The Doll Lady
Amber sat on a stool behind the front desk of LYLAS Dolls, flipping through the newspaper. The place was dead, as it usually was early Wednesday afternoons, when most of her customers were in school. She was torn between hoping for customers, who would bring with them commissions and tips, and the heart-fluttering hope a stretch with no customers always brought that no one would ever step through the door again. The longer it took, the more anxious she became. It felt the same as when she’d had a long hitting streak in softball, a building of tension until she almost wished she’d just strike out already. She imagined it must be what soldiers felt like surviving tour after tour.
Helping brats build custom dolls wasn’t exactly her dream job.
The newspaper didn’t help her anxiety. Another girl had gone missing. This one taken from the park. She had long suspected that at least some of her anxiety came from a heightened sense of empathy, and she could easily imagine herself in the child’s place. She could imagine playing along the tree line, the sun shining down on her, and then the sky going dark, and looking up to see only a silhouette against the bright sky, as if a tree had broken loose from its friends and loomed over her.
So Amber’s heart slammed against the inside of her chest when the door to LYLAS Dolls actually went dark. She looked up from her paper, not knowing what to expect. Not expecting anything. Because one moment she’d been sitting with warm sunlight spilling across the room, and the next it was as if night had fallen. In a single second, the fluorescent lights that had been invisible in comparison with the natural sunlight became the sole source of illumination. Dense storm clouds couldn’t roll across the sky instantaneously. The sun didn’t just burn out.
It took another moment for Amber to understand what she was looking at when she glanced at the door. At first, it appeared that someone had rolled a wall of cloth down the strip-mall sidewalk and stopped directly outside the door of LYLAS Dolls. The lower half of the panel appeared to be denim, the upper half flannel. Her eyes continued up, and at the top of the doorway she saw a lumpy mass that her mind worked to make sense of.
Then she understood it was a face, brow pressed to the glass, with an enormous pair of hands cupped around eyes that glittered like dark water at the bottom of a well. Flannel surrounded the face, making the image more confusing. After another moment, she realized this person was leaning down to peer into the door, with his shoulders and arms bunched around his head. He could likely have stretched, and, perhaps standing on his toes, peered over the transom.
All those moments—in which one strange realization followed another—had added up to a significant chunk of time, and Amber didn’t understand why the giant continued to block the doorway. The figure stood so still that if it hadn’t been for the eyes watching her intently, she would have thought it was perhaps an enormous mannequin. Maybe the display for some slasher-movie opening at the theater at the end of the strip. But then a repetitive sound bored its way into her consciousness. It had both the tonal and rhythmic qualities of a car alarm, but it repeated a word over and over, getting louder and louder. “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby Milton! Don’t you want some ice cream?”
The arms dropped, letting in light around the bulbous head, and one hand went down to the handle and pressed, and Bobby Milton stepped into LYLAS Dolls for the first time.
Amber should have said, “Welcome to LYLAS Dolls. Are you ready to find a doll who’ll love you like a sister?” She would have spoken directly to the little girl, because while the parents handed over the debit card, the children spent the money. This was their “experience,” and they should be the focus. This also happened to be the best way to wring