The wire children move independently and have recognizable faces. They can learn, though the pace of their development would be considered delayed in flesh children. They are LtL, Learning to Learn. We are all LtL, even the mentors, who are not above botching an order, as when they failed to predict the wire children’s ‘limbs’ would shred clothes faster than the budget could handle. The wire children have no genitals, not even ‘genitals’, but we are expected to refer to them as he and she and never it because we are all Body Positive and Pro-Nudity in our Neighborhood, which, by the way, is what the mentors call this collection of cabins and mock businesses we accepted in exchange for prison time. The mentors discourage words like compound or even camp, despite the fenced perimeter, despite the forest outside the fence, despite the fact that we don’t really know where we are.
Wherever you go, the mentors are fond of saying, there you are.
Wherever you are, we are fond of saying. There you go.
The wire children age without growing, and we’re pretty sure they’re incapable of sexual reproduction, but thinking or discussing things like that is frowned upon, even when, as Carmen once pointed out, they are relevant.
I want to know, she’d said, if we’re dealing with humanoids or robots or what.
The mentors responded that the wire children were neither humanoids nor robots, and also that they’d brief us on what was or wasn’t relevant.
We’re going to miss Carmen.
She claims she’s going public as soon as she gets out, that there’s a loophole in the gag order we sign upon release. We all have to sign it, whether we’re court-ordered or volunteer. So far, there’s only one volunteer, a certified SupportMama, but since she reports to the mentors, none of us tell her anything. We are here for science, not to compete, but still. We all want to win.
If it’s true, Carmen’s release will be the first of its kind. But we’re not buying it yet. She hasn’t done a fraction of her time. A couple of lightweights before her left due to bad behavior, but they went back into the system. Carmen says she’s going out free and clear, or so they promised.
Carmen also thinks she’s getting her kids back, so we know she’s full of shit.
Still, she’s nothing if not convincing. In the days leading up to her alleged release, she has half of us picturing her yukking it up on daytime TV and being interviewed by the local news. And the other half hoping, because we can’t stand not to, that it’s true what she says about getting back her kids.
The wire children look a little like sculptures and a little like planters. They’re uncomfortable to handle but not dangerous, except by accident. In direct sunlight their wires get hot enough to burn. They dislike being alone but complain that being with other wire children gives them indigestion. They’re clingy and sharp. We are invited to report any injuries we sustain without concern for how such reports would severely hinder the study’s progress. We have twelve-part First Aid kits in our bathrooms, but Carmen’s the only one who can sew a stitch with any skill. If she goes, we’ll be left to scar.
Today we’re waiting to hear about Mallory’s request to throw Carmen a goodbye party, which will confirm or negate the rumor about her release. Third Variable time, off the record and away from the wire children, is rarely approved because requests are numerous and the Neighborhood needs to maintain internal validity. Large-group Third Variable time is not permitted, though we keep trying. Being away from us upsets the wire children, who insist they’re capable of emotion. We’re not so sure, but there’s no reliable test. They might be faking it, which would make them either sociopaths or more autonomous than we’d like to believe.
The mentors have been uncharacteristically quiet about Mallory’s request.
We pass the day, as we do most days, in our cabins, which are too small for more than a visitor or two at a time. The cabins circle the courtyard, windows and doors facing in, identical layouts: two tiny bedrooms, a corner kitchen with attached toilet, a playroom. Mamas’ Rooms have lacey pink curtains on windows that don’t open and vases of fake daisies glued to the dressers where we store folded stacks of Mama scrubs. Our bedroom doors lock at nine every evening. The wire children don’t have doors. They have plastic mattresses and cork floors and sturdy, donated toys. They are learning how to sleep, but they don’t need sleep; they’re learning how to play, but the toys wind up mutilated or speared on some appendage that’s sprung free, a phenomenon that’s so common we have a name for it: the Toy Kabob. The mentors allow us to be playful like this as long as it doesn’t impact the study.
We can visit each other if we do it one at a time. We try to keep tabs, make sure no one’s losing their shit. No phones for us, but a 70s-style intercom connects the cabins and the Switchboard, which mentor-trainees staff twenty-hour hours a day. The intercom resembles a radio with a series of dials on a brown speaker. We are permitted only to adjust the volume because, early on, some of the Mamas used the intercoms to develop inappropriate relationships with mentor-trainees. Now they record all conversations, and they put the nanny cams in plain sight on the ceilings. Zee thinks the cameras mean we’re part of a reality show, but Zee is the resident conspiracy theorist, and Sarah, the resident hacker, has debunked this particular theory.
The outside world knows about us, but we know less about it every day. Susanna was our sole off-site connection until she went AWOL. She was a SpokesMama and Floater – not a mentor, not really part of the study – and she attended fundraising events alongside the mentors, who used her to field delicate questions about our psychological states, and it was during one of these galas that she disappeared. We miss her coming around to collect data, and we miss probing her for details about how people dress these days, what foods they eat, what celebrities they gossip about. We wouldn’t have even known about the protesters if it hadn’t been for Susanna.
Now that she’s gone, each of us thinks we should be the next SpokesMama. We guess at the script and practice our answers for someday. Susanna was no better or smarter or sneakier than us. We can imagine the moment she realized no one was watching. The first step away, waiting for alarms to ring or police to swarm. The unbelievable quiet.
We imagine her now as in the end of a movie: sunglasses and chaise lounge. Handsome dude calling her by a fake name. We all have fake names at the ready.
You there, we say, go wherever.
Free and clear.
Tonight, as always, we log on to the Neighborhood Network within five minutes of putting the wire children to bed, and rate our degree of mother-child attachment: low, moderate, high, or profound. Most of us haven’t reached moderate. None of us has reached profound. This isn’t the fault of the wire children, since they’re nothing like the children we want. Attaching to them is supposed to be difficult. That is, as we understand it, the whole point of the study.
Sometimes we try to figure out the scientific questions that govern our lives here, i.e., can bad mothers be taught to be good? Or maybe, can we be incentivized to bond? To love? Susanna said that, when the mentors addressed the more sensitive donors, they pitched the study as a form of rehabilitation. That sounds like a sick joke to us, since we’ve already lost our kids.
Anyway, we’re only guessing. None of us has more than a cursory understanding of the science behind this.
The mentors post our attachment scores on a web forum, along with FAQs and things they call Mandatory Thought Experiments, which are like unanswerable questions we are supposed to answer. 1) Is it possible to successfully parent an unlovable child? 2) If so, what would ‘success’ look like?
Tonight, just for fun, they’ve added a third: 3) What advice would you give Carmen for returning home?
This is how we know her release is real.
Understanding circulates the ring of cabins, all of us in our rockers with computers in our laps, the third question reflected in our eyes when we lift them to the windows. The courtyard beams with collective dawning. It’s all we can see.
On the web forum, the first pieces of advice appear in the form of meek encouragement. You got this, Mama! and You’re strong! to which the mentors reply, Practice authenticity. Which means quit lying. Our Neighborhood motto is Keep promises but not secrets. We’re supposed to tell the truth at any cost, which means that if a wire child asks if he’s ugly, and he is, we have to tell him so. If we say we’re going to kill them, even as a figure of speech, we have to kill them. That’s the rule, though if any of us knew how to kill them, the study might be over by now.
We pause, trying to figure out how to say to Carmen what the mentors don’t want us to say, which is, Run like hell. Don’t look back. Disappear.
There aren’t many free-and-clear fantasies available to us, since our families and friends, such as they were, have disowned us. Our crimes were on the news; our names are known. But Susanna did it. We want Carmen to do it too, just so we’re sure it can be done.
Go wherever, we want to say. Just go.
We choose our words more carefully. The mentors want the truth, but they want it to be usable. Concentrate on moving forward, someone writes, and we wait to see if the mentors will allow it, which they do.
Set parameters, someone else writes, advice that’s both crucial and impossible. Carmen’s that unlucky sort who’s good at doing time. Here, she follows each rule to the letter, hits every curve ball out of the park. A textbook success case. It’s the jittery, zigzag outside world she can’t navigate.
The wire children are as varied in their habits as flesh children, but they are more destructive, as when Leslie’s high-energy twins destroyed a dozen plastic mattresses in the course of a month. For comparison, Carmen’s kid still has her original. The wire children don’t need food or sleep, but we provide both anyway. We’re rated on our nurturing abilities but also our firmness. Carmen is the first to post her daily log, and the only one to catch the seven o’clock Pro-Hour of Non-Feed TV. By the time the rest of us turn on the tube, our selections are limited to mentor-approved relaxation channels like Meditation Journeys Through Safe Spaces and Kittens Engaged in Gentle Play. Non-Feed TV, which is basic cable, is supposed to motivate us to sustain a smooth bedtime routine, but all it ever does is give Carmen a superiority complex.
We suspect the mentors went easy on her; we get the feeling they want her gone. We all know what she did to her real kids. Reducing her sentence seems questionable unless the mentors are up to something, which they always are. We hypothesize. Leslie thinks she fucked her way out. Zee says it’s all to stir up controversy among the rest of us. Patty says Carmen was dragging down the study – too businesslike, her achievements never tainted by a whiff of unwieldy real emotion. And Mallory, who’s been hopelessly and baldly in love with Carmen from the beginning, weeps and calls Carmen her hero.
Whatever the case, the mentors have to know that the rest of us will follow Carmen’s lead, tank the study in hopes of getting out. Maybe they underestimate us. Maybe they think the rest of us actually care.
Maybe they think any of us are here because of science.
After we’ve logged our answers, the mentors green-light vacancies in twelve of the cabins for the Farewell Party – not exactly large-group Third Variable time, but as close as we’ve ever gotten. The lucky doors open, and the chosen ones marvel at how different night feels when you’re in it. The rest of us have mentally mapped the Neighborhood and can picture it as if we were there. To the south, the handful of outbuildings clustered in darkness like set pieces that could switch on at any moment. To the north, the mentors’ trailers illuminating their own gravel pads. Beyond, the electric fence topped with prison-issue barbed wire. A single gate for both entrance and exit to the service road that leads into the forest. All told, more secure and less cushy than the protestors think. Leslie heard it was once a trappers’ camp.
Third-Variable events are held at Mama Loca’s, the on-site cantina where those of us who aren’t SoberMamas or on their scheduled cleanse can order margaritas with a splash of real tequila. We eat massive amounts of chips, and the drinkers quickly get slushy and say things they’re not supposed to.
Patty says her oldest is turning into a real bitch.
Sarah has discovered she can pick up an unlocked Wi-Fi network if she stands her wire child near the modem.
Zee says they’re spiking our food with anti-psychotics.
Leslie claims she caught a mentor-trainee in her bedroom after hours, but we know Leslie, and we’re betting that it was a consensual arrangement.
And Carmen says, I don’t think any of us realize how fucked up this all is.
She looks terrified. She doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to her either. Her cabin is pristine, ready to be vacated, and her wire child has already been rehomed to an off-site foster family, which Zee says is code for the lab. Carmen is still in her Mama scrubs, but she’s reverting to old habits before our eyes, dialing up her accent, fisting her hands. Strapping on the armor.
We follow, in solidarity. Bitch, we say, you gonna fuck shit up out there!
She raises her chin, the softness in her voice bleeding out. You know it, she says. Get your lazy asses out next.
Don’t go royal on us, we say, though we’re pretty sure she won’t. Carmen is going back to the same shithole she came from. She knows it, and we know it. But there’s no sense in dredging it up now.
Instead we talk about our wire children, how they won’t play together at the on-site playground, how we are trying and failing to love them. Carmen is quiet, and we leave her alone, until finally she says, Dang, you know Blissa cried when they took her away? Man, she really cried.
We are permitted to name the wire children, but not to give them human names. There are no Marys or Jamals in our Neighborhood. All names and nicknames go through an approval process, and violations are curtailed swiftly. We worry so much about violations that we only call the wire children by name when necessary.
We know Blissa cried, and our wire children know too. They’d asked us tough questions before bed, which we were pained to answer honestly. They said, Where is Carmen going? and Why doesn’t she want to stay? and Are you going to go away too?
We said: Hush. Forget about Carmen. She was a shitty mom.
We’re surprised by any emotion the wire children elicit, and when it happens, we sort of congratulate the mentors in our heads. Which, they’ve explained, is exactly what they don’t want us to do.
But we want to succeed here, we tell them.
We are so grateful to be here, we say.
This is a sure-fire way to get the mentors to scowl and end the session. After Susanna ran off, they realized that most of what we tell them is bullshit.
There you go, we say. Whatever.
We tell Carmen to rename herself Blissa in homage, cut her hair and wear glasses, start at the bottom. If anyone can sweet talk her way out of a background check, it’s her.
Just don’t forget us, we say, knowing that forgetting us is exactly what Carmen needs to do.
Maybe I’ll be a nanny, Carmen says, which is the kind of joke we never say out loud. We laugh so hard it must horrify the mentors who are watching.
In the morning, Carmen’s gone. The mentors call us via intercom to put our wire children down for naps at noon and meet in the courtyard. The wire children never nap except when the mentors need to make an announcement, which means they’re going to shake things up. We huddle on the lawn, which is really turf so it requires no upkeep, shivering in our flip-flops and Mama scrubs. The only individuality we are permitted is how we wear them: too tight, off-the-shoulder, balled at the navel, rolled into shorts. The mentors are always asking us how we feel about our bodies. They expect us to be grateful because our meal plans keep us trim and sober, and most of us have never been either. But the mentors have mistaken us for the kind of women who give a good goddamn about their waistlines. Carmen said the first thing she was going to do when she got out was chase a bag of Doritos with another bag of Doritos.
To be fair, it doesn’t matter if we like our new bodies or not. We’re criminals and test subjects, not soccer moms on some self-improvement retreat.
The mentors pile out of their van and stand Red Rover-style before us, shoulder to shoulder. Before this, we’d pictured scientists clean-shaven and middle-aged, holding beakers in lab coats. But the mentors look more like a convention of nerds and serial killers. Beards and cardigans and predatory smiles, a couple of fidgety women with bad posture. We note that the head guy, Harry, has come. The one other time we’ve seen him was at our arraignments, so his presence is a big deal. He’s the kind of guy who can pass for grandfatherly: thinning hair, cleft chin, bulletproof sense of entitlement. That diminishing gaze, that sanguine ruthlessness. We love and hate him without trying to do either.
He steps forward, casual, but frowning like a wounded kid. I’m perplexed, his face says before he speaks, and whether we want to or not, we’re wondering how we can fix the problem.
I’m a scientist, he begins, flattering us with the notion that anyone would mistake him for one of us. He continues: I’m not in show biz. My interest is in that complex machine you’re all carrying around with you.
He gives us a moment, then taps his head. The brain, he says, to make sure we get it.
The brain! – he’s in full lecture mode now, arms up, swaying on his feet – It’s the most complex thing in the entire universe. By far the most mysterious. Why do we love? Why do we stop loving? Questions that have been the purview of religion and art for centuries, but which have only recently come under scientific scrutiny. You all, you’re astronauts. You’re deep sea divers. You are the explorers of the new world. I know that. We know that . . .
He sweeps down the line of mentors with his arm. They beam at us, their ragtag band of unlikely astronauts. Then Harry gestures behind him with the other arm, open-handed, pushing away the noise of everyone outside our gated, holy nation.
. . . but they don’t. And what they tell me is that I’ve got a PR problem on my hands. What do I care about PR? I say. This isn’t reality television! This isn’t a docudrama! But Harry, they tell me – you’re being judged in the court of public opinion. And . . .
He stops, shakes his head in disgust.
. . . who funds these projects? That’s right. The public. And the public, god bless ’em, would rather see you packed into an overcrowded correctional institution than charting new territory with me. So.
He turns to the mentors, says it again: So. What do we do?
Hunches over the last word like it’s giving him a cramp. Turns back to us, holds up what we mistake for a peace sign.
We do two things, he says. The first is easy. Publicity. We show them our Neighborhood. We let them see how valuable our work is, how it’s all kosher, a win-win partnership between cognitive research and the penal system. I’m talking about a commercial. A commercial? Yes. Something they can see. Sometimes calming and affirming. That’s number one.
And the second thing?
He smiles. We remember that smile. At our arraignments, it promised relief, leniency, compassion. We all pled guilty, even Patty, who didn’t do what they accused her of.
This time he’s not promising anything.
He says: The second thing we show them is results.
A couple of the mentors-in-training squirm. The seasoned ones stare straight ahead. They’re all students working on degrees, which they’ve told us about minimally. They’ve been invasive but respectful; they are cultivating their bedside manners. They always reintroduce themselves and ask questions about things they clearly know the answers to. They’re stiff but transparent. When something is a test, they let us know it’s a test.
We get the impression that’s all about to change.
Harry steps back so Leslie’s mentor can step forward to dispense the new protocol. He’s a good-looking dude who wears sneakers with his chinos like a trademark, but who today seems as greasy and shaken as if he’s lost a bet. He doesn’t push the hair out of his face when he talks, so we mentally do it for him. It’s hard to hear the words through the mess of his delivery. We steal glances at Leslie, sure she must be mortified for him. She looks triumphant.
The gist, he explains, is that our attachment ratings will now be ranked. Those who consistently reach levels of moderate or above will continue with the study; those who reach high levels will be granted an array of privileges heretofore unknown to us. That’s what he says, heretofore unknown, which makes us chuckle until we realize what he’s saying. Or rather, what he hasn’t said.
And the losers? we ask.
There are no losers, he says. Those who do not achieve a score of moderate or above will be released.
That stops us.
Like Carmen? someone says.
Yes, the mentor says. Exactly like Carmen.
We look at Harry, who is failing to stifle a grin.
What are the privileges? someone asks.
Leslie’s mentor brightens. Release from curfew, he says. No locks. Fewer mentor interventions. In a word, more freedom. And, by the way, the first to reach profound attachment will become our next SpokesMama.
Leslie no longer looks triumphant.
It’s baffling, and we are accordingly skeptical. The mentors don’t look at us. More freedom? we’re thinking. That can’t be legal. And it can’t be good science.
One of the older mentors pipes up: The temptation to self-delude will be high, he says. We have tests to correct for inflated ratings.
He’s warning us not to cheat.
Meaning they’re upping the ante. Calling our bluff – we’re either in the game or we’re out.
Meaning we have to seriously grapple with the question of what it means to attach to the wire children.
The mentors relax, message delivered, their eyes all aglitter. We clench and stiffen, turning over the words profound and attachment like the explosives they are. We understand that the mentors are a hundred steps ahead of us, and we struggle to bridge the distance while playing like we don’t notice it’s there.
Come on now, we want to say. Be straight with us. This isn’t our first rodeo.
Before they leave, the mentors pass out a flyer on Attachment Parenting and deliver one more incentive. The seven o-clock Pro-Hour of TV will now include a show called Carmen TV.
Fuck, someone says, long and slow, under her breath. Now that’s an incentive.
Leslie sighs, screwed again by her lot. A good day for her is not actively hating her wire children. As we disperse, she says, Will you at least tell me what happens on Carmen TV?
We assure her we will.
The wire children go down easy that night, as they often do on incentive nights. The mentors give us a taste of the reward – the first episode of Carmen TV – and then make it increasingly difficult to obtain. Tonight we’re all parked in front of the TV by a quarter to seven, even, for the first time, Leslie. The courtyard glows blue. Those of us not on our scheduled cleanse pop bags of Faux Corn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, add lemon to our water bottles, and settle into our rockers. The show begins with an intro montage of Carmen’s time here, cameos of ourselves we cheer over, a warning against reproducing the footage, a quick synopsis of the study – nothing we haven’t been told – and then there she is, Carmen, looking both exactly and nothing like the woman we knew. Two things are clear right away: Carmen is not adjusting well to life on the outside, and Carmen has no idea she is being filmed.
There’s no bag of Doritos. No reunion with her kids. No one greets her when the taxi drops Carmen off at a decrepit trailer. This is the place where it all went down. She stands outside a few minutes, and we cover our mouths. For god’s sake, there’s still police tape across the door. Turn around, we think. Go anywhere else. She looks behind her, but the taxi is gone. She gets out her key. Tears through the police tape. Opens the door.
It’s the exact same trailer in the exact same condition she left it. This seems unlikely if not impossible, and yet it’s true. The camera follows her face, but she appears not to register any memories or pain or even surprise associated with the scene. She doesn’t recoil at what we imagine must be the overpowering stench of a squalid trailer left untouched for over a year. We’re jolted into forbidden memories, flashbacks ripping through us. We’ve never once considered what happened to all the shit we left behind. The crib with its mess of cold blankets, the wrecked car in the driveway. Car seats still latched, spatter still constellating, rooms wreathed with the smell of smoke and diapers. We understand Carmen’s reaction, which is not to pause over the mess, not to reflect or cry or call for help. She begins to clean. Fervently. That’s the whole first episode. We watch with sick fascination. The degree of damage is hard to associate with the Carmen we know, the Carmen she was here, the role model of organization. All she has is a mostly-used, mostly congealed bottle of yellow dish-soap. Her affect reveals nothing, though at one point she gags over a diaper balled into a football jersey in the closet. She throws out the diaper but puts the jersey into the oven. Produces a working lighter from somewhere and burns it.
Oven as purification tool: we understand this. The episode ends with Carmen dumping every dish and utensil into the front yard, squirting the pile with the last of the dish soap, and spraying it with a hose. She disappears behind the spray, and a legal message flashes across the screen that’s gone before any of us can read it.
This is the end of the episode because there’s no more soap. We don’t know what she’ll do next. We remember her answering her door in rubber gloves, how she made sugar scrubs for our birthdays. We clean our already-clean ovens in homage to her that night.
The video does what we suppose it’s intended to do. Shakes our confidence. Makes us realize that release is just ‘release’, and that Carmen is still very much incarcerated. There is no real way to get out early.
Maybe we don’t all literally have trailers full of shit. But we all have a shitload of forestalled atonement waiting for us outside the gate.
Wherever you are, we say. There you go.
Locked in our rooms, alone, we pace and hug our knees, chew fingernails and pull out eyelashes. We are sick for Carmen. We are scared for ourselves. What we wouldn’t give for a drink or a pill or a vat of cheese dip. We picture the wire children and chant love you love you love you into our pillows. Sometimes we believe that we were chosen for this study because we are wired differently from other women. It’s why we understand each other so well. Our brains go on- and offline all night, plaguing us with the same images in different dreams. Thorns in the turf. Mummified babies wrapped in fur. We walk along the water’s edge as body parts wash up, and not a one of us can summon the energy to give a fuck, not even in dreams.
We wake sweaty, feeling the urge to nurse. But our breasts are limp, plundered. We are ravenous and uncomfortable, and it seems like Zee must be right about them putting things in our food. Hormones? Street drugs? We feel like we’ll die if we don’t get touched. We rush through breakfast, ignore the wire children, return to bed. For three days, we’re soppy, drowsy hunks of meat. Our attachment scores hit record lows, and Carmen TV is all doomed job searches and cold fast-food breakfasts. Mallory sobs over Carmen. We all sob over Carmen, and none of us are the sobbing types.
Then it happens. On the fourth day, some unholy combination of deprivation and chemically-heightened desire pushes Patty over the edge. We’re stunned to see her attachment score: high. Even a new episode of Carmen TV doesn’t keep us from rushing to Patty’s house, shocked and jealous and discouraged. Of all people, we say. She doesn’t even like her wire child.
She answers the door looking downright matronly, the dose of success turning her usually-sallow face so rosy we’d swear she got ahold of makeup. We shunned Patty when she first got here, for her protection we thought, but she kept worming her way into our consciousness until we conceded that, even if she wasn’t guilty, she wasn’t innocent either. She was a mom; she was judged; that she’d been accused of the one thing she didn’t do seemed incidental, in the end.
The rest of us were almost fortunate to have the convenience of a proper conviction.
We’d have all have found our way here somehow.
We crowd into Patty’s playroom, Carmen TV muted in the background. Poor Carmen can’t outshine Patty, especially now that we understand what a chump Carmen really is.
Patty goes through it step by step: I was kneading dough with my eyes closed, she says, blushing deeply. Maybe not kneading, to be honest. I was kind of stroking it. Here.
She reaches for a plastic bowl on top of the mini-fridge, removes the dishtowel cover. The dough has over-risen and collapsed. Our cabins come equipped with kitchen utensils and a binder of suggested projects. Homebaked bread is filed under Beginner, along with no-nut cookies and soft-boiled eggs. We shop at the whimsically-named on-site grocery, The Feed Store, which carries staples and approved substitutions, like carob chips and bean snacks, but no alcohol or caffeine or white sugar, though true to our natures, we’ve invented hooch versions of each.
Patty sets down the bowl and closes her eyes. She faces us, hand inside, and we start hooting and hollering all at once because we can see what she’s up to. Patty, man, we yell. You’re giving the dough a goddamn hand job!
Fucking Patty, we think. Who knew she had it in her?
She opens her eyes, enjoying this. She says, So I’m all – you know – and my wire child sidles up to me, but I don’t see her, right? She touches my thigh, and not in one of that stabby way, but gentle, like I taught her. She must’ve been practicing. So I feel this surge of emotion, like raw shit, you know? Like somebody poured warm butter all over me. And I know it’s going to go away as soon as I think about it, so quick as I can, I say, ‘I love you.’ And it was true. Right in that moment, it was true.
Naw, we say. That was between you and the dough.
It was a transfer, she says. Account to account.
We get it. We’re impressed. Patty has performed a sleight of hand, shifting the afterglow of her fantasy to the wire child so quickly that the emotion seemed simultaneous. We wonder if the mentors will question it, but they don’t. We see that this system can be gamed after all.
Progress, we suppose, but the kind of thing you can pull off only a few times before the hidden cameras tip your hand.
Bottom line, Patty stumbled onto some luck. We figure she deserves it.
She rips out a piece of the magic dough for each of us to take home, and we spend the next days brainstorming, talking on the intercom, jotting in our Mama journals, rereading the flyer on Attachment Parenting. We veto Kangaroo Care on account of how heavy the wire children are, as well as the serrated edges some of them develop on the playground. Sustained Eye Contact is a possibility, since the wire children are constructed to suggest facial features. They don’t exactly have eyes, but we can tell where the eyes would be. Gazing into someone’s eyes is a tried-and-true method of bonding, but it’s hard to believe that gazing into where-eyes-would-be would have the same effect.
Zee says, I think it’d be easier if they did something for us.
I’m gonna teach mine to roll joints, Leslie says. Put these mofos to work.
Leslie is not going to win.
Then Mallory, who’s never offered a solution, who up to this point didn’t seem to have an original idea in her head, says, What if the children aren’t the problem?
Mallory was the only one of us who’d had an Amber Alert on her. She was fierce about playground rules and made the same tired jokes about socks losing their mates that everyone did, but otherwise seemed pretty vapid.
We’re like, Of course the children aren’t the problem, the problem is that humans aren’t programmed to bond with mechanical things, and she says, So what if they programmed us?
We’re not following yet, but we shut the hell up and listen.
Didn’t you ever feel like your phone controlled you? Maybe we could personalize the wire children. Like if you love someone, if you miss someone, you could teach your wire child to invoke that person, how a real child reminds you of something. Teach them to surprise you that way.
Sounds good, we say, but how. And that’s when Mallory says, Wire School.
And we’re like, right. Wire School.
The wire children know the basic I-love-yous and You’re-the-best-moms, but they know nothing of the nuances of human emotion. So we teach them to surprise us, the way Patty’s child surprised her.
This is an idea, we think, that has legs.
It’s complicated and takes us a while to wrap our brains around it, but eventually we understand Mallory’s real motive. It’s not that she’s that smart. It’s that she misses Carmen that much.
Mallory says: Write down the thing you wish someone would say. Write down three things. Give them to me by tomorrow. You’ll see.
We file silently into the courtyard and back to our cabins. We watch the wire children play with trucks and dolls, study their jerky movements, listen to their babble. We imagine them hurt or dead and still don’t care. It seems impossible to bypass the fact of their wires. We consider how they say they love us. How startled Carmen was that her wire child had cried.
Blissa, we remind ourselves.
Come here, we say, patting the plastic couch. How was your day? Do you know any jokes? What makes you shiver?
We feel more like mentors than mothers. We try to flush, to stammer, to increase our heartbeats. To conjure the heat we saw in Patty. We think about what we wish someone would say to us. Our own children, if they could talk. If we could talk to them.
We wonder if this might just work.
You’re a good kid, we say, which is true. The wire children lack malice and recalcitrance. They are so genuine we’d like to smack them, if it wouldn’t injure us to do so.
The wire children quiet at the unexpected attention. They sense a trap. When they finally speak, their words let us know they’ve put two and two together.
Where did Blissa’s mom go?
She went back, we say. Does that scare you?
The wire children nod, though they know little of back. Their idiotic bravery is helpful; we feel a surge of protectiveness that could be the prelude to love. The wire children lead us closer to the edge of a precipice. We submerge thoughts that this is what they’ve been programmed to do; we don’t even know if they can really be programmed; we experiment with belief.
I love you, the wire children say. We tolerate flashbacks of delivery rooms, bedrooms, interrogation rooms, courtrooms. The locked doors of our own childhoods. The clothes we loved like siblings, the siblings constant as furniture. Here’s us, too old to still be in diapers, getting whipped for wetting the bed. Or rocking rag dolls to sleep. Or refusing to wear that jumper. Us at fifteen, buying pregnancy tests at the Dollar Store after church, or choking in the final stretch, or crawling out the window to meet the dickhead who’d pin us in the backseat. Us at twenty-five, promising to go cold turkey, or to try different meds, or to go out more, or to stay home. Holding our first babies, smiling for whatever camera was leveled at us, every newborn in every hospital dressed in the same pink and blue cap.
We scrub away our stretchmarks and fill our memories with wire children.
A thought seeps in: maybe we’d have been better mothers if only we hadn’t had real kids.
We tell the wire children that we are learning to love and getting closer every day, but of course, the wire children whimper. It’s not what they want to hear.
We tell them, repeat after us: this must be hard for you.
I’m as much a victim as you are.
I just want us all to be happy.
We put into their ‘mouths’ things our real children said, or things we’d wished they said, or things they might say if they could. I forgive you. And, I’ll never forgive you. And, We’ll be okay.
Repeat: You’re struggling, not bad.
Repeat: I know you didn’t mean it.
Hearing the words in the wire children’s tinny voices burns us up inside. Our hearts harden into wire, which brings us closer to the wire children, sharing this organ with them. Wire hearts sprout wire veins. Wire veins grow over flesh ones, a slow but irreversible process. Our blood flows more efficiently. We move stiffly but with increased energy. Walking antennae, picking up waves and signals. The electrical currents of life quicken. We age without growing.
It seems almost real.
The wire children are disturbed by what we ask of them, but they do not resist. They go to bed uneasy, and finally, we think, we have made something. Call it corruption, call it original sin, call it consciousness – we’ve given them a piece of our world.
Leslie’s scores stay low that night, but the rest of us are confidently moderate. Carmen TV is a non-starter. She doesn’t come home. One full hour of her empty trailer.
Sarah tried to contact Carmen via the unlocked Wi-Fi network but the message was returned as undeliverable. She only has access a few minutes at a time because she doesn’t want anyone getting suspicious. She says we’re famous. Convicts or Martyrs? was one headline. The Father of New Motherhood, was another one. And another, Hard Time Harry. Half the population wants us burned at the stake, it turns out, and the other half wants to set us free.
Leslie’s voice on the intercom that night is hoarse. She’s been last on the attachment rankings all week. That’s going to be me out there with Carmen, she says. They’re going to feed me to the wolves.
Leslie, Leslie, we say. Have faith.
Don’t fuck with me, she says. I’m a dead woman.
Stay positive, we say.
They don’t understand, she says. I was never cut out to be a mom. I have nerve problems.
Don’t, we say. Leslie.
My own mother, she starts, but we stop her. We all have mothers.
She’s quiet. Our rooms are dark, locked until morning. The wire children are vulnerable and trusting in their perilous bodies. We would’ve never raised children as sheltered and stupid as they are.
The intercom crackles, and the power goes in and out. We hear engines and male voices long into the night. Sleep carries us fitfully to morning, and when the doors unlock, we’re greeted by cameramen who motion us outside.
The wire children leave without our permission, not knowing to be wary of strange men.
We follow, not knowing to be wary of what’s outside.
They’ve been instructed not to touch, but it takes Leslie all of fifteen seconds to lead one away from the herd. We don’t blame her; we all feel lightheaded. It’s not even because they’re men, though they all are, but because they smell like fast food and convenience stores and cigarettes and coffee. And because, while we’ve stopped considering one another separate people, and while the mentors have always been a different species, these men are utterly, unforgivably human.
They’re here to get footage for the commercial, they say, so we are to go about our usual business, not to perform or address the cameras, to try as much as we can forget they’re there. Of course we can’t, so after a half hour of instructing us to stop preening and posing in the courtyard, they switch to one-on-one interviews. Those don’t work either, since we’ve been rehearsing canned responses in hope of becoming the next SpokesMama and all give the same answers. So then one of the cameramen – the unofficial leader, we can tell – goes rogue.
Hey, he shouts.
We stop posing and look at him.
Y’all have done some bad shit, right? Some real fucked-up shit, and to your own kids. Hell, the whole world knows about it. Now you’re living out in the woods with some crackpot evil scientist, or whatever he is, and I tell you what, people want to know what the hell is going on.
Jeff, one of the other cameramen says, You can’t say that.
And Jeff says, Aw, fuck the script, man, the script ain’t working.
Zee says, We’re doing our time, and Jeff spins around and says, Are you?
You, he points at Leslie, Deep Throat. You locked your kids in a car, didn’t you? You think Camp Rehab is a just punishment for that?
Leslie says nothing.
Ours were all high profile cases. There is nothing subtle about a dead kid in a car, or a malnourished toddler, or a shaken baby. The paths that led us to those moments, the accessories to our crimes, don’t figure in, not to anyone who matters. The women we could’ve been are irrelevant. If we let ourselves track to the end of this thought, what we find is emptiness. If we try to trace back to the first wrong step, we arrive nowhere. We have our pick of causes: the inauspicious sign we were born under; the trauma transmitted through our genes; the dark closets of our childhoods; the wells of illness. Bad luck, bad choices. There was no one to protest back then. We understand that there is sustenance for these men in the solidity of the line that divides us. We huddle together, surrounding Leslie, our minds as one.
The wire children know nothing of protestors. They’ve never seen conflict like this before, and they aren’t aware of our histories. We don’t think they know they’re an experiment, or that this isn’t the whole world. They’re characteristically quiet until one of Leslie’s twins stands from his spot on the turf. If ever a stage was set for a revolt, it’s this one. Jeff, the cameraman protestor, is less dangerous to us than the education he has just handed to the wire children.
We sizzle together, our wire hearts waiting on penance.
They had real kids, Leslie’s wire child says to Jeff, and Jeff says, Dude, half these psychos killed their kids.
Leslie’s wire child faces us. I understand now, he says.
Leslie says softly, unconvincingly, Sit, down, Guardy.
Guardy says, It’s not our fault. My god, this is huge. You’re the broken ones, not us.
We close our eyes, wire vessels snapping free.
But you do try, Guardy goes on. We see you trying.
It’s a line Leslie taught him. We know that, and yet we’re taken aback. We experience the rush of collective success. We all, every one of us, love Guardy in this moment.
Guardy moves toward the cameramen, and the head one, Jeff, takes a step back.
You’re unkind, Guardy says. Get out of here. Leave our mothers alone.
They’re not your mothers, Jeff says. And we have a job to do.
We get the feeling that what Jeff came to do is not what he was hired to do.
The other cameramen wait to see where this is going. We watch, fascinated and smitten and suddenly backgrounded.
You don’t know the first thing about them, Jeff says.
Here’s something you may not know about us, Guardy says. We’re sharp.
He pokes Jeff. The other wire children fall in around him, their ‘fingers’ and ‘knees’ flashing.
We learn that the wire children are not dangerous except by accident and when threatened.
This is how we know we’re still unfit for society: we wish for more gore. We want to see Jeff disemboweled, if only for the symbolism. We want the irony of our children killing for us. Guardy makes the threats, the younger ones go in for physical contact. Two girls, Zee’s and Patty’s kids, catch Jeff on the forearm, and the sight of blood makes the rest of the cameramen run for the back gate. They don’t know the wire children can’t really run, and they don’t bother to look back.
They leave the gate open behind them, a detail only lost on us for the split second it takes the pendulum to swing from criminals to mothers and back.
We love you, we tell the wire children. It doesn’t matter how, or how much, or how long. We’d kiss you if we could.
You belong out there, they say.
Beyond the gate is a forest of fir and cedar trees grown dense. The mentors will arrive soon enough, drive out in their vans, lock the locks.
This is our chance, we tell the children. Please understand.
We’re all victims here, the wire children say. You deserve to be happy.
They return to the cabins. We look at the forest. We rehearse the whole montage: racing through the trees, panting, tripping over a root, the dogs after us. A miraculously unpoliced strip of Canadian border appearing like heaven, rays of sun across a field, maybe a rainbow. Then free and clear. Maybe years down the road, reconnecting with our kids. We imagine the call. This is your mother. No, It’s me, Mom. Or maybe, You don’t remember me. Or maybe, You might have heard about me.
Even in our fantasies, it’s the wire children who respond.
Wherever you are, we say. There you go.
We are going to do it. We really are. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mistake. It doesn’t matter if we end up worse off. We have to prove we’re still human enough to try.
The gate stays open all day. The mentors never come.
Finally we shut the gate ourselves and fix dinner. Put the kids to bed. Our attachment scores are off the charts. Afterwards, we settle in for the next episode of Carmen TV.
She’s back. She’s trashed. There’s some kind of house party in progress. Carmen is sprawled half-on, half-off the couch in her underwear. She’s talking to a guy who is rubbing her ass and laughing at her.
It’s hard to hear their voices, but we know what they’re saying from the subtitles that run helpfully across the bottom of the screen.
Not a good idea, baby, he says.
You don’t get it, she says. I owned it. I ruled that place.
Yeah, he says. I bet you did.
You don’t get it, she says again. We couldn’t give them human names.
Don’t mean you’re fixed, he says.
Don’t mean I’m not, she says.
He turns her over and begins his work, and we shut off the TVs. We’re in bed by ten, listening to the mentors’ intensified listening.
Photograph © Carlos Martinez