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Dolls

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Riley had a doll, once. She doesn't remember where it came from, although she's pretty sure no one gave it to her. Toys were just one more item on the long list of things that no one gave Riley when she was growing up, along with clothes, food, time, attention, comfort. She took or begged or stole what she could; the doll probably once belonged to some other, unluckier little girl.

(When they arrived, at first Riley couldn't believe how lucky she'd been. Couldn't believe that Jesse had chosen her, when she could have picked any orphaned tunnel-brat to take with her to paradise. Later, she realized she hadn't been lucky at all.)

She doesn't remember how the doll came to be in her possession, but she remembers everything else about it perfectly: how one of its arms was missing, one plastic foot melted into deformity, its hair singed and its dress torn and filthy. Riley had loved it, fiercely and unconditionally; she had hugged it tightly to her chest as she slept, combed its tangled hair gently with her fingers. She had whispered her childish secrets to it, and nodded wisely at its silent responses.

(She saw the doll in a store downtown, perfect pink complexion, yellow-gold hair falling in waves to its narrow waist, and she wanted to take it out of its box then and there and sit down in the middle of the aisle and braid its hair and tell it her secrets. She had more of them now, and they were more difficult to keep.)

She'd lost the doll in a bunker fire; not one caused by the machines but by human error, a cigarette stub thrown carelessly down too close to a can of gasoline. Fear and panic were so much a part of Riley's childhood that she barely recalls her frantic escape from the smoke-filled tunnels, but she remembers the exact moment when she realized she'd left the doll behind. Standing in the ashes on the surface, choking on her tears, Riley understood for the first time why the grown-ups cried so much for the old world. She had not understood loss until she'd had something to lose.

(Jesse was furious when she found it, hidden under Riley's bed in their motel room. "You're not here to play with dolls. I didn't bring you here so you could be ten again," and she took the doll away, snatched it out of Riley's hands even as she tried to hold on to it.

"She's mine. I love her," Riley said, and cried because it was true.

"You love this?" Jesse asked. "You love a thing?" She held the doll upside down by its foot, and her face twisted with distaste and something close to loathing. "Do you think it can love you back? Do you?"

"No," Riley whispered.

"Do you think the machine loves Connor back?"

"No. I'm sorry. Jesse, I'm sorry."

Jesse's face softened, then; she put her hand to Riley's cheek and wiped away her tears with a gentle swipe of her thumb. "It's all right, baby girl. You've got love to spare, don't you? You just have to learn how to use it." She smiled, and brought her mouth closer to Riley's. "But it's okay. I'll teach you.".)

Riley had a doll, once. She loved it, but it didn't love her back. Sometimes Riley wishes she could be a doll, and not have to love.