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CAUTION: CHILD AT PLAY
David was looking forward to a quiet evening. It had been a long and stressful day; uninterested and unprepared students as well as administrators more concerned with endowments than with education. All that plus he had a new department chair who was on his ass about curriculum revision. He was thinking that maybe he could convince Anne to go out and eat, splurge on a bottle of wine. That was only if she hadn't started something for dinner already, of course.
He pulled into the driveway and shut off the car. His old Toyota sputtered and then died. Soon they'd need a new car. Nevertheless, he smiled as he watched the faux-grass-skirted hips of the hula doll affixed to the dashboard – a souvenir from their trip to Hawaii last February – slow, quiver and eventually stop altogether. He blew her a kiss, grabbed his briefcase and walked toward the door. The house needed painting too. Best to put up with the crap at work for a while longer, I guess, he thought as he threw his keys on the table in the hallway. He sniffed the air. No, definitely nothing cooking yet.
“Hey, Anne” he yelled, “where are you, hon?” His wife had said she was going to spend the day cleaning out the attic. There were boxes up there filled with junk they had brought when they had gotten married three years ago. With the baby coming they agreed they could use the extra space.
David had made Anne promise that she wouldn't overdo it. Besides his concern for her physical well-being, he had also been more than a little anxious about her psychological state. Things had been going so well of late that he was beginning to think that she had finally turned the corner – that she had at last begun to put her past behind her.
He had long since stopped trying to get her to “talk about it.” Oh, he had heard some of the story, but not all. Every time he broached the subject, her mood would darken. For days, sometimes even for weeks afterward, she'd be weighed down by a depression that hovered over her like a cloud the color of tarnished silverware. He quickly learned that dredging up the past, figuratively or literally, like she had planned on doing today, was a dangerous proposition. He figured that when the time was right, she'd open up completely. Until then, he didn't push her. He simply tried to be as loving and patient as possible.
“Anne,” he said again, as he walked down the hallway toward the kitchen, “you're not still up there in the attic, are you? You know you need to be careful!” He tried to keep the worry, as well as his mild irritation, out of his voice. If she’s still screwing around up there, he thought, it'll take her at least an hour or so to get ready to go out.
It was late in the afternoon and outside the sky was dark. You could almost smell the impending rain in the air. Damn, David swore silently, it’s dark in here too. Why aren't there any lights on? Before he reached the kitchen and the door leading to the attic stairs, he heard a sound in the living room just off to his right.
Apprehensively, David flicked the wall switch and soft light illuminated the room. Anne was sitting on the end of their old couch. It was clear that she had been crying. His first thought was that she had hurt herself.
“You OK, honey?” he asked as he knelt down on the floor in front of her. He reached up and stroked her hair. The fact that Anne flinched slightly and drew back almost imperceptibly at his touch didn't bother him. He was used to it. He knew that there were times when it took all of her strength not to recoil when he came near. He didn't take it personally. He realized that it was all part of the wordless battle she was waging with her unspeakable past.
“What’s that?” David asked noticing a small figure sitting with its back against the opposite arm rest of the couch. Looking more closely, he saw that it was an old, battered doll wearing a faded red dress. She had tufts of coarse hair sticking out of her head. The doll’s eyes, lifeless and unfeeling, were what really drew David’s attention. A far cry from the lifelike, anatomically correct affairs produced for children these days, he found the old toy’s deep, fathomless dots of obsidian cold, almost menacing.
Anne reached over and, picking up the doll, placed it on her lap. She held it tightly against her blessedly swollen abdomen, whether out of affection or as a means of control wasn't at all clear. Unbidden, she began to speak.
"When you pull the string in her back she cries." Distractedly Anne attempted to straighten the doll’s dry and disheveled hair. “She belonged to my mother; she might even have been my grandma’s before that. I don't remember.”
David had figured the doll was something from the 60’s, maybe even the 50’s. Looking a little more closely now, but not wanting to interrupt his wife, he realized that it might indeed be even older than he had suspected.
“Anyhow,” Anne continued, “I slept with her, took baths with her and basically carried her with me wherever I went. That’s until …” Anne’s voice broke. She began to sob.
“’Where did he touch you’? ‘Show us on your dolly’ they said.”
“There’, I pointed. I was only seven, for Christ’s sake! I can still feel the shame, the tears running hot and slow down my cheeks, ‘and there’.”
Stunned, David drew back and sat on his haunches.
“I put her in a box in my closet,” Anne finished quietly, “back with all the dust and broken dreams. This is the first time I've laid eyes on her since just after my father’s trial.”
James C. Clar teaches and writes in upstate New York (USA). He contributes regularly to Mystery News and has published fiction in print as well as on the Internet. Of late his stories have found a home in the Magazine of Crime & Suspense, Taj Mahal Review, Flashshot, Everyday Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Powder Burn Flash, Antipodean SF, Apollo's Lyre, Shine: A Journal of Flash and Golden Visions Magazine. So far as he recalls, there's not one doll in the house!