The Boy With The Glass Eyes
By J.L. Flannery
My son arrived in a brown cardboard package, no bigger than a shoebox.
I lifted the lid to see him lying there flat on his back, eyes closed, as though he were asleep.
‘Go on,’ my Boss said, ‘lift him up.’
Nervously, I lifted him up out of the box and cradled him in my arms. His skin was velvet. His smell; pure talcum powder. I looked down at his sleeping face and put on a smile, pretending the nausea that was rising in my throat didn’t exist.
My Boss, Mr Yamamoto, stood staring, waiting for me to react.
‘It’s incredibly lifelike,’ I said in Japanese.
He nodded, ‘Just like a real baby. Go ahead. Power it up.’
I hesitated a moment. What on earth would Alice say when I bought this thing home with me?
‘It’s a great privilege to be chosen,’ Mr Yamamoto said smiling, as if he could sense my unease.
I nodded, ‘Yes, I know. Thank you. I’m very grateful about it, honest I am. It’s just…’
‘It’s just what?’
‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘it’s nothing,’ and I held down the button on the base of its spine and the baby woke up.
Slowly, his eyes opened and he turned his head to look at me with his blue eyes made of glass.
‘The baby will be on at all times,’ Mr Yamamoto explained, ‘the light at the base of his spine will glow green to tell you its on. He’ll automatically go into shutdown mode at night, once the room is dark. If you need to, you can force shutdown mode by putting him back in his box.’
I nodded, but I wasn’t really listening. The baby I held in my arms was smiling at me, a big gummy smile. As far as AI go, this was the most remarkable I’d seen. It looked like a real baby. It’s skin felt soft like a baby’s. Hell, it even had the same scent as one. I was fascinated and disturbed in equal measure.
‘Your wife will enjoy having him for the weekend, I’m sure,’ Mr Yamamoto said, smiling proudly.
‘Oh yes,’ I lied, ‘I’m sure it will make her very happy.’
It was my idea to move to Tokyo. At the time my wife, Alice, wasn’t so keen.
If you have never been there, the experience is hard to describe but I’ll try my best: neon buildings grow out of the concrete, stretching up to reach the sky. Zebra crossings zigzag in all directions, whilst people in their thousands march across in total silence. Cartoon characters stare back at you everywhere you look: on a subway pass, on manhole covers, on shop signs, on crisp packets and tourist leaflets. Boys wear eyeliner and t-shirts emblazoned with nonsensical English. Girls wear ghostly white make up and Bo-Peep dresses, giggling like porcelain dolls come to life. Dogs wear bows and sequin outfits. In one corner of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills, a giant spider stands keeping watch over the city. In Odiba; a giant gundam robot. Toilets flush themselves. Hotels rooms are space age capsules. Stepping into Tokyo feels like stepping into the future.
We visited there when we first got married and I’m pretty sure Alice loved it as much as I did. After visiting Tokyo, England lost its shine. It was difficult to hide our irritation at people talking loudly on public transport, the lateness of just about everything, and the general selfishness of people. When it was cold and rainy at home, we longed for the sun and cherry blossoms of Japan.
And, of course, we’d just lost the baby.
Jasper was only two weeks old when he died.
Alice gave birth to him at only twenty-eight weeks and if I’m honest, I knew as soon as I saw him that he was going to die. He looked too tiny, too fragile to live. I would sit for hours at his bedside, just watching him lying there in the incubator, struggling to breathe in. Every time he breathed he made this awful rasping noise. The doctors said even if he had survived, he would have had respiratory problems for the rest of his life.
The first time I got to hold our baby in my arms, he was already dead. We dressed him in the blue flannel sleepsuit Alice had bought for him and we took photos together as if he was still alive, and we were a ‘normal’ family. Jasper looks just like a doll cradled in our arms.
Depression washed over the both of us for a long time, but for Alice it was much worse. I was scared she was going to let grief wash her away completely. She refused to get out of bed. She cried all day long. She blamed herself for Jasper’s death even though it was nobody’s fault.
For a while I was scared to leave her alone for fear she would hurt herself, but gradually with time and with medication, her grief began to ease a little and that was when I suggested we came to Tokyo.
It was meant to be a new beginning.
A way to forget.
The night I bought the AI home, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Alice straight away. I left the baby in its box in the hallway of our apartment whilst I thought of a tactful way to break the news. I waited until we’d both finished eating dinner before I told her about him. She listened to my explanation and instead of bursting into tears like I thought she would, she seemed enthusiastic about the idea.
‘Well, bring it inside,’ she said smiling, ‘you can’t just leave him outside, John. What if your Boss found out you’d left his prototype in an apartment hallway?’
So, I bought the box inside and placed it on the kitchen table.
She looked back at me and nodded.
As soon as I lifted the lid, I saw the look of surprise in her eyes. She was expecting Astro Boy, not a doll so realistic it could pass for a real human baby.
She reached out slowly to stroke its soft blond hair, and the baby writhed and held up its arms. Alice jumped back from the box, afraid, but then she moved forward again and picked him up, laughing nervously at herself for having been startled.
The baby gurgled in her arms.
‘Wow John! This is unbelievable,’ she said.
It was the first time in eighteen months I had seen her smile like that.
I thought then, that it would all work out okay after all.
But I was wrong.
That night, as the sun set and the room grew dim, the baby did just as Mr Yamomoto said it would and powered down. It’s movements slowly stiffened and eventually came to a stop. I watched Alice’s face change from contentment to panic and I quickly snatched the baby away from her and carried it over to its box.
‘It’s okay. It’s meant to do that,’ I reassured her, ‘it’s powering down for the night.’
But as I stood putting the baby in the box with my back turned, I felt that feeling of nausea return again. I knew what Alice was thinking: when the baby went still and stiff, it looked as though it was dead. It looked just like Jasper.
I put the lid on the box and turned to her, ‘Are you okay having him here?’
‘Sure, I’m fine. I was just scared for a moment that I’d broken it that’s all. He’s beautiful John. He’s just so real.’
I moved towards her and pulled her close to my chest. Her hair smelled of cherry shampoo and I kissed the top of her head. She looked back up at me with those big brown doe eyes of hers and we kissed.
I’m not going to give all the juicy details of what happened next, but we had sex for the first time in weeks and I finally relaxed, wondering how I could have hesitated in bringing this baby home.
I woke up in the night. The clock said 3.30am and the other side of the bed was cold. Alice was missing.
I got up and found her, sat downstairs at the table in the dark, her back turned to me.
‘Ali, you alright?’
She jumped round, ‘Shit John! Don’t sneak up like that. You scared me to death.’
‘Well, I’m not the one roaming the house in the middle of the night. You scared me, shuffling about down here.’
She sighed, ‘I couldn’t sleep. I keep hearing it crying.’
I shook my head, ‘It doesn’t cry Alice. Mr Yamamoto said the developers thought it might put people off.’
She still looked unconvinced so I stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders the way she liked me to, and tried to reassure her.
‘Babies cries are as loud as a road drill. If it cried, which it can’t, I would have heard it too.’
‘Are you sure? I swear John, I heard it.’
I’d already explained to her how it worked. I couldn’t see what else there was left to say. The baby couldn’t cry – end of story. I stopped rubbing her shoulders.
‘It must be someone else’s kid. Next door’s maybe. You know how thin the walls are here. Come on Ali, its late. Just close the damn lid and come back to bed.’
I watched her get up from her seat and close the lid of the box. I followed behind her as she climbed the stairs.
I was knackered the following morning; and like most people, when I’m tired, I’m easily irritated.
I took a shower and got dressed, leaving Alice to take the baby out of the box and make breakfast. When I came downstairs, I found she had taken the red sports bag from the garage and was knelt down with it unzipped, its guts spilling out onto the tatami mat floor.
I knew what she was looking for in there: the blue flannel sleepsuit Jasper had worn. I couldn’t bear to see it again.
‘Why’d you bring these with you? I thought you had thrown those things away,’ I snapped.
But Alice didn’t look up. She was transfixed by the contents of the bag and was pulling them out one after another, like a magician pulling never-ending handkerchiefs from a hat.
‘Those ‘things’ were our son’s clothes that he never got to wear. Of course, I kept them. Why wouldn’t I?’
I stood by, watching her sifting through them as she pulled out each piece of clothing and held it up to inspect each piece for its suitability. All the time, the baby writhed around next to her on the mat, like a baby that was alive.
It dawned on me how absurd the whole thing was. She was sorting out our dead baby’s clothes for a doll and saw nothing wrong with it at all. I could have killed for a cigarette right then, only I knew she would start going on at me if I lit one up in the flat.
‘Ah, here it is!’
She held up the blue flannel sleepsuit.
‘You’re not really going to dress it in that are you?’ I could hear my voice shaking as I spoke.
‘Why not?’ She said.
I wanted to say things like, ‘because it’s wrong. Because that way, you’ll never let go of the past. Because we both know they belonged to Jasper and this is just a lifeless, soulless doll that could never replace our baby boy.’
But of course, I never said anything.
Maybe you think I was being unfair. After all, she was a woman who’d lost a child. What was the point of making a fuss? Its only clothes, right?
In Japan, some believe that everything you own has an imprint of your soul on it, as if some part of you rubs off on it when you touch it. Even clothes. That’s why you won’t find a charity shop anywhere in Tokyo. It’s also one of the reasons why nobody steals anything. Why would you want to own something that had traces of someone else’s soul all over it?
I’ll give you an example: there’s a famous doll called Okiku in Mennenji temple in Iwamizawa, whose owner died in the 1930’s from fever, when she was just three years old. Because the girl carried Okiku everywhere with her, it’s believed that the girl’s spirit possessed the doll the second she died.
But that’s not the worst of it: to this day the doll’s hair keeps on growing. Growing as if the doll were alive and breathing.
So to use your dead child’s clothes to dress a toy…well, you can see how that might be a problem for some people. For me.
After the disagreement over the sleepsuit, I went for a walk around the block to get some air. And by ‘air’ I mean ‘smoke a cigarette.’ I knew how Alice hated my smoking and so I held each drag of the cigarette deep in my lungs until it burned, and when I exhaled, I puffed out smoke rings in defiance.
When I got back to the apartment, I was expecting her to smell the smoke on me and start another fight, but I could hear her in the bathroom retching, and my petty rebellion was quickly forgotten. I felt guilty now that I had left her, even for that short amount of time.
I knocked on the bathroom door, “Ali, you okay?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’
She opened the door, her eyes watery and her hair unkempt.
‘I dunno what caused that. I was just sat there with the baby and all of a sudden…’
I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.
‘I’m sorry I was such an asshole earlier.’
She wriggled out of my grasp, ‘It doesn’t matter. Hey you should see the baby now. It started sitting up while you were gone.’
I don’t know why this bothered me so much. It was an AI after all, which meant was meant to learn and develop and grow. Just like a real baby. Only real babies don’t sit up after just a day.
We went together into the living room and there it was just sat on the mat playing with a ball Alice found in the garage. The sports bag was gone. But it was wearing the blue sleepsuit.
When I walked into the room, it’s head turned and its glassy eyes looked right at me.
‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ Alice knelt down and starting using that baby voice women always reserve for the ears of tiny puppies and small children, ‘aren’t you a clever one? Mama’s special boy.’
The hairs on my neck prickled to watch my wife talk to it like that, as if it was real. Mr Yamamoto had been right; childless women the world over would fall in love with this AI.
And then it dawned on me: after all this time trying to prove to my Boss that I wasn’t just another worthless foreigner, all I had had to do to prove my worth was bring this baby home and tell the company it was a success. I might even get a promotion.
And yet, something about the whole thing made me uneasy.
When Alice gets a craving for something, there’s nothing that will stop her until she gets it. That day she was desperate for some freshly baked donuts.
‘I dunno Ali,’ I moaned, ‘it’s pissing down outside. Can’t we go another day?’
‘You stay here,’ she said tying up her laces. You and the baby can get to know one another.’
When she was gone, the baby gave a giggle. I picked it up and put it on my lap. It didn’t feel like a real baby; it was too heavy. I tipped it upside down and held it by the leg to see what it would do, but it began to frown, so I quickly turned it the right way up. Then I felt stupid for being momentarily manipulated into thinking the damn thing was real.
‘You’re just a piece of metal in there,’ I said to it.
The baby wrinkled its nose at me.
‘You’re not real.’
It gave a grin.
Alice returned with a box of six donuts and she ate them all, one after another.
‘Do you remember the last time I craved these? It was when I was pregnant. Isn’t that weird.’
‘Yeah honey, I guess it is.’
I suppose the alarm bells should have been ringing then. Vomiting. Cravings. It was like that AI was causing her to relive the pregnancy all over again. I started thinking of how I could get out of this. Perhaps I should call my Boss. Just explain that we had lost a baby and that my wife has had severe anxiety and depression and that this could possibly bring about a relapse.
I did think about doing it.
But then I saw how happy she looked.
So I didn’t.
That night, Alice woke me up.
‘I can hear him John,’ she kept saying, ‘can’t you hear him? He’s crying. He’s making that rasping noise. Just like Jasper did.’
I didn’t really know what to say. I mean, I couldn’t hear the noises she claimed she could. And I’d already explained it couldn’t cry. It was impossible. It hadn’t been programmed to.
I held her tight in my arms, ‘Hush now Alice. It’s okay. You must’ve had a bad dream that’s all. Listen.’
She lay there in my arms, both of us listening to the silence.
‘See,’ I said, ‘it was just a dream.’
She wiped away her tears and I stroked her hair until she seemed calmer.
‘I’m so sorry John,’ she whined, ‘I just don’t know what’s happening to me.’
‘You know, if its too much having the baby here, I could power it down. My Boss wouldn’t even have to know.’
‘No,’ she answered far too eagerly, ‘don’t switch him off, John. I’m fine, honestly. It’s like you said, it was just a dream, that’s all.’
She turned onto her side and I lay down on my back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for her to drift off. It was making her ill again, it was clear for anyone to see. Once I heard her snoring, I started to relax a little. I lay there for a while thinking of what to do.
And that’s when I heard it too.
For a moment I thought I was imagining it. I looked over at Alice but she was fast asleep.
There it was again.
The sound of a baby crying in our apartment.
My stomach somersaulted and I lay there frozen to the spot. What if the Japanese were right? What if that baby had somehow obtained the spirit of my dead boy by wearing that damn sleepsuit? It was a completely irrational thought, I knew, and yet…
I got up out of bed and slowly, so not to wake Alice, opened the door and listened. The crying had stopped but there was a scuttling sound, like something running across the floorboards.
It couldn’t be the baby, I told myself. That was impossible.
I tiptoed down the stairs, heart pounding. I didn’t switch on the light. I was worried it would wake my already anxious wife. If that happened, how would I explain it? I could hardly say that I heard it crying too. That would tip her right over the edge.
When I got to the bottom step, something rushed past me, giggling.
The baby had obviously learned to walk.
I stepped down and tried to see it in the dim light but it was hiding.
‘Hey baby,’ I whispered to it, ‘dada’s here to see you.’
I heard it rustling around in the bin, pulling out Alice’s donut box and dropping it onto the floor.
I pulled open the drawer in the table and fumbled for the emergency torch we kept there. When I switched it on and flashed it around the room, I could see him. He was standing there in the corner of the room. He was looking straight at me with those glass eyes.
‘Come on now baby,’ I said in a singsong voice, ‘come to Dada.’
He started walking towards me with his arms outstretched and that grin on his face. I picked him up.
‘John, what are you doing?’
I turned to see the figure of Alice on the stairs.
She switched on the light, and as she did so, I could have sworn the damn thing sunk its teeth into me.
‘Little shit!’ I dropped it and it bounced onto the mat.
Alice dashed over and picked it up, ‘Jesus John! It’s just a baby!’
Just a baby? Like hell, it was.
‘There’s something wrong with it,’ I said to her as calmly as I could manage, ‘there’s a fault somewhere. I need to restart it.’
Alice was staring at me like I was about to commit murder.
‘Don’t be ridiculous John! We’re not turning him off. How could you even suggest that?’
She pulled him closer to her and the baby snuggled into her chest.
‘Give him to me Alice.’
‘No,’ she held onto him even tighter.
I swear, I didn’t mean to hurt her. I mean, I wanted the baby, sure I did, but only because it was making her paranoid. I lunged forward and pulled at her arms, trying to prise them open so I could get to the baby.
‘Stop it John. I won’t let you!’
The baby writhed and wriggled like crazy, but it never made a sound as we fought with one another. I pulled hard until Alice was unable to fight any longer. She let go and I grabbed hold of its head and pulled him away from her.
‘No John, please! Please don’t take my little boy!’
I lay him face down on the table and unzipped his sleepsuit and found the little green light at the base of his spine. I could hear Alice sobbing and begging me not to do it. Believe me, I felt awful, but I knew now I should never have bought the damn thing home in the first place.
I dug the tip of my finger into its spine and held it down until the baby grew stiff and still. The green light went out.
Alice was shrieking and sobbing and so I went to her and tried to hold her close, even though she kept pushing me away.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘It’s okay. It’s over.’
She settled down then and stood weeping quietly into my chest.
But it was then, as I stood comforting her, that I saw it move. The damn thing rolled over onto its back and sat up.
‘Jesus Christ Alice! That thing’s alive.’
I pushed Alice out of the way and picked up the AI again. There was no green glowing light and yet there it was, writhing and wriggling and biting me, fighting to stay alive.
I slammed the thing face down onto the table and pushed down hard with my hand to keep it still. It’s legs and arms flailed wildly and I could hear Alice crying out behind me, ‘John, please John! Stop it John, you’re hurting him!’
Beneath it’s soft velvet skin I could see its blue wires. It was only now that I realised how they looked like human veins underneath that translucent material. I hesitated for a moment and tried to think of another way but there wasn’t one. It’s just a robot, I told myself. Don’t look at it. Don’t listen to Alice. It’s just a robot.
I dug my nails into the soft pink skin on its back and I tore it open.
The baby let out an ear-piercing shriek. One long, shrill note.
Alice stepped forward screaming and shrieking, trying to pull me away but I shook her off, sending her stumbling backwards. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her drop to her knees, and at first I thought she was just upset. Distraught at having her baby taken away from her for a second time.
It’s not real. Just a robot.
I shoved my hand into the cavity in the baby’s back and gripped the cords as tightly as I could and pulled hard. The baby screamed. Try as I might, the wires just would not break. They stretched out, like long laces of licorice. I pulled and I tugged and there was a sickening sound like tendons snapping, as the wires finally came off in my hand.
The baby lay on the table, convulsing and shrieking so loudly I had to place my trembling hands over my ears to block out the noise. Eventually, the baby gave a final whimper and lay still. I waited a moment to check if it moved again, but it was dead this time.
‘I’m so sorry Alice,’ I said, ‘I should never have bought it home. I guess I thought…’
But Alice wasn’t answering.
I turned to see her lay on the floor clutching her stomach.
‘It’s okay Ali, you’ll be okay,’ I said, ‘it’s not like it was real. It wasn’t our Jasper. It was a robot. You’re okay, Alice. Alice?’
But Alice couldn’t answer. She lay on the tatami mat, blood trickling down her legs, spreading out like a tulip beneath her.
About the Author
J.L.Flannery lives in Warwickshire, England with her husband Nathan. She loves Japanese pop culture, crochet and video games. She has just completed her Lovecraft inspired debut novel, The Melancholy Secrets Of Sea Fret House and is actively seeking agent representation. You can read more about her and her book on www.JLFlannery.com or chat to her on Twitter @awritekerfuffle
About the Narrator
Paul S. Jenkins recently retired from architectural practice, and in theory should now have plenty of time to write the sequel to The Plitone Revisionist (audio available for free at Scribl). Currently, however, he’s concentrating on photography with his new YouTube channel Coarse Camerawork.