3LBE 4
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by Tim Waggoner


Delia kneels on the floor, photographs scattered around her. Bent over on knees and elbows, X-acto knife in hand, she carefully works on a picture which was taken at her mother’s place last Memorial Day. In the photo, Delia and her boyfriend Lee are standing on the deck, holding hands and grinning like morons. She slowly draws a razor-blade outline around him, separating his image from hers, cutting him off from the deck, the backyard, the whole damn world. She feels tears pressing at the corners of her eyes, a tightness in her chest, a cold sick roiling in the pit of her stomach. But she refuses to give in to her feelings, refuses to give Lee — and that bitch Chloe — the satisfaction. So she continues painstakingly tracing the edges of Lee’s image, squinting, tip of her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth as she concentrates.

Near her, less than three feet away, sits a chubby pink-plastic doll with clumps of fake blonde curls and painted-on eyes of faded blue. And as Delia works, the doll begins to swell.

• • •

“Let go! She’s mine!”

“You let go!”

“No, you!”

Delia, four years old, holds onto Maryellen’s feet with a deathgrip, while her brother, Jeffrey, two years older and considerably bigger and stronger, pulls on the doll’s head. Delia left Maryellen on the family room floor while she went into the kitchen to ask Mommy for some juice. When she returned, she found that Jeffrey had taken off Maryellen’s clothes — which meant she was naked! — and was kicking her around the room like she was a football or something. Delia shrieked and ran to save her best friend, but before she could snatch Maryellen away from Jeffrey, he grabbed her head. Now they are locked into a battle of tug-o'-war, Jeffrey grinning maliciously, Delia sobbing.

“What in the world is all this racket about?”

Delia turns to beg Mommy to tell Jeffrey to quit it, but before she can speak, Maryellen’s head separates from her shoulders with a loud POP! and both Delia and Jeffrey fall backwards onto their butts. Jeffrey laughs and laughs. He holds up Maryellen’s head by the hair and waves it in front of Delia’s face.

Horrified, Delia stares at Maryellen’s swaying head with wide, tear-slick eyes.

“I killed your do-oll, I killed your do-oll!” Jeffrey chants in a sing-song voice.

“That’ll be quite enough of that,” Mommy says in her I-mean-business voice. “Now give that back to your — ”

With a shout of anger and pain, Delia launches herself at Jeffrey and begins pounding his chests with her fists, screaming over and over a word she heard Daddy say once, a word which Mommy made him stop using because it was really, really bad.


Jeffrey recoils, dropping Maryellen’s head and falling onto his back. Delia straddles his chest and starts in on his face, still yelling the bad-bad word over and over. She isn’t aware of Mommy anymore, not really aware of Jeffrey, either, save as the object of her fury. But then she feels big hands gripping her beneath her arms and lifting her away from her now crying brother. She twists and fights, kicks and scratches, wants to be free, be down, to hurt Jeffrey some more for what he did to her friend.

“Stop it, young lady! Stop it this minute!”

Mommy sounds mad, but she also sounds kind of scared. It’s the scared part which surprises Delia and gets her attention. She stops squirming and Mommy sets her down. Delia glares at Jeffrey, who isn’t crying anymore, just sniffling softly.

Mommy kneels between them and pinches Delia’s jaw, holding it tight, so tight it hurts.

“What you did was very, very bad, Delia.” Mommy gives Delia’s jaw a hard shake. She still sounds mad, but she also sounds different, too, different in a way Delia isn’t familiar with. “It was wrong of Jeffrey to try to take your doll like that, but it was even more wrong of you to hit him like you did. I'm very disappointed in you, Delia. Very disappointed.”

Delia isn’t sure what disappointed means, but there’s an awful hollowness to Mommy’s voice which makes it sound as if she doesn’t like Delia anymore. It makes Delia want to cry. Tears start to roll down her cheeks.

“Stop that!” Another jaw shake, much harder this time, hard enough to make Delia’s teeth clack together. “You’ve cried enough for one day.”

Delia struggles to make her tears go away. She doesn’t want to hear her Mommy speak in that awful voice again, doesn’t want to make her disappointed.

“I want you to promise me that you will never, ever do anything like that again. Never, ever.”

Delia doesn’t have to ask what Mommy means by that: yelling and hitting. And she doesn’t want to do those things anymore, not if it means Mommy will talk in that voice, the voice which says, You’re a bad girl and I don’t love you anymore.

She sniffs back the last of her tears. “I promise, Mommy.”

Mommy looks at her for a long moment, as if she isn’t sure whether to believe Delia or not, which makes Delia feel awful. Finally, Mommy lets go of her throbbing jaw, nods and smiles. Delia feels relieved. Mommy loves her again!

Mommy turns to Jeffrey. “And as for you, you leave your sister’s toys alone from now on.”

Jeffrey nods, but when Mommy turns to pick up Maryellen’s pieces he sticks his tongue out at Delia. She wants to stick her tongue out back at him, and she starts to, but then she thinks what if Mommy sees her, will she use that awful voice again? So she bites down on her tongue to make sure it stays in her mouth where it belongs.

“Now,” Mommy says, “Let’s see if we can’t do a little quick surgery on your doll and get her feeling better, okay?”

Delia doesn’t reply; she doesn’t trust her tongue enough to let it loose.

• • •

Later, when it’s Delia’s nap-time, she lies curled up in her bed, Maryellen, whole once more, clutched tight to her chest. Delia closes her eyes and pretends to go to sleep as her mother shuts the door. But then she opens her eyes and holds Maryellen up to her face, gripping her doll’s jaw tight.

“Jeffrey’s bad,” she whispers, and gives Maryellen’s jaw a shake.. “I hate him, hate him, hate him!” And although she can’t bring herself to say it, she hates Mommy too.

• • •

Delia has a stack of Lee cut-outs now, and she only has a few more photographs to go. She has no idea what she’s going to do with the two-dimensional homunculi when she’s done. Maybe just chew them, swallow them, shit out the pieces throw them away. Forget all about them, about him. She continues cutting, hands steady, eyes dry.

Beside her, Maryellen’s limbs thicken, stomach distends, head balloons.

• • •

Delia stands in the back of the viewing room, unable to bring herself to approach the coffin. She’s fifteen now, and her arm’s in a cast, her forehead and cheeks are covered with small bandages, and even though it’s been three days since the accident, her back still aches. Her mother is sitting near the coffin, being consoled by Aunt Maggie. Mother’s been crying almost without let for three days now, and she no longer has any tears to shed. Her body shakes and she makes chuffing noises, but no moisture escapes her eyes. Delia’s father is sitting on the other side of Mother, though he isn’t touching her. They’ve been divorced for six years. He doesn’t even seem to know his former wife is there; he can’t tear his gaze from the coffin, keeps staring at it with bloodshot, haunted eyes.

One of mother’s cousins, a woman Delia barely knows, comes waddling back to talk with her. She’s a fat woman in her fifties, wearing a hideous flower-print dress more suited to a Hawaiian vacation than a viewing.

The woman — Nancy, Delia thinks, but she’s not sure — sits next to her with a weary sigh, as if the walk over was almost more than her body could manage.

“How are you doing, Sweetie?”

Delia shrugs. How is she supposed to be doing?

“I know it’s hard, but you really should go on up and see him, Honey. Just once.”

Delia shakes her head. She has no intention of going up there.

“It’s not that bad, really. He looks so natural. They really did a good job on him.”

Delia has heard other people commenting on how natural he looks, as if it were natural to be lying still and unbreathing in an open box, surrounded by pungent floral arrangements, with people coming up to look at you and shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and say, Such a shame, and so young, too.

“It’s part of the grieving process, Sugar. You need to say good-bye.”

Delia thinks if Cousin Nancy, or whatever her name is, uses one more treacly endearment, she’s going to scream.

Cousin Nancy hauls her bulk out of the chair with a strained grunt. “I’ll go with you.” She holds out a fleshy, stubby-fingered hand with too many cheap rings. “C'mon.”

Delia doesn’t want to, wants to tell the fat old bitch to go to hell, but then she sees her mother glancing over in her direction. She knows she can’t make a scene, for Mother’s sake, if nothing else. So she nods, forces a small and completely insincere smile, takes Cousin Nancy’s hand and allows the old cow to lead her toward the coffin.

When she gets there, she looks at Jeffrey up close for the first time since getting here, for the first time since the accident, really. They were out driving around, Jeffrey and his girlfriend Marcie, as well as two others boys, one of which Delia had a crush on. Dwight. Kind of a geeky name, but a cute guy with broad shoulders and muscular legs. Ran track. Dwight brought along a case of beer. She thought it was all so cool at first. Drinking beer, letting Dwight feel her up a little. But then Jeffrey took the curve on Old Mill Run too fast and slammed his Camaro into a tree. He was killed instantly, or close enough to it. Marcie is in a coma; the doctors have no idea whether she’ll ever come out of it. Dwight and the other boy are still in the hospital. They’ll both be okay eventually, though Dwight is never going to run track again. Only Delia was well enough to come to the viewing. Lucky her.

As she looks upon her brother’s shell, she thinks that everyone’s wrong; he doesn’t look natural at all, looks fake, like he’s been sculpted entirely out of yellowish wax. She imagines that she could sink her fingers right into his flesh, rearrange his features as if they were clay.

She thinks of Mother crying; Father’s tired, dead eyes. Thinks of Marcie and Dwight and that other boy whose name she can’t remember. Thinks of Jeffrey and all the years that he had ahead of him, gone, snuffed out as completely as candles on a birthday cake, lit once, flaring bright, then extinguished and thrown away, never to be used again.

Bastard. Idiot.

Cousin Nancy folds her fat, sweaty hand around Delia’s much smaller dry one. “What did I tell you, Sweetie?” she whispers. “Doesn’t he look good?”

Delia grits her teeth. “Yes,” she says.

• • •

Later that night, she lies on her bed, holding Maryellen, who’s a bit worse for the wear after all these years, but still her best friend. In many ways, her only friend. Delia doesn’t cry, doesn’t curse, doesn’t thrash about on the bed and scream like she wants to. Instead, she crushes Maryellen to her chest and hates. Hates Cousin Nancy, hates Jeffrey, hates herself. It doesn’t matter. Just so long as she can hate, hate, hate.

• • •

Delia has finished cutting out all her Lees. She collects the leftover scraps, puts them in a cardboard box on her dresser, then arranges the Lees in a row in front of it. She has twenty-three tiny images of him smiling, waving, standing, sitting. Alone, now. Without anyone next to him, without any setting to surround and enclose him. And most especially, without her.

She runs her index finger lightly across the smooth, slick surface of the cut-outs and wonders what she should do with them. Her finger stops on one particular Lee, one who was photographed sitting on the rickety day bed she uses for a couch. The same day bed she caught him screwing Chloe on.

I'm sorry you found us like that, Delia, she hears his image say. We didn’t mean for you to.

Delia is nineteen, and in art school. She’s living with one of her classmates, a girl named Chloe. They get along okay. Not great, but okay. That is, until yesterday.

It just sort of happened, you know? We didn’t want to hurt you.

Delia puts her index finger on Lee’s head, her thumb on his feet and starts to pinch them together. She wants to do it, needs to, but she stops and looks at her reflection in the mirror. Bland, expressionless, no hint of the anger raging inside her. She hears her mother’s voice: I want you to promise me that you will never, ever do anything like that again.

They’re just images, she knows she can’t really hurt them, can’t really hurt him.

Never, ever.

With a weary sigh, she scoops up Lee’s tiny dopplegangers, dumps them in the cardboard box with the other photo scraps, and shuts them away inside one of her dresser drawers.

She walks over to the simple mattress and sheets that serve as her bed, picking up Maryellen along the way. She flops down and hugs her old friend tight, not noticing the doll’s distended body and thick, swollen limbs.

Dwight never called after he got out of the hospital. Another boy took her to the prom, groped her in the back seat of his car, refused to listen to her NOs. Her father wouldn’t quit cigarettes even after his heart attack. He died last year, was buried next to Jeffrey. Mother tried to argue her out of pursuing art in college. I won’t help pay for a degree that’s about as marketable as a roll of used toilet paper! Last week, Professor Fleming, whom all the students referred to as The Phlegm, said her midterm project, a collage made of AIDs awareness pamphlets and broken condoms, lacked originality and depth, and that he seriously doubted she had what it took to be a true artist.

And now Lee and Chloe.

Maryellen expands against Delia’s chest, puffing up like a great pink balloon baby. Delia can feel her friend’s plastic skin tightening, tightening. Then it splits and a great gout of blackness erupts forth, spilling over Delia, covering the bed, splashing onto the floor, splattering the walls and ceiling. Delia sits, stunned, drenched in the foul-smelling oily substance. The entire room is coated with a black greasy slime like the residue left behind after a bad smoke fire.

Maryellen is gone.

Delia rises unsteadily to her feet, and, slipping and sliding in the viscous mess, makes her way over to the dresser. She looks into the mirror and, with painted-on eyes of faded blue, sees the gaping fissure where her chest once was, fingers the hard ragged edges of her torn doll-flesh.

Stares into the endless deep Nothing inside.



Tim Waggoner has published around fifty stories of horror and fantasy in various magazines and anthologies. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. Visit him online at www.timwaggoner.com.


January 2000