There she sits, a queen of death and life, on the chair next to Mom’s bed. Mom has been dead for two weeks, and I’m ready to touch Tessa. Tessa’s chestnut curls have called to me since I was five. Her face is still perfectly smooth, her eyes still shiny and piercing. I’m sweating, I realize, but I grab her anyway, feeling the stiff petticoats brush against me as I carry her.
When I was a girl, I longed to play with her, and Mom always said no. But I couldn’t resist—she would be the perfect tea party guest, the most obedient child in a game of house—I needed her. I took her once, when Mom was lying down, and brought her into the garden to smell the roses. Then, I just sat on the grass, and looked at her, holding my breath as I stroked the hem of her dress, rubbed those delicate fingers. And then, Tessa and I were yanked apart, and I spent two days in my room, listening to the click of Mom’s heels outside the door and the clomping footsteps of Sean, two years older and never in trouble. Mom took me out every few hours for the bathroom, but she didn’t speak to me. When I washed my hands in the sink, I met her eyes in the mirror. They were like dark glass, with no special recognition for me.
I am holding her in Mom’s garden now, and I hear my name. I go red from cheeks to core. I’m a grown woman, holding Tessa in the yard and looking at the neighbor woman.
“I’m Becca,” she says. She’s tanned and thin, holding a watering can and looking at me through the chain link. “I just wanted to say sorry about your Mom. Let me know if we can help with anything—my husband’s Pete.”
I nod, waving at her awkwardly while I hold the doll. Then, I flee.
Mom hated that family. There was the day it rained—one of Mom’s good days—and the kids were out playing in the mud. “Shame on their mother, letting them run around in the muck like that.”
I thought they looked like something out of a children’s book, running, shrieking, floating little boats in a puddle near the swing set. But I said, “Let’s close the curtains. Then we won’t have to see.”
I sit Tessa on the couch and start microwaving a Lean Cuisine, trying to get it all out of my head. Mom. Becca. I keep catching Tessa’s eye. Even now, even when I’m the only one left (Sean can’t be bothered to come back to deal with Mom’s death, just as he couldn’t be bothered to come back and care for her when she was alive), Tessa is distant. She looks through me and past me, past my own death to a time when she can rule over an empire of tidy solitude.
The microwave beeps and I flinch. Tessa looks smug. And then, I know what to do, and I go and take Tessa by the arm so that her body clunks against my leg, and I bring her up the driveway to the street and sit her on the trash bags I’ve put out for garbage collection.
My heart is beating wildly, and all evening, I think of her out there. I imagine tomorrow, when she is thrown in the back of the truck and coffee grounds smear her pale face, and egg yolk sticks to her dress. When she is compressed.
I fall asleep watching TV, and wake to the sound of the truck pulling away. A rush of nausea washes over me, and I go to the window, but the trash is gone. Tessa is gone.
I’m lonely. Lonelier than after the funeral. The only time I’ve felt like this was after Candy. Candy, my secret. Candy, who plucked me from the sidelines of a college party and taught my body to move. Candy, who held me in her arms for weeks and let me hold all her secrets. She left me so easily.
I sit on the couch as Mom used to do, and stare out the window at the neighbors’ yard. And then, there is the little girl. She is carrying a big blanket and a basket, and it’s so much for her, she almost looks like she could fall over. Then, she leaves again without unpacking her picnic, and returns with a teapot, which must hold real water, because she carries it against her chest, right under her chin, and walks very carefully. She unrolls the blanket, and there—green dress, black shoes, chestnut ringlets.
The girl bends Tessa into a sitting position and slowly pours two cups of water. The little girl solicitously holds a cup to Tessa’s little bow mouth, but all the while, Tessa’s eyes look over the girl’s shoulder, fixed on me.
I hold my own oily, stringy, dull hair and pull. My eyes are watering. I take a step toward the slider, then stop. I should never, never have thrown her away. She’s valuable, probably. She’s mine. The girl will ruin her.
I watch the girl speak to Tessa and lean in for her replies. When the tea is complete, the girl picks Tessa up and hugs her around the waist, bringing her inside with all the casual intimacy of a sister.
I pack more things in boxes, but then I have to unpack them in case I’ve made another mistake. It’s around two a.m. when an idea comes and hope coats my tired brain and lets me sleep.
* * *
The aisles are filled with cheap, plastic dolls wearing outfits in garish hues and looking blankly out into the fluorescent light with overdone expressions of wonder or joy. How can I possibly get the girl to want one of these? They are nothing like Tessa. They would be all wrong at a tea party. They would drool on the table cloth and spit up the tea. They would crawl away and get mud on their jumpers.
I settle, finally, on a doll whose name has already been chosen by some marketing team. “Mackenzie” has straight, shiny blonde hair and makeup painted over her eyes. She has a denim jacket over a tank top and a skirt that’s repulsively short. But at least she has eyes that open and close.
* * *
I knock on the door while I balance Mackenzie’s box on my hip. She’s wrapped in appropriately heinous paper depicting hundreds of balloons rising with snaking, curly-cue strings underneath them. There’s a pre-done, iridescent bow to top it all off.
The mother seems happy to see me, eyes flicking to the box. She invites me in. The happiness doesn’t last long when I explain the mistake—that Tessa belongs with me, that I’ve brought this other doll for her little girl.
The mother gets cold, her face losing its flexibility. “I know you must be going through a tough time,” she says, “but Lyddie’s really taken to the doll, and you did throw her away.” She takes Mackenzie and promises to try.
* * *
The girl goes outside later, holding Tessa. She sits on the ground hugging Tessa tight, stroking the perfect curls, and I open the slider slowly, go out there, drawn to them. She hears me, and stands—her face is red and blotchy with crying. She holds Tessa’s head under the chin and shouts, “You can’t have her! She loves me!”
The girl runs with Tessa behind an oak where I can’t see her. A moment later, the door to the house opens, and the mother makes a beeline for the girl. My breath catches. She’s going to get it now. The doll will be taken away. The little girl will be locked up.
The mother scoops up girl and doll and carries them into the house, smoothing the daughter’s hair and murmuring to her. She doesn’t look at me.
My knees feel wobbly. I go inside, to my room. I lie down on the old pink comforter, burying my nose in the mildewing cotton.
I used to lie just this way when I was bad—when Mom put me here. I would go in and out of sleep, and each time I woke up I would try the doorknob, sweaty in my hands, but it was always stuck. Sometimes, I shouted, but Mom never answered. Sometimes, when Sean was home, he would come to the keyhole and yell, “Shut up, Adah!”
Finally, Mom would open the door and say, “That’s all done now. Time to come out.” I’d be so hungry, and Mom would give me a bowl of white rice and a glass of milk. Always that meal. What did it mean?
I can leave my room whenever I like now. When I finally do, I see an envelope lying on the floor just inside the front door. I read the message and open the door.
There is Mackenzie, smiling up at me from her plastic box.
With scissors, I cut into the box, freeing Mackenzie. I hold the doll up and look into her face. Mackenzie looks friendly, open, maybe a little pathetic. Of course, the little girl had not wanted this doll. Of course, she had not been fooled. Her hair isn’t even right. Not even close to right.
My hands are trembling as I plug in the curling iron in the bathroom and use it on Mackenzie’s slick blonde hair. There’s an unpleasant smell, but I bite my lip.
“Beauty is pain,” I tell Mackenzie.
The doll is horizontal on the vanity and her eyes are closed against the heat of the iron. What else? Wipe off that makeup. There must be a way to get it off. Different clothes. I meet my own eyes in the mirror and I see my damp, red face, the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth, my wet eyes. I look back down at Mackenzie. The curling iron has melted part of her cheek and her hair is caught in the plastic wound.
“Come now,” I tell her. “Be a good girl.”
Really, her hair is better, and the curls almost hide the burn.
When I lie Mackenzie down on the welcome mat next door, I think she looks quite well.
* * *
The knock on the door is angry—like a movie where they will come to take people away to a secret prison. But I feel a kind of calm return to me. It will only be Tessa, coming home.
But no—it’s the father from next door, gripping Mackenzie tightly by the neck. Mackenzie’s wide-eyed, scarred face thrusts into mine, and I reach for her, only to have her yanked back again.
“You left this on our doorstep,” he says.
I’m afraid. I’ve never had a man mad at me who wasn’t my own brother, and Sean was bad enough. The father is tall and a little overweight. He’s still wearing work clothes, a suit and everything. He is like an old TV father gone wrong.
“You did this as what—a threat? Well, I’ll have you know that if this doesn’t stop—if you don’t cut this out, I will call the police. You leave my daughter alone—and my wife.”
Now, he shoves Mackenzie at my chest and my arms come up to close around her. I’m shaking and I have to pee. I don’t move until I hear the neighbors’ door slam shut.
“There now,” I say, and sit Mackenzie on the couch. I’m still shaking when I make it to the toilet and my bladder lets go.
My legs feel unsteady as I return to the living room. “Mackenzie, quiet down. You’re getting on my nerves.”
I pick her up.
“Why don’t you go and lie down,” I say. “I’ll let you know when it’s time to come out.”
I lie Mackenzie down on the faded pink bedspread, and her eyelids click closed.
I close the door and lock it.
I go over to the sofa and sit, holding my knees to my chest. I turn on the TV and let the programs play and play. Mackenzie wants to come out, but it isn’t time.
There’s a noise from next door, and I’m up, looking out the window. I hear running, stomping feet, then a boy’s low grunt, and a small sound I can’t identify. The brother is on the porch of their house. I go for the slider, and I can hear more happening—footsteps and angry yelling and a girl’s wail.
I fumble with the handle, then I’m outside, and four pairs of eyes are on me. There is the father, red-faced and frozen mid-yell. The mother, kneeling and hugging the little girl around her middle; the little girl, red-faced, too, and crying. There is the boy, staring at me and holding Tessa by one leg, her petticoats all overturned and her poor bare legs exposed, and her hair hanging down, but even worse, her face. Her face is in pieces on the porch—I can just see it from here, through the chain link that separates the yards. The boy glares at me. The mother ushers all of them into the house. Tessa goes, too. Only her face remains.
I moan, backing into the house. I crawl into bed with Mackenzie and clutch her tightly.
* * *
Mackenzie and I spend the next few days together. We don’t go out or answer the phone. When the real estate agent Sean arranged for comes, we are quiet and don’t move a muscle.
The night before trash pickup, I’m anxious. Mackenzie tries to comfort me, but she doesn’t understand.
We watch out the window. Finally, the father brings his trash in a black bag up to the curb and leaves it there. When it’s dark, I tell Mackenzie to wait, and open the front door and creep up to the road. I tear open the trash bag and reach through the coffee grounds and liquids and soggy tissues until I feel her.
I take her by the waist and hug her, carrying her home.
Tessa is quiet during the bath, which is a blessing, since the water could get inside her head if she makes too much of a fuss. Much of her face is gone now. The eyes, nose, and most of the mouth are broken away. All that remains is a bit of lower lip and jaw, delicate temples and a touch of forehead at the hairline. Mostly, there is a dark cavity where Tessa’s face was, showing the concave back of her little bisque cranium.
After the bath, when I bring Tessa out to the living room, Mackenzie offers a friendly smile. Tessa has only her bottom lip now, and it can’t smile.
It doesn’t matter.
We are together now.
We eat frozen meals I have stored in the basement freezer until the power gets turned off. We light candles and drink lukewarm tea slowly in the silence, with not even the hum of the refrigerator to disturb us. There is knocking sometimes, but the phone no longer rings.
We get notices in bright colors, slipped under the door. There is more knocking.
We know what to do. It’s simple. We just use the candles—the curtains, the old bedspreads, the couch, they all burn easily, and there is light again, one last time.
Image via Pixabay