The Living Doll

By Hannah E. Phinney

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My father was an old man. Seventy-seven years he had lived on this planet. One day he complained to me of a headache. It seemed mild at first, but toward nightfall he was massaging his temples, his face wreathed in discomfort. By the next day it had morphed into a meaty migraine, and he told me he heard rustlings in his ears. Clinkings and tinklings. In the evening my poor old pops spoke of whisperings. He said they came from inside his head, and that the voice was a young girl’s.

On the third day, my father was unable to get out of bed. Every time he tried to stand, he fell to the floor, head-first – as if something in there was too heavy, was pulling him down. I took him to the hospital.

The strangest part was that I knew instinctively what ailed him, but I didn’t know how I knew.

In the car, my father began to talk about a bizarre distortion in his visual perception. He said it felt like he was seeing, not double, but doubly: like he was looking at the world with his own two eyes, but also with those of someone much smaller and younger – someone who sat behind his eyes and peered through them like windows. He was perplexed and frightened. I didn’t know what to say to him, so we drove on in silence.

In the doctor’s office, a medic shined light into my father’s eyes and ears.

“Hmm. Quite peculiar. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like this. We must operate immediately.”

My father looked at me, worry stretched in wrinkled bars across his brow. “Harvey! I’m afraid, Harvey.”

“Don’t be afraid, pops. The docs’ll fix you. It’ll be okay.”

So he went under the knife. The surgeons had to unhinge my father’s face. They made incisions along the top of his forehead, the bottom of his chin, and the left side of his cheek, so they could open his face like a door. Then they stood, mouths agape at what was inside.  

My father’s brain was mostly hollowed out, and in the space previously occupied by that vital grey matter sat a tiny living doll. She had a tiny head crowned by dark brown bangs, and tiny ruby lips. She wore a pale blue dress. She held a miniature teacup. The living doll blinked her exaggerated eyelashes at the doctors in bewilderment.

The first surgeon to snap out of his shock shook his finger at her and said, “Alright, missy. Play time is over. We need to get you out of there.”

But the doll was extraordinarily recalcitrant. She coiled nerve bundles around her arms and stuck her feet into what was left of the medulla oblongata. The doctors had to work for hours to remove her. After the surgery was over, I went to my father’s bedside. When he finally came out of anesthesia, he looked into my face and said simply:

“She’s gone, and now I cannot live without her. My son – goodbye.”

He died. After all the trouble we went through to save him, he died. I wept bitterly.

Noises from an idling garbage truck outside my window. What a dream! Everything around me felt fuzzy and bittersweet. I had an urge to call my father before heading to work. Silly – he had been dead five years now. Heart disease. I got ready for my morning commute.

Back home after an arduous day at work, my head started throbbing. It was mild at first, but grew fiercer as the evening wore on, so I took two ibuprofen and went to bed early.

No wisps of weird dreams the following morning. I went to work. After lunch I was once again plagued by headache. By the time I left the office and gained my apartment it was so bad that I had to run to the bathroom to relieve my nausea in the toilet. I took two ibuprofen and tried to relax, tried to lose myself in the TV. Soon I began to hear an odd rustling inside my ears. Clinkings and tinklings. I thought with horror about my dream. I thought: There’s no way. Dolls don’t just appear in our heads. They don’t hollow out our brains and manipulate our emotions to the extent that we perish upon their removal. Why, then, do I feel such foreboding?

The next day, as I dressed and ate breakfast, they came to me. The whisperings. A young girl’s voice. Every rational bone in my body was set to mutiny. There were three possibilities: either I was going completely insane, or I was still dreaming, or reality was not fashioned from the plain cotton cloth I’d always assumed it was. Whatever the case, I couldn’t handle these soft susurrations. No other quick-fix solution came to me, so I grabbed the ibuprofen sitting on my counter. I took three, just to be safe. The whisperings had to stop! After ten minutes, since the stupid things didn’t seem to be working, I took three more. The whisperings had to stop! I would make them stop.

– Hannah E. Phinney