“You can’t watch it, sweetie.”
“Why? It’s summer vacation so I don’t have to go to school tomorrow.”
“Well…” Mommy wiped her hands on a dishtowel, and turned away from the sink. “…you’re still little, and the show is…”
Jane tightly clutched her Pretty Girl fashion doll Darla by one of its slender arms in frustration, and roughly smoothed down the doll’s thick brown bob. Jane wished her hair was thick and brown and in a bob. Pretty Girl Darla had a beautiful toothy painted-on smile and a pair of perfect, painted-on eyebrows.
Today, she was wearing a black skirt and a yellow sleeveless blouse outfit which included a wide belt and high-heeled pumps. There was a hole in each of her fused-finger hands so Jane could change her plastic rings. The belt continuously popped open despite Darla’s ‘wasp’ waist. The shoes fell off every two seconds because Darla’s feet were made weird, as if she were en pointe constantly. Jane persevered—snapped the belt closed, slipped on the shoes, snapped the belt, slipped on the shoes.
While she was in mid-snap or mid-slip, she said, “Ben gets to watch.”
“He’s already twelve, honey. You’re just seven.”
“I’m not a scaredy-cat!”
“I know you’re not. But…oh how do I put this?”
Mommy strolled to the counter where the cow farmer cookie jar in its pink overalls with a wheat stalk protruding from its plump, self-satisfied cow lips protected the baked goods. Mommy removed the straw-hat top and reached into the cow’s head, withdrew three big oatmeal raisin cookies. She put them on a plate and put the plate on the table. She was using the time to gather her thoughts.
“You want some milk?”
Jane nodded and climbed up into one of the red kitchen chairs. She smoothed down her sundress and tapped the toes of her huarache sandals together. Darla got her own seat in the next chair. Her legs didn’t bend so she leaned casually against the red leather like she was waiting for a bus. Jane broke a tiny piece of cookie for Darla and put it on the table.
“Can Darla have some milk too?”
Mommy shook her head no. Jane gave Darla an ‘I’m sorry’ face. Mommy was pouring the glass of cold milk, and when she turned to put the glass on the table, Jane suddenly hopped up and ran to her room. She returned with a tiny porcelain Pretty Girl teacup and held it up proudly.
She said, “For Darla’s milk!” to the doll she whispered, “I’m glad you reminded me! You’re the best friend ever!”
Mommy sat in a free chair, and took a deep breath.
“Daddy and I have watched the show with Ben a few times and well it can be quite frightening. I even cover my eyes sometimes.”
Mommy wasn’t alone. The year was 1962, but several parents still held their 50s sensibilities. They complained the images of children turning adults into jack-in-the-boxes; gremlins on airplane wings destroying the engines; aliens gathering humans according to a cookbook all represented malevolence toward…everything. How could anyone in their right mind think up the horrendous things on that show? They were not appropriate stories for impressionable children, yet none of the neighborhood kids missed an episode.
Maybe if it was just the boys, the strangeness could be tolerated. But girls…no one understood the girls’ attraction. Many of the kids even adopted the host’s voice and stilted speaking pattern. The parents considered the series damaging and likely anti-American. What better way for Communists to take over the country than to brainwash the young with tales of aliens, monsters and madness? By the time the Russians’ war machine was rumbling down Main Street, no one would blink an eye at that.
“But Mommy,” Jane said while alternating between biting a cookie and re-re-adjusting Darla’s ill-mannered accessories, “You said it isn’t real. And if it isn’t real, I shouldn’t be afraid.”
Mommy smiled at being caught by her own words.
“Yes, but I am afraid you’ll have nightmares,” she paused, thought of a diversion. “Daddy will be home soon…I’ve got to start dinner. You want to help me?”
Jane jumped up from her chair, jostling Darla’s seat which sent the doll tumbling to the floor. When Jane realized what happened, she ran back picked Darla up and re-positioned her on the chair. Mommy heard Jane whisper.
“I am so sorry…no…not on purpose…please don’t be mad…you want what? Oh. Another cookie? And we’ll be best friends again? Okay.”
* * *
“Hey! I’m home!”
Jane’s twelve year old brother Ben had a problem with his voice. It went out of control for a moment, shot up to falsetto before plummeting to low tenor. The up and down made him sound like a character from the reruns of Our Miss Brooks on TV. Mommy and Jane were putting finishing touches on dinner and the two of them had to stifle their giggles.
Jane whispered, “Ben sounds like Walter Denton!”
“Hey, Mom,” Ben sniffed the air like an Airedale. “What’s for dinner?”
“Pot roast, potatoes and green beans,” Jane answered. “Darla and I made the dinner rolls!”
He said, “You and that stupid doll? Can I use the rolls for hockey pucks?”
“Oh you’re so funny I forgot to laugh!”
Mommy said, “All right you two.”
Later, after the dinner dishes were cleared, the family ate warm apple pie with lopsided scoops of vanilla ice cream sliding off the slices.
Jane blurted, “So can I?”
The conversation hadn’t turned to the TV show yet. Daddy was briefly at a loss.
Mommy said, “She wants to watch Ben’s show tonight.”
Daddy turned his gaze to Jane’s lovely little girl face. He studied her expression for a long time.
“I don’t know Buttercup.”
“Daddy I’m not a scaredy-cat. I don’t care what Ben says.”
Ben laughed. “She’ll probably just pass out when the theme music comes on.”
* * *
The clock on the mantel said the show would start in five minutes at seven o’clock. Unfortunately, this was also around the time Jane normally went to bed so her arms and legs were feeling…heavy. Ben belly-crawled across the carpet until he reached the on/off button of the TV, then he turned the dial to the channel. Jane frowned. Here it goes.
She was in her pajamas squeezed between Mommy and Daddy on the sofa. Just to ensure her bravery, she had decided on the big guns and dug Bear Bear out of her toy chest. Pretty Girl Darla lay on the big flowered pillow on Jane’s bed. Jane told her parents that Darla had asked to remain in the bedroom.
“She told me that…she…preferred not to…suspend her…her disbelief!”
Jane felt triumphant at delivering the message properly. She gave them a big smile and exhaled noisily. Mommy and Daddy looked at each other and laughed.
Ben grinned back at her like a maniac. “Too scary for even your doll?” He made claw hands. “Prepare to be terrifiiiiied Jaaaaaane.”
There was a short prologue of the episode before the host did his introduction. The host had an air of authority like a teacher which gave weight to the night’s story of dolls that came alive and decided to replace all humans with themselves. Jane thought, no wonder Darla doesn’t want to watch.
Her heart trebled and her gaze moved from spot to spot on the TV screen. She thought if she didn’t look too long at one thing, she wouldn’t be so scared. It didn’t work. She couldn’t escape the terror. She tightened her hands into fists; bit down on her bottom lip; squeezed Bear Bear within an inch of his stuffed life. She didn’t exhale until the closing credits.
* * *
“All right Buttercup. It’s over. Time for bed.”
Daddy stood, scooped Jane up to his shoulder. She settled her head and sighed.
Mommy said, “I’m proud of you Jane. You didn’t cover eyes once. Unlike your brother.”
Ben looked sheepish. Daddy took Jane to her room and tucked her in.
Jane yawned long and loud. “G’nite Daddy.”
Daddy said good night and closed the door. In the soft light of the small pink lamp on her nightstand, Jane scooted up in bed and moved Bear Bear so Jane and Darla were face to face. She tucked Bear Bear behind Darla so she could stand up straight. Five minutes ticked by as Jane stared intently at her doll.
Jane whispered, “That show was so scary. I can still see the evil dolls when I close my eyes.”
Darla’s Pretty Girl face shifted–the painted-on smile curved down a bit; the painted-on eyebrows squeezed together. She tilted her head up, swiveled it slowly left, then right. The ball joint that connected her head to her slender neck squeaked like dry bone against dry bone. She lifted one of her slender arms and glared at her useless, fused-fingered hand. Somehow she could speak audibly through her painted-on mouth.
She said, “I’m not afraid of anything. They’re just pictures. Did you do the tricks I taught you?”
Jane opened her hands. Half-moon shaped wounds dotted her palms from her nails digging into the soft skin. Just beneath her bottom lip was a deep impression of her front teeth.
Jane sighed. “I want to be like you Darla. I want to be pretty, and brave. Not afraid of anything.”
The doll lowered its arm slowly. She pressed the palms of her fused-fingered hands together, nearly snapping her unbending arms from their sockets. Her painted-on smile seemed to go broader, revealing what appeared to be tiny pointed teeth.
“You want to be brave?”
“You want to be brave and beautiful?
“You want to be like me?”
“I can make you like me.”
“Can you? Will you?”
“We’re best friends, remember?”
* * *
The next morning, Mommy, Daddy and Ben were in the kitchen. Daddy was reading the paper and Ben was waiting impatiently for a stack of blueberry pancakes. Jane was usually the first one to the table and her chair was empty.
Mommy sighed. “Jane was probably too frightened to go to sleep last night.”
Daddy said, “She seemed okay when I put her to bed.”
Mommy sent Ben to Jane’s room. Ben bounded up the stairs and pounded on her bedroom door.
“JANE! WAKE UP! MY PANCAKES ARE GETTING COLD!”
He waited a moment. Her room was too quiet. He knocked again. “Jane?” He turned the knob slowly and opened the door to an empty room. Ben didn’t know how he knew, but he knew something was very wrong. His heart did a weird twist in his chest. A wave of deep, immobilizing fear from his reptilian brain went over him. He felt nauseous. He wanted cry though he couldn’t explain why.
He whispered, “Jane?”
His brain told him if he entered her room, he’d regret it, so he remained in the hallway.
He yelled, “MOM! DAD!”
Mommy and Daddy stampeded up the stairs. Daddy rushed through the open door and looked around.
He said, “Buttercup? We playing hide-and-seek?” He dropped to the floor, looked under her bed. He got up, opened her closet and searched through it. He carefully lifted the lid of the doll-laden window seat. Nothing was there. Mommy ran down the hall to the bathroom. It was empty. She ran back to Jane’s room. The window was closed and it didn’t look like anything had been disturbed. Mommy and Daddy searched the entire house from the attic to the basement, from the front yard to the back yard.
Ben tamped down the itching fear all over his skin and inched into Jane’s room, forced himself to look around. The bed was empty except for Bear Bear. The window seat was still covered with the usual assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. Ben picked the dolls up one at a time, looked at them and dropped them on the floor until the window seat was bare except for two dolls. One was Darla, the Pretty Girl doll. Ben frowned. Lying next to Darla was…
Ben dropped to the floor next to the window seat. He held the small doll in his hand, his heart stuttering in his chest. She had large, painted-on eyes and a sweet, little girl smile. Ben wanted desperately to scream. To cry and curse. To tell them he was holding a nightmare in his hand. He couldn’t. Fear, the kind that destroys reason and understanding, clamped down on his vocal chords.
He whispered, “Mom…Dad…”
# # #