Johnny wanted a doll. You know the kind, the kind that acts and sounds and looks like a real child. A friend for the friendless. Johnny was friendless.

When I gave birth to Johnny, there were two boys. Johnny and Jake, but Jake didn’t last long. Identical twins, but of course one of them would die. Johnny was left behind, but Johnny made us happy. Happy enough to not think about Jake too often.

Johnny wanted a doll that would be his Jake. Identical twins, we told the manufacturer (they just came out with a new model, they said, more ultrarealistic than ever before). He said it wouldn’t be a problem. He studied, modeled, and recorded Johnny for a while, then he told us we could leave. Johnny would have his Jake before long.

And he did. Johnny loved Jake, and we did too, my husband and I. It was good for Johnny to have that friend, that brother he never had. And it was good for us to have that child we did have, but never had again until now.

But after a while, Johnny wanted another doll. Another Jake. Triplets! We didn’t have triplets, but Johnny wanted another anyway. We went back to the manufacturer and told him the situation. Johnny wanted another. The manufacturer understood. It happens a lot, he said. Children like friends. They need friends to grow up right, he said. He still had all the information from the last time we came, he said, so he’d be able to make another pretty damn quick.

And it was quick. Johnny had two Jakes now, and we had three sons, one more than we knew we wanted. He was happy. They were happy. We were happy. Children needed friends to grow up right, after all.

Soon he wanted another. This time, another Johnny. To even things out, he said, trying to sound older than he was. We smiled and obliged, of course. Children need friends to grow up right. The house seemed more crowded than we had imagined it would be, but hey, changes take time. We were sure we’d get used to it and love them all. We loved them all. They were all our sons, after all.

Two Johnnys and two Jakes. Sure, it was a little hard to keep them straight, but that didn’t matter. People had identical twins and knew how to differentiate them. We’d get the hang of it, we thought. My husband and I smiled and looked at each other and shared knowing glances, but I think we both had hesitations. Hesitations we couldn’t – wouldn’t – put into words, but they were there. No true, objective, acceptable reasons for their cause, though. Children need friends to grow up right. Siblings were good, siblings were healthy.

Another Johnny and another Jake, of course. The more the better. Six children was doable. We obliged, but didn’t quite share as strong of a knowing glance anymore, and our loving-parent smiles had turned down slightly at the corners.

Now the dolls came the day after we ordered them. When we approached the manufacturer about it, he didn’t seem the least bit surprised. He said the same thing as before. Children like friends. They need friends to grow up right, he said. The intonation of his speech was identical, the words were identical.

Let’s make it an even ten, Johnny said (one of the Johnnys). We gave a loving cringe, the loving cringe of a parent who knew they shouldn’t do what they were doing but just had to, had to for their child. Or children. And we obliged, of course.

Children like friends. They need friends to grow up right. Same intonation, same strange accent lilt when saying “right”. I noticed a gleam in his eye this time that I hadn’t seen before, but I felt sure it had always been there.

Ten children: five Johnnys, five Jakes. All playing together, all the time. Oddly enough it wasn’t too difficult to parent them at this point. They seemed to govern themselves through a strange sort of hive mind.

Of course, we did have to do head counts frequently. Didn’t want to leave one behind. That would have devastated Johnny, we thought. It was hard to tell which one was our Johnny, yes, but we were sure it would have ruined him.

One morning there were only nine children. Five Jakes but only four Johnnys, we thought. (Hard to tell.) We counted again and again, called out in case he was hiding somewhere, but there were only nine. We knew it, deep down. It had finally happened, the previously wordless, indescribable, hesitation we shared without saying a thing. There were nine dolls.