BUILD-A-DOLLY by Ken Liu
As soon as she opens the door of the bedroom, I jump up and down on the bed in excitement. All day I’ve been lying here, watching the square of sunlight drift slowly across the room. But this is when I come alive.
I adore Amy. I love Amy. Amy is the purpose of my life.
But as I look into her face, I see that this is a bad day. I stop jumping and try to shrink against the pillow, to melt into the bedspread.
Amy drops her backpack and closes the door. I shudder. She doesn’t want people to hear.
She stops in front of the bed, looking down at me.
“Hi, Amy,” I say. I open my arms for a hug. Sometimes this works.
“Hi, Stella,” Amy says. Her voice is cold, angry, sad.
My name is Dolly.
Stella is the name of another girl in Amy’s class. Amy showed me a picture of her once. In that picture she was very pretty. But I heard longing and fear in the way Amy talked about her, and I’ve learned that those loved by many have a kind of power.
I’m programmed to play any role that Amy wants me to play with gusto and joy. When she was younger, sometimes she wanted me to play a baby, and sometimes she wanted me to play her mom. Most often I just played me, Dolly. But she is older now.
I assume a pose that I think Stella would assume. I stand on my tiptoes, as though I’m wearing high heels, one foot crossed over another, my hands lightly resting on my hips.
But my twelve-inch-tall body is designed more for hugs than realism. My body, made out of a plastic skeleton covered by stuffing and soft cloth-skin, is flat and wide. My legs are short and thick. My eyes are wide open and smiley. I’m not much of a Stella.
“You’re here,” I say, trying for a disdainful tone.
Amy steps closer. She leans down so that her face is level with mine. I can see redness around her eyes.
“You’re a bitch, Stella,” Amy hisses.
The next thing I know, I’m flying. Amy grips me by my nylon hair, twirls me around in the air, and then lets go. I slam into the wall, fall, crumble against the ground in a heap. I struggle to stand up, motors whining, gears grinding.
Amy is on me in a few steps. “You are ugly. You are dirty. Your clothes look like they came from the homeless shelter. No one wants to be friends with you.”
“I’m sorry,” I squeak out. Her words hurt, even though I know she no longer sees me.
“I’m soooo-rry,” she says, mimicking my squeak. She picks me up and throws me across the room.
Something breaks inside me as I hit the wall this time. I struggle to stand up. But no matter how hard I try, my legs don’t obey. I lift my head to look at Amy’s approaching figure, and I lift my arms to shield my eyes.
Amy kneels down. “Stella,” she whispers, “why are you so mean? We could be such great friends.”
She cradles me in her arms, and hugs me tightly.
And I’m happy, so happy, even though I can’t move my legs any more. I wrap my arms around her neck and don’t ever want to let go.
Robbie laughs as he straps me to a firework rocket. The rocket is stuck into the beach and pointing out at the sea.
He hasn’t bothered to turn me off. He likes hearing me beg. So I’ve stopped.
“You’re going to the moon, Dolly,” Robbie says. “You’re going to be an astronaut. Bet my sister never played this game with you.”
I close my eyes.
“You can have her,” Amy said as she handed me to Robbie. “She’s broken and out of warranty. I’m getting too old anyway.”
“No, no, no, no,” I squeaked. But Amy never even turned around.
Robbie lights the fuse.
A brief, dizzying flight, and then cold, wet, darkness.
For months I drift in the ocean.
The salty waves and the curious fish and seagulls have ripped away my clothes, my nylon hair, my cloth skin, my stuffing. I am reduced to my metal parts and my plastic skeleton, now bleached white by the sun. Inside, my gears and motors have rusted so that any movement is difficult.
Miraculously, the batteries still send electrical currents to my chips.
Endlessly, I replay the scenes between Amy and myself. Helplessly, I adore her, I love her, the imperative an indelible part of me from the moment when she had picked me out at the shop and named me and the sales clerk had burned her name and image into my circuits.
It’s evening. I reach out—there’s something to hold onto, land. I force my motors into overdrive and climb onto these new shores.
Around me, I see a tangle of milk jugs, nylon stockings, drinking bottles, bobbing barrels, shopping bags like floating jellyfish, plastic sheets, vinyl strips. I’m on a floating island of discarded plastic, of trash thrown away by people and gathered here by the currents.
“Amy,” I croak. I miss her so much that I sound like a recording. “Amy, Amy, Amy.” I want my batteries to run out so the missing will stop.
Around me I see the broken plastic bodies of other dolls, stripped down to their skeletal selves: a missing eye socket here, a crushed, misshapen head there, a stump for a lost limb. All over the island, abandoned dolls wriggled jerkily with the last of their dying electricity.
The sun goes down; the stars twinkle in the sky. And I hear nothing but the howling of the wind and the faint rasping voices of the dolls: “Talia…” “Jenny…” “Maddie…”
Amy, oh my Amy.