Blake has fallen asleep again, just moments after our bodies parted. So, I tiptoe in the dark to the other side of the bed and, gently removing them from the charging dock on his nightstand, I steal my husband’s smartglasses.
I know, I know. Snooping is wrong, always, and I’m a horrible, sneaky, privacy-invading, mistrustful bitch for doing this. If Blake snooped on my phone, I’d lose it. Probably call the cops on him, or post his porn browsing history on social media. I can be petty like that.
But he won’t tell me what’s going on with him—and if I don’t figure it out soon, I’m going to fall apart. Something is different with him. Something is wrong. That distant, empty look. Then, the sudden urgencies. Like tonight. He basically dragged me to the bedroom, like a drooling caveman. Then, afterward, he just collapsed. Again.
We used to talk, after. He would hold me, play with my hair, sometimes nibble my nose, playfully, you know. It was cute. Lately, I get none of that. Lately he just grunts and rolls off me, and within like two minutes, he starts snoring like a congested grizzly bear.
I can’t help thinking it’s related to the smartglasses, the prototype he is alpha-testing. He wears the them almost all the time, now. Tonight, he even wore them while we were together in bed.
I peek in on Zora, our five-year-old. She is still sound asleep, thank God, beautiful in the nightlight glow despite her crazy-tangled hair and her pajama-clad rear end sticking in the air. Quietly, I close her door and creep downstairs.
It’s not just Blake’s bizarre bedroom behavior that has me worried. Tonight, for example, he said nothing about my new pieces. Not a single world. I hung three of them—huge, vivid panoramic landscapes made strange with surreal color effects and unbalanced perspective—right above my spot at the dining table, right in his line of vision. Stuff I was really proud of, that I’d spent weeks on. He didn’t even notice. It was like they were invisible. Like I was invisible.
He used to be my cheerleader, showering me with endless, delicious, inexpert praise. “Holy shit is this our lake? It’s transformed. This is brilliant, Kenzie, brilliant. So beautiful. Almost as beautiful as you are.” Then he would kiss me, roughly, like he couldn’t control himself, like my supposed brilliance had stirred him to a frenzy of passion. Back then, he would even gush about the commissions, the engagement and baby shots. Now I was actually doing something interesting, something original, something all me—and he couldn’t even bother to notice.
Something has changed, but what?
I slink into the little half bathroom off the kitchen. I roll the pocket door shut behind me, switching the lights on out of habit, then off again, obeying the instinct to hide the wretched thing I’m doing. In the quiet, I can hear my own heart thudding and the nervous swell of blood. I close the toilet and sit down, then take a long, trembling breath, and put on my husband’s smartglasses.
My friend Quinn is 100% sure Blake is cheating, I can tell. But Quinn only thinks that because her first husband cheated. “He clearly still has a thing for your cousin Vanessa,” Quinn texted me, this afternoon. I protested, said no, they’re just old friends, but the truth is, Blake’s coziness with Vanessa has always made me twitchy. Vanessa is not only my cousin, she is also Blake’s ex, his once-upon-a-time high school sweetheart. “Nessie,” he calls her, and every time he says it, I secretly want to strangle him. But the two have known each other for decades, so some coziness is probably normal. Right?
On the third try, I guess his passcode (Zora’s birthday). Luckily, there is no other security, no iris scan or voice recognition. This is a no-frills prototype.
“Hello, Blake,” says a feminine voice.
I literally jump off the toilet—then make myself sit back down. “Oh God, oh God, what am I doing?”
“What are you doing. Hmm. Well, you have no events scheduled tonight,” says a voice in the dark, calm and close. “Your first appointment tomorrow is at 10am, a project check-in with Dav and Cyan. Currently, it appears, you’re using the toilet.”
I sit frozen, both hands over my mouth, feet pulled back off the floor. I’m an idiot. It’s just the smartglasses’s voice assistant. I forgot that the smartglasses have bone-conduction audio. I tell myself to relax. Just to reassure myself, I flick the lights on again.
A cat, sleek and black, is draped across the front of the sink.
We don’t have a cat.
“You have two new messages,” says the black cat. “Would you like me to read them?”
My mouth falls open.
The cat looks shockingly real, but it isn’t. It’s an augmentation, a computer-generated image, rendered in real time and, through the glasses, superimposed by the glasses on my vision. I peer over the glasses to prove to myself that there isn’t an actual cat on the sink. An actual, talking cat. The cat disappears, then reappears when I raise the glasses again. I shake my head in disbelief. The glasses have even rendered a convincing reflection of the cat’s butt in the mirror.
Despite my nerves, I find myself laughing with delight and disbelief. Of course, I’ve heard the hype. I’m married to the hype. Smartglasses are the Next Big Thing. “Within ten years,” Blake keeps saying, to whoever will listen, “Augmented Reality will be the only reality.” Before, I just tried not to roll my eyes too hard. Now, suddenly, I get it. Not just the hype. I get why Blake left his secure, high-paying job at Microsoft to join this tiny AR startup.
And I get why Blake is acting so weird and distant. It’s not me, not our marriage, not an affair. It’s this project. It’s AR. He and his company really are about to change the world. How could he think about anything else, right?
I close my eyes, waiting for relief to flood through me. No flood comes, though. Just a tingling trickle of hope—but even that gets drowned in the old stream of suspicion and worry. I steer my mind back to the mission at hand. I may be close to finding out the truth. I can’t turn back now.
“Show me my message history,” I say, and an interface appears. Glowing emerald characters and lines hover in the air. Using the microtoggle on the frame, I scroll through the list of Blake’s messages.
I start with his messages to Cyan, a female co-worker. Cyan isn’t particularly pretty, but she is unusual-looking and super athletic. Last time I visited the office, she had a road bike leaning against her office wall, and wore tiny black bike shorts that showcased her, well, her best assets. But their messages were bloodless, nothing there but work—all renders and versions and grumbling about deadlines and Dav, the CEO, yadda yadda.
The cat watches me, its haunting green eyes nearly the same color as the floating interface. “Is there something you’re looking for?” the cat asks. “I can run a search for you.”
I glare at it. I hate cats, always have. Years ago, on our fourth or fifth date, when I revealed my anti-cat extremism, Blake freaked out. He grew up with cats. His family always had a dozen half-strays wandering in and out of the house, apparently. We had a fight after, and for a few days, I actually worried he might break up with me. Now he was using AR to get his feline fix behind my back. I didn’t know whether to feel betrayed or impressed by his cleverness.
I remind myself this cat is not a real cat but just a bunch of code and pixels—mind-blowingly lifelike pixels, but pixels nonetheless—and I decide to take its suggestion.
“Search for Vanessa,” I tell the nonexistent cat, feeling ridiculous.
“No results,” the cat says instantly, with a touch of boredom.
“Take that, Quinn,” I say. But, for some reason, I still don’t feel relieved, only frustrated.
The cat begins purring loudly. This seems to be a notification. “Rendering complete. Your augmented home is now ready. All updates were successful.”
Augmented what? I wonder. “Show me the updates.”
“Of course. Follow me.” The cat leaps down from the sink, and lands gracefully on the tile below. Then, like a cartoon ghost, it walks straight through the closed bathroom door.
I follow, but when I open the door, I am no longer in my home.
I stand in an outdoor courtyard. There, outlined in the light from the open door of the half-bath, are clay walls that rise and rise, reaching up to an open night sky full of stars. Under my feet, a floor of brick, with grasses growing in the seams. The music of trickling water, and in the distance, a fountain. Flecks of moonlight reflect off the water.
I remove the smartglasses, and I’m back in the kitchen. Glasses on again, I recognize the hidden symmetries: the walls stand in the same spots, though in the courtyard they reach much higher. The counter, too, is there in the courtyard, but re-textured in rough stone, with a rustic sink in the middle. I reached out and turn the sink on, feeling the cold water stream out over my palm, my lizard-brain convinced that it is actually coming from an old rusted tap.
It is all the same, but it is all different, all augmented.
Though “augmentation” maybe isn’t strong enough a word. This is transmutation, metamorphosis. No wonder Blake never takes these babies off. But why has he never said anything about this? Why keep these augmented wonders to himself?
Across the courtyard, I catch the green glow of the cat’s eyes. It stands beneath a stone archway, where the entry to the living room should be. “Meow,” it says, a reminder to follow. So, these aren’t the updates. So, there is more.
I follow, my heart in my throat. I step through the archway and am transported to an Italianate parlor. “Lights on,” I whisper. The room’s layout is identical to our humble living room, but the furnishings are transformed, with mahogany and shining leather and gold adornment everywhere. Nonexistent balconies hang overhead with ornate railings, framing a nonexistent domed roof covered in frescoes.
Wow. These augmentations are freaking unreal. How much work has Blake put into all this? Maybe this is what has pulled Blake out of my orbit. Not another woman, but this home augmentation, this cyber-renovation, this digital décor. The trickle of relief surges, becomes a steady flow.
Stepping close to the fireplace, I notice that hanging above the mantle is a large painting—an abstract, beautiful and dark and unsettling.
After a moment, I realize that this abstract is covering the family portrait. The one I did myself. The one I gave to Blake on his birthday this year, where I have on his favorite dress, and Zora has the fancy bun and an amazing gap-toothed smile. Any relief I was feeling is choked off. I touch my stomach because I’m so confused and hurt it makes me a little nauseous. What the hell, Blake?
The cat meows, sounding impatient. Even its moods are convincingly catlike. My mind churning, I follow the cat into the hallway at the back of the house. The hallway is not augmented, which at this point, is more comforting than it is disappointing. Yes, the augmentations are beyond fantastic, but it’s nice to feel like I’m back in my actual home.
The cat strides halfway down the hall and stops. “Here are your updates.”
The cat vanishes through the wall, then pops its head back through. “Wall render completed.”
I can’t believe I missed it. The door to my office, where I work all day, and hang out most of the night. Blake has just augmented it out of existence. “What the?” I step to the not-door. On the wall that swallowed the door hangs another painting—another abstract, this one even stranger, a chaotic battling of reds and near-blacks. Like something painted by a monster.
“A monster,” I mouth, stumbling onto a memory.
Blake never calls her Vanessa.
I try her special, ridiculous nickname.
“Search all files for Nessie.”
“More than 500 results,” the cat says, yawning.
The cat curls up in the antique chair in the corner, the one Blake always complains about, but hasn’t deleted—not yet, anyway. I walk over and sit on top of the cat. But the cat just pops up, unruffled, on my lap.
“Show me the results, all of them,” I demand. “And get the hell off my lap.”
I read and re-read the archived messages until the sun comes up. Vanessa initiated, about a year ago. Blake resisted and resisted, then gave in. He described, in shattering detail, what he would do to Vanessa “if we were alone” and “if I didn’t have a ring.” Then, suddenly, Blake stopped responding. Much later, he wrote back, saying that her messages were inappropriate, that they could never act on this, that it wasn’t worth it, that they couldn’t destroy their families.
After I read it all, I shut my eyes. My teeth are clenched so hard my jaw aches. What a prick. What a prick and a coward.
The cat is sleeping across my slippers. I kick it away and stand on wobbling legs, then march upstairs.
The instant he sits up in bed and sees me wearing his smartglasses, Blake breaks. He apologizes and apologizes. He cops to the messages and swears he never touched Vanessa, not physically. He planned to tell me everything, honestly he had, but never found the right moment. The thing with my office, he admits, looks bad. But it was just an experiment. Same with the portrait, everything. “I was just playing with the software, that’s all. I mean, you’ve seen it. It’s going to change the world!”
I throw the smartglasses on the bed. “You’ve replaced our home, our whole life together, with these sick fantasies!”
Quickly, too quickly, he lunges for the glasses.
I see his desperation, fall over him, and snatch the glasses back.
“You don’t understand what you’re seeing,” he snaps. He grabs my arm and pulls me backwards, fingers prying as he tries to muscle the glasses away.
“Stop it, Blake! You’re hurting me!”
There is a snap and, for a split second, his grip loosens. I break free and hurry into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. Blake pounds on the door so hard I’m afraid it will break. I stand before the mirror, take a breath, and put on the glasses, which hang crookedly, the frame bent on one side.
There in the mirror, wearing the broken glasses and my wrinkled pajamas, stands Vanessa. She looks awful, like she hasn’t slept. Like she has seen a ghost.
I touch my face. In the mirror, Vanessa touches her own.
I have been augmented out of my own home, my own family.
“Get out,” I growl, when Blake gives up trying to break down the door.
“You can’t just kick me out,” he spits. “I live here too.”
“No, you don’t,” I say. “No, you really, really don’t.”
Following a dark impulse, I take off my pajamas. I watch in the mirror as Vanessa takes off her own. I confirm that everything, every private detail, has been augmented. We stare at each other, exposed.
Through the locked door walks the cat, unperturbed by the drama, the family falling apart around it. It swirls around my feet, tail swishing.
“Here kitty kitty,” I say. “Can you take a screenshot? Capture what I see as an image file?”
“Of course,” says the cat. I hear a click and a small, still image of the unclothed Vanessa appears at the upper-left corner of my vision.
“Please, Kenzie. Don’t do anything you’re going to regret,” Blake pleads, under the door. His rage has boiled off. He sounds defeated, broken, pathetic.
He thinks I’m going to send the image to Vanessa. He thinks I’m after petty revenge.
“Send image to my wife, to Kenzie,” I say. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with it, but somehow, someday I want to turn it into art. I want to turn this hideous, heartbreaking, world-shattering moment into something beautiful. It may be years from now, but someday this image, transformed, will hang on my wall.
First, though, I want some petty revenge.
After all, I’m already a horrible, sneaky, privacy-invading, mistrustful bitch.
“Cat, make a video call to Nessie. Share my screen or whatever. I want her to see what I see. Make it a conference call with Dav and Cyan. Quinn too. I want them all to see. Know what, let’s stream this live on my social media. I want the whole world to see my amazing augmentations.”
© 2020, Erich Alan Werner