Part One: Helen
When it arrived, she was ready. She’d painted the nursery yellow and chosen a theme: Lion and Lamb Who Lay Down Together. The crib was painted white, with an organic cotton mattress and pale green sheets. Before it arrived, the room was a project, a place where she felt her energy return. After, the room softened into a haven, a nest where nothing needed to happen.
She’d taken maternity leave, so she had time after the arrival to focus on names. Naming, she knew, was crucial. Naming conferred gender, status, and life. All along, she’d wanted a gender-neutral name so that the story, if it changed, stayed simple. But one look at her baby’s face when she removed the swaddle and she knew this one needed a tough name, something to believe in. This baby, she knew, was a boy. “Boy Baby,” she said and wrote it on a card and, below that, her baby’s name: Theodore William III. There was no I or II, but this made the number all the more crucial. She’d created him, her son, including his history, including his long line of men.
Theo was handsome, with chubby cheeks and sleepy eyes. He seemed to stare through her, as if focusing on something behind her pupils. When she stared back, she relaxed into a sleepy feeling. She co-slept with him wedged between pillows. Occasionally, she woke up to find the cat kneading his stomach roll.
Her gaze into his eyes was private; outside, she was all brisk new-mom business. She tucked him face-first against her chest on walks and at the grocery. She bought a car seat and a baby jogger; in motion, no one asked questions. No one thought to look too closely at eyes that never seemed to blink, a mouth that never opened more than the width of a nipple. She was choosing not to nurse, not to go too far, because she knew there was a line somewhere, a double yellow beyond which lay some double cross.
Theo’s first year passed quickly. On his first birthday, she woke up sick with sadness. It was time, she knew, to turn him in. True, there was the option of keeping him and adding New Theodore to her nursery, mismatched twins. But the original price included age-sensitive replacements, not additions. To get her New Theodore, she had to mail in the old. It was a ritual she’d need to get used to. She’d ordered five updates, five years of New Theo. When he turned five, the updates would stop. That would be the end of his changing. She would change for him while he stayed the same.
It was his birthday, so she started with cake, posted photos of his tiny hands reaching for a slice covered in frosting uploaded to social media for a frenzy of likes. Then, she trundled Theo in his carriage to the post office on 17thEast. It was a modest brick building, overlooked in all the bustle of her neighborhood, with an alcove and a long, low table where she could say goodbye in private before bundling Theo up in his swaddle and packaging him back to his Michigan address. New Theo would be an even better baby. He would arrive in the mail and look exactly the same but perceptibly older. His eyes would gaze more deeply into her pupils. His hands would be slightly more defined. His arrival as a one-year-old baby would be his real birthday, she told herself, covering his face, pressing her palm over the cloth on his eyes.
The in-between days were worse than she’d fathomed. She’d been promised five business days, but weekends were when she most needed a baby, something to hold with the windows closed and traffic muted by a white noise machine, something to sing to, press a spoon to its lips and wipe the baby food from that she placed, each night, in the curbside food waste bin. She wasn’t wasteful. Her baby didn’t clog plastic diapers or grab at prepackaged snacks or require water, cow’s milk, meat. Her son needed nothing but gazing. He was content. He was made by hand, and his handmakers were also content. She knew this; she’d done the research.
Five business days slogged past. She woke up, exercised in her apartment for twenty minutes while a woman shouted at her online. She brushed and flossed. She showered. She ate oatmeal and blueberries and drank coffee black. Still her package never came. Over the weekend, she lay on the floor of the nursery until her cat prodded her, reminding her that she needed to eat.
On Tuesday, seven business days in, her phone rang while she was eating lunch in the break room with Anya and Steve.
“Sorry, I have to take this,” she said.
A woman’s voice crackled through the faraway line. “May I please speak to Helen?”
“Speaking.” Something, she thought, was off. The voice was cool, too collected for a mother.
“Hi, Helen. This is Stephanie from BirthBay. I’m calling to inform you that there’s been an issue with order G5692-B1000.”
“An issue? With Theo?”
“We have you listed as the purchaser of G5692-B1000, renamed Theodore William III, correct?”
Helen pressed her phone against her cheek. It was warm in an unpleasant way, as if she’d stuck her finger in a socket.
“I’m sorry to tell you that there’s been an accident. G56 – Theo – Theo’s 3D print file was the victim of identity theft. May we send you a complimentary replacement?”
“Yes, the company experienced a cyberattack and a number of identities were stolen. This means we are unable to provide you with your annual New Theo.”
“We would be happy to send you a complimentary replacement.”
“I’d rather have Old Theo back. Just send him back, please.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“What do you mean?”
“Old Theo had already been deconstructed when our tech team discovered that the identity theft had taken place.”
“Crushed, burned, and recycled. All of our processes are run on green energy. We would be happy to send you–”
Helen hung up. A numb feeling settled in her stomach, spread to her chest, and filled her mouth. Theo was gone. She had put him in a box, sent him through the mail, and now he no longer existed. She had killed him. She was a murderer, not a mother. And now her nursery was just a room, a very yellow room, where she lay on the floor and knew how alone she was by the timing of the sun.
Helen slept, woke, went to work. Ate takeout brought to the door of her building by frantic delivery drivers who were simultaneously delivering packages. At night, she slept on the floor of the yellow room, looking at the cartoon lions and cartoon lambs dotting the walls. The changing table lay perfectly prepped, a small pile of cloth diapers placed next to bottles of lotion and powder. Just because she didn’t need them didn’t mean they weren’t important to the feeling, the mood of the yellow room. Helen remembered a conversation she’d had with Dane before he’d left. He’d stumbled into the yellow room and picked up a bottle of diaper rash cream.
“Really, Helen? Really? How much did this cost? Because none of this is cheap. That goddamn doll cost, what, five thousand? You’ve lost your mind. I can’t do this, Helen.”
She remembered watching his hands, the way he banged his fists on the crib, the colorful mobile swinging wildly. She remembered him sweeping his hands across the careful piles of diapers, baby clothes, books. Everything tumbled and, when he stomped out the door, she changed the locks.
It was Thursday. She had noodles again, ice cream for dessert. She knew she needed to run another load of laundry, vacuum the nursery. Instead, she fell asleep.
At first, Helen thought it was the cat that woke her. The sound was soft, like Kitty jumping from the bookshelf to the sofa, Kitty batting one of her toy mice against the fridge. Helen listened, thinking it was rain or something falling from an apartment above.
She looked at her watch: 8:37 p.m.
No one knocked here, in the hallway of her building. People buzzed to get in, friends and delivery drivers both. No one just showed up, walked three flights up, and knocked on a stranger’s door.
Helen wasn’t scared; she had mace, she had a baseball bat, she had her wits, and a peephole too. She looked through, but all she could see was her neighbor’s Ring across the way, recording everything she did. Sometimes she stood in front of their door and stared at the camera, making faces, mouthing lies.
There was no one at her door. She put down the baseball bat and walked back to the nursery.
This time, Helen opened the door a crack, leaving the chain latched. This time, she looked down and saw the basket. There was no one in the hall. The Ring glowed viciously. The basket held a baby, neither Old Theo nor New but an entirely different infant.
Helen lifted the child out of its basket. Warm and breathing, it balled up its miniature fists and began to cry.
Part Two: Joey
It was the end times in that no one knew how long. It was the end times of face masks and delivered goods and telehealth. Of people skirting wide circles around each other as they, only eyes in their sockets and wild hair lacking barbers, passed each other on the street and tried not to cough in order not to up the terror of even this distanced contact. It was the end times of hugging trees because people had become dangerous, of frigid lake-water dips because the pool was closed, of everything online, all the poets reading and the musicians doing their thing, Bruce Springsteen even. It was the end times of laying down in dirt and rolling around, pushing dull knives against arms and legs, running knuckles against the house bricks to feel anything at all. And the end times of drinking too much, smoking too much in order not to feel anything at all.
Joey watched the internet for signs of life when scrolling seemed like a kind of activity, like parties used to be, like orgies. They’d never been to one of those but were open to it now. They were open to so many things that would probably never come to pass. It had been one hundred and seventy days since another human had breathed their air or touched them. They missed the awkwardness of hugs. They missed bad breath. They missed armpit stink. They missed someone shitting in their toilet and stinking the whole apartment up. All of it. They missed the good smells too, but those were forgotten first—an old love’s musky perfume, fresh laundry that wasn’t their detergent. They missed mouths and forgot what tongues did other than hold ice, what a held hand felt like, what private parts tasted like. Anything? Surely something, but what? Was this a thing they had ever known? Was touch?
Joey went outside and punched the brick again. “Touch,” they said. Like they were leading a dog around. That dog was them. That dog was always them. That dog was always always always them. They had missed the opening days of the outbreak where shelters gave out dogs, so many dogs, and all the dogs had homes. How had this ever been a problem? How had there been dogs without homes? How did they miss the giveaway? They hadn’t thought they needed a dog before and then laughed at everyone scrambling. And then they needed. And now there were still stray dogs but no one to pick them up and tame them and give them away. Some nights, Joey wandered the bad neighborhood and looked for dogs eating garbage in the alley and tried to tempt them with better food, raw slabs of chicken they carried in a plastic bag. “Here, dog,” they said, “here.” And the dogs would not come. And the dogs would not even look up from the garbage until they drew close. And then the dogs ran away, looking back over their shoulder from time to time as they got smaller and darker in the night.
“I wish there was something I could do to help you feel better,” Joey’s BFF, Rachel, texted (this after a long exchange wherein Joey pondered the point to anything.)
Rachel had a baby and so was not really “into” the plague, didn’t read news, wouldn’t have left the house anyway because of the baby. Got grocery delivery anyway because of the baby. Didn’t socialize anyway because of the baby. And was parenting solo and didn’t mind it. Had been grateful to turn away from the constant treadmill of trying to gain comfort from another body. “I really only wanted a baby,” she had said. They both knew it wasn’t true, but that she had wanted a baby was true enough. “Why can’t you have both,” Joey had asked, perplexed that anyone would give up sex. “I’m just not interested,” she had said. “And now I have the baby.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help you feel better,” Rachel texted after Joey’s rant about rotting flesh from lack of touch, of mental illness spiking everywhere or, in any case, certainly inside them.
“Send Tanya to me,” Joey texted back along with the smiling-face-with-hearts-for-eyes emoji.
“Having a baby in the house really does help in a quarantine situation,” Rachel texted.
“Did you know quarantine means forty days? That that’s where the quaran- comes from?”
“Huh,” Rachel texted back.
It was then that Joey started getting ads on social media for BirthBay. “Your very own baby,” the ads said. “Without the birthing, without the danger of hot cars.”
Those are the two things I was most afraid of, Joey thought. How did they know?
The next ad showed a smiling child inside a car on a bright day, all the windows rolled up. The next ad showed someone, looking not unlike Joey on their better days, feet propped on the sofa, a real-looking fake baby tucked in one arm, a bowl of popcorn in the other, a beer on the table.
I could do that, Joey thought. I could have a baby. It would be warm and it would hug me.
“Do babies hug?” Joey google-searched, which led to other searches. “Do babies understand kisses?” “How do I know if my baby loves me?” “How do I know if I love my baby?”
Early anecdotal accounts said babies can hug at five months, but most babies don’t hug until they are much older. “I can’t wait that long,” Joey said.
Joey started going to the BirthBay website every morning, first thing. It was better than reading the news, better than watching the local webcam of no one in the public square, better than the New York Times’ daily briefing, or searching the infected counts, the death counts that had so consumed them. Every day, the smiling faces. The new parents and the tiny babies.
“Can babies smile?” Joey searched.
“Do babies hug?” Joey searched again to watch the videos.
The next day, BirthBay announced the newest model with working arms. All you had to do was say the words, “hug baby,” and the baby would hug. Or have the chip installed and think it, and the result would be the same.
Joey got out their wallet. Joey got out their credit card and ran their thumb over the numbers there.