Doll Face, by A.E. Gagner
“Avery… Ave…Earth to Avery.” Kendall’s finger snap was gnat-quick and lash-grazing. Avery’s anger was instant and violent—breaking Kendall’s fingers felt like a real option. Slowly, Avery counted and then turned. Nothing frazzled Avery Dillon, so even though Kendall Pierce was tittering around her like a rabid reporter and Avery’s heart was still crashing being her ribs, her most bored expression was securely in place.
“Just come with me, you’ll see…it’s Chloe.” Kendall tossed the name over her shoulder as she scooted around a group of rowdy sophomores.
Ah, Chloe. She had been a problem lately, but Avery had no one to blame but herself for that.
Avery took one last look over her shoulder, catching a brief flash of green, and then it was gone, lost to a pack of hooting seniors. She straightened her skirt, ran her hands over the embroidered WLH on her cheer sweater, and brushed back the annoying blond wisp that kept sticking to her glossed (kissed) lips. Reluctantly, she followed Kendall through the crowd.
“Doll face,” he had whispered. Avery could still feel his breath in her ear, toe-curling and warm.
Kendall was still pattering on when they reached the track where a dozen girls were clustered together, half-heartedly stretching. Avery caught the words french braid and dead animal, as her fingers pulled thoughtlessly at her lips. She felt…undone, and that was not usual. Worse, she wasn’t sure if she found it all that unappealing.
Kendall turned and was on the balls of her feet, her manic eyes pinning Avery. “Don’t you think?”
Avery was thinking, but not about Chloe and her savage hair choices. Avery was pondering how best to get out of Lainey Baird’s afterparty and end up at the bonfire where Evan would be. Now that school was back in session, things were getting tricky.
The noise in the stands was chaotic; random trumpet squeals and cymbal crashes, scattered jeers and hoots, the storm-herd of feet. Avery’s heart thudded with the havoc, soaking it up, letting it drown out the other noises. She glimpsed up at the stands, trying to hone her aimless glances. He shouldn’t be hard to spot, what with his usual green hoodie sweatshirt. Their school colors were red and gold, the Westlake Fighting Wolverines (hoorah!). The opposing team, black and yellow, the San Angelo Stinging Hornets (buzz, buzz). It was the land of redundant mascot names and this was Friday night football, Texas style. The stadium could probably be seen from space.
Kendall’s eyes were on her, assessing, measuring, calculating. How much had Kendall seen? And what did Avery think about what?
“It looks fine, I don’t see what the big deal is.” Izzy Thomas came slouching into the conversation. She straightened and a look passed over her pretty, if slightly tousled, features. Confusion warred with defiance. Her scuffed Nike’s squared off against Kendall’s pristine white ones. They glared. Kendall raised a perfectly manicured brow and wagged a perfectly manicured nail at Izzy’s shoes.
“Those will have to go.”
Ever since Jay McKenna had dumped Izzy for Kendall, they had been at each others throats. Izzy’s usual lightning-quick and scathing comebacks were a source of amusement for Avery. Now Izzy just hunched away with barely a mumbled, “Yeah.”
“You said two.” Kendall turned her back on Izzy and was giving Avery her full attention. “If we’re going to french braid it has to be two.”
Kendall continued to argue the merits of proper cheer hair, her chatter becoming a distant buzz as the stands swelled with banners and flags and faces, So many faces—but only one mattered.
And then, there he was, shaggy black hair and slight shoulders, mid-way up the bleachers, surrounded by his friends. They were a distant planet, classified strange and isolated by her friends, revolving in completely different orbits. Avery didn’t know where the animosity stemmed from, having moved here just three years ago, but she wasn’t new to the cliche of high school cliques. Whatever the cause, it could only be remedied through avoidance and graduation. It hadn’t mattered until now.
Evan turned, catching her eye and grinned down at her, slow and coy and sweet. Avery’s mouth battled to hold back its own smile. She felt seen, and for the first time, in a long time, Avery was scared. She could feel the last three years and all she had worked for slipping carelessly away. The cheer squad was bickering behind her and she almost felt guilty.
The blond strand fell into her eye again and she stubbornly pushed it away. Kendall was looking at her strangely and Avery struggled to pull herself together.
“That’s why I made you vice-captain. Deal with it.” Avery raised her equally manicured brows at Kendall, willing her—to just stop looking.
Kendall had always been too observant for her own good.
Then Kendall did look away, and Avery let her breath out slowly through her teeth.
“Why is Evan Malone staring at you like lunch?”
It only took a beat for Avery’s relief to sink into fear. The stadium (her head) roared. She shook her blond curls and focused on Kendall and the coy smirk sliding onto her pretty features where normally a clueless grin would be. The smirk suited her better, but Avery preferred clueless.
“Evan Malone and, like, all his friends.”
Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t. Look.
Slowly Avery turned. That smile. Her smile, was sitting in the middle of his friends. They were patting him on the back, while looking directly at her.
Her head and gut pounded, but it was the spike of tears, sharp and immediate, that made her realize nothing could ever change. She clenched her jaw, counting, and bit the inside of her hot cheeks. The salty, metallic taste of blood filled her mouth, calming her. She blinked once and turned to her squad. She needed to get this over with because she had work to do.
Avery flew up the marble staircase, two at a time. She knew she had to be quick, having left the field as the last seconds of the game were still ticking down, her excuse to stop home before heading to the after party was flimsy. That, and being in the house alone didn’t suit her these days. Too quiet with her parents away (gone). The silence pinned her in and other sounds rolled around in her head.
Her sprint stopped dead as she reached the top of the stairs and her step-father’s empty mahogany office. The tang of Pine-Sol and leather, tempted to fill her with guilt (rage). Was it so hard to close the door? The cleaning team refused to shut the french doors to the office each week, even though they had been asked numerous times. Frustrated, Avery took one tentative step over the threshold and stretched out her arms, fingertips grappling for the edge of each door. She bit her lip and took a quick step to the side, grabbing one door—the carpet was wet under her feet. She sidestepped quickly to the other door—coppery-sweet filled her nostrils. She yanked both doors, almost smashing her fingers as she shut them (out).
She counted to calm herself as she hurried down the marble hallway to her bedroom. Dumping her school bags on the bed, she tried to lunge past the full length mirror toward the closet door. Not quick enough. She leaned in, and stared at herself. Really looked. She yanked at the tight, choking sweater and unzipped the biting skirt, letting it fall to the floor. Her throat was tight and she felt on the verge of tears again. Stupid boys. Stupid boy. This loathsome, stupid-emotional version of herself could not be tolerated.
She inhaled slowly and counted. All the therapists had said to just stop and count to ten. Avery found she only ever needed to get to seven. Ten was too long, she’d over-think, and five left her wired. No, seven was perfect. She let her rage filter out with a long breath. This was all fixable.
She walked away from her bloated reflection and pulled the long silver chain from the peg by the door, she didn’t need to hide it anymore. She opened her closet and stepped in, pushing past the rows and rows of designer clothes until she reached the back. She groped in the dark, having forgotten to flip the light in her haste, and for a brief moment, panic made her fumble, her hands reaching out, fishing, grabbing.
But then she found the lock and her heartbeat steadied. The key felt thick and heavy and real in Avery’s hand, and it found the lock easily. Like slipping her hand into Evan’s had felt. Like it belonged.
It hurt to swallow.
The panel was heavy but she set her jaw and put her weight into it, and then the latch engaged, holding the thick door open. She yanked the cord above and a naked bulb buzzed to life.
The hundred and fifty-nine year old Victorian at 639 Oakwood Lane was ancient and decrepit when her parents first saw it. But it was the right neighborhood with the best schools, and it had good bones. So, two years of revolving contractors among the rabid haze of paint fumes and wood putty, and the house was now a centerpiece— tours were given during the holidays, gardens were visited in the spring. Among all the granite and soapstone and stainless, very little remained of the original house.
All but this.
Simply an old closet; knotty pine shelves, sticky drawers lined with curling paper, a stale, musty odor. Kept for extra storage, but really, so much more. A Worthy Of Our Little Girl closet had been retrofitted in front of it, but this place (her place), remained.
Her mouth was cotton and her throat tight as she gazed at the shelves. A thin coating of dust covered everything. She took a deep, shuddering breath and felt bereft because of her neglect. She vowed never to let anything like this happen again. She could (would) be better.
The dolls stared at her from their perches. Leftovers from a childhood of privilege. A new doll, sometimes three for every holiday; Christmas, Easter, Halloween, the Fourth of July, birthdays and ridiculously even, half birthdays. As a child she had loved them (they love me!). But, she grew up, opened her eyes to what they really were, just placating tokens. Compensation to be quiet and stand still and look nice. Payment made to perform perfectly for the revolving door of step-fathers, step-grandparents, entire step-families.
There were now so many and what to do with them all? With this most recent move, words like Toys for Tots and Purple Heart were tossed around, but Avery couldn’t do it. And why should she? They were hers! So, she found the perfect spot for them.
For what they’ve become.
One of them, with her mother’s chic bob, lounged at a miniature cafe table. Avery really did want her mother to be happy. Avery’s eyes pulled to the drawer at the bottom of the closet, and she thought of her step-father’s dark eyes and how they used to look at her.
Avery rubbed her temples. (Rumble)
The cheerleaders, a collection of Barbies that Avery had obsessed over when she was five, were clustered around a glass case. Chloe, a wispy free spirit, had fallen back in the corner. Chloe needed to stay close, otherwise she would start making her own decisions. Avery had always kind of liked Chloe and really, it was for her own good. Avery fixed the doll’s braids gently and blew the thin layer of dust off its petite face. She set it down primly on the shelf.
The doll’s feather-light lashes flickered.
Avery leaned over, snaking her hand back in the corner, feeling for Izzy. She had fallen between the cracks of shelving, her uniform rumpled and a black streak ran across her little doll sneakers. Avery opened a drawer (not that one, don’t touch that one) where she kept extra accessories, materials…parts.
She shook her head, and popped the dirty ones off and placed a new pair on the tiny feet. She propped the doll up in it’s usual position, facing Kendall. Kendall’s dark sunglasses were askew, so Avery pushed them back up and taped them in place to be on the safe side.
Avery surveyed her collection (creation). Then she pulled Jay McKenna’s hand out of Kendall’s and moved him to stand next Chloe.
Next was the glass case. In it, her first doll. Given to her when she was too young to remember. She had thought as a commemoration of her birth, since it did resemble her fair hair and her light eyes. Only, this doll wasn’t a toy.
“It’s yours but you can’t touch it.” Her mother used to say, her own light eyes sad and faraway.
It wasn’t until later, when they moved (again) and Avery was starting (or finishing, or maybe in the middle of) grade school, and the doll was once again, sequestered high atop some polished shelf, that she found out it wasn’t really her doll at all. In the hospital, with a cheery pink arm cast and her mother moaning, (missed tennis lesson, not injured daughter), Avery found out the doll had been a gift to her mother from her father. Her real father.
Which made Avery want it even more.
And then, the day came when she was too old to play with dolls, and her mother looked up from directing the moving team for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Here, hon, keep this in your room. It doesn’t go with the rest of the decor.”
It was beautiful. Antique porcelain, rendered with a cherubic face, perfect rosy cheeks, a glossy dimple, and wispy lashes. It stood on a pedestal inside a glass case. A lamp, which normally cast a soft glow upon it, was making popping noises and flickering. Avery reached for an extra and changed the bulb. She dusted off the glass and opened the case. She straightened the doll’s uniform and pushed back the blond curl that had come undone from its ribbon. She took inventory, making sure everything was perfect before shutting it back inside.
Avery looked to where another doll lay, discarded and half complete. Its green eyes matched its hoodie and its dark hair was mussed just so. She had started work on it after she met Evan this summer. But then, something changed, and days turned to weeks and slowly she stopped coming back here.
She’d been stupid (in love).
She took the doll and a few others that were faceless and she named them, because that, above all else, was the important part. The friends of Evan’s, the ones sitting with him tonight, the ones laughing at her, looking at her, seeing her. Her stepfather used to look at her too, but he saw something else. Her eyes pulled to the bottom drawer again.
(Rumble, rumble, bang!)
It echoed in the drawer (in her head). The lone doll head, rolling back and forth. Back and forth. Staring. Not staring. Staring. Her stepfather’s dark eyes.
Avery started counting. Two, three—she scooped up the dolls, legs and arms pointing in all directions. Four, five—they clattered in her shaking arms. Six, seven—no… no, that was too…messy.
Decided, she turned and marched out of the closet, out of her room, and down the staircase, heedless of the fact that she was only wearing a too-tight cheer sweater and underpants. She flung open the patio doors, the cold stone seeped into her stockinged feet (into her bones). She laid each doll out on the grate and stood over them. With one last look at the doll in green (Evan, his name is Evan), the ghost of his lips (lie) on hers, she unscrewed the cap on the bottle of whisky, and doused them. Her throat was clear and it burned warmly as she threw back the last of the booze. Her hand was steady as she struck the match, snick…whoosh.
She stood over the fire pit, watching as the flames consumed, melting away their faces, licking and scorching glass eyes so they could no longer see. She slowly stepped away, a distant urge to not have her hair smelling like burnt plastic and smoke. She waited until the flames (her heart) died and there was nothing left to burn. And it was silent. No more sevens to count, no more distant wooden rumblings. The only sounds Avery heard were outside herself, a soft leaf-rustle and the distant whine of fire trucks. She turned away from the ash. After all, she did have a party to get to.
Minutes later, Avery, the lithe and perky girl who lived at 639 Oakwood Lane, walked gracefully down the tree-lined street, sporting a slim pair of designer jeans and a light blue sweater that brought out her peaches-n-cream complexion. She patted her hair, content that not a strand was out of place. Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Kendall, again, crying over Jay. The ring tone had a vague and whispering beat that lingered long after Avery jabbed the button.
A.E. Gagner is a fantasy writer living in the wilds of New Jersey. She is equal parts ink, rain, chocolate, caffeine, and bacon. She is currently working on her first novel and can be found at aegagner.com, or on Twitter @ae_gagner.
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Tags: A.E. Gagner, horror, murder, relationships, teens