By: Lis Anna
At Christmas time my mom and her boyfriend Dave liked to get really stoned and make strings of popcorn to go on the tree. This would go on for hours. This was the same year I begged for a chemistry set. The trend at the time was to give me dolls from all over the world. Dutch girl. Spanish girl. French girl. Yawn. I wrote my list and taped it to the refrigerator. I told everyone I could find.
Then…on Christmas morning I thundered down the hall to find…
I looked everywhere for the chemistry set. There was a Swiss girl, a China girl and that…thing. It loomed over the other presents, with its creepy, freshly painted, empty rooms.
“Cotton, don’t you like it?” my mother glared me into submission.
I stared. I scratched. “What else did I get?”
Since she didn’t get the reaction out of me that she wanted she went to an after Christmas sale and bought her own dollhouse. Rich, deep colors, tiny fingernail sized tile, miniature claw footed bathtubs, and tiny ceramic cookware filled it to the brim. Mine sat in the corner. She bought a new marble table for hers. When she was done, she started in on mine again.
I watched my empty house fill with furniture I had not ordered. I begged for Magic Rocks, “Pleeeaaasse…”
“A new chemistry set?” New parents? Anything but that stupid dollhouse.
“Well, then what am I supposed to do with it?”
“You play with it.”
“You move the people around in the house. Like this…” she said, dragging the little rubber man over to the table to sit down for dinner.
“That’s not very interesting.”
“Oh, Cotton, use your imagination,” she said, throwing the Rubber Man on the cobbled bathroom floor.
I wasn’t making my point very well so I slept in the hall as protest. At 5 AM I woke to the sound of the bathroom door closing, then, “Cotton, you are so ungrateful.”
“Is it time for cartoons?”
“No, get in bed.”
I wasn’t going without a fight. “I don’t want to sleep with the evil, evil dollhouse.”
“Do you know how much money we spent on that thing? The house alone cost Dave a thousand dollars.”
“So. It’s evil.”
“Stop saying that.”
“Well, it is. It’s a haunted dollhouse.”
“It is not.”
“I’m not going to argue with you. It stays.”
Okay, but my rubber people weren’t dull. They threw china, slammed doors, had affairs, ran away with pirates, returned from voyages overseas, collapsed in piles of sorrow, drank too much, developed acute paranoia, formulated theories on why their house seemed so small and why therapy wasn’t helping them with the sensation that they were always being watched and although not entirely realistic, never once sat down for dinner. I took old Barbies and used it as a homeless shelter. The butler, Sam, developed a drinking problem. The oldest daughter, Sadie, slipped into a deep depression and disappeared for days in my sock drawer.
“Hank,” Sadie would say, “you’ve simply got to help me. I’ve been wearing the same clothes my entire life.”
She was constantly auditioning for parts on soap operas. She’d practice all day in the kitchen driving the hired help closer to the bottle. Angeline was the cook. No one knew anything about her except…
“Who are you talking to in there?”
“I’m not talking to anyone. It’s the rubber people.”
“Well, stop. It’s creepy.”
Then Sadie turned to Hank as he refilled the ice bucket. “Darling, don’t you think it’s strange that none of us remember anything before we came to live in this house. It’s like we didn’t exist,” she whispered.
Sadie was a sharp one. Hank looked over, his eyes swimming in stolen bourbon. “Honey,” he’d say, “let’s just forget about it.”
“Only because you can’t remember, either,” she slapped back.
Then she took a lover. But I didn’t have anymore rubber people so Sam had to double.
“Cotton, its time for bed.”
Then Sam stole the plastic Mercedes and ran away with a Barbie six inches taller than him because he couldn’t take the stress. Barbie thought he was rich because he always wore a tuxedo.
In the meantime, my parents were trafficking loads of narcotics out of our basement. Men who didn’t speak English carried boxes out to trucks. These people had no names, no identity, no past, no future. Sort of like the rubber people.
“Hank,” Sadie slurred, “Hank, why don’t we have a front yard, honey? I feel so confined. Honey, I feel like someone’s watching us.”
Sadie was going to have to go back on medication. They were huge pills of artificial sweetener I’d stolen from the kitchen cabinet. Hank left everyday saying that he was going to the office but he really spent his entire day in the windowsill.
“What a fake,” Sadie exhaled.
“Cotton, it’s time for your ballet lesson.”
“But Sadie’s waiting on a call from a TV producer.”
“Don’t worry about that.”
Sam came back after a week. Barbie dumped him and kept the Mercedes. Penniless and rubber he returned, smelling like exhaust and cigarettes. Angeline poured him a stiff one.
“Cotton, come on.”
Later that night a bright light flashed in Hank’s eyes. He bolted upright. “What was that?”
Sadie looked around in a daze and said, “Aliens.”
I turned off my flashlight and went to bed amused.
“Stop talking to yourself,” my mother screamed at the top of her lungs.
The next day my mother curiously disappeared.
“She has a headache,” Dave said. “She’s resting.”
“In a comfortable place.”
“Like a chair?”
“Yes, like a chair.” Then he bought me a happy meal.
With the disappearance of my mother the antics of the dollhouse seemed to be less interesting so I went back to discovering lost civilizations out in the woods behind our house. I looked for Mars in the night sky and tried to imagine the world three thousand years ago. I’d lay very still, under the stars and travel on caravans through ancient worlds.
The next morning we had runny, undercooked, hardboiled eggs for breakfast. Dave stared down at his plate.
“There’s a diner down off the highway,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“Yeah,” he said, standing. Then he threw the plates in the trash.
The glass plates.
After breakfast I went into my room to get my new magic rocks and saw Hank lying face down on the tiled floor. When the coast was clear I sneaked across the hall and put him in my mother’s empty dollhouse. There were no porcelain cats, no felt covered birds in tiny cages with no vocal cords, no squatters, no renters, no nothing. Just a big, empty, perfect house that looked good if you were looking in. Hank hated it. There wasn’t a drop of booze anywhere.
Dave went outside to smoke a joint. I heard the glass door slide shut. Finally I walked into the kitchen to finish my homework. Dave came in, bleary eyed, looking like someone hit him in the head with a rock.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah.” But really I was kind of bored so I was happy when Sadie had a relapse and the Butler drained the bank account.
On Tuesday Dave left me alone in the house. He made me promise not to turn on the stove or tell my grandmother I was ever by myself. I read a Hardy Boys mystery, ate leftover Italian, then padded down the hall, and stared at the empty dollhouse in my mother’s room. There was something about its perfection that made it tainted, jaded, unfit.
“I’ll drink to that,” Sadie said, just before running off to Mexico.
Later that evening Dave guided my mother through the door. Her eyes were heavy, with dark circles underneath.
“Someday,” she told me over breakfast the next morning, “you’ll get married and have a house, too and you’ll be happy you learned something from that dollhouse.”
“You’re not married,” I pointed out.
She stared down into her grape juice. Dave hustled me out of the kitchen and took me to my French lesson.
“I don’t want the dollhouse anymore,” I announced in the car.
“Cotton, now isn’t the time to start changing things around. Just play with the dollhouse the way your mother wants.”
“But I don’t want it.”
“It’s just a silly toy,” he said, sighing.
“No, it’s something else,” and I started crying.
The dollhouse loomed dark over my thoughts placed on the floor in-between the dresser and window. Four stories tall, filled to the brim, secrets stashed in every drawer. Late at night, when everyone else was sleeping, it would whisper and creak like it was alive.
So, I started sleeping in the hall again. This time my mother ignored me.
For days I sat at the kitchen table, plotting. How does a seven year old make an entire house just disappear. We had a hammer in the kitchen junk drawer but I knew my mother would blow a gasket over destruction. I slept on it, obsessed, considered my options, begged for aliens to come and take it away, slept on it again, paced the hall in my footed pajamas, obsessed and then at the end of the week the light bulb clicked on so bright, it nearly burst. That night while everyone was sleeping I took the rubber people out to the side of the house and buried them.
“Cotton, where’s the family I bought for the house?”
Not bothering to glance up from the Hardy Boy’s mystery, I said, “They’re not a family and I don’t know.”
“Well, they were here a few days ago.”
“Yes, they were,” I picked at the dirt under my fingernails.
“And you don’t know what happened to them?”
“Nope. Maybe the dog ate them.”
Later that night I eavesdropped outside the bedroom door.
“Don’t you think the whole thing is a little creepy and a little odd?” My mother asked Dave.
The Christmas tree was upside down in the trash. It was snowing. Jimmy Carter was on the TV again.
Dave shook his head hopelessly and let it go.
I went back to my room thinking about the rubber people. If Sadie had been there she would have said, “Hank, honey, hasn’t anyone noticed that the backside of the house doesn’t have a wall? Don’t you think that’s strange? I mean, people could be watching us.”
Angeline would’ve heard the whole thing while she was dusting the furniture with a cotton ball. Sam would have been wondering why there were so many lamps and no electricity.
And Hank would have stopped making gin martini’s long enough to say, “Honey, I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, we have three sides. So what if the back is missing. It’s always been that way.”
Welcome to my world.
Copyright 2008 Lis Anna All Rights Reserved
This short story was originally published in print in 2008 in The Petigru Review Volume One
The Petigru Review is sponsored by the South Carolina Writers Workshop
which I support and recommend.