DENVER—A 42-year-old woman was cited Tuesday for illegally using the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane when an officer discovered that the baby in the car seat was actually a life-size plastic doll.

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One at a time, Roberta Hallmark’s two children were taken from her. First Cash, then Cassandra. It was an understatement then, and still is, to say that Roberta drinks. She is in fact a lush. She drinks vodka all day and thinks no one can smell it. Roberta has other addictions—some prescribed and some not. Mostly, the poor man’s speedball—Xanax and cocaine—with the occasional methamphetamine when desperate times call for desperate measures. She ingests them depending upon mood. Into her arm when she’s particularly depressed and desolate. Through her nostrils to be social and polite. Via pipe or tinfoil when rushed or bitter. By mouth, just for the daily ritual of the act. She typically avoids the opiates because she’s always hated dreaming. The menthol cigarettes and plethora of misused antidepressants accessorize the rest.

At forty-two, she weighs ninety-three pounds and thinks she can get away with wearing slutty clothes from the juniors’ aisle at Marshalls. Tight, stone-washed jeans that taper painfully at the ankle, dangerous heels, and blouses that expose her midriff. She cuts her own hair, and it falls jagged around her narrow face. It is black from a bottle. While her jaw is permanently clenched, her cheeks are sunken like she has no teeth. It is disconcerting to see a woman her age look like an old lady without her dentures. Her dark eyes are vacant, but they always were.

In her lifetime, Roberta Hallmark has only had her looks. She does not see herself aging in the mirror. She is caught in narcissistic memories, and that is why she lost Cassandra, but first she lost Cash.

Roberta gave birth to Cash six years after Cassandra. Cash’s head was so big his older sister’s passage had done nothing to ease his way. Roberta’s uterus prolapsed with his delivery. Without health insurance the doctors didn’t bother suggesting the simple re-suspension surgery. Roberta has never worn panties. As a party trick, she lifts her skirt to show everyone how her cervix falls out—pink and inflated, it looks a lot like a large bubblegum bubble. Then she tucks it back into her body.

It was this type of behavior that scared her friends away—mostly other single moms she’d met through the self-sufficiency programs the welfare office made her attend. They stuck around as long as they could, but like anyone, they too had their limits. Without them, Roberta had no one to turn to when social services first came around. There had been complaints, they said, that she neglected the children. Did drugs around them. Drank too much. But the system was overloaded and their routine visits tapered off until they didn’t come anymore, and the paperwork declared Roberta Hallmark a fit mother.

Cash and his big head grew fast. He was a Taurus, and Roberta called him her “Little Bull.” She showed him off to her own deadbeat father. When she and Cash were alone, she’d rest her hand on his chest and whisper “Little Buddy” in a series of drunken slurs that lulled them both to sleep. There was a connection between Roberta and her son that she’d never felt with Cassandra.

Even at four-years-old, Cash was a solid boy so when he leaned against the screen of the upstairs window he fell harder than others might have. He hit the cement down below instead of the suburban lawn Roberta wished they had. It was plain bad luck. She’d even been sober when he fell. It truly wasn’t fair and she ruined herself entirely looking for justice in a world without. Roberta spent the years following Cash’s death in a permanent state of panic.

Cash’s death solidified the fact the children’s father was never coming back. Roberta had never gone after him for child support like some women do—she lied to her case worker, and said she didn’t have his phone number, but she did. She got his voicemail again and again when she called to tell him about Cash’s funeral. There was a part of her that hoped he’d come back to her. He never returned the call, but his new girlfriend did. The woman asked if there was anything she could do. She sounded young and sweet.

As the years passed, Roberta drank and chain-smoked more. She tried to replace all the missing fathers in her life with all those men who came stumbling at her in the dimly lit bars. Some she fucked in parked cars, one a motel, and another on the lawn of a stranger’s house somewhere downtown. A few of the others made it back to her Section 8 apartment. Some stayed for a few more rounds, and one stayed for the routine. His name was Butch, and he ended up being scarier than his name.

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Butch was good looking in a “Sons of Anarchy” type of way. Blond hair with fine stubble on his face. He wore blue jeans well with leather motorcycle boots and clean wife-beaters. He stood at six feet and had a slew of patriotic tattoos that sleeved his arms—fuzzy eagles and American flags, a human skull with a rattlesnake slithering out of one of the eye sockets. When Butch smiled two deep dimples appeared in each cheek and made it impossible for women to say no.

Butch moved in within a matter of weeks. At first he ignored the little altars Roberta had erected around the apartment—all in memory of Cash. The framed photographs of Cash as a baby draped in crucifixes and illuminated by the votive Mother Mary candles from the ethnic isle at Safeway that stood a constant vigil. There was one in the foyer, one in the bathroom above the toilet, and the biggest shrine of all was in the bedroom on Roberta’s dresser. One morning Roberta woke to find they’d all been taken down. When she asked, Butch said he was asserting himself as the man of the house. Roberta convinced herself he was helping her let go.

Butch was good at making life seem brand new. He always had cash, although Roberta wasn’t sure what he did for a living, and he was very good with Cassandra. He liked to tuck her in at night and read her bedtime stories. Sometimes he even fell asleep in there and Roberta would find him wrapped around the girl.

Because of Butch, Roberta finally felt like she could start over. They were married at the courthouse, but he never gave her a ring and she had no friends to invite to a wedding party. She picked Cassandra up from school dressed in a second-hand wedding gown. She never picked Cassandra up—usually she walked home, but today she did. Roberta was early, standing outside the classroom with her veil and bouquet of plastic flowers for all to see. She wanted to be like the other mothers with their Volvos and leather clogs and Patagonia gear, but of course she stood out even more. Upon seeing her, one kid asked his mother if it was Halloween already.

Roberta’s drinking didn’t stop, but it smoothed over—became consistent, reliable. She didn’t black out as much as she had before and she took the little blue Xanaxes according to the psychiatrist’s plan. She only did cocaine when Butch brought it home to enhance their sex. In bed, she felt his growing distraction. He only did her doggy-style, and even then she knew he wasn’t looking at her.

And he wasn’t. Butch found himself thinking of Cassandra. Her pink skin. Her budding nipples. Her soft, blond curls. He found himself outside the bathroom listening to her pee. The tinkle turned him on. Sometimes he found himself reaching into his jeans, just to relieve the pressure, to prevent the chafing.

Even though Roberta was the one who caught him it was Cassandra’s teacher, Mrs. Stevenson, who reported it. Roberta refused to leave Butch and Cassandra refused to come home. Cassandra went to live with a foster family and Butch went to prison. Apparently, Cassandra had not been the only one.

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When Officer Bradley pulled Roberta over he was not accurate in his report, but who could blame him. It was the first and only time he’d ever been in the presence of Roberta Hallmark so there was no way he could have known. He spotted Roberta pull into the carpool lane, noting that the baby in the backseat appeared to have abnormally stiff arms. He pulled her over to take a closer look. As he strolled up to Roberta’s car he really hoped he’d been wrong. He was prepared to say he only wanted to check her left turn signal—to lie, and say he hadn’t seen it go off when she merged, although of course he had. But as he talked to Roberta through the open driver’s side window it became painfully obvious there was no baby in the back seat. Strapped to the inside of a navy blue infant car seat was instead a plastic baby doll.

Officer Bradley was mistaken in assuming Roberta’s motive was to get away with driving in the carpool lane. Later he’d tell his wife that she’d be surprised at how often this crime was committed. It concerned him that people were always in such a hurry. Little did he know Roberta had been carting the doll around for the past six months. She’d dug out Cash’s baby clothes and dressed the doll every day, lots of blues and nautical motifs, the occasional plaid. She laundered right away what she took off using the special hypo-allergenic baby detergent that comes in the big pink jugs. She changed his diapers, bought in bulk alongside the formula canisters. While she shopped sales, she did not buy generic.

She took the doll shopping at Costco and for long walks around Leopold Pond in a stroller. They fed the predatory geese stale breadcrumbs. She even took the doll to the middle school where Cassandra was supposed to be attending. They parked across the street in the church parking lot at 3:15 every day to watch the children spill out, but so far Roberta had not spotted her daughter. Officer Bradley, of course, could not know that at night Roberta lay beside the plastic doll, cradling the doll’s heart-empty chest as she whispered “Little Buddy” in a series of drunken slurs until finally she herself could fall asleep.
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SARAH ELIZABETH SCHANTZ is currently a prose-focused MFA candidate at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. Schantz literally grew up in a bookstore with a family who substituted religion with good literature. Her paternal grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as Phillip K. Dick and her daughter is named Story. She won first place for a fiction contest hosted by Third Coast in 2011. In 2012 she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and accepted for inclusion in the forthcoming anthology of Best New Stories from the Midwest. She won third place in another competition hosted by 971 Menu. Her work has appeared in Alligator Juniper, Bombay Gin, The Smoking Poet, and soon to be Midwestern Gothic. She just finished her first novel which is about a girl named Fig.