by Mark Keats
“We’re having a baby,’ my wife says to me, though she’s sitting by the computer in the living room and looking at something I can’t see. She holds a glass of wine in one hand, clicks the mouse with the other. She’s listening to music but it’s too low for me to be able to place it.
I’m standing by the sliding door of our apartment, glass in hand, looking outside at a young woman and her child. She’s hand-in-hand with her daughter who’s pointing at something. My eyes trace her tiny hand upward, but I can’t see what she sees. Her mother also looks up briefly, then at her daughter. She smiles. In her other hand, she carries a paper bag full of groceries. I imagine them going upstairs and preparing lunch, possibly talking about what they’ve seen in the sky.
“Baby,’ my wife says again. “We’re having a baby!’ I turn and look at her, study her form: she’s sitting with one leg pulled up close to her on the chair. She’s wearing black leggings and a gray sweatshirt. I’m not unhappy with the news; I’m just confused. My wife has already had more miscarriages than I care to recall, which makes me wonder when the last time we had sex was.
“Don’t worry,’ she says. “I didn’t have an affair, if that’s what you’re thinking.’ She laughs a little at this and takes a sip of wine. Then she waves me over.
I nod, then smile, walk over to her.
“She’ll come in the mail,’ she says and points to the screen. “We have to build her.’
I don’t know how to respond to this except to look at the screen, to see what she’s pointing at: an automaton baby.
“We’ll have to input some of our biological data so we can make her all ours,’
I look at her unsure how to respond, then say, “But–’
“I know,’ she says, and looks at me. “I know we don’t know our family histories–certain things. But, to make it more real for us, we can opt for a future, unknown illness. There’s also a 1/1000 chance she’ll come down with some other kind of illness.’
“Future illness,’ I say. “Like some kind of lottery?’
“Even if we had a biological child,’ she says, “especially at my age, there’s no telling the complications.’
“True,’ I say, wondering how forty crept up so quietly. I think about my father and uncle, both sons of large families. Then I think about the ailments that struck them at our age: diabetes, hair loss, high blood pressure.
She looks back at the computer. “It’s just an option we can select. No guarantee it’ll actually happen. Just like us. Regardless, we’ll have to love it until it grows and can become independent and leave us. And we’ll have to take her into the store for periodic adjustments, extensions.’
When she says this, her tone seems to shift, become less exuberant and more even. It’s as if she’s not announcing it anymore to me but just sort of reading the text out loud to herself as if hearing the words–“We’re having a baby’–might mitigate what prompted this web search, what we’ve more or less avoided talking about the past few months after the most recent miscarriage.
She clicks one of the tabs at the top of the screen, and I look more carefully and see what looks like an outline of a child. Next to the image of the outline are blueprint schematics, which suggests the child is an object, a thing, not real. Then she clicks on another tab, and I see what looks like an evolutionary chart with text that reads, “From baby to adolescent to teenager to adult.’
I’ve read about this recently somewhere, I think. Online, some strange headline in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep after we’d found out about the last miscarriage. I was worried I’d somehow done irreparable damage to my reproductive abilities by riding a bike as a kid and resting a laptop on myself as an adult all these years. I could still hear my father’s advice reverberate in my memory. He’d said something about my balls, about how I’d numb my crotch riding my bike all day and night and not have kids in the future. Of course, as a kid, he’d worried me, not so much about not fathering children but about a kind of slow castration as I pedaled my freedom around the neighborhood. But, as time passed, it was easy to let go of the bike and those warnings. It was easier to recall that memory as a sort of joke between father and son, men. As an adult, I’d seemingly done the natural thing: exchanged a bike for a computer, physical freedom for a virtual one. And the fertility doctor had told me my sperm numbers were great, only the morphology a little off.
These automaton babies were an option for so many people: childless couples, same-sex couples, single people wanting to become a mother or father, older people, workaholics with limited time who, despite their careers, would never settle for one or the other, who could now firmly buy into one of the website’s slogans: “Never settle.’ I never thought we’d become parents this way, though.
“She’s beautiful,’ my wife says, but I don’t think we’re looking at the same child or envisioning what the future might hold for us as parents with such a child.
“And look,’ she points again, then clicks another tab. “We can customize her: hair color, size, freckles.’
I nod again, unsure how to respond. I’m not against the idea, but I don’t know what it means to become a parent in this way, to be suddenly inundated with so many choices.
“How can we parent this child?’ I ask. “If she’s, you know, not real.’
“Well,’ she says. “We can’t leave her in the car or at the playground. We’re still responsible for her.’
“I know,’ I say. “I guess I meant, isn’t parenting about welcoming the unknown?’
She looks at me, says, “That is one way to define it.’
I scratch my head some, say, “Is this really want you want?’
“We can,’ she says, “decide which predispositions she’ll have, how much or how little care she’ll require. Then we’ll know what treatment to get her. They have all these options depending on how busy we are or want to be. They even have a medical section in the store where we can take her when she gets sick.’
“Sick,’ I repeat to myself.
“Yes,’ she says. “Some people opt for a baby that requires a lot of care.’
Options, I think, unsure how to respond. I figured we’d eventually adopt a child because we hadn’t been successful naturally and because we are both nearing forty. And as adopted children with unknown histories ourselves, it seemed the most natural thing to do. But, adoptions were long and expensive and sometimes never materialized.
“Messy,’ is what my sister, who already had four kids naturally, had said to me recently. “You could wait five years before you even get a chance to see your baby in person. And by that time, your baby is suddenly a child with a formed impression of the world without you. I had a friend give up after nearly ten years. It wasn’t even the money, though it was expensive. She was just so emotional drained. That’s when she decided to get one of those automaton babies. I think she’s got two now–or is it three. Anyways, she seems very satisfied. She’s posting pictures all the time.’
My wife clicks yet another tab, then what looks like a new patient file comes up and an image of a stork carrying a swaddling baby flashes at the top right, indicating one item has been placed in the basket.
“Okay,’ I say. “Okay.’
“What should we name her?’ she asks, taking my hand.
* * *
When Boram arrives, my wife says, “I want the full experience,’ which means any number of preset options. Upon opening the box, she reads the directions that congratulate us. There is also a note that, with opening the box, says, “You have now birthed your new baby to the world.’
Boram is much easier to assemble than I thought. Mostly, we make small adjustments, go through the check off list provided and the tools we have at home. Like anything I’ve assembled before, I double check to make sure there are no extra pieces or missing ones. Before we know it, an automaton baby lies before us. We decide to program her to require our attention every two hours.
My wife takes her first, then second, then she takes her again until the image of her and our child is seared into my memory. She’s clearly attached. She’s waited for this moment for so long. Soon, though, she begins to yawn. Her eyes become heavy as do mine. Her eyes tell me that parenting is tiring.
“Your turn,’ she says. Her eyes are barely open now and she hands me Boram.
“Sleep as long as you need to,’ I say, holding Boram close to my chest.
My wife smiles briefly at me before going into the bedroom and turning off the light. This will be our routine for the next few months, then years. I walk to the slider and peer out. There’s a man getting into his car and driving off, another pulling in and yet another walking his dog. I see myself out there, hand-in-hand, with Boram. She’s pointing to the sky, at the birds, all the while asking, “What’s that? And that?’
A few birds suddenly flutter by and land on our balcony, their twitching heads a marvel of biology. As quickly as they land, they fly away. As I stand there and rock her to sleep, I use my free hand and point to the birds, say, “Boram, look, birds.’
When Boram is five, she breaks her leg at the playground. Artificial tears emerge and glisten on her cheeks–an automatic function whenever she falls or bumps into something hard. She sits where she has fallen, cries out, “Daddy!’ Another parent reading a book stands up immediately and begins to speak, says, “Goodness! Are you okay?’ but then stops when she looks more closely. What she sees is what I also see: Boram’s leg detached and in her hand. The older woman looks at me, then sits back down and opens her book. Though automaton children are more commonplace now, it still unnerves some people when they first encounter one. I walk over and bend down.
“Daddy,’ Boram says again. I’ll no doubt have to update her response pattern from “Daddy’ to “Dad’ in a few more years, I think.
I bend down and touch the leg she’s holding. I ask, “Are you okay, sweetie?’ though I know she’s okay, at least physically speaking. I attached that leg myself, double checked it.
She raises her arms up to me slowly, and I pick her and her leg up, take her to the bench and begin reattaching it. Where other parents have things like diapers and food in their daypacks, I have a small tool set to make small repairs and adjustments when we’re not at home. We watch the other children play, their limbs so flexible, their bones so breakable.
“There,’ I say. “All better. Are you hungry?’ I ask, and she nods her head at me, points and says, “What are they doing?’
I look and see some new kids hanging on the monkey bars, laughing with each other.
“They’re just acting like monkeys.’
“Like monkeys,’ she repeats. “Like monkeys.’
I know her preprogrammed vocabulary should include a word like “monkey,’ but then I’m not sure if metaphors are also included.
When Boram is ten, she shows symptoms of pneumonia. We know and don’t know when this will happen, only that we opted for some form of delayed trauma.
“We have to be tested, right?’ my wife asked me when we first went online a decade ago and selected an illness option. I’d forgotten.
“I suppose,’ I said, wondering how authentic our reactions would really be. Of course, I also thought, even with a biological baby, we’d know we’d invariably come up against an illness, perhaps multiple illnesses, some minor, some potentially life threatening. If the human body was one thing, it was definitely susceptible to germs, viruses, and, of course, death.
But Boram makes a speedy recovery, and my wife and I sigh with relief, both having, if but only momentarily, felt the real pang of recognizing the potential possibility of Boram dying.
“You gave us a real scare,’ my wife says, as she tucks Boram in for the night.
“I’m sorry, mommy.’
“Oh, Boram,’ she says, and touches the top of her head. “Don’t ever apologize for getting sick. We love you.’
When Boram is fifteen, she runs away from home. We’re not allowed to contact the police because she’s an automaton baby and GPS is built in.
A cop friend once told us we wouldn’t believe how many parents of these kinds of children call when their kid goes missing.
“It’s always the same,’ he said. “Ma’am, ma’am, yes, I understand. I’ve got two myself. But, ma’am. It is an automaton baby, correct? Ma’am. It’ll be fine. Just use the GPS system if you don’t think it’ll come back on its own accord. Yes ma’am. You’re welcome. God bless you, too.’
But we also don’t immediately look her up online. Instead, I treat Boram’s disappearance as naturally as I can, recall my mother saying something like “You’ll know when you’re a parent.’ If she were real, we’d have to wait twenty four hours anyway before the police would get involved. I call my sister.
“Well,’ she says, and I can hear her sons in the background arguing about something. “Why did she run away?’
“I’m not sure,’ I say, looking out the kitchen window. “I mean,’ she’s been very, how do I put it, distant. She won’t talk to us.’
“I see,’ she says. “Sounds like a teenager. How old is she again?’
“Fifteen,’ I say.
“Well, my advice would be to start with the obvious places first. Friends, mall, bus stop. You remember when we were teenagers?’ She laughs a little at that. “That seems such a long time ago.’
We find her at the bus stop. She’s sitting by herself but a man is talking to her or at her. He doesn’t seem to know she’s an automaton teenager yet. We watch for a moment, wonder what he’ll do next. Though automaton children are better known, not everyone can tell they’re dealing with one, at least not right away. They’re so life like now. It amazes me how much technology has progressed, how it allows us to parent this way. Boram stares straight ahead and the man keeps talking, gesticulating. Others glance at them, continue walking. When the man gets up and turns to her, he says something we can’t hear. Then he extends his hand, and she finally looks at him. This is when we finally emerge, call out to her. “Boram,’ we say. “Boram, do you know how worried we were?’
When Boram is thirty, we have to let go. We could have gone a little further; a few years ago we could have opted for Boram to marry, to have children of her own, for us to become grandparents of some sort. We would have been able to put her in Automaton Future World, a kind of zoo for automaton families where we would be able to visit on the weekends.
But, we also remembered that in so many versions of automaton babies, there are preprogrammed viruses or what we’d later read could be automaton cancer, though that wasn’t an option, only a hidden possibility. Though we understood the risk when we’d selected other options so many decades earlier, I’d be lying if I said I thought our child would succumb to the percentages. But the fine print says it happens to 1/1000 automaton babies and as I reread that I think how easy it is to forget something like that.
We take her to the automaton hospital wing at the mall, now itself an anchor store. We see other automaton parents in the waiting room. A woman has her hands covering her face. Her husband nods to me. Another man checks his watch. Still another person, a young girl who looks like Boram did at fifteen; she sits in the corner glued to her phone. The television on the wall shows the weather report.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do,’ the automaton doctor says. He’s wearing a white lab coat with the automaton baby logo on the left chest: it’s an outline of a baby using the letters A and B. He’s got a pencil behind his ear. Though he has a beard, he looks young, like he just graduated from college, like this is oddly his first job and they told him not to shave.
“But I thought–’ my wife begins. “I thought because she’s an automaton baby.’
“That’s the design,’ he says.
“To give us the real experience,’ I say, then think he must have majored in engineering. Maybe computer science.
He looks at me and nods, says, “Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do.’ Then he looks at my wife, says, “I’m very sorry. Really.’ A literature or philosophy elective.
We thank him and head home and on the drive I wonder what he and his coworkers talk about during their lunchbreak. I wonder if they somehow find us strange or if they find meaning in their work, if any of them quit medical school for this.
“Where are we going?’ Boram asks, and my wife turns to look at her in the backseat. “Home, sweety,’ she says. “Home.’ This seems to comfort her some because she turns her head, looks out the window and repeats the word, “Home.’
A week later, we find Boram in her room with the blanket pulled up to her chin. She looks like she’s just lying there, taking in the warmth of the sun barely peeking through the blinds. We expect her to turn her head, smile, say, “Good morning.’
“Boram,’ my wife says. “Boram, please wake up.’
But Boram doesn’t move and she doesn’t turn her head when we call to her. My wife turns to me and in the instant our eyes meet, I’m flooded with the memories of the past thirty years of being a parent with her, how it all began with the click of a mouse.
She buries her head in my chest, begins to cry. I hold her, look down at all the gray atop her head, gray I’d not noticed in all these years of moving forward. Then I close my eyes for a moment. I remember when we first decided to become parents in this way. Thirty years is a long time to care for anyone or anything. Automaton or not, if Boram had been biological, the outcome would have been the same. Eventually, our unknown genetics would have taken her away from us.
Mark L. Keats has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work is forthcoming in The Minnesota Review and Portland Review. He can be found at https://www.marklkeats.com/.