The following is an unedited and unrevised preview. Everything subject to change. Enjoy!
The doorman brought the mail up a little after 3:00 p.m.
Adelai heard the elevator ding from the leather couch in the living room. She’d been there for the last hour, staring at the tall windows, watching a world turned beige by the thin blinds. The last of the birds were migrating through the city; they stopped to rest on the many perches the high buildings provided. Adelai knew the feeling. She too had sought out warmth and safety in her penthouse perch high above the city streets.
The stereo in the corner played classical music at an ambient volume; only during the swell of some passionate symphony could she hear the strings and the horns. They mixed nicely with the crackling of the fireplace, providing just enough white noise to keep the dead silence at bay, but not so much that she couldn’t hear the conversation happening down the hall in the foyer.
Though a small army of doormen worked in Eames Tower, only a handful were authorized to come up to the penthouse. It was either Hector, Raymond, or Harold—three men with impeccable records and who, each in their own time, had been personally interviewed by Adelai.
“Good afternoon, Harold. How are you today?”
The silky voice that greeted the doorman belonged to Simone, and Adelai imagined her standing primly with her hands folded and a wide smile that showed most of her teeth.
“It’s quite the haul today, Mrs. Vaught. An entire box of mail and half a dozen packages. All on the small side, thankfully.”
“Oh, yes. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble carrying them up here.”
Adelai smiled as she fingered the rim of her wine glass. She had no intention of getting up and was more than happy to sit and listen to Simone speak. It was one of her wife’s better qualities, the way the words flowed from her mouth like a swarm of butterflies that dazzled the eyes with their colors and comforted the soul with the sound of their gentle flapping.
“No trouble at all, ma’am. Happy to do it. I’ll just stack them here on the table.”
“That’d be great, thank you. How’re the grandchildren? Have they picked out their Halloween costumes yet?”
So polite. So genuinely charismatic.
Harold was ostensibly their employee, and yet Simone went out of her way to be interested in him—and not just to pretend to be interested, but to actually remember that he had six grandchildren from both a son and a daughter. If pressed, Simone could probably even remember their names.
Adelai sat up and nudged aside the red heels she’d kicked off earlier. She padded along the low carpet to the tall windows and spied a massive, winged creature on a ledge across the street. It was the color of wet evercrete and looked like a gargoyle had come to life.
Maybe it was the wine.
“…a ghost, and Maya wants to be a caterpillar this year.”
Simone’s effortless laughter sounded like kisses bubbling up from a pool of love.
Adelai chuckled at herself and looked down at her glass. She didn’t count her drinks—a real woman never did—but if she had to guess, the number that came to mind was four, maybe five. And really, she didn’t know why she’d had so much. It was a cheap Cabernet she’d picked up at a bodega a block over. Hand to God, the label said it was bottled in 2020. She had shampoo that had been around longer.
“That sounds delightful. You’ll have to show me pictures.”
She wasn’t just blowing smoke. Even if Halloween came and went and Harold forgot, Simone would seek him out and make him show her his phone. Regardless of how cute the children were, she would offer glowing praise. Harold, in turn, would feel better about himself, and somewhere in the back of his mind, a synapse would solidify into a single thought: I feel better about myself when I’m around Simone.
Such was Simone’s gift.
The Eames Tower swayed. It did that sometimes. It certainly wasn’t Adelai feeling the effects of the alcohol. After all, she’d only had three, maybe four drinks, and really it was uncouth to count.
“Is there anything else I can do for you or…”
“No, thank you though.” Perhaps Simone cast a glance down the hallway to see if Adelai was in view. “Adelai is tied up with work at the moment, but we’ll stop by and visit when we head out for dinner later.”
“I will look forward to it.”
Adelai groaned and put a hand on the cold glass. It was true they had dinner reservations at some cramped restaurant nearby, one of those trendy places where the plates were small and the portions were smaller, but she had no desire to go. She’d left work early eager to come home and crawl into a bottle of wine and had done so without considering what the rest of the evening might bring. Perhaps Simone was just keeping up appearances with Harold. She likely knew that after a few drinks, Adelai wouldn’t feel like going anywhere except to bed.
They traded farewells.
A button chimed.
The elevator dinged.
Soon, the clacking of Simone’s Jimmy Choo heels echoed down the long hallway.
She always wore her dress shoes when she was working, even if she were doing so from home. She entered the room untucking a white blouse from her red skirt. They had celebrated her 60th birthday over the summer, but to Adelai, she didn’t look a day over 35. Simone had a youthful face with clear skin and only the smallest of wrinkles around her eyes. Small rubies hung like suspended drops of rain from her ears, and she wore her hair in a tight ponytail on the back of her head.
She looked the very picture of business casual, as ready to meet Harold the doorman as Harold the President. Adelai looked down at her silk robe. She wasn’t even wearing underwear.
As Simone sat down on the couch, she placed a rectangular black box on the coffee table.
“What…” Some foul noise escaped Adelai’s mouth. She cleared her throat and tried again. “What is that?”
“No idea,” said Simone, folding her hands, “but it’s addressed to you. Want me to open it?”
Adelai considered the offer. On closer inspection, the package was no mere shipping box. It looked more like a long shoebox with a discreet lid. A blood-red ribbon wrapped around the box, culminating in an ornate bow on top. She had to admit—she was curious.
“You might as well. Maybe it’s another bottle of wine.” She gave a slight groan and fell into a plush side chair, crossing one leg over the other.
Simone appraised the box as if examining an ancient archeological artifact. She ran her fingers over the edges, and having felt the material, brought the tips of her fingers to her nose to smell them.
“A little like crushed roses,” she remarked.
“How very posh.” Adelai leaned her head back on the chair and let her eyes take the ceiling out of focus. The faux wood blurred into a grayish fog. She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of a ribbon coming free, a lid lifting, and a box sucking in air. Something soft touched the coffee table.
Adelai laughed and sat up. Simone’s eyes were wide; pale brown dots sat alone in seas of white. The rim of the box obscured its contents, and when she asked what was in it, Simone simply pushed the box across the coffee table with a single finger.
Adelai blinked. Blinked again.
It was a hand—a woman’s hand, by the shape of it, with long slender fingers ending in sculpted but unpainted nails. The forearm to which it was attached extended for several inches before ending abruptly in a clean—both in smoothness and lack of gore—cut. The limb sat on a bed of black velvet cloth and if Adelai hadn’t seen Simone place the box on the table, she would have sworn someone was beneath the glass and sticking their hand up through a hole in the bottom.
The skin was pure alabaster, like unpainted silicone.
Adelai reached for her wine glass and drained it.
“Is this for my vagina or yours?”
Simone shook her head. “What?”
“It’s obviously one of those fisting hands you see online all the time, so I want to know whether you bought it for me or yourself.”
“I didn’t order anything,” said Simone. “And I really don’t think it’s a sex toy, Addy.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve had a couple of glasses.”
Simone scooted closer on the couch. “If it were meant to go inside you, it’d be made of some kind of plastic. This looks too realistic.”
“Maybe it is.”
“No, it can’t be. But look, you can see the fine hair on the forearm.”
Adelai squinted but saw nothing.
“I’m going to touch it.”
“You will not,” said Adelai.
Simone reached her hand out anyway and stroked the top of the limb. Pale fingers stirred at her touch.
Somehow, the detached limb had sensed her.
“Calm down.” Simone rotated the box until the hand was facing her. She slipped her own fingers underneath, as if she were going to bring the back of the hand to her lips for a kiss. In response, the limb moved again, curling around Simone’s fingers with all the care of a lifelong lover. When Simone removed her hand, she was holding a small slip of paper the size of a business card.
“What does it feel like?”
Simone looked up from the card as if she hadn’t heard the question.
“It’s… soft… and warm. It feels as real as your hand.” Her eyes drifted back to the card. “This is an invitation.”
“You are cordially invited to dinner and a demonstration at the home of Winston Vise, founder of Vise Robotics, on the night of October 22, 2021. Cocktails at 4:00 p.m. Dinner at 8:00 p.m. Please RSVP at your earliest convenience. There’s a phone number and an address upstate at the bottom.” She turned the card over in her hand. On the back was another message scribbled in pen. Simone read, “If this is what her hand is like, imagine the rest of her. Let’s discuss. WV.”
“Vise Robotics,” repeated Adelai. “That means this is a synthetic hand.”
“Looks like it. And far more realistic than anything we’ve seen at trade shows. But I’ve never heard of Winston Vise or his company before, have you?”
Adelai shook her head and drummed her fingers on the coffee table. She gasped when Simone grabbed her hand and placed it on the severed limb.
“See? Nothing spooky about it.”
“Marvelous.” It was the only word that came to mind. The hand felt marvelously real, so much like a human’s that if she drank enough wine and closed her eyes, she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The fingers were delicately textured and radiated a subtle warmth. Adelai took hold of them as she had seen Simone do, and when the hand grasped hers, she sighed.
An effective demonstration.
An even better invitation.
Adelai looked up to find Simone smiling back at her.
“Falling in love over there?”
“It’s not just holding my hand, Momo. It’s like… it’s like it’s caressing my fingers.”
“You’re not putting it in your vagina,” Simone warned.
Adelai shrugged. A sudden chill ran up her spine, and she let go of the hand. “I’m getting more wine.” She stood and walked quickly to the kitchen, leaving the hand and the memory of its touch behind. From the nearly empty wine fridge near the pantry, she pulled the other bottle of Cabernet she’d bought at the bodega.
She couldn’t get it open fast enough.
“What do you think about going?”
“I’m guessing you want to?”
Simone stood and joined Adelai in the kitchen. She leaned against a stool by the massive granite-topped island. “Yes, but how do you feel about it?”
“How do I feel? Hmm.” Adelai put her palm to her chin and pressed for a moment. “Look, I know you’re going to say it’s the wine, but I…” She waved the cork in the direction of the living room. “Having that thing hold my hand made me feel something. It uh…” She took a quick sip. “I got a tingle.”
“Not that kind of tingle, but… I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is that it was like touching a real person. I’ve never felt that at a trade show with any of those plastic sex dolls.”
“So we’re going then?” Simone’s teeth shone through her smile.
“I don’t know. It’s really short notice. I thought we already had plans for this Friday.”
“We’ll cancel them,” said Simone. She tilted her head. “Please?”
Adelai nodded. “Fine, but not before we check out this Winston Vise. Ask Rayburn to look into him. If he says it’s okay, we’ll go.”
Simone gave her a quick hug. “I’m so excited.” She turned and put her hands on the kitchen island, looked back at the living room where the black box lay open on the table.“And what about that thing?”
Adelai took a long sip. “Let’s see what else it can do.”