The huge box takes up a quarter of my living room. It’s nondescript and brown except for the elegant Madre logo printed in blue down one side. My box cutter makes quick work of the packaging tape, and the box falls away to reveal a clear plastic case the size and shape of a coffin. Inside, the figure of a woman reclines.
Of course, she’s a woman in shape only. Her face possesses no features beyond indentations where eyes should be and a small mound representing a nose. Her skin is translucent white, perfectly smooth — beautiful, in the way that postmodern statues are beautiful, so much implied humanity without any of the ugliness.
The part of her which most interests me, however, is not her face. Her abdomen is made of clear plastic, cloudy like frosted glass, so I can see the fluffy pink tissue inside. I can’t make it out yet, but nestled inside that soft pinkness, inside the folds of a human womb grown in a lab and implanted inside this human simulacrum, there is a part of me, combined with a part of Daniel. It has already taken root, and now has only to grow.
Daniel comes home that night and eyes the Madre with a disgusted expression. “I hadn’t expected it to look so…human.”
“This is the third version; the first one looked like a vacuum cleaner. I guess people didn’t like the idea of a child growing inside a thing that doesn’t at least look like a woman.”
He scoffs. “People are idiots. It’s a robot growing your baby either way.”
“It’s not really a robot.”
“It’s creepy. Can we move it to the basement?”
The look I give him changes his mind about moving the Madre out of the living room.
All night, I can’t stop thinking about the Madre and the tiny life growing inside her artificial belly. Dinner conversation is sparse, and I keep glancing around Daniel to look at the clear plastic case in the other room. I’m unable to concentrate on our television programs, my thoughts returning endlessly to the Madre. I get up every ten minutes to use the bathroom and make a detour through the living room to run my hand along the smooth plastic. Before bed, I plug her into the nearest outlet to charge her batteries. They should be able to last for up to a year without charging, so the plug is really for emergencies only, but I can’t stop myself. What if her battery cells are bad, and die during the night? I don’t want to take the risk.
I fall asleep rereading the manual.
Eight months pass, like they do. The Madre’s belly grows larger and larger until it looks like a bubble about to burst. I open the box every day to run my hands over the warm sphere where our child grows, ignoring Daniel’s complaints about the nosehair-curling reek of new plastic that fills the whole house when I do. Eventually I start sleeping on the sofa so the Madre is the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning.
Distracted by watching our child grow and twitch and roll, my productivity plummets and my boss lets me go. Daniel is angry, because we need the income with a baby on the way, but I tell him someone is going to have to quit their job to raise the child when she’s born anyway. The Madre can’t do that task for us. Our original plan was to place our child in daycare, but how can I? I don’t want to let the baby out of my sight, and she’s not even born yet.
The day arrives, and the Madre pushes out a whimpering baby girl. Daniel carries a disposable bag of fluids to the garbage, and that’s it. Our baby is warm and chubby and perfect, just as the Madre company promised.
“She didn’t scream when she was born. I’ve never heard of a baby being so quiet,” Daniel comments, frowning down at our daughter.
“It’s not like in the movies,” I tell him. “Alice didn’t need to cry, because her birth wasn’t messy and painful and scary. It was perfect.”
A delivery driver arrives a few days later to collect the Madre. I feel a pang of sadness watching her go, but I have my Alice now. I can watch her grow and twitch and roll in her crib. I can touch her and hold her and kiss her smooth forehead.
Daniel has a hard time bonding with Alice. “Babies aren’t supposed to smell like new Tupperware,” he says. I ignore him. I think he’s just jealous of our bond, since I’m the one who stays home with Alice all day and feeds her and sleeps on the floor beside her crib.
When I take Alice to parenting classes and playdates, she puts all the other babies to shame. They fuss and squirm, screaming with red faces, and make horrible smelly messes. Alice is pale and perfect. Even her excretions are tiny and inoffensive and arrive on a schedule.
“Is she achieving all her milestones?” One mother asks me. “She doesn’t smile much.”
“She smiles,” I insist. “She’s just mysterious, like the Mona Lisa. She doesn’t show her smile to just anyone.”
Other children don’t know how to interact with my alabaster princess. The other parents give her strange looks, as if they’re afraid of her. We stop going to playdates. What do we need with other parents and their imperfect little monsters anyway?
Daniel abandons us just before Alice’s third birthday. He leaves a note explaining that he can’t live with us anymore because Alice frightens him. He’s sorry. He hopes we’ll forgive him someday.
I crumple the note in my fist. I explain to Alice that daddy left us, but she doesn’t cry. She’s stiff in my embrace, and her hair smells like plastic.
Sarah Hans is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher. Sarah’s short stories have appeared in over twenty publications, but she’s best known for her multicultural steampunk anthology Steampunk World. You can read more of her short stories, nonfiction ramblings, and novel chapters on her Patreon or find her on twitter @steampunkpanda.