GOD OF DOLLS
Michael Alan Nelson
Bobby was five the first time he brought a doll to life. He was in his sister's room with an orange crayon, scrawling in a legally dubious coloring book his mother had found at a dollar store. Toys littered the room: Legos, books, dolls of every kind, but it was his sister’s coloring books that interested Bobby the most. Especially since his sister colored all the pages wrong. She made everything look just as she and everyone else saw the world. Green trees, blue oceans, brown dogs. But the world was colored wrong. Not that she nor anyone else could see. Only Bobby could. So he liked to sneak into her room and fix her mistakes. Orange faces, yellow bears, purple dinosaurs. The way things were supposed to be.
Green wheel barrow next to a pink barn, orange cow eating black grass. This was good. This was right. Then he felt a tingle in the back of his neck, like a ghost standing too close behind him, its breath cold and lifeless against his skin.
The tingle along his neck tightened to a shiver when he caught sight of a plastic newborn in striped pajamas slouched in his sister's tiny wooden rocking chair. The feeling didn't frighten him. In fact, it made him feel very little other than mild curiosity. It wasn't much different than how he remembered once being able to call forth a breeze while he lay in his crib or safely float down to the foyer when he toddled too close to the top of the stairs and began to fall. Those things didn't happen. He was old enough to know they couldn't have happened. But he remembered them happening anyway. Or at least he felt their memories tickling the back of his mind the same way this new feeling tickled the back of his neck. The feeling was familiar, expected. Ordinary. He knew what he was supposed to do.
Bobby stared at the doll for a moment. Then he whispered, "Look at me."
The doll's head swiveled toward him, its weighted eyes blinked. It obeyed. Just as Bobby remembered it would.
He then colored a blue pig playing in red mud.
His sister was not amused by his talents. She caught him several months later painting over one of her school art projects with the enlisted help of his own teddy bear and a porcelain Heubach Koppelsdorf doll Mother had given her for Christmas. The bear clutched a handful of synthetic paint brushes to its chest while her doll 'Frieda' opened and closed the caps on a plastic tray of water colors. When Bobby's sister saw Frieda helping deface the collage she had painstakingly crafted with paint, dry leaves, and Popsicle sticks, she ran to Mother and accused Bobby of stealing her toys.
Mother came into the room, hands on her hips, demanding to know what Bobby thought he was doing.
"Leaves have stripes, Mother."
Bobby's sister cared little about the improvements he was making. It was fomenting Frieda's betrayal that she saw as an unforgivable sin.
"Frieda loves me!" she shouted.
Frieda has no love to give, Bobby wanted to say. Love is mauve. And nothing mauve grows inside plastic and fiberglass stuffing.
Mother demanded Bobby relinquish Frieda back into his sister's care, a demand that did not bother Bobby in the least, though he knew it concerned Frieda a great deal. Bobby was life. Bobby was coral and fuchsia, the colors of a god. His sister was drab olive and saddlebrown, the colors of au gratin potatoes and bathwater. But Frieda obeyed. Just as Bobby remembered she would.
Mother soothed his sister's wounded pride and placed a limp Frieda in her waiting arms. She then came to Bobby, eyes wet and confused. She quietly demanded he stop such foolishness at once. Another demand that did not bother him in the least. His teddy bear collapsed on its haunches, the brushes clacking as they rolled along the cold linoleum. Bobby splashed a line of gold across a Sycamore leaf curling up at the edges. Mother knelt down next to him and gently took his brush away. He saw that he had frightened her. He had made Mother silver. Bobby wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her neck.
"Don't be scared. They have no color of their own. I'm sorry, Mother."
They cried together. His sister joined in their weeping and they both spent the afternoon in Mother's arms. When they finally separated, Mother was mauve again.
"What does that even mean, they have no color of their own?" his father asked around a mouthful of mostaccioli. Bobby shrugged and pushed his peas across his plate in single file. Peas should be pink.
"Please, Bobby," Mother said. It had been weeks since he made Mother silver, yet his father was still struggling to understand. Bobby wasn't sure how he could explain it to his father. If his father didn't realize it by now, he probably never would. Bobby was only five and already knew the truth of it: God made mistakes. Why else would trees be brown and their leaves green when they should be salmon and magenta, waving under a plum sky?
A small part of Bobby wondered if recognizing an imperfect God with such profound and sobering clarity would ultimately damn him to Hell, but the idea of Hell didn't really frighten him as much as it did his sister. Hell, his father said daily, was a place where bad children went. It was fire and lava and heat and red. So much red. But red was laughter. Red was fun. So how bad could Hell really be?
And Bobby knew he wasn't a bad child, at least not as bad as some children were. True, Mother didn't like it when he brought the dolls to life, but he didn't do it out of malice or rebellion. He simply couldn't help himself. The dolls had no color, just the way God made them. So Bobby gave them color. The tingle in his neck worked like a broad brush too thick for a child to hold comfortably without using both hands. A stroke here, a dab there, and the dolls lived. Bobby didn't particularly enjoy it, but it was something he had to do, just as he had to sneak into his sister's room and fix her mistakes. He was compelled to fill the dolls with color.
Only now, since the day of Frieda's Great Betrayal, the dolls had begun coloring themselves. Whenever Bobby was close enough, the dolls would paint themselves into existence. It was a secret Bobby didn't want to share. His father wouldn't understand and it would make Mother silver again. But his sister already knew. Two days ago she couldn't get into her bedroom because her every doll was pressed against the other side, trying to force the door open in a zealous attempt to be closer to Bobby who was busy in his room soaking his socks in food coloring.
"Well, however you explain it," his father said, "cut it out. People are beginning to talk."
His father never specified what it was people were saying.
When he finished the last of his food, his father said, "The boy needs help. He's always been too damn quiet. And now all of...this."
Mother protested and said that he would be fine, but Bobby thought his father might be right. Help might not be such a bad idea. He certainly needed it. God, it seemed, had made plenty of mistakes.
On the morning of his sixth birthday, Bobby found an empty plastic Chapstick tube, a dental sword, and a sun-hardened piece of chewing gum piled neatly in front of his bedroom door. His sister's dolls and his own teddy bear stood at the far end of the hallway watching him, their silent gazes slowly tracking him. When he bent to pick up the offerings, they genuflected in unison. His sister burst out of her own room and saw the toys supplicating themselves before Bobby. She huffed and gave Bobby a withering scowl before kicking her way through the throng and sequestering herself inside the bathroom. The dolls righted themselves and huddled together again, kneeling en masse. Bobby went back into his room and waited to be called down for breakfast.
His party that afternoon did little to change his sister's palette. Mother had insisted that Bobby refrain from 'painting' while guests were in the house, but every birthday gift was an action figure and each of his friends urged him to bring them to life. Robots, soldiers, cowboys, aliens, every manner of doll imaginable. Mother eventually acquiesced to their requests when even their parents began to insist.
No one, not even Mother, knew his birthday gifts had already animated themselves the moment they were brought into the house and that it was Bobby's unspoken command that had kept them immobile. There was a tingle and his divine edict was lifted. His newfound minions flocked to his side while the horde of his sister's dolls trundled downstairs to join them. The guests were delighted, but Bobby's sister fumed in the corner, abusing a piece of chocolate cake with a plastic fork. Mother only watched.
Every mauve cloud has a silver lining.
By the time Bobby was seven, he had been banned from the neighborhood toy stores. Stuffed animals, dolls, action figures of every kind, would rip themselves from their packaging or repel their way down from the shelves as Mother paraded Bobby along the aisles in a plastic chariot. It had become too difficult for him to keep the dolls inanimate, like trying to paint a state-sized canvas with only a nail brush. So he gave up trying. They never touched him or impeded him in any way. They only wanted to be close to him. He was the fire that thawed them free of their wintry non-existence.
Soon, parents requested that Mother use alternate routes to take him to school. Whenever he passed by their homes, their dolls would clamber to the windows only to eerily collapse lifeless once Bobby's influence receded in the distance. One mother insisted that her daughter's My Little Pony ravaged the family dog when it prevented it from getting to the window. Bobby didn't believe it but his sister said she saw the mother walking the dog one day with a plastic cone around its neck.
School became difficult for Bobby as well. Boys and girls that were once his friends now teased him. At first, it was only name-calling. When that garnered little reaction, they then brought in dolls of their own. When Bobby's presence brought them to life, they would decapitate and dismember them in front of him, hoping he would shriek or howl at his worshipper’s torment. But Bobby knew the dolls felt no pain, only the life-giving heat his colors provided. And when their discarded parts would roll and crawl and slither ever closer to him, it was the children who had rent them asunder who would shriek and run away.
The children then resorted to more ordinary tactics. Verbal and physical abuse, pouring chocolate milk over his head or stinky cheese surreptitiously stuffed into his backpack. Still, Bobby cared little. They couldn't see what he could see, fix the mistakes only he could fix. He could be no angrier with them for their behavior than he could be angry with someone for being blind. And he didn't need friends. He didn't want friends. All he wanted to do was color.
But as with any god, a day of smiting always comes to pass. So it was for Bobby the day his sister became a target. A group of girls trapped her in the restroom and tied a sack full of severed plastic dinosaur heads around her hand. Bobby was two classrooms down the hall, more than close enough. The heads' jaws snapped and bit in an attempt to free themselves from their burlap prison and bask in Bobby's divinity. By the time a teacher had heard his sister's screams and removed the sack, they had nearly chewed through two of her fingers.
Bobby didn't find out about the incident until his Mother took him out of class after his sister had already been to the hospital and stitched back together. Mother stormed into the school and dragged Bobby out by the hand, cursing and spitting at the principal the entire way. Mother's anger was indigo.
When he saw his sister's bandaged hand, as plump and swollen as a cartoon, Bobby went into his room and broke all of his crayons. He had no love for his sister, but he had no hate for her either. Yes, she hated him because she, mistakenly, believed her dolls loved him more. If the dolls had been capable of love, then maybe they would have, and if so, then she'd have every right to be angry. But it wasn't fair that she was made to suffer just because he was trying to make the world as it should be, a world no one else seemed to care about.
The next day, he expected to leave fifteen minutes early once again so Mother could follow the long, winding path to school without upsetting the neighborhood. But Mother told him that he would not be going to school that day. He would be staying home with his sister while Mother spent the day trying to find another school for them. That suited Bobby's plans just fine.
Bobby went upstairs and knocked on his sister's door. The door opened, only his sister still sat in her rocking chair, her bulbous hand cradled in her lap. The dolls had piled themselves high enough to reach the handle. They parted as Bobby stepped inside.
"Sorry about your hand."
"I hate you."
"I know. I need to borrow your dolls."
His sister said nothing, only continued to stare at the wall. Before Bobby turned to leave, he pointed at Frieda. Frieda dutifully jumped onto the rocking chair next to his sister and nuzzled her.
"Frieda does love you," Bobby lied.
Again, his sister said nothing, but she pulled Frieda tight to her chest with her good hand. Bobby went out to the garage where he kept his bike.
It took him an hour to reach the school. Not that it was terribly far, only that it had taken time to ride past every home in his neighborhood and all the toy stores he was no longer allowed to visit. He leaned his bike against a tree on the grassy lawn in front of the school and stepped up to the front doors. They were locked and he was too short to reach the buzzer, but it didn't matter. The mountain of dolls swarming and piling up behind him pushed their way through with very little effort. Once the doors were off their hinges, they parted, curling around the frame and along the walls as if they were the tendrils of some starving alien plant desperately searching for the nutrients it needed somewhere deep inside.
The school security guard came to a sudden halt when he saw Bobby and the impossible mass of roiling dolls filling the entire hallway behind him.
"Bobby?" was all he was able to say before he was swallowed by a sea of felt arms and plastic heads. The guard had always been nice to Bobby. Always kind. So he made sure the dolls knew not to harm him as they swept him away. In fact, Bobby didn't want to harm anyone, not even the children who hurt his sister, but he did want them to know just how easily he could. Bobby knew exactly what color the world should be and he wanted everyone to know just how easy it would be for him to paint it that way.
Bobby rode the wave of dolls through the school, pulling doors from hinges, smashing desks, and tearing chalkboards from walls. Muffled screams followed him from one classroom to the next. The dolls themselves had no way of speaking, but the pressure of their bodies sliding and rubbing against one another created a deep thrum that shook the entire building. Their eyes blinked, those with jaws snapped open and shut, arms and legs and tails and heads swiveled and turned and howled as the friction of a million-doll orgy threatened to crumble the school into a thundering pile of dust and concrete.
When Bobby had finally grown bored with his vengeance, there were police cars and fire engines and six garbage trucks each filled with a swarming collection of doll parts. The following weeks were a haze of angry adults using scary words Bobby didn't understand: Columbine, domestic terrorist, psychiatric help, institutionalize. They screamed at Mother. Mother screamed back. They screamed at Bobby. Mother screamed back. Parents said they would sue Mother for their children’s trauma. The school said they would sue Mother for damages to the building. Mother said she'd sue the school and the parents for damages to her daughter and trauma to her son. In the end, only the lawyers got paid.
Bobby was never allowed in public school again.
Bobby did well with his home schooling though. Mother helped him understand things better than any of his teachers ever did. Because she understood him. She knew he saw the world differently, knew him better than anyone else alive. Mother was mauve.
But her cancer was white.
It was every color brought together in a swirl of prismatic light, like oil and milk dancing in a silver chalice. When it became too much for her, Mother hired another woman to teach Bobby while she convalesced upstairs under the dull and watchful eyes of his sister's dolls.
As Bobby spent his days with beige numbers and sea-blue letters, he would spend his evenings lying next to Mother in her bed while his sister's dolls would fill her pitcher of water, discard the hair that would clump in her hairbrush, or empty her puke bucket. Mother tried to tell him stories of her own childhood, her own pleasant memories, but was too often too weak to speak. When she no longer had the strength to keep her eyes open, she asked Bobby to tell her his own stories. To describe the world as he saw it. And so he did.
Night after night he spoke of plum skies and amber oceans and night after night her mauve grew deeper. He'd rest his hand on hers, lie his face on her bony chest and speak more words than he had ever spoken in his life. But the malignant prism that gestated inside of her could not be sated. It consumed everything until there was no color left at all.
Bobby stared at his mother lying in the casket. People offered him their condolences, though they were careful not to get too close to him. Bobby wondered if they were sincerely sad or if they were only pretending. The last time he had heard many of them speaking was when they were angrily shouting at Mother and calling him a monster.
His father had spent the prior evening on the phone talking with insurance companies about long-term care and "success rates" with various institutions, but had grown suddenly quiet whenever he saw Bobby eavesdropping from the other room. Bobby knew his father would be sending him away, but he didn't care. That morning his father had grabbed him by his collar and shouted, "Any of your fucking doll games today and I'll fucking kill you!" He shook Bobby so hard he vomited from motion sickness.
His father was not mauve.
Bobby felt the stares, heard the whispers behind him, his name uttered in conspiratorial tones. They still couldn't see. They couldn't understand what he did, why he did it. And they never would.
What would happen now that Mother was gone, that she was no longer there to shield him as they hurled their fears at him like daggers? What would happen to him, to his sister?
Bobby stood up, walked to Mother's casket and knelt before her. Her emaciated features were given the illusion of health by the mortician's masterful hand. Makeup filled her hollow cheeks like spackle, paint over a clear plastic shell. Mother had no color of her own.
He felt a tingle in the back of his neck, like a ghost standing too close behind him, its breath cold and lifeless against his skin. Bobby pressed his hands together and whispered a tiny prayer...
"Look at me."