Because the penis bin was almost empty, Wei was shifted to pubic hairs. It took more time and concentration to fix them in place, but he had a knack for it. The penis work was less skilled, though there was an art to hiding the seams when sealing them in place, ensuring, too, that it would not come loose or pull the synthetic flesh so that it ripped.
He had come to work here after graduating from community college. The diploma of fine arts hung on the wall of his bedroom, and he had been waitlisted for the university transfer program two years in a row. Perhaps his parents were disappointed in that, but they were pleased enough that he had a full-time job. One with benefits. Even dental. He had not told them he was working for Flesh Forward, because he was afraid that they would google it. He told them instead that he worked with reproductions--that was true--and that the company's customers liked privacy--also true--because they did not want their neighbours to know that they did not have the real thing in their living room. Probably true.
He had been embarrassed when he first started the job, prone to blushing as he painted labia and nipples and nervous sweats as he installed expandable sphincters. But gradually, the shock of the feel of supple skin under his hands waned, and though the dolls were so very lifelike, he did not find them arousing. Sex was sex. Wei had sex before he started the job, in college, with girls who could be as unyielding and unresponsive as the dolls, or who were surprisingly wanton in the back seat of a car or a dorm room. This was not sex. The oversized breasts, the puckered lips and wide-open eyes, the articulated legs that flopped open when he brushed past them--not sexy. He told himself this until it started to work. He listened to podcasts during the day. Strictly NPR and Quirks and Quarks. Sometimes Radiolab.
So. Pubic hairs. They came in small boxes, manufactured in China. All of the doll parts were made there, shipped overseas in container ships to be sent to the Flesh Forward factory in Michigan. Proudly American. The hairs came in all different colours. He spent the morning picking them up out of the box with a pair of tweezers, and then deftly poking them into the pubis with a sharpened dental probe. I make reproductions, Mom. Yeah, like your coffee table.
There was a new girl in the workshop. Last week, she knocked the penis bin over, her face reddening to the shade of a scarlet tomato as they tumbled down around her with soft sounding splats, their mechanics activated by the motion so that they thrust and twisted blindly about on the floor. "Aw, fuck," she'd said.
He'd helped her pick them up, showing her the dime-sized button embedded on the base of the shaft that switched them off, checking them over for damage. "I won't tell Neal," he said quietly. He was a little afraid of the foreman. "Just be more careful, okay?"
She said something about saving her butt, ducking her head so that her face was hidden by a curtain of blonde hair. "My name is Wei," he said, emboldened. "You're new here?"
"Yes," she said.
She had the look of a painter. Her nails were short, and he spied a smudge of green on her wrist, just where the sleeve of her smock fell. Most of the Flesh Forward staff were artists, or had wanted to be. He, himself, specialized in kinetic sculpture, but didn't have a studio and had to content himself with a small blowtorch on the balcony of his apartment and melted down scraps of tin. It was not satisfying, though, and his neighbours thought he was making drugs from the smells and the sounds. Working on the dolls was a kind of an art, he reasoned. Flesh Forward employed failed painters and sculptors. This painter, he thought, was pretty. Very pretty.
"I'm Wei," he said. "I've worked here a while."
"Wei," she repeated. "Like, no way." And she looked up and smiled at him, and he thought that her lips reminded him a bit of the dolls: pert, and wide and the edges, plumped up and washed with bright pink lipstick. "I'm Ashelynn."
"No," she said. "Ash-uh-lynn."
They had lunch together in the staff break room, after Ashelynn came back inside from having a cigarette. "This place sure is weird," she said. "Tits and dicks everywhere."
"Most of the staff are artists," he said. He didn't feel comfortable talking about the dolls.
"Oh, yeah?" she said.
"Are you an artist?" he asked.
"Oh, hell, yeah. I paint. I was in the studio arts program at the Fairchild University, but I dropped out." She wrinkled her nose in a manner that he found fascinating. "Well, actually, they kicked me out. Academic dismissal, but I was totally over their program. So-o-o-o confining. I work better without that kind of oppression, you know? My process just doesn't include semesters and exams."
He was chewing a ham sandwich carefully. "I finished at Mount Whitney," he said. "Sculpture and design." He found himself wanting to impress her.
But she was still talking. "I do these awesome paintings and sell them online," she said. "I'm going to do it full-time soon, but you know. The econom-m-m-y." She made a vaguely obscene gesture with her hand and kept talking. "It's just the shits, isn't it? Anyways. I paint, yeah, and I take pictures of my whole creative process. It's a whole package deal when people buy my artwork, because I'm very vis-s-s-ceral."
"Oh," he said. "What medium do you use?"
"Acrylics. Oils, sometimes. On canvas. I paint with my boobs and sell them to dirty old men. It's kind of a performance art thing."
"Oh." He thought he might be blushing.
"Yeah," she said. "I bet they mostly just jerk off to it. But soon I'll have a serious collection, and then everything will change."
They finished lunch and went back to work. Wei kept glancing up to see what she was doing. They walked out of the building together that evening, and she pointed to a car. "That's my boyfriend," she said, and she waved. "You should come meet him."
"No," said Wei. "That's okay."
A week later, they were sharing a doll between them. Wei had finished with the bottom half and was working on eyebrows and eyelashes. She was painting, delicately adding moles and veins, dipping a paintbrush into a pot of dye and holding it poised while she considered the doll. "This one's going to have a birthmark," she said. "Just like me."
"It's not on the spec sheet," Wei said. "See?" He pointed. "Brazilian, darkened genitals, dark lipstick and makeup. We're supposed to follow the specs. These are special orders."
"Come on," she said. "Don't you want some creative license?"
He felt himself getting nervous. "No," he said. "These aren't art projects."
"Come on," she said again. "Let's make it look like me. It's already blonde."
He glanced over his shoulder to the foreman's office. "We shouldn't."
"It'd be fun. We'll just say we lost the sheet." She leaned in closer. "Come on...We-e-e-i."
He lost his balance, crouched there over the head, and had to put his hand on the doll's breast to steady himself. He snatched it back and shook his head. "We shouldn't," he said. He was thinking about what Neal would say, and how he couldn't afford to miss a payment on his student loans. There was a fleeting surge of rebellion--something rising up in him, that wanted him to take off his smock and walk away from Flesh Forward and forget he'd ever worked here, to move out to the back woods of Vermont and live in a shack with a thousand pounds of clay and a wood-fired kiln, and a blowtorch and a slag heap of old copper. He looked down at the doll's face, its mouth open in a round O of astonishment.
"I'm doing it," she said, and she bent over the doll with her paintbrush.
Wei reached out and grabbed her wrist. "Don't," he said. Her eyebrows raised in surprise.
"You're such a drag," she said, and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Fine. Be like that."
She didn't speak to him for the rest of the day. Or the next day, or the next, but she came back to work and shrugged into the smock in the morning, just like the rest of them. The penis bin was refilled--a late shipment finally had arrived--and Wei went back to the tables on the far side of the workshop floor, seaming synthetic flesh to synthetic flesh, testing leg and hip joints. Ashelynn was reprimanded twice in one week; she stood and argued with Neal both times. Wei couldn't hear what Neal said to her, but the third time, her shoulders sagged and she nodded in agreement.
They worked together a month later. Wei was startled to see the colour of her complexion. Ashen, he thought. Her mouth was pale, her lips trembling, and there were heavy circles under her eyes. He thought he saw a bruise on the back of her neck, but couldn't be sure, and he was afraid to ask her about it. But he did, because if she wasn't talking to him anyways, well, it didn't matter, did it?
"I had a fight with my boyfriend," she said. Her voice was listless and dull. "He doesn't like me working here." Then she coughed, and winced. "Or my painting."
"That's terrible," Wei said, and he meant it.
"Yeah," she said. "Well, that's life."
They looked at the spec sheet together. Blonde. Small chest. He glanced at her. "Want to put a birthmark on it?"
She shook her head.
"Just a little one," he said. She smiled this time. Just a little.
"No," she said. "Give me the spec sheet."
"Sometimes," he said, "I hate this place."
"I always hate this place."
"I hate it more."
She raised her eyebrows. "I hate it so much that I want to beat Neal over the head with a rubber penis."
"Death by schlong," Wei said, and she laughed.
"Schlong day," she said.
"Okay," she said. "I mean it. Give me the spec sheet."
At the end of the day, they looked at the doll. It lay on the table between them, mouth slightly agape, arms akimbo. "Just the eyes," Wei said. "I'll get them." He returned with the glass eyes in his hand. Blue eyes, over-large pupils. She held back the eyelids for him as he pushed them into place.
"Do you think," she said, "that we'll ever get out of here?"
"We're almost done," he said.
"No," she said. "I mean this. All this."
"Just..." And she looked like she might start to cry. "Just all of this. This getting up to go to work and paying bills shit. Crappy boyfriends. Stupid stuff."
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe." But that didn't seem like the right thing to say. "Probably not," he said.
They stared at the doll in silence.
"I mean," she said suddenly, "if you wanted to do it, you could just walk away from it all."
"To Vermont," he said. "Go live in the woods."
"That'd be nice."
"We should do it," he said, but she was pulling a plastic bag up over the doll's knees, struggling to lift the buttocks, shimmying the bag over its hips. "We could just take off. You and me. Just go and live in the woods."
"What?" She hadn't heard him over the crackle of the plastic.
"Nothing," he said.