Blank Faces

by Jessica Costello

 

Three horses stood guard around Plinkett the monkey during the night. The stuffed animal smiled sweetly, and his outstretched arms and fuzzy belly seemed just right for a hug, but Ellie learned years ago that the monkey was able to turn your own dreams against you if he wasn’t guarded. Now that Ellie was eleven she didn’t quite believe that anymore, but she still felt safer at night if Harvey, Roland, and Prickers stood guard at night to make absolutely sure there was no mischief.

Ellie took the time to show her appreciation with a quick pat on each of their heads before she tossed them on the bed. Most mornings she didn’t have time for that – middle school came much earlier than she was used to, and sometimes she didn’t even have time to comb her hair – so it was very important to show her gratitude when she could. It had to be jarring for the horses, who just a few months ago were stroked and thanked every morning before school. Ellie hoped that they understood.

“Comfortable?” she whispered to the horses as she struggled with her training bra strap. She was long past expecting a response from them, but she still needed to ask. She felt a little bad: two of the horses were on their sides, one on its back, and all were scattered on her bed. Plinkett the monkey sat upright on a tiny pillow on top of Ellie’s dresser. His tail curled so perfectly, like the inside of a snail shell, and his arms were opened wide to show off his plump, fuzzy, belly. Ellie hesitated, only one leg pulled through her jeans, then she crawled to her bed and lined the horses up in a row on her pillow. “Anyone else need fixing?” she muttered to all the fuzzy faces piled at the front and back ends of her bed. She hadn’t spoken to them at normal volume in years.

They were all content, which was good because she didn’t have quite enough time to rearrange them. Plinkett was by himself, and Ellie did usually prefer to keep him next to a good influence, like Sunshine the lion or Mouthy the kindly hippo, but he would just have to sit by himself for awhile. Mae, her best friend since the third grade, was supposed to come over soon. Maybe Ellie could move him then. Plinkett smiled at her and his tail curled up so prettily.

Mae came at ten-fifty-seven, three minutes before she was supposed to. Ellie was still tossing her dripping cereal bowl in the sink, but three minutes early was better than an entire half hour, which used to be the case back in elementary school. Mae tapped on the front door, unaccompanied. Her mother didn’t walk her to the door anymore; at some point in the last few years, she and Ellie’s mother decided that they didn’t have enough in common for foyer chit-chat.

“Hey, Mae!” Ellie’s mom said. “Oh, I love how your name rhymes. Hey Mae hey Mae hey Mae…”

“Heh, yeah,” Mae said. She chuckled politely.

Ellie heard this from the kitchen and hurried to the front door, where she saw her mother cornering Mae between the couch and the nearest window. Ellie grinned too wide, panicked with embarrassment.

Hey,” Ellie said. “Mae, wanna come up to my room?”

“Sure, yeah.” Mae did a very good job of sounding casual, but as soon as Ellie’s mom left the room Mae mouthed thank you over and over again.

Mae lay back across the width of Ellie’s bed and kicked off her shoes. In one hand she held Tommy and Pinky, her two stuffed cats, by their tails. They were far from the paper bag full of dolls she usually brought, but it could still be fun to play with just two. Ellie and Mae would just have to orchestrate a smaller game, was all.

“So what d’you wanna do?” Mae asked. She tucked her cats on the pillow in between the snoozing horses. “I saw the funniest video yesterday if you wanna see it.” She rolled over to face Ellie full-on.

Ellie stiffened. “I, uh. Sure,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re…wearing makeup.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Mae dropped her eyes to the polka-dot printed comforter and shook out her hair. “I’m just trying it out. Figured I’d practice today before I go to school with it.”

“Why.”

Mae shrugged. “’Cuz I’m a girl?” she said.

“So?”

“I wanted to try it. What does it matter?”

Mae’s eyelids looked thick and dark from the slashes of black eyeliner and globs of superblack mascara. Ellie touched her own hair. Strands of it were still wet because it hadn’t finished air drying yet. She never bothered with blow dryers because she hated the way they burned her neck if she held them in one spot for too long.

Mae stood up. “Come on, let’s watch that video,” she said. “Or play a game or something. You got that new Life where you can use credit cards, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s play that.”

But Mae’s voice sounded different. Ellie couldn’t tell if it was higher or deeper or just annoyed and brisk, but something was off. “I actually think I want to play with the dolls,” she said.

“You always wanna play that,” Mae said.

“So what?”

“Let’s play something else. We can play with the dolls later.”

“Why don’t you want to now?” Ellie asked. “And we can do Life later?”

Mae groaned. Her strawberry blond curls bounced as she leaned her head back in exasperation. “We play with them all the time. Why don’t we just do something normal?”

Ellie looked at Plinkett, his arms still outstretched and devious smile as inviting as ever. She looked at the horses, snuggling with the cats, and at Mouthy the hippo in her flower apron. “It is normal,” she said. “We’re just playing.”

Mae sighed. Her curls fell in front of her face, and she wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “All right,” she said. “Yeah, let’s play dolls. I only brought two though.”

“That’s okay.”

They kneeled on the floor, hunched over their stuffed animals: Ellie held Mouthy the hippo in one hand and Plinkett in the other. “Mwahaha!” Ellie screeched in the high-pitched voice she used for all her dolls. She bounced Plinkett up and down to make it clear that he was the one speaking. “Finally! After years of experimenting I’ve perfected the art of making your nightmares come to life! No one can stop me!” Ellie paused, waiting for Mae to jump in. She was looking between the cats, each in one hand.

She stepped Pinky forward. “I can!” he said. But the voice was deeper, less enthusiastic.

Plinkett said, “Oh you think so, do you? I’ll show you, cat!” Ellie wiggled the monkey’s tail back and forth, marking the beginning of making nightmares come to life.

Instead of reacting to it, Pinky lunged. “Ahh!” he shrieked. Or, Ellie assumed he was supposed to shriek; it sounded more like a moan.

“What are you doing?” Ellie demanded.

Mae stopped the cat midair. “What?” she asked.

“He’s making the nightmare come to life! You can’t just make Pinky jump like nothing’s going on.”

She expected Mae to become indignant, to say something like I can make him do whatever I want, how do you know he’s not more powerful anyway? An argument over the logic of the game, the way their games often ended. Instead, her mouth made a little o shape. “Is that what he was doing?” she asked.

“Yes,” Ellie said. “What else?”

“I dunno, I thought you were just making him twitch or something.”

“No, I said I was gonna be doing the nightmare thing.”

“Yeah, sorry. Sorry, I missed that part.” She started moving Pinky through the air again, but Ellie put Plinkett down. Mae stopped. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Maybe we should just watch that video or something,” Ellie said. It wasn’t fun playing dolls if Mae wasn’t going to do it right. Her apathy was infuriating, and more than that, Ellie felt odd as the only one putting effort into the game.

Mae immediately brightened up. “Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah.” She placed Plinkett back on the pillow. She considered tucking Mouthy next to him, but decided that the game was enough time with other dolls for the monkey. Mouthy went on the pillow with the horses.

They watched the video, along with others. They played Life for hours, then they went through the list of Ellie’s board games and video games. They talked about Ms. Teitell, their homeroom teacher, and about how odd it was to have homeroom at all and getting used to lockers and switching classes and carrying their books around. They did not talk about how Mae spent most lunch periods sitting with her new friends from Band. They did not touch the dolls again, except when Mae picked hers up right before she left. Ellie watched, saying nothing as Mae pinched the cats’ tails between her fingers like it wouldn’t hurt them. Mae waved goodbye and Ellie waved back, but her hand dropped as soon as Mae got into her mom’s minivan.

“That makeup looked pretty silly, didn’t it?” Ellie’s mom said to her.

“It was dumb,” Ellie said. “She doesn’t need it.”

“Although I guess everyone uses too much makeup before they know what they’re doing,” Ellie’s mom continued wistfully. “I remember when I was thirteen, I thought I looked great in bright, bright blue eyeshadow. She’ll figure it out.”

“She shouldn’t,” Ellie said. “She doesn’t need it.” She went upstairs to her room, careful not to stomp on the stairs or slam her door, so her mother wouldn’t feel compelled to follow her and talk it out.

Ellie went right back to Mouthy. The hippo had a thin squiggly line of a smile, a pink and yellow floral print apron, and a bell in her belly that still sort of jingled when shaken around. Ellie was past imagining comforting words of love and support from Mouthy, but just the look of her, the feel of her fading skin, was comforting enough. Mouthy was the kindliest stuffed animal in the bedroom. Ellie hugged her tight.

She spotted Plinkett from between Mouthy’s little humps of ears. “Don’t look like that,” Ellie mumbled. “You got played with more than the rest of them.” But he looked exactly the same, of course he did. Still, it was infuriating. Mouthy’s smile was comforting; Plinkett’s was just insolent. In one motion Ellie rolled Mouthy off her lap, stood up, and slapped Plinkett down on the ground. “It was better for you than the rest of them. I played with you. I didn’t get to play with any of them, but I played with you. So stop looking like that.” She stopped. It wasn’t his fault – he didn’t have the chance for anything to be his fault. Ellie picked him up and ran her thumb up and down his fuzzy belly. She laid him down next to Mouthy – a good influence and good company.

Ellie, however, wandered to the bathroom mirror. What did Mae see that made her want makeup? Did Ellie have it? Her shoulders were slumped; she straightened them. Her hair was a chestnut brown that family members constantly told her they were jealous of, but it was thick and unwieldy. No comb had ever tamed it, but whenever she went to get a haircut the stylists over-compensated by making it too sleek and straight. She had acne, especially around her jawline, but who didn’t? It wasn’t worse than anyone else’s. And she didn’t have glasses, which was good. Ellie leaned in closer for the best part. Her eyes were green with little spots of brown – iris freckles, she called them –  and she loved them more than any part of her body. She tried imagining them with Mae’s thick black eyeliner and mascara, or her mother’s blue eyeshadow. She shuddered and took a step back. No, makeup would only ruin her eyes. But even with that conclusion, she continued to scrutinize herself.

Her shirt. Nothing was wrong with it – it was just a gray, medium, unisex Beatles t-shirt. She never really listened to the Beatles, but she liked their smiles and suits and haircuts that no boy ever had anymore. “But unisex means a boy shirt,” Mae protested the first time Ellie wore it to school. Mae started distinguishing between boy and girl clothes by shape, not just color, just over the past summer. It was starting to make a difference to her because girl clothes framed her body differently than boy clothes. Ellie had asked her mother what that meant, but the only answer she got was that it would start to matter to her pretty soon, too.

But Ellie decided that, besides maybe her posture, she looked fine.

She thought she looked fine when she got ready for school the next day, too. Her shirt that day had Harry Potter’s glasses on it. Also unisex. It was her favorite shirt because Harry Potter was her favorite book, and that was that.

Before she left, Ellie made sure to place Plinkett beside Sunshine the lion: Sunshine was another good influence, which would hopefully prevent Plinkett from becoming too bitter about the day before.

Mae was still wearing makeup at school – the exact same thick black that made her entire face alien. Ellie tugged on the collar of her shirt, her favorite shirt. But she couldn’t help but watch as Mae shrugged off her own sweater to show off a frilly tank top that was cut so low Ellie could see the tops of Mae’s breasts, which had just recently graduated from the training bra to a 32A. Mae faced Ellie. “What d’you think? My mom would only let me wear it if I wore a sweater over it so I had to wear one to school, but I think it looks so cute by itself,” she said very quickly and breathlessly.

“I like it better with the sweater.”

Mae frowned. “You think so?” She sounded crestfallen. She fidgeted with the tiny straps on her shoulders. The bell rang, so Ellie only nodded silently. Mae hugged herself, and to Ellie’s relief draped the sweater over her shoulders. But halfway through the period it was off again. 

Ellie got home, dropped her backpack at the foot of her bed, and laid back for just a second. She was spread across the width of the bed, facing the dresser where she situated Plinkett and Sunshine. She saw them. Their paws were touching. They were holding hands. She scrambled off the bed and bent down in front of them, hands on her knees. Ellie scrutinized the lion and asked, “You made him good? How’d you do that?” Although that didn’t seem right; Plinkett’s smile was still twisted, mocking. There was something off about Sunshine, too. Sunshine was supposed to be happy, and the lion in front of Ellie only looked smug and contemptuous.
“You’re with him now, aren’t you?” she asked. Sunshine’s smile was crooked. Ellie tucked the monkey and lion at the foot of the bed, their arms overlapping.

Ellie checked the other stuffed animals in the room. They were okay – it was too late for Sunshine, but not for them. Ellie collected Mouthy; Ernest the hedgehog; Harvey, Roland, and Prickers the horses; and Quackers the duck, and sat down with them on the floor. She considered one doll after another, then picked up the hedgehog. She focused on his smile, on his comforting plushiness, and took a deep breath:

“Help, everyone! My plants at home are growing out of control!” she made Ernest screech. He ran to the group, bobbling wildly.

“We don’t have time for that,” Quackers honked in the exact same voice. Ellie only had one voice for all her dolls; usually Mae was there to add variety. “This morning I put just one foot in the pond and there were waves everywhere! There shouldn’t be waves in a pond!”

Ellie paused, assessed the remaining stuffed animals, then picked up Mouthy. “I can’t believe it! When I tried baking cookies, the oven got hot all on its own! It would have burned the house down, but just when I thought about how badly I want it to turn off – it stopped!”

“Do you…do you think we have superpowers? Maybe I have control of plants, Quackers has control of water, and Mouthy can have control of fire!” Ernest said, bouncing up and down.

Ellie stopped. She forgot about the horses and what their superpowers could be. But she was constructing the entire story alone, and three heroes was already a little too much to work with. She put the horses aside.

“Superpowers? Don’t be silly!” Quackers exclaimed. He paced up and down, up and down, bobbing frantically. But then…he stepped in a puddle! It was such a little puddle – only the size of one of Ellie’s folded up socks – but as soon as his webbed foot touched it, it went wild. It swelled up and waves were everywhere. Quackers yelped and jumped as high in the air as Ellie’s arm could make him go. The duck landed directly on his giant, round backside. “Guys, I think we may have superpowers,” he panted.

“That’s what I said!” cried Ernest.

“What good things can we do with our powers?” cooed Mouthy. “We have to do something good with them!” She didn’t bounce like the others, but instead dipped up and down like she as bowing a lot, because she was too calm and motherly to bounce around.

We should stop bad guys!” hollered Quackers.

“There are no bad guys here. Everyone is nice,” Mouthy protested.

“MWAHAHAHAHA!” Ellie scrambled across the floor and grabbed Plinkett from the bed. “You superdolls have met your match! It is I, Plinkett!”

And Sunshine!” Ellie snatched the lion without thinking about it, but then the good superdolls all cried Oh no, not Sunshine! and she stopped. She could have made him a good guy if she wanted to, since she was in control. They were just stuffed animals. But she couldn’t, not really. It didn’t fit. When she looked at him she couldn’t get past his twisted smile. No, it wasn’t right anymore. Sunshine was a bad guy.

That night she hugged Ernest, Quackers, and Mouthy tightly as she slept, while the horses kept watch over both Plinkett and Sunshine. It took Ellie a long time to fall asleep. Plinkett under guard was a common sight ever since she was little. Sunshine was new. Ellie didn’t cry, but she stared at the pair for a long time, processing.

Since she spent so long staring instead of sleeping, she didn’t hear her alarm when it first went off. It rang and rang, but eventually gave up and fell silent. Ellie’s arm was still draped over the remaining good dolls. It was her mother knocking that woke her up. “Ellie?” she said. “Are you getting up?”

Ellie’s eyes snapped open. “Coming, coming!” she said, leaping out of bed instantly. She threw herself together with a speed she could never possess when waking up on time. She left the guard around Plinkett and Sunshine, but since there was now double the mischief that might have been for the best.

Ellie and Mae were walking down the hall from homeroom to history, which was no longer called social studies, when Mae said, “D’you want some lip gloss? I just bought it yesterday,” From the front pouch of her backpack she produced a delicate glass vial. The liquid in it was some sparkly shade of pink that didn’t exist in nature. Sparkly. Mae unscrewed the gold cap with slow, deliberate twists, using only her fingertips to do the job. She dabbed the stuff on her lips with an applicator that looked like something between a nail polish brush and a Q-tip. She dipped it back in the bottle while smacking her own lips, then held the brush-thing out to Ellie. Ellie grimaced.

“Oh come on, what’s wrong with it?” She rolled her eyes and twisted the cap back on just as slowly as she took it off, as if she just enjoyed the motion.

“I just don’t like it.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with it?”

“The color.”

“It’s champagne.”

“Yeah. I don’t like it,” Ellie said. She fished her own tube of chapstick from her pocket and smeared that over her lips.

Mae looked dumbfounded. “You’re using cherry chapsick!” she said. “That colors your lips too, you know.”

“I don’t mind this color,” Ellie said. Then she added, “There’s no sparkles.”

Mae sighed. “C’mon, grow up. Sparkles are pretty,” she said.

“No they’re not.”

“What’s your problem?”

“Nothing, what’s yours?”

“I don’t have a problem,” Mae said.

“Well, cool, then,” Ellie said.

“Cool.” Mae reached behind her and slipped the lip gloss in her bag. Ellie tucked her chapstick into her pocket. They walked the rest of the way in silence.

The horses changed. Ellie felt it as soon as she closed the door to her bedroom. She didn’t need to look at their faces – none of them smiled anyway – but all three manes bristled.

“You’re not afraid of the horses,” she whispered to Sunshine. “You did this.” She didn’t want to touch the horses – their hair looked so scary and hostile. One was on its side, having abandoned its post. The other two faced her. Their black eyes flared at her; their heads were lowered like bulls ready to charge. “I’m sorry. I should have let you rest. I should have let you be superheroes. I’m sorry.” But it didn’t matter. The guard was gone.

Ellie pulled the last three stuffed animals onto her lap. “Are you guys okay?” she asked them. “You’re all right, right?” She studied every face, the curve of every smile. “Yeah, yeah, you’re okay.” She kissed every one of them. She looked at their faces, still happy, still loving.

The dolls sat on the table with her while she did homework, squeezed on her lap during dinner, and snuggled in bed with her that night. Her mother said nothing about it, but Ellie would have kept at it even if she was prodded: Plinkett and Sunshine would not be given any opportunity to get at her dolls. The next morning, the three dolls were packed in her backpack along with her books and sandwich. Absolutely no opportunity.

But when Ellie got to school, the threat of Plinkett and Sunshine felt much farther away. The stuffed animals took up so much room in her backpack, and when Ellie walked down the hallway she could hear Mouthy’s jingling belly right behind her. She couldn’t push them to the bottom of the bag, because that would upset them and turn them against her. But sitting in homeroom, surrounded by an entire class of kids who all wore themselves the way Mae did, embarrassed her just a little. She tugged at the collar of her Beatles shirt, although she didn’t like it quite as much when she couldn’t see Ringo’s smile.

The bell rang, starting homeroom. Ms. Teitell, a rhino-ish woman who doubled as their last period English teacher, tapped the board for attention. “Okay everyone, please take out your planners and make a note that the Thanksgiving food drive is November fifteenth. I’m letting you know almost a full month ahead of time so you can make sure to get food in.”

All around Ellie, tired kids dutifully dug planners from backpacks to jot down the date. Ellie stared at her desk. She could feel Ms. Teitell’s eyes burrowing into her, but she pretended she couldn’t. Her fingers tied themselves in knots on her lap.

Everyone get this date down,” Ms. Teitell repeated. Ellie’s face heated up tremendously, but she didn’t bring herself to move yet. “Ev-er-y-one-uh,” Ms. Teitell said pointedly. Ellie sighed. She hunched over, kicked her backpack in between her legs, and unzipped the smallest bit she could, but Mouthy’s belly blocked all the books there. She nudged the hippo over, which opened the backpack more. The opening grew wider when she searched around Quackers’ wings and Ernest’s cumbersome spikes. Her backpack jingled. Ellie froze, looked up. No one paid attention to her. No one except for Mae, who knew the jingling and whose eyes popped at it.

“Oh my god,” Mae breathed.

Ellie yanked the planner out of her bag and shut it as quickly as she could. Mae gawked. She kept at it, eyes bugging, head shamelessly turned toward Ellie, for all of homeroom. Ellie hugged herself. Her breathing was a forced even and her eyes were on nothing but Ms. Teitell and the pages of her planner. Her feet clenched her backpack so it couldn’t move and, more importantly, couldn’t jingle. But for twenty minutes those black-lined eyes were on her. Were right beside her. Mae was the last one out the door when the bell rang, following Ellie’s back with her gaze.

Mae sat across from Ellie at lunch. Since they started school Mae had been having lunch with her friends from Band more and more often, but this time Mae plopped herself down at Ellie’s empty table and stared at her without shame. Her mouth hung open so wide that Ellie squirmed. “What?” she asked.

“Why would you bring your dolls to school?” Mae said.

“None of your beeswax.”

“Don’t say beeswax.”

“Why not?” Ellie demanded.

“You just shouldn’t, trust me.”

“But why not.”

“Because you’re not five years old, that’s why the hell not,” Mae snapped.

Ellie twitched. Mae, too, seemed surprised. She leaned back a little and blinked slowly, looking without focus past Ellie’s head. But she quickly recovered.

“I’d rather say beeswax than…what you said,” Ellie said.

“What, hell?” A smile crept over Mae’s face.

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should go back to elementary school then,” Mae said. “God, I can’t believe you brought your dolls to school.”

“So what?” Ellie said. “I wanted to. You wanna look like a – a prostitute, I can bring my dolls to school.”

“Excuse me?” Mae said coldly. Her smile was gone. “That’s what you think?”

“Yeah, it is. Actually, yeah. Yeah. You changed.”

“Yeah, we’re in middle school now so I grew the hell up,” Mae said. Her face burned so red it made her champagne lips look white.

“Stop saying that! You don’t have to say that word.”

“Yeah, but I want to. Hell. Hell hell hell hell.”

“You’re just mean, you know that? Is that part of growing the heck up? Being mean and wearing makeup that doesn’t even look good?”

Mae laughed, and the laugh sounded twisted. “You think I’m mean?” She stood up with her lunch tray. “Go bully some fifth graders. That’s where you should be.” She marched off to sit with her Band friends, who had been glancing over at the table and muttering.

Ellie’s throat clogged up. Her stomach hurt bad, like someone drove a spoon into her gut and stirred it around. It started off small, but rapidly crescendoed. She tried to endure it, tried to at least ease the lump away, but it stayed solid. Mae seemed fine, chatting with those girls, meanwhile Ellie’s eyes were glassing over. And her stomach. She clutched it, but that did no good. Her innards churned. She rushed to the bathroom, positive she would sob or vomit or both.

Ellie held in her crying until the lock was in place. The vomit never came, but the tears attacked her. Loud, retching sobs echoed around the bathroom and snot gushed down her face. She tried, she tried to calm herself, but every time she managed to pause for a second the agony in her stomach returned. It came in waves, retreating for a few seconds just so it could feel fresh and terrible when it returned. She collapsed onto the toilet seat. The pain stopped when she did that, but then it came right back.

“You okay?” said an anonymous voice on the other side. Ellie didn’t answer. What she did do was unzip her backpack with a shaking hand. Finding the dolls took a second because they were pushed to the bottom by books, but she found them. And when she did touch them she hugged them greedily, rocked them, cried into them, leaned back a little to look at them.

“Oh…No,” Ellie moaned. “No…” She rocked them. She kissed them. It didn’t matter. She let them be crushed while she went about her day, let them listen to her say everything she said to Mae. Why would they want her?

Mouthy was the worst. Her smile was already an unsteady line, but that was always an endearing detail. Now it was warped into a grimace. The colors of her apron clashed with each other. Her bell trilled sullenly, like Mouthy the hippo had swallowed a dying fairy. Ellie rang it over and over and over.

Somehow the sound sobered her, even though she couldn’t stand looking at the face. Maybe it was just time passing, and the way all crying had to stop at some point. Ellie’s sobs became wheezes and her wheezes became hiccups. She placed the dolls back in the bag, one by one. She wiped her face. She exited the stall. The lump was gone from her throat, but the pain in her stomach persisted. Ellie hobbled to her next class wincing and gasping, but not crying.

Mae didn’t look at her once. That was fine. All of Ellie’s attention focused on swallowing groans. The pain seemed to spread: it seeped from her stomach into her back and thighs. She breathed through her nose, hoping that the feeling of air passing through her nostrils could distract her.

“Ellie?”

Ellie opened her eyes, even though she wasn’t aware of closing them. Mrs. O’Reilly, the algebra teacher, stood over her.

“Sorry,” Ellie gasped.

“Maybe you should go see the nurse,” Mrs. O’Reilly suggested gently.

“Huh?” Ellie said. Was her suffering that obvious? And with horror she thought: did she groan? Did she cry again, but this time in front of everyone?

“You’re…bleeding,” the teacher whispered.

Ellie looked down. Blood. In between her legs – blood. She looked back up at Mrs. O’Reilly, eyes wide.

“The nurse will have a change of pants,” Mrs. O’Reilly said.

“It hurts.”

“They can help with that too. Come on, it’s okay.” She guided Ellie out of her chair and handed her her backpack. The room was silent.

The nurses did have a change of pants, but they couldn’t stop the pain. “You need Tylenol for that, and we’re not allowed to give that to you,” one of them told her. Ellie let herself cry again, just a little, just until they called her mother. They gave her a heat pack until her mother arrived, but all the heat did was make her queasy as well as hurting. The nurses knew this, but applied the heat anyway because that was all they could do. Ellie closed her eyes, opened them, laid down, walked around, but nothing helped. Nothing even dulled it. Her mother arrived with a hug already prepared. Ellie went home.

“Here you go sweetie,” Ellie’s mother said, dropping a single children’s Tylenol into Ellie’s palm. “This will help.”

“Thanks.” Ellie was curled in a fetal position on her bed. She gobbled down the pill without waiting for a glass of water.

Her mother stroked her hair and made vague cooing sounds. “Do you want your dolls?” she asked. “Where are they?”

“Backpack.”

Ellie’s mother found them and handed them over. “I’ll leave you alone,” she said. Ellie nodded. Her mother kissed her again and then left. Ellie waited a second after the door was closed, then hugged Quackers, Ernest, and Mouthy tight against her chest.

“Please just be good for a little bit,” she begged them. “I know you’re mad at me and I get it but I really, really need you.” She looked at their faces. They were still twisted.

Ellie closed her eyes and took shuttering breaths, trying to let the vibrations of her breath calm down the welling tears. She looked at the dolls again. Their faces weren’t warped, but they didn’t smile either – they were neutral, but neutral was something. She snatched Sunshine and Plinkett from the foot of her bed. Sunshine, too, was at a bearable neutral place, but Plinkett was the same as ever. He was evil – he brought nightmares and turned goodly dolls against her – but Sunshine! Sunshine was okay.

An urge dragged Ellie out of bed. With Mouthy in one hand and Sunshine in the other, she crouched on the floor:

“We have to escape from the volcano!” Sunshine screamed. “We’re not away from Plinkett yet!”

“But I – can’t – move,” Mouthy panted. “I’m so tired.” The hippo bent in half at the stomach to emphasize this.

Sunshine bounced over to her and tossed her on his back. “We’re not out yet! We can’t stop! Come on, we’re almost there!”

“You can’t carry me, I’m too heavy!” Mouthy said. Ellie winced. She got off her knees and sat on the floor, legs crossed and back hunched.

“Nothing’s too heavy for – for a lion!” Sunshine was supposed to shout those words to the wind, but instead they came out a groan as another wave of pain shook Ellie.

Ahh…” she said. Her breath came out in short bursts through her nose; she dropped the dolls in order to clutch her stomach. They lay on the floor, their faces blank and impassive; they didn’t seem to care if they were played with or not. Ellie left them there to crawl back into bed. Maybe later, she thought. Maybe later.

 

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One Response to “Blank Faces”

  1. Defenestrationism.net » Blog Archive » Announcing the 2017 !Short Story Contest! Finalists Says:

    […] –“Blank Faces”, Jess Costello […]

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