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Sarah saw the advertisement displayed in rolling text across the Posterview Public Library's announcement billboard one evening in June while she was sliding an overdue book into the drop slot. Not many people read physical books nowadays, but Sarah always had a soft spot for them. She said she liked the smell, said that if a book didn't have that old paper scent, the story itself lost something. I miss that Sarah, but it would cost me 94,597 dollars a month to have her back.
Sarah was a short girl with freckles and toned muscles from her skating years, but she was never happy with her body. I can't say I ever understood it. I loved her body, every inch of it. I guess the opinions of your husband don't count when someone drops the opportunity to look like those stick-thin models from the media into your lap.
In any case, we discussed the idea of her going into Nanotite Incorporated that night after she got back from returning the book. The debate ended with her in tears, slamming the door. I don't remember what I said that made her so upset.
The next day, she hopped a cab to Nanotite's consultation clinic and I didn't see her until the evening.
When she stepped through the door as a brunette, I thought maybe I had left the house unlocked and someone thought they could sneak in and rob us. She looked nothing like the Sarah I married. For one thing, she was tall, at least 5'9". I never liked tall women. When I yelled at her to get out of my house, she turned around and giggled at me. Her appearance may have changed, but her voice was the same. I hadn't known how much I liked her voice until that moment, the moment when that voice seemed to be the only thing that resembled the woman I fell in love with.
"What do you think?" She asked and twirled around, then paused. "Well?"
"You're beautiful," I lied. I missed her freckles. I gave her a hug for the sake of being convincing, which was awkward because she was now taller than I was, but she was all smiles. I didn't have it in me to tell her what I really thought of her new look.
She spent the night humming and singing and cooking us dinner. She said it was to make up for starting a fight but I knew she was cooking because that's what she does whenever she gets her way. Even so, I'm never one to turn down one of Sarah's meals. I'm just not dumb enough not to know it's how she gets me to forgive her. This time it was just spaghetti, but it was saucy and smooth on my palate with just a touch of a garlicky aftertaste. Delicious, as usual, and it soothed a lot of the resentment I had towards her decision. In any case, at that point, Sarah still seemed like herself, even if her appearance was completely different. I thought I could get over the change, get used to it. After all, it was only physical. But I was wrong. I didn't know what she'd really signed up for. Our lighthearted conversation at dinner was the unlikely preface to a situation neither of us could afford to fix.
It first happened at work, of all places. I'm not exactly the most organized guy out there and I forgot my lunch. I was prepared to go and buy something from the deli across the street, but, as I was leaving, Sarah came up and handed my forgotten lunch to me in a brown paper bag with a smirk and a healthy dose of sarcasm. She had paused her day just to bring it to me.
"Thanks honey," I said.
"You're welcome," said Sarah before she turned around, locked eyes with the company logo displayed in white across our entranceway and went off on a tangent, "Ufac: Manufacturing the Future! Ufac provides businesses both large and small with the technology they need to expand their user interface. Call 777-860-2248 to speak to one of our representatives or to arrange a meeting with our production staff. Have a splendid day!"
An unsettled feeling swelled in my gut but I told myself that she must have been joking, even though her jokes had never sounded anything like that before. For one thing, they were usually funny. This was just disturbing. I asked her to explain herself and she asked me what it was she should be explaining. When I tried to tell her that she had gone off on a marketing spiel for Ufac, she talked me in circles until we forgot what the issue was in the first place.
Determined to get to the bottom of it, I went back to my office and called the number she had spewed at me during her rambling campaign. A woman picked up the phone.
"Nanotite Incorporated," she said in a nasal tone, sounding somehow both put-off and enthusiastically professional. "Ufac division. How may I help you today?"
"What did you do to my wife?"
"My wife. She just blurted out something that sounded like an advertisement for Ufac. What did you do to her?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I don't understand. If you would like to place an appointment with Ufac or Nanotite Incorporated, I would be happy to help you with that."
"Fine. Make me a damn appointment."
There was shifting and whispering that I could barely make out and then, "May I have a name, sir?"
I humored her, "Allen Garfold."
"I'm sorry," she said without a beat, "But there won't be any openings until next Thursday, the 28th. Five o'clock in the morning is the earliest I can do. Will that be satisfactory?"
Instead of throwing the phone across the room like I wanted to, I gripped it so tight I thought it would shatter and gritted my teeth while I said, "That's fine. I will see you then." I added "you whore" under my breath but she had already hung up on me.
I spent the next few minutes searching for Nanotite Incorporated's location on my work headset, not caring that my boss would probably dock my pay for searching something personal on company time. I found out that Nanotite couldn't have been more than five minutes from Ufac, just off Lennet Farm Road, by the financial district. Deciding I probably wouldn't get any real answers if I stormed the place, I opted to wait out the week and hope whatever they did to Sarah was reversible.
She went into an ad-rant three more times in between my phone conversation with Nanotite and the Thursday of my meeting. One of them was for The Big I, an augmented reality firm that began as language-learning software. Another was praising NeuNista's new clothing line, and the last was an advertisement for Nanotite Incorporated itself, in all its cosmetic glory. Apparently, Nanotite had new hairstyles available for download. I hadn't known beauty was downloadable in the first place.
On Thursday, I marched into Nanotite's office at four forty five in the morning and sat in their postmodern waiting room with my arms crossed and my eyes fixed in a perpetual glare at the digital clock that sunk into the wall above the secretary at the front desk. The secretary was well-dressed and blonde with proud, high cheekbones, but I think I made her nervous because she spent ten minutes fidgeting with her scarf and the other five minutes sorting and reorganizing the same twelve documents of paperwork. The display wall on my right played an overly large graphic of a stoutly woman with red, scraggly hair as she transformed into a tall, thin, straight-haired brunette with a shining smile. The graphic looped itself eight times. I tapped my foot.
"Mister Garfold?" Five minutes late, a woman with a nametag that boasted Senior Representative called my name. She held a paper-thin silver clipboard with a stylus under its clip and she beckoned me into her office with a curl of her index finger. "Come on in."
I went on in, sourly. She gestured to a chair and I sat. The office was smaller than I expected, but it also sported door-sized windows with a view of the interstate that arched across the horizon, two plush chairs and a glass desk. In the authoritative spirit of the room, I tried to make myself look bigger by keeping my arms crossed over my chest. I can't say it helped any because Miss Senior Representative didn't seem fazed.
"Now, what can I do for you today, Mister Garfold?" She sat with perfect posture and crossed legs, red peep-toe heels accentuating her stilt-long silhouette. I wasn't impressed. Like I said before, I hate tall women.
"You people did something to my wife. I want you to fix it."
"Oh, Mister Garfold." She laughed at me, trying to clear the glacier-thick tension growing between us. "This must be a misunderstanding. Your wife signed a contract with us. She wanted the procedure." Leaning in, she added, "Unless there was a malfunction of some kind. Is that what you're here to report?"
"There damn well was a malfunction!" I must have spoken too loudly because the secretary in the other room leaned far from her chair to peek into the office. Miss Senior Representative smiled a warning at her and the secretary nearly toppled out of her chair. She immediately got back to whatever it was she was doing before, fiddling with the papers all over her desk, stacking and sorting them sporadically. Any idiot could tell she was still eavesdropping. Miss Senior Representative cleared her throat, returning her attention to me.
"What was the nature of this malfunction?"
I stood because I couldn't stand sitting any longer and uncrossed my arms.
She remained seated.
"Look," I said and cracked my knuckles, feeling powerful now that my eye level was above hers. "My wife got a consultation with you about a week-and-a-half ago and now it seems like she's some sort of… I don't even know! It's like she's a walking advertisement! I don't know what you did to her, but you better fix it, quick." I narrowed my eyes, hoped to be intimidating. I don't think it worked too well. Miss Senior Representative had a temperament made of hard plastic.
"Is that all this is about?" She said, "That's not a problem, it's a feature of the system."
I felt my face scrunch in confusion.
She switched her crossed feet, opened her arms.
"Mister Garfold, please. Now, I'm positive this is all just confusion about the contract. The Auto-Ad Response is an integral part of our nanotechnology. Without it, our business wouldn't function. Here, let me show you."
I slouched, bewildered as she poked the surface of her desk. When I glanced down, I saw that the desktop, which I thought had been constructed of glass, was actually a touchscreen input device. She nodded at one of the windowpanes as it flickered to an image of some kind of spindly metal contraption.
"This is a nanobot," she explained. "The display here is an enlarged image. In actuality, they're too small for the human eye to detect." She waited for a moment, giving me time to mull this over before she continued. "The procedure your wife underwent involved injecting these nanobots into her biological systems. It's the same procedure all of our clients undergo and, I can assure you, it's completely harmless and painless."
I tried to wrap my mind around the idea but it got twisted into a knot somewhere along the way. I found myself swallowing repeatedly as I squinted at the nanobot image. The fact that Sarah, my Sarah, had actually agreed to any of this was forcing bile up my esophagus.
Miss Senior Representative either didn't notice or didn't care. She went on to explain that the Auto-Ad Response, or AAR as they call it, was a mechanism programmed into the nanobots to help promote affiliates of Nanotite Incorporated. It was merely a business arrangement. She also told me that for "a reasonable monthly payment" the AAR could be set on standby.
"How much," I interrupted her. She stopped midsentence.
"Pardon?" Her index finger was still suspended in the air, pointing to a zoomed-in part of the nanobot. She had gotten out of her seat at some point during her spiel and stood at least a head taller than me. I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me uncomfortable.
"How much are the monthly payments?"
"$94,597 for the full standby," she answered promptly.
I stumbled in shock, nearly falling backward over my chair. I mean, who could possibly have such an excess of money to spend each month? Definitely not me; I was middle management at a factory for God's sake! Miss Senior Representative grimaced but masked it by turning the corners of her lips determinedly upward.
"Is that a problem, Mister Garfold?"
"No," I said dazedly. I twisted the chair back into balance so it wouldn't topple over and cleared my throat, pleading, "Isn't there a way I can just cancel this whole thing? Can't you reverse the procedure somehow?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to take that up with your wife, Mister Garfold. She's the one who signed the contract."
Needless to say, there was no getting out of it. The meeting ended with me leaving flustered and the secretary wishing me a "beautiful day."
My wife confided in me later that the procedure itself had been free but was "an investment" and therefore irreversible. She told me she could still change her appearance based on downloadable heights, skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles from NON, the Nanotite Online Network. Unfortunately, the downloadable features cost just as much as the negation of the AAR. I was angry with her and with Nanotite for a long time after that.
I suppose I've gotten used to it now, though. Sarah and I are still living with each other and, even though I haven't been able to rekindle my physical attraction to her, her personality hasn't changed that much. She still has plenty of snarky comments about politics, still blinks a lot when she gets embarrassed and still twirls her index fingers in and out of each other when she's deep in thought. She's still my Sarah and I still love her.
But whenever she sees Ufac's logo, or a NeuNista tag on a new pair of jeans, or hears a song by Evangaline Featherworth, who was recently sponsored by Nanotite, the AAR is triggered and I can't help but cringe at her robotic, spokesperson tone during those times, when the Sarah I knew from college, the shorter Sarah who didn't take crap from anyone and painted her nails red to match her fiery hair, seems to have vanished beneath this superimposed, brunette "beauty."