The woman in 12B claims to make living dolls. She sells them online and at flea markets. The dolls are not lifelike, per se. Just living. Alive. They get up and walk around. Of course, this only happens when you’re not looking. She has made a modest income off of it—enough to pay for her rent-stabilized apartment and feed her rail-thin body.
She makes the dolls from yarn. They are typically a solid color—red or blue are common. Their eyes are buttoned. Their mouths are stitched from black or brown yarn. And that’s it. She just makes these little yarn dolls, and she insists that they have tea parties and make mischief when nobody’s looking. She says this in earnest, as if she really believes it. If you dare suggest the dolls are not alive, her eyes bug like a ferocious mama protecting her young. She snaps her jaw between phrases like “How dare you?” and “You’re jealous” and “It’s my gift and curse.”
I live in 12A. Our mail is constantly mixed up. I bring the woman in 12B a stack of mis-delivered envelopes once a week. She opens the door with half-finished dolls dangling from her body, draped over her bony shoulders and twisted around curved fingers. She says “Put it over there,” and I add the mail to the stack of unopened mail from week’s past.
Every now and then, she pounds on my door and asks that I hand-deliver a package to the post office. The first two times, she slipped me a crisp one dollar bill, like a meager tip. Now she doesn’t even bother with that polite pretense. She might actually believe that I’m the building’s mail guy. Or she might be agoraphobic. Or maybe she just stays inside because she’s smart enough to know that she’d be laughed at. She keeps her movements hidden—contained to the interior of this forty-unit teardown between a firebombed bodega and twenty-four-hour bowling alley. She acts like her dolls, only moving when people are least observant. A siren blares through my window, and I instinctively turn to look. When I turn back to the woman, she has scurried away, and the door to 12B inches closed.
I set the latest package on my coffee table and inspect it. It’s bound for some no-name town in a flyover state. That’s typically who orders her stuff, at least that’s what I surmise from the special deliveries she has previously entrusted me with. This one is heavier than the usual lot. I run my fingers over the twine and brown paper exterior. I consider why I help the woman in 12B. A therapist might say I’m an enabler. I feed her delusion by playing courier to her living yarn dolls. I cannot remember the last time I questioned the legitimacy of her dolls and their collective life-forces. A year. Two years? If you treat something like it’s real long enough, it almost becomes real. Maybe I’m starting to believe that her dolls are real too.
I need to remind myself of reality. I pull on the twine and gently take off the paper packaging. There’s no tape holding the packaging together. It falls apart easily, and I can just as easily reassemble it. It’s almost like the woman from 12B wants me to investigate. There’s a faint scratching from inside the box. I pull back the lid and expect to see a living yarn doll clawing its way to freedom. Instead, there’s a lump of unfinished red and blue and green dolls. Their twisted yarn innards writhe like worms. Their button eyes dart in frenzied directions. Their sewn-on mouths droop into twisted ovals as they noiselessly scream. I close the lid on these atrocities and repackage the parcel for mailing. I leave the building and board a bus for the post office. The package of dying dolls feels warm in my lap. Back at the apartment building, behind a solid oak door, the woman in 12B could become anything.
James R. Gapinski
James R. Gapinski is the author of the novella Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press) and the flash collection Messiah Tortoise (Red Bird Chapbooks). His short fiction has appeared in Hobart, Juked, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, Psychopomp, and other publications. Find more online at http://jamesrgapinski.com.