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The first thing that I noticed were the eyes. She had such visibly wanting eyes, as if she was staring right into me, asking me for something. I shook my head to myself, pulling myself away. It was silly. She was a doll. Her eyes were no more real than the Barbies I owned when I was growing up, leaving them in clumps, scattered on my bedroom floor.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” The owner asked me, an older woman of around fifty, maybe sixty if I looked a little harder. It was hard to tell. She did a good job covering herself with makeup.
I nodded. “Very realistic,” I added.
“Quite a bargain too at only $160. You don’t see too many Madame BoJeanes anymore. She’s a rarity.”
“I’ve never even heard of her.”
“Are you a collector?”
I shrugged. There were things gathering dust at home, but it wasn’t as if I liked one thing more than another. There were things that I had, owned, coveted.
“I’m visiting,” I said. “Sort of.”
It was true that I wasn’t from around here. Todd and I were in town trying to figure out what to do with my mother. She was old, had grown old real fast before I had the chance to realize it. We spent a while researching facilities that specialized in dementia, needing a place that could provide more help than I was able to give to her.
“Is that you, Barbara?” she would call out to me, sensing me in her presence.
Sometimes I would humor her, pretending that yes, I was my deceased sister that she was so fond of. But most of the time I told her the truth.
“No, Mom, it’s just me. It’s Tammy.”
If I was Barbara, then I received a hug and an “I missed you”. If I stayed me, then I got nothing or I got harassed.
So yes, I was just visiting.
“Family here?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Vernon is a real fun town,” the owner said, this time holding her hand out to me. “My name’s Angie. It sure is nice to meet you.”
I shook her hand, noticing her pressed on pink nails. Her ring fingers had little jewels on them.
“Same,” I nodded.
“Take your time. Look around. You won’t bother me.”
Angie reached into a drawer and pulled out a Chinese food menu. I wondered if Todd was finished up with his work calls in the hotel business center so that we could eat soon too. Vernon was a “neat town” as Angie had mentioned to me, but it was tiny, and a bit off the grid.
Angie’s doll shop, or museum, as she had grandly noted in a bright marquee, was located inside of an old movie theater on the town’s main street. It was a great use of an old space, which is what originally caught my eye when I came wandering. The ticket booth had even caught me off guard at first, where a life size doll dressed in an old movie theater worker uniform sat propped up in the window, challenging my vision. It was the most interesting display I’d seen on a street containing a simple florist, diner, a handful of small shops, and an ice cream stand.
And so I entered, the lobby walls cluttered with beady, little eyes. A poster that read, The History of Dolls, was taped up to my left. It was obviously homemade, but provided with an interesting timeline of the Ginnys and the Alexanders. I was in the shop for an hour, maybe two when I finally met with Angie, after observing the Madame BoJeane.
I felt transfixed by a little girl doll pushing a pram with a baby doll inside of it when I felt a tug at my shoulder.
“There you are,” The smug voice of my husband startled me. Todd. “What are you doing in this cheesy place?”
I looked for evidence of Angie feeling insulted, but she was busy twirling her lo mein around a fork. Occupied.
“I needed something to do,” I told him. “You were working.”
“Did you check out Fern Valley?”
“Yes, it seems plenty suitable for my mother.”
“I don’t like this place.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
Todd grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me away from the doll and her pram. For a moment, I thought I heard the baby cry.
“Come back again, now,” Angie said on my way out.
The marquee lights glittered in the magic hour of the sky.
When Todd’s hot roast beef arrived, he complained that there was too much gravy and had it sent back. I stared out the window onto the streets of Vernon. People strolled about, but not much. Would I be able to let my mother live in a town as quiet as this? Would I visit her? She would continue to miss Barbara. I missed her too.
When we were younger, we played in the attic of the house. We had matching dolls that wore Victorian style white nightgowns and little matching night caps. Mom could never afford those pricey American Girl style dolls, but we pretended that our dolls were them anyhow, and then pretended that we were the dolls. We took turns brushing each other’s hair. Sometimes we pretended we were helpless babies. Barbara fed me from a bottle.
“I can’t wait to get back to the city,” said Todd. “Look at this food.”
I was pushing my salad around my plate.
“I’m sorry you don’t like it.”
The waitress was one of those career waitresses. She stopped by with some more water.
“Anything else?” she asked in her thick, smoke-accented voice.
“I’m all finished,” I told her.
When she cleared my plate, I noticed my placemat was one of those advertisements for local businesses around the area. The Fern Valley Retirement Home was listed there, as was The Doll Museum. Then I saw something else.
I pointed to a missing girl ad. She was young, a teenager with big, brown eyes and a cheerleader’s smile.
“It’s a shame,” he said.
“She reminds me of Barbara.”
Whenever I did something like this, Todd didn’t know what to say or how to act. Barbara went missing when we were tweens, assumed dead. She had those big brown eyes where mine were big but sad and blue. She had that giant smile where mine was almost nonexistent. It made sense why my mother didn’t want to be around me. I should have been the one to go missing.
“I said it’s a shame, Tammy. It happens a lot, though. Maybe they will find this girl.”
Our waitress returned with our check.
“Has she been gone long?” I asked her.
“Hmmm?” I caught her off guard. “Oh, her. The Gibbons’ girl. It’s been about two weeks. Such a shame.”
Such a shame. Well, that’s all they could say when Barbara disappeared too. Such a shame.
My dreams that night were twisted thoughts about Barbara and the Gibbons’ girl. I walked down the main street of Vernon, when I saw the doll museum, only it was still a movie theatre. The Gibbons’ girl worked as the ticket taker. She smiled at me.
“Such a shame all the good films are sold out today.”
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m only here to meet my sister.”
She gestured to go on inside.
When I walked in through the front door, Barbara was waiting for me at a front counter, dressed like the dolls we owned when we were younger. Her back was to me.
“Barbara,” I murmured.
Todd woke me up, shaking me.
“You’re sweating,” he said.
“We need to sign the contract for your mother tomorrow.”
“Is that why you woke me up?”
“No, but it’s on my mind.”
“Fine, yes. You won’t have to help take care of her anymore.”
“It’s not just for me. Soon you’ll feel better too.”
But what he really meant was if I didn’t have to take care of her then I could be more focused on him. Todd wanted a wife who could shine, someone who could show up at work parties and look great in a slim black dress with fresh, blow dried hair and natural makeup. Someone who loved Pottery Barn and decorating and crafting clever little cocktails. Not me. I worried and I thought too much. I hated yoga and wine always made me too tired. We were a classic tale—the longer we were married the more I wondered why we had done it. I think he wanted to save me, but was disappointed to find out that I wasn’t worth the saving.
“I’m going to step out for some air. You can go back to bed. I won’t be long.”
“Suit yourself. I’m not oversleeping and missing the breakfast part of bed and breakfast again.”
He turned over onto his stomach, wrapped up in the thick comforter of the Dahlia room, the room I picked out for our comfort. I stepped out onto the balcony, overlooking Vernon. Not a single light was lit in the town below.
“You’re back,” Angie’s face had the warmth of a television grandmother. Momentarily, I thought she might offer me a homemade cookie, but then noticed her convenience store slushie and breakfast burrito instead.
“I wanted to tour the place again,” I told her. “It’s quite fascinating. My husband is taking care of some paperwork that might be a while, so I have the time.”
“People always say they never see the same things twice when they are here.”
That morning, I signed everything that I needed to move my mother into Fern Valley, where she would receive around the clock care, top quality meals, a private nurse, beauty services, everything. I could visit her if I wanted to. If I wanted to.
“Did you want to see Madame BoJeane again?”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’ll be around.”
I walked toward the beginning hallway.
“Well,” Angie began, “She misses you.”
I turned my head to see Angie holding Madame BeJeane, propped up on her desk with her. She held the little doll’s hand up into a wave toward me. I waved back.
Goodbye, I thought. Goodbye.
I decided to head en route to an upper floor, one I did not have a chance to previously see. I was above where the movie screen would have been, where the silent screen film stars were once the most exciting illusions to pass through Vernon. What was it like to grow up in a town like this, to live with this main street among the diner patrons and the old timers, the Woolworths crowd and the chain smoking waitresses?
I let my fingers run through the Rapunzel-like hair of a little girl doll with large, black eyes. She started into me. Why were these dolls always so young?
“Because no one wants to take care of an old lady”, I said to myself, thinking of my mother. Would she like her new home? Who was I kidding? She wouldn’t even know the difference.
I reached into my purse to grab my phone, seeing if Todd had messaged me at all. He planned to work all day again. We made plans to have a romantic dinner at one of the only nice restaurants in the area before wrapping up and heading home in the morning. No Todd. It wasn’t unlike him.
He wasn’t a sociopath. He didn’t beat me, no, but do you need to do those things to qualify as a bad guy? A year before the visit to Vernon, my mother’s health severely deteriorated. It’s when she really began to think of me as Barbara, to wish that I was maybe. I spent a lot of time with her before temporarily moving her in with us.
Todd couldn’t handle it. There were doctors’ visits and phone calls from the neighbors or the police whenever she wandered into their homes by accident. I cried a lot, but tried not to in front of him.
“There are homes for people like her,” he would always tell me. “People who are better suited to take care of her.”
Because you don’t want to be involved. Because you don’t really care.
At one of his work parties, I stood in a corner most of the evening, hovering over my glass of wine.
“You’re Tammy, aren’t you? Todd’s wife?” a dull looking blonde approached me. She wore a plain black dress and flats. She laughed at Todd’s tasteless jokes with carefully curated laughter.
I managed a small smile and we shook hands.
“I’m Veronica. I do all of the marketing for Todd’s projects. We work very closely together. It’s so nice to meet you.”
The way that she said it told me that she meant that it wasn’t. There was no doubt that her and Todd were together, that they made fun of me, laughed about me, didn’t understand me.
“She’s not even pretty, Todd. I don’t get it.”
“Tammy, you aren’t around. If you weren’t around, it wouldn’t have happened.”
So we decided to put my mother in Fern Valley. For our relationship. And now he couldn’t stop working.
I still hadn’t heard from Todd. It was getting late. I figured I would head to the inn and maybe order some take out for myself. I approached the staircase when I noticed something I didn’t see from before. Angie’s words from earlier echoed in my mind.
People always say they never see the same things twice when they are here.
They were near the little girl doll with the Rapunzel hair, two identical dolls like sisters, with old fashioned nightgowns and matching night caps. They looked so much like the dolls of my childhood.
“Barbara,” I whispered before everything went black and dark, like the end of a movie.
There were no sounds when I woke up. I looked around, trying to place where I was. My head rested beneath a soft pillow, but I wasn’t in my bed from the inn. The mattress was very rough and flat. A frilly pink blanket was thrown nearby.
“Hush little baby, don’t you cry,” a woman’s voice softly began to sing a familiar lullaby.
Why can’t I see anything? I wondered.
When I looked to the sides, I saw that I was encased inside of the bed somehow. There were walls built around the mattress.
“Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.”
I’ll call Todd, I thought, reaching for my purse, before realizing that it was not in the bed with me. I touched the skin of my left arm. It was a warm, normal temperature. It didn’t feel funny. I was a little tired. The last thing that I remembered was seeing those dolls from my childhood.
I flashed to a moment from when Barbara and I were kids. My mother had taken us to the beach for the day. We had our dolls sprawled out on the ratty beach blankets, taking in the sun with us, getting sand in their hair, just like us. She was laughing so much. She was such a happy kid with an effervescent laugh.
Back to now. It was a doll museum. And those dolls were cheaply made. I’m sure they could have been other copies of the dolls. It’s just that they startled me so much. Did I fall? Or pass out because of the dolls? Is that what happened?
“And if that mockingbird don’t sing...”
Get up, Tammy, I told myself. You need to get up.
My shoulders ached and my bones felt tired. It was easy to just lay down and die. Was Todd even worried? I pictured him eating dinner with Veronica, in our semi-classy restaurant. She was laughing the whole time, trying to impress him because his wife is such a downer.
Get up. Do it for Barbara.
Weird things couldn’t happen to both children in a family. I tried to convince myself of this, although I did read a story once where one sister went missing and then a few years later another did end up dying from a rare form of cancer. It was tragic, but not weird. One sister going missing and then another being trapped in a large, strange bed was definitely weird. Eventually, even if Todd was with Veronica, he would have to notice I was missing and do something about it. Even if he hated me.
If I live, I could be on Unsolved Mysteries or something similar. I could become a meme.
I stopped myself from laughing. Robert Stack was dead and memes were for the young.
“Mama’s gonna buy you a wedding ring.”
Get the fuck up.
I lifted myself up, from the waist first, a wash of heaviness and groggy pain falling through my body. Once up, I realized it was not a bed with walls, but a cradle, a massive white cradle for adults.
Or life size dolls.
I crawled over to the side of the cradle and carefully peered over the edge. Angie was sitting in a rocking chair, holding Madame BoJeane in her arms. She was singing to her. We were in a nursery. A life-size pram was by the door. A closet held little girl dresses in chiffon, polka dot and lace. Next to my cradle were several smaller cradles. Each cradle had a doll inside of it, tucked away cozily, sleeping.
“Okay, Madame, let’s see how your new friend is doing.”
Angie stepped out of her rocking chair, still holding the little doll in her arms like an infant. She made her way over to the bed.
“Well, hello,” she said. “I see that you are awake.”
I stood, my eyes staring.
“You like it so much here,” she continued. “Wouldn’t you like to stay?”
“I-I- have a family.”
“That’s not what you said before.”
“She doesn’t need you anymore.”
Angie placed Madame BoJeane into a nearby cradle, neatly tucking the little doll inside. She kissed her lightly on the forehead. A tiny smudge of lipstick was left.
Angie then extended a hand out to me.
“Come on out.”
Her hand was warm and soft. She was right. My mother didn’t need me anymore. She didn’t even know who I was, where I was.
“People think dolls are just for little kids,” Angie said. “It’s just not true, though.”
“I never could have my own babies, either. Now I’ve got this whole nursery.”
Barbara would have liked it—the story, the place. Everything. She would have laughed about it.
“Have a seat,” she gestured to her rocking chair. “I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Todd was angry that I missed dinner. He didn’t understand that I lost my phone in the doll museum and fainted. I explained how Angie was so kind to me, how she let me rest until I felt better.
“She had a spare bed upstairs, Todd. I didn’t even think to call the inn to tell you. I just wanted to rest.”
“When we get back home, you need to figure out what to do. It’s time you went back to work, time you took more interest in my work friends,” Todd said.
"Like who? Veronica?”
“That’s been over, Tammy.”
“It should never have started.”
I stared at Todd, right in his face. He had nothing to say back to me this time.
“I want to stop at the doll museum one last time before we leave, and I’d like you to come with me.”
“That weird place?”
“Maybe Angie found my phone.”
Angie told me that she was always looking for new dolls. She went to estate sales, thrift stores, and bought some online. Others were special, though. Some she had to seek out. Some she found and had immediate attachments with. She knew she was in need of a new doll for the collection the first time that she met me.
“I feel a connection with you, Tammy. Did something happen in your life?”
“This can be a healing place,” Angie said. “All these babies—no one else wanted them. I take good care of them, though.”
The baby dolls slept peacefully in their cradles. The fashion dolls had perfectly brushed hair. Each doll under Angie’s care had manicured nails, matching shoes, long lashes, a place in the world. Did I want to stay in Vernon? I felt a sense of urgency to get home.
“I can’t stay, but I think I can help you,” I told her before I left that evening.
We hugged and I let her know I would stop by before I left for home.
“And Todd?” I asked.
“Fern Valley isn’t happening. It’s too far. I want my mother to stay with us. I know you don’t like it, but that’s not for you to decide.”
“We already signed the papers”.
“We can un-sign them”.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you today. Too much time away from home I guess. Let’s go.”
He grabbed my wrist for the last time.
The day that Barbara disappeared was the only time she and I had an argument. She wanted to take both twin dolls with her on a bike ride.
“It’s so nice out, Tammy! I want to put them in my bike basket and go.”
“No. One of them is mine.”
“You come too, then.”
“No. I want to stay here with Mom.”
“Mom isn’t even doing anything,” she said, looking off into the living room.
Our mother was sitting on the sofa, watching her soaps and drinking a glass of wine. It was her day off from work.
“I was hoping she would want to spend time with me,” I said quietly.
“I’m going out without you. And the dolls.”
After that, she was gone, like a flicker of dust in the air. We never saw her again.
“You have a safe trip back,” Angie said, before taking a sip from her slushie.
“Fern Valley isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Anyway, nothing compares to a daughter’s love.”
I managed a small smile, knowing I made the right decision.
I turned to Todd. He could say whatever he wanted, but the decision was made. My mother was staying with me, not several hours away.
“And you’re good with everything?” I asked Angie.
“Don’t you worry, sweetie pie. He’ll be well taken care of here.”
“Well then,” I said. “Goodbye, Todd.”
His face was in a permanent smile now, frat boy looks compared to a Ken doll. I had him placed up on a shelf near Angie’s post, so she could always keep a watchful eye on him.
I held my hand out to Angie. She placed her hand in mine, a firm grip, knowing I wouldn’t be back. It was easy enough to say that Todd decided to leave me after I decided not to place my mother in Fern Valley. People who knew him would believe it.
I almost believed it was true as I left the doll museum. As I left, I said a quick prayer that the Gibbons’ girl would be found soon. Then I turned to make sure that the life size doll in the ticket booth didn’t have her eyes on me.