This very day, in warehouses all over the globe, workers are shrink-wrapping Cindy’s body around the fingers, hands, toes, feet, and hair–the most expensive part—then covering her again in mounds of bubble wrap before shipping her to approximately one thousand people. Her body is in at least seventy-one countries that she knows of, although only nine of those nations account for ninety-eight percent of all sales. Almost all the buyers are men, but she’s heard of a few women.
Her daughter Nevaeh is drinking a milkshake, asking for help with a math problem. Nevaeh is lactose intolerant and will be sick later, but she loves milkshakes. Cindy doesn’t want to deny her what seems the right of every child to enjoy. Who lives their whole life without even a single milkshake?
Cindy knows how to solve the problems, but has a hard time explaining it. The way she knows to do it gets the right answer, but it isn’t how they taught Nevaeh in class that day, so her daughter keeps insisting it’s wrong.
“If you just try my way, you might find it’s easier,” Cindy insists.
“The teacher said we have to do it this way.”
“I’ve talked to your teacher and she said you’re welcome to try whatever works for you.”
“That’s not true. My teacher would never say that. She thinks she knows everything.”
“Well, show me her way of doing it. I’ll try to learn it.”
Nevaeh disappears while Cindy works out the teacher’s methods from Nevaeh’s notes and the book. It seems more complicated than it needs to be, but under the guise of trying to be simpler. It’s like how a swimming coach she had as a kid tried to teach her, a brand new swimmer, how to do flip-turns on the wall instead of just having her swim to the wall and back. His reason? Flip-turns were faster.
Cindy asked her parents for swim lessons after one summer Olympics—’96 in Atlanta, it must have been—because she wanted to be a champion. Her father approved, but for more practical reasons.
“Lifeguard is a good job for a teenager.”
His reasons had ended up being the sounder ones. Three summers at Dogwood Municipal Pool paid for her first two semesters at Towson.
Nevaeh falls asleep while Cindy is trying to figure out the math, and Cindy wonders how she will explain to the teacher that her daughter hasn’t done the work. She also wonders if Nevaeh will sleep through the night or wake up sick later from the milkshake. Cindy’s heel throbs suddenly, and she thinks of all the times she banged it while learning flip-turns on the wall of the pool at the YMCA.
Some of the men unwrap her body very carefully. Some speak to her and imagine she has something to say back. Some of the more expensive bodies actually do talk back, and it sounds like her, although they don’t say what she would really say if she were in a house with these men. If Cindy were really in a house with these men, she’d scream until she felt coppery blood come up from her throat, until she was within an inch of drowning in it, and then she’d spit the blood at them. Some men have clothes waiting to put on her body, won’t even look at her naked at first. Some put her in their cars and go through fast-food drive-throughs with her, ordering for her and then eating her share when she demurely declines to eat. She’s read that some men gather their Cindies together at conventions, sharing tips on new ways to do their hair or how to make her feel more real. Some try out the parts of her they’re most interested in before they even have her all the way unwrapped.
Cindy and her husband named their daughter Nevaeh because it was Heaven backward, and having a child made them happier than they ever thought they could be. Nevaeh was four and splashing through the waves herself the day Cindy went into the water. Cindy and Dave were the only couple on the beach where the father was the one worried the child was going in too deep and the mother was egging her on to go farther out. Nevaeh rode in on a wave, figuring out for the first time how to catch it before it broke on the sand so it would carry her until the last of its energy was spent.
Neveah was looking back out into the ocean from the shore before swimming back out to ride another wave in. She pointed to something.
“That boy looks like he’s thrashing against the tide, the way you told me not to,” she said.
When Cindy looked out where Nevaeh was pointing, far off out in the water beyond the chop and the riptide, Cindy could see two hands waving back and forth over a swimmer’s head, like out-of-synch windshield wipers, crying for help.
Roscoe doesn’t need help. He is six and reads like he’s twelve. Cindy has tried to institute thirty minutes of reading a night for him, but he insists his game already makes him read. She watches him play. The subtitles are, in fact, suitably challenging, and she leaves him be. He has a plate of cold chicken nuggets and waffle fries by him. She doesn’t fuss. He’ll eat them later, indifferently, when he’s hungry.
Cindy worries about both kids in different ways, although every time she has consulted the supposed experts, they tell her not to worry. They say everything about them is fine and normal and within expected parameters of where children for their age groups should be. Nevaeh has friends and has started wearing a bra and using tampons and she might like a boy. She doesn’t like math, but that’s normal. Roscoe is Roscoe. You don’t think he’s keeping up, but somewhere, some part of his brain is recording everything, and when he needs it, he can find where he put it. He only has two friends, both online, but Cindy’s checked, and they’re both really children, not men pretending.
Cindy repeats these reassurances from the professionals to herself sometimes, but not too often. Affirmations are important, but it’s also important not to do overdo them, lest they lose their ability to convince.
She’s never made any money from the millions of people who have purchased her body. Her case was a legal precedent, actually. If customers on the Internet say the Cindies look like Cindy but the company doesn’t specifically market them that way, then the company is blameless. Even if the most popular model they sell is wearing the same bikini she was wearing the day she pulled the boy out of the water, the day the local news crews came down to the beach for a feel-good story, the same slow news day when the local news went global.
Happy didn’t begin to describe how Cindy and Dave felt when she got pregnant with Roscoe. They were defiantly happy. They named him as they did, with an old man’s name, because it sounded like “rescue,” and at the time they were still leaning into her sudden fame. Dave’s father had made him grow up watching old reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, so he was already nostalgic for his son before he’d even met him.
Right before he was born, the first Cindemaniacs started to appear. It was just one at first, and nothing could have been less threatening. An Instagrammer named “Isaac 360” was posting photos of himself in various locations with a lifelike doll that looked just like Cindy. He couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds, barely more than the doll itself. The kid put a lot of effort into some of the shots. Having dinner together, sure, that was easy. Riding a tandem bike, okay, that might have taken some time and a lot of duct tape. But hang gliding side-by-side—nobody was sure how he managed that, especially since there were no wires holding her to the bar that could be seen in the shot. Then came the wedding photo, in which the bride and groom seemed to be jumping into the air together, the bride throwing her bouquet behind her with a smile on her beaming face. There were a hundred people in the background of that shot. Dave stopped laughing that day.
“You asshole,” Roscoe says from the gaming room. She pretends not to hear it. He’s trying things out online with the kids he plays with. He’ll grow out of it.
With one child asleep and one occupied, that leaves her nothing to do except tell herself she won’t look at all the Cindies online but do it anyway.
She’d saved a life that day at the beach. A boy was drowning. Nevaeh was pointing. Cindy was a strong swimmer. The rescued boy’s own father had recorded her pulling his son to safety, because he’d never understood the danger the boy was in, didn’t know what the waving hands meant. The whole time until Cindy made it back to the beach, he’d thought he was just filming a family vacation to post to his social media. When he realized what Cindy had done, he’d called the news crews, because he wanted the world to know how grateful he was to her, and he’d given the media his footage so they could see her in action. Cindy hadn’t objected, because why would she? She loved that bikini, patterned after the Maryland flag.
Sex doll technology, it turns out, is advanced enough to make a doll pretty much exactly how you want it if you give the manufacturer enough photos. There is more than enough data on Cindy from the one day the news vans rolled up to the beach at Ocean City. Most Cindies are made in China and cost less than a thousand dollars. There is a premium manufacturer in Belgium with models ranging from three grand up to…well, there really is no limit. They make them one at a time. A Japanese software billionaire has a model so life-like, it fools Cindy every time, making her ask herself when she’d been there for photos with him.
Cindemaniacs are split on whether Itsuki Kobayashi should be lauded for his dedication or despised for using his wealth to make loving Cindy easy. The group admires those who love and accept their Cindies for who they are.
Cindy starts an email to Nevaeh’s teacher explaining what happened with the homework. She’ll probably still get a zero, because not understanding how to do it isn’t really an excuse, is it? When she can’t think how to write the email, she switches to looking at Cindies. Cindylove.org is the biggest community, but tends to be rather bland, full of romantic traditionalists. Cindydesires.com features more Byronic types. Every so often, the news reports that someone in love with a Cindy has killed himself because he believes his Cindy no longer loves him in return.
Cindy-themed porn used to be the third most-trending topic on Pornhub. She’s never watched any of it, but the sub-Reddit r/cindyscenarios told her all she needed to know about what kind of work is being made and what fans of the genre hope to see one day.
From the few photos she’s seen that got past the moderators before they could delete them, Cindy has lost the only miserable consolation she’d been able to salvage. It’s one thing for them to sexualize her best features, but what really undoes her is how accurate they are at depicting her flaws. The dollmakers know about the mole on her left nipple and the acne rash on her bikini line, even though these things weren’t visible to the cameras that day, and all Cindy wants to know is how the hell they managed to do that. Are their algorithms that good, or has someone filmed her somewhere else she doesn’t know about?
What can she say to the teacher? They’d tried, and they’d failed. It’s Roscoe’s bedtime, but she knows he’ll argue, so she puts it off. Maybe he’ll just fall asleep and she can avoid having to tell him to do anything. Her kids will have to brush their teeth extra hard in the morning.
Dave left when people having sex with Cindies online became a thing. Roscoe wasn’t six months old. Not long after, Dave chose drowning as his method of suicide, achieving an admirable symmetry. The news crews descended again, shaming Cindemaniacs for what they’d done. A few outlets covered the officers of Cindy societies, who begged to be understood, saying nobody hurt for Cindy more than they did.
The sympathy brought in a little money from well-wishers. When Cindy put it together with the money she got from a bank right after she became famous for saying, “Hi, I’m Cindy Dawkins, and I saved a child from drowning, but today, I’m here to talk to you about how to save your money,” she had enough she didn’t have to work. She changed their last name from Dawkins to Downing, because it sounded like “drowning.” So it was like Dave died twice when his name went away. They moved to a new city, then moved again.
The reviews all say the dolls feel like the real thing. They aren’t rubber. They feel like skin. Cindy is getting fucked all over the planet by people she does not want touching her. Men are watching movies she’d have walked out on with her by their side on their couches. They think they are intellectual because the movies have subtitles, but her son’s video games have subtitles, so whom do they think they’re fooling? They are putting her on the wrong side of the bed. She always has a particular side, and it differs with every bed, but she knows which side hers is as soon as she sees the room. In a hotel, Dave always waited for her to tell her which side was hers before he unpacked, because he could never guess.
They have taken every part of her and sold it all over the world. There are some fetishists who don’t even buy her whole body, just the parts of her they are obsessed with. Her feet are very popular. Her father was the sort of skeptic who liked to say no good deed ever goes unpunished, but even he couldn’t understand how the punishment did not fit the charity in this case.
There isn’t much new in the Cindyverse online, so she closes out of it and gets her gumption together to force Roscoe to bed. She has a book to bribe him with and she promises to read it to him. He still likes to be read to, because he has a taste for advanced stories but isn’t quite ready to read them himself yet. They are more than halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring. They’ve gotten into Moria and Roscoe is anxious to continue.
He brushes his teeth and gets into bed. Cindy and Roscoe both want the same side of the bed, so they compromise by squishing together. When Gandalf realizes what he is up against, Roscoe’s eyes get heavy, and she puts the book down.
“I’m too sleepy to keep going,” she says, and he doesn’t argue.
She expects him to fall asleep right away, but he has a thought that can’t wait. “Hey, Mom. When you started reading this, I thought it was a book only nerds liked. The kinds of geeks who end up with Cindies. But I really like it.”
“Who end up with what?”
“Cindies. You know.”
“Let’s say I don’t know. What do Cindies mean to you?”
“I don’t know. Like a girl who’s not that great, so a loser picks her, I guess. I just heard people on X-Box say it. They got mad at someone who was really good, and said he was only good because he plays all day and has to have a Cindy for a girlfriend.”
It wasn’t as bad as when Nevaeh started to figure it out. It’s really an incredible relief to Cindy that Nevaeh probably likes boys now.
Roscoe finally falls asleep after Cindy stays by him pretending to be asleep, too. She gets up and puts on a bath. She doesn’t like baths as much as showers, especially because she thinks the lovers of the Cindies probably bathe them rather than shower them. But she thinks hot water will help her sleep.
She fills it nearly to the top and it splashes over a little when she gets in. There are bubbles. She will risk a little infection to not see herself in the bath. Too many people have seen her body. Hers is the most ubiquitous body on the planet. She hopes if she keeps her body hidden from herself, it won’t be able to betray any more secrets to the people who want to buy her.
The Cindies are almost all the way she was more than six years ago. The real her has put on a few pounds. After having child number two, she’s looser in spots. Some retailers have tried to keep up with how she is aging, or at least how they think she is aging, since she’s dropped out of sight and nobody can find her, but those models aren’t very popular. Most of her enthusiasts around the planet like to remember her how she came out of the surf that day, Venus on the clam shell of their imaginations, savior of the little boy in all of them. She has heard the body replaces all its cells every two years. The only way for her to escape the millions of hands grasping for her body every night is to grow old beyond their reach. The older she gets, the more the body they are taking for their own will be someone else.
But tonight, she needs to hurry it along a bit. It’s a night for the razor. Not every night is a night for the razor. There isn’t even a razor night every month. She’s been working at it slowly for years. She’s an artist, not a manufacturer. Creation of a new body for her is a matter of love and thought and slow choices, some of which misfire and have to be corrected.
She loves words that mean something to her they don’t mean to others, words that conceal secrets even while revealing truths others think they mean. Her daughter is Heaven backwards. Her son is obliquely named for a rescue. The new surname they have all taken since Dave killed himself reminds her of drowning, which she’s felt like she’s been doing since an Internet weirdo started taking photos of a doll that looked like her.
On the underside of her left breast, because it’s easier for her to work on than the right, being right-handed, she has been etching a word only she knows. She has been making small cuts, so small even her doctor might miss them during a mammogram. The word is nearly complete, but it has accomplished its purpose since the first slice she made: none of the Cindies is Cindy, because now Cindy has something that no Cindies manufacturer knows they need in order to be authentic. After tonight, she might need only two or three more nights with the razor, and then that will be it.
The word will be written, but only she will know it is there. She will never tell anyone what word she has written. Never.