art by Steven R. Stewart
by A.C. Wise
Here is Doll at five years old. She's sitting rigid and silent in the closet, hoping Henry and Jakey will forget she's there. They're fighting about her.
The gap between the doorframe and the door lets in a sliver of light that bisects her eye. Through the gap, she can see Henry in profile. Doll can't see Jakey, she only hears him, yelling at his father.
"I don't want it! It's stupid!" Jakey stamps his foot; the floorboards tremble.
Doll grips the edges of the chair. The wood is smooth, the varnish starting to wear away. She contrasts it with the catalog of sensations she's been building in her mind. The memory of floating in liquid heavy with salt, alkaline, and chemicals--each with its own unique feel against her skin--remains fresh. Then and now press up against each other like pages in a book; then bleeds through to now like a drop of rain soaking through the paper.
Touch is so new. The world, unfiltered by liquid and glass, is overwhelming. Something as simple as the wood grain and peeling varnish of the chair is almost enough to pull her attention away from Henry and Jakey. Doll drags her focus back to them. She wants them to like her; she wants them to be happy. She doesn't want to be the cause of any more pain.
"Dolls are for girls!" Jakey's voice rises.
"Really?" Henry sounds surprised. He shrugs as though he's never considered the point before.
"The kids at school will make fun of me!"
Doll has only known Jakey for a few minutes, but she can picture his face, screwed up against the threat of frustrated tears, getting redder as he struggles not to cry. She holds a picture in her mind of his eyes, so large, so blue. They look just like hers, except Jakey has a mop of light brown hair falling into them that he brushes away impatiently as he yells.
"So don't take her to school." Henry's tone is mild, but laced with strain.
Doll moves her head; the sliver of light travels across her cheek. The corner of Henry's mouth twitches. His fingers clench, tension travels up his arm, spreading across his shoulders. Would Jakey feel differently if he knew how his father's tears watered Doll's skin as he grew and shaped her?
She wonders if she should tell Jakey this after Henry leaves, but decides Jakey is probably too young to understand. She should be too young to understand, but time doesn't work that way for Doll.
Henry explained it to her, and she understands--for Jakey, there is only now, the immediacy of his pain. There is no room for him to consider anyone else's feelings, especially his father's. Besides, Doll doesn't think Henry would want her telling Jakey his secrets. He never told her not to, but Doll knows Henry too well.
All his words are arranged neatly in Doll's mind; she can hear them as though he's still speaking them. Everything he's ever shown her is there, too, like a series of photographs she can examine one by one.
Because she knows Henry, she knows Jakey, too. Neither of them realizes how alike they are.
"I don't want to take her anywhere! I don't want her at all. She's stupid! Take her back. Get rid of her." Jakey's tone pitches higher, unshed tears cluttering his words.
"I can't do that, Jakey." Doll sees the tension in Henry's shoulders creep up his neck and slip behind his eyes. The way Henry looks right now is the way Doll knows him best. Like Jakey, he's struggling not to cry.
"Don't think of her as a doll, Jakey. Think of her more like… a sister." On the last word, Henry's voice catches.
He releases a breath, unknots his hand. Both breath and fingers tremble as he lets go. Henry lifts his head slightly, tipping tears back down his throat. It's a gesture Doll knows well. It works; none of the tears escape his eyes, which are brown where Jakey's are blue. Jakey has his mother's eyes. Just like Doll.
Henry showed Doll a picture once. He held it above the tank where she floated, pale and dreaming, her hair spread around her like seaweed. He showed the picture to Jakey, too, but he was too young to remember. Henry told Doll about it. Henry talked a lot. With Doll floating there in silence, it was the first time in a long time that he had anyone to listen.
Later, Henry told Doll about the photographs themselves, showing her the old-fashioned rolls of film. The tangible feel of prints and film made the captured memories that much more real, he said. He showed her a few black and white prints he made himself, demonstrating the process.
Doll watched in wonder as he moved chemically treated paper from one vat to the next, the image slowly appearing. Even though the stink of the photographic chemicals was completely different--sharp, harsh--Doll liked to think of her features slowly forming as Henry watched over her own chemical bath.
Doll has seen pictures of Sarah, Jakey's mother, at every age between three and thirty-four. At thirty-four, the pictures stop, as though Sarah simply dropped out of the world. Doll looks like Sarah did at five years old, with golden curls and bright blue eyes. But she has Henry's smile.
Doll has seen pictures of Henry when he was little, too. His smile was ever-present then, but like Sarah vanishing at thirty-four, Henry's smile has vanished, too. It exists in the same realm of ghosts and faded colors printed on glossy paper.
The picture Doll likes best shows Henry at seven. He's holding up a fish he caught with his grandfather. He's squinting into the sun, hiding his eyes, but his grin says everything there is to say about him at that moment in time.
There's one other picture that Doll has seen, which Henry has never shown to anyone else. It's the only copy, and there is only one. The picture was snapped at the end of a roll of film, and after that, there were no more. It shows a sleeping baby girl. A cap covers her head and her eyes are closed, but Henry told Doll that the little girl had blonde hair and blue eyes. From the bow of her sleeping mouth, Doll can tell that--given the chance to grow up--the little girl would have had Henry's smile.
"I don't want a sister! Leave me alone!" Jakey throws himself down on the bed. Doll hears the impact; the headboard thumps against the wall.
Henry flinches. Through the gap in the door, she sees his fingers curl again.
Doll bites her lip. She's only properly been part of Henry and Jakey's family for a few hours, but everything is already going wrong. When she floated in the tank, Henry's voice filled her ears with a hum like blood and she was safe. Out here, his pain is huge and immediate, and there's Jakey's anger to contend with, too. Doll wants them to like her; she wants them to like each other. She can't replace what was lost, but she wants them to be a family.
Inside Doll's skin, moments crowd one against the next. She is wrapped in salt-laden dreams, Henry's voice coming to her like the susurrus of waves. But she is also in the closet, smelling Jakey's clothes, boy-sweat, and the dirt on his shoes. His voice is sharp, like the line of light bisecting her eye.
Maybe it would be better if she ran away. Children vanish all the time; Henry told her so. They are there one moment, and gone the next.
She's almost made up her mind when the bedroom door clicks softly as Henry pulls it closed. All his heartbreak is wrapped up in that sound. It is a final sound, separating father from son.
Henry has already lost so much. He's losing Jakey. It wouldn't be fair for him to lose Doll, too. Doll slips off the chair and eases open the closet door. Her white tennis shoes make no sound as she pads across the floor.
Jakey lies on his stomach, face buried in his pillow. His small body, and all the weight of his little-boy pain, dents the faded Transformers bedspread. It belonged to Henry as a boy. Henry told Doll about the day he gave the bedspread to Jakey, and how Jakey admitted the robots were pretty cool, even though he'd never heard of the Transformers. When he told the story, Henry smiled, so Doll thinks the robots are pretty cool, too.
She runs her fingers over the soft, nubby fabric, collecting the sensation and filing it beside the feel of wood with the varnish rubbing off. Jakey's body hitches with the force of his sobs.
It reminds Doll of a storm that Henry took Doll up on the roof to watch. It was before he introduced her to Jakey. He brought a big golf umbrella, and they sat together on the shingles, which were rough and scratchy against Doll's legs. There was no lightning, only thunder.
They sat and listened to fat raindrops pound against the umbrella's nylon skin. Each boom of thunder echoed deep inside Doll's chest, pealing and rolling out through her fingertips, her toes, and the top of her skull. The rain lashed the big oak tree in the middle of the yard, and the tire hanging from the biggest branch spun slowly, collecting water. Doll could tell Henry was afraid of introducing her to his son, afraid of how things might go wrong.
Jakey's sorrow is like that storm, terrible and fierce, but carrying the seeds of its own destruction--unable to sustain itself for its sheer intensity.
Doll lifts her hand from the faded Transformers bedspread and touches Jakey's back. Jakey gasps. His head snaps up, his face streaked with tears. He rubs his arm across his face--an angry, defiant gesture--and slides off the bed, putting it between them.
"Don't touch me." Jakey scowls.
"Okay." Doll lets her hand fall back onto the bedspread. She doesn't know what else to say.
"Don't touch my bed either." Jakey crosses his arms. "Don't touch any of my stuff. I don't want you in my room. Go away and leave me alone."
Doll doesn't move. Henry's sorrow wells up in her, soaked into her skin with his tears; she can't just leave. She can't give up. Jakey's pain, so much bigger and smaller than his father's, might not be something she can fix, but she has to try.
"I won't touch your stuff," Doll says. "And I'll go away later, but not now."
Jakey glares at her and says nothing.
"Why don't you like me?" Doll asks.
"Dolls are stupid. They're for girls."
Doll points at the well-muscled plastic men in brightly colored costumes that guard the books on Jakey's shelf. "Those are dolls."
"They're action figures."
Doll doesn't see the difference. The figures don't look very active. Their capes jut stiffly behind them. Their lips are frozen in grim, heroic lines, their eyes unblinking. Even their hair, when it isn't hidden under a mask, or a hood, is sculpted right onto their heads. She is far more active, but she doesn't think Jakey would like her any better for saying so.
"Well, I'm not really a doll either, and I don't have to be your sister, but maybe we could be friends? We could play a game."