01 Feb The Toy Doctor
All children believe their toys can speak to them. I just never grew out of it.
I was engaged to a man in the city when I was young. It ended in tears, and when I moved back home, I knew I wasn’t meant for that kind of life. So with a small loan from my father, I turned an abandoned storefront on Birch Street into a toy hospital.
It was never a very lucrative job, but I enjoyed my work. I made enough to furnish the little apartment above the shop and keep myself with a large enough supply of books. The kids in town knew me as “the toy doctor” and always brought treats to the shop when I finished a repair.
I was good at the work, good at sewing and oiling small gears. I could send a toy back looking brand new.
I would whisper to them as I fixed them, and they told me their secrets right back. The usual, a teddy bear would come in with half his stuffing missing and an explanation of “we were just having too much fun”. A doll with roller skates annoyed at being stuck inside.
Sometimes they were sadder. Some kids just didn’t like their toys. Unwanted ones would get thrown down the stairs, brought in by unaware parents. Others spoke of painful sibling rivalry, bullying, or emotional battering by parents. I would try to whisper back support, and advice, to give the owner some strength when their friend was returned to them.
The first one to make my heart stop was a Raggedy Ann that belonged to a local banker’s six year old daughter. She came in with half of her hair pulled out. I went to fetch the yarn and the needles (Raggedy Anns thankfully use a very common and inexpensive yarn hair).
When I was threading the needle, I heard her whisper, “Daddy comes into her room at night. It makes her hurt and cry. Mom won’t listen”.
Face frozen, “That’s terrible” is all that would come out of my mouth.
“She wants it to stop but doesn’t know how”.
I steel myself, making the first stitch to her head.
“Can you ask her to leave you on the stairs one night?”
She’s quiet for a moment.
“We’ll get in trouble”.
“Would having him gone be worth it?”
She doesn’t respond, so I finish sewing the yarn back on.
Sally is delighted when she comes to get her, and I notice that she won’t look her father in the eye.
I found the newspaper article a week later. Found dead in his home, ruled an accident. A fall down the stairs.
I clipped it, and kept it. Sally’s Raggedy Ann never turned up again, and my job returned to normal.
Then today happened.
Most of the time, the toys I fix are brought in by their owners. Children. I know most of the people in town, so billing isn’t a huge deal. My prices are fair. Only rarely does a parent bring in the toy.
Mr. Markowitz was a science teacher at the local high school. He was a tall, thin man, with slightly too long hair and horn rimmed glasses. He came in clutching the doll in his hands.
“It was Natalie’s favorite, Susan doesn’t play with it much, but I can’t bear the thought of throwing away something she loved so much. “
I nodded. Natalie Markowitz’s death had been a tragedy for the whole town. She had been the well loved town librarian for years. No one knew what had possessed her to drive into the path of oncoming traffic on the highway that night. The library had been closed since.
I picked the doll up. I recognized her immediately. She was one of the original string-pull talking dolls, I must have fixed dozens of them my first few years working. The same blonde pigtails and neat white skirt and red sweater. They called her Babbling Betty. Treated as a family heirloom, a collectible. Susan Markowitz was nearly a teen, she was unlikely to actually play with her anymore, if ever.
I pulled the string, only to hear a slow, crackly moan. Luckily, I still had nearly a dozen spares for this, from dolls that turned out to be damaged beyond repair, left in my office for parts.
When I set aside my tools and pulled the string on the doll’s back, it let out the perky actress’s voice saying “Mama!”
Then, in a lower, tired tone I would have expected out of a war veteran, Betty said “I can’t do this anymore”.
“What can’t you do anymore?” I asked, putting away my tools in the drawer and reaching for the washcloth to wipe of the doll’s plastic skin. I expected something about hearing Susan and Mark grieving. I did not expect what I heard next.
“I kept the shadows away from Natty for so many years. They would come out from the closet, and I would try with all my might, pull my own string and yell out into the night. It scared her sometimes, wake her up. She never saw the shadows scatter when I did it.”
She sighs. Hearing a doll sigh is a strange thing. It sounded as though she could use a good drink.
“Then she put me away, in the garage, where I couldn’t even knew if they were still coming for her. When Mark brought me out, they had already gotten to her.”
Another long pause, as I wiped all the signs of age from her limbs.
“I thought maybe they were gone. But they came out of the closet again last night. I was on the top shelf, above them. I pulled my string so hard I pulled it loose, and toppled off the shelf. That woke Susan, but when the shadows scattered, I heard one of them laugh when I lay there on the floor. I can’t do it anymore”.
I never considered myself a very religious woman, but I did believe. I believed as hard as I could as I brought my tools back out and opened Betty back up.
The small metal crucifix fit neatly into the spot between her voice box and the plastic square covering it that I screwed back into place.
“When you go back, get onto her bedside. The closer you are, the easier it will be to protect her.”
Betty looked at me with her solid, plastic dark brown eyes.
“The shadows might find you”.
I smiled softly.
“I have an advantage. All the toys here, they all still tell me what they see at night.”
Then I fixed her dress, and went to call Mr. Markowitz and tell him the job was done.