With multicolored scraps of paper, the woman slowly pieced back together the son she’d lost nearly a year before. She labored over him for weeks and weeks, making sure each inch was just so. Every line of glue had to be perfectly straight and impeccably thin; every snippet of paper needed to be completely clean and without creases or crumples or rips; every feature demanded the utmost care and precision.
When finally her paper son was ready, she lifted him from the table and brought him over to the window. There, under the light of a crescent moon, the woman placed a gentle kiss on the pale brown scrap that formed the center of her baby’s forehead.
As she pulled back, she allowed herself a thin smile. “You’re ready,” she whispered. “Come back to me. Come back, Ahmadee.” As she spoke, she did her best to hold in her tears. There had been far too many already shed in that forlorn home.
Besides, this time would work. She just knew it; something in her bones told her so. Sure, the others had proved disappointing. The little boy so lovingly crocheted failed to open his button eyes; the son she’d made of the finest clay survived but two days and screamed a soul-piercing scream the whole time; the Russian nesting dolls she’d affectionately crafted in his image cracked each other’s skulls open as they cackled a hideous laugh.
Yes, the woman knew each time she failed to bring Ahmadee back, the pitiful simulacra she created grew more and more monstrous. And she knew getting rid of them proved even more challenging. But she had to try this one last time. And this time, her son would come alive. After all, she’d constructed him with bits of his arts and crafts projects; with pieces of his kindergarten report cards; with the very last drawing he’d made, entitled Momma and Me, on yellow paper with green and blue crayons.
“What could be more perfect?” she said aloud.
As the woman walked to her son’s bedroom, she cradled his thin form in her arms. His paper jeans and his emerald dress shirt complemented his hazel eyes. His black paper curls looked kempt but not obnoxiously so. The woman’s paper son looked like the happy six-year-old he would have been, but for the angry father who took his nightly lesson one blow too far.
With gentle hands, the woman set her son on his robot-shaped bed. The bed he’d begged for just last year. The bed his father’s heavy fist sent him sailing into on the night of his premature death. Despite the memories, the woman knew she’d never part with that little robot bed. Now she hoped her baby Ahmadee would have use for it once again. Now, with his father long gone, he could act out his science fiction fantasies and sleep in peace.
The woman planted one more kiss on her son’s paper head, then turned on the nightlight and headed off to her own bed. Like all the other eves she’d gone to sleep with the faith that her precious son would rise by dawn, tonight would be a restless one.
The hours passed slowly as the woman lay perfectly still beneath her sheets. Her mind, however, raced about with anxious and erratic fervor. It was both heavy with guilt and light with hope.
She thought of her husband, Ahmadee’s father, locked away in some far off place. She thought of all the people whose faces said they blamed her for her child’s death. She thought of the gaping hole she felt growing in her aching heart.
But more than anything, the woman’s mind returned to Ahmadee’s first word. Robot. He loved robots as soon as he understood what it meant to love. And when he could talk, he explained his deep fascination. They can think and laugh and play, but they don’t feel pain. They don’t have to cry, Momma. Ahmadee’s voice was that of a baby but his words were those of a suffering soul. On hearing his heart-wrenching description, the woman had taken her son in arms and wept into his mess of curly hair. He didn’t fully understand, and she didn’t have the heart to tell him, that not all daddies were like his own.
The next morning, the woman awoke from her half-sleep just after sunrise. Her heart fluttered like the eager wings of a newborn butterfly. She still had that promising feeling deep within her bones.
The woman didn’t waste time making the bed or opening the blinds. She had one thing on her mind. Rushing down the hall to her baby’s room, a giant smile sprang to life on her young yet tired face. The sounds she heard were unmistakable.
Yes, sir, I would gladly take you to the zoo. Just climb on my back and we’ll be there soon. Zoom zoom. Zoom, zoom, zoom.
These words could only mean one thing: her paper son had come to life.
As the woman whipped into the room, her eyes confirmed her dreams and ears. There he was, paper thin but alive. Alive and oh so perfect.
“Oh baby, I knew you’d come back to Momma. Come ‘ere. Let me get a good look at you.” The woman’s voice was light and cheerful. She’d never been more eager, not ever in her whole life.
Dropping his robot toy to the ground, Ahmadee turned around.
But strangely, when his eyes met hers, he didn’t smile.
“What’s wrong, baby? What can Momma do?”
“I dreamed of a man who makes people into robots, Momma. I’m leaving to find him soon.”
The woman didn’t know what to say; maybe she misunderstood.
When her little boy spoke again, there was no mistaking his plan. “I only stayed this long so I could tell you.”
The woman’s heart dropped and a thousand words rushed through her mind, but nothing came forth from her mouth. Instead, her feet carried her forward to where her paper son sat on the floor. She thrust herself around his tiny, fragile form; she hugged him like she had planned to hug him for years and years to come.
“Why didn’t you make me into a robot, Momma? You should have known.”
“Oh, Ahmadee, I’m so sorry.”
“I know, Momma. I know.”
“So stay. Stay here, with me,” she begged.
“I can’t.” His tone was tender yet distant; he’d made up his mind.
For a moment, mother and child remained motionless. Still clasping his shoulders, the woman looked into Ahmadee’s eyes and tried to extract all the sadness. But the more she looked, the more she knew she never could.
Then baby Ahmadee kissed her softly on the cheek and escaped her embrace. Without another word, he passed her by and left his room. Every inch of her body and soul fought out for her to stop him. But she didn’t. Somewhere deep within her mind, she knew he deserved a better life than the one she could provide, what with the house full of violent memories and kicked-in walls.
Still, as tears began to fall, she stood and followed close behind.
Once near the door, Ahmadee turned back to face her. He, too, had tears in his eyes. And with each tear, his thin paper frame became more and more vulnerable. That’s when the woman thought back to what her baby boy said years before. They don’t have to cry, Momma. She knew she had to let him go.
The woman followed Ahmadee out onto the rickety old porch. They might never see each other again. She wanted to keep watch over him for as long as she possibly could.
Ahmadee walked down the front steps. Every moment of his little life surged up and sped through her mind. His first steps as a real boy; his heartbreaking words as a paper one; his first scraped knee and his first split lip, both brought about by a fit of his father’s sudden anger; his innocent yet wise paper face; and his rarely heard but still joyous laugh.
As these sights and sounds filled the woman’s eyes with more tears, Ahmadee steadily put more and more distance between himself and his former world. The woman knew he would look over his shoulder or wave his arm over his head one final time. Just to say goodbye. Just to tell her that he didn’t hold anything against her. To confirm she hadn’t lost her grip on reality.
Except he didn’t. Not even once.
So, as his multicolored form blurred into the distance, the woman began to truly understand his love for robots and the extent of his pain. And when she finally accepted he was gone for good, she wished she was a little robot, too.
Sara Puls is a Wisconsinite who lives in South Texas. By day, she is a migrant farmworker attorney for a non-profit law firm. By night, she reads and writes as much as she can. She’s also a slush reader for Interstellar Fiction. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Kazka Press, Liquid Imagination, Misfit Quarterly, Scout & Engineer, and elsewhere.