PERFECT SON • by Cheryl Powell

The Mother marched her son past the kettles and toasters. “I’m returning him,” she told the sales assistant. “This child is not suitable.”

The boy fidgeted with the buttons on his school blazer, lip trembling.

“Stop fiddling, Jeremy!” The Mother slapped the boy’s hands, and tears activated along the rim of his eyes.

She turned to the assistant. “I’m afraid he’s a weakling. Show the man your puny legs, Jeremy.”

The boy pointed below the rim of his shorts to shiny kneecaps and slender calves.

“Ah, I see the problem.” The assistant searched his files. “A lot of the old Cas21 models fail to develop. Tiny glitch in the nervous system, but you can download a patch.”

The Mother leaned in. “No. A patch won’t do. This is a Cas21iii. Sold to us as a top-of-the-range, genome-receptive child.”

The assistant looked closely at Jeremy. “Are those bruises?”

“Of course, they’re bruises!” The Mother poked at a dark swelling on Jeremy’s cheek. “Siblings use him as a punchbag and the useless child never fights back.”

The boy whimpered and the assistant tutted. “Of course, if there’s malicious damage….”

“And another thing. Jeremy is not very bright.”

The assistant raised an eyebrow. “But he has all your genetic material.”

“Well, his brain must have malfunctioned.”

“You can fix that.” The assistant handed her a user manual. “There’s a section on how to develop intelligence. It has lots of nurturing tips: affection, play, conversation. All fully illustrated.”

The Mother’s voice took on a hard edge. “We’ve hired child psychologists to do all that. The fact is,” she enunciated her words, “the child is completely… and… utterly… thick.”

The assistant spread his hands. “What a pity you didn’t bring him back sooner. All we can offer now is refurb or repair, and there’ll be a charge.”

The Mother looked at her son’s face, riven with anxiety, and it irritated her. This model wasn’t supposed to get upset, to want attention, to need love. She felt a wave of disappointment. To think of the hours she and The Father had sat with the 4D visualiser designing Jeremy, choosing genomes and genetically modified chromosomes; all that gene-editing and re-editing. They’d even taken home several prototypes to see which one they liked best. So it wasn’t as if they weren’t thoughtful parents.

“Look, it’s not just intelligence,” she coughed. “The fact is, we specified big bones. Big strong bones and an aptitude for rugby. We need a scrum half.”

Jeremy was now pointing his toes, swinging his right leg, tracing little circles on the floor. Such artistic self-express was not in his programming, and The Mother didn’t like it.

“As you can see,” she gestured, “he dances. Ballet, tap — sometimes flamenco. Well, that’s no good to us on the rugby field.”

The assistant gave a tight smile. “You know, genetic engineering isn’t an exact science, even now. Big bones and intelligence cannot be guaranteed as the child develops; it says that in the small print, and we did advise against overloading his actuators.”

“We needed high performance motor skills.” The Mother leaned closer, and the assistant had an idea.

“Of course, our store prides itself on customer service….”

“Go on.” The Mother sensed an offer.

“You could trade him in for the latest spec. Fully-grown upgrade.”

The Mother brightened. “Show me.”

The assistant walked her to the window display. A child stood between a washing machine and an upright vacuum cleaner. “Meet Raef. Of course, Raef has none of your genetic material but we can pop that in later. And he’s a very fine boy.”

Raef stepped forward. He was big-boned and square-jawed and held The Mother’s gaze confidently. “Are you my new mother?”

“Perhaps.” The Mother looked him over.

“I excel in rugby and advanced mathematics, and I have an IQ of 140.” Raef held out his hand for The Mother to shake. She noted his strong grip and broad shoulders and imagined how he might nurse a rugby ball in the crook of his arm.

Jeremy had stopped dancing, and was now clinging to her coat, quietly sobbing. She knew he’d defaulted to despair mode again, but she wouldn’t let guilt cloud her judgment.

She prised open his fingers. “Let go, Jeremy.”

Darkness rushed across Jeremy’s face. “Don’t let that big boy punch me!”

The Mother heard the snivel in his voice and had an urge to punch him herself. Instead she hoisted him by both elbows and handed him to the assistant.

“Take him off me, will you.”

The assistant dragged Jeremy towards the storeroom, while The Mother studied Raef’s gene sequencing chart and liked what she saw. She turned to the assistant with a satisfied smile.

“I’ll take him.”

“Oh, mother, that’s wonderful!” exclaimed Raef and gave her a strong bear hug.

Jeremy wailed as the assistant opened the storeroom door. “Don’t leave me here,” he implored. “Mum. Mum. Mummy!”

The Mother stepped over to Jeremy. Two uneven lines crested her forehead. She supposed she’d been fond of him once. He was such an affectionate boy, but too sensitive. Jeremy stretched both arms out to her, as if reaching for a life ring, and her heart twisted. But Raef was already in the street kicking stones, boisterous, hands in pockets and whistling, and The Mother was distracted, suddenly eager to get him home.

“I’m sorry, Jeremy,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. It’s just that you didn’t turn out the way we expected. You weren’t the perfect son.” She brushed a strand of hair off his face and saw the turmoil in his eyes. She hesitated, then turned away. “Goodbye, dear.”

Jeremy’s body crumpled at this and a sensor in his brain flickered and died. He no longer resisted as the assistant shoved him into the storeroom and stood him in line with the broken freezers, rusting lawnmowers and obsolete TVs — and all the other imperfect children.

Cheryl Powell is a Worcestershire writer specialising in short fiction: flash, micros and other tiny stories. She has had about a dozen published works, including in EDF. She’s inspired by the dark and maverick side of humanity. This story is about the tragedy and absurdity of designer children.

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