We were one of the first to receive the baby doll. Our package arrived on a Saturday morning last September when Kamran and I had been living in our dream apartment in San Francisco’s Mission Bay for about a month. Just a year ago native grasses and weeds thrived in the sandy soil near an abandoned shipyard, now new buildings stood all around, with parks and running trails in between. On Saturday mornings we liked to jog along the waterfront and on this particular Saturday, I remember there was a king tide so the waves off the bay hit the embankment and crashed onto the pavement. After splashing through cold water past Pier 54 as far as Pier 52, we gave up and turned back.
“It’ll be like this all the time in a few years,” Kamran said, sloshing along in his sodden running shoes.
“They’ll do something,” I said.
“I don’t know.” My hair blew out of its ponytail, and I peeled strands off my face as I trotted beside Kamran. “They’ll put up a wall,” I said. “Why do you have to be so grumpy?”
“I’m not grumpy, Emma. It’s a fact.”
Kamran and I turned west from the flooded waterfront and skirted a park newly sodded with grass. We passed an older woman walking a fluffy little dog. I took Kamran’s hand and squeezed it. “After we change, want to go get coffee?”
“Come on.” I tugged on Kamran’s hand. “We’re living in the city. We can’t sit inside all weekend.”
So, I’m white, German and French, mostly, and I’m from the suburbs, a town called Orinda. Kamran’s family originally came from India and they live in Oakland. Kamran and I met at a private high school in the hills near the tunnel separating the San Francisco East Bay from the ‘burbs on the other side of the hills. We both got into Stanford. After graduation, we lived in a grungy Bayview house with five other roommates for two years before we got our loft. We worked in tech, though not at the same company because we thought we needed separate friends and associates to keep us interesting. That was the situation as of last September. I’m getting to the baby doll. First, to recap: windy day, messy hair, wet feet, trudging back along our street with the buses wheezing past.
When we reached our apartment building, Kamran let us in, and I entered first, stumbling over a large rectangular box on the lobby floor. I squatted to read the label. “It’s for us,” I said. “Did you order something?” I picked up the heavy, awkward package. “Did you?” I glanced back over my shoulder at Kamran, then followed his gaze. Out on the sidewalk, on the other side of the lobby’s glass door, a ragged man was punching the air, cursing an invisible enemy. “He wasn’t there a minute ago,” I said.
“He’s off his head,” Kamran said.
As late as last September the drugged-out or mentally ill rarely made it out to our new neighborhood, though a few homeless people had set up tents in the alley behind our building.
I lugged the box upstairs to our apartment. Kamran unlocked our door, and I carried the box past the half-bath and kitchen into the great room. I set it on the dining table and waited while Kamran got a knife and cut it open. He lifted out the baby doll, and for the first time, we saw that stylized Manga face, that robotic, angular body.
“We didn’t order this,” I said. “Who’s it from?”
Kamran stood the baby doll on our dining table, and I frowned at its huge eyes and rosebud mouth, while he searched for a return address on the box.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“What are we going to do with a doll? It looks expensive.”
Kamran shrugged. “Sell it?”
I unzipped the doll’s white terrycloth onesie and examined the bottoms of its feet, its lower back, and all over its pink plastic body. “No brand name anywhere.”
Kamran checked online but found nothing similar on Amazon or eBay. He put down his phone. “Nope.”
I zipped the baby doll back into its onesie. It stood on the dining table, staring past us with eyes like big blueberries.
“My sister and her family are coming for Thanksgiving,” Kamran said. “Why don’t we save it for their kid?”
I nodded and carried the doll away to the closet near the front door. As I closed the closet door, I called back to Kamran, “What’s your niece’s name?”
“Um—Marci. She just turned one.”
The baby doll remained standing in the closet beside the vacuum cleaner all through September and October, mostly forgotten, but on a cold, sunny Saturday in mid-November, taking out my winter coat for the first time, I smiled down on its peach-fuzz head and made a mental note.
Kamran lay stretched out on our gray sectional sofa in his stockinged feet. The tall, two-story window looking out on the apartment building next door poured diffused light down on him. His fingers rattled his laptop’s keyboard.
“Working?” I buttoned up my coat.
“Yeah, but I think I’ll play a video game while you’re out.”
“Killing zombies or aliens?” By then I’d had a couple of scares on my way to work and felt real life was creepy enough. The violent fictional worlds I used to explore playing video games with Kamran no longer appealed to me.
“It’s relaxing,” Kamran said. Then he remembered: “Got a text from Leena earlier. She and Mike and Marci flew in today. They’re staying with Mom and Dad, but they want to come over to the city. She’s asking if we can watch Marci one afternoon so they can go Christmas shopping.”
“That would be fun.” I opened the front door. “Back in an hour.”
I returned at sunset, my cheeks cold from the walk. “I got my books, plus a DVD to watch with Marci, and a couple of board books. See?” I read out the title on the top of the pile. “Susie the Speedy Sloth.”
Kamran sat in the dark, his face illuminated by his laptop. He set it on the carpet, stretched his arms over his head. “I think it’s adorable you go to the library. Old-school, but adorable.”
I tumbled the books and DVD onto the sofa and threw off my heavy coat. “My mom used to drive me. I love that I can walk now.”
“Pass any crazies on the way?” Kamran asked.
I didn’t want to say yes, and I didn’t have to because Kamran put up his hand. “What was that?”
We both turned to the closet.
“That thump? I’ll see.” I gathered my coat off the end table and carried it back to the closet near the front door. “That doll tipped over!” I called out.
I picked it up by its pointy shoulders and stood it on the floor outside the closet, near the mail table, then hung up my coat on a hanger and closed the closet door.
“Susie the Speedy Sloth…” Kamran scoffed, pushed the books aside, and brought the DVD close to his face. “Let’s Visit the City. This looks cute.”
I took off my shoes and crossed the great room in my socks. “Maybe I should’ve got Baby Farm Animals.” I plucked Let’s Visit the City from Kamran’s hand and took it out of its jewel box. “We should watch it and make sure it’s not too old for Marci.”
“Sure. Slip it in.” Kamran sat up on the sofa to face our enormous TV—his, really—while I stood with my arms folded. We hadn’t watched a DVD in a long time and had forgotten about all the ads.
“Skip the ads,” I said. “Go on, click skip.”
Kamran tapped the remote. “It won’t let me.”
A swirl of bright colors filled the screen. Out of the green, pink, turquoise, and sunny-yellow vortex, a doll, or a robot maybe, marched forward, arms swinging, huge Manga eyes flashing red and white and blue and red again.
“It’s that—!” Kamran never finished his sentence. A sound behind us stopped him. We both turned toward the scrabble of plastic feet over hardwood. The baby doll came running across the great room, legs scissoring. It ran across the bare floor, onto the white shag carpet. It ran past Kamran, sitting on the sofa, past me, standing by the TV. When it reached the TV, it stopped running and jumped, flinging itself at its own life-sized image. It hung there, flattened against the screen.
Kamran held the remote. He cut the power, and the baby doll slipped down the big TV screen and landed on its feet, ankle-deep in white shag. For a few seconds, it stood there, facing the TV cart, then it turned toward Kamran and me. Its blue eyes blinked.
Kamran got up and edged away from the doll, along the length of the sofa, but before he reached my side, the baby doll ran at him, crossing five feet of carpet. Kamran drew back his shoulders as the doll made contact with his leg. I heard his startled intake of breath, matching my own, then his incredulous laugh as the baby doll pressed its cheek to his thigh.
Kamran stared at me, and I stared back at him.
The baby doll rubbed its face in Kamran’s pant leg, and Kamran patted its peach fuzz hair. The doll tipped back its head and blinked up at him.
“Is it a robot?” I asked Kamran. I raised my voice. “Can you hear me?”
The baby doll tore itself away from Kamran’s leg and rushed at me. When it reached my feet, it raised its arms and hugged my knees. I patted its cold, soft hair. “It’s sort of cool,” I murmured, and then louder: “Can you sit down?”
The baby doll plunked down on its bottom at my feet.
“Can you stand on one foot?”
The baby doll jumped up and stood on one foot.
“Wow.” I bugged out my eyes at Kamran, and he shook his head in wonder.
The baby doll grabbed onto my finger.
“I think it likes me,” I said.
The plastic grip tightened.
“Hey, that hurts. Stop that.” I shook my hand, but the baby doll held on to my finger. “Help me get this thing off me!”
Kamran tugged and pried until he freed my finger from the plastic hand.
“I don’t think we should give this doll to Marci,” I said.
“Throw it away?” Kamran asked.
“I don’t know.”
The baby doll tilted back its head and looked up at me. Its huge blue eyes turned into pink hearts and blinked: heart, heart, heart.
“Are you sorry?” I asked it.
It blinked: heart, heart, heart.
“Will you be good?”
The electric pink light shining from the baby doll’s eyes dazzled me. Heart! Heart!
“Then you can stay,” I said.
The baby doll zipped around the great room in happy figure eights, around the dining table, around the sofa, around Kamran’s computer desk and my computer desk. It bounced up the carpeted stairs, into the loft. From downstairs, we saw its big round head appear over the half-wall, disappear, appear again, as it bounced on our bed.
Later, when Kamran went to take a shower, I looked all over its body for an off button. I’m not sure why I waited for Kamran to leave the room before I did. It was as if the two of us had wordlessly agreed not to be frightened or disturbed by the baby doll. Upstairs, in the bathroom, Kamran splashed and bumped around in the shower, washing his hair. Down in the great room, the baby doll stood on the dining table while I zipped it out of its white terrycloth onesie. I felt all over its hard plastic body, smooth and cold, with no button, just as there had been no brand name.
When I zipped up the onesie again, the baby doll narrowed its huge blue eyes into thin green lines. The green lines pulsed at me. I backed away, my heart racing. In the kitchen, I drank a glass of white wine while I waited for Kamran. I never told him about the doll’s green eyes, since they were blue again by the time he came downstairs, toweling his hair. My heart still thumped in my chest, but I smiled at Kamran and asked if he’d had a nice shower.
As a side note, I’d like to clarify that I didn’t always feel as cheerful, in those early days, as I may have appeared. The next morning, during our post-run breakfast at our favorite café in the Mission, I was, frankly, happy to have a break from the baby doll, but please don’t imagine that as long as I had avocado toast for breakfast, and a leaf drawn on my latte by the barista, my morning was so perfect that I didn’t see the man defecating in the street outside the café, or didn’t care. I did. So why did I sigh when Kamran pointed out the hypodermic needle in the street? Why did I draw his attention away from the needle to the brown bird pecking at bagel crumbs? Maybe because I’d started putting on an act around Kamran and couldn’t stop. The more negative he became, the more I had to be positive. It was exhausting.
When we returned home after breakfast, the baby doll was waiting for us by our front door. For the rest of the day, it followed us around the apartment. If one of us asked it to stand still it would be motionless for fifteen or twenty minutes and then start following us again. Kamran joked that I’d always wanted a puppy, but it wasn’t quite like a dog. Its silence wore on me. And though it liked to touch me, I preferred not to feel the cool, hard plastic on my skin.
Sunday morning, we went out to shop for groceries we didn’t really need. Around noon, Kamran buzzed his sister into the apartment building. The baby doll looked up at the intercom, then at Kamran’s hand, then back at the intercom again. I think that was the first time I wondered why it watched us so closely.
Kamran and I waited to open the door for his sister and her family. The baby doll waited with us.
“Why don’t you hide in the bathroom,” I said. “We can surprise Marci after her parents leave.”
The baby doll zipped away from us and into the darkened half-bath by the front door. I smiled at Kamran. The doll’s speediness was endearing, we agreed. The eager way it rushed around almost made up for its silence.
A knock came on the door, and Kamran opened it. Leena stood in the hallway, beaming at us, her dark hair in a bun. Freckle-faced Mike lurked behind her, and little Marci held onto her daddy’s hand. I stood nodding and smiling, while Kamran hugged Leena, and Mike squeezed past with Marci toddling at his side. Kamran grabbed the two canvas bags Leena had left in the hall and the three of us trooped into the great room, where Mike stood with Marci, looking up at the high ceiling with the track lighting and fan.
“Loft living. Look at you, big brother,” Leena said. “You can afford this?”
Kamran set down the bags on the dining table and shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “With both of us working, yeah.”
“Two techies in love,” Leena said. She exclaimed over the five monitors on our two desks, including the two curved monitors.
Mike stood with his hand on Marci’s head, stroking her short, reddish-brown hair. “There were these men screaming in the street,” he said. “They seemed out of their minds.”
“Probably were,” Kamran said. “It’s a mess out there.”
Mike raised his gingery eyebrows. “With all the money in this town? All the billionaires?”
“It’s still a nice place to live,” I piped up. I still considered myself fortunate to live in the city and expected out-of-towners to envy me, not wag their heads as Mike did.
“How is it okay to have people raving like that?” he asked.
Kamran shrugged. “Tons of money’s already been spent. The problem is, quote-unquote, ‘insurmountable.’”
“That’s right, give up.” Leena teased him. “You’re getting old.”
Marci toddled away from Mike to the huge TV and smiled at her reflection in the gray glass.
“She’s never seen one so big,” Mike said. “How many inches?”
“Sixty,” Kamran said.
“Diagonally, he means,” I said, and Kamran shot me a glance I deserved. Why apologize for the big TV? Kamran had earned it. I fluttered an apologetic smile at him and went on jabbering to Leena: “Marci’s walking really well now.”
“Still a little unsteady,” Leena said, gazing proudly at her daughter.
“What kind of a world are we leaving her?” Mike folded his arms across his chest. “What kind of a world will our kids inherit?”
I think Mike’s negativity irked Kamran. That was a change I welcomed.
“Maybe it’s up to the younger generation to come up with some creative ideas,” Kamran said to Mike, then turned to Leena. “I’m too old, right, sis? And money doesn’t seem to fix the problems, so…”
“It’ll be too late,” Mike said.
“Then let’s get going.” Leena poked Mike’s arm. “We’ll be shopping at Union Square,” she said to me.
“Take your time,” I said. “Have fun. Do something city-ish. Have a cocktail in a hotel bar.” I walked Leena and Mike to the door. After I closed it, I turned to Kamran. “It’s like they blame us for the situation out there.”
“Maaa!” Wet-eyed, Marci gazed past Kamran and me at the closed apartment door. Her face crumpled. “Maa, mmmaaa!”
Kamran knelt by his niece. “Don’t cry, Marci. Mommy and Daddy are coming back in a little while.”
“Daaaa!” she wailed. “Maaamm!”
The baby doll came running out of the bathroom. When Marci saw it, she stopped crying mid-sob. For a moment bafflement clouded her flushed face, then a grin broke across it, then a chortle, a belly laugh as she waddled toward the baby doll, arms outstretched.
“She likes it,” I said.
Halfway across the white shag carpet, Marci lost her balance and sat down on her diapered bottom. The baby doll immediately stopped running toward Marci and sat down, too, with its legs sticking out in front of it. Marci laughed and laughed.
“It’s a copycat, isn’t it, Marci?” Kamran said.
It was, at least at first. When Marci stood up, the doll stood up. When Marci hugged the baby doll, the baby doll raised its arms and clapped its hands on Marci’s shoulders.
“B-b-b!” Marci yelled.
“Baby?” I said.
Kamran and I forgot about watching the DVD with Marci. Marci pulled the bag of toys off the table onto the floor and sat on the hardwood, taking one toy after another out of the bag and showing them to the baby doll sitting beside her on the floor. First, her stuffed dog.
“Grrr! Grrr!” she shouted and threw it aside. Next, a red block. She held it in the palm of her hand. The baby doll leaned close to Marci, pinched the red block in its own hand, and raised it to its eyes.
“Quite the babysitter,” I said. “Who needs us?”
Marci yelled, “Bluh! Bluh! Bluuuuuhhhh!”
“She’s getting too excited.” I said and raised my finger to my lips. “Ssshh.”
The baby doll stared at me, then touched its own finger to its rosebud mouth.
I asked Kamran later if he’d noticed the baby doll learning from me, but he hadn’t because he’d been busy feeling around in one of the bags for the plastic food containers.
“Lunchtime,” he said.
The baby doll sat on the sofa beside Marci, while Marci ate goldfish crackers and grapes cut in half. I took the sippy cup into the kitchen and filled it with apple juice. While I was there, I opened a can of chili and dumped it into a pan to heat up for us.
Back in the great room, I held the cup out to Marci. She took it in her sticky hand, drank from it, and set it beside her on the sofa.
Kamran winced. “Ooh, can you put the cup on the coffee table, Marci?” Kamran pointed to the cup and then to the coffee table. Marci grinned and wriggled on the sofa. The sippy cup leaned away from her on the soft cushion. “On the table, Marci?”
The baby doll stared up into Kamran’s face, then down at the sippy cup. It extended an arm and ferried the cup from the sofa to the coffee table. After that, Marci did the same.
“I’ll be right back with a napkin,” Kamran said to me. He went off to the kitchen. “Damnit, Emma!” he shouted.
“Daaam!” Marci yelled.
“Ssshh!” I shushed Kamran, finger to my lips. “What?”
Kamran came into the great room holding the pan with an oven mitt.
“Oh, no, did I burn the chili? I’m sorry.” My hand went to my heart.
Kamran accepted my apology with a shrug and stepped back into the kitchen.
After Marci finished eating and drinking, Kamran and I changed her diaper, laying her on a blanket on the sofa.
“Yuck,” Kamran said.
“I know. Bleh.”
Kamran and I laughed together, happy that our childcare duties would soon be over.
“We’re going to let Marci keep the doll, right?” I asked Kamran. We’d discussed whether it would be an imposition, like giving her a pet without asking her parents.
Kamran stuffed the poopy diaper and the diaper wipes into a plastic bag and nodded, with a wicked smile. “She can have the doll.”
I grinned back. Soon it would be just the two of us again, in our nice apartment, the way we liked it.
I pulled up Marci’s elastic-waisted corduroy pants, tugged down her T-shirt. “Now you’re ready to play.”
The baby doll took Marci’s hand and led her toward the stairs going up to the loft. For once, the doll walked slowly, its measured steps matching Marci’s wobbling progress. At the foot of the stairs, the baby doll turned to Marci and lay its free hand over its heart the way I had when I’d apologized for burning the chili. Then the two of them climbed the carpeted stairs.
Kamran and I watched them go.
“No,” I said.
I started across the great room after them, raising my voice.
“Know what? I don’t think Marci should bounce on the bed. Okay? You hear me? She can’t balance. She’ll fall off and hurt herself.”
I ran up the carpeted stairs to the loft. Marci and the baby doll stood on the bed, but they weren’t jumping. The baby doll had torn off the top of its head with its two strong hands. A grey, solid rope of flesh spiraled out of the hollow plastic body into Marci’s open mouth and down her pulsing throat.
My scream brought Kamran running upstairs. He jogged into the bedroom as the empty plastic doll crumpled onto the bed.
“No way,” Kamran whispered.
“Like skin,” I said.
“Exoskeleton,” he corrected me. I stared at him.
Marci stood on our comforter. No longer swaybacked or wobbly on her feet, she looked at us, almost eye-to-eye on that high bed.
I clapped both hands over my mouth.
“Where do you come from?” Kamran asked.
Later, I would shriek at him for asking that question so calmly, and I’d curse his video games for preparing him for all that happened next. At the moment, though, I could only stand there shaking, with my hands over my mouth.
“Where do you come from?” Kamran asked again. “Tell me.”
Marci pointed her pudgy index finger upward.
Marci pointed to the left.
I dropped my hands from my mouth. “What?” I asked.
Marci pointed to the right. She pointed straight down.
“Of course,” Kamran whispered to me. “Space is all around us.”
Downstairs, the intercom buzzed. Marci reached down and picked up the plastic skin—or exoskeleton—and jumped off the bed. Carrying it draped over her forearms, she descended the stairs. The toddler moved nimbly now. Kamran and I hurried down after her.
Near the intercom, Marci lay the exoskeleton on the floor, and then she hopped up onto the mail table and pressed the buzzer to let in her mother and father from the sidewalk outside the apartment building.
“What do we do?” I asked Kamran. “They’ll be at the door in a minute.”
Marci jumped down and pointed. “Dduh, dhuh dhuh,” she said, working at it. “Doooor. Door. Door!”
From the hall came Mike’s muffled voice, Leena’s reply.
“Emma, wait,” Kamran grabbed my arm as I reached for the doorknob. “What do we say? Do we tell them? Now?”
“Ssshh.” We turned. Behind us, Marci raised her finger to her lips as she’d seen me do earlier. Her forehead creased as she worked out the new word. “Ww, wwuh, wait. Wait.”
When Kamran nodded, Marci’s tummy pooched out again and once more she wobbled uncertainly on her feet. For whatever reason, the thing inside her was putting on an act. Kamran’s eyes closed briefly, and I too felt relief mixed with guilt wash through me. Marci would seem no different to her parents. At least, for now.
Nodding, I opened the door.
Leena stood alone in the hall outside our front door. “Mike went back to guard the car. He saw broken glass in the street.” She looked down at the plastic remains on the floor. “What’s that? Did you break that, Marci?”
“No, she didn’t,” Kamran said. “She was fine.”
“Ma, ma, mmmma!” She’d reverted to babbling, too.
“Yes, Mama’s here,” Leena said.
Kamran fetched the diaper bag and the toy bag from the great room. “I’ll walk you down.”
“Daddy’s in the car.” Leena reached down for Marci’s hand. Marci grabbed onto her index finger. “Hey, you got quite a grip there, kiddo,” Leena said.
After I closed the front door, I stepped over the skin on the floor and walked to the kitchen in a fog. At the sink, I drank a glass of water, then stood with the empty glass in my shaking hand. I set the glass down in the sink, opened the cupboard above the sink and chugged tequila from the bottle.
The front door bumped closed. I returned to the hall. Kamran kicked the plastic heap on the floor.
“Throw it away,” I said.
“Closing the barn door after the horse is out.”
Kamran passed me, going into the great room. He turned on the TV. The DVD was still in the player. He clicked: resume watching. I went to stand beside him.
On our sixty-inch screen, the preview or ad or whatever it had been started up again. The baby doll we’d seen before continued marching forward in the swirl of color. After a few seconds, other dolls came after the first doll, hundreds of parading baby dolls in white onesies, in wide rows stretching back into infinity.
“Is each one going to find a baby?” I asked Kamran.
“It’ll be an army of babies,” Kamran said. “Strong babies.”
They came marching in formation, the first baby doll, and the thousands marching behind it, and now they had a voice. Not with their plastic rosebud lips, but through an aperture in their great pulsing blue eyes they emitted a shrill sound, only a siren at first, but growing stronger and clearer until I heard singing.
“We’re the younger generation, and the future of our nation…”
Kamran and I stood listening, an appalled grin on his face and wide-eyed horror on mine.
“We are the next generation.” The baby dolls sang as they came forward on their stiff, scissoring legs. “We are the saviors of the nation…”
At the end of the rousing song, every one of those baby dolls halted. Behind them, the swirling colors faded away. The baby dolls in their matching white onesies stood at attention below a huge, fluttering American flag.
The first baby doll stood tall with the army of baby dolls behind it, row after row of them, and the flag grew ever larger until it filled the entire background.
The first baby doll raised its hand and lay it on its chest. It turned toward us. Kamran and I, standing there on the carpet in front of our TV, felt its gaze on our faces. The baby doll looked right out at us with its hand on its heart. It might have been pledging allegiance to the flag, or it might have been saying, “I’m sorry!”