Pretty As A Doll

Pretty As A Doll
Photo by Michal GADEK / Unsplash
  • By Arshan Dhillon

THE PICK-UP TRUCK choked to a halt, the last of its oils churning through the pipes, and some bled onto the concrete. A final cloud of black smoke turned into ash and the November air carried it up towards the mourning sun. Instead of light, the hardened clouds gathered, shadowing the surface below. Ed sparked a light, dragged in the fumes and blew out the cigarette smoke as he waited for the toy store to open.

Cigarette ashes fell on his tattered jeans which were caked with mud from the rain at the funeral. Weeks old growth patched around his chin causing him to claw at it to relieve the itch. He hadn’t grown out his beard in years. Not since his little girl was born. It had always scratched her soft cheeks when he kissed her and held her tight. The cracked windscreen caused him to lean to his right a little to see the store.

Still closed.

A box of chocolate cake sat on the passenger seat. The bakery had opened at the crack of dawn and he had been awake hours earlier. Red icing bled down the edges. This time he had remembered to get the right candle.

She’d be turning six.

The light inside the store turned on. Ed flicked the cigarette away and got out of the truck. A little bell ringed as he opened the front door and stepped inside. Richard was behind the glass counter, rubbing off a few fingerprints from the glass. When he saw him, Richard let a moment of silence pass as if he’s paying his respects before waving.

“Didn’t think you’d be coming today,” Richard said.

“It was part of our tradition,” Ed replied. The two shook hands.

Ed studied the milky white faces of the porcelain dolls. The blushed cheeks, plump lips, dressed in old Victorian-style dresses. The feature he liked the most was the wide, pasted smiles. He couldn’t help but mimic the smiles when he saw them. One of the dolls had chubbier cheeks and he thought of his little girl. Another had a brown bowstring in the middle that kept her ashy white dress pinned down. He leaned in closer to get a better look at the buttons of another one. All the dolls had the same teary blue eyes as if they were amidst crying. He picked the one with brown curly hair which veiled the eyes.

“No need to pay for it, Ed,” Richard said.

“Nonsense. $4.50, isn’t it?”

“It is but I mean it. You can have it.”

Ed mumbled a reply that was swallowed by the creaking fan overhead. He fished out the change and placed it on the glass tabletop that was littered with identifiable prints.

“Awful sorry about what happened,” Richard said as he scooped the change into his palm. “She had the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen.” When Ed didn’t reply, Richard cleared his throat and added, “Did you get Annie’s cake? We sent it over.”

“Think so. Hard to tell who sent what but thank you.”

“How’s Kathy been? Heard she hasn’t left her bed since.”

“Who told you that?” He snapped back quicker than he meant to. “Was it Ruth?”

Richard shrugged, not knowing what to say.

“People got to mind their business. Kathy is fine. Perfectly fine.”

“You’re right, they do. It’s good to see you staying strong for her sake.”

Ed nodded and took the doll and left the store.

He drove down the solemn street with pockmarked lights of stores opening up for the day and others still closed. The side of the road was littered with dead leaves, rotting brown, and the barren branches swooped down, in prayer, giving their thoughts to that which used to be a part of them.

Sam and his daughter had the same doleful looks on their faces as Richard had when Ed entered the crafts store. Ed ignored them just like he ignored all their looks. After a while the looks become like gravestones, something you pass by without acknowledgement. Some of the halloween decorations were still up: fake spider webs, ghost masks, spray-on blood, and plastic axes and swords.

A princess dress reminded him of his girl. She had dressed up as her favourite doll. He had made the dress for her. It was how they spent time together. She’d sit on his lap and watch him sew, helping feed the dress to the sewing machine or licking the thread to make sure it was slick enough to go through the needle hole. She had seamstress’ hands. Soft, long fingers. His own were too hard and clumsy. That’s why his little girl was the perfect assistant. She completed him.

The back of the store kept different types of buttons in plastic boxes. He picked out the blood-drop red ones which would match the laces on her black leather boots. He bought a few other things: glue, dirty brown hair extensions, white cream makeup, and an arms length of rope.

Cigarette smoke filtered out of Ed’s mouth as he drove back home. The smoked carried outside from the cracked window. The incoming wind screamed a piercing cry.

———————————

A sudden flash of light followed by a car horn dragged him out of his thoughts and he felt wetness on his hands and realized the tap water was overflowing from the glass. He shut the tap off and ran the wet hand through his hair, cooling him. He dumped a little bit of the water out into the sink and then took the glass upstairs along with his little girl’s present. Droplets trailed behind him like fallen tears.

Kathy laid in the same cradle-like position he had left her in. He placed the glass of water on the bedside table and sat at the edge of the bed, placing his hand on her shoulder. She rejected him by crawling away from his touch. He knew she blamed him for what happened. He was just five minutes too late. The bed let out an elongated moan as he got up.

The hallway outside made whimpering noises as the hardwood creaked at random. The house was old. His great grandfather had built it himself and generations of Owens had lived here. Now the burden belonged to him. The door at the end of the hall was shut tight.

He stood outside his little girl's room, waiting to hear her high-pitched calls for her daddy to carry her downstairs. Those screams came on her special day. She would climb on his back and he’d carry her down to the kitchen. Her hair tickled his ears. He would place her on her favourite chair that looked out towards the backyard. Then they’d wait for the chocolate chip pancakes that mommy made.

He pressed his ear to the door and thought he heard her but the sudden car horn rolled over any semblance of his little girl’s soft voice. He squatted down and peeped through the keyhole. A lump of mass lay on the bed. The wind came in through the open window and made it look as if someone was stirring underneath the covers.

The door let out a whine as he slowly opened it and squeezed himself into the room, making sure the slit of light didn’t fall on the bed. His careful steps didn’t make any sound as he went over to the desk and placed the doll on it. He lingered for a moment, watching the shape on the bed lay deathly still.

———————————

The garage was cold and lifeless. His breath misted in the air and he rubbed his hands for warmth. His little girl’s toys dominated most of the room and seeing them both caused him to smile with warmth and restrict his throat, choking him. He cleared it by taking a sip of his beer.

The sewing machine sat in the corner of the garage. The dress itself hung on a hook like a lifeless corpse. He pulled it down and sat it on his lap like he often did with his little girl. He threaded the buttons into the cloth. Piercing it with the needle, forcing the button to stick to the cloth-like dried blood on flesh. So much blood, he thought and as he brought the thread back, it pricked his finger and blood elongated from his thumb and before it could stain his girl's ashen-colored dress, he sucked on it. The stab was surface level and after a little while the blood dried up.

He started on the next button.

Ed took a break from sewing and went into the kitchen to make a ham sandwich. Once he made it, he went upstairs. The glass of water was empty and his wife’s lips left an impression around the rim. Kathy lay on her back, staring at the ceiling. Her greasy hair clung to her scalp and her hollowed eyes were unwavering and lost. The stench of moldy sweat embedded in the room. He sat down beside her and broke off a crumb of bread and held it out for her. She barely opened her mouth but did enough to swallow the crumb.

Her dress rode above her belly and her c-section scar caused a blemish on her otherwise flat stomach and the stretch marks around her hips seemed to claw at the scar. He pulled her dress down, hiding it. He ripped a piece of ham next and fed her and then had a bite of the sandwich himself. He left the sandwich on the table.

He went into the bathroom and ran the hand towel under the cold tap water. He used it to wipe his wife’s forehead and then her nose, cheekbones, and her mouth. He kissed her forehead and turned on the fan as he left. The wind flicked away a couple of strands of her hair and she didn’t react to it.

His little girl didn’t stir when he entered the room. He sat on the edge of her bed and put his hand on her head. Cold to his touch, he ran his fingers through her curly brown hair. Dust buried the other porcelain dolls which lined one side of the room. The one he bought her was still alive and sat on the table, untouched.

“Your dress is almost done,” he whispered in her ear. “You’ll look like a doll.”

A creaking sound from outside the room caused him to rise. He straightened out the wrinkles he had caused on the bed before leaving his little girl again. The hallway was dead quiet but he thought he saw the bedroom door move. He passed by his bedroom, his wife had reverted back to her cradle-like position again.

———————————

The untamed grass in the backyard hung downwards, the tips yellowish, decaying from the lack of care, the same went for the rose bushes whose petals were scattered all over the soil in a burial ritual.

He let the smoke escape his mouth and his coughs ran after it.

The first flurries came down in the afternoon. They fell on him and streaked his face wet with false tears. They fell slowly for now as if they were reluctant to drop down but were forced into the soil. They fell like sprinkled dirt over a coffin.

———————————

He held the dress out at arm's length as if he were holding his little girl’s hands, and looked at himself in the mirror. The bow was perfectly centered. She would have to stand on his boots to reach his chest. He took a couple of steps, pretending she was there, almost feeling her weight as he spun around, the dress panning around in an arching motion. He stopped, and the dress wound down until it was lifeless. Ed wrapped his arms around the dress and held it tightly.

He had imagined all the school dances they had coming but won’t ever come.

Kathy lay on her side when he entered the room. Her yellowish imprint on the pillow and blanket underneath was like a part of her leaking away.

“I got the cake,” he said. “I didn’t forget the candle either. Remember how upset she got last time. No sir, this time I got a big ol six for her. We can light it soon.”

He placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder and she was shaking.

“Found a perfect doll for her earlier too and don’t worry, I said it’s from mama and papa. And I finished that dress I was making. Everything’s perfect like it used to be.”

He caressed her as she trembled.

“Now, you better go get dressed up so we can take pretty pictures. I want to show them around so it kills any nasty rumors about you being too sickly.”

His little girl's room was unnaturally quiet. It made it difficult to breathe because he didn’t want to disturb the peace. It reminded him of a funeral, trying to hold in an unwanted cough so as not to ruin the mourning.

He helped her into the dress. One of the hoops of the bow was large enough to hang a man while the other small like a hospital bracelet. He made them both equal lengths and then fixed her brown curly hair, gluing the extensions so that her hair hung down to the mid of her back like she always wanted.

Her head rested on his lap as he fixed her makeup for her big day. The brush gently smeared the white cream around her cheeks to make the blush contrast even more.

“Two pretty roses on each cheek,” he said softly.

Ed brushed her hair back after, revealing her opaque face peaking out like the paleness of the moon from behind the dark clouds. He showed her the doll again which reflected in her glassy blue eyes.

The bedroom door creaked open and the light pushed back the strangling darkness and Kathy stood in the opened slit. She was still in her nightgown and the transparent silk showed her withered body underneath, her ribs prodding the skin, trying to break free.

“Look Emmy, your mommy is okay,” he said. “I told you not to worry. Was that your birthday wish? For mommy to be okay.”

Kathy's mouth opened wide, her cheekbones pushed into the hollow sockets of her eyes as if she were screaming but no sound came and somehow that was louder than a scream. Her trembling hand covered her mouth.

“Doesn’t Emmy look like a doll?”

Tears streamed down his wife’s face.

Ed cupped his little girl's porcelain-skinned cheeks and mimicked the pasted-on smile.

“Prettiest doll I’ve ever seen.”


Arshan Dhillon was born in Canada, but grew up in India. He is a graduate from the University of Calgary. He writes short stories and poems on various subjects and themes. He runs a blog called LearnedLiving, which focuses on non-fiction work. He is currently working on his first novel.