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