We wanted to get a child but it wasn't in our budget. So we looked online, and sometimes you can look and look and the only ones that are free are the ones who are mental, who've set fire to their parents' bedroom set, but this time we actually scored. "Holy F., there sure are a lot!" Bill said as I scrolled through picture after picture of smiling, healthy kids.
We were lucky with our timing, I guess. That whole gene selection business—you know the ads: if you can dream it, we can make it, baby—was just starting out back then, meaning there were kinks to work through. Meaning, in terms of the quality of the product, there were a lot of "seconds," though I wish there was a better word. Even in the fancier-pants part of the world, mistakes can happen. Usually terms are that you can try again with a different gene selection, but then what do you do with the oops child?
That's where people like us come in handy, I guess.
I just really want to be a parent.
This time I let Bill pick out the kid, since I got to pick the last one, the one who acted skittish the whole time then finally ran off into the woods. Bill chose an adorable girl with pigtails and expensive looking eyes. This one-of-a-kind child is obedient and eager to please. Bell-sounding laugh and strong vitals. Notarized documentation included. Nice daughter just not what we requested.
It's exciting, getting a remaindered child. It's like it's your birthday, and you're handed some weirdly-shaped present wrapped with a pretty bow. Whatever can it be? Might it be what you actually wanted? Usually these types of kids come with paperwork explaining what the parents were aiming for—i.e. a curly haired brainiac with exaggerated nurturing—but honestly, you can't know what went right or wrong. These kids could grow up to be anyone! They could do something really great with their lives, or they could become the sort of person who tears the wings off endangered butterflies. Bill and I found the uncertainty kind of thrilling. Or at least more natural, though that's such an old-fashioned word. More like how our childhoods were, anyway.
We dressed up for the occasion, Bill and I, though I expected the parents to be like the last set, not even bothering to walk the child to the door. Bill wore his favorite t-shirt that read Good Dads Make a Difference! while I put on my red jumpsuit with the zippered front, because the girl's favorite color was red. At least the mom guessed it was.
Joan and Jim Excelsior pulled up right on time in their chichi coupe, and at first they looked like they weren't even going to stop, so I started waving my arms and running down to the road, which took about 5 steps, as nobody in our neighborhood has front yards. The parents looked a little artificial for my taste, their hair not their real hair color, their eyes not their real eye color either, though the girl looked just like her picture. She was wearing a red and white striped dress and shiny white shoes. I offered her my hand and she took it. Her hand felt warm and real and perfect.
Inside, Joan swiveled her head around, taking in our place. It felt like she was judging us, probably because she was, but I was judging them too. What kind of parent is disappointed in their child by the time the kid turns 4, I was wondering, as she was probably wondering, what kind of adults live in a microhouse on wheels and eat Fruity Loopies for breakfast. "I keep waiting for the dishes to clean themselves, Joan," I joked, seeing as she was staring in the direction of our sink. "Please. It's Mrs. Excelsior," Joan corrected me. Then she gave the girl a tour, which didn't take long, because there isn't much to where we live: a bedroom, a toilet, a closet. "Oh. I believe there's a cake in the closet," Joan said, her voice concerned. I brought out the cake. On the top we had written the girl's name in orange frosting.
"But where are the other children?" Joan said. "You told me there were others."
Jim and the girl accepted their pieces of the cake but Joan did not.
"They're at the park," I said casually. "They're always at the park, aren't they? With friends. Friends!" I motioned to the window, in what could have been the direction of a park. These other children were part of a story I had told Joan during our earlier correspondence, a story I had made up with the best intentions. Thinking, at the time: this mother probably has a picture in her head of the kind of place where she could comfortably leave her child. Such as a home with other playmates and a fenced-in yard with grass that appeared to be green. I had wanted to give Joan something in return. That idea of such a home at least. For a little while.
I turned to the girl, who was licking frosting from her fingers. "Does anyone here like puppies?" The child squealed with delight. I made sure Joan heard it before I led the child out back to see the freshly fenced yard. In the sunlight, the girl looked just like a girl. "The dog's name is Daisy," I said, pointing to the puppy, and she threw herself down, just as I hoped she would, onto the new grass, the new fake grass, I mean, but it was real enough, just like her. She burrowed her head against the dog's side.
"Would you like to live here?" I asked her. She shook her head. She had a name, Julie, but I made a point of not calling her that. After the parents drove back to their compound, we were going to call her something completely different. Something concrete, like Peach. While the girl cuddled the puppy, I snapped the tracking bracelet around her ankle. There was no point in pretending we were going to do something different, like let the girl run wild, or run away from us. Bill had let me buy a pretty one with rhinestones set along the border. Pretty enough for you to wear? Bill joked. Ha ha. Everybody knows it's not a bracelet. But if we're all pretending, maybe it doesn't matter what it is. I don't think the girl noticed because the puppy was licking her face ferally.
Mrs. Excelsior pointed at the girl's ankle once we returned to the kitchen.
"What is that?"
"A bracelet." I gave Mrs. Excelsior a look that meant let's drop the subject, okay? There was no reason to scare anybody. "Don't you worry. I'll love her no matter what." Meaning, I will love her more than you ever would. Joan's eyes looked sad so I stopped looking at them. "I mean, We're not going to lose her." This time I meant it. Joan kept repeating that I could call her for anything related to the girl, and I made a lot of promises I wouldn't keep.
Eventually it was time for them go.
Bill took the girl out back again to show her the wild strawberries running along the fence.
"Come on, chin up," I told Joan as she slumped back into the cushy seat of their car. "There are a lot of things for you to look forward to. Things you can't even imagine right now." They could try to have another child, for instance. Maybe this one would be perfect. Joan raised her hand, as if to say she agreed with me, or perhaps to say goodbye, or maybe to dismiss me. I wasn't sure what the gesture meant actually. Then they were gone. Because the husband drove away very fast, like it was an emergency, they didn't see what I saw. A red bird peeking out from behind our neighbor's trashed Camry, the kind of bird you never spot anymore in this neighborhood. I wish Joan could have seen such a bird. She could have told herself, I am leaving my daughter in a place that has red birds! Love is a funny thing, isn't it? That it could be easily transferred. But it really can, I guess. It was theirs and now it wasn't. It was mine. All of a sudden I felt like I had a new heart, or something new lodged in my heart, which, in the end, is all I wanted, as I ran back to the fence, pointing and shouting to Bill and the girl to look.
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.