by Amy Gallagher

Dolls are creepy…kinda like clowns.

~*~

Our annual vacation in Cape Hatteras was what I lived for growing up. My mom, my sister and I rented a house across from a local surfer named Albie and spent the month of August swimming and sunning and waiting for Dad to come down from our Philadelphia home on weekends.

It was my twelfth year, the summer Albie promised to teach me to surf, that my sister Elise found the doll.

The doll—Elise called it Amber—had creamy doll flesh and perfect rose lips, even though someone had clearly abandoned her in the rental house. She wore a black leotard and a pink wrap-around dance skirt, just like the outfit I wore to ballet back home.

Elise loved Amber, but at first sight of the doll, my stomach swelled with sharp pains that ebbed and flowed, depending on my proximity to it. That night I pulled Mom aside and whispered that we should take the doll away from Elise.

“Why?” she asked.

Good question. I swallowed, wondering how to explain why Elise shouldn’t have the doll she loved.

Mom eyed me. “You want the doll for yourself?”

I shook my head.

She leaned towards me, speaking so Elise wouldn’t hear from several yards away. “Don’t be selfish, Olivia. You have everything.”

I opened my mouth, but Mom just scowled at me.

I went to Elise in the living area. She sat in her wheelchair, holding Amber and watching TV.

“What’s on?”

“A movie,” she said without looking at me.

I smiled. She was always watching a movie. Movies were her best friends and not just since the accident. She’d been a loner long before she had to use a wheelchair. I’d once heard Mom tell Grandma that Elise was as mousy and weak as I was vivacious and strong. Elise had gotten the short end of the stick, according to Mom. I wondered for a long time how Grandma responded on the other end of the line and if the two of them felt guilty about discussing Elise that way after she was crippled.

So close to the doll, my innards tangled, so I went back to Mom in the kitchen, rubbing my belly. “Mom, it’s bad.”

Her face crinkled in concern. “You have a stomach ache?”

“Yes, because the doll—”

“Olivia, forget the doll,” she hissed. “Let your sister have something. For once.”

I glanced at Elise, still fixated on her movie, before thumping to the upstairs deck.

My eyes scanned the Milky Way, savoring the view since I barely saw any stars in Philly. In Hatteras millions dotted the sky, and sometimes I’d see one fall through the dark. I looked for a shooting star that night and promised if I saw one, I’d forget my usual wishes—even that Elise would walk again—and wish for Amber to disappear.

I leaned back into my chair, closed my eyes and gripped my churning stomach. How could Mom think I was trying to take something away from Elise? I knew how lucky I was, that the accident had made her life harder than I could imagine. But I could sense with every cell in my body that Amber was planning to harm Elise. I needed to get that doll away from her.

My eyes popped open, remembering a trash schedule on the fridge. If I could get Amber into the garbage outside tonight, she’d be at the dump before Elise woke up tomorrow.

I waited until everyone was asleep before I crept into Elise’s room and removed Amber from the bedside table. I eased the screen door open and walked delicately to the trashcans.

I admired Amber’s pink ballet slippers, miniature versions of my own, feeling guilty for a second. So pretty. I hated to throw her away… But then I heard Amber’s voice, almost as though it were inside me. Don’t cast me out. Elise and I belong to one another.

Her eyes gleamed, flickered in the dark as her words flooded my mind. I pitched Amber at the nearest can. When I realized one of her pink legwarmers still clung to my finger, I shook it away spastically, as if it were one of the gauzy spider webs that floated outside the Hatteras house. Inside, I was unable to breathe even after I’d tucked myself under the covers.

I slept later than usual the next morning, and woke relaxed and anticipating a day without Amber the doll and the terrible stomach pains she brought. I heard the usual breakfast chaos and made my way upstairs in the shorts and t-shirt I’d fallen asleep in.

“Have a seat, Olivia,” Mom said with a slight edge in her voice. “Raisin bran or scrambled eggs?”

But how could I answer her when I stood looking directly at Amber’s golden doll hair, pulled back sweetly in a pale pink headband, her expressionless face fixed straight ahead.

Elise scooped cereal into her mouth. Chewed bits of bran flakes appeared as she spoke. “Albie found Amber outside.”

“How did she get out?” I asked with as much innocence as I could muster.

“Well,” Mom said, pushing a bowl of raisin bran in front of me. “Elise and I didn’t put her in the trash.” She stood over me for a while, letting me know I was in trouble.

I shrugged.

Mom raised her eyebrows. “Is that a denial?”

I noticed both of Amber’s legwarmers were intact. I pushed a spoon into my cereal, but the roiling effect the doll had on my stomach was too much, so I dumped my breakfast, then ran downstairs.

I stuck my legs into my bathing suit, frustrated with my inability to banish Amber. Albie must have been up early to surf and found her before the trash collectors came. But how did he know to bring her in? Did Amber speak to him as she had to me?

Imagining Albie gliding on his surfboard gave me an idea. The ocean. How many times had I watched the Atlantic pull a child’s beach shovel or someone’s designer sunglasses into the breakers, parents or friends searching for the items in vain? Why wouldn’t Amber be sucked in just as easily?

Now I just had to get the doll away from Elise.

The next morning, I requested tacos for dinner, knowing Mom would have to run for shells and that Elise loved a grocery store trip. I said I would stay back and then exhaled in a puff as they decided to go.

The plan was on. I would drown Amber the doll.

Downstairs I pulled a yellow sundress over my bathing suit. I filled my beach bag with a water bottle, my iPod and Bullfrog SPF36.

As Mom and Elise pulled away, I found Amber the doll in Elise’s room. I grabbed her and shoved her in my bag face down, before she had a chance to communicate with me.

I flew down the outside stairs to the clothesline, snatched two towels off the rope and picked a beach chair from the pile. Pain poked from my stomach, but I relished the fact that Amber would soon be gone.

I trudged over the dune, pulling my tote over the top and dragging the chair onto the flatter sand where I laid Amber at one end of a beach towel. I rolled her tightly in the bright oranges and reds until she was a big, colorful cigar. Now no one would see a beautiful doll in the ocean and try to rescue it.

Then I approached the edge of the water and tossed her in. Amber bobbed and vanished once, then twice. Finally, freedom for me and, more importantly, for Elise. Knowing Elise was going to be okay made up for the punishment I was sure I’d get back at the house for losing the doll.

From my chair, I watched the waves in the morning glow to make sure Amber was gone before letting my eyelids rest.

The overhead sun woke me and I reached down to my tote for my iPod. But my hand landed on the soft headband of Amber the doll.

Despite the heat of the day, a coldness spread inside me. Terror. And I felt tears on my cheeks as Amber’s never-changing, soft doll face said to me, I told you not to cast me out.

Back at the house, I handed Elise the doll. She took it gratefully. “I was looking everywhere for her.”

“I’m sorry. I took her to the beach.” Amber looked exactly as she had before the drowning, dry and without so much as a grain of sand clinging to her. The beach towel I’d wrapped her in hadn’t washed up.

Mom put a fresh tomato sandwich in front of me and asked if I wanted milk or water. “And you’re grounded from the beach.”

“I told her I was sorry.”

“Good. You’re still grounded from the beach.”

Elise pushed her plate away and wheeled herself and Amber to the elevator. As the door slid shut, she smiled at Amber in her arms.

Mom batted the dog away from the open dishwasher so she could close it and sat down across from me. “Olivia, what’s going on with you?”

I swallowed, wondering how I could make her understand. “This is going to sound crazy, Mom, but I think Amber is… evil.”

Her brow furrowed almost imperceptibly, but I could tell Mom was trying to be open this time, so I kept going. “She talks to me. Amber told me she and Elise belong to each other.”

Mom rubbed her cheeks and sighed. “What did her voice sound like?”

Did she believe me? Was it possible she would even help me? I leaned forward. “It sounded like mine, sort of. It’s more like I can sense her words rather than hear them.”

Mom nodded. “Look honey, I don’t want to discourage your imagination. In fact, I think you should write some of your thoughts down—maybe in a journal.”

I stared at my sandwich. It was going to be harder than ever to destroy Amber, especially without Mom’s help.

I spent most of the next few days on the upstairs deck, avoiding Amber and the stomach knots she generated. I snoozed in the sunlight, watched a woman feed the neighborhood feral cats at dusk, and looked for shooting stars each night, coming downstairs only for meals and to sleep.

On the third evening of my grounding, just after the cats had slinked back into the shrubbery, Albie and his friend George hollered up to me from the gravel street between our houses. “O, come to the beach for our bonfire.” Albie’s longish blond hair and his tan skin made his light blue eyes stand out even in the near dark.

“I’m grounded, actually.”

“Grounded, huh? That stinks, kid.” He winced while George chuckled.

I would normally have been embarrassed to look so childish in front of Albie and George, who were well past the age of groundings. But I had more important things on my mind.

As Albie waved and walked on, I considered his nightly beach bonfire, realizing suddenly how to destroy Amber. Sure, she could escape from the trash looking like we’d just bathed her. She could appear dry in my tote bag shortly after I drowned her, but that plastic body would never survive a fire.

That night, I drank two Red Bulls during the eleven o’clock news and waited until Mom and Elise were asleep before I pried Amber loose from Elise’s arms in the flickering light of her TV.

I tucked a flashlight in my tote next to Amber and followed the moon to the beach path. But as I trudged through the deep sand toward the top of the dune, I felt resistance from the doll. Something inside me could sense she didn’t want to come to the beach. Perhaps she knew this was her end.

I approached the bonfire and spotted Albie next to a pretty girl assembling s’mores from her lawn chair. “Hey, O!” he said and raised his Bud Light in my direction. “I thought you were grounded.”

“I ungrounded myself.”

Albie laughed and rested his hand on the girl’s shoulder. “This is Olivia, babe. Her family rents across the street from me.”

“Hey, Olivia,” she said sweetly. “How about a s’more?”

I shook my head, experiencing the smallest twinge of jealousy. I felt slightly possessive of Albie while in Hatteras.

“Does your doll want one?”

I’m sure I blushed. Twelve was too old to be dragging dolls around, especially to a bonfire where attendees were mostly in high school and college. I suddenly realized what a baby I must look like to Albie and his friends, not to mention Pretty S’more Girl. But again, I had bigger problems. So I politely declined and walked toward the water’s edge, trying to figure out how best to melt Amber without making a scene.

As ghost crabs scrambled in the beam of my flashlight, an idea struck me. I pushed my light deep into my tote, beneath Amber, and backtracked to Albie. “Can you help me make a torch? I want to look for crabs.”

“Sure, O.” Albie handed his beer to his girlfriend and led me to a pile of firewood. After choosing a long, sturdy stick, Albie pointed at a beach towel draped over the back of an empty chair. “Grab that.”

Albie tucked the wood under his arm and ripped off a piece of towel, expertly wrapping it around one end of the stick to create a handle for my torch. He closed his hand around the towel end, extended the other side into the fire and waited for the flames to catch. “Ta-da!” he said, passing me my new weapon.

As I accepted the stick, a gust of wind sent the flame back to lick a fingertip. “Ouch.”

“Be careful with that thing, kid. For yourself and the ghost crabs.”

I thanked him, shaking my burn, and moved to the outskirts of the group. My heart racing as if I’d just run ten miles, I tossed her onto the sand and lowered the flare. Amber’s screams were so loud inside my head I yanked the flame away as if the entire beach party had heard her. But glancing around, I saw that everyone appeared uninterested in my private escapade.

I turned back to Amber, sweating now and barely able to withstand the pain in my gut. I steadied myself in anticipation of the howling to come and moved the flame over her doll flesh again, feeling nauseous and terrified as her inhuman shrieks echoed in my head. But Elise needed me, so I scalded Amber until my torch shrunk by half.

Satisfied with the new charcoal Amber, I plunged the weapon into the tide to douse the flame, then repurposed the towel handle to cover the unrecognizable doll.

At the bonfire, Albie was kissing his girlfriend. George was flirting with two more girls nearby. All the people I didn’t know were conversing or gathered around a guy strumming a guitar. No one was looking my way.

I chucked the twisted remains of Amber’s body into the bonfire and watched the shred of beach towel degrade around her.

I glanced up and Albie, taking a break from S’more Girl, eyed me. We stared at each other for a moment, his blue eyes burrowing into me, gleaming in a familiar flickering way. Like Amber’s did the night I tried to throw her away. Although inches from the fire, I shivered.

I turned and ran over the dune, crunched down the gravel road at top speed, and snuck in through the screen door, breathlessly falling into bed. Amber was gone forever, I reminded myself, mouthing my blistered fingertip. It was okay to relax, to sleep.

The next morning, I woke to Albie’s voice outside my bedroom window. “I know this is Olivia’s,” he was saying. “I don’t know how it got to the beach, but I thought she’d want it back.”

Mom murmured a few words before letting out a distinctive sigh. “Thanks, Albie,” she said louder. The screen door creaked and slammed shut.

She entered my room holding a beautiful, ballet slipper-clad doll that looked exactly like the one I’d burned to black the night before.

“Did you go out last night?” Her voice was eerily calm.

“No,” I lied.

“Perhaps you want to explain how Albie found Amber on the beach this morning?”

“Mom, that isn’t Amber. It can’t be Amber.” Fear and pain flashed through me. The room spun and the more I tried not to cry, the less control I had. How could I have failed again to destroy that doll?

Mom may have softened at my breakdown, but I wouldn’t know. I crawled under the top sheet head first, tucking my face at the foot of the bed. I wondered if I’d ever have the courage to come out.

I woke to hazy afternoon light. Up in the kitchen Mom was batting the dog away from the open dishwasher as usual. Elise was opposite her in the living room, her chair facing a movie. Next to her mousy brown hair and tipped against her shoulder was the soft face of Amber the doll, not a trace of misshapen doll flesh.

“You hungry?” Mom asked without turning toward me.

I sat down at the table, dejected but not defeated as a strange sensation came over me. “No, I’m not hungry.” I knew I needed to save my appetite for later. It was time to do what I’d somehow known all along I would have to.

That evening, I watched the woman feed and water the feral cats. When Albie and George passed by on their way to the bonfire, I ducked to avoid them. I was angry with Albie. After all, if Albie hadn’t brought Amber back to this house, I wouldn’t be in this situation. And what about the way he looked at me after I pitched Amber’s remains into the fire? Wasn’t it possible he and Amber were in on hurting Elise together?

After I refused dinner, I went to my room. Then, stomach somehow churning from Amber and growling in hunger at once, I perched on the bed with two Red Bulls to wait.

It was almost midnight when I peeled Amber away from Elise once again and snuck up to the kitchen with her. I pulled out everything I thought I’d need: Cholula hot sauce, ketchup, Dijon mustard, tamari, Mom’s razor-sharp chef’s knife. I set Amber on a plate and swallowed back nausea. But whether the queasiness stemmed from the proximity of Amber or disgust with what I was about to do, I wasn’t sure.

The fact that I hadn’t eaten all day did not lessen my revulsion. But I knew deep inside me that this was the only way that I could make sure Amber never came back to this house, to Elise.

I peeled off Amber’s ballet slipper. I cut off her foot and sprinkled it with extra hot sauce before slipping the doll part into my mouth.

I was surprised Amber didn’t taste horrible. She didn’t have good flavor exactly, but the hot sauce made her tolerable, like garlic and butter on a slimy snail. I found myself hunched over my plate, taking down both her legs and an arm, varying the toppings every few bites. The tamari-on-hand reminded me of Mom’s chicken and broccoli stir-fry; arm-doused-in-ketchup was reminiscent of warm, if slightly chewy, French fries.

Amber seemed to be fine with my dining on her, as well. The shrieks and screeches I’d anticipated never came. In fact, I heard nothing but the soft gurgles of my stomach as I digested her. I was thrilled to imagine the hydrochloric acid chipping away at the doll parts, dissolving them into nothingness. I ate every bit of Amber and with the last swallow, I leaned back in my chair and realized for the first time since Elise found her, my stomach was calm, pain free.

But even as I felt better physically, I stumbled mentally. My thoughts seemed to click over like a train on a track. They were no longer fluid, no longer fully my own.

Fullness pushed past my belly and expanded into my legs, arms, chest and head. My error became clear. It was Amber. She was growing stronger inside me, taking over my bones, my muscles, my organs.

I’d made a mistake. Amber had never wanted Elise at all, never wanted to hurt her or be with her, never wanted anything to do with my weak little sister. She wanted me. She wanted to be me. And she used Elise to get to me; she knew I’d protect her anyway I could. She knew that Elise and I were connected, that we belonged to one another.

Now Amber was inside a strong, healthy girl—a girl who took ballet classes, who could run and swim. And now she had a soul. My soul, just as she’d planned all along.

Original Fiction © 2012 Amy Gallagher
(Image Credit: Vassil, Wikimedia Commons)