(Author Anne Elisabeth Stengl challenged readers to write a short story on Halloween based on a childhood fear. Here's mine.)
The Doll Without a Name
Gramma Lottie’s doll is not to be played with. That’s a rule. A serious one, not like when Grampie Joe says you can’t have any dessert and you really can. It’s a real actual antique, like in shops where everything can break.
They keep her up on the top shelf, all locked up, in the guest room. And when I visit I sleep in that room ‘cause I’m a guest then.
She looks really pretty, with a lacy blue dress and really long eyelashes. And I wonder if she’s got those fancy underpants that they used to wear, only I don’t know because I’m not supposed to touch her.
“Hey, you should probably let me open up that case,” I say one day while Gramma is making brownies. “I watched Toy Story last week, and it says that toys don’t like being in cages.”
“Cases, dear,” Gramma Lottie says.
“Yeah, whatever. What’s the doll’s name?”
“She doesn’t have a name,” Gramma Lottie says firmly, in the voice she usually saves for when I’m in trouble. Except I haven’t even broken a rule yet. “Because she’s not real.”
“Okay,” I say, because I don’t know why she’s using that voice, but it’s dangerous. Time to drop the subject. I start to leave.
“I never liked that doll,” Gramma Lottie says, all quiet.
“Why?” I ask. “She’s pretty.”
“My father got her for me,” Gramma Lottie says. “He was….” She shakes her head. “Morgan, you know how your daddy loves you very much? Well, not all daddies are like that. So some little girls don’t want presents for them.”
I shrug. “Yeah, maybe. I say, no matter who gives it to you, take the doll and run.”
Gramma Lottie is trying not to laugh. I can tell. And I haven’t even said anything funny.
“Jesus would want you to let me play with the doll,” I say, because it seems like a good time to bring out the big guns. “We’re supposed to love everyone equal.”
“Toys aren’t people, Morgan.”
I want to say that those toys on the island from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were sad when no one played with them, just like people. But I don’t, because Gramma Lottie doesn’t like movies with Santa, because of commercialism.
This isn’t working out as nice as I planned. I try the magic word. “Please let me play with her?”
“No. She stays,” Gramma Lottie says. And then she tries to distract me with licking the brownie bowl. And it kinda sorta works. Because chocolate is worth it.
That night, I keep looking up at Gramma Lottie’s doll. Kinda creepy the way her eyes don’t blink. And I got to thinking: she sees everything. For years and years. Like Santa, only she probably can’t give presents, so it doesn’t really matter.
Gramma Lottie already tucked me in. She’s not coming back here, unless I holler about a glass of water, and even then it’s a toss-up because that lady is on to me.
So I pull out the stool from under the fancy dresser and stand on it. On my tippie-toes, I can almost reach the doll. I can feel the latch, and yank on it.
And oops. Something snaps.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, probably.
Plus, worse, I hear someone coming. Grampie’s squeaky loafers. So I jump down from the stool, and it’s a good thing I’m wearing my poofy slippers, or else it mighta made a noise. I hop into bed real quick.
The door opens a little. Grampie sticks his head in, and my eyes are squinched up tight.
“Morgan, go to sleep,” he says.
“I am,” I say, before I realize that is not even logical. “Um…almost.”
“No getting out of bed till morning,” he says. That man is smarter than he looks. Even poofy slippers can’t fool him.
“Okay,” I say. “Night, Grampie.”
The door closes. I hug Stinky the cat with only one eye, and I wonder if he knows I only brought her because Donald the Pooh bear was in the laundry. “I will never put you in a cage,” I say, real serious. “Or throw you out. Because those dump places are scary.”
Toy Story taught me that. And also not to play favorites or your toys might try to murderize each other on accident. It’s a very educational movie.
I decide I’m going to try to keep my eyes open like Gramma Lottie’s doll, but I must have closed them, because I look up, and there is this girl in front of me, a little older than me maybe. She is just sitting on the floor and staring.
She has curls like sausages, and a fancy dress, kind of like the one on Gramma Lottie’s doll. Who even wears dresses like that? Can’t do much playing, I guess. No fingerpaint, anyway, or even normal paint, ‘cause it gets on your fingers anyway, and then your clothes, and sometimes also the wall.
“It said they could only become real if you loved them,” she says, only it doesn’t really sound like she is talking to me. She is holding a picture book. The Velveteen Rabbit. I think Velveteen is the kind of cheese Mom puts in macaroni when she wants it to be all warm and gooey.
The rabbit on the front isn’t in cheese, which was a relief I tell you, because who wants to eat rabbits, anyway? The one on the cover looks like a stuffed animal.
“I’ve heard of that book,” I say. “It’s old. Gramma Lottie has it in the office. Did you get it from her?”
She doesn’t look at me. Because maybe the fancy dress makes her snooty or something. “Hey!” I announce. “I’m talking to you!”
Still nothing. Like I’m not even there or something.
And then I realize…the girl looks scared. Like, real scared, shaking a little, kinda like when I thought the zebra at the zoo was going to eat me. (It was fierce. Honest.)
She’s looking at something, but I can’t tell what, because it’s dark all around us. I’m not sure I want to see it anyway.
And then I think, that’s funny, ‘cause I can see her just fine.
That’s when I realize I am dreaming, and I laugh real hard. Because no wonder the girl was ignoring me! She’s not even real. I laugh myself awake, which is a real party.
It’s still dark, with just the little nightlight shaped like a tulip bulb making a glow. It’s right underneath the shelf with Gramma Lottie’s doll, and the light reaches most of the way up. But it lights up her face with funny shadows. It is not flattering, I tell you.
And I know. That’s where the girl was looking.
“Oh,” I say, real quiet, reaching for Stinky the cat with only one eye. Not because I’m scared, really. It’s just nice to have something with fluff around sometimes.
But he’s gone.
Only there’s something white on the floor near the door.
Grampie wouldn’t actually mind if I got up to look, right? Because this was emergency, like having to go to the bathroom. And there are exceptions for things like that.
I got two steps on the cold floor, almost to the rug, when I heard a voice.
“She was afraid I would tell. That’s why she locked me up, you know.”
I stop moving. Then move just my head, just a little, because I know right where to look.
Gramma Lottie’s doll.
She isn’t smiling. Isn’t moving. But the case door is open, and her eyes are open, just like always.
Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope so. But I still say, “What are you doing?” It comes out kinda squeaky.
And I know her mouth moved then, even though her eyes still stared.