Created by Elizabeth Slein
These days I use my doll house and my smallest dolls, which fit in the house. They all know each other. I told Bruce to put the house in the left hand corner of the living room, by the CD player and the CDs, in case I want to play Dalida for my dolls and make them dance. The room is big and I guess I could use the rest of the space better, but I like to stay out of the way. The adults mostly come down the 3-step, gray, stone staircase in the middle of the room because it connects to the kitchen. Or they come in and out of the glass doors on the other side of the room because that connects to the garden. Or they go up and down the 5-step, brown, wooden staircase right by the glass door because that leads to the bedrooms. Mine is on the second floor. They also like to sit on the parallel couches by the stone fireplace in the center of the room. Adults talk and talk and talk. I usually don’t pay attention. Sometimes I do and learn new words to use with my dolls. Like divorce (Kate and Dan are getting one) and orgasm. Or maybe it’s organism, I’m not really sure. Mostly, I’d rather my mom and Bruce talk to their friends than ask to play with me. They never understand my dolls’ personalities. Or know how to create good stories. I don’t really understand. I give them so many options. For example:
The house is a little small for everyone to fit comfortably. I asked my mom if I could get the house Emily has. It’s actually a castle, and it’s nice. It has towers. Also, it’s made of wood. My mom says maybe I can get it next year, but I think she’s just afraid I’ll break it. The one we have here is a big dark green square house with glass-less windows so I can put my hands inside. I’m thinking of asking Bruce to take it outside so I can do picnics or tea parties. I think that would be really nice. The house would even match the grass. One issue with that is that Bruce could mess it up and break a bed or something.
I don’t know what I’d do if my house broke.
My mom is about to call me for lunch from the kitchen. It smells like meat just came out of the oven. I hope we have filet mignon. That’s my favorite type of meat. It might even be my favorite food. I ask for it every year on my birthday.
After I eat, I’ll try to get Rick and Pia to make up. They have been fighting for seven days straight, which is the longest they’ve had. I wish I could just go into the house to help them work it out more easily. I wish I could just close my eyes, take a deep breath and become really really small. Small enough to go inside. Small enough to stay in there forever. After lunch, I’ll try it. I’ll focus hard and disappear into the house.
Life begins in a nest of plastic bags and stained cardboard. It is dark and cold outside their den, but inside the pile of wriggling bodies is warm and crying and alive.
The smallest of them wails hungrily, muffled beneath her siblings, but she is strong enough to push her way through. She is new to the world, and it greets her in the back corner of an alley with the smell of rotting food and the buzzing of flies. Not unkind but not welcoming either. This is okay, because her mother greets her with a rough tongue and watchful eyes. She is loved.
When she is old enough, she will open her eyes to a polluted sky the color of ash. It will be the brightest thing she’s ever seen. In the city smog, she’ll look upon her brothers and sisters for the first time and see that some of them lay motionless amongst the debris. She won’t know it yet, but she is one of the lucky ones.
Soon, her mother will ween them off of her sweet milk and give them their first taste of fresh meat. A limp, greasy rat will be dropped amongst the mewling kittens, who will skitter nervously around this strange-smelling thing. But the moment when she first sinks her teeth into its flesh she will be able to taste the last of that life which has yet to fully seep from its body. It’s rich blood will soak her little tongue and coat her lips with crimson. Inside her will be planted a seed of bloodlust.
When they begin to leave the nest, they will trail obediently behind their mother as they dodge traffic and crawl beneath fences. She will teach them how to hunt, to hide, to hiss. And they will come to understand that their territory is infinite, but it is dangerous. It is the closest thing to freedom that any living thing can have.
Slowly and without warning, their numbers will dwindle. Her siblings will reduce from five to two as the world passes indifferent judgment upon them. It will deem her worthy of existing for no reason at all, merely by chance, as it has decided everything before and will decide everything after. She is the smallest, but she will eventually be the last.
On an unremarkable summer day when she is lazy from a recent feast, her mother will stalk off down the street and never return. This is okay, because her tongue will be rough against her own paw, an empress surveying her kingdom. She will dance on the edge of invincible.
She will travel farther than she ever has before, far away from that alley corner where she took her first polluted breath and find that there are others of her kind whose fur is not matted and scarred, whose bodies are soft and fat with indolence. They will regard her through the glass with a lack of fear that she will never know, a curiosity that she must always cast aside for caution. But in the end they will watch her disappear into the night, a savage, unbroken
When she is still young, she will catch the eye of a male who knows how to hunt. He will take from her without remorse, as only an animal can, and leave her with something hot and feverish like terror. The sky will be gray as it has always been, but she will be changed.
She will seek out the smell of rotting food and the buzzing of flies from a fading memory while the promise of new life expands her belly. When she finally cries out into the night with the pain of labor, the heavy price of such a beautiful thing, six little voices will join in her song. Alongside those deeply rooted instincts to survive and to kill, the softer desires to nurture and to protect will settle. Nature will make a mother out of a predator.
The smallest of them will be a girl who, not unlike herself, is far stronger than she at first appears. Only time will tell if chance continues to favor the smallest, but she is undeniably loved, and that must count for something.
Like a glittering crown, she will inherit the prestigious title of “Stray”.
The gray sky bows before her.
She ran her hand through her short brown hair one too many times, and I knew exactly what was going to happen. Well, that, and the fact that she had barely touched her plate, and the way she kept putting her hand in the pocket of her blazer, and the way she was looking at me.
“I have to say it again. You l-look absolutely stunning tonight,” she stammered. A gust of wind rattled our table. Except for us, the restaurant’s outdoor deck was empty.
“Oh,” I looked down at my skin-tight leather dress. “Thank y–” I began. But then she stood up, and I felt like there were four walls closing in on me. As she stepped over to my side of the table, the walls got closer. She got down on one knee, and I could feel them pushing against my skin. She reached into her pocket, and I thought I might explode.
“Alana,” she started.
When she opened her mouth again, I was gone. As I ran, the wind blew her words toward me and whispered them in my ear.
I stumbled down the wooden stairs that led to the beach, passing our waiter who was holding a tray with the third glass of wine I’d ordered. I slipped off my high heels and, with them in hand, trudged across the short stretch of cold sand between the restaurant steps and the boardwalk. I listened for frantic footsteps following me, but all I heard were the echoes of those two words.
There was a long stretch of beach to my left and my right, and the ocean water slid on and off the shore, looking dark and grimy in the moonlight. Straight ahead was a long boardwalk over the ocean jutting out forty feet from shore, with a small cabana, a wooden railing, and two chairs at its end. The boardwalk wasn’t too far above the water’s surface; when she and I first arrived at the restaurant just before sunset, there were a few teenagers sitting along the side edge, laughing and swinging their legs inches over the water’s surface.
I had to do something. I had to move. So I rushed down the boardwalk toward the cabana chairs—my skin tingling from the sharp ocean breeze and the knowledge that she was up there, watching me—I walked down the boardwalk, with my black heels in my hand and a warped tune of “Here Comes the Bride” ringing through my head.
I slumped on one of the chairs and stared through the railing at the dark mass of ocean water swelling and shrinking. With every wave, the cold sea water splashed against the wooden floor and scattered on my legs. I tried to breathe, but every breath only filled my nose with the burning scent of salt. I’d told her I wasn’t ready. And she asked me anyway.
I’d told her I wasn’t ready.
My body stiffened as the walls cornered me again. Footsteps. Among the whistles of the wind and the murmurs of the waves, I heard footsteps. She was walking toward me from behind, getting closer and closer and closer until the sounds of her footsteps were right behind me, right behind me, and then—the steps stopped.
I waited four seconds then turned my head slowly, expecting to see her soft smile with her thick eyebrows furrowed over her eyes—the face she makes whenever she’s trying to hide that her feelings are hurt. But I turned and saw a hand holding a glass of red wine outstretched toward me.
It was the waiter. I looked up at his sunburnt face; it was full of lumpy folds which deepened as he smiled. He looked strangely hazy, and I was only convinced of his reality when the cold glass touched my fingertips as I took the cup from him.
“I thought you might need this.” His voice was cool and smooth like blue velvet, and he settled into the chair next to me.
“Is she –”
“No,” he answered. “She left.” We sat there for a while with the waves churning against the boards beneath our feet. The burnt old man leaned forward . “Do you love her?” I looked at him incredulously.
“Of course I love her!” I cried. The man leaned back into his chair, and I turned my head away from him. “But marriage? It’s too much.” I gazed at the darkness as it all came spilling out. “The job I’ve slaved at for the past six years, my matchbox of an apartment, this fucking dress!” I yelled, squirming against the faux leather. “This island, this planet, this galaxy! There’s no way out!” I screamed. The burnt old man shuffled in his seat, and, embarrassed at my outburst, I lowered my voice as I turned back toward him. “Do you ever feel that way?” I scrambled for the right words. “Suffocated? Like there are walls closing in on you? Like your blood is boiling and gurgling within you, and you just might burst and explode? Like you’re –”
“Trapped in your own skin?” he finished. I stared at him. That’s exactly what I mean.
The burnt old man nodded sagely. “I used to, but I found the answer.” The edges of his face looked like they were glowing as he looked up at the night sky. “It’s up.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and, with the mixture of the proposal and the wine and the walls, I didn’t care. It felt like there was a creature in me, scratching the insides of my skin, begging to get out, get out, get out. I wanted to be like this burnt old man who was staring at the sky with liberation in his eyes. I wanted to be like those kids who were sitting along this boardwalk, throwing their heads back in laughter as if they didn’t have a care in the world, as if they never would.
“You ever feel like you just need to do something?”
The next thing I knew, I was standing on top of the wooden railing of the cabana. The wind whipped my hair around as I held onto the post beside me. “I have to do something!” I yelled against the wind swishing in and out of my ears. “I have to jump in and swim ‘til I can’t anymore.”
“No!” the burnt old man shouted behind me. “Don’t jump down into the water! You need to go up, up, up!” I paid him no attention—I’d already envisioned it in my mind. I’ll jump in, and, I smiled, I’ll kick my legs and swim up and break through the waves. I’ll break free. And I’ll swim away from this place, swim away from my stupid job, swim away from her. And that’s when my heart broke like glass. I can’t marry her. I don’t think I can ever marry her.
I closed my eyes and jumped.
I never reached the water. As soon as my feet were about to crash into the ocean’s surface, wind swirled around me like a soft vortex. My lungs, full with the freshest air, started floating within me and lifting me up toward the night sky. As I gasped more and more air into my body, sea spray flew into my mouth. The salt tasted like sugar, and I started to weep. My dress tore down its middle seams, and the wind pulled the leather into the whirl until it disappeared. The breeze swirled closer around me and hugged me, covering my entire body with its cool embrace and whispering sweet, sweet songs into my ear. I felt like I was dying and living. There were no more walls. I was naked. I was free.
I eased my eyes open and looked down. I was fifteen feet over the surface of the sea, ascending slowly. I glanced at the boardwalk through the blurs of tears and wind. The burnt old man was standing then, with both his arms outstretched toward me. I saw his mouth moving, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying—that is, until the wind blew his voice to me, and I heard the echoes as I drifted away:
“Yes, my friend! Up! Up! Up!”