--I DON’T HATE YOU. I WOULDN’T KNOW HOW.
He was thinking of Blair when it happened, which was part of the problem.
He hit the brakes too hard. In the passenger seat Carly’s head snapped forward, missing out on a concussion by a sliver.
A cloud of road dust enveloped them. “What the hell, Evan?” Carly said, but then the dust cleared and she saw what he saw, the thing that had made him stop so sharply.
“How many do you think there are?” she asked, leaning over the dash and peering as one would the edge of a steep cliff.
Evan couldn’t recall ever being afraid during daylight hours, but here it was mid-afternoon, the sun up and angry, with him a sheet of gooseflesh.
“That’s something you don’t see every day,” he said, trying to sound calm, speaking the words like a drunk aiming not to slur.
“It’s a little freaky.”
“Let’s have a closer look,” he said, as if on a dare. They got out together, their car doors opening in unison, much like partners in a detective show.
Carly waited for him to come around and took his palm in hers. Heat from the hood of the car wafted against her thighs.
He thought of Blair again. A splintered memory, of them after a skinny dip in Storm Lake, her staggering for balance, grabbing his hand, saying, “Wait up, you insolent bastard.”
“What do you imagine?” Carly asked. She was a fan of obscure, incomplete questions, knowing well that those got better results, sometimes quite unexpected consequences.
Evan bent down. Carly released his hand, still standing.
“They’re just dolls,” he said.
“They’re creeping me out.”
Many of the Barbies were crushed—arms and legs, a flattened head. A good yard of the roadside was littered with dismembered body parts. Her outfits were torn, shredded around the edges and it was impossible to know when the damage had been done, and who’d been the culprit, an automobile tire or someone else. Evan picked up a stray head--Brunette Barbie. He held it by the ends of her hair, letting it dangle like a key chain or a dead shrew. “She does look pretty real, you know, natural, life-like?” Evan said, taking in the sapphire eyes. “Did you ever have any when you were a kid?”
“Of course,” Carly said.
“Which was your favorite?”
“Can we just go?”
“Did you have Ken, too? That was his name, wasn’t it, Ken?”
He picked up a stiff yellow piece of fabric—Entertaining Housewife Barbie. A strand of pearls was stitched across the neckline for added effect.
“Is that blood?” Carly asked.
That was why he’d picked it up in the first place, because of the strange smear near the top of the miniature dress, right below where her throat would be.
“It is. That’s blood. Don’t pick at it. Where are you going to wash your hands?”
Crimson flecks came off as he scraped, but a sudden yet momentary breeze sent them whirling away before he could be certain.
“Stop it, Evan.”
“It’s not every day you see something like this.”
“You said that already. Come on, let’s go. I have to pee.”
“Go over there,” he said, gesturing to an opening in the verdant expanse.
Her arms were folded, her eyes glowering yet tentative, knowing who steered their fledgling romance. Still, she said, “You can be really mean sometimes.”
And then Blair again: “Hey dirt bag! Come feed me grapes and rub my feet and I’ll forgive you for saying that.”
He squinted. An airplane, tiny as a necklace cross, floated soundlessly in the wide sky. When he looked back, Carly was still waiting for him. “We’re out in the sticks,” he said. “We’re not going to find a regular restroom for at least an hour. Go ahead, no one will see you.”
She threw an invisible something at him, her palm flapping open empty, and said, “Meanie.” He watched her turn and walk into the mouth of the open woods.
Blair had disappeared. It happened shortly after she broke up with him, and for the first few months Evan was pleased, even when others started to consider foul play. But now he felt guilt-ridden for writing her off that way. He missed her. Plus, there was always the chance she could change her mind about him, about them as a couple. It happened sometimes. They said it was a woman’s prerogative.
He bent down and picked up a headless torso--Motorcycle Barbie with black jacket and matching chaps made of vinyl meant to look leather. He took Brunette Barbie’s head and pushed the neck stem into Motorcycle Barbie’s torso opening. He tried screwing the head on. He crushed the head between his fingers to make the neck stem more pronounced and when he did that her eyes expanded, the whites growing larger. His fingers were slick. He switched hands and checked the damp hand to be sure. How could he know that the doll hadn’t been crying? This was actual moisture. Evan’s hands never sweated. His circulation was off. People always remarked whenever he shook their hands. Blair had teased him, called him a vampire.
He looked into Motorcycle Barbie’s eyes and realized why he was so adamant about assembling this particular doll. Why had he not noticed before, the resemblance?
He said her name aloud for the first time in many days, stuttering at the B.
Yes, they had the same alabaster skin. The doll’s plastic face even felt similar to Blair’s cheeks after she’d applied that coconut-scented moisturizer she so favored.
Now it was his turn to cry. A tear drop slashed onto the doll’s face and Blair the doll blinked. Yes! Blinked.
He grinned and sniffled and rubbed the tickling tears that were sliding across the slope of his nose, ant-like.
“I miss you,” he said.
He leaned forward. His eyes closed whenever he kissed Blair. It was instinctual, reflexive, and no matter how hard he tried, Evan had never been able to keep them open. “You’re just afraid to watch what you’re doing,” Blair teased. “If you kissed me with your eyes open you’d probably have a heart attack.” He remembered the pulsating beat of her chest against his as they lay there, he on top. Evan had never felt closer to her. He imagined himself sliding into Blair’s mouth and napping on her tongue, imagined himself sliding down her throat and dog-paddling through the murky soup of her internal fluid, swimming like a determined sperm and impregnating her aorta, slipping through to the other side, giddy at the insistent booming of his love’s robust heart.
And now here he was, lips puckered, eyes closed, the doll’s torso in one palm and its head in the other.
The kiss was disrupted by a rustling of tree limbs behind him.
As he turned, an ill-formed lie was already on its way out before he could take it back. “I was just—“
But Carly wasn’t there.
He looked toward the mouth of the woods where he’d last seen her and saw branches swaying, their tips curling like fingers. He called her name. Called it again. Called louder this time.
A spur of panic burst inside him. How long had Carly been gone? Why wasn’t she answering? What if? No, nothing had happened to her. They were in no-man’s land. But if this was no-man’s land, where had the Barbies come from? Who knew how things like that happened? Look at Blair, she’d gone missing and not shown up.
He started to tremble, his mind working overtime. If—just saying “If”—something happened to Carly he’d have to report it and then if she wasn’t found, the authorities would make a connection, wouldn’t they? They’d have to. A pair of young women gone missing, both linked to him. He remembered the detective—Hallas was his name--a blunt-nosed, steroid-using dick. Hallas had grilled Evan over and over about Blair, at one point all but accusing Evan outright. “You do this job long enough,” Hallas said, “You know a story’s solid if it has good bones. But your story, well, its bones are off, now aren’t they?”
Evan looked over the doll carnage scene. What a ridiculous sight. What a ludicrous idea it had been to stop. If something had happened to Carly—
But nothing had, he told himself.
“Stupid dolls!” he screamed, and without looking, he threw both parts of Motorcycle Barbie Blair. Just before it left his fingers, Evan felt a tense tug, as if they doll was trying to hang on.
He continued to call Carly’s name every other minute. The mouth of the woods gaped cave-like. As he passed through the opening, tree branches instantly swung on their own accord, helped along by a gust of wind Evan did not himself feel. He watched the limbs cross over each other, from one tree to the next, closing the opening, their pine needles quivering or tittering, a sibilant song echoing overhead.
There was no discernible path. Sticker bushes and thorny plants stuck his legs and ankles. Several times he stepped face-first into spider webs, plucking the gauzy tangle from his eyes and mouth. The thicket grew more intense the farther he went, cloistering him. The air grew heavy and darker, sliced intermittently by blade-shaped sunlight which revealed a haze of gnats and mosquitoes. Though it was shaded, the heat had risen, kicking up a stench of rotting things, of urine and decomposing carcasses.
Where was she? How could she have possibly made it through these conditions? Then it occurred to him: she hadn’t made it this far because she hadn’t gone this way. Hell, he was probably lost himself.
He turned to go back. Something moist and cool and alive slithered across his calves, and then started winding itself up his left leg, aiming for the opening of Evan’s cutoffs. He slashed at whatever it was. He even screamed.
Frightened or dissuaded, the thing disappeared.
Evan began to run.
At first it was dream-like, his running. He simply ran in place. He closed his eyes. He wanted to picture something good, something calming, so he conjured up Blair’s face, only it wasn’t exactly Blair’s face his imagination presented, but a facsimile of Blair and Motorcycle Barbie.
He kept moving, kept running. If he fell or got injured, he didn’t care. His fear was too cowardly.
The woods slapped and stabbed his shoulders and ribs and thighs. His feet made harsh, crunching noises as they crushed detritus, and after some time a jeering swoon joined the auditory calamity. The spectral sound was not from birds or any type of animal Evan was familiar with.
It grew louder, shrill, more violent.
Evan ran faster.
His sandal caught in a pothole and Evan tumbled aloft, somersaulting perhaps, perhaps not. He no longer had a sense of gravity. He let himself be thrown or taken.
He crashed to the ground in the fetal position, his shoulder most likely broken from the fall, and rolled onto his back, gasping in anguish.
When he opened his eyes it was sunny and clear above him. He lay there for a moment, panting hard.
Then he jerked.
“Oh, god, you scared me!” the said. The man standing atop him wore overalls and a beat up farmer’s hat. In a second, a woman joined him, then a girl and several boys.
“You’re late for the picnic,” he man said, his voice gruff and undecided.
Evan rolled onto his side and looked between the sets of legs. Off where the clearing extended were clusters of families seated in the grass, blankets spread beneath them.
“Is Carly here?” Evan said
“Don’t know no Carly? You’m?” he asked, turning to his wife and children, who each shrugged.
“We stopped along side of the road and she stepped into the mouth of the woods to, you know, go to the bathroom.”
“No bathrooms out here,” the man said. He waited a few seconds to break out his grin, revealing his joke.
“Hey, it’s not funny. She’s my girlfriend. I’m scared.”
“And you look it,” the wife said, stabbing her head at him like a hen.
“You haven’t seen her?”
“Carly. She’s blonde, five foot six.”
“I said, ‘No.’”
“Well, have you heard anything?”
“We heard you,” the man said, chuckling without smiling. He looked hungry and desperate. His mouth chewed absently, molars clicking and padded lips making sickening smacking sounds.
“Bobby heard screaming coming from the woods,” one of the boys said.
“What screaming?” Evan asked.
“Shut up, boy,” the man said, and slapped the back of his son’s bewildered head. “You keep your craw shut lest I say otherwise.”
“But someone heard something!” Evan said.
“Animals,” the man said.
“How do you know?”
The girl had dull, filthy brown hair twisted into a large coil in the back. Her eyes grew as wide as the Barbie doll had earlier. She pointed at Evan.
“Where’d you get that?” the man said, his upper lip curled and quivering over a fanged eye tooth.
“That’s one of her dolls,” the wife said.
“Dolls? What are you talking about?” But when Evan followed the girl’s finger he saw that it led to his own hand, the one holding Motorcycle Barbie Blair, head attached.
He flinched and let go of the doll but it wouldn’t come out of his hand.
“What kind of man steals a little girl’s Barbie doll?”
“I didn’t. I swear.”
“In these parts, we don’t cotton to theft of any kind.”
“Please, I’m just trying to find my girlfriend.”
“Maybe you was thinking you’d make that doll your girlfriend. Maybe you’re one of those sicko’s.”
“I need your help. Please, I’m worried about Carly.”
“There ain’t no more Carly.”
“What do you mean?” Evan asked. Something in the man’s eyes told him he had a cache of information he wasn’t going to share, not now, not ever. Evan looked at the wife and her eyes told the whole story. The bones were there in the story, and now Evan understood what Detective Hallas had meant.
“Out here we make the rules. We say what’s what.”
The little girl started to cry, whimpering. Each sniffle irked the man and Evan watched him squint but not wipe away a stream of sweat that dripped into his eye, burning.
“You’re a sick one.”
The light was leaving the sky. Bodies came forward. The legs of the jury were many and they struck with a vengeance, without mercy, proclaiming judgment.
Evan held crossed his arms against his head for protection, the doll clamped to his hand. He cried her name, both names, he begged for forgiveness, but his voice could not be heard.