The Voice of a Loved One
a short story
The doll lay across his lap, looking so much like his daughter, and yet looking nothing like her. Yarn cannot aspire to be silk; beads cannot claim the luster of eyes; cloth can only emulate flesh. But the voice was his daughter's voice. It came to him, tinny and strangled by the recorder inside, muffled by the foam stuffing. She spoke three quick phrases, guided by the barely audible coaching of his wife in the background: I love you Daddy. We miss you. Buh-bye.
Buh-bye. She'd never learned to say 'bye-bye', and he remembered how he and Linda would laugh about it; they began calling their daughter the little stewardess. "Buh-bye, now," she'd say as she waved the passengers off the plane, "buh-bye."
No planes now. No birthdays, no boyfriends, no graduation, no...
He clutched the doll to his face, tears and snot soaking its dress, its insides (DO NOT WASH, the tag advised), and he picked up the gun again, wavering.
"I can't go." Simple words. Linda had given him that look, but she couldn't sustain it with any gusto. He said it was his job, he just couldn't take time off right now; it was what they both called a truthful lie. He could take off, but it wouldn't be easy. She could insist, but she knew the real truth behind the lie. It was all about her sister, and that was one issue that had become dormant in the years of their marriage. Don't wake this particular sleeping dog. It was an agreement that had never been voiced, but it existed, right up there with the wedding vows, for better or worse, and Sis was lodged firmly in the or worse column.
Linda knew what her sister had done. He'd told her. He'd spared her the details: the drunken diatribe, the crying jag, the sudden moment when she'd thrust her tongue into his mouth and grabbed his crotch, massaging him through his rented-tuxedo pants with abandon, all the while whispering wrong sister, lover, wrong sister.
He didn't tell Linda about that. He'd said, basically, "Your sister made a pass at me. On our wedding day. She might've been drunk, but..."
Linda laughed his concerns off, telling him stories about Missy's misdemeanors, distancing herself from them, as family will. Still, she never pressed him; when it came time to visit her sister, she knew she would end up flying solo, and she never held it against him.
Until they had a child, and everything changed.
I love you Daddy. We miss you. Buh-bye. He needed to get up now. His bladder threatened to burst, and his glass was empty. Two birds with one stone, and he was ready to laugh, he wanted to laugh; then the doll exerted control again. Where were you, Daddy?
He sat there, afraid to move. He wet his pants and sat there. Then he remembered that he needed to refill his glass, and he picked up the doll, hugging it to his chest, as he stumbled into the kitchen.
The empty whiskey bottle lay, defeated, on the kitchen counter. He froze for a moment, outside of time, remembering the call, the clipped, impersonal tone of the policewoman: We regret to inform you that there has been an accident involving your wife and daughter. We're currently investigating the situation. Who let this woman break the news? He'd stood, a cold numbness creeping from his heart and stomach, as she detailed the accident in her dead voice. Her words faded in and out as she spoke, some of them dying even before they reached his ears, others battering his consciousness with their force. When she'd finished speaking, he'd been left with only a few words. Harsh words. Broken guardrail. Dead on impact. Drinking involved. And the final insult, the jackbooted kick to the head that sent him mentally reeling from its force. Your sister-in-law was driving.
He'd lived the next two days as a golem, taking instruction from the small, sane portion of his brain that existed solely to give orders. Make arrangements at work. Call the airlines. Pack a bag. Breathe, dammit. He obliged all, his body cold brittle clay, serving a master he didn't understand. He wanted to die. The master said no.
I love you Daddy. We miss you. Buh-bye.
He raised his head, groggy, a trail of spit and vomit connecting him to the kitchen floor. His daughter's voice echoed through the vast empty spaces in his head, calling to the braincells not yet paralyzed by alcohol. He found the doll after several moments of disoriented thrashing, still clutched in his left hand. The recorder within it had left a sore spot on his ribs, and his hand was cramped and useless from lack of bloodflow. He pushed himself up against the kitchen counter, focusing on the cloth faces that challenged his vision until they melded into one. Green glass eyes and red yarn hair, freckles made of marker, lips of pink felt. Not his daughter. Nothing like his daughter, only colors and shapes in a rough fašade.
Until his eyes filled with tears, and the false face blurred into hers, and he realized that he hadn't said her name since the funeral. He squeezed the doll's stomach, aching for her voice. I love you Daddy. We miss you. Buh-bye.
"Sarah," he whispered, clutching the doll to his chest. "I love you, too, baby."
The voice came again, muffled against his body. Mommy's crying, Daddy. Please help her.
He'd made it through the funeral okay. No, not okay, never again okay. He'd functioned. He said the right words at the right time, made his obeisances, accepted sympathies with the proper tone. The golem had softened a bit, but the clay remained. That sane master commanding him was working overtime, directing his actions while trying to reason through the facts leading to his family's death. The bare truths of the incident existed in his mind, skeletons of reality, and he struggled to add flesh to them as they bonedanced away from his grasp.
Linda had been drinking with her sister. Both women had tested over the legal driving limit for blood alcohol levels. Linda's appendix ruptured (another dry fact from the autopsy). At this point, apparently, Missy had taken charge of the situation, hustling Linda to the car, waking Sarah and packing her into the backseat (still wrapped in blankets and in her nightclothes, per the police report). Driving at high speed (skid-marks indicated a probable velocity of eighty-plus miles per hour), she had missed a turn in the darkness and plowed through a guardrail, sending the car and its three occupants into the almost-dry riverbed thirty feet below. The bodies had to be cut out of the wreckage due to the extreme damage suffered by the vehicle.
These were the facts, the dancing bones. The flesh that he labored to clothe them with was this: If I'd gone on the trip, I'd have been the one driving. If I'd gone, they'd still be alive.
He found another bottle, Southern Comfort this time, which went down like syrup and made him want to gag, but who cared, right, who really cared? No one was watching, no one could lecture him. It was just he and the bottle, now.
And his daughter, of course.
He staggered out of the kitchen, bottle in one hand, doll still clutched in the now-tingling fingers of the other. The couch intervened in his path through the living room, and he sprawled across it, twisting clumsily onto his back as he fell, baptizing both himself and the doll in holy firewater. He panicked for a moment, feeling the wet cloth of the doll's gingham dress beneath his fingers. He squeezed its stomach, waiting for Sarah's voice, but nothing happened. Oh, God, I killed you. I killed you again. Moaning, he shook the doll, screaming his daughter's name repeatedly, until the voice finally spoke again, slurred but recognizable. I love you Daddy. We miss you. Buh-bye.
He wept again, the doll cradled in both arms now, bottle forgotten on the floor. "Oh, baby, my little baby, I'm so sorry, I'm..." His words stumbled and fell against themselves, and he searched for the lost bottle, gripped the neck, and poured the remaining liquid down his throat to drown his own voice.
The doll spoke instead.
It's dark, Daddy. Where are you? Why is Aunt Missy so mad at us? He felt heat in his left hand and he almost threw the doll from him, instead tightening his grip and pulling it into the blurred realm of his vision. Yarn, felt, cloth, and his own ravaged face reflected in its wet glass eyes. He watched in drunken disbelief as a drop of moisture rolled from one of those eyes and stained the ink-freckled cloth beneath.
After the funeral, he'd been allowed to go to Missy's house and remove his family's belongings. He'd repacked their suitcases meticulously, combing the house for every garment, soiled or otherwise, that he could identify as theirs. There were no surprises until he found the package addressed to him. It sat on a coffee table by the front door, ready for shipping, Sarah's childish block letters spelling out the destination in bright purple crayon. He almost left it there, that sane master within saying No, no, not this, my little automaton, we don't want this, we don't need this, not now. Not ever.
The golem failed. The clay had softened. He'd taken the package, unopened, and gone back home.
I love you Daddy. The doll lay spinelessly across his knee. There'd been a card with it, an 'adoption certificate', that described its function in glowing terms. "This lovely little urchin will AMAZE your small one, BRIGHTENING his or her life with the miracle of YOUR LOVE. Just record your message of KINDNESS and JOY for your child, grandchild, niece or nephew. With a gentle hug, the small one will hear the VOICE OF A LOVED ONE, a comfort for any child!" The included instruction sheet explained how to record a "five to 7 second message" on the device lodged in the doll's stomach. We miss you. Linda had been thrilled, he was sure, to find this, to send that message of KINDNESS and JOY to him, and Sarah must've been beside herself to hear that message for the first time, muffled as it was from the doll's bowels. That was the way they were -- they loved Daddy, both of them. Daddy loved them. Wouldn't this be a nice surprise? Wouldn't Daddy just die?
The bottles were empty, but the gun wasn't. He ignored his bruises, shins barked and bloodied by furniture, blood still flowing freely from a nasty gash in his scalp. The gun had replaced the bottle in his right hand, resurrected from its dusty resting place at the top of the hall closet. He checked its cylinders, found them full, and wondered, in a moment of clarity, about his own stupidity. He'd kept a full gun in a house with a five-year-old daughter. Of course, she'd never be able to find it, she couldn't reach it, the safety was on ...
Your sister made a pass at me. She grabbed my crotch. She hates you.
The doll lay across his lap, looking so much like his daughter, and yet looking nothing like her. I love you Daddy. We miss you. Buh-bye. Five to 7 seconds. Where were you, Daddy? Mommy's crying, Daddy. Please help her. It's dark, Daddy. Where are you? Why is Aunt Missy so mad at us?
He cocked the hammer. I love you Daddy. He tasted dust and metal, and the gunsight scratched the roof of his mouth. We miss you. He pulled the trigger.
Mikal Trimm writes short fiction, poetry, and songs. He lives in the vast cattle-ranch that is Texas, but he is more than willing to relocate (for the right fee). He is also an editor for the online speculative fiction magazine Ideomancer.
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