The streets were black, wet, and peppered with gold and red October leaves. At seven o’clock, the sky had already grown dark, with only a few lingering fingers of ruddy crimson at the edges to show where the sun had descended. Alan walked down the familiar street, his hands deep in the pockets of his pea coat and his face and neck mostly hidden by a black scarf.
He tried to walk to and from the train station most days if the weather was mild enough. It hadn’t been raining that morning, so he thought it was safe enough to leave his car at home, but as he left work, he realized the wind was mean and seemed to whip right through his coat. He walked quickly through the cold, trying to forget the stress of a long work day and thinking about a warm house, a warm meal, and the peace and quiet of a long weekend off.
Alan Foster lived in a small blue and white townhouse. It was on a block like a thousand others around it, with ten houses on each side, each painted a different, but extremely similar pastel color. It was a two-family home, and Alan lived on the top floor. The people below him were an older married couple with no children. They were relatively benign people, though Alan had occasionally been asked by them to keep his music down.
The house had belonged to Alan’s Great Aunt Joan, who was a small, frail woman of particular disposition and frigid demeanor. She was a recluse, one could say, and most of the family didn’t care for her very much. When she became ill about five years ago, Alan had just finished nursing school, so it was decided mostly without his input that he would take care of her. His family, who were of the stuffy New England variety, never said the word “hospice,” but Alan, sadly, felt it was understood that his Great Aunt Joan would probably not make it through the winter. All were surprised, and passive-aggressively put off that she lasted another five years under Alan’s care.
As he reached the front door of his home, Alan opened the mailbox at the side of the door, collected his bills, letters, and magazines, then opened the door and hurried up the narrow flight of stairs.
Alan’s home was still furnished as his Great Aunt had left it, with the peeling paisley wallpaper of faint rose and brown, the glass coffee table, the bookshelves filled with knick-knacks, and dusty Agatha Christie novels. This was due to the fact that Alan had moved into this house from his parent’s home when he started taking care of his 90-year-old Great Aunt and really had no idea how to furnish a house. He supposed he would eventually go about painting and buying furniture and so on, but for now, he was still trying to take in the fact that he was 26 and he owned his own home and had a bank account with five digits in it. Not enough to live on by any means, but enough to help him live comfortably.
He imagined buying neat and somewhat more comfortable furniture. He would probably, at some point, move into the large master bedroom and buy a king-sized bed or something equally frivolous. The house didn’t even have a television at the moment, which in a way, Alan liked greatly. He spent a lot of time reading, listening to music, and studying.
He had plans for all the rooms except for one. By far, the strangest and most interesting room in the house was the doll room. Alan had always felt very uncomfortable about the room and was hoping to dismantle it. He didn’t want any of these dolls, but he knew they were far too valuable to throw away. He didn’t know how much they might be worth, but frankly, he wanted to clean it out and make some sort of office out of the dusty sepia tone room of faded dressed and chipped porcelain.
Dolls had always been a passion of his Great Aunt Joan. It was one of the few hobbies she had, and once or twice a month, Alan would take her to various meetings of some kind of collectors club or antique sales or even fancy auctions, at which he had to wear a suit.
The room was small, like a child’s bedroom. The room was painted pink with white moldings and trim. The walls were lined with white bookshelves full of dolls of different sizes and styles. There was also a small bed, which was covered in larger dolls and some stuffed animals.
The room was both beautiful and a little creepy. Cracked porcelain doll faces, some missing a hand or an eye. All the dresses, so neat and dainty. Occasionally Alan checked on the room, but he rarely entered it.
Great Aunt Joan’s collection put her into contact with various other collectors around the world with whom she had ongoing correspondences. One of the most taxing parts of his ongoing care of her estate was responding to the mail that trickled in with news of her passing.
It was among these letters that he found Annabelle. The address on her letters was very close by, so after letting her know about his aunt’s passing, he inquired about finding an appraiser and seller for the doll collection. She replied promptly that she would be happy to be both.
A week later, she arrived at his door looking like a doll herself. She was short, in her early twenties, chin-length brown hair held back with a pink barrette. Her eyes were large and sparkling brown with gold flecks. She had a pretty heart-shaped face, chubby cheeks, and deliciously fat lips painted pink as well.
Alan realized he was staring a bit too long, but he was taken aback by her whole aesthetic. Her wide hips and very thick thighs, giving her a cherubic appearance. She wore a beautiful vintage-looking babydoll style pink gingham dress with white stockings and pretty white saddle shoes.
He invited her in, and she gave him a tight-lipped smile and nod.
She was such a quiet thing, not timid or shy, but seemingly extremely intent and intensely focused on her job. She went up to the doll room after Alan introduced himself and quickly went to work, examining and cataloging each doll, jotting down notes in a leather-bound ledger.
She said nothing for just over an hour, only acknowledging Alan by nodding yes when asked if she would like tea.
Alan didn’t want to be rude, so he let her work in peace, but it was strange to have a pretty girl in the house with him alone. The smell of her perfume was light and floral and so distinctly feminine. He watched her from the doorway, the way she moved with such economy of motion, the way she examined such specific things about each doll; the eyes, the hair, the labels on the clothes. Always so careful not to disturb them.
It was almost three hours before she finished. She took one last look around and then turned and left the room. Alan followed, unsure how close to walk lest his longing become apparent through his body language.
“It will take a few days to put together prices for all these things, Mister Foster. Also, we will need to take pictures.” her voice was a squeak, a whisper.
Alan nodded. “That’s fine. I’d like to get this done as quickly as possible.” She looked down at her little ledger and then up into his eyes. “Are you planning on getting rid of all of them?” she asked in a suddenly more personal tone.
He realized that this girl shared his Great Aunt’s love of dolls, and she was asking to see if he, too, was a collector. He considered keeping some of them for no other reason than to have a reason to talk to Annabelle on a regular basis.
“I’m afraid not. I don’t really have a passion for them. Perhaps I’ll keep one in my aunt’s memory.”
She eyed him, her head tilting a bit as she studied him. “Any particular one?”
He looked at the shelves full of dolls and the mass of dolls on the bed. “I guess I like the chubby-cheeked ones. The ones that look like little cherubs. One of those, maybe.”
She eyed him again, blinking though her face revealed very little of what she was thinking. “I’ll put aside something that isn’t of great monetary value that I think your aunt would have liked you to have. She spoke very highly of you the few times we had personal conversations.”
Alan’s eyebrows rose. “Oh?
“She could be a bit-” she started and then bit her lip. “Well, she could be a bit prickly, but she seemed genuinely thankful that you came to take care of her.”
Alan swallowed and looked down at the floor. He was surprised by the rush of emotion. He took a deep breath and looked into Annabelle’s deep brown eyes. “Thank you for telling me that.”
Annabelle gave him a small smile, and it lit up her face. Then after a moment, she nodded and gathered her things.
“Could you come back on Wednesday? I work a short shift that day, only 1-5. I have a decent camera, but it’s at my parent’s place. I can get it and maybe a flash,” Alan said as he led her back to the front door.
“I have a camera, and I’m used to shooting dolls. I think it will be faster if I handle that. If you don’t mind. It’s slow work. Maybe I can come around noon and shoot while you are at work so we don’t get in each other’s way. Then we can marry up the pictures and the info I wrote up today. I think I can sell them all pretty easily and get you about $20,000-$25,000. I would need a 20% commission since I’m doing so much of the work.”
The amount was more than triple what Alan imagined. He paused for a moment to make it look like he was thinking about it, then he shook his head and held out his hand. “That sounds very fair. It’s a deal.”
She looked at his hand and then looked him in the eyes again. She took his hand lightly and shook it once. Then she was off, and Alan watched her walk to her car from his front door, the wind whipping her short dress. She stood out, this perfect candy pink confection shining through the gray autumn day.
That Wednesday, he greeted a somewhat more demure Annabelle. She wore a knee-length navy blue dress with little flower designs and white lace trim on the short sleeves and hem. Again, she looked like a doll. Her pouting lips were red and drew his eyes even more. She dragged a large rolling suitcase with her that Alan came out and helped her with.
He’s set out a small lunch for them, spending the morning thinking about what she might like and deciding on a recreation of the meals his great aunt had often laid out on special occasions. Little finger sandwiches of cucumber, smoked salmon, and watercress. A fine Earl Gray served in his great aunt’s beloved tea set with a plate of pink sugar cubes stacked in a perfect pyramid.
Annabelle was difficult to read, but she smiled and seemed extra pleased when he pulled out her chair for her. They chatted a bit, and he much enjoyed how she carefully ate the little sandwich, never messing up her lipstick.
Then he showed her to her room and left her to work while he did his shift at the hospital. At four, a little before he was ready to leave work, he decided he would ask Annabelle on a date once the business of selling the dolls was through. He thought it would be a bit improper to do it before.
When he got home, he found a neat pile of papers on the dining room table. Pictures were neatly printed with descriptions of the dolls and prices, all organized perfectly. He called for Annabelle, but there was no answer. He wondered if she might have finished early and left, which gave him a pang of sadness.
He walked up the stairs and went to the doll room, seeing that the light was still on. At first, he thought she had simply decided to take a nap, but then he noticed how different her clothes were.
Annabelle was laid on the very center of the bed. The dolls were arraigned in their little bookshelves, and the ones that were usually on the bed were in boxes in the corner of the room.
Annabelle was dressed in a puffy pink babydoll dress with white buttons down the front and many white lace embellishments. White stockings and white gloves. White saddle shoes. A white ribbon with a big bow in her hair. Her eyes were open, looking up at the ceiling.
“Annabelle?” Alan asked softly. She didn’t stir or look at him. He called her again a little louder, and she still didn’t move. He noticed a little note on the bed next to her.
Moving closer, he saw that it wasn’t a note but a white sort of tag tied to her wrist with a pink ribbon. He walked over and flipped the tag over. It said, in very pretty calligraphic lettering, “Right now, I am just a doll. If you like, I can be your doll for a bit. A doll that you can do with whatever you like. If I need you to stop, I will speak up. If you don’t want a doll or if you are finished with me, simply leave the room and close the door. I will pack up and leave. No hard feelings. I very much want to be your doll. – Annabelle.”
He read it again, not really believing his eyes. He read it a third time. He looked at her face. She still stared at the ceiling. He watched as she blinked.