Clara – Excerpt 1

This is the opening section for a piece of fiction I’ve been working on…

I wasn’t there when she found the body, but I can imagine what happened.  My Creator was on a mission for parts.  As a dollmaker – and as an artist – she could never have enough eyes or legs or sections of human hair.  Even as jagged mountains of stray limbs formed around her workspace, each new doll sent her on a quest for the “right” pieces.  Sometimes, she would run to the piles, knowing precisely which eyes belonged in the two hollowed out sockets before her.  Most of the time, though, she would spend days or weeks hunting for a part that called to her.

Uninformed customers would often ask why she kept so many others if they weren’t the “right” parts.  With no hesitation (and just a hint of knowing indignation), she would explain that their bodies hadn’t yet arrived.  And this was life in the old Victorian house, discarded scraps keeping one another company as their caretaker continued her tireless mission to turn sad parts into proper wholes.

Late one night, as the Creator found herself puzzled by a particularly difficult cloth torso, she received a most serendipitous phone call.  From my position on the bookshelf, I could hear only her side of the conversation.

“Hello?”

Silence.

“Yes. Yes, I’m the doll doctor.  I’m always looking for more parts.  What do you have?”

Silence.

“No, it’s fine if you don’t know the names.  Would you say they’re old parts?”

Silence.

“How much are you asking?”

Silence.

“Well that’s very kind of you.  It’s not often that such old parts just fall into your lap.  I hate to say it, but you could probably get quite a bit for what you’ve got.”

Silence.  More silence.

“Tonight?  You’d have to give me a couple of hours, if that’s okay.  I had just turned in for the evening, and the city’s at least an hour’s drive from here.”

Silence.

“Will a minivan be large enough?”

Silence.

“Alright, I think I know that neighborhood.  I’ll see you soon.”

The Creator’s husband had been listening, too, and he looked up questioningly as she hung up the phone.  “They’re free,” she explained.

Eternally practical, he responded without hesitating.  “Everything has an opportunity cost.”

In this case, the opportunity cost was several hours of sleep and at least 50 pages of the novel he was reading.

“Someone left them behind this old man’s store, by his dumpster.  He would bring them inside, but he says he can’t carry them himself and he’s afraid they will be gone with the garbage by morning.  If it could wait, I would.”

Her husband sighed.  It wasn’t the first time he had dropped everything in pursuit of a bargain.

Nearly two hours later, Creator and husband arrived in front of an old curiosities shop.  The street was unremarkable, aside from the shop itself.  A cheap nail salon, advertising a “$10 CLASSY FRENCH MANICURE”, sat to the left.  The neon “open” sign was dark, and metal bars had been secured in front of the windows.  To the right was a check cashing store, similarly locked up.  Nevertheless, I am certain that they were excited by what they saw as they stared up from the sidewalk.

The shop was a marvel, completely out of place in its surroundings.  The storefront was tasteful, with dark wooden accents and an arched doorway that might have been more appropriate in a European castle.  A sign above read “Curiosities Killed the Cat, LTD”, and a smaller sign let passersby know that hours were “by appointment or chance”.

A few flickering candles within offered just enough light to view the window displays, artfully arranged scenes cast almost entirely in marionettes.  The left window showed a hunting scene where the puppets wore fuzzy hats with flaps and carried muskets and axes.  Their prey was, quite understandably, a woodcutter shown in motion just as his axe was to hit a tree.  Surrounded by bloodthirsty puppets, one could only wonder what was to become of the unlucky woodcutter.

As though someone had anticipated this question, the second window provided the answer.  This window held a magnificent banquet table surrounded by noble marionettes in their finest garments. Dozens of miniature place settings waited to be filled with tiny fruits and miniscule vegetables and even petite petit fours.  The main course was an enormous glazed meat, garnished with pineapples and cherries, darker than turkey but lighter than ham.  Roughly the shape of a chalk murder scene outline.

As a lover of the unsavory and unusual, my Creator knocked eagerly, barely making a sound against the heavy door.  It was then that she noticed the doorknocker, the shadowy figure of a gargoyle dangling a fat child from one hand.  Now some people might have assumed that the figure was an ogre, but the Creator is observant, and she noticed the resourceful gleam in the creature’s eyes.  Ogres are dumb.  Gargoyles, on the other hand, were created with function in mind.  Their legs and tails and tongues have long been used to divert water, thus protecting the buildings they adorn.  This gargoyle, like all the others, served a purpose – but this one was frozen in time, victorious forever.

Almost as soon as the child’s round body made contact with the door, a high-pitched, gravelly voice urged the two inside. The Creator’s husband opened the door and gestured for her to go ahead.  Whether this courtesy came from chivalry or nervousness is anyone’s guess.

Stepping inside was a jarring experience, somewhere between mistakenly expecting an extra step at the top of a stairway and falling into the toilet late at night when the seat is up.  As the door swung shut, the dismal urban scenery gave way to what felt like an old English shop, complete with the smell of burning firewood and pipe tobacco.  As the Creator moved between the windows and into the doorway, her husband was certain he saw movement in the eyes of the marionettes.  Rather than make a scene, he attributed it to his tiredness at the late hour and moved onward.  To his relief, the shopkeeper was an uncommonly warm and polite little man.

The tiny old man was dressed like a ventriloquist’s dummy, a look that never seems to go out of style for tiny old men.  A grey mouse sat quietly in his pocket, prompting the creator’s husband to wonder aloud if it was real.  Almost in response to the question, the mouse climbed out of the pocket and onto the old man’s shoulder.

“You’ve made a friend, kind sir.”  The old man smiled.

“What do you mean?”

“Little Alistaire here is always remarking that fake mice look so much nicer than real mice.”  He sighed, gazing lovingly at the mouse.  “It really is a shame when we bring our own neuroses to such pure creatures.  I try to keep them innocent, but it’s so difficult, what with television and all.  But you, you’ve just made his night.”

“Well, I’m glad he took it as a compliment, then.”

“Did you mean to insult him?”

“No no, of course not.  I’m just…not terribly familiar with mice.”

“Oh.  Well then, come in, sit down, let me get you some tea.”

“Thank you, but you really don’t have to,” the Creator said.

“Of course, you’ve come to take these parts off my hands at a very inconvenient hour.  Tea is the least I can do.”

As the two puzzled over his statement of gratitude, the old man scurried about, not at all like a man preparing tea.  He knelt down to search for something among the leaves of a potted plant, then moved on disgustedly to an urn by the fireplace.  Again, his search was fruitless.  Finally, he approached the couch the Creator and her husband were sitting on, and pulled a lovely silver tea tray from beneath.  As steam rose inexplicably from the spout of the kettle, he introduced himself.

“Silas O’Sullivan, very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“You too.  I’m Josephine, and this is my husband Clifford.”

“Very nice.  Drink up now.  You know what they say.”

The Creator nodded and sipped, but her husband is never one to feign knowledge of something he doesn’t know, even if it only requires a nod.

“No, Silas, I don’t believe I do.  What do they say?”

“Well, you know.  Gather your rosebuds while ye may.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard that.  I never thought about it while drinking tea, though.”

The Creator is not the kind of person that is good at hiding irritation, and that night was no exception.  While her husband could sense it, the old man seemed oblivious.  “You’re right, it’s such a small thing, but so much of life is in the small things…and we all die someday.”

The Creator thought she could sense an ominous tone, and she decided it was best to change the subject. “So Silas,” she began, “Tell me about these parts.”

“Ahh…the parts.” A far-off look crossed his face. “Nearly 100, they are. Incredible condition, too. I’d been expecting them for a while, but truth be told, I still don’t think I was ready for it.”

“I’m not sure I understand, Silas. You said someone left the parts out behind your shop. How could you have expected it?”

The Creator was tired, confused, and increasingly certain that someone was messing with her. Though her voice betrayed her irritation, Silas remained oblivious.

“Everything will make sense in due time, Josephine. For now, let’s just enjoy our tea.”

The three sipped in silence, and Alistaire popped his head out of Silas’s pocket to get a drink every few minutes. Clifford was the first to speak. “So Silas, how did you get into this line of work, anyway?”

“Well it’s certainly not what I set out to do, I’ll tell you that. For years, I was an entertainer. Ventriloquism. Probably not the best, but certainly not the worst – and I loved it. Life gives us a lot of different pleasures, but there’s nothing in the world like captivating an audience. We all get a little taste of it every now and then, when we spread a juicy piece of gossip or tell a good joke, but it’s nothing like taking the stage in front of a crowd. It’s the second best feeling in the world.”

Silas paused for a moment, staring off in the distance until Josephine brought him back to Earth. “What made you stop?”

“Ventriloquism…” Silas paused. “…it’s not what it used to be. I’m not sure what happened, exactly, but as time passed, it became fashionable to take instruments of joy, of fantasy – and to label them as sinister. Clowns. Dolls. Ventriloquists. Magicians. It’s almost like someone had a vendetta against wonder itself, and they somehow conned even our fellow artists into defaming us in fiction and film. I went from packed houses in huge Detroit theaters to getting sideways looks from the parents at children’s birthday parties.

But we all move on – and given the late hour, I suspect that’s exactly what the two of you would like to do right about now. Let me just show you to the parts.”

Silas guided the Creator and her husband through a maze of artifacts and oddities.  From the left, a Feejee mermaid stared ominously at the group. Clifford nearly tripped over an errant sword. Finally, Silas ushered the two of them through a large steel door. As the warm shop gave way to the cold, gritty alley, Silas pressed a piece of paper into the Creator’s hand. Then, he slammed the door shut. From the alley, the Creator could hear the sound of locks being secured. She was just about to comment on the peculiarity of the brusque departure when her husband cut her off.

“Josephine…I think you should come take a look at this.”

As she turned around, the Creator saw her husband leaning over the body of an elderly woman.  She stopped, mid-breath.

Death and old age are as familiar to the Creator and her husband as they could possibly be to two who hadn’t yet made the journey.  Together, the two of them work in a retirement home, Clifford at the helm as administrator, and the Creator as the activity director. One never expects to find bodies in alleys, though, so the shock was entirely justified.

“She’s not alive, but her body is still warm.”

“What should we do?”

“Get Silas. Maybe we can wait in his shop until the police arrive.”

The Creator turned back to the shop door and banged on it. To her surprise, Silas yelled back. “Go away!”

“But Silas! There’s a dead body out here. We need to call the police. Can we come back in and wait?”

“Read the note I gave you! Just read the note! There isn’t much time!” Silas sounded desperate.

The Creator looked down at the note in her hand. On one side, there was a map. On the other side, a few typewritten lines:

 

THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE.

JOSEPHINE, YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN CAREFULLY.

PLEASE DELIVER THIS BODY TO GERALD WINCHELL IN PERSIMMON CREEK IMMEDIATELY. HE WILL BE EXPECTING YOU.

116 RR2, PERSIMMON CREEK, IL

She showed the card to her husband and leaned down to inspect the body more closely. There were no visible injuries, but as she studied the old woman there in the darkened alley, the Creator had a sudden realization. She knew this woman.

“Cliff – this is Clara!”

“Clara who?”

“From the doll shows. I met her years ago, and I repaired one of her dolls a while back. Remember? She came to the house one evenng while we were cleaning up dinner and she brought that coconut cream pie you practically inhaled in one sitting?”

The mention of the coconut cream pie sparked Clifford’s memory, and recognition washed over his face. “What’s she doing here??”

“I have no idea, but it must mean something. Why else would we have been called here in the middle of the night?”

“That’s true…but what are we supposed to do about it? We can’t very well find a body and deliver it to someone without telling the police. Do you realize how much trouble we’d be in if someone found out? This is not what sane people do.”

Josephine paused for a moment to consider her husband’s very logical point. Her thoughts were interrupted by more yelling from behind the shop door. “Please don’t call the police! It was Clara’s time to go, and this was her last wish. Just please drive the body to the man on the map and I promise that everything will make sense very soon.  There’s no time to delay. You must act NOW or everything will be ruined.”

The Creator looked at her husband, then the body, then her husband once more. Clifford had to have known what was coming before she said it. “It was her dying wish.”

“And it’s illegal,” he replied very matter-of-factly.

“But I know her.”

“Oddly enough, I don’t think that knowing the body is of much use as a criminal defense when you’re caught wandering around at night with a corpse.”

“Aren’t you just a little bit curious? Why us? Why are we here, standing in an alley with the dead body of a woman I haven’t seen in over a year?”

“Of course I’m curious, which is precisely why I think we need to call the police. They’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“What if this Winchell character is a mortician?  Maybe we’re just taking her where she needs to go. What would be so wrong with that? Maybe she couldn’t afford proper transport, and that’s where she wanted the service.” The Creator paused briefly, but continued on when she saw the look of protest dying in her husband’s eyes. “And besides that, calling the cops isn’t going to get us to bed any time soon. They’ll be questioning us for hours to come. Let’s just drop off the body, then go home. We can call the police in the morning if anything seems weird.”

“We passed weird a long time ago.”

“Well then let’s keep going.”

Clifford walked around the building and pulled the van into the alley. Once Clara had been loaded into the back, they started their journey towards Persimmon Creek. The two rode in silence for no more than a minute before looking at one another in panic and agreement. Clifford turned the van around to go back to the old man’s store.

As the familiar sights of the “Classy French Manicure” salon and payday loan office greeted them, they noticed something very odd. The shop was gone. In its place, a sad, burned-out storefront stared back at them. It didn’t look like a recent fire.

Now, none of us can say precisely what we’d do if we found ourselves trapped in a van with a dead body in the middle of the night. None of us can say precisely what we’d do if a store we’d been in just moments earlier vanished into thin air. I’ll tell you exactly what the Creator and her husband did, though. They forgot all about the cops and they drove straight to Persimmon Creek and pounded on Mr. Winchell’s door until he answered. Nevermind that it was 2am. Nevermind that his property was in the middle of nowhere, littered with rusty old cars, and quite possibly abandoned. It had been a long night.

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