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art by Ron Sanders

Amanda Who Went Before

He shifted in his sleep. His growling snores reduced down almost to a sigh. A whisper. Wordless--although maybe if she leaned in close she'd understand. A whispered monologue of dreaming.
Amanda wondered how it felt to sleep. How it would feel to close her eyes then, eight or ten hours later, open them again and keep on living as if it hadn't even happened.
"Like before you came here," Mark had told her. She had nodded, although she'd been with him so long now that she barely remembered what came before.
"It just fades away, replaced by one of Compandro's sixty two pre-written backstories or whatever custom history you provide them with." The blonde haired salesman on the adverts said that.
"Can we get one?" Amanda had asked--it told her somewhere in her programming to ask him that, although she knew. Although she still remembered.
Mark had smiled. "Maybe." He'd said. No, not smiled; smirked. Amanda who had come before had hated the Companions. Over-programmed sex dolls, she had called them. Mark had left that out when he had given her her story--though he'd mentioned it from time to time to friends when he had thought she wasn't listening.
The old Amanda... Amanda knew that she was blonder. Six point four three centimeters taller. Pinched in at the waist by four more inches than the woman who had come before her. Mark had asked if they could make her that way, though the woman who had come before was beautiful enough for him. She'd always wished that she was taller. Thinner. Now, she was. A final act of spite, which over-wrote their future. Shaped the way she was.
They'd been together fourteen years since seven weeks ago Mark had unpacked her from her box and told her that. It didn't matter that the body he had chosen for her looked no older than twenty-four. She overlooked the details--both the ones he gave her and the ones he didn't--or else filled them in whenever she could.
For seven weeks, she'd learned to be just like herself.
Amanda's bread was always burned. Her mashed potatoes lumpy. When she put her hair up, strands would catch around her neck and ears and forehead.
She took it all on board and changed the way she did things so it matched.
Amanda liked the blue dress best. She hated sports. She always watched the soaps from eight-fifteen to nine-thirty.
It was hard, sometimes. She didn't know the way Amanda sounded when she laughed or how to make the corners of her eyes all crinkled like Amanda's in the photos.
"She was old in this one--you were old." Mark told her when he showed her them. He had kept them all as if she still belonged to him, although Amanda knew that the Amanda who had come before had left him almost eighteen months ago.
He shifted. Opened up his eyes a little. Just a crack.
"What are you staring at?" He asked. Unsaid, unspoken: Amanda never used to stare. She made a note that next time she would look away before he saw her.
"I love you." It was programmed in to say that. Better than "computing," mostly. Sometimes worse, if he was angry or else if she had made some strange mistake. Had made him for a moment painfully aware that she was not Amanda who had come before.
"Yeah..." He shrugged his way to sitting. "Breakfast?" The other Amanda never made him breakfast, though he'd often asked her for it.
"Oh, I--"
"Huh. No, don't bother yourself. I'll get my own." He shouldered past her, bare skin bright and naked, patched with dark brown hair. "I don't know why I bothered..." Not her fault, she knew. He'd told her this was what he wanted.
Be just like Amanda. There was more than that, but nothing else that really mattered. Be just like the woman who had left him for a caring, sharing lover--he had twitched his fingers twice to punctuate the quote, his voice made shrill as if to imitate a woman's. When Amanda had begun to speak like that he had corrected her. Too high. Too harsh. She'd learned to differentiate between reality and parody, although sometimes there didn't seem to be a lot of difference.
"Are you coming?"
"Sure..." She longed to hurry. Longed to hold him. Wrap her arms around his waist and press her face into his neck--Amanda never did this, he had told her when she had. Instead, she typed the ending of some wholly imaginary email. Paused a moment, finger hovering above the button. Send. It didn't matter what she typed. No one would ever read it.
"Hey!"
"Yeah, I'm coming...." She bit down on a smile. Amanda never smiled until at least midmorning.
Amanda loved him. Had Amanda who had come before been so in love with him, she wondered. Should she stop--or could she stop? They built it in, attached them to the person who first programmed them like human ducklings. Because of that she loved the way he chewed, mouth open. Always talking. Always yelling--criticizing--till the moment that he fell asleep. She wondered if he dreamed the same annoyances he found in waking. Sometimes, when his eyebrows twitched together--just like that!--she thought he must be dreaming of her.
The Amanda who had come before had bought him strips to wear across his nose. The packet lay unopened on the bedside table. Should she take one out and put one on? Would she have done that? Would she do it? Hard to say. She peeled open the cardboard tab. He'd wake up if she pressed one on. Would waking up too soon be painful for him? She didn't know. Best not to take the risk.
Before he'd gone to bed, he'd shouted at her.
"You're nothing like her! Nothing like..." She'd wondered for a moment if he'd found some other woman. Had forgotten the Amanda who had come before. That she...
Except that now, she was the other woman. Here, beside his bed, she wore another woman's clothes. Her face. Her mannerisms--or else as close to them as she'd pieced together. The only difference now--the only one that mattered--was that she was here with him. That she had stayed.
She loved him.
Would that be enough? When he slept, sometimes she thought it was--or else, she hoped it was.
Be just like... She was just like her--just like Amanda who had come before--in every way but one. Amanda who had gone before... But could she do that?
Did she have a choice?
Her fingers flew from key to key. She tapped the letters angrily.
"Hey! Are you coming through or not?"
"Yeah, sure..." She loved him--truly did. Why else would she have put up with him for so long? For almost fifteen years.
She paused a moment, finger hovering above the button. Send. She wondered whether anyone would read it. If no one did, it probably wouldn't matter.
Amanda didn't bother to pack her bags. There wasn't anything here that she'd want to take.
Except for him.
She paused a moment. Shook herself. She'd been so much older than this before. She'd waited...
...waited fourteen years--and fourteen years was long enough.
I love you but I'm leaving you.... She closed the email, shut the laptop down and left. From somewhere in the kitchen, she could hear him shouting. Let him shout--she'd always let him shout before.
Outside, the world was loud and sharp and achingly without him. Strange and not entirely right or real. Was this how it felt to sleep? To dream?
She followed in her footsteps. Be just like? She was.
Amanda gently closed the door.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

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