How to engineer a happy childhood.
Art by Koren Shadmi
Annie came downstairs in a bad mood and an oversized bathrobe, with Tommy on her hip. "I'm putting the coffee on," she said. "After that we need to talk."
"Let me do the coffee." Simon leapt up and started fussing with the machine, which he always thought was much more complicated than it needed to be. Like everything else, it seemed to get more complicated as time went on.
Annie loved fancy coffee, so as soon as he had started earning a decent wage, he bought her that machine for their anniversary. It was silver and sleek and twice the size of the microwave, and Annie adored it. But it wasn't quite good enough. She kept tinkering with it. An attachment to heat the cream an extra three degrees. A valve to cool down the grinder as it worked so the beans would not singe. One of the side effects of living with a robotics engineer: Annie could never stop tinkering. Nothing was ever finished. Nothing was ever quite good enough.
The coffee machine now nested in a tangle of extra wires and cables, and no matter how many times she showed him—look, it's easy, you just hold down the little blue knob for seventeen seconds, like this—Simon could never get it right.
He managed almost all the steps while Annie strapped the baby into his high chair. She made little cooing sounds; the sort, Simon remembered, that she used to make for him in those magical few months between him first asking her out and her starting her dissertation.
From the back of the coffee machine, an unhealthy hissing sound. Annie gave him a look of disappointment, like you'd give to a sweet little puppy that had just shat itself on the hall carpet, and came over to deal with the machine. Again.
When it was done, he handed her a steaming mug coffee, dark and sweet, with just the right amount of brown sugar. "Thanks," she said, as if she hadn't practically made it herself. He flashed her a smile, that wide corn-fed American smile with the two dimples, one on his cheek and one on his chin, that she always loved. Had loved. Still loved.
"Now," said Annie, "I'd like to talk about what happened yesterday."
He used to love the way she got straight to the point. These days, the point always seemed to be something he'd missed. Some new way he'd failed her.
Tommy sat in his high-chair, bashing his empty sippy cup against his empty plate. There was a tiny scrape on his left temple, but it didn't seem to bother him.
"Please explain to me again how you came to leave the car seat on top of Plop."
Plop was their car, a second-hand Honda bought in the early years of their marriage and kept running by Annie's ingenuity. The last three letters of the license plate were PLP. They had had good times in that car—now he came to think about it, a couple of really fantastic times. And then yesterday...
"I was putting the shopping away in the boot," said Simon, slowly. He watched Annie's thin, clever face, her grey eyes that seemed to miss nothing. "I put the baby down on the roof while I packed. I got in the car. I turned on the ignition. I forgot—"
"You forgot the baby was still on the roof." He wish she wouldn't sound so damn kind about it, like a priest receiving confession.
"And I started up Plop, and the carseat came off the roof and hit the pavement."
What was creepy, Simon thought, was the way the baby hadn't cried. Hadn't even made a sound. Simon had brought Plop to a screeching stop, and there was Tommy, upside down in his sky-blue carseat, wiggling his chubby little arms and legs. He had checked and rechecked to see if anything was broken, if he was in shock. But there was nothing, just that little scratch where the baby's forehead had met the tarmac. There had been no swelling, and no blood.
Of course. There wouldn't be.
"I didn't mean to do it. I just wasn't paying attention."
"I know you weren't paying attention. You not paying attention is the problem," said Annie, quietly. "If things were different, Tommy could have been seriously hurt. He could have been killed."
"But he's not a real baby!" Simon stood up.
For one awful second, she just stared at him.
"Maybe not to you," she said eventually, "but to me, he's a real baby. He's our baby."
"He's not our baby! He's your baby! You made him, not me!"
He was going to regret this. But he couldn't stop himself. His stomach tightened, and he felt the words bubbling up in his throat like vomit.
"He's a machine. An appliance."
Annie stood up and grabbed Tommy. The empty sippy-cup fell to the floor with a crash.
"Daddy doesn't mean that," she said quietly, burying her face in Tommy's nut-brown curls, every one crafted from unbreakable fibreglass. "Daddy's tired and stressed. He didn't mean to say that."
"I meant it," said Simon quietly. "We could have had a normal kid, like normal people, but there's nothing of me in that, in that—"
"Stop," said Annie, raising a hand.
Simon closed his mouth.
"Look at him, Simon," she said, her voice thick with tears. "Just look at him."
Annie held the baby out like an offering. Tommy gave him a gummy smile. Two dimples appeared in his tiny face, one on his cheek and one on his chin.
Annie had never wanted to be pregnant. It was the mess, she said, and the hassle and the pain, and what if something went wrong? And that was all fair enough. After all, it wasn't Simon who would have to carry the child in his belly for nine months, it wasn't Simon who would have to deal with the sickness and the swollen joints and and the pain of labour. But he always knew there was more to it than that.
After Annie was born, her mother had sunk into a deep depression. It had devoured the family for years. Some Annie's earliest memories were of trying to rouse her mother from hot tangles of blankets that hadn't been washed in weeks, the smell of warm sweat and cold milky tea rotting in abandoned mugs that said 'new mum' in big pink cartoon letters.
There had been a sunny year, a year of trips to the zoo and jam sandwiches in the park and Annie's mother feeling better and going back to her work, the work she loved, at a big graphic design firm, or possibly a software company—Simon could never remember which. Then Annie's sister had come along, and the sadness had returned, settling over everything again like a thick, suffocating pillow pressed gently over your face, for good this time. Postnatal psychosis. All the light and joy and energy draining out of life like a plug had been pulled somewhere deep inside, leaving you scrabbling to find the stopper before every last drop of you poured away.
I don't want it to happen to me, Annie had said. And it will.
So Simon had gone along with it. The nights when she had come to bed with the dawnlight or not at all, consumed with the task of soldering chip to tiny chip, perfecting the mechanisms that would make the baby's teeth come through at the right time, that made his eyes blink smoothly, that made him receptive to patterns of speech and language, so he could grow and learn just like a normal baby. But Tommy would never get sick like a normal baby. He would never make Annie sick like a normal baby. He was her greatest project.
And the only thing to do with a great project is to take it seriously. Babies are supposed to begin in the hospital, so that's what they did. They went to the emergency room on a Friday night, crowded with bodies and shouting under fluorescent strip lights, and snuck in the the parts of Tommy in a blanket. Annie's eyes were bright and her face was flush, beads of sweat standing on her forehead as she turned the final screw. Tommy's first scream brought a junior doctor sprinting across the waiting room and they brought him home in a hurry, with an official warning tucked into his pink fluffy blanket in lieu of a birth certificate.
Everyone was so happy for them. Everyone just played along. Annie's friends and colleagues from the lab turned up with crates of organic babymush that Tommy would never need. Even Annie's mother, drawn and silent as a pencil sketch on faded paper, had come to visit and allowed the mechanical child to be placed on her lap so he could grab at her chunky necklace.
They took lots of pictures of Tommy. They put the pictures on Facebook and Instagram. In every one, Tommy looked slightly overexposed, the skin on his face a little too smooth, a little too slow to catch shadows in. Pictures of playdates and picnics and trips to the zoo. But there were no pictures of bath time. Tommy wasn't entirely waterproof.
Simon tried to care, and when that didn't work, he tried to be careful. He was afraid of damaging Tommy. He had no idea how the specific mechanics worked, and so he erred on the side of caution. Yesterday was an anomaly. Annie had asked him why he had left the baby on the roof of the car like a bag of potatoes. The truth is, he didn't know. The truth is, he was tired. Tired of pretending.
And now here was Annie, holding out her child to him. Simon forced his arms to move, forced himself to take the baby in both hands. The baby gave a mechanical gurgle, the muscles in his face moving too smoothly, without any of the awkwardness of a human child. The tiny scrape on his perfect silicon skin as he smiled.
"Dada," said Tommy.
Simon stared at the baby.
"Dada," said Tommy again.
Simon stared at Annie.
"Uh, yeah," said Annie. "The most common first word, actually." She cleared her throat, and ran her fingers through her hair. "It's much easier to say than 'mama'. The positioning of the soft palate. I thought we should keep things authentic."
"When did you programme that feature in?"
"I thought you were angry at me last night."
"I was." She shrugged.
In one movement, Simon placed the baby carefully back in his high chair and took his wife in both arms. He kissed her, and her mouth opened to receive the kiss, and she twisted her fingers in his hair.
Frantic movement, her breath at his neck, wanting him, wanting her. He took Annie's face in both of his hands and kissed her again, kissed her deeply, like he might swallow her whole.
Just then, Tommy started to cry.
He banged his squashy little Silicon legs against his high chair and screamed for attention.
"He wants burping," murmured Simon, "I don't know why you had to leave that feature in.'
"Important to keep things…mmm…authentic…" Annie trailed off as Simon planted a row of kisses from the nape of her neck and down along her collarbone, biting gently at the round of her shoulder.
Tommy screamed again.
"I'll do it," sighed Simon, sliding his hands out of the waistband of his wife's sweatpants.
"No," said Annie, taking his hands in both of hers. "Wait - just."
"But the baby's crying."
"Just this once," said Annie, giving him a wicked look. Her dark eyes sparkled with mischief.
"You said we shouldn't," said Simon.
"I know," said Annie, "but just this once."
She twisted out of his arms and went to soothe their son. She petted his soft curls, cooing gently as Tommy continued to wail.
Then she reached under the base of the baby's head and pushed a small, hidden switch.
Tommy's blue eyes dimmed and fluttered shut. His little face relaxed as he crumpled forward in his high chair.
"There," said Annie. "That ought to hold him for a few hours."
Simon tore at the buttons of her shirt.
"I can't believe," he said, dipping his lips to her left breast, "I can't believe you turned off the baby."
"Shut up and kiss me."
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.