“Her hair was blonde, but more white-blonde than yellow, see?”
Charles focuses on where the man’s shaking finger stabs the photo before him. The woman is wrapped in a red sundress with daisies vivid enough to be real raining diagonally across the fabric. Strands fly loose from her ponytail like wisps of cotton in the wind. Her mouth is bright with laughter beneath green eyes mushed into crescents by full, pink cheeks. She’d had a nice face, a kind one; a face that was likely quite plain and smooth as milk when not adorned by a smile. Charles pinches the bottom corner of the photograph between index finger and thumb, attempting to take it for reference. The man resists for a moment before letting it slip away. His fingers extend, then curl in on themselves. “Can you do it?” he asks.
“Sure,” Charles says, a bit too flippantly. Seeing himself reflected in the man’s eyes, his expression softens. “Yes. Yes, I can.”
The man’s smile—a slow unfurling of relief and hope—might have been enough to sate a man with no worries to speak of. But Charles has a home to maintain, and is thus forced to ask for payment.
The bodies slump in the corner. Empty eye sockets gape at nothing in particular. Arms, legs, fingers entwine. This immobile audience oversees Charles at his work, silently critical. He presses the faux skin to its muscle and bone gently, gently. He must wear gloves. It is paramount that the identifying ridges in his fingertips do not mar the surface of the doll. That sort of error would shatter the illusion; the figures must appear to be of nature’s making. After completely clothing one arm in a pallid sheath of faux skin, Charles removes one glove and shakes the open hand with his eyes closed, careful not to squeeze too tight. Yes. It feels as though he is palm to warm palm with a young someone whose hands—and heart—are not yet callused. Success. Now, on to the rest of the body.
“You can’t keep doing this,” Esther says. She peeks over Charles’ shoulder, gazing at him from the creased corners of her eyes. Dark hair jumps loose from her generously pinned head to fill the space between her eyebrows. She uses a finger to bury the mutinous strands more deeply within the bouquet of curls straining to blossom from her head.
“I know,” Charles says, but keeps working. His client had already made a downpayment.
“It won’t help him. In the end,” she says. It isn’t conjecture. Her vacant eyes rove his workspace for the umpteenth time. Bins brim with synthetic hair. Eyes made of resin nearly spill from an open drawer, their glossy irises brown, blue, hazel, green, and gray. Nothing but the amount of things ever changes here. It grows and shrinks to reflect the passing of days and slow-spinning celestial bodies—neither of which she has ever seen.
Charles fingers the bodiless arm delicately. It is coated in a self-heating substance, with firm rubber muscles that egg-roll plastic bones. Charles uses a time-tested mixture of additives together with silicone sourced from foreign retailers. It had taken him over a decade, but he’d finally hit upon the perfect combination of ingredients to make the skin of his creations feel eerily human. The earlier models were passable, but this is a level of realism most could only imagine. If he hadn’t forfeited the majority of his life to this trade, which could only be whispered about in alleyways and deserted rooms, he might feel proud. As it is, he feels only a penetrating weariness.
Esther rests her round, little-girl chin upon the careworn shoulder of her maker. “Did it help you?” she asks.
“I’m not lonely anymore, am I?” Charles answers. Asks. He presses a plastic fingernail hard against the drop of glue meant to fasten it in place. Esther watches Charles’ skin turn an angry pink through the viewfinder of his thumbnail. He releases the pressure. The pink softens to a pale peach. “I can’t imagine my life without you,” he says, refusing to meet her stare. She could always pull the truth from him but, like a splinter, it hurt no matter the direction it traveled.
A slow grin crawls into place beneath Esther’s nose, settling there. “Of course you can.” She kisses the hard salt & pepper stubble on his cheek. If she had any blood to let, her pricked bottom lip would grow a single bead of it for her to lick away. “That’s why I’m here.”
Like every day since the one on which her eyes first clicked open and locked onto his in recognition, Esther is right. She is always right.
In bed at night, his body yearns for hers. The long withdrawal from physical intimacy still has the power to bathe him in a cold sweat after all this time. He reaches forward in sleep, hoping to catch hold of her warmth, but Esther has her own room downstairs. She does not require sleep, but enjoys her privacy nonetheless. Sometimes, when Charles passes by her closed door, he hears her speaking softly to Madeline, the doll he once made for her out of burlap and handkerchiefs after months of Esther crying for a companion of her own. With every stitch, jealousy had eroded him further. Was he not enough? That’s not what she meant and he knew it, she’d said. So he’d finished cobbling Madeline together out of the least appealing materials he’d had to hand in hopes that Esther would feel the lack and crave his touch instead. But Esther was quite satisfied with Madeline as she was. He would have made Esther a doll out of his own mottled, brown skin had she asked. He would have done anything. Absolutely anything.
“Thank you! Oh, thank you!”
“Hello, Daniel,” the doll says to the overjoyed man. Her hair is more white-blonde than yellow, and her face is smooth as milk. She looks like the woman from the photograph as a child on the cusp of womanhood, and always would. The adult-sized models never functioned properly for long, so Charles stopped making them in favor of smaller figures with longer lifespans. The people who came to him did not mind, for they were so hungry for a glimpse of their lost loved ones that any version of them would do. His latest creation looks happily now upon her guardian. Her stiff new skin only allows for quarter moons when she smiles.
“I can’t begin to tell you—” Daniel’s voice snags on its way out. He grips his savior’s hand tighter.
Will it help him in the end? Beyond the initial burst of joy at seeing his beloved once more, Charles knew that, in time, a new platoon of emotions would creep in under the cover of sunshine. Questions the man never thought he would ask if granted this most important wish will shake the soil from their dogged heads as they emerge. Chief among them?Is all this—the motherless creation and the repeated grief that is its cost—really worth it? Because the doll will die. Over many years, Charles has settled on three answers. The one he would give a customer, the one he would give to a colleague if he had one, and the one he knew in his heart to be true.
Surely, a person could hurl what-ifs into the wind forever.
“I’m…glad you’re satisfied,” Charles replies. He permits a small smile to ripple his otherwise placid face. Let the man figure out the answer on his own. Who knows—it might be different than any the doll-maker can conceive. Charles will never know either way.
Daniel hands Charles a pouch heavy with coins and leaves the café, arm-in-arm with his new, old friend. Her fading laughter chimes in harmony with the tinkling bell above the door.
He had assumed he would forget her eventually. Or the strength of his want at the very least. The mockingly large eyes, a brown as deep as decaying autumn leaves. The desperate way she gripped her utensils as she ate. Laughter that was always hesitant to be heard. Dark hair like wool that somehow always sprang loose to fall into her eyes regardless of how steadfastly she pinned it. Skin the color of wet cinnamon, supple as wet clay. The creases in her forehead that had been there since birth, a stubborn marker of an age she would never reach. The finer details should have waned over time. But everything she had been was still as crisply known to him as on the day they first met, and he refused to let them wink out of knowing. Those who learned of his occupation and asked that great favor of him were only ever allowed one doll. When it died, that was that. He refused to let anyone else exist in the very particular hell he had cultivated for himself until it bloomed, soft and agonizing and infinite. Infinite because every time she died, he rebuilt her.
“Esther, do you wish for another life?” Another of those unbearable questions that had swum the lengths of him since her first resurrection.
“No,” she answers, quickly and to his great relief. “I cannot imagine a life other than the one I have.”
“You can have any life you choose,” he replies. His words are jagged. Pained. She stares at him with the fourth pair of eyes ever to look at him that way. An eternity elapses.
“I choose this life,” she says, finally. “I know you feel an emptiness, and I am happy to fill it.”
Charles’s mouth contracts to its smallest point. “I don’t need you to fill my empty spaces. I want you to be happy,” he says. Maybe if he repeats the words often enough, they’ll become true. Wood into flesh; no puppeteering required.
“It’s alright,” Esther says. Her voice is flat, but not unkind. “I don’t mind that you need me.”
The missing will never reach its end because he will never let it. She will live as long as he does. “I’ll give you anything you ask for,” he whispers. Misery and ecstasy enfold one another in a consumptive embrace as he shuts his eyes against the hanging light.
Esther brings her elfin hand to his face and smiles. “I ask only for this life. With you.”
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her fiction has been published in The Fat City Review online, LitroNY.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys.