Jon continued to act like a cat on a hot tin roof around Pauline’s automaton, even though she went on with her creepy, Stepford Wives act. He wasn’t sure if it was due to his overactive imagination, but the fact that she was overly attentive and even more eager to please was giving him chills.
When they went to bed, he excused himself from intimate contact and lied about a phantom headache. Usually the one to fall asleep first, he deliberately stayed awake while pretending to sleep – which was no mean feat. Once he heard her breathing normalize, he tried to reach for his cell phone, but the movement made her sit bolt upright.
“Can I get you anything, sweetheart?”
Now Jon was noticing everything. Pauline was usually a sound sleeper and even if she had noticed him moving or tossing and turning, she’d merely reach out her hand and pat him on the butt.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.” He said, trying not to sound like a frightened child.
He noticed that she took some time to lie back down, but then he had a great idea. Why not test her out before taking her to the doctor’s, without letting on that he was suspicious about her transformation.
“Polly?” He called out over his shoulder.
The automaton moved slightly and then answered in a quiet voice.
“Can we talk?”
“Certainly. Is anything wrong, Sweetheart?”
He sat up and switched the bedside lamp on. The automaton also sat up and smiled. Even though his flesh was crawling, he did his best to keep a straight face.
“Not exactly. I guess I’m feeling a little melancholy, for some reason.”
The Pauline he knew would’ve reached out and hugged him with a playful, “Awwww!” She would have also kissed him and wrapped her arms around him. The coldness behind the face now looking at him was baffling, to say the least. The automaton seemed to be having difficulty in finding a suitable response.
“Melancholy? Do you mean – sadness?”
She seemed particularly puzzled, although she smiled as she waited for a response.
“I suppose so. Do you remember the first time we went to Seaspray?”
He hoped to elicit a response from her, seeing as they’d spent their honeymoon at the remote beach, which was Pauline’s favorite place for a vacation.
The automaton looked up to the ceiling for a brief moment, then smiled and glanced over at Jon.
“Yes. It was lovely.”
Even though he couldn’t put his finger on it, he knew that something was up.
“What was special about it – for you?” He asked, while trying to fake a yawn.
The automaton again looked up before glancing back at him with a nervous smile.
“Being with you, of course.” She replied – more like a question than an answer.
He felt an icy chill run through his veins and wondered how she could have forgotten the most romantic time in their lives together. He decided on a different approach.
“Why do you love me?”
Once again, the automaton looked up at the ceiling before responding.
“There are many reasons, Jon. You’re a wonderful man.”
Jon looked up at the ceiling and for a moment he thought he saw something – like a ripple or a wrinkle. At first he thought there was a kind of heatwave billowing across the ceiling, but every time he tried to focus on it – it dissipated. He was then stunned when he felt the automaton’s hand slither around his neck.
“Don’t you want me, Jon? I’ll let you do whatever you want.” She whispered in his ear.
He tried not to make a show of pulling away, as a sudden wave of revulsion swept through him.
“Um, yes – but – let’s get some sleep. We have your appointment in the morning.”
She smiled and stared for a moment, like she was assessing a specimen in a jar.
“Alright then. Goodnight darling.”
“Goodnight.” He replied, before lying down and making a point of facing her for the rest of the night.
Their trip to the doctor’s went without a hitch. After they checked in, he passed a note to the receptionist while the automaton went on to the waiting area. He leaned over the counter and whispered to the older woman.
“Can you pass this to the doctor before she calls us?” He whispered.
She took the note and eyed him off suspiciously.
“Well, okay – but Doctor Wells has an issue with husbands accompanying their wives – unless there’s a mental health issue or the wife requests it.”
He shifted nervously and looked over his shoulder at the automaton, who was sitting quietly and staring out of the window.
“No, that’s fine. As long as she gets the note before she calls Pauline.”
She nodded and looked over Jon’s shoulder.
“Is there anything we need to be concerned about?” She asked nervously.
“No, no. She’s not herself lately. I’m a bit concerned. That’s all.”
The receptionist nodded and tucked the note into her pocket.
“Alright. She’ll be with you shortly.”
After a twenty minute wait, Dr. Wells came out and called Jon. He turned to look at the automaton, who smiled slightly after a long, confused pause. Jon patted her hand and shrugged before getting up. The doctor waved to the automaton.
“We won’t be long Mrs. Warbanks.”
The automaton nodded and waved back.
Jon felt her eyes burning the back of his head but he followed Dr. Wells to her office, trying to prepare himself for the questions he knew were coming. Once inside, she closed the door and motioned for him to take a seat. Tall, slim and imposing with her brown hair cropped short and peering down her long, thin nose at Jon, she was obviously concerned.
“I must say, Jon – I was quite perplexed by your note, but before I see Pauline, I want to know what you’re expecting to find out. You know that only Pauline can decide to share the results of any testing – if we decide she needs it and if she agrees to it.”
He cleared his throat and did his best not to show any fear, even though he wasn’t exactly sure about what he was supposed to be afraid of.
“I understand that you can’t share anything without her consent, although I do have some concerns – more about her mental state, actually.”
Dr. Wells cocked her head and tapped her pen gently on the desk.
He gulped before continuing.
“Yes. Like I said in the note, she hasn’t been herself lately. It’s almost like…”
Dr. Wells waited patiently.
“…like she has…become another person.”
He watched her face for any reaction, but she remained blank.
“It’s hard to describe, but she’s not behaving like the usual Pauline.”
Dr. Wells leaned back in her chair.
“Well, I know she won’t like me telling you, but she is exhibiting behaviors that aren’t like her at all. Sexually, emotionally and functionally. For example: she has started performing sex acts that she balked at before. She doesn’t seem to understand my sense of humor – and we’ve always been on the same level where that’s concerned.”
Dr. Wells nodded in encouragement.
“It’s like she’s flat-lining – performing like a robot – going through the motions, you know?”
She sighed quietly and shook her head.
“I’m not a Psychiatrist – or for that matter – a Psychologist or a counsellor. I could send her for a few tests and suggest a psych evaluation, but it’s completely up to her, like I said. Unless she’s acting erratically or hurting herself or others, there’s really nothing I can do.”
Jon started fidgeting nervously.
“I understand. Could you just check her out – for no other reason other than letting me know I’m not going insane?”
She smiled warmly.
“Yes, of course. Go and send her in. If need be, I’ll see you briefly when we’re done – or call you.”
“Thanks so much Dr. Wells. I really appreciate it.”
He went out and waved the automaton over. She got up dutifully and followed him to the doctor’s office. When they arrived at the door, he did his best to appear nonchalant.
“I’ll wait for you, Sweetie. Okay?”
She gazed at him for a few seconds longer than needed – which indicated that she was assessing him.
She then smiled and kissed him on the cheek before opening the door.
Jon was in the waiting room for only half an hour, but he felt like a whole day had rolled by when Dr. Wells called him from the reception area. When he approached, he was surprised to see her looking a little anxious.
“I think you’re right, Jon – and she’s agreed to testing. I’ll call you later, but I really shouldn’t be talking to you behind her back.”
Jon felt a chill run through his bloodstream, before it settled in his stomach and took a while to dissipate.
“Is everything alright? Is she okay?”
The doctor pulled him aside and whispered in his ear.
“I’m not sure, but I see what you mean. She keeps looking at the ceiling and has difficulty answering certain questions. Has there been any traumatic event or loss recently? I asked her, but she looked blankly at me like I asked her to solve a complex mathematical question.”
“Nothing’s changed at all. I don’t know what’s going on.”
He was almost in tears but it was unusual to be upset over something so vague – yet so terrifying at the same time. The unknown was so much harder to deal with.
“Alright. Margaret will give you the referral for the hospital. I’ve ordered complete blood work and other testing, but you won’t need to wait around. Drop her off and they’ll tell you when to come back and get her. It’ll probably take at least two hours – most likely three or four. I’ve told her that it’s a regular check-up, but if she shows any behavior that indicates suspicion, play along with it and take her home if she requests you to do so.”
“What then?” He asked nervously as another chill ran through him.
“Let’s take it step by step. My best guess is that something’s happened and she’s not willing to share. It seems that she’s operating on a very basic level and I don’t want to push her over the edge, in case it makes the situation worse.”
Jon nodded and fought back tears. When Dr. Wells brought the automaton out, she smiled at Jon like everything was back to normal – but he wasn’t convinced.
“Are you alright, darling?” She asked.
He smiled and did his best to appear as normal as possible.
“Sure, Polly. Let’s get this over with so we can go home.”
She seemed pleased with this idea.
After checking her into a nearby hospital and making sure she was in capable hands, he raced to his car and called June. She answered abruptly, seeming to be in a temper. When Jon told her what was happening she changed tune and agreed to meet him for lunch. When they arrived at the same time, meeting out the front of the café across the road from the library, Jon was almost in a panic.
“Jon, what’s the matter with you? Is Pauline deathly ill?!”
She fiddled with her long, red curls while he took a deep breath and shook his head.
“She’s having a complete check-up at the moment. Dr. Wells thinks there’s something wrong too.”
He thought that talking with June would put him at ease, but the opposite was happening. By the time they made it inside and ordered their food, they were both as anxious as the other.
“So, the doctor thinks something’s happened? I don’t know, Jon. If that was the case, Pauline would’ve told me by now.”
Jon held back his resentment over women sharing more than he thought was necessary.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked, barely able to chew or swallow.
June flagged the waiter down and ordered another glass of wine. When Jon raised an eyebrow at her she barely flinched.
“To be honest, I thought something was wrong at home, but she’s been so blithely content it makes me want to slap her. I mean, the Pauline I know has a wicked sense of humor and an avid love of books. Everything about the way she’s been acting over the last few weeks makes me feel like her soul’s gone adrift!”
Jon was gobsmacked.
“Adrift? Yes, that’s it. It’s like the real Pauline has been sucked right out of her.”
June nodded and drained the new glass of wine so fast that she had time to indicate to the waiter that she wanted another – pronto – by snapping her fingers and pointing to her glass. He slowly went back to the kitchen to retrieve it, while June pushed her plate of Singapore noodles away.
“At first I thought that she was more upset than she was letting on – about the refurbishment.” She advised.
“Oh, yes. I forgot about the library being updated, but she didn’t appear too upset about that.”
“Right, however it is strange that her behavior was odd right from the time we started on the first day back – after it was all done. I remember she went out the back to make sure the card catalog unit was still there. It was when she returned when I first noticed her strange behavior.”
The waiter brought the next glass of wine and sat it down gingerly on the table.
“Will that be all?” He asked snootily.
June wasn’t taking his crap.
“For now!” She said angrily while shooing him away with her long fingers – bangles shaking.
Jon was now animated.
“You’re right, you know?! That night was the first night she came home and didn’t complain about preparing dinner. Everything was perfect from then on – like she’d been brainwashed, or something.”
June took a big swing and then snapped her fingers excitedly.
“Hey, I’m having a brilliant idea.”
Jon ignored the fact that her voice was beginning to slur.
“We’ve got a new security system – complete with video surveillance. There’s a camera out the back. It’s facing the catalog unit. I wonder if I can’t get a tape from that time frame. I don’t know how often they wipe the tapes – or whatever they record on. It’s worth a try, right?”
“Who would you have to ask to check them out? Won’t you get into trouble?”
June laughed and emptied her glass before jumping up from her seat.
“Are you finished? Let’s pay and get back. Mack is a friend of mine. I don’t think he’ll even ask why we want to check it out. Come on, slowpoke – let’s go!”
Jon looked down at his plate of spaghetti ruefully, having always been one to ask for a doggie bag – for no other reason other than to ensure that money wasn’t wasted. Before he had a chance to ask for one, June grabbed him by the arm and ushered him to the cashier.
Once they were at the library, June brought Jon in the back way to make sure the other employees didn’t see him, due to Pauline – or rather – the automaton being off sick. When they made it to Mack’s office, Jon was fumbling over the excuse they’d have to use, but June laughed it off.
“You don’t know Mack like I do. Don’t sweat it.”
Like a typical I.T. person, Mack was glued to a screen in a dark room that was filled with machines, servers and spare computer parts. He was middle aged, had a plump, untidy body and his slicked back – scanty hair sat like a tight cap on his sweaty head. His beady eyes peered over his glasses as he watched the two of them enter his dungeon.
“What are you up to?!” He asked June with a sly grin, while eyeing off Jon as he licked his lips.
“Mack, I need a favor. Can you get me the surveillance video for the day we opened up – after the refurbishment? I specifically need the footage from the back room – where the card catalog unit is.”
Mack leaned back and folded his chubby forearms over his belly.
“It’s important. It’s about Pauline.”
He stared blankly at June, then his eyes rolled over to Jon – ending in a suspicious squint.
“What about her? Has she stolen something?”
June grew impatient.
“We’re worried about her, okay? Help us out, matey! Anyway – you owe me!”
He laughed and shook his head.
“No I don’t! What for?”
In the silence afterwards, Jon’s gulp was audible – making Mack laugh. He got up from his seat and went over to a messy shelving unit.
“Alright – but I think it’s you who owe me!” He said over his shoulder with a snigger.
When he winked at June she looked over nervously at Jon, but he was too anxious to notice.
Mack traced his fingers along the DVD cases and plucked one of them out. Before June could snatch it from him, he put it behind his back and clicked his tongue at her.
“No, no. If you want this video I want to be in on it.”
“There’s nothing to be in on – you turd!” June snapped.
Then they both laughed while Jon started growing impatient.
“Can we hurry this up? I’ll have to pick her up soon.”
Mack sighed and led them over to his desk. He put the disc into his drive and they huddled around the screen.
“What time frame are you looking for?”
“Around 9’ish.” June replied.
He started scrolling until they saw Pauline enter the back room. The point of view was from the corner of the long room, but Mack was able to zoom in without losing too much quality.
“What is she doing?” Mack asked.
“We’ll find out, but you know how she loved that unit.”
They watched as Pauline walked slowly along, tracing her fingertips over the unit. When she pulled the drawer open and traced her fingers over the cards, the screen flickered while a curious ripple appeared above her.
“I’ve seen that ripple before!” Jon advised.
“Shhh!” June hissed.
They saw Pauline pull one of the cards out as a blinding flash shot out of the ripple. Then she was suddenly facing the camera and slowly walking back to the door.
“Wait a minute. Can you slow it down? Rewind and slow it down!” June commanded.
“Alright, Your Majesty!” Mack replied with a sneer.
Jon felt his stomach doing flip-flops as the video rolled back to the point where Pauline touched the card. Mack slowed it down considerably and they watched as the flash appeared. In slow motion, Pauline disappeared – then re-appeared – facing the opposite direction. They all gasped.
“What happened?” Jon asked in a panic.
“Beats the hell out of me!” Mack responded, shaking his head.
June was the only one who was not impressed.
“It has to be a glitch. Maybe there was a power surge or something.”
Jon and Mack looked at each other – like they were the only ones who had an inkling that something amazing had happened. Jon realized that whatever had happened, he had to have the DVD. He didn’t know why it was so important, but his spidey senses were tingling.
“Could I have that disc? For safe keeping – until we figure out what’s going on?”
Mack shook his sweaty head vehemently.
“No. Not on your life. Besides, don’t you think I can keep a secret?”
June shrugged, which was starting to annoy Jon, as it was obvious that she wasn’t on the same page. Something incredible had occurred and she was ignoring it.
“June, we have to get to the bottom of this.”
“Jon, I think this answers our question. She was distracted by the surge, or whatever it was. Maybe she was electrocuted or something.”
“By what?” Mack asked incredulously.
“Who knows? Anyway, what are you trying to say? That she was abducted by aliens?!”
June waited for his response, but Mack was now looking off into space with a slight smile.
“June, I want to see the unit for myself. Can you take me there?” Jon asked.
She was still giving Mack a filthy look but soon smiled and slowly shook her head.
“Why? What are you hoping to find, Jon?”
He looked at both of them and tried not to cry.
“I want to know what happened to my wife.”
Mack got up from his computer and shrugged.
“It can’t hurt, although I’m pretty sure there’s an answer as to what happened in the video. There’s one thing I want to know, though. What’s wrong with Pauline? She’s been a little quiet lately but she doesn’t seem to be upset or sick.”
June glanced over at Jon sympathetically.
“She’s been a little off lately. Not herself, but I think it’s more to do with a mid-life crisis.”
Jon wondered if she was keeping something to herself, but when Mack started walking to the door he followed suit. June went along with them and turned the light on, as it was an overcast day and the room was dark. She went over to the other door and looked through the window to make sure no one was coming through.
Mack stood back and watched as Jon followed the same routine that Pauline had done in the video. When he got to the drawer he turned and addressed the others.
“Do you remember which drawer it was?”
“Does it matter?” June asked impatiently.
Mack went over and tapped the “B” drawer.
“I don’t know what card she pulled, but it was definitely this drawer.” Then he stood back and looked up expectantly. “You won’t mind if I back up a little?”
He laughed nervously as Jon shook his head.
“No, but I don’t think anything’s going to happen.” He replied sullenly.
As Mack stood next to June, Jon opened the drawer and began to trace his fingers along the cards. He felt a slight buzz when his finger passed over the Beat Generation tab, but when he pulled out the one next to it – he passed out.
June and Mack didn’t see what happened, but they did see Jon’s automaton turn to face them, with the card in his hand. He smiled and looked down at the card. Before he could put it back in the drawer June walked over.
“Well? Which one is it?”
He handed it over dutifully with a strangely serene smile on his face. When June took it and moved back to Mack, Jon stayed put like a trained puppy waiting for instructions.
“What does it say?” Mack asked.
“It’s about the Beaverly fire. Remember back in the 1940’s when that man went postal and burnt down the Beaverly factory?”
Mack took the card from her, read it and shook his head.
“Of course, I wasn’t alive then – so…”
June punched his upper arm.
“Don’t you care about history – dumbass?!”
They were both then distracted when the automaton looked down at his watch and started to move towards the door.
“Well, I better go and pick Pauline up from the hospital.”
June stopped him by grabbing his wrist.
“Wait a minute. Don’t you want to know what this is all about?”
She felt a chill run up her spine when his steel grey eyes looked deep into hers.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing. We all feel a little flat now and then. Thanks for everything.”
When he walked off and greeted the other staff on his way out, June and Mack watched through the window with their jaws slackened in disbelief.
When Jon finally came to he wasn’t sure who or where he was. He looked down and saw a newspaper in his hands while he leaned against a brick doorway. Panic started creeping through his body as foreign thoughts swirled around his mind. Somehow he knew they weren’t his own.
“There’s no other choice. They’ll figure out soon enough that I’m the one. Anyway, I don’t care – they deserved it. They shouldn’t have fired me in the first place. Ha! Fire!”
Jon had no idea that he was in another body in another lifetime, but he was soon jolted by a dark thought that permeated his whole being.
“But I won’t die of fire – like they’d expect me to. Drowning is a perfect ending to my dismal life. Then they’ll be sorry!”