One drafty day, Margaret’s mother bundled her up to leave the house.
“Make sure you bring Jessica,” she said.
Margaret ran to the doll and scooped it up in her arms.
The thing behind the doll’s eyes approved. Outside, predators stalked the vulnerable or the weak and, being so young, Margaret was both of those things. Leaving the house together was always safer.
The doll sat on Margaret’s lap in the back of the vehicle and they talked the whole ride until they arrived at a building that looked very much like a gray box.
This was the doll’s least favorite kind of trip. It much preferred going to one of the clothing markets. At least there it was likely that Margaret would come home with something pretty.
The thing behind the doll’s eyes yearned for Margaret’s mother to keep driving, but she maneuvered the vehicle between arbitrary white lines and turned off the motor.
They walked up a flight of stairs and into a stale-smelling room. Margaret’s mother spoke to a woman who sat behind a desk with a flimsy protective shield. The woman returned her speech with some of her own and handed Margaret’s mother some papers.
This was the tedium of the gray box buildings. Walking. Sitting. Waiting. More walking. More sitting. More waiting.
Several people slumped into the chairs around the room, but the doll and Margaret ignored them and escaped into the joys of a carved wooden puzzle, matching animals to their similarly shaped holes. They were nearly finished when a soft-spoken elder appeared from behind a door and called them inside.
The elder’s lair was a place of false comfort, having all of the markers of a home without any evidence of life. The furniture felt new. There were frames on the walls, but instead of pictures there were pieces of paper with odd human script.
The thing that watched from behind the doll’s glass eyes sensed something else, too. Intent. There was a deliberate nature to the elder’s lair and this unknown purpose stirred the thing into an alert wakefulness.
The soft-spoken elder assessed Margaret with his searching eyes. He was tall like her father, but grayer around his temples and wider around the stomach. He talked to her using only questions. Each time she answered, he responded with another question.
They spoke about a dizzying range of topics, but what confused the doll most was how silent Margaret’s mother had been since entering the room. This was an unnatural state for her, save for when she indulged in her nightly slip into torpor.
Then the conversation turned.
“I see that you brought Jessica with you,” the soft-spoken elder said.
A bolt of panic shot through the thing’s essence. Outside of Margaret and her parents, no one had ever called the doll “Jessica.” The sound was foreign and exposing and offensive in a way that the doll didn’t quite understand.
Margaret beamed. “She’s my best friend.”
“It’s good to have best friends,” he said. “Do you have other friends as well?”
Her mother jumped in with the names of several children who have darkened their door from time to time.
“My, that seems like a great many names,” he said. “And still Jessica is your favorite friend?”
The doll fixed its glass eyes on the soft-spoken elder, having only now recognized the suspicion hidden in his words.
“So now that she is here, can we talk about your play times with Jessica?”
Another bolt of panic struck. He should know better than to ask about their time together and she should know better than to share.
Margaret looked at the doll, then at the floor. “It’s private.”
Good girl, thought the doll.
The elder nodded, then motioned to Margaret’s mother. “Would you mind giving us a moment?”
Margaret’s mother stood and the elder walked her to the door, where he hissed soft reassurances to her. He shut the door and sat back down in his chair across from Margaret.
“Now, it’s just the three of us,” the elder said. “Is there something that you wanted to share about Jessica, or about home maybe?”
Margaret leaned in and whispered to Jessica, then listened.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she lied.
The elder paused, but pointed her to the bathroom in his lair anyway. She was nearly at the door when he asked, “Won’t you be bringing your doll?”
“Jessica wants to stay with you,” Margaret answered flatly.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“It’s a secret,” she said with a shrug before closing the door behind her.
“A secret,” the elder repeated. He lifted the doll and turned it over. He checked for a battery compartment that wasn’t there, then looked deeply into the doll’s glass eyes. “To know the secrets she tells you,” the soft-spoken elder chuckled. “Why not tell me one?”
It told him a secret, a sliver of its endless dark knowledge.
The elder screamed. He dropped the doll on the carpet and tore his eyes from his face. He ran and dove through the closed window. The sun’s horrid light bathed the room in an orange hue and the thick air of the day-dwellers permeated everything, but it was all preferable to the artificial staleness that existed before.
Margaret’s mother ran into the room first, followed by the woman from behind the shielded desk. They’d protect Margaret from the gruesome sight of the elder’s fall. That was their job.
The doll’s job was already done. They were free from the machinations of this soft-spoken elder. Margaret and her mother would no doubt fare better without such a predatory force in their lives.