by Christian A. Larsen

And you thought ventriloquist dummies were dummies.

~*~

It was awful dark in there, that steamer trunk. Willie’d been locked inside for so long, he could almost smell the yellow coming off the crinkled newspaper wads that held him in place. If he could smell. But he couldn’t. Not really. Not when there wasn’t a drunk or a kid or someone’s cracked old grandmother to terrorize, because when they exhaled that fear, brother, it was like giving old Willie mouth-to-mouth, seeping from those rabbit-quick heartbeats into his body, all the way from the hand-carved cowlick of his painted-on hair to the cotton batting in his shoes.

Willie loved that feeling.

And when the lid of his sarcophagus finally cracked open again after all those years, he could feel the tingle, like pins and needles served up on that blade of daylight that knifed across his wooden eyes. The dimpled chin dropped, and Willie’s blood red lips parted in something of a smile, unveiling two rows of tiny white teeth. He wanted to start chipping away at someone’s sanity right away—that was the best way instead of all at once—but when he saw the pawnbroker’s grizzled, jaded face staring back at him, he figured he’d better wait.

Men without imaginations were the hardest marks, and he never bothered with them anymore. So he waited in the pawnshop window, watching people not notice him twelve or fourteen hours a day. But Willie noticed them. Yes, siree, he measured each and every one.

And then after several weeks of waiting, an old man stopped and gave him the once or twice over. He wore a gray suit and a crinkled fedora, and looked for all the world like a man without an imagination, but when he looked at Willie, there was something in his eyes that said yes, this one, and Willie couldn’t have agreed more. The man’s imagination had only been sleeping. Hibernating. Like Willie. He fought the urge to follow the back-and-forth with his eyes while the old man and the pawnbroker settled on a price.

“How much for that guy there?” asked the old man, doffing his hat and running his fingers through his hair.

“That one?” asked the pawnbroker, cupping his chin with his hand. He had no imagination at all, except when it came to coming up with reasons for jacking up the price. “You have a good eye. That one was a vaudeville staple. Uhw-wil-lie,” he said, eyeballing the tag. “Big name back in the day.”

“Vaudeville, eh?” said the old man. “Vaudeville, my foot. That looks like a nightclub dummy from when TV was killing the medium. I should know—used to see enough of ’em when I was a traveling coronet player before Kennedy was shot.”

Ah, a horn player. Musician. Some imagination in that one—I knew it, thought Willie. And not so different from a ventriloquist. He breathes life into his horn, and a ventriloquist does the same for me. But a horn doesn’t uncoil and wrap itself around your neck just for laughs, does it, old man? Well, you wait and see what I can do…strictly for laughs!

“So, how much?” asked the old man, leaving his hands at his sides.

“He’s marked at $200, but I’ll give him to you for $175.”

“Why don’t you save your goofball haggling for the internet,” said the old man. “My grandson may love crap like this, but I certainly don’t. He’s chipped, moth-eaten, and probably loaded with termites. I’ll give you thirty bucks for him.”

Willie couldn’t stop smiling, even though he thought he was worth more than the $50 the old man ultimately paid. He was going to be a gift for a kid, and that would be like opening the floodgates for old Willie—because kids had the best imaginations.

And were the easiest to scare.

The pawnbroker wrapped the dummy in butcher paper and found a cardboard box about his size, wrapped it in string, and even shook the old man’s hand before forgetting all about the ventriloquist doll. He just made a quick fifty bucks on a dummy he picked up at some poor jerk’s estate sale for next to nothing, but the thing of it was, the poor jerk had worked nightclubs in the 50s and 60s under the name Pascal the Clown, which made the old man who bought the dummy right about on target. You can’t beat an informed customer.

~*~

“Here you go, kid,” said the old man, sliding the box across the kitchen table to an eight-year-old boy who looked an awful lot like his own sepia-tone portraits from some sixty-odd years earlier.

“What’s that, Dad?” said the boy’s mother, putting away a stack of plates. “No ‘happy birthday, Caleb’? You couldn’t even make it on time for supper?”

His head slumped between his shoulders. “The shopkeeper was giving me guff about the price. You know how I feel about getting skinned.”

“You waited until his birthday to buy his present? Some things never change.”

“Mary, leave your father alone,” said Caleb’s dad, who had just come downstairs after changing out of his business suit.

“Please,” said Caleb. “Can I just open it?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, honey,” said his mom. “Go ahead.”

Caleb’s eyes went wide when he saw Willie, dressed in a sailor suit, with his wide face pinched to the corners of his cheeks like something very funny had just happened, or was about to happen. When he picked up the doll, its eyes bobbled a little in their sockets, kind of a like his cousin’s china doll—which his grandpa had also found in a consignment shop—and it looked to Caleb liked Willie had just sized him up. The net effect made the dummy look like he deserved a punch in the nose, but even at eight years old, Caleb figured he would only bruise his own knuckles pulling a trick like that.

“Another used toy?” sighed Mary.

“No, mom, I like it,” Caleb said. “How do you use it, grandpa?”

“Well, he’s not a puppet,” explained Caleb’s grandpa, flipping the dummy over. “You don’t put your hand up his keister like some two-bit country vet. There’s a slit in his back, right there. You see it? You slip your hand in there, and you can control the eyes, mouth and neck all at once with your fingers. Sit him on your lap and have a smart-alecky conversation. I saw performers do that schtick all the time when I was on the road.”

Caleb propped Willie up on his lap, made its jaw drop, and spun the head all the way around like an anthropomorphic owl. He finished off his brief tour by trying to make the doll blink, but it just ended up winking at the old man, which made him lean back and, as faintly as he did quickly, furrow his eyebrows. Caleb didn’t notice, but Willie did, and he sat up a little straighter on Caleb’s thigh.

“How do I make him talk?”

Caleb’s grandpa swallowed. “Practice.”

The old man and his grandson split a piece of birthday cake and a can of Coke (neither one could stand milk or coffee—another trait they shared), and then called it a night. Caleb’s grandpa had to drive home, and night driving wasn’t his strong suit. Not anymore. He hugged his grandson at the door, ruffled his hair, and tried to ruffle the part on Willie’s head before whirling its head all the way around with the flick of his wrist. When it finally stopped spinning, the dummy’s smile looked more like a grimace. Caleb’s grandpa couldn’t help flashing a slight grimace of his own on his way out the front door.

Caleb bounded upstairs, two at a time, and practiced talking without moving his lips in front of the bathroom mirror while only occasionally doing anything with the dummy, which he wore like an elaborate, forgotten glove. Willie’s arms and legs hung lax, swaying with the boy’s movements like forgotten cobwebs. Otherwise, the doll was totally still except for its eyes, which quietly tracked to the right whenever Caleb wasn’t looking.

“Night time, Cale,” said Caleb’s dad, peeking around the corner. “School night.”

“Five more minutes?”

“Nope, I’d give you five less for asking if I could turn back time.”

“Alright.”

Caleb slid Willie off his arm and carried him face down to his room. Every time he took a step and swung his arm, the dummy’s jaw clacked shut. It sounded like someone was following him, and he had to swallow his heart down his throat when he sat the dummy on the chair across from his bed, taking the time to fold his hands across his lap. Caleb hustled back to the bathroom to brush his teeth, laughing to himself for being such a scaredy-cat, but had to check the mirror to make sure he was still smiling.

He bounded back to his room like the floor was burning his feet, jumped into bed, and slid under the fluffed sheet as it sank like a parachute. His mom and dad came in to wish him a happy birthday one last time before it was over, said his prayers with him, and kissed him goodnight before switching off the lamp on the nightstand. They left the door open, just how he liked it, with the quiet yellow light of the hallway stretching across the far end of his room like a spotlight on Willie, with his splintery smile creaking open just a notch.

Caleb noticed.

~*~

Not the smile—the arm. Caleb had left the hands folded across the dummy’s lap, but now one arm was slung over the back of the high-backed chair like he was someone relaxing in an easy situation—with an easy mark huddled under a sheet in the dark corner of the room. Dark, but not too dark to smell the tiny pearls of sweat rising out the kid’s quivering hide. The little boy had noticed enough, and hoo, he was—make that they were—in for a helluva night.

The kid dropped off eventually, and Willie could practically see the thought bubbles clustering around his head as he watched him, rationalizing what he’d seen, arguing with himself about whether to call his parents, and just plain fighting tears. Eight-year-olds were the absolute best, thought Willie, wishing he had the strength to rub his hands together. That’ll come.

Any older and their imaginations started to wither.

Any younger and they blubbered for their moms and dads.

The kid was mess-the-pants scared of Willie already, and he hadn’t even really gotten started yet. Hadn’t even had the chance to, but that fear was rolling off the sleeping brat like clouds of dry ice, filling every atom in Willie’s body with the will, the will power, to move.

Those first couple of steps were wobbly, and he almost collapsed on the floor, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing, except it would have been pretty damned hard to get back up in his weak condition, and if he couldn’t, he might be on the floor all night. By morning, the kid might have a handle on his fear and kick old Willie to the curb. He was committed to making it across the floor. He needed a couple of bumps of fear like a junkie needed the junk.

Downstairs, mom and dad were watching Kimmel or something on the idiot box, and Willie felt a new pang of determination. That junk killed the nightclubs, he thought. They’re part of the problem. Now their kid is part of the solution. My solution! Stupid kid…

Caleb held the edge of his bed sheet in two balled up fists. The bottom of the sheet was snugly tucked under the mattress, but the edge was loose. Willie peeled that back like a sardine lid and crawled under the covers, worming his way toward the kid’s cold, sweating feet. That smell mingled with the scent of the fabric softener in a not-unpleasant way, which made Willie all the happier because his sense of smell was kicking in earlier than he expected. Hoped, even.

He’d be good to go before long.

Willie couldn’t see anything under the covers, but he could feel his wooden head meet the arch of the kid’s right foot, and when he did, he started spinning around like a drill bit, pushing the cold lacquer of his hair into it like he was starting a fight. Maybe he was, and so what?

“Mommeedaddeemommeedaddeeeee!” keened the kid, recoiling from the feel of the dummy touching him and scurrying up to the headboard like a tomcat fleeing a dog.

Caleb’s dad pounded down the hall and grabbed onto the door frame, ready to knock the stuffing out of a burglar or dingo or whatever had scared the hell out of his son. “Cale? What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Willie! In my bed! Under the cuh-cuh-covers!”

“Oh, Cale, is that it?” asked his dad, flipping the blanket and sheet off the mound of cotton and wood. “I thought you loved this toy. Don’t you?”

“Daddy, it’s alive! It climbed in my bed!”

“Cale, buddy,” said his dad, picking Willie up by the back of the neck. “You fell asleep with it, that’s all.”

Caleb didn’t look like a cat on a fence anymore. He looked like a mouse that just barely got away, and what his mom might have missed in his terrorized face, she saw clear as day in the quickly heaving chest. She gathered him in her arms. “Take it away, Dan. Take it downstairs.”

“No! No-oh-oh-oh-oh…!” cried Caleb. “It’s alive! It’s alive and it climbed into my bed. It wants to hurt me. It wants to hurt us. Take it away take it away take it away-ay-ay…” he trailed off in a staccato string of sobs.

“Put it outside, Dan.”

“It’s raining. It’ll get ruined,” he said. “What’ll your dad think?”

“What’ll Caleb think?”

“Oh, alright, Mary. You win,” said Caleb’s dad, looking at the dummy in his hand like it was a dog turd he couldn’t easily wipe off, while Caleb’s mom rocked him gently, soothing him with quiet shooshes.

But even with the kid’s fear removed from him, Willie didn’t just feel alive. He felt strong. He just needed a little more, a little extra oomph, and he could do to Caleb and his folks what he damned well pleased. Maybe there’s some imaginative juice in the old man, thought Willie. All I need’s a little. He clacked his jaws open and closed a couple of times, reaching for the kid’s dad with his carved wooden teeth, narrowly missing a half a dozen times.

It was damned frustrating, but there was fun in the challenge, especially with the odds tipping his way. He could hear the kid’s bellyaching all the way upstairs, and his hands raked at the dad’s terrycloth robe.

But before he could grab a hold, Caleb’s dad stuffed him in a plastic garbage bag, spun it around with a few swipes of his hand, and knotted it shut. Then he tossed the bag into the driveway where the rain pattered ineffectually and he shut the door, hoping without much resolve that he might be able to salvage a good night’s sleep out of it.

“You idiots!” said Willie, standing up inside the bag. “This isn’t the end of Willie. You’re not done, any more than that drunk in Kansas City. I won’t suffocate in here like you’re all going to when I claw my way out!”

His fingers tore at the plastic. It was stronger than he expected, but he had all the time in the world. He could live off the terror he’d generated for a couple of weeks, at least. It was juicy in there, and he even got a contact buzz off the dad, who didn’t seem to have it in him. Oh, it was going to be a good run with these folks. He’d leave them climbing the walls and practically begging to go to the asylum when it was all over, and that wouldn’t be for a long time.

Willie was good at pacing himself.

~*~

It was right after he’d finished that thought that Caleb’s grandpa rolled his ailing Caprice Classic on the driveway and over the lump of plastic wriggling in the rain. There was a terrific crunch like the flattening of a giant walnut.

Caleb’s grandpa backed up a couple of feet, put the car in park, and picked up what was left of the trash bag. Poking his fingers inside a hole, he recognized a little torn sailor suit and the remains of a wooden grin. The rest looked like crushed marbles and playground mulch.  He wrapped up the bag into a tight little ball and dropped it into the trashcan by the garage while the headlamps turned the fat, autumn raindrops into falling sparks.

“Tell my grandson I’ll get him another present tomorrow,” he shouted at the house. Then he climbed back into his car and slowly drove back home.

Original Fiction © 2012 Christian A. Larsen

~*~
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