Memory, Reborn

📅 Published on March 20, 2021

“Memory, Reborn”

Written by Christa Carmen
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.20/10. From 5 votes.
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When I drive, pell-mell, to the hospital for the birth of our first child, I never expect we’ll be leaving without the baby.  I certainly never anticipate making the trip home with a doll buckled into the infant carrier, all glass eyes and vinyl limbs.  The doll is what’s known as a reborn doll, transformed by an artist to resemble a human infant with as much realism as possible.  It’s wearing the outfit meant for our daughter and covered with a receiving blanket.  As I maneuver through traffic, I keep my eyes on the road; Cara installed a car seat mirror as part of our hospital preparations, and I don’t want to catch sight of the doll in the backseat.

“Go slower,” Cara admonishes me, though I’m doing thirty in a forty-five.  The psychologist told me the doll might help to soothe the pain of losing our daughter, but didn’t offer up any advice for how to react to my wife’s immediate preoccupation with it.  I want to tell Cara it doesn’t matter how fast I drive.  I could flip us over a guardrail, and the doll would be no worse for the wear.  Of course, I don’t say this.  I’m not cruel, just pragmatic.  But I suppose pragmatism isn’t prudent this early in the process.

And that’s a good point, I remind myself.  This will be a process.  One I hope includes a clear-cut end.  The psychologist also didn’t say anything about when Cara should lessen her reliance on the doll.  How will I know when enough is enough?

“Do you want to stop for something to eat?” I ask, allowing my stomach to lead my mind away from difficult subjects.  “I’m really hungry, and you must be too.  The hospital food wasn’t all that great.”

Cara purses her lips.  “I really want to get Desi home,” she says.

I nod, but grip the steering wheel tighter.  I could have gone without giving the doll our daughter’s name.

I pull the car inside the garage and carry in the hospital bag, but leave the infant carrier to Cara.  She’s up the stairs and in the nursery before I can ask if she wants me to unpack.  I go to the bathroom and chase a couple of aspirin with a very large glass of water.  Even from down the hall, I can hear her singing lullabies and cooing.  A moment later, there’s a sound like a metal drawer sliding open followed by a muffled thump; Cara’s putting a diaper inside the bin.

This is fine, I tell myself.  Really, this is fine.  This is what Cara’s supposed to be doing to heal.  What did I expect when I agreed to this intervention?  Besides, if the doll is allowing Cara to hold it together this well, I should be singing that psychologist’s praises.  Me, I’m sad too.  Crushed, if I’m being honest.  But I know it’s not the same.  I didn’t carry our baby inside me.  That we were having a baby at all still wasn’t real to me yet.  When Cara held out the reborn doll under the fluorescent lights of the hospital room, I glanced at it, then looked away.  I don’t need a doll to get over the loss, despite the psychologist’s comment that in order to accept what had happened, it would be helpful to feel like a father first.

So when I’ve dumped the robe and phone chargers and toiletries onto the bed and hung up the bag in the closet, I decide that, rather than play make-believe with Cara, I’m going to play video games.  I poke my head into the nursery to tell her she can find me in the living room if she needs me.  Cara looks disappointed, but rearranges her features quickly.  The new expression is one of contrived understanding.

“If that’s what you have to do right now, Brad, I’m not going to stop you.  You’re going to have a different path to acceptance, I get it.  But are you sure you don’t want to hold Desi for a little while?  I’m going to feed her in a couple of minutes.”

I wince.  I can’t help it.  The whole thing’s so…unnatural.  “That’s okay,” I say, “You play with…Desi for a bit.”  I spin away from the room and hurry down the hall, wishing I hadn’t caved and used our daughter’s name.

Hours pass in the space of a sandwich and a bag of chips, as they’re apt to do when I’m playing a first-person shooter game.  Cara materializes in the doorway around eight-thirty.  “I just put the baby down.  You coming to bed?  I set my alarm for two hours from now to nurse her.”

This time, I’m able to refrain from scrunching up my nose, anesthetized as I am from the gunshots and screams.  “I’m going to stay up a bit longer,” I say.  “I’ll be in soon.”

She turns to go, and I force myself to call after her, “Hey, Car, are you doing okay?”

The smile she fixes me with is a thousand-watt bulb.  There’s no sign of grief in it anywhere. “I am,” she says.  “I’m really happy.  I couldn’t love that baby girl any more than I do.”  She walks from the room, and I turn back to my controller, but the thought of my wife trying to breastfeed a hunk of plastic overshadows my on-screen mission.  I’m going to have to call that psychologist tomorrow.  It’s the only sensible thing to do.

* * * * * *

But I don’t call the psychologist.  For one, I don’t have the woman’s number.  For another, though Cara is still leaning hard into the role of mother, she looks a lot better today.  There’s a glow to her skin and a peace in her eyes that makes me think a little more fake-it-‘til-you-make-it couldn’t hurt.  And while I’m still against the idea of reborn dolls myself, my renewed commitment to accepting Cara’s unorthodox approach to grieving results in a morbid curiosity to get a better look at imposter Desi.

Cara announces she is going to take a shower after breakfast.  She pronounces the doll asleep and places it in the living room, inside a bassinet.  I sense she’s getting ready to ask me to watch it, but thinking better of the idea, positions one of the baby monitor cameras in front of it instead.

I spoon cereal into my mouth, feigning obliviousness to Cara’s movements, but when I hear the shower running, I creep from the kitchen to the living room’s far wall.  Peering around the end table as if examining roadkill I suspect may still be alive, I take my first good luck at our “Desi.”

The doll is swaddled in a mint-green blanket with only its small bald head exposed.  I’m surprised—and unnerved—by its realistic features.  Its tiny mouth is pink as a rosebud.  Its ears are well-formed.  Its skin has the imperfect, matte-finish of the newly-born.  Without warning, the doll moves, sinking an inch lower where it lies.  A frisson of fear pulses through me before I realize the bassinet has a rocking feature.  Cara left it on the highest setting.

I return to the kitchen and chug the rest of my energy drink; Cara may have gotten up twice for imaginary feedings, but my sleep was plagued by troubling dreams.  Dreams in which instead of no baby at all, I came home from the hospital with hundreds of daughters.  Cara was absent from this dreamscape, as nonexistent as a ghost, and with endless mouths to feed, it didn’t matter how hard I tried to keep up.  The babies were dying, but instead of tiny bodies, lifelike dolls were piling up.

I woke sweating and breathing heavily.  When the fragments of the dream had subsided, I was shocked by the extent of the relief I felt.  Maybe, in some horrible, backward way, it was a blessing we came home alone.  Maybe I wasn’t as ready to be a father as I thought, and even a doll was more than I could handle.

Cara returns from her shower a few minutes later.  She looks refreshed and ready to take on the day.  She swoops into the living room to collect the doll, claiming that it’s time for another feeding.  I stay out of the nursery, puttering around the garage and haunting my old Nintendo console in the basement, cringing when I hear Cara proclaim it to be “tummy time” or catch a strain of her humming “You Are My Sunshine.”

And so it goes for the next six days until I can’t take it another minute.  Cara must have started playing YouTube clips to up her milk supply because I’ve been waking up to the sound of a baby crying once or twice a night.  Why she would need to increase her production is anyone’s guess.  There are bags of breastmilk on every shelf in the freezer.  My patience is wearing thin, and my nerves are completely shot.  Cradling a doll to lessen the grief is one thing; feeding breastmilk meant for our daughter to a doll christened with her name is something else altogether.

Worse, Cara has become less and less willing to leave me out of things: “Do you want to help me give Desi a bath?” she’ll ask as I’m making my way to the sofa.  Or, “Do you want to help me put her to bed?”  I can only distance myself so far; our house isn’t exactly a mansion.  So on the Thursday before the weekend of an annual out-of-state work conference, I jump at the chance to get away.

“But you’re on paternity leave right now,” Cara argues.  “Are you allowed to go?  And why would you even want to?”

I lie and tell her my boss said they could use the extra body.  The reality is I had to finagle a loophole within HR.  “You’ll be fine,” I say, and any guilt that I’m feeling is driven out by the sight of my wife cuddling that stupid doll.

* * * * * *

The work trip is exactly what I needed.  The Media Buying Summit in Quincy is always far less work than play.  George and Gary are up for drinks right after Friday evening’s welcome session.  It isn’t my idea to hit the strip club, but nothing gets your mind off problems with the wife like a half a dozen Cuervo shots from between another woman’s tits.

I pay for my discretions with a killer hangover Saturday morning, but by dinner, I’m ready to go at it again.  Gary bought some coke off one of the strippers the night before, and after half a gram, I see the solution to the whole Cara-fake-baby-thing as clearly as see-through stripper heels.  Sunday night, on the flight back, the solution doesn’t seem quite so black-and-white, but it still strikes me as a better option than living in a real-life Black Mirror episode.

The idea is to put a stop to the charade the second I walk through the door.  To delete the crying baby YouTube history and dump the breastmilk down the sink.  To rip the doll from Cara’s arms and do something drastic to prove how inanimate it is, like throw it against the wall or out a window.  I drop my luggage by the closet and creep closer to my wife. Cara is asleep, the reborn doll secured in the crook of her elbow.

I watch her for several minutes, the serene expression on her face, the rise and fall of her chest. The doll is angled toward the wall.  It is dressed in a unicorn-print sleeper.  Shadows obscure its face.  I picture the scene had there’d been a different outcome at the hospital: a proud father gazing upon the two people who make up his entire world.  A father who’d rushed home from a weekend away to see his baby.

Cara had always known she’d wanted children, but she hadn’t pressured me or rushed it.  We’d had a nice, fulfilling married life prior to Cara becoming pregnant.  Still, her deep-rooted comfort with the idea of being a mother shook me.  Made me feel inadequate and unmoored.  I might go so far as to say it caused a rift between us.  A rift that widened with each day we came closer to her due date.

I back away from the bed, unable to go through with my plan.  Unable to literally tear happiness from Cara’s arms.  I sleep on the couch, and in the morning, I wake to the sound of Cara reading the doll a story.  Stomach clenching with pity, I decide to go for a jog.

The morning is quiet and cool, the first March day that really feels like spring.  I forego my headphones for bird trills and the rhythmic pounding of my sneakers.  I try to lose myself in the monotony of exercise, to let myself feel normal and unburdened.  When the sun-dappled pavement is dispersed by images of the doll, I mull over possible solutions yet again.  I stop short when one occurs to me, startling a pair of chittering squirrels.  I let out a bark of laughter, baffled as to how I didn’t think of this before.

I will call the hospital and ask to be put in touch with the psychologist listed in our chart.  I’ll request a follow-up appointment, and when the doctor sees how Cara is still behaving, she’ll take it upon herself to intervene.  I’ll be absolved of any insensitivity or unkindness toward my wife.  I’ll probably be praised for bringing Cara in.

Satisfied anew with my powers of problem-solving, I turn around and start for home.  When I burst into the kitchen, Cara is there, infant carrier at her feet.

“Desi’s sleeping,” she says, zipping up a lightweight fleece.  “I’m going to take her for a walk, and I think you should come.  It will be good for us to get some fresh air.  Plus, you and I can catch up.  We haven’t had much opportunity lately to talk.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I say, too quickly.  “I mean, about the walk.  We can talk later.  But I just went for a run.”  I go to the sink and turn on the faucet.  As I pour myself a glass of water, Cara walks over and puts a hand on my arm.

“In that case, you’re already dressed and ready to go.”  She pauses.  “I really need you to come with us. It’s important.  There’s something I want to say.  We’ll wait for you outside.”

I’m about to decline again, more forcefully, and excuse myself to take a shower, when I decide to abandon yet another of my plans.  This is actually the perfect opportunity to talk to Cara about the reborn doll.  We’ll be outdoors, in front of all our neighbors; she’ll be less likely to make a scene.  God forbid we see the psychologist and she is of the opposite opinion.  I won’t be able to handle it if she insists Cara is fine, that the grieving process is right on track.

I take a few sips of water and place the glass on the counter.  “All right,” I say, smiling.  “Sure.  I’ll come with you.”

We take a left out of our driveway and head down the hill toward the park.  The morning is even warmer now than when I set out for my run, yet Cara has some sort of covering over the stroller.  I’m grateful to be spared the sight of the doll’s face.  Cara asks me how the summit was.  I force myself to sound chipper and rattle off the few details that weren’t swallowed by cocaine and bad club music.  “Overall, it was super low-key,” I finish lamely.

She nods and smiles at me strangely.  It’s a smile that says she doesn’t quite believe me.  I look away from her, see the Dufresne family across the street, and wave.  Colin Dufresne is pushing a stroller of his own.  His pregnant wife walks next to him, a bounce in her step.  He looks stricken, underwhelmed with being a father and yet overwhelmed with the responsibilities it entails.

We take another left onto High Street.  The park and our town’s clay-roofed library are in sight.  I’m relieved to see that the park’s myriad paths are peppered with people.

“Brad,” Cara says.  I can tell she’s about to say something I don’t like.  I should have broached the subject of that horrible doll before she could.  Should have known this walk was a trap.

“Hm?” I say, as if distracted.  “Oh, hey, you know what, Cara?  At the summit, George was saying how he and Mary want to get together.  We could meet them for dinner one night this week.  It’s been a while since we’ve been to Zeke’s Steakhouse.  You could get that sole dish you love so much, and—”

Cara interrupts, “That sounds…good.  Maybe.  But Brad, I’m trying to ask you something.”

We’ve reached the first bench beyond the entrance to the park.  The sun reflects off the surface of the pond. Cara had commented once, when she was about seven months pregnant, that she couldn’t wait to bring our daughter to feed the ducks.  Cara said a lot of things like this over the nine months she was pregnant, to the point where I started wondering if there was something wrong with me.  I couldn’t picture any of it, the training wheels, the skinned knees, the birthday candles and school plays; the milestones were like reflective, slippery minnows that swam through my brain, impossible to catch.

“Did you ever actually want to be a dad?” Cara’s question brings me back to the present.  It’s not what I thought she was going to ask, but it’s just as bad.

“I…” I say, with no godly idea what to say next.

Sensing I’m at a loss, Cara bites her bottom lip, then plows forward.  “You said you did, when we were first dating.  And again, after we were married.  But it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I realized your heart wasn’t in it.  By then it was too late, though of course, I still hoped you’d get on board.  Like the psychologist said, it’s different for men, I think.  I figured you’d undergo some sort of shift once I was really showing.  When it didn’t happen then, I prayed it would occur when the baby was born.”

Two women with big, fluffy dogs walk by, and Cara has the decency to go quiet.  She fixes them with a small, distracted smile when they pass.  There’s another woman by the pond, in gym clothes, stretching out her hamstrings.  Across an expanse of grass, a policewoman stops by the fountain and waves to a group of skateboarding kids.  The kids, hooting with laughter when one of them narrowly avoids a fall, wave back.

I return my gaze to Cara to find she’s studying me intently.  “When Desi was born,” she says, her voice much softer now, “I thought it would finally sink it.  I thought you’d want to be her dad.”

This is too much.  I snort and look at my wife with derision.  “What does it matter now, Cara?  Why are we discussing this?  You’re mad that I’m not being a father to our child, but guess what?  There is no child to father!”

“Look at her,” Cara says, ignoring my outburst, ignoring reason.  “I want you to look at Desi’s face.”

Before I can protest, she pulls aside the blanket over the stroller.  I turn toward the trees, but she grabs my arm.  “No, Brad.  Look.  No more running away.”

More furious with Cara than I’ve ever been in my life, I peer down, ready to scream out something childish like, “Fine, I’m looking!” or “There! Are you happy now?”  I find I can’t scream anything.  I can’t even whisper.  Bile clogs my throat like a stop in a drain.  Inside the stroller is no doll.  It’s a baby.  A real, living baby.  A baby of flesh and fingernails and a wet, pink tongue.  “Cara,” I finally choke out.  The word is alien on my tongue, so blown is my mind at what’s she’s done.  “What is this?” I croak.  “Where did you get this baby?”

She is trying to find an excuse, some explanation for the impossibility that’s before us, but I pull away from her, unwilling to hear what she has to say.

“Did you…take her from someone?  Did you go back to the hospital without me knowing?  I thought they had alarms on the babies, locks on the maternity ward doors.  Do you know who she belongs to?  Her parents must be mad with worry.”  My voice has risen from an accusatory screech to a full-blown yell.  From beside the duck pond, the woman preparing for a jog looks up sharply.  I’ve attracted the policewoman’s attention as well.

“We have to give her back,” I say.  I need to make Cara see reason.  “Have to return her to where she came from.  What did you do, Cara?  What did you do?”

“Brad,” she says, and her tone confuses me.  She sounds worried for me, not worried at my having discovered what she’s done.  “Brad, I need you to listen to me…” but before she can get any further, the policewoman has materialized at her side.  The woman from the duck pond stands a few paces behind the policewoman.  They are looking at Cara protectively, a duo of meddlesome mama bears.  “Is everything okay here?” the policewoman asks.

“It’s my husband,” Cara says.  “He’s…confused.”

“I am not confused!” I shout.  “This is insane!  She stole this baby.”

The policewoman’s eyes narrow, but she doesn’t immediately drag Cara away in handcuffs.  “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here,” she says.

“My husband,” Cara repeats, “is having a hard time coming to terms with fatherhood.  He thinks…he doesn’t realize that this is his baby.”  I open my mouth to protest, but the policewoman holds up her hand.  “Let her finish,” she says.

“The psychologist at the hospital,” Cara continues, “she said this was a good idea.  I had my doubts, but now I’m certain it wasn’t the right thing.”

“No shit!” I scream at her.  “You’ve lost your damn mind.  You kidnapped a baby.”  I wait for the bystanders to turn their outrage onto Cara, but it doesn’t happen.

“No, Brad.” Cara’s tone is calm, but direct and commanding.  It’s so unfamiliar that I’m shocked into silence.  “This is our baby.  You had a breakdown at the hospital when she was born.  You couldn’t come to terms with being a father.  You couldn’t deal.  When the doctor held out the scissors for you to cut the umbilical cord, you froze.  You disappeared inside yourself.  The psychologist encouraged me to use the idea of a reborn doll as a bridge.  Sort of the opposite way reborn dolls are intended.  Instead of using a doll to accept the idea that you wouldn’t be a father, I’ve been trying to get you to think of our baby as a reborn doll until you can see that you already are one.”

I stare at her as if she is insanity, personified.  Which, of course, she is.  “Oh, honey,” I say, suddenly overcome with pity.  “It’s okay.  I should have seen how much you were hurting.  I should have never gone to the conference and left you alone.  But you have to stop this.  We have to bring this baby back to the hospital.  We have to get you help.”

Cara and the policewoman exchange a look.  I can’t tell what, if anything, passes between them.

“Our baby died,” I say more softly.  “You took this one from some poor mother and made me believe it was a doll.  And now you’re trying to make me seem crazy.”

Like a magic trick, Cara pulls a card out of her pocket and hands it to the policewoman.  “This is the name of the psychologist who saw him at the hospital.  She said to call her if there was any trouble.”

The policewoman looks at the card then back at me.  “Should we give this doctor a call, then?” she asks.  It’s not really a question.  She pulls out her phone.

I dart forward and reach for the stroller, intending to rip it from my wife’s hands.  Cara cries out, but reacts more quickly than I expected.  She pulls the stroller out of reach.  Something comes over her then.  She’s not nervous.  Just sad, and resolute.  There’s something in her eyes like steel.  Like flint.

“Just give me that doll,” I yell.  “I mean, that baby.”  This time, I lunge for Cara not caring if I grab her or the stroller.  My fingers brush the handle, but the feeling of triumph is short-lived.

The electrical current of the policewoman’s taser courses through me.  My brain shakes in my skull like a peanut in a jar.  I manage to stay on my feet for several seconds by sheer chance.  In another second, I’m down.

From my position on the ground, the silt on the surface of the duck pond looks like velvet.  It is quickly eclipsed by the policewomen’s scuffed shoes.

* * * * * *

When I’m driven, pell-mell, to the hospital for evaluation, I never expect to be admitted to the psychiatric unit involuntarily.  I certainly never anticipate making the trip with a doll on my mind, my memory of which is born of either an absurd truth or an even more outlandish lie.  As the policewoman maneuvers through traffic, she keeps her eyes on the road; she doesn’t want to catch sight of me in the backseat.

Following my emergency room admission, I’m taken up an elevator to the seventh floor.  Though I was inside this hospital a little over a week ago, it’s unfamiliar.  “The psych unit is as far away from the maternity ward as possible,” the nurse tells me warily when I voice my observation out loud.

There’s another intake interview to endure, and then I’m led to my room.  This wing is ancient compared to the rest of the hospital, and the walls are papered in an ungodly mauve Damask that looks like a bruising sky.  I sit.  I stare at the walls.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  With my hands.  I’m startled from my thoughts by a skinny twentysomething in scrubs.  He sticks his head into the room, nods, and marks his clipboard.

“They’re passing out the dinner trays,” he says.

I grunt in response, and he shrugs, then disappears from the room.  I try to assess whether or not I’m hungry, but decide it doesn’t matter.  I should be trying to sort out my memories.  My memories and my motivations.

All I can do, however, is stare at the walls.  The longer I stare, the more the sickly purple pattern resembles the color palette in one of my favorite video games.  If I squint, and let my mind wander, I can just see the start of a mission, the endless, jagged terrain of a shadowy field at dusk.  Hidden dangers and lurking detractors take shape.

This isn’t that bad.  Better than listening to Cara fawn over a creepy doll-baby, all glass eyes and vinyl limbs.  “I’ve gotten out of it at last,” I whisper, and the wallpaper shifts.  My thumbs twitch, like I’m manipulating a game controller or stroking the skin on a baby’s soft, soft face.

Rating: 9.20/10. From 5 votes.
Please wait...

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Christa Carmen
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Christa Carmen

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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