It’s in the Italian Renaissance lounge that Mrs. Clark finds Director Denial slumped over a heavy, dark wood table. The table dripping with blood from every edge. The sticky blood already flocked with a layer of cat hair. Director Denial with a rope of twisted nylon stocking tied around her wrist. A meat cleaver is sunk in the table. Above the nylon stocking, the Director’s hand lies pale in a puddle of dark red.
On the floor under the table, Cora Reynolds chews on a severed index finger.
“My dear,” Mrs. Clark says, looking at the crusted, bloody stump as the Director wraps a scrap of yellow silk around and around to cover it. The blood soaking through the yellow. Mrs. Clark steps forward to help, to wrap the silk tighter, and she says, “Who did this to you?”
Director Denial twists her nylon tourniquet tighter, saying, “You did.”
At this point, everyone is looking for an edge.
We all want some way to pad our role. To put our character into the spotlight after we’re rescued.
Plus, it’s a way to feed the cat.
Whoever can show the worst suffering, the most scars, they’ll play the lead in the public mind. If the outside world broke in to rescue us right now, Director Denial would be our biggest victim—flashing the stubs of her severed toes and fingers, flaunting them for sympathy. Making herself the lead character. The A Block on any television talk show.
Making us her supporting cast.
Not to be outdone, skinny Saint Gut-Free borrowed a cleaver from Chef Assassin and lopped the thumb off his right hand. A radical thumb-ectomy.
Not to be upstaged, Reverend Godless asked to borrow the cleaver and hacked the smallest toe off each his feet. “To be famous,” he said, “and after that, wear reallynarrowhigh heels.”
The green wallpaper and silk drapes of the Italian Renaissance lounge, the green is spattered and sprayed with blood that looks black under electric light. The floor feels so sticky, the carpet, that every step tries to pull off your shoes.
The Missing Link says losing a finger does take your mind off being hungry. The Missing Link, he’s wearing a bishop’s vestments, sprouting black chest hair at the collar, all white brocade embroidered with gold thread along the edges. He’s wearing a powdered wig that makes his square head and shaggy beard look twice as big.
With his ponytail, the Duke of Vandals wears a buckskin shirt and pants with long fringe flapping from every seam. Chewing his nicotine gum. Mother Nature limps around, hobbling in high-heeled sandals that show off her own severed toes, her choker of brass bells jingling with every limp. Nibbling a clove-nutmeg aromatherapy candle.
We’re all keeping warm in frilly Lord Byron poet blouses. Or Mary Shelley long skirts filled with petticoats. Dracula capes lined with red satin. Heavy Frankenstein boots.
About this time, Saint Gut-Free asks if he can be the one to fall in love.
Every epic needs a romantic subplot, he says, holding his pants up with one hand. To cover all the marketing bases, we need two young people deep and desperately in love—but kept apart by a cruel villain.
Saint Gut-Free and Miss Sneezy, talking in the Italian Renaissance lounge with its embroidered chairs and banners of green silk between tall windows of mirror, here was the place to hatch a romance.
“I was thinking I’d be in love with Comrade Snarky,” Saint Gut-Free says.
Next to them, the meat cleaver’s stuck in the long wood table: Mr. Whittier’s ghost waiting for its next victim.
Wiping her nose sideways, Miss Sneezy asks, has the Saint talked to Comrade Snarky about her being in love, too? After we’re rescued, during the marketing-and-media-promotion part, any two people who fought to be together, they’ll have to at least fake being in love. How they act inside here, it won’t matter, but once those doors come open they’ll need to be kissing and hugging every time a camera turns their way. People will expect a wedding. Maybe even children.
Batting her bloodshot eyes, Miss Sneezy says, “Pick a girl you can fake loving for the rest of your life . . .”
Saint Gut-Free says, “How about me and the Countess Foresight?”
The way Saint Gut-Free sees it, being fake married to him has got to beat hacking off fingers. Any woman here should jump at the chance.
And, smiling, her face close-up into his, Miss Sneezy says, “How about you andme?”
And Saint Gut-Free says, “How about Baroness Frostbite?”
“She has no lips,” Miss Sneezy says. “I mean, shereallyhas no lips.”
How about Miss America?
“She’ll already get famous for being pregnant,” Miss Sneezy says. She says, “I’m not pregnant,and I have lips . . .”
Director Denial has already hacked off fingers. So has Sister Vigilante—plus some toes, using the same paring knife that Lady Baglady borrowed from Chef Assassin to slice off her ear. Their plan, after we’re rescued, is to tell the world how Mr. Whittier tortured them by hacking off a little bit for every day they didn’t produce a great work of art. Or—Mrs. Clark did the cutting while Mr. Whittier held the victim down, screaming, on the long, dark wood table in the Italian Renaissance lounge.
The table is already scarred from practice chops and nervous chops and successful chops with Chef Assassin’s meat cleaver.
“Okay,” Saint Gut-Free says. “How about Mother Nature?”
It’s clear, he just wants his feet rubbed, some new way to get his rocks off. A foot job. Another hands-free method beyond the invisible carrot, the candle wax, and the swimming pool. Not so much a romantic subplot as sexual need.
Better, Miss Sneezy says. She says, “You know what Mother did with her nose, don’t you?”
Poor Miss Sneezy, she still coughed and coughed from the mold spores we had to breathe, but her suffering looked like nothing compared to Mother Nature, who borrowed a filleting knife to slit each of her nostrils, straight up to the bridge of her nose—her brass bells jingling and scabs spraying everywhere each time she had to laugh.
Still, we needed the romantic subplot.Anyromantic storyline.
Really, it was Mr. Whittier who slit Mother Nature’s nose.
“But he’s dead,” Mrs. Clark says.
Mr. Whittier did it before he died, the Missing Link says. With everyone hacking off fingers and toes and ears, no way is anyone going to walk out of here without a good scar. A stump they can flash in close-up on television. Mr. Whittier did it to keep Saint Gut-Free and Mother Nature apart. To punish them for falling in love.
In our version of what happened, every toe or finger, it was eaten by the villains whom no one will believe.
The Matchmaker has been asking around, trying to find someone willing to lop off his penis. Because it’s perfect—how that torture fits with some old family joke.
One slice, he says, and all your problems are solved. Just a severed penis in the dirt.
“Besides, I’m not using it for anything,” the Matchmaker says, and smiles. Wink, wink.
So far, no one’s volunteered to swing the cleaver. Not because it’s too disgusting, too awful, but because it would so put him in the driver’s seat. A chopped-off penis is something none of us could top.
Still, if he did it—and bled to death—it would mean the royalties would only get split fifteen ways. Fourteen ways if Miss Sneezy would hurry up and suffocate on the mold. Thirteen ways if Miss America is considerate enough to die in childbirth.
Everyone feeding their bits and pieces to the cat, Cora Reynolds is getting huge.
“If you do chop your dick,” says Director Denial, “do not feed it to my cat.”
She says, “That’s not something I want to know every time Cora licks my face . . .”
It was looking for bandages that we found the costumes. Backstage, we were hunting for clean cloth to tear into bandage strips, and here were gowns and coats left over from vaudeville and light opera. Folded away with tissue paper and mothballs, in trunks and garment bags, here were hoop skirts and togas. Kimonos and kilts. Boots and wigs and armor.
Thanks to Mrs. Clark cutting the plug off the washing machine, any clothes we’d brought were stinking with dirt and sweat. Thanks to Mr. Whittier wrecking the furnace, the building was colder every day. So we started to wear these tunics and sarongs and waistcoats. These velvets and satin brocades. Pilgrim hats with silver buckles. Elbow-long gloves of white leather.
“These rooms . . . ,” the Countess Foresight says, stumbling in her turban, hacking off her toes, but not the security tracking bracelet around her wrist. “These clothes . . . all this blood . . . ,” she says, “I feel as if I’m in a very creepy Grimm’s fairy tale.”
We wore fur stoles made of small animals biting each other in the ass. Minks and ferrets and weasels. Dead, but their teeth still sunk in, deep.
Here, in the Italian Renaissance lounge, down on one knee, holding her bloody hand and looking up her slit nose, Saint Gut-Free said to Mother Nature, “Can you pretend to love me for the rest of your life?”
And, kneeling there, he slipped the sticky-red three-carat diamond he’d hacked off Lady Baglady’s hand, Saint Gut-Free slipped sparkling-dead Lord Baglady onto Mother Nature’s red-hennaed finger.
And his stomach growled.
And she laughed, blood and scabs—everywhere.
By now even these silk shirts and linens are stiff and matted with blood. The fingers of gloves hanging empty. Shoes and boots stuffed with balled-up socks to replace missing toes.
The fur stoles, the weasels and ferrets, soft as the fur on the cat.
“Keep feeding that cat,” says Miss America. “And he can be our Thanksgiving turkey.”
“Don’t even joke,” Director Denial tells her, scratching the cat’s fat stomach. “Little Cora ismy baby . . .”
With the roots of her bleached hair grown out, brown, a kind of measuring stick to show how long we’ve been trapped, Miss America watches the cat pick the meat off another finger. Looking up, at Director Denial, she says, “If it was you who took my exercise wheel, I want it back.” Holding her hands a little ways apart, Miss America says, “It’s pink plastic, aboutsobig. You remember.”
Brushing the layer of cat hair from her sticky, yellow silk bandages, the Director says, “What about your unborn child?”
And, stroking her own little belly, Miss America says, “The Matchmaker should feedmehis penis.” She says, “I’m the onenot eatingfor two . . .”
A Poem About Director Denial
“A police officer,” says Director Denial, “has to protect a Satan worshiper.”
You don’t get to pick and choose.
Director Denial onstage, the tweed sleeves of her blazer disappear around her back,
where her hands are holding each other
hidden, the way you’d stand for a firing squad.
Her hair, salted with gray and cut short to look bristling
Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment:
A security video, grainy black and white,
of suspects under arrest, standing in lineups for identification by a witness.
Suspects wrestling with handcuffs, or their coats pulled up in back
to hood their faces as they go into court.
Onstage stands Director Denial, with the bulge of her shoulder holster
swelling one lapel of her blazer.
Her tweed skirt hemmed above cuffed white running shoes,
the shoelaces double knotted.
She says, “An officer of the law has to die for pretty much everybody.”
You die for people who kick dogs.
Drug addicts. Communists. Lutherans.
You die to protect and serve rich kids with trust funds.
Child molesters. Pornographers. Prostitutes.
If that next bullet has your name on it.
Her face crowded with victims and criminals, black and white,
Director Denial says, “You might die for welfare queens . . .”
Or drag queens.
For folks who hate you, or folks who’d call you a hero.
You don’t get to discriminate when your number comes up.
“And if you’re really stupid,” Director Denial says, “you die still hoping.”
You made the world just a little bit better place.
And maybe, just maybe, your death
will be the last.
A Story by Director Denial
Nobody here is defending what Cora did.
Maybe two years ago was the only time anything like this had ever happened. Spring and fall, the county staff has to take a refresher in mouth-to-mouth. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Each group meets in the health room to practice heart massage on the dummy. They partner up, the agency director pumping the chest, the other person kneeling down, pinching the nose shut, and blowing air into the mouth. The dummy is a Breather Betty model, just a torso with a head. No arms or legs. Rubbery blue lips. Eyes molded open, staring. Green eyes. Still, whoever makes these dummies, they glued long eyelashes on her. They glued on a glamour-girl wig, the red hair so smooth you don’t feel your fingers combing it until someone else says, “Easy there . . .”
While she knelt next to the dummy and spread her red-painted fingernails against its chest, the agency director, Director Sedlak, said how all Breather Betty dolls are molded from the death mask of a single French girl.
“True story,” she told the group of them.
This face on the floor, it’s the face of a suicide pulled from the water over a century ago. Those same blue lips. The same staring dull eyes. All Breather Betty dolls are molded from the face of this same young woman who threw herself into the Seine River.
If the girl died because of love or loneliness, we’ll never find out. But police detectives used plaster to cast a mask of her dead face, to help find her name, and decades later a toymaker owned that death mask and used it to cast the face of the first Breather Betty.
Despite the risk that somebody in a school or factory or Army unit might someday lean down and recognize the long-dead body of their sister, mother, daughter, wife, this exact dead girl is kissed by millions of people. For generations, millions of strangers have pressed their mouths over hers, those lips her exact drowned lips. For the rest of history, all over the world, people will be trying to save this same dead woman.
This woman who just wanted to die.
The girl who turned herself into an object.
Nobody said that last part. But nobody had to say it.
So, last year, Cora Reynolds was in a group that goes to the health room and takes the Breather Betty out of her blue plastic suitcase. They lay her out on the linoleum tile. Swab her mouth with hydrogen peroxide. It’s standard hygiene procedure. Another county policy. Director Sedlak bends to put both her palms on the middle of Betty’s chest. On her sternum. Someone kneels close to pinch Betty’s nose. The director shoves down on the plastic chest. And the kneeling guy, with his mouth on Betty’s rubber mouth, he starts to cough.
He leans back, coughing, sitting on his heels. Then he spits. Splat, there on the health-room linoleum tile, he spits. The mouth guy wipes the back of one hand across his lips and says, “Damn, that stinks.”
The people crowded around, Cora Reynolds among them, the rest of the class, they lean closer.
Still squatting there, the mouth guy says, “There’s something inside her.” He covers his mouth and nose with one cupped hand. His face twisted sideways, away from the rubber mouth but still watching it, he says, “Go ahead. Hit her, again. Hit her hard.”
The director, bent over with the heels of both hands on Betty’s chest, her fingernails painted dark red, she shoves down.
And a fat bubble swells between Betty’s blue rubber lips. Some liquid, some salad dressing, thin and milky white, the bubble swells big. A greasy gray pearl. Then a Ping-Pong ball. A baseball. Until it pops. Spattering the greasy off-white soup everywhere. This thin, watery culture, puffing a cloud of stink into the room.
Until that day, anybody could use the Health Room. Lock the door. Unfold the rollaway cot and take a nap during their lunch hour. If they got a headache. Or cramps. The first-aid kit, that’s where they’d find it. All the bandages and aspirin. You didn’t need anybody’s permission. All that’s in there is the rollaway cot, a little cabinet with a metal sink for hand-washing, a switch on the wall for the light. The blue plastic suitcase that Breather Betty comes in, it has no lock.
The group, they roll the dummy onto her side, and from the corner of her soft rubber mouth, first a drip, drip, drip, then a thin stream of creamy gruel runs out. Some of the watery mess washes down her pink rubber cheek. Some of it webs between her lips and plastic teeth. Most of it pools on the linoleum tile.
This dummy, now a French person. A girl who drowned. A victim of herself.
Everyone standing there, breathing behind a cupped hand or a handkerchief. Blinking back the smell that makes their eyes water. Their throats slide up and down inside their neck skin as they swallow and swallow to keep their scrambled eggs and bacon and coffee and oatmeal with skim milk and peach yogurt and English muffins and cottage cheese down, deep in their gut.
The mouth guy grabs the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and throws his head back. Dumping a double swig into his mouth, he puffs his cheeks. He stares at the ceiling, eyes closed, mouth open, gargling the peroxide. Then he snaps forward to spit his mouthful into the little metal sink.
The room, everybody breathing the laundry-bleach smell of the peroxide, underneath that the toilet smell from the Breather Betty’s lungs. The director, she says for somebody to grab a sex-crime investigation kit. The swabs and slides and gloves.
Cora Reynolds, she was among that group, standing so close that she tracked some of the slippery muck all the way back to her desk. It’s after that day County Facilities put a lock on the door and gave Cora the key. Since then, you get cramps and you put your name on a list, with the date and time, before you get that key. You get a headache, and you ask Cora for two aspirin.
The team at the state labs, when they got the swabs and they ran the slides and cultures, they asked: Was this a joke?
Yeah, the lab team said, the ooze was sperm. Some of it maybe six months old. Dating back to the last mouth-to-mouth class session. But, hey, there was so much of it. Besides, running it for DNA, the genetic signifiers showed this was the work of twelve, maybe fifteen different men.
The county guys on this end, they said, Yeah. A bad joke. Now forget it.
This is just what human beings do—turn objects into people, people into objects.
Nobody’s saying it’s the county team that screwed up. Screwed up big-time.
The Breather Betty dummy, it’s no surprise Cora took it home. Rinsed out its lungs, somehow. Washed and set its red glamour-girl hair. Cora bought a new dress for its armless, legless torso. A string of fake pearls for around its neck. Anything that helpless, Cora could never just toss in the garbage. She put lipstick on its blue lips. Mascara on its long eyelashes. Blush. Perfume—a lot of perfume, to cover the smell. Some nice clip-on earrings. It would amaze nobody to find out she spent every night sitting on the sofa in her apartment, watching the television and chatting at it.
Just Cora and Betty. Chatting in French.
Still, nobody’s calling Cora Reynolds a crackpot. Maybe just a soft touch.
County policy says they should’ve bagged the old dummy in black plastic and heaved it onto a top shelf in the evidence room. Forgetting her there.Betty,not Cora. Abandoned. Fermenting. Ignored with the numbered bags of dope and coke. The vials of crack and heroin balloons. All the guns and knives waiting to appear in some courtroom. All the seized baggies and balloons shrinking, getting smaller and smaller, until there’s just enough left for a felony conviction. All those objects, used.
But, no, they broke the rules. They let Cora take the old dummy home.
Nobody wanted her to grow old alone.
Cora. She was the kind of person, she couldn’t buy just one stuffed animal. Part of her job description was to buy a stuffed toy for each kid who came in to give a statement. Each kid taken into custody by the court. Any kid pulled for neglect and placed in a foster home. At the toy store, Cora would take one little plush monkey out of a bin full of animals . . . but it would look so alone in her shopping cart. So she’d choose a furry giraffe to keep it company. Then a stuffed elephant. A hippo. An owl. At some point, there would be more animals in her shopping cart than in the display bin. And the animals left behind each had an eye missing, an ear frayed, a seam split open. Stuffing poked out. These were the animals no one would want.
Nobody felt how Cora’s heart dropped off a cliff at that moment. That long fall from the tip-top of the world’s tallest rollercoaster, that feeling left Cora just skin. Just a skin tube with a tight hole at each end. An object.
Those little tigers smudged with dirt, trailing loose threads. The stuffed reindeers crushed flat. They filled her apartment, those torn pandas and stained little owls and Breather Betty. Just a different type of evidence room.
It’s what human beings do . . .
But poor, poor Cora. Now she’s trying to cut off people’s tongues. To infect them with parasites. Obstruct justice. She’s stealing public property. Nobody’s talking about misappropriation of office supplies: pens, staplers, copy paper.
It’s Cora who orders the office supplies. She collects everyone’s time card on Friday. She hands out the paychecks on Tuesday. Submits all the expense reports to Accounting for reimbursement. Answers the phone: “Child and Family Case Services.” She gets a cake and sends a card around the department when it’s somebody’s birthday. That’s her job.
Nobody had a problem with Cora Reynolds before the little girl and boy arrived from Russia. Really, the problem was, Cora never sees a little kid, a freckle-faced, pigtailed little girl, unless somebody’s fucked her.
Every rapscallion little boy, every scamp in bib overalls with a slingshot stuck in his back pocket, Cora’s only meeting him because he’s been forced to suck cock. Every kid’s gap-toothed smile, here it’s a mask. Every grass-stained knee, a clue. Every bruise, an indicator. Every wink or squeal or giggle, there’s a blank to check for it on the victim-intake form. It’s Cora’s job, keeping track of those interview forms. Keeping track of the kids, each case file, any ongoing investigation. Until what happened, Cora Reynolds was the best office manager ever.
Still, what happens here is just damage control. You can’t unfuck a kid. Once you bang a kid, there’s no getting that geniioutof the bottle. That kid’s pretty much wrecked for good.
No, most kids come in here quiet. Stretch-marked. Already middle-aged. Not smiling.
Kids come here, and the first step is the evaluation interview with ananatomically detaileddoll. This is different from ananatomically correctdoll, but plenty of folks get them confused. Cora did. Got them confused.
Your typical anatomicallydetaileddoll is made of cloth, sewn like a stuffed animal. It has strands of yarn for hair. The big difference between it and Raggedy Ann is the details: A floppy stuffed penis and balls. Or a lacy cloth vagina. A drawstring pulled tight in back to make a puckered anus. Two buttons sewn to the chest for nipples. These dolls are something the intake kids can use to play-act. To demonstrate what Mommy or Daddy or Mommy’s new boyfriend did.
The kids stick their fingers in the dolls. Drag the dolls by their yarn hair. Hold the dolls by the neck and shake them until their stuffed heads flop. They hit and lick and bite and suck the dolls, and it’s Cora’s job to sew the nipples back on. Cora will find two new marbles when the little felt scrotum gets yanked too hard.
Everything done to the kids gets done to those dolls.
Nobody just stumbles into this line of work.
Threads come loose from too many molested children molesting the dolls. Too many diddled little boys suck that same pink felt penis. Too many little girls have forced a finger, two fingers, three fingers into that same satin-lined vagina. Ripping it at the top and bottom. Little hernias of cotton batting were bulging out. Under their clothes, the dolls were smudged and dirty. Sticky and smelling bad. The fabric was rubbed into pills and snagged with scars where threads were gone.
This little rag doll girl and boy the whole world gets to abuse.
And of course, Cora did what she could to keep them clean. She stitched them back together. But one day she went on the Internet to find another pair. A new pair.
Somewhere were women who made their career stitching tiny pocket-shaped vaginas or coin-purse scrotums. These kids, the women dressed in flowered calico dresses and bib overalls. But this time, Cora wanted something durable. She got on the Internet. She ordered a new pair, from some maker she’d never heard about before. This time, she confused anatomicallydetailedwithcorrect.
Anatomically correct, she asked for, boy and girl dolls. Lowest price possible. Durable. Easy to clean.
A search engine offered her two dolls. Made in the former Soviet Union. With flexible arms and legs. Anatomically correct. Because these were the lowest-priced, and because that was the county purchasing policy, she placed the order.
Later, nobody ever asked why she ordered those dolls. When the box arrived, brown cardboard and big as a four-drawer file cabinet, when the delivery guy wheeled it up on a cart and left it next to her desk, when he made her sign his clipboard, then it was Cora first figured this might be a mistake.
The moment they opened the box, when they saw what was inside, it was too late.
It was Cora and a county detective, pulling the metal staples and then digging through the mats of bubble wrap, digging until they found a foot. A pink child’s foot, five perfect toes poking up, out of the Styrofoam pellets and bubble wrap.
The detective wiggled one of the toes. He looked at Cora.
“These were the cheapest,” Cora said. She said, “You don’t get a lot of choice.”
The foot was pink rubber, finished with clear, hard toenails. The skin smooth, without a freckle or mole or vein. At this, the detective put a hand around the ankle and lifted it to show a smooth pink knee. Then a pink thigh. Then a shower of white packing peanuts. Bubble wrap popping and falling away. And a naked pink little girl hung from the detective’s fist near the ceiling. Her blond hair fell in curls, brushing the floor. Her bare arms hung down at either side of her head. Her mouth hung open, a silent gasp, showing white teeth small as pearls, and the smooth pink roof of her mouth. A little girl the age for Easter-egg hunts and First Communion and Santa’s lap.
With one ankle in the detective’s hand, the girl’s other leg sagged, bent at the knee. Between her legs, spread there, not just anatomically correct but . . . perfect, was the girl’s pink vagina. The darker pink lips of it, curving inside.
Still in the box, looking up at her, looking up at them all, was a naked little boy.
A printed brochure fluttered to the floor.
Then Cora’s arms were around the girl, hugging her pillow softness, clutching for a sheet of wrapping paper to put around the little body.
The detective smiled, shaking his head, squeezing his eyes shut, and saying, “Great job atprocurement,Cora.”
Cora held the girl, one hand cupped to hide the pink buttocks. One hand cupped to hold the blond head to Cora’s chest, and she said, “This is a mistake.”
The brochure said the dolls were soft molded silicone, the kind used for breast implants. They could be left under an electric blanket and would hold the heat for hours of pleasure. Their skin covered a skeleton of fiberglass with steel joints. Their hair was inserted, strand by strand, planted into the skin of their scalp. They had no pubic hair. The male doll had an optional foreskin that you could roll onto the head of its penis. The girl doll had a replaceable plastic hymen you could send away for. Both dolls, the brochure said, had deep tight throats and rectums,for vigorous oral or anal entry.
The silicone had a memory and would return to its original shape, no matter what you did. Their nipples could be tugged to five times their original length without tearing. The labia, scrotums, rectums could be stretched toaccommodate almost any desire.The dolls, the brochure said, could takeyears of violent, strenuous enjoyment.
For clean-up, you just used soap and water.
Leaving the dolls in direct sunlight might fade their eyes and lips, the brochure said in French, Spanish, English, Italian, and what looked like Chinese.
The silicone was guaranteed odorless and tasteless.
At lunch, Cora went out to buy a little dress and a little pair of pants and shirt. When she got back to her desk, the box was empty. Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap popped under her every step. The dolls were gone.
In the ward room, she asked the dispatcher if he knew anything. The dispatcher shrugged. In the break room, a detective said that maybe someone needed them for a case. He shrugged and said, “Thatiswhat they’re for . . .”
Outside, in the hallway, she asked another detective if he’d seen them.
She asked, where were they, the kid dolls?
Her teeth were edged together. The spot between her eyes ached from her brows bunching in the middle. Her ears felt blood-hot. Melting, glowing hot.
She found the dolls in the director’s office. Sitting on the sofa. Smiling and naked. Freckle-faced and ashamed of nothing.
Director Sedlak was tugging at a nipple on the boy’s chest. With her fingers, her thumb and index finger, just the dark-red fingernails, the director twisted and pulled at the pink nipple. With her other hand, the director trailed her fingertips up and down between the girl’s legs, saying, “Damn, that feels real.”
To the director, Cora said she was sorry. She leaned down to brush some hair off the boy’s forehead, and said she had no idea. She crossed the girl’s arms across her pink nipples. Then, she crossed her plastic legs at the knee. She put both the boy’s hands spread open in his lap. Both dolls just sat there, smiling. They both had blue glass eyes, blond hair. Shining porcelain teeth.
“Sorry for what?” the director said.
For wasting county funds, Cora said. For buying something this expensive sight-unseen. She thought she was getting a good deal. Now the county would be stuck using the old rag dolls for another year. The county was stuck, and these dolls would have to be destroyed.
And Director Sedlak said, “Don’t be silly.” She combed her fingernails through the girl’s blond hair, saying, “I don’t see a problem.” Saying, “We can use these.”
But the dolls, Cora said, they were too real.
And the director said, “They’re rubber.”
Silicone, Cora said.
And the director said, “If it helps, just think of each one as a seventy-pound condom . . .”
That afternoon, even as Cora pulled the new clothes onto the boy and girl, detectives came by her desk, asking to check them out. For intake interviews. For investigations. Asking to reserve them for some hush-hush off-site evaluation. For overnight, to use them early the next morning. For the weekend. The girl, preferably, but if she wasn’t available, then the boy. By the end of that first day, both the dolls were booked solid for the next month.
If someone wanted a doll right away, she’d offer the old rag dolls.
Most times, the detective said he’d wait.
All this flood of new cases, but nobody submitted a single new case file to her.
For almost that whole month, Cora only saw the boy and girl for a moment, only long enough to hand them over to the next detective. Then the next. And the next. And it was never clear who did what, but the little girl arrived and departed, one day with her ears pierced, then her belly button, then wearing lipstick, then reeking with perfume. The boy arrived, at some point, tattooed. A chain of thorns around his little calf muscle. At another point, with his nipples pierced by little silver rings. Then his penis. At some point, his blond hair smelling sour.
Smelling like marigold flowers.
Like the bags of marijuana in the evidence room. That room full of guns and knives. The bags of marijuana and cocaine that always weighed a little less than they should have. The evidence room always the next stop for a detective after he checked out one of the dolls. The girl tucked under one arm, he’d be fumbling with a bag of evidence. Tucking something into his pocket.
In the director’s office, Cora showed the expense receipts that detectives would submit for reimbursement. One receipt for a hotel room, the same night the detective had taken the girl home for an interview the next morning. The hotel room was a stakeout, the detective had said. Another detective the next night, the girl again, one hotel room, one room-service meal. An adult movie ordered on the television. Another stakeout, he said.
Director Sedlak had just looked at her. Cora standing there, leaning over the director’s wooden desk, shaking so hard the receipts fluttered in Cora’s fist.
The director just looked at her and said, “What’s your point?”
It was obvious, Cora said.
And, sitting behind her wooden desk, the director just laughed and laughed.
She said, “Consider this tit for tat.”
“All those women,” the director says, “all chanting and protesting againstHustlermagazine, saying porno turns a woman into an object . . . Well,” she says, “what do you think a dildo is? Or donor sperm from some clinic?”
Some men may only want pictures of naked women. But some women only want a man’s dick. Or his sperm. Or his money.
Both sexes have the same problem with intimacy.
“Stop fussing about some damned rubber dolls,” Director Sedlak told Cora. “If you’re jealous, go out and buy yourself a nice vibrator.”
Again, it’s what human beings do . . .
Nobody could see where this was headed.
That same day, Cora went to lunch and bought some Superglue.
And the next go-round, when the dolls came back to her, before she handed them off to another man, Cora squeezed Superglue inside the girl’s vagina. Inside both the kids’ mouths, sealing their tongue to the roof of their mouth. To seal their lips together. Then she squeezed glue inside them both, in back, to weld their butts shut. To save them.
Still, the next day, a detective was asking: Did Cora have a razor blade he could use? An X-Acto knife? A switchblade?
And when she asked, Why? What did he need it for?
Then he says, “Nothing. Never mind. I’ll find something in the evidence room.”
And the next day, the girl and boy were both cut open, still soft but covered with scars. Carved open. Dug out. Still smelling like glue, but more and more smelling like the ooze inside Breather Betty at home, leaking spots on Cora’s sofa.
Those spots, Cora’s cat would sniff at for hours. Not lick, but sniff like Superglue. Or evidence-room cocaine.
It’s then Cora goes to lunch and buys a razor blade. Two razor blades. Three razor blades. Five.
The next go-round, when the girl gets back to her desk, Cora takes her into the bathroom and sits her on the edge of a sink. With a tissue, Cora scrubs the rouge off her pink cheeks. Cora washes and combs the girl’s limp blond hair. With the next detective already knocking at the locked bathroom door, Cora tells the girl, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry . . .” Saying, “You’re going to be okay.” And Cora tucks a razor blade up, deep inside the soft silicone vagina. Into the hole hollowed out by some man with his knife. Tilting the girl’s head back, Cora tucks another razor down deep inside her silicone throat. The third razor blade Cora tucks just inside the girl’s hacked-out, whittled-open butt.
When the boy arrives back at her desk, just dropped there, flopped facedown over the arm of her desk chair, Cora takes him into the bathroom with the last two razor blades.
Tit for tat.
The next day, a detective comes in, dragging the girl by her hair. He drops her on the floor beside Cora’s desk. Taking a pad and pen from his inside jacket pocket, he writes: “Who had her yesterday?”
And, lifting the girl from the floor, smoothing her hair, Cora tells him a name. A random name. Another detective.
His eyes narrow and, shaking his head, the man holding his pen and paper says, “Tha thon-atha-bith!” And you can see how the two halves of his tongue are held together with black stitches.
The detective who brings back the little boy is limping.
All five razor blades are gone.
It’s after that, Cora must talk to somebody at the county health clinic.
Nobody knows how she got that biohazard sample from the lab.
After that, every man in the department, he’s pinching his ball skin through his pants. Lifting one elbow the way a monkey would, to scratch the hair under that arm. In their heads, they ain’t had sex with anybody. No way could this be crab lice.
Maybe about this time, a detective’s wife comes downtown. Finding the little leak spots of blood you get with crab lice. A splatter of red pepper you find in your tightie whities or the inside of your white T-shirt, anywhere clothes come up against body hair. Little specks of blood, blood, blood. Maybe the wife finds it in her hubby’s shorts. Maybe she finds it in her own. These are college-gone, suburban, and shopping-mall people with no real crab-lice experience. Now all their itching makes sense to her.
And now this wife, she’s pissed off, bad.
And no way could any wife know this is the rubber-doll version of getting crabs from a toilet seat. No doubt the story her husband would tell. But that’s all Cora could rustle up from County Health. You can’t keep spirochetes alive on silicone. You can’t pass hepatitis unless you got broken skin. Blood. Saliva. No, the dolls are real, but notthat real.
Any wife lets this go, and next week he’ll bring home herpes to her and the kids. Gonorrhea. Chlamydia. AIDS. So she’s all over Cora, asking: “Who’s my husband banging on his lunch hour?”
One good look at Cora, her hair-spray hairstyle and pearls and knee-high nylons and pants suit, and no wife would cast blame in that direction. Cora with old tissues tucked up the sleeve of her cardigan sweater. Cora with a dish of hard ribbon candy on her desk. TheFamily Circuscartoons pinned to her cork bulletin board.
Still, nobody’s saying Cora Reynolds is unattractive.
Then the wife sees Director Sedlak with her red-red fingernails.
Nobody was not amazed when Cora got called in for a little sit-down.
Nobody could tell Cora Reynolds her days were numbered.
The director, she sits Cora across from her big wooden desk. The director’s office with its high-up window. The director sitting, outlined in the sunshine and the view of cars in the county parking lot. With the fingers of one hand, she waves Cora to lean closer.
“It was a tough call,” the director says, “deciding if my entire team is crazy, or if you are . . . overreacting.”
Nobody felt how Cora’s heart dropped off a cliff at that moment. She sat, frozen. It’s what we do: turn ourselves into objects. Turn objects into ourselves.
Those millions of people, all over the world, still trying to save Breather Betty. Maybe they should just mind their own business. Maybe it is too late.
It’s the kids, the director says, who tear up the dolls. It always has been. Abused kids abuse what they can. Each victim will find a victim. It’s a cycle. She says, “I think you should take some time off.”
If it helps, just think of Cora Reynolds as a 120-pound condom . . .
Nobody says that last part. But nobody has to.
Nobody tells her to go home and get set for the worst.
As part of keeping her job, Cora will have to return the Breather Betty doll she’s reported to have taken. She’s to relinquish the stuffed toys she purchased with county funds. She’s to surrender her keys to the health room. Immediately. And make the room and the anatomically correct dolls available to all staff members. First come, first served. Immediately.
How Cora felt, it was like coming to your first stoplight after driving a million billion miles, too fast, wearing no seat belt. Resignation mixed with tired relief. Cora, just a skin tube with a hole at either end. It was a terrible feeling, but it gave her a plan.
The next day, coming into work, nobody sees her duck into the evidence room. In there were knives that smelled of blood and Superglue, there for anyone to take.
Already, a line is forming beside her desk. All of them waiting for the last detective to bring back a kid. Either kid. They both look the same, silicone-face down.
Cora Reynolds, she’s nobody’s fool. Nobody pushesheraround.
A detective arrives with the boy hanging under one arm, the girl hanging under his other arm. The man heaves them both on the desk, and the crowd surges forward, clutching the pink silicone legs.
Nobody knows who are the real crazy people.
And Cora, she’s holding a gun, the evidence tag still hanging off it on a string. The case number written there. She waves the gun at the two dolls.
“Pick them up,” she says. “And come with me.”
The little boy wears just his white underpants, dark with grease in the seat. The girl, a white satin slip, stiff with stains. The detective scoops them both, the weight of two kids, with just one arm and hugs them to his chest. Their nipple rings and tattoos and crab lice. Their stink of dope smoke and what drips from Breather Betty.
Waving with the gun, Cora walks him toward the office door.
The men stalking her, circling her, Cora works the detective backward down the hall, dragging the girl and boy past the director’s office, past the health room. To the lobby. Then the parking lot. There, the detectives wait while she unlocks her car.
With the boy and girl sitting in her back seat, Cora hits the gas, spraying the men with gravel. Before she’s even through the gate in the chain-link fence, you can hear sirens on their way.
Nobody knew Cora Reynolds would be so ready. Breather Betty was already in the car, riding shotgun, with a scarf tied over her red hair, dark sunglasses on her rubber face. A cigarette hanging between her red-red lips. This French girl returned from the dead. Rescued and seat-belted to keep her torso upright.
This person made into an object, now made back into a person.
The crippled stuffed animals, the ratty tigers and orphaned bears and penguins, they’re all lined up in the car’s rear window. The cat among them, asleep in the sun. All of them waving good-bye.
Cora hits the freeway, her back tires fishtailing, already doing twice the posted speed limit. Her four-door brown sedan already pulls a kite’s tail of police cruisers, their lights flashing blue and red. Helicopters. Angry detectives in unmarked county cars. Television camera crews, each in a white van with a big number painted on the side.
Already there’s no way Cora can’t win.
She has the girl. She has the boy. She has the gun.
Even if they run out of gas, nobody will fuck her kids.
Even if the troopers shoot out her tires. Even then, she’ll shoot up their silicone bodies. Cora will blow off their faces. Their nipples and noses. She’ll leave them nothing any man would stick his dick into. She’ll do the same to Breather Betty.
And she’ll shoot herself. To save them.
Please understand. Nobody says what Cora Reynolds did was right.
Nobody is even saying Cora Reynolds was sane. But she still won.
This is just what human beings do—turn objects into people, people into objects. Back and forth. Tit for tat.
This is what the police will find if they get too close. The children mutilated. All of them dead. The animals soaked with her blood. Them all dead, together.
But until that moment, Cora has a full tank of gas. She has a bag full of evidence-room cocaine to keep her awake. A bag of sandwiches. A few bottles of water and the cat, purring asleep.
She has nothing but a few hours of freeway between her and Canada.
But, more than all that, Cora Reynolds has her family.