The number of excellent literary journals that publish excellent fiction is staggering. It’s impossible to keep track of them all, let alone keep up with every issue. We often think of discovering writers though journals, but it works both ways. “The Ugly Marriage Counselor” first appeared in Eleven Eleven, but I didn’t know the journal existed until Don Peteroy told me he’d published a story there. I love Don’s work, so I looked into the journal. I was pleasantly surprised to find a journal that, in its own words, “provide[s] a forum for risk and experimentation.” Don’s story, which unabashedly embraces the absurd and sci-fi while telling what, at its heart, is a traditionally literary story, certainly fits the bill. I found it hard to believe that the story had been rejected several times before Eleven Eleven picked it up. But I guess even a story written and executed on par with what you’ll find in the huge literary journals doesn’t often have a chance when one of its premises involves remote-controlled sex dolls. That speaks to the importance of journals like Eleven Eleven, who champion stories like this one and give them a good home. The downside to many print journals, however excellent, is that sometimes stories like this just go away. There are only 10 copies left of the issue in which “The Ugly Marriage Counselor” appears. While I’d encourage you to get a copy (and look into the journal in general), I want the potential readership for this story to exceed 10. So here it is, offered up to the multitudes of the internet and “in print” for the foreseeable future, a future that is hopefully a little less creepy than the one portrayed in this story. ~Ryan Rivas

Gerald used a razor to sever the cellophane wrapping around Megan’s body. He rolled her out of the box, then plucked the instructional manual from between her rubber lips. He stuffed the papers into his pocket, dragged her by the ankles to the living room, and deposited her on the floor.

According to the manual, wireless capabilities would cost an additional fifteen dollars a month. Megan Corp. advised it because the user ran the risk of getting tangled in the Internet cable. Then there was a Live Services option; the cost varied according to the doll’s Hierarchy of Awareness setting. At the highest level, a live operator would both speak for and direct Megan. The client would be billed $100 per hour, plus tips. Stupid was free, a collection of default utterances and movements no more complex than a well-trained parrot’s. Most men, according to Megan Corp., are inclined to seek stupidity, but will eventually change their minds and upgrade.

Gerald snapped a cord into the outlet behind Megan’s left shoulder. “Initializing,” she said. The voice came from a speaker deep in her throat. Her fingers flexed, and her lips opened and closed.

She said, “What level of interaction would you like today?”

“Stupid,” Gerald said.

A hard drive spun in her head. Her eyelashes fluttered. Then she said, “Hello, sir. You look sexy today.”

Gerald ran his fingers through her hair. She said, “Hello, sir. You look dazzling today. I like it when a man mows the lawn.”

He chuckled. “You look swell too, honey.”

“Hello, sir. You look erotic today. I like a man who works up a sweat.”

“You don’t have to call me sir,” he said. “Here, let me put you on the couch.”

He tried to scoop her up. His knees buckled and he dropped her. When she struck the floor, she said, “Hello, sir. You look sexy today. I like it when a man mows the lawn.”

He put his hands under her armpits and pulled her to the base of the couch. He rolled her over the edge and placed her face-down. She spoke into the pillow, “Be gentle. I don’t often do it this way. Hello, sir. You look very erotic today. I like a man who—”

“Enough of that! I need to have a heart to heart chat with you before we do anything. Can we talk?”

“For an extra twenty dollars, you can elevate my intelligence. Just flick the switch behind my ear. For one hundred dollars, you can be connected to a live Megan operator who will fulfill all of your conversational and intimate needs.”

“That’s not necessary,” he said. “I can’t have you being too smart.”

“Hello, sir. You look enticing today. I like a man who isn’t afraid of hedge trimmers.”

“Where’s this switch?” he said.

*     *     *

Although Roberta preferred not to think of herself as a hooker—or even a whore-by-proxy—the seventeen dollars an hour, plus tips, made the shame bearable. She found that controlling robotic sex dolls came more naturally than her former duties as a marriage counselor. Granted, she was devastated two years ago when the State revoked her counseling license, but the subsequent hardships had led to better things. When Roberta took the job with Megan Corp., she was desperate, several months behind on the rent and selling off her jewelry on Ebay. She’d applied for jobs at cafes and department stores, and every one of them turned her down, probably because she was hideous looking. Megan Corp. was the only company who realized that Roberta’s prior relationship counseling experience could be a major asset. She accepted employment as a sales representative, and within nine months, she was a Megan Operator.

Roberta had spent the morning appeasing a group of bank tellers. They kept their Megan doll in the break room, and the sessions usually lasted no more than ten minutes. Moments after the bankers disconnected, a man named Gerald called. He was one of the naive clients whom the regional Megan Corp. retailers targeted. His demographic—middle class and impatient—were likely to find Megan’s vapid, repeating phrases so agitating that they’d immediately upgrade their dolls to the highest intelligence.

Roberta turned on the console’s monitor, grabbed the joystick, and aimed the microphone toward her mouth. She looked through the cameras in Megan’s eyes. She couldn’t see anything; Megan was face-down.

“Gerald?” she said.

“Who is this?” he said.

“It’s me, Megan.” Roberta raised Megan’s arm. “Do you want me to stay like this?”

“Only if you’re going to keep repeating yourself.”

“We can talk about other stuff, if that’s what you’d like.”

Gerald attempted to turn her over. She said, “Hold on. I’ll take care of that.”

With the joystick, Roberta pulled Megan’s knees in, then raised her back. It was a difficult move; during training, Roberta only reached a twenty percent success rate with Motion #18A, but now, after months of maneuvering Megans, it was becoming second nature.

Sitting upright, she said, “You seem like an interesting guy. What do you like to do besides sex?”

He sat next to her. “Not a whole lot. I like baseball.”

Roberta looked at the other computer screen, and ran a Wiki search. She said, “I like baseball too. I find it fascinating that the game dates back to 1344. We know this because of an illustration of French clerics playing the game.”

“Um,” he said. “What really interests you?”

“Baseball.”

“No, really. What do you actually like? Like, the person behind the doll?”

More often than not, Roberta had to discourage her clients from confusing the product with the person. The primary rule for employees was: at all costs, avoid eliciting emotional entanglements. She said into the microphone, “I like sex.”

“I’m aware of that, but—”

“Let me show you.” She placed Megan’s arm on Gerald’s leg. She pressed the button on the controller, and Megan’s fingers squeezed his flesh. She’d held the button down too long. Megan’s fingers dug into his skin.

Gerald said, “You like to be rough, huh?”

“As rough as you want me to be.”

“So, what do you do other than take calls?”

She moved Megan’s hand up and down Gerald’s leg. “Let’s skip the small talk and do what we both really want. Do you know that I come with three orifices, and you can adjust the tightness and saturation level by simply requesting it?”

“Sounds interesting,” he said, shifting uncomfortably.

“Also, I can secrete Astro-Glide from my palms for an extra ten dollars.”

Gerald abruptly stood. “Let me get you a drink.”

As he walked toward the kitchen, he called, “Are you the type of woman who prefers action flicks or comedies? I’ve got a huge DVD collection and—”

“I only watch porn.”

She heard glasses clanking. “OK, but I mean, like, when you’re by yourself. When you’re not a robot, what do you watch?”

Roberta directed Megan to the kitchen. Gerald had mixed two drinks. He handed her a glass and said, “You probably don’t have taste buds, do you?”

“I can taste and feel on a highly emotional level.”

In training, she’d learned how to sidestep questions about sensation. Her supervisor had explained, “We must create a silent contract upon which the client will suspend his disbelief.” In theory, when a client suppresses his doubts, he’s consenting to the fantasy, and is more likely to return for services and upgrades. “Our goal,” the supervisor said, “is to eliminate his awareness of an operator.”

She put the drink on the counter and leaned toward him, her rubber nipples touching his chest. His muscles tightened, and he pulled his lips in, as if to protect himself from being kissed. He said, “You never answered my question. Comedies or action?”

She reached for his pants button. Gerald quivered. She hooked her finger over his boxer elastic and pulled down. He stepped back. She cornered him against a wall.

He said, “What’s your real name?”

“Megan.”

“Well, whoever you are, we can’t do it in here.” Gerald pushed her back.

“Why not?”

“It’s a new kitchen. Just got it redone two weeks ago, and…”

She grabbed his hand and led him toward the hallway. “Where’s your bedroom?”

He stopped and tugged her back. “Can’t do it in there. My bed is too sacred. You know what I mean?”

“Right,” she said. “I get it.”

She led him back to the family room. “How about here, on the floor?” She pointed at the carpet.

“Honey, I’ve got weak knees and a bad back. How about we do it in the shower?”

“Honey,” she said, “I’ve got microchips and wires. I have an idea.” She walked toward the closet at the corner of the room. She pulled the doorknob, and by the time Gerald cried, “No!” it was too late. There was a woman sitting on the closet’s floor, her knees to her chest. Her ankles and wrists were tied, her mouth gagged.

*     *     *

According to the customer questionnaire, most men purchased Megan in an effort to retaliate against former wives and girlfriends. Sixty-two percent of customers admitted that they’d like to see the old norms of male dominance restored, and they preferred violent sex. Gerald’s motivation, however, wasn’t as easy to pinpoint.

He cried, “Megan, let me explain…”

Roberta was already flipping through the Crisis Intervention Handbook for the segment on witnessing spousal abuse. As Gerald unwound the woman’s constraints, he continued, “This might look bad, but it’s not what you think.” He pulled the gag from the woman’s mouth and the moment it dropped to the floor, the woman roared, “What the hell is wrong with you?” She stood, reached high, and brought her open palm down on Gerald’s head. He closed his eyes and took it. She said, “This was supposed to be mutual, you asshole!”

Megan stepped back. “Ma’am, did he injure you? I need to know, so that I can inform—”

“Injure?” She laughed. “He was supposed to blindfold me and tie me to the bed! Then you’d come in and save me, and we’d all come to an understanding and celebrate. But I guess he wanted to have you all to himself, so he pushed me in here, and—”

“Pushed?”

“Escorted. Look, no police, OK? I’m a high school principal and I don’t need the press.”

Megan said, “Maybe you should shut me down and put me back in the box. I’m not exactly serving my intended purpose right now.”

“I know the feeling.” She glared at Gerald. “That’s why I went out and found a real lover, someone who—”

“Do you have to bring that up?” Gerald said. He looked toward Megan. “That’s my wife, Bridget, by the way. I caught her having lesbian sex with the woman who put in the new kitchen.”

Bridget scowled. “I was experimenting. Give her the back story. Tell her how you quit your job three years ago because you figured I was making more than enough money. Tell her how you’ve become so lazy that even your pecker hasn’t got the energy to stand upright.”

“I have back problems,” he said.

“Front problems,” she corrected.

Megan said, “I’m not a marriage counselor. Anymore. You’re going to have to work this out on—”

Bridget said to Gerald, “How much did I pay for this thing?”

He shrugged. “Why you asking me? I don’t handle the finances.”

“Let me tell you: five thousand dollars. Five thousand dollars, and she was supposed to enrich our shitty marriage. Good going Gerald, we almost had the police here.” She looked at Megan. “Honey, sorry to put you through this.”

*     *     *

Roberta interpreted Gerald and Bridget’s situation as an example of Mutually Enacted Marital Sabotage. The term was coined by Dr. Chris Boyle in his seminal book on relationship therapy: Can We End This, Please? Often, distressed and uncommunicative couples unconsciously create perfect divorce scenarios. Because they’re too reluctant to confront each other, they inadvertently design events so dramatic that separation becomes the only logical response. More often than not, these manufactured circumstances fail to elicit the desired outcome because, in truth, the couples still have hope.

Bridget had conducted her affair out in the open, while Gerald was watching a Yankees game in the other room. He’d heard an unfamiliar sound—his wife having an orgasm—and rushed to the kitchen, where he found Bridget bent over boxes of floor tiles and the sweaty female laborer caressing her dusty, spackle-covered torso. They’d bought Megan in the hopes that a three-way with a female robot would synthetically accommodate Bridget’s lesbian desires and revive their sex lives, but when Megan arrived, Gerald was still driven toward marital sabotage, and he directed his blindfolded wife to the closet. He’d planned on taking the robot all for himself, but became hesitant when the moment arrived. That spoke volumes. If Gerald really wanted a divorce, he would have seduced Megan. If Bridget really wanted a divorce, she would have called the cops.

Roberta listened to them argue, and waited for a moment in which she could interject and become, for all intents and purposes, their marriage counselor.

“What I don’t get,” Bridget said, “is why, when you first started having issues with our relationship, you never talked about it. Instead you just gave me the cold shoulder, all day, every day.”

“How can I talk to you?” Gerald reasoned. “You’re stubborn, defensive, obsessed with feminism. I should have known you were a lesbian—”

“I told you, I was experimenting. Plus, not all feminists are —”

“Everything I do becomes proof that I’m a misogynist. I buy the kind of beer that has commercials showing women in bathing suits, and I’ve commoditized women’s bodies. I forget to take the garbage out, and somehow that means I’ve belittled women’s rights to breastfeed in public. I can’t talk to you!”

“Starting tonight, you won’t have to talk to me anymore, because I’m out of here.”

Megan said, “Hold on! Let’s approach this rationally. The way I see it, the two of you have been trying to communicate for a long time, and over the years, as you’ve failed to reach each other, you’ve taken more drastic measures. This isn’t a sign that it’s over! It just means that you two need to talk.”

Roberta couldn’t believe that she was saying these words with such ease, after being out of the business for so long. Perhaps it was her physical remove from the situation, the safe layers of plastic and miles of fiber-optic cable between herself and them.

“Talk?” said Gerald, standing up. “You know what? I’m shutting Megan off. She knows nothing about us.”

“Seriously,” said Bridget. “What can a hooker know about anything?”

Roberta saw Gerald rush toward her, his steps awkward, his injured back bent like a question mark. He reached behind Megan’s ear for the Awareness switch. Roberta tried to direct Megan’s arm to block to him, but the gears in her shoulder prohibited her from tampering with her own settings. The words Connection Lost flashed across the console screen.

*     *     *

Harvey Snyder had ruined Roberta’s career as a marriage counselor. He was a client; owned a tanning salon in Bronxville, and his wife Hanna was an engineer. Although Roberta had found many of her clients attractive, there was something so physically compelling about Harvey that she thought of him day and night. He had a scar above his left eyebrow, and its downward angle gave him an appearance of perpetual mischievousness. She felt sorry for him, imagined that nobody trusted him because of the mark. She could empathize: Roberta was downright ugly.

Harvey’s wife Hanna believed that he was having an affair. She’d stopped by the tanning salon a few months prior to therapy and found Harvey rubbing a woman’s bare feet. Harvey claimed that he was reading the woman’s fortune; foot-reading was something he’d learned while studying herbal medicines in China. “It’s called a fetish,” Hanna protested. “You have a goddamn foot fetish. I’m not falling for this fortune crap; you get off on touching women’s bare feet.”

One day, Harvey had come for individual counseling. He and Roberta talked about Hanna’s need to create controllable environments, and midway through the session, Harvey said, “I don’t know why she doesn’t trust me. She knows that my fortune reading is harmless. It’s an art, a skill, an ancient mystery that I’ve been privy to. Look, I can do it for you. You want me to read your soles?”

In any other circumstance, Roberta would have reminded her client of boundaries, but that scar, it was like another mouth on his face, one that beckoned her with poetry and compliments and confessions of love—everything she’d ever wanted but never had. She would do anything to put her lips to it. She slipped off her shoe and laid her foot in his lap. Nobody will know, she told herself. Besides, how many years has it been since a man showed interest in me?

Harvey rubbed and kissed each toe. He said, “Roberta, your life is going to be beyond your wildest dreams. I see it here.” He ran his index finger lightly up a crease in her sole. It tickled. She leaned forward, and pressed her lips against the scar.

Within a week, Allied Counseling Services received a call from a lawyer. After a brief investigation, Roberta was fired. At the very least, Hanna and Harvey resolved their differences. Roberta saw them six months later, walking hand in hand through Tibbett’s Brook Park in Yonkers. She figured that they’d blamed their marriage problems on their counselor.

*     *     *

Now, Roberta tossed and turned all night, thinking about Gerald and Bridget. She missed mending broken marriages; it was the only thing she ever felt right doing, the only thing that a woman who was destined to remain lonely forever could do. Heredity had handed her an unruly hormonal system; one so defective that thick hair grew on her cheeks and her breasts seemed to get smaller every year. She was infertile; unhealthily slender, and acne exploded periodically across her face like a sudden summer storm. One leg was noticeably longer than the other. When men showed an interest in Roberta, it was because they felt sorry for her. Some men, she believed, needed to work out their own feelings of rottenness and inadequacy, so they channeled their psychic garbage into her, as if depositing a fraudulent check in a bank. But being a marriage counselor had nullified all the shame. Roberta felt vicarious satisfaction every time she helped discouraged lovers beat the odds. Their love stories became her own.

She hoped that Gerald and Bridget would turn Megan back on and ask for help. Unfortunately, there was a meager chance that Roberta would be their live operator again. Megan Corp. employed thirty operators, ten per eight-hour shift. Although they shared case notes on a server, it was unlikely that any other operator would feel as passionately about Gerald and Bridget as Roberta had felt. They just wanted tips.

*     *     *

Roberta made a decision: she would intercede whether Gerald and Bridget wanted her help or not. In the morning, she logged onto the Megan Corp. server and looked up client billing. She accessed Gerald’s file and jotted down his address. He lived in White Plains, thirty minutes north. Initially, Roberta considered showing up at Gerald and Bridget’s house to do a marital intervention, but she couldn’t fool herself: her appearance would be too off-putting. Instead, she’d send a representative, a rouge Megan doll. She assumed that Gerald and Bridget regretted spending $5,000 on a Megan doll, and they were probably desperate to prove to themselves that the purchase had been a wise decision. Perhaps the appearance of another Megan doll—one trained in therapy—would seem like a return on investment, and they’d be more likely to cooperate.

Roberta snuck into the Megan Corp. warehouse. The inventory manager was sleeping in his office. She pulled a Megan off the shelf and slipped out the back door to the parking lot. Behind a dumpster, she ripped off the cellophane that surrounded Megan’s body, stood the doll upright, and activated her.

“Hello sir,” the doll said, “You look sexually alluring today.”

Roberta flicked the Awareness switch to its highest setting. While the hard-drive in Megan’s head spun and her Wi-Fi searched for a connection, Roberta rushed inside to pick up the line before anyone else could.

*     *     *

Megan waited for a cab in downtown Yonkers. Other than a few turning heads and honking horns, her presence didn’t faze people. Nothing could alarm them—every street corner was characterized by some lunatic engaged in nonsensical rituals like screaming into the drainage sewers or practicing sidewalk yoga. A woman leaning against a stop sign periodically glared at Megan, her Revlon-clad lips shining. She wore fishnet stockings and thick mascara.

She called, “Girl, whoever did your plastic surgery messed you up. Don’t tell me you’re getting business looking like that, ‘cause otherwise, I’m retiring.”

Megan said, “I’m a robot. Made by men, owned by men, sold to men.”

“Huh. Me, too.”

She handed Roberta a business card and said, “Have your pimp contact me.”

Her name was Marissa Kisses.

The cab appeared, and the driver, unsure what Megan was, failed to conceal his reaction. He wrinkled his face and scrutinized Megan, head to toe. He was reluctant to engage in any conversation other than the usual request for a destination, but then, after they’d passed enough strip malls and sat at countless traffic lights, he could no longer stand not knowing. At least, that’s what Roberta believed. She’d seen his kind of expression a hundred times, when boyfriends introduced their girlfriends to their Megans; when, at a technology conference in Denver, Megan had to stand on a platform situated between a T-Mobil kiosk and a Dell Computers booth, and passing executives and techno-nerds would take off their glasses, squint, and sometimes walk backwards as quickly as possible. But they’d come back, always.

The driver said, “I know it’s not my business, but I’m curious. What happened?”

“What happened with what?”

He glanced through the rearview mirror, “Was there an accident and you needed reconstructive surgery?”

“Something like that,” Megan said. “It happened after I lost my job.”

They soon pulled onto Gerald’s street. There was a For Sale sign banged into the lawn. As they drew closer, Roberta noticed Gerald’s Megan doll propped on the patio, wedged between two overflowing garbage pails and piles of junk that would be taken to the curb for recycling. The driver looked at the Megan doll on the patio. He said, “Was she in the same accident?”

“She was,” said Megan.

She exited the cab, and told the driver to wait.

Roberta led the Megan doll across the lawn. She looked in the front window. All of Gerald and Bridget’s belongings were in boxes, stacked five feet high, and the larger furniture circled in bubble-wrap. Gerald was in the corner stretching tape over a box labeled “Baseball Card Collection.” Roberta knocked on the window.

Gerald put the tape down and came out the front door. He looked at the inactive Megan stowed on the patio, and then at the one standing before him.

Megan said, “There’s more than one of me, of course.”

“I’m not interested in having sex with two women,” he said.

“That’s not why I’m here. Where’s Bridget?”

“What are you here for, then?”

“I’ve come to help the two of you. We can sit down and work it—”

Gerald interrupted, “Are you out of your mind?”

“You’re not bad people. You’ve just had some problems that could—”

Gerald leaned forward. “Fixing someone else’s broken marriage isn’t going to eliminate the shame you feel for being a whore.”

“I’m not a whore!” she yelled at Gerald. “There’s more to me than that!”

He slammed the door.

The combined force behind her voice and the door’s hard thump had activated the discarded Megan doll. Its eyes fluttered and the gears beneath her skin vibrated. “Hello sir,” the doll said, “you look arousing today. I like a man who can clean a chimney.”

Something clicked in Roberta’s head, a horrible awareness that she’d been playing the role of Megan most of her life; certainly long before she’d gotten into the robot hooker business. Years ago, she’d made a decision to become a relationship counselor; a choice based not on passion but desperation. By then, she’d resigned to the consequences of being ugly and had convinced herself that the only way that she could enter a loving relationship was as a mediator. She had, for all intents and purposes, turned Roberta off.

Roberta reached behind the doll’s ear and flicked the Awareness switch to its highest setting. At the control center, Roberta’s second console lit up. She could see on the monitors one Megan looking at the other, like gazing into a mirror. It was time to admit defeat, to bring them back to headquarters, where they’d be disinfected and refurbished, or retired in lieu of a more advanced model. Her job was done.

Roberta held a Megan controller in each hand. She led both Megans back to the cab. They banged into each other, swaying, knocking knees and hips like two drunken sisters exiting a bar. A peal of microphone feedback emanated from their mouths, and the driver, smiling, maybe thinking that this was his lucky day, opened the taxi’s back door for them. But, as the Megan dolls were about to slide into the backseat, a car pulled into the driveway. Its window descended, and Bridget stuck her head out. “What the hell is going on here?”

“We’re going home,” said Roberta.

“Why are there two… wait, you can’t just leave! I paid for you!” Bridget leapt out of her car. Gerald, who’d been glancing through the blinds, rushed outside again. From the patio, he shouted at Bridget, “You said you weren’t coming back!”

“I’m here to pick up my doll. I paid for it, God damn it!”

“No,” he said, running toward them, “that’s not how it works.” He stomped through the front yard’s flower garden, and the dry mulch snapped under his feet. “The doll was a marital contribution, so it belongs to both of us. It’s up to our lawyers to decide—”

“And in the meantime,” Bridget said, putting her hand on the nearest Megan’s shoulder, “She comes with me.”

The cab driver said, “Look, I’m on a tight schedule. Am I bringing these things back to Yonkers or what?”

Bridget gave the cabbie a twenty dollar bill. “Just hang on for five seconds, OK?” He stuffed the bill in his pocket and waited in the idling cab.

Bridget turned to Gerald. “I don’t see why you’re complaining.” She pointed to the rogue Megan doll. “I hope you didn’t use my credit card to buy this one.”

“She came on her own.”

Roberta said, “I ran away from the warehouse so that I could come here and help you two resolve your differences. Now, if you’ll both—”

Bridget said, “I didn’t realize that was part of the purchase agreement. You’re a bit late.” Bridget opened the cab’s back door and motioned for the second Megan to get inside. “Sorry it didn’t work out the way you wanted.”

“But—”

“Listen, darling. It’s over.”

Gerald nodded. “It’s over,” he echoed. Roberta would have given up, but when Gerald repeated his wife, another idea came to mind. Roberta said, “I think I’ll stay here.” She grabbed Gerald’s hand and continued, “I owe your husband a good time.” At first, Gerald looked confused, but then a smile began to form at the sides of his lips. He quickly pulled it back.

Bridget said, “Go ahead. Screw his brains out if it suits you, so long as I’m not paying for it. I’ll just take my doll and go.” She turned to her Megan. “You ready, honey?”

Using both controllers, Roberta led one Megan to Bridget’s sedan, and the other back inside the house.

*     *     *

Back when Roberta was a counselor, she was fascinated by the ways that couples would mimic each other’s gestures. They’d cross their legs at the same time or simultaneously scratch their noses. Textbooks called it Emotional Contagion; an unconscious, empathetic response, but Roberta believed that at a deeper level of reality, souls become spiritually entwined and forever inseparable. Such was the case with Bridget and Gerald: their sexual clocks still ticked in unison.

Bridget brought her Megan doll to her hotel room. She laid Megan on the bed, then unsnapped her bra. Ten miles away, Gerald suddenly put down the packing tape, wiped the sweat from his brow, and said to Megan, “Why don’t we go upstairs?”

Roberta had hoped to discover even the slightest evidence that Gerald and Bridget still loved each other. Now that she’d detected Emotional Contagion, she would go to any lengths to make them aware of it.

Gerald laid Megan down on his wife’s side of the bed while Bridget stared into her Megan’s eyes. Roberta reached across her console for the two stereo speakers. Each one was patched to their respective Megans. She pulled the speakers off the shelf and placed them on either side of the microphone. In theory, Gerald and Bridget would hear one another through their Megan’s mouths. They’d end up conversing with each other, so long as Roberta kept quiet. She adjusted the equalizer—made Bridget’s voice muffled and Gerald’s tinny—in hopes that they wouldn’t catch on immediately. This is going to work, she told herself. It has to.

Gerald ran his fingers through Megan’s hair. “It’s been such a long time,” he said.

“I’m a little nervous,” Bridget said, her voice coming out of Gerald’s Megan doll. “This is kind of weird. But God, you’re beautiful.”

“So are you,” Gerald said, his voice reaching Bridget through her Megan doll. “I’m just having a hard time hearing you. Can you speak a little louder?”

Roberta pulled the speakers closer to the microphone.

Bridget said, “I really like what you did. How you went out of your way to come here.”

Gerald was confused. He scratched his forehead. “Not exactly. I mean, I brought you here, after all.”

“If you want to look at it that way. It was mutual; it was fate. I just wish I could get to know you more, like the real you.”

“Hm,” he said, removing his belt.

“So, what interests you?”

“Sex,” he said, proudly, as if he’d finally gotten the answer correct.

“No, really. What do you actually enjoy? Like, you, the person behind the doll?”

“Honey,” Gerald laughed as he rolled his pants down to his ankles, “Quit being ironic. You’re the doll, not me. Now can we get on with this?”

He reached his hand behind his Megan’s head so that he could flick the Awareness switch to its lowest level. Instinctively, Roberta tried to block him, but the doll’s arms wouldn’t reach high enough. Gerald’s screen went blank, and the audio feed discontinued. He was on his own now.

“Talk to me,” said Bridget, staring deep into her doll’s eyes. “Tell me that you love me.”

Roberta leaned over the microphone, but couldn’t bring herself to say anything.

______

Photo credit: canonsnapper / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)