by Erin Cecelia Thomas
Beacon Street Prize Winner, Fiction, 2021
I had been embroidering dead people on pillowcases for seven years before I ran into any trouble. It was a long, quiet stretch of time, during which I sat in the front room of my house at a small table, colored embroidery floss hanging around me like a web, stitching in the light of the window.
I’d started seven years ago because seven years ago was when Miller died. We’d been married only three years, two months, and eighteen days. That meant there were only three years, two months, and eighteen days where I got to wake up next to him as his wife and see his face on the pillow next to mine. Sometimes serene and still, sometimes slack and twitching, sometimes already awake and looking around the room like he was readying himself to get up and become part of the world again. Sometimes he was already looking back at me, his toes essentially tapping in anticipation. When we first got together, I spent a few nights camped over at his place, and I would feel his hands reach over in the barely-there blink of morning light and rustle me awake so I would turn to face him. Then he’d want to talk or kiss or just be there, awake, together.
“Let me sleep,” I’d beg. “It’s barely six.”
After a while I’d started to snap at him, some mornings when I was particularly tired. And he’d apologize, eventually explaining, “You know why I wake you up so early every day? It’s because I can’t wait to see you.” It made me roll my eyes, but it was also the first time I ever considered that maybe I would spend the rest of my life with just one person.
Eventually, Miller learned to sleep in and then we’d take turns waking up first and waiting for the other. After he was gone, especially in the early days—like for instance, three years, two months, and twenty days after we were married, or three years, two months, and thirty-six days after we were married, I’d lay with my back to his side of the bed, begging a phantom limb to reach over and shake me. My fists clenched hard and white with wanting. I longed to be woken before six, or to never be allowed to sleep again.
So Miller’s was the first face I embroidered. My mother taught me to sew when I was young, and after years of doing other things instead, things like drinking and running and working, things I did whether I was lonely or not, I dug her old case of floss, hundreds of bobbins of glossy color, and her needles and hoops from the back of my closet.
You’d be surprised how many colors make up a white man’s face when you really look at it—violet, blues, browns, yellows, pinks, and that’s just the skin. Dark slashes of chocolate brown for eyebrows, flits of black for lashes. One thousand tiny stitches for the hairs of his stubble. Twelve shades of blues and grays for his irises. Two moles, a scar on his chin, a left nostril that was slightly larger than the right. I stitched my dead husband on a pillowcase to be sort of funny, to try to snap myself out of it with dark humor, and I figured that maybe I’d put it on his pillow for a night or two, freak myself out, then pack it away. I thought that sewing it would be my grieving process, concentrating so hard on his face that I would wean myself from ever wanting to look at it again. Once the last stitch went through, I thought I would be able to roll over in bed and sleep again. But that didn’t happen. Actually, the opposite—lying next to that pillow, turned sideways so it would look back at me, I suddenly found myself unable to get out of bed at all. I took a leave of absence and lay with my knees curled to my chest, staring at that pillow all day, sometimes flipping it over and sobbing into its soft, cool underside, smooth as Miller’s back had been. The only time I was able to get myself up was late at night, when I’d crawl into the kitchen and bring boxes of crackers, toaster pastries, and cereal back into bed with me. With us. I let the mess accumulate in an embarrassing way that the real Miller would not have allowed, but it didn’t matter anymore; his lips were sewn shut and I could do what I wanted. This went on for weeks until my sister Margaret finally pried her way into the house and demanded I get up and rinse myself off.
“Honey, I know,” she kept saying, even when I hadn’t said anything. She took one look at the piles of boxes and plastic wrappers hiding in the bedding, and she speed-dialed her own cleaning service to come (“ASAP!”) and sweep away the Froot Loops and rainbow crumbs. She glanced at my Miller but her eyes kept moving, like all she could see was the mess I’d made.
“It’s on me,” she said of the service, by which she meant she would pay for it because she knew I wouldn’t. Margaret left when the cleaning woman got there, as I’m sure she did whenever it was her embarrassing mess being cleaned, but I refused to leave with her. My eyes were used to the dimness of the house.
The cleaning woman was shorter than me and built like a small tank. I envied the look of her strong calves under her cropped cargo pants, and the way she moved through my house so surely. I followed her around and watched her clean like it was something I’d never had the chance to learn. She dug through the blankets and removed package after package, shaking bits of cookies out of the sheets. As she flipped blankets, the pillow came into full view. The woman looked at Miller’s face for a long time, then reached a hand toward it. She stopped and looked back at me.
“Is it okay to touch?” she asked.
“Your husband,” she said.
We stood there looking at Miller and he looked back at us.
“You made it?” she finally asked.
“Will you make one for me? I’ll pay anything.”
I felt myself nodding again, without even pausing to consider.
Most of my customers were widows or widowers like myself. Occasionally, I got a wildly heartbroken youngster who had just been dumped by a boyfriend and had somehow come across me on the internet, probably by typing in “something to waste money on when you’re desperate,” and in these instances, I made sure to issue an official form, signature required, stating that all orders were final and there were no refunds under any circumstances to protect myself from that inevitable moment when there was a new boyfriend in the mix and he was sufficiently and understandably “weirded out” by his girlfriend’s pillowcase with some other sixteen-year-old’s face on it, perhaps even the face of someone who they rode the school bus with every morning. My hours and hours of work were unable to be refunded due to the fickleness of children.
In seven years, I did hundreds of faces. I used every color of DMC-brand floss available, just for faces. I only accepted a job if the buyer had an adequate picture of the subject, which was most of the time, but sometimes I got someone who thought they could just describe a person to me and I’d be able to nail it. I’d turned people down for the following reasons:
“Here’s the picture. She’s the one in the second row, far right. You can just about make out her face.”
“But can you do him with blond hair instead? And blue eyes? Blue was his favorite color.”
“He looked like Brad Pitt.”
“Here she is. But can you make her look twenty years younger?”
“He actually looked a lot like our dog. I only have a picture of her. As a puppy.”
And I’d only ever done two animals—both dogs, both of whom were the only family members the buyers had. I charged fair prices for the faces, but enough to make a living from. I rarely spoke to or saw anyone, and in that way, it was perfect.
The trouble came along with Thea. Thea herself was not the problem. She came to me with a typical story of a deceased husband of twenty years and a clear, close-up photo. She didn’t have any questions or concerns. Her husband was handsome and a pleasure to stitch. He required mostly earth tones, a spread of pink in his smooth cheeks, and long stem stitches of dark hair with lines of pearl floss woven in near the temples. Thea asked for him exactly as he was in the photo, taken on an ordinary day when he was forty-six years old, the year she said she found him “most beautiful.” In my reply to her email, I found my fingers itching to type back that I knew that feeling; there wasn’t a certain year I found Miller most beautiful, but rather there was a certain time of day. But I stopped. I did not speak of myself to customers.
Thea lived in town, so I made a home delivery once her husband was complete. I delivered directly when I could so that I could spare myself the worry of having a package lost in the mail or stolen off a front porch.
Thea had a slender oval face and dark features, which would require careful shadows stitched around her angular bones, a couple of French knots for beauty marks, and a few lines of age near the eyes, if she were the dead one. But she wasn’t; instead, she was the one who opened the door after I knocked and waited. She asked me inside and I agreed, which I usually never did, but I loved something about the sparse white walls I could see behind her and the sweep of chestnut floors, the wood grain chasing itself in spirals before my feet as she led me down a hall and into a kitchen.
“Sit,” she said, motioning to a table, fingering the box I’d given her at the front door. Thea’s nose was small and pointed. Her skin would have been an alabaster or coconut floss.
She set the box on the table and sat. She offered me water, which I declined.
“My daughter won’t like this,” she said, looking at the box. I opened my mouth, frowned with my eyes, then closed my mouth again. I almost said, “No refunds,” but I knew that wasn’t what Thea meant.
“She’s already put away so many photos of Henry, she’d put all of them away if she could. My daughter. She thinks it inhibits me from moving on, Sascha does. That’s the trouble today, isn’t it? Too easy to just clear things away, too easy to just hit ‘delete.’”
“Mmmm.” I nodded.
“But she doesn’t fool me,” Thea continued, sipping at her own glass of water. “She’s still even more heartbroken than I am. She just hides it. Can’t control her own emotions so she wants to control mine.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Why do you do it?” Thea asked then. “Why pillowcases?”
There were so many places in the room to look besides her face but I couldn’t find any of them.
“Sleeping is something we argued about,” I said. “So this is my final concession. He was right. We should have spent more time lying awake in bed, looking at each other.”
Thea opened her mouth to respond and I abruptly pushed back my chair and stood.
“I’ll leave you to it,” I said, nodding at the small box on the table.
“Oh.” Thea stood and walked me to the door.
“Does your daughter live here?” I asked suddenly, standing in the doorway.
“She does. She’s in college, studying psychology. She’s very busy.”
Thea smiled and I watched the ways it changed the colors of her face.
“Thank you, Alyse.”
“Enjoy,” I said ridiculously, and walked away.
It took Thea’s daughter three days to find the pillow, if Thea had even bothered to hide it. I had just finished replying to an email asking if I did family portraits (“No.”) when Sascha’s message appeared in my inbox.
I am writing in regards to an order you recently filled and delivered to my mother, Thea Zugravescu. While well-made and true to detail—almost disturbingly so—I must ask for your assistance in convincing my mother to abandon the item and return it to you for a refund. I only have her best interests at heart. I’m sure you understand.
Dept. of Psychology
I stared at the message for a while before I hit ‘reply.’
I do not understand. Also, no refunds.
A few minutes later:
Thank you for your reply. I do understand your policy of no refunds and I am willing to work within it. It is not so much the money that is a concern, but rather my mother’s state of mind. She is still a young woman with so much to offer. How will she be able to overcome the death of my father when she has a—again, disturbingly lifelike—replica of him next to her in bed every night? All I ask is your help in convincing her to return it. She refuses to let me anywhere near it for fear that I will destroy it or throw it in the trash. I assure you I have no wish to do so.
As I say, it is an exquisite piece. Perhaps you could use it as an example photo on your website? Or even enter it in an art show. Either way, you must take it back. I only have both your and my mother’s best interests in mind. Surely you must deal with this all the time.
Dept. of Psychology
I do not deal with this all the time. The children of my customers usually mind their own business.
I have tried to appeal to your sensitivities as a daughter and a morally intact person, but I am losing patience. My education and training informs me that it would be best to allow my mother to come to the conclusion that any item in the likeness of her deceased husband kept in her bed will yield only adverse results on her mental and emotional health, and that I should do little more than give her a supportive nudge in the right direction, which I’d hoped you would help me with. However, since you seem to have no one’s best interests at heart except your own, I must make a more drastic attempt to physically separate my mother and your handcrafted likeness of her deceased husband, my father. I now only ask that you do not allow her to place another order for a replacement item, no matter how much money she offers.
Dept. of Psychology
I closed my laptop roughly. Fine. What was it to me if this girl wanted to rid her mother of all attempts at emotional comfort just because she couldn’t get a handle on her own grief? I wished someone would have taken the Miller pillow away from me so soon and saved me weeks of eating children’s cereal in bed. Maybe Thea was actually fortunate to have someone looking after her so closely.
The next morning, I had another email.
Will you take the pillowcase back? I don’t want any money returned. I just don’t want it to end up destroyed or in a garbage dump, which might happen if Sascha gets her hands on it. It’s too lovely for that.
Goddamn it, I said to the email. I closed the computer again and put it away. I cracked my knuckles and threaded a needle to continue work on my current job. After an hour of stitching in the pale light of my front room, the web of colored floss hanging around me, I put the hoop down and found myself heading to Thea’s house without having thought much about it. So maybe I could take the damn pillow back and maybe I could even give her a small partial refund, because I found that I liked Thea in a vague kind of way. Maybe it was more that I disliked her daughter, Dr. Sascha of the Psychology Department at Whatever University, and how she felt that she had to keep someone else’s emotions on such a short rope. Even my sister Margaret didn’t encourage me to get rid of Miller, she just encouraged me to clean up and get out of bed. And that, I thought as I knocked on Thea’s front door for the second time that week, should be the most that anyone else ever asks of you.
I could hear them arguing through the door before it opened, and when it did, they were standing there in the foyer. Thea had her arms clamped pitifully around the pillow and Sascha, taller than her mother and without the pronounced angles of her face, glared at me.
“Well, here she is,” Sascha said. “I imagine you’re Alyse? I hope you’ve come to take this thing back.”
“If that’s what Thea still wants,” I said, looking past Sascha at her mother.
“It’s more about what’s best for everyone and not necessarily what she wants,” Sascha said, as though speaking about a child who wasn’t standing two feet away.
“I imagine you’re the expert, Doctor.”
“Oh I’m not a doctor quite yet, still in training,” Sascha said, pleased at my comment in a way I did not intend.
“But you must agree with me,” Sascha continued. “Look at her. Still so young and beautiful. How will she ever find another husband with this thing around?”
“I’m not sure that’s her main priority at the moment.” Again I looked to Thea to see if she would say anything, but she only looked back at me, still holding her husband’s face tightly to her chest.
Sascha ignored that and leaned closer to me.
“I heard her talking to the thing, Alyse. This is not the way to grieve.”
She used my name in an effort to make it seem like we were on the same side of the argument. To make it seem like we were pals about this and both had her mother’s best interest at heart. To make it easier for me to help her. Instead, I felt a long-dormant storm rise inside me. I leaned right back toward Sascha.
“Do they teach you how to grieve in school?” I asked, perhaps more cruelly than I wanted. “Is there a chapter or two in your psych textbook on the subject? Do you have notes you can refer to from a lecture on the appropriate response to the death of the one person you believed would be with you for the last fifty years of your life, and how to correctly handle yourself? Is your mother doing it wrong, and is that making you uncomfortable, Sascha?”
She stepped back, her face reddening.
“Enough about this ‘best interests’ line you keep feeding everyone,” I continued. “It’s pretty obvious who—”
“You don’t know anything about it!” Sascha shouted, almost stamping her foot in anger. Then Thea stepped forward and pushed the pillow toward me.
“Please take it,” she said. “She’ll take it if you don’t.”
I took it. Thea looked at me for a moment before turning away and disappearing down the hall. Sascha took the few steps toward the door with me, and I could feel the heat coming off her; she burned with a mad grasp for control and with displeasure about winning in a different way than she’d wanted.
“I think you will agree—,” she began, but the door was open and I was already walking away.
I planned to keep Thea’s pillow in the closet until I decided what to do with it. But that night, after I’d locked the doors and turned off all the lights, I took it back out and set it on top of the dresser, leaning against the wall so we could look at each other. He really was handsome. I imagined him and Thea standing side by side, he a foot taller than her, their hands clasped together, an easy and comfortable silence between them. I imagined them lying in bed, their chests rising smoothly with sleep, the heat of closeness passed between their bodies. I imagined Thea smiling in her sleep as she felt him readjust in the night and move closer. I imagined Thea waking up one day to find that warmth and movement suddenly and irrevocably gone.
I fell into a sleep of my own with my arms around Miller, my body diffusing warmth into the pillow until it felt reciprocated. Thea’s husband and the night shadows watched us.
And so the next day I went back. When I knocked, Sascha answered. Her eyes were red and swollen; if I were to stitch them, I’d need a dozen shades of pink, peach, rouge, and garnet, and stone for the shadows underneath. She scowled when she saw me and what I held.
“I’m here to see Thea,” I said firmly. “I have something for her.”
Sascha looked at me from beneath her own veil of loss. She would be beautiful like her mother someday, probably soon. She would learn to love a man who wasn’t her father. We stared at each other.
“It will be all right,” I finally said.
And after a moment, she nodded and slowly stepped aside for me to pass.
“She’s down the hall.”
When I turned the knob and pushed the door open, Thea did not stir from where she lie, tucked into herself on the bed, her body turned toward the opposite wall. She exhaled, shaking slightly, trying to quell her sobs. The shades on the window were drawn, the daylight muffled through them. I saw three glasses on the bedside table with an inch of water in each and a heap of clothes on the floor near the closet.
I looked at this woman lying in bed and then I did what I wished my sister Margaret would have done instead of calling a cleaning service. I set Thea’s pillow on a chair near the door. I got into the bed and lie down next to her, put my hand on her shoulder and, when she reached up and pulled my hand into both of hers, clasped under her chin, I curled around her and held her close, my face in her uncombed hair. We’d begun as wives to other people and this is what we’d become—two women cradling each other for warmth against the chill of graves that weren’t yet our own.
“Will it ever stop?” Thea whispered.
I closed my eyes against the faint light trilling through the strands of her hair.
“I don’t know.”
Erin Cecilia Thomas is a writer originally from Upstate New York. She has a BA from Berklee College of Music and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Lesley University. Her work has been published in Anomaly, Oyez Review, Into the Void, Illuminations of the Fantastic, and Archipelago: The Allegory Ridge Fiction Anthology. She currently lives in Nashville, TN, and can be found at excxt.com.