Bridget G. Dooley
There are disks of scalloped potatoes left on Dad’s plate, and he hasn’t asked to be excused because, as he’s fond of saying, he’s the adult half of this duo, and allowed to get up without asking permission. He’s gone to grab a surprise from the car, but Karen’s not especially excited. Other gifts he’s given her this spring include a soccer net with taut elastic that flings the ball back to its kicker and a clear hula-hoop filled with liquid glitter. That’s his idea of a good present: something he can introduce with an eager speech about how asthmatics become athletes, too, when they train hard enough. Something that comes with obligations. And here’s Karen, who can’t make a goal or keep a hula-hoop from falling below her knees. She’d rather sit on the linoleum stringing seed beads onto lengths of clear fishing line. She likes it when Dad shows her stuff better than when he gives her stuff. Sometimes he points out tree-stuck cicadas, or tries to explain the multi-colored circuitry maps he brings home from work, all the wired connections that make intentions into actions.
“This won’t be out in the states for at least a year,” Dad says, stooping to unzip his backpack’s center compartment, rooting around, “but Kenji got this prototype for the English-speaking model.” Kenji, Karen can guess, is another engineer. He probably wears a backpack over his suit coat, too. She pulls the doughy core out of a whole wheat bun, compresses it into a perfect cube, eats it in a single spongey bite. Dad doesn’t see her do it, so Karen’s dodged another “conscious eating” conversation: food for fuel, not for feelings, fuel-ups at the dinner table only. The “dinner table” is technically a “breakfast bar,” a marble-topped counter with matching stools. The realty lady who showed them the townhouse said it was ideal for small families.
Dad finds his pencil case and pulls out a keychain suspending a neon-green hunk of plastic about the size and shape of an egg. One side of the egg is flat, and on this flat side there’s a screen, three pink buttons, and jagged lightning bolt letters spelling out POCK-KID, which Karen reads aloud.
“A kid you keep in your pocket,” Dad says, “you press the buttons to feed it and teach it and love it. Like a SEGA game, except for maybe you’ll learn some responsibility, and you don’t have to stay sitting on the couch. Maybe it’ll show you what it’s like, raising a person.” He’s giving Karen the affectionate squint-eyed smile that says you’re so much trouble, but you’re worth it. This stings.
“Where’s the power switch?” Karen asks, searching the enamel with her nails for an on button. Dad clicks a mechanical pencil until the graphite’s sticking out an inch, like a nurse readying a syringe, and stabs the thing in a spot on its side. The screen blinks alive. A spotted egg appears on the display, composed of stacked black blocks like the numbers on a calculator, and a slow 8-bit crack sounds from the tiny speaker-holes. The egg picture explodes, shooting shell pieces into the corners of the screen, and a line-drawn creature unfolds itself from the smoking, animated wreckage. It’s maybe not the best rendered character sprite Karen’s ever seen, but it sure is cute. Its head and abdomen are the same oval, with a curled hair-wisp sticking up from its forehead. It’s armless, with jointless sticks for legs. It’s wearing shoes. It’s wailing, circular mouth expanding and contracting around a single square tooth, in time with a looped 3-second crying sound.
Karen has two options to stop the crying, according to the screen: spank the kid or buy it a pacifier. She tries to choose the pacifier, but there’s a harsh beep and the screen says she can’t: not enough points to purchase one from the store.
So Dad scrapes dinner scraps into the trash while Karen plays mini-games, collecting POCK-KID points by assembling houses and sorting cartoon fruits and finding the centers of angular mazes. The points become credits in the virtual shop, but earning enough of them to cash in takes even longer than with Skee-ball tickets. At least at the arcade Karen can trade her sad ticket-stacks for tootsie rolls. Celia, the shell-shaped shopkeeper sprite, says Eventually your POCK-KID can earn points for itself, if you raise it right! But in the meantime the creature’s helpless, dependent on Karen to purchase its pixellated necessities.
Dad loads cups into the dishwasher’s top rack while the tinny wail of the POCK-KID plays in the background. “Will you figure out how to shush the thing up?” Dad asks. He’s fighting an urge to come fix the problem himself, like when she’s stuck on a Zelda level. He could solve puzzles half dead. “Working on it!” she says. She knows a spank would quiet the cries more quickly, but that’s not how she intends to start her kid’s life.
Karen’s been campaigning for a pet, something soft and flop-eared or pot-bellied, on the grounds it’ll make her a better daughter. She’s promised Dad that if she has an animal of her own she’ll go outside more, listen in class, not get sent to the office for signing slips in quivering cursive that clearly isn’t his. Never forget her inhaler again. But there’re other ways she’s sure she’d change, things she hasn’t said. Not seek out secret sugar rushes anymore, not sneak into Dad’s room to mine his Reese’s stash. Not hide the spent wrappers between her bed and wall. She’d also learn what to say when he sits at the breakfast bar with the phone-cord balled in his fist, filling Mom’s answering machine with increasingly angry messages, asking whether she understands their custody agreement and the meaning of every Wednesday night, because he’s an adult and sometimes he makes plans outside of the house.
If Karen could only bury her face in some animal’s coat then she’d be fixed, like when the Dell bit up dust and Dad reformatted the hard-drive and everything went back to brand new. And doesn’t she deserve a pet? Eric who lives down the hill got a dachshund named Micro as a divorce present. Maybe the POCK-KID is a test, to see if Karen can care for a creature? She resolves to be robot-parent of the year.
It takes more than a dozen rounds of games before Karen can afford a pacifier. She selects the option to “purchase,” the point-counter in the screen’s upper-left corner plummets, and the POCK-KID stops its sobbing to suck happily at its new present. Then a pop-up box appears to tell Karen that the creature has matured. There are bar graphs depicting how it’s doing in different areas of development. It’s “healthy”–she’s been sure to stop and feed the thing its baby formula and clean the little spirals of excrement it leaves–and the “loved” bar is full as it will go. But it’s running low on “discipline.” She must have lost authority points for letting the crying go on as long as it did. Be careful, warns the screen, or your kid won’t listen!
The toy spends the night under Karen’s cloud-print pillow. She’s not sure if the POCK-KID can tell what’s going on outside of its egg (are sensors embedded someplace?) but she doesn’t want it to sleep alone, just in case. The first time she’d tried to sleep in this room was earlier this summer, when it wasn’t really her bedroom yet, just a room with her bed and boxes in it. She couldn’t stop watching the weirdly textured ceiling–which the realty lady called “stippled”–worried it was melting down toward her at an imperceptible speed, worried she’d wake covered in plaster or skewered by ceiling-cave stalactites. If she’d had a pet she’d have slept soundly, assured it’d nudge her awake with its nose if anything went wrong.
A wet sound cuts into Karen’s dream. It takes a minute for her to realize it’s coming from the egg. She tries to operate the game by night-light, but the screen’s not backlit, so she has to switch her lamp on in order to see. Her kid’s asleep on its side in a puddle of pixellated pee, drenched to the pom-pommed sleeping cap. Spit bubbles are filling with air and floating up from its mouth, popping when they reach the boundary between the screen and the green plastic casing. Karen opens the menu and selects the “cleaning” option. Dad sees the light on, opens her bedroom door, asks what she’s doing up so late.
“Being responsible,” she says.
Weekday mornings work like this: Dad up at six, showered, lunches packed and steel-cut oats on the counter for Karen by half-past. Then he rouses her with a shoulder-shake and a forehead kiss and heads to the industrial park. If she wants to be at the bus-stop by eight she can snooze for at least another half hour: staying in bed just after waking is a pudding-thick feeling, like all her mechanisms have been poured into the sheets and she hasn’t got organs. A few times she’s stayed in bed long past the time the bus arrived at school, but the melty feeling faded by midday and she didn’t know what to do with herself. When Dad came home he was 1) concerned, thinking she might have stayed home with an actual sickness, and then 2) furious, disappointed she’d been so lazy, embarrassed that the school had left messages with his department’s administrative assistant.
Today Karen’s up at Dad’s first attempt. She feeds and showers and “pets” the POCK-KID before even using the bathroom, then hooks it to the belt-loop of her favorite jeans, tucking the egg into her front pocket, right where it’s supposed to go.
In math Mrs. L has the class count off by four, divide into groups, and make patterns from tessellation blocks. Jared wants to arrange the wooden shapes into the pattern of his parent’s bathroom floor, but Marnie disagrees, and the two are arguing when the egg goes off, sounding triumphantly. Karen takes it out to see that her kid has leveled up, sprouted more hairs, in the shape of a mohawk this time. The pacifier, which had cost so many credits, sits discarded on the edge of her kid’s habitat, and Mrs. L’s standing above Karen, mock-turtleneck collar sticking out from under her appliquéd Easter vest. “Put that thing away,” she says, “I’m not going to ask you again.”
It’s raining, which means indoor recess. Mrs. L opens up the modular wall between her room and Mr. P’s, so all the fifth graders can play together in the same space, and Karen writes her name on the sign up sheet to use the computer. While she waits for her turn she reads Animorphs in the book-nook by the cubbies, checking on the POCK-KID every few pages. If this were regular outdoor recess she’d probably be traipsing along the black-top’s edges, looking for lost worms, or sitting beneath the slide and building gravel sculptures, or standing at the outskirt of a group, careful not to get stuck in a game of tag because otherwise she knows she’ll stay “it” until they’re called inside for lunch. Kids who’ve done something wrong have to sit along the wall at outdoor recess, and once Karen had gone and sat there for no real reason except for something to do. “You’re not on my detention list,” Mrs. M had said. Karen had nodded, said she knew, asked couldn’t she just pretend to be in trouble for today? But Mrs. M had sent her back out into the playground because “if punishment’s a game it loses its purpose.”
Karen’s curled in a book-nook bean-bag now, egg in hand and book in lap, trying to earn enough credits to buy her kid its next accessory, a crayon the size of its own leg, when she realizes that Lula’s coming toward her. Lula’s in the other class, and they’ve never really spoken, but Karen obviously knows her- she’s like a pop star. She has a different outfit daily and gel pens in every color, even the metallic kinds. Today she’s wearing twin hair buns held up with butterfly clips that buzz on their springs and a crinkly pastel top so awesome it could only have come from Too Sassy, the expensive girl’s store in the mall. Last Christmas Karen’s cousin got her a gift certificate for there, but the clothes sizes were too small and she spent the whole $25 on miniature bottles of nail polish. And now Karen has something Lula doesn’t, and Lula wants to know can she see Karen’s toy? “Sure,” Karen says, opening the metal jump ring with her nails to remove the key chain, “I’ll show you how to feed it.”
The feeding process, at this stage of the POCK-KID’s life, is an animated sequence where a cupcake falls from heaven directly into the kid’s open mouth, leaving nothing behind but a spray of crumbs. Lula so enjoys watching this happen that she chooses the “feed” option over and over until the sprite’s legs go wobbly and it pukes, loudly, making Lula squeal and call for her friends Sarah and Casey to come see. And all of a sudden there’s a flock of kids clustered around the egg, and Lula’s feeding and feeding and feeding it, and all the kids are squawking in unison as a tide of vomit floods the screen. Karen’s glad for the attention–”It’s the only one in the country,” she tells the crowd–but then the level of puke-liquid gets so high it’s nearing the tip of her kid’s mohawk, and she’s begging Lula to stop, please, before it dies, and Karen’s face is flushing and she can’t keep herself from sobbing, and Mr. P has to come over and tell everyone to find something else to do, and when it’s Karen’s turn to use the computer she opts to stay like soup in the bean bag rather than play Oregon Trail.
For lunch Karen has a twisted sandwich bag of peanuts, a cheese-less turkey sandwich, a squat disposable bottle of water and an orange that looks albino when she peels it open. The whole grains in the sandwich bread are actually visible, black seeds spotting the crust’s surface. Mom used to pack thickly-spread JIF sandwiches on crustless squares of white bread. Sometimes Mom would even pick her up at lunchtime and they’d go someplace to eat fries from paper cartons with their fingers, peeling out of the parking lot like they’d never come back.
Karen throws her lunch into the rolling trash bin between the long rows of foldable lunch tables and buys a Choco-taco with a stack of dimes from her frog-shaped coin purse, which she tucks into the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie and eats in a locked bathroom stall while checking in on the POCK-KID. Its health bar is so low that it still can’t stand up straight. Karen opens the menu, chooses “console,” and watches a disembodied hand stroke her kid’s hair.
In gym the class is divided into teams for a relay race. They’re to go to the edge of the red line, then back, passing a baton between them and running whichever way Ms. K announces. “Crab!” Ms. K says, and Derrick, Karen’s team’s starting runner, drops to the floor and shuffles all the way to the red line. He takes a quick lead ahead of the other teams, and somehow Karen’s team stays in front by a full body’s length as Jessie grape vines across the floor, tennis shoes squeaking on waxed wood. Karen’s last in line to run, and she’s psyching herself up for her turn, replaying in her brain what Dad says about how she’s just as capable as anyone else, imagining how a gym-class win might redeem her from her earlier outburst. Jessie practically throws the baton into Karen’s hand. Which isn’t regulation. But no one notices. “Skip!” And off Karen goes, gamboling toward the red line. But the other teams are pushing ahead of her on either side, and she can’t frolic as fast as they can, and the gymnasium air must be freezing somehow because she can feel it shudder through her, whistling in her chest, and now her head’s hitting the red line and Ms. K’s standing over her, asking for someone to grab Karen’s albuterol inhaler from the medical bag.
Dad explains to the doctor over the phone that Karen really needs to be seen this afternoon, even though she insists she’s fine now. He leaves Mom a voicemail. He strokes Karen’s hair but doesn’t apologize for saying she can do anything she wants. Whenever he catches her in a lie he makes her apologize for it.
On the wall in the waiting room is a diagram of a little girl with her throat flipped open like a PEZ dispenser. She’s cut in two so you can see that her pipes are full of foreign objects, safety pins and monopoly pieces and tools Karen’s never seen used before, and there’s a metal hook stuck deep inside of the girl in order to pull them out. Karen wonders if maybe this is what has happened to her–maybe something got stuck in her gears and now they don’t turn right? She plays mini-games, hoping to earn her kid that crayon. The POCK-KID’s had a tough day. She left it in her jeans when she changed for gym class, and couldn’t check up on it the whole time she was in the nurse’s office, and it’s not feeling very loved. Karen shut herself in a cupboard once, in the old house, to see how long it’d take for someone to come find her. She gave up eventually. That must be what today felt like for the POCK-KID.
The doctor lets Karen draw on the waxed paper that goes over the examining table. She draws the POCK-KID, with a wagging tail and a background just like her own backyard, power lines and all. The Doctor tests her breath, pushes on her chest, tells her he can hear the grumbly monster in her belly. Karen giggles at this because the Doctor’s face says to, but the idea’s scary, too close to what’s true. The Doctor shows her how to use a nebulizer–a machine made of plastic tubes and bubbling liquid that pushes steamed medicine into her lungs. She’s sent home with her own nebulizer in a box like a new toy and the doctor tells her dad she’ll have to use it daily.
On the ride home, Karen asks Dad to stop for Dairy Queen, and he agrees with a resigned sigh. When she and Mom go for ice creams they sit leaning into each other on the curb and it’s like conspiring against whoever made the rule that says they can’t have fun all the time. Dad doesn’t order anything, and tells Karen to eat her cherry-dipped cone in the car. Tears leak onto the waxy red coating but Dad doesn’t notice. He’s watching the road.
The next day Karen swaddles the POCK-KID in a sweater, to muffle its sounds, and puts it in her backpack. During recess she sits beside the electrical box on the edge of the playground, facing out toward the road. It’s a good hiding spot. She’s free to virtually parent in peace.
But Lula does find her, and she brings Casey and Sarah, too. They’re all wearing matching snap bracelets, which Karen has heard are dangerous because they can open up an artery in the wrist.
“What’re you doing here?” Lula asks, looking worried, like someone else was chosen to walk the attendance sheet down to the principle’s office.
“What do you care,” says Karen. It isn’t a question, not really.
“We wanted to see your toy,” says Casey, and Lula shoots her a look like she’d ruined a surprise.
“You can’t. You almost killed it.”
“Killed it? It can’t die,” Lula sneers, “it’s a toy.”
“No, no it can definitely die. It’s a robot but it’s still, like, a person. Like it still has thoughts. Feelings. A very advanced model. From Japan.” Karen says. She’s trying to remember a conversation with Dad where he explained the different sorts of robot-people. Androids. Cyborgs. The bionic kind. Casey and Sarah look impressed. Japan’s pretty far away.
“I heard what happened in gym,” Lula says. Lula’s trying to stay in charge, but Karen can already see where this is headed. The conversation’s moving like the lens of a Ouija board under Karen’s hands: she knows she must be the one moving it, but it feels so natural, so predetermined and beyond her control.
“I shorted out.” Karen says. She lets this sit in the air a second, like a POCK-KID sound affect, the announcement of some big change.
“What do you mean?” Sarah asks.
“Fine. Fine. I’m a robot, too, okay. But a different kind. An android. I’m just made to look like a person. That’s how come I know so much about taking care of this robot. And why I care about it so much. We’re related. Anyway my machinery’s delicate, especially the parts of me that work like your lungs. Sometimes if I don’t fuel up I don’t operate right.” Karen likes this idea. If she were an android she could just reprogram her thinking, enter the code to quit missing Mom. Lula doesn’t look convinced, exactly, but definitely confused, which is something. Sarah and Casey look poised to run.
“I can prove it,” Karen says. “You can come see me fuel up sometime, at my house. I’m steam powered.” She says this as matter-of-factly as an android would.
“So if you’re a robot you haven’t got parents, right?” Lula asks.
“I haven’t got a mom. An engineer made me. I call him Dad.” Karen says. One time she ate six blocks of baker’s chocolate, because there wasn’t anything else around worth binging on. That’s how the lie feels in her mouth. Bitter. Satisfying somehow.
“But….why’d the engineer make you fat?” Lula wants to know.
“Lula. Come on,” says Casey, “Obviously if she has delicate moving parts then they need to be kept safe. It’s for protection.” Karen has to concentrate on staying serious-faced instead of nuzzling her head into Casey’s neck.
“That’s right,” says Karen. “For protection.”
The POCK-KID chimes the signal for growing up another increment. At this rate, Karen thinks, it won’t be long at all before she’s convinced Dad that she deserves an actual animal.
Bridget G. Dooley lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan where she is an MFA student in fiction at Western Michigan University and fiction editor of Third Coast Magazine. She is the author of the poorly-bound chapbook A Book of Textures and Obligations and an admirer of unapologetic, contented recluses.