Jeannette and little Jen stood hand-in-hand under a bright sun that reflected off their golden hair to cast angelic haloes around their tiny, upturned faces. Emily crouched low and aimed, hoping to catch the expression of joy on her daughter's face. Little Jen looked up at the other girl in wonder, her blue eyes asking silently, "What's next? Where do we go from here?"
"Come on, Jeannette, the ice cream's melting!" Her father's laughing voice barely reached the child over the roar of the ocean waves, but his long arms flapping caught her attention and made her run, giggling, towards the brightly colored cabana.
"Ice cream, Little Jen! Run!"
Emily stood up and brushed sand off her legs. It was Jeannette's fifth birthday, and the family was celebrating with a seaside picnic. Emily shook her head and snapped another picture of the two girls running across the dunes, then tucked the camera into her pocket as she made her way, slowly, to the cabana. Richard handed her a dish of ice cream. Already, the two girls' faces were covered in sticky rivulets of French vanilla that dripped down their chins, onto their matching swimsuits.
"It isn't right, Richard."
"We've been through all this, Em," Richard whispered, flashing Emily a warning look. He grabbed her by the elbow and steered her away from the girls. "Not here, not now, okay? I thought we'd agreed. Look how happy she is! How can you say it's wrong, Em? Just look at her!"
"Yes, yes, of course -- look at them! They're happy together."
"I'm going for a walk," said Emily, brushing Richard's hand from her arm.
"Emily!" Richard's plaintive call was lost in the crashing of the waves on the rocks, drowned out by the rhythmic breathing of the Atlantic. A dolphin leapt into the air, its smooth flanks glistening in the sunlight. Emily sighed and hung her head. It would be all right, she told herself. After all, she was the only one who seemed to think otherwise.
For a time, Jeannette and Little Jen were inseparable. "I finally have a little sister," Jeannette whispered. Little Jen smiled and slipped her bone-china delicate hand into Jeannette's warmer, fleshier fingers. "We shall be best friends, always," agreed Little Jen.
Jeannette curled, brushed, and slowly stroked Little Jen's hair. She helped Little Jen into a frilly pink party dress and carefully tied the broad, silk sash in a jaunty bow at the back. Jeannette had begun dressing Little Jen in the clothes that she, herself, had outgrown in the last month. From downstairs, in the kitchen perhaps, Emily's voice reached the girls. "Tea time!"
The girls sat down together at the nursery table for their "afternoon tea." Mr. Bear and Parrot Head occupied the two extra chairs, and the girls spoke to them as if they were honored guests, giggling behind chubby fingers at their imaginary replies.
"Ladies," Emily said with a small curtsey.
"Oh, Mama!" Jeannette giggled. Her ice blue eyes grew wide at the plate of sweets her mother offered. "Thank you very much," murmured Little Jen, smiling shyly.
Emily laid down the plate of warm, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon-raisin scones, and sticky marzipan, then headed back to the kitchen. She turned to see the two girls sipping their lemonade "tea," golden heads bent close towards one another as they chattered endlessly about nothing.
A year ago, Emily had occupied the tiny chair where Little Jen now sat. It was Emily to whom Jeannette confided the latest scandals of Mr. Bear and Parrot Head, and Emily with whom Jeannette shared the fantasies of childhood. Suddenly, Emily was overcome with a sharp pang of jealousy -- a pain that faded just as quickly to a throbbing ache. The ache found a vague home in between the too-rapid beatings of her heart, and she turned away from the door.
Richard looked in on the girls and grinned. Little Jen was surely the perfect companion and confidante for his darling Jeannette. They were as compatible as chocolate and strawberries. This was a gift two years in the making, and he was rightfully pleased with himself. Few of the other fathers he knew would have thought so far ahead, planned the gift with such painstaking care, or spent such extravagant sums on a five-year-old daughter. But Jeannette, his only child, was Earth, and moon, and stars to him. She was the only daughter, the only child, he would ever have.
Richard accepted this simple fact, even though he himself had come from a large, raucous family of four boys and a multitude of cousins. He and Em had tried so hard, for so long. Em's pregnancy had not been an easy one, and the doctors advised them not to try again. Jeannette would be an only child. Emily had assured him that being an only child wasn't so bad, that she had never really missed the brothers and sisters she never had. Richard had nodded; the risks were too great, and he loved his Emily too much to lose her. Still, there was a crushing pain in his heart when Jeannette, about to turn three, had asked, "Daddy, why can't I have a sister?" Richard could not, would not, hurt his beloved Emily -- but he would spare no effort or expense to bring a smile to their daughter's lovely face.
Surfing the Internet some two years ago, while searching for something special for his soon-to-be-three Jeannette, Richard had stumbled across an ad for dolls. Not just ordinary dolls, but unique creations painstakingly crafted by a company called "Reflections in Perfection." Each doll was a meticulous replica of a cherished loved one, perfect in each tiny detail. Thanks to the miracles of modern biotech, each doll was imbued with a tiny fragment of the loved one's DNA, ensuring not only a perfect likeness, but animation and personality as well. The doll's aging could be accelerated, to a point, and then the aging gene would be switched off, like a light bulb -- the doll would remain at the age chosen by the buyer, forever.
Something at the back of Richard's conscience prickled, but intrigued, he read on. He ordered the company's annual report, and pored through the current articles -- both for and against this latest, patented "cloning" process. At first, the public had been outraged by what was called "utterly tasteless marketing at best" and "a horrific, stomach-churning twist on the notion of 'playing God'" at worst. The company's owners had been vilified in the press as modern-day Hitlers, unethical Dr. Frankensteins exploiting loopholes in the hotly-debated and hard-won eugenics laws passed over recent decades. Nevertheless, Reflections in Perfection found plenty of buyers for their product. They could afford the tightest, most elegant security systems in the world.
Through researching and soul-searching the subject, Richard managed to satisfy himself that the dolls were not, in fact, clones. Tiny alterations and genetic mutations, in combination with a sufficient quantity of synthetic materials, guaranteed under the law that these dolls could not be declared "human" or granted the same rights as their human counterparts. Special "dermaphilic plastics," initially developed to advance the field of reconstructive surgery, were added to the genetic sequence. This tended to produce flawless, doll-like skin of extraordinary strength and pliability, so that it would not tear when a child played too roughly with the doll. Nerve fibers were altered to block most pain stimuli, although Reflections in Perfection recognized early on that dolls possessed of human personality and intelligence must also be subject to discipline, and carefully built that into the plans.
Half a year passed. Emily pushed aside her misgivings, buried the hurt, and gradually warmed to Little Jen. She had to admit that her daughter's new plaything was delightful, on occasion. Where Jeannette was boisterous, vivacious, and full of life, Little Jen was thoughtful, quiet, and contemplative -- but always the doll was eager to join in games or mischief Jeannette devised for her entertainment. Both girls were bright and quick to learn. But as time went by, Jeannette grew bored with tea parties and princesses, endless hours of playing "school" or "house" or dressing up. By the time Jeannette was seven, she had grown disenchanted -- bored - with Little Jen. More and more often, the doll was confined to the fancy leather-covered steamer trunk in which she had been delivered.
And so it was that Emily came to be surprised by the sound of two girls chattering, laughing, and playing together one rainy afternoon. She listened quietly at the door, relieved in a way that the unusual doll, disturbing and intriguing as it was, was not forgotten or neglected by her daughter. And then she heard sounds that chilled her blood: a slap, a dull thud, Little Jen's high-pitched, piteous scream. Emily wrenched open the door and gasped, her face drained white with shock.
"Stop it, Jeannette! Stop!" Emily screamed at her daughter, horrified. Jeannette dropped the wooden spoon and turned to her mother with a puzzled expression.
"What is it, Mama? We were only playing."
Emily's breath came in ragged gasps; she stood in the doorway, panting, clutching at her sides. Her child had been beating Little Jen, mercilessly beating her, with the wooden spoon; the chillingly smooth skin on the doll's backside was swollen and red, and her frightened eyes filled with tears. "I was bad, Mama Em. Bad. Mama Jeannette says that she has to do this for my own good." The doll hiccupped, sobbing. "I want to be good, Mama Em, I want so much to be good, but I don't want to go back in the trunk! Oh, please, please..." The child's voice trailed off, choked back by her sobs.
Emily snatched up the wooden spoon and raised it over her daughter's back, poised to strike with every ounce of strength she could muster. "How could you?"
Jeannette flinched in fear and began to cry. "Mama, we were just playing!" the girl howled, cowering as she crawled out of Emily's reach.
Emily gasped; she felt as if an unseen fist had punched her in the stomach. She backed out of the room and took the spoon with her. "Never, Jeannette -- never do that again," she whispered.
Jeannette nodded, tears streaming down her peach-soft cheeks. "It's just a doll, Mama," she whispered fearfully. "Just a doll."
Little Jen was never beaten or thrown into the trunk again, after that day. Her face and hands grew dirty from neglect; her hair was unkempt and hopelessly knotted. For the most part, Jeannette ignored the doll.
Little Jen lay sprawling in a forgotten corner of the nursery. She knew better than to wander around the house alone; she knew that she was merely a doll to be used at the child's pleasure. How she knew that, she wasn't sure, but she dared not move.
There was an occasional thud from upstairs that Emily felt certain was Jeannette tossing the hapless doll against the nursery wall. Now and then, Emily would stop by the nursery while Jeannette was in school, and she would wipe the doll's face and hands with a warm washcloth, clean under its fingernails, brush its hair until it shone again with its unearthly light. "Why does she hate me so, Mama Em? Have I been very, very bad?" the doll would ask in a trembling voice that sounded so much like Jeannette's. "Are we not sisters? Best friends?" Emily shook her head sadly. "No, little one, you are not."
As time went by, Jeannette's interest turned to boys and fashion and hanging with her friends at the mall. The sound of a door slamming became synonymous, in Emily's mind, with her teenaged daughter.
Richard didn't seem to notice these things. It was only right, only normal, that his precious Jeannette should outgrow the playthings of her youth. When Jeannette lifted her shirt to show him that she'd had bellybutton pierced, he merely shook his head and laughed. "What has become of you girls today?" he muttered, feigning the disapproval of one older and wiser.
Emily no longer felt revulsion when she looked at Little Jen, only an odd tenderness towards the doll, as if she were cradling her own Jeannette -- a mere five years old, once again -- in her arms. She held the doll tenderly, soothing away hurt feelings. Once or twice Little Jen reached up to brush the tears glistening on Emily's cheeks. "I am so sorry," Emily would whisper as she kissed the top of the doll's head. "So very, very sorry." Little Jen felt nothing but bewilderment and wonder at Mama Em's trembling shoulders, a thrill of fear at the woman's fierce embrace.
For Jeannette's 16th birthday, Richard gave her a sporty red Camaro. Of course she drove too fast; Richard could hardly fault her for inheriting his lead foot. The bond between father and daughter grew deeper as Jeannette sped towards womanhood; the bond between Emily and Richard loosened and became a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon.
"Em, what's the matter with you?" demanded Richard. "You look at the girl as if you hate her. Your own daughter," he murmured, sadly.
"I don't hate her, Richard." Emily choked on the words, her voice hoarse. She wondered if that was a lie, because there was some deep and fearful truth in what Richard had said. As long as it went unspoken, Emily could deny it, even to herself. "I don't hate her," she whispered, eyes downcast.
Emily spent more and more time in the nursery, caring for the castoff doll, Little Jen. Innocent, forever and eternally innocent -- that's what Little Jen was. She didn't have it in her to be mean-spirited or cruel, the way human children did. She was unable to lift a hand against Jeannette, or anyone for that matter. Her designers had seen to this, and had done their job well. And yet, she was not just "a stupid doll," as Jeannette so often referred to her. Her bright blue eyes shone with intelligence, and she was hungry for knowledge.
Emily and Little Jen had endless tea parties; they played princesses and games of "house" and "school." Little Jen particularly loved to play "school," for she loved to read. Forever five, she had nevertheless read Tolstoy and Hemingway, and tittered with guilty pleasure over the sordid tales of D.H. Lawrence. Her library grew by leaps and bounds, as did her appetite for books. She excelled in Algebra, and had a keen interest in science. Emily was delighted to teach her, yet sad that the doll would never be able to attend a real school.
Jeannette thought it was stupid and was embarrassed to bring her friends to the house, fearing they would catch her mother playing with the doll. "Why do you do that, Mama? You like that thing better than you like me. Why don't you just grow up?" cried Jeannette. The teenager grabbed her car keys from the hall table and stormed out the front door.
Richard dared not invite his colleagues home for dinner; Emily had recently taken to setting a place at the table for Little Jen. "Oh, God, Em, why?" he moaned. "That's not normal. It's just a doll, don't you see that?" He shook his head and made himself a second martini, with extra olives.
The call came later that night. An accident on Ridge Road, a teenaged girl -- "Yes, that's Jeannette, yes, I'm sure" -- had taken the curve too fast and flown out into space over the canyon before plummeting to the rocks below in a fiery, heart-stopping crash.
"Yes, we think that she was drinking with friends before the accident, yes sir, we're so sorry for your loss. If you could just come by the morgue -- yes, that will be fine, we'll see you then&" Richard let the phone fall as he choked back an anguished sob. He looked around the room frantically, searching for Emily, needing to share his grief. Then he heard their voices -- hers and Little Jen's. He took the stairs to the nursery two at a time.
"What is it Papa Richard?" asked Little Jen, looking up at him from Emily's lap. Her was voice soft and timid.
"I am not your Papa!" Richard roared, tearing at his hair. He kicked at the doll; Little Jen went flying across the room. She lay against the wall, stunned and terrified. Emily flew at him in a rage, her nails raking his face, drawing blood.
"How dare you! Don't you lay a finger on that child, Richard!"
"Child?" he spat. "Child? Our child is dead, Em. That's not our child. Our child is -- our child is ...dead."
"No," Emily whispered. "No!" Richard reached for her, but Emily wrenched herself free of his grasp. Blind with grief and rage, she grabbed hold of the nearest solid object her hands encountered -- Little Jen's trunk. She swung it wide; as Richard ducked, the trunk slammed against his skull with a dull crack. Stunned, he reached up to touch his head, and looked with amazement at the blood covering his fingers.
"Emily," he gasped. "Em, no!" Emily just stood there, watching, numb, as the blood poured from the gaping wound in her husband's head.
Little Jen, her blue eyes wide and frightened, reached for Emily's hand. Emily enfolded the tiny fingers in hers and pulled Little Jen close. "Poor baby, poor baby. I'm so sorry you had to see that..." Emily held her child to her breast -- for Little Jen WAS her child, wasn't she? -- and rocked her to sleep.