Jocelyn saw the box propped against the front door when she got home from work at four-thirty.
Her heart tap-danced with anticipation. The package felt sturdy in her hands, weighing several pounds and measuring two feet in length. Bright red letters stamped on all six sides instructed her to “Handle with Care.” According to the return address, the package came from her Uncle Charles and Aunt Mercedes.
A gift from Italy, perhaps?
Smiling, she stepped into the apartment. How generous of them to think of her while they vacationed overseas! Jocelyn set the package on the kitchen table and searched one of the drawers for a pair of scissors. As she fumbled among the pens and clothespins and paperclips, she couldn’t help but feel a bit of selfish gratitude that her aunt and uncle were childless. Her parents (whose primary idea of parental duty consisted of paying the rent on her apartment while she attended college) didn’t bestow half as much attention upon her as Charles and Mercedes. A niece or nephew would certainly have detracted from that. Twelve years of marriage, however, had produced no children. Now that her uncle had reached fifty, Jocelyn hoped the threat of potential offspring had passed—even if Mercedes was only thirty-six.
Scissors in hand, she stood before the package like a warrior ready for battle. The packing tape seemed glued to the cardboard, and she gritted her teeth as she sliced through it. Flexing her fingers, she pulled open the flaps and peered inside.
Another fierce round with the cardboard freed the wooden receptacle from its prison. Jocelyn shoved the packaging aside and studied the object on the table before her. Its simple construction consisted of two metal hinges and a latch. The craftsman hadn’t bothered to sand it; she’d likely splinter her skin if she ran her fingers over the rough surface. The piece was too ordinary. Too plain. Surely there must be more to it?
Jocelyn laid the box on its side. Flipping the latch, she opened the lid.
A bundle of yellow fabric greeted her. She reached out to touch it and felt something solid underneath the velvet threads. Pulling back the honeyed folds, she started.
For a second, her eyes had tricked her brain into believing that she was looking at an actual child.
“It’s just a baby doll, dummy,” Jocelyn said, chuckling as the sensation passed.
What was it made of? Most dolls Jocelyn had seen were either porcelain or vinyl. This doll’s skin felt soft and rubbery. Its brown limbs glowed as if they had been kissed by the sun and then massaged with baby oil. Its tiny fingers displayed creases at the backs of the joints; authentic-looking nails adorned their ends. Examining the arms, she discovered dimples at the elbows. Folds of fat accentuated the forearms and thighs. When she inspected the head, she was amazed to discover that the short dark hair had been sewn into the scalp in clusters of three or four strands. Now that’s what you call a real labor of love, she thought. Long chocolate lashes complemented minutely detailed tawny irises. Beneath them, a small nose and plump coral lips led to a rounded chin.
She ran her fingers lightly over the doll’s gown and rubbed the white material between her fingers. It felt like silk. Handmade too, I bet. The garment was plain except for yellow lace at the cuffs and hem.
“Well,” Jocelyn said after a moment of contemplation, “I admit that you’re a remarkable piece of work, but what was Aunt Mercedes thinking? I’m a little too old to be collecting toys.”
An hour later, after Jocelyn had showered and eaten dinner, she noticed an envelope on the floor by the sink. It must have fallen—fluttering silent and unseen through the air—out of the box when she had thrown it away. Jocelyn snatched at the parcel greedily, excited to see her name scrawled upon it in that oh-so-familiar script. She hurried into the living room, ripping open the envelope along the way, and curled up on the couch. She could almost hear her aunt’s voice as she read the words, written in dark blue ink.
Your uncle and I have just been to the wonderful city of Lauria. On our second day there, we met a very special woman—in a very special line of business. She invited us to her villa where we drank wine and talked for hours. I spoke of you as well. You are, I said to her, everything that I would want in a daughter and more. Our new friend agreed to make this doll especially for you.
Charles and I paid a dear price for this little gift. I hope you will appreciate its exceptional quality.
With love, Aunt Mercedes
Jocelyn’s gaze wandered over to the armchair where she had placed the doll. A shaft of sunlight pierced the air above its head, producing a crown of dust fairies. Now, as she studied the doll from a distance of several feet, Jocelyn had the uncanny thought that it was familiar to her somehow—as though she had seen it before.
“Not possible,” she murmured. With a dismissive shake of the head, she returned to her aunt’s letter.
After a long day spent working at the library, during which a hostile elderly patron berated her over his late fees, Jocelyn hauled her groceries into the kitchen and shoved them unceremoniously into the freezer.
She needed music. Or something with ambient sounds. A thunderstorm? A bubbling creek?
She looked at the CDs, which she kept on a shelf beside the television. She ran her finger along the spines and stopped at an album labeled “Rainforest.” She began to pull it out and paused. Turning, she looked about the room.
There was the bookcase, with its small collection of novels and media; a 32-inch flat-screen; a cherry-colored entertainment console, inside which she stored a few photo albums; a coffee table; an armchair that had once belonged to her maternal grandmother; and a beige sofa with flat cushions. Her gaze fell upon the armchair now. The doll was there just as she had left it, listing to the right with its cheek pressed against the fabric.
Jocelyn walked over to the chair and extended a hand. The doll’s head felt warm where the sunlight had bathed it throughout the day. Impulsively, she picked up the doll and hugged it to her chest. He didn’t have to be so nasty, she thought. I was only doing my job. She lowered her chin and breathed deeply. For a moment, she felt lightheaded and slightly off-center. Then her aggravation disappeared. When she set the doll back in its place, she imagined its tiny pink lips curled downward.
Before she went to sleep that night, she watched on old drama on one of the movie channels. She became so emotionally wrapped up in the characters’ story that she actually sobbed when the lead actress died in her mother’s arms. A few scenes later, however, the sentimental outburst had run its course.
Jocelyn gave a baffled sniff as she pointed the remote at the television.
What on earth is wrong with me? She held the doll at arm’s length, her fingers absently massaging its scalp as she reconsidered the film’s deathbed performance.
At length, she stood. Returning the doll to the armchair, Jocelyn turned off the lights and left the room.
Distracted by her thoughts, she failed to notice the errant tear that had left a glistening track on the doll’s cherubic cheek.
Aunt Mercedes called the following afternoon. “Your uncle and I would like to treat you to lunch tomorrow. Are you up for it?”
“Definitely! I’m totally free,” Jocelyn replied. “What time should I be ready?”
For the remainder of the day, Jocelyn waltzed about the apartment in a euphoric haze. She hummed when she dusted and vacuumed, giggled at nothing while she folded the bath towels. Jocelyn hadn’t seen Charles and Mercedes since they’d departed for Europe two months ago. How she missed them! How she would babble like an excited child when they finally greeted her. How she would laugh as though drunk on champagne while her uncle regaled her with their adventures abroad. And oh, how she would linger on every word, her eyes never leaving their animated faces…
Jocelyn fell asleep that night, giddy with expectations. Even her dreams were pleasant, coaxing a smile from her while she slumbered.
Her eyes fluttered open with the rising of the sun, and she gazed through the curtains at the sky. As she stretched under the sheets, her gaze slid downward. She gasped.
There, tucked against her side, lay the doll. Its full lips seemed to smile at her in the morning sunlight.
Jocelyn grimaced. Had she actually gotten up in the middle of the night and carried it with her to the bed? She hadn’t slept with a toy since she was ten years old! Disgusted, she thrust the doll away from her.
For breakfast, she drank orange juice and ate two slices of dry toast. Afterward she spent half an hour sorting through coupons. She focused on the essentials (bread, fruit, etc.) and tossed the rest into the recycling bag. When she looked at the clock and realized that her aunt and uncle wouldn’t arrive for at least another hour, she grabbed a novel and sat on the sofa to read.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” She concentrated on the words, turning page after page, not looking up until a knock sounded at the front door.
Jocelyn set the book on the coffee table. Standing, she tugged on her blouse and brushed the creases out of her skirt.
“Uncle Charles, Aunt Mercedes,” she said upon opening the door. “How good to see you.”
Immediately, Jocelyn recognized the journey’s salubrious effects upon her uncle. The six-week excursion had slimmed his waistline and deepened his tan. Despite his thinning blond hair and the crow’s feet at his eyes, he looked youthful. Her uncle held out a hand, his naturally buoyant expression suppressed.
They shook hands like old acquaintances. Jocelyn turned to her aunt. Mercedes studied her with unmasked interest, her eyes scanning every inch of her face.
“What’s happened to your lovely smile, dearest?” she asked. “You really are happy to see us, aren’t you? Should we reschedule lunch for another day?”
Jocelyn raised the corners of her mouth into a smile, but the expression felt hollow.
“That’s much better,” Mercedes said, hugging her. She released her after a soft squeeze about the shoulders, and the three of them headed into the living room. “Charles and I thought we’d spend a few minutes here with you, to see how you’re faring. Have you been enjoying your summer vacation?”
“I have more time to catch up on literature now,” Jocelyn replied. “I need to familiarize myself with as many of the classics as I can. Especially since I want to continue working in the public library system.”
Mercedes glanced at the paperback lying facedown on the table. “What are you reading?”
“Tolstoy?” her aunt replied with raised eyebrows. “He’s rather dry and depressing, isn’t he? I had to read one of his stories in college. Can’t remember a thing about it, except that I threw the book across the room and accidentally broke my brother’s basketball trophy.” Mercedes pointed at the book. “You don’t actually like it, do you?”
“The characters are interesting.”
Jocelyn sat on the chair by the window. The sun touched her neck and shoulders, warming her like a heated blanket.
“You sounded so enthusiastic about Italy in your letter,” she said. “I’d love to hear about it.”
“It was—by far—the best trip we’ve had since our honeymoon,” Mercedes replied as she and Charles settled onto the sofa. “We loved Italy so much we didn’t want to leave. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” She turned to Charles, who touched her knee and smiled.
“Definitely,” he agreed.
“Especially Lauria,” Mercedes added.
“Where exactly is that?” Jocelyn asked.
Mercedes cocked her head to the side. She appeared chic in her white summer dress and matching sandals. “May I see the gift we sent you?” she asked, raking the room with her eyes.
“The doll?” Jocelyn replied. “It’s in the bedroom.”
“Ah. Keeping you company at night?”
Jocelyn frowned. “Of course not.”
Mercedes laughed. “No need to be so serious, Jocelyn. Maybe you should consider giving Tolstoy a break. Hmm? If you’ll excuse me a moment,” she said, rising from the sofa and leaving the room.
“She looks happy, doesn’t she?” Uncle Charles remarked, staring at the space in the hallway where his wife had just passed through. He sounded pleased and looked it too. But Jocelyn now thought she detected some tension around his mouth. Perhaps their vacation hadn’t been without its troubles after all?
Mercedes returned with the baby doll. She supported its bottom with one hand and guarded its torso with the other, the fingers spread widely apart. Her face glowed with an emotion that Jocelyn couldn’t define; her dark eyes sparkled.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Jocelyn looked at her aunt, perplexed. “She?”
“Yes,” Mercedes said. She rejoined Charles, resting the doll delicately on her lap. “You see, we decided that we wanted a girl. Boys are too messy, too rough in manners.”
Jocelyn shifted in her chair. What was Mercedes talking about? She glanced from her aunt to her uncle and then to the doll. And suddenly, she felt stuffy and sick. Her temples pulsed; her stomach churned.
That’s why it looked familiar.
Whether from good intentions or ill, the dollmaker had taken features from both her uncle and her aunt and blended them into this thing—as if it were a real child born of their genetic makeup.
Jocelyn tried to swallow, but her throat felt like sandpaper. The sun shone upon her, hotter than ever.
Why was her uncle staring into his hands? And why was her aunt suddenly peering at her with such intensity?
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Mercedes placed the doll between herself and Charles and reached inside her purse. “I wanted to show you these beautiful silk scarves I picked up in Venice.”
Jocelyn’s shoulders drooped with relief. Yes, she would be happy to talk about scarves. Anything other than the ghastly doll.
Mercedes pulled out two pieces of fabric. One was red with white birds, the other white with red leaves.
“Tsk tsk,” she said. “There’s a spot on this one. I’d better rinse it first.”
“Uncle Charles,” Jocelyn said when it was just the two of them again, “is Aunt Mercedes okay?”
Her uncle nodded. “Never been better. Everything’s as it should be.”
Jocelyn didn’t know what else to say. Her uncle met her gaze only for a second and then spoke to the floor. For the first time in her life, she felt awkward with him, a man who was more like a father to her than her actual father ever had been. Shouldn’t that make me sad? Jocelyn wondered. But sadness suddenly seemed like a foreign emotion, a concept that she understood but couldn’t feel.
Mercedes returned with the scarves and held out the red one first. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
Jocelyn nodded. The fabric, still damp from its bath, felt softer than flower petals.
“It smells heavenly too,” Aunt Mercedes said. “The shop owner spritzed it with perfume before she wrapped it.”
Jocelyn pressed the scarf to her nose and inhaled.
“It’s sweet,” she murmured.
Jocelyn glanced upward. She blinked several times and squeezed the bridge of her nose. The room tilted out of focus. The furniture looked misshapen: the coffee table pulsed with distortion; the sofa curved like a snake.
“What… I can’t…”
Her head tilted forward, a weight too heavy for her weakened neck muscles to hold upright. The fabric fell from her relaxed fingers. As she struggled to draw enough oxygen into her thirsty lungs, her vision turned white.
When she opened her eyes, she saw her aunt and uncle seated on the sofa, the doll on her aunt’s lap.
“How do you feel, dearest?” Aunt Mercedes asked.
Jocelyn tried to lick her lips, but her tongue was dry. “What happened?” she rasped.
“You took a little nap, that’s all.”
Jocelyn wanted to raise her hand but couldn’t. She looked downward. A whirlpool of confusion struck her dumb. Was she hallucinating? Why had her wrists been handcuffed to the chair?
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Why am I like this?”
“You must realize,” her aunt began, “that although you’ve been a wonderful niece, it’s just not the same thing. We need a child of our own.” Pressing a hand to her bosom, she sighed. “Charles and I tried to conceive for nine years without any success—and we’re aging. We can’t wait any longer. We need to have a baby before we begin to lose our vitality. And the doctors just can’t seem to help us.
“Charles and I had finally given up hope. Then we had the good fortune to meet Renata. Bless her heart, what an amazing woman! Renata said that she knew of a foolproof way to solve our problem. Do you understand what I’m saying to you, dearest?”
Jocelyn shook her head—partly in answer to her aunt’s question, partly in an effort to dispel the fog in her brain.
“Your uncle and I discovered an alternative method. Given our past failures, we agreed that it was our only viable option.” Staring soberly into Jocelyn’s eyes, she continued: “We were willing to make the sacrifice.”
Jocelyn tightened her hands into fists; her back went rigid with apprehension. Sacrifice? What sacrifice?
But her uncle continued to study his shoes. Did he not hear her soft-spoken plea? She repeated his name, and the corner of his mouth twitched.
“Here, sweetheart, hold your daughter,” Mercedes said, turning to him.
To Jocelyn’s dismay, her uncle held out his arms and allowed Mercedes to place the doll within them.
A wave of nausea struck Jocelyn, and she gagged. The truth tasted like a bitter cordial on her tongue. Rational adults would never immobilize her, and they certainly wouldn’t coddle an inanimate object as though it were a living being. She worked her arms against the restraints, but the knotted fabric held fast.
“Have you ever thought about what it is that makes us human? I mean, truly human?” her aunt said. “Bones and tissue constitute the physical part. But what about the intangibles? Yes, that’s right. It’s our emotions that create us, Jocelyn. Anger, sadness, joy… fear. Without them, we’re nothing inside, just dolls.”
Mercedes opened her handbag. Reaching inside, she withdrew a long sewing needle. She touched the point tentatively.
“Give me your hand, Charles.”
Like an obedient subject, Charles removed an arm from about the doll and placed his hand in his wife’s outstretched palm.
“Uncle Charles?” Jocelyn whispered.
Her uncle stared at the doll, his lips parted in anticipation.
Jocelyn flinched when Mercedes pricked her uncle’s forefinger with the needle. Blood stained the tip. As her aunt set the needle down on the coffee table, a bright red droplet trickled onto her dress, a few inches above the hemline.
“Support her head properly, sweetheart.”
“Of course,” Charles mumbled.
When he had cradled the doll’s head against his chest, Mercedes leaned in. Holding Charles’ hand, she pressed the bleeding finger to the doll’s mouth.
Jocelyn groaned. Had the doll’s lips moved? Had they parted, ever so slightly? She clenched her teeth and jerked her head. I’m imagining things.
Mercedes picked up the needle again and pierced her own finger. She performed the task stoically, her features firm with purpose. When the blood appeared, she repeated the process. She rubbed the doll’s celluloid lips, applying the blood like lipstick.
“It’s noon,” Mercedes said, glancing at her diamond-studded Gucci watch. “Right on time.”
Standing, she turned to Jocelyn.
“Where’s the yellow cloth?”
Yellow cloth? For a moment, Jocelyn thought that her aunt had spoken in her native Spanish tongue. The question didn’t make sense. As she puzzled over the words, their meaning suddenly unjumbled. “I washed it with the towels.”
“That’s just like you,” Mercedes said with a smile. “Always so considerate.”
Her aunt left the room and reappeared moments later with the fabric in her hand. Returning to Charles’ side, she used the material to blot the blood on his finger. When she finished doctoring him, she tended to her own wound. Then she wrapped the needle in it.
“There,” she said. “Now, we just need to make sure to burn everything at midnight.” She stuffed the bloodied cloth into her purse and snapped it shut. Leaning into Charles’ shoulder, she asked: “Has it started yet?”
Charles shook his head.
Has what started yet? They can’t really think that…
Before Jocelyn could complete the thought, she witnessed the “it” her aunt and uncle were waiting for. She groaned again and closed her eyes. But blindness could not block out that noise—the distinct sound of two small lips smacking together.
A morbid curiosity to see what was happening warred against her growing fear, compelling her eyes to open.
The doll’s gown rustled. A slight palpitation appeared in the white fabric where the heart would be if it were a living, breathing child. But it’s not real! Jocelyn’s mind screamed. It’s just a doll. It’s not real! The thing began to wriggle in her uncle’s arms. It raised its chubby arms and stretched its fingers; it kicked its legs. At last, a shrill cry rose from its nascent lungs.
Charles exhaled joyous laughter. Mercedes finally relaxed. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She buried her face in her husband’s shirt collar and sniffled.
“Don’t cry little one. Daddy’s here,” Uncle Charles murmured. He rocked the baby on his knees. Right away, its newborn wail dwindled into a series of gurgling noises. “Did you remember the formula?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mercedes replied. She drew away from Charles, giggling and wiping her cheeks with the underside of her wrist. “What kind of mother do you take me for?”
Eagerly, she held out her arms for the creature. Charles handed it over with care.
“Time to show Jocelyn the new baby,” Mercedes said.
Jocelyn squirmed and bucked, but the scarves held her arms securely in place. “Keep that thing away from me!” she yelled. She kicked, but Mercedes skirted her shoeless flying feet with ease.
“Be nice,” her aunt said in a stern voice as she knelt at Jocelyn’s side.
“I won’t look at it!” Jocelyn leaned into the chair and turned her head. “You can’t make me look at it!” She squeezed her eyes shut, determined to stay that way forever if necessary.
Fingers caressed her cheek.
The light touch triggered a memory long buried with her childhood. It surged to the surface, vivid with detail as if it had only happened yesterday.
It’s a mild spring day. Mommy and Daddy are sitting by the pool with Uncle Charles. The yard hasn’t been mowed yet, and the grass is filled with weeds and buttercups. Jocelyn picks one. She rubs it against the tip of her nose, thinking that Uncle Charles will like seeing her with yellow dust on her face.
She drops the used flower and reaches out for another. She doesn’t see the honey bee hiding among the stems. When the insect crawls onto her wrist, she’s mesmerized by its black and yellow stripes. She draws it closer to her face and… Suddenly her arm hurts like there’s a tiny fire beneath the skin. She cries. It’s the first time she’s felt this kind of pain. What is she supposed to do?
Before she can run to Mommy, a woman kneels before her. She’s beautiful, with kind eyes and brown hair that falls to her elbows. “You must be Jocelyn,” she says with a smile that shines brighter than the sun. “You’re even sweeter than Charles described.” The woman takes her to the guest bathroom and tends to her wound. Afterward, she wipes the tears from Jocelyn’s chin. “What a lovely child,” she says. “My sweet, precious Jocelyn—
The two voices collided. Jocelyn opened her eyes. She expected to see the nurturing face of her aunt, the woman who had always treated her like a daughter.
She saw the child instead.
Child. Her brain defined this thing as a child. It looked so natural, so innocent.
Its eyes, an unearthly blend of its parents’ blue and brown ones, locked upon hers. And in that moment, one single emotion consumed her.
Jocelyn screamed. The primal, wordless strain echoed throughout the apartment. Nothing could stop it. She would scream until nothing remained inside of her.
Mercedes leaned forward and pressed the figure to Jocelyn’s chest. Tears of desperation fell from her eyes. Her aunt pressed the bundle closer. The child squirmed violently against her blouse, its cool skin absorbing her warmth. And more. The lightness returned. It permeated her body, creating an ephemeral high.
Jocelyn quieted as the sensation faded. She looked down at the baby, resting against her. Suddenly it began to holler. Its moist lips quivered with the exertion. Its fat cheeks turned crimson. Was it afraid of her? Jocelyn kept her eyes trained upon the howling infant as Mercedes withdrew it.
Behind them, Charles rose.
“Our reservation is for one o’clock,” he announced. “We’d better leave now if we plan to get there on time.”
“Your uncle booked us a table at Rosalind’s,” Mercedes said to Jocelyn. “You can have your favorite dish—the stuffed chicken, with broccoli and cheese on the side. You’ll like that, won’t you, dearest?”
“Of course,” Jocelyn said.
“Isn’t your cousin beautiful?” Mercedes asked, cradling the baby in the crook of her arm.
“Yes,” Jocelyn replied after a moment’s thought. “She’s beautiful.”
Mercedes stood. As she rubbed the baby’s back, she gave the impression of someone who’d been a mother for years. “We’ll wait for you two outside.”
Jocelyn remained still as her uncle untied the scarves.
“How are your wrists?” Charles asked. “I asked your aunt not to tie them too tightly.”
She bent both hands back and forth, like a seal waving its flippers to an audience. “They’re fine.” It was true. The material hadn’t even left a mark on her pale skin.
Jocelyn walked into the foyer and slipped on her shoes. From the open doorway, she saw Mercedes placing the baby in the backseat of their Lincoln Navigator. Its crying had stopped. The scene was so peaceful. So domestic. In the pine trees beyond, a pair of mourning doves cooed.
“Don’t forget to lock the door,” her uncle said as he walked past her. “You can’t be too safe. Even in a good neighborhood like this one.”
“Yes, Uncle Charles.”
Jocelyn grabbed her purse, closed the door, and turned the key. She even twisted the knob to double-check that it was secure.
At her uncle’s prompting, she slid onto the front passenger seat. Steady fingers fastened the seatbelt out of habit. She listened, without comment, to Charles and Mercedes’ amiable chatter. She observed, without seeing, the landscape as it whirred by.
All happy families are alike?
Jocelyn clasped her wrists.
I don’t think so, she decided. I don’t think that’s true at all.
In the recesses of her mind, a little girl walked into a windowless cell, and its steel hatch, without a handle, slammed shut.