Kristine Kathryn Rusch talks about perfection. Her blog is timely and relevant as I publish this last story, Dolly Angel Face, from a series of short stories I wrote while taking a writing course way, waaay back in the nineties. Oooh, it is so tempting to edit, re-write, correct, improve, edit, re-write…, but no, as Rusch advises, mail it (or in my case, post it).
Do inanimate things remember us or our interactions with them? Do toys and houses and cars absorb our emotional states? These were questions on my mind as I wrote this story — not quite a ghost story, but not quite surreal either. I got the idea of the doll, Dolly Angel Face, from descriptions my mother gave me of a doll that was popular — the Eaton Beauty Doll — when she was a wee girl in the nineteen-twenties. She wished she had kept her Eaton Beauty doll.
Well, here goes, plot bumps, character scratches and dirt behind the ears.
(Originally written February, 1995, by Wendy E Scott)
“About what time did you first notice the doll was missing, Mrs. Allen?” The officer looked up from his notebook to study the woman, his ballpoint pen leaving a blotch where the nib touched the page.
“Well, just before lunch you see, two little boys came running into my store. They ran straight to the back,” Mrs. Allen directed the officer’s gaze with an arthritic finger. “Of course, their mother came running after them, but you must know what little boys are like.” She stared accusingly at the officer, as if he himself was once an offender in that category.
“That was just about noon, was it?” The officer began another notation in his book.
“Yes, just before. By the time I got to the back it was too late. They already knocked over a shelf. Broke a teacup, Indian Tree pattern—pre Second World War,” Mrs. Allen paused to allow the significance of the teacup’s era to sink in. “Thank God nothing else was broken, except the shelf. It’s chipped. I suppose I’ll have to replace that too.”
Mrs. Allen wrung her hands.
“The doll?” The officer drew in a long breath, let it out, then flipped over the cover of his notebook. “Is there a connection between the disturbance and the missing doll?”
“Well no. I was trying to tell you the time, you see. I finally got rid of them, then I closed the shop for lunch. I opened up again at twelve-thirty. Sharp. You see? That’s when I saw she was missing.”
The officer nodded to Mrs. Allen as she stepped closer to the display that once held the doll. He spoke to her back.
“And you’re sure the doll was stolen this morning?”
Mrs. Allen spun sharply to look up at the office. “I’ve already explained that to you, young man. I dust every morning. She was here this morning.”
The officer re–opened his book, added one more short line, then glanced over the two pages he had written.
“I think I have everything I need. I’m going back to the precinct now to write up my report, but if you think of anything else—something relevant, I mean,” he pulled a card from his breast pocket and handed it to Mrs. Allen, “please give me a call. My name and the number are on the card.”
“She’s very valuable. You just don’t find an eighty year old doll in mint condition.” Mrs. Allen made one last effort to persuade the officer to recover her doll.
“I have the picture.”
The bell sounded the shop door opening. The officer replaced his hat, pulled his collar closer and stepped outside. Mrs. Allen frowned at the swirls of snow as they settled on the red mat, and shivered at the cold fingers of air as they wrapped around her. The door clicked softly into place. She walked to the front window, peering through the neon sign that spelled out backward, Allen’s Old and Older, through the globs of wet snow, watching the officer seated in the squad car. He spoke to the radio, adjusted the rear view mirror, glanced to his left, then pulled into the traffic.
That young man, thought Mrs. Allen, does not appreciate antiques. He probably writes a thousand reports a day like mine and files them all under ‘G’.
Mrs. Allen paced the two narrow aisles of her store, surveying the items for sale, all chosen for their quality and condition. She halted in front of the vacant display.
Mint condition. It was as if her original owner never played with the doll.
Mrs. Allen ran her hand across the empty shelf. Dolly Angel Face was her favourite piece and she was secretly thankful no one expressed interest or tried to buy her. The shop seemed so very empty without Dolly, who was perfect if you ignored the missing hair ribbon that came as part of the doll’s clothes and accessories.
Perhaps if I offer a reward, someone will come forward.
Eliza Jane whispered softly through the quiet shadows of her bedroom as she hugged her new best friend.
“You’re the very best birthday present I ever received, Dolly Angel Face. We’re going to have such good times together.” Eliza Jane giggled and stroked the doll’s long blond braids. Her fingers traced the shape of ribbons, tied in tiny bows to hold the doll’s braids in place.
“And Mama says, if we’re especially good, there’s still time for Santa to bring us matching dresses for Christmas.” Eliza kissed Dolly’s cheek. “Wait here, I have to thank Jeremiah again.”
Eliza Jane slid out of bed, tiptoed to the window and peered out. Snow fell in giant flakes across her view. She was almost tempted to pull open the sash to feel the snow against her cheeks, but no, as her brother warned her earlier, too dangerous for little girls.
Eliza could see a halo down the street, a delightful dance of flakes and gas light from the lamp. A late night carriage left its tracks in the roadway.
The little girl whirled and ran to the door, opened it and sneaked across the hall. A floorboard creaked underfoot. Eliza Jane held her breath.
“Are you awake?” Eliza’s brother stirred a response. She dashed across the room, clambered into bed beside him.
“Hey, Tadpole, it’s a little late.”
“Don’t call me that, I’m much too big now.”
“Sorry Tadpole, can’t be helped.” Jeremiah scooped Eliza into his arms and carried her across the hallway. He placed her gently in bed, pulling the covers up around her chin, then sat beside her, his hand brushing her forehead. Eliza Jane gazed at her new doll.
“She’s as pretty as an angel, don’t you think?”
“Well now, I guess that means I have two angels on my hands. Go to sleep, it’s late.” Jeremiah leaned over and kissed his sister’s cheek.
Mrs. Allen positioned the sign on the shelf where Dolly Angel Face should have been, then stood back to admire her handiwork. She wondered if the reward would be enough incentive to bring the doll home. Who wouldn’t like an extra fifty dollars in his pocket just before Christmas? As she fidgeted with the sign, she planned her route home to post the remaining notices. She stood back, satisfied, convinced that Dolly Angel Face would be returned in no time. She felt much better.
Mrs. Allen’s eye caught a neglected price tag. She stooped to pick it up , must have fallen off, the thief didn’t notice in his haste.
Four dollars and fifty cents, it read in ornately scripted ink. That can’t be. Mrs. Allen studied the tag again. Four hundred and fifty dollars was neatly typed on the little ticket.
“Well old girl,” Mrs. Allen chucked aloud, “you really must have your eyes examined now. A cool draft brushed her cheek. “Who’s there?” Her nerves still jangled from the earlier theft. She brought a shaky hand to her face, creased her brow in concentration. A quick glance confirmed the closed door, the empty shop. Yet, she heard a voice — no several — murmuring echoes through the aisles, a faint tinkle of door bells behind the voices.
Mrs. Allen walked over to stand in front of the door, surveying the whole shop. The voices rang again, then laughter before the noise faded. She realized the source. Silly, silly, just nerves and a too–vivid imagination, old girl. A chill played at the base of her spine, lingered a moment then faded as she turned to study the wintry street scene.
Two children romped in piles of snow the plow had pushed into the vacant lot across the street where Miller’s Hardware Store once stood. Fire levelled the building two years earlier. There was some talk of tree planting, a park, benches to encourage patrons to the neighbouring shops, but nothing was done. The empty lot grew weeds in summer, snowy hills in winter, a popular playground for neighbourhood children, the ones who lived in the rented apartments above the shops.
The children were laughing.
Boys. She strode briskly to the back and stared at the china display. The scene earlier was a sham. The little boys — those very ones playing so innocently now across the street — and their mother were a distraction while an accomplice stole Dolly Angel Face. Mrs. Allen shook her head. After ten years she should know better than fall for that old trick. Imagine, using children to cover your theft. And what must those little boys be learning? She shook her head.
Mrs. Allen went to the back room for the card the officer left after he took his report. I wonder if that nice young man is still at the police station?
In her dreams, Eliza Jane was in a dark frightening place without air. She choked on the stench. A fist grabbed her shoulder. She tried to pull away, thrashed around for Dolly Angel Face. Dolly would save her. She opened her eyes.
“It’s all right Tadpole, I’ve got you.”
“You first. We have to get out of the house, it’s burning. I’ll go back for her.” Jeremiah carried his sister down the hall, kicked open the back door and stumbled off the porch through the snow into the clear night air. Bells and voices echoed in the confusion around them. A figure emerged from the falling snow with blankets.
Eliza Jane heard her mother’s sobs behind her. She turned. As her eyes adjusted to the dark her father approached, his feet bare and white from the cold, a blanket thrown loosely over his shoulders. Tears streamed down his cheeks, mixed with soot, oddly orange, reflecting the terrible dance of flames that now shot through the roof at the front of the house.
“Thank God,” her father cried, grabbing an arm each of Jeremiah and Eliza Jane, so hard it left a bruise Eliza Jane would not discover until late in the next day.
Thank God was all he could say, over and over.
“Dolly,” Eliza Jane cried out against the roar of the fire and wind. Jeremiah pulled free of his father and ran back to the house.
“No.” Eliza’s father gestured wildly to his son’s back, but Jeremiah had already disappeared into the smokey whirls of snow.
Two men operated a hand pump beside them, but the water froze as quickly as it streamed from the hose. A third fireman passed by, axe in hand. Eliza’s father staggered after him, shouting Jeremiah’s name. The fireman paused briefly, then ran toward the house.
Mrs. Allen moved the reward sign to the front window. She hummed to herself, confident now that the crime would be solved, her precious Dolly Angel Face restored. She decided — firmly — Dolly Angel Face would no longer be for sale. That just wouldn’t do, not after all she’d been through. The little doll would sit in a place of honour beside the cash, supervising transactions, keeping Mrs. Allen company. That was where she belonged.
Mrs. Allen unpacked an old pewter frame from its shipping crate, brushed it off and placed it on the shelf where Dolly Angel Face used to sit. She angled the frame toward the back of the shop, then adjusted it to face the front. An old picture slipped out, unseen until now behind the paper backing. Mrs. Allen studied the picture of a young man staring at the camera, smiling, confident, youthful, dressed in full military attire.
Mrs. Allen scratched her head. She guessed the boy to be about eighteen and dated the uniform to the first world war. She put the photograph aside and returned to fiddle with the frame on the shelf, but the picture continued to draw her attention.
She walked to the china display, recreating the commotion with the little boys and their mother. In her imagination Mrs. Allen now visualized the accomplice, a boy the same age as the soldier in the ancient photograph, the modern boy dressed in khakis that were all the rage with teenagers these days. She glanced again at the photo, nodding, thanking the soldier for bringing forth the memory from the morning theft.
“Now Tadpole, don’t be sad. Look here,” Jeremiah sat beside his sister. She hugged her Dolly Angel Face. “I’ve got something for you.” He pulled a small desk calendar out of his pocket. Eliza Jane brushed a tear away.
“I’ll be home before you know it. See, I’ve even circled the date.”
“But why do you have to go? Why can’t someone else do the fighting?” A tiny sob escaped her throat. Jeremiah reached over and pulled the ribbon from the doll’s braid, slipped it in his breast pocket.
“It’s my duty. Now I’ve got Dolly’s ribbon to keep me safe. She saved me from the fire, didn’t she? She showed me the way out of the house. (Eliza Jane nodded.) Well, she’ll be with me in France.” Jeremiah patted his pocket, then put his arms around Eliza Jane and Dolly.
“Before you can say lickety split, I’ll be home. I promise. I have to, I’ve got a guardian angel in my pocket, another one at home. And when I get back the three of us, you, me and Dolly, we’ll have the fanciest tea party you’ve ever seen. I promise.”
But Jeremiah did not come home. He died in the trenches. Eliza Jane tilted her head, listening to her mother’s sobs from the kitchen, her father’s muffled words of comfort. Eliza stared at the circled date that no longer meant anything, thought of the fanciest tea party that would never happen.
Eliza Jane threw the calendar into the fireplace. Flames ate the months away, January, February, March… until nothing remained but ash and smoke, a reminder of the conflagration in Europe that had eaten away at her brother until there was nothing but pain and memory.
Smoke and ash. Like the house. How many times had Jeremiah told her how Dolly saved his life? Eliza studied the doll.
When he returned to the burning house, Jeremiah told her he was lost, could not breath, crawled on his hands and knees choking until he saw the doll by a doorway. She whispered, he said… Jeremiah, this way, and he followed, crawling, choking, lost in the smoke and flames until he felt the strong grasp of a fireman. He was hauled to safety, Dolly Angel Face in his arms.
Eliza Jane trudged up the attic stairs, the doll dangling from her right hand. She found a candle and lit it, searched until she found an old trunk and placed the doll inside it. She fingered the braid with the missing ribbon. She wrapped a cloth around the doll like a shroud.
“He’s dead,” Eliza whispered, “and you’re just a silly toy. You’re not a guardian angel.”
Eliza closed the trunk lid, then opened it again. Was that a sob? She pulled the shroud away from the doll’s face, thought she could see a tear trickle down Dolly’s face, but no, the doll stared vacantly ahead as she always had. Eliza re–wrapped the doll and settled her into the trunk.
Eliza left the attic. She waited a heartbeat, her head tilted against the door, but the attic remained silent. You don’t belong here any more.
The following morning, Mrs. Allen sat in her back room, sipping tea, reading the paper. Her eyes happened upon the obituaries, something she usually avoided. It didn’t pay to remind oneself of one’s mortality. But this notice…
Eliza Jane Effenberry, peacefully in her eighty–seventh year. The name sounded familiar. Mrs. Allen peered at the notice, studied the faded picture, obviously taken at an earlier time, but it was the name that finally triggered her memory.
The old lady shuffled into the shop several weeks ago. She introduced herself, then stood some moments in front of Dolly Angel Face. Mrs. Allen had waited patiently beside Miss Effenberry.
“You must have had a doll just like this one when your were a girl.”
“No, this very one. My brother took the ribbon, you see, the one that’s missing. That’s how I know.”
“Other than the missing ribbon, she’s in perfect condition.”
“She was a gift you see, from him, from my Jeremiah.”
“How very nice,” Mrs. Allen said. She was beginning to suspect the ancient woman would engage her in a long and tedious conversation.
“He died. In the Great War.” Eliza Jane’s gaze remained transfixed on the doll. She tapped an arthritic finger on the braid with the missing ribbon. “He promised…”
“I’m so sorry. Would you like to hold her?”
The ancient woman shook her head. “I just wanted to look at her once more. After all these years, I’ve forgiven her.” She shuffled silently down the aisle, her cane tapping lightly with every second step. The door bell tinkled behind her, leaving a faint echo.
Mrs. Allen puzzled over the strange words as she re–read the obituary, wondering if the ancient was senile. She shrugged and folded the newspaper back to the front page, setting it beside her cup of tea gone cold while she pondered the odd incident.
Mrs. Allen stood, stretched and walked into the shop, pausing to pick up her feather duster. She stopped, stared in disbelief.
Dolly Angel Face was back. She sat in her usual spot on the display shelf, the pewter frame and its soldier now sharing the shelf beside her. Mrs. Allen took several steps. Dolly Angel Face was so radiant, so peaceful, never more beautiful, more pristine than now. Her hair hung down her shoulders, bright red ribbons tying both braids neatly in place.
Mrs. Allen touched the ribbons as the shop’s door bell echoed softly through the store, muffled as if heard through the wall, then fainter still, laughter receding into the past.