The 30 Day Baby Company
The Great Baby Plague lasted three years and killed twenty-four million babies. This figure is widely considered to be low. An international team uncovered nearly one hundred thousand babies in a pit in Peru, so the number changes over time. But twenty-four million is the number reported, the one that stays in the books, from the officially announced “end of the disease” until the start of The 30 Day Baby Company, a Limited Liability Corporation, established by entrepreneur Franklin Young.
Franklin Young had no part in the cure – that was luck. Great minds locked themselves in laboratories and did not leave until they had developed a vaccination. The shots left golf ball sized impressions on the arms of the children. The potency of the formula meant a thicker needle, a greater pain, swelling and permanent imprinting. In wealthy countries, 100% of children under the age of four were injected. As the babies grew into boys and girls, then adolescents, the purple blister on their arms became an insignia, a passport, an understanding. The mark was featured in works of art: paintings, plays, films, kabuki theater, and the more daring of modern advertisements.
“I lost three children,” Madison Castle wrote on the company order form. At age twenty-five, the plague struck her small town. For the first ten days, she remained inside her house without milk, afraid of the wind and knocks at the door. Taffin, a girl, age nine months, died first, then her sister Haley, two years, and lastly, the oldest, Carmichael, a boy, age four. Madison Castle’s husband Theodore tried to help but felt crushed, despondent, and especially aware of his impotence. Like the rest of the town, they burned their babies in the backyard and stood far away to avoid the smoke. It was a horrible plague.
Ten years later, when the plague’s infections had dropped below 15,000 cases, and the injections were a requirement for every child in the nation, the Castles had a new baby, Dalton.
Light came back into Madison Castle. Dalton was completely unaware that there had been a tragic event, and for his ignorance, Theodore and Madison thanked the stars. Each night, they’d read Dalton to sleep and hover over his crib, rubbing the injection mark on his arm, and falling in love with medicine.
Theodore fell so hard that he entered school.
“I’m a doctor,” he said at parties and would be hugged by mothers, his hand shaken by husbands, his drinks paid for and his every action abided. Several times each year, since passing his exams, he would fly to places like Senegal or Barbados and stand on line, injecting babies and returning silent to his wife. “It’s not enough,” he told her the month before Dalton’s birth.
The next day he received a call from Franklin Young.
“I’ve started a company and I want to employ you. Your name came to my attention during the plague. I had relatives in your town. They’ve told me about you entering medicine, about your trips. I think you’ll fit nicely.”
“What kind of company?”
“A service,” explained Young. “You’ve been blessed. Your wife’s expecting, isn’t she?” Theodore Castle mumbled ‘yes’ over the phone. “Good. I’m glad. For most people, though, those babies who died in the plague were their only children. They’re now too old, or too scared, to love something that much. I’ve done thousands of interviews with mothers in this circumstance and you know what I ask them? – ‘What would it take to heal you?’ The answer is always the same. ‘Give me another child, if only for a little while.’ So I took this information and put some money behind it – I have lots of money – and I’ve started a service.”
“Children to love.”
Young bought the plane ticket, the hotel, the dinner, the limousine, and across his desk at 30 Day headquarters (ten miles from any populated area), Theodore examined the contract. Heavily worded. That he remembered. Employee promises not to disclaim. Employee promises not to divulge. Employee promises to honor grief. Commandments were spelled out, but that didn’t worry Theodore. He visited the pickup area, a corral of miniature bedrooms separated by flats, resembling a modern office space for the sleepy, where a thousand boys and girls age six months to four years tossed in sleeping clothes, tended by an army of au pares. The only peculiar thing noticed, but not minded, was the disposition of the children: each a happy island, each grinning or cooing, without a cry or a care.
“I’m in,” he said, and signed on the line.
Two years passed. Dalton Castle changed from a bundle into a boy. He tottered around the house and could say words like “Ball” and “Pie.” Madison cried on most nights. She had memories of her three dead children. Possible brothers and sisters were discussed. But the birth of Dalton was the last. Doctors confirmed this statement on every visit. “Another and you’ll bleed out on the table,” she was told. “We could try a test tube,” offered the most ambitious, and idea that was cut to pieces after an assessment of Theodore’s testicles. Dalton had been a miracle. The plague, indirectly, had lowered their physiology to match their psychology.
“What are we to do?”
Theodore plucked a brochure from the lobby of The 30 Day Baby Company. His eyes had drifted with each exit, focused, reading the proclamations of the service, the satisfaction guarantees, the marketing hype that he had helped develop in tangential teams. Theodore’s job was to advise; he was rarely asked about medicine or injection, only on perception. His role was quite different from Franklin Young’s pitch, although he oddly didn’t seem to mind. Most of the day was spent in research, the attempt to prevent a mutation or recurrence of the plague. That was worthy, wasn’t it? But more and more he found himself viewing advertisements in crowded boardrooms.
“We’d rent a baby?”
“For thirty days,” he told his wife.
“Why so short?”
“We have to share, Maddy. Those are the rules. There’s quite a high demand.”
“Where do they get them all?”
“Orphanages, I suppose. They’ll all quite healthy and well looked after.”
“There’ll be no danger for Dalton?”
“None at all. They’ve had the shots. I’ve seen it on their arms.” Theodore watched his wife lick her lips, unconsciously, at the idea of a house full of children. “I might get a discount,” he assured her.
When Theodore took the signed form to the order desk, the representative gave him a frown.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” said the young woman, leaning. She had noticed him around the facility, but they had never been introduced. She had a friendly face.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Employees aren’t the best hosts.”
“What do you mean? We’re the perfect hosts!”
“Mr. Young may want to see you.”
He left the order form with the woman.
That afternoon, a message appeared on the board of the laboratory. Mr. Castle, lunch, Mr. Young. Theodore took the elevator to the round turret of the headquarters, the high floor office of Franklin Young.
“Not a good idea.” The owner tapped his long-stemmed cigarette into a stand-alone ashtray and brushed his fingers through his thick, gray hair. “From time to time employees submit an order,” he explained. “I’ve started to say no because they seem to leave me soon after. I don’t want to lose you, Teddy. You’re a good man.”
Theodore rubbed his shoes. “I can give you an assessment,” he pitched, “of the service and its merits. An internal quality audit, we’ll call it.“
After a long contemplation, Franklin Young stood, sat on the corner of his desk, and reached for his stamp. “Before I approve this,” he said quietly, “I want you to promise me that you won’t leave. I need you here, Ted. There could be a mutation of the virus.”
“I won’t leave, sir.”
The red-ink stamp came down: APPROVED.
The first 30 Day child arrived fourteen days later: a young boy Dalton’s age. After a week of adjustment, Dalton’s crying or screaming “mine mine mine” whenever the 30 Day boy usurped a toy, things became fun. Madison literally bounded around the house, tending to every need of her children. She hugged them both and read them stories and tickled their stomachs. Dalton enjoyed it, too, having a playmate, a brother. They shared beds and one morning Madison found them entwined like branches, sleeping on top of stuffed animals.
The last week of the contract, Theodore’s wife wept in the night. “Ask about an extension,” she told her husband.
He did. The young woman in order fulfillment gave him a knowing tilt of her head. “They all ask. I’m sorry. It’s not possible. No renewals are allowed.”
Theodore frowned. “My wife won’t be happy. In fact, she’ll be crushed.”
The woman stood and put a hand on her client’s shoulder. “You can order again, you know. It just can’t be the one you have now. How about someone younger? That might help. If you have babies, say, six to nine months, you can get a new one every month so it seems like the same child. The older ones are harder to maintain, anyway. Or, if it’s better for you, you can sequence the children so they grow with the passing of time… a six month, the next month a seven month, and so on. How’s that sound, Mr. Castle?”
He brought the information home to Madison, who wept harder than she had in years. “They say the first month of the service is the hardest,” he explained as he rubbed her back, her silk blouse circling with his hand.
“I just don’t understand why I can’t adopt him. Why isn’t it possible?”
“It’s the contract,” he spat, growing angrier about the situation, and thinking of Franklin Young’s words, his vague and parental fear that an employee might leave. Inside, he admitted he was afraid of being fired should he object too hard to the handling of their first 30 Day child. “They’ve scheduled a time to pick up the boy. One o’clock on Thursday. They want you to leave the boy at exactly that time and come into the back yard. You’re not to see them take him. It’s in the deal.”
“They’re scared of a scene,” said Madison, wiping the corners of her eyes with a tissue.
Theodore nodded. “Yes. It’s best.”
They spent the evening talking of a second rental. They decided on a little girl, age eight months.
The girl arrived twenty-four hours after the retrieval team came for the boy. Madison entered her home with Dalton still on the swings, looked around, and the boy had vanished. Around the side of their home, she saw a truck with a company logo drive off down the street. She continued to mope until her husband returned with a little girl named Bekka. Madison first checked the baby for the injection mark, then, satisfied, held Bekka close to her bosom.
The next month, Madison asked for two children.
“This is getting expensive,” said Theodore, “even with my discount.”
Nevertheless, two this time – one baby and one toddler, Angela and Nathan. Madison liked these rentals the best. The children were a perfect fit. Dalton, matched in height and temperament with his rented sibling, smiled and laughed and played. The four of them spent days in bliss. Three was the perfect number for their family. All the bad memories of the plague faded. Healing had begun, all thanks to the order fulfillment department of the company. At work, he tipped his hat and thanked the young woman who took his orders.
“How’s this one working out?” she asked him as he passed through.
“Perfect,” he answered. When the clock ticked to the fourth week of the cycle, he sniffed around. “What does a guy have to do to delay the pickup?” he asked, “Just a few weeks.”
The woman grinned. “No, you wouldn’t want to do that, Mr. Castle.”
“It’s against policy.”
”So? Who’s gonna tell?”
A sly look passed between them, ending in the woman handing him the slip with the retrieval time: 9:30 am the next day. “I’m sorry, Mr. Castle,” she said sweetly, “it’s against policy.”
At a quarter to ten the next morning, Theodore received an urgent phone call from his wife. His wife’s voice was shredded, the phone interrupted by fits and starts, gurgles and breathing, her story said with lightning. “Teddy! They’ve taken Dalton. There’s been a mistake. They took all three babies! I only left them for a minute. They were playing. The truck was early!”
“I’ll phone them right now,” he said, and went to hang up.
“I’m coming there!” said his wife.
He could not stop her.
When she arrived at the company gates, he met her with an unhooked tie, a shirt untucked, his hat lost, and panic in his expression. “Mr. Young is bringing his car around. He’ll drive us to the retrieval site. The place is in the desert.”
“The desert!” she screamed. “Have they found our son? Did someone stop them?”
Franklin Young drove fast. He spoke only to Theodore, in the passenger’s seat, and would not look at Madison Castle, even in his rear-view mirror. “I need to trust instincts,” he said.
“You’ll be the last employee I approve, I can tell you that!” The man’s words dripped with terror, resignation, and, hidden behind all that, compassion.
“You seem to be blaming us,” snapped Theodore, “but it’s your retrieval squad that’s bungled it.”
“Many contributing factors,” was all he answered.
The main road turned to dust and the black luxury car became coated. Mr. Young switched on his window wipers. Rising up over a dune, the road a mere trickle of its former interstate, was the retrieval facility, the only building for miles. A gray dome sat on top of the rectangle structure. The square footage was at least a half-million. Utilitarian, exact, plain, the opposite of the child pickup area. The Castles eyed it with suspicion as Mr. Young’s dirty car plowed headlong through an open security gate, two men in uniform saluting.
Inside the gate, Mr. Young pulled to a stop.
Exiting the car, Madison heard the voice of a woman in the distance. “Please, please, stop, wait!” Madison searched for the source. Through the heavy, high fencing that lined the perimeter, she saw two women, overweight with dried lips and wild hair. “Help us!” they both said together. Both women held up photographs of young children. “Please, our children, please look, these are them. They were picked up. We know they’re inside.”
Mr. Young intercepted two guards, who quickly came at the fence with electrical prods. “Not now, not here,” he said to the guards, shooing, quickly gathering the Castles. “Pay no mind. They’re confused from the heat.”
Theodore spoke up. “Maybe the same thing happened to them that’s happened to –”
“We must hurry!” said Mr. Young to rush the parents inside.
Madison and Theodore redirected their attentions from the fence to the building’s entrance, the large door that opened for them and allowed them to enter the interior.
They were in a foyer, cut off from the rest of the building by tall white walls and a desk with more guards.
Mr. Young came forward and put his hands on the desk. He was recognized immediately. “This man is an employee,” he said with a point to Theodore. “His little boy was accidentally retrieved along with two rentals.”
Phone calls were made. The guards milled about nervously, just as the parents, awaiting the answer from the inner cavity of the building. Mr. Young, at last, took up the phone. “Yes. I understand. Good.” He turned to Theodore. “They’re bringing him out.”
Madison burst into violent sobs. When Dalton was once again in the arms of his mother and father, she said to Franklin Young, “I want the other two.”
“Now, now,” said her husband, unsure of the strategy.
“I’m afraid that’s not —”
“Get them!” she screamed. “Their names are Angela and Nathan.”
The guards turned their backs. Mr. Young came forward. He put his arms around the shoulders of the two adults and said quietly, “These are not children like normal children. Because there’s been such an egregious error, I’m willing to make amends; I can be reasonable. We’ll talk terms when we’re back at the headquarters. However, for now, I want the two of you to understand: the children you have been renting from 30 Day are manufactured. By science. Using the finest genetic technology available. Things aren’t perfect, though, as sustaining children beyond forty days is a hazard. The babies are perfectly normal as designed. A clock’s on them, though. They’re a danger if not contained.”
Theodore pointed at the inner chamber, the rooms beyond the white walls. “This place is big, but it can’t possibly hold all the babies we’ve rented.”
Mr. Young tapped his nose. “That’s why I hired you. Smarts. We have to dispose of the children before the fortieth day.” He leaned closer to the ears of the parents. “Fire,” he whispered, “we burn them.”
Both Theodore and Madison jerked out of his arms.
“You’re burning babies!” exclaimed the mother.
Mr. Young’s eyes followed the echo around the room. “Please! You have to remember they aren’t real babies. They’re genetic recreations of babies. Perfectly normal and alive while you have them, but after that time… not … very… nice.”
Theodore rolled his eyes. “What? They’re dangerous?”
“We think so. Yes.”
“Research points to trends.”
Madison stamped her feet. “Are you willing to burn us, too? If not, then give us Angela and Nathan. We promise to never say a word to anyone about the mistake, or your business. Do you think mothers would want such children in their homes?”
Mr. Young raised a finger. “The government sanctions genetic profiteering.”
“I’m not talking about the government,” she continued, “I’m talking about mothers. Your business survives because of mothers – mothers so clouded with grief and loss that they’d do almost anything to preserve the illusion that their children are not dead.” Madison raced to her husband’s side and wrapped an arm around Dalton. “And I want you to find those children of the women outside.“
“I’m afraid they’re dead, Mrs. Castle, burned on the tenth day. Those mothers found the retrieval facility by following our trucks. Smart. But too late. The holiday rush forced us to speed up the destruction schedule. I feel sorry for them, I do I do, but there’s no way to help them. If they learned of the burnings, we’d be shut down. The media would have us. Think of the impact on the seventy-eight thousand mothers who rented a 30 Day baby in the last year. Those two women will just have to bear it.”
The Castles stared at Franklin Young.
“That sounded awful, didn’t it?” He paced. “Okay, Mr. and Mrs., here’s what I’m willing to do for you. I will give you Nathan and Angela. In ten days, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s probably best that you experience things first-hand. Might help you understand my position. After that, we’ll talk. I’m sure those two mothers will still be at the fence. I’ll speak with my lawyers about how to help them. Agreed?”
The Castles shook on it.
As they exited the facility, just before climbing into the back seat of Franklin Young’s car, Madison Castle whispered to the two stunned mothers by the fence, “Your babies are dead.”
Two hours and a stack of paperwork later, the Castles were together again: Theodore, Madison, Dalton, Nathan, and Angela. Theodore was permitted to stay home with the family. The five rolled on the lawn, kissed on cheeks, swung on swings, pushed carriages, fed each other, changed diapers, argued before bedtime, and slept with tranquil dreams.
Then on day forty-one… nothing changed.
Madison awoke to find her two rented children intact. “See, Theodore? It was a lie.” Both adults felt lighter. For two days more, they played and sang and read stories.
On Wednesday, it started.
Nathan got the symptoms of a cold. Madison feared Dalton and Angela might catch it, too, so the two slept with their parents. Nathan, in the middle of the night, tore his curtains from his windows and pulled the stuffing from his toy lamb.
Theodore took an hour to calm him down.
A short reprieve, as it started again, only this time worse. Nathan smashed two glass panes in the French doors and vomited in the kitchen, then kicked his foot through a cabinet.
Angela started to show signs as well. The baby’s eyes oozed puss and she defecated for hours straight. Madison found the baby soaked in brown and freely playing with the mess.
Dalton came crying into his mother’s arms, having seen Nathan tear off a part of his own cheek.
On day forty-six, Theodore telephoned Franklin Young.
“I think something is happening,” he said.
“Yes,” agreed the man, distant.
“What should we do?”
“You’re a doctor,” replied Mr. Young, matter-of-factly. “Call me if they get violent.”
The Castles tried and tried to keep wrappings on Nathan’s torn cheek. Useless. Blood dotted their furniture and carpet.
Theodore doped his children with drugs, but that just made it worse.
Angela cried mercilessly at all hours and had to be tied to the bassinette to prevent her from rolling back and forth and tipping. Before supper, Nathan slipped into the room and spilled the girl onto the floor, bruising her forehead.
Theodore had scratches on his face and body. The two children would not hold still. “Maybe you should take Dalton and go,” he told his wife. “He shouldn’t be seeing this.”
Madison, watching as Nathan crushed her son’s favorite toys, held her palm over Dalton’s eyes.
When Nathan discovered the knife drawer, there was no choice.
“Mr. Young, you were right. We need help.”
The owner of The 30 Day Baby Company arrived on day fifty-one with a retrieval team. Unlike the earlier teams, this group wore thick black armor and had the attitude of military men. Carrying nets, they bounded through the house until Nathan could be covered and contained. Angela was an easier capture. They dumped her into a sack. The children were loaded onto company vans and driven away.
“Do you want to come see the disposal?” Mr. Young asked the parents. They shook their heads. “For the best,” he nodded. “Teddy, are you coming back to work tomorrow?”
Theodore held silent in the doorway. “I. I don’t know. Mr. Young.”
“Okay,” said the owner simply.
Two days later, a crowd of six hundred had stormed the retrieval facility, letting loose nearly 8000 rental babies. Authorities combed the desert for children, madness and derangement having replaced play and innocence. Children greater than two years inflicted extraordinary damage. Several policemen lost their lives in the action. Some babies had been scuttled away by passionate mothers among the rioting crowd and the process of a house-by-house search became easier as the days ticked past. The police only needed to follow the noise. Real children with real tempers were duct taped by their parents until the crisis abated, as there was confusion in some cases as to who was a real baby, and who was a rental. All the mistakes of the retrieval team came to light in the crisis. Franklin Young was arraigned on charges.
From their living room, the Castles watched the events on television. Madison hugged her son close. “To bed,” she said, when the story had ended. Dalton didn’t protest. He would sleep well, for a change, dreaming only of good brothers and sisters.
Darren Callahan lives in Chicago. His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.
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