Birthday Dolls

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The dolls never let me sleep, not the night before.

It’s frustrating; that’s the time when I need my rest the most, and yet they fill my room with their chatter as if I’m not there.

They speculate and cajole well into the early morning. “Who’s it going to be?” they ask, as if they don’t already know. It used to terrify me, but now I just find it irritating. I know the game they’re playing. I know they’re trying to unbalance me. Knowing is half the battle, as my mother used to say. Back when she was a person.

You’re probably wondering why I still live with them, then. Why I still live in the house I was born in, thirty-seven years ago. Why, after all the blood that’s been spilled here, I can still stand to walk down these halls and sleep in this room.

It is, as with all things, complicated.

Moving is not a simple thing. It requires conversations and relationships. You have to talk to the bank, to the real estate agent, to the inspector. You meet a lot of new people, and I have no interest in that. Meeting people, interacting with them, is bad for them and it’s bad for me.

And getting rid of the dolls? No. Out of the question. I am many things, but I am not a monster.

The only time I really hate them is the night before my birthday, when they do this to me. Other times they are perfectly pleasant, generally silent and thoughtful. I think they must get as amped as I do, and this is just their way of expressing it.

So, instead of sleeping the night before, I usually end up awake and staring at the ceiling, trying to tune them out. It gives me plenty of time to think. I think about the past, about all of these birthdays and their consequences.

There’s some irony, looking back on it, how much I loved dolls as a little girl. How that’s all I ever wanted. Pretty dolls to dress and comb. I loved the smooth porcelain of their skin and their dimpled smiles, frozen in shy delight. I loved their big painted-on eyes. I think I really just wanted to be one. If I were a doll, then I could be pretty and perfect, too. I wouldn’t be chubby or buck-toothed or heavy-browed.

And on that day, three decades ago, when the old woman asked me what I wanted for every birthday? Well, there was only one answer I could give: I wanted a brand new doll each year. A new beautiful thing to love and care for.

I knew this year’s birthday would be particularly difficult. I hadn’t had a bad one in years. I’d been so careful.

There’d been the mailman, last year. And the meter-reader the year before. Strangers with blank faces. The hurt of their loss not mine, but others’. Felt by someone, surely, but not me. That made me sad, made my heart ache. But that ache was dull and temporary, unlike some of the others.

This year was different.

I first saw Faye three months ago. I don’t normally go to the grocery store, but I needed something. I can’t remember what. Usually, I get delivery--a click or two online and a box arrives at the door. No interaction. It’s safe and effective.

But this time, I needed something. I wish I could remember what was so damned important.

Anyway, I avoided eye contact with everyone at the store. It wasn’t difficult; I’m not the easiest person to look at, even if I’d bothered to brush my hair or put on makeup. With my head down, and my hair over my eyes, I trudged to the checkout line with whatever it was I was buying. This was the part I’d been dreading the most. Social norms demanded some sort of interaction with the cashier, and I mentally weighed my options. I could keep my head down and speak in one-syllable responses or I could ignore the person behind the counter completely. The latter risked an escalation; what if that person insisted some sort of response? The first option seemed to be the best.

“Good afternoon, ma’am!” A chipper voice rang out over the beep of the scanner.

“Afternoon,” I mumbled, looking down at my hands.

“Did you find everything you were looking for today?”

I grunted a response.

“Great! I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before? Usually, I know all the customers. Well, I’ll fix that right now--my name is Faye. What’s your name?”

My heart started racing. This was far too much conversation. I opted to stay silent, hoping she’d get the point. Maybe she’d just think I was mentally ill and try to get me out of there as soon as possible. She did not.

“Not much of a talker, huh?”

I shook my head. I could see from the corner of my eye that there was no one behind me in line. No one to rescue me from Faye’s politeness.

“Well, some days I’m not much for talkin’ either. I understand. Anyway, that’ll be $5.27.”

Even though I forget now what I bought, I can still remember clearly the price. I remember because that’s the moment Faye sealed her fate.

I fumbled through my pockets, working hard to avoid looking up at the soft-voiced woman behind the counter. I pulled out a crumpled five dollar bill and a couple of quarters, shoving them in Faye’s direction. Her fingers brushed mine as she collected the money. I pulled back as if I’d been burnt.

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry!” said Faye. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Here’s your change--twenty-three cents.”

She carefully laid the change on the counter, and I caught a glimpse of her small, manicured nails. I stilled myself and pulled the coins across the counter, focusing on the sound of the metal sliding along the laminate.

“Okay, well you have yourself a pleasant day. And I’m telling you now, I’ll have you talkin’ to me in no time flat. That’s my new mission.”

I grunted again and moved to leave. I was almost out the door when it happened. A crash of falling boxes in the direction of the counter. As if by reflex, I lifted my head and looked that way. Faye was focused on the commotion behind her--a stock boy piling cereal boxes back onto a cart--and I was able to see her for the first time. Her build was slender and petite, with narrow shoulders and a narrower waist. Copper-red hair curled down her back. My heart caught in my throat, and I tried to turn back to the door. Before I could look away, however, Faye had turned back toward me. She caught me looking at her and broke into the brightest grin I’d ever seen. Her whole face seemed to light up. I turned my head away and rushed outside.

It was too late, though. I was in love.

I tried not to think about her, to focus on anything but that joyful smile. Every time my thoughts would return to her--which was more often than I would like to admit--my heart would start to race and my palms would get sweaty. I’d never been in love before, but I’d seen movies. I knew the symptoms.

I wish I could tell you that I stayed away from the grocery store completely after that. That I pined like some literary hunchback, tucked away in my proverbial bell tower. I did not.

I found myself going to the store once a month at first, then once a week, then twice a week. I knew Faye’s schedule by then, knew when I’d be best able to spot her.

I still didn’t speak much. Three decades in practical isolation makes socializing difficult, to say the least. I told her my name and sometimes responded to her questions. Meanwhile, she’d chatter at me and smile. That was all I really wanted anyway. I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew that I’d pay for it on my next birthday, but I couldn’t help myself. I’d never felt anything like this before.

I had managed to get some sleep in the early morning hours of my birthday. Dread greeted me upon waking and stuck with me as the morning went on. I tried to busy myself with chores, but the nagging panic would not be subdued.

I was in the back laundry room when I heard the knock at the door. I froze. I thought for a second that if I could only stay quiet, whoever it was might just go away. It had never worked before, but I prayed that it might work this time.

Another knock. I crept from the laundry room, careful to not make noise.

“Hello?” came a familiar voice. “I saw your grocery order in the queue, and thought I’d bring it on over to you!” Faye shouted from the doorway.

I heard the creak and groan of the heavy door opening. Had I not locked it? It didn’t matter, not on my birthday. It never did. At that moment, I couldn’t think about anything other than shutting the front door.

“No!” I screamed, rushing down the hall toward the door. “Stay outside! Please!”

Pain choked my throat and the last word died there. It was too late, Faye had crossed the threshold. She was holding a bag of groceries. The smile on her pretty face vanished as she saw me running toward her.

“I saw your name on the delivery, and thought...I’d...bring it on over to you,” she said, cautiously repeating herself when she saw my panic.

“You need to leave. Now!” I bellowed at her, trying my best to intimidate her.

“Well, wait just a minute!” she replied, indignant. “You're in this house all by yourself, with no one to help you out. I intend to change that! I’ll put away your groceries for you, and if you need anything else, you let me know!”

She wasn’t understanding. How could she? I put my hands on the delicate bones of her shoulders and moved to push her out of the open door. She resisted against me, twisting one way and then another. I tried to reason with her as she struggled, tried to explain to her that it was my birthday.

Suddenly the struggling stopped. I could feel Faye’s formerly tense muscles slacken and go limp.

“No. No, no, no no!” I screamed, trying to pull myself together. My hands were still on her shoulders when I felt and heard the first of the bones snapping. It was a sharp, insistent sound, dry twigs underfoot. One bone at a time went that way. Then they all started collapsing at once. The snapping sound was replaced by a sound like paper being crumpled into a ball. All the while, Faye was screaming primal, animal screams.

I let go of her shoulders and cupped my hands over my ears, trying to drown it out. My own screams merged with hers and I realized that I was cursing her.

“Why did you come here?! Why? Why do you torture me like this?” I screamed. I yelled until my throat was raw, until I realized that I was the only one still screaming. I stopped and closed my eyes, taking deep, purposeful breaths. I knew what I was going to see when I opened them, and it sent a wave of nausea through my body.

When I finally opened my eyes I saw Faye’s dress in a heap on the floor. The grocery bag lay busted beside it, fruit and canned goods spilling out in a halo around her dress. I sighed and bent down, pulling the 18-inch doll from the folds of fabric.

It hadn’t quite hardened to ceramic yet. Its face was still warm and soft and tacky to the touch. The temporary pliability of its skin meant that it could still show emotions. Right then its face was twisted in pain and terror. I told myself that it was okay, that eventually it would get used to it, learn to accept its new life. It just takes time. The other dolls can help. Not all, but some. Some still have enough of their humanity left to lend a hand to a newcomer, to whisper soothing things in the night.

I ran my fingers over the softness of its face, smoothing out the contortions. I scolded it when the creases returned and it attempted to scream, but then remembered myself.

“Please be still, Faye. I know it’s difficult, but you don’t want to be stuck like that. It’ll be better in the long run if you are calm while it sets. You don’t want to be ugly.” I bit my lip and thought about what I was saying. “Not that you ever really could be, though.”

It struggled futilely against me, and I tried not to notice how its painted, unblinking eyes watched me. The still-wet dot of white on its iris made it look as if the doll were about to cry. But, of course, it couldn’t.

I waited until it stopped moving before I finished my work. I owed it that.

When it had finally hardened into its final position, I looked it over carefully. It was flawless, showing no signs of Faye’s resistance. I smoothed its hair into waves around its face and carried it to the workbench in the kitchen. From the drawer, I selected a dress that I’d been saving for a special occasion. Sage green gingham with lace daisies sewn around the hem. I carefully measured the doll before me and made the necessary alterations on the dress. When I was satisfied, I pulled the fabric up over its shoulders and buttoned the back. It fit perfectly, as if it had been made just for the doll. I finished the look with a white ribbon around its waist and smiled sadly. The small face looking back at me remained unchanged.

Twenty-nine sets of painted eyes looked on from their shelves as I carried the finished doll into my bedroom.

“Oh, look who’s come to join us!” the doll that looked like my mother said, its mouth unmoving. There was a cheerfulness to its voice, and its smooth ceramic face strained itself to smile, though the movement barely registered. “Isn’t that one lovely?”

“And you thought we’d run out,” replied the baby doll that had once been my brother. “You thought she’d become a hermit!”

The mother-doll tut-tutted and grew silent, its face set back into its original scowling expression. As much as I hated to hear them argue, I could tell they hated it more. Their lives were small enough as it was. There was no reason to bring strife into it. Still, it bothered me.

I turned and hissed at them both, trying to keep my cool in front of them all. What happened to Faye had unsettled me, but I couldn’t show that to the dolls. They’d never let me live it down. I was the one in charge, after all, not them.

I set the new doll down on the shelf, adjusting its arms and legs into a comfortable position. Its red hair curled around its white porcelain face where its pink lips were set in a delicate pout. The dress I’d selected was a perfect match, looking antique and new at the same time, a throwback to the era of craftsmanship and detail.

I sighed and pushed a curl from its forehead. It really was a beautiful doll.