by Ai Jiang
They gave her to you ten years after your birth, when they realized your mouth would not open, when they realized your voice box was broken.
She had on a pretty dress that looked much like your own: knee-length, frilly, with matching polka dot stockings that looked as though there were large beads of blood, too perfect and uniformed, scattered across skin. There was also a bow on her head, much like how there was one on your own.
You hated it.
All of it.
Your parents settled her on your lap and placed your hand in hers. From the corner of your eye, you noticed how large, clumsy, calloused your hands were compared to her small dainty ones. You thought about what it would be like to trade places.
That was when she spoke.
“Thank you for the gift. Mom. Dad.”
It wasn’t your voice, and it wasn’t your words that came out of her mouth. But it didn’t matter.
Your parents gasped. They were more than delighted.
Mother cried. Father left the room shaking.
It should have been horrifying: a potentially demonic doll speaking on the behalf of their daughter, but only while the twin-like pair held hands.
But it didn’t frighten them.
It made Mother and Father happy.
And I guess, it also made me happy to speak, even if it wasn’t actually you doing the speaking.
At every chance they had, Mother and Father asked you questions. Sometimes different ones; sometimes the same ones—like scratched CDs skipping in its player. It felt like you were on a speed date at times.
“What’s your favourite colour?”
“Do you like the new dress we got you?”
I hate it. “I love it.”
“Maybe you could try public school?”
No. No. “Sure, I’d be delighted to!” NO.
Each word that left her lips felt like a chunk of hair torn from your itching scalp. At least they were talking to you. At least you felt less alone.
Your parents brought you to the neighbour’s house for dinner. They usually went every week—without you. The grumpy grandfather and his talkative grandson welcomed your family in. Surprised was the best description of their faces when they saw you.
It was weird they visited this neighbour so often because your parents never liked the grandfather. Always complained about his hedges growing onto their side, his weeds infesting their well-trimmed lawns, his record player being too loud. They never said anything to him, and even during dinner, they still didn’t.
“Why are you holding hands with a doll?” the talkative grandson asked.
“She’s my friend,” the doll said, its mouth dropping and rising.
The grandson frowned. “That’s some good ventriloquism.”
You wanted to tell him it wasn’t ventriloquism, and you wanted to tell him that she wasn’t really your friend, even though you held hands. And you tried to beg him to understand with your eyes. He didn’t notice.
“She’s also eighteen.” Mother gestured to you, addressing the grandson. “Just like you.”
The grandson perked up at this, and you cowered in disgust.
Your parents smiled at each other and continued to eat. Thoughts you couldn’t hear brewed in their minds, and you wondered why they seemed so happy.
In the middle of the night, the creaking of the floor boards and the back door woke you, but you stayed still. She was sitting on your nightstand, eyes unblinking, mouth immobile. Together you listened to your parents outside your opened window as they snuck across the lawn. Something jingled against their legs with each short stride they took, like a miniature ice cream truck barrelling through the grass.
Your neighbour was dead, and so was the talkative grandson.
The police were there. On your lawn, on their lawn, in your house, in their house. And when they brought you in, you raised her, dress floating, hair swinging, up in front of you and said, They did it.
But what came out was “I did it.”
You shook your head; you shook the doll; your body shook.
And you tried again.
They did it.
“I did it.”
It wasn’t you, it wasn’t you, it wasn’t you.
Your parents stood outside the police car and held each other, sobbing, wailing, but you could see that they were smiling beneath the staged desperation and grief.
“We tried to introduce them, thought she might like a friend, but she didn’t seem to like him at all! Always whispering to that doll of hers!” Mother cried.
And that was when you realized it was your parents who dissected you, had cut into your throat when you were younger, ripped the music-box that pushed words, songs, pleads, innocence from your throat, and in its place, they left blood and guilt that was not yours.
But no one believed you were innocent. As you sat behind bars with her tossed in a corner, you waited for someone else to pick her up, waited for someone to hold her hand, to have their voice taken. And maybe then, they, like you, might finally appreciate the silence you took for granted.