the living doll [boot tread]

Part of Unhitched’s prompt collection, Boot Tread

Prompt from AO3:

I can’t help but send you yet another prompt: Hannigram based on The Twilight Zone ep. The Living Doll

CoralQueen

Now the prompt says Hannigram, but I can’t do that. The original airdate for this Twilight Zone episode was November 1, 1963. That was a very interesting year in Hopper’s life, so I couldn’t ignore it. Hop would’ve been about a year into his failed marriage, so I decided to challenge myself in a completely new way.

I could’ve done a “Twilight Zone” themed chapter with weird aliens or supernatural events, and called it a demonic dream or a hallucination, but I didn’t because that’s cheating. For my own edification and for the purpose of this exercise, I want to shy away from tropes and try something new. Plus, I’m taking prompts for Unhitched side-fics and super weird dolls that are alive wouldn’t really fit into normal physics.

If you want to, watch the thirty-minute Twilight Zone episode, The Living Doll, before reading.

7373 words

Rated: T

“If your life is so miserable, honey, why did you marry him?”

She paused as she conjured up an answer that wouldn’t disgrace herself or disappoint her mother. “I think I felt trapped. You and Dad were so proud when the Golden Child moved away … I didn’t want to be the biggest failure in our family.”

“Now that’s unfair, young lady; don’t compare yourself to your sister. And you know your brother will always be the biggest failure in our family. Let’s not forget that you were the one who wanted to get married so fast, not us.” Her mother paused. “He’s not actually slow is he?”

“No, Mom, Jesus! He’s not dumb, he’s just … different. He gets a little nervous around other people.”

“Honey, you’ve always been a social butterfly, what in God’s name did you even find attractive about him? All he does is mope around reading, and he ignores the whole family when we get together. There is something not right about him. He doesn’t talk about normal things.”

Her husband wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t crass or cruel. He was always respectful, even when she found herself behaving less than considerate towards him. He didn’t seem to care about her checkered past and when he did, it was to celebrate it. He overlooked her vulgar language and “progressive” thoughts when the world said no decent man would. And that’s exactly what she thought of him: he was decent. And that decency was good enough to marry.

She twisted the phone cord and plopped down on a kitchen chair, staring at the pile of breakfast dishes still teetering by the sink. “Mom, have you ever felt like if people knew who you really were, that they’d never want to have anything to do with you? Like one bad decision could follow you forever and there is no way to get past it … so you just … hide it.” She sighed, waiting for a response, but the phone had gone eerily silent.

“I’ve felt that, honey … Did you feel like you had to marry him? Because if that’s why you did it, you can say it, sweetheart. Lord knows I can’t judge you for a damn thing. We’ve all been a little reckless at times.”

She bit her lip and took a deep breath. “He’s a good guy, Mom. He’s a little weird and sometimes he gets upset for no reason, but he’s always been sweet to me. I mean, he’s a little strange, but just saying that makes me feel like a jerk. So what if he is a little odd?!”

“Strange can be fun, sweetheart, until you’re stuck with it forever. Then all those cute quirks make you want to scream. Your father goes to sleep with his socks on. I thought it was the cutest damn thing I ever saw, until I married him. Then I found eighteen pairs wadded up at the foot of the bed. We hadn’t even been married for eighteen days yet! Now, I just want to kill him for it.”

She snickered and leaned back, righting the upturned salt and pepper shakers and dusting the spilled grit to the floor. “For us it’s not something silly like socks. He’s weird in a different way. Sometimes he won’t even look at me, or when he does, it’s like he’s looking straight through me. And we never talk. I thought after we got married he’d want to share everything with me, but it’s like we said our vows and he just clammed up. He talks about being a freshman sometimes, but everything before and after that never happened. And Jesus, he bites my head off over the weirdest shit. I can’t bring newspapers home anymore; did Dad tell you that? And I told you what happened this morning … He just stormed out after making a mess of the kitchen because I set out his breakfast while he was still in the shower. I never know what’s going to set him off. He’s a damn powder keg that smokes two packs a day.” She stood and paced as she collected her thoughts and organized the stack of dirty plates from smallest to largest.

“He doesn’t talk about anything? Really? What about his students or other teachers?”

“I guess he complains about his job sometimes, but he never talks about his parents or his friends–”

“Does he have any friends?”

“Not that I know of. He only ever talks about the superintendent, and I’ve met the man; he’s an idiot.”

“You know, you never answered my question about why you actually married him.”

She set a skillet in the sink to soak and cleared her throat. A year ago, her reasons for getting married seemed to overflowed her heart. He was perfect and gentle and would do anything to make her happy. Her life had been split between “growing up” – a time for friends and frivolity – and “being an adult,” after he’d made his incredibly generous proposal. She was tired of being thought of as a careless child and was ready to raise her own foolish brood with the help of a man eager to share her life. Her expectations were that he’d share his as well, and when he didn’t, and their pre-made family fell through her fingers and from her body, she’d forgotten what it felt like to be so in love. It now took concentrated thought to remember those butterflies and coy smiles because those memories seemed to slowly trickle through the cracks that had formed around her broken heart.

“When I first talked to him, it was like I was looking in this beautiful mirror, but it wasn’t me looking back, or it wasn’t him … I don’t know. That sounds so stupid. He was charming and innocent. And God, he knew exactly what to say like he’d studied every inch of me, you know?”

“Hadn’t he?”

“Mom!”

“I know you slept with him the first night you met him. Your sister told me everything.”

“Are you serious? I’m gonna kill her!”

Her mother’s chuckle echoed through the phone. “Don’t say that about your sister … and, honey, I don’t blame you. The boy’s easy on the eyes, I will give him that, but the first night? Couldn’t you have waited a little? Teased him a bit? Your father and I waited–” She suddenly paused. “That’s a bad example. Your Aunt Chloe – she waited until they were married two whole years! Of course, he was in the navy, so it wasn’t as hard …”

A laugh relaxed her and she leaned back on the table. Within the often coarse or God-flecked commentary of her mother’s daily phone calls, were shining nuggets of good, solid advice, and she appreciated finding a few to help her through the week. That day had been a particularly rough morning, and after sweeping up the broken plate and meticulously folding his shirts and underwear, she’d spent the last two hours on the phone, attempting to see the world through the eyes of a man she couldn’t understand.

“He was so cute, Mom, and nervous … He kept dropping stuff and forgetting what to say. Normally when a guy doesn’t stop calling me pretty, he’s a creep and I tell him to get lost. This was different. Every time he said it, he looked like his heart was breaking, like he couldn’t believe that I was even talking to him. And Mom, he asked if he could kiss me on the cheek! Not even the lips,” she chuckled, “And then–” She suddenly stopped, thinking better of her next comment, “Nevermind.”

“People used to ask for things like that, you know. We didn’t just wander around, sucking on whatever we wanted like catfish. What’s it say about your father and I that an honest-to-God gentleman is blowing my daughter’s mind?! Good lord … And what were you going to say? You know if you don’t tell me, I’ll just pester your sister for the rest.”

She scoffed and hummed, debating if she should continue when she glanced at the Lucky Strike Lanes calendar hanging over the key hooks. “It’s about S-E-X, Mom, you still want me to keep going?”

“You already married him, honey. It’s not news to me.”

“Well, first off, your other daughter is a liar. I didn’t sleep with him the day I met him – I just wanted to clear that up right now. Second thing: he likes going really slow in that department, and I thought that was weird. It kind of made me look at him differently.”

“What kind of fast-moving bastards have you been dating?!”

“What?” she laughed, “It’s not like I’ve never gone slow, but we were sort of …” She grumbled under her breath as she paced. “I don’t think you want to hear this.”

“Don’t make me call your sister. I really don’t want to talk about wallpaper for forty-five minutes just to find out what you and he were up to.”

“Okay, so the first time we were together was down at the bowling alley.”

“The first time you met him was down at that bowling alley.”

“Yeah, this was that day, but we didn’t have sex.”

“Lord. Go on … but don’t make me spend the rest of my weekend in church, trying to save your fiendish soul.”

“You told me to keep going, so I’m just going to tell you the honest-to-God truth.”

“Don’t bring God into this, you heathen,” her mother laughed. “Go on then. Give your poor old mother a heart attack.”

She smiled and brushed her hair behind her ear as she remembered. “He was being really cute, fidgeting with his glasses and biting his lip while he pretended to play pinball. I knew he was looking at me, but when I said hi, he wouldn’t even look me in the eye, he was so nervous. He kept checking the door like he was waiting for someone to tell him he wasn’t allowed to talk to me, and that just made everything so much funnier. He was skinny as a rail and clean-shaven then, you remember?”

“A real baby face, if I recall. Now he has that ugly push broom.”

“I like his mustache. Reminds me of Dad.”

“I’ll tell him you said that.”

She snickered and continued, “And you know how much I love blue eyes … Every time I looked into his eyes, his face got all red. It was the cutest damn thing. But his small talk was ridiculous. He just rattled on about the weather, and books, and different arcade games, just the biggest nerd.”

“Well, nerd or not, he charmed the pants off you.”

“Uh, no, actually …”

A soft chuckle filled her ear.

“So, he got us a couple Cokes and we were watching all my friends bowl, but he wasn’t playing for some reason. Actually, I have no idea what he was doing there. He didn’t even have bowling shoes …” She stopped and wrinkled her forehead. The details of a day nearly a year and a half ago should have been harder to recall. But the more she imagined the first time she saw her young soon-to-be husband watching her from the far end of the bowling alley, the clearer it all became. “Anyway, they were all hooting and hollering about some score, and I thought that he and I could, you know, make out a little.” The silence from the other end of the line, had her shaking her head. “Are you crossing yourself, Mom?”

“Nope. Go on.”

She suddenly blushed and blurted, “I took him to the ladies room–“

“… dear God Almighty…”

“I took him to the ladies room,” she repeated quickly, “And you should’ve seen his face. He was white like a ghost and sweating so bad his glasses kept slipping down his nose.”

“He probably thought you were going to rob him.”

“He did not!”

“I would have.”

“Robbed him?!”

“No! I’d have thought you were some pickpocketing harlot out to steal my wallet! He’s a poor southern boy who can’t hold a conversation to save his life, and you took advantage of him!”

“I did like hell!”

“So, you were making out with the boy in a toilet stall like the good girl I raised you to be … continue.”

“Well, I mean you know what happens after a while …”

“I can assure you, I do not know what you are referring to.”

“He got excited, Mom.”

“I’m zipping my lip.”

“No, you are not. And I’m not even going to be able to tell the next part because you’re going to call me a slut.”

“I wonder why I’d call you that?”

“I used my mouth on him.”

“Why, dear God, why?! That’s why he married you, isn’t it? You have no shame! And boys can smell a floozy. They love bagging themselves a whore, but jokes on them, they cheat!”

“Mom!” she laughed. “I know for a fact that whores are not the only people to use their mouths.”

“I certainly never did. The good Lord gave you a mouth for eating food and nothing else. He gave you other bits for that. Why use your mouth?! It’s filthy!”

“It is not filthy. That’s insane. I sort of feel bad for Dad now, though.”

“Oh hush, don’t feel bad for that bastard. I wait on him hand and foot and that’s as good a sex to him.”

She cringed and flopped back down at the kitchen table to continue, “I felt him through his pants and told him I could use my mouth … but, you know, I offered to do it. I didn’t just go at him like a piece of meat or something.”

“Good thinking. Don’t want to seem too eager.”

“I can hear your eyes rolling.”

“Your father bought a new telephone. Picks up every sound. You should get one.”

She ignored her mother and moved on. “So he agreed and I unzipped his pants. Now, I’m not gonna to be able to explain why this next part is weird because you have no idea what it’s like normally.”

“I’m imagining you not being able to breathe, and then him yelling a bunch of profanities.”

Her hand flew to her mouth, holding back her burst of laughter. “That’s not far off, but no,” she chuckled, “I got down on my knees and was, you know, sucking on him, and normally they just say stupid shit like ‘you like that’ or ‘ you’re really good at this.’”

“Well of course … and then you’d say, ‘you’re so big’ or ‘this is my first time’.”

She laughed and clapped her thigh. “Mom, you’d be a natural!” she chuckled, “But he didn’t say any of that. In fact, he was completely silent like he always is. But – and this is the weird part – he wanted to hold my hand while I did it.” She grimaced again and leaned on the table, waiting for her mother’s reply. “Did you hear me?”

“He wanted to hold your hand? What do they normally do, bend over and grope for your chest?”

She shook her head and snickered under her breath. “Sometimes they touch your hair or just stare at you like a dog. They don’t normally ask to hold hands.”

“What do you think he was trying to do? Check for a ring?”

“I don’t think so. It was weird because he pressed my hand against his mouth and closed his eyes.” Her lip curled as she thought about the awkward exchange. “I was on my knees in that white and green dress you got me for Christmas. But I was freaking out because he yanked up my arm so far that I was sure he was going to tear out the zipper. And I love that dress! I want another one for Christmas.”

Her mother hollered out a laugh. “Woolworth, honey, but would you rather have a calf-length to protect your knees next time? They have a blue one that would match his eyes!”

They both broke into a fit of hysterics until her mother finally caught her breath. “You have no idea how wonderful it is to hear you laughing again. I feel like it’s been months.”

She wiped tears from her eyes and calmed herself with a sigh. “We laugh, Mom. We really do. He can be fun sometimes.”

“You called me in quite a tizzy this morning though. Not laughing then.”

“He just scared me, Mom, it was nothing.”

“You were crying so much I didn’t recognize your voice, and when I figured it out, I damn near drove straight over and got you.”

“Don’t say that. I was being dramatic; that’s all. I just wish I knew what sets him off. He’s so serious about everything.”

“He’s always seemed a little ‘sensitive’ to me.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Honey, he spent your entire wedding day in tears. The only person that could calm him down was your Uncle Ronny, and we all know about Uncle Ronny.”

“What’s wrong with Uncle Ronny?!”

“When your father and I started dating, your Uncle Ronny was about twelve. I’d been invited over for your Grandmother’s birthday to meet the whole family. Ronny spent the entire time in the kitchen making this ugly three-tiered cake for his mother while all the other brothers were out in the yard, playing football. When the whole thing went tits up, he cried for hours over that cake. He and I sat in his room for the rest of the party until he stopped crying and then we spent an hour just pouring over his bottle cap collection. Any of that sound familiar? He was ‘sensitive’, too.”

“Hey, I don’t mind talking about shells, and Kev’s not sensitive, Mom!”

“You’re still calling him Kevin?! Lord have mercy. Doesn’t that piss him off?”

“I don’t think so. He always laughs … I mean, I called him Kevin for weeks, but that wasn’t my fault. He never corrected me. How was I supposed to know?!”

“You two are a match made in heaven, I swear to God. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumbass.”

She laughed and covered her face until her head snapped up when the front door rattled and pushed open. “Mom, I gotta go. I think he’s home. Love you.” She hung up and stood, fixing her blouse and hair and leaned out the kitchen doorway to find her husband pulling his satchel over his shoulder.

“Hello, hotshot,” he said, cocking a half-grin. He glanced around the messy house, dishes still sitting on the counter, and their bed unmade at the end of the long hall. “I’m sorry I’m home early.”

“Why are you sorry?”

He shrugged, hung his bag by the door, and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “Did you make dinner?”

“I thought maybe we could go out tonight, just for fun. What do you think? Want to take your old ball-and-chain out dancing?” She smiled and spun on her heels.

He pushed past her on his way into the kitchen. “I’m hungry and you know I don’t dance.”

She rolled her eyes and turned to find him digging through a low cabinet. “Well, what are your plans this evening then?”

He stood and sighed, wrenching open the refrigerator door. “Well, right now, I have to cook us dinner because it’s not going to cook itself. Then, I’ll probably mow the lawn, unless you want to do either of those things yourself.” He grabbed a bag of bologna, closed the fridge door, and waited for her answer.

“The lawn looks fine to me, and I’d really like to go out.”

He ripped open a kitchen cupboard and pulled out a bag of bread and a can of tomato soup, pushing aside a stack of bowls to make room on the counter. “We’re at an impasse then, perfect. Go out. Have fun. In fact, have too much fun.” He scoffed as he turned away, pulling two slices of bread from the bag and dropping them onto the dirty counter. “I’ll be here, eating the food I already paid for and watching TV.”

She nodded and her shoulders fell. His reply was certainly not atypical. Her desires to get out of their suburban prison perpetually fell on deaf and disregarding ears. Unfortunately, a little burst of hope endured at the very edge of her heart. It remained there, blissfully imagining her husband grinning like a fool and brushing his hand across her face as they spoke. It would picture him playfully sneaking up behind her and kissing her neck. It would remain hopeful that he’d want to take her dancing or relive their first date at the bowling alley, but it was always crushed.

“Then can I join you for bologna and TV?” she asked, nodding to the bread in his hands.

He peered at her, and she was troubled by how he studied her as though her words were hiding a cryptic message that he was working furiously to decode. “I said go out and have fun,” he repeated. “Why would you want to stay in?”

“Because this is the longest conversation we’ve had in months and I thought maybe by the grace of God it could last another twenty minutes.”

He quickly glanced around the room, searching for an invisible someone or something in the empty kitchen. “Have you been talking to your mother,” he said, his eyes narrowing. He lowered his voice. “Dear God, is she in the house right now. Don’t say anything, just nod if she is.”

She smiled, suppressing her laughter which she had no intention of letting bubble out, but failed as always. “She’s not here, but I did talk to her.”

He scoffed and continued making his dinner, which now included two bologna sandwiches. “And what pearls of wisdom did she share this time? No, stop. Let me guess. You’re brother’s the stain on the family, your sister’s a stick-in-the-mud, she hates your father … and I’m a temperamental piece of shit who is slowly destroying your life and probably the world. Please, tell me I’m close; I’m just dying to know.”

“You’re not far off. But she also called you ‘sensitive’.”

He laughed, his forehead wrinkling. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Sensitive like my Uncle Ronny.”

She watched him grind his teeth as he wrenched the can opener around the edge of the soup can and then plop the content in a pot on the stove. “Which one’s he?”

“The guy you cried all over at the wedding.”

“Ah. I thought his name was Reginald.”

“It is.”

He huffed, and as he stirred the soup, she slowly approached and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her chest to his back. “Why did you cry so much at the wedding?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Would you have married me if you’d known what was going to happen to the baby?”

“Nope,” he said, but suddenly hemmed and hawed at his callous answer. “I would have waited, probably. Gone back to school first.”

“You didn’t hurt my feelings,” she said. “I wouldn’t have married you either.”

“Well that’s a disappointing relief,” he said, “Dinner’s ready.”

She smiled and the pair plodded through the monotony of the evening, beginning with a hastily eaten dinner at the messy counter. He was still convinced that their half-inch tall lawn was in need of a trim, so while he spent an hour alone, meticulously mowing their small patch of crispy weeds, she cleaned the kitchen and then returned to the phone.

“Mom, he’s sort of making jokes; what do I do?!”

“Crack him on the head so you’ll always have these beautiful memories to cherish.”

She laughed and cradled her eyes. “No really. I’m supposed to watch TV with him tonight. I don’t know what to do with him.”

“I never watch TV with your father. He picks the worst programs and then laughs at every commercial like it’s part of the show. I hate it.”

“You’re not going to help me, are you?”

“I don’t know what you young girls do anymore. Just use your mouth on him; that’s how you won him, right?”

“Mom! Stop it you gross old woman!”

“You’re right, no mouth. Use your other bits – the God-given ones meant for this sort of situation. I want a granddaughter – I’m good with little girls. The boys … they’re harder to work with.”

“He’s not going to want to have sex, now, Mom; I just need some talking points.”

“Why would you want to talk to him? Just take off your shirt, shut him up, and then watch whatever you want to watch; it always works for me. Or just start randomly talking about sex. That freaks them out. And why wouldn’t your husband want to sleep with you? That’s probably both of your damn problems. You kids give it all away before marriage so you have nothing left to give each other after the wedding. Or wait … is it the slow thing? Is he too slow? I swear he looks like a minute-man, but maybe that’s just me.”

“He’s not … I mean, he is sometimes, I guess … I’m not discussing this either.”

“I’m calling your sister.”

“Go ahead, I haven’t told her anything.”

“Where is he now, and what made you call me back?”

She peeked out the open kitchen window to find him crouched by the mower, attempting to restart it. “He’s out mowing the lawn, and I don’t know why I called. I think I’m nervous. He doesn’t normally talk to me when he gets home … and he called me hotshot.”

“Okay. That is a weird pet name. Why, hotshot? Is he calling you spicy or is he just not right in the head?”

“He eats the candy a lot – he has a thing for cinnamon, but normally, he only calls me that when he’s, you know … ready for bed.”

“Oh, Lordy. See? He does want sex. And do you really need to consult me over every little bit of trouble? I already do this with your brother and sister. You know your brother’s new fling, The braless wonder? I told her not to let the door hit her in the hippie ass, and she’s still hanging around; can you believe that? If she didn’t keep pilfering his drugs right out from under his nose, I’d tell him to kick her to the curb, but at this point, I think it’s better that she hangs around.”

“Mom, I want your honest opinion. Did I make a huge mistake marrying him?”

The line grew quiet and contemplative. “Honey, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think there was a better man out there for you – one with a spark, who wants to take you out on the town and show you off. You found someone with a good job, a pretty face, and he’s polite, but, sweetheart – and I’m only saying this because you asked – he’s just … lifeless. Do you know what I mean?”

Her eyes drifted to the floor and she nodded to herself. “He’s really angry, Mom, but he hides it, and he won’t tell me why. Sometimes I piss him off on purpose because if he didn’t get angry about stuff, it would be like I was living with a dead man. And he really scared me this morning … ”

“Oh, honey.” Her mother sighed into the phone. “I’m so sorry. But be careful pulling stunts like that. Things are already sounding rocky, you don’t need to make it worse.”

“Is this just it, though? Is my life just going to be tiptoeing around him until he decides to talk to me? I don’t think I want to live like that, Mom. It feels wrong.”

“Give it another couple years. You two will warm up to each other and you might find that distance between you is sort of nice. It’ll give you something to re-explore together. A little concern, a little doubt, it just keeps everyone on their toes. Wouldn’t want to grow complacent, that’s how you lose the passion, and then you might start hating him. I’m sure everything will be fine, sweetheart. It’ll get better. Just stick it out …”

She nodded and quickly said her goodbyes before hanging up and rushing to the bathroom. She brushed her long blonde hair and by the time she returned to the kitchen, he was lining up his grass-stained shoes by the door. Without a word, he ducked around her to make his way to the bathroom to shower.

Twenty minutes turned to thirty, then sixty, and she sat on the couch, resting her eyes. She jolted awake when a hand tapped her shoulder.

“Why don’t you just go to bed?” he said, plopping beside her on the couch.

She sat up and watched the television flicker and glow as it warmed up. The sun had set, and the time read ten o’clock. On a weekday, he would be in bed by that hour, but it was Friday, and his favorite show was about to air – a show that gave her the creeps with its stories of sinister ghosts and unnatural phenomenon. She typically refused to watch it.

“Why do you love this show so much?” she asked.

“It delves into the deepest parts of the imagination,” he said, tapping his temple. “The scary parts no one likes to think about.”

“It’s just a bunch of crazy horror stories. Isn’t real life horrible enough?”

He snickered, and it sounded far too strained to make her comfortable. “You are quite a peach this evening,” he said.

“Why’d you call me hotshot?”

His face fell slack as he stared at her, and she stared back, unblinking.

“No reason,” he said, and the familiar twangy tune of the show’s introduction drew his attention back to the television set. “Do you want to watch something else? I know you hate this show.”

“This is fine, but you might have to explain it since I’ll probably cover my eyes for most of it.”

He nodded. “Does an active imagination scare you that badly?”

“Sometimes. I don’t like stories where people are killed or just disappear.”

“Okay, well, I’m here, and I can turn it off whenever you want.”

She nodded slowly and for some reason his pale skin, sunken eyes, and white tee-shirt made him look like a ghost. She brushed her hand down the soft cotton of his shirt just to be sure he wasn’t.

He watched her fingers trail down his shoulder and nodded to the arm of the couch behind her. “Hand me the afghan and an ashtray.”

She did as requested, tossing the bright blue and green blanket over him and the glass ashtray in his lap. He lit a cigarette and held up his arm, motioned for her to come closer to him. She slid along the cushion until she was pressed snuggly under the crook of his arm and he draped the blanket over them both.

“Better?” he wondered. She nodded as the screen opened on a mother and daughter showing a brand new Talky Tina doll to a very disgruntled father.

“Why can’t the father just be happy that his little girl loves her new doll?” she wondered, nuzzling against her husband.

“Maybe because the wife just spent a ridiculous amount of money to buy a toy the little girl doesn’t need.”

“But his daughter’s happy. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“He probably had to work sixteen hours to pay for it. Does that seem fair? That’s straight wages, not even taxed. And I’m not counting the cost to feed his whole family for those two days, or the mortgage on that huge damn house, or the maintenance and gasoline in that car they just parked out front. Does the Dad count at all, or are the wife and daughter the only …” He trailed off as he watched the father yell at the doll and throw it across the room. “Okay, he doesn’t need to break the damn doll … who throws shit when they’re angry? This guy needs to grow up.”

A loud unintentional scoff burst from her lungs though she tried to stifle it with the edge of the afghan.

“What?” he snapped. “You have something to say to me?” She shook her head so he cleared his throat and insisted, “I didn’t throw the plate this morning.”

“You must have a very active imagination if you think the plate smashed itself on the floor.”

He nodded and took a long drag. “I’m sorry I scared you. I’m not a violent person.”

“Except when you’re breakfast is cold, right?” She felt her lip quiver so she covered her mouth and buried her face in the blanket. If she knew what caused his eyes to glaze over or his teeth to grit and temper flare she could skirt around those issues, but it was a random occurrence that left her emotions reeling and her life far more stressful than she had envisioned.

His arm eventually wrapped around her as she composed herself and they both resumed their half-hearted viewing of whatever bizarre episode this would turn out to be.

The little girl’s dolly on the show was beginning to spout threats when she felt him leaned over and nuzzle her temple.

“I’m not violent,” he repeated. “I wouldn’t hurt a fly because that’s just not me. I don’t want you to worry about me like that.”

“Apparently a little concern is good for a relationship,” she scoffed, “Keeps the passion alive.”

“Are we thanking your mother for that fantasy? Talk about lying to yourself … the woman’s delusional.” He settled back into the couch, still puffing on his cigarette while she tried to relax and enjoy the show.

When the television father began receiving threatening phone calls from the doll, she let out a groan. “Is the doll going to kill him? I can’t watch this if the doll’s going kill him.”

“Talky Tina is definitely going to kill him, but the question is how?”

She looked up at him, curiously eyeing his gaze which was fixed on the television. “How? What’s it matter how?”

“Well, you have a doll up against a full-grown man. Tina has certain skills or tools at her disposal – a voice box to speak over the phone, she can move apparently and has the trust of the little girl and the mother. Now the father, he’s tried to destroy Tina, but he keeps failing, so the doll obviously has more up her sleeve than just a plastic arm. The trick is to figure out how Tina could kill him before it actually happens … What do you think she’s going to do?” He sat up and leaned away to better view her face.

“I … don’t think,” she said, wearily watching her husband’s peculiar excitement over such a silly show.

He nodded and cleared his throat. “Yeah, but … but think anyway. She could set the house on fire, but I don’t think her fingers move well enough to strike a match.”

“A knife, maybe? Or a gun?”

“Too conventional, and she’d need to be more dexterous than she is.”

“Poison?” she wondered.

“That’s good, but she could accidentally poison the girl, and I don’t see her wanting to do that. Tina’s protecting the girl. She’s designed a plan to take the asshole dad out of the picture and she’ll do it with only the skills she possesses and with minimal interference. She doesn’t care about being heard, but she cares about being seen. How would you murder someone if you were a doll?”

“You have a very criminal mind, you know that?” she snickered.

He visibly bristled and shoved his glasses up his nose. “Think of it like her game. How does she design it so that the asshole dad always loses?”

“Do you think she’s strong enough to suffocate him?”

“That’s a good point,” he said studying the television again. “Probably not with a pillow, though, and don’t forget that the wife’s in the same room. Tina would be more discreet. Separate the herd and pick them off when they’re at their weakest.”

“The dad’s leaving the bedroom!” she suddenly squeaked. “The doll’s going to kill him now!” She curled up under the blanket hiding her face against him.

“Think!” he chuckled, wrapping his arm around her. “You’re doing good! It’s almost over. What about a void or something; maybe she can conjure magic.”

“Magic?!” she laughed from under the blanket. “It’s a doll, not a witch. Oh! Oh!” She ripped the blanket off her face. “He’s at the top of the stairs! What if she tripped him?! Doesn’t someone die like that in Psycho?”

“When did you see Psycho?!” he scoffed. “And the guy in Psycho had already been stabbed in the face …” They both turned to the television, holding their breaths as the father’s foot landed on the doll and he slipped, plummeting down the stairs to his death. He landed hard at the bottom, the doll tumbling to a stop, directly across from his face.

“He tripped!” she hollered, throwing her hands into the air. “I was right!” He laughed against her neck as she wrapped her arms around him. “I did it! I beat that stupid doll!” They both laughed, embracing on the couch until she pulled back, grinning ear to ear to have a look at the man beaming in her arms.

His sunken eyes now looked exhausted and lost, but his ghostly appearance had faded to reveal his warm pinking cheeks. He resembled his old self for a moment, anxious but excited, young and hopelessly naive. His mouth grinned, but his eyes refused to join them in that fleeting moment of merriment, so he remained a sad picture of unrest. 

“What do you want to do now?” he asked, fidgeting with the strands of blonde hair clinging to her wet lips.

She casually shrugged and smiled. “We could talk.”

He sighed, but to her, it wasn’t lonesome or bored or disappointed. It just felt tired and yet relieved. “Tell me about your day.”

“I talked to my Mom,” she said, and he hummed in response. “I told her about how much I love that white and green dress she bought me a couple years ago.”

He raised his eyebrow. “And what did she say?”

“She said she got it at Woolworth and that they have a pretty blue one that matches your eyes.”

He gasped. “But then what did you say?”

“I said that my husband is a jackass and that I should make him wear the damn dress.”

He snickered and chewed his lip, patting her knee under the blanket. “Good talk.”

To avoid the conversation being closed completely, she slid her hand over his. “Want to talk about fucking?”

“I’m not certain that’s a good idea.”

“Well, we don’t have to talk about it … hotshot.”

His gaze immediately fell to the floor, and he huffed an anxious snicker that reminded her of their first nervous conversation. “You’re on to me, I see.”

She softly kissed his neck and then stood, letting the blanket fall to the floor. When he remained motionless, she tugged his shirt until he finally rose and followed her back to the unmade bed in their pitch-black bedroom.

She undressed, dropping her clothes in the pile at the foot of the bed and crawled over the sheets, waiting for him. Six weeks – perhaps seven – had elapsed since they had last been intimate, although their new definition of intimate left something to be desired.

The bed dipped when he joined her. He crawled between her legs until their faces were inches apart, yet still hidden from one another in the darkness. It had become a ritual – a solemn series of actions performed in the very specific order he’d laid out mouths before. It never changed, and she wasn’t fully convinced that she wanted it to.

He made love to her in the same way she imagined other husbands attempting to please their wives – panting through clenched teeth, eyes closed and lost in thought. Her world and bed rocked with the sway of his hips and she found herself at peace, knowing at that moment, there was nothing more she could do for him. Her hands only rested on his back, never his naked shoulders, and the lights would remain darkened to hide sullen faces, full breasts, and the healing scars that gashed under navels and over hearts.

When his duty had been completed to the best of his ability, she rolled onto her stomach and waited to be taken from behind. He never kissed her, nor did she attempt to kiss him. She knew the very real physical limits a body might impose upon itself and she respected them. It might reject the confining squeeze of a hug or an invasive and unwarranted tongue. It might jerk if an old injury is exposed or probed. He had given her body space when she needed it most, so she wholeheartedly returned the favor when he so easily became overwhelmed by his own skin.

He always finished at her back. He always breathed against her ear. And when either of them felt the crest and fall of physical relief, it was without spoken warning or any other sweet nothings.

Out shopping or with friends, she was still treated as a newlywed. She was still fawned over and there were family and neighbors who had yet to congratulate her. Whenever stopped on the street to be embraced and have her ring inspected, she smiled through the pain as was expected of such a young beautiful bride. She had a home, a garden to tend, an educated and handsome husband, and a youthful figure, and each was more barren than the last.

When his whimpers turned breathy, fading into her hair and his body finally slowed to a stop, he rolled them both to their sides to fall asleep. Though his heart beat against her back, his hands remained motionless, refusing to explore her soft skin, so she laid with her companion in solitude.

“What would you have done if I’d left you alone this evening?” she asked.

He brushed her hair from his face and sighed. “Exactly what I just did.”

“How would we have made love if I wasn’t here?”

“I would have masturbated in the shower.”

“Why didn’t you tonight?”

“I heard what you said … about not knowing what to do with me … like I’m a bad dog you aren’t allowed to put down.”

She clenched her eyes, a burning heat spreading over her cheeks. “I’m sorry you heard that,” she whispered. The warmth of his body receded and she groped for the cold sheets to cover herself.

His voice, now bitter, hissed from behind her. “How could you say that I’m dead inside?”

She gasped and covered her mouth to hold back the inadequate apology threatening to gush from her lips. There was no response capable of soothing a wound that cruelly or casually inflicted. If she knew of only one facet of her husband, it was that he became heavily perturbed when referred to as cowardly, crazy, or devoid of life. She quickly felt behind her until she found his hand and pulled it to her face, kissing his palm.

He withdrew his hand as rapidly as she had taken it, his chest stuttering with each choking breath. “I’m not dead inside,” he hissed.

She cradled her eyes as she felt him weep only inches from her bare skin. They were not the long bellowing tremors of a man hurt or heartbroken. These sobs were short and quick, and full of new forms of frustration and agony. He claimed to not be dead inside, but they both would remain staunchly unconvinced.

If you enjoy my writing, please consider dropping me a comment here or, if applicable, on AO3 or by supporting my hot beverage habit on Ko-fi. Thank you!

—joanielspeak
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5 thoughts on “the living doll [boot tread]

  1. This fits. Well done. I see how Hop came to be driven to evolve later. And I see the juxtaposition of Butch’s obsessive “love” for him, compared to a wife too obtuse for the much wanted understanding.

    1. I don’t think Hopper has ever felt understood by anyone, let alone loved. Hopper has always been a fairly unreliable narrator – a liar even to himself – and a very scared man. He can’t trust his own eyes or ears, so he often refuses to divulge pertinent information about himself to others (for example: his emotional needs).

      What might appear obtuse about his wife is simply her lack of information. Hopper has never discussed his stint in the asylum, nor did he tell his wife about the accident. All she knows is that her husband has a very short fuse and seems overly emotional about the strangest things. Of course, his sexuality is also an issue. As far as we know, Hopper is bisexual. He may have had an affair with his female psychiatrist, and he clearly has had sexual encounters with men. He may have been going through a time of sexual confusion when he married his wife, and was attempting to work through it alone. After all, we don’t know with certainty why he married his wife, but there are many theories, such as his need for normalcy and desire to have a family.

      Butch, by contrast, seems to know Hopper better than he knows himself. Butcher knows when he’s lying, when he’s breaking down mentally, and when he needs space, and that is the sort of attention, affection, and connection he’s been searching for.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Lol YOU know why Hop married his wife. You married them for your creative purpose—to make him a beautiful mess for Butch to put the fragile lil teacup back together…almost and not before he cracks it somemore I am sure. This was a gem of a short story. Thanks for the words.

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