“You can’t crawl back in the dollhouse –
You’ve gotten too big to get in.
You’ve got to live here
Like the rest of us do.”
A week ago, I walked down the street on the northern end of the city, my shoes splashing through puddles. I had worn a heavy jacket in an attempt to keep from getting soaked, but the pounding rain had penetrated every layer of clothing I had on. My mother wasn’t going to be happy. But then, she never was.
My parents lived north of city center with all the upper-class people. Classy apartments and huge, mansion-like homes surrounded me. After spending the last few hours on the shady end of town, the excess disgusted me. I could hardly believe I grew up here. My parents’ home was nestled behind several others in a clump of maple and dogwood trees. Out here, the ruckus of traffic was a mere dream, and the distant skyscrapers glistened under the light of the gray sky. Rain stung my eyes as I looked up at the huge house.
It was surrounded by a black metal gate like those surrounding a prison or the terrible institution I spent two years inside. The lawn, perfectly manicured into a green carpet, sloped toward a grove of trees. No weeds dared spring up in the Fall wasteland of neat gardens, and, if one did, it was quickly plucked by one of the groundskeepers. I walked up the path to the three-story Tudor house with my hands in my pockets, hoping my presents hadn’t gotten too wet. One nearly fell out when I was exploring an old drug nest, and I’d tucked them as deep into my jacket as I could.
I ambled up the front steps to the large red door. The brass knocker glinted, cold and heavy, but I knocked with my fist instead.
First, I heard calm footsteps on the other side of the door, then an explosion of shouts, squeals, and plastic shoes clacking on wood. The door swung open.
Lucy beamed up at me. My sister was seven years old and the only one of us with blond hair. Her golden fleece fell in long, shiny curls, and her angular face was pinched in a smile. “Jack!” She threw her arms around my waist. The man who was about to answer the door stood nearby, looking purposeless. My mother must have hired a new butler, because I don’t recognize this one.
“Hi, String-bean,” I said with a laugh, grabbing her under the arms and spinning her around.
She exploded into giggles. “Bubby! Bubby, you’re wet! You’re going to get me dirty!”
I put Lucy down and surveyed her outfit. She wore a skirt and blouse combo far too stylish for her age. I crouched in front of her, frowning. “What’s with this get-up? Did mama make you wear it?”
She nodded, spinning back and forth so the skirt swished around her knees. “Yes, but look, I picked my shoes.”
That much was obvious. They were cheap, pink, and clashing, and I loved that she’d worn them. “They look very nice.” I straightened with a warm smile. “I got you a present, String-bean.”
“A present?” she echoed eagerly. “Can I have it?”
I chuckled, ruffling her hair. “Soon. Is Aiden here?”
She nodded, skipping back into the house. “He’s in the living room! C’mon!”
I followed, trying not to let the house darken my mood. It was beautiful on the inside, with expensive wood paneling and art from all over the world and glass sculptures on little wooden tables. A thick incense perfumed the air. My parents were always eager to flaunt their wealth. But all I saw when I looked around was a prison filled with bad memories.
Courtney’s house was only a block down. The thought struck a blow to my heart, and I took a deep breath. If not for the fact that I wanted to see my siblings, I never would have come here.
The butler tried to take my soaked jacket, but I murmured a, “Thanks but no thanks,” and walked past him.
Aiden lay across the couch in the living room, reading, and my mother was on the phone in the next room. I couldn’t see her, but I recognized her fluttering, twittering voice – the one she used when she was speaking with the press or one of her fans. My mother came from new money and my father from old. My father – William O’Dair – was the CEO of a pharmaceutical company in the city. For a time, my mother worked in the company, but now Bianca O’Dair was a model for several magazines and one of America’s current darlings. She had called days ago, inviting me to dinner, and I came so I could visit my siblings. I desperately hoped that they hadn’t invited a bunch of work associates.
She liked to show us off like the dolls in her toy-box.
Lucy flitted into the room ahead of me and called, “Jack’s here!”
Aiden looked up after a moment and laughed, letting the book rest in his lap. “What the hell happened to you?”
I grinned. I was soaked to the bone, and an hour ago, when I’d been chased out of a shady building by several drug dealers, I’d slipped in the mud.
“It’s a little wet out there,” I said.
Aiden glanced at the window, as if noticing the pouring rain for the first time. Like me, he could disappear into a book for hours and become totally oblivious to the world. “So, how are things in the underworld?”
I smirked at him, folding my arms. Like the others, he hadn’t accepted my death, but at least he never tried to attack my reality. It was little more than a private joke between the two of us, but he was the only one who knew my “delusion” still existed. I’d had to fake it in order to escape that wretched institution.
“Cold, Aiden. Very cold.”
“Jack brought presents!” Lucy chimed, rocking on her heels.
Aiden stared at her in contemplation, then said, “Lucy, have you showed Jack your new Barbie yet?”
Her eyes grew round, and she took off across the house to retrieve it. Aiden shook his head, then looked at me through those intelligent eyes. I’d always known Aiden was going to be the successful one out of the three of us. He was too smart for his own good. “You’re late, too,” the words were slow and calculated. “Were you out looking for Courtney again?”
I bristled defensively. “What if I was?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. But mom will flip if she finds out.”
They were in denial. Everyone, including the police, insisted she was dead, but I refused to believe it. The night we were attacked, they took her away, and I knew they were keeping her alive somewhere.
Just then, I heard my mother hang up the phone and walk into the room. She had the look of a woman that lived on celery and air. An elegant red and gold dress hung from her slender shoulders, and her glossy black hair was pulled back in a meticulous bun. Her face reminded me of a China Doll – white, perfect, and utterly fake.
She was a doll, and she wanted to turn us into them too. She wanted to suck the life and truth out of us until we were nothing but pretty husks.
She took one look at me and issued a shocked gasp. “Jack, you’re soaked! Why are you so dirty?”
I rolled my eyes at the look of concern on her face. Every time I was the least bit rumpled, she immediately thought I was having a fit. I swear, she’s still looking for an excuse to put me back in that institution.
“Dunno,” I drawled. “Maybe I decided to take a mud bath. It’s what all the other zombies are doing nowadays.”
“Jack!” she scolded, taking a step forward. She looked like she wanted to help me out of my wet clothes but, at the same time, didn’t want to touch me. “We have guests coming in fifteen minutes!”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to stay out of sight then.”
Her red, painted lips were pressed together in a pout. “I wanted you to...”
“To what?” I demanded. “To come and pose? To be a prop in your dollhouse? I just wanted to visit, not to come play the game.”
She was about to reply when Lucy returned, waving her Barbie through the air. “Look, bubby! See? Look at her pretty dress!”
I crouched in front of her and held it in my long fingers. The doll was blond and thin and perfect, and she reminded me of my mother. “That’s very nice, String-bean.”
Lucy took the Barbie back and turned to our mother, beaming. “Jack brought presents!”
Lines of suspicion carved across her flawless face, giving her winkles. “That’s nice of you, Jack,” she said cryptically. “Where did you get the money?”
“I have a job,” I growled. But I knew her skepticism was well-grounded. Ever since I’d emerged from the institution, I’d struggled with small, vital things – holding down a job, keeping my apartment in order, sleeping regularly. Sometimes I even forgot tasks like brushing my teeth or bathing. “I’m working at a fast food place in city center.”
The thought clearly revolted her, but she said nothing.
I rifled through my pocket and produced a small, soggy paper bag. Somewhat disappointed in myself, I handed it to Lucy. “Sorry, String-bean. I didn’t think it’d get so wet.”
Lucy opened it, peered inside, and grinned. I’d filled the bag with candy. “Thanks, Bubby!” She ran off, knowing she would have to eat it while I was here so our mother didn’t take it away. Ever since I could remember, she had been obsessed with keeping us slim. Candy was scrutinized at best and forbidden at worst.
My mother took a long breath, painted a smile on her face, and said, “Your father is in the dining room. You should say hello.”
I could hear people arriving in the driveway. I wasn’t going anywhere near that crowd. “I’ll wait until everyone is gone.”
She shrugged, surrendering, and walked out of the room.
“Thank goodness!” Aiden slumped against the couch, unbuttoning his jacket. A gawky grin bloomed across his face. “If you’re here, mom won’t make us sit out there all night.”
I issued a sharp laugh, then pulled a wet book out of my pocket and tossed it to him. “Here.”
Aiden frowned, then picked it up and smiled. It was the most recent Stephen King book. Our mother disapproved of them, but we’d always managed to smuggle them into the house, consuming them in less than a week. Aiden ran his fingers over the smooth cover lovingly, looking up to meet my gaze with warmth in his eyes. Then he tucked it beneath his jacket without saying a word.
We knew one another well enough that we didn’t verbal extravagance.
Lucy bounded back over to us when she realized our mother was gone, chocolate already smeared on her lips. “I’m hungry!”
I chuckled. “Let’s go get some food, then!”
We sneaked into the kitchen, stifling giggles, and took what we wanted of the feast. After that, we built a fort of blankets and pillows across the living room and ate there like we used to before my accident. As we watched television, laughing and chattering like drunken fools, I wished it could stay that way forever...