PseudoPod 865: Wanted: Bone-White Skull-Patterned Lace Trim
Wanted: Bone-White Skull-Patterned Lace Trim
by Kelsea Yu
The stroller on the side of the road caught Nina Wong’s eye as her Fiesta rounded the bend on her way to work. She slowed down, noting the FREE! sign taped to its handles. Free was about the only price she could afford right now, since Will had been gone a month, taking with him his half of the rent. Money was tight.
Especially with a baby on the way.
Nina bit her lip, willing away the temptation, and continued her commute. As she turned up the music, she reminded herself of her late mother’s number one rule to ensure a baby’s survival: don’t buy anything for the baby before the second trimester; it’s bad luck.
Nina had been her mother’s fourth and only living child. All three would-be older siblings had died during the thirteenth week of development. She was the miracle, born after Rose Wong had lost hope, had given away all the cute baby things acquired in anticipation of the first three. With Nina, Rose had waited until well into the second trimester to begin furnishing the nursery.
Nina knew her mother’s miscarriages had to be a string of unfortunate coincidences. Unlikely, but not impossible. Still, she kept to the rule, just in case. Why tempt fate?
As Nina tried to distract herself with thoughts of her morning presentation, the stroller kept popping into her mind. Strollers were expensive, and technically, she wouldn’t be breaking her mother’s rule. Technically, she wasn’t buying anything for the baby; the sign clearly said free.
Nina turned her car back around, pulling over when she saw the stroller.
It was an ugly thing, faded floral panels badly in need of patching, but its bones seemed solid. Nina tested its mechanism several times, opening it until its joints snapped into place, then compacting it again.
She thought of her fabric stash in the closet, the thread languishing in her desk drawer, the sewing machine sitting unused. She’d been too depressed to touch any of it since the break-up. Evenings were lonely now that it was just her and the growing little bean. A new project was just what she needed to stay occupied.
As Nina reached for the stroller, doubt clouded her mind once more. She wasn’t jinxing little bean’s chances of survival, was she?
“It’ll be fine,” she said aloud, straightening her back and injecting what confidence she could. Little bean was exactly ten weeks grown today; already, the likelihood of miscarriage had dropped significantly.
Nina compacted the stroller once more, stuffed it in the trunk of her car, and drove off.
As Nina reconciled spreadsheets at work, the ugly stroller kept appearing in her mind. Mentally, she deconstructed its pattern and picked out new fabrics. It had been ages since her last attempt at sewing something that wasn’t purely practical. When Will had first found out Nina could sew, he’d been excited at the possibilities. Nina could mend his shirts, tailor his suits, or whip up curtains for their apartment’s non-standard windows. Will had approved of a hobby that was both practical and budget friendly.
Then Nina had shyly shown him the custom pattern she’d been designing to wear to his sister’s wedding: a scarlet mermaid dress with black lace accents. His lips pursed. It’s a bit flashy. And those fabrics look vampiric. It’s a summer wedding at the country club, not a Halloween party. Something simpler, maybe in a pastel tone or pretty floral would be more suitable—you could wear it with that pearl necklace I gave you for your birthday. You don’t want people to think you’re trying to steal the spotlight. You’re not the bride, after all.
Nina’s face had flushed with shame. She’d never shown him another one of her personal projects again, and after he moved in, she’d stopped working on them altogether.
Well, he’d made it clear it was no longer her business what he thought.
Nina ducked out of work as early as she could and rushed home. In her building’s parking garage, she pulled the stroller out of her car’s trunk. Her hand brushed across the fabric. Nina gasped. The stroller seat was warm to the touch. It reminded her of the crawling sensation when you realize you’ve chosen a waiting room chair a stranger sat in mere moments before.
Cautiously, Nina touched the stroller seat again. This time, it felt the way it should; cold and lifeless. She was being silly; letting her imagination get the best of her.
The elevator was out of order, so Nina hauled it up the stairs. With her sight partially blocked by the folded stroller, Nina ran straight into Mrs. Wintermeyer, knocking over both the elderly woman and the pile of gifts she’d been carrying.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Nina stammered, attempting to catch her breath as she helped her elderly neighbor up and gathered the fallen presents.
“Goodness, dear, why are you in such a hurry?”
Nina’s cheeks warmed. She hadn’t told anyone about the pregnancy, and she’d been avoiding her neighbors since Will had moved out. Before Nina could conjure an excuse, Mrs. Wintermeyer’s gaze landed on the stroller, which had fallen partly open in the tumble. Nina quickly folded it back up.
Mrs. Wintermeyer’s eyes flicked down to Nina’s stomach, her mouth dropping open as understanding dawned. “Oh,” she said. “Oh!” Then, her face drew down into an unmistakable expression of sympathy. She must have noticed Will’s absence.
Nina gulped. “Are you alright? I really am so sorry about crashing into you.”
“I’m fine, dear,” Mrs. Wintermeyer said, reaching out a hand to rest on Nina’s shoulder. “In fact, I was just on my way to my grandson’s fourth birthday. I’m sure I could ask my daughter for his old baby carriage if you’d like. She loves to pass on hand-me-downs, and it’s quite a nice one, only a few years old. It has a sunroof and a place to hold your drink…”
“No thank you,” Nina said, unable to bear her neighbor’s pity. “I appreciate the kindness, but it won’t be necessary.” She extricated herself and began to walk up the stairwell.
“Well, sure, dear, but if you change your mind or if you’d ever like some company, do knock on my door.” Mrs. Wintermeyer’s voice faded as Nina continued up the stairs.
“I will,” Nina called back, knowing the words for a lie as they escaped her throat.
Nina sifted through the piles of folded fabric stashed in the back of her closet, unsettling the fine layer of dust that had accumulated in the years since she and Will had moved in together. She sneezed, wiping her itchy nose as she searched through varying patterns. Sky blue poplin, left over from the sundress she had sewn herself instead of the scarlet mermaid dress. High thread-count Egyptian cotton, used for their bedding set. Scraps of sturdy eggshell canvas from their matching market totes.
There was not a square of black satin or length of lace trim to be found.
Nina scoured every inch of the closet and, subsequently, every nook of her small apartment. At last, she sat down, exhausted and numb.
Nina would never have gotten rid of her personal fabric collection. It was part of the secret things she’d clung to in her mind when the arguments had been particularly bad. You can’t take them away from me, she’d thought.
She’d been wrong.
Will must have cleared them out during one of his big semi-annual cleaning sprees, while Nina completed tasks off the portion of the checklist that he’d assigned to her. She knew he would have thought her frivolous fabrics useless, but surely, he would have asked before donating them. Wouldn’t he?
Nina curled up in a ball on the sofa and cried.
The following evening, Will came by, unannounced. He was moving out in bits and pieces, swinging by for a box or two on the odd evening after work. He hadn’t even given Nina the satisfaction of one big move-out day where she could shut the door on him forever and cry until most of her lingering feelings had drained out.
“Nina? I’m here to take a few more of my boxes.”
Nina’s jaw tightened. Will’s greeting was always the same. As if it were news to her that he would only be visiting for the sake of his stuff. He was perpetually polite now that they were no longer together. Nina hated it. His cordiality felt like a pact she was bound by, even though she hadn’t agreed to it. She wanted to rage at him about the missing fabrics. She wanted to tell him about the little blue plus sign on the pregnancy test she’d taken days after he moved out. She wanted to pull the baby carriage out from under the bed and throw it in his face.
But, once he recovered from the shock, he’d do what he always did. He’d call her crazy. For not telling him about the baby sooner. For caring about stupid things like fabric. And, worse? He might begin collecting proof that she wasn’t fit to be a mother and use it against her in a custody battle.
So, Nina held in her rage and her secrets. Will only had half a closet left of stuff to take; she could keep her pregnancy hidden that much longer. As she watched him carry away another neatly labeled box, an idea began to form.
When Will was gone, Nina sat down at her sewing machine, a vintage Singer model she’d inherited from her mother. Will’s expensive pinstripe suit would be perfect for the hood of the baby carriage. Since her conversation with Mrs. Wintermeyer, Nina had stopped thinking of the object as a stroller; such a sterile, modern word. She liked the image her neighbor’s words had invoked. Baby carriage. What a grand, delightful place for a newborn to rest.
Nina’s imagination filled with images of what the baby carriage would be once she’d finished refurbishing it: a gothic beauty. She would show off her perfect little bean to the world as they slept peacefully, waking only to coo adorably at passersby. Nina smiled to herself as she leaned over her sewing machine, listening to the satisfying whir as the needle stabbed two fresh panels from Will’s deconstructed suit jacket over and over, stitching together the new hood.
To Nina’s surprise, when the weekend arrived, she found herself knocking on her neighbor’s door. It swung open to reveal Mrs. Wintermeyer, whose wrinkled face pulled into an expression of delight at the sight of Nina.
“I didn’t think you’d come visit me! After all, we’ve been neighbors for years now and we’ve never done more than exchange hellos in the hall.” Mrs. Wintermeyer leaned in with a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll admit I never liked that Will—I hope you don’t mind me saying. Dated someone like him in my younger days. Like a mooncake made with bad egg yolks; beautiful on the outside, rotten once you’ve had a taste.”
“Mooncakes!” Nina said, following Mrs. Wintermeyer into her apartment. “Are you Chinese too? I’d wondered.”
Mrs. Wintermeyer laughed. “I am. The surname always throws people off. It came from my husband, who’s long gone. Now, dear, would you like to sit and join me for a cup of tea?”
Nina accepted a cup of oolong and a milk bun. Their conversation eventually reached the reason for her visit. During her accidental stairwell run-in with Penny—Mrs. Wintermeyer’s first name, as she learned—Nina had noticed the handmade kids’ clothes in one of the gift bags. She’d correctly guessed that, like Nina, Penny Wintermeyer enjoyed sewing. It might be a stretch to hope the elderly woman would have the right fabrics on hand for Nina’s baby carriage, but it didn’t cost anything to ask.
Penny was delighted at the idea of a fabric swap, but her smile dropped when Nina began to describe the kinds of fabrics she had in mind. “I don’t have anything like that, dear.” Then she perked back up. “Oh, but you can come by tomorrow, when my sewing circle meets! Write down what you’re looking for and I’ll tell them to bring what they’re willing to trade.”
The following day, Nina brought her own collection to the sewing circle and began trading it away. With each swap, the pile of neutral fabrics Will had chosen dwindled, and Nina’s heart felt lighter. From Esther, whose personal style had never quite left the 70’s, soft red velvet for the seat cushion. From Jenny, who sewed doll clothes for an Etsy shop, bone white, skull-patterned lace trim. From George, who scoured estate sales, vintage black silk roses for decoration and a black wicker basket to replace the mesh storage compartment.
With tears in her eyes, Nina brought home her new haul.
It took three more weeks for Nina to finish reupholstering the baby carriage. Each week, she brought it to Sunday sewing circle to share her progress. When the project was complete, she presented it with a flourish. Everyone gasped, impressed by the piece’s transformation.
“It’s not my style, dear,” Penny said. “But it’s beautiful and I’m glad you’re letting your creativity shine.”
When Nina returned home, she was surprised to realize she couldn’t remember the last time she’d checked her pregnancy app. She opened it. Thirteen weeks, six days. Just one more day until she hit the safe mark.
That night, the bleeding began.
Bleary-eyed, Nina opened her door a crack.
“There you are, dear!” Penny said. “We missed you at sewing circle today. Is everything alright?”
“I’ve just had a…” The words died on Nina’s tongue. Her mouth wouldn’t form the three syllables she needed to finish the sentence. She bit her lip. “…rough week.”
Penny took in Nina’s bloodshot eyes and disheveled hair. “Nausea? Not sleeping well? When I was carrying Richie, I remember several weeks of waking up in the middle of the night to throw up.”
Nina nodded. It seemed easiest.
“I’ll bring you some peppermint tea and ginger candies to help soothe your stomach. Just remember, as awful as the nausea can be, I like to think of it as a sign that the little one is growing.” Penny handed Nina a gift bag. “I was going to give this to you on Sunday, but since you weren’t there, here you go.”
After Penny left, Nina opened the bag. Inside was a tiny black satin blanket with soft lace trim. It matched the baby carriage perfectly.
Nina slumped against the door, clutching the blanket in her hands, and did not move for a long time.
Sunday arrived again, and Nina didn’t plan on going to sewing circle; she still couldn’t bear to tell anyone what had happened. But as the clock struck 1pm, Nina imagined the group gathering at Penny’s. Her mouth watered at the thought of the homemade lemon crinkles Jenny always brought to complement the elaborate spread Penny prepared each week. Nina had been living off snacks and frozen meals since it had happened. Her stomach growled.
She picked up her sewing bag and left the apartment.
“Sorry,” Nina said as she squeezed onto the couch, between Esther and Penny. “I just woke from a nap and lost track of time.” She picked up a lemon crinkle.
“Oh, honey,” Jenny said. “Pregnancy is tough! Remind us again—how far along are you?”
This was her chance to tell them. Nina hadn’t known the group for long, but she knew they would be sympathetic. She imagined them dropping their sewing projects and fussing over her, offering their condolences and advice. Telling her about people they’d known who’d lost their babies.
She thought of the look on Penny’s face when they’d run into each other in the stairwell. When Penny had first realized Nina was pregnant and partnerless.
“Fifteen weeks and six days,” Nina said. The lie came out smoothly.
“Oh wow, you’re barely showing!” Penny exclaimed.
“I’m glad you came,” Esther said. “I brought you a bag of maternity clothes my daughter-in-law doesn’t need anymore. I think they’ll fit you.”
It wasn’t too late to come clean. Nina could still say it. They would understand.
“Thank you,” she said, accepting the bag.
The following Sunday, Nina padded her stomach, donned one of Esther’s daughter-in-law’s dresses, and headed to sewing circle.
Four weeks and one day before Nina’s supposed due date, she came to sewing circle as usual. The gig was almost up; she would have to invent a mishap soon. But she could put it off just a little longer.
“Nina!” Penny exclaimed. “I have something special for you. I’ve been looking through all my things and finally found it.” She handed over a folded piece of pattern paper, waiting as Nina opened it up.
“Oh! It’s…for a doll?”
Penny beamed. “It’s a Wintermeyer family tradition. I made a doll for each of my children, a good distraction from the discomfort of the last month. Once they grew up, I made one for each of my grandchildren as well. It’s a pattern of my own design. I’d be happy to make one for you if you’d like, but I thought you might enjoy making it yourself.”
“Thank you,” Nina said, genuinely touched.
At home, she placed the pattern next to her sewing machine, wishing more than anything that her child had survived. That she was making a doll for her little bean. Though months had passed, the sadness still hit Nina in waves. She wondered how her mother had borne three such losses. Perhaps that was why Rose had always been distant, almost wary of Nina, pawning her off on babysitters and family friends whenever she could. Perhaps she’d been afraid to get too close to her daughter; knowing that closeness would make the pain unbearable if she lost her miracle child too.
Nina cradled her full belly, imagining it wasn’t a prosthetic she’d sewn and stuffed. She could practically feel the warmth of little bean in her arms, snuggling close.
She felt a kick from her stomach.
Nina dropped her hands in alarm. Heart racing, she lifted her shirt and stared at the prosthetic.
It didn’t move. Of course, it didn’t move. It was nothing but spare fabric, thread, and polyfill.
Still, Nina was discomfited. She’d sewn the prosthetic up only this morning, but suppose something had hatched inside or found its way in since then? She imagined a tiny rodent gnawing through the thread and squeezing its way in. Or an insect mother, laying eggs on the polyfill. Could insects even cause that kind of movement?
Nina tore the seams, took out all of the stuffing, and turned the prosthetic inside out, but there was no sign of any living creature. She must have imagined the kick.
The following night, Nina dreamt of a doll. It had a bone white face, painted eyes and lips, stitched eyelashes, and a black satin dress with red velvet mary janes. Nina, in a scarlet mermaid dress and bat-winged heels, placed the doll in the baby carriage. She fumbled with the clasp, and the straps meant to secure the doll fell loose. It began to slip out of its seat.
A pair of gnarled hands caught it. Nina stepped back, eyes trailing up the cloaked figure’s arms as they lifted the doll from the baby carriage. They bent down to kiss the doll’s pale forehead before placing it in Nina’s arms. It was heavy, as if filled with flesh and bones.
The figure lifted their head. Their hood fell away, revealing a familiar face. Rose Wong gave Nina a fleeting smile before her lips curled down again, forming two soft words.
Nina woke. Sweat soaked her sheets, like she’d woken from a nightmare. Had it been a nightmare? It had been ages since she’d dreamt of her mother. Nina hugged her blanket tighter, closing her eyes, but sleep wouldn’t come.
She got up to brew herself a cup of tea.
As Nina waited for the water to boil, she heard a distant cry, a vise gripping her heart. Had one of her neighbors had a baby?
The cry sounded again. Nina followed the sound to the corner of the room, barely avoiding clipping the edge of her sewing desk. She pressed her ear against the wall, listening for more cries. She looked out the window for the telltale shuffle of a shadow; a parent coming to comfort their child, or a light turning on in a nursery. She stood as still as possible, trying to hear, but the cry didn’t come again.
The kettle whistled and Nina crossed back into the kitchen to brew her tea. As she poured hot water into her mug, she heard wailing again.
Nina ignored it this time. She sat at the counter sipping peppermint tea until her nerves calmed. She left the mug in the sink and slipped back under the covers. Still, the crying continued.
In the morning, Nina slathered concealer over her dark undereye circles and went to work, downing three cups of coffee before lunch.
At night, Nina dreamt again of the doll. Like the previous night, she woke and heard a baby crying, the sound from the same corner of her apartment. Again, it only stopped when she stayed there.
The next morning, she fell asleep in the middle of a team meeting.
That night, when she woke from the same dream for a third time, Nina headed straight for her sewing desk. Her subconscious was trying to tell her something. Maybe it was because her child was in a limbo of sorts. She knew it was gone, but no one else did. The lie to the sewing circle had grown into lying to all her neighbors; it wouldn’t do for Penny to see her in the hallway sans prosthetic belly. But one of her neighbors worked in a different department of her company, so Nina had to perpetuate the lie to everyone at her workplace.
Sometimes Nina forgot, momentarily.
She remembered when Will’s cousin, Karen, had gone through a miscarriage. Afterward, Karen had praised the value of healing projects; a ceremony to honor and let go of the baby. A way to move forward.
That’s what Nina needed. A healing project.
A folded piece of paper on the desk caught her eye; the custom doll pattern from Penny Wintermeyer. She would sew the doll from her dreams, a facsimile of the child she had lost. Then she would bury it and gain the closure she needed.
Relief flooded her at the thought.
Nina began to cut out the pattern.
The day before Nina’s child would have been due, the doll was nearly complete. Nina was a fast seamstress, but she had deliberately taken her time, agonizing over every inch, and stitching certain details by hand instead of using the machine. Hand-embroidering each eyelash seemed more personal, and, if she were being honest, it let her drag out her ruse just a little longer.
All that remained was to fill the doll and sew it closed. Unfortunately, Nina had run out of polyfill. She looked around her apartment for something to repurpose. If only that belly prosthetic didn’t require her to add stuffing every week.
The thought made her pause. Of course. Nina didn’t need the prosthetic anymore. She would finish and bury the doll today. Then, she would inform people of her devastating news—the baby had arrived stillborn. She’d hide out at home for a while, her presumable recovery and mourning time. Eventually, everyone would forget, and she could move forward.
Nina pried open the prosthetic belly with a seam ripper. She pulled bits of stuffing out, pressing them into the doll. Piece by piece, the doll’s face filled up until its round cheeks resembled that of a newborn.
As Nina stitched the doll closed, the needle pricked her finger.
She hissed in pain, glaring as a drop of blood seeped into the doll. Nina sucked on her finger until it stopped bleeding. Then she grabbed a damp towel to clean off the stain, but she couldn’t find her blood anywhere on the doll. No matter. She finished sewing it closed.
Nina inspected her handiwork, running her fingers through the doll’s black yarn hair. She felt the tiny, ruffled roses decorating its velvet shoes. She smoothed out its satin dress and touched its cheek. Its skin was warm and soft. Tears dripped down Nina’s face. The doll was perfect.
It was already late afternoon, and Nina wanted to get to the park before dark. She checked the clock. Luckily, sewing circle would still be going, so at least she wouldn’t run into Penny or the others.
At first, Nina placed the doll in her purse, but it didn’t feel right to treat it as a mere thing. It was supposed to be the facsimile of her child. If she wanted proper closure, she needed to do things right.
Nina took the doll back out of her bag, gave it a kiss, and strapped it into the baby carriage, tucking it under the black satin blanket from Penny. If wheeling around the doll got her odd looks from her neighbors, Nina would fabricate a lie of some sort. She’d gotten better at lying.
At the last minute, she remembered to pin her prosthetic belly back up and strap it on, under her maternity dress. It sagged a bit with the missing stuffing, but hopefully it wasn’t noticeable.
Thankfully, there was no one in the hallway or in the elevator with her and the doll. Nina sighed in relief. She only had to make it to the car now. The elevator stopped at the parking garage, doors shuttering open.
“Nina!” Penny held a JOANN Fabric bag in her hand. “What are you doing out? I thought you were resting in preparation for the big day!”
“I…” Nina stammered, “…was testing out the baby carriage. Is sewing circle already over?”
Penny laughed. “No, but I forgot the fabric scraps I got for Jenny’s doll clothes in the car. Can you believe they were 70 percent off?”
“Oh! She’ll love that…” Nina trailed off as Penny peered down into the baby carriage. God, what would Penny think? Nina flushed with preemptive shame. The cover story she’d thought up on her way here felt shabby now.
“Nina, dear!” Penny squealed. “How could you not tell me you had your darling baby already?” Nina’s breath caught in her throat as Penny leaned down to coo at the doll. “May I?” Without waiting for a reply, Penny carefully unstrapped the doll from the baby carriage and picked it up, cradling it. “Oh, aren’t you a sweetheart. Do you have a name yet? Everyone in the circle will want to meet her.” Then she gave Nina a serious look. “You shouldn’t be out walking around right after you’ve given birth. Your body needs to heal! And I’m not the judgy type or anything, but your little one really is too young for a baby carriage. She should be held or strapped to your chest in a baby carrier for the first few months. Kept close enough for her to feel your heartbeat.”
Nina could hardly do more than gape at her neighbor as they took the elevator back up. Penny held the doll, whispering to it softly while Nina trailed behind with the baby carriage. Was it possible the old woman had lost her mind over the course of the last week? When Nina’s mother had suffered a decline into dementia, convinced in her last days that Nina was an imposter of her real daughter, it had taken far longer.
What would Nina do once they reached Penny’s apartment?
Penny nudged the door open. “Everyone, drop your projects! Nina’s had her baby!”
Nina winced, unable to bear the silence that would soon thicken the air.
Esther, Jenny, and George descended upon them.
“Oh, she’s adorable!”
“She’s so little; she’ll need to eat quite a bit to get her strength up.”
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Just like her mother.”
Nina sat in shocked silence as they fussed over the doll.
After leaving sewing circle, Nina stood in the hallway. Could the four older folks have caught an illness from one another that triggered group hallucinations? She needed more information.
Nina wandered the building, doll in tow. Three more neighbors congratulated her on her new baby.
Nina brought the doll to the nearest grocery store; in case her apartment building had been infected with a hallucinatory mold that made everyone see babies where there were dolls. At the store, she received smiles, a glare or two, and one brusque man telling her to ‘shut your damn baby up already; not everyone thinks crying is cute.’
Back home, she stared and stared at the doll, trying to understand. Nina hadn’t slept well lately. Could she have imagined everything? The miscarriage, the belly prosthetic, the painstakingly sewn doll? Had she, in fact, had a baby? Will had often told her she was crazy. Like mother, like daughter, he’d said.
Evening fell, and Nina didn’t have a crib, so she lay the doll on the mattress besides her and went to bed.
She woke to the sound of smacking and a light tugging sensation on her chest. Blearily, she rubbed her eyes and reached to fix her nightgown strap.
Her hand hit something warm and fleshy.
Her eyes flew open. In the dim glow of the nightlight, she saw the outline of a tiny head, bobbing gently. Its mouth was open wide, painted lips encircling her nipple as it sucked.
Nina screamed. She pulled the thing off her and scrambled out of bed, grabbing her bathrobe. As she raced to cover herself up, Nina noticed the line of liquid dripping down her breast.
She looked back at her bed. At the creature she’d flung. No matter how long she stared, the doll lay there, unmoving.
God, what was happening to her? The entire evening felt hazy. The sewing circle, the grocery store, waking up to the feeding…how could she be sure what was real anymore?
She peered into her robe again, but any evidence of milk was gone, absorbed by the black fleece. Her breast was no longer leaking. It could have been sweat. She’d panicked over nothing.
All Nina wanted was a good night’s sleep. But it seemed her miscarriage would haunt her until she completed the healing ceremony. She shouldn’t have let Penny derail her plans. Nina checked the clock. It was long past midnight by now, which meant today was her due date. The perfect day to end things.
Nina’s trowel sank into the dirt. The soil, damp from evening rain, gave way easily. She worked quickly. It wouldn’t do for anyone to find her digging up park ground in the quiet hours before sunrise.
Soon, everything would go back to normal. She just had to bury the…whatever it was. The doll. The doll. That’s all it was. And if anyone still thought she’d had a real, live child, she would tell them it died of SIDS.
When the hole was ready, Nina unbuttoned her trench coat. She unraveled the makeshift fabric swaddle she’d used to secure the thing to her chest. She held the doll out, inspecting it in the light of the waning moon. Its painted eyes stared, unblinking.
Nina knelt, placing the doll into the open grave. With her eyes closed, she whispered words of remembrance for the daughter she would never meet. When she was done, she used both hands to scoop up a handful of dirt, ready to bury this strange episode in her life.
Nina permitted herself one last look at the doll, and her breath caught.
It was curled up, legs and arms tucked tight against its torso, as if shielding itself from the chill of night. It reminded Nina of the infants in those newborn photo shoots.
Tears dampened her cheeks.
The doorbell rang.
“Coming!” Nina rushed to open the door.
“Nina, dear! We’ve missed you these past two weeks.” Penny hugged her.
George, Esther, and Jenny trailed in behind Penny, bearing gifts. Nina hugged and thanked them each in turn, careful not to bump George’s walker. She led them toward the corner nook, which was curtained off with an old sheet. “I’ll replace that once I find the right fabric,” she said.
“I scored a huge swath of good linen, for cheap, at an estate sale last year,” George said. “Perfect for curtains! Probably not your color, though.”
“Oh, you could dye it black!” Jenny said. “My stepdaughter knows how to do stuff like that. I bet she’d help you.”
“And I’ll embroider it,” Penny said. “Add a pretty trim to make it more your style.”
A surge of warmth filled Nina. “That would be lovely.” Then she took a deep breath, steeling herself. She pulled back the sheet.
“Oh!” Penny gasped.
Nina’s heart sped up. This was why she hadn’t invited anyone over earlier. What did they see? What if…
“She’s so lovely!” Esther shuffled toward the crib, reaching out her hands.
“You’ll wake her!” Jenny scolded.
Crying sounded from the crib.
“It’s alright,” Nina said. “She’s napped for hours already.”
Nina brought over chairs for the four elderly folk, then watched carefully as they took turns holding the baby. None of them seemed to notice anything amiss. They commented on little bean’s fresh baby scent, then asked Nina about her plans for decorating the nursery. George complimented the crib Nina had refurbished to match the baby carriage. Jenny pulled out an outfit she’d sewn for the baby.
It wasn’t long before Nina heard a familiar smacking sound. “I think she’s hungry,” Esther teased.
Nina felt a shiver creep through her. Since that first night, she had the same visceral reaction whenever feeding time came around. She plastered on a smile, taking the baby from Esther’s arms. “Sounds like it.”
Nina looked down at her little bean. For a second, surrounded by her friends, she hoped she might see what they saw. A newborn girl, with squishy features vaguely resembling Nina’s own.
Her heart sank. The doll’s features looked the same as always. She had grown in size and shape, and she moved the way a baby did. But her eyes, when open, were still swirls of black paint. Her eyelashes nothing more than black thread. Her lips, thin red strokes.
“We’ll leave so you can feed her,” George said, startling Nina.
Nina shook her head, clearing her thoughts. It didn’t matter how little bean had come about or what she looked like. Whether she was grown in Nina’s womb or sewn by her hand. Either way, Nina had created her, hadn’t she? And, like a newborn, little bean ate every few hours. That was proof she was alive. That she was real.
It was simple, really. Nina wanted a child, and little bean needed a mother.
“That’s not necessary,” Nina said. “I’ll feed her in my room. Please, stay.” She headed for her bedroom.
“Wait!” Penny called, and Nina turned back, afraid. Had Penny seen a flicker of the doll after all? “You haven’t told us her name yet, dear! Does she have one?”
“Oh!” Nina said, relieved. “It took me some time to find the perfect name, but yes, she has one. Actually, you’ll all be the first to know. I’m naming her after two women who are important to me. One is my late mother. And the other reached out when I needed her the most.” Nina gave Penny a wide smile before turning the baby to face the group. “Everyone, meet my little darling, Penelope Rose.”
About the Author
Kelsea Yu is a Chinese American writer and mother living in the Pacific Northwest. She’s eternally enthusiastic about sharks and appreciates a good ghost story. Kelsea’s debut novella, Bound Feet, is published through Cemetery Gates Media. She also has stories forthcoming or published in various magazines and anthologies, including Reckoning, Classic Monsters Unleashed, and Dark Matter Presents: Human Monsters. Find her on Instagram or Twitter as @anovelescape or visit her website kelseayu.com.
About the Narrator
Rebecca Wei Hsieh
Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is a Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator, and sensitivity reader based in NYC. Having grown up across several continents, her work focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness, and mental illness, and has been featured in outlets like We Need Diverse Books, Wear Your Voice Magazine, Book Riot, and The Dot and Line. She has a BA in theatre and Italian studies from Wesleyan University, and you can find her attempts to use her liberal arts degree at rwhsieh.com