Gwen and I took the kids to the mall for a payday treat. The twins shared one of those nasty orange drinks, Kirk spent some time in the arcade, and as usual, we all found our way to the Woolworths where we could actually afford to buy things.
There's a certain opulence about the place, goods spilling out on the floor. They never un-stock anything, so you can buy Easter candies and Christmas ornaments all year long. Several times Gwen's been overjoyed to find a discontinued favorite shade of eyeshadow or lipstick at the back of a shelf.
Tonight the kids and even Gwen were indecisive, finding things and putting them back whenever they found something else they wanted more.
When we rounded everybody up for the register, Maude and Julie were sheepish. They only wanted this one thing, this battered white box of . . . craft parts? I couldn't make sense of it, but the green sticker said $19.99.
Gwen snatched it and said, "No way," but I put it back on the counter.
The girls chirped and cheered me all the way home. It felt good.
Spread on the kitchen table, the kit was impressive. That's what it was, a model kit for making an eleven-inch anatomical model. The plastic skeleton came intact; everything else had to be added. Clearly, the little sacks of soft powder needed to be tipped into the little plastic cups and mixed with water, then each mixture pressed into its color-matched organ mold. The red muscles, all pressed together in a clay-like brick, would need to be separated and applied. Three silver ketchup-like packets labeled A, B, and C had text warning not to open them prior to reading the instructions.
"Where's the instructions, though?" said Julie, checking the box again.
I expected the girls to tire of it in an hour, but every time I'd go back to the kitchen they still labored over the molds. Kirk joined them with his biology textbook around eight. By nine they were starting the muscles.
I thought Gwen was headed for bed after the news, but in a minute she called triumphantly, "I found the instructions!"
It was a single creased sheet with sharp, colorful diagrams of a baby doll being assembled on one side, a whole lot of writing on the other.
Gwen beamed, said, "It was folded inside packet A, with these." A dozen eyes in different colors, the size of candy sprinkles.
I couldn't remember the whole family ever working together on something like this. It was nice.
"That's not the same doll," Kirk said.
"It should work," I said, pulling up a chair. I skimmed:
IMPORTANT: All organs well hydrated prior insertion in doll baby corpse . . .
IMPORTANT: Push into Fatty Skin Suit (B) before you should wake her . . .
IMPORTANT: Brain (C) must handle very careful it is only item not available for replace.
Prepare layette. Diaper required if (optional) digestive system inserted.
"This is . . ." I said.
"What's it say?" said Maude.
But I was reading how to wake her.
"We could just cut some holes in a sock or something," said Kirk, but Gwen hadn't had the chance to sew anything in ages. She was excited. We all were.
Maude and Julie took turns reading from the instructions.
It was one. The twins had never been up so late.
The fatty skin suit came packed in oil like tuna and just about impossible to get on her. The fingers kept getting messed up. I struggled and cursed.
"Are the eyes ready?"
"You need to do the brain first."
"No, you do the brain from the back. Right, Daddy?"
"Please be quiet. I'm almost. . ."
"I soaked all the eyes in case we mess up some."
"I want green."
"There. Skin suit complete. That sucked"
"Daddy is a-ma-zing."
"She looks so real."
"Too real. Where's Mom?"
"Packet C now?"
"Just. . ."
"Her dress is so cute!"
"Let's just. . ."
"That's better. I felt bad with her all . . ."
"Packet C now, Daddy?"
"I . . ."
"She can ride on Baxter like he's a horse."
"She can go swimming in the bathtub. She's going to be so happy here."
"It is so, so late. I think we should wait until morning."
"Are you kidding?" Gwen said.
I squeezed her hand. Come on. I just wanted to hold onto the magic a little while longer. The kids believed it so much they had me believing it too. I wanted to go to bed still thinking something might happen, wanted to delay the dread moment.
"She can ride in a purse like a little dog!"
"Oh my God! We’ll take her to school."
"Packet C now?" Kirk said. Everyone held their breath, looked to me.
When I turned the doll, I appreciated Gwen’s fine work on the gingham-napkin shift. I parted the oily scalp to the hollow skull.
Kirk cut the packet top, poured its contents into his palm. Oil or water flowed out, and the quivering brain like a yolk slid from palm to skull. Clean and careful.
This moment felt holy. We breathed so shallowly.
"Was the other thing in there?"
Yes, in his hand still, the thin plastic tube. Kirk cut its top.
Gwen stroked the skull cap on her thumb-tip.
Kirk slid a thin rod from the tube. "Oh, it's . . . hot."
"What if she's. . ."
"Will she . . ."
"Two sparks to the brain, skull cap goes on, turn her, two to the chest,” I remind him.
He asks, "Are you ready?"
Spark, spark, cap (oh my is she already heavier?)
No time to worry over the gap in the scalp. With shaking hands, I turn her (the eyes, are they . . .)
A spark, a spark.
Christi Nogle’s short stories have appeared in publications such as Escape Pod, The Arcanist, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Christi teaches college composition and lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cat. Follow her at christinogle.com or on Twitter @christinogle