Just Add Water
By Ai Jiang
I looked at the oval rainbow in the center of my palm.
“Have you ever wanted to be a parent but couldn’t?” The host paused for dramatic effect. “Well, with Aquatics, you can be! Keep your eyes peeled for our child line—yes, real children—coming out soon! And now, a word from the creators of Aquatics after this commercial…”
I turned down the volume on the small box screen on the kitchen counter and grabbed a glass. My fingers smoothed out the crinkled Aquatics package, pressing it flat against the marble island. I let the rainbow egg drop into the tall, empty glass. The words on the package jumped out in different shades of vibrant neon yellows, reds, orange, blues, and purples—
THE BEST GIFT FOR YOURSELF, YOUR CHILDREN, YOUR FRIENDS!
DON’T LIKE WHAT YOU GOT? JUST GET ANOTHER!
CHEAP, AFFORDABLE, REPLACEABLE!
DON’T WANT THEM TO GET TOO BIG TOO FAST?
JUST FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS TO KEEP YOUR AQUATICS IN ITS INFANCY FOR LONGER!
$59.99 for ONE.
TWO for $99.99!
SAFE FOR AGES 6+
I filled my mug with hot water, my eyes skimming the instructions as I gulped down the liquid, my tongue numb, my throat burning.
Directions for Hatching Your Dino Aquatics Egg:
- Drop Aquatics Egg© into warm water.
- Wait 2-7 days for it to hatch (Check for species specific instructions online at http://aquatics.com).
- Remove the creature from the water and place them in a cardboard box or crate with blankets while they adjust to life out of water.
Directions for maintenance:
- To keep in infancy: 1 cup of water 3x a day.
- To grow at a normal rate: 10 cups of water 3x a day.
- No longer want your Aquatics? 0 cups of water or call 759-XXX-XXXX
The eggs were being produced faster than they could be sold. It was every child’s dream to collect Aquatics like they did with Pokémon cards in the past—it was a dream of mine, once, too.
I poured cool water from the tap into the egg’s glass before dumping the rest of the steaming liquid from my own mug over the egg as well. I secured a make-shift plastic cap with poked holes to the cup. Sometimes they grew faster than the instructions suggested. Bubbles began accumulating at the surface of the water, floating upwards from the egg’s shell.
My cellphone buzzed in my pocket. A glance at the caller showed it was my sister, who was also the receptionist at the local animal shelter.
“Rén?” Gina said, her voice crackling through the speaker. It was no wonder potential donors always hung up on her when she called. I could barely hear her. I hoped the shelter wasn’t running on my $25-donation alone each month.
“Yes, yes. I remember. Be there at 5?” I asked, but I had completely forgotten with the test deadline being later tonight.
It was 4:05 p.m.
“Please don’t be late…” she said.
I nodded to myself. “I won’t.”
Mini, a panda halfway through adulthood—a child accidently overfed the creature during its infancy without their parents’ awareness—came to my mind. The shelter had nowhere to keep her with all the new Aquatics and with “real” strays incoming. The apartment unit I lived in wasn’t a mountain covered in bamboo, but it was better than cramped cages. Gina was doing her best, but for the bigger animals, it wasn’t enough. The conservatories had already turned down the overgrown rhinos, lions, wolves that came her way on several occasions. And where the creatures went after? I didn’t need to ask.
I put my phone back in my pocket before the sound of glass shattering drew my attention. I looked to the side where the cup had been sitting—the glass shards mixed with the cracked pieces of the egg, no longer rainbow but a washed-out green. And amid its broken home was a small Compsognathus unfurling itself, shaking glass from its sponge-like body, not yet firm. The shards easily dislodged from the Compognathus’s artificial skin. It hopped onto its two-toed feet, tail swishing, scattering the glass and shell onto the ground.
“Hey there—” The Compsognathus cut me off with a screech.
My watch showed 4:10 p.m. It took twenty minutes to get to Gina’s shelter, so there wasn’t much time to wrestle the newborn dinosaur into the crate recently vacated by my foster Aquatics badger. It was usual for test eggs to fail the first time around, though, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the dinosaur suddenly shrivelled as it dashed around the room.
The Compsognathus lapped up the remaining water droplets from the counter as I pulled my thick, tooth-proof gloves onto my hands. I tucked my sleeves in for good measure. Before I approached the dino, I made a quick note in clumsy script in my test journal:
Hatched too quickly—about 5 minutes. Infancy size seems fine, but the growth rate is still unknown.
I reached toward the Compsognathus, but it darted away before I could close my fingers over its slim body. A curse escaped my lips as I scrambled after it. I should have thought this through more. It had been a while since I had handled anything this fast.
The commercial ended and the host’s unnaturally happy face popped back onto the screen.
“… And here are the creators of Aquatics, Hēnglì and Mòlì Chéng!”
“Thank you for the lovely introduction,” Mòlì said. The fine lines on my mother’s face seemed much deeper than before.
“Not only a children line, but we also have a dinosaur line forthcoming as well!” Hēnglì said. My father never missed a beat as he jumped right into promotion-mode. Money, he had said, equalled success. “We are just waiting for the final adjustments now before the official release.” He looked into the camera, and I couldn’t help but imagine he was looking at me.
“A dinosaur line and a children line! Amazing,” the host cried, eyes bulging with genuine amazement. “But dinosaurs… won’t they be dangerous?”
“Not to worry. Our team will ensure not only the best… but the safest product,” my mother said.
Product. I wanted to believe I was something different, even though to my parents, I was the same as the rest that came from the rainbow eggs. My eyes snapped towards the sound of teeth against leather. The Compsognathus chewed at the bottom edge of my couch. I dove towards it, its tail barely slipping from away. 4:20 p.m.
“Would you just come out?” I crawled on all fours, ducking my head to check beneath the dining table, the coffee table, chairs, the T.V. stand, and of course, the couch—again.
The Compsognathus scrambled across my foot, but when I whipped around, it was already too late.
“Millions, you’ll be sure to make millions!” the host said.
My parents laughed.
The opened door of the crate swung back and forth. Its rusty squeaking chuckled along with my parents. I walked over and slammed it shut. There was a screech. I smiled and bent down.
“So there you are.” Another screech, lower, more like a growl this time.
I secured the padlock to the crate’s metal doors then tossed the keys for it into my bag nearby. Though the Compsognathus was still small, the squares on the metal grid were far too narrow for it to wiggle itself out. It drove the point of its tail through the openings, hissing.
“Better luck next time.”
Outside my apartment door was another shrivelled-up rabbit. I shouldn’t be desensitized to the sight, the presence…and yet… I unfolded a small, folded paper bag—one of many—from my jacket pocket and gently placed the creature inside. Once the Aquatics dried out, there was no reviving them. Who in the apartment complex was letting their Aquatics to run free? Or were they strays that snuck in from the outside?
“Heading to the shelter again?” asked Jelman, the concierge. By now he knew I almost never left my unit unless it was to visit the shelter. I had often stashed strays in his room until I could find them a new home or willing fosters—some fosters only did it for the cash they got for their services.
I offered a small smile and nodded. “A panda this time.”
His nod in return was solemn.
I had no empty paper bags remaining by the time I reached the shelter, but a small form twitching next to the sewage drainage by the sidewalk caught my eye. My oversized handbag was already overflowing with Aquatics—puppies, piglets, minks. Maybe I could carry it myself…
I crouched down next to the small creature, but it wasn’t until my hand met its fur that I realized it was “real”. You could always tell Aquatics apart from “real” animals—they looked no different, but their texture felt more synthetic, sponge-like. The kitten was no larger than my two palms put together. There was no doubt it was from a mill judging by the blue paper tag around its neck decorated with a barcode instead of a name.
I placed the stray in the crook of my arm. The kitten, though weak, nestled into the inner bend of my elbow, seeking the warmth that had escaped its body. My eyes moved between the paper bags filled with Aquatics poking out and the small kitten. They really weren’t so different—Aquatics and the kitten—both being alive.
The bell by the door rang when I stepped through the entrance of the shelter. The small “OPEN” sign flashed in neon green. Red was such a dreadful colour, Gina had said, Green was far more pleasant. The colour of life.
“Rén…” Gina was slumped in her chair behind the front desk, her eyes rimmed red.
My eyes flew towards the rows of cages—too small, but better to save more strays and Aquatics than less. At the back, the largest cage sat empty, the metal-barred door still swaying from the AC circulating the shelter. 5:05 p.m.
“They couldn’t even wait five minutes?” My muscles tensed but relaxed when I noticed the kitten peeking up at me. The euthenists worked fast, shuttling trucks of syringes and dehydrators around the city. Many of them were my siblings. They were never late. And I was.
“Harmint couldn’t help to hold it for just a day?” I asked. Our brother was one of the higher ups at the conservatory, but even so, he had his own supervisor to bypass.
Gina’s eyes widened. “Harmint…is missing,” she said. “He refused to bring the new dinosaur tester eggs to families with…real children.”
Were we just animals in their eyes? Would we always be just animals? Or… products?
“Call me if you hear anything from Harmint,” I said. To rebel so openly against our parents was a bold move. They still didn’t know about the shelter. There were far too many of us for them to keep track of, but Harmint went against a direct order.
Gina nodded, but her expression was far from hopeful.
“I won’t be late next time.”
The apartment was in a greater state of chaos than it was when I left when I opened the front door: the couch was torn in different parts—it made the furniture look like a reverse dalmatian. The shattered glass was now accompanied by several other broken items including my favourite purple mug. A water pitcher was on its side. What remained of its contents dripped off the counter, but there was no puddle underneath. The Compsognathus gulped all the liquid it could get its tongue on.
In my bedroom, the Compsognathus had found its way onto my desk, knocking my family photo onto the ground. I wanted to yell at the creature that had torn my house apart but didn’t. Somehow, my anger dissipated as I eyed the dino cowering behind my desk. My eyes trailed to the broken glass and the photo that now lay on the ground. Mother and Father were smiling with their arms around each other and their hands on my shoulders. The smile was artificial, and the photo only took ten seconds before they rushed the next child in to the take the exact same one. I looked nothing like them, and neither did my siblings—if I could call them that. My parents’ eyes were almond shaped, symmetrical whereas mine were too wide apart and green. While they hair were black, curled, mine was curly and brown.
Those in my test group—like Gina and Harmint—felt more like my family than my parents ever did. I called them my brothers and sisters even though we had no blood relations.
I called them my parents, but they weren’t, really. I wasn’t a child to them but as a test product. And now one of their many workers because that arrangement was much cheaper than hiring outsiders—”real” people. I wasn’t sure why me or my siblings felt as though we owed them something. They paid little attention to any of us—at least to those in my test group while growing up. I haven’t aged since I reached twenty-five—we were more productive that way, they said. We obeyed because we had no choice. Our parents could take our lives as easily as they had given it.
From the corner of my eye, the Compsognathus crept out from behind the couch, looking at me thoughtfully with its tail curled around the wooden foot. It was now at its full size, similar to a slim chicken with its tail far too long for how crowded my unit was. I pulled out a two-liter water bottle from the back of the kitchen cupboard, hidden behind all the bowls and plates, and headed for the bathroom. I began filling the tub with lukewarm water before resting my bottle under the sink’s running tap. The Compsognathus had followed me to the bathroom, peeking around the doorway.
There was no such thing as a perfect child. There was no such thing as a “worthy” child. There was no such thing—
We only wanted to be loved.
I never gave the testers names just in case I got attached, but—
“Why don’t I call you… Soggy?”
The dino cocked its head to the smile, and it almost seemed as though it was smiling.
“Let’s show them danger, Soggy” I said. My lips quirked upwards Soggy paused before propelling its now chicken-sized body towards the bathtub, causing the water to spill over.
“Aquatics rushed to halt all their productions across the country as animal control departments scramble after the escaped dinosaurs from the company secret testing facilities,” the host said, the smile on his face strained. “And now, a word from the creators of Aquatics after this commercial…”
About the Author:
Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer, an immigrant from Fujian, and an active member of HWA. Don’t let the smile fool you—her words are quite dark.
Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, Dark Matter, PseudoPod, Uncanny, The Deadlands, among others.