Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: “The Wrong Refrigerator”

Allie Tucker’s new refrigerator gives a whole new meaning
to the term “super-cold state”.

Cover of Asimov's SF Magazine, September/October 2018

Rose-tipped azure light haloed the back of the Tuckers’ new refrigerator. Allie wished she could blame the effect on a wayward sunbeam. Unfortunately it was raining, and even if it hadn’t been, the kitchen windows faced the wrong direction to catch the evening light. Besides, the problem couldn’t be the light. The room’s other brushed steel appliances sported the same cold gray sheen as always. She shook her head. “Something’s seriously wrong with this refrigerator.”

“Yeah,” her husband Kyle said. He hitched a glass under the ice dispenser. “The damn icemaker’s broken.”

The fridge is leaking freaky colored light, and he’s worried about ice? What’s wrong with this picture? A grinding gurgle echoed from the freezer compartment. If his new Bimmer made that kind of noise, he’d be howling for a mechanic, not randomly jabbing the controls.

“Piece of shit!” Kyle roared. His fist slammed the control screen.

Allie cringed. His rage came out of nowhere. Not that she was in any danger. Not really. He’d never raised a hand to her. He didn’t need to. When the guy with the anger management issues was six-foot-two and solid as a tank, the possibility of violence was enough to keep smaller people in line.

Machines, too, apparently. A flare of green lit the screen. A whirr thrummed from the back of the refrigerator.

Kyle flashed a cocky smile. “Works every time.”

He replaced his glass under the dispenser. The green light winked out.

“Fuck it,” he snarled. “You tell those assholes at Big Buy they’d better fix this thing by Saturday, or they’re going to wish they’d never heard Kyle H. Tucker, Esq.”

More and more lately, she wished she hadn’t.

He stomped down the stairs to the basement and its fully operational fridge. Allie slumped against the dining room pass-through and tried to relax. Hot and cold running rage was just another management strategy he was trying on for size. Dogged as he was when it came to sucking up to the senior partners at Blaylock, Mills and Chang, he lacked the patience for sustained emotional abuse.

At least, that’s what she told herself, ignoring the seed of disquiet that had taken root in her brain. If she truly believed otherwise, she’d need to find herself a divorce lawyer who was a bigger shark than Mills or Chang. Not likely.

Across the top of the control screen, a line of colored lights blinked sequentially from left to right, then in groups of two, three and five. Was the machine was having second thoughts? Smart machine. She grabbed a glass off the drainboard and held it under the dispenser.

Nothing. She tried resetting it per the instructions, but the refrigerator didn’t like her fingers any better than Kyle’s. Now she understood why the delivery guy scrawled his phone number on the receipt. He wasn’t making a pass. He was trying to prevent a complaint. With all the “special features” attached to this model, it probably happened all the time. Too bad he used a Sharpie. The paper had landed in the only wet spot on the dark granite counter. All that was left of the numbers was a smear.

The kitchen clock read seven forty-five—fifteen minutes before Big Buy’s help line closed for the night. She rubbed her temples. After working from home all day while she waited for the delivery guy, she was wiped—and she still had to buy groceries. They couldn’t afford Kyle’s idea of stocking the larder. Literally. Kyle shopped like he’d already made partner. But it would be worth falling asleep over a shopping cart if she could arrange a service call tonight.

*

Nereesha, the Big Buy rep assigned to Allie’s call, sighed. “I’m sorry, your address isn’t in my system.”

“It has to be,” Allie said. “Big Buy charged my account.”

“Charges are handled by Accounting. They close at five.”

Allie pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t need Accounting. I need someone to fix the refrigerator you delivered today.”

“Ma’am, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. Big Buy didn’t deliver anything to your address. There aren’t any deliveries scheduled for Radnor, Pennsylvania, all this week.”

“And I’m telling you, the refrigerator is here, in my kitchen. I’m looking straight at it.” Not the smartest move with the twin jackhammers of hunger and stress pounding the inside of her skull. The refrigerator’s aura had dissipated, but glints of two-toned color remained embedded in the minute striations of the brushed steel finish.

Sky-blue pink. The words popped out of nowhere—the imaginary color her high school boyfriend used to describe the inconceivable. Jason Firth. She hadn’t thought about Jase in years.

“Ma’am, that’s not possible,” Nereesha insisted. “The Centauri XLII is on back order.”

“I could send you a picture,” Allie cooed. If Kyle was polishing his anger-as-management tool, she was becoming expert in passive aggression. “Not just the fridge. I have the paperwork right here.”

She rattled the receipt for emphasis. “It says Big Buy at the top, with this number directly underneath. The installer was…J. Firth?” Her voice lifted in question. “It can’t be.”

No, it couldn’t. Sure, the guy looked vaguely familiar and was more or less the right age. That didn’t count. She’d spent high school and college surrounded by lanky guys with bottle-bottom glasses and bad haircuts. Based on the ones she’d run into since, some of them never changed. Which was why “J. Firth” couldn’t be Jase. He wouldn’t be caught dead working a blue collar job this close to their old high school. He might be recognized by somebody with a lower grade point.
“That’s for sure. We won’t be getting any more Centauri XLIIs for at least two weeks.”

“Okay, but I still have a broken refrigerator, and my husband’s boss and his wife are coming to dinner this weekend.”

“Sounds like a job for our Service Squad.”

“Okay. Connect me. Please.”

“I can schedule them from here.”

“Great,” Allie said. “When’s your next opening?”

“Two weeks from tomorrow.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, ma’am. We’re not allowed to jest with the customers.”

Well, somebody was, and if Allie ever figured out who, she planned to make them really sorry. Until then she shouldn’t snark at Nereesha. The woman hadn’t done anything wrong, and Allie needed that service appointment. She took a deep breath and found the calm, eminently reasonable tone she used on under-performing staff at the bank where she worked.

“That’s not acceptable, Nereesha. That’s not what Big Buy advertises, and that’s not what it says on my service contract.” She crossed her fingers. She hadn’t gotten around to reading all the two-point print. “I know about these things; my husband is an attorney.”

“We-e-ell,” Nereesha wavered. “You could always buy another refrigerator.”

“Do a swap, you mean?” Kyle would hate it. He had his little lawyer’s heart set on the new Centauri. Appliances had snob rankings—who knew? Still, it was better than nothing.

“The Centauri XXXVI has the same footprint as the XLII,” Nereesha said. “The shelves are different, and it doesn’t have as many apps. But from the outside you can’t hardly tell the difference. And the XXXVI is in stock. I can have one delivered in fourteen days.”

Allie hung up. It was either that or throw the phone at the wall. If it broke, Kyle would insist on replacing it with something that cost almost as much as the fridge. Plus, it would delay the search for a repair person. Regardless of whether the refrigerator was on back order (after years of dealing with off-site fulfillment centers, she had her doubts), she balked at ordering a replacement without a refund in hand. They were already pushing their credit limit. She would need to dip into her PayPal savings—the account not in both their names—to pay for repairs.

Could she hold out for Big Buy? Forget the icemaker and the light show. If the fridge worked, she could always buy ice.

The ebonized wood handle felt warm and silky to the touch, a nice contrast to the toothy cold of the freezer bay. The XLII lacked a back-up icemaker, but her old-fashioned plastic trays were already frozen. Score!

She opened the door to the refrigerator compartment. In addition to cold air and new plastic smell, the chamber sported a quart of half-and-half on the center shelf. Where did that come from? She shrugged. Kyle probably brought it up from the basement. She was glad he had. She could use a cup of coffee right now, regardless of what it did to her sleep patterns. She tossed a pod in the coffee maker.

Her good mood lasted until she unscrewed the cap on the carton. The smell of feta cheese fermenting in paint thinner made her eyes water. Hurriedly she replaced the cap and checked the carton’s expiration date.

What the hell? The red design on the front of the carton was blurred, as if the plastic coating had come too close to something hot. But the use-by date stamped into the top was still legible. Ironically, it was the same day she and Kyle closed on the house, nine months ago…

Read more in Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018.