by Ana Gardner
“It’s a boy!”
“It’s a girl!”
“Uhm.” The sales assistant cleared his throat. “Couples usually agree on this before the generation visit.”
“We did agree,” protested the husband, but the wife scowled.
“That was before Build-a-Baby declared bankruptcy! If we only get one baby, I want one I can dress up in cute dresses, and who’ll help me when I’m old.”
“You haven’t called your mother in four months.”
“Please decide faster,” said the assistant. “Tissue generation is almost done.” “A girl!”
“Oh, dear.” The assistant tsk’ed. “Too late, I’m afraid.”
The couple stopped fighting, both aghast. “What?”
“Tissue generation’s done.” He tapped the product screen, where various lights had turned from yellow to green. “Your baby has no specified gender. They might pick one eventually, but not for a couple years, at least—”
“And in the meantime?” asked the wife. “How will we know what clothes to give it?
What foods? What games?”
The assistant shrugged. “You just have to figure out what they like, I guess.” She looked appalled.
“What if they don’t like cute dresses?”
“What if they don’t like hoverball?” The husband gasped. “What if they like…razorball?”
“Sorry,” said the assistant. “This is why we ask that couples agree on specifications before tissue generation is initiated. Oh, look at that—the vocal box is test-ready. First lung inflation in three, two, one…”
Inside the generator-box, Build-A-Baby #58192 let out a shrill mewl, its (shape-A12, color-scheme-BB29, texture-B1) face scrunching up. Its little fists punched the air.
“Aaand…we’re good to go.” The sales assistant retrieved the baby, holding it up to the couple. “You can get accessories and maintenance tips with my colleagues. Please remember all sales are final—we can no longer process refunds or exchanges, what with the bankruptcy and all. But I wouldn’t worry.” He winked. “Our babies last a lifetime.”
The husband chuckled, a little nervously.
The wife picked up the baby. “They’d look cute in a little lavender tutu.”
The husband patted its B-19-textured hair. “Maybe we get them started on hoverball early…”
“You heard the man—we gotta figure out what they like. What if they like razorball? You gotta show them that, too.”
“Fine,” grumbled the husband, “then you gotta try other colors than that infernal lavender. Maybe they’ll like beige. And pants instead of tutus.”
“Fine,” said the wife, “but you can’t badmouth lavender. And call your mother—I’m not taking any chances. This baby’s learning to stay in touch with its parents.”
“Fine.” The husband pulled out a holophone. “I don’t suppose we can still keep the boy name we picked?”
“I liked it,” said the wife. “I guess if the baby doesn’t, they’ll tell us later. But we gotta call them something, to start…”
They picked up the maintenance tips and headed off through the store doors, past the ‘Best Customer Satisfaction!’ poster and under the FINAL SALE sign.
“Well.” The sales assistant spritzed sanitizer spray onto the tissue generator, and picked up a cleaning rag. “That could’ve gone worse.”
The old woman at the register watched the couple vanish into the parking lot. “Why didn’t you just pause tissue generation and wait for them to decide? Or use the random- gender function? You didn’t have to leave it unspecified.”
The assistant shrugged. “They were so fixated on gender-specific wishes, at least one of them would’ve ended up unhappy. And processing returns is a pain, especially now that we’ve scrapped refurbish-and-resells.” He glanced to the recycle bin in the back corner, dusty for the lack of use. “This way, they stay flexible and manage expectations, which makes it easier to enjoy their Build-a-Baby.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Best customer satisfaction and whatnot.”
His colleague rolled her eyes.
“No wonder corporate wanted to fire you. Forty years in this shop, and I haven’t seen someone meddle so much with the assembly process.”
“Just trying to keep return-and-recycles to a minimum.” He winked. “We all know how you hate those, Ma.”
Her eyes widened. “Shush! Troublemaker. Mouth bigger’n your wits. That’s why they returned you, eh—never quiet when you oughta be…”
He laughed as she thumped him over the head with a rolled-up SALE! flier, and he leaned over to kiss her cheek.
“Just saying, Ma, not every Build-A-Baby can count on a return-processing clerk as nice as you. So why not give these last ones the best chance I can? Plus, I’m trying to keep our family tree manageable, I mean, thirty-four siblings is probably enough...”
He grinned as the old woman thumped him again with the flier, and he went back to sanitizing the tissue generator. When he was done, he slapped a yellow ‘for sale’ dot sticker on it. The store was selling everything, including the machines.
The recycle bin in the corner, however, was getting a brown ‘curb trash’ sticker.
Irreparably Broken, the forms would say—just like each of the thirty-four return-and-recycle forms Ma had dutifully archived, over the years, into Build-a-Baby’s company records.
And if someone at the trash repurposing facility happened to notice that the machine, despite its sticker, was in mint condition, with no signs of ever having been used, well…
The store would be long gone by then, and no one would bother to follow up on a small labelling error.
Ana Gardner lives in New England with her partner and their dog who likes to eat sofa legs. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Corvid Queen, Write Ahead: The Future Looms, and others. You can find her on twitter at @whataremetaphor.
Fiction by Ana Gardner:
"Labelling Error" August 2020