wrote his first story at the age of five, when he
created a comic book version of King Kong vs. Godzilla on a
stenographer's pad. It took him a few more years until he began
selling professionally, though. Overall, he's published over fifty
stories of fantasy and horror, as well as hundreds of nonfiction
In addition to writing fiction, Tim's worked as an editor and
newspaper reporter. He teaches creative writing at Sinclair
Community College in Dayton, Ohio.
His wife Cindy is a
psychologist (a useful profession for the spouse of a writer). They
have two bright and beautiful daughters, Devon and Leigh.
hopes to continue writing and teaching until he keels over dead, after
which he wants to be stuffed and mounted in front of his computer
is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments,
please contact her at email@example.com.
All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective
creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be
posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
On the Shelf and Dreaming
by Tim Waggoner
The nightmare, with slight variations, is always the same.
I'm a porcelain doll named Molly -- white skin, black hair, faded yellow polka-dot dress. I'm sitting on a shelf, the highest one in the room, a place of honor among the toys. To my right is an old-fashioned Pooh bear (the kind without any clothes) and to my left is a Peter Rabbit wearing a small blue jacket and holding a stuffed carrot to his mouth. I remember how intimidated I was when first placed between two such famous characters, but I got over that years ago. Now I barely give them a thought.
The room is dim, the curtains drawn, as they always are. Still, I can make out the bed through the gray shadow. Sheets smooth, flower-print comforter folded neatly at the foot of the mattress. I can see the dresser, too. It's covered with knickknacks -- music boxes, pictures set in cutesy balloon and animal frames. I know I've heard the music boxes play before, but it's been so long that I can't recall any specific tunes. I decide it doesn't matter. All music boxes sound the same anyway, right?
I can feel the dust on me, coating my shiny flawless skin, sprinkled in my hair, caked in the folds of my dress. I can't remember the last time the woman came in to dust. A week ago? A year? I tell myself I don't care, but I do. I hate dust, hate feeling dirty.
I am so excruciatingly bored! My porcelain lips won't open, so I can't talk. And the other dolls suffer similar disabilities. Not that I would particularly want to have a conversation with any of them. Pooh would likely go on about honey and Peter about Mr. McGregor's garden. Still, it would be better than the endless heavy silence.
I can't take it anymore! I push off the shelf and plummet to the floor. I land in an awkward clump, and I think I've cracked myself in several places. I reach up and touch my face. It appears to be undamaged. Good. It's the only part of myself that I truly care about. I stand stiffly. My left leg doesn't quite want to support my weight now, but it doesn't hurt -- none of my injuries do -- and I decide to take care as I walk.
The room is gone now. Or rather changed into a narrow hallway with vast high ceilings that stretch above me as far as my cold hard eyes can see. Shelves upon shelves line the walls, with coffin-sized compartments built-in. How many compartments it's impossible to guess. Thousands, easily. Perhaps millions. And in each compartment, standing motionless, eyes closed, hands resting at their sides, is a different person. All varieties are represented. Different races, ages, body types, every conceivable manner of dress ... It's quite a collection.
As I limp among them, sometimes touching a soft, fleshy hand or the hem of a dress, I feel a swell of pride, and I realize that this is my collection. That through dint of painstaking effort and not a little sacrifice on my part, I've managed to gather, store and display every human being in the world. Every man, woman, child and infant. Healthy and sick. Beautiful and malformed -- they're all here, all mine.
But almost as soon as I feel it, my pride is overwhelmed by a powerful surge of guilt. Though they seem to be unaware, sleeping or unconscious, I know they are not, know that they are experiencing the same soul-numbing boredom I've felt for so long, trapped upon my shelf. How I could have been simultaneously stuck between Pooh and Peter and scouring the world collecting humans, I don't know, nor does this contradiction occur to me. All I know is guilt so devastating that I have to do something, anything, to relieve it.
I'm so sorry I did this to you! I shout mentally. I wish I could explain the reasons for their captivity, rationalize my role in it. But I can't, not even to myself.
You're free, all of you! Free!
Nothing happens at first, and I fear that my mental cries have gone unheard. But then the person nearest me -- an elderly woman wearing an untucked paint-splattered shirt -- opens her eyes. She blinks several times, as if waking from sleep, and then she steps out of her compartment. Others begin to do the same, leaving their open-air coffins, confusion on their faces.
I feel an almost unbearable joy, though it's mixed with just a touch of sadness at losing my collection. Still, I know I've done the right thing. Then I hear the first screams, and I remember that the shelves stretch up as well as to the right and left.
Bodies rain down, limbs flailing, eyes and mouths wide with terror. Some land upon their fellow former captives, others plunge directly to the floor. The air is filled with a symphony of screams, breaking bones and the dull wet thudding of meat. It would be almost comical if it wasn't so sickening.
Stop! I shout, but no one hears me, and even if they did, it's too late. Bodies are piling up on either side of me -- I somehow remain untouched, as if protected by an invisible shield which shunts the fallers to one side or the other. As more land and add to the weight on those below, flesh and bone are crushed and blood runs upon the floor, flows around my plastic black shoes, smears my metal buckles, rises to my ankles, soaks the hem of my dress. Soon I will be completely submerged, but I don't care. I deserve this, deserve much worse.
And then a chain of paperclips (sometimes its a chain of twist ties or a length of barbed wire) descends from above, the last few links sinking beneath the rising tide of crimson. I don't know where this chain has come from, but I know I shouldn't attempt to save myself, that I don't deserve to be saved. Still, I grasp the paperclips as best I can with my inseparable fingers, loop the end of the chain around my waist, and then start to climb. As soon as I begin my ascent, however, I feel a jerk and I am lifted rapidly upward. I travel through a crevice made from mile-high mounds of crushed bodies. Lifeless accusing eyes, flattened angry faces. I wish I could close my own eyes, but I cannot, so I turn and twist as I rise, grateful for those few seconds when I face only the empty compartments. But they too are an accusation, aren't they?
I travel upward for what seems like hours until finally I realize I am nearing the top of one set of shelves. Standing there are two man dressed in gray coveralls -- the color the same as that of the dim shadows in the bedroom where I started. One man is hauling up the chain (and myself) while his companion disassembles the other end as fast as he can, flipping the no-longer-needed paperclips out into space one by one. He's fallen well behind the pace his partner has set; paperclips are bunched around his feet, halfway to his knees.
When I reach the top, the man reeling me in grabs my delicate arms in his sweaty hands and says and says, "Gotcha, Molly-dolly!" He's breathing hard from the effort of pulling me upward, but his face is contorted by a hatred which has nothing to do with the effort he's expended to capture me.
He turns to his partner. "Let's go."
"Not until I've finished." He flicks another paperclip into the air, another, another.
The first man sighs. "We don't have time to wait. The trial is about to start." He tucks me under his hot, wet armpit and then turns away from his companion and begins striding purposefully along the top of the shelf. I'm afraid, but I don't struggle. I know I deserve whatever is going to be done to me. I welcome it.
The shelf-top becomes a flag-stone walkway. The man carries me through an archway into a dank stone chamber lit by melon-sized fireflies which are fastened to the walls by railroad spikes. A dozen men and women, also dressed in gray coveralls, sit working at a long oak table filled with dolls that all look like me, save that they're wearing different dresses. Behind each of the workers is a wooden barrel. The humans reach into the pile of Mollys, grab one, and with expressions of deep satisfaction, begin plucking off her limbs. They discard arms, legs, heads and torsos, tossing them into the barrels, which overflow with doll parts. Porcelain pieces fall to the floor, some cracking, some shattering altogether. But the humans don't notice and continue their harvesting.
"Got another for you," the man holding me says as he approaches the table. "A real bad one."
He throws me onto the pile, and I lay still, debating whether I should attempt escape, calculating the odds of success. My earlier remorse is gone; now I just want to survive. But I decide the odds of getting away aren't good, so I keep still.
"Guilty or innocent?" asks a woman near me. Her eyes tell me which verdict she favors.
"Guilty, of course," the man says irritably. "Like all the rest." He turns and leaves them, and the others continue with their disassembly. The woman who glared at me grabs a Molly to my right and starts in on her. The doll makes no sound, but the human releases tiny exhalations of fulfillment as she detaches the Molly's limbs. They're the sort of sounds a person nibbling gourmet chocolates or experiencing a lover's skillful foreplay might make.
I realize that if I'm ever going to attempt escape, it has to be now. Sometimes I can move during this part of the dream, sometimes I can't. But this is a can't time, so I have no choice but to lie there and wait for my turn.
Even though I'm on top of the pile, the workers select dolls around and under me, pulling them apart and discarding them with cold, casual efficiency. Finally, I'm the only one left. The workers look at me, hesitating, reluctant to see their task come to an end. But then, as if in response to some unvoiced signal, they all grab for me at once. Hands grasp, claw, tear, and I'm yanked roughly asunder, my pieces scattered in all directions.
I experience no pain -- one of the prime benefits of not being real. I feel diffuse, spread out, but the largest part of my awareness resides with my head. Half of my face is turned toward the floor, so it is with one eye only that I watch my mutilators stand and file out of the chamber, chatting amiably about the day's work, comparing notes, lighting cigarettes. And then they are gone, and I'm alone with all the other bits of refuse.
I couldn't move before, and I certainly can't now, so I wait. It's not as if I have any choice. It's doesn't take long.
A man with a pushbroom enters the chamber. His clothes are so black, it seems he's wrapped in shadow. His face is completely featureless -- no eyes, nose or ears -- except for a gash of a mouth sliced into the bottom half of his head.
"Time to clean up," he says in a thick, mushy voice. He tcchs. "What a terrible, terrible mess." He pushes shards of porcelain around with his broom, making a pile in the center of the chamber. My head is at the base of the pile, angled so that I can still see. The faceless custodian leans down close to me, the smooth flesh where his eyes should be pulsing gently, and I know that somehow he can see me.
"Judgment time, Molly. Are you ready?"
I don't answer, though I suspect he could hear my thought-voice if I did. How could I answer? Is anyone ever ready?
He looks at me a moment longer, then stands and walks over to the wall. He takes hold of a wooden lever, grins a dry, toothless grin and says, "Showtime."
He pulls the lever and the stone floor crumbles beneath me. The walls, the ceiling, the entire chamber disintegrates, and the world falls away. As I fall, my head just one more piece in a shower of porcelain, a distant part of myself, the part that knows it's dreaming, thinks that this is such a clichˇ -- falling through nothingness -- and I'm almost embarrassed.
I feel my pieces drawing together, separating from the mass of tumbling doll fragments, coalescing into their proper places, jagged seams joining smoothly, becoming solid and strong once more. Even though I'm still free-falling, I feel somewhat better. At least I'm whole again, though without my dress. I don't know what became of it; it was tossed into a barrel along with my body parts. Even though I'm hardly anatomically correct, I'm shamed by my nakedness. It reveals my unreality, my non-ness. At least with a dress, I evoke some semblance of humanity. Now I'm just a mockery.
The remaining pieces of porcelain swirl around me, clump together in awkward, misshapen masses that in turn merge into a single grotesque shiny white thing. Then we slow and land lightly upon a flat brown surface that stretches in every direction. The tiny whorls within the brown reveal its true nature to me: wood. We stand upon a shelf, the largest, the highest in all creation.
"THIS IS FOR THE GAME, MOLLY," the doll-thing says in a chorus of echoing thought-voices. A hundred tiny legs scuttle across the wooden surface as the deformed conglomerate shifts its vast bulk. Doll arms jut haphazardly from its surface, waving gently like an insect's antennae, or perhaps the fronds of some strange undersea plant.
The black eyes of other dolls, other Mollys shine with hatred and derision as they fix upon me. "YOU HAVE ONLY TO ANSWER A SINGLE QUESTION: ARE YOU A GOOD DOLLY -- OR ARE YOU A BAAAAAAAAD DOLLY?"
I'm not certain of the question's meaning, but I know how I should answer.
A good dolly, I respond
Dozens of porcelain lips stretch into grins, opening tiny cracks which zigzag across porcelain cheeks.
I turn to run and find by doing so that I'm able move again. But before I can take two steps, the conglomerate is on me, plucking me off the ground and passing me along its network of hands. Hard fingers pick at my equally hard skin, prying away chunks, casting them aside, revealing the soft pink that lies beneath.
"YOU'RE THE WORST KIND OF DOLL, MOLLY. THE KIND THAT ISN'T A DOLL AT ALL!"
I cry, and the tears flow freely from my soft wet eyes.
"And then I wake up." Molly shifts in her chair, uncomfortable. She's been talking for a long time, staring at the pictures above the doctor's desk as she spoke, unable to face him, though she's not sure why. Her throat's dry. She could use a drink of water, or better yet, something stronger.
"So what does it mean?" she asks. "It probably has something to do with my relationship to my mom, right? I bet she's the woman who never comes in to dust. Or maybe it has something do with the objectification of women in our society. The way we're seen as body parts, the way we're judged. After all, in all modesty, I'm an attractive woman, and I'm not sure I've ever fully accepted that. Or maybe --" Molly stops, chuckles. "Listen to me psychobabbling. That's your job, right?" She looks away from the pictures over the doctor's desk, turns toward the chair where he's sat listening patiently all this time. "What do you think?"
The doctor smiles, the smooth patches over his eyes pulsating.
"The meaning of your dream is quite simple, my dear. You are a bad dolly. A very, very bad dolly."