by Lisa Nohner
All you had to do was keep an eye on her. Bare minimum: keep her safe. For Chrissakes, that was what they were paying you for. Her safety was your only responsibility. All the other stuff— the stories you read to her, the movies you took her to, the games you played—those were extras. No matter how many times you let her stay up late, or took her to the playground, or forked over sixty bucks for a stable to house her plastic ponies, none of those things can make up for this moment.
“Ma’am?” Near the swing-set, a man with a large black dog is shouting. “Ma’am, I’m calling the police!”
“Don’t! It’s okay, it’s alright!” The sleeves of your jacket are steeped in oily lake water, and the planks of the dock dig into your stomach and ribs. AnnaBella is face down, sinking fast. All you see are her lovely golden curls, rising from the nape of her neck. Oh God, the card. The fucking card.
When you wrench her from the water, she is so much heavier than you ever remembered. As you throw her over your shoulder, steam rises from her body. Her little limbs lock and twitch, lock and twitch.
“Miss, please. Let me help, I’m CPR Certified!” A middle-aged blonde woman is on your heels, following you to the parking lot. She reaches out to grab your coat. You shake her off, hurrying to your SUV. AnnaBella weighs a thousand pounds. Your freezing arms are aching. The Silver Lake geese clear your path, hissing as they move.
Sirens whine in the distance. When you finally reach the car, you punch in the code to unlock the doors. As you deposit AnnaBella, flinching and shuddering into the backseat, it seems a blessing that you cannot see her face.
“Miss?” The blonde woman is peering over your shoulder into the vehicle. She is slight and tan, the platinum of her hair betrayed by the sight of dark roots. Diamonds flash in her earlobes. Probably she works at the Mayo Clinic. Clearly she thinks this is her problem. “Miss, just wait for the ambulance to arrive. Your daughter needs medical attention.”
“She’s not my daughter,” you spit.
But as you burn out of the parking lot, missing the arrival of the ambulance by mere seconds, it occurs to you that you have lied.
Your brain feels full of broken glass. The stretch of Highway 52 from Rochester to Minneapolis could not move any more slowly on a Thursday afternoon. Twice, you’ve pulled over to ensure AnnaBella (AB, as you sometimes call her) is fully covered by the fleece blanket in your backseat. It’s too bad you left the phone charger at home, because you’d love to call Jake right now. Or Tech Support. They’d know what to do.
During the last pit stop, you opened the door and immediately vomited. Since then, your mouth tastes acidic, and your stomach is raw and achy. AB could die.
In your imagination, the normally placid Dr. Lang is furious. Congratulations, dingbat: you now owe the University and the company a huge sum of money that you could never dream of repaying.
AB makes strange noises in the back seat. It’s a cross between the sound of whirring
gears and mewling kitties. You reach behind the seat and clap your hand around the toe of her orange sneaker.
“Once upon a time,” you begin, your voice measured, controlled, “there was a little mermaid. She lived at the very bottom of the ocean. She and her beautiful older sisters spent every single day tending lush underwater gardens, full of big bright flowers.”
You pause. On an ordinary day, AB would pipe up, “But she wanted leeeegggs!” or she might ask, “When can we have some sisters?” On an ordinary day, AB might play with the rings on your fingers and tell you “I have a garden full of dandelions!” But today AB is silent.
“AB.” Your throat is constricted. “AB, babydoll?”
More mewling. Grinding. Her body clenches, in the way yours does before you fall asleep, a hypnic jerk. For a moment, you can pretend she’s only napping. In the distance, you see the exit for the University of Minnesota. Your grip tightens around her shoe.
“The little mermaid wanted nothing more in the world than to be human,” you tell her, “wanted nothing more than to walk along the shore like the other lovely maidens.”
Ordinarily, AB would make a face.
“Don’t want to be human,” she would say. “I want to be a mermaid princess.” For some reason, as time went on, that became harder and harder for you to hear.
It was sort of okay to be a pretend Mom. Even fun, sometimes. You didn’t expect it to be: mostly you thought motherhood was stretch marks and mini-vans, fat thighs and Lifetime movies. Being a mom was a life sentence, and that’s what you told Jake. You explained you couldn’t do his dishes, his laundry, and edit the spelling on his job applications while also cooking dinner and trying to show a baby the ropes of the world. That’s why you broke up. It’s also why he lingers.
As you remove AB from the backseat, you heft her over your shoulder and make sure the blanket covers her from head to toe. She reeks of Silver Lake. As you haul her across the quad toward the psychology department, you keep your hood up and your head down, ignoring the strange ticks and chirps she makes. Fortunately, the college students milling around campus regard you with minimal interest. She’s sleeping. Only sleeping.
“Ms. Armada?” Kristen, Dr. Lang’s young secretary, squints at you from behind her desk. She glances at the calendar hanging on the wall beside her. “You and AB aren’t due for another appointment until November.”
“Kristen,” you use a stern voice that explains you have little patience and even less time, “I need to speak with Dr. Lang right now.”
Kristen looks at the bundle in your arms, realization washing over her.
“Right away.” She picks up the phone, cups her hand around the mouth piece and turns away.
You take a seat on one of the stiff Ikea couches. You cradle AB to you, and the gesture feels alien. She’s usually so warm, her little chest expands and contracts, her heart beat matches yours. But against your breast, she is stiff and wooden.
The minutes tick by. It is 5:04. Jake is probably at Chuck E. Cheese right now, waiting for the two of you to arrive. It is date night: AB gets to watch the animatronic bears sing and dance on stage, and afterward, she will sit between the two of you at the children’s movie of her choice. This is Thursday, the day that weekly brings you and Jake closer together. You stroke AB’s back. She would be so disappointed.
Kristen replaces the phone and dives into her paperwork without saying anything. Pretty
soon, you’re going to have to bark something at her. Just as you’re trying to decide what that will be, Dr. Naomi Lang appears in the doorway.
AB’s terrible dead weight makes it hard for you to stand, but you manage.
“Oh dear,” her bony face pulls into a tight frown. “Oh dear, come with me.”
Dr. Lang hands AB off to a short man in a lab coat, and mutters something you can’t really hear, something about bringing her down to the IT lab. He holds her at arm’s length, like a soiled toy. You hang your head, and follow the sound of Dr. Lang’s high heels down the long white hallway that leads to her office.
Inside, you remove your coat, throw it on the sofa and begin to pace the floor.
“Ms. Armada,” Dr. Lang begins, “Perhaps you should take a seat?”
“I can’t,” You tell her, and catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Mascara has spilled down your cheeks and stained them black, casting shadows where they should not be. You are pale, your skin the white-green you normally see under fluorescent bulbs. Disgusted, you turn away. “I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Very well,” she opens up the file cabinet beside her desk and withdraws a huge folder. She begins to page through it. At one point she looks up. “I could see about sedation . . .”
“No, no.” You shake your head adamantly. Jake and you have a rule: no drugs. Never any drugs.
Dr. Lang nods. “I suppose you know that this disqualifies you from successful completion of the study.”
“What?” You spin on your heels, slam your hands down on her desk. “Because I don’t want you to shoot a drug up my arm I can’t complete the study? What the hell kind of—”
Dr. Lang wheels back in her chair. Her rheumy eyes are narrowed.
“Of course not, Ms. Armada. You can’t complete the study because you were negligent of
The walls, decorated with landscapes printed with motivational sayings and a variety of college degrees, seem to shake. AnnaBella. You damaged AnnaBella. You broke her. This information is deflating. Slowly, you find your way over to the large plush chair in the corner nearest the window. Outside the sky is dark. Minneapolis is lighting its lamps. As you stare, the orange streetlights begin to blur, become strings of stolid fireflies.
“It was the ducks,” you say. “She wanted to touch them.”
“Ducks?” Dr. Lang asks.
“Geese,” you lean back, eyes squinched shut. “Those stupid Canadian Geese. She likes to chase them. She chased them right into Silver Lake.”
Dr. Lang begins to scribble on a large yellow legal pad.
“This was not supposed to happen,” you swipe at your face with the sleeves of your sweater. “My friend Jake, he reads a lot of Sci-Fi, and he said Isaac . . . Isaac . . .”
“That guy. He said Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics would prevent this from happening.”
You can’t believe you’re telling her this. This was the comforting bullshit Jake often fed you to calm you down when you had nightmares AnnaBella snagged her arm on the big toy, and a series of circuits started spilling into the sand.
Dr. Lang smiles at you in the way you often smile at handicapped people, or the elderly. Apologetically and with pity.
“I’m afraid Sci-Fi literary tropes are not part of AnnaBella’s unique constitution, Ms. Armada. You’ve been at all of our meetings. You’ve read the literature, haven’t you?” Dr. Lang’s brow wrinkles with worry. “Surely you know that developmentally, AnnaBella is an ordinary three year old. Her mental faculties are designed to reflect that.”
You would like to be outraged. You would like to stand up and get right up in her face again, scream something at her, just so you can feel as if you are on your own side again. But instead you stay seated, staring blankly at a degree just above her head.
“Have you ever seen Sesame Street?” she asks gently.
You nod. In fact, you were raised on it. In fact, you’ve seen it recently. In fact, you watched it this morning, because AB can’t get enough of the Cookie Monster. She won’t eat her breakfast unless you do his voice. Tears spring to your eyes.
“Small Friends Robotics utilized the same model of limitations that the Children’s Workshop used to characterize the puppets on Sesame Street.”
“My baby is not Big Bird.”
“No. But she is an almost-ordinary three year old, whose world view is highly plastic. The ducks—”
“Geese,” you correct.
“AnnaBella chased them into the water because her perception, or psychic boundaries, are flexible. She does not know she cannot swim, because she needs you to teach her that.”
You mutter something. “What’s that, Ms. Armada?”
“She wanted to be a mermaid.”
You hang up the hotel phone. Down the hall, the ice machine rattles. Jake is going to meet you soon. This will be the first time you’ve slept in the same room together in at least a year, and you are happy that you got a room with two beds. You didn’t expect him to cry.
“She’s going to be okay, isn’t she?” His voice was weak, pitiful.
“They want me to give my exit interview tomorrow.”
He was coming. He would call in sick to work tomorrow and spend the weekend with you. When he arrived, he would fold you into his enormous arms and try to absorb some of your pain. He was a Daddy now. Sometimes, AB called him that by accident. He never corrected her. You recline on the stiff hotel bed, and clutch a pillow to your midsection. You grow tired of shifting, and decide to turn on the television. As you flip through, you swiftly learn Thursday has nothing to offer but sitcoms, pay-per-view options, and a single HBO channel. You land there, stay a moment. Everyone on the TV is crying.
“Stories are not real! You’re not real!” one character, a mother, says to her son. Something in your chest uncoils. You can’t stand it. You have to turn the channel.
At 10 pm, Jake arrived with a duffel bag that contained a change of clothes for you, his toothbrush, and two bottles of wine.
The two of you are sitting on beds opposite each other. Jake is wearing basketball shorts and the Pantera sweatshirt you hate, and repeatedly running his hands over his shaven scalp. The day’s stress has made him seem significantly older. This was supposed to happen later. When you were both in your late thirties, and your daughter missed her curfew. Or your son failed to come home from a party.
“We’ve got to do something,” he says, “They can fix her. They have to be able to fix her.” After three glasses of wine, Jake’s buzzed hope has only compounded your disillusionment.
“They’re going to fix her,” you tell him. “But that doesn’t mean we’re ever going to see her again.”
Jake messes with the strings on the hood of his sweatshirt. He’s chewing the inside of his cheek, the way he did when you broke up with him. “Everything’s going to change,” he says. You nod. There’s no coming back from this. “I want to tell you something.”
You lay back on the bed. If he’s going to tell you he loves you, this is not the fucking time. You cover your face with a pillow.
“It’s about AB,” he explains. You look at him.
He takes a long swig of wine, straight from the bottle.
“One time, we watched this movie . . .”
Like any little girl, AB could watch the same movie over and over again. Each trip you made to the brightly colored world of singing animation, she was floored with delight. Admittedly, it began as a mini-experiment. Surely, you and Jake decided, a machine could never find enjoyment in being exposed to the same stimuli repeatedly.
“I think we probably watched All Dogs Go to Heaven like five times. Each time I swear, she was laughing and clapping at different parts.”
You nod. She lived and died for that movie.
“I asked her what her favorite part was, and she just turned to me and explained ‘Even the
bad doggies go to Heaven.’ “
Ouch. You could imagine her tiny voice stumbling through the phrase. You sip your wine,
and nod for him to continue.
“So I did that stupid thing that adults sometimes do,” he shoves his hands in the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt. “You know, ask this really complex question of a little kid, in hopes of receiving that profound wisdom they give out in movies?”
“That’s okay, Jake. I did that too.” And you did. Having a little girl was like having a magic 8-ball or your very own miniature Confucius.
“AB, I asked, what’s Heaven?” Jake says.
You grin, anticipating her response.
“’My party,’ she said. Just like that. Like she’d been waiting a long time to treat someone to that information. ‘Lots of people are there,’ she told me, ‘And they’re all having fun. We dance, and roller skate, and swim, and eat real cookies.’”
“She said real cookies?” You sit up straight.
“I know! That’s like the first time she ever let on that the NutriVox shit we give her is fake!” he is excited. “Then, she pinched my cheek and told me that real cookies had real chocolate chips.”
Your heart drops.
“Is that all?”
“No . . .Well, maybe.” he frowns, “Then she told me that in Heaven, or her party, or whatever, I have more hair. So I asked why, you know? She’s never seen me with hair.”
“She rubbed the top of my head and said, ‘In Heaven, we are mermaids. You and me and Mommy.’”
Mermaids? Jake probably thought it was cute, but it made you ill. Hans Christian Anderson didn’t give the Little Mermaid a soul. She had to earn it.
You fall back against the pillows. This isn’t what you wanted to hear. Maybe you, like Jake, were expecting that this story would reveal some important wisdom—some kernel of existential truth that would get the two of you through this awful time. But instead, it only served to remind you that your baby girl was, in truth, just a baby girl. One who only wanted to go swimming. One who only wanted to chase geese.
“Great Jake. Thanks for that. Good Kodak moment.” You are unable to disguise your disappointment.
“The thing is, Joanie, she figured out the NutriVox thing. And she has ideas about Heaven.”
“So?” You throw a pillow at him. “It doesn’t matter, Jake.”
“It does matter,” he insists, finishing the rest of his wine. “I swear to God it does.”
“Ms. Armada, the following are a series of experiences Model 1609 has recorded and saved as meaningful.”
1609 – though you’ve heard them before, the numbers sound foreign. They offend you. “Call her AnnaBella,” Then, “Please.”
“My apologies,” Dr. Lang says, cautiously, “During the exit interview, Small Friends Robotics has encouraged us to use distancing language to facilitate the process of separation between participants and the product.”
“I’m not calling her 1609.” To hell with that.
The exit interview is much tougher than you expected. The video tapes Dr. Lang plays for you are distorted—the audio garbled, the picture blurry. Apparently, the recordings are only partially salvageable, given the damage done to the memory card during AB’s Silver Lake incident. She shows clips, asks questions, takes notes, and repeats.
“If you would, Mrs. Armada, please describe the moment in which you felt certain of your attachment to Model 1609.”
“You mean, when I knew I loved her?”
“I suppose,” she says.
“Probably it had to be the time . . .” You pause. “Wait. Excuse me, how does this function? What’s the point of my telling you this?”
“Part of the purpose of this study is to determine the depth of relationship crafted between participants and our technology. I have here,” she twirls a small black disk, the size of a half-dollar in the air, “the moment in which 1609 believed itself most attached to you.”
“Oh.” That disk has fast become the most important thing in your world. Proof that you were loved.
“However, thus far none of our participants descriptions have matched the ‘Love Moment,’” she makes air quotations, “memories filed by the A.I.”
You close your eyes.
“Why are you doing this to me? Why can’t I just finish the study? Is this because I fucked up?”
“Ms. Armada, please—don’t be so hard on yourself. You were a perfectly adequate test subject. These things happen. That’s the whole reason Small Friends asked we conduct this study. Besides, if you referred to your contract, you’d note that your trial period was due to expire next month.”
“Say that again.”
“Your status as a participant was due for expiration in thirty days.”
“That’s not what you said.” Your chewed fingernails bite into the flesh of your palms. “You said trial period.”
Dr. Lang frowns, and begins busying herself with your paper work. She shuffles it and reshuffles it. “I assure you, I will explain once we conclude this exit interview.” You take a deep breath. At this point, you have no choice but to cooperate. “Again, Ms. Armada, describe to me the moment you felt most sure . . . ”
It was back in late January, about a month into the study.
“Can’t you just take her with you?” Jake whined into the phone.
“Jacob Douglas. I am not bringing a three-year-old to Walmart at 2:30 am.”
“Be over in ten.” He sighed, because he owed you. Because after all the break up drama, you had somehow managed to stay friends. Because you’d picked his ass up from the bar enough times to qualify for sainthood.
When he arrived, you handed him the baby monitor, whose mate you kept in AB’s room. “She won’t wake up, but she’s defragging or updating, or one of those things they make us do once a month.” You grab your purse. “She’s connected to my laptop right now, so whatever you do, don’t unplug her from the ethernet cord.”
“I don’t know why you don’t just shut her down. She’s in sleep mode anyway,” he collapsed onto your sofa.
“I’m not going to shut her down just to run out and buy some tampons, dick.”
“What do you want with those anyway?” Jake asked, genuinely curious. Puzzled. You ignored him.
Thirty minutes later, and one box of tampons richer, you returned to find all the lights on in the house. When you got inside, you found Jake pacing the living room, his face pained.
“What the hell, Jacob?”
He held up a hand to shush you.
“Yeah, see, well I heard some weird noises, like this rattling sound, and when I walked in her eyes were open. And her mouth was moving. Yeah, 1609, Joanie Armada, she said she was in sleep mode, so I just tried to flip her power switch to see if—”
The words that followed didn’t even land. You were on your way to AB’s bedroom, your pulse racing. “I leave you alone for half an hour Jake!”
In her bedroom, AB was poised upright, but she was rigid, like a doll—like a wax sculpture. Her eyes were open, staring dumbly at nothing, and her mouth was agape. Even in sleep mode, she had never looked so unrealistic. This had never happened to you before. You recoiled in horror, and shut the door, steeling yourself against it.
Jake was still babbling to tech support, when you realized how even connecting her to the laptop had begun to feel natural, normal. Strange as the situation may have been, in that room, your baby girl was in trouble. She was sick and it was your responsibility to handle it, no matter how much it scared you.
“Bring me the goddamn phone.”
Jake trudged over and handed it to you, and started to enter AB’s room. You stopped him in his path.
“Don’t. You’ve done enough.”
On the phone, the tech support representative instructed you to stay calm, and remove her hard disk from the tiny slot on the back of her neck. This was okay, they assured you—if she had been shut down, she would lose some of her files, but hopefully, the hard-disk would still have enough information saved for her to resemble the little girl she was.
“You mean,” the phone was supported by your shoulder as you carefully raised her hair up from her back and ejected the hard-disk, “you mean there’s a chance she could be permanently damaged?”
Jake was standing in the doorway, looking sorry.
“There’s a chance,” tech support said, “you’ll have to send her in for repairs.”
You felt awful. You couldn’t believe your failure to parent.
“Get the hell out of here,” you instructed Jake. He lowered his head shamefully and walked back to the living room.
The next fifteen minutes were something out of a horror movie. You had to take off AB’s night shirt and reach under her armpit. You had to peel back the flap of synthetic skin that shielded her reset button. When you pushed it, tech support advised that though you may feel very unsettled, you still had to watch her eyes slide back and forth in her head like marbles, and listen to her jaw clicking open and closed. You watched her raise her arms and kick her legs in strange patterns. You had to wait to hear a series of arbitrary sound bites come from her, though her lips didn’t move. Mommy. Kitty. Ball. Snake. Triangle.
You crossed your fingers. As you reinserted the hard-disk, you said your prayers. It was the longest thirty seconds of your life.
You waited. And then, she moved. She stretched her arms up high and then hugged herself. Her motions were fluid. Graceful.
“Mommy,” AB yawned, very much the child you remembered. “I’m cold.”
And so you helped her back into her shirt. Jake came in and offered her a couple NutriVox cookies. That night, you told her she could sleep in your bed if she wanted. She had always wanted to, she said. All night long, you kept a hand on her back, to feel her breath rise and fall. Rise and fall. When you finally slept, you dreamt about her future.
Dr. Lang gestures to the box of tissues at the corner of her desk. You reach over to take a few.
“Well, Ms. Armada,” she straightens, and the Dr. Lang that made sympathetic facial expressions while she listened to your story completely disappears. “We’ve come to the end of your exit interview. Small Friends Robotics, and the University of Minnesota Psychology Department wish to thank you for your participation. Though your unfortunate experience with Model 1609 has prevented you from completing this study, you will still receive a check for three thousand dollars in the mail, within the next couple weeks. We appreciate your cooperation, and will be sure to notify you if and when we release any literature about your experience. Rest assured, your name will not appear in the publication. You will be referred to exclusively as subject participant 1609.”
“What?” you ask, drying your eyes. “But that’s AB’s model number.”
Dr. Lang removes her glasses, chews on one of the ends.
“Ms. Armada, we regret that the unique circumstances of this study do not permit us to provide you with full disclosure about the situation at this time. A full debriefing may occur after all participants conclude the study.”
“Wait, what?” You are trying to keep calm, but your chest feels hot. Too hot. Very hot. Uncomfortable. You stand and begin to tug at the neck of your sweater. “You promised me that at the end of this interview, you’d tell me what this was—that thing about my trial period.”
“Right . . . Try to stay calm, Joanie,” she says, studying you carefully. Something is wrong. She is holding her cellphone beneath the desk, and you can see her punching in a text message.
“Dr. Lang, I don’t understand. Just tell me what this is all about.”
“What do you think it’s about, Joanie?”
You pause, confused.
“I was told this study was about . . .” You think back to the letter you received almost a year ago. “Yes,” you remember, “It was about Small Friends Robotics funding a product test for the iChild. Like, advanced trouble shooting. You know, trying to figure out any of the problems associated with a synthetic child.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Lang says. Her teeth come out. “A synthetic child.”
When you don’t respond, she looks at you as if you are crazy. As if you don’t get the joke.
You don’t follow.
“I don’t understand why you’re making this so difficult for me,” you sputter. “I just want to say goodbye to AB. I just want to give her a hug, and tell her that I’m sorry for not teaching her . . . ” and then you are sobbing.
“Oh, Joanie. I know this is hard,” Dr. Lang is suddenly a person again, coming around the desk toward you. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. She’s not a real child . . . ”
“She!” you exclaim through tears, “You called her she! So she’s not human, but she’s a child!”
You had no idea how strongly you felt about this matter.
“Joanie, I’m afraid you can’t see Model 1609. She’s going to be shipped back to Small Friends Inc. this weekend. And even if you could see her, you couldn’t keep her.”
“Why?” Without thinking, you grab her shoulders, and shake her. “Why can’t I keep her?”
Dr. Lang takes a step back, away from you. A vein pulses in her forehead. She wields her cellphone like a weapon. An exorcist’s crucifix.
“You cannot keep her because you don’t need her,” she says, flatly.
The verbal stomach punch sends you reeling.
“How can you say that?”
“Small Friends plans to release the iChild in 2018, and introduce the first model upgrade by 2020. According to our research, we anticipate a large number of customers will be unable to detach themselves from the product . . . enough to deny it the right to grow, to change.”
She nods and her eyes go wide. “Imagine model 1609 as a middle schooler. Now a teenager. And now, a full fledged adult.”
You had pictured it. Many times. But never in much detail.
She launches full force into a scripted sales pitch, glass eyed and looking dreamily up at the ceiling. “Imagine a doting daughter that had loved exclusively you, all her life. She would take care of you, in your old age. She would know all your likes and dislikes. She would know just how to care for you. Can you picture it?”
Her face breaks into an awful smile.
“That’s sweet. That’s very sweet, but you can’t. There’s no way you can. Why, you’re just a tester. You aren’t programmed to. Besides, you’ll be taking care of someone else.” Taking care of someone else?
Her cellphone flashes. She answers it, says “Hold on a moment,” and covers the mouth piece. “Just a second, I have to take this.” Dr. Lang holds up a finger, and turns her back on you.
“Angelo? No, I’m having a moment with 1609. Of course she’s not taking it well, but this is one for the books.”
Your wheels are turning, but not quickly enough. You are too emotional to reason, much less with an enormous corporate force. Amid your whirling tempest of panic, there comes a point where things slow enough for you to note that Dr. Lang has left the disk containing AB’s love memory unattended on her desk. While her back is turned, you swipe it and tuck it into your back pocket.
“Excuse me, Dr. Lang . . . I just . . . I need to go to the ladies room.”
She nods dismissively, continues speaking. “What do you mean? If her files were tampered with . . . Well, that’s absurd. That model costs a fortune . . .” you hear her say, just before you close the door to her office.
In the bathroom, you open your purse to find six missed calls listed on your cellphone. You dial Jake. He answers right away.
“Joanie,” he says, his voice panicked, “Joanie, I’m in the parking lot. You gotta hurry. Really, hurry.”
“I’ll explain when you get here,” he says and hangs up.
There is no time to fix your hair, to splash cold water on your blotchy face. You dart out of the bathroom, slowing only while you pass Kristen’s desk.
“Mrs. Armada?” Kristen asks, uncertain.
“I’m coming right back. I just need a cigarette.” You don’t even smoke.
Outside, snow has begun to fall. Jake’s car is running. His Honda Accord honks twice. You bolt over to it, nearly slipping in the process. You catch yourself on the car door and slide into the passenger seat. You barely manage to buckle up before Jake peels out of the parking lot.
“Jake. I think Dr. Lang is having some kind of fit. She was talking to me about programming, and taking care of . . . Jake are you listening?”
Silence. He grinds his teeth.
You grab his arm when out of the corner of your eye you notice the child-sized lump beneath a blanket in the backseat.
“Jake,” you gasp. You unbuckle and lean over, peeling the flannel blanket off her small, sleeping form. It is AB, AnnaBella, your baby girl. She looks beautiful, warm, and alive. They’ve fixed her up nicely. Anyone would confuse her for an ordinary child. An ordinary girl, dreaming of mermaids. Of parties. Of real chocolate chip cookies.
“She’s not charged,” he tells you, his knuckles white on the wheel. “We’re going to have to plug her in later. Look, she doesn’t even have a memory card, but I know some guys—some hackers from my college days. I figure they can help us get her up and running.”
“How? How did you get her?”
“Luck!” he slaps the wheel with excitement. “I found a guy at the coffee shop who had a friend on campus that worked in the Donogal Hall lab. He was happy to help us. Said they told him some pretty fucked up things about the study. So I slipped them each a couple hundred bucks for their assistance.”
The sky is dark. Passing clouds shut out the winter sunlight.
You are suddenly very cold.
“I don’t know where we can go . . . Small Friends probably has a tracker in her.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jake says with his hand on your leg. He squeezes. “My guys, they’re going to take care of us. My pal Rodney, he’s got a lot of information about this thing. He had an internship with Small Friends a couple years ago, back when they were developing the iBear. He can figure it out.”
“But your car . . . And they have so much information about us . . .”
For as much as you wanted her back, you aren’t sure about this fantasy, the three of you as a family. With AB, this isn’t just a study anymore. This isn’t just an experiment.
Jake wants dinner dates all the time. Maybe every day. He wants Christmas trees. He wants to share a bed, and an endless surplus of badly drawn pictures on your refrigerator. He wants it enough to break the law. Enough to be the hero.
The road is slippery and he is driving too fast. The tires spin, fishtail. You make a noise in your throat.
“What? Aren’t you happy? We just got AB. I got our baby back. Your baby.” He sounds angry.
You remember Dr. Lang’s memory disk in your pocket, and take it out to study it. Maybe it will be enough, the love the disk contains. Enough to keep the three of you together. But you’re not convinced. You must look doubtful.
“Look, Joanie, you don’t have to be sad anymore. You like being a mommy, right?”
“I do,” you tell him, quietly. “I do, but this feels . . . wrong.”
“You’re stressed,” he says, more to himself than to you. “You’re shorting out. I’ll have Rodney look over your circuit boards. Maybe he can wipe the last few days. I’m telling you, this was the wrong study. For us. For you. I knew it was wrong when you started buying tampons. Tampons. Ridiculous.”
The weather whips snow in swirls across the windshield. You roll down the window, and a few snowflakes drift into the car. After a moment, the chill becomes too much, and you roll up the window in a hurry.
You wouldn’t want AnnaBella to get cold.
Lisa Marie Nohner is from Minnesota. She received her MFA from New Mexico State University, and she maintains Monsterating, a blog about women and horror films. Her work has been featured in The Bare Root Review, Din Magazine, Perceptions Magazine, on Facebook, and (perhaps most impressively) between the pages of thousands of discarded notebooks. She is almost as uncool as Lester Bangs. And yeah, she stays up late.