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art by Steven R. Stewart

Still Life

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy Magazine, among others. For more information, visit the author at acwise.net or acwise.livejournal.com.
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."
"What kind of game?" Jakey's shoulders are still tight, pressed uncomfortably against the wall. His voice remains wary, but anger is exhausting, and Doll can see he won't be able to hold onto it much longer.
"What games do you like?" Doll asks.
"Do you know Snap?"
Doll shakes her head. "You could teach me."
Jakey watches her for a moment, before reluctantly taking a pack of cards from the shelf above the plastic superheroes. Because Doll knows Henry so well, she knows Jakey--he's lonely.
Jakey climbs onto the bed, still watching Doll.
"You can sit on the bed, I guess." His tone is half grudging, half magnanimous, like's doing Doll a big favor, despite the cost to himself. "But don't touch anything else unless I say so, okay?"
"Okay." Doll sits opposite Jakey.
He arranges himself cross-legged, and Doll mirrors his pose. He shakes out the deck of cards, explaining the game.
Snap is fast and violent. They slap cards down in a flurry of hands. Hitting is okay in this game, even encouraged. More than once, Jakey slaps the back of Doll's hands, as she slips her card onto the pile just ahead of him. It stings, but she doesn't mind. He pays her back with a grin when, in triumph, he gets his card onto the pile before hers, and she is the one slapping him. After a while, he's even laughing.
They play another hand. This time, Jakey doesn't slap as hard. Like the storm, he's poured his fury out. It may come again, but for now, for the first time in what Doll suspects is a long time, Jakey is happy.
Here is Doll at seventeen. She's lying on Jakey's bed, which is much bigger than it used to be. The bedspread is plain black; the Transformers cover has long since been rolled up and stuffed in the back of a closet.
Jakey is at school, so Doll is reading magazines, waiting for him to get home. Cosmo, Mademoiselle, and a host of others pile around her like fallen leaves. Their slick covers all look the same. A woman with airbrushed features and impossibly sharp cheekbones stares out at Doll. Her eyes hold circles of light so precise they seem stamped onto the irises. Her lips are moist, slightly parted. Her hair blows back, as if the picture was taken in a high wind.
Doll is trying to figure out how to be a woman; Jakey and Henry are no help. Each magazine's advice--all about hair and make-up, how to look thin, and how to meet the perfect man--contradicts the next. She has Woman's Day and Good Housekeeping, too, but their advice makes even less sense. How is she supposed to keep a perfect, airbrushed figure while following the recipes for moist chocolate cake and baked macaroni and cheese? How is she meant to keep a house spotless if she's cooking all day?
Doll thinks answering these questions might be easier if she'd been allowed to go to school with Jakey, but the school board wouldn't let Henry enroll her. Doll never fully understood why, but Henry's shoulders always went tight when the subject was raised. Nothing in Henry's home-schooling even addresses the subject, let alone pointing Doll in the right direction. She has to find her own way, fumbling blind.
She's even tried leafing through the magazines Jakey keeps crammed under his mattress. The women look uncomfortable, backs unnaturally arched, hands clamped too tightly around their breasts as they thrust them toward the camera. Like the women on the covers of Cosmo and Mademoiselle, they all look the same.
It doesn't matter which kind of magazine Doll reads. Nothing in the shiny pages tells her how to banish the shadows haunting Henry's eyes; none tell her how to keep Jakey from drifting away. They don't tell her how to cope with growing up when every moment is crowded against the next, when she still hears rain tapping against a nylon umbrella, and feels the slap of Jakey's hands against hers as they play Snap.
Perhaps if she becomes someone else, one of the uncomfortable, airbrushed women, she won't care anymore. Doll tosses the magazines aside. They slide off the bed and onto the floor.
She crosses the room and stands in front of Jakey's full-length mirror. She holds her hair up experimentally. Her curls tumble unevenly. She looks messy, but not carefully messy like the girls in the magazines. She looks more like she doesn't know how to use a comb. Doll sucks in her cheeks; it makes her eyes bug out rather than accentuating her bone structure. She looks like a fish.
Doll lets her hair fall back into place. Not drawn in, her cheeks are naturally round. She looks the way Sarah, Jakey's mother, looked at seventeen.
Doll studies her profile. She puts her hands under her breasts, lifting them the way the women in Jakey's magazines do. She arches her back, opening her mouth as though she's panting, or about to scream.
"What the hell are you doing?" Jakey speaks from the doorway.
Doll turns, still holding her breasts. Jakey drops his backpack. Full of textbooks, it thumps heavily to the floor. He stares.
Doll tries to smile like the women in the magazines. "I'm being a girl."
Jakey's lips twist. His gaze shifts to the drift of magazines. Color flushes his cheeks as he sees the ones from under his mattress; he masks his blush with anger. When he clenches his fingers, he reminds Doll of Henry.
"What are you doing in my room anyway?"
"I was waiting for you." Doll lowers her arms.
"Why?"
"We never talk anymore."
"There's nothing to talk about. I'm busy. I've got homework." Jakey stands aside, waiting for her to leave. Doll doesn't move.
Despite his fingers clenched tight at his side, Jakey is growing less like his father every day. At seventeen, he is tall, gangly, and awkward. His shaggy hair falls across his face, hiding his mother's bright blue eyes, and acne now as well.
These days, his anger doesn't spend itself quick as a storm. It lasts for days; Jakey is secret and sullen, holding everything inside. Doll sees how much it hurts Henry, but Jakey can't, or won't see.
Contrasted with Jakey laughing and smiling, with whispered secrets, with baseballs tossed in the backyard, and forts built from couch cushions, the current Jakey is a stranger. She knows time isn't the same for Jakey--his moments are strung out like beads, while hers crowd together. For Doll, every moment is now; Jakey's new rejection of her is constantly fresh, it stings. And she's sick of it.
"Please, Jakey, just talk to me," she says, before remembering he likes to be called Jay now.
"Fine." Jakey steps away from the door, rolling his eyes, his indulgence calculated to make her feel small. Hostility peeks out beneath the shaggy ends of his hair. "What do you want to talk about?"
"I… I don't know." Doll is flustered.
She wishes they could play Snap, or stay up all night eating popcorn and watching scary movies. She wishes they could go back to the lake Henry took them to when they were twelve, all three of them trying to outdo each other with the size of the fish they hauled out of the glittering water on spider-silk-thin lines.
For Doll, then is still now. She wishes time worked the same way for Jakey, or that it worked the other way around and she didn't have to constantly carry the memory of how things used to be. She longs for the luxury, the mercy, of time. It would dull the truth; she could varnish it to suit her current mood. But for Jakey, ages have passed since the couch cushions and the lake, since tossed baseballs and scary movies. He might as well be a different person.
She doesn't know how to be around him anymore. All Doll knows about the way teenagers interact is what she's seen in movies and on TV.
"We don't have to talk," Doll says. "We could kiss."
"What?" Jakey stares at her.
"You know… make out?"
Jakey stares at her like he can't decide whether to slap her, or throw up on her shoes.
"That's sick! What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Doll thinks of the magazines, and their advice on how to catch a man. It isn't meant to work on brothers, but Jakey isn't really her brother, and the advice doesn't make much sense anyway. Still, she has to try. Jakey used to be her best friend. She doesn't want to lose him.
Doll circles around the bed, and puts her hand on Jakey's arm. The magazines said touching a man's arm sends a subtle signal that makes him want to stay around. She's the same height as Jakey, so she can't look up at him coyly through lowered eyelashes, which is another thing the magazines say she should do. It doesn't matter--Jakey freezes, his arm rigid under her touch. He smacks her hand away.
"What the fuck? You're my sister!"
Doll's skin stings. It's not like when they played Snap; it's a wholly different kind of pain. She rubs her arm. Tears prickle behind her eyes. She uses Henry's trick, tipping her head back, holding her chin high. She's trembling, hating that she's angry. She clenches her fingers into fists; it does nothing to hold back her pain.
Doll flings words at Jakey. Her aim is true; blood drains from Jakey's face as each word hits home. "I'm not your sister. You don't have a sister. Your sister died when she was a baby. That's why your mother left and why your father made me, because you weren't enough."
Doll knows the last part isn't true, but she doesn't care. She shoves Jakey hard with vat-grown muscles. He hits the wall, and his eyes widen more from the shock than the impact. He looks like a little boy again, bewildered and trying not to cry. Good, Doll thinks, good, good, good. But she doesn't feel good at all. Still, she wants to stay angry. She stalks out of the room, slamming the door.
She pounds up the stairs to her attic room, and throws herself onto the mattress under the slope of the roof. The force drives the air out of her, but there's already so much hurt bound up in her skin she barely feels it. A thought hits her at the same time she hits the mattress, stealing her breath as surely as the impact.
She isn't real.
Henry and Jakey have rooms; Doll has a mattress in the raw, unfinished space beneath the eaves. She's surrounded by trunks and boxes, old clothing Jakey has outgrown, golf clubs abandoned because the game was too hard. Walls built of photograph albums close her in. Doll isn't part of the family; she's just another ghost, another memory--one made of skin--standing in for something lost and gone.
Doll slams her fist against the attic floor, bruising her hand. Then she's crying. For the first time in all of her seventeen years, tears pour out in great wracking sobs, shaking her like a storm. She's been hurt before, but never like this, never by the people she cares about more than anything in the world. Each sob booms and peals, unrolling from her chest, traveling to her fingers and her toes and out the top of her skull.
After years of watching over Jakey and Henry as they cried, she's finally doing it herself. It feels terrible. Amidst her tears, Doll almost laughs. These tears, with all their attendant anger and sorrow, make her feel more human than she ever has before.
Here is Doll at thirty-one. She's standing by Henry's grave, watching a machine lower his coffin into the ground. The edges of the grave are impossibly sharp. There are hard lines everywhere--stiff blades of grass, rows of granite stones, gravel pathways winding through the green with no pebble out of place. Even the birds are stark black, winging across the wide-open sky. She imagines razor-thin feathers slicing the blue to shreds.
Moments lean, one against the next. She is seventeen, giving Henry's secret away and letting Jakey into his father's pain. She is five, hiding in the closet and listening to Jakey yell.
Even separated by years, the moments are the same. Lying on her mattress in the attic after leaving Jakey's room, Doll listened to father and son yell. There was no chink of light coming through a closet door, but Doll still pictured them tipping their heads back, struggling not to cry.
The moments were the same, but Doll was different. She didn't try to comfort either of them. She didn't touch Jakey's back, or hold Henry's hand. It felt strange; it felt good, but not as good as she'd hoped. Under the veneer of triumph, there was a raw space filled with pain.
The fight had ended with Jakey threatening to leave. But in the end, Doll was the one who moved out. She'd opened a crack with her words, separating them, leaving them strangers. As she'd packed--Jakey watching her with sullen eyes, Henry with his arms crossed and lips pressed into a thin line--Doll held onto the secret hope that she'd take the rift with her. In her absence, Jakey and Henry might heal. At five years old, sitting in the closet, she'd known better. She knew better at seventeen, too.
Jakey helped her carry her things to a little one-bedroom apartment above a pizza parlor. It wasn't clean, and all the faucets leaked, but it belonged to Doll. Cramped though it was, it was a space for Doll to build her own memories, rather than being surrounded by someone else's.
She'd found a job as a waitress. She'd lived with a boyfriend for a while, then a girlfriend, but neither of them had been family; neither of them felt like home. She missed Jakey and Henry, and kept hoping one of them would ask her to come home. But the space of phone calls and family dinners filled with awkward silence and the weight of unspoken words. Doll, Henry, and Jakey held onto their pride--they didn't ask, and Doll didn't either.
After one such dinner, it occurred to Doll--lying on her old mattress in her new place--that she'd been unfair to Henry and Jakey. Sometimes she hadn't thought of them as real, either. She'd thought of them as dolls, precious things to be guarded, things that could be fixed when they were broken. The knowledge didn't make things any better. They drifted; the space between calls and dinners grew until only silence remained.
The moment Doll gave away Henry's secret is this moment, now. The continuity of their lives broke then; now Doll is standing on the edge of a second break. This one is far more final: Henry has dropped out of existence.
Standing at the edge of Henry's grave, Doll is struck by a sudden feeling of responsibility. Beyond loving Henry, she must remember him.
After Sarah, after the baby girl, Henry stopped taking pictures. Henry told Doll once that some people believe cameras steal souls; if you allow your picture to be taken, you won't be you anymore, you won't be whole. Conversely, Doll thinks, if that is true, pictures must hold an essential essence of the person photographed. Henry was always behind the camera. Amidst the fragmented pieces of Sarah's soul, and the one piece of their daughter's soul, no part of Henry remains.
But Doll is imbued with Henry, and by extension, Sarah and the unnamed little girl. She is all of Jakey's family, bound in one skin. More than a static image, Doll is sensation--the feel of Henry's calloused palms, the tap-tap of rain against an umbrella, the salt-and-butter scent of midnight popcorn, the saltier-still taste of tears. She is Henry, complete. She is more complete than he ever was for the imperfection of human memory, and yet, she is less. She is only an echo.
Still, she will remember his life faithfully--she is incapable of forgetting. She will remember his death, too. Doll talked to Henry's doctor after he died. She expected resistance from the hospital, like the school board, but Henry listed her and Jakey both as next of kin.
The doctor said Henry had an infection in his right heart valve, part of a congenital condition, but he'd refused surgery. Henry's last secret was his sickness, and he hadn't shared it with anyone.
Doll glances at Jakey, standing at the other end of Henry's grave. She doesn't recognize anyone else. Doll hoped Sarah would show up, but her departure was complete. When she walked out of Henry and Jakey's life, it was as though they stopped existing for her. Doll can't imagine such perfect forgetting.
When the minister gives the signal, Jakey takes a handful of earth and tosses it onto the coffin. The other mourners follow. Doll goes last. She rolls her handful of dirt across her palm. It's still damp from the last rain, echoing with the passage of worms and other bugs, all the life that most people never see. The earth makes a final sound as it hits the coffin.
Doll brushes her hand against her skirt. Her palm rasps on the fabric, working the dirt deeper into her skin. A mini-dozer coughs to life, filling the air with the scent of exhaust. It pushes the waiting mound of dirt into the hole; the sound the whole pile makes hitting the wooden lid is even more final.
The other mourners file away; only Jakey remains. Impulsively, Doll sidles closer and takes his hand. Jakey flinches, as if surprised to find her there, but he doesn't pull away. Like hers, his hand is slightly damp. There's a fine, gritty layer of dirt between them.
"Can I buy you a coffee?" Doll asks.
The dozer tamps the earth down. A layer of sod will cover it soon, everything fresh and neat, as though the dirt was never disturbed.
Jakey meets Doll's eyes. He looks even more like Henry now. His light brown hair is cut short, showing off his mother's bright blue eyes. There are faint lines at the corner of his mouth. Doll can only hope they are from smiling; it hurts that she doesn't know. She's missed so much, and it's too late to recapture the moments now.
"Coffee, sure." Jakey sounds uncomfortable, but he pulls out keys and points towards a parked car.
As they leave, Doll glances back, a shiver prickling along her spine. She's never thought much about death before. She's spent so much time trying to figure out how to live that she's never considered the possibility of her life ending. Thinking about Henry, young and lying in the ground, thinking about Jakey, looking older and more like his dead father with each passing year, Doll can't help but think of death now.
Of all the secrets he whispered to her down in the dark, Henry never gave Doll the secret of her life. She never wanted to ask Henry exactly what she was, afraid to draw yet more attention to how she was different. Among her crowded memories she can almost remember cultivated cells dividing, she can almost remember Henry tinkering, directing who she would be. Sometimes, though, those memories seem like a dream. Mercifully they are the only memories that aren't perfectly preserved, eternally present, in Doll's mind.
She never asked Henry whether he gave her a specific lifespan. Maybe one day she'll simply run down like an old clock. Her skin will split, and she'll unravel. Because Doll at thirty-one is also Doll at five and Doll at seventeen. Maybe there will come a time when she's simply too full.
Doll climbs into the car; they drive in silence. She watches the streets roll past, seeing them with fresh eyes. Everything is finite.
In the café, they take a table by the window. Jakey looks so stiff and formal in his funeral clothes. Doll wishes she had a pack of cards. If they played Snap, would he smile?
When their coffee arrives, Doll wraps her hands around her mug, catching the warmth bleeding through the ceramic. She looks at Jakey through threads of steam, trying not to see a stranger.
"I'm sorry for what I said about your sister," Doll says.
"What?" Jakey's expression is puzzled.
It's been fourteen years, Doll reminds herself. She is still the little girl sitting in Jakey's closet, still the not-quite girl floating in the dark, listening to Henry cry. Doll puts her cup down and meets Jakey's eyes.
"I'm sorry I told you about your sister, the one who died. Your father should have been the one to tell you."
"Why didn't he?" Jakey looks frightened by his own words.
In his own way, Jakey hasn't changed, either. He is still the little boy lying on top of the Transformers bedspread, filled with sorrow and rage too big for his small frame.
"Maybe he didn't want to burden you?" Doll shrugs.
She doesn't have any answers, only guesses. She twirls the coffee cup, watching ripples spread. She knew Henry better than anyone, but he didn't tell her everything.
"I don't know why your father made me," Dolls says.
Like Jakey a moment ago, her words frighten her. She meant to say something comforting, but what comes out is her own vulnerability, her own incomprehension. Confessing one weakness, Doll is suddenly filled with the desire to say more.
"When we were little, you said you didn't want me. You didn't want me to be your sister."
The sting of Jakey's words is fresh, like her slapped hands playing cards. The memory is layered under other, better memories, but it will never be gone.
"Kids say stupid things." Jakey's mouth twitches upward in an apologetic grin. "I didn't mean it. You know that, right? I'm glad you're my sister."
"I could tell you about her sometime, if you want… your real sister."
Jakey shakes his head. His smile is sadder, but his tone is sincere. "You're my sister."
"We're family, right?" Doll needs to hear Jakey say it.
"Family." Jakey nods.
"I'm sorry I ran away. I shouldn't have."
"People don't always stay together, but they're still family." Jakey shrugs and looks at his coffee.
"Do you have… anyone else?" Doll doesn't quite know how to ask the question. She hopes Jakey has someone to take pictures of him, someone to remember.
Jakey reaches into his pocket and pulls out a well-worn wallet. He flips it open so Doll can see a photograph in a plastic holder. He still keeps prints, just like his father.
"My little girl. Her mother has custody. They live in Cleveland, but she'll be coming up for a visit soon."
Doll takes the wallet, the leather soft against her palm. She studies the picture behind the smudged plastic. The little girl looks like Doll did when she was five. She has Sarah's eyes and Henry's smile.
"Would you like to meet her?" Jakey asks.
Doll looks up to see hope edged with nervousness. She is amazed; after everything Jakey still wants her in his life.
"I'd like that," she says.
The ghosts of Sarah and Henry and the unnamed baby girl crowd in her mind. She slips a mental picture of Jakey's daughter beside them. It's time to make new memories.
Doll digs her phone out of her purse. She rises, circling to Jakey's side of the table. Doll holds her phone arm's length, gesturing with a tilt of her head towards the camera lens.
"I want to take a picture." She smiles. "Something to remember by."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 15th, 2011


The inspiration for this story came from misreading a magazine's cover copy. The first few lines popped into my head, based on what I thought I saw, and from there everything else began to fall into place. Sometimes it pays to have poor eyesight!

- A.C. Wise

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