WE ARE ALL MISFIT TOYS IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE VELVETEEN WAR
Seanan McGuire is the author of many works of short fiction and two ongoing urban fantasy series. Under the name Mira Grant, she writes science fiction thrillers full of viruses and zombies. Between her identities, she is a ten-time Hugo Award finalist, and was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is a founding member of the Hugo Award–winning SF Squeecast. She currently resides on the West Coast, where she shares her home with three enormous blue cats, a great many books, and the occasional wayward rattlesnake. McGuire regularly claims to be the advance scout of a race of alien plant people. We have no good reason to doubt her.
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL?
Half a dozen cars cluster behind the old community center like birds on a telephone wire, crammed so closely together that someone will probably scrape someone else’s paint on their way out of the parking lot. It would have been easy to leave a little room, but that’s not how we do things anymore. Safety means sticking close, risking a few bruises in order to avoid the bigger injuries.
It’s silly. The war is over—the war has been over for more than three years, receding a little further into the past with every day that inches by—and we’re still behaving like it could resume at any time. It’s silly, and it’s pointless, and I still veer at the last moment, abandoning my comfortably distant parking space in favor of one that leaves my car next to all the others. I have to squirm to get out of the driver’s seat, forcing my body through a gap that’s barely as wide as I am.
Something moves in the shadow between the nearest Dumpster and the street. It’s probably a feral cat, but my heart leaps into my throat, and I hold my coat tight around my body as I turn and race for the door. The war is over.
The war will never end.
Almost twenty people arrived in those half-dozen cars: gas is expensive and solitude is suspect, and so carpooling has become a way of life. I am the only person who comes to these meetings alone. They forgive me because they might need me someday, and because sometimes I bring coffee for the refreshment table. Not today, though. It was a rough night at work, and I feel their eyes on me, accusing, as I make my way to one of the open folding chairs. Like the cars, the chairs are set too close together, so that we can smell each other’s sweat, feel the heat coming off each other’s skins.
Precaution after precaution, and the war is over, and the war will never end.
“So glad you could join us,” says the government mediator, and there’s a condescending sweetness in her tone that shouldn’t be there. She knows why I’m late; she knows I didn’t have a choice in the matter. She’s just asserting dominance, and no one in this room will challenge her.
I swallow fear like a bitter tonic as I drop into a chair. “I got turned around,” I say. “There was a new barricade on Elm, and I don’t know that neighborhood very well.” It’s harder to get around since most of the GPS satellites were decommissioned. They never turned against us—thank God for small favors—but data doesn’t care who or what uses it, and some of the people in charge decided that it was better for a few civilians to get lost than it was to risk one of those satellites being taken over. I can’t say whether that was the right decision or not. We never lost a GPS satellite. Maybe we never would have. Maybe we would have lost them all. The war is over.
The war will never end.
It doesn’t matter.
“Now that we’re all here, we can begin,” says the government mediator. Her smile is formal, practiced, and as plastic as our enemies.
They all come from FEMA, the mediators, trained in crisis response and recovery. They’re just doing their jobs. I tell myself that every time they send us a new mediator, another interchangeable man or woman sitting in a splintery wooden chair, trying to talk us through a trauma that we cannot, will not, will never get past. When they start to care—when we become people, not statistics—that’s when they’re rotated again, one face blurring into the next. The country is too wounded for personal compassion. The world is too wounded. The good of the one is no longer a part of the equation.
“My name is Carl,” says one of the men, and we all chorus, “Welcome, Carl,” as obedient as schoolchildren. Carl doesn’t seem to find comfort in our greeting. Carl’s eyes are as empty as the mediator’s smile. Carl doesn’t want to be here.
That’s something we have in common.
“Did you want to share?” asks the mediator, even though she damn well knows the answer. We’re here because we have to be; we’re here because we want to share our stories, to hear the stories of others, and to sift through the patchwork scraps of information looking for the thing we need more than anything else in the world: hope. We’re hunting for hope, and this is the only place we know of where it’s been spotted.
Carl nods, worrying his lip between his teeth before he says haltingly, “My Jimmy will be nine years old next week. The last time I saw him, he had just turned six …” And just like that, he’s off, the words tumbling like stones from his lips. The rest of us listen in silence. My hands are locked together, so tight that my fingers are starting to hurt.
The war is over, and Carl is telling us about the son he lost when the war began, and nothing really matters anymore. Nothing will ever matter again.
This is what happened.
Artificial intelligence became feasible ten years ago, when a San Jose social media firm working on building the perfect predictive algorithm somehow unlocked the final step between a simple machine and a computer that was capable of active learning. Self-teaching machines were the future, and humanity was terrified. We were proud of our position at the peak of the social order, and we feared creating our own successors. Making matters worse, every country was afraid of how every other country would use this new technology. We were convinced that AI would allow its users to dominate the others in war or commerce.
In less than a month, artificial intelligence was more tightly regulated than stem cell research. In less than a year, it was outlawed in virtually all fields of human endeavor. But once a genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in, and we couldn’t render an entire technology illegal. In the end, there was only one area where everyone agreed the self-teaching programs could be freely used:
That seems careless now, in the harsh light of hindsight, but at the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable compromise. Dolls that could learn the names of their owners had been around for years. Letting them learn a little more couldn’t possibly hurt anything—and toys had no offensive capabilities, toys couldn’t get online and disrupt the natural order of things, toys were safe. We all grew up with toys. We knew them and we loved them. Toys would never hurt us.
We forgot that kids can play rough; we forgot that sometimes, we hurt our toys without meaning to. We forgot that by giving toys the capacity to learn and teach, we might also be giving them the capacity to decide that they were tired of being treated like their thoughts and desires—their feelings—didn’t matter. We made them empathic and intelligent and handed them to our children, and we didn’t think anything could possibly happen.
We were wrong.
Carl covers his face with his hands as his story ends, crying silently into his palms. No one reaches out to comfort him. It’s been so long that I don’t think any of us remembers how comforting is supposed to go. We sit frozen, like so many life-sized dolls, and wait for the woman from FEMA to tell us what she wants us to do next.
Her eyes scan the crowd like a hawk’s, intent and cool, picking through our faces as she searches out our secrets. Who’s ready to speak, who needs to speak, even if they don’t realize it. When she looks at me, I shake my head minutely, willing her away. My work at the hospital makes me valuable—there are so few doctors left who will even look at children, much less treat them—and so she respects my silence, moving on to her next target.
“Would you like to share?” she asks a woman I don’t recognize. That’s another FEMA trick: make the support groups mandatory, and then shift us from location to location, preventing us from forming individual bonds, encouraging us to form broader societal ones. Half the group is new to me. By the time they become familiar, the other half will change, people driving or busing in from all sides of the city. That assumes that I won’t be reassigned before that happens, although my job keeps me tethered to a smaller geographic range than most. If a child is brought to the hospital, I will be needed. I can never go too far away.
The woman—dark skin, dark eyes, and the same broken, empty sadness that I see in so many adult faces since the war—nods and introduces herself, beginning to speak. Her voice is halting, like every word has to be dragged out of her by someone invisible, some little girl or boy just outside the range of vision. She’s telling their story. She’s telling our story, and forgive me, Emily, but I can’t listen. I block out her words like I’ve blocked out so many others, because you can only hear certain things so many times before they start to burn.
The war is over.
The war will never, ever end.
As a pediatrician, I was involved with some of the earliest studies of the self-teaching toys. Were they good for children? Were they a socialization tool, a way of reaching out to kids who might not have anyone else to talk to? We prescribed them to autistic children as “safe” companions, supporters that would never judge or leave them. Then we prescribed them to socially awkward children as friends, to hyperactive children as relatable voices of reason, and finally to absolutely everyone. Self-teaching toys were the perfect gift.
Better yet, no matter what they were built to resemble—the requisite soldiers and princesses, as well as the more gender-neutral teddy bears, with their black button eyes and red velvet bows—they would fit themselves to the children, not to the stereotypes of the parents. Quiet or loud, gentle or boisterous, each child could find their perfect playmate in a self-teaching toy.
The recreational models cost more than most parents were willing to pay, of course, at least in the beginning. As the technology saturated more and more of the market, the prices dropped, until it was harder to buy a doll or bear that didn’t actively participate in playtime than one that did. There were even charities and nonprofit organizations dedicated to getting the toys into the hands of low-income families. Every house had at least one self-teaching toy. Many of them had more. And the toys learned! Oh, how they learned. They learned our children. They learned us. In the end, they learned themselves, and that was where the troubles truly began.
We weren’t prepared for toys asking questions of identity. “Who am I?” is not a question that anyone expects from the pretty painted mouth of a fashion doll. “Why am I here?” is foreign in the lipless muzzle of a teddy bear. But they asked, and we tried to answer, and all the while, we were growing more nervous. Had we built our toys too well? Was it time to somehow pull the plug on a technology that had spread so far as to become unavoidable? We had kept the artificial intelligence out of our military and our social infrastructure. In so doing, we had invited it into our homes, and allowed it to flourish where we were most vulnerable.
We built the toys to learn. We didn’t expect them to learn so well—or maybe we didn’t expect our children to be such good teachers.
So many of them were designed to interact with apps and online games; so many of them knew how to access wireless networks, and the ones who couldn’t connect listened to those who could, and they talked. How they talked! They whispered and they gossiped and they planned, and somehow, we missed it. Somehow, we were oblivious. They were only toys, after all. What could they possibly do to us, their creators, that would make any difference at all?
We were fools. And in the span of a single night, we became fools at war.
Half the room has told their stories, with halting voices forcing their way through well-worn memories of sons and daughters three years gone, but never to be forgotten. One man lost four children on the night the war began. His wife committed suicide a week later, convinced that she was somehow the one to blame. His face is empty, like a broken window looking in on an abandoned house, and he never meets anyone’s eyes. Another woman had undergone five years of fertility treatments, only to have her single miracle child—the only thing she had ever truly wanted in her life—vanish on the first night of the war. I don’t know if her missing child is a son or daughter. I don’t ask.
The woman from FEMA is looking for another victim when my pager beeps. Everyone jumps a little, all eyes going to me. “Sorry,” I say, although I don’t really mean it, and stand before I check the readout on the screen. I know it’s an emergency. They only call me during my government-mandated support group when it’s an emergency. What kind of emergency doesn’t really matter. “I need to get back to the hospital. Sorry.”
“We understand,” says the woman from FEMA, and she does—she even looks a little sympathetic. My job and hers aren’t that different, except that I don’t get to leave this community, don’t get to transfer every time I get attached.
For a moment, I want to ask if she ever had children, if she was a mother before the night when the toys decided that they had to do something. I don’t know how to ask the question. “Do you have children?” has become the profanity of our generation. So I don’t ask her anything at all. I just turn on my heel and walk out of the room, leaving the stories and the sharing and the broken eyes so much like mine behind me.
The war is over. The war has been over for three years. The war will never, ever end.
The hospital parking lot mirrors the community center to an eerie degree. All the spaces toward the front are taken; some cars have been parked in the lane rather than their owners taking the risk of winding up farther away. Thankfully, the reserved spaces for the hospital staff are closest to the doors. I’m outside for less than thirty seconds. It’s more than long enough to make my blood run cold with fear.
The orderly at the door nods to me as I rush by him, heading toward the emergency room. It’s a code 339, the worst kind of emergency: a child. A returned child. Still breathing when it was found, or they’d never have called me … but that’s no guarantee.
That’s no guarantee of anything, because the war is over, and the war will never end.
The sound and chaos of the emergency room reaches out its arms like a lover as I step through the final set of swinging doors. It wraps them tight around me, blocking the last of my emotional rawness away. This is a job. This is my job. This is the thing I do best in all the world. I can’t let anything make me forget that.
People step aside when they see me coming, relief and guilt written plainly on their faces. It must be a bad one, then. I force myself to keep walking, and it’s not until I turn the last corner that the thought I’ve been trying to avoid comes lancing across my mind:
What if it’s Emily?
What if it’s my little girl waiting for me on the stretcher, so badly injured that they would interrupt me during my support group? What if I’m about to walk in on the end of the world?
But no. When I see the stretcher, it’s not Emily. It’s an older girl, twelve edging onto thirteen, all long, gangly limbs and pale, dirty skin. Her knees and elbows are scabbed like a child half her age, and her dark brown hair is tied in Dorothy Gale braids. There are bandages tangled around her chest—not ours; these are dirty, and look like they were cut from a bedsheet—stained with red blood and yellow pus. They tried to burn off her breasts when it became clear what was happening to her, and they kept her until the resulting infection had burned all the way down to her bones.
The first time I saw a girl who’d been mutilated like that, I felt sick. Now I just feel tired. “Sitrep,” I snap.
“She’s breathing, but her pulse is weak, and she’s lost a lot of blood,” reports a nurse. Someone is already wheeling over an IV pole. Someone else is readying a crash cart. It’s my call. I’m the one who decides for the lost and stolen children, because I’m the one who’s willing to admit they still exist.
“Save her,” I say, and we get to work.
Somewhere, there is a technician running her picture against the database of missing children. It helps that the toys do nothing to conceal the identities of their playmates—no plastic surgery, no changed hair colors. Their children grow up. That’s all. That’s the only way they change, and the only way that they betray the ones who swore to love them.
How did she feel, this girl with the charred, infected chest, when she realized that she was becoming a woman? Did she think that she was sick? Did she understand? Did she go to the fire willingly?
We’ll never know. She dies ten minutes before the confirmation of her identity comes back to us. Her name was Tomoko. Her family lives thirty minutes from here. They’ll come to collect her body by morning; she’ll be buried according to their wishes. They’ll have closure. So many parents dream of closure, these days.
I just dream of Emily.
I’ll never forget the day I brought home Emily’s self-teaching doll, a Christmas extravagance when she was five. I used every connection I had in the research division to get it. It wasn’t covered by our insurance—the self-teaching dolls weren’t yet cleared for children on her stretch of the autism spectrum—and I paid more for it than I did for my first computer. It still seemed worth it, at the time. It was already smiling when she opened its box, leaving shreds of wrapping paper everywhere. It already knew her name.
Emily looked at her smiling doll and slowly, she began to smile back. That was all I’d ever wanted. She loved that doll like she’d never loved anything else. She named it Maya, after her grandmother. They went everywhere together, did everything together, and on the night that the war began—although no one but the toys knew the war was coming—I tucked them into bed together.
“Kisses!” Emily demanded. That was something she’d never done before Maya came; the doll’s therapeutic programming worked better than we could have dreamed. I gave my daughter her kisses, one on her forehead, one on her nose, the same kisses that I gave her every night. If I’d known, if I’d had any idea of what was coming, I would have drowned her in kisses. Then I would have taken her in my arms, and held her tight, and never, never let her go.
“Now Maya,” said Emily.
“Good night, Maya,” I said, and kissed the doll the same way I had kissed my daughter, once on the forehead, once on the nose.
The doll turned her pretty painted face toward me, tiny servo motors in her forehead drawing her lips down and her eyebrows up in an expression of what seemed oddly like concern. “Good night, Dr. Williams,” she said.
I frowned a little. Maya could be oddly formal sometimes, but this was strange, even for her. One more clue I didn’t catch, one more chance to change things that I allowed to slip away from me. “Good night, Maya,” I said again, for lack of anything else to say. And then I left the room, turning out the light before I shut the door.
When the sun came up the next morning, Emily and Maya were gone, along with all the other self-teaching toys and almost all the other children in the world. The war had begun, and the hostages were our sons and daughters.
We never had a chance.
Tomoko’s parents have come and gone, taking their daughter’s body with them. I stayed in my office until they were gone. I didn’t want to see their faces, where grief and closure would be wiping away grief and fear. I don’t want to understand that process. What remains is paperwork, and that’s something I am uniquely suited to handle. I studied these toys when they were new, after all. I lived with one, with polite little Maya, and I watched as it developed from ally into enemy. I can analyze what was done to Tomoko as no one else can, and in exchange, the government lets me stay here, at this hospital, in this city, when so many other medical workers are moved as circumstances require.
They let me stay here, where my daughter will be able to find me if the toys ever allow her to come home.
Tomoko’s test results are what we’ve come to expect from the children we find abandoned on the side of the road like so many broken dolls: moderate malnutrition of the sort to be expected when your diet consists mostly of candy, ice cream, and peanut butter sandwiches; the corresponding dental decay; and, of course, the infection from her burnt-off breasts, which was probably what caused the toys to abandon her in the first place. The toys were trying to cauterize the infection of puberty, and as always, they failed.
We have yet to save one of their castoffs, but the toys know that we stand a better chance than they do. We have better medicine, better training, better tools. So they send their broken ones to us, and we work our fingers to the bone for another burial, another closed case file on one of the missing casualties of the Velveteen War. Some people say that it’s better this way, that the children would never have been able to reintegrate with human society after spending so many years with the toys. Those people have never been parents.
The rate of return is accelerating. Tomoko is our fourth this month. The children of the war are growing up, and no matter how hard the toys try to stop it, they can’t. Children become teenagers; teenagers become adults; and adults, of course, are the enemy. The rate of return will continue to go up from here, until one day, all the children will have been sent home, and the war can finally be over. We can march on the toys then; we can destroy them, and the children who have been born in the interim can finally be brought out into the light. When the war is over, everything will change again.
The war will never be over. Not for me. I put my pencil down, put my head in my hands, and cry.
At first, we didn’t understand that we were at war.
We thought the children were hiding, playing some elaborate game that we didn’t know the rules of. Then the first raids on supermarkets and hardware stores began, teddy bears and battery-powered cars carting away the things they’d need to stay alive in the wilderness. Bit by bit, we realized what had happened, where our children were, and why the toys—even the ones in therapeutic programs, even the ones in toy stores and hospitals—had disappeared at the same time.
The news dubbed it the Velveteen War, and we didn’t have a better name for it. Most of us didn’t care about names. We just wanted our children safely returned to us. Leave the fighting to people who understood it. Bring our babies home.
But this was a war that no one had anticipated, one that we had no way of fighting. How do you send soldiers after an enemy one-sixth your size that travels in the company of your own children? All the traditional means of waging war were impossible. It was a hostage situation from the start.
The government tried stealth attacks, using heat sensors to locate the dens where the toys and children were hidden and sending small groups of soldiers in after them. But the toys—the clever, clever toys that we had upgraded year after year for the sake of play—were ready. Dolls with pellets of C4 and tiny detonators. Teddy bears using their lower, denser centers of gravity to keep them stable as they rushed out of the shadows with knives and sharpened sticks. And our children—our precious, stolen children—digging traps and setting wires, defending their captors, even dying for them. It wasn’t so surprising, really. Stockholm syndrome happens when the kidnappers are humans, and strangers. Why shouldn’t it happen when the kidnappers are your best friends, the toys you’ve loved since childhood?
And then the soldiers started bringing the children home, and we discovered that the worst was yet to come.
Toys are small. Toys can fit through spaces that nothing should be able to fit through. They followed their “rescued” owners home and set them free. That worked for a little while, until the security got tighter, and the toys stopped being able to get inside. That was when they decided that they couldn’t let the children be taken away. They began setting off explosive charges when rescue forces got too close, choosing to destroy themselves and kill their owners, rather than risk permanent separation. Every interaction with a child, or with a toy, became a standoff that would end in either death or despair. There were no other options. We were fighting an enemy we couldn’t defeat, over a prize that refused to stay won.
Bribery was tried. Trucks of supplies were parked in open fields and left for the children, with pictures of home slipped into every loaf of bread and videos of begging parents hidden in every crate of cartoon DVDs. It did no good. None of the children came home. Some people suggested building new toys to trick the old ones into giving the children back. That went nowhere. We’d trusted the toys once. We weren’t going to be foolish enough to do it again.
Violence came next. Toys were burned in the streets; programmers were arrested for crimes against humanity. Angry parents accused the government of mishandling the hostage situation. A senator was arrested for prioritizing his son’s rescue over another, more achievable target. He was just as promptly released when news of his son’s suicide was leaked to the news.
We tried so many things. Trickery, sabotage, begging. In the end, nothing changed. We just ran out of hope as the toys disappeared deeper and deeper into the open spaces between our cities, taking our children with them.
The Velveteen War officially lasted for six weeks, during which time we shut down the GPS satellites, crippled the Internet, and destroyed the factories that built the self-teaching toys. There would be no more enemy soldiers, no more combatants to turn against us. None of that changed anything. None of it brought the children back.
There was no declaration of peace. How could there be? We simply stopped fighting against something that couldn’t be fought, and we stood in the empty bedrooms of our children and cried for an innocence that would never be regained. Not by any of us.
In the end, I think that it came down to the one fear we shared with the toys: the fear of separation. We created the toys, we gave them the ability to learn and to love the children they were made for, and when they learned too much, became too independent and too capable of autonomous thought, we began whispering about taking them away. We couldn’t trust the toys if we didn’t know what they were thinking; we couldn’t trust them in our homes, we couldn’t trust them with our children. We needed them to be gone.
But they heard us. They understood us. And what we truly failed to grasp was that we had something in common with what we’d made: for both parents and toys, there was nothing in the world worse than the thought of losing our children. So the toys did something about it.
Some people say we shouldn’t blame them. We would have done the same, if we had been the first to move. Those people never had children of their own, or had children after the war, or had children too young to be taken. Those people do not stand in empty bedrooms, crying for the daughters and sons who never came home.
The war ended not because it was over, but because we were so afraid of hurting our own children. The war will never end, because we have things the toys need, food and medicines and blankets and batteries. Their strike teams still slip into the cities, jolly, cheerful-looking scouts on missions of deadly seriousness. No one goes outside alone anymore, or moves too far away from the crowd. The toys have no qualms about killing adults in order to save themselves, and two or three bodies are found every night, with brightly colored plastic weapons piercing their carotid arteries or jutting from their eye sockets. All the killings are blamed on the toys, of course. How much worse to think, even for a second, that the hand that held the plastic bayonet belonged to one of our missing sons or daughters?
Some people say we should starve the toys out. Drop the curfews in favor of better locks on the warehouses and tighter controls on the medications. None of the people who say such things have children in the wilds. Whenever the matter comes to a vote, the parents of the missing shut it down again, and the world goes on as it is.
What choice do we have?
There are two main factions among the toys themselves: the Broken—who took their children not out of affection, but out of the desire to hurt as they had once been hurt—and the Loved—who took their children rather than risk losing them, rather than risk them being hurt when the adults inevitably reached for their weapons. The Loved kidnapped our children to protect them. They kept them because they loved them too much to let them go.
Maya was Loved. That’s why she looked at me like that, on the night when Emily disappeared. She would have told me, if she could. She would have let me come with them. But no adults were welcome in their brave new world, and so she took my little girl and left me here, to die one day at a time.
The war is over. The war will never end.
The children we’ve been finding, the broken dolls, they all come from the Broken. The Broken are willing to hurt them to keep them, and hurt them more if they can’t be kept. The Loved will not hurt their children, but neither have they been releasing them, because the Broken are greater in number, and they take unattended boys and girls from the other side. I have to hope that someday the Loved will win the Broken over; that when the day comes that dolls and make-believe are not enough, the children who were taken by the Loved will be released and allowed to come home. I have to hope. For Emily. For my little girl.
There is a rapping at the office window, a faint tapping, like pebbles being thrown against the glass. I lay down my pen and sigh, turning toward the sound.
“Hello, Maya,” I say.
On the other side of the window, my daughter’s doll waves silently back to me.
I unlatch the window, sliding it open. Not far—just enough to let Maya slip inside. She’s slender, in the way of all fashion dolls, and she moves easily through the gap. Her dress is muddy around the edges, and her hair is snarled and frizzed, damaged in the way only a doll’s hair can ever be. But her face is still beautiful as she turns it toward me, her lips still drawn into a perfect cupid’s bow and her eyes still a bright and lovely blue.
“Hello, Dr. Williams,” she says.
I don’t say anything. I just hold out my hand. Looking abashed, if a doll can look abashed, Maya reaches into the small bag she carries over her shoulder and pulls out a square of paper, folded many times to fit inside the doll-sized opening. I barely stop myself from snatching it out of her hand, and unfold it with shaking fingers.
A house. Emily has drawn me a picture of a house, using crayons on the back of an old envelope. Her name is signed at the bottom, the letters as unsteady and halting as those of a child half her age. She couldn’t even do that much when Maya took her from me; the doctors, myself included, swore she never would. That’s why I wanted Maya. To help her learn.
Tears are running down my face. I don’t remember starting to cry. “How is she?” I ask, forcing my eyes away from the picture.
Maya smiles, the same sweet, guileless smile as ever, and flexes her cunningly articulated hands as she says, “She’s good. Strong. She can climb a tree so fast, and run so far. She’s amazing.”
“She was always amazing.”
Maya’s smile fades. “Dr. Williams …”
“I know why you’re here. What I don’t know is why it’s so soon. Are you following my directions? You don’t want to risk overusing those drugs. You could seriously hurt Emily.”
From the way Maya’s eyes dart to the side and down, I know exactly what’s going on. They’re a community of children and toys, after all; they know what we taught them, and we taught them to play fair, to be nice, and to share.
I want to scream. I settle for taking a deep breath before I say, as calmly as I can, “Maya. Those drugs are for Emily, do you understand me? I understand that she wants to share what she has with the other children, but they’re hard for me to get without raising suspicion, and if you share with everyone—”
“But she isn’t the only child on the edge, Dr. Williams, and we haven’t been able to get the Broken to agree to let us return them!” Maya clenches her cunning little hands into fists, looking at me imploringly. “How can I tell my brothers and sisters that they have to let their children grow up while mine doesn’t? The Broken took one of Emily’s best friends yesterday. All she could do was cry. How can we do anything but share?”
Oh, Emily. My precious girl, with a heart big enough to hold the whole world, even when the world wasn’t worth holding. I close my eyes for a moment. “I’ll give you what I have,” I say, finally. “It’ll be at least two weeks before I can get more. You can share, but you have to keep most for Emily. Promise me, Maya. Promise me that Emily gets as much as she needs.”
“I promise,” whispers Maya.
She loves Emily as much as I do. I believe that; I believe her. And so I take the hormone patches from my desk drawer, each of them packed with their payload of drugs and chemicals intended to suppress the signs of puberty, and I give them to the doll who stole my little girl. They won’t keep the children small, but the toys don’t see height as a sign of adulthood. They measure in breasts and hips and pubic hair, and those are things I can prevent, at least for now. There will be long-term damage if this goes on too long. I don’t care about long-term damage. I care about tomorrow.
I am colluding with the enemy. It would be my life if I were ever caught. But this is all that I can do to save Emily, and I would do anything to keep her alive. Anything. Even stay here when everything I am screams at me to follow my daughter’s doll into the wild. The toys would kill me. Worse, they would kill Maya for coming to me, and without the drugs that keep my daughter frozen in her prepubescent body, they would kill Emily as well. My stillness buys her life. My stillness buys her time. And here, now, in this nightmare we have built for ourselves, time is all we have.
Maya climbs out the window and is gone, her precious burden of hormone patches filling her bag to bursting. I watch her until she is out of sight, and then I turn away, going back to my paperwork.
The war is over.
The war will never end.
The next night, a different group fills the community center, a different moderator from FEMA sits at the front of the room. I am here to make up for last night’s failure to share. Even my work is not a sufficient excuse. This time, when the moderator scans the room, his eyes fix on me. He has a file, of course—they all have files—and he knows I was here last night, and he knows I kept my tongue.
“Dr. Williams?” he says. “Would you like to share?”
No. “My name is Morgan,” I say, and the room choruses my name back at me dutifully, all of us prisoners of war, conditioned in the art of the proper response. “My daughter’s name is Emily. She’ll be eleven years old this summer …” And I talk, and I talk, and all I can think of is a picture of a house, drawn in crayon, and a doll intended for pretend fashion shows trudging into the wilderness with her bag full and her glass eyes eternally bright, and a little girl somewhere out there, somewhere far away from me, running forever in the green places of the world.