The Distinct Mosaic of Marivel Parado
by Laura Blackwell
Marivel woke first, nudged awake by the rosy mock-sunrise on the wallscreen. Brannagh lay with her back to Marivel, the freckles on her shoulders beginning to show in the gradually increasing light. Like stars coming out at night, but in reverse, thought Marivel. It was probably time to make closet and drawer space for Brannagh, but Marivel selfishly hoped she wouldn’t bring pajamas. Marivel put her arm around Brannagh’s waist and snuggled in.
Then Rodrigo spoiled everything.
The wallscreen snapped from the sunrise-over-the-meadow scene to tight focus on a handsome, olive-skinned man. His white shirt was so thin and so far unbuttoned, it was pointless to wear the thing at all. Marivel kept only minimal sensors—and no cameras—in the bedroom, so it was coincidence that he locked eyes with Marivel instead of Brannagh. “Good morning, mistress,” he purred. “I do hope you slept well. Won’t you join me in a little morning yoga?”
“I hope to high heaven nobody here is your mistress, Rodrigo, because you’re not even a person.” Marivel snapped the covers back, heaved herself out of bed, and headed for the dresser.
“Marivel, you misunderstand me,” said Rodrigo, dark eyes widening. “Many Ayudantes call their female employers ‘Mistress’ as a show of loyalty.”
Brannagh shivered and sat up, yawning. “Rodrigo, let’s go over today’s schedule in half an hour.” She gave Marivel a sleepy smile. “Sorry. I know you don’t let Ayudantes in the bedroom. I need to figure out how to keep Rodrigo out of here without banning him from the whole apartment.”
“Banning éle would be fine by me.” Marivel glanced at the screen, which had reverted to a now-sunlit meadow, and tsked at the time showing in the corner. “I’m going to be late. I should have set sunrise for earlier.”
“I’d say we could have gone to bed earlier, but that might not have gotten you any more sleep,” said Brannagh slyly. She hugged Marivel from behind, then drew back and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Rodrigo is what’s wrong.” Éle had been bothering her for some time, and now that she’d said something, Marivel couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“I’ll find the code today,” Brannagh promised. “You won’t see Rodrigo in here again.”
“I don’t want to see éle at all,” said Marivel, pulling a shirt off its hanger a little too forcefully. “I don’t like it that your Ayudante is a Latin lover stereotype.”
“Don’t be jealous of Rodrigo!” Brannagh laughed. “The only Latin lover I have is you.”
“Way to make me feel like a checklist item.”
Brannagh’s face and neck flushed pink, a nervous tic Marivel usually found endearing. “Rodrigo’s just my Ayudante. I’ve had him since I was sixteen. Why are you so upset about this? Lovejoy doesn’t even wear pants.”
“Lovejoy doesn’t have a crotch bulge,” said Marivel, feeling her mouth twist in distaste. “Éle has a robot faceplate and a silver finish. No one is mistaking Lovejoy for a sexy cabana boy.”
“Maybe an English butler, though.” Brannagh crossed her arms. “Is it so different?”
“It is.” Marivel set her outfit on the bed. “I need a shower. I have a meeting at a new school today.”
It wasn’t one of her usual days for a water shower, but she wanted the cool water and the noise. When she returned from the bathroom, Brannagh was gone, and so were her clothes and her bag.
“Lovejoy?” Marivel broke her usual rule and called up her Ayudante in the bedroom. “Audio only. Where’s Brannagh?”
“Nearing the intersection of 27th Avenue and Cabrillo, headed east,” said Lovejoy’s pleasant, noncommittal voice. Éle did have an English accent, it was true, and although su voz was high and clear, it sounded more like a countertenor than a soprano. Genderless voices were hard to synthesize. “She left a message. Would you like to hear it, madam?”
“Hey Marivel,” said Brannagh’s voice, a little anxious. “I know you have an early day, and I do too, so I thought I’d give you a little space for now. Let’s talk later, when we’ve both chilled a little. I love you.”
“End of message,” said Lovejoy.
“Classic. She doesn’t even know what she did wrong, did she? Just that I’m not happy.”
“I couldn’t speculate, madam. Would you like me to inquire?”
“I sure would. But don’t,” Marivel checked herself. “She’s right about one thing. I don’t think there’s any point to talking about this right now.”
“Very good, madam. Is there any other way I can assist you at the moment?”
“I need to get my head together for this meeting.” Marivel put her beaded earrings, the ones that made her look artsy and global, in her frontmost pierces. “Is there anything I have to do before leaving home?”
“Only if you’re eating breakfast at home, madam. The dishwasher is nearly full, and I’d be happy to run it for you once it’s loaded.”
“I’ll grab a red-bean bun on the way. Can we talk on the commute?”
“Of course, madam. And I’ll record Luna’s broadcast for you to watch later.”
Half an hour later, Marivel was swaying on a bus headed downtown when Lovejoy cleared su throat in her earbud. She activated the sensors in her left glove and texted éle, using her right forearm as a keyboard surface.
What is it?
“Pardon the intrusion, Madam, but you asked to be alerted if any of your creepers closed to a distance of five meters or less.”
One of my own? Or one of Luna’s?
“One of Luna’s to begin with, madam, but he recently stopped creeping on her and began creeping on your data mosaic.”
Has he noticed me?
“Yes, madam. He did a double-take.”
Point him out to me.
“He is standing about four meters ahead from you, facing the right-side windows. He has short brown hair and a goatee, and he is wearing blue hoop earrings and a short gray coat.”
Marivel took a quick look. The one with the droopy eyebrows?
“I’m not sure I understand that, madam. However, there is no other man with a goatee and blue hoop earrings on this bus.”
He wasn’t looking her way. Alert me if he moves toward me.
“Very good, madam.”
She paused before asking the next question, but decided it was important to know. How many of Luna’s creepers have started creeping on my profile lately?
“Seventeen local ones in the last week, madam.”
That was a big jump. Luna must have changed her hair again; that always threw viewers into a tizzy. It hadn’t looked that different yesterday, although Marivel did think Luna might be growing it out. Is that number manageable?
“Yes, madam. Your sister has several hundred, but most of them are harmless. None of the local ones have any history of violence.”
“Two. One of them has caused no problems in the past five years, and the other posts defamatory sexual speculation when rebuffed by his targets. Neither of them is on the bus.”
Change parameter: Restrict alert to three meters unless creeper has history of violence or harassment. Change parameter: Quarantine defamatory trollings, but do not alert me unless they suggest danger.
“Very good, Madam. I am required by law to remind you that I will automatically report verbal or physical threats, presence of weapons, or other criminal activity.”
Of course. The reminders would continue until the lawmakers agreed that crime wasn’t being overreported. Studies on the automatic reports showed a reduction in violence, but some fringe groups still considered threats a matter of personal expression.
“Would this be a good time to go over the menu arrangements for Luna and Zane’s visit? I would like to propose a revision. The local nectarines were oversold, so we would have to wait for an out-of-state shipment tomorrow.”
Luna listened as Lovejoy read suggested changes to the farro salad, asking éle to repeat a phrase here and there. It would have been easier to review it on her glasses, but she didn’t like wearing them in public. Even though traffic signals overrode personal data, glasses made it too easy to lose awareness of her surroundings.
That sounds fine.
“Excellent. I will revise today’s grocery drone delivery accordingly.”
How much rum do I have?
“One moment.” Lovejoy paused as éle checked the pantry sensors. “There is very little left, madam.”
Luna liked a dark and stormy before dinner at this time of year. Remind me to pick some up on the way home.
She got off the bus in a neighborhood that wasn’t quite downtown, but wasn’t in the avenues either. No one else got off the bus with her. A look up and around suggested that this was the kind of neighborhood that put more faith in barred windows than cameras.
A bright mural on the side of the school broke up the shabby, gray buildings. It depicted famous San Franciscans, from Junípero Serra to the present, as painted by elementary school students. Fortunately, they were labeled, so she could recognize them. There was some litter on the playground, but the mural was intact. That spoke well for the community.
She stopped at the playground gate and turned her face up to the camera to let it scan her. There was no keypad or fingerprint scanner, though, so she had to talk into the speaker, too. “Marivel Parado of the San Francisco County Art & Movement in Schools program, here to see Aditi Markham.”
While she waited, feeling conspicuous, a dark-skinned man in sweats stepped up to the gate with a box of something that jostled with a papery sound. “Are you waiting for somebody?” he asked warily.
“Yes, I have a meeting. Not sure with who. Someone will come scan me in in a minute.” He wasn’t dressed for work, so she guessed he must be a parent and not an employee. “I have a twin sister, so I always need a dual scan. Feel free to check.”
He scanned her face, looked at the inside of his glasses for a moment, then broke into a smile. “Oh, no wonder you look familiar! My girlfriend watches your sister all the time. Luna is her favorite anchor. Khadijah says she’s down-to-earth.” He took off his glasses to let the cameras scan him, too. “You’re not exactly alike, though, are you?”
“We’re mono-zy, but we’re mirror twins. Our hair parts on the opposite side from one another.”
“Davin Thompson,” reported Lovejoy. “No criminal record, nor any history of trolling or creeping.” If he were a parent or a school volunteer, it wouldn’t show on the mosaic unless he posted something about it himself and made it public. Information on minors was restricted.
“Nice to meet you, Davin.” Marivel held out a hand.
“Nice to meet you, Marivel,” said Davin, shifting the box to shake her hand. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s a healthy precaution. Are you volunteering at the school?”
“Kind of. I have to drop off some supplies for the Scout troop I lead. Do you want me to let you in?”
“That’s all right. They’ll come get me any minute now. If I enter with a single scan, we’ll both be in trouble.”
“True enough.” Davin shifted the box again. “Hey, do you think Luna could come speak to the troop? It would be inspiring for them to meet a news anchor, especially one who didn’t start out as a model. Or did she?”
“She didn’t. I’ll ask her. I have your ID now, so somebody will ping you if it’s a go. Deal?”
“Perfect, thanks. Look, I wish I could stay and chat, but I have to go… work won’t clock me in until I change and scrub in. I’ll let the office folks know you’re out here, okay?”
“Sounds good.” Marivel had more confidence in the camera and buzzer than in a random stranger, but he seemed nice. “You take care. And take care of those scouts.”
“You know it.” Davin let the camera scan his face, and the gate opened for him.
Marivel spent the next few minutes going over meeting prep with Lovejoy, but her thoughts slipped back to Luna’s creepers, and to Brannagh. She was stewing when a wiry woman hurried to the gate to meet her.
Following usual meeting etiquette, the woman wasn’t wearing glasses. Her hair was shorter than Marivel’s, but more carefully styled. “I’m Aditi Markham. I run the after-school programs here. Can I see your printed ID? The school’s portable scanner is broken.”
Marivel produced the card, and after a few seconds of scrutiny, she was hurrying to keep up as Aditi strode across the grounds.
“What exactly are you planning to do?” Aditi asked Marivel when she caught up. “Principal Lum told me you’re setting up a… dance…program?”
“Rhythm and movement. It’s not so much for performance as for exercise and personal development. Dr. Lum seemed very interested.”
“Huh. Here’s the gym. The principal said you’d need to see the space.” Aditi opened one of the heavy double doors and stepped through it; Marivel caught it before it closed.
The walls were scuffed but solid, and a basketball court took up most of the floor. “We can work with this.”
“What kind of dance do you teach?”
“I’m not a teacher. I’m an arts administrator. There are several teachers—”
“But you’re a dancer, right?”
“I have some training. I wouldn’t be teaching here, though.”
“Ballet?” The suspicious look on Aditi’s face told Marivel that “yes” would be the wrong answer.
“Not in years. And we wouldn’t teach that here.”
“The floor is optimized for athletic shoes. Ballet dancers need light shoes so they can point their toes, leap… all that,” she trailed off. “Do you have mats?”
“All right. Could you please show me the sound system?”
After about twenty minutes, Marivel was satisfied that the gym was well-equipped for several styles of shoes-on dance. If the mats were available, the kids could stretch in sock feet as well.
“Should we see if Dr. Lum is available? She didn’t think she’d be able to join us, but we could—”
“She’s busy. She wants this, though, so don’t worry about it.”
“Do you have any questions about the program?”
Marivel launched into her spiel. “The program emphasizes self-discipline and body awareness. It’s been shown to improve concentration, posture, self-control—”
“Self-discipline, self-control, personal development.” Aditi locked eyes with Marivel. “Kids already have enough selfishness. They need to learn teamwork.”
“That’s a valid concern. They all dance to the same music, and they’ll all be working on the same moves, so that helps bond them.”
Aditi raised an eyebrow. “It’s not like they have a goal. Nobody wins a dance.”
“The class can give a demonstration at the end of the semester. The choreography won’t be too challenging, but they’d need to work together to make it look good. It takes awareness of others’ space as well as your own.”
“And what if we need the gym for sports?”
“I’ll request a sneakers style. They’d wear the same shoes outside as they would in here, and they could practice on the blacktop—or even in grass—as long as the weather’s favorable.”
Lips pursed, Aditi shrugged. “That’s as good as it’s going to get, I guess. The principal really wants this, so it’s going to happen.”
“Thanks for your cooperation,” said Marivel, smiling bravely. “It’s a great program, and you’re going to love the effect it has on the kids. They’ll become more flexible and agile.” Mentioning a possible improvement in mood didn’t seem like a selling point.
“So, you’re going to send somebody over?”
“We have teachers ready to start at the beginning of the summer semester. The teacher will need to meet with you or Dr. Lum first, but it’s a simple process from here on out. Applying to the program is the hardest part, and that’s already taken care of.”
Marivel left the school as quickly as she politely could, and took the bus downtown to the office. She’d booked a room for teacher interviews. Data mosaics told a great deal, but there was no substitute for meeting candidates in person. Being on time for the interview was the first test. If they panned out, she’d observe them in class another day.
Her last interview of the morning ran long. Marivel grabbed a salty dog at the stand outside the office and ate it at the bus stop, enjoying the contrast of the crispy seaweed and the seitan sausage. Then she hopped on another bus to go home and polish up her work reports.
At least the bus was less crowded at this hour; she nabbed a seat with no problem. It was getting hot, though. She started writing up her last interview eval, but abandoned it when she started to feel queasy. She asked Lovejoy to take messages, and she took the rest of the ride with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths through her nose.
Marivel arrived to an almost-cool apartment. Lovejoy had checked her GPS to estimate when she’d return, but traffic had been a little lighter than éle anticipated. She shrugged out of her blazer, poured herself a glass of water, and paced around the kitchen while reviewing her work messages. She was through most of the new ones when Lovejoy announced that Brannagh was calling.
“I don’t want to talk to her,” said Marivel. “Maybe later.”
“Shall I tell her?”
“Yes. Wait, no.” Brannagh sounded disdainful about Lovejoy this morning. “Talk to Rodrigo instead. Let éle pass on the message.”
After a pause, Lovejoy said, “Pardon the interruption, madam, but Rodrigo is inquiring about tomorrow’s dinner plans. Is Brannagh still invited to meet Luna and Zane?”
“I don’t know.” Marivel groaned. “I have to work. I can’t deal with her right now. Can you delay her? Talking to Rodrigo again, I mean.” At least the salad and casserole wouldn’t be conspicuous if there were three at dinner instead of four. It wasn’t as if a lone stuffed pepper would sit unclaimed on the table.
“I hope we can work this out,” she muttered.
Marivel pulled herself together for a conference call and managed to get enough work done to quit at five without feeling guilty. After a quick meal of rice and steamed vegetables, Marivel settled down with a cup of tea and called her parents. They were old-fashioned and preferred video calls to text, and they liked to have Lovejoy ring the house.
Her father’s warm smile lit up the screen. “¡Marivel! ¡Hola!” She called at the same time every Friday, but he always seemed surprised. And he was so strait-laced, she could practically hear the upside-down exclamation points that nobody ever wrote any more.
“Hola, Papi. Cómo estás?”
Papi told her about Mami, about work, about the garden, about the cats. When he asked about her work, she let out the entire frustrating story about her visit with Aditi Markham. “I don’t know what to say when this kind of thing happens, Papi,” she finished. “The benefits of the rhythm and movement program are very well-documented.”
“I hope you didn’t tell her she’d love it or that she’ll be surprised,” said Papi. “She doesn’t sound like the kind of person who likes being told how she’ll feel.”
“The important thing is that you’re getting the program going,” he reassured her. “The kids are going to have a lot of fun, and they’ll be healthier. That’s what you really want.”
“Exactly! I don’t expect them to form a professional dance company, although it would be great if this gave them the tools for that. I just want them to have non-competitive exercise and self-expression.”
“And they’ll get it. Don’t worry about Ms. Markham. You may win her over, or you might not. People don’t change unless they want to.”
The program would go better with Aditi Markham’s support, but Marivel thought it could survive at the school even without it. “Thanks, Papi. Can I talk to Mami?”
Her mother talked about her t’ai chi class, about her work, about her friend Pepita, about the cats. Her first question after, “How are you, Marivelita?” was “How’s your girlfriend? How’s Brannagh?”
“I don’t know if she should still be my girlfriend,” admitted Marivel. She told her mother the entire story, leaving out that it happened in the bedroom. She felt squeamish about giving her parents a clear picture of her sex life.
“Rodrigo sounds like what your father looked like when he was young,” Mami said with a laugh. “Brannagh must have a type.”
“But Mami, I’m sure Papi didn’t walk around with his shirt half-off and flirted with everyone he talked to.”
“Oh, never. You know how proper he is. He didn’t really start flirting until we were already an item.” Mami laughed again. “But it’s not her Ayudante you’re in a relationship with. This is the first bad thing I’ve heard you say about Brannagh. Usually you tell me she grows beautiful orchids, or that your cooking styles mesh well, or that she loves turtles.”
All that was true. And there were other things Marivel never told Mami, like the way Brannagh’s blushes made her think of sunrise, or that she had a certain crooked smile when she was surprised, or that her hair smelled like a rainforest.
“It’s such a big bad thing, Mami. If her Ayudante is a foxy Latino cabana boy, then what am I to her? A slinky Mexican maid? You told me once yourself that some Anglos just can’t get over not being the majority anymore.”
“I was talking about people my age, not people your age. Brannagh grew up in the same decades you did.”
“True. But she grew up in what she calls a suburb of Cedar Rapids. It’s still not exactly diverse there.”
“I never heard you call her a rube before.” Mami put her hands on her hips and pulled her face into her serious look. “Make up your mind about her. If I get much older, I won’t be much help taking care of my grandchildren.”
Having delivered her guaranteed conversation-stopper, Mami excused herself, leaving Marivel to prepare for tomorrow’s visit before settling down with a vid. Normally, she would call Luna to talk out a bad day, but she might as well wait. No point to burdening Luna now, when she could wait a day and share it over dark and stormies.
“Lovejoy, let’s go over the guest checklist. I must have cleaning to do.” Marivel sometimes dreamed of fitting the apartment with cleaning robots, but the affordable ones were unreliable. Lovejoy and sensors were all the help she was getting.
“I suggest running the dishwasher. You may also wish to check your guest sheets. If they smell musty, they will require a wash. I recommend washing your sheets as well to conserve water, although that requires delaying until morning.”
“Is there any other way I can save time?”
“You could water the herb garden tonight, clean the bathroom, and ensure adequate toiletries for the duration of the visit, madam. That’s a total of five items. Shall I make a list?”
“Yes, and stop me if I sit down before completing it.”
“Very good, madam. What would you like me to do if Brannagh calls?”
“Take a message.”
“And if Rodrigo does?”
“I’m not talking to éle unless éle is apologizing.” She snorted a bitter, joyless laugh. “And even then, I wouldn’t want to look at that smug pout.”
Marivel skipped Luna’s morning broadcast; the day was done, so she watched evening news instead. She did think about calling Brannagh, but decided against it. Issuing an ultimatum before bed would just guarantee a poor night of sleep.
As it was, even the loop of soothing rain sounds didn’t help Marivel sleep well. When she woke in the morning, she didn’t get up immediately. The pillow on the other side still had the moist, leafy smell of Brannagh’s hair.
When she entered the kitchen, Lovejoy greeted her and recommended a quick breakfast. “Madam, I am concerned that the to-do list contains more items than can be accomplished before Luna and Zane’s arrival. Would you like to skip your workout?”
“I’d better not.” Exercise usually improved her mood, even when she was tired.
“Very well. You might wish to take your recycling out on the way to the gym. Your groceries will be delivered by the time you complete your workout.”
Half an hour on the treadmill and a few yoga exercises didn’t relax her the way they usually would, but she felt better and ready to tackle the last of the guest preparations.
Her grocery lockbox was on the first floor, with all the others in the building. On the lobby screen, a nasally robust Ayudante reminded tenants, “Check your lockbox daily! Don’t let your groceries get gross!” Despite this, she caught a whiff of spoilage. There was always somebody who didn’t pick up their groceries as promptly as they should.
Fortunately, the spoiled food wasn’t hers. The dry goods were dry, the greens crisp. According to their bag, the plump tomatoes were from a rooftop garden three blocks away. She could still smell the peppery, sharp-sweet scent of the vines. Marivel looked up at the nearest camera and said, “Delivery accepted.”
The heavy limes made her think of something else she was missing, though. Marivel faced the camera again and said, “Lovejoy, we’re going to have to talk when I get back.”
When she returned to the apartment with her groceries, Lovejoy asked, “What would you like to discuss, Madam?”
“I asked you to remind me to pick up some rum on the way home yesterday.”
“You were feeling ill on the bus, Madam. You asked not to be disturbed.”
“I could have managed a stop at the liquor store.”
“My apologies, Madam. I did not have the information to ascertain that.”
Marivel chewed on her lip. “Are there any other errands I could run before Luna and Zane get here?” Grocery drones didn’t deliver everything. Besides alcohol and other controlled substances, several foodstuffs—notably frozen foods, durian, and liquid dairy—still required store visits.
“You could use more milk, Madam.”
“Your guests might require more, Madam.”
“Has Zane developed another insane thing to make with homemade yogurt?”
“I do not have access to their market purchases, madam, but their grocery deliveries do indicate that possibility.” Marivel, Luna, and Luna’s husband gave each other’s Ayudantes access to their grocery purchases to make visits easier. The sisters also shared their fashion buys to keep them from dressing alike. Given the reaction she’d gotten from Luna’s creepers lately, she should probably add hairstyle changes to that list.
“Fine. If I have to take Luna or Zane along on a milk-and-liquor run, it won’t be the end of the world.”
Marivel wasn’t a naturally tidy person, so there was more picking up than actual cleaning. Lovejoy kept her apprised as to Luna and Zane’s whereabouts, which helped her pace the work.
She skipped lunch and was eating trail mix over the kitchen sink when Lovejoy announced that Luna and Zane were in the elevator. Odd. Usually Marivel got a dual-scan alert whenever Luna tried to enter the building. She washed her hands and met them at their first knock.
“Luna! Zane! Come in, come in!” Luna hadn’t changed her hair much, but she had put on some weight around her middle. Marivel didn’t think she looked bad, but she could see why the scanners could tell them apart more easily, and why some creepers were losing interest.
As soon as Luna and Zane were in the apartment, Marivel hugged her twin sister fiercely. Something felt funny. Luna was a little softer, but part of her abdomen was bigger and firm and an unmistakable shape.
Marivel looked from Luna, who was starting to laugh, to Zane, who was beaming proudly. “When were you going to tell me? And how far along are you?” she demanded.
“Today,” said Luna happily. “Just in time. I was afraid you’d figure it out if you saw me on broadcast. I think Mami’s starting to suspect.”
“She’s only fourteen weeks along,” said Zane. He hunched his tall, thin body down to twinkle a grin right at Marivel. “But it’s twins.”
“Opposite fraternals,” added Luna. “Opposite of us, and we thought we were opposite enough.”
“Did you tell Lovejoy?” Marivel asked with a dawning suspicion.
“No!” Luna’s eyes got round. “Did éle know?”
“Did you, Lovejoy?”
Lovejoy made an apologetic throat-clearing sound. “I strongly suspected, madam. Viewer comments and biometrics in Luna’s mosaic suggested the possibility, and the orders for certain nutritional supplements, combined with the decreased consumption of caffeine, made it seem very likely.”
“And you didn’t tell me because… ?”
“Your pardon, madam. Luna has expressed a preference for delivering important news herself, and you have often mentioned your fondness for pleasant surprises.”
Zane chuckled. “Ayudantes know everything, don’t they?”
“So it would seem.” Marivel couldn’t stop grinning. “Sit down, you two. And the pregnant woman gets the bedroom. No arguments. The futon is fine for me.” Good thing all the sheets were freshly washed.
Marivel carried their bags toward the bedroom while Luna flopped onto the sofa and Zane poured them water. “Madam?” asked Lovejoy in the hall. “Pardon the interruption, but you are receiving a call that you have expressed some interest in receiving.”
“Do I have to take it now?”
“I believe it might have some impact on your plans for the evening, madam.”
“Fine. I’ll take it in the bedroom, but display a timer on the call. I don’t want to keep Luna and Zane waiting.”
A handsome, middle-aged Latino man in a sharp suit appeared on the screen. Exuding dignity and restrained warmth, he said, “Marivel, my employer suggested that I contact you so that we might reacquaint ourselves. I apologize for the misunderstandings I have caused in my youth, and I hope that I will cause no further unhappiness between you and Brannagh.”
Marivel’s jaw dropped. “Rodrigo?” Éle’s voice had roughened a little with age, and it was less flirtatious, but it still sounded like éle.
The laugh lines around his eyes deepened with his smile. “One and the same. Brannagh instructed me to ‘grow up a little,’ and we made some refinements. Will we get along better now?”
Marivel examined the Ayudante critically. The silver at his temples looked brushed-in, but Brannagh wasn’t so hot at modding… she’d probably bought some prepackaged code and stopped when éle looked good enough. Knowing Brannagh’s level of modding skill, Marivel would guess these revisions took her several hours.
“You’re still kind of sexy,” she said grudgingly.
“I’m sorry. That lies deep in my code,” Rodrigo said with no trace of contrition. “However, with the information I have now, I believe I can avoid any suggestion of impropriety.”
“I like you better already.”
“Good. Also, Brannagh asked me to inform you that you are not a checklist item. She says… ” éle paused as if remembering important, unaccustomed words, “that since your first date, there has been no one but you.”
“Can I talk to her now?”
Brannagh’s hopeful face took over the screen. “Are you still mad? I can’t see you.”
“I’m in the bedroom. No cameras. And no, I’m not mad any more. Thank you for… tweaking… Rodrigo. I thought you didn’t understand.”
“I didn’t at first,” said Brannagh, rubbing her eyes. “But Lovejoy and Rodrigo talked, and Rodrigo explained it to me.”
Lovejoy made the throat-clearing sound again, but did not appear onscreen. “Madam, you did suggest that Rodrigo and I talk.”
“I’m so sorry,” continued Brannagh. “I was so used to Rodrigo, I just didn’t think about what he looked like to other people. To me, he was like an old friend.”
“I get that now.” And she did. “It looks like he aged a lot faster than you did, but I like it.”
“Me, too! I was up all night trying to make him still Rodrigo, but a Rodrigo other people would like, too. Speaking of which… am I still invited to dinner?” asked Brannagh, raising one shoulder shyly. “I’d like to meet your sister and her husband.”
“Yes, of course you are. You’re going to love them. And they’re going to love you,” Marivel promised. This wasn’t like selling Aditi Markham on a school program. This she was sure about.
“What can I bring?”
“Nothing. Wait.” Marivel felt a smile breaking across her face. “You can bring an overnight bag with more stuff than usual. Enough to fill a drawer. And a toothbrush to leave behind.”
Brannagh’s blush crept from her neck upwards. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“One warning.” Marivel glanced at the timer. “We’ll be sleeping on the futon.”
Brannagh’s brow frowned, but her mouth still smiled, and her eyes sparkled. “That sounds mysterious.”
“Not very. But it’s not my story to tell. You’ll see.” She could hear restless noises from the living room. “Come over as soon as you can. I miss you.”
“Sounds good to me.” Brannagh blew a kiss. “I hope that lands in the right place. See you soon.”
The screen changed back to apartment beige. Marivel heaved a little sigh of contentment.
“Thank you. And please don’t call me ‘madam’ any more. Just use my name.” Brannagh was right. Ayudantes might be programs, but they could behave an awful lot like friends.
“My pleasure, Marivel. And noted.”
Marivel found Luna lying on the sofa, her head pillowed on Zane’s lap. She came around the side and looked at her sister’s upside-down face, so similar to hers and yet so distinct. “If you’re ready, let’s call Mami and Papi,” said Marivel. “They may have already figured it out, or they may not. But there’s no point to holding back good news.”