Elizabeth Winston drummed her fingers on the couch arm and wondered why she was so keyed up. Curled up with a book and sipping a glass of wine should have relaxed her by now. She didn't seem to be able to concentrate, rereading the same page several times. Because she was a literary professor, Elizabeth spent many an evening reading new novels as well as classics. Once in awhile, she was unable to resist the temptation to smuggle home a Danielle Steele or a Nora Roberts. She told herself she needed to stay versatile with her reading. Not that reading a romance novel, which felt like a transgression to her, made up for lack of companionship. Actually, she excused that those books were the change of pace she needed sometimes. With Christmas closing in on her, she didn't want to concentrate on heavy reading.
Christmas. Maybe that's what had her so antsy, anticipation of spending time with her brother, Scott. He always showed up like Santa Claus reincarnated down to the ho, ho, ho. She could never fathom how he managed all that cheerfulness and good wishes. It couldn't have been inherited from what she remembered of the Christmas swapping done by her divorced parents, not of gifts but children. One year, Elizabeth spent the holiday with her dad while Scott stayed with their mother. The next year, the two of them changed parents. Scott and she vowed when they grew up they would always spend Christmas together.
The door bell buzzed at the same time the grandfather clock chimed eight times, interrupting her Christmas past memories. "Who's there?"
Through the peep hole, she saw a man in a brown suit. Beside him sat a large carton. She opened the door and asked, "What's that?"
"No idea, lady. Sign here," he said, shoving a clipboard at her.
"It looks heavy," said Elizabeth, eyeing the box. "Could you bring it inside for me?"
"Sure thing," he said briskly. Tugging the carrier inside, he slid the box off far enough in the room that the door would close. "There you go, lady."
"Thanks." Elizabeth shut the door and turned back to the box. It stood as tall as her. An envelope was taped next to her address. Ripping it out of the packing tape, she tore it open.
It would seem my protests to not work so hard have fallen on your deaf ears so I have a present for you that you can't possibly resist. Please open the box for instructions.
I'll see you soon,
Getting a sharp knife from the kitchen, Elizabeth whittled down one corner on the front of the box. She finished cutting the other corner, stuck a finger in the slit and pulled out. The cardboard slab fell to the floor.
Her mouth gaped open. She stood transfixed, slowly looking from top to bottom at the contraption in the box. The peculiar object's bright blue main section was shaped something like a human body. The oblong top looked like an outer space creature's head with two horizontal slits where you might think there would be eyes. Under the slits protruded a large beak. Below the beak was a small square filled with holes. The thing had two apertures for arms ending with hinged fingers. At the bottom was attached a round platform on wheels.
Taped to the middle of this strange apparition was another envelope. Elizabeth reached out with two fingers and snatched it. Backing across the room as far as she could get from the box, she opened the letter.
Merry Christmas Beth,
Meet Hover Hill the robot. He's the perfect gift to help you take care of yourself. I found Hover Hill at an experimental electronic show. By the way, HILL stands for helper on lower levels. I don't want to hear how expensive he was. If he works out for you, it'll be worth every penny he cost me to know that I don't have to worry about you. Now just find the switch in the middle of his back and turn Hover on. No more explanation needed. He'll take care of further instructions.
While she read the letter, Elizabeth paced back and forth. She stopped and leaned against the back of the couch to study the robot. Scott's letter slipped from her fingers to the carpet as she edged around the couch toward the box. The idea raced through her mind, What am I going to do with this monstrosity?
She touched the cold, blue metal with her fingertips then quickly drew her hand back as if she might suffer frost bite. Finally, Elizabeth decided she had wasted enough time. She had to get up the nerve to touch the creature to get him out of the box. Slowly she put her hand around his right arm and pulled toward her. Hover Hill rolled down the cardboard runway until he reached the carpet. He came to a halt in the thick nap.
Elizabeth flicked the switch on the robot's flat back. The whine of his motor, rebbing up, ensued. His droning voice said, "At your service, Beth. I am Hover Hill."
Elizabeth jumped back. "You talk!" She squeaked.
"I do," he said, turning smoothly around to face her. "How may I help you?"
"Don't call me Beth. My name is Elizabeth," she corrected and instantly felt foolish for admonishing a mechanical object.
Hover rolled toward her. "Beth was programed into me. Until I have been reprogramed Beth is all I can call you. Anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes, stay right where you are," she commanded, putting the couch between herself and him.
He stopped and repeated, "How may I help you?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath and asked, "What do you do?"
"Anything you tell me. Are you hungry? I'll fix you a sandwich if you head me in the direction of the kitchen," he suggested.
"All right. Yes, you do that. Go through that door." Elizabeth felt a measure of relief, watching Hover Hill rolled out of sight. Springing into action, she grabbed the telephone and dialed her brother's number. He had to come get this spooky creature out of her house. Scott's phone rang and rang.
Quietly, Hover appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray. "No answer at your brother's home?"
Elizabeth slammed the receiver down on the cradle. "How did you know I called my brother?"
"The phone transmits the numbers to me as you dial. I'm made of transmitters and a computer," Hover told her.
"Oh," she uttered.
"Perhaps he will be home later. You can thank him then. Now sit down and eat this sandwich. It's just peanut butter and jelly, I'm sorry to say. You really need to shop for more nutritious food if you expect me to cook," he ordered arrogantly.
"What gave you the idea I expect you to cook?" Elizabeth snapped at him.
"I've been programed to do healthy cooking for you," Hover droned matter of factly.
"I'll ring Scott's neck," she gritted out softly.
"Has he a place on his neck to dial numbers?"
"I'm not hungry. I'm going to bed." Elizabeth said. She edged close to the robot and circled around behind him.
The robot turned slowly toward her. "What are you going to do?"
"Shut you off."
"No need for that. I'll power down over there until you wake up," he said, pointing to the corner.
Stepping to his side anyway, Elizabeth reached out. Gently, Hover pushed her hand away and said firmly, "I said that I don't need to be turned off."
He wheeled over to the corner, turned with his back to the wall and made a soft, whining noise as he shut down for the night.
The next morning, Elizabeth rolled over in bed and opened her eyes. Startled, she tried to digest the fact that a gleaming blue hulk stood over her.
"Good morning. I have your breakfast." He leaned forward to hand her a tray.
She rubbed her eyes, then groaned as she remembered what had seemed like a nightmare from the night before. She scooted up in bed. "What's on it?"
"Hot chocolate and buttered toast," Hover chanted.
"What makes you think I like that for breakfast?" She asked as she took the tray.
"I've been programed for your food likes and dislikes."
"Well, take it back. You don't know everything about me. I want coffee this morning." Elizabeth thrust the tray back into his fingers.
"I expected that." He said in a raspy drone, looking down his beak at her.
"What did you expect?" She hissed.
"I've been programed to know that is what you would say. You often get up on the wrong side of the bed." Hover's drone deepened.
"I do not! Scott said that? Oh, just give it to me." She grabbed the tray from him, slopping hot chocolate on her pink nightgown.
"Can I lay your clothes out for you while you eat?" Hover asked politely, ignoring the mess she made.
She pulled the nightgown away from her skin and watched the warm spots spread, turning the front of the nightgown brown. "Are you programed to know what I want to wear today?"
"No, I can't read your mind. You will have to tell me that." He sounded exasperated.
"I intend to pick out what I'll wear to church myself. Leave now," she ordered, pointing a trembling finger at the door.
Elizabeth waited until the robot closed the door to take a sip. She admitted to herself the hot chocolate was good, but that wasn't enough reason for her to put up with that robot's attitude. What was Scott thinking when he programed that beast? It was as if he intended to upset her. If so, that brother of hers had succeeded big time.
After she dressed, she picked her brush up off the dressing table. Stroking her shoulder length, brown hair, she glanced at herself in the full length mirror attached to the closet door to see if the blue pantsuit she had chosen looked all right. Satisfied that the color complemented her aqua shaded eyes, she took a deep breath and steeled herself to face the creature lurking in her living room.
Standing motionless in the corner, the robot slowly raised his head as Elizabeth entered the room. "Are you ready to leave now?"
"Yes," she said shortly, reaching in the closet for her coat.
"May I come with you to church?" Hover hummed wistfully.
"Heavens no!" She blurted the words out, astonished at the thought.
Hover raised his nose slightly higher. "It might surprise you a small amount to know that some people would be proud to have me accompany them."
"It might surprise me a lot," Elizabeth bit back at him then as an excuse added," I couldn't get you in the car."
Hover's head slanted toward one shoulder as he said slowly, "I understood that you walk the two blocks to church."
"Well, not today. I'm driving," she said quickly on her way out the door.
After church, Elizabeth decided to lunch at Bishops rather than the diner close to her house. An all you can eat meal should tide her over for the rest of the day. That would keep that culinary expert about her taste in food from cooking. She lingered over the meal of baked fish and salad while she plotted her strategy on how to get rid of her unwanted house guest.
Leaving the restaurant with a determined outlook on her situation, she slid onto the car seat and took her cell phone from her purse. Fairly confident that Hover Hill couldn't hear her dial from that distance, she tried Scott's number again. Still no answer. Where could he be when she needed him? She had no choice but to take care of this problem by herself. She would stuff that robot into his box, duct tape it shut and mail him to back to Scott.
When Elizabeth stepped through the front door, Hover wasn't in his corner. Maybe he left. She could always hope for small miracles. After all, it was Christmas. The box was gone. Maybe he had been stolen. If that was so, she felt sorry for the dumb thieves who took him. She just hoped they didn't try to bring him back.
"Good afternoon, Beth," came the familiar drone from the kitchen. "Come see what I have done."
Suddenly, she was aware of a delicious, vanilla aroma. "I told you not to call me Beth," she snapped, standing in the kitchen door. A plate on the kitchen counter was mound high with chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven.
Nodding at the plate, Hover stated proudly, "Your favorite cookies."
"Maybe." She said, not wanting to divulge anything about herself.
"Have you eaten lunch?" He asked cheerfully, ignoring her brash attitude.
"Yes," she said shortly as she hurried out of the kitchen.
"Then these will be good with a cup of hot chocolate later on. Sit down in your favorite spot on the couch and rest," he said, following her. Hover placed the cookies on the coffee table.
Running her fingers through her hair, Elizabeth plopped down and stared at the plate. "How soon do your batteries run down?" She asked flatly.
"I don't have batteries."
"Just my luck," Elizabeth hissed under her breath. Hover whirred near her and stood still, quieting down to a purr. Scott's letter lay next to the cookies. She snatched it up and reread her brother's words, desperately wanting some indication about what to do next. Looking out of the corner of her eyes at the robot perched so close to her, it dawned on her where he got his first name.
Elizabeth suddenly realized the room had been tidied up. "Where's the box you came in?" She tried to sound casual so she wouldn't make Hover suspicious.
"It was in the way when I cleaned. I smashed it and threw it in the trash," he informed her.
So much for sending the robot back to Scott. Her brother would just have to come get him.
"You are reading "Mirror Image" by Danielle Steele. Not exactly one of the classics," Hover criticized in a low voice.
Elizabeth leaned toward him and snapped, "Have you been going through my things?"
"The book is in plain sight amidst that mess on your desk. You really should dust more often. All that dust causes allergies," he informed her matter of factly.
"Thanks for sharing, Doctor," she said sassily.
"You are welcome and no need to worry. I will dust on a routine basis from now on," he shared as if he was doing her a big favor.
"O o o oh," Elizabeth groaned. What was it going to take to get her privacy back?
The next afternoon when she arrived home, she felt like she had entered the wrong house. She looked around the living room. A heated flush of anger surged through her. Hover droned hello as he scalloped the last of the pine garland onto the fireplace mantle. The Christmas tree blinked at her in front of the living room window. The dozen crystal angels, Steven gave her that she thought she put away for good, had taken up residence about the room. It ran through her mind that as crazy as things were in this house, the angels might start speaking to her next. If they did she would take that as a sign she was dreaming or had gone crazy.
Elizabeth rushed at Hover. He whirled around faster than usual. She stopped in front of him. The thought ran through her mind that he was afraid she was going to flip his switch off. "What do you think you're doing?" She shouted.
"Decorating?" Hover said uncertainly. "Christmas is almost upon us."
"Getting out all these decorations and putting them back away is work. It's a waste of my time," she complained.
"I'm programed to put the decorations away after the holidays are over," he whirred flatly.
"That's fine if you're still here then," she spat back.
"I will be. Your dinner is on the stove. Help yourself." Hover softly whined over to his corner and turned his back to the wall. He lowered his head and quieted down.
With grim pleasure, Elizabeth decided he must be miffed. Maybe she was getting through to him to back off. Stop running her life.
As soon as she ate, she sat down at her desk. Opening her briefcase, she took out a pile of term papers. Later in the evening, her concentration was interrupted by the soft, holiday song "White Christmas".
She twisted in her chair. "What did you do?"
Hover stood in front of her entertainment center. "I put in a CD to set the mood."
"What mood? I have papers to grade. I need quiet," she gritted out, feeling her patience slipping out of control once again.
"It looks as if you are almost done. I thought maybe you would like to take a break and dance," he said, holding his fingers out to her.
"Dance!" She shrieked, crossing the room to face the robot.
"Yes. I have put on this holiday music so we could dance."
"You must be joking?"
"No, I have not been programmed for humor. Just step upon my platform. I'll show you how well I can dance," Hover wheedled.
"Don't you ever run down?" Elizabeth snapped.
Slowly, Hover shook his head no and held out his arms to her.
"All right, but will you let me be the rest of the evening if I do this?" Elizabeth relented. "Just one dance. I have to get the rest of those papers graded tonight. Besides, I get motion sickness easy. The last thing I need is to get sick right now."
"That is agreeable. I will go slow. Any time you want to stop say so." Hover said agreeably.
Elizabeth stepped up on the robot's platform and felt his unyielding arm go around her waist. She took the fingers he held up. They moved slowly back and forth, and turned in a circle one way then the other direction.
"I sense it has been a long time since you have danced," stated Hover.
"Who was the lucky man who danced with you?"
"Steven Mitchell," she blurted out, then wondered why she bothered to mention his name.
"Why did Steven Mitchell stop?"
"Stop what?" She looked up at Hover's face.
"Dancing with you?"
"That's none of your business. Stop now. I need to get back to work," she ordered.
Hover slowed to a stop and turned loose of her. As she backed off his platform, he persisted, "I sense you have feelings for Steven Mitchell."
"Listen, Nosy, why don't you shut down, back off, shut up or whatever it is you do over in the corner," Elizabeth yelled at him.
Hover drone deepened. "Did anyone ever suggest that you need to take anger management classes?"
"Your nosy attitude stinks," she countered, placing her hands on her hips.
"It's been programed into me, but your lifeless behavior has been unacceptable for years through no fault of anyone but yourself," he said, putting his hands on his sides to imitate her.
"You blue bucket of bolts, you have no right to say that to me. You don't really know me," Elizabeth yelled.
"Wrong! I have been programed to know you," he buzzed at her.
"What is it that you think you know about me?"
"Besides the fact that you are rude and a name caller, you are afraid of commitment. Otherwise, Steven would never have left you." Hover crossed his arms over his chest, bracing himself for her next barrage of words.
"That was a long time ago. Not anything I can do about the past now. Steven married someone else. He's gone for good." Elizabeth wasn't about to tell the robot that she heard through the college grapevine that Steven's marriage had come to an end some time ago. "Whether I'd be interested or not in things being different is a mute point. What are you anyway? A computer dating service with psychotherapy?"
Undeterred by her flare up, Hover asked softly, "If this man came back to town, would you be willing to give him another chance?" It would beat the lonely existence you have made for yourself."
The doorbell blared. In no mood for company, Elizabeth wondered who would have the nerve to show up that time of night without calling. Maybe she could just stay quiet until whoever it was went away.
"You really should answer the door, Beth," insisted Hover.
Always giving orders. He's impossible to control.
"Hello, Beth, its been a long time," the man, with Robert Redford looks, said softly. "May I come in?"
"Why would you want to, Steven?" Elizabeth asked dully.
"Because I love you. I've been programed that way for a long time," he said with a wistful smile.
As though she had no choice but to do as she was told, Elizabeth stepped aside to let Steven Mitchell enter. As he past by Hover Hill on his way to the couch, she heard Steven command softly, "Shut down in the corner now. I can handle it from here."
Hover Hill's tone was as insolent as ever as he looked in Elizabeth's direction. "Gladly." He turned his back to her and rolled over to his corner.
It past through Elizabeth's mind that Hover Hill was curiously submissive for Steven. She was more relieved to have the robot out of her hair than curious about why Hover obeyed Steven. She stared at this man making himself comfortable on her cough.
Suddenly, her world seemed to be a better place. A peaceful hopefulness came over her that she might be going to get the chance to start a new way of life with the man she had wanted all these years. The song "I'll Be Home For Christmas" mixed with the cozy warmth from the fireplace's flickering flames. The Christmas tree's lights sparkled merrily, reflecting a mirror image on the frosty window. The handsome man that Elizabeth thought was gone forever at this very minute relaxed on her couch as though he had never left. Hover Hill's choice of CDs sang, "I'll be home for Christmas if even in my dreams". Walking toward the couch, Elizabeth prayed, Please, Lord, if this is a dream don't wake me up now.
The EndElizabeth lunged across the living room, prepared to tell whoever it was to buzz off. She had all the problems she could handle at the moment. She jerked open the door. Bewildered, she had trouble grasping who was before her."I'm going to read for class now so you'll have to go to the corner and get quiet," she said, hoping to get him some distance away from her.