The Perfect Daughter

Phoebe's heart was pounding so hard she was certain her husband David, who was sitting next to her in the waiting room, could hear it. How could he be so calm? She glanced at him and mentally shrugged. He was buried in his book. He carried a book with him everywhere, usually a paperback that he could stuff into a pocket and lose himself in it no matter how much stimuli surrounded him. Phoebe envied that gift. Barely able to focus on the women's magazine she had plucked from the rack, she turned her attention to the waiting room.

It was small but plush, filled with flowering potted plants and pastel paintings. The sofa that they sat on was soft and lined with overlarge pillows. Under different circumstances, I'd fall asleep in such an environment, Phoebe thought. But I can't focus on anything now. Are we making the right choice? What if—?

The single office door drew aside. The couple that had gone in before them emerged. They were smiling.

That was a good sign. Phoebe allowed herself to breathe . . . until she saw the woman standing at the door. "I'm ready for you, Mr. and Mrs. Piper."

David calmly closed his book and slid it into his breast pocket. Phoebe jolted to a standing position and approached the woman on rubbery legs.

"I'm Dr. Hayley De Witt, the owner of this clinic," she said, extending an elegant hand. David shook it first and then Phoebe. "Since we'll be working together on this experiment for quite some time, you can call me Hayley." Hayley was tall and graceful, clad in a rich indigo suit beneath her lab coat. Her hair was pale and tightly curled, her complexion the color of coffee mixed with cream. Her eyes were a warm shade that reminded Phoebe of melted honey. "Please, sit down,"

Phoebe did so, struggling to place the faint lilt of an accent that tinged Hayley's voice. It wasn't British or Southern, nor anything she remotely recognized but was pleasant nevertheless.

Hayley slid behind her mahogany desk. Her office was just as intimate and cozy as her waiting room.

"Before we start, I'd like to learn some things about the two of you. I already know that you put off having children until after you reached menopause." Her bright gaze slid toward Phoebe. "If you hadn't, you wouldn't be here."

Phoebe's heart lodged in her throat. She looked at David, his lips curved in their usual lopsided grin. "This was your idea, dear," he said. "Just tell her what she needs to know."

Phoebe cleared her throat. Her palms felt hot and slippery. "David and I were married quite young but we were so busy with our careers that we didn't have time for children. But now that we're older and it's too late . . . well, I've had second thoughts. I've done everything I've wanted to do and now I'd like a chance to have a family."

Hayley nodded. "That's a fairly standard answer among my clients." She reached into a drawer and pulled out what appeared to be a silver rod with a square tip. "I now need to do a DNA scan on the both of you and download it into my computer. This will provide me with the various possibilities ranging from appearance to personality, talents and so forth. Please, both of you, stand against the wall."

Phoebe and David did as she asked. A pale lavender light that seemed to fill the entire room radiated from the tip of Hayley's rod. Phoebe felt a tingling sensation ripple through her entire body.

"Thank you," said Hayley as she lowered the rod. The light and tingling instantly vanished. "As you know, the potential children that you both could have had but didn't is endless." Hayley plugged the rod—the opposite end from the one that had spouted the light—into her computer. "This creates literally billions, if not trillions, of possibilities. My job now is to help you narrow this down to a reasonable number. Let's start with the basics. Do you desire any particular sex?"

"It doesn't matter to me but I believe my wife here would like a girl." David smiled down at Phoebe. She blushed, feeling suddenly awkward. Was it too shallow of her to make such a request? Other parents didn't have that option.

Phoebe caught herself nodding. "I always thought that if I had a child I'd like a girl. Not that that should matter. It should be healthy, first."

"That's certainly a given," said Hayley, typing something into the computer. "My computer system automatically deletes any serious defects. So, girl it is. That does help narrow the choices down quite a bit but still leaves nearly endless possibilities. What traits to you desire? Just brainstorm. It's impossible to make mistakes with this method." Hayley's slender fingers were poised over the keyboard.

Phoebe sat frozen, her mind suddenly blank. She had gone over this so many times that she couldn't understand why she was fading out now.

"You told me you always liked red hair," David said, nudging her. "Wasn't your grandfather a redhead?"

"Red hair, yes. Red hair but without the freckles. And slim, like you. I don't want to curse this child with my sluggish metabolism."

A wistful feeling overcame Phoebe, momentarily blocking out Hayley's rapid typing. As a child, she had appeared in a number of television shows and a few movies. Audiences loved her but, unfortunately for her career, chubby cheeks were adorable on a child star but unacceptable in the adult world of acting where reed-thin bodies and angular faces were the norm. As she grew older, her body, which had a proclivity for gaining weight, kept her from many potential roles that she had the talent for. She gradually slid out of acting and focused on her studies, eventually becoming an English professor at a local university.

David leaned over and pecked her cheek. "Whatever you decide is fine with me. I just want to be surprised, to wake up the next morning and not know that we did this." He nodded apologetically at Hayley.

"That can be arranged," she said, typing vigorously. "I've imputed your requests and matched them with a potential child. Have you decided on a name?"

"Persephone," Phoebe blurted. "I knew if I ever had a child, I'd want her to have an unusual name, something out of Greek mythology perhaps."

Hayley nodded and continued typing. "Persephone Piper it is. She will have been born a little over twelve years ago. As such, you may notice some subtle changes."

"Changes?" Phoebe's stomach suddenly felt clammy, as if she had just eaten something that didn't agree with her. "What kind of changes?"

She didn't remember Hayley's answer, if there was one. The rest of the day seemed to fade away as if this experience was some strange dream.

Perhaps it was. She was lying in bed, gradually emerging from sleep, groggy and disorientated. Someone was shaking her and a voice she didn't recognize was yelling in her ear.

"Mom! You've overslept. You have to take me to school, remember? The bus strike."

Mom? Phoebe's eyes sprang open. She sat up. A girl with long red hair was standing before her, clad in jeans and a snug shirt that emphasized her slender form. Her face was similar to Phoebe's, with delicate features and large eyes, but slimmer, with angular cheekbones. She was tall and slender like David.

For a moment, Phoebe was shocked. Then she remembered: this had to be Persephone, the potential child she and David had ordered.

David! "Your Dad. Can't he take you to school?" This was too much to handle this early in the morning.

"How could he? He leaves for work at six in the morning, remember? It's not like you have anything to do all day."

"What do you mean?" Phoebe brushed the covers aside and sat up. "I work."

The girl laughed. "Since when? I thought you gave up your job to raise me. Now hurry! If I'm late, I'm blaming you!" Persephone whirled from the room.

As Phoebe fumbled for her clothes, she realized that her bedroom was different. It was smaller and, instead of a bay window that looked out over the sea, the square window overlooked a neighborhood of small, boxlike houses.

What had happened? Where were they? It took her longer to find her way around since she didn't know the new house's layout.

Even the car in the garage was different; an older looking SUV had replaced her new BMW. Persephone continued to sigh and roll her eyes as she gave her mother directions to her school.

"Why are you acting so weird, Mom? You've driven me here like, a hundred times before."

Phoebe shrugged as she pulled up to the curb. "I'm just having an off day, I guess. I'll pick you up right here after school."

Persephone nodded, slammed the door, and hurried off.

A wistful feeling overcame Phoebe as she drove back. She finally had a child, a beautiful daughter, but what had happened to everything else?

She poured herself a cup of coffee when she returned and stared out the kitchen window at the dull, boxy houses across the street. Was this her new life? The coffee tasted suddenly bitter in her mouth and soured her throat and stomach. A small, unimpressive house, no career . . . but a child, one who had her grandfather's vibrant hair, her own blue eyes and David's slender form. A dream child, literally.

Still, the question continued to gnaw at her. Not knowing what else to do, she picked up the phone and dialed Hayley's number.

"I had the feeling that you'd have questions," said Hayley's distinct voice on the other end. "I suppose this was something I should have warned you about but I decided to take the chance that not much had changed. But I can tell by the sound of your voice that things are quite different."

"I don't understand. How did this happen?"

"Don't worry. Once you decide on a particular child, your memories will be altered to suit your new life."

"New life?" Phoebe felt cold and clammy inside. "What do you mean? What's going on here?"

"Your decision to have a child changed some things," Hayley announced casually. "You left your career after Persephone was born. As such, you and David had to settle for a less expensive house and your vacations over the past several years have been camping trips with Persephone."

"Really?" Phoebe breathed deeply, struggling to digest this information. "But I thought—"

"That you'd still be able to maintain your old lifestyle?" Hayley laughed, an eerily musical sound. "If only it were that simple. But you must understand that my clinic does not only deal with producing potential children but time travel as well."

"Time travel?" Phoebe's mouth had become so dry she could barely get the words out.

"That's right. How else do you think this is accomplished? I sent you back almost thirteen years and provided the exact moment when that particular child would be conceived. You then jumped ahead those years to the exact date when you saw me. You have a week with this Persephone to decide if she is the child you want. Because of technology restraints, I can only do this five times at the most. If you decide on this particular model, let me know. You can remain in the present or go backward to a particular part of her lifetime. Most of my clients like to begin with the birth. It's your choice entirely."

"And if I decide not to keep her?" Nausea was sliding through Phoebe's stomach.

"Let me know and I will replace that model with another. You would repeat the same week and have to make the decision by the end of it. And so forth. Do you understand?"

"I-I think so," Phoebe said weakly before she hung up.

She couldn't find Persephone that afternoon when she drove to the school to pick her up. Where was she? A knot of anxiety tightened her stomach. What if something bad happened to the girl? My first day as a mother and I've already lost my child, she thought, anxiously tapping the steering wheel as she searched the crowds of dispersing kids for Persephone's striking red hair.

"Hi, Mrs. Piper," called a pretty blonde girl who was walking with others.

Phoebe waved uncertainly just before it struck her: this must be one of Persephone's friends.

She rolled down the window. "Wait!" She hoped she wouldn't have to use the girl's name. "Have you seen my daughter? Persephone?"

A momentary look of fear deepened the girl's eyes. Her body stiffened as if she were pondering which was worse: betraying her friend or lying to the mother. "Didn't she tell you?" she said after a long pause. "Her boyfriend picked her up. She left with him."

Anger replaced Phoebe's concern. How could Persephone forget that I was going to pick her up?

She raced home but the girl still hadn't returned. Who was this boyfriend? Was his phone number around anywhere? If only she knew where things were in this strange house.

Relief washed through her when she heard keys jingling in the lock.

"Hi hon," David said, giving her a peck on the cheek before he set down his briefcase. "How are things around the house?"

"Persephone wasn't at school when I went to pick her up. A friend of hers says she went home with a boyfriend but I haven't seen her yet."

David's eyes flashed and a flush crept into his face. "I just hope she's not still hanging around with Mark. He was a bad influence, urging her to cut class, remember? You've been too soft on that girl. She's going to need some stricter discipline. Didn't you call her on her cell?"

Phoebe's insides clenched. "I-I don't have the number."

David sighed and shook his head. "You should have it memorized by now."

He picked up the phone. After a few seconds, he was yelling into it, demanding Persephone to come home this minute. Then he slammed down the receiver. "She's with that guy, all right. I'll handle it this time. She doesn't seem to want to listen to you."

Phoebe dashed into the bedroom before David could see the tears swelling in her eyes. She had only been a mother for a day but already she was failing. Well, not really a day but that was what she remembered. She itched to call Hayley and cancel this child.

Don't be too hasty, she thought as her hand crept toward the phone. Give the girl a chance. Maybe she'll have a good explanation. She lay down and closed her eyes, struggling to rest her conflicting thoughts. She dozed off briefly but awoke to yelling.

"I hate you!" screamed Persephone in a shrill tone that jolted Phoebe into full wakefulness. "You never let me do anything I like. Never!"

"Listen to me, young lady. I'm your father and if I say you're grounded, you're grounded." Phoebe crept from the bedroom. Persephone's hair and clothes were slightly disheveled, as if . . . Phoebe didn't want to know the real answer to that.

"That's not fair!" Persephone yelled back. "Mark and I were just doing homework together. Why should I be punished for that?"

"Look, Persephone." David grabbed her firmly by the arm. "I know your mother has been fairly lenient with you up until now but starting today I'm going to lay down the law. From now on you are to come straight home, do you hear me? I'll even leave work early for the next few days to see that you do. I can't really afford to do that but apparently your mother is incapable of keeping a proper eye on you." He shot a glare at Phoebe before turning his gaze back to Persephone. "I'm doing this for your own good. You don't want to end up pregnant by thirteen do you?"

"I hate you!" Persephone screeched again. "Both of you." She whirled from the living room and slammed the bedroom door.

David collapsed onto the sofa with his hands over his face. Phoebe would have felt sorry for him had her emotions not been seething. How dare he say I've been too lenient on that girl. Have I?

She rubbed at the stubborn tears that were oozing from her burning eyes.

That's it. I can't have this girl tearing up our family like this, destroying our marriage. I do have other choices.

Before she could weaken and change her mind, she returned to the bedroom and dialed Hayley's number. Hayley didn't answer so she left a message on her voice mail.

"I'm sorry but his model isn't working out. I know I have a week but I couldn't survive the first day. Please replace her, preferably with someone more docile. Thanks."

Phoebe dropped into bed early that evening, emotionally drained.

She awoke much earlier the next morning . . . or what felt like the next morning. Once again, David was gone, having left for work already. Their bedroom still looked the same.

Phoebe lay in bed for a few more minutes, her heart rapid. Did Hayley get her message? Was Persephone still the same girl?

She looked at the clock. It was fairly early so she showered and dressed. Nerves twitched in her stomach as she approached Persephone's door. That door was different: a single decorative plaque displaying the words "Persephone's Room" had replaced the rock star posters that had cluttered the last girl's.

Phoebe allowed herself to breath. She now had a different daughter. She turned the knob and pushed.

The new Persephone was sitting at the edge of her bed, writing in what appeared to be a journal. She was dressed in baggy clothes and her red hair, slightly greasy as if she hadn't washed it for a few days, hung over her face. She didn't look up.

Phoebe paced toward her and brushed back the hair. The girl glanced up but didn't say anything, just stared. Her blue eyes were not as vivid as the last Persephone's and her thin face was dotted with pimples.

Phoebe felt a jolt of relief: this girl probably won't be running off after school with boyfriends. But she's not ugly. No. She's just going through an awkward stage, something that she would surely outgrow.

"You'd better finish getting ready for school, dear. I'll fix your breakfast."

The girl nodded. She tucked the journal under her pillow and scooped her book bag off the floor. "I'm ready now." Her voice was soft, whispery.

No more shouting with this model. Phoebe almost laughed as she scrambled eggs for the girl's breakfast.

Hayley called her a little later in the day. "I got your message about the first girl. You really didn't give her much time but you sounded desperate so I replaced her."

"Thanks. I already like this one better. She's quiet and respectful. She may just work out."

"Well you have a week before you have to decide."

That afternoon Persephone slipped in so quietly that Phoebe almost didn't notice her. Her eyes were red and swollen as if she had been crying.

"Is everything all right, dear? You look upset."

Persephone nodded. "Yes. I just have a lot of homework. I'd better get started." She slumped to her bedroom and shut the door.

A disturbing tension crept through Phoebe as she shuffled through the refrigerator, digging out the groceries that she had bought earlier that day, deciding what to prepare for dinner. Should I talk to her? She was obviously upset. But she didn't seem to want to talk. I can't force her, can I? If only I had more experience as a mother!

This feeling turned into a tingle of apprehension as David entered. "Hi sweetie." He embraced and kissed her, apparently oblivious to the argument they had had in that previous reality. "How was your day?"

Phoebe nodded. "Good. Except. . ." Her gaze turned toward Persephone's room.

"Is something wrong?"

"It's Persephone. She looked like she had been crying when she got home."

"It's probably those kids who sometimes pick on her. I keep telling her that she should just make friends with them. She doesn't have any friends. That worries me. But at least she's a good student who doesn't make trouble. I'm sure she'll eventually outgrow her shyness."

Each day with this Persephone was fairly much the same. Phoebe tried not to let the girl's aloof nature bother her. As David said, she was a good kid, even if she was a little too quiet, holing up in her room to read or write in her journal. She should have friends but maybe that will happen eventually.

On the sixth day, Phoebe was cleaning Persephone's room when her journal fell onto the floor. Curious, her eyes scanned one entry. The handwriting was neat and tiny, written in pink ink.

"I'm really depressed but my parents don't see it. One of these days I'm just going to ride my bike into traffic and hope someone hits me. I don't think anyone would miss me."

Phoebe sank onto the bed, feeling suddenly numb and weighted. This girl suffered from depression and didn't have any friends. Could she be helped? We could send her to therapy but that's expensive and doesn't always work. I don't want to keep her and end up with a suicide. There's only one day left. Still time.

She reached for the phone.

The third Persephone was even thinner than the first two, painfully so: her cheekbones jutted upward from hollow cheeks, her body was spindly, something that her jeans and T-shirt couldn't hide.

She refused to eat the breakfast that Phoebe had prepared, insisting that she'd eat at school. And at dinnertime, she claimed that she'd already eaten at a friend's.

"David, I think our daughter's anorexic," she said as he curled in front of the TV. "Look at how thin she is and she never wants to eat."

"I know." Tension tightened his face. "You know that. We've tried everything: shrinks, doctors, heck, we've even checked her into the hospital. Nothing seems to work. If you have any other ideas, I'm all ears."

I have one, Phoebe thought as she headed toward the bedroom, feeling suddenly tired. But I won't call Hayley. I'll see her first thing tomorrow. It will be better in person.

-OOO-

"You narrowed down their physical attributes but their personalities are random," Hayley said. "This includes any personality disorders."

"Then can I tweak the personality of the next one?"

Hayley cocked an eyebrow and grinned. "You really do want the perfect child, don't you? You are fortunate to have this choice. Most parents are stuck with what they get."

"It's not like I'm asking for a musical or scientific genius," Phoebe quipped.

"Which would be very expensive. As it is, a naturally cheerful disposition will cost extra but you still won't get perfection. Not even my lab has yet been able to come up with the perfect child."

"I understand."

Hayley's graceful, manicured fingers swept across the keyboard as if they were performing an intricate dance.

-OOO-

Phoebe awoke with excitement the next morning. The latest Persephone glided into the kitchen and poured herself a bowl of cereal before Phoebe could even ask her what she wanted. Her long hair was pulled back into a ponytail and her cheeks held a rosy flush. She was wearing a bright pink blouse and her jeans had roses embroidered along the sides.

"Good morning, Mom," she said in a perky voice. "I'll be home a little late since I have basketball practice this afternoon. Stacy's mom promised to take me home, remember? "

She gave Phoebe a quick peck on the cheek when Phoebe dropped her off at school.

Could it be possible? Did we eventually get the perfect daughter? She seems intelligent, healthy, cheerful and was most likely popular. Before starting her day, Phoebe stepped into the girl's room. Dolls and stuffed animals cluttered the bed and shelves. A few pictures of fanciful landscapes decorated the pale yellow walls and a partially painted one stood on a canvas next to the window. Phoebe peered closely at one, a beautiful watercolor of a golden-skied world filled with flora that appeared to be alien, tree-sized flowers. Delicate fairies with faintly iridescent wings and pointed ears peeked out among the flower-trees. The shading, the details were stunning. The signature scrawled beneath that and the others was "Persephone Piper."

Pride swelled within Phoebe. The girl was a gifted artist as well. Had she succeeded in finding the perfect daughter?

Persephone came home as Phoebe was preparing dinner. She had changed her clothes and was now wearing shorts and a basketball jersey. She held a note clenched in her hand.

"My math teacher gave this to me," she said, looking from Phoebe to David, who was seated at the table reading a book. "He thinks I should see the school psychologist."

"Why?" Anxiety tickled Phoebe's stomach. Now what was wrong?

David took the note and opened it. He rubbed a hand across one eyebrow. "That isn't so bad," he said, ruffling Persephone's hair. "That might explain your mediocre grades. Of course I'll sign the note. Go shower kiddo. "

"What did it say?" Phoebe asked once Persephone left.

"It looks like she might have Attention Deficit Disorder. Her math teacher suggested that she see the school psychologist for testing."

"Attention Deficit Disorder?" Phoebe sank onto a kitchen chair. "That can't be. She was supposed to come out perfect this time."

He stared at her, puzzled. "What are you talking about? When have you ever heard of the perfect child? This isn't so bad. My brother has ADD and he turned out all right. She just might need a little therapy, that's all. And maybe medication."

"Medication?" Phoebe didn't like the sound of that.

She had a difficult time sleeping that night. I almost have the perfect child with the fourth Persephone, she thought. I have one more chance. Should I take it? If only I could get the qualities of this one without the learning disability. Just one more shot. I think I will . . .

"Are you sure?" Hayley's voice over the telephone the next day was concerned. "This one will be your last chance, the one you'll either be stuck with or you will go back to being childless. Either way, you'll still get my bill. Don't forget, you still have six days with your current model."

Phoebe listened to her heart for several long moments. She swallowed. "I'll try a fifth child. I'd like all the qualities of this model but a perfect mind, unfettered by any mental disabilities."

She could hear Hayley's fingers tapping over the keyboard.

Phoebe was surprised to find herself in a different house the next morning. It was in the same neighborhood as her original house, the one she and David shared before these experiments began, and she could see the ocean from her window.

It wasn't all a dream, was it? She noticed several photographs scattered throughout the house of a cute, red-haired child who resembled the other Persephones in some respect, although she was much younger, ranging from infant to around five. But where was she?

And where was her bedroom? Phoebe counted each bedroom. There were four of them: the one she and David shared, an office and two guest rooms. She called out for Persephone but no one answered.

"That's strange," she murmured aloud. Could she have one of the guest rooms? But why isn't made up to look like a preteen's? All the others were.

She was about to call Hayley and ask if there had been a mistake when the telephone rang. It was the director of the university where she had taught in her previous life, the one before the experiments.

"I was notified that you haven't shown up. Is anything wrong?"

I've gone back to working in this scenario? She almost asked that aloud. Her mouth went dry.

"Um . . . I'm sorry. I have a family emergency. I can't make it in today." In a way that was true. She had to get this worked out.

After she hung up she called Hayley and received only her voice mail. Could she be with another client?

She wandered around the house, looking at the multitudes of photographs of that girl. They did have a daughter. There was proof. But where was she?

Phoebe called the school that the other experiments had attended and asked if Persephone Piper had made it to class. She was informed that there was no such person enrolled.

Icy shock filled her until she remembered that they had apparently moved and were no longer in the same school district. She paged through the phone book and called all of the local schools. There was still no record of a Persephone Piper.

She felt an urgent relief when David came home.

"Is everything all right?" he asked, giving her a hug and kiss. "I thought you'd still be at work."

She swallowed and shook her head. "Our daughter, Persephone. I can't seem to find her anywhere and no one else has seen her either."

A deep sadness darkened his eyes. He squeezed her hand and led her to the nearest sofa. "I know you took her death hard. I did too. But that was a long time ago. We really should put those photos away and move on."

"She died?" Her words sounded ragged in her ears. "What happened?"

He kissed her tenderly. "You must stop blaming yourself. The accident wasn't your fault."

Tears blurred Phoebe's eyes as she glanced over at a photograph of the beautiful smiling child. I probably finally had the perfect daughter but was unable to keep her.

"It's too late for us to have children now," he said, stroking her hair. "But, if it means so much to you, maybe we can adopt."

She thought of Hayley and how she wasn't able to reach her earlier. She shook her head. "No." A queer mixture of sadness and relief stirred within her. They had returned to their original life. "I don't think we were meant to be parents."

End