He started collecting children’s books after the first conversation he and his girlfriend had about having kids. They weren’t engaged and shared an apartment they didn’t own, but they were in love, and the prospect of educating one or two hypothetical offspring was so exciting, he couldn’t wait. Without taking into consideration that childhood objects are ephemeral and that he’d scribbled in and chewed on books as a toddler, effectively destroying them, he ordered the nicest copies he could find—hardcovers, usually, since he liked the way the dust jackets protected their contents. He purchased works by Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and made sure to only select printings without movie tie-in covers. The children, he figured, would be exposed to TV and movies soon enough, without having the temptation forced upon them by photographs of actors playing beloved characters.

They hadn’t discussed names, but he had his favorites: Sophia for a girl, Miles for a boy. He liked the sound of both with his surname, and when he revealed this, his girlfriend, rather than getting nervous, found herself caught up in his enthusiasm. He read to her from the books, and she often fell asleep nestled against him. The possibility that one of them might be infertile never crossed his mind. She had been on birth control, so the news, delivered soon after they wed, was devastating.

Before meeting his girlfriend, he’d mulled over the idea of not having children. The world, he’d pontificate in righteous young anger, was a dangerous place to bring anyone into, and he feared the perils his progeny might face—famine, global warming, nuclear holocaust. But after the news of his infertility, he felt worn out, old, like he’d skipped some essential stage of life. He refused to leave home, stayed in bed for days, eventually lost his job. Adoption was one alternative they considered, but first, he had to mourn the deaths of these children who’d never lived, and he did so among the books they would never read.

He built a library in the room they’d intended for the nursery and continued his collection. He ordered more books. Some, like Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, were in the original French. He imagined teaching them foreign languages, inventing a history where he’d learned them as a boy, reciting Le Corbeau et le Renard without the slightest American accent. He considered donating the books to local schools, moving on with life. He and his wife hadn’t discussed divorce, but the possibility created an uncomfortable rift between them. Neither wished to be with anyone else, but the silence they lived in was agonizing. He understood that she wished he’d abandon his attachment to these books and let them find solace in each other, but the books had become an obsession. His collection spilled out of the library and into the rest of the house—living and dining rooms, kitchen. He was ready to give up on everything, to bury himself in bound paper and cardboard, but she had another idea.

She’d always been good with her hands, and one day after work, she visited the fabric store. They’d spent so many years together, she wasn’t walking away without a fight. He was a good man, and despite his flaws, she planned to keep their wedding vows, in sickness and health. She was sure he wouldn’t notice her working late at night in the room she devoted to her hobbies. He was too preoccupied, cataloguing, arranging, rearranging. He wouldn’t barge in on the swipe of silkscreen, the delicate embroidering, the tap-tap of her sewing machine. Alternating panels, she stitched a story of their relationship—the day they met, first date, wedding, trips they took around the States, Europe. Using photo emulsion, she presented pictures from better times, smiling reproductions, happier moments, piecing together the finest quilt she’d ever made. She worked quickly, with an eye for detail, and her passion rivaled his, the difference being that she was working to save them.

It took a month, and on the night she finished, she undressed and got in bed. She wrapped the quilt around her, waiting. Sometimes, he fell asleep on the living room recliner, but if not, he usually slipped into their room around midnight. When he arrived, she saw the first surprised expression on his face in what felt like forever, though she couldn’t tell if this was because she was still awake and naked or because of the quilt.

“Come here,” she commanded, and he went, curious, tentative, pulling at his own clothing.

“What’s this?” he asked, as she welcomed him into the quilt.

“It’s a dust jacket,” she said. “To protect us inside.”

He examined each square, reading the abbreviated episodes from their lives, lingering on the photos he’d forgotten. Then, reaching out to trace the needlework, he cried—not the kind of crying that was long and deep, but a cry to purge the children who’d never existed, to rid himself of ghosts whose spirits had never crossed the nascent threshold, to encompass and release all the sadness compounded in the pages of the books gracing their tables and shelves. She held him, in a way she’d longed to do throughout this whole painful process, in a way that maybe she should have when it all began but didn’t have the strength for, kissing his forehead and earlobes and neck, until exhausted, they slept, and together, dreamed of the possibility that in the morning, they might wake, revived in this storied shelter, entirely new, themselves the children they couldn’t conceive, born again from a dust jacket womb.