The Doll

My mother was the one who found Mr. Mullen. She was an early riser, chased out of sleep by her task list for the day. She looked out the window over our kitchen sink and into the Mullens’ carport. Though the Mullens kept it very neat, my mother had always found the carport obscene, sitting exposed among our garages, our sleeping cars and little-used power tools kept hidden and out of sight as God intended. Mr. Mullen hung from the central beam.

The rest of us lived in two-story homes that crowded to the lots’ edges, hipped roofs matching the cube-like dimensions as neatly as a lid to a jar, our driveways and yards stout and begrudging. The Mullens’ house, conversely, was a midcentury bungalow with a long, low roofline, orange-toned brick and wood, with that carport and a sprawling, unruly backyard—the specific architectural dream of a designer or previous owner, representing a specific moment in time. Our houses were specifically for the dreamless, signifying nothing.

If it had been one of the other parents, they might have called the police first. My mother sprinted out of the house and across the street. Knowing my mother, she wasn’t thinking about saving him. She would’ve seen that it was too late while she was jogging down our driveway and up his, or even from our kitchen—how he had become one stiff, contiguous object, tapering down to his feet, his hands a purplish blue.

Knowing my mother, she was rushing to prevent anyone else from seeing him. She would’ve been appalled at the selfishness of hanging himself in the open carport, exposed to any passerby. To us, the neighborhood children. She climbed onto the stepladder he’d used and cut him down with his pruning shears, and he dropped hard to the concrete floor. She took a drop sheet off some paint cans and threw it over him before she called 911. The rest of the street woke to the sirens.

The Mullens had rented a lake house for the first week of summer vacation, with a gas heater that had been dormant through the off-season. Mrs. Mullen and the three Mullen children had gone ahead on Wednesday morning. When he joined them on Friday night, his wife and children were all lifeless in their beds. It was later determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning.

In Connor Feldspar’s front yard, sharing a bag of licorice ropes, we talked it through. Mr. Mullen arrives at the lake house, finds it dark, the porch light off. He’s surprised that no one is waiting up for him. He opens the screen door quietly, not wanting to wake the youngest Mullen, just eighteen months old. He goes into the dark master bedroom, climbs into bed with his wife, tries to wake her with an embrace.

I was one kind of ghoul: a boy to whom nothing bad had happened, all suffering unreal as comic book gore. Connor was another: a child to whom many bad things had happened, who relished any story where he was not the victim. Connor and I weren’t friends at school, but the neighborhood yards in the summertime were a different, neutral place, full of unlikely alliances.

Olivia Meier sat between us and listened intently. She was the youngest of us, a rodent-faced girl with beady eyes and a habit of chewing on her fists. The dead baby fascinated her, blending in her mind with the cherubs painted on our Sunday school wall. She imagined little Jordie Mullen sprouting angel wings and a full head of golden ringlets, his baby blanket twisted modestly around his waist, a playful smile on his lipstick-red mouth.

Isaac and Abby Gibbs, enemies the other nine months of the year, finished each other’s sentences in the summer. They wondered aloud about the last night the whole Mullen family was alive. Their last meal. Something easy to make in an unfamiliar kitchen, ready-made vacation food, canned ravioli or frozen dinners. Mrs. Mullen puts the baby to bed, tells the two older kids—brother and sister, like Isaac and Abby—to settle down, stop horsing around on the rented bunk bed and its creaky wooden ladder. She tucks them in. She turns off the light, shaking her head as the whispers and giggles start up again before she’s even shut the door. What did the Mullen kids talk about, not knowing it was their last conversation? When they fell asleep, did they dream? What happens in a dream interrupted by death?

Connor and I drew the conversation back to the bodies. I’d read that people who die of carbon monoxide poisoning sometimes look healthy and alive, a rosy pink glow to their skin, because the end product of the gas turns blood vessels cherry red. Like Olivia, I pictured Mrs. Mullen and the kids as angelic, more beautiful in death than they were in life, their faces set forever in soft expressions of sleep. Connor saw them like molted snakeskins, a remnant left for Mr. Mullen. Like a farewell note on the kitchen counter: Gone on ahead, see you soon.

The story occupied us all summer. The adults said how terrifying, what a tragedy, could have happened to anyone, their fear so false it sounded smug. Because it hadn’t happened to anyone. It had happened to the Mullens.

Caitlin and Gordon Mullen had gone to a private progressive school that started a half hour earlier than our public school. We’d seen them being driven by Mrs. Mullen in their wood-paneled station wagon while the rest of us waited at the corner for the yellow school bus. They studiously didn’t look back at us, their bowl-cut blond heads facing forward, squished together in the back beside the baby’s car seat.

About a year before they died, my mother had invited Mrs. Mullen and Gordon over on a Saturday—Gordon to play with me, and Mrs. Mullen to take tea in the kitchen with my mother. Caitlin and Mrs. Mullen showed up instead. Caitlin wore white knee socks and a long-sleeved dress, her hair pinned to one side with a barrette. All the other neighborhood girls dressed in jeans and corduroys. The boys wore oversized basketball shorts as deep into the winter as possible, as though we might be called up by the NBA at any moment.

“Oh,” my mother said, taking in the two Mullens on her doorstep.

“Gordon had a piano lesson,” Mrs. Mullen said.

“Oh,” she repeated, the syllable rich with meaning. To me, she said, “Matt, why don’t you take Caitlin to play in the living room?”

I usually took my playmates to my bedroom. “My toys and stuff are all upstairs,” I said.

She clenched her face into a smile. “Then go choose the ones you want and bring them down.”

Caitlin followed me up the stairs. We walked with a slow, odd decorum. I had friends who were girls, but Caitlin made me uneasy, her girlishness turned up alien-high. I showed her my comic books, my figurines, my model cars, my bin of Lego. “What do you want to play?” I asked.

“You pick,” she said.

“Let’s bring the Lego down,” I said. The storage tub was so large that I could fit inside and pretend to be bathing in the plastic bricks. I could pull it off the low shelf and onto the floor to play, but it quickly became apparent that it was too heavy for me to get it down the stairs on my own.

“We can carry it together,” Caitlin said. We each took a handle. Caitlin, who’d been closer to the stairs, walked backward, and I followed facing forward, the bin between us.

My socked foot slipped at the edge of the carpeted stairs. Righting my footing, I lost my grip on the handle. I grasped at the empty air, then instinctively shut my eyes. I forced myself to open them again. In that one instant, I’d missed Caitlin and the plastic tub tumbling down the stairs, the lid popping off. She was already at the bottom, on her butt, looking beached and bewildered in the flood of multicolored plastic.

Our mothers rushed to the sound of the crash. My mother reached Caitlin first, with a little cry. “What happened?” Mrs. Mullen looked up at me, still near the top of the stairs, my hands still extended as if to catch something.

My mother knelt beside Caitlin and examined a hole ripped in one of her socks, the scraped knee above it. “I’m fine,” Caitlin said. “It’s fine.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, at last. “I slipped.”

“Go get the first aid kit,” my mother said. I ran to the bathroom, relieved to have a task.

As my mother—and not Mrs. Mullen, strangely—tended to Caitlin’s knee, rubbing ointment into the raw scratches, Caitlin repeated, “I’m fine, really. It doesn’t hurt.”

My mother patted her lightly on the knee, smoothing the bandage. “There you go.” She turned back to me and gestured at the spilled Lego. “Matt, clean this up.”

“I’ll help,” Caitlin said.

“No,” my mother said. “Matt can do it.” She turned to Caitlin’s mom. “I’m so sorry about this.”

“It’s fine,” she said. She sounded just like Caitlin, such that her adult voice seemed oddly high and thin, and Caitlin’s child voice seemed deep and serious, a compromise between registers. “Really, it’s fine.”

Caitlin and Mrs. Mullen hovered as I scooped armfuls of Lego back into the bin. “Perhaps,” said my mother, “we should try this again some other time.”

We didn’t. Though my mother was angry with me, when she told my father the story later, it was clear that she blamed the Mullens somehow. “That girl could have broken her neck,” she said. “And then where would we be?” She tried to convey all the details of their visit at the same time, out of order, the causality of the fall lost somewhere in the middle. “She was wearing Mary Janes and a dress for a playdate. Can you imagine?”

I know I remember this incident only because Caitlin died, and remembering her as strange, as marked, makes that easier to understand. In our neighborhood, in the absence of real difference, we seized on the minute, the unnameable, the imaginary. I can only imagine what we would have done if we didn’t have the Mullens.

Eventually, after we had gone over every aspect of the Mullens’ deaths, Connor dared us to go over to their house. It was August by then, and the police tape had been cleared or had blown away, disintegrated in the sun. A lurid stain remained on the floor of the carport. An unfamiliar sedan had been seen parked in the Mullens’ driveway; a woman in a cream pantsuit had stepped out, gone inside with a key, come back out, relocked the door, and driven away. She was assumed to be a relative, but not the kind of relative who would get on her hands and knees to take a sponge to the darkened concrete.

The Mullens had a corner lot. It was simple to hop the fence between their backyard and the quiet street, taking turns scrambling over and watching out for cars and adults. We boosted little Olivia over first.

From where we gathered again on the other side, the ambient sound of summer insects seemed heightened, louder than Connor panting to catch his breath. The weeds along the three-sided fence had spread inward and upward: dandelions and tall grasses starting to seed, scalloped and jagged broadleafs that looked like they belonged on a jungle floor. A bush of nettles and trumpet-shaped purple flowers towered regally over the rest. We gravitated toward the toys scattered in the singed grass near the back door, moving as a group.

An underinflated soccer ball yielded to my poking finger. “Don’t touch anything,” Abby hissed. I examined some glass jam jars lined up on a low table of planks hammered together. Each jar had a few inches of potting soil and a shriveled plant inside. A blue plastic watering can was tucked neatly underneath the table. Everything was clearly kid-sized, with the air of one of our own experiments.

I joined Olivia and Isaac beside a toy stroller, two hammocks of pink fabric in a pink plastic frame, a baby doll nestled inside. It was turned onto its side, the arms and legs drawn up, a realistic sleeping pose despite the forever-open acrylic eyes. The doll’s felt pajamas had been bleached by the sun, the pink stripes faded to nearly the same shade as the white ones. The fingers and feet were molded in a curled shape, loose fists and tucked-under toes.

Olivia crouched to examine the doll. Abby hissed at her as well, from where she’d been trying to peer into the only unshaded back window.

“That thing is creepy as hell,” Isaac said.

“I have the same one,” Olivia said.

A chill passed through us.

“Okay, it’s time to go,” Isaac announced. Jokey, mock- frightened.

Connor sidled up next to me as we started back toward the fence. “Hey, Matt. I dare you to take the doll.”

We stopped and looked back at the doll. The sunlight reflected off the pink nightcap and gown, making the doll seem as though it had a faint internal glow, a blush upon its plastic cheeks.
“Why would I want a doll?” I said.

“Are you scared of it?”

“No, I just don’t want it.”

“Because you’re scared.”

“What do I tell my mom? Where am I supposed to say it came from?”

“You don’t hide stuff from your mom? You tell your mom everything?”

“Oh, shut up,” Abby said. She grabbed the doll and tucked it under her arm like a football. “There, I have the doll. Who cares. Let’s go.”

Abby crept into Isaac’s room the next morning. She tucked the baby doll into the bed beside him. He woke up with its shining eyes peering into his own. As he started to scream, Abby tackled him, covering his mouth and throwing the doll under the bed just as their father came in. Abby recounted this as she presented the doll back to us, where we had convened once more in the strip of grass bordering the concrete pad that took up most of Connor’s backyard. “Isaac doesn’t want it in the house anymore,” she said. Isaac sat cross-legged just behind her, looking down into the triangle between his legs.

“I dreamt about them,” he said.

“The Mullens?” I said.

He nodded. When he didn’t elaborate, Abby spoke for him. “He dreamt that Gordon was in his room. Wearing his clothes.”

“My basketball uniform,” Isaac clarified.

“Then he sat down at the desk and started doing one of Isaac’s summer reading assignments.”

“Sounds great,” Connor said. “I wish Gordon’s ghost would do my homework.”

“Then you take it,” Abby said, thrusting the doll at him.

Connor leaned back. “Gross. No way.”

“Who’s scared now?” I said.

Connor flushed. “Fine. I don’t care. I’ll give it to Albie to chew on.” He gestured over his shoulder, where Albie, the Feldspars’ nasty little terrier mix, yipped and banged at the sliding glass door.

“No!” Olivia cried. “Don’t do that. She’s probably lonely. I’ll take her. She can hang out with my dolls.” Connor didn’t disguise his relief.

When Olivia returned to Connor’s the next day, she was holding the doll upside down by the ankle, the long pink nightcap dragging on the ground. “Albie can have her,” she said.

“What did she do?” Abby asked.

“She switched places with my doll.”

“What do you mean?”

“My doll, that’s the same as her—her name is Bebe. I sleep with her. I put Caitlin’s doll on the shelf with the other dolls and stuffies. But I woke up and Bebe was on the shelf and she was in my bed.” Olivia flipped the doll right side up as she shoved it in our faces for emphasis, holding it under the arms like it was a real baby.

“She did the same thing to me,” Isaac said.

“No, that was me,” Abby reminded him. “I put her in your bed. It was a joke.”

“Are you sure you’re not just confusing them?” I said. “If she and Bebe look alike?”

“I would never mix them up.” Olivia stomped her foot, indignant. “Bebe’s nightgown is all pink. This one has stripes. Plus Bebe is newer. This one is all faded and icky.” She shook the doll and something rattled inside. “Somebody get rid of her. She tried to replace Bebe!”

“Okay, okay,” Connor said, taking the doll. He went to the door, slid it open, and called for Albie. As the dog bounded from somewhere deeper in the house, the rest of us shrank back. At one time or another, Albie had nipped at all of our ankles and probing fingers. His razor teeth seemed too large for his tiny head, which was no bigger than a baseball.

Standing at the threshold, Connor offered Albie the doll in a singsong voice. “Here you go, boy. I’ve got a new chewie for you.”

Albie sniffed the doll’s chest. He looked up at Connor suspiciously, then slowly backed up, returning to the shadowy house, where he growled and resumed his shrill barking.

“Come on,” Connor said, thrusting the doll at Albie, who jumped away from it, still yipping. “Just take it.”

“He knows it’s haunted,” Isaac said. Olivia nodded.

“This stupid dog never trusts me,” Connor said. “Albie, don’t be a dick. Take the toy. Take the—ow!” Albie had nipped at Connor’s wrist. Connor flung the doll through the door. Albie leapt away before it could strike him. He stood over the prone form, barking into its blank, contented face.

I was the first to arrive at Connor’s the next day. He grimly ushered me through the front hall and the kitchen, out the back door, as usual. He stopped at the edge of the concrete pad, gesturing into the narrow yard.

The baby doll’s head poked up from a pile of dirt, freshly torn out of the sod. The sleepy expression, rosebud lips molded into a pout, was made more unnerving by the mud streaked across the pink nightcap and open eyes.

“Did Albie bury it or did you?” I asked.

Connor glared at me. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know. To freak me out?”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Did you have a nightmare too?”

Connor’s face purpled. He walked over and yanked the doll forcefully out of the ground by the nightcap, like pulling up a carrot. “You have to take it,” he said. The doll swung back and forth in his grip, the motion nauseating.

“I don’t want it,” I said.

“You’re the only one who hasn’t had it in your house.”


“So it’s your turn.”

“But now it’s all dirty.”

Connor flung the doll in frustration, just as he had the day before. It landed at my feet facing up, staring at the blue of the sky, still curling its plastic fists.

I carried the doll home in a plastic grocery bag from Connor’s kitchen. I tied the handles together and then quickly untied them, feeling like I was suffocating her. I didn’t want it in my room, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else it wouldn’t be discovered by my parents, so I tucked it into the back of my closet. I positioned her sitting up, her back against the wall, her head sticking out of the bag. She slumped forward, the top of the nightcap drooping over her face. She looked defeated.

“Sorry,” I said, covering her with a box of my winter clothes.

While my mother carried dinner from the kitchen to the dining room, my parents talked about the Mullens’ house like I wasn’t there. “It’s going to be demolished,” my mother said.

“Where did you hear that?”

She ignored my father’s question. “His sister sold to a developer. They’re going to build a house with more livable square footage on the footprint, more in keeping with the neighborhood.”

“Who told you that?” he asked again.

“I read the sign out front.”

“What sign?”

“The piece of paper on the front door.”

My father thought this through. “You mean you looked up the construction permits?”

“Of course.” She set down the potatoes and joined us at the table. “That’s why it’s there. For concerned neighbors. You know it only had one bathroom? A family of five, that big corner lot, one bathroom.”

My father had been studying her. I tried to see what he saw. Her slim hips and arms, her small, pointed features. She was wearing cropped turquoise pants, a matching turquoise scarf holding her hair back from her face, her morning makeup still brightening her eyes at the end of the day. She did not look like someone who could cut down a corpse with garden shears.

She started making up a plate for me. Her eyes on the Salisbury steak, she continued, “It’ll be loud, but I’m looking forward to it being gone. Bring the bulldozers, I say.”

“I never understood what you had against that house,” my father said. “It’s historic. Not from the most picturesque decade, but historic nonetheless.” My mother paused meaningfully, holding a scoop of steamed broccoli aloft. “I mean, what you had against the house before,” he added.

“It was poorly maintained. The property was messy, an eyesore.” She passed me my plate and started filling another for my father. “‘Historic’ was never the word that came to mind.”

“I thought the mess looked . . . intentional. Bohemian, maybe.”

She tilted the full plate of food toward him, like she wanted him to see it but might not give it to him, a hostage. “The Mullens were a husband and wife like any other around here,” she said. “Three kids. A new baby. A mortgage. There wasn’t anything bohemian about them.” Checking herself, she added quickly, “It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy.”

“He must have loved them a lot,” my father mused.

“He found his whole family dead. Who could recover from that? Who wouldn’t do what he did?”

My father reached for his dinner, so my mother had to pass it to him. As he started cutting into his steak patty, she watched with pursed lips, not assembling her own plate. Life without us, my father’s silence seemed to say, would not be mortally unbearable. Perhaps he even cultivated a fantasy of it—a blameless, sympathetic escape from all that bound him here. He chewed the soft, re-formed meat.

After dinner and my bath, after my parents said good night and I was alone in bed, the doll had a palpable presence in the room. I thought, again, about the gas leak that killed the Mullens. How trustfully we went to sleep each night, certain we’d rise the next day, everything and everyone where we left it. We’d heard over and over that the gas was colorless and odorless, but I pictured it as a low-lying blue fog, the color of cigarette smoke or the last light of day.

I saw it seeping into their cabin through a door left slightly ajar, winding through the crack like jet stream over the wing of an airplane. Bounded loosely like a ghost, it traveled from room to room, finding each member of the family. It settled over the Mullens’ sleeping faces, getting sucked into their nostrils in thin runnels. Divided in substance and united in purpose like an army of insects, crawling into their soft tissues and orifices.

The gas might have been in my room right then, rolling over the lip of the window that had been left open to the late summer heat, entering me with every breath I took. I pulled the blanket over my head. My breathing had become fast and shallow, making me feel light-headed—or was that an effect of the gas?

The blue cloud grew squiggly, amorphous limbs that ended in smaller appendages, akin to fingers. It wandered through our house, tracing the photos on my parents’ bedroom wall, me as a fat-faced baby in the bathtub alongside a photo of them, much younger, standing on the stern of a boat. I’d never asked where that photo was taken, what marina and body of water shone in the background, why they were there, what sun could tan them so darkly and make them laugh so freely.

The fog-fingers reached the head of my parents’ bed. They inserted themselves into my mother’s mouth and up her nose, making her mind swim as the tissue of her brain softened. The gas liquefied her brain until it poured out her ears, onto the pillow, like a viscous gray paint. She and I drowned in dreams, becoming sleepy-eyed, pink-cheeked baby dolls. Posable and firm as plastic.

The fog then whispered to my father, sounding like his own voice, speaking to himself. It lifted him from the bed and onto his feet, wobbly and unbalanced—a flat-footed wooden nutcracker. The fog dressed him, wrapping a button-down shirt around his stiff wooden shoulders like a shawl, and put a suitcase in his hand. It blew open the front door with the force of a windstorm, pulled the sun up from behind the horizon like a stage prop on a string. My doll-father wandered out, blinking awake, down our driveway and down our street and down an endless, open road beyond, two rows of smiling, levered teeth painted on his face.

“So we agree,” Abby said, “that the doll is haunted.”

Olivia nodded solemnly. The rest of us, the boys, looked away. Though Connor and Isaac were older than Abby, she was the tallest, and it gave her an air of authority. Even then, we knew it wouldn’t last much longer. We’d noted the omen of Isaac’s large feet and hands, his limbs stretching like putty.

We sat in a circle with the doll at the center, still inside the grocery bag with the sides folded down, like the doll was emerging from a plastic cocoon. “What do we do with it?” I asked.

“You’re not leaving it here,” Connor said.

“I’m not taking it.”

“Me neither.”

“Us neither.”

“Let’s put it back,” Isaac said.

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a construction site now.” I’d woken that morning to the beeping of a bulldozer backing up, the yellow beast taller than the Mullens’ fence. “They’re going to tear down the house.”

“Even better,” Connor said. “We can just chuck it over the fence and it’ll get buried in the wreckage.”

“Let’s just throw it away,” I said. “In the trash.”

Softly, Isaac asked, “Do we really want to make her mad?”

“She’ll come back,” Olivia said. “If we put her in the trash, she’ll come back.”

“I like Connor’s idea,” Abby said. “Maybe she’d like to be buried with her house, and all of Caitlin and Gordon’s other toys.”

“They don’t bury it,” I said. “It gets gathered up in a big dumpster bin and taken away. So we might as well put the doll in the trash. She’ll go to the same place either way.”

“We could bury her ourselves,” Abby said.

Olivia shook her head. “She’ll come back. The only way to stop her is if we cut her up.”

We stared at Olivia. Her knuckles were shiny with saliva, her thin bangs dangling over her brow. “We cut her into pieces, and we each take one,” she continued. “We each bury them in a different place, without telling the others where we did it. That way nobody knows where all the pieces are, so she can never get put back together.”

Connor broke the long silence that followed. “Jesus Christ, Olivia,” he said.

“That’s smart,” Abby said, thoughtfully.

“Do we have to . . . cut her?” Isaac asked. “The plastic is pretty hard. We’d have to get a saw or something.”

“I’m pretty sure we can just take her apart,” I said. I grabbed the doll, and everyone reeled slightly back, as they had at the mention of Albie a few days before. I unbuttoned and removed the nightgown. The shirt she wore underneath was sewn onto her torso. I twisted one of her arms, working my fingers into the ball joint, until it popped off. I removed all four of her limbs that way, each one making a satisfying noise as it broke away. Taking her apart was strangely pleasurable, right-feeling, like it was something I was meant to do. As I started twisting and yanking on her head, her face squished under my palm and her limbless torso pressed against my stomach for leverage, I felt my jaw clench, and I became aware of everyone leaning closer to watch. Olivia and Connor looked fascinated, Isaac faintly sick. Abby had a knowing, distant expression that sent a splinter of guilt through me, but somehow also increased the pleasure of distending the doll’s face, wringing her neck. It bent time: for a flickering instant, I saw what Abby would look like as an adult, and I saw myself as a grown man. I saw us somewhere together, her staring at me, knowing me, just like this.

The head came off, still wearing its nightcap, its drowsy pout unchanged. Six pieces for five of us—the head, two arms, two legs, and the central torso, neck to crotch. We argued over who would take what. Nobody wanted the head or torso, and everyone wanted the arms. Because I’d risked incurring her wrath by taking her apart, and because Olivia was the youngest, we won. In the end, Abby and Isaac took the head and legs, Connor took the torso, Olivia took the right arm, and I took the left.

Though we agreed never to tell each other where we buried our piece, Connor ended up telling me a few years later. In the rambling, overcrowded junior high we eventually attended, none of us were friends. Connor and I were cut from football tryouts at the same practice, the coach yelling out the numbers pinned to our backs during a drill. Isaac was there too, but he had by then a certain fleet-footed grace, and survived to the next round.

As we waited for our parents to pick us up at the empty school turnabout, Connor confessed he’d gone with his original plan. That night, when the bulldozer was silent, a tarp pinned down by cinder blocks over the partially destroyed house, Connor had thrown the doll’s torso over the Mullens’ fence, leaving it for the workers to find. He asked what I’d done with her arm, and I went with the most obvious lie—that I’d just buried it in our front yard.

I pictured Olivia, Abby, and Isaac doing the same, finding a spot in their yards where the grass thinned under the myrtle trees, digging down with toy shovels. Or maybe they waited until they were farther from home: Abby packing the head in among their sand toys on a trip to the beach, covering the face in wet sand on a tide flat. Olivia on a hike in the woods, finding a shady spot just off the path, laying a large stone overtop so the plastic fingers couldn’t claw their way to freedom.

In truth, I kept the arm. Later still, when I moved away for college, I thought I’d thrown it somewhere in my closet, the closet I hadn’t cleaned out as my mother had asked, among toys and papers and barbell weights and clothes for other, discarded visions of myself. But it turned up in the box of books I’d carefully curated to make myself seem smart or cool, to serve as dorm room props, wedged between Hunter S. Thompson and Foucault. The only explanation I could come up with was that it had fallen in, or been placed there in an uncharacteristic prank by my mother. At a Halloween party that year, I put it in the punch bowl, tried to impress girls with its macabre origins. Girls who all, in one way or another, reminded me of Abby or Caitlin. My roommate liked to move the arm around, stick it upright in my shower caddy, throw it into my book bag before I left for class. When I moved to an off-campus apartment with friends, he made sure it went with me, sealed in a box of sweaters. When I moved next, those roommates tossed it in with the pots I’d insisted were mine. I kept thinking I’d lose it, abandon it under a couch between moves, accidentally toss it in a bag for Goodwill, thereby honoring the commitment I’d made. But instead, I kept reaching into a moving box and brushing against the molded hand, the knob I’d torn from its shoulder socket. Maybe the arm will be found among my possessions after I die. It retains the queasy realism of the chubby forearm and plaintive fingers, the same hard sheen on the plastic, never aging.

—Kim Fu (The Adroit Journal)