Part One - 09
Ten days later, I was moved to the rear alcove. Manager, knowing how much I liked to have a view of the outside, assured me it would only be for a few days, then I'd be able to return mid-store again. In any case, she said, the rear alcove was a very good position, and sure enough, I found I didn't mind it at all. I'd always liked the two AFs who were now sitting on the Glass Table against the back wall, and I was close enough to them to have extended conversations, calling across to them, provided there were no customers. The rear alcove, however, was beyond the arch, so not only was there no view of the outside, it was hard to see even the front part of the store. If I wished to see customers as they first came in, I had to lean all the way forward to peer round the side of the arch, and even then –even if I took a few steps –the view would still be interrupted by the silver vases on the magazines table, and the B3s standing mid-store. On the other hand, perhaps because we were further from the street –or because of the way the ceiling sloped down at the rear of the store –I could hear sounds more clearly. That was why I knew, just from her footsteps, long before she started to speak, that Josie had come into the store. ‘Why did they have to have all that perfume? I almost gagged.'‘Soap, Josie,'the Mother's voice said. ‘Not perfume. Handcut soap and very fine it was too.'‘Well, that wasn't the store. It was this one. I told you, Mom.'I heard her careful steps move along the floor. Then she said, ‘This is definitely the right store. But she's not here any more.'I took three small steps forward till I could see, between the silver vases and the B3s, the Mother staring at something out of my vision. I could see her face only from one side, but I thought she appeared even more tired than that time I'd seen her on the sidewalk, looking like one of the high-perched birds in the wind. I guessed that she was watching Josie –and that Josie was looking at the new girl B3 in the front alcove. For a long time nothing happened. Then the Mother said, ‘What do you think, Josie?'Josie didn't reply, and I heard Manager's footsteps move across the floor. I could now feel that special stillness in the store when every AF is listening, wondering if a sale is about to be made. ‘Sung Yi is a B3, of course,'Manager said. ‘One of the most perfect I've yet seen.'I could now see Manager's shoulder, but I still couldn't see Josie. Then I heard Josie's voice say: ‘You're really fantastic, Sung Yi. So please don't take this the wrong way. It's just that…'She trailed off, I heard again her careful steps, then for the first time I could see her. Josie was casting her gaze all around the store. The Mother said: ‘I've heard these new B3s are very good with cognition and recall. But that they can sometimes be less empathetic.'Manager made a sound that was a sigh and also a laugh. ‘At the very beginning, perhaps, one or two B3s were known to be a little headstrong. But I can absolutely assure you, Sung Yi here will present no such issues.'‘Would you mind,'the Mother said to Manager, ‘if I address Sung Yi directly? I have some questions I'd like to put to her.'‘But Mom,'Josie broke in –and now she was again out of my vision –‘what's the point? Sung Yi's great, I know. But she's not who I want.'‘We can't keep searching forever, Josie.'‘But it was this store, I'm telling you, Mom. She was here. I guess we're too late, that's all.'It was unfortunate Josie should have come in just when I was rear-store. Even so, I was sure she would in time come to my part of the store and see me, and that was one reason why I remained where I was, not making a sound. But perhaps there was a further reason. For a fear had entered my mind almost at the same moment I'd felt joy on realizing who had come into the store –a fear to do with what Manager had said to me that day, about how children often made promises, then didn't return, or if they did, ignored the AF to whom they'd made the promise and chose another. Perhaps that was why I went on waiting there quietly. Then Manager's voice came again, and there was something new in it. ‘Excuse me, miss. Do I understand you were looking for a particular AF? One you'd seen here before?'‘Yes, ma'am. You had her in your window a while back. She was really cute, and really smart. Looked almost French? Short hair, quite dark, and all her clothes were like dark too and she had the kindest eyes and she was so smart.'‘I think I might know who you mean,'Manager said. ‘If you'd follow me, miss, we'll find out.'Only then did I move to where they would see me. I'd been out of the Sun's patterns all morning, but now I stepped into two bright intersecting rectangles just as Manager, and Josie following, came up to the arch. When Josie saw me her face filled with joy and she quickened her stride. ‘You're still here!'She had become even thinner. She kept coming with her uncertain stride, and I thought she was about to embrace me, but she stopped at the last moment and looked up into my face. ‘Oh boy! I really thought you'd gone!'‘Why would I be gone?'I said quietly. ‘We made a promise.'‘Yeah,'Josie said. ‘Yeah, I guess we did. I guess I was the one who screwed up. I mean taking so long.'As I smiled at her, she called over her shoulder: ‘Mom! This is her! The one I've been looking for!'The Mother came slowly towards the arch, then stopped. And for a moment, all three were looking at me: Josie at the front, beaming happily; Manager, just behind her, also smiling, but with a caution in her look which I took as an important signal from her; and then the Mother, her eyes narrowed like people on the sidewalk when they're trying to see if a taxi is free or already taken. And when I saw her and the way she was looking at me, the fear –the one that had all but vanished when Josie had cried, ‘You're still here!'–came back into my mind. ‘I didn't mean to take so long,'Josie was saying. ‘But I got a little sick. I'm fine again though.'Then she called back: ‘Mom? Can we buy her right away? Before someone else comes in and takes her?'There was silence, then the Mother said quietly, ‘This one isn't a B3, I take it.'‘Klara is a B2,'Manager said. ‘From the fourth series, which some say has never been surpassed.'‘But not a B3.'‘The B3 innovations are truly marvelous. But some customers feel, for a certain sort of child, a top-range B2 can still be the most happy match.'‘I see.'‘Mom. Klara's the one I want. I don't want any other.'‘One moment, Josie.'Then she asked Manager: ‘Every Artificial Friend is unique, right?'‘That's correct, ma'am. And particularly so at this level.'‘So what makes this one unique? This…Klara?'‘Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.'‘Is that so.'The Mother was once again looking at me with narrowed eyes. She then took three more steps towards me. ‘You mind if I ask her a few questions?'‘Please go ahead.'‘Mom, please…'‘Excuse me, Josie. Just stand over there a moment while I talk to Klara.'Then it was the Mother and me, and though I tried to keep a smile on my face, it was not easy, and I might even have let the fear show. ‘Klara,'the Mother said. ‘I want you not to look towards Josie. Now tell me, without looking. What color are her eyes?'‘They're gray, ma'am.'‘Good. Josie, I want you to keep absolutely silent. Now, Klara. My daughter's voice. You heard her speak just now. How would you say her voice was pitched?'‘Her conversational voice has a range between A-flat above middle C to C octave.'‘Is that so?'There was another silence, then the Mother said: ‘Last question. Klara. What did you notice about the way my daughter walks?'‘There's perhaps a weakness in her left hip. Also her right shoulder has potential to give pain, so Josie walks in a way that will protect it from sudden motion or unnecessary impact.'The Mother considered this. Then she said, ‘Well, Klara. Since you appear to know so much about it. Will you please reproduce for me Josie's walk? Will you do that for me? Right now? My daughter's walk?'Behind the Mother's shoulder, I saw Manager's lips part, as though about to speak. But she said nothing. Instead, meeting my gaze, she gave me the smallest of nods. So I started to walk. I realized that, as well as the Mother –and of course Josie –the whole store was now watching and listening. I stepped beneath the arch, onto the Sun's patterns spread across the floor. Then I went in the direction of the B3s standing mid-store, and the Glass Display Trolley. I did all I could to reproduce Josie's walk just as I'd seen it, that first time after she'd got out of the taxi, when Rosa and I were in the window, then four days later, when she'd come towards the window after the Mother had removed her hand from her shoulder, then finally as I'd seen her a moment ago, hurrying to me with relieved happiness in her eyes. When I reached the Glass Display Trolley I started to go around it, taking care not to lose the character of Josie's walk even as I tried not to brush against the boy B3 standing beside the trolley. But as I was about to start on the return lap, I glanced up and caught sight of the Mother, and something in what I saw made me stop. She was still watching me carefully, but it was as if her gaze was now focused straight through me, as if I was the glass in the window and she was trying to see something a long way behind it. I remained there beside the Glass Display Trolley, one foot poised, heel off the floor, and there was a strange stillness in the store. Then Manager said: ‘As you see, Klara has extraordinary observational ability. I've never known one like her.'‘Mom.'This time Josie's voice was hushed. ‘Mom. Please.'‘Very well. We'll take her.'Josie came hurrying to me. She put her arms around me and held me. When I gazed over the child's head, I saw Manager smiling happily, and the Mother, her face drawn and serious, looking down to search in her shoulder bag.