My eyes burn a hole in the page. I should know this. I can usually dissect a science equation easily, but the answer isn’t coming to me. The bell on the door dings. I quickly tuck my homework beneath the counter and look up. A guy on a cell phone walks in.
Not the cell phone part but the guy part. It isn’t that men don’t frequent the doll store— Okay, actually it is. Men don’t frequent the store. They are a rare sighting. When they do come in, they trail behind feminine types and look extremely self-conscious . . . or bored. This one is neither. He’s very much alone and confident. The kind of confidence only money can buy. Lots of it.
I smile a little. There are two types of people in our small beach town: the rich and the people who sell things to the rich. Apparently having money means collecting useless things like porcelain dolls (the adjective “useless” should never be used around my mother when referring to dolls). The rich are our constant entertainment.
“What do you mean you want me to pick?” Mr. Rich says into the phone. “Didn’t Grammy tell you which one she wanted?” He lets out a long sigh. “Fine. I’ll take care of it.” He pockets his phone and beckons me over. Yes. Beckons. It’s the only word I can use to describe the motion. He hadn’t even glanced my way but held up his hand and moved two fingers in his direction. His other hand rubs his chin while he studies the dolls in front of him.
I size him up as I walk over. The untrained eye might not pick up on the richness oozing off this guy, but I know rich and he reeks of it. His one outfit probably cost more than all the clothes in my tiny closet. Not that it looks expensive. It’s an outfit that’s purposefully trying to downplay how much it cost: a pair of cargo pants, a pink button-down rolled at the sleeves. But the clothes were purchased somewhere that specializes in thread count and triple stitching. It’s obvious he can buy the whole store if he wants to. Well, not him; his parents. I didn’t realize it at first because his confidence aged him, but now that I’m closer I can see he’s young. My age maybe? Seventeen. Although he could be a year older. How is someone my age already so versed at beckoning? A lifetime of privilege, obviously.
“Can I help you, sir?” Only my mom would’ve heard the sarcasm laced into that single statement.
“Yes, I need a doll.”
“Sorry, we’re all out.” A lot of people don’t get my humor. My mom calls it dry humor. I think that means “not funny,” but it also means I’m the only one who ever knows it’s a joke. Maybe if I laugh afterward, like my mom does when she’s helping customers, more people would humor me, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
“Funny,” he says, but not like he actually thinks it’s funny; more like he wishes I wouldn’t talk at all. He still hasn’t looked at me. “So which one of these do you think an older woman might like?”
“All of them.”
The muscle in his jaw jumps and then he turns toward me. For a split second I see surprise in his eyes, like he expected some old woman to be standing in front of him—I blame my voice, which is slightly deeper than average—but it doesn’t stop him from saying the sentence already spilling over his lips: “Which one do you like?”
Am I allowed to say “none”? Despite the fact it’s my inevitable future, the store is my mom’s love, not mine. “I’m partial to the eternal wailers.”
I point to the porcelain version of a baby, his mouth open in a silent cry, his eyes squeezed shut. “I’d rather not see their eyes. Eyes can say so much. Theirs say, ‘I want to steal your soul so don’t turn your back on us.’”
I’m rewarded with a smile that takes away all the hard, arrogant edges on his face, leaving him very attractive. He should definitely make that a permanent fixture. But before I even finish the thought, the smile’s gone.
“My grammy’s birthday is coming up and I’m supposed to pick out a doll for her.”
“You can’t go wrong. If she likes porcelain dolls, she’ll like any of them.”
He looks back at the shelves of dolls. “Why the wailers? Why not the sleepers?” He’s staring at a peaceful-looking baby, a pink bow in her blond curls, her hands tucked under her cheek, her face relaxed.
I stare at her, too, and contrast her to the wailer next to her. The one whose fists are balled, its toes curled, its cheeks pink with irritation. “Because that’s my life: screaming without making a sound.” Okay, so I didn’t really say that. I thought it. What I really say after a shrug is “They both work.” Because if I’ve learned anything about customers it’s that they don’t really want your opinion. They want you to tell them their opinion is valid. So if Mr. Rich wants the sleeping baby for Grammy, who am I to stop him?
He shakes his head as if eradicating a thought and then points to a completely different shelf occupied by dolls of the soul-sucking variety. The girl he points to is dressed in a plaid school uniform and holds the leash of a black Scottish terrier. “I guess that one will work. She likes dogs.”
“Who does? Your grandma or”—I squint to read the placard in front of the doll—“Peggy?”
“It’s quite obvious Peggy likes dogs,” he says, a hint of a smile playing on his lips. “I was referring to my grandmother.”
I open the lower cupboard to find Peggy’s box. I pull it out and gently take the girl and her dog, along with her name placard, off the shelf and to the register. As I carefully pack her away, Mr. Rich points. “How come the dog isn’t named?” He reads aloud the title on the box. “‘Peggy and dog.’”
“Because people tend to want to name animals after their beloved pets.”
“No. I have no idea. I can give you the number of Peggy’s creator if you want to ask.”
“You have the phone number of this doll’s creator?”
“No.” I punch the price into the register and push Total.
“You’re hard to read,” he says.
Why is he trying to read me? We were talking about dolls. He hands me a credit card and I swipe it through the machine. The name on the card says, “Xander Spence.” Xander as in “Z-ander” or as in “X-ander”? I’m not going to ask. I really don’t care. I’ve been pleasant enough. This exchange wouldn’t even have required a mom-lecture, had she been here. My mom is way better at hiding her resentment than I am. She even hides it from me. I chalk it up to years of practice.
His cell phone rings and he takes it out of his pocket. “Hello?”
While I wait for the machine to spit out his slip, I open the drawer beneath the register and put the name placard along with the others sold this month. This helps us remember which dolls we need to reorder.
“Yes, I found one. It has a dog.” He listens for a minute. “No. It’s not a dog. It has a dog. The doll has a dog.” He turns around the box and looks at the picture of Peggy since the real Peggy is secured inside. “I guess she’s cute.” He looks at me and shrugs as though asking if I agree. I nod. Peggy is definitely cute. “Yes, it’s been confirmed by the salesgirl. She’s cute.”
I know he wasn’t talking about me being cute, but the way he emphasized the “she” made it sound like he was. I look down and rip off the paper then hold a pen out for him to sign. He does it one-handed, and I compare the signature to the one on the card then hand it back to him.
“No, not the . . . I mean she is, too, but . . . Oh you know what I mean. It’s fine. I’ll be home soon.” He sighs. “Yes, I mean after the bakery. Remind me to run away when your assistant has a day off.” He squeezes his eyes shut. “I didn’t mean it like that. Yes, of course it makes me appreciate things more. Okay, Mom, I’ll see you soon. Bye.”
I hand him the bagged doll.
“Thanks for your help.”
He picks up a business card from the holder by the register and studies it for a moment. “‘And more’?”
The name of the store is Dolls and More. He’s asking what others have before him once they come into the store and only see dolls. I nod. “Dolls and more dolls.”
He tilts his head.
“We used to carry charm bracelets and stuffed animals and such, but the dolls got jealous.”
He gives me a look that seems to say, Are you for real? Obviously he has never encountered anyone like me in any of his “go visit the common people so you can appreciate your life more” outings. “Let me guess, the dolls threatened to steal your soul if you didn’t comply with their demands.”
“No, they threatened to release the souls of past customers. We couldn’t have that.”
He laughs, which surprises me. I feel like I earned something not many others have, and I smile despite myself.
I nod my head toward the card. “My mom likes dolls the best. She got tired of stocking stuffed mice.” Plus we could no longer afford the extras. Something had to go and it wasn’t going to be the dolls. And since we are in a perpetual state of broke (as in barely enough money to stay afloat), the name of the store and business cards stayed the same.
He jams a finger at the card. “Susan? That’s your mom?”
And that’s all it says, too, her first name followed by the shop’s phone number, like she’s some stripper or something. I cringe when she hands out a business card outside of the store. “Yes, sir.”
“And you are?” He meets my eyes.
“Her daughter.” I know he’s asking for my name, but I don’t want to give it. The first thing I learned about the rich is that they find the common folk an amusing distraction but would never, ever want anything real. And that’s fine with me. The rich are another type of species that I observe only from a safe distance. I don’t interact with them.
He replaces the card and takes a few steps backward. “Do you know where Eddie’s Bakery is?”
“It’s two blocks that way. Be careful. Their blueberry muffins are laced with some sort of addictive substance.”
He nods. “Noted.”
“No, we don’t carry Barbie dolls, only porcelain dolls,” I say into the phone for the fifth time. The woman isn’t listening. She’s going off about how her daughter will die if she can’t find the faerie queen. “I understand. Maybe you should try Walmart.”
“I did. They’re out.” She mumbles something about how she thought we were a doll store and hangs up.
I set the phone down and roll my eyes at Skye, who doesn’t notice because she’s lying on the floor holding her necklace in the air, watching it sway back and forth over her.
Skye Lockwood is my one and only friend. Not because the kids at my high school are mean or anything. They just forget I exist. When I leave before lunch and never attend their social gatherings it’s not hard to do.
Skye is a few years older and works next door at a place that carries lots of “and more.” It’s an antique store called Hidden Treasures that I call Obvious Garbage. But people love that store.
In the world of science, if Skye were a host, I would be her parasite. She has a life. I pretend it’s mine. In other words, she genuinely likes things—music and eclectic vintage clothing and weird hairstyles—and I pretend those things interest me, too. It’s not that I hate those things; it’s just that I don’t really care for them either. But I like Skye, so why not tag along? Especially because I have no idea what I really do like.
I step over her with a sigh. “Have you figured out life’s answers yet?” Skye often uses the floor of the shop to have philosophical wanderings (a fancy way of saying “arguments with herself”).