The fourth novella in our SHORTCUTS series is Pocket Wife, by IK Paterson-Harkness.
Carl’s work requires him to travel extensively, but he and his wife Jenny stay connected through their Tinys – four-inch-tall replicas of themselves which, when turned on, transmit whatever sensory information they are receiving directly into their living counterparts’ minds. Through his Tiny, which Jenny keeps close beside her in Auckland, Carl can see his wife, speak to her, even feel her touch. But when Jenny’s Tiny malfunctions and she can’t turn herself off, Carl has a major problem. He’s having an affair, and he’d rather his wife wasn’t around.
I felt behind my ear, found the little switch and turned it on. Jenny hadn’t activated my Tiny yet, but I figured I’d lie back and wait. It pays to sit still until it happens. I leaned back against the V-shaped pillow and stared at the light shade. I couldn’t help toying with the switch, and poking at the outline of the plastic disc, which lay flat beneath my skin. I’d been worried they’d have to drill through bone but when I’d expressed my concern to the technician he’d laughed. ‘The sensors are highly tuned,’ he’d said. ‘They pick it all up from outside the skull.’
The light shade was white, round, and smooth as a pickled onion. Seems everything’s getting smoother and rounder. Gone are the good old days when you could retire to your hotel after a long day at work and sink into a decent, squishy sofa. These days you sit down and slide right off. I glanced at the fridge – thought about the Indian Pale I had in there, the condensation misting the cold glass, the sound of released pressure as I popped open the top.
I felt the usual added strain on my mind as Jenny switched on my Tiny, and immediately closed my eyes and tried to focus on whatever it was I was supposed to be looking at. The little bugger’s eyes aren’t the best; the cameras don’t swivel properly. Ah, there we go. Jenny was holding my Tiny up in front of Nico.
‘Say hello to Grandpa,’ she said. The image rotated back and forth vigorously.
Nico gurgled something; it was hard to tell over the sound of whooshing air.
‘It’s your Grandpa!’ Jenny squealed. ‘Your Grandpa!’
‘Stop waggling me around!’ I called. I could hear my own voice coming from my Tiny’s speakers – the same, but not quite.
‘Sorry,’ she said, and the room suddenly stabilised. A monstrous baby’s hand reached towards my face and I braced against the hotel pillows.
‘That’s right,’ Jenny cooed. ‘He’s far, far away.’
Nico slapped the highchair tray with his palms, and Jenny pushed me right up into his snotty face.
‘Christ, that’s enough,’ I said, opening my eyes. The onion-shaped light shade was clearly visible through the now semi-opaque image of Nico. It looked like he had a third eye, right in the middle of his forehead. I stood up and inched towards the fridge, trying to concentrate on the hard lines of the hotel room. By the time I got back to the bed my head ached. I used a pillow to stifle the sound of the beer being opened, then lay back, closed my eyes again, and took a sip.
Jenny had propped my Tiny up on top of the kitchen bench back home, facing the sink, a chopping board, and a knife the length of a cricket pitch. Outside the window the sky was a deep blue. Sparrows and wax-eyes of pterodactyl proportions flew in and out of my vision. Jenny had bought the bird feeder a few years previously, had insisted I nail it to the fence. They made a hell of a mess, those birds, but Jenny loved to watch them. I could just make out the sound of cicadas. But I was cold. Damned cold, actually, like I was lying on snow.
‘Jenny, where on earth did you put my Tiny?’ I called.
She came back into view, carrying a bag of potatoes.
‘I’ve switched myself on,’ she said.
‘You’ve got to be joking.’
‘I told Rach I’d prepare some meals for Nico, which she can take home.’
‘Don’t be stupid. You’ll chop off one of your fingers. We don’t need to both be on. And why am I freezing here?’
I had a brief glimpse of the ceiling before she repositioned my Tiny.
‘Sorry. Frozen peas,’ she said. I presumed she’d pressed her hand against my Tiny’s back, since the cold became less.
‘Turn me on, Carl. You know I like to see where you are. I feel disconnected…’
I grumbled as I leaned over to the bedside drawer and pulled out her Tiny. About four inches tall, the thing had been made in her exact likeness. The brown eyes stared blankly. I carefully gripped the tiny left ankle between thumb and forefinger, starting to make the twist, then remembered the beer and quickly placed it on the floor where it couldn’t be spotted. I twisted the ankle and her Tiny’s eyes swivelled to look at my face.
‘You haven’t shaved today,’ Jenny said. Twice. The voice in my mind – heard by my Tiny on the other side of the world – and the voice coming from the speaker inside her Tiny’s chest. Sometimes the voices were in sync.
Her Tiny began to feel warm, and I placed it on the pillow, facing me.
‘I’ll shave tomorrow.’
‘You know it makes a difference.’
I had the usual dilemma. Did I close my eyes and watch what Jenny was doing back home, or did I keep them open and look at her Tiny? If I closed them, I’d have the relief of only one image to focus on, but her Tiny would be staring at my closed eyes, and Jenny didn’t like that. Really the whole system was flawed.
‘Rach is at a job interview.’
Her Tiny was looking at me so intently. The lips didn’t move, but the voice came out all the same.
‘At the high school down the road from where she lives. They want someone to look after the plants. It’s a gardening job, really. It might involve a bit of heavy lifting, which I’m worried about, but it’s only fifteen hours. She wants to start Nico at day care a couple of days per week. She says she needs to get out of the house. I told her I’d look after him, but she’s dead set on day care.’
I became aware of a knocking noise and closed my eyes. Jenny was chopping the potatoes with her own eyes closed.
‘She’s not built for heavy lifting,’ she continued. Her grey-auburn hair was tied in a loose plait, her cuffs rolled up. ‘I told her she should do a course. She was so good at science when she was at school. She could do pharmacology, or study to be a radiologist.’
‘Sue’s niece did some courses at university, and she’s a radiologist now. Rach could do so much better than gardening.’
‘Let her work it out for herself.’
I opened my eyes and the thing was still looking at me. It didn’t smile. Didn’t move at all – no muscles, I suppose. I never properly learned the science of it. All I knew was that there were sensors on my Tiny’s body, and cameras in the eyes and what-have-you, and that somehow, through satellites I suppose, the information was sent to my brain. When Jenny touched my Tiny it was like being poked through a thick blanket. The newer models can smell, and have a better sense of physical touch – or so the pop-ups claim. It’s probably only a matter of time before they’re walking around, creating havoc of their own.
The Tinys arrived from the manufacturers in their boxes, naked. We hadn’t expected that. There’s nothing more sobering that seeing your silver pubic hairs copied in minute detail. Jenny immediately took to dressing them like little dolls. You can buy accessories from the company page. Last November she dressed my Tiny in a Halloween costume and surprised me by holding it up in front of the mirror. There I was, dressed like an English schoolboy, and there was nothing much I could do about it.
‘Jenny love,’ I cut in. She was still complaining about Rachel. ‘I’m meeting Michel soon – the Chief Financial Officer. He wants me to go over some figures with him.’
‘He’s a very busy man. I should shower.’
‘Okay…’ She sighed, the noise at my end coming out like static. ‘Make sure you shave. And dress warmly, dear. You don’t want to catch another cold.’
‘I will. See you the same time tomorrow.’ I switched off the switch behind my ear and reached for her Tiny. I rubbed its back with my finger. I knew Jenny would still be in there, would be switched on right to the last second, but I couldn’t speak to the thing. As soon as I’d twisted its ankle I chucked it back in the drawer, and slammed the drawer shut.