Blackness. Emil was standing in a void. Unable to see. Unable to hear. He was holding something that began to move. Something wet.
He looked down to see himself holding a pulsating mass of organs. A tiny thing, in the approximate shape of a human. Intestine curled around the mass this way and that, clumped together and extended in places to give the impression of limbs. The brain was in the wrong spot, nestled against the stomach in the quivering lump's center. The heart, beating furiously, lay above a pair of milky white eyes that fixated upon him.
It started to shriek.
The shrill whine of his infant daughter pierced him. He watched as the mass writhed and contorted in his hands, smacking its lips and grasping at him with its pseudo-arms. Emil wanted to vomit. He wanted to run screaming mad, to never have to rest his eyes on something so horribly wrong. He wanted to just forget.
The crying grew in a horrible crescendo. Louder and louder. Losing any semblance of humanity and becoming a mechanical screech of an alarm clock.
Emil drug himself up, and silenced it. He sat in the silence of the bedroom for a moment, running shaky hands through his hair and letting out a pathetic whimper. Over his shoulder, he could see his wife, Julia. Her face was wrenched up in stress, a stream of tears rolling down her cheek. There was a time he'd wake her from her nightmares. A futile effort, he learned, as they came most nights regardless.
"It's just the stress," the doctor would tell them. "It isn't real, it's simply your mind's way of coping with what happened."
When they would try to explain how impossible it was for them to share precisely the same flawed memory of their stillborn child, the doctor would nearly dismiss it. The mental image they shared of their daughter, according to the doctor, was merely a product of the young couple reciprocating and reaffirming each others delusion.
Had they brought it upon themselves?
Where did they go wrong? Hadn't they done everything right? Everyone around them had complimented their commitment. They took every class, read every volume, took the right vitamins; they had even cultured an immaculate environment for a natural birth at home. There were no holes, no flaws in their planning. Everything was perfect. They were supposed to be perfect.
He'd only woken up, and already Emil was a nervous wreck. Lifting himself up, he made his way towards the bathroom for his meds. The door to the empty bedroom adjacent to it lay open.
It hurt too much to look in there. He shut the door, choking up at the sound of the click.
Emil flipped the bathroom switch, squinting in the sudden glare. The pills lay next to the sink. Emil popped one of the little blue pills into his mouth and gagged from the bitter taste, and stared down the specter in the mirror.
He wasn't perfect though was he? There were so many little things he could have done better, right? It was all his fault. It had to be. The broken thing that clung to their mind's eye, penance. Conjured from their subconscious and layered over their recollection. The entire thing had been such a blur.
As much as they were urged by both friends and family, they wouldn't dare try for another. How could they expect to raise a child, when they couldn't pull themselves together?
Emil trudged back to the bedroom, the night terrors suddenly more appealing than his waking life. Upon crossing the threshold, he stopped dead in his tracks.
There was a stranger in his bedroom.
A wretch of a woman. Dirty, cracked nails traced circles on his wife's temple. Julia slept soundly though, and didn't stir. The intruder didn't seem to notice his presence. Emil slowly worked his way towards the corner of the room, making sure to keep his eyes on the crone. He reached out blindly, feeling for something, anything to defend themselves with.
He averted his eyes for just a second, spotting his old cricket bat.
Immediately, Emil had completely forgotten why he had been reaching for it in the first place. He grasped the bat, staring at it and turning it over in his hands. What had gotten him so worked up? Something seemed off. Before placing the bat in its place, Emil looked up and realized they had company.
A woman, youthful and lithe, was crossing the room towards him. The shredded clothing she wore revealed a peculiar horizontal scar across her stomach. There was a glow about it, a brilliant luminescent blue.
Her lips did not part to speak, the words instead arched seamlessly into his consciousness. A neutral, icy monotone that belied her femininity. She reached out towards him.
Emil was glued to the spot, unable to reply aside from an incoherent stammer. Her fingers brushed against his temple.
Thick, impermeable darkness. Back in the void. That weight in his arms. The screaming.
It wasn't just the child though. He heard his own voice, and that of his wife's. The darkness began to recede. Light and form penetrated the nothing that surrounded him. An odd feeling of déjà vu crept over Emil.
He was home. It was their big day, but Julia was screaming; incomprehensibly at first, but slowly, Emil could begin to make out her speech.
"…skin! Oh God! Where is her skin?"
A bright flash. He was fumbling with his phone, hyperventilating.
Another flash. Cradled with Julia and the little one. Trying to stay calm. She's still moving, so she's still alive. There's still hope. They just had to hold on long enough for the ambulance to arrive.
Another leap in time. There were paramedics accompanied by security guards. Most of them remained silent, save for one who was consoling his wife. They moved with diligence, stone-faced and efficient, unaffected by the gruesome scene. Everything was cleaned and disinfected.
They brought a tiny cot for the little one, and carried her out. The two of them had to stay behind for now, the woman who seemed to be in charge had said so. It was a delicate situation, she explained, it would all make sense soon.
The last thing he felt was a sharp pain in his neck.
Before Emil opened his eyes. He had fallen to the floor. The Woman in Rags offered her hand, and helped him to his feet. He noticed that her wound was absent. Eyeing him coolly, she spoke, "I felt it from the street. I could feel the scar." With this, she raised a finger, indicating her temple.
"You mean, we're not… I'm not—"
Delusional? No more than any other man.
The stranger turned away, slowly walking towards the far wall. Those men you saw, they couldn't heal it. They instead tried to bury it; and so untreated, it festered. She paused. If you'd like, I could remove it entirely. It is within my power to obscure her visage from your conscious. You won't have to look upon it.
He stole a glance at Julia, and looked back to the stranger.
She met his gaze, answering before he could ask. I opened her mind whilst she slept. I showed her Truth. We had our words, she made her choice.
The promise of blissful ignorance was tantalizing. Could it really be so simple? Could such a thing be neatly tucked away? Isn't this what he had prayed for? She was offering a chance to move on. An opportunity to finally be free.
Free from what, exactly? He had been given clarity, and context. The image of their daughter had not been supplanted by their guilt manifest, it was not some twisted memento superimposed over their reality. It had always been her. She had always been a real person, if only for a short while. Could he possibly consign her memory to oblivion?
"No. Thank you, but no."
At this, the stranger nodded, and passed through the wall, into the night, and out of his life.
Emil crossed the room and collapsed into bed, sick and dizzy from a swirl of emotion. To the surface, above the pain, above the sorrow, above the regret, rose relief, gratitude, love. It was a time that should be remembered, however fleeting. A life that should be cherished, however fragile. An existence that should be celebrated in all its beauty. This one last, little bit of her deserved to live on. In their hearts, in their memories.
In their dreams.