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Doll – Part VIII

“CJ?” Margie asked softly. “What’s wrong?”

Chalmers sat on the edge of the bed, half dressed. He started out all right, but something distracted him.

He knew he had to do this. He had to. It was one of those unfortunate things life threw at you and you had to stand there and take it. It might sting. It might hurt. Hell, it might break you in two and burn like hell, but life has very little interest in your discomforts when it decides to doll out its indiscriminate wisdom.

Still, when he shifted the suit that Margie laid out for him, she caught his eye.

They set the doll aside to make sure it would look perfect. Margie’s sister Pam even did the hair, which included working out a masterful snarl created the last time Paisley tried a style that was a little too exotic. Sitting on the nightstand, she stared at him with her long dark hair and bright blue eyes … smiling.

He took her in his hands and dropped to the bed. He stared into the glassy, careless gaze that looked back at him, and he grew envious of the times she got to stare back at Paisley as if they were secret sisters. He and Margie agreed that since Clarrissa was Paisley’s favorite, her “best friend in the world,” she would go with her to her rest. It made good sense. It did.

Chalmers stared into the doll’s face. His mind was mostly clear of the random thoughts that his brain was prone to conjuring. His head, his heart felt empty like an enormous vacant theatre where long ago, life used to play out before appreciative crowds of people nightly, but now sat hollow and stale and falling into disrepair.

He stared at the doll, longing to hear his daughter’s voice whisper just one last time, “Daddy, I love you.”

He stared at the doll, hoping against hope that she would give him a sign, some indication or reassurance that somewhere Paisley was fine, and safe, and happy, and that she would be all right … so the he could be all right.

Margie entered the room to see what was holding him up. They were late. And while they were both crushed right now, it was Chalmers who needed more from her. She recognized that. She respected that. She knew that when the time came, he would be there for her.

She found him sitting on the bed, not nearly ready, quietly holding the doll.

“Honey,” she said softly. “The car is here. It’s time.”

He sat still and stared into the glassy blue eyes.

“CJ, we need to go. Can you finish getting dressed? Everyone will be waiting.”

While is eyes never wavered from the doll’s, his head slowly shook once side-to-side, so subtly Margie might have missed it if she hadn’t been watching him so closely. She stepped closer to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Let me help you.”

The man’s head shook with more insistence, as a child might do when his mother was trying to feed him broccoli. Side-to-side it swung. No.

“Chalmers, please,” Margie said. “I know it’s hard. It’s so hard.” She started to cry. “Please. Get dressed and come with me. Paisley will want her doll.”

“I…” he whispered. He took a deep breath, which triggered a series of deep quick breaths. “I … I … can’t.” His head kept shaking side-to-side. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” Tears streamed down his face as his sorrow contorted his features. He sobbed. “I can’t.”

“You need to say goodbye,” Margie whispered.

“I can’t.”

“If you don’t, you’ll regret it, for the rest of your life.”

“I can’t. I can’t.”

“Please. Come with me. Say goodbye with me,” Margie said, with a soft urgency through sobs of her own. “I can’t do this alone. Don’t leave me alone in this.”

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

At that point, whatever Chalmers Elk had left in him, whatever was holding him so loosely together then, evaporated. His hands let go of the doll, which Margie caught, and he crumpled to the floor. Sobbing without limits, he curled into a ball, repeating, “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

Doll – Part VII

The one-time lovers, long-time strangers cried together on the floor in the hallway until they were done. Time had no meaning here. They sobbed together as if they were tearing through every wall and barrier their lives had placed between them. They cried themselves clean. After the tears, they lay in silence, wrapped in each other’s arms, physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and well beyond words.

At some point, one stirred. They quietly helped each other up and lightly stepped into some semblance of an ancient routine. When Margie left long ago, Chalmers barely had the heart to change anything. She stepped into the kitchen to make some fresh coffee and felt her movements become oddly familiar. She watched her hands as she worked. If they had not looked clearly older, she would have thought herself transported back in time, a better time.

Chalmers followed her into the kitchen holding the doll to his chest as he walked as if it were stuck there. He set it gently on the table, but away from where he planned to sit. Margie placed a warm cup of coffee down in front of him, as she used to do, as if she still did it. He took a cautious sip.

“Thank you.”

The corner of Margie’s mouth turned up slightly in an effort to smile, but she looked down, cautiously stirring some milk into her cup.

“How did you get it,” he asked.

“We had a hell of a storm,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “The wind was blowing. Lights were flashing. There was a tremendous thud against my door. When I opened it to make sure everything was O.K. there it was. Originally, it was wrapped in paper and twine. Wrapped poorly, but wrapped just the same.”

Margie sipped her coffee using two hands hoping that would calm her shaking.

“I recognized it the moment I saw it, and I…” Margie’s voice trailed off.

“You were pissed.”

“Enraged,” she said, using what little energy she a left to emphasize her outrage.

“I got it to,” he said. “During this last bitch of a storm, but I didn’t have it long. The doctor’s said I blacked out from all the excitement. When I woke up in the hospital, nobody remembers anything of an old doll.”

He paused. “I didn’t do it. You know that don’t you? I would never…”

“I know,” she said with a slight frustration. “I just. I was just so mad, and hurt. The moment the rain stopped I threw that doll in the car and drove up here.”

Storm or no storm the drive from Millard, where Margie lived in a small apartment, to Cardington was at least an hour.

“Sorry you wasted the trip,” Chalmers said, smiling ever so subtly. Margie reached over and took his hand.

They sat there together drinking coffee and saying very little as old friends might do.

Thump.  Thump. Thump. Thump.

They both froze for a moment and slowly turned to look at the doll. Two dark eyes, one at half-mast, stared back.

They looked at each other.

Together they stood and slowly stepped to the front door.

Doll – Part VI

“I’m sorry, what?” Chalmers stood at the door. Margie Elk stood before him, glaring at him from the stoop. Despite the curled expression of anger and her heavy breaths, he couldn’t help but feel relief that one, it was a human being at the door and two … it was her. A wave of nostalgia and memory, sadness and joy hit him all at once and he grasped the doorknob extra tight for balance. “What are you doing here?”

It had been years since he had seen or spoken to Margie, who was the true love of his life, at least until Paisley came and stole his heart. The vague memory of their last real conversation, which was really him lying on the floor in a drunken stupor and not a conversation at all, brought the heat of embarrassment to his face.

She was four years younger than him and the years had been kind to her. Far kinder to her than he felt for himself and despite the anger, she still held the light in her eyes that he fell in love with the moment they met.

“Is this some kind of a joke?” Margie choked a bit on the last word as she fought between killing him and crying.

She shot her arm out at him and in her hand was a plastic head and body swaddled in a dirty gingham cloth.

As his eyes dropped, Chalmers recoiled a step. Two dark eyes, one at half-mast, stared him over delicate smile. The doll.

Margie surged ahead and pushed the doll hard into his chest, holding it there. “Do you think this is funny?” she said, the anger making her voice rough.

Chalmers felt like a small child being taunted by a schoolyard bully. Margie kept pushing the doll into him, releasing a pent up aggression years in the making. He wanted to turn and run.  The foreign body against him almost felt like it was burning.

“Margie, stop!”

Another step back and the delicate knee, which had served him fairly well throughout a day of cleaning and clearing, whimpered and gave way forcing him to stumble backwards to the floor. Margie moved with a surprising agility as she kept the doll plastered firmly to his chest.

“Why would you do this?” she said, screaming now. “Where did you get this?”

She fell to her knees as her tears began to flow. She lifted the doll from Chalmer’s chest then slammed it back into to him once, then again, then again. Propping himself up on his elbows, he was unable to block the blows, not that it mattered. Margie’s rage lessened with each swing. Each strike came softer and softer until she fell on him exhausted and sobbing.

Chalmers dropped down to his back as the two of them lay in a pile on the floor in the front hall. With a hesitance he had not felt since their second date, he slowly moved his arms to embrace her. She gave a half-hearted shrugged intended to stop him, but for the first time in a long time, this felt good and right. He tightened his arms around her and pulled her as close to him as he could. A tear formed in the corner of his eye and when full and ready, it dripped free releasing a lifetime of tears and regret.

Doll – Part V

Despite his distaste for hospitals, Chalmers admitted to himself that his brief stint in Cardington Memorial did him good. He felt rested and a bit more at ease than when he first got there.

According to the news, the valley flooding was the worst in recorded history. As the water ebbed away, it left a trail of destruction and fallout behind it. Roads and buildings were missing. Mudslides were creating havoc. Bridges were now dangerous until proven otherwise.

In a world that never offered him much in the way of luck or success, Chalmers found a bit a relief in knowing his house sat in one of the few areas that suffered little damage. The water got close, but other than a little wetness in the basement, he was going to be fine.

The authorities opened the road to his part of town two days after the storm ended, conveniently set to his release from the hospital. He had a clean bill of health. No heart attack, no stroke, no ghosts or goblins. When he pulled into his driveway and stepped out of the car, the only thing there to greet him was some glops of mud, quite a few downed limbs and branches and a lightly wet basement.

The doctors told him to take it easy for a few days, but he was eager to get things cleaned up and reset his notion of normal. The mill was still under deep water, so it was like an extra vacation. He always felt motivated to do more when he was on vacation.

Resisting the urge to go inside, he attacked the yard work first. It was hard and heavy work in spots and his knee gave him a constant reminder of how it hated this much activity. Once the bulk of the debris was moved and stacked, he headed inside.

His pause at the front door was brief, but noticeable to him. Silly he thought. Anxiety is what caused his trouble not some child’s …

He brushed the thought away for imagined or not, the memory of the night of the storm materialized faster and with greater detail than he cared for.

Swinging the door wide open, he stood there peering in, half expecting something to jump out at him, but there was nothing. Everything was pretty much as it was. He tied to enter with confidence, but found himself moving slowly. And while we would not admit out loud what he was looking for, he absolutely confirmed that there was no doll lying about the entryway.

The power was back and he made himself a strong cup of coffee, perfect for a cool, calm Fall day. He had a small pump he intended to set up in the basement to get rid of the water, but there was hardly enough for that. He figured a mop, some rags and a bucket would take care of most of it.  He started in and eventually lost himself in the work.

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

The noise made him freeze immediately. His breath caught in his chest and he could feel an uncomfortable heat cover his forehead. His grip tightened on the mop handle.

Thump, thump, thump.

Taking a deep breath to keep his anxiety at bay, he released his death grip on the mop and leaned it up against the wall. He turned and headed slowly upstairs. A tiny voice deep in the back of his head reminded him that a good hard drink is the perfect antidote to fearful knocking. The thought made his mouth seem to go extra dry, extra fast.

He stepped timidly down the hallway to the front door. Deciding to take the direct approach to the situation, he decided against a peek out the window. He took in a very deep breath and swore to himself and to God in heaven that if there was a package on the stoop …

Unable to hold back another moment, he grabbed the doorknob and jerked the door open. Looking down to face his expectation, his fear, directly he saw not a package, but a pair of boots. He traced the boots up to the overcoat and then to the face of its owner. He squinted at the sign of recognition.

“Margie?”

“You sick son-of-a-bitch,” the woman said. “How dare you?”

Doll – Part IV

“Jesus Christ, CJ!”

Chalmers stirred as the sound of her voice rang down upon him. He wasn’t waking up, because he wasn’t really asleep, but he was being drawn out from wherever he was by her sour tone.

He had yet to open his eyes, but he squeezed the lids shut tighter just the same to eliminate the possibility of any light at all getting to his eyes and ultimately his aching, pudding-head brain.

“Oops,” he said, but it sounded more like, “Ooopshhh,” as he forced his words into the floor.

“Have you been there all night?” Margie said. “Again?”

The linoleum felt cool on his face, nice really. A puddle of drool had formed near his mouth. When the unexpected burp erupted from his lips, his acidic breath splashed the fluid and the smell reminded him of his reason for his current position on the floor … scotch.

If his math was right, and even the slightest thought of math made him queasy, this was the seventh time she found him sprawled out on the kitchen floor, incapacitated, incoherent and incapable of meaningful communication.

“I mean …” Margie stood over him one hand across her stomach, one hand rubbing her forehead. Chalmers dared to open his eyes just ever so slightly. She never came into focus. He never moved his head, so the odd angle at which she appeared while being all fuzzy struck him as oddly funny.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. He vaguely remembers her saying those exact words around time number four, but that time there was crying and a little pleading. This time…

“I can’t!”

“You,” Chalmers said with great effort. He paused to erupt in another hiccough/burp that made his body jerk. “Don’t … under … stand. You … never…”

“Don’t, CJ!” Margie shouted down at him. “Don’t you dare! I miss her too, every day! Don’t you dare tell me I don’t understand. At least I faced it. I didn’t hide from it and escape up into some bottle of gin!”

“Scotch!” Chalmers sort of yelled. The need to correct her forced his head from the floor. He held it there in a weary delirium for a three count before letting it drop again into his drool.

“It’s been five years,” Margie said. “Five years she’s been gone. And you left shortly after that! I can’t do this. I want to live! I’m not going to watch you drink yourself to death. She … would hate what you’ve become.”

The soft cushion of alcohol gave way to a torrential wave of anger. He swung out at her with his arm with little chance of connecting. “Shhhhuuddup!”

He rolled over onto his back swinging out at her. “Shuddup! You don’t know! You don’t know!” Tears breached his eyes and began to trickle down his face. He began to sob. “You don’t know!” he tried one last time, but it came out as nothing she could understand.

“I know,” she said, the calm in her voice reflecting her resignation. “I know all too well. I lost everything that day. I lost her. I lost you. Everything. I can’t do this. Goodbye.”

His blinding tears prevented him from seeing her leave. His sobs prevented him from hearing her go, but when the door closed and she was gone, the weight of her absence fell upon him, crushing him almost completely.

Doll – Part III

“Oh, daddy! She’s beautiful!”

Chalmers welcomed the attacking hug. He closed his eyes as she threw her arms around his neck and tried to squeeze into him all her feelings of love and gratitude. He held her, guiltily trying to prolong the moment, feeling a smile come to his face that he couldn’t have stopped if he wanted to. These moments are fleeting, but these moments are payback in full for becoming a father.

It seemed unfair, that so much pure, sweet and honest goodness could be crammed into one solitary now seven year-old girl. It might be a case of fatherly pride, but he was certain that if stacked against other girls of her age, his would be a standout.

Paisley Elk’s seventh birthday was an event in itself. Not a week and a half ago, thanks to a hard case of the flu, there was talk of canceling the whole thing. Sentenced to the couch with swollen, watery red eyes, a determined fever and a horrific cough, the poor little thing lay in misery as marathon sessions of Gladys and the Happy Toads played over and over again on the T.V.

It was hard to tell what she was taking in through her glazed stare, but the sight of her pained him to the point where he pleaded to the powers to give it all to him and take away any suffering she may have to endure.

As she got better and party time drew closer, the plans seemed to expand. He spent more than he wanted to. A list of five friends grew to eleven and some family came. There was a bouncy house, a four-tiered cake from Haggerman’s bakery and his daughter’s favorite, Dandy’s strawberry ice cream, which she claimed was the perfect shade of pink. He spared no expense.

Of course Margie helped. The bouncy house was her idea. Chalmers pushed back on it a little, saying it was certain to kill the grass or something equally lame, but the truth was, they could swing it so he agreed to it. Looking at it all, it seemed a bit much for a seven year old. What would she expect when she turned sixteen?

Paisley released him from her hug, but not before placing a hard kiss firmly on his cheek. The she jumped back to focus on the new doll. She held it before her with both arms outstretched before bringing it in for a classic Paisley hug. “I love it,” she squealed. She held the doll out in front of her and looked deep into its eyes. “I love you!”

Chalmers knew very little about dolls. He knew Paisley wanted what she called a “big girl doll,” one with lots of clothes, with hair that you could fix into different styles and with eyes that opened and closed.

Clarrissa, came from the Bennington Toy company’s “Silver Edition” collection. He remembered seeing a commercial for it when watching cartoons with Paisley one rainy Saturday morning. She never asked for it directly, but he heard her “ooh,” when the ad hit the air.

She was a pretty doll with long dark hair, a delicate, childlike mouth, pudgy fingers and deep blue eyes the rolled closed when you laid her down for her nap.

She came with two outfits, and Chalmers sprang for two more, despite the unreasonable cost. Now, Paisley could dress her new friend up as a dancer, and artist, a student and a cowgirl. The cowgirl hat was even a little extra.

After declaring her love, Paisley snuggled Clarrissa, gathered up the various outfits ran to the end of the yard and plunged into her group of friends to show off her new present and allowing them the time to “ooo” and “ah” at the wonder of her new, “best friend in the world!”

As he watched, smiling that dopey smile again, Margie stepped up softly behind him. She put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a slight rub and a squeeze. “You’re a hero,” She said. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Good job. Thank you.”

Doll – Part II

There was the dark, but the silence that came with it faded into a soft beep, regular and steady. The tone seemed to call him, urging him back to the surface. He thought about opening his eyes, but his heavy lids gave him pause, closed proved to be exactly how they wanted to stay. A gentle but firm touch near his wrist startled him ever so slightly from the brink of another dream. His head floated in a dizzy haze as he forced one eye open.

“Well, hello there,” Amanda Pike said with a slight smile. She finished taking his pulse and marked her chart.

“Where?”

“Sh…, Mr. Elk, you’re at Cardington Memorial. You’re a lucky man. You’ve been through quite a lot.”

“What … happened?”

Nurse Pike hung the chart at the end of the bed and stepped to his side. “The storms have caused substantial flooding and power outages all through the valley and the surrounding areas. After the evacuation orders posted, volunteers and authorities went house to house to make sure people were getting out. That’s when they found you. They thought you had a heart attack.”

“Heart …,” Chalmers muttered.

“No,” Pike said. “Like I said, you’re a lucky man. I would let the doctor explain it, but with so many coming in, it would some time before someone got up here. The doctor’s found no evidence of a heart attack. They are running a few more tests to make sure it wasn’t a stroke, but, it looks like with all the excitement of the storm, you had a pretty good anxiety attack.”

Chalmers closed his eyes. His head swam against the medication.

Nurse Pike checked the monitor and adjusted the tube of oxygen under his nose.

“Where …,” he muttered, unable to get the whole thought pulled together.

“Where, what? The flood? Everywhere. The water is just everywhere and still rising. They say it might just breach the hundred-year mark. It’s sad. I’ve never seen so many people displaced. It’s just crazy.”

“No…,” Chalmers said. It was hard to pull the words together when the sedatives urged him back to sleep. ”Where is …”

“Where is what Mr. Elk? The doctors? They are most likely tied up in the ER. Your clothes and belongings, well at least what they brought you in with are there in the closet safe and sound.”

“Doll …”

Nurse Pike turned to him and glared at the connotation.

“No …,” he tried again. His head sagged in frustration. “The doll. Where is the doll?”

“Why, what doll Mr. Elk?”

“Paisley’s doll.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Elk, There was no doll.”

His thoughts swirled back to the storm, the incredible rain, the lightning. He remembered unwrapping the thick brown paper, and the dirty gingham. He remembered the stare of the small, black soulless eyes – one that sat at half-mast. They stared at him. They stared into him. There was a doll, Paisley’s doll.

“No doll?” he whispered.

“No sir. The crew said they found you right by your front door, slumped over clutching your shirt with both hands. That’s why they thought you had a heart attack. There was no doll.”