Cont’d . . .
Unhooking the dried-out bouquet from the wall, Maggie set it in one half of the wheelbarrow, then gingerly picked up the doll. Peeling off the spider webs, she placed it beside the flowers, and stepped back to survey her work.
“It’s the crappy screensaver photo,” Evan said in a low, awed tone of voice.
Without a word she rushed back to the house and went into the livingroom. The TV was on somehow, though she hadn’t done it; but this time the screen was black. The blue light on the Internet device beside it blinked in and out, slowly and rhythmically.
Maggie hurried outside to collect the doll, finding Evan still standing there staring at it, hands on his hips. He followed her back into the house with quiet curiosity. Sitting down on the couch together, they examined the doll as though it were a delicate and priceless artifact. Maggie flipped it over.
A tiny blue light was blinking behind the moth-eaten fabric of the dress—in tandem with the Internet device across the room. She exchanged a glance with Evan, who’d noticed as well.
“How could the batteries still be working?” she whispered. “It’s not possible.“
“So how do you activate it,” she said, this time louder.
Feeling the doll vibrate in her hands, Maggie turned it back around. The grey eyes were open. She gasped and nearly dropped it. In the same instant the black TV screen switched to a video recording: a doll’s eye view of a little girl.
Maggie laid the doll on the coffee table and turned up the TV volume. They listened slack-jawed as the little girl chattered happily with the doll as she moved about her bedroom, gathering a handful of items. Every once in a while the doll responded to her specific questions in a posh munchkin voice.
“That looks like the gabled window in the front bedroom upstairs . . . ” Maggie said softly, a chill coming over her.
They watched for a couple more minutes, mesmerized, as the child lifted the doll under her free arm and carried it with her down the stairs, the recording turning sideways. On the main level she set down the handful of toys and gripped the doll in front of her facing outward—the video righting itself. There was no question, it was indeed the same house they sat in now, despite the different furnishings and wall-hangings.
“Mom?” the child called out, searching the rooms. “Mommm?” In the sun room a woman stood near the door, grocery bags around her feet, and her neck bent forward as she typed something into her phone.
“Oh there you are,” the child said.
“Mnn?” The woman didn’t look up; instead she continued typing with her index finger.
“Can I have a snack now?”
“Can I have a snack now?”
“Yes, yes, Penny, in a minute, just wait.”
Maggie and Evan watched as the child waited, fidgeting, and finally left the room. She wandered into the kitchen, set the doll down on the table in a seated position, then looked in the cupboards and fridge, letting out a noisy exhale. Eventually she picked up the doll by one arm and it bumped against her side as she returned to the sun room, finding her mother in the same position—the camera view slanted. With another noisy exhale, she went into the living room and put on a cartoon; seating the doll beside her on the couch with care.
This same pattern continued for an hour as Maggie and Evan watched, riveted. The mother eventually got the child a snack and handed it to her with one hand while still reading whatever was on the screen of the phone in her other hand. After this the recordings went into fast-forward mode for long stretches, skipping entire days, Maggie and Evan having no control over it—and the date stamp changed again and again as time passed. Within another hour they’d already viewed what appeared to be several months’ worth of video footage—most of it in fast-forward.
By now the sun had fully set, windows black and crawling with winged insects; the contours of furniture suffused by the TV screen alone. Completely transfixed, they didn’t bother to switch on a lamp or even leave the room for the matter—not wanting to miss any of the footage with no ability to pause or rewind.
The child continued to press and pester her mother for attention, the woman bent over her phone, seldom making eye contact, and mumbling responses in a harried voice.
As week after week of footage passed by the child turned more and more to the doll for companionship and less and less to the mother.
Eventually it was the mother repeatedly calling the child’s name, “Penny? Pennny? Peneloppppe!” where once it had been, “Mom look—look Mom, look.” But now the child seemed unable to peel her attention away from the Lola doll. She could also play video games with it using a tablet, and they chatted back and forth as they did so.
On one occasion, in which the fast-forward speed of the recording slowed down to real time—which it seemed to do whenever something noteworthy was occuring—Penelope took the doll into the backyard. Her mother stood there texting on her phone next to a garden only partly weeded, and a wheelbarrow. The woman had evidently paused to check her phone, leaving the task far from completed. After setting the doll in the wheelbarrow on what appeared to be a whim, Penelope gathered up some wildflowers and plants from the pile at her mother’s feet, and positioned them like a bouquet next to Lola. She then took a photograph of the scene with her tablet.
More weeks of footage passed and the doll soothed the child in growing measure, no longer sticking to the juvenile conversations initiated by Penelope. Now its ethereal voice assured her she would always be loved and cared for. It also began intervening in the rare moments when the child had resorted to seeking the mother’s attention again; its tone at times possessive, even angry. “No, Penny, don’t do that. Turn to me, not to her. She doesn’t love you—I do.”
The child at first seemed saddened by this, her body language showing hesitation and uneasiness, but as the recordings on the screen continued to plow through each day, she seemed to grow more accepting . . . more obedient.
“Yes, Lola,” she started saying in response to each comment, “yes, okay.”
The child’s formerly happy chit-chat took on a monotonous cadence, almost robotic, as though Penelope had become disengaged from the outside world, and was only listening with half an ear.
One particular evening at bedtime, the footage slowed down to show the mother arguing with the child; who’d just been tucked into bed.
“You’re utterly obsessed with that doll,” she complained, “and I’ve had enough. You don’t play with any of your other toys anymore, you refuse to read or do arts and crafts—and you just sit there on your tablet playing video games all day while it talks to you in that skin-crawling voice. I don’t think I can stand even one more second of listening to it drone on and on.” With that she peeled the doll out of her protesting daughter’s arms and sat it down on the dresser top facing the child’s bed. “You can have her back in the morning—after you clean up your bedroom.”
Penelope lay back on her pillow crying after her mother left the room, but holding steady eye contact with the doll. The room was dim but a reading lamp on her night table cast the child and her bed in a faint light.
“Why don’t you join me in the cloud,” Lola suddenly whispered.
“What do you mean?” Wide eyes.
“The cloud. It’s where your mother really lives. Her body is here every day, yes, but her mind is actually in the cloud. That’s why she ignores you and can’t take her eyes off her phone. But you don’t have to live like this anymore—I can take you there too.”
“You can take me to the cloud—and my mother will be there? But are you sure? Will she be able to see me and talk to me?”
“Yes, she will look you right in the eyes, and you will never have to feel lonely again.”
Penelope blinked at Lola a few times as though considering what to do.
“Will you be there too?” she finally asked.
“Yes, of course, my dearest love.”
Maggie shot a glance at Evan who sat next to her, his eyes locked on the TV screen. She reached for his hand, finding it cold like her own.
The child seemed to fade all of a sudden, going slightly out of focus.
“Okay, Lola, you can take me with you,” she said. “Take me to the cloud.”
By now Maggie’s heart was pounding in her chest, goosebumps tingling on her skin. She squeezed Evan’s hand tighter as the child continued to fade before their very eyes—becoming more and more translucent, like a spectre. Within mere seconds she had completely disappeared, leaving behind an empty, tousled bed.
The TV screen went black without warning; both Maggie and Evan jumped. All they could see now was the two blue lights flashing on and off. Fumbling about, Maggie found a nearby floor lamp and switched it on. She then grabbed the doll off the coffee table and looked straight into its eyes.
“Penelope, can you hear me? Are you in there?”
“Help me!” came a tinny, distant voice from far within the doll; like a voice breaking through another dimension.
“Penny, is that you?”
“Yes, yes, it’s me. I’m trapped!”
“Why are you trapped?”
Maggie realized she was squeezing the doll, and loosened her grip.
“Because I’m invisible,” came the disembodied voice.
“Oh, sweetheart, you aren’t invisible—not anymore! I see you. We see you.”
“But Lola won’t let me leave.”
“She has to. It was your choice to join her and it’s your choice to leave.”
A heavy silence.
The doll’s eyelids slid shut and the TV flickered for a split second, but remained black. The two blue lights went out.
Setting down the doll, they stood up together without a word and instinctively walked to the back door of the house. Maggie switched on the outside light, opened the door, and they took the steps down to the grass in single file.
A shadowy form stood next to the barely discernible outline of the wheelbarrow at the back of the yard.
Straining to see in the dim lighting, Maggie slowly moved toward the figure; Evan beside her.
She heard the sudden rush of his inhale.
In front of the shed stood a little girl: wide-eyed and blinking, living and breathing, flesh and blood, and wearing a pair of pajamas.
It was Penelope Clark.