4400 Words

I opened a door and walked through.

§

Eyebrows are the hardest part. Lips are comparatively easy and forgiving of a bit of asymmetry. Cheek and body blushing, if it’s subtle, is similar. But eyebrows require me to start with the finest possible lines with the pastels. They don’t have to be exactly the same — how many have I sent out into the world with one brow lifted, as if they were sardonically puzzled? — but they do have to be somewhat similar in depth and thickness to be believable.

Eyes, too, are difficult, even though I merely install those instead of paint and pastel them. It’s the gaze, you see. They have to be canted at similar but not identical angles, or else the dolls have a wall–eyed stare. Tonight, I’m working from a photograph. The girl in the picture is perhaps twenty. Her hair is dark red, definitely dyed, though the freckles are real enough. She stares up at me, pouting. She didn’t like having her picture taken.

I don’t know who she was, only that she came stapled to a card that gave an address in Wisconsin. I’ll be there the day after tomorrow. Heather McClare, says the card in looping handwriting. I’ve added Heather to the map, both the atlas and the state map. I’ll finish her face tonight and seal it, and tomorrow night she’ll be given eyes and a body and a wig.

Then, I will go find Heather and do what is needful.

§

I shift down, and the Corolla shoulders forward. I’m almost to Rochester, where I have a delivery. Fields slide past my car. The cornstalks are starting to go green–golden. Outside the car, it’s ninety–five, and the humidity is in the wringing–wet range. I turn on the radio out of habit, nothing but static and snatches of speech in languages I do not know. I have to get the northern deliveries done before the snow flies. The western deliveries are starting to pile up. Something has happened in the west.

I don’t watch TV or read newspapers. But I get these things filtering through anyway. And sometimes I am getting the same card three or four times, with different locations. That’s never happened before.

I wonder how long I’ve been a delivery girl. Years? Decades? Hard to tell. Everything slides away. I had a family, once. That much, I remember.

Had a life, too. Now, I’ve got deliveries.

I take the exit off of 90 and head downtown. Bank signs flicker and flash at me. 92, 97, 91, random temperatures. The date’s never visible. I hope it’s a weekday.

The post office is open. The Minnesotans in line are patient and have adorable accents. I mouth words, trying to feel them as I’m hearing them. Warsh. Ennit? P’st awfice. The lady in line ahead of me tells someone that she’ll be home for supper, her head cocked to hold her phone pinned between shoulder and ear. The man behind has a bored little boy tugging on his arm, swinging. I am a stillness between them.

“Can I help you?”

“I have general delivery to pick up.” What’s my name in Rochester? “For Giselle Hammet.” I pass him a driver’s license with my picture on it.

The genial man behind the counter returns with three big envelopes and two boxes. “Don’t get much general delivery these days. Sign here.”

“My job keeps me on the road.” A smile, just for him and his shiny bald head ringed with white hair like a monk. Pen scribbling. “Besides. I’m an old–fashioned kind of girl.” I collect my mail and leave.

It always feels like cheating, to speak to normal people so.

I climb into the Corolla, and we are off again. It is an age of GPS devices and tiny little computers, and it all passed by me some time ago. I keep my membership to AAA current, and they’re always happy to give me more maps when mine become too full of marks and notes to be useful. I look at the motorhomes that I see on the road in envy, though. It would be nice to always know where I was going to sleep. But gas is expensive.

Everything is expensive. It’s one of the reasons I suspect more time has passed than I have noticed.

Giselle. It’s a nice name. One of my favorites. I peer at street signs and take a left on 7th. The address is for a cemetery. I park my little red car and look at the card. Harriet Gilbert. No other information other than the address.

I take the card and the narrow box from the passenger seat and go in search of Harriet.

My tank top sticks to my back as I walk the lines of gravestones, cicadas squalling ceaselessly in the trees. There are a few other people out here, paying their respects to the dead. Fetishes and charms dot gravestones, shining tinsel limp in the heat.

After an hour of searching, I find Harriet. I don’t bother trying to read the dates on the gravestone. She might have died a month ago or a century ago, though I suspect it was closer to the former. The stone still looks new, and the cash that was paper–clipped to the card was all fifties and hundreds.

I need something from the site. From graveyards, usually it’s a pinch of soil or a dried flower petal from a bouquet. In Jewish cemeteries, sometimes there are little stones of the right size atop the marker. Harriet, from the cross and flame emblem on her stone, was Protestant. Probably Lutheran, or Pentecostal. I can never keep those two straight.

So, I capture a pinch of soil from her grave in a scrap of red cloth and fold it tightly. Within the box, Harriet’s doll lies nude, her clothing tucked in beside her. Her eyes are a deep brown and glance off to one side. Her wig is dark and curly. She was one of the many cards that included no picture, so I hope there’s at least a passing resemblance.

She is made, as they all are, of a strange substance that holds in it the cool of bone. The surface is matte and slightly translucent, like human skin. She is just longer than my forearm, elbow to fingertips, heavier than her size suggests. There is an alien hardness to her, a strange springiness lent by the elastic strings that connect arms to hands to torso to legs.

I pick Harriet up and give her body a practiced pull and twist. A joint in her torso comes apart slightly, and I tuck the cloth–wrapped dirt down inside and let the elastic that holds her in shape pull her back together. Then, swiftly, I put on the pretty blue dress I sewed for her a few weeks ago. I find the clothes everywhere — thrift stores are the best, really — but lately I’ve taken up sewing in the evenings, when I’ve finished with the dolls for the night. Her feet are bare.

I pose Harriet with one hand on her gravestone, glass eyes looking sidelong at her own name carved there. There’s not a breath of wind, but the hair of her wig stirs a little anyway.

Then I pick up the box and walk away. What happens next must happen without me.

I am merely the messenger.

§

I opened a door and walked through.

I can’t remember when, or where, but I remember how cold the brass doorknob was under my hand, how its ornate carvings bit into my fingers. The rest is lost, except for shadows.

I opened a door, and the next thing I knew I was driving. There must have been something that happened in between. There must have been.

The first dozen faces I painted were crude, but I started getting better. Now, I can do a full face in under an hour, including eyes after sealing, and do it well. A whole doll, if I’m not sewing for it, takes about two hours to put together. Tonight, I’m doing faces and assembly in a cheap motel room in Eau Clare. There are mysterious thumpings coming from the ceiling. I leave the TV off.

I turn Heather’s head over to check her gaze. She looks slightly upward, and her face is splashed with freckles. It took me eight hours to put together my first doll, using inscrutable diagrams as my guide, and I ended up forgetting several pieces anyway. There are mysterious rounded pieces that it is not immediately obvious are meant to be wrists, knees, ankles. I close her head, the magnets within clicking the resin against itself.

She perches on the chipped particleboard desk and looks at me steadily as I search the wig box. They always look so odd, bald. Like newborns with adult bodies and knowing eyes.

“I have a treat for you,” I tell her. There’s the right wig — wavy, a dark red. I free it from the netting that keeps it pristine in storage and wiggle it onto her head. “See, you look much better like that.”

I imagine that her whole face is alight with joy at finally being together. I did paint a faint smile on her lips, after all. I slide the dress I’ve made onto her body, and work her hands; up, down, the elastic that strings her together is holding, and all is well. The bodies and the wigs and the heads come in the boxes I pick up in the cities I visit. The return addresses are always illegible.

The dress I’ve made for her has a black skirt with a pattern of leaves and a teal bodice with a print of black flowers. I stand her on the desk and pose her, looking at her outstretched hand as if in wonder.

I leave her there as I start another doll’s face. This one is male and solemn. Marcus Smithson. Washington State, somewhere.

Something has happened in the west.

I focus on Mr. Smithson’s eyebrows and try not to think.

§

Rhinelander is pretty, for a little town in the middle of Nowhere County, Wisconsin. Their mascot is a strange creature called the Hodag, I gather from the large statue in the square at the center of town. It looks rather like a snub–nosed alligator with incongruous Viking horns.

The address is another cemetery. I like the cemeteries better than I do the other deliveries, the ones to the front stoops of houses or to streets in run–down neighborhoods. Once, I delivered a doll to the southeast corner of the top floor of a parking structure in St. Louis. Once to a trailhead in northern Oregon — the first time I delivered more than one doll to the same place.

Once to a street corner in downtown Los Angeles. I can still remember the doll’s dark and shining eyes under the sodium light as people, rich and poor, passed by me. I keep hold of these moments.

The graveyard is an old one, called Forest Home. It’s a pleasant name for a pleasant place, if a bit frayed around the edges. There’s even an up–to–date directory at the main gate. I always appreciate that, especially on days like today when I’ve underestimated the amount of time it will take to get somewhere. The sun is beginning to set.

Heather McClare lies in a row of black granite monuments all the same shape, next to her mother and father and sister. I wonder why she rated a doll, who cared enough to pay the fee and give up a picture. I study the marker. No clues there.

Her gravestone is adorned with charms — a plastic dinosaur with a tulle skirt, a tinsel–adorned stick. The graves of her family have similar charms on them, one or two each, but Heather’s grave is crowded with bric–a–brac. Some of it is older, plastic beads clouded and crazed with the sun.

I don’t even know how people know that the service I provide is available. I can’t exactly ask anyone, hey, do you happen to remember where you first heard of the ghost dolls? But what I do know is this: the payment is for the propitiation of the restless dead, those who died young, or violently. The dolls are vehicles, conveyances to elsewhere.

The dead get stuck sometimes. The dolls help them unstick.

Heather gets a pebble that was resting against her grave marker wrapped up in purple flannel and a quick redressing. I leave her crouched, looking up, smiling. Stepping around an obelisk, I wait out of view of the grave.

I cannot help but peek, sometimes.

A tall man comes to the graveside. My breath stills; I have my cheek against the rough surface of the obelisk. From a distance, I might look like I am embracing it. The man is dressed in undertaker’s black, and he makes a strange clicking noise as he walks. But he looks human. His hair is streaked with white, pulled back in a neatly clubbed tail.

With him arrives something else.

Heather McClare is a wisp, a breath of memory, a vague outline against the shaggy grass and crumbling markers. She pauses, raises something I might call a hand if I were guessing. The dark man (for that is the only thing I dare call him, the dark man, the crossroads man, and I remember his hands holding me still, right after I opened a door and walked on through) bends and picks up the doll.

He holds it out to Heather McClare.

She hesitates and then, acquiescing, coalesces around the dead thing in his hand.

Only it is no longer dead, and its limbs begin to twitch.

I can never stay beyond that moment when one of the dolls comes to life. I run, and run, and the next thing I know it is deep in the night and I am driving on a highway who knows where. When I breathe in, the sulfur tang of gunpowder phantoms through me, then fades.

I turn the steering wheel, point the car west.

§

It’s starting to get cold.

My breath steams in the morning when I stir myself from wherever I have slept, tent or hotel or the back seat of the Corolla. This must be Montana or Wyoming. There are mountains in the distance, white on grey.

The cards don’t come just at the post offices here. I find them at rest stops, stuck in trees by the side of the road, and I am starting to get just a bit frightened. I work quickly, trying to catch up with the dolls. Instead of having two or three done, I have thirty. Mostly women. Mostly their skin is dark, the wigs done in tight curls.

Something has happened, and the uneasiness in the pit of my stomach knows what.

There are no addresses any more, just latitude and longitude. Same names, different places, what is happening? The last post office in Idaho has for me topographic maps of Colville National Forest, wiggly lines painting a picture of rough and treacherous terrain. I stop at a camping store and buy a compass.

I will be hiking, it looks like.

I am one person, and I travel swiftly. I don’t have to stop to make the dolls, now; instead I pull over for a couple of hours, nap, wake up, move on. I–90. Highway 395. Highway 20. I stop and check the map, trace the coordinates I’ve been given with the tip of my finger.

There is a clear trail marked on my maps. This is no natural event. I am chasing a human, and therefore I hurry. The dead, in this case, cannot wait.

I come to the first of the thirty–two coordinates. It’s a pullout at the side of a road which clings to a mountain, valley falling away on the other side. The air bites at my hands and I blow on my fingers, then rub them together. Eve Jimenez. She’s here somewhere.

Glancing to either side, I cross the road with her doll to the rocky verge. I put one hand on the metal guard rail, pull back; it’s nearly rusted through. Could I get tetanus? I’m not sure. Just in case, I balance without touching the guardrail and peer down the slope. Grey–green shrubs cling to the dirt visible between rocks and scree. About fifty feet down, I see a scrap of dull material, some sort of camouflage drab. The bundle is smaller than I expected.

The human skeleton, devoid of flesh, packs down into a space about the size of a small suitcase. I’ve found Eve.

I place her doll by a splintered post, wedge one foot into a crack. I gave her one of the clenched fists I have in my stock of spare parts. I didn’t know why at the time, but now she shakes that fist at the sky, deep brown eyes staring up at one of the many things taken from her untimely.

You don’t end up with your bones tossed over an embankment in the middle of nowhere if you died of natural causes.

Then, I hurry on.

§

I opened a door and walked through.

The crossroads man was there to meet me, his hard fingers digging into my shoulders. “Child, you have come to a dark place.” His skeleton–grin mouth stretched wide, and the paint cracked on his lips. “But I like you, so I will give you a choice. Keep walking through the door, and find out what’s on the other side. Or stay on the threshold, and be useful.”

My knees were shaking, my guts in an uproar. “Do I get to go home, either way?”

He shook his head so slow, and I knew that it was true, that no matter what happened I was never going to see home or my mama again.

So, I chose.

§

The bundles get larger as I find more of them. I can smell the one I’ve just found. Putrefaction fills my nose, and I will myself not to vomit. Whoever is leaving this trail is getting scared, and sloppy. He has been laying this trail for some time, and it’s only because I know exactly where to look that I’m finding them at all.

Each one I find gives flickers and flashes of memory back to me. A handsome man, tall as the sky, with gleaming white teeth. A touch on my shoulder, the word beauty. The word love. The word bitch. Other words, less kind.

I am reassembling the pieces of myself, at least the self I was just before I opened that cold door. The dark man is following me close behind.

I am walking now, the last three dolls in my arms. The trail is rough and faint, prickle–thorned branches hemming us in. Ruined berries hang on those branches, where the rot has bitten. The last body — Marcus Smithson — was folded up a bit but recognizably human. There are marks in the mud where something heavy has been dragged through it.

I catch up with my quarry in a meadow ringed by trees. The grass is high as my shoulders, laced with bramble vine so much crueler than the thorny shrubs under the trees. I can hear him swearing; his bundle is caught on those vines. The air is cold, thin as a blade, and pain lances my lungs as I break into a run.

I see him, and he looks… ordinary. Lost. Bearded white man, straight nose, not badly dressed. But the bundle he is trying to free has stains leaking through the mottled cloth, and in those stains is written a whole history of violence and sin.

No mortal authority, me, to hem and haw about innocence and guilt. The shreds of my life cling to my shoulders, a strange unseen cloak of what was and what might have been.

He turns. Sees me. I hear the breath catch in his throat as he studies me, tries to decide if I am predator or prey. Slip of a girl, skinny and stoop–shouldered, no older now than the day when I stopped having a life and started having deliveries.

Prey, I can almost hear him decide. Definitely prey.

“I’m a bit lost,” I say, and bend deliberately to set down one of the dolls, tucking a bramble leaf into her body. Victoria Haskill. I take a scurrying step to the side, put down another with a pinch of gritty dust. Susan Thompson. “Is this the way to the trailhead?”

I can see him watch me with the dolls, uncomprehending. “It is. We can walk together if you want.” He eyes me. “Aren’t you a little old for dolls?”

“These are special.” I smile at him. I set the last doll on a stump, her bright eyes looking almost avid, and pose her expectantly, with one palm upraised. She gets a splinter of rotted wood. Maria Gomez. “These are the dolls of the dead.”

His mouth opens, and closes, and he stares at me with eyes gone fish–cold.

§

It was a little gun. A ladies’ gun, they called it in those days. Small enough to palm.

When I ran away, a pretty young man invited me to his squat on the third floor of a building due to be torn down in a few weeks. He was pleasant to me. Genuinely kind, I thought. Wasn’t planning to roll me or rape me.

I thought.

What I fled just before I met the pleasant young man was terrible. I was blind to any danger that I might blunder into in my rush to get away. It was not the first time the young man had done this. I do not know if it was the last.

I struggled with the door, trying to scream, the only thing coming from me a breathy noise like a mouse being bitten by a cat. I was naked, and rivers of foulness flowed from me. I felt the gun at the back of my head, cold, cold, cold.

Goodnight, he whispered, and pulled the trigger. By that time, I was too far gone to care.

§

The memory of gunmetal pressed against my head and cold brass doorknob in my hands is as real as the heavy seed heads that brush my elbows. There is rot and gunpowder in my nose and mouth.

I remember, now, that I have gathered these memories to me before. Each delivery gives me back something, and each spirit takes that something away with it when it goes. The families of the restless dead pay for their crossings, but I contribute as well. My coin is the widow’s mite of memory.

There are so many of the dead here now, so many deliveries. I remember now what I fled, what I found, what found me in the end. I can barely see the bundle with the partially decomposed bodies of three women in it, appearing and disappearing as the grass stirs in the breeze.

“The dolls of the dead,” I repeat, rolling the words around in my mouth. The image of the crossroads man flickers at the corner of my eye. “Those girls you’ve got in there, you’ve made it so they can’t rest. I’m here to bring the vessels that will take their spirits home.”

He’s shaking his head, backing off. A blackberry vine wraps around his ankle, and around me the dolls are twitching, moving. The crossroads man is here, and his presence presses on me, leaves me gasping.

Fury and darkness coalesce around the dolls, and they become shadow–forms, their edges indistinct but their hearts beating a rageful crimson at their center. Resin vanishes beneath darkness, and there are curved black fangs in their gaping mouths. They are not hampered by tall grass or bramble vines. They fall on their killer with twisted claws.

His scream is the same scream that I once gave. A denial. A plea.

Then it stops, and so does he.

When they are finished, there are some scraps of fabric and a little blood left. Nothing else.

The crossroads man kneels and gathers three dolls into his arms. They cling to his coat, bury their faces in the crook of his elbow. The shadow–forms seep back into their joints and vanish. Everything is silent except for the cold wind that bends the grass, ssssssh.

I go to the crossroads man. His hair is unbound, flying every which way, and the paint on his face is streaked with sweat or tears. Beneath, his skin is dark and lined. I offer him a hand, but he ignores me and stands on his own.

“Maybe it’s time you got to keep what you gather,” he says, not looking at me. “You’ve earned a bit of freedom. Think you can handle it, girl? Knowing what you are?”

“I think so.” This time, it’s my turn to kneel, to press my face against his rough coat. I inhale and smell dust and sheep. The wool prickles against my cheek.

§

I opened a door and walked through.

Like a cat, Mama always said. Never happy unless you’re on both sides of the door at once.

Or on neither side, Mama, I say fondly to her memory now many years gone.

§

Telephone poles rush by, black wire making graceful dips between. I grip the steering wheel tighter. South, I think. There are white index cards scattered on the seat beside me, all of them covered in the same antique handwriting. Just as there is the crossroads man, there is the threshold woman, my place earned with the coin of something that might be justice.

I am always walking through that door. My hair always carrying the ghost of gunpowder. Dolls for the dead, coins for their eyes.

Remembrance, for those in danger of being forgotten.

I turn on the radio and listen to the crackle of the space between.


More from Kris Millering:

Kris MilleringKris Millering is a linguist by training, a tech tinkerer by trade, and a writer and photographer by avocation. Currently, she works at a large tech firm by day, manages communications for Clarion West by night, and writes in the spaces between. She lives between two mountains in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington State. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Devilfish Review, and The Colored Lens. You can find out more online at http://www.krismillering.com/.

3 Comments

  1. I loved everything about this story!

  2. I devoured this story; I had to keep reading. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. My favorite story of the issue. Gave me chills.

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