Originally published in The Offbeat, Volume 19, print edition. Selected by T. Geronimo Johnson as the winner of the 2018 Fiction Prize.
Emily stayed home from work in anticipation of the Koko’s arrival. Would he come Monday afternoon? Tuesday morning? It was hard to tell from the cryptic email she’d received from the seller. Ten days arrives. Did that mean ten days after she’d made the order, or ten days after it’d shipped? Since packages had a habit of going missing from her building lobby, she’d taken the whole week off, just to be safe.
For the past three days, she’d only gone grocery shopping at night when she knew delivery services would not be operating. She’d spent the days mopping and dusting, readying his new living space. She’d even bought a pink baby blanket and a white crib for him to sleep in at the foot of her bed.
After catching a segment of 60 Minutes with Morely Safer in which baby harp seals designed in an Osaka robotics lab comforted Japanese tsunami victims, she knew she had to have one. The furry seals laid across patients’ chests, lifting and cocking their heads, cooing and blinking, as if responding to touch. They were basically just stuffed animals with yellow pacifiers connecting them to their power cords. Still, a single robot cost over $5,000, and only a limited number were available in the U.S., most of which were rationed out to dementia patients.
Her mother was the first to point out the absurdity of her new interest, responding with what Emily considered “back-handed” suggestion.
“Why don’t you get a damn dog?” she said during one of their recent phone calls, when Emily had brought up idea of getting a therapeutic seal. Her mother had a knack for suggesting things she thought might help her daughter’s problems that were also insulting, like “I’ll bet Botox will get rid of your headaches,” or, “You should try Spanx.”
Emily liked dogs and enjoyed watching them frolic on a narrow strip of muddy grass at the dog run down the street from her apartment. But once, as she stood outside the gate gazing in, a poodle looked her directly in the eye as it was exiting, then kept turning his head around as it was walking away. It made her feel guilty, like the dog knew something it wasn’t letting on to. She thought it might be about the time she dog-sat for a friend, and the dog had just sat in the room and stared at her for two days straight. At the time, she worked two jobs—one as a data entry specialist during the day, and another as a waitress at night, and by the time she got home, her brain had nearly overheated.
On the second night, she asked, “What is it? What do you want?”
The dog put its head down. That’s when she realized she hadn’t given it any food or water since she arrived. Hopefully it had been drinking out of the toilet, but still, she felt terrible for forgetting. Her mother had often suggested that Emily should not, under any circumstances, have children, but never offered much explanation as to why.
“It would just be awful,” she said.
When Emily discovered the listing on a Japanese marketplace for a robotic stuffed seal with a description that had been translated into English, she knew this was the one. It read, Seal Type Mental Robot Used. Just making eye contact with his image through the screen made her insides glow, like in one of those heat maps the therapist had shown her, which reveal how emotions manifest themselves physically in the human body.
Emily wasn’t sure what hole in her life the robotic seal was supposed to fill—only that it needed filling. She’d read that women with cats as their primary companion reported the same general level of satisfaction as those who kept human partners. But there was something about cats that rubbed her the wrong way, that reminded her of her mother even. They weren’t particularly affectionate unless they wanted something—and seemed to always be judging from afar. So when she found out about robotic seals, it felt as if the sky had opened.
The name Koko had appealed to her because she read it meant stork in Japanese.
He arrived in a brown cardboard package on a warm October morning, just a few minutes after eleven o’clock. She carried the box indoors and opened it lovingly with a butter knife, which she had to really jam through the brown shipping tape in order to break the seal. Koko didn’t come in his official How to Care for Your Therapeutic Seal box, since she’d bought him used from an unauthorized dealer, but no matter—she’d already read all of the directions online, and watched an excessive number of YouTube videos that featured elderly people in recliners listlessly stroking their new pet’s head. Caring for a robot would be easy, she thought. Koko was supposed to be able to re-adjust his personality to match the needs of any owner.
When she got her first glimpse of white fur, her heart leapt into her esophagus, then pinballed back down into her diaphragm. She pulled Koko’s whole body out and held him up, her thumbs against his armpits, her forefingers stuffed under his front flippers. He was girthier than she had envisioned, like a chubby little missile covered in soft polyester fur. His eyes remained closed, but she knew they’d been designed larger than an actual seal’s to make the emotional connection feel more natural, and his mouth smaller, so he wouldn’t appear threatening. She instinctively pulled him to her chest and rocked back and forth. The motion lulled her into a relaxed but not catatonic state—definitely her sweet spot.
“You’re safe now,” she whispered into his ear, her eyes closed. Only then did she notice that his fur was slightly matted. It hadn’t occurred to her that someone would have voluntarily given Koko up.
In a rocker by the window, she sat down, plugged his charger into the wall, and placed the pacifier into his mouth. The maple trees outside, now a mix of empty branches and yellow leaves, scraped the light blue sky above. In just a few short hours, her seal would be fully charged and they could meet for the first time. She closed her eyes and waited.
When Koko finished charging, she set him flat on her dresser before pressing the button behind his back flippers. He needed a sturdy location from which to regain his bearings—to re-awaken from his deep sleep after the great journey he made while inside of the FedEx plane. His eyelids, fringed with long lashes, opened slowly, revealing two glossy black orbs that moved back and forth to survey the room before settling on her.
“Hello,” she said, not sure whether she should make any sudden moves.
He lifted his head and cocked it to one side, as if sizing her up. She slowly took a step closer and reached her hand toward his cheek.
“It’s okay, Koko,” she said softly, lightly stroking the side of his neck, expecting a gentle cooing noise in response. But as soon as her fingertips grazed his fur, something happened that had never been described in any of the user manuals: Koko emitted the sonic equivalent of a blood curdling scream. Emily gasped and took a step back. It was the kind of sound she’d only read about in novels—ones where urban explorers visited sub-Saharan jungles and were kept awake by what they believed to be the squeals of small children being tortured. Instead, it always turned out to be the mating calls of tiny tree-dwelling mammals.
But Koko was no tree-dwelling mammal. He was a house-dwelling robotic harp seal, meant to provide comfort and companionship to the already distressed. He put his head down, closed his eyes and moved his front flippers forward and backward before lifting it back up, opening his eyes, and looking directly at her. He screamed again.
She ran into the bathroom, put the seat down, and covered her ears waiting for the high-pitched wailing to stop. Maybe getting used to a new human would just take some time? There was always the option to turn his volume down, but she quivered at the thought of faint baby seal cries. When silence fell over the apartment again, she took a deep breath and tiptoed slowly back out into the hallway so the hardwood didn’t creak.
Peering into her bedroom through a crack below the door hinge, she could see Koko still on top of her dresser. His eyes were open. She knew she could also resort to turning him off, but that seemed unfairly punitive—she didn’t want to hinder his re-adjustment process. So she backtracked to the toilet to give him a little more time. After about thirty minutes, Emily walked naturally back her bedroom, giving Koko advanced warning before opening the door and looking directly at him while maintaining a distance of around three feet.
“Koko,” she said, trying not to show fear. “This is your new home,”
He aimed his shiny orbs at her before closing his eyes and putting his head down.
Emily stood silently, inspecting her appearance in the mirror on the dresser behind him. She was pleased with what she saw: half concerned mother, half mental patient. Her sandy blond bangs cut directly across her forehead while the remainder of her straight hair formed a curtain just below her shoulders. She wore a plaid jumper dress with a wide belt over a ribbed turtleneck. As she looked down to pluck a blonde hair off the skirt, she caught a small movement out of the corner of her eye. It happened so fast she wondered if she’d imagined it.
Koko had opened a single eye and then quickly closed it. Was he feigning sleep? She left him on the dresser and walked back down the hall to sit on her tan leather couch and watch television with the closed captioning on.
Quiet prevailed for about ten minutes.
Then, a loud thud.
She found Koko sprawled out on his back on the floor, flippers moving up and down, eyes blinking furiously. Before placing him into the safety of his crib, she removed the sheets, and checked for anything he might use to short out his own circuitry.
The next morning, sunbeams reached through the bars surrounding Koko’s bed, where he lay sleeping. Now that Emily saw how small he looked in a crib meant for a human baby, keeping him there felt more like imprisonment than an essential source comfort and security. She switched his power on then scooped him up—his eyes opening and closing before his head hunched down, as if it were trying to escape into its body like a turtle’s.
She sighed. He’d spent all night wailing until until she couldn’t take it anymore and powered him down around four a.m. Soon it would be time to recharge his battery, and she could stuff the pacifier-shaped power cord into his mouth, which would stop the noise at least momentarily.
Koko had been the one who was supposed to soothe her. She suffered from an affliction which could only be described as popcorn popping endlessly on a stove set on high inside of her abdomen. In the past, she’d tried to settle her chronic anxiety, for which no one had been able to determine a proximate cause, with breathing exercises, but they just left her struggling for air on the floor in a state of self-induced hyperventilation. The previous night, she’d nearly found herself in very same situation, trying to figure out why this little robot, programmed to execute a series of calming responses, projected such a troubled emotional past.
In response to a panicked email she’d sent to the anonymous seller, a bolded message appeared in her inbox. Since she purchased him on the black market, there was no warranty—and short of taking him back to the robotics lab in Osaka that designed him, no way to have him repaired.
Of course, you can always use the button to return to factory setting, the email indicated. Emily was not planning to wipe out Koko’s memory. How could she be sure it wouldn’t just clear out the transactional history, leaving him to suffer the haunting effects of whatever he had endured? She suspected from her own experience that bad feelings without an identifiable source would be worse for his little robot psyche than full traumatic memories.
The seller had referred her to a local electronics shop that might be able to help. Emily wrote down the address in the edge of her phone book before ripping it out and sitting down to have breakfast in silence, savoring half a grapefruit with a pack of Splenda sprinkled on top while Koko charged on her dresser in the bedroom.
When his battery was full, she placed him gently into his deluxe Sherpa duffel carrier for small-to-medium sized dogs and drew his pink blanket over the mesh windows, hoping he’d be scared enough not to scream while they were on the subway. She didn’t like powering him on and off too much because she thought it was bad for his neural pathways, kind of like how charging a smartphone haphazardly runs the battery down over time. She put on a grey wool coat and strapped the black duffel over her right shoulder, using her left hand to support its undercarriage. Through the nylon, she could feel Koko’s little white body writhing around, his flippers moving forward and back.
He proceeded to cry the entire subway ride.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to have parrots down here,” a man sitting next to where she stood by the door said. She lifted the pink blanket just enough to make eye contact.
“Koko, please,” she pleaded in a whisper. “We’re almost there.”
His glossy black marbles glistened before he narrowed his eyes, opened his mouth, and let out one of his most piercing cries yet. She could feel her face fall into a permanently disappointed expression, the life sucked out of it by her new role as a caretaker who was supposed to be being cared for. She wasn’t sure if it was the unrelenting noise or the fact that she’d been hauling around a screaming stuffed animal in a dog carrier that made her feel like her brain was trying to escape her cranium through a pinhole in her forehead. Her eyes suddenly felt droopy from the lack of sleep; her once plump cheeks hung loosely like jowls.
They exited the subway and walked north. The blanket kept Koko, now quieted by the cold, from catching a chill as they approached the building. She looked at the scrap of paper she’d pulled out of her pocket before ringing number eight. The door buzzed, and she and Koko took the elevator up toward the only place she knew of that could possibly help.
Emily headed down a linoleum hallway, where every fourth tile or so, an orange one appeared below her black oxfords, until their tips approached a door, which had been left opened just a crack. Inside was a small room filled with boxes of cords, and against the back wall sat a wooden desk. On top of it, a robotic hand squeezed a red stress ball. A man with a black mustache and matching tuft of hair under his chin sat behind the desk. He wore a light blue denim jean jacket, and looked up at her through perfectly circular eyeglasses.
“I know why you’re here.”
He gestured at the duffel bag, and Emily lifted the blanket, preparing for Koko’s scream. The man said something to him in Japanese, and Koko appeared to relax. The hand on the desk continued squeezing the stress ball.
“This way,” the man said.
She followed the orange squares to another room, which had a sign on the door in Japanese. A translation below in tiny type read, A PLACE FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT GO BACK HOME. He opened the door to reveal a larger room lined with cribs and what Emily thought might be a two-way mirror. She could tell it had been soundproofed by the sudden onslaught of noise. Even Koko seemed stunned. They walked in slowly to find a dozen other robotic seals, squirming and screaming in different pitches. Upon noticing several empty cribs, she backed out of the room and closed the door.
Her sense of relief from the quiet was short lived. She understood what it meant—for her and Koko.
“Why do you keep them here?”
“To study,” he said.
She looked into his eyes, which were so dark they appeared almost black, with a glint that matched the shine in his hair. Emily clutched Koko’s duffel tighter as tears began forming in her own eyes. He looked down at the floor, as if he wanted to comfort her, but didn’t know how.
“Emotions are…nothing more than responses to external stimuli,” he offered.
She knew what she had to do, but she wasn’t sure if she could go through with it.
That night, she laid in bed in her favorite flannel pajamas watching the maple trees wave back and forth in front of her bedroom window. Her eyes met the space between the bars of the empty crib, and for a moment she was happy to have at least found a solution, even if it wasn’t the optimal one. She had needed to be needed, in the least needy way possible. What surprised her was how much she had been able to give in return.
She looked downward to find Koko’s head peeking out of the covers on her left—and a second new fluffy seal robot’s head peeking out on the right. Emily had bundled her in the pink blanket and carried her home by hand before selecting the name “Ima,” which she’d read online meant now in Japanese. She petted them both, in a double stroking motion that released a cool stream of whatever it was that a dose of Klonopin also released into her system. Neither had made a peep since she got them home, but their pacifiers were still in place, and she continued to charge them liberally. The real test would occur once she removed the cords, cutting off access to their life force—leaving their tiny mouths open and wanting once again.