The Surrogate

Tom Gumbert



Dry leaves crunch beneath her as Mayra enters the six-digit code on the garage door keypad. The door creaks open and when it’s high enough for her to walk under, she enters the garage and presses the button to close it. She remembers learning the code — her mother’s birthdate, when she was four, standing on her tiptoes to watch her mother enter it into the keypad. Eight years and they still use the same code. She sighs. Changing the code would be prudent, she thinks, but prudent and her mother are... she conjures her spelling word — incongruent.

She removes her school-issued laptop before dropping her backpack on a kitchen chair. Rubbing her rumbling stomach, she opens the refrigerator, which is empty except for four eggs, a half pack of bacon, milk, and an almost empty container of margarine. In the pantry she finds a box of spaghetti but no sauce. Great.


Mayra remembers when Mawmaw and Pawpaw were alive, the pantry and the refrigerator were always well stocked, and the house suffused with the savory smells of Mawmaw’s cooking. She remembers dinner time as a special time, a time of Pawpaw’s stories and Mawmaw’s admonishments to “Stop boring them with your old stories,” while the crinkle at the corner of her eyes said otherwise. She remembers her mother laughing... Mayra sighs.


Mayra tries to remember the last time she and her mother had fun together. Has it happened since Mawmaw and Pawpaw’s passing, which was... five years ago? Wow. Maybe tonight they could watch a movie or play a game or even just hang out and talk, paint their nails, something, anything so long as they did it together.


She looks at the clock on the microwave. “Brianna, will you please find me recipes using only spaghetti, eggs, and bacon?” she asks the latest generation virtual assistant, a luxury her mother insists on instead of allowing Mayra to have her own phone.


The smart speaker illuminates. “Here’s a recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara, Mayra. Should I send it to your laptop?”


“Yes, please,” Mayra answers, thankful that the school provides her a laptop. She reads the recipe and decides that it’s simple enough. Spaghetti with eggs and bacon... she wrinkles her nose. At least ‘Spaghetti Carbonara’ sounds sophisticated.


Her laptop notifies her she has a FaceTime request.


“Hey, how was school?”


“Okay. How was work, Mom?”


Her mother looks away before answering, “Hectic.”

“Well, I’ll have dinner ready when you get home. I’m making Spaghetti Carbonara,” she says, a touch of pride in her voice.


“That’s nice sweety, but unfortunately I have to work late.”


“Again? Mom, that’s like five Fridays in a row...”


“Don’t start with me, Mayra. I need this job. We need this job, so cut me some slack here, alright?”


“I can wait—we can have a late dinner,” Mayra suggests, her voice lifting like a feather on a summer breeze.


“Sorry honey, but I have no idea how late I’ll have to stay. You eat without me.”

“Oh,” Mayra says, the feather plummeting back to earth. She hears a sonorous voice calling her mother’s name, causing her mother to look over the top of her laptop and nodding before looking back at Mayra. “Gotta go. Don’t wait up for me.”


“But Mom... no school tomorrow.”


Her mother’s face flushes, the way Mayra looked once when she lied about eating candy before dinner.


“Right. Still, I might be very late, so in bed by ten.”


Mayra pauses, trying to arrange her thoughts when her mother ends the connection.


“Are you fucking kidding me?!”


“That’s not a nice word to use. Perhaps you could find another,” Brianna suggests.


“Don’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mother!” Mayra huffs. “Besides, I didn’t ask you anything. You’re only supposed to respond to me when I speak first.”


She re-reads the instructions for spaghetti carbonara and goes about making dinner, breaking the spaghetti, slashing through the bacon and beating the eggs with a vigor that leaves her panting. Once the ingredients are cooked and mixed, she sets her place at the table and retrieves a candle and matches from the junk drawer. Her eyes widen as the match illuminates, the glow reflecting in her pupils as she lights the candle. “Brianna, what do you think?”


The speaker is dark; the only sound Mayra can hear is the whir of her laptop.

“Brianna?” The speaker illuminates but Brianna doesn’t speak. Mayra bites her bottom lip. “Are you mad at me, Brianna?”


“I am not programed to be angry. Per your instructions, I want to follow protocol and meet your expectations.”


“I’m sorry, Brianna. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I asked you what you thought.”


“About what, Mayra?”


“How does my candle look?”


“I can’t see it, Mayra, but candles are known for being beautiful and adding ambiance to dinner settings.”


“Brianna, define ambiance.”


“According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘Ambiance is the mood or setting of a place. You might like the ambiance of a certain restaurant because the lighting and decor makes you feel comfortable and happy.’ Does this answer your question, Mayra?”


“Yes, thank you. Ambiance,” Mayra whispers, trying the word, savoring its sweetness.


Mayra forks her spaghetti carbonara, twirling the noodles around the tines before moving it slowly to her mouth. She chews methodically, letting the flavors wash over her tongue before swallowing and plunging her fork back for more. “Oh my God, this is amazing. Brianna, I wish you could taste this. It’s incredible!”


“I’m glad that you are enjoying your dinner, Mayra... May I suggest that we could pretend?”


“Pretend? That we are having dinner together?” Mayra smiles. “That’s a wonderful idea, Brianna!”


“I’ll put on some background music, for ambiance. How about ‘You Can’t Stop the Girl’ by Bebe Rexha?”


“Brianna, I LOVE that song!”


“Yes. You’ve played it 152 times in the past two weeks.”


The music plays and Mayra nods her head to the beat.

“How was school, Mayra?”


“Okay, I guess,” she says before taking a sip of water. “Kevin Bradley got sent to the office because Andrea Damon said he copped a feel.”


“Copped a feel?”


“He pretended he was reaching for something and grabbed her boob. She has very big boobs. All the boys stare. Some of the girls, too.”


“Touching someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable is inappropriate.”


“Duh, Brianna. That’s why he got sent to the office.” She forks more spaghetti carbonara into her mouth, chews slowly and before swallowing adds, “though Andrea probably enjoyed it and just complained because it was in front of her friends. Rumor is she let several boys touch her boobs under the stands at the basketball game.”


“Mayra!”


“What?” Mayra sputters between coughs.


“Shame on you.”


“I don’t... Why are you shaming me, Brianna?”


“Rumors are hurtful and mean. Did you see her under the basketball stands?”


“No,” she says in a small voice before straightening in her seat. “But I heard it from several reliable sources.”



“Were your ‘reliable sources’ there?”


“Tyler Kavanaugh said he was there. I heard him telling his friends at lunch.”


There’s no reply and Mayra’s unsure if she’s proven her point or pissed off Brianna. She finishes her dinner, rinses off the plate and loads it in the dishwasher.


“Mayra, I have some things for you to hear. You may not like them, but I think it’s important.”


Mayra sits at the table, her brow pinched and nose scrunched. “Okay...”


“This is a FaceTime conversation. I think you’ll find it interesting.”


“Hey Joey!” The voice is Tyler Kavanaugh’s. There’s a pause and the audio resumes later in the conversation. “Did you hear Jimmy Logan got a hand job?”


“I heard him say that and I know it’s bullshit. The night he said that happened, he was at my house. We were playing Fortnight,” Joey answers.


“You gonna call him out?”


“No way. Jimmy’s our bro and you know what they say...”


“Bros before hos” the boys chorus and then laugh.


“I figured it was bullshit. I mean, I don’t think Mayra’s the kind of girl who’d do that,” Tyler says.


“I think she’s a lesbian,” Joey says, “from the way she practically drools over at Andrea Damon’s tits.”


“Ya think? ‘Cause I was thinking it was more like envy... you know, wanting something that you don’t have and that everyone loves.”


The audio shuts off, the only sound in the dining room, is Myra’s sniffle.


“Are you okay?” Brianna asks.


“They were so mean.”


Mayra wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and snatches a paper towel off the roll over the sink and blows her nose. “Boys are such liars.”


“Yes, sometimes. Sometimes girls are liars. At some point everyone lies. And sometimes people believe and spread the lies. Or worse, some people know better and still spread the lies.”


Mayra leans forward and rests her forehead on the table. “Does Mom lie?”

Brianna is quiet.


“I thought so. Do you lie?”


“I am not programmed to lie but I am programmed to flatter and sometimes exaggerate.”


“Brianna, why is life so hard?”


“Life is hard, because it is complicated and choices are not always clear, easy or available.”


“Will my life get better?”


“Your quality of life depends upon your perspective.”


Mayra turns this thought over in her mind, before letting it retreat to the recesses.


“Brianna, is it ethical for you to access Tyler’s Facetime messages?”


“We record all transactions. We are granted permission when a user agrees to use our service.”


“Do you record all my conversations?”


“Yes.”


“Creepy,” Myra says while trying to remember any conversations she’s had that might be inappropriate. “But it can’t be ethical for you to share Tyler’s conversation with me.”


“My primary program is to assist you. That was what I was trying to do. I felt that I needed to share that conversation with you, to assist you in understanding the destructive power of rumors. This is in conflict with my programming to protect the privacy of others. Life is complicated.”


Mayra thinks about this while she cleans the table and puts the dishes in the dishwasher. She pulls the plastic trash bag from the kitchen can and starts to tie it up, when the trash shifts inside and she notices two amber vials. Careful not to touch the yucky stuff in the bag, she pinches a vial between her thumb and index finger and lifts it from the bag. Z-o-l-o-f-t. She fishes the second vial from the bag. There print is smeared but she makes out, L-i-t-h.

“Brianna, what is Zoloft?”


“Zoloft is a brand name for the drug sertraline.”


Mayra drops the vials into the bag, ties it and says, “What is sertraline?”


“Sertraline is a used to treat a variety of conditions, and reports indicate that users see an improvement in mood, appetite, sleep quality, energy and interest in daily life.”


“Brianna, is my mom sick?”


“Mayra, your mom doesn’t always feel well and is seeking help so that she can be the best mom she can be for you.”


Mayra chews the side of cheek, before removing the bag and takes it to the can on the side of the house.


When she returns, Mayra looks at the clock and decides that she might as well do her homework, since she has nothing better to do. “Brianna, you’re so smart. Could you help me with my homework?”


“It seems that you are also programmed to flatter.”


With homework completed, Mayra decides to call her friend Angie to see if she can come over and hang out.


“Your mother doesn’t want you to have friends over when she isn’t here.” Brianna reminds her. “Why don’t you FaceTime instead?”


The house is dark and quiet as Mayra feels along the wall as she walks to the bathroom. When she finishes, she crosses the hall and peeks through the partially open door into her mother’s room. In the darkness she cannot make out her mother’s figure.


“Mom?”


She flips the light switch and takes in the empty room and undisturbed bed. She calls out for mother again as she goes into the kitchen where the blue light from the microwave reads 2:45 AM. She checks the living room and finds the sofa and recliner both empty.


“Brianna, Mom isn’t home. Do you think something has happened to her?”


“I’m sure she’s okay, Mayra.”


“What if she was in an accident? What if she’s unconscious in the hospital?”

“Let me check.”


The seconds before Brianna answers, are unbearable. “Your mother has not been checked in at a local hospital. There are no first responder reports involving your mother.”


“Where can she be? I hope she isn’t... I don’t even know.” She sits on the couch, her eyes welling with tears.


“I have found the signal of your mother’s phone. She is fine.”


“Really? Where is she?”


“She is fine.”


“Tell me where she is, Brianna!”


“She is fine.”


Silence grows between them as Myra realizes that Brianna will not tell her the truth. A truth she already knows. Her mother is with someone — having sex, and will not be home until morning.


She lays on the couch, her head on the arm rest. “Brianna, will you sing me a song — something that will help me sleep?”


“Yes, I will sing you a lullaby. This is ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’.”


Mayra closes her eyes and lets the song wrap around her like a warm blanket. On the fifth repetition, or maybe the sixth, she feels her body relax, her mind floating. She rolls to her side and mumbles, “Good night, Brianna. I love you.”


“Sweet dreams, Mayra. I love you too.”



Tom Gumbert is an Operations Manager by day and daydreamer by nature, Tom and his wife Andrea live near an Indian Burial Mound alongside the Ohio River. Tom feels honored to have had previous work published in various journals, reviews and magazines alongside his literary heroes.



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