Henry was a career soldier, who people respected by default. He loved Garth Brooks, NASCAR and Tom Clancy novels. He built the dollhouse to help Angela bear his absence while he was in the Gulf.
He made it with his own hands, though he had no particular skill, and the roof ended up crooked, but it was made of oak and varnished lavishly. He put a bed with an intricately carved headboard in each of the three bedrooms, and glued a square piece of aluminum foil to the wall of the washroom for a mirror, and placed in the living room a little couch with real upholstery stapled to it and a miniature desk with a bit of paper and a tiny pen glued onto its surface. He left the people for last, and ran out of time, so they looked rougher than everything around them, as though they'd stolen into the beautiful house while its real family was away.
It was a completely inappropriate gift. Angela was twelve, and into R. L. Stine, Twin Peaks and smoking in the school bathroom. Her room was papered with posters of Jon Bon Jovi, Paula Abdul and New Kids on the Block, although in a few months she'd tear them all down to embrace grunge and flannel. She told her mother she'd been too old for dollhouses for years, and her mother told her she'd better not let on to her father, or she'd be grounded for the next six months. She obeyed her mother and faked enthusiasm for the dollhouse, so he left happy enough and died in the Gulf almost right away, in a car accident that could have killed him anywhere. After that, she would sit and look at it and cry, though not when anybody could see.
The dollhouse contained a miniature replica of Angela's family: could-be-anybody father in a black suit, even blander mother in a flowered skirt and white top, Angela's older brother David just a smaller version of his father, Angela herself in a dress of blue velvet cut from the scraps of a real blue velvet dress her mother had sewn her for church, and Angela's older sister, Isadore, in pink, whose replica Angela placed in the miniature chest in one of the bedrooms, which she glued shut after a particularly vicious fight got them both sent to their rooms.
Dora loved Mudhoney and Nine Inch Nails and Henry Rollins, and unexpected guests, because it meant her mother served some of the fine sherry she kept in a cut-glass decanter in the parlor. She never noticed her absence from the dollhouse. She grew up to escape: to Hollywood at first, then Martha's Vineyard as a magician's assistant and finally Las Vegas. The neighbors said there had always been something a little off about that girl. Now she and Angela talk on the phone every Sunday, the only people in their lives who either of them understand.
The father and mother dolls slept in their narrow wooden bed and, occasionally, practiced the sex act as it had been described to her by her older brother David, a highly unreliable source of fascinating information, some of it true. David was chiefly famous in their town for clambering onto high structures, such as church steeples and the town clock. He grew up to be a soldier, like his father, but wild, unlike his father, wandering in and out of alcoholism and coming close to being dishonorably discharged at least annually. David talks to his sister at Christmas and on birthdays, and saves up funny stories to fill the conversations so they don't have to talk about anything real.
* * *
Ashley was given the dollhouse on her third birthday. She forced dandelions into the playdough asphalt she spread as evenly as she could manage (which was not very) around it. The sun was a tennis ball dangling by a shoelace from her doorknob.
The dollhouse was a cross-section, wooden plank and ceramic tiles. Light had multiple sources, the many windows and the whole open front of it. The furnishings appeared eaten by it: two white chairs and a white table, an upended bed in red plastic. Somewhere along the way, the original furniture was lost or broken.
A tiny sewing cushion and miniature embroidery hoops leaned against one wall. An invisible pin was held by the model of a lady, the Mom of the family, poised to create something beautiful, something fine. The lady's fingers were full of bird song. The lady's mouth was a dent, carefully painted with red polish. Her nose was a black dot of ink. Her eyes were made by twice driving a spike into her wooden head.
A few months after Ashley's birthday, Angela woke up in an empty bed. A plow was beeping insistently as it backed up after dumping a load of snow onto the sidewalk. The snow had stopped falling, and the sun was out. She brushed her teeth. Stephen's side of the bed wasn't even rumpled. He must have worked late, and slept on the couch so he wouldn't wake her. That was sweet.
When she left their room to make coffee and breakfast, Ashley was sitting in front of the dollhouse, big tears spilling silently out of her eyes.
"What's the matter, honey?" Angela asked.
Ashley was always crying over something - one of her dolls had died, and she was crying because it was the funeral, she'd explain, impatient with how stupid her mother was being, or they'd had to go away to war. Ashley's concept of war was confused and dramatic, fed by the nightly news and her grandmother's cranky pronouncements about her dead husband. Angela only kept asking because she wanted to be a good mother, and she was certain that the one time she failed to ask about Ashley's tears would be the time that creepy Mr. Sotherby next door put his liver-spotted hands on one of her daughter's private places, or saintly Mrs. Rippi at the daycare would have finally lost it and smacked her with a ruler.
"My throat hurts," Ashley said. She poked at it for emphasis.
"Oh, honey," Angela said. "I'll make you some hot lemonade, and you can lie down in Mommy's bed, okay?"
"No," Ashley said. "I ate the iron."
"I ate the iron." She pointed to the spot on the table in the back room of the dollhouse where the miniature metal iron would normally rest. "It hurts."
"Okay," Angela said. "Okay." She put one of her hands on her forehead. She had made three hundred dollars in tips at the bar the night before. They could go to emergency. Where was her coat? It wasn't hanging in the closet, and she had a sudden, clear vision of it on the back of a chair in the dressing room at work. She helped Ashley into her parka.
"Okay," she said again, and grabbed Stephen's coat out of the closet. "Come with Mommy." Ashley took her hand.
"Did you call 911?" the triage nurse asked. Angela shook her head no. They asked some questions about insurance, which were easy to answer since they didn't have any, and then the nurse asked Ashley some questions about the iron, which Angela answered because Ashley had gone unaccountably shy. No, she didn't know why her daughter had swallowed it. No, it wasn't large. No, she hadn't heard her choking. Yes, she wanted to say, yes she knew she was a bad mother. Ashley was led off for an x-ray.
Angela tried to sink into a chair, but it was rigid and angled such that she felt like she was going to slide onto the floor, so instead she leaned against the wall. It felt cool against her head. She rolled one cheek onto it, and then the other, popping her neck. "Oh," she said. She hadn't realized how tense she was. She slid her hands deep into her jacket's pockets, and closed her eyes. The folded corner of a piece of paper was spearing her finger, so she pulled it out to throw it away. It was pink stationary. That was weird. She unfolded it.
"Meet me at the hotel tonight," it said. The hotel, as though there were only one: it had to be a regular thing. The writing was loopy, circular, just stopping short of dotting i's with hearts. "xo," it said. "Rhonda." She didn't know any Rhonda. Stephen had never mentioned any Rhonda. He was cheating on her with a total stranger.
Angela dropped the note, and it skittered under one of the uncomfortable chairs. She could be wrong. Maybe Rhonda worked at the hotel, and Stephen was... there had to be some legitimate... She was like somebody in a sitcom, overreacting to something innocuous, being ridiculous. Stephen would never. He wouldn't. She thought about the unrumpled bed that morning.
The nurse came back then with Ashley and put her on a narrow cot in a white-curtained cubicle. "It'll take a few minutes," she said, and left them alone. Ashley was fussing with the paper sheet around her neck. Angela stroked her moist forehead. "Does your throat still hurt?"
Ashley shook her head. "No."
"Okay, then, I'm going to call Daddy." The bastard. Ashley nodded without looking at her, lying back on the cot as though she'd been anesthetized. The phone across the hall from them was yellow and decorated with the numbers of taxi services. Angela stood there a moment longer, and then made herself step away from the bed and dial Stephen's cell. It took three tries before she realized she needed to dial nine first, and then it rang. Would he even answer? Was he with Rhonda? And then he was on the line. "Oh, thank God," she said, and she felt her throat clogging with tears, but she couldn't cry, Ashley could see her, she shouldn't cry. She blinked rapidly.
"Thank God why? What's wrong? What's going on?" Stephen was saying, and
Angela cut him off to explain where they were, and why. He started laughing. "That dollhouse," he said, "is going to be the death of her. You know she did this before."
"No," Angela said. When was this? "What happened?"
"It was the mother's head. She coughed it back up, and I glued it on more tightly. I thought it wouldn't happen again."
"You should have told me."
"I know, I know. Listen, I'm glad she's okay. I'll see you later." He hung up before she could reply.
* * *
He's home when they get there, and watches Angela take off his coat. She watches the door close slowly behind them, and shivers in its chilled air. She takes off Ashley's coat and boots and puts them away, and then walks over to sit on the couch. Ashley makes a beeline for the dollhouse.
"How's Rhonda." Angela's voice shakes a little, like the lure at the end of a line, but it's not a question. She left the note on the hospital floor, so she has nothing to throw at him. She iswondering if it wouldn't be better to just pretend she didn't know anything about Rhonda.
Stephen ignores this. "How's Ashley?"
"She's fine," she says. "It's in her stomach. She'll poop it out."
"Oh, good." He sits on the couch next to her, putting an arm around her, and she lets him. It's suddenly too much work to ask about the note. She should wait, anyway. She shouldn't say anything in front of Ashley. Outside, the sun is slanting through the icicles hanging from the eaves, melting them, so their points become prisms, projecting tiny rainbows onto the grain of the coffee table. Stephen puts his feet on the table, so the rainbows shine on the hem of his jeans.
Ashley is manuevring the Mom doll and the Dad doll until they're as close together as they can get. Their round chests keep their faces from touching, and she has to lift the Daddy off the ground to make him kiss his wife.
"I love you," she says for him, shaking him in the air to indicate that he's the one talking.
"I love you too," she says for the Mom, shaking her in turn.
Angela and Stephen just watch her, neither of them breathing, each waiting for the other to say something. Without noticing it, they're leaning closer together. Ashley stops to rub one eye with her wrist, digging it into the eye socket, and her head droops. They watch her struggle to stay awake, the dolls gripped tightly in each hand.
Joanne Merriam is a Nova Scotian livingin New Hampshire. Her poetry collection, The Glaze from Breaking (Stride, 2005), is available online and in the UK. Her fiction has
appeared in The Fiddlehead, Strange Horizons and Southern Gothic.