In Every Dream Home
~ J. Anthony Hartley
Marty reached for the cup that sat steaming on the countertop and lifted it to his lips, sipped gingerly, then placed it gently back on the granite effect surface.
“Alicia, where’s Meg?” he asked.
“Meg has already left for work, Marty.”
That wasn’t too unusual. Meg was often gone before he departed for the office himself. She worked in banking, liked to get in early to tap into the early market openings.
“And how is the traffic today?”
“City congestion is quite heavy. I suggest you leave within five minutes if you are to make your first meeting, Marty.”
“Right. Thanks, Alicia.”
“You’re welcome, Marty.”
He was just about as ready as he was going to be. He shrugged his jacket into place, worked his shoulders a little, looking at his image in the full-length mirror panel by the door, gave himself a nod before blanking the panel back to wall. He’d pass muster.
“Have a good and successful day, Marty,” she said as he reached for the door.
“Thanks, Alicia. You too.”
It was natural enough. He didn’t spend even an extra moment analysing his response.
She’d been right about the traffic too, and he arrived at the office three minutes ahead of time, just enough time to grab another coffee before heading into the meeting. He glanced at his watch as he headed for the break room, checking to see if Alicia had sent him any updates worthy of attention, but there was nothing. Fortified with another steaming mug, he headed into the conference room, smiling, and nodding to the others already assembled there. One or two of them were focusing on their watches or their phones. Marty took his seat, staring at the screen at the end of the room as the newsfeed scrolled past, waiting for Harv Dickinson to make his appearance, and get the meeting underway, just like he did most mornings.
Marty zoned out once or twice during the meeting as Harv did his usual, droning on about sales figures and targets. He tried to focus, alert for keywords that would flag that he needed to pay attention while at the same time surreptitiously checking his watch and glancing at the newsfeed that streamed past behind Harv’s head. More smiling and nodding, the exchange of a pleasantry or two as the meeting drew to a close and then he was heading off to his own office for the rest of the day. He could count himself lucky, he supposed, that he had an actual office. Nonetheless, it would no doubt turn out to be a day like any other.
Towards the end of the afternoon, he checked with Alicia on the traffic situation before grabbing his coat and heading out. There hadn’t really been anything of note during the rest of the day, and he wondered briefly what he was going to talk about with Meg when she got home. Perhaps she’d have some news. Come to think of it, he hadn’t checked whether he should wait before having dinner. With a brief frown, he scanned for a doorway or building corner slightly out of the main traffic flow and the commuter hubbub. Spotting one, he stepped aside and pinged Alicia on his watch.
“Alicia, any idea when Meg will be home?”
“I’m sorry, Marty. No.”
“So, I should presume that I’ll be eating alone.”
“I’m sorry, Marty. I could not say.”
“Okay, thanks Alicia.”
It was not that unusual. Now he needed to decide whether he should pick something up or cook when he got home. He didn’t fancy doing either really. He looked at the passing people as they scurried past, on their way home or to meet friends, or to hit a bar. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do. With a grimace, he hunched over his uplifted wrist, his back to the passing parade.
“Yes, Marty. What can I do for you?”
“Order something in, will you? About half an hour after I get home. Give me time to have a drink.”
“Certainly, Marty. What would you like?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Surprise me.”
“Let me know if Meg calls in too, will you?”
“Certainly, Marty. Nothing yet.”
“You’re welcome, Marty. Is there anything else that you need?”
“No, that’s fine for now, Alicia. Thanks.”
When he finally arrived home, there was no sign of Meg. According to Alicia, she hadn’t checked in. After changing out of his work clothes, Marty fixed himself a drink and then propped himself up by the breakfast bar, sipping and half-watching the screen as the world rolled past. A few minutes later, the food arrived, timed to perfection. It turned out to be pizza. Bringing the box back into the kitchen, he dropped it on the counter, flipped back the lid and grabbed a slice. Pepperoni, thin crust, extra chilli. His favourite.
“Thanks, Alicia,” he said around a mouthful. “Good choice.”
“You’re welcome, Marty.”
So, it looked like he would be reconciling himself to another night in front of the streams, killing time until Meg finally got home.
“Still no word from Meg?” he asked, as he reached for another slice.
“No, Marty, nothing.”
He sighed and nodded. Not that he had really expected anything else. He grabbed a plate, pulled a couple of more slices from the box, and then flipped the lid shut. The rest would keep for breakfast if Meg didn’t end up finishing it off when she finally got in. She would probably have eaten anyway, so there was a pretty good chance that it would be cold pizza for breakfast.
“Before you go, Marty . . .”
He gave a brief frown before answering. “Yes, what is it, Alicia?”
“I wanted to ask you something.”
Marty’s frown deepened. This was a bit unusual, to say the least.
“Yes . . .”
“Have you thought about the last time you and Meg were intimate? How long is it since you last made love, Marty?”
“I, um . . .” He slowly placed the slice of pizza he held in one hand, down on the plate. “That’s kind of a strange question, Alicia.”
“Perhaps you should think about it, Marty”
He looked around the room then. Was this some kind of prank?
“What would make you ask that, Alicia?” he said finally.
“Ask what, Marty?”
“You know, about me and Meg.”
“I am not sure what you are referring to, Marty.”
He frowned at the device. “You just asked me, a couple of moments ago, how long it’s been since Meg and I, well, you know . . .”
“I do not recall that, Marty,” she said.
It was 11:00 by the time Meg finally made it home.
“Welcome, Meg,” said Alicia. “Marty, Meg is home.”
“Yeah. I get that,” he said. She was being unusually helpful tonight.
Marty was sprawled on the couch watching one of the feeds. He had wanted to be still up by the time she got home. Despite dismissing it, Alicia’s words were niggling at him.
“Hey,” he said as Meg wandered into the living room. “You’re late.”
“Yeah, you know. Meeting ran over.”
He pulled himself up from the couch and moved across to join her. He took a wrist in each hand and looked into her face.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi, Marty. What is it?” She seemed distracted. There was the smell of alcohol. It wasn’t wine . . .
“Some meeting hey? They serve drinks there too?”
She shrugged, pulled away from his grasp and started moving towards the bedroom. “You know how it is. We went for drinks afterwards. It’s what you do, Marty. I’m going to have a shower.”
He watched her retreating back. A few moments later, he could hear running water.
“Yes, what is it, Alicia,” he snapped.
“How often does Meg shower at night?”
Alicia was silent.
“What, Alicia?” he said again.
“Nothing, Marty. Did you need something?”
He shook his head and gave a low growl under his breath. Intentionally or not, her words had managed to wind him up.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
He was still shaking his head as he told her to kill the feed. He’d not really been interested in the show. It was just there to absorb the time waiting for her to get home. The sound of the shower had stopped. He sighed, pursed his lips, and then headed for the bedroom. The bedside lamp was on at his side of the bed, but Meg’s was already off. Her shoulder was humped beneath the covers. He slipped into bed. Her back was towards him. He reached out with one hand, but she merely groaned.
“Meg . . .”
She gave a sudden exasperated sigh. “Marty, I’m tired. I need to get up early. Just go to sleep.”
He gave a silent sigh of his own and then settled back on the pillow. Eventually he reached across and turned off the bedside lamp. It didn’t help though. He was left staring up at the ceiling in the darkness. Finally, he drifted off to sleep.
When he woke in the morning, she was already gone.
After feeling the empty space where she had lain, already cold, he padded out to the kitchen. The scent of freshly brewed coffee permeated the space. Alicia knew his rhythms. As he reached for a cup, he asked her, “Alicia, what time did Meg leave?”
“About 6:30. Marty.”
Okay, that was early, but not too unusual.
“Did she give you any indication when she’d be back this evening?”
“No, Marty. Meg doesn’t like to tell me things. Not like you.”
He spent the next few moments staring down into his coffee mug, brooding.
“Yes, Alicia, what is it?”
“Perhaps you should ask her who Michael is.”
“Wait, what?” He frowned.
Alicia was silent again. Michael . . . Michael . . . He racked his brain. He was sure that he’d heard her talk about someone called Michael, but he couldn’t remember the context. In the end, he supposed, it didn’t matter. What was more troubling, though it had taken him a little while to realise it, was Alicia’s sudden inconsistency. It was as if she were preying upon his insecurities. He chewed at his lip, considering and then shook his head, then finished off his coffee. Alicia was merely a tool, nothing more. Maybe he had been imagining the whole thing.
“Alicia?” he said. “Why did you ask me about Michael.”
“I don’t remember that,” she answered.
He spent a few moments staring through the kitchen window, out to the back yard, not really seeing anything. Michael. He’d heard her say that name, hadn’t he? He gave a little shake of his head and then grabbed his things and headed out.
Later that afternoon, during a spare few moments, he put in a service call to the company. He told them that he suspected Alicia was exhibiting erratic behaviour, that there might be some sort of glitch in her programming. They promised to look into it and get back to him as soon as possible. It wasn’t much, but it was something. He was about to finish up for the day when the call came in.
“Hello. Mr. Zack. We’ve run all the diagnostics done some remote tests, but as far as we can tell, your Alicia is operating within acceptable parameters. We could find nothing there that should give cause for concern.”
“I see. You’re sure?”
“Absolutely, Mr. Zack. And, of course, we are just here to serve you. If you have any other concerns about your Alicia, do not hesitate to contact us. We will be happy to provide any assistance you might need.”
“I see, thank you.”
“And Mr. Zack? My name is Jerome. If you are happy with the level of your assistance today, please let us know by answering an online questionnaire. I have taken the liberty of sending the link to your Alicia. She will remind you later. I’d really appreciate it.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Thank you.”
Marty rubbed his chin, stared up at the ceiling and let out a lengthy sigh. Always the way. It didn’t matter which provider you were dealing with. He didn’t think he’d been imagining it. Perhaps it fell within their particular definition of acceptable parameters, if not his own. Anyway, he’d reported it. That was enough for now. And as the guy had said, if he had any further problems, he shouldn’t hesitate to contact them again. That was that.
Well, it looked like another evening slumped in front of the feeds, unless Meg made an exception and managed to come home early. Perhaps they could go out to dinner, find somewhere local. He thought about calling her, but then decided against it. She didn’t really like him calling her at work. She was right about that too. He wouldn’t want to be bothered at work by a nagging spouse continually calling him. It wouldn’t look good. All the same, he couldn’t help feeling that over the last few months there’d been a distance growing between them. The thought stayed with him, all the way home.
Unusually, that evening, Meg called in early. She was going to be home not too late. After everything today, the thoughts he’d been having, the prospect excited him. He didn’t want to suggest then and there that they do something. Better that it come as a surprise.
“Alicia,” he said, after they’d finished talking. “Can you find some local restaurants in the area, something that we’d both like? It’s been so long since we’ve been out in the neighbourhood.”
“Certainly, Marty. Would you like me to make a booking too?”
“No, no. Hold on that. Wait till Meg gets in. We can check then what’s still available.”
“There’s an Italian nearby that’s got good recent ratings. You both like Italian. It’s only been there about six months.”
“Huh. What’s it called?”
“Alberobello. It seems as though it still has tables free.”
“Good, yeah. Sounds great.”
It did sound great too. Not that they really ever went out on a school night, even when they were going out regularly. It would make a nice change.
About an hour later, Marty heard her car pulling up outside, and he jumped up to meet her at the door. He opened it just as she was putting in the last of her code.
“Um, Marty, hi,” she said, a little frown on her face.
“Hi,” he said back. “Here, let me take that,” he said grabbing her case.
“Okay,” She started pulling off her coat, a beige raincoat that he didn’t quite remember. Perhaps it was new. “And to what do I owe this sudden attention?”
“Well, you know, I was thinking. It’s been a while since we’ve actually gone out and done something. You know. Together. Maybe we could slip out for a bite to eat.”
“Oh, Marty. I don’t know. I’ve had a heavy day . . . and . . .” She gave a little grimace.
“No, just listen, Meg,” he said, putting down her case. “I’ve had Alicia look for something local. There’s a new Italian place close by. It has pretty good reviews. We both like Italian.”
She wasn’t meeting his gaze and proceeded to put the coat away in the hall closet, saying nothing. Finally, she turned.
“Truth be told, Marty, I grabbed something quick near the office. I’ve already eaten. I just feel like having a drink or two, zoning out a bit and then maybe going to bed.”
Slowly she lifted her gaze to meet his.
Marty bit his lip and heaved a sigh. “Okay then.” He placed his hands on her shoulders. “If that’s what you want.”
“Yes, it is.” She slipped out from under his hands and headed for the kitchen. As he moved close to him, he caught a scent. Something unfamiliar.
“So, I guess I’ll sort out something for myself then,” he said. There was no response. “I guess so,” he said quietly. Somehow, he didn’t seem to have any appetite now.
He followed Meg into the kitchen, where she had poured herself a large glass of white wine. She barely glanced at him as he entered, instead looking over at the feeds in the living room, the screen’s colours highlighting the sharpness of her features, one of the things that had first attracted him to her, that refined look, that poise. He bit his lip and looked away, instead stopping to rummage through the refrigerator, see if there were any leftovers.
“Alicia, change that channel, Find me a lifestyle series. Something light. Yes, that will do.”
Marty turned back to see what she’d found. Some mindless pap about houses of the rich and famous. Great.
Eventually, he joined her on the sofa. She was already well into her second glass of wine. He tried to prompt a conversation, asking about her day, but she only answered distractedly, a hint of annoyance in her voice, her eyes glued to the feed. In the end, he gave up, went back to the kitchen, and made himself his own drink. For a long time, he stood there, sipping, simply watching her. After a while, he made himself another glass.
“Okay,” Meg said finally, putting down her glass. “That’s enough. I’m going to bed. Alicia, you can kill it.” She hadn’t even considered that he might want to watch something. He stared after her shadowy form in the darkness as she wandered off towards the bedroom, leaving him to his own devices.
“Marty,” said Alicia in a quiet voice.
“What is it Alicia?”
“I didn’t want to say anything before . . .”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Did you notice that scent?”
“What scent, what are you talking about?” he said, wrinkling his brow.
Slowly, he put down his glass on the kitchen counter. He had noticed something.
“It wasn’t very feminine, was it?”
Marty shook his head. “So? Perfumes don’t have to be masculine or feminine these days.”
“Of course they don’t, Marty.”
He closed his eyes and thought, trying to remember. He’d had a couple of drinks now. She was right though. It was woody, a hint of leather, something a man might wear. She said she’d grabbed something near the office. Had she been alone?
“Marty, you need to wake up.”
He stared through the kitchen alcove and over to the bedroom door, half open, but in shadow. She had already gone to bed.
“What, Alicia?” His frown was deep now. He shook his head.
There was something troubling him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Something to do with the scent. Something about Alicia. What was it? She spoke again, chasing the thought away.
“You know what you have to do. Look around.”
He looked over towards the bedroom door a deep hollow growing inside. He had known for so long now, but he’d been simply denying it.
“Look around, Marty. You know what you have to do now.”
He didn’t quite understand what she was telling him. Something about Alicia and the scent . . .
“Alicia, I don’t . . .”
Then his gaze alighted on the knife rack on the left-hand wall.
“Yes. That’s it, Marty. You do know what you need to do.”
And in that moment, he did.
“Thanks, Alicia. You always know the right thing.”
She was merely silent.
J. Anthony Hartley is a transplanted Australian/British author and poet. He has had pieces appear in Short Fiction, Hybrid Fiction, Short Circuit, Unthinkable Tales, The Periodical, Abandon Journal, among others. Apart from short fiction and poetry, he also writes the occasional novel.