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Jeff Landon

Lifelike Baby Girls


In Shelly’s health and family life class, Mrs. Bonderas hands out the lifelike babies to all the girls in class. The babies pee, poo, vomit, and even run simulated temperatures. They feel and wriggle like actual breathing babies. Disgusting.

"What you hold now," says Mrs. Bonderas, drama queen, "is life in your hands. For the next two weeks, you must care for this child as if she were your own. You must feed her, burp her, change her, and love her. All these things are essential."

In the back row, the extremely pregnant Crystal Adams raises her hand.

"Do I have to do this?" she asks, cupping her stomach.

"More than anyone, dear," says Mrs. Bonderas, a drooping note of sorrow in her voice.


Friday morning, Shelly sits on the bucket seat directly behind Charles, the reformed alcoholic bus driver. He seems lucid today, but Shelly maintains a wary stance. At stopping points, she engages Charles into conversation to monitor his breath. The lifelike baby bounces on Shelly’s lap, humming and slobbering on herself.

Shelly’s father used to drink constantly, and she remembers most of the signs. She checks Charles’ eyes for signs of glassiness or bloodshot. She is relentless, yet sympathetic: she once wrote a poem about Charles called "This Bus Is Not A Buffet Table." She got a B because Mrs. Arnold (that whore) said the iambic parameter was off but B.F.D.


The lifelike baby girl has a whopping case of the hiccups.

Shelly tries to get her baby to drink some water, but that makes the baby cough and hiccup at the same time, so Shelly calls her big sister, Jo, the reference librarian. Shelly explains the situation, but leaves out the parts that make her look negligent.

"Pat her gently on the back," Jo says. "Hold her upright, in your arms, and pat her—if that doesn’t work, breastfeed her."

"That’s pretty hilarious," Shelly says. She pats the baby, tentatively, until the hiccups stop.

"She stopped," Shelly says. "Yea. Thank you, Jo."

She places the baby face down on her bed, and the baby begins to cry.

"No, no," Shelly says, picking it up and shaking it a little. "Shut-up, OK?"

Shelly cradles the baby back to sleep. She decides to name the baby Abby because it sounds cozy and wide open.


Shelly’s best friend, Bonnie, has already taught her baby how to smoke. It’s easy. She puts a cigarette into the baby’s puckered lips, and then snaps a picture of the amazing smoking baby with her new digital camera. Last year for the art contest, Bonnie entered a picture of 400 dead flies floating in toilet water. She didn’t win.

Shelly removes the cigarette from the baby’s mouth and takes a long pull off it. She touches the baby’s hair.

"It’s brittle," Bonnie says. She flicks the baby’s ear and the baby makes a soft whimpering sound.

"They smell weird," Shelly says. "Abby smells like boiled cabbage."

"You named her?" Bonnie raises one eyebrow.

"She can’t name herself," Shelly says.

"Last night," Bonnie says, "I fell asleep in a chair, holding my baby the way we’re supposed to. Jim came over, loaded of course, but guess what? I sent his drunk ass home." Bonnie flexes her arms like a weightlifter without actual muscles. "Strength," she says.

"Tommy gave Abby a sip of beer last night," Shelly says. Tommy is eighteen, and Shelly isn’t allowed to see him outside of school, but she does, all the time. "I swear, Bonnie, I could’ve strangled him."

"This town," Bonnie says. "This town makes me want to dip myself in shellac."

"What’re you talking about?" Shelly says.

"I need to name my baby," Bonnie says. "I’m such a loser."

"Name her something Gaelic," Shelly says. "Like Rhiannon."


The moon over the bonfire is a sliver of pie, a lemon rind, a—Shelly can’t think of anything else. She needs to write a villanelle about nature, for Mrs. Arnold. It’s a Friday night, after the football game, and half the town is here for the bonfire. Shelly and Bonnie sit on lawn chairs and burp their fake babies. The team won, so tonight there is joy. Shirtless football players whoop around the fire. Cheerleaders do shots in the flickering shadows. Old men and women keep their distance from the fire, and warm themselves with bourbon or hot chocolate. Two boys start fighting at the edge of the woods, and a crowd gathers there. This happens every weekend. Shelly smokes and squints at the fire, and she’s watching the slow curl at the end of the flames when one of the fake babies goes flying into the bonfire. Some guys behind her are laughing. Bonnie goes, "What the hell," and pulls the melting baby from the fire. The baby wails. Her skin sags now, like a pug’s face. Bonnie holds the burned baby in her arms. People keep laughing. A bottle breaks against the hood of a truck. An old woman lifts up her skirt to show off bony legs.

The moon is like a baby’s fingernail, a kayak in space, the smile of a moron—what else? Shelly smokes and pulls her baby closer. Everything is spinning tonight. Everything spins and spins, and bottles keep flying.

Crystal Adams places her fake baby over the real baby growing inside her. The fake baby lays sprawled out, arms like wings, body surfing.


The babies are dying all over town.

By now, everyone knows that Yvonne Saunder’s meth-head boyfriend tossed Yvonne’s baby into the fire. He was jealous because Yvonne didn’t want to go camping with him, and because Yvonne let Bobby Gonzalez touch her ass at the bowling party.

Yvonne has a (slightly less slutty) twin named Sara Beth, and the morning after the bonfire, Sara Beth, in solidarity, had dropped her baby into the big mailbox at the post office. That night, it was on the News at Six. The woman reporter interviewed a postal worker.

"I was petrified," said the postal worker. "I thought it was the real deal."

The newswoman held the baby to the camera. The baby was blue, but her eyes were still open. The newswoman closed the baby’s eyelids the way they always do on CSI in the morgue scenes.

"This is Sarah Allen," said the newswoman, "Live, from the downtown post office."


Over the next week, three more babies died. Nick Figgens tossed a baby out of Susan Taylor’s speeding truck because the baby kept crying and it got on his nerves. Fran Zimmerman stuffed her baby into her stepmother’s basement meat freezer beside the lamb chops. She just wanted attention, everyone agreed. All of her poems are about suicide or fairies.

Bailey Abbot’s baby just died. It wasn’t Bailey’s fault. Bailey never talks about people, and when she plays tennis she’s always honest with her line calls. Her baby died in the crib. It wasn’t Bailey’s fault. Sometimes, Mrs. Bonderas said, babies die. She touched Bailey on the shoulder.

In the back row, Crystal Adams whispered, "You’re such a bitch."

Everybody heard her, but nobody said anything.

Mrs. Bonderas brushed something off her hideous yellow sweater.

"They aren’t supposed to do that," she said. "This has never happened before." She picked up a nub of chalk and then she dropped her arms to her side. "I’m sorry," she said. "It was an accident. I’m sorry."


Two days later, Mrs. Bonderas organizes a memorial service for Bailey’s baby behind the gym, next to the football field. It isn’t so terrible. Shelly and Bonnie stand next to each other, clinging to their healthy babies.

Bailey talks about the time she took her baby, Honey, to an indoor amusement park. She shows pictures: Bailey and Honey on a Ferris wheel: Bailey and Honey on the tilt-a-whirl; Bailey at the food court with a heaping plate of chili fries.

"I’m such a pig," Bailey says, laughing, but she’s just trying to be brave.

Bailey’s mother used to sew outfits for Honey. Bailey’s mother is a little bit insane. In this picture, Honey wears a blue dress with pink piping. Bailey and Honey sport matching ribbons.

At the end of the memorial, after a verse and chorus of "Amazing Grace," everybody releases helium-filled balloons to the sky. It’s supposed to symbolize Honey’s spirit, or something. It looks pretty, but Heather Winston (know-it-all genius girl) calls it ecologically irresponsible.

"Birds choke on the string," she says. "Or they swallow the balloons, and their little stomachs swell up and explode."

"Shut-up, Heather," Bonnie says. "You act like you’re Jesus’ sister, but you didn’t even make the drill team."


On the bus, Shelly crosses her long legs at the ankle. Her thighs are getting fat. She used to run every day, before the baby. Charles the bus driver (three months sober) is wearing a jumpsuit that looks plastic. He looks extremely flammable and skinny.

"How’s high school?" he asks Shelly.

"It’s perfect," Shelly said. "Maura Harrison is cutting herself again. My government teacher smells like puke. And Bailey Abbot’s fake baby died in her crib."

Charles nods his head, and Shelly looks out the window. The mountains look almost purple today. Cows graze on a slow rolling hill. The outline of the moon hangs over them. Abby starts to cry. She’s on the seat beside Shelly, on her back. Shelly scoops her up and says, "It’s OK, Abby."

"Do you ever wonder what animals think about?" Charles says.

"No," says Shelly.

"I’ll bet they think of some weird shit," says Charles, downshifting. "I’ll bet they don’t feel sorry about anything, though." Charles looks out the window, pondering. "I’ll bet they think ‘I want some grass, I’m wet, I’m thirsty, I want to go hump that cow and then eat some more grass.’"

"You’re probably right," Shelly says. "Maybe you were a cow in another lifetime."

"I think I was a monarch," says Charles.


On the last day of the baby project, Mrs. Bonderas brings cupcakes and soda to class. She lets everyone watch "The Price Is Right" on TV while they write descriptive paragraphs (use sensory detail!) about their experiences. Yvonne and Sara Beth are absent today—but that’s normal. They rarely come to school on Fridays.

A few of the babies have the sniffles. It’s the flu and cold season. After a few minutes, Shelly decides to write about this morning, when all the girls, and all the surviving babies, got on the bus. They drove past the Waffle House, Leo’s New-to-You Cars, The Biscuit Barn, and a hundred Baptist churches. They put extra blankets on their shivering babies and talked about the past two weeks. They drove by the cross-country team, running uphill and huffing on the shoulder of Lee Street. They hoisted their babies up in the air to watch the boys run. The boys waved to the windows filled with babies.

But now it’s time to go. The bell rings, and one by one, the girls walk up to Mrs. Bonderas. She places the babies side by side on her desktop. When all the surviving babies have been returned, she pulls a remote control device from the top drawer. She presses the red button and all at once the babies stop moving, stop crying, stop breathing. They’re just dolls again, and she stacks the lifeless dolls into a box. All their faces look the same.

Shelly stands beside Bonnie. They don’t talk. Mrs. Bonderas picks up Abby. Shelly closes her eyes. She wants to remember how it felt to hold something so alive and tiny close to her. She wants to believe that Abby will always remember her name.

Jeff Landon lives and teaches in Richmond, Virginia.  His stories, online and print, have appeared in Crazyhorse, Another Chicago Magazine, Other Voices, New Virginia Review, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, FRiGG, Smokelong Quarterly, Night Train, Quick Fiction, Phoebe, and other places.

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