by J. E. Deegan
Sounds echoed down the hallway, from the other bedroom. Sharp, suffering, full-of-anguish sounds followed by soft, supplicating sounds. Terrifying yet familiar sounds her mother often made. Sounds Mitchy often made, too, most recently just a few minutes earlier when the man who had been living with them for the past four months had beaten her for reasons she no longer tried to understand.
He simply liked to.
Mitchy knew little about the man, only that he worked in a seedy section of the city known as Limboland, in a restaurant named Nighthawks, the same place her mother worked. At least that's what her mother had said when explaining that the man would help pay the bills they couldn't afford on their own. Mitchy had never been to Limboland, but she had seen stories on TV news shows about the terrible events that occurred there. It was a dreadful place, a place where wicked people did horrible things to each other.
And now the man had brought the evils of Limboland into her home.
In the doorway to her room, trembling with anger and pain while listening to the agonized cries of her mother, Mitchy felt the intense loathing for the sadistic man down the hallway suddenly mutate into something vastly more powerful. Being but seven years old and not yet capable of attaching words to all of her emotions, she didn't have a name for this newly evolved feeling. But in the very core of her soul she knew that what had been hatred for the man had turned decidedly downward toward something even more dark and raging.
Moving brought a fiery ache to her legs, especially to her stunted left one. She lifted her nightdress and the full moon frosting the window provided enough light to reveal that her bad leg was swollen and discolored with bruises. A throbbing pain beneath her left eye drew her fingers there and she winced at the sharp pain that ignited in her cheek. Her bottom lip felt full of hot needles as her tongue gingerly scooped a bead of drying blood from the gash at the corner of her mouth.
She limped to the bed in her small room where her rag doll Megan rested neatly on a pillow. Reaching for the doll, her hand froze in midair and a swift gasp hissed between her teeth. She rubbed at her eyes, which seemed strangely blurred, then squinted at something that must have been caused by a trick of the light. Moving closer, she looked closer, then believed. The tangle of stiff orange yarn on top of Megan's head had lengthened and was turning a silky, golden yellow. In the same instant that she grabbed at her own hair, Mitchy realized that her doll's had assumed an identical color and texture.
Only her own wasn't so long anymore, she noticed. And it was thickening and growing coarse.
Carefully lifting Megan from the pillow, Mitchy saw that the doll's legs were tumored with lumps and knots, in precisely the places her own were. A breath caught in her throat when she examined Megan's left leg, now as stunted and shriveled as her own. Her inspection shifted to Megan's face, which had been a blank featureless stretch of rough, stained fabric. She rubbed her eyes again until they hurt, but the odd fuzziness remained…was getting worse. But despite her clouded vision she saw a small jagged slash forming at the corner of a slowly widening mouth and a dark crescent-shaped swelling taking shape on Megan's cheek, just below a steadily materializing left eye.
Mitchy held her doll at arm's length and turned rigid with bewilderment. Her mind froze, a dark wave of dread began rising inside her - then quickly faded away. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell slowly open as she thought of the night before, of the carnival, and of the barker at the 3-PEAT BASKETBALL booth. She remembered what he had said: Anything.
"Oh, Megan," she whispered softly, embracing the doll and rocking her gently side-to-side. She smiled and placed her lips against Megan's newly developed ear.
"Anything?" she asked.
Then, focusing every ounce of energy on the bedroom down the hall, on the evil man there, she repeated the question.
"You'd like one of those, wouldn't you?"
Mitchy's heart quickened, her eyes locked on the shelves lining a side wall of the 3-PEAT BASKETBALL booth. There, frozen in graceful poses, wearing elegant Victorian gowns, their dainty porcelain faces painted and smiling, were the most beautiful dolls she had ever seen. They were the prizes for making three consecutive shots with a basketball.
The man had easily made his first two shots, and Mitchy glanced quickly to him, then to the ground, then to the barker who stood stiffly behind the counter with his arms folded across his chest. He winked at her then looked intently at the man.
"Well, Mitchy?" the man asked, confidently tossing the basketball from one hand to the other. His face held a smile that looked friendly on the outside, but Mitchy was used to it and no longer trusted it. She didn't because the man wearing it regularly beat her and her mother. She didn't because he constantly mocked and taunted her about the shriveled left leg she had been born with, the leg the doctors said she would always just drag along behind her like a stack of stones. She didn't because she had grown to hate this cruel, wicked man who made life so miserable for her and her mother.
Still, she wanted to believe he would win one of the beautiful dolls for her. After all, it had been his idea to go to the carnival, even though he made her silently watch from a place out of the way while he played this game and that. But maybe this time would be different. Maybe just this once. Maybe.
"Well, do you want a doll or not?" The man's voice thickened and grew surly.
Mitchy nodded once, heard the familiar sneer, and watched the ball fly from the man's hand to ricochet like a bullet off the backboard well away from the basket. He then pointed at her and howled until his mouth became a great open cave and his face marbled with purple blotches.
Shame and anguish blended in Mitchy like a swirling fiery cloud. Shivering, trying desperately not to cry, she looked at the barker, who was staring at the man as though he wanted to kill him. He shook his head and glanced sadly at her.
"Look, mister," the barker then calmly said to the laughing man. "Let's just say you made that shot, okay?" He turned and reached for one of the exquisite porcelain dolls.
The man stopped laughing. His mouth tightened to a flat, hard smirk. "No you don't, buddy! The rules say make three out of three. I didn't, and I say she'll just have to do without. Understand!?"
Mitchy clenched her teeth and fought to hold back the tears gathering in her eyes.
The barker breathed deeply and nodded. "Okay…no pretty doll. But how about this?" He reached beneath the counter, pulled out a lumpy, badly soiled rag doll, and held it up for the man to see. Ludicrously ugly and layered with dust, the thing was a floppy bundle of stuffed cloth that looked decades old. Sitting atop this spongy pile of rags was a faceless head - a blank, baseball-sized fabric sphere crowned with a tangle of orange yarn for hair.
Watching the barker, anger rose like a sudden storm in the man. His teeth snapped together, his brow furrowed into waves and his hands curled into fists. Then his seething gaze shifted to Mitchy, who was staring curiously at the misshapen heap. The storm abruptly receded from the man's face and he laughed contemptuously as he turned and walked from the booth. "Yeah, why not?" he brayed. "It looks just like her."
The barker carefully brushed the dust from the rag doll and handed it to Mitchy. She took it and smiled warmly.
"How old are you, Mitchy?" he asked, leaning over the counter.
"Well, how about that. So is your doll."
Mitchy's eyes beamed. "Really?"
"Does she have a name?"
"You can name her anything you want."
"How about Megan? That's my middle name."
The barker nodded and smiled warmly. "That's a mighty pretty name. I think she'll like that just fine."
"But she has no face."
"No, not yet, Mitchy. But she will."
Confused, Mitchy squinted at the barker. "She will? When?"
"When you decide."
Mitchy remained bewildered.
The barker leaned closer. "Megan is your friend now. Your best and dearest friend. She'll be anything you want her to be."
"I don't understand."
"You will, honey. You will. Now, you'd best hurry along before that man gets angry again."
Mitchy's eyes turned to ice. Her voice deepened to a low, whispery growl which the barker knew wasn't intended for him. "He isn't my dad, you know."
The barker smiled softly and gently patted her cheek. "I know, honey. I know."
Mitchy placed the doll on the floor and had to squint to see her labor toward the bedroom door, dragging her withered left leg behind. She stopped at the doorway and looked back at Mitchy, who had slumped supine on her bed. Her arms and legs had gone limp and loose and had lost all feeling. She caught Megan in a smoggy corner of her eye and thought that she saw her smile. As Mitchy smiled back, the features of her face faded away and fully formed on Megan's.
Mitchy's mind drifted away, pulling her toward a deep, dark, and wondrously peaceful hollow. As a calming blackness descended slowly over her, she tried to imagine what tomorrow would be like.
The world went blank with the very comforting thought that tomorrow would be very, very nice.
* * *
The man lay on his back on the far side of the bed, jaws sprung wide as furnace doors for the grating snores rushing in and out of his mouth. One hand was clutched in a fist, the other clutched an empty fifth of vodka. In the farthest corner of the room, Mitchy's mother lay motionless, facing the wall and curled protectively around herself.
Unseen, Megan hobbled to the bed, pulled herself up the leg of an adjacent chair, then carefully crawled onto the mattress. Slowly, methodically, she maneuvered her way to the man's head and straddled it, facing his feet. She leaned over and tapped his cheek with her hand. The man snorted, shook his head, and pawed at his face. Megan tapped again, harder, and the man's eyes dragged open, turned dazed in their swollen fleshy trenches, then abruptly unfurled into baffled blood-streaked circles. Megan rolled her eyes into the man's and bared her teeth in a savage grin. The man's mouth flew broadly open, whether to scream or curse would never be known.
Megan plunged her head between the man's gaping jaws and simultaneously wrapped her ropy arms around his neck. Her torso slammed into his face, sealing off his nostrils, and her legs coiled tightly around the upper portion of his head. Steadily, she squeezed her arms and legs ever tighter, all the while driving and twisting her head deeper into the man's throat.
The man thrashed wildly and pulled and tore madly at Megan's trunk and limbs. But she remained securely in place until he stopped moving.
* * *
"I brought her back," Mitchy said to the barker. "I was supposed to, wasn't I?"
The barker nodded, his eyes turned grave. "It's sad to say, Mitchy, but there are other children who need her."
Mitchy smiled thinly and showed him the doll. "Her back is torn and some of her stuffing came out."
"That's all right. She heals quickly."
"The police said he suffocated…that he choked to death in his sleep. They said he was probably too drunk to wake up."
The barker smiled, nodded. "You and your mom will do just fine now." He nodded toward the woman who stood waiting at a corner of the tent. She smiled briefly then nodded back.
Mitchy looked at the doll. "Her left leg stayed crippled. It didn't change back like the rest of her did. Is that all right?"
"Of course it is, honey. Don't you worry about that. Her leg will heal, too."
Mitchy smiled then hugged the doll and rumpled the tangled mat of orange yarn on its head. She kissed its blank face on the spot where its nose would have been, then handed it to the barker. He, too, kissed the face, then placed the doll on the shelf beneath the counter.
"Thank you," Mitchy said warmly as she turned to leave.
When she turned back, the barker was holding one of the beautiful porcelain dolls. "Here," he said, handing it to her. "She looks just like you."
To the barker, the smile that lit up Mitchy's face shined brighter than all of heaven's stars.
Mitchy left then, delicately cradling her beautiful new doll in her arms.
The barker smiled and watched her walk away. She no longer dragged her left leg behind her.
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