Part 1 of 3:
The door of Granny Maureen’s Doll Hospital opened, and out stepped Granny Maureen to see what had been left in the casualty box. She drew a breath of morning air, and let the sun fall on her plump, wrinkled face framed by white curls. The humours thus stirred invigorated her, and she liked to hold onto the feeling; fully refusing to end up doddering as well as old.
A paperboy rode past, tossing the morning edition onto the dew-soaked lawn. She gave a cheerful wave, but the boy wore an iPod or some such contrivance and was too engrossed in its outpourings to notice. She shook her head, and considered herself lucky the paper hadn’t gone in the hedge or the birdbath. Even so, she still had to shake moisture from it as she brought it back to the door.
She had the door ajar before she remembered. Cursing herself for getting side-tracked, and thanking her stars no-one was present to witness the slip, she peered into the casualty box. This was simply a wooden box with a red cross painted on the side, but to little girls throughout the neighbourhood it was a beacon of hope.
“Now then,” she said, “let’s see who we’ve got here.” She pulled out a rag doll with an arm hanging by the merest scrap of cotton. “Tsk.” A note was pinned to it bearing the name and phone number of the owner, and the name of the doll in quotation marks. “Well, Cindy, I’ll soon have that put right, don’t you fret. You’ll be playing the banjo again in no time.” For all she knew, the doll played clarinet. But if her patients were happy to indulge her, then indulge she did. Besides, Cindy looked like a banjo player. No one got that kind of injury from playing clarinet.
She noticed something else at the bottom of the box. She frowned at it. It looked like someone had used the box as a rubbish bin again. Fishing the white scrap out, she peered closely at it through her large spectacles and saw it was a sock. Well, what remained of one; tatty and full of holes. Nevertheless, it looked clean enough. She turned it over, growing more puzzled by the moment, and saw it had a button sewn on.
“A-ha,” she said. “Sakes, what wars you’ve been through. Looks as though a dog got hold of you.” There was no tag to identify it or the owner, which didn’t surprise her given the patient’s condition. Oftentimes she would get anonymous drop-offs; from little girls too ashamed to explain why their Barbie’s head had been yanked off, or why there were felt-pen scribbles in… certain places. She would do what she could with such cases, then put them in the outpatients box and hope for the best.
She returned inside, where one could see she not only repaired dolls but collected them. The living room showcased them on shelves, in glass cases, in nets hanging from the ceiling. Her collection roused many a young girl’s envy, and visitors often came just to admire them.
She put the paper on the kitchen counter to dry, and retreated to her sewing room; or ‘operating theatre’ as she liked to call it. She propped Cindy on the bench out of the way, and turned her attention to the mysterious sock puppet. Taking thread and needle, she began by darning the smaller holes – of which there were many. When these were done, she cut pieces of white cotton to fill the larger holes, and sewed them by machine to save time. Turning her patient right-side-out again, she now had a much more sock-like creation, if a little mismatched and crinkled.
“It’ll have to do,” she said, and reached for one of many jars of buttons. There were plenty of yellow plastic buttons, but none of the correct size to match the cracked and broken one that remained. She considered replacing both, but never liked to remove a doll’s original pieces; preferring to preserve character. Her hand hovered over the jars of plastic eyes for teddy bears and the like. But she decided instead to give him a black button that matched the other for size. She sewed it on carefully, happy to see her patient nearing recovery.
It wasn’t until she regarded the finished puppet that a sick feeling crept over her. Not in all her years of experience with dolls – playing with them, collecting them, repairing them – had she found one that so disturbed her. But this… this Frankenstein’s Monster of a sock puppet that she held in her hands…
A sudden sound jolted her. She glanced through the lace curtain to see a car had pulled up outside.
The grandchildren! My, how I’ve lost track of time.
* * *
Sixteen year-old Sophie got out of her mother’s car. Her little brother Trent was already hurrying up the path.
“Come on, Sophie,” he called back. “I want my tea and biscuits!”
For Trent, the novelty of ‘biscuits’ had yet to wear off. He somehow seemed to think he only got them at Gran’s house. In truth, they were the same as the ‘cookies’ he got at home.
“You never drink the tea, anyway,” she said. “you just dunk your biscuits in.” She slammed the car door harder than usual.
“Have fun,” said her mother, leaning across the passenger seat. “I’ll be back at one to pick you up. Look after your brother.”
“Yeah right,” mumbled Sophie, brushing the straight black hair from her eyes.
“Yes, mother.” She didn’t bother saying goodbye. Trent hammered on the door. “I think she’s heard you.”
“Taking her time,” said Trent, putting his hands in his pockets.
“She’s old, not young and impatient like you.” Trent poked his tongue out at her. She would have swatted him one, but the door opened.
“Hello, you two,” said Gran. “Gosh, you’re growing like the blazes.”
“Nana!” said Trent, hurrying past to look at the dolls.
“Hello, Gran. Don’t mind him, he still hasn’t learned any manners.”
Gran looked her up and down. “Interesting clothes, Sophie, dear.”
“They’re great, aren’t they?” She swivelled in her all-too-mini mini-skirt and tank-top from The Gap.
“Yes, well, hurry on inside before you catch your death.”
Sophie had expected Gran to be more accepting. Her Dad had already given her hell. She’d played the ‘at least it’s not piercings’ card and they’d left it at that.
While Gran went through to the kitchen, Sophie lingered among the dolls. She’d been fond of them when she was younger and had favourites she liked to visit. Seeing them again brought back memories of a simpler time. There were always a few new ones each visit, and this time was no exception.
“I’m sorry,” said Gran. “I haven’t boiled the kettle yet. I was busy in the O.T.”
“That’s all right. Anything interesting?”
“Yes, there was something…”
“Let’s go see!” said Trent, who had finished ogling the dolls.
“Wait, Trent, dear—”
Sophie caught the alarm in her voice and followed Trent into the sewing room.
“Aw, just a boring old dolly with an arm hanging off,” said Trent. “No decapi— What’s this?”
Gran entered. “Don’t touch it!”
Trent looked at her, puzzled, and picked up the sock puppet anyway.
“Oi,” said Sophie, “hand it over, brat.”
Sophie snatched away the puppet.
“So what’s the panic, Gran?” Sophie looked the puppet over. “It looks harmless enough to me, if a little weird.”
“You’ll think I’m dotty,” said Gran. “but when I was mending it, I had a… turn, that’s all.”
“What kind of turn?”
“I felt, well, as if it were… alive.”
“Fworr!” said Trent. “That’s awesome.”
Sophie regarded the stitching, and looked into the mismatched button eyes. Perhaps she’d let Gran’s fears get to her, but time seemed to stand still while she stared at those buttons. She shook her head. “It’s certainly seen better days,” she said, and made to set it down, much to Gran’s relief.
But the sock puppet never left her hand. There was a blur between moments. One second she was dropping the sock on the bench, and the next…
“Hey, no fair!” said Trent. “How come you get to try it?”
Sophie was none the wiser until her arm went numb. She looked to her right to see the puppet staring back at her, level with her shoulder, on the end of her arm where her hand should be.
“What the hell?”
“What’sa matter, never seen a sock before?” said a voice, apparently from her own vocal chords. It was a man’s voice; a goofy, sock-puppety one, but a man’s voice all the same.
“Lord have mercy…” said Gran under her breath.
“How’d you do that?” said Trent.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” said the puppet. “Give me a break, won’tcha? I only just got here. Whoa!” The puppet looked Sophie up and down. “You’re a girl. How ’bout that. I’ve never had a girl’s hand up my keister before.”
The hand in question, despite Sophie’s best efforts, mouthed the words as they were said.
“Check this out!” the sock puppet tweaked one of Sophie’s breasts, snapping her out of her daze.
“Hey! Watch where you’re putting… my hand?”
“Aw,” said the sock. “They don’t honk or beep or anything. How disappointing. There go my plans for playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”
Trent was in a fit of laughter now. Granny Maureen watched on in silent horror.
“Shut up, you little twerp,” said Sophie. She turned to the sock. “Just what the hell is going on? Who or what are you?”
The puppet stared its disconcerting stare. “I’m Mr. Sockforahead, dummy, world-famous entertainer and part-time homicidal maniac. And you’re Sophie Thrusk, troubled teenager already on the fast-track to becoming a knocked-up sl—”
Gran shrieked, grabbed Trent and ran from the room. Sophie stood there, mouth agape, conflicting emotions spinning in her mind.
How does it know my name? How can it know anything about me? How is it doing this?
“Okay,” she said, after letting things steep. “Let’s say I accept you aren’t some sick joke, that you know all that stuff about me, and that you’re… well, alive. What do you want from me?”
“A sock puppet needs a helping hand, Einstein.”
Sophie looked at him through narrowed eyes, and a thought struck her. “Okay, Sockforahead—”
“Sorry, Mr. Sockforahead. I’ll do you a favour if you do me a favour.”
“Anything for a laugh,” said Mr. Sockforahead. “But I’m not some genie that can pull three wishes out of his arse, and I’m not a magical sock with fairy dust. I could sprinkle some lint around but all that’ll get you is a good sneeze. If that’s your bag then say the word.”
“Are you finished?”
Mr. Sockforahead shrugged. It felt surreal to see her hand doing all these things. Sophie crept from the sewing room, to find Gran in the kitchen wielding a rolling pin and clinging to Trent for dear life.
“Sorry I got carried away in there, Gran. I couldn’t resist. I mean, it’s a creepy old sock puppet; what an opportunity for a bit of a scare.”
Gran regarded her with frightened eyes. Trent slipped out of her grasp, confused by the goings-on.
“I thought for sure—”
“It was me all the time, Gran, I swear. Watch.”
At her bidding, Mr. Sockforahead appeared from behind her back. “Hey, look at all these dolls!” he said. “Hubba-hubba!”
It wasn’t exactly Sophie’s idea of cooperation, but she smiled to try and put Gran at ease. She felt her body jerked towards one of the display cabinets, where Mr. Sockforahead tried to peek up the doll’s dresses.
“Mr. Sockforahead, what are you doing?” she said between gritted teeth.
“Hey, I may be a sock, but I’m all man,” he said proudly.
She grabbed him and pulled him away from the glass. “Just chill, okay?”
“Are you… sure you’re okay, Sophie?” said Gran.
“Yes! Yes, weren’t you making a cup of tea, Gran? I’m parched.” She was, too, what with all the talking her new friend did.
“Tea… yes of course, dear.” Gran hesitantly relinquished the rolling pin and went to the kettle.
“Yay, tea!” said Trent, running along to help – with the biscuits, not the tea.
Sophie sighed, and for a blissful moment forgot about her uninvited guest.
“Tea, huh?” said Mr. Sockforahead. “Hasn’t Granny Goodwitch got anything harder in the larder?”
“Look, will you put a sock in it? Er, that is—”
“Y’mean like thish?” Mr. Sockforahead crumpled his nose into his mouth. Sophie laughed, she couldn’t help it.
“Do you still take sugar, Sophie, dear?” Gran called.
“How about some cooking sherry, or meth?”
Sophie muted Mr. Sockforahead with her free hand. “Yes please, Gran.”
“All right, all right, I can take a hint,” said the sock, and he seemed content to peer about the room.
“Do you remember the wonderful tea parties we used to have?” Gran continued. “We’d both of us sit down with our cups and saucers – you’d have cordial, of course – and each time you’d pick a new doll to join us.”
Sophie did remember, fondly, the tea parties with the dolls. She stared into the cabinets with moist eyes. Trapped behind glass, like museum exhibits, were her forgotten companions. She recognised every one.
“I used to give them names,” she said.
“And they have them, still,” said Gran.
“Blech!” said Mr. Sockforahead. “You used to associate with these stuck-up plastic trollops? I wouldn’t be seen dead with— Hello. Who’s this fine porcelain creature?”
Mr. Sockforahead had stopped in front of the only case with a lock on it. The dolls inside were the pride of Granny’s collection; all delicate, all antique. The most prominent was a near life-size doll of a little Victorian girl, in frilly satin skirts, with a detailed painted face and rich cascading curls.
Sophie drew a sharp breath. “Madeline,” she whispered. The only doll she’d never been allowed to touch, or even breathe upon. “Don’t even think about it, Mr. Sockforahead.”
“Too high-fallutin’ do you think?”
“Too valuable. Gran would have our heads if even one of those strawberry curls was brushed out of place, and remember, your head is my hand. Madeline’s an an-tique.” Sophie prodded the sock in what equated to his stomach with each syllable.
“Antique, huh? Who says I don’t like older women?”
“I’m warning you—”
To her horror, Mr. Sockforahead gave the cabinet door a vigorous shake. He might as well have plunged a dagger through her heart. She clutched at him and drew him back, then stood there breathless with her heart doing somersaults.
* * *
Looking gaunt in comparison to his former self, yet still eligible for membership in the overeater’s club, Peter Gumption sat at a desk surrounded by wall-to-wall filing cabinets. ‘Records’ had been his home now for going on a fortnight, and already his skin was sloughing off its tan in favour of a pallid complexion. At first he’d resisted his reassignment. Not even the promise of more pay would’ve lured him back to the Evidence Room. Too many bad memories lurked there; well, only one, in truth, but such a doozy deserved at least double-billing.
Then he’d been offered the Records job, presumably because no-one else wanted it. He still hadn’t worked out what he should call himself. Librarian and babysitter both fit the bill. Either way, he was responsible for the hundreds of files surrounding him, secreted away alphabetically in their metal towers, and cross-referenced on a shiny computer terminal.
He had all the perks he could ask for: solitude, responsibility, and, above all, safety. The worst he could do here is suffer a nasty paper-cut, or maybe shut a finger in a file-drawer.
He flipped through the menu-system on his terminal. It only changed if he changed it, but he liked to make sure everything was ship-shape; that no entries beginning with X had slipped under E by mistake, or anything of that nature. This done, he tapped his fingers on the desk awhile. A yawn escaped, and lost itself in dusty crevices.
His stomach gave a growl, yet the hands of the clock were nowhere near twelve. A half-cup of coffee still congealed on his desktop. Something sharper gripped Peter and he clutched his stomach.
Oh no, not now…
He opened his desk drawer with the air of one who kept a spring-loaded rat there. No such creature was forthcoming. He stared down at what it did contain. He stared for a long time, and slowly brought his breathing back under control.
Rubbing his stomach, he closed the drawer. Things still percolated a little, but every earthquake has its aftershocks. With one more deep exhalation, he lifted his hand away. Calmness descended.
“Not this time, Mr. Sockforahead.”
He checked the menu-system again.
To be continued…