She was sitting behind the receptionist desk, reading a book about a waitress in New York. The novel centered heavily on food, and she could feel every morsel of it on her tongue. Her stomach growled and she salivated. She hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to read this just then, but it had taken all she had to abandon it in the morning to get ready for work, so she promised herself she would sneak in some reading. Her boss wouldn’t be in until twelve. She had hours, maybe she could even finish it. And by then it wouldn’t matter that she was hungry because her sister was treating her to a meal at the Italian place down the street. Huge portions. Leftovers for days if she was conservative.
But then he walked in. Blue eyes. Chestnut hair. Looking like he had health insurance and good genes. When the bell above the door chimed, she started to give the standard spiel of a greeting. But as soon as she saw him, really saw him, she dropped it mid-sentence. She wished she had a mirror. Surely, her hair was a mess. Definitely, there was lipstick on her chin.
“You put your best work in the lobby?” he asked.
“Huh?” He’d pointed at her. Was he flirting?
“The painting behind you. it’s gorgeous.”
Oh. “No, it’s not. I made that.”
It was how she got the job. These days, you had to have more than credentials – experience (the right kind), education (the best kind), and the extras (internships, study abroad). She had none of those things. Technically, she wasn’t even qualified to work at the art gallery. But she’d been desperate. The night before the interview, drunk and not a little high, she made the painting. Purple, orange, and gold paint splashed across a black background. It was gauche. It was garish. It was perfect, the director had said, and he hired her on the spot. It was terrible pay, but the work was easy and the hours were great. So, sometimes she didn’t eat. She could live with that.
“How much?” the man was asking.
“Hm?” she said, sipping her Dunkin Donuts.
“The painting. Six figures?” He leaned in “Seven figures? I could do four million. That’s the highest.”
She snorted her iced coffee out through her nose.
“Sold,” she said, even though the painting was now property of the gallery. “I’m Ramona.”
Hours later, Maggie arrived to take Ramona to lunch. She was gone, along with the painting that hung behind the desk.
The story goes that boy meets girl. They fall in love, or, he rescues her.
Marriage, babies, bed death, real death, and then some freedom before the widow(er) dies. Not so for David and Ramona. They would be each other’s own personal hell. But we do not have two hour’s traffic here. I’ve told you the beginning and I’ll tell you the end. The middle is long and we’ll have to take shortcuts.
See: A terrible misunderstanding, or a trio of liars.
Maggie lies for Ramona.
David lies to Ramona.
Ramona likes to say she lies for self-preservation, but really, she just lies.
It starts with a trip to Tobias, months after the tragic loss of a much-wanted child. When Ramona tells Maggie where she’s going, Maggie balks.
“Like Marionetts, Inc.,” she said with a flat voice. “The story we read in school.”
“You don’t believe me? Come and see for yourself!”
The next day after that, Margaret was there, with Riley, her son, on her hip.
At lunch, Riley dipped his fries in ketchup and painted the paper place mat until it was soggy wisps of paper. Every coo, every cry he made went straight through Ramona like she was the soggy paper.
“I’m just saying, you aren’t scared? That man is the stuff of nightmares.”
“Maybe once, but now he’s the key to my dreams.”
“How will you explain it when David comes home and there’s a…”
“You’ll get it in a few weeks. That’s not even enough time for you to have recovered, gotten pregnant, and given birth. Even if David goes along with your plan, you know the neighbors will question it.”
“Who are you? Mom?” Ramona hold up two fingers for two more margaritas. She would not be talked out of it now. She was in too deep.
On a nondescript Tuesday morning, the package arrived. She was startled, as if it were a surprise. How her heart quickened with the doorbell rang! Her anxiety threatened to burn a hole in her chest. “Thank you!” she shouted to the driver as he walked down the driveway back to his truck to deliver his other packages. She wondered how many other babies he had in his vehicle. He might have been a stork.
She brought the package to the coffee table and set it down. She eased the scissors through the slit lined with tape and flung aside the cardboard flaps. She started to weep when she saw it, a symphony starting up in her ribs, filling the hole of dread. Inside the package was the most realistic non-baby she’d ever seen. Swathed in a pink onesie, the overhead light trembling on its glass blue eyes. The nursery, fully outfitted cradle and all, would be unoccupied no longer. The baby was here.
Now, David would have to stop begging her to “dismantle the shrine.”
Now, she was buzzing with wholeness.
“Are you sure he’s here?” Maggie asked. Ramona pointed toward the flickering candle on the desk. In the illuminated room, jars of eyes, legs, arms, and torsos of every color littered the wooden shelves behind the desk, while fully put together babies stared at them from behind their glass cases. They were as terrifying as they were realistic. And then, where just a second ago there was nothing, Tobias appeared behind the till, through the purple velvet curtain which was now fluttering behind him.
She held out a hand and introduced herself. “Ramona. And this is Margaret, my sister.”
“That’s not one of mine, is it?” Tobias interrupted, pointing at sleeping Riley.
“Definitely not,” answered Margaret, and she moved to put space between them. There was a flicker of understanding in Tobias’ eyes and he turned to face only Ramona, as if I were the only person in the room.
“When did it happen? The loss.”
“Too recently,” Margaret said under her breath.
“Excuse me,” Ramona said to Tobias and turned to her. “I thought you were on my side.”
“I always am,” she said. “But I don’t always agree with you. I’m here to support you, but…”
“Do you have photos?” Tobias inquired.
Ramona opened her purse and produced a packet of drugstore prints, “These are the only photos I have. Please return them to me when you’re done.”
“Six weeks,” he said in return and turned once more toward the purple curtain.
“How much?” she called out, but he didn’t say a word. Bill me later, she thought. Satisfaction and curiosity tumbled like butterflies in her stomach.
Upon its arrival the box was empty of photos, but Ramona had forgotten them. Tenderly, she slipped the baby out of the box and removed the cheesecloth that protected it from dust and damage. It looked exactly like the real Esme, dark wisps of chocolatey brown hair covering the forehead. The skin was pale, almost translucent, revealing blue veins. Quintessential pink rosebud lips. The cat came to see the baby, but recoiled when it caught sight of the thing, an uninvited alien. Ramona reached out to pet her, but she trotted away, wailing through the halls howling like a wolf until she was too far away to hear. Ramona picked up the baby and brought her to the nursery and laid her down in the crib.
David came roaring into the house. Almost delirious from today’s activities, Ramona came toward him, laughing. “Do you have a fever?” he asked. David had taken to speaking in a flat, grim voice. His sadness came with anger bubbling under the surface like a snake rattling its tail.
Ramona shuddered. She hadn’t prepared him for the replica, and now she wasn’t sure how she would. She busied herself making dinner, while she worked through her latest painting in her head. Once she had surrendered to the probability that she would never amount to anything, creativity flowed freely through her veins. When judgment flew out the door, freedom breezed in.
“Looks good,” David spoke at the meal instead of to his wife.
“I need to talk to you,” sad Ramona at the same time. Her presence annoyed him, his scared her. “At dessert.” She bought them both time. The wound of loss had not yet scabbed over. Whoever imagined as they said their vows, the territory two people could tread? “Sickness” and “health” were broad words loosely interpreted.
As dessert dwindled to an end, David looked at her. “What’s the surprise?”
“What?” She barely registered the man ahead of her, shaking in and out of focus like a hologram. There was a lump in her throat. For a moment, he loved her. He took her chin in his hand and moved her face, as if he were about to kiss her.
“I have a lot of work to do,” he said after a spell, and went to his study, where he often spent another eight hours after work, undoing and redoing the day. She took out her confusion on the dishes, and then settled in the living room with her journal, eventually falling asleep. For a few hours, there was silence. Maybe even peace.
At the witching hour, she heard the unmistakable cry of a newborn. Probably, she thought in a stupor, it belonged to one of the neighborhood girls – women – who were always having babies. They taunted her, pushing them in prams proudly, bearing almost no traces of exhaustion on their pristine, made-up faces, looking like French women in stylish clothes and effortlessly coiffed buns.
Just as she was about to fall asleep again, another cry rang out. This time, she knew it was coming from within her own house. She stood carefully. The floor was cold and creaky beneath her feet, and she did not want to disturb David. She crept down the hall, the cat following closely at her ankles. The closer she was to the baby’s room, the louder the cries became. Ramona darted into the nursery. Something was whimpering in the crib. The pit in her stomach expanded to her throat. Her chest was tight, her eyes welled up. Inside the crib the baby squirmed and fussed. Reaching inside, she felt a calm wash over her. She pulled the replica out of the crib and sat on the rocking chair. In a dream state, she began to sing.
Her song was interrupted by the door swinging open. “What the hell is this?” David demanded from the doorway.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” is all Ramona said.
David pounded on the wall behind her with his fist, his first display of passion in months. The screams of the baby grew louder, as if through a surround sound system. And then David began to cry, his sobs extending out over the baby and his wife. She had wanted the baby so badly it almost killed her. She didn’t realize he was broken, too. He had begged her to have an abortion when it became clear their baby wouldn’t live. She’d refused, and gave birth anyway, the pain of which she never imagined could befall one human being. It was the pain of the whole world.
There were tears in the eyes of the baby in her arms, now. But this baby isn’t real, she told herself. A disembodied voice only she could hear whispered back, “It’s as real as you make it.”
In one swift movement, David stepped towards his wife and grabbed Esme with his meaty hands. He ran to the window, flung open the screen, and held the baby above the street. Now, he was laughing.
“Catch!” he screamed to a figure below. Ramona watched in horror as Esme flew through the air, landing in the arms of a stranger on the street. She didn’t care that she was in her pajamas, half naked under her thigh length robe. She flew down the hall, unlocked the door, and ran into the road.
“Give me my baby,” she screamed at the unwilling participant in this war. The person held tightly to the baby as Ramona tugged. She pulled hard enough that she released the replica but overestimated her own strength. The baby flew out of the stranger’s hands and into the middle of the road. A car, unknowingly driving through a crime scene, ran over the baby as it rounded the corner.
Ramona ran to grab Esme, who was now missing an eye.
David walked over from the porch and put his arm around his wife. “You’re having a meltdown. I’ll take care of you.”
I’ll take care of you, she thought, and made a plan. The next morning, she would be extra affectionate with him. Not too affectionate, as to not make him suspicious, but just enough to make him feel safe, normal again. Then, when he was fast asleep in the night …
David’s eyes fluttered as he breathed deeply, sleeping hard. Ramona almost felt bad, almost stopped herself, until she remembered her baby flying into the street. Getting hit by the car. Dying. Twice ripped from her arms. She couldn’t stand it. She would hurt David in the most feral way she could come up with. She gazed down at her red nails in the moonlight, talons really, stilettos. They were bright, cheerful. So was she, as she took her left hand and placed her pointer and middle fingers over David’s eyelids, pressing down. In her right hand was the knife which she plunged into his heart over and over. He didn’t even scream.
The shop was dark when she pounded on the door, hoping Tobias was the type to live above his storefront. He was creepy, but creepy and shady was exactly what she needed right now. BANG BANG BANG, on the door. Please. She couldn’t afford for anyone to hear her. To question her. How did a tiny woman like you carry your dead husband down the stairs, into the garage, and sit him in the car like a crash test dummy, and drive at warp speed to Tobias’ replica shop at midnight? People gain extraordinary strength in times of need, she would say. A mom holds a car in the air to rescue her child. Ramona carried her husband down the stairs to not be charged with murder. It’s all the same.
David was in the car still when Tobias came to the door.
“Stop pounding,” he said. “You’re going to wake them!”
“Wake who?” Ramona asked. The other buildings in the area were shops as well. The owners couldn’t all live above their stories. But then she saw what he was referring to. Dolls stirred in the windows of his shop. Sweet, sleepy-eyed little babies.
“What is it that you need at this hour?” he prompted.
She pointed to the car with the key, hit the unlock button, and the lights flooded on. David, eyeless, stared ahead in the darkness.
“Do you make husbands too?”
Erin Karbuczky is a Lead Bookseller at Powell’s Books, and an avid reader and book collector. Her mission as a bookseller is to unite each person with the perfect book for them, so that they may grow to love reading as much as she does. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their cat, and a head full of stories aching to share with the world.