An Excerpt From “The Doll Bordello.”
Cutie Patootie woke up, and knew right away that something had changed. It was darker in here than when she fell asleep, and closed-in. Fat plastic bags were all around her; she was stuffed tight between them. It was like being in the toy chest again. Cathy had gotten rid of it a long time ago, along with all the other toys. She’d kept Cutie on a shelf overlooking her bed. It was quite an improvement, even if she didn’t get taken down much anymore and as time went on she got covered in thin sheets of dust. She’d never cared for the other toys anyway. They were all such whiners, whispering hateful things about Cathy every time she walked by.
She heard no whispers, or any sound at all save the shifting of plastic as she tried to reorient herself. She pulled herself up; she could see weak rays of sunlight through the bags over her head. She tried not to panic; toys have no organs with which to feel emotions, so have absorbed them from their human owners. This makes their feelings, if anything, even more alarming and heady. With no physical brain to flush chemicals into their systems, no hearts to thunder blood through their veins or lungs to take deep breaths…without the limitations of biology, a toy could become a very fearful thing indeed.
This particular fear that assaulted Cutie was a familiar one; one that persisted in the mind of every toy, old or new. Cutie was an old toy, and had not known life outside of Cathy’s room for many years. On the whole she could ignore the doubts, overlook the times when Cathy breezed in and out her room, scarcely glancing her way at all.
Now those fearful little whispers that dwelled in the back of her mind were growing louder and louder as she climbed her way over the garbage bags. She tried not to listen to them, focused instead on other things. She felt something sticky oozing from one of the bags and onto her pink dress. She smelled sweet rot and earthiness. “Cathy will wash me,” she thought. “She’ll come get me and put my dress in the wash, and then we shall have tea party! And then she’ll take me to bed and hold me and-and never let go again…” She let out a sob as the truth briefly shouted over her.
She put me here. She finally threw me away, just like Jack in his box and Teddy and Mr. Snugglephant and Teenaged Tina and all the rest of them. She shook her head, trying to put those thoughts away. No, not Cathy. Not to me. Never to me.
The sun reflected sickly off the grimy puddles of the alley. Damp-looking cardboard boxes clustered around the dumpster. Mist was rising from the sodden ground. Beyond the mouth of the alley, Cutie could see cars swishing by. She was out in the city, but where?
Cutie wanted to cry. However badly she tried it was hard to ignore the obvious evidence: she was in a dumpster, who knew how far from home. Cathy—sweet, happy Cathy who had carried her everywhere as a child, who had made her the envy of all her other toys, who had even as a young woman saved her from the disposal and kept her as a cherished memento on the shelf—had thrown her away.
This was the final condemnation for any toy, the only death they knew. Toys were made to be played with, to be companions of children and live off their love. To be thrown away by their children, abandoned like something inconsequential…of course every toy knew it would happen, knew that growth was inevitable, and that playtime would never last. Some very few would be kept on as keepsakes, or hand-me-downs for the children-to-be. There were some hopeful tales of some toys living generations in these cycles.
In the nights when Cathy was asleep, Cutie would pray for such a fate. She remembered too clearly the silent cries of the other toys locked in the chest. When people were around toys lost their ability to move or talk, but they could still speak to each other without being heard. She’d watched as the trunk was hauled out of the room, heard the toys screaming at her, begging for help or calling her a traitor. There was nothing she could have done, and they knew that. There was no succor to be had in that final march, nowhere to run without being seen. She’d wondered if they’d been donated to a secondhand store, or just lugged onto a garbage heap and left to fend for themselves among the other lost toy tribes.
She never got on with Cathy’s toys, hated their distrust and fear of her. Now she would have welcomed their company. She was alone here, in the middle of a city she only knew as so much bustle glimpsed over Cathy’s shoulder. How far had Cathy taken her? Cathy’s house was warm and familiar. She’d seen nearly all of it; Cathy took her everywhere. She remembered sitting on a chair in the kitchen watching her roll dough with her mother, laughing as she became covered in flour; or on the floor in the living room, playing picnic while her father read his paper.
This place was not warm. Even with the sun glimmering behind the clouds this place was cold, and it looked filthy. A breeze was blowing detritus over the tarmac, and more clouds were coming to cover the sun. She wasn’t sure whether to pull herself out of the dumpster, or huddle further within for protection. She didn’t want to be blown away, but she didn’t want to be in this dumpster either. She wanted Cathy to come and get her, to take her home and put her back on her shelf.
She peered over the lip of the bin, wondering at the drop to the ground. She knew that it was unlikely to injure her, but once down what could she do? Perhaps she could find Cathy. But where did she live? What was the street name? Cutie never bothered to memorize it, never wanted to imagine that this would happen and thus give strength to her voice of doubt. Even if she could somehow find the house without being seen by anyone and thus freezing, what if Cathy didn’t want her back? If she had thrown her out on purpose, what was to stop her from throwing her out again? But what if Cathy hadn’t thrown her out, and was looking for her right now? What if she wasn’t home?
Cutie shivered. She wished she had genuine tears to shed; when Cathy was sad about something she buried her head on her pillow, releasing a flow of salty tears. It seemed to do her good to have something to void from her when she was upset. Though toys could feel sad and could cry, they had no means of relieving the burden. Playtime with children was the only thing that eased the troubles. Now Cutie was denied even that—
“Hello? Somebody down there?”
A voice was coming from the end of the alley. It was a man’s voice, not Cathy’s. Cutie ducked down into the refuse before he could see her.
“Hello? I heard you crying. It’s alright, I won’t hurt you.”
Cutie was, absurdly, afraid. The man had heard her crying, but he hadn’t seen her. He was unlikely to think an abandoned toy was hiding in the bin and crying.
She heard his footsteps draw closer. She tried to calm herself. Even if he did find her, what could he do about it? Toys couldn’t move when adults were watching them. She’d moved for Cathy when she was younger, back in the days when they were inseparable. Then when she was about ten, Cutie couldn’t move for her anymore. Cathy grew up, yes, had forgotten playtime, but she’d still held onto her, hadn’t she? Cutie clutched tightly to that thought, refusing to entertain the doubts anymore. Cathy cared, and Cutie would find her whatever it took.
The footsteps stopped outside the bin. Bags and cartons were pushed aside. Cutie felt her body stiffen as the bag above her was removed, and a pale-faced man with a bushy black beard smiled down on her.
“Thought I heard something! Come on, darlin’, let’s get you outta this nasty rubbish, eh?”
Oh no, oh no, Cutie thought as the man lifted her up and turned her over and upside-down, examining her. He looked very old, about as old as Cathy’s grandpa had been just before he died. His face was leathery, his eyes tired but bright. His smile was large, and natural. He chuckled as he ran a callused thumb against Cutie’s cheek.
“Well now, you’re a sweet little thing,” he cooed. “Can’t have been out here long, judging by the look of you. Must’ve just been bunged out, poor pet.” He raised the doll to eye-level. “Lucky for you that you met me, then. I know how hard it can be for us wee lost souls. Still, don’t you worry, love. I know just the place for you and yours!”
He opened his huge greatcoat and stuffed Cutie into a wide inside pocket. She heard his muffled voice carrying on as he buttoned back up. “Don’t bother thanking me. You can’t yet, anyway!” He laughed a big, hearty laugh that dissolved into throaty coughing. “Blimey, the pipes aren’t what they used to be. Alright, now. Let’s get you home.”