Short story: The Dolls

Part of the ‘Stranger Stories’ series

Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters. 

All stories are written in one sitting, with one round of edits.  


Dr Cotton hard at work with his torturous gadgets

I push the door open, noticing as I do – every day – the feeling of the tacky white paint against my palm. A figure passes me quickly, forcing me to pull the door in for a moment before popping my head out fully into the hallway. There’s a faint whiff of string beans and mash stretching down the hallway, brought in on the lapels of the nurses’ white pinafores, and beneath it, the ever-present smell of bleach.

“Yo. Hear the bell?” I say over my shoulder to Thorndike, who’s lying spread-eagled on his bed, face down. The only parts of him moving are the bright yellow soles of his trainers, bobbing up and down erratically like headlights. He’d cleaned them last night before bed, as he always did. Scrubbing and picking and brushing any specks he’d picked up from the linoleum. Like he was determined not to carry any of his day into the next.

Thorndike stays silent and draws one of his hanging arms across his skeletal back. The sheets rustle and his beanie slips slightly, setting free several clumps of blond hair that tick down in a slow arc, one by one, onto the side of his face. 

“I’ll save you a seat,” I say. 

Clicks roll down the corridor as doors on both sides open and close, releasing the lot of us. I join the thrum as they meander down the corridor towards the Rec room. 

“Wilson, man! Looking well, looking well,” says Merry, a man so wide that he can’t be overtaken. “Give us your secret.”

“New night time routine,” I reply, smoothing down my top. He chortles and whacks me on the back so hard that I think I feel my tonsils land on my tongue. 

“And you, twink-le toes,” he continues, going to grab the back of Thorndike’s collar as he spins past, holding himself tightly by the waist. He must have sprinted out of the room to catch up. “What’s the rush? It’s not like they’re waiting for us in there with beer and Ladd. Not that you’d spurt anything her way anyway.”

Thorndike ignores him, skipping forward and disappearing through the doorframe ahead of us. I hang back, drawing my hand across the wall and tracing the rough edges of the new paint job. The searing white only makes the fluorescent lights seem brighter, illuminating the back of Merry’s huge head as it disappears into the room. His tattooed hair follicles stays hanging in the air like a phantom for a few seconds.

I allow a few more to pass: Brando, the depressive with long threads of scars weaving from his palms to below his elbows; Moxie, who only speaks using words starting with f, and Hovis who, legend has it, couldn’t rise to the occasion due to his DIY amputation in 1971. He paws at his crotch with determined focus as he passes me. 

I step inside and something immediately feels wrong. The group, usually focused on pulling their chairs out of the stacks along the side of the room under the operatic instruction of Moxie, singing “Faster, faster, faaa-asster”, are instead huddled in the corner, eyeing Nurse Jones and Dr Cotton with uncertain eyes. The stacks are smaller than usual, and there is something in the middle of the room. 

I squint upwards and around to delay the moment I’ll have to follow everyone’s gaze. People start to mutter loudly and my ears tingle in response. 

“Come on in, everyone,” Nurse Jones says, moving towards me and extending her arm. “They won’t bite.”

The strip lights on the ceiling cast strobes into my eyes in time for me to look down at her as she tries to prise apart my hands; interlaced in front of me, and shaking. As I look into her eyes, the ghost of the strobe slashes across her face and little sparkles dot around her head. I stand stock still, feeling for a moment like I might faint. My retinas burn.  

“Fucking weird,” says Armstrong beside me, nervously touching the inside of his cardigan where he always hoards a few wads of tissue to eat later. A tiny man of no more than 100 pounds; the longer strands of his grey beard vibrate below his wobbling chin. “This is fucking weird, ey? What’s this? A test?”

“Just come on in,” Nurse Jones says again. She gives up trying to pull me forward and moves instead towards a young man, new, who hisses at her. “Take a seat.”

“The seats are taken,” says Merry, flicking the fingers on his right hand nervously and crossing his arms. There’s a pause, a shuffle of feet. And then. 

“Just sit down,” came a voice from across the room. 

We all look around. Dr Cotton, our group psychologist, is sitting in the corner, his legs crossed and a large red clipboard resting on his lap. His white coat looks to be starched so thickly that it sits a few centimetres above where his shoulders really are, giving him a hunched appearance. He’s never spoken in therapy before, only ever sitting behind us, scratching his pen against the paper. 

“We’re trying something new today,” he continues, standing up and tucking the clipboard beneath him, dropping the fountain pen into his breast pocket. “Something that’s never been tried anywhere else before.”

Merry seems to remember that he hadn’t swallowed in a while. He gulps loudly and grimaces at the attention it draws from the rest of the crowd. 

Dr Cotton walks forward, herding the group with his hands. He moves behind us, closing the door to the room and gesturing towards the chairs, all lined up neatly in a circle and facing towards the centre of the room. 8 in total. I tuck my hands into the warm hollows of my armpits, resisting the urge to smell the inevitable tang if I lift my fingers to my nose. Dr Cotton looks at me and I drop my arms to my sides. 

On the seat of every chair except for one, there sits, silently, a doll. My stomach curls itself up and climbs up into my throat. They each stare blankly at the wall ahead, as we each had for months in this room. Their life-sized limbs stretch stiffly outwards, their legs open, preventing their weighted heads from pulling them over and onto the floor. 

“The seats are taken,” says Merry again. His voice is higher this time, and he directs the comment at Dr Cotton who is making his way around to the other side of the room, lit up by the light of the windows. His thumb clicks the top of the hidden fountain pen.

“Yes, well,” Nurse Jones says. “Put them on the floor for now. You know what I mean.”

“Why?” Armstrong says. “What’s the fucking deal?”

“Sit down, and we’ll tell you.”

I watch with the rest of the group as Thorndike shuffles forwards, his mute mouth clamped around his right fist. The blond hairs on his arm are standing up on end. He looks back at us, seeking approval.

Merry is the next to move, stepping forward with a large stride to the nearest chair. He kicks at the leg and scoffs, pushing the doll onto the floor with the flat of his palm. She lands soundlessly on the mat, her hair covering her face. “Bitch,” he says. 

Dr Cotton sits back down on his chair and makes shapes on his clipboard with the pen.

Nurse Jones sits down in the only empty seat and cups her hands in her lap, palms up in a deliberate gesture of openness. I watch their eyes flicking between us all, watching how we react, how we move the dolls around. I wonder what the right answer is; the answer that will get me out of here. It’s the latest in a series of tests so bizarre that I’m beginning to think no ‘normal’ person would react in a way deemed satisfactory enough to let them go home.

I hook my doll, whose eyes observe me in a curious way, under her armpits and place her gently on the ground beside me, not showing too much care in having her sit upright. She tips to the side and I leave her there, ass in the air. I stick my hands between my legs and look forward, defiantly, meeting Dr Cotton’s eye as his gaze sweeps around the rest. 

Moxie pushes his over with such force that she hits the next chair. Armstrong picks his doll up, sits on the chair opposite me and lowers her down onto his lap. He reclines and shoots a glance at Nurse Jones. I can barely see his tiny form underneath the shining plastic torso. 

Thorndike crouches in front of his doll for a moment, his lips moving silently. After a few seconds, and the last to settle, he settles down on the floor beside the chair and holds her hand. 

“Freaky,” says Moxie suddenly, breaking the silence.

“Now look,” Dr Cotton says, coming around the back of Nurse Jones’s chair and resting his hands on her shoulders. She flinches. “This is an exciting day. Why do you think we’ve brought you in here?”

There’s silence. I look up at the strip lights again, rather than look across at Armstrong’s juddering leg and the doll that sits atop it, her hair and clothes bouncing up and down. I look to the left, where Dr Cotton’s clipboard lies on his chair. I can make out a few lines on the top paper.

…. centre for innovation. Introduce a new, novel treatment for anxiety, social isolation and behavioural disorders…

“We’re trying something new,” he says. “The institution has sourced you each a doll, which you will now be required to take with you everywhere except the bathroom. The doll you have picked is your shadow, your property, perhaps even over time, your friend.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” says Armstrong, peering around from behind her torso. He puts his fingers to her mouth and tries to part her lips. “These are sex dolls, pure and simple. Seen plenty in my time, these are no different.”

“Stop that, Andrew,” Dr Cotton replies coolly. “They’re not for that purpose. They have been adjusted to ensure that they will not be used for that purpose, and you may not at any time remove the clothing or deface your doll.”

I try to read without moving my head too much to the side.

…studies in high security institutions have shown a decreased exhibition of normal social interaction between patients. DT, Doll Therapy, encourages patients to anthropomorphize the given objects to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. Other benefits include respect of own property, an additional penalty when traditional modes of punishment are ineffective, and an opportunity for understanding of…

My throat feels like it’s gluing itself shut. The dolls lying scattered on the floor are all slightly different, enough to make them recognisable property. Thorndike’s chosen doll has long blond hair, the same shade as his. His fingers look almost white as they wrap around hers. He looks overjoyed. 

“You may not interfere with anyone else’s doll. We encourage you to give your doll a name, and starting today, leaving your doll in your room instead of bringing it out into the social areas will result in a shot,” Dr Cotton says, beginning to walk around the chairs. 

“You want us to drag these sex dolls around with us?” says Merry, looking struck.

“They’re not sex dolls. They’re therapy dolls, and yes, I do.”

“Why?”

“You are a quiet group, and you seem to be finding it difficult to integrate with each other. We think that the dolls will help you to feel that someone is on your side, in your corner. Someone you can talk to if Nurse Jones or I aren’t around, or you’d rather keep it to yourself. Your doll won’t tell anyone if you need to divulge a secret.”

“You put a fucking mic in them, or what?” Armstrong says. “I’m 52. You’re giving me a doll to play with.”

“Freaky, freaky, freaky,” Moxie says.

“I am. This is a new therapy. What’s the harm in trying?”

“Why a girl doll?” I say it before I realise I’m thinking it. 

Dr Cotton looks over. “I’m not here to answer questions, merely to make the introductions. I don’t want to give you too much instruction, I want you to relate to them in whatever way feels most natural to you.”

Armstrong tries to insert his fingers into his doll’s mouth again. He leans back and tries to peek into her jeans but all the clothes on all the dolls appear to be glued on. 

I look back at the paper, eyes straining with the only remaining sentence not obscured by his neatly folded glasses.

…early indications suggest that over time, DT will help to transition a patient successfully into normal society, preventing… 

In the margins there was a scribbled note: Keep the crazy bastards in line. 

Dr Cotton is smiling. “Matthew,” he says to Thorndike. “Do you know what you’d like to call your doll?”

Before Thorndike can open his mouth, Merry jumps out of his seat, clutching the left arm of his doll and exclaiming: “What would make me look craziest, Doctor?”

He pulls her up to his side and spanks her covered ass before hurling her towards Dr Cotton. She flies like a starfish javelin and smashes into the wall behind him. 

I see Nurse Jones pull a pin on her belt and stand up. An alarm sounds.

In the time it takes Merry to advance across the room, sticking his fingers in his ears, popping out his eyes and twirling his tongue, spitting the words “Crazy, CRAZY”, the door has crashed open and two orderlies have rushed him, followed by two more. 

It takes all of them to bring him down, but not before one of them gets elbowed in the centre of the face and crawls backwards across the ground, stunned. I see the gleam of a needle sink into the side of Merry’s broad neck, another dot in the tattooed hairline, and he is dragged backwards, out the door and into the corridor. 

Dr Cotton gathers up his clipboard, sliding the paper under the solid fold. “Take the doll too,” he instructs the last orderly as they go to shut the door, pointing at her. “Make sure he sees it when he wakes up.”


Author’s notes:

This felt all over the place. It’s less of a short story and more the chapter of a larger piece. I knew as soon as I started writing it that it was going to have to be more than 2000 words, but I didn’t want to work on anything else this week. This wouldn’t be the first chapter either as Wilson needs to arrive and be integrated – so you’ve been dumped somewhere in Chapter 3! Apologies!

The idea behind the whole novel is that it is set in a state ‘mental institution’, and we follow Wilson who has attempted suicide and is being slowly introduced to the others he shares the floor with. In a nutshell, the overseer Dr Cotton wants to start a new therapy based around the use of Dolls, which previous institutions have used to comfort and re-integrate social skills. However Dr Cotton is using it immorally as a power tool, and over time very strange things behind to happen with the dolls. In a place where everyone is supposed to be ‘mad’ – how can you really tell when something is going wrong?

But I don’t think that this novel is something which I want to write at the moment, I have a few other ideas that I like better. However, I did want to revisit the characters and challenge myself (with the prompt of this scientist/doctor dude) to write a proper whole chapter. Turns out that it is really difficult to get across the crux of a story and the different perspectives possible to make this an immediately interesting read, which was a good learning experience. 

I also tried first person for the first time in a while because 1) I wanted it to be quicker to write (HA! Didn’t work) and 2) because it felt like the confusion caused by the dolls would be lost outside of a character’s mind. However that did prevent a real issue in trying to get across what the dolls were doing there. A professional would never explain in detail the benefits of such a therapy to psychotic patients – they would want to see how it was naturally received. So having Wilson read the paper wasn’t the best solution but it WAS a solution.

I am coming to understand the importance of editing, and how much better I could make these stories if I edited them properly, just once. At the moment I mostly write them on a Saturday and make a few tweaks on Sunday, before starting to read the next book I want to read, or starting to write on a new, bigger project. There’s so much I want to do – I want to really immerse myself in this new novel idea, I want to write articles on Medium to reach more writers and get into a proper community – but my job, which I love, also takes a lot out of me during the week. Still, I’m getting better at not wasting time, and just sitting down and doing it. Ideally I’d get together a buffer during quiet weeks so that I’m not writing with just one day to spare, but it never really happens that way. 

ALSO: Yes, I know that people don’t get stabbed in the neck with needles because death is a real thing. BUT I really liked the ‘dot on the tattooed head’ line and I didn’t feel like killing my babies in this particular version.

How do you guys work out a schedule so that you can write everything you want to write? And what do you think of this idea – reckon it’s worth editing a bit more?

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