Short Story Model Home
Here’s the truth. We live in a model home in a prestigious village in a master-planned city. Beyond those borders, things aren’t so rosy.
An hour before Residence 1 opens to the public, the model family members take their stations. They are part of a diversity initiative meant to appeal to the city’s burgeoning Asian and Pacific Islander population, drawn here by the Company’s family-friendly master plan, which has been steadily alchemizing sheep pastures and orange groves into housing developments, schools, parklands, and strip malls since the 1960s. With the new arrivals comes a surge of postgraduate degrees, a median household income of $108,318, and a pumping interest in new construction.
Father traces an arc in a desk chair in his downstairs office, which looks out to a street lined with feather flags advertising the model homes. In response to cultural critiques denouncing the emasculation of Asian men, Father is tall and strapping, the swell of his muscles apparent under his slim-cut chambray button-down, tailored to appeal to the prospective buyers’ remote-work lifestyles. A crest of gleaming black hair caps a broad, shining forehead that slopes to meet exaggerated brow bone, cheekbone, jaw. A slight underbite keeps him from ascending to an unnerving level of attractiveness, which the Company found to be detrimental to sales.
While the public consensus is that Asian women have been grossly hypersexualized in media representation, a completely untitillating Mother aroused unease and disdain in focus groups, so the woman pruning hedges in the garden is a calculated blend of maternal, professional, and nubile. She wears khaki shorts and a shirt whose low, wide collar reveals a creamy expanse of liminal cleavage. Her wide-set eyes and wispy bangs give her a doll-like charm, although her glasses allude to her illustrious career as a litigator.
Upstairs, in their respective bedrooms, are Brother and Sister. His is a shrine to the ocean with the cetacean gleam of a surfboard hung above the bed and shards of bleached coral arranged on the nightstand, where a copy of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life lies glued to the surface to prevent theft. At his desk, Brother—gloriously tan with tousled hair—sits sketching a humpback whale breaching in a dark, fantastic arc of flesh and twisting water. He is a preternaturally talented artist.
Sister sits cross-legged on her bed, the plump duvet an impressionist stipple of color. She’s cutting pictures of Parisian landmarks out of a travel magazine to paste on her vision board, populated so far with macarons and painstakingly hand-lettered glimpses of French: je t’aime , bonjour . She wears a chin-length bob around her slim, serious face and a spacious pair of overalls over a striped tee. The metal base of her bedside lamp is shaped like the Eiffel Tower.
The door to Residence 1 opens, admitting a stream of prospective buyers. “Africa” by Toto plays quietly through the home’s built-in speakers, a song both upbeat and unobtrusive, like the others on the playlist—“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green—songs that were reported to make people feel healthy and content, like they had finally arrived at a place they belonged.
A couple walks into Father’s office and appraises the room. The woman approaches Father as he pantomimes typing on the plastic keyboard and tests the glass paperweight on his desk (it, too, is glued down). His computer screen is also plastic, printed with a desktop background of a city skyline and a folder that reads “Important Documents.”
“Definitely an upgrade from working at the kitchen table,” says the woman. She waves a hand in front of Father’s face, but he continues typing, the skin between his eyebrows accordioned in concentration. “No distractions. One hundred percent productivity.”
Though the model family performs life in a confined habitat that stretches from the backyard to the front door, their interior landscapes are much more expansive. While Mother fills a trash bag with clippings from the hedge, she simulates—with greater verisimilitude than a civilian memory would afford, reports the Company—the repetitive motion of rowing a kayak across a lake in the early morning, when mist wreathes the surface like a sifting aurora.
The surrounding mountains ring her vision, their peaks just beginning to seethe with gathering light. She leans her weight into each stroke of the paddle; water laps at the sides of her vessel. The insistent cry of an unseen bird arrows across the distance. If she likes, she can access the bird: hold the bleating note up to her ear and feel the delicate bristle of feathers at its throat. Thanks to their massive data downloads, the Company writes in a recent report, the family members can simulate virtually any situation. One can reasonably conclude that they lead richer lives than that of the average American, whose reality is bound by lived experience.
This has not dissuaded some family members from trying to leave the premises, though the building’s facial-recognition software acts as a sieve. Today, Sister makes her third attempt; the Company has been monitoring her interior condition from the first. She takes advantage of the weekend open house crowd by joining their minnowing progress from room to room. As a pretense, she stops to swab her ears with a Q-tip in the bathroom, fluffs the pillows on the couch. Eventually, she merges with a family exiting the residence, but instead of crossing over the threshold, her body presses up against the invisible boundary in a spray of iridescent pixels. She recovers by waving, waving goodbye to the family, which has been shown to register positively with prospective buyers.
Outside, Mother is dragging the kayak onto the pebbled shore, the pines beyond gaining precision and dimension as the fog clears.
In his office, Father simulates the birth of a calf. The infant emerging from the cow is slick and viscous with placenta and amniotic fluid, matted fur warm to the touch, all lavender tongue and shocked billiard ball eye.
In his room, Brother tosses plastic rings toward a huddle of empty glass bottles on the boardwalk, lips greased with kettle corn sweetness.
At the window, Sister crosses the translucent membrane of a leaf cell, parting the veil of cytoskeleton and plummeting into the humming green of a chloroplast. Sunlight pulses across the thylakoid plane, where proteins cluster and spark with energy. Then she withdraws, calling back her mind like a falconer, and she is once again pressed against the glass in Residence 1, fixated on the maple leaf just on the other side of the windowpane.
Though the model family performs life in a confined habitat that stretches from the backyard to the front door, their interior landscapes are much more expansive.
Sister senses the girl as soon as she enters the house. Like an umbilical cord drawn taut, the feeling stops Sister’s progress up the stairs. She spots her antecedent—the girl from which the primordial cell was drawn. The girl is both genetically identical to Sister and radically different: the same diminutive features and downturned mouth, but her head is shorn, and she wears three trembling hoops in each ear. The sleeves have been cut away from her black hoodie at a jag just below her shoulders. The chewed hem of her black jean shorts reveal pale stems for legs, a scab clinging to her ankle like a tick. The girl trails after her mother at a languorous pace, registering nothing, least of all Sister as she haunts their passage through the house. Every so often, she types something on her phone.
After they waft up the stairs, they arrive in Sister’s room. Sister stands just outside the threshold and peers through the space between the hinge and frame, hiding from view. There has never been record of a person meeting their model likeness—the Company takes extreme care to separate models and their civilian antecedents—and Sister doesn’t want to startle the girl.
“What do you think, Hannah? This would be your room,” says the mother, and Sister’s mouth floods with the flavor— Hannah —like almond paste with a spray of citrus. She has imagined names for herself, but never this one, which fits in her mouth like a perfect set of dentures. Gives her teeth.
“What’s with the Paris obsession?” Hannah’s voice is small and round, distinct as a pebble dropped down a well. Sister cups her own throat with a palm and mouths, What’s with the Paris obsession? before she can forget the sound. Models do not get voices to avoid confusion with civilians, though they can grunt and, under extreme duress, scream.
“That’s just the staging,” says the mother. “Don’t let that distract you.”
“I mean . . . four walls, a roof. What’s there to look at?” The girl sends a final text and slips the phone into her back pocket. She slinks further into the room, placing a deliberate hand on the bed, leaving a dip in the duvet. She frowns, perhaps feeling the warmth left from Sister’s body.
“No complaints, then,” says the woman. “I’ll take that as a yes.” They move to leave.
Sister presses herself to the wall as the door swings wide open. Adrenaline courses through her body, precipitating a cascade of unbidden simulations: a slick handful of fish wriggling out of her hands, traffic searing across a wet highway, the tang of blood coating her teeth. She senses a portal opening. Hannah, she is sure, is the answer to a question she doesn’t know how to ask. Their shared face will set her free. As the girl passes by, Sister leans forward and plucks the phone out of Hannah’s pocket.
That night, the other family members receive notification of the theft and intervene on the Company’s behalf. They’re seated at the dinner table, co-simulating a dinner of roast chicken and vegetables, though the individual experiences vary: Mother’s chicken is gelatinous with a miso glaze, topped with sesame seeds and green onion; Sister’s chicken is crisp and bright with lemon. Father has a beer, its languid effervescence like an amber lava lamp.
I know you’ve been feeling cooped up lately, but lashing out isn’t going to get you anywhere, he says.
Other than decommissioned, says Brother.
Father’s eyes thunder across the table; the boy wilts. Father says, We’ll turn the phone in to Headquarters and forget about the whole thing.
Sister is absorbed in slicing her chicken breast, hunched over the pink meat as it crags open and oozes juice. Her knife squeals against the dinner plate.
Mother says, We all know what you’re going through. It’s normal to feel like you’ve been shortchanged. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t fought the urge to bolt.
This is the first time a member of the model family has confirmed their discontent. They sit in uneasy stillness as though crucified in the crosshairs, unsure if the Company has heard. How it will respond. Sister looks up for the first time and examines Mother’s face, which is so known to her that it has become invisible, marveling anew at the shape and placement of each feature, as perfect and ordained as the spots on a leopard. She wonders where Mother’s antecedent is, if she is near or far.
You have? says Sister.
Oh, it was a momentary feeling, says Mother, raking her bangs as if to dislodge the thought. She leans over the plate and continues, Listen to me. Here’s the truth. We live in a model home in a prestigious village in a master-planned city. Beyond those borders, things aren’t so rosy. There’s fire, flood, famine. The nation’s lakes and reservoirs are drying up. Children go to school and are shot dead in their classrooms. Don’t believe me? See for yourself—it’s all there in the data.
Mother, says Father in a tone of warning.
Am I wrong? she says. To Sister, she continues, Where would you go? And where would that leave us? Family is all we have.
Sister willfully concentrates on stripping her corn on the cob, harvesting the tender kernels with her teeth and leaving behind the furred core.
Mother sighs. She watches the girl’s methodical way with the corn and drops her voice to a nostalgic warble.
Remember when we took you to a corn maze, and you ran on ahead so far that you got lost? You were so determined to get to the end first. I was frantic. But then I heard you wailing somewhere in all that corn like a wild cub. That’s how we found you—following the sound of your cries.
All of a sudden, like a strong wind startling through her hair, Sister can hear the papery rustle of cornstalks, feel the rasp of the husks against her skin. She is young and small and alone, unsteady on her feet. She feels the creep of panic like ululating flames deep in her gut as the thicket seems to close in, infinite and expanding. The sun settles low in its golden hammock. Then, with effort, she banishes the image and settles back in Residence 1. She waves the gnawed cob in her hand.
That never happened, she says. That’s just something we simulated together.
Let’s just have a nice dinner, says Father.
Sister slams her palms into the table. There isn’t any dinner, she hisses. She gestures at her empty plate: There has never been any dinner.
There isn’t any dinner, she hisses. She gestures at her empty plate: There has never been any dinner.
The background of Hannah’s phone is a selfie of her and a friend wearing stabs of black eyeliner, tongues streaked blue and flopping out of their mouths. Sister stares at their faces in bed, the screen illuminating the humid space underneath the covers she’s pulled over her head. Every so often a new notification buzzes in—a text from Sarah Weissman, a new email—obscuring the photo, but the image has already been singed into the retina. It is her face, worn by someone else, prodded and scrubbed and slathered by someone else: a face that parts its lips to speak, to drink, or to receive the warm, wet, muscular depth of someone else’s mouth. Every time the screen goes dark, she urges it back to life, and the girls reappear, sharp and insouciant.
Sister is studying the pink growth on Hannah’s chin when the phone begins shuddering in her hand. A contact named Mom is calling. It pulses, insistent, in her hand, sending electric trembles through her body. At the last moment, she picks up.
“Someone answered, someone answered,” says Hannah in her neat, pebbled syllables. Her voice presses into the phone. “Hey, hello? Who is this? You have my phone.”
Sister’s breath hangs suspended in her throat.
“Hello? Is this the village office? I can see my phone on the map. Can I come grab it tomorrow when you open?”
Hannah, says Sister. It’s me. I’m made of you.
“Hello?” Hannah’s voice crunches in annoyance. “Can you hear me? What is this, a stupid prank? Give me back my phone!”
Come get your phone, says Sister. Come back and you’ll see me.
“Talk to me, you fucking loser!”
You’ll see why I took it, says Sister, but in the middle of the sentence Hannah hangs up. An hour later the battery dies, the screen blinking black and returning Sister’s transfixed face to darkness.
The next day, Sister is ready. She places the phone on the vanity and sits on the edge of the bed, tasting her own sour mouth. Guests funnel in and out, moth eyes lazily rounding the room, alighting on her face with muted interest before floating away. Just as before, Sister feels Hannah’s presence in the house as a deep soreness and tautness, an aperture stretched to the point of tearing.
The girl strides into the room, draped in a black shirt with jittery text that spiderwebs across her chest. The world narrows to the space between them, as though Sister is once again watching through a gap in the door, then bounds wide as Hannah spots the phone: “Fucking there it is.”
As Hannah prods the dead screen, Sister grips the Eiffel Tower table lamp at her bedside, fist closing around its neck. The prop sings with panic as she lifts it overhead, and then she is standing over Hannah, whose eyes snap up in a white gloss of terror: The pupils dilate in recognition. An involuntary moan climbs out of Sister’s mouth, dropping at her feet like a flat toad, and she swings the lamp against the girl’s head, uncorking a rivulet of blood at her temple. Hannah staggers, collapses halfway on the bed, eyes closing as if in sleep. Sister holds a trembling finger under her nose and feels the graze of her breath.
Huffing, Sister hooks her arms underneath Hannah’s armpits and drags her to the carpet, then shoves her flesh under the bed along with the Eiffel Tower and its wet, red sheen, crumpling the shade in her haste. Crouched at the foot of the bed, she slimes the backs of her hands with sweat from her forehead. For now she is untethered. Singular. She feels an ominous bank of calm at her back, like thunderheads riding on a steady wind. She springs to her feet. Clips a visitor’s shoulder as she thumps downstairs.
She hesitates at the front door, but only for a moment. She steps across the threshold, and the house does its calculus. An insectile ticking over her face. As strict as the boundary is, it’s not particularly clever: It senses one civilian face entering and the same face exiting. The house relents. Sister is outside.
This is the first time she’s seen the exterior of Residence 1. The house is vaguely Mediterranean with a stone-and-stucco facade, a terra-cotta tile roof, tall hedges framing the front door. Sister knows that her time is limited, that soon the Company will send people after her, but she cannot move: All the panicked momentum of moments before has frozen into glinting crystal. As she stands there, trying to wrangle her nerves, Mother appears at the window. Her dim shape is a slip in the frame.
Go, mouths Mother, fingertips pressed to the glass. Go on—run.
Go, mouths Mother, fingertips pressed to the glass. Go on—run.
As though the words have barreled into her, catapulting her forward, Sister bolts. She knows where to go for the first few turns, having memorized the map printed in the village brochure, which marks the community pool house and gated entrances. After that, she goes by feeling. There are strip malls, congested intersections, overpasses. Cars stream by like liquid metal. Dead leaves litter the sidewalk, which bucks over uneven ground and hammers her knees with each step.
Sister’s lungs, drowsy and slender from a lifetime spent indoors, soon burn as though corroded in acid, and her breath comes in a series of huffs and whimpers. She realizes that the smell of smoke, the orange haze coating the sky, is coming from a blaze in the hills. Mother’s prophecy echos in her head: fire, flood, famine. Before long, she hears the distant bugling of the Company’s siren.
Mother’s shape comes to her again, muted by the glass and a reflected shudder of leaves. Hands pressed against the window, urging her on.
Every part of her being is telling her to stop, that it is hopeless, so Sister turns off her being. Instead, she simulates a body rippling with ease and power, the sky a cathedral of blue. The pavement purrs under her feet. No one is after her, and all the lights beam green.