway. The phone trilled again; “Office,” this time.
“Anna, it’s Mr. Near’s deader,” her assistant said. “Should I patch him through?”
“Tell him I’ve passed on,” she said, and gunned the Jag up the on-ramp.
Three hours later, she turned the Jag onto the dirt drive that led down to Ray’s house. The sun was on its way toward the horizon and the evening chill had already started to blow in from the west. Gulls cried as she got out of the car. A tortoise-shell calico crouched atop the cinderblock fence, soaking up the day’s stored warmth, squinting at Anna with emerald eyes.
She didn’t bother to knock. She had her key ready and let herself in. The place stank–not musty…something else. She walked toward the kitchen, navigating through the clutter of empty pizza boxes and dirty takeout cartons. The pile of dishes and the overflowing garbage bin gave her a clue as to what stank.
The chatter of the pneumatic chisel echoed from the workroom. She walked down the hall. The smell was just as bad here; worse even, with sweat and sour milk mixed in with the reek from the kitchen. She pulled open the workroom door.
The stench hit her like a fist to the gut, pushing her back. She grabbed the doorframe for support and clenched her teeth to fight the nausea.
Chuck was chiseling away at a chest-high piece of streaked granite, revealing the form of a runner. Near the windows, on the recliner, lying in the slanting sun of early evening, was Ray. He was bloated, discolored, and very, very dead. On the floor near the body was the console.
Anna moved quietly into the room, heading for the console and its override switch. She tried not to look at the body itself, tried to ignore the oily, cadaverous smell that overpowered nearly every other sense. With Chuck’s chisel pummeling away, she crouched down and picked up the console.
And then she saw them.
Arrayed along the walls were statues, several of them. A small, hunched, balled-up figure, head down, hands upraised to ward off the blows. A pair of lovers, entwined, fused from the hips down. A girl, seated, head in hands, a broken pitcher at her feet. She saw six, eight, a dozen at least, and each of them burgeoning with the same power Anna had first seen in Salome.
She did not hear the chisel stop, but it had. She did not know when Chuck had come so close, but there he was, standing in front of her.
He pointed to the console she held and her trembling finger she poised over the Engage button.
“Ms. Cross, I cannot work if you turn that on.”
“But Ray…Ray is dead.”
“Yes, Ms. Cross. I am aware of this. But you need these pieces for your exhibition. Isn’t that correct?”
She nodded dumbly.
“And people will only buy them,” he said, “if they believe Mr. Near sculpted them. Correct?”
Again, she nodded. The walls seemed closer. The air was so foul. The deader was so close. She took a step toward the door.
The deader took a step to match hers.
“And if they do not buy them, then you cannot recoup the money you paid for me, and I must go back to ReaLife.” He took a step closer. “And I won’t be able to sculpt anymore. Also correct, Ms. Cross?”
He extended his hand, asking for the console.
She saw it all–Ray’s body, Chuck’s sweaty brow, the magnificent works of art around the room, the extended hand, the dark LED on the Engage button.
“I want to sculpt, Ms. Cross. I need to sculpt.”
And she saw something else, something in those artificial eyes, something she’d seen before, years before, in another man.
“You look thirsty,” she said. “Let me get you a cool drink. Then we’ll talk.”
“Thank you, Anna. That would be nice.”