Any Given Night
by Kathryn E. McGee
The clinking of champagne glasses—it’s for me this time.
I squeeze Bret’s hand while my best friend, Jessica, offers a toast in her backyard, standing on the patio in the warm afternoon sun. She’s pregnant with her second and rests one hand on her swollen belly while she speaks.
“I’m just so thrilled for Annalise to have found her special someone. Let’s all give a toast to the happy couple.”
Everyone shouts along with her. “Cheers!”
Glasses tap and clink.
Bret and I stand in front of a banner that says Congratulations! It’s springtime and everything around us is in bloom. Oranges hang from trees, engorged and juicy. One or two have shaken loose, dotting the grass with spots of color.
“You look great,” I say to Bret. He wears a salmon-colored polo and faded jeans—the standard-issue outfit that came in the box. His hair is brown; his skin is tanned with crow’s feet near his eyes and laugh lines around his mouth.
“You look radiant,” he says. “That’s a wonderful dress.” He motions toward the white shift I spent hours fawning over before deciding I could pull it off. It’s shorter than what I’d typically wear, but the fabric falls in layers of lace that weigh down the hem. I’ve seen my friends in similar outfits, but I’ve never had occasion to wear white. Not like this.
“Come with me for another drink,” I say.
“I’ll follow you anywhere, Annalise,” he says. “You know that, don’t you?” I know it’s one of his programmed phrases, but I can’t avoid the swooning feeling that rises. He takes my hands, pulls me toward him. I think of other men I’ve kissed—real men. Their lips felt nothing like this. When he embraces me, I know he’s mine. And that I’m his.
We’re finishing our drinks when Jessica’s husband, Rudy, approaches. “You mind if I steal Bret for some grill time?” He gestures toward the barbecue pit near the side yard.
“Sure,” I say.
Bret stands and kisses me on top of my head. “I’ll miss you,” he says.
“Time to learn the fine art of manliness,” Rudy says, patting Bret on the back when they walk away.
I pour fresh glasses of champagne, sit with my girlfriends at a picnic table. “He seems to be fitting in, don’t you think?”
We watch the men gathered near the grill in a sea of pastel polo shirts, chinos, and jeans.
“Can’t tell him apart from the others,” Jessica says.
Mitch pumps the keg, handing out beers. Bret takes a cup, sipping like it’s something he’s always done. Now he’s gesturing animatedly.
“What do you think he’s telling them?” Krystal says.
“He has a ton of pre-programmed stories,” I say.
“Can he learn new ones?” Gloria says.
“Sure. He’s designed to learn from his daily experiences, like the other men around him. And we’ll also do a daily download of updates from the other Model Brets around the world. We’ll plug him in for that later. The Brets are networked or whatever. That’s how they get smarter, by getting new data constantly. You can tell when he’s processing. His eyes twitch.”
“Looks like he was worth the wait,” Krystal says. “You had to preorder him, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Dating real men had just become impossible. All that swiping and waiting and guys not calling back and the ones who do call back...” I shake my head.
The women all nod, eyes lingering on the men.
“I saw something on the news about malfunctions,” Gloria says.
“That’s why I got the Model Bret. The Jareds and the Donalds—they don’t even make those anymore. Way too many problems.”
“So, I have to ask,” Jessica says, eyebrows raised. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?” I say.
“You know,” she says.
“Oh, we haven’t done that yet.”
“Would have been the first thing for me,” Krystal says.
“We know,” Jessica says, smirking.
“Well, I just got him yesterday,” I say. “The setup took hours. I wanted to read all the instructions, you know? I had to set commands and even a safe word.”
“Is it something kinky?” Krystal says.
“I just used the default word—‘no.’ You say it sharply and it shuts him down in case of a malfunction.”
“I wish Mitch had an off button,” Gloria says.
“And Rudy,” Jessica says.
“And Lindsey,” Breanne says.
We all laugh.
“What happened when you first turned him on? Was it like that one commercial where he undoes his top shirt button, pours a glass of wine, and hands it to you?” Jessica says. “Some jazz song playing in the background?”
“That almost got me to buy one,” Krystal says.
“If I had my druthers,” Breanne says.
“It was crazy,” I say. “I pressed the on button and he was just here. I went from being alone one minute to having this new person. And he was nice to me. Really nice.”
“Wow,” Gloria says.
“‘How are you feeling today?’ That’s what he said—the first thing out of his mouth. When we went to dinner, he was opening doors, letting me talk and really listening. Looking right at me, not checking his phone. He offered me his coat. He paid the bill without even hesitating.”
“The technology must be very advanced,” Jessica says.
A burst of noise draws our attention. Mitch and Lindsey are gulping beer while Rudy chants, “Chug! Chug! Chug!” holding up the barbecue fork like a flag at a car race. Mitch finishes first, crumples and throws his empty cup and raises his hands in triumph.
I observe Bret. His eyes twitch—left-right, left-right, left-right—while he watches. This means he’s processing. He copies the other men, chugging his beer, throwing his cup away. The men erupt into cheers. Rudy’s grilling fork rises a second time. Mitch slaps Bret on the back and says, “You’re one of us now, man.”
“We left them alone for three minutes,” Gloria says.
“I’m just glad to see him getting along so well,” I say.
Rudy hands off trays of grilled meat while Jessica, Breanne, Krystal, and I work in the kitchen, getting the food and setting it on the buffet. Bret stands nearby with Lindsey, picking at the bowl of potato chips. Mitch grabs a hot dog and munches.
“Hey, save those for later,” Krystal says.
“It wasn’t me,” Mitch says, hands out like a caught bank robber.
“I gotta sit down for a sec,” Jessica says, holding her belly.
“You all right?” I say.
“The baby’s so big now.” She settles into a chair and sighs.
“You sure there’s only one in there?” Mitch eyes the swell of her stomach, his gaze drifting upward while he licks barbecue sauce off his fingers. “Could be a whole litter.” He reaches his open hand out to touch Jessica’s belly.
“Clean hands, please.” Jessica gets up, heads back to the kitchen.
I set out a tray of sliced fruit.
“So, what about you?” Mitch says. “When are you and Bret gonna have some puppies?” The same open hand on my stomach.
The feeling of his fingers is jarring, like I’ve fallen into an icy bath. I tell myself it’s fine. Everything is fine.
“Hey, you should smile,” Mitch says. “You are beautiful, especially today. That’s a hot dress.”
I manage a smile. He’s trying to be nice.
Bret watches, eyes twitching, processing. Then he pulls me close, running his hands up and down my sides. “You really are hot in that dress.” His voice drops low. He uses the same inflection that was in Mitch’s voice and snakes his hand around, feeling the small of my back, drifting down—too low.
I shake my head at him—Not now.
His smile turns into a frown.
We sit in front of a mountain of presents. Bret selects a navy bag with a masculine geometric pattern.
“Go ahead, open it,” I say.
He pulls out the tissue, tossing it into the air and accidentally throwing the gift out with the wrapping.
I pluck the item from the ground. “A football jersey!”
“Nice,” Lindsey says.
“Every man needs one of those,” Rudy says.
Breanne snaps a photo.
This isn’t exactly the shower I’ve always wanted, with silver spoons and bamboo nesting bowls, but it’s just as exciting. Maybe even better. Who else can say they had a Man Shower, really?
Bret stares at the jersey. His eyes twitch. “It’s wonderful.” He kisses me on the forehead. “Hand me another one, sweetie.”
This time, he pulls out the tissue carefully, unwrapping each layer to reveal a shaving set with a razor, brush, and cream.
“How thoughtful,” I say.
The next gift is a set of golf balls and a pass for the nearby driving range. Then a pair of swim trunks, a hunting knife, a gas gauge for the car, a flannel shirt, a red baseball cap, a book on the history of war, and a fishing pole.
“What manly presents,” someone says.
“All the basics,” Mitch says and grabs the new hunting knife, pulls it out of its sheath. “Fuck yeah.” He stabs the blade down into the top of the picnic table.
Bret watches, staring at the knife, at the quivering blade, while his eyes twitch—left-right, left-right, left-right.
The women help Jessica with the dishes, and Rudy directs the men toward the living room.
“You promised no TV at the shower,” Jessica says.
“The big game is on.” Rudy holds up his phone, where he’s been tracking the game. Evidence his plight really matters.
“Just turn it off when we do dessert,” Jessica says.
The men gather, moths to a flame, around Rudy’s flat-screen.
After handing off dishes, I walk toward the living room and watch Bret interacting with the men. His eyes twitch constantly now, making quick micromovements all the time, every second, while he absorbs new information. I wonder what he’s learning.
On the TV, a football is midflight, then lands out of bounds. The men erupt into a collective groan.
“What a douchebag!” one of them yells.
“Someone should really kill that guy,” another says.
I head back to the kitchen.
A minute later, I hear them all cheering again. Happy as clams.
A minute after that, more groans.
Rudy’s voice: “Fuck that guy.”
Bret’s: “That’s right. Fuck him.”
“I’ve already lost Bret to football season,” I say.
“He’s a real man now,” Gloria says.
“Here, put these out.” Jessica hands me a tray with assorted cookies.
I carry it into the living room, set it on the coffee table.
“Whoa, blocking the view,” Mitch says.
“Down in front!” Bret says, his voice low and angry.
I look up at him, surprised. He averts his eyes. I move away.
A commercial break starts, and Lindsey hands Bret the remote. “You wanna surf?”
“Surf?” he says.
“Press these, up and down,” Lindsey says. “You can change the channel.”
Bret pushes buttons, lands on a cowboy show with a man wearing leather chaps with a rifle at his hip. He changes the channel. A beach show appears on screen, the view on bikini-clad breasts. He lingers a moment, changes the channel. One man fires two machine guns. He changes the channel. A man stalks a woman in an alley, pushing her against a wall, the man’s voice low and gruff. “But this is what you wanted.” He changes the channel. A closeup view on an open mouth of a woman, lips glossy and red. She holds a tube of lipstick, bats her eyelashes. “This is what you need.”
Bret’s stare is fixed, eyes twitching the whole time. Left-right, left-right, left-right.
I back away, into the kitchen with the other women.
“Annalise, are you okay?” Gloria says.
“Oh, fine,” I say. “Just fine. Really. This is lovely. Anything I can do to help?”
A beeping sound comes from the living room.
“What’s that?” Jessica says.
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t realize the time. Bret’s got to plug in. He has to do that daily system update I mentioned earlier, to connect with all the other Model Brets.”
“They learn from each other,” Breanne says.
“Yeah,” I say. “They keep getting smarter, I guess.”
Bret’s programmed to recognize the beeping, so he stands up. I feel a rush of excitement when he makes a beeline straight for me. Something about the idea that I’m linked to him now. That someone else at this party is here as my partner, coming toward me to discuss something, will be going home with me.
“I think it’s time,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, my voice breathy.
“There’s a chair next to an outlet over here,” Jessica says.
I take Bret’s hand and lead him to the chair. We fumble around together, laughing as we grope and search for the panel in his side and pull out the cord, finally plugging it in for the five-minute upload.
“You ready?” I say.
Bret nods while I press the button. I can tell the upload has started when he leans back a bit, his knees spreading like he’s taking up space on a bus or a subway. His eyes glaze over. He sits like this a moment, unblinking.
“Shit,” Jessica says. “He looks like an alien. Is he all right?”
“He’s just frozen while he’s taking in new data. It looks weird, but there’s nothing wrong with him.”
“You think he really gets a lot better from that?” Jessica says. “From all the other Model Brets?”
“I think so,” I say. “If he learns what all the other ones have learned, they’ve got to all be improving so, so much.”
“Getting more complex,” Gloria says.
Mitch runs through, making a whooping noise and slapping Gloria on the butt before throwing a balled-up paper plate toward the trash can. He misses. A mess of food explodes against the wall onto the floor. “My bad!” he says, cracking open a beer.
Gloria sighs a long, exhausted sigh. “Maybe complex was the wrong word.”
I check the alarm on my phone. Bret’s got just a couple more minutes sitting still, uploading. Suddenly, though, he starts to shake. A tremble that’s spastic, like he’s having a seizure. His eyes flash red—a bright, boiling red. He keeps shaking.
“Shit,” I say.
“That supposed to happen?” Gloria says.
Bret keeps spasming.
“No, I don’t think so.” I reach for the cord and yank it from the wall. The spasming slows. “Bret? You all right?”
“Fucking bitch!” he shouts into the air, not looking at me, not looking at anyone.
“Bret,” I say.
His body slowly stops moving. He blinks a few times. His eyes have gone back to normal.
“What happened?” he says.
“You had a seizure or something during the upload,” I say. “Do you feel all right?”
“Never better,” he says.
“That’s good,” I say. “But we might still want to contact the manufacturer, just to make sure—”
“What’d I miss?” he says, looking around the room.
“Not much,” I say, shaking my head, trying to act like everything is normal. I don’t want to spoil the mood. It was just a little glitch, that’s all. “We’re about to have dessert. And then…” And then we’ll be going home. I picture being in bed with him, his arms around me. The feeling of someone else, a warm body, curled around mine…
“And then we’ll go home,” he says.
“That’s right,” I say, beaming.
The tiki torches have been lit. The backyard is alive with flames dancing around the edges, casting an amber glow against the darkening sky. Jessica directs everyone toward the dessert table on the patio; Bret leads me there. We stand together, fingers intertwined. The night is warm, but Bret is warmer, emitting heat that makes me think about what will happen later, when we’re alone. I grip his hand tighter.
“It’s just gorgeous,” I say, admiring the cupcake trees, vases of pink tulips, and chilled bottles of sparkling rosé erupting from a silver bucket. I turn toward Jessica. “It’s been a beautiful day.”
“It’s great to see you happy.” She smiles and fills our glasses. Bret and I toast with my friends—our friends—a final bit of ceremony for the night.
Bubbles slide down my throat, cool and crisp, until I swallow wrong. The bubbles catch. A brief coughing fit. Bret stands by, makes sure I’m okay.
We move from the crowd, toward the orange trees, together in the shadows. We finish our drinks. A quiet moment. The romance the day has been building toward. Bret touches my arm, gazes into my eyes. I imagine his lips on mine, tracing a path down my cheek, onto my neck. The sky darkens; the stars are bright and twinkling. A breeze rustles the nearby trees.
He pulls me to him. “I’m so glad you brought me here. Your friends are awesome.” He kisses me hard and open-mouthed, his tongue sliding against mine.
Another breeze, stronger this time.
“Yeah, Bret!” Mitch yells from the patio.
“Get it!” Rudy yells.
Bret reaches his free hand under my skirt, on my thigh, sliding up.
My cheeks flush and I pull back. “Let’s save that for later.” I push his hand away and step backward, my foot crushing a fallen orange. I slip. Bret catches me.
“Let’s go over there, where we can be alone,” he says and leads me around the barbecue pit toward the side yard.
It’s quiet over here. It’s dark too. No one is watching. Not right now. Bret pulls me along, into the shadows, like he wants me, like he’s got to get me alone. A slow thrill rises in me. I’m being bad. Dangerous. I haven’t done this sort of thing since college. I bump the grill with my hip, send the tools that hang from the side swaying. I hear the distant sounds of my friends chattering. So far away now.
We’re in in the darkest part of the side yard when he pushes me against the house, kisses me harder than before. I melt into him, a rush of energy shooting down toward my groin. I moan softly. When was the last time…
His hands are on my sides, moving up. He squeezes my breasts. His grip is rough. Too rough.
“Careful,” I whisper.
He tries again.
“Not so hard.” I smile so he’ll know I’m not mad. He’s got to learn these things, that’s all.
He unbuckles his pants.
“Not now. Don’t do that,” I say with a soft little laugh. “That’s too far.”
His eyes twitch. “You said to save this for later. Isn’t it later?” His voice is calm but has that low tenor it did before, like he could get angry.
He’s confused, that’s all.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… I can show you later, but at home…” I try to sound sexy, but my words collapse. He’s giving me a strange look. I don’t want to be here anymore. He holds me against the wall. I laugh, louder than before. Why am I laughing? He drops his pants to his ankles.
“Bret, no!” I use the safe word. “Bret, NO.” This is supposed to put him in sleep mode. He should stop what he’s doing and close his eyes.
It’s as though the word has triggered something else. His open, twitching eyes glow red—the same awful red I saw earlier when he was uploading. Is he malfunctioning?
He puts a hand over my mouth; his eyes keep glowing, brighter now. And so, so red.
“This is what you wanted,” his voice distorts, sounds mechanical, like it’s not even him.
I grunt, spewing saliva against his open hand.
I reach for his off button but can’t get to it.
My heart races.
His hand is under my dress, pulling down my panties. “It’ll feel good,” he says.
I grunt again, try to wriggle loose.
He presses me tighter to the house, his eyes crimson and piercing.
I slap at his sides. My sounds are muffled, barely audible. I try to knee him but can’t move.
His hand shifts, covering part of my nose.
Now I can’t breathe.
I struggle, barely getting any air.
My vision is spotty.
I grope the wall nearby, knock the grill, grab at the hanging barbecue tools. The spatula and tongs fall, clanking when they hit the concrete. My hand wraps the remaining utensil: the meat fork. Tightening my grip on the thick, wood handle, I pull the fork toward me. My vision is getting dark, energy waning. Using everything I have left, I thrust the pronged, stainless steel tip into his abdomen, pull it down toward his groin.
His wet insides spew onto me. He lets go, falls away.
I double over, gasping and coughing while ooze drips down the front of my dress.
“You bitch,” he mutters in a broken, mechanical growl. He crawls toward me, eyes glowing—redder and brighter than ever. “You fucking bitch,” he shouts.
“Help,” I say, but my own voice barely works. Pushing the grill out of my way, I round the corner of the house, stumble forward.
“Annalise?” Jessica rushes toward me and looks down, first at my soiled dress, then at my face. “What the fuck did he do?”
I put my hands to my mouth. The words won’t come.
“What happened?” Mitch says.
“He attacked her,” Jessica says.
The rest of the men rush over to him.
“He’s still alive,” Lindsey says.
“Is he in pain?” Rudy says.
“Come on,” Jessica says to me. “Let’s get you inside.” She leads me away, onto the patio.
I can still hear the voices in the yard.
“She must have provoked him.”
Then another male voice, indistinguishable from the rest.
“I mean, look what she’s wearing.”
A muted chuckle follows.
Jessica pulls me into the house.
I turn toward the yard, see the men helping Bret to his feet, telling him everything will be okay. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t mean whatever bad thing he did. He’ll just need a little reprogramming. Someone pulls up his pants while he oozes from his abdomen, down the front of his jeans.
His stare locks on mine, eyes bright red and blinking.
“Can we shut him off?” Jessica says.
I swallow hard, look away from Bret, across the backyard, over the champagne bucket and picnic table, past the desserts and the gifts and the silver banner that screams—Congratulations!
There has got to be a setting I can change, a way to correct the malfunction.
“Annalise?” Jessica says.
I shake my head. “I’m sure I can fix him, with the right update, with a patch. There’s got to be some sort of software available for this online. Other users must be having this problem too.”
I feel pain; my body throbs where he grabbed me. I keep talking, but I’m barely aware of what I’m saying. Now my voice trails off. Everything is strange and echoey. Too loud. What just happened? The men watch me. They’re angry. One of them picks up a tiki torch, wielding it like a pitchfork. The women stand beside me asking questions. I can’t hear them. The party noises fade. I block them out like I’m dreaming, like I’m the one in control, and avert my eyes, staring only at the tiki torch, at the firelight. Black smoke rises up, ruining the sky.
Kathryn E. McGee's horror stories have appeared in Automata Review and Gamut Magazine, and anthologies including Horror Library Vol. 6, Winter Horror Days, and Cemetery Riots. She moderates a monthly horror book club at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles and is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her other work includes co-authoring DTLA37: Downtown Los Angeles in Thirty-seven Stories, a non-fiction coffee table book about Downtown Los Angeles. She has an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert.