*Muses’ Note: this week’s story is by a new guest author, Siria De Silva. A content warning for her story can be found at the bottom of the page.*
Of all the presents, the doll was the worst.
Who gets a grown woman a doll, especially at a time like this?
She would never know the answer to that question it seemed, for there was no card, or note with the gift, just the doll, unwrapped.
It was beautiful, like one of those antique porcelain dolls old people collected, but softer, and more human in appearance. Perfectly rosy cheeks, impossibly bright, hazel eyes, and a crown of natural- looking chocolate ringlets. It looked a little like her.
“It’s creepy” was the first thing Owen said. “Who sent it?”
“I don’t know”, she replied. “It’s hard to keep track anymore. I don’t know where to put all this stuff”.
“Just put it in the spare room for now”. He said it without thinking, and the conversation abruptly ended.
She put the doll on a shelf in ‘the spare room’, and ended up settling down at the sewing machine in there, busying herself with executing some patterns for the rest of the evening, while Owen watched football in the lounge.
It wasn’t until they met in the bedroom that night that they spoke again, the obligatory “Goodnight” from each before the lights went out.
She lay in bed, her eyes staring straight ahead, a myriad of images of the day’s events flashing through her head. This was becoming a habit recently; she was finding it harder and harder to escape into the oblivion of slumber.
She often wondered if Owen had the same problem.
In the darkness, her senses were heightened, so she noticed immediately when a small but determined thud broke the cacophonous silence.
It came from the next room. She listened more intently this time. Nothing.
It must have been the wind, maybe she left the window open.
She relaxed and tuned back into her thoughts as she lay awake.
The champagne bottle popped open, followed of course by an eruption of alcoholic bubbles that travelled down Owen’s forearms straight onto the floor.
“Careful Owen” she exclaimed through fits of laughter, “We’ve just put down that carpet!”
“Oops” he giggled, before taking a large swig from the bottle. He handed it to her with a wet, slippery kiss on her cheek.
After countless weeks of sleeping on a mattress on a floor, washing in the sink, and picking their clothes out of a suitcase, their dream home was finally ready. They had chosen a fixer-upper, a cheap but outdated house that they could work on together. Their little project.
And today, the final lick of paint had dried. In the yellow room, with the south facing windows, white fluffy rug, and pressed flowers in a vase.
She took the bottle and stood on the threshold of this room, beaming at what they had created together. Owen came up behind her, his arms slipping across her stomach, so he held her in a protective hug. He buried his head in her hair and inhaled deeply.
“We’re going to be so happy here” he whispered.
The next morning after Owen left for work, she went into the ‘spare room’ to investigate the source of last night’s thud.
The first thing she noticed was that the window was closed.
The second thing she saw was that the doll was no longer there.
She looked around the room, behind the curtains, under cushions knowing full well it was an impossibility, but no doll.
How curious, she thought.
Eager to solve the mystery, she expanded her search and looked around the whole house. After thirty unsuccessful minutes, she gave up, thinking Owen must have moved the doll, probably because it was looking at him.
She brought her book to bed with her that night, and so absorbed was she in the tragic events unfolding on the pages that she did not look up all evening. She read the book as she brushed her teeth and hair, changed into her pyjamas, and she was still reading when Owen came into the room.
“What’s that thing doing in here?” Owen complained when he saw it later that evening.
Sitting upright on the bedroom chair facing their bed, curls perfect, her perfect cotton dress neatly tucked under her chubby legs, was the doll.
It smiled at her.
“What in the world…” she began.
Owen laughed. “So, you’re sleeping with dollies now?”
She tilted her head and looked at it. Something about the cherubic face was familiar to her.
“She’s quite beautiful though, don’t you think?”
“Er, no, I think it’s a doll. And it creeps me the fuck out, so it’s going” he said, before flinging the poor doll out of the room, slamming the door behind it.
“Hey, you could damage it!” she yelled crossly at him.
“It’s fine. Why do you care so much anyway? We have much more to worry about right now, rather than some stupid doll, don’t you think?”
She didn’t reply, instead she turned away from him, in a movement of exaggerated irritation. She wanted him to know that she was hurt; hurt at his mockery of her admiration for the doll, but mostly because he acknowledged the problem.
She thought they had both silently agreed not to do that.
The gel on her stomach tickled, and the feeling of the scanner pressing into her delicate stomach made her cringe.
But Owen was captivated by the image on the screen
“Oh my god I can see it, I can actually see it!” he was so excited.
She laughed. She could not see it. But she didn’t mind. It lived in her, sharing her food, her oxygen, her happiness. She already knew her child, she didn’t need a blurry image on a screen.
But fathers do not get to carry their children. They cannot feel the lifeforce getting stronger each day, making itself known with subtle messages. They needed these artificial connections, so they too could bond with their unborn child, and she adored how enthusiastic Owen was to do this.
“Do we want to know what we’re having?” the doctor asked.
They looked at each other, but they had discussed this already.
“We want a surprise”, they said together.
She dreamt that night that she was a mother, singing to her baby who gurgled in its crib as she prepared its bottle. She was radiant, the glow of the sun through the blinds catching her with an ethereal light. She bent over the crib and put the bottle to the child’s lips.
She screamed, and dropped the baby, the diminutive, rigid, rubber form falling lifelessly to the floor, bouncing once before it rested. The doll stared up at her from where she dropped it.
“Mother” it called.
Strange, didn’t these types of dolls usually say “Mama”?
“MOTHER!” it shrieked, so terribly and suddenly that she sprang awake with a yelp.
“What, what is it?” Owen asked, frantic but still half asleep.
“Nothing” she mumbled, “just a dream, go back to sleep”.
“Fine, are you sure… Oh my god. Are you actually fucking serious?”
She looked at him, perplexed by his sudden change of tone. She followed his eyeline and gasped.
Next to her head, in between the two of them, was the doll.
The bedroom door was firmly closed.
“How did…” she began, but Owen cut her off, throwing the covers off himself.
“What is wrong with you?” he cried, desperation in his voice. “Are you trying to fuck with me? Because that’s just cruel”.
She felt bad. “Honestly, I don’t know what happened. Maybe, I don’t know, one of us sleepwalked?”
“Don’t mock me” he spat. “Its fine, you two have each other, I’m sleeping on the couch”.
She looked uneasily at the doll. She should put it out but then she remembered Owen was sleeping
out there, and he would probably think she was trying to mess with him again, so instead she put it on the chair again.
There was something about that smile.
It happened in the middle of the night, just like in the movies.
She was fast asleep, Owen’s arm flung protectively around them both, his face buried in her hair. Suddenly, she felt a jolt of energy in her stomach, and her eyes sprung open. She did not move for a while, the spasms still very far apart, and she wanted to savour that beautiful moment for a little longer. The last time it would be just them.
Soon, the pain intensified enough that she decided it was time to go to the hospital, and she woke Owen with a kiss.
The journey to the hospital was smooth, the room was empty and bright, and her midwives were warm and professional. She would say later it went as smoothly as they could have wanted. The perfect birth.
Owen was great, her crutch, her champion. He held her hand throughout, and in exchange she didn’t squeeze it too much. He showered her with kisses, fuelling her for the herculean task she was single-handedly undertaking for their family. It was the most agony she had ever been in, yet throughout, she felt powerful, primal, her motherly love already well seasoned by the nine months she shared with the lifeforce inside her.
Now they were finally meeting.
“It’s a girl” the beaming midwife announced, handing Owen the scissors.
She had already felt it was a girl.
She was pink, and clearly stressed, but once she was wrapped and placed in her mother’s arms, she settled, emitting the most precious noises of contentment as they cuddled for the first time.
On her tiny forehead was a heart shaped birthmark. They would later say that she had this because they loved her so much that the love became imprinted upon her forever.
Over the next few months, her beauty intensified. She was the perfect combination of them both.
After that night, Owen kept sleeping on the couch. It was if the doll was the excuse he was waiting for.
She missed his warmth, but she was also angry at him for giving up.
The doll remained in their room every night even since the argument. No matter where in the room it had been when she fell asleep, every morning she would wake up with it in her arms.
She became captivated by it. It came everywhere in the house with her, and she would talk to it as she went about her daily tasks.
Owen’s eyes burned into her as she did this. She wished he would share it with her.
Every morning she woke up, drew the curtains, and proceeded to brush the crown of adorable curls carefully, her own hair wild with neglect. She didn’t look in mirrors much anymore, the only view she got of herself was the reflection in the shiny eyes of the doll. After hair brushing, they would go into the next room and choose the outfit.
Today, Owen was in there, for the first time in a long time.
In his hand, he held a tiny tartan outfit, one from the substantial pile that had sprung up next to the sewing machine.
His face was dismal.
“What is this?” he asked, horror in his voice.
“You wouldn’t understand” she spat back. “You haven’t cared about me for a while now. You’ve completely stopped talking to me, so I stopped talking to you”
“That’s because you stopped talking sense!” he screamed, and then he composed himself. “I’m sorry, that was harsh. I know what happened…sucked…but it happened to me too. And you completely left me! You broke down and left me to pick up the pieces. You wouldn’t accept the reality, and it was too painful for me to relive it with you. I was hoping that, over time, you would get better”.
He paused and looked long and hard at her. His partner, his soulmate, standing in front of him, her eyes unhinged, and dark, from weeks without proper sleep. Her hair was wild, she looked like a witch. And in her arms, cradled like a precious infant, was the doll, smiling up at him.
Unconsciously, she stroked its cheek with her hand.
“We could be happy again” she said, walking slowly towards him. “A real family. Just hold her. Feel the weight of her in your arms, you’ll see”
“I can’t” he said, backing away, “this is too weird”.
“She needs us” she pleaded, holding the doll up to him. “Look at her face! She came back to us”
“STOP IT!” he screamed, sobbing now.
She pulled the doll back close to her, protectively.
“I have to get out of here, I just can’t do this anymore”. He staggered out of the room, leaving her cradling the door on the floor.
Her face was angelic. The perfect tint of rosiness was illuminated by the soft golden light shining through the slats in the blind. Her delicate eyelashes rested at the top of those cheeks, lowered by the lids of her hazel eyes. Her brown curls splayed evenly out around her head as she lay on her back, given the impression of a chocolate halo.
The little lips were frozen in a little ‘o’. Frozen in the act of her last breath.
“I’m so sorry,” the paramedic said, his head bowed, not meeting their eyes in case he loses composure. “It just happens sometimes, for no reason. There was nothing you could have done”.
The response team backed out of the yellow room to give them some privacy, pulling closed the door from which dangled a tiny pair of fairy wings.
They screamed, they wept noiselessly. They sunk to their knees, cried into each other’s shoulders, threw objects in anger. They went through every motion people in their situation could have.
She gripped the bars of the cage and drunk her in, until they took her, and then she followed her tiny body down the stairs and out the door, stopped only by the gentle hand of the paramedic as they closed the ambulance doors.
“I’ll see you again Olivia, I promise”.
She was disappointed in Owen, but she wasn’t surprised he didn’t understand. He did not have the same connection as she had, that bond.
She sung sweetly as she began to prepare the room, picking up the pile of tiny outfits, turned down the lights, leaving one little blue night lamp on. With tenderness, she lowered the tiny body into the crib. She leaned forward and placed a loving kiss on the love heart shaped birthmark on the doll’s forehead.
“Goodnight my sweet Olivia. Mother loves you, always”.
*CONTENT WARNING: infant death*
Siria De Silva is a historian by training, and is working on her first novel set during the First World War. When not wrangling her cat Barry, she loves to watch and read all things fantasy, romance, horror, and Disney, and dreams of one day owning her own farm.
One thought on “Pressed Flowers”
This was incredible! The way the flashbacks were woven in, the slow building of tension….So sad, but so riveting as well.