Rosalie, you were not meant for the Darkness by Cole Beauchamp

I want to take my baby to the park, but she wouldn’t be safe, not with real children around.

Not like I get the chance anyway, on the night shift. Don’t get me wrong, I’m working towards days. But even after five years, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole.

If it weren’t for my dad, I wouldn’t have this job. Those few bucks more doing night shift mean I can save a hundred a month, not just get by. All the best-paying jobs at Gem’s Supermarket – night shift, frozen foods, the meat department – are held by men. Dad got me in cause he’s tight with the night boss. “She distracts my guys, she’s out,” he warned us.

So I keep my hair scraped back in a low pony. Wear sweatpants and hoodies – I still fit a boy’s size 14 so they’re cheap. Keep my eyes down and my mouth shut while Vinny trash talks his girlfriend, Bill drones on about fishing, and Ivor brags about how many bags of recycling he fills with beer bottles. This week: three.

I’m saving to get us our own place. I’m twenty-three and it’s time. Can’t wait for somewhere that smells clean. Where things match. Where you don’t have to look over your shoulder every five minutes.

Rosalie, I can hear my mom say, you were not meant for the darkness. Flowers belong in the sun.

And she’s right. But it’s not for much longer. Dad’s done his best, I tell her. He’s done what he could.

I’ve been talking more to Mom since I adopted Gabriella. One of the best moments of my life was when she arrived. The smell of her as I held her that first time: honey and freesias. Pure girl. The softness of her skin. The comforting weight of her in my arms.

I’m not delusional. I know Gabriella’s not a real baby. She’s a Reborn. But the sculptor has put such care into making her. Real eyelashes. Tiny fingernails. You can’t help falling in love with her.

The love is real. That’s what they say in the Reborn chat rooms. I’ve found so much support there. So much understanding.

Found judgement too, don’t get me wrong. During those two months of agony while I was paying the instalments, I posted my due date. I was feeling high as a kite. Then I saw SugarPie’s message: How are you preparing? Post some pics of the nursery.

Nursery? I stared at my phone and felt my heart hit my shoes. Not sure about a nursery, I typed back, I’ve spent all my savings just to get her.

It hit me then. The stupidity of spending three hundred dollars on a doll, when I barely had enough to cover groceries. And now I was in for a crib? I pressed my hands against my eyes. Do. Not. Cry.

I emptied the ashtrays, scoured the kitchen counters, threw away some moldy cheese and disinfected the fridge. Couldn’t resist another peek at my phone before lowering the blind against the daylight for some sleep.

SugarPie: I adopted my first Reborn 3 years ago. No one can stop at 1! Here’s my nursery now. And that room: changing table, bassinets, mobiles, a shelf – a whole shelf – of Reborns, plus toddlers holding onto a buggy and two older dolls. There must have been four thousand dollars’ worth of dolls and furniture in there.  

I shut off my phone. Tried to sleep while the light glowed behind my curtains. My dad coughed, a rough, raking noise. I tried to remember the sound of my mother’s voice, singing to me as she cooked in the kitchen. Reciting, Now I lay me down to sleep.

When my alarm went off, I heard sirens wailing. Tires whooshing against wet roads. On my phone, a comment from HumptyDumpty: Don’t worry about it; I was flat broke when I got my first Reborn. Find a cardboard box and decorate it. Use stuff from magazines. You two will be fine.

HumptyDumpty was right. We are fine.

I started taking Gabriella shopping at the Piggly Wiggly across town, where no one knew me, for some Mommy time. So many compliments! It’s easier with strangers. I rotate her three outfits: a onesie with strawberries, a yellow dress with ducks, an adorable set of bibs with a fire engine.

It was HumptyDumpty who encouraged me to talk to my dad about Gabriella. She said he might think it was strange at first, but if I talked about how much she’s helped me, he’d come around. What man doesn’t want to see his daughter happy? she said.

I told him last week. Waited until pay day, when we were drowsy from pizza-overload and beer. When I brought Gabriella out, the silence stretched tight like elastic about to break. All the things we never say – Mom, love, absence, grief – were popping in the air. The tv blasted ads about chopping knives and carpet cleaner while I wished I’d never listened to HumptyDumpty. This was my personal private business. What did I expect, brandishing this innocent baby in front of him? What had I been thinking?

Our movie came back on and still my dad hadn’t spoken. I traced the familiar lines of his face, thinking they were like hard grooves now. Baked in. He’s going gray on his sideburns.  

It’s a good name, he finally said.

And that was it. I put her on my lap now when we watch tv. I carry her in a Baby Bjorn facing forward when I cook. She has the most startling blue eyes, like she’s taking everything in. Her little mouth is open as if she’s about to make a sound. I often wonder what her voice would sound like.    

Today I asked my dad for a car seat. He looked at me for a long time, head tilted. Sizing me up. Finally he nodded. Have to be Christmas, he said.

We can wait.

Cole Beauchamp is a copywriter by day and a fiction writer by night. She’s been longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition and the Fish Short Story Prize. She lives in London with her girlfriend, their two children and an exuberant Maltipoo. You can find her on twitter at @nomad_sw18