River Dolls

Fiction by Sandra K. Barnidge

At first it was just branches, lots of branches, big ones that stuck out of the water, a few leaves clinging desperate to dead black tips. When the big branches hit the shallows in our bend of the river, they snagged on each other and clogged up into a dam, which then caught more branches, the big ones catching medium ones, the medium ones catching small. As the dam built up, the swollen river bloated worryingly close to the second berm of the hill where our neighborhood stood, the base boards of our houses already soggy from a month of constant rain.

We felt bad for the groundhog colony that lived under our neighbor’s soggy yard, so we tore up lettuce and tossed it like confetti on a patch of grass near their flooded burrow hole.

“Randy shouldn’t have let them take root in his yard,” Mom said to Dad about the groundhogs, but Dad just shrugged and asked what he was supposed to do about it. “Randy shouldn’t have them take root in his yard,” I said to Annabelle, who chattered her teeth like a groundhog and tried to bite me.

Dad and Annabelle lit firecrackers and threw them at the dam in the river, cheering every time a branch broke loose on the other side, taking credit Mom and I weren’t so sure they deserved. “Leave it. The water’ll work it out with time,” Mom said to Dad, who kissed her. “Leave it. The water’ll work it out with time,” I said to Annabelle, who punched my arm.

The water didn’t get its time. Instead, the river began to spill over the second berm, threatening to wash out a whole line of houses, an elementary school, and two fried-seafood restaurants. The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t come to help because of any of that, though. They came for the bridge a half mile down the river, which had a support column that wouldn’t be able to handle all the water built up behind the dam if somehow, some way, the water managed to burst itself free. The engineers came in big, loud speed boats and used long rods with hooks at the end to pull apart the brambles in the river. We sat out on the back porch, sipping Arnold Palmers and cheering for them as the dam came loose.

“Good riddance,” Mom said and gave a mock salute to the Army.

“Good riddance,” I said to Annabelle, and she threw an ice cube at me.

We thought that would be it, the high-water excitement of the season. But with the dam gone, the water flowed too fast, Dad said, and the river peeled soil from the banks like Annabelle ripping off my band-aids. “You don’t go one step past the patio concrete,” Mom said sternly, and I nodded my obedience. “You don’t go one step past the patio concrete,” I said to Annabelle, who stuck her tongue out at me and ran barefoot to the tree line, mud up past her ankles.

The river was even muddier than our yard, the water so churned up it was as brown as chocolate milk. But sickly milk, tinged green in the afternoon when the sun battled against thick gray clouds and lost. The shallows sucked in the water running past it, swirling around and around into an eddy so big a dark hole emerged in the center. Mom locked the patio door and ignored both me and Annabelle as we whined like puppies to go outside. I asked several times about the groundhogs, but Mom said animals had better sense about these things than we did and therefore there was no sense worrying. Annabelle said they were all laying drowned in their burrow, and I chased her through the kitchen.

As the high water roared by, a narrow channel at the end of our yard became a dragnet for debris. So when the blue shed came racing down the river, the main eddy in the shallows caught it and slowed it down just enough for its own weight to bobble it backward into the channel. Annabelle was at the kitchen table snacking on cheese puffs and peanuts when she spotted the shed through the glass patio door, and she yelled to Dad that a dollhouse was coming down the river. Its aluminum walls were bright blue and its roof was white, and it careened into the channel on its side. The point of the roof drove into the soft bank, and as the shed rocked back and forth in the current, it seemed to wedge itself further into place.

Dad waited for Mom to get hold of Annabelle, and then he slipped out the patio door and ran down to the bank as she howled and screamed about being left behind. Dad and Randy stood under drizzling skies with their hands on their hips, speculating about where it must have come from and, more importantly, what they were supposed to do with it. Annabelle stood with her nose on the glass of the door, her breath clouding it up, and then she smeared it clear again with her tongue.

The blue shed didn’t seem capable of causing any immediate harm, so Dad and Randy thought it would eventually dislodge itself and float back into the river. It pained Dad to just leave it there, but even he had to admit there was no easy way to get down the near-collapsing bank, push off the shed by himself without losing his footing in the mud, and then get back up to dry land without causing unnecessary harm to the fragile berm. There was nothing to do except Dad’s least favorite thing to ever do: wait.

The water crested at 133 feet, a number that flashed red on TV as the weatherman called it a record and just shy of catastrophe. The pastor of the big church on the highway came on screen and stood next to the weatherman to lead a prayer of thanks. Mom had us bow our heads just before Dad turned off the TV. We shifted our attention to the blue shed, which wiggled a bit to remind us it was still there, still in our channel, but it made no serious attempt at escape. Annabelle kept calling it the dollhouse, and then Dad started to call it that too, and so that became its name, though it was obvious to me that it was, of course, not a dollhouse at all.

“But what is it really, not just pretend?” I asked Mom, who shrugged.

“We can’t know everything, honey. It could have been used for all sorts of things, so why not a dollhouse, I suppose.”

I lost interest in the shed after a few days, but Annabelle did not. She stood at the patio door and stared at it, whispering to it and making up stories about the two little girls who had lived it in before it floated down to us. “It wasn’t a real house,” I protested, but Annabelle didn’t listen to me.

“The doll girls are girls just like you and me,” she insisted. “And now they don’t have a house, because we have it.”

I was annoyed, so I decided to taunt her. “Well, what if they’re still in there? Maybe the doll girls floated away with their house, and now they’re just stuck in there, wearing wet dresses and eating soggy cereal.”

Annabelle turned from the glass and looked at me with disgust. “You’re mean,” she said, and I wanted to hit her but I couldn’t because I was older and stronger and wiser. “You’re dumb,” I said back, but neither of us believed it.

Seven weeks later, the water finally came down enough for a sliver of marshy land to reemerge between the channel and the river. And then the eddy in the shallows disappeared, and the racing current calmed into a lazy ambling. Bits of trees and piers and plastic things floated by, some of it beaching gently beside the blue shed. Only a couple of feet of the shed were still submerged in water, while the rest of it was exposed and obvious. Even the live-and-let-float Randy began to agree with Dad that it was about time to get on with doing something about the shed.

But what exactly that something ought to be wasn’t obvious. Dad complained that he’d waited too long, that now he’d missed the window of when he could have just pushed the shed back out into the river and watched it float away, become someone else’s problem somewhere else downstream. Now the weak-willed river couldn’t carry something quite so big.

“It’s probably a snake pit now,” Mom said, and Dad pouted when she got out her BB gun and sat with it on the patio to guard against him sneaking down the bank to get a closer look at the shed. “It’s probably a snake pit now,” I said to Annabelle, who stood with her toes on the edge of where the concrete gave way to soggy grass. She ignored me and kept on staring at her dollhouse with more longing than even Dad did.

Mom couldn’t sit sentinel forever, though, and Annabelle and Dad waited for her and me to wander down the block one afternoon to Aunt Rachel’s house, where we put eggs in our hair and painted our toenails neon green. While we were gone, Annabelle and Dad enlisted Randy, who put his truck keys in his pocket in case Dad got snake-bit and needed a fast ride to the hospital. Then he held a rope for Dad to shimmy down the bank, where Dad planted one boot in the water and swung his other leg over the side of the shed, in through the front door of it. He brought his other leg over and eased himself down inside totally, as Annabelle shrieked for the doll girls to come out, come out, you’re safe now, you’ve been rescued. Dad looked around with a flashlight for several minutes, several more than necessary to explore the small, flooded shed, and then his head popped back out. “There’s a hole at the bottom, tore clean through. It won’t float again, even if we wait for a stronger current to pick up.”

Annabelle cheered as Dad pulled himself back up the rope and shook Randy’s hand at the top. “Where are they? Did you put them in your pocket?” she asked, and Dad realized Annabelle didn’t know he’d just been playing about the dollhouse. “It’s empty,” he told her. “Just water in there, and a water moccasin or two.”

Annabelle made for the rope, and Randy yanked it away as Dad picked her up. She kicked and swung at him as he carried her home. When we got back, we found her tied to a kitchen chair, sweaty and mad as a hornet. “This is what happens when you let them play pretend,” Mom said and Dad told her he didn’t want to hear it. “This is what happens when you play pretend,” I said to Annabelle, who screamed so loud I had to plug my ears.

Later, after Mom freed her from the chair, I overheard Annabelle talking to the stuffed otter she’d slept with since she was a baby. “They’re in there, I know they’re in there. They were just afraid of Daddy because he was loud and splashing around their house. They didn’t hear me calling to them over all the noise he made. They were too scared to show themselves to him. I’ll get them out, I’ll help them. They’ve been stuck down there too long.” I had her now, and I knew it. I opened our bedroom door all the way and jumped onto her bed. I grabbed the otter and swung him over my head as she cried. “Pipe down, little baby, or I’ll tell Dad what I just heard.”

I stopped bouncing and she scrambled to get the otter out of my hands. “You’re the meanest sister ever,” she said and then put her face in her pillow, the otter protected underneath her belly. I felt bad then, and I tickled her sides but her body went rigid and she didn’t even kick me. “I won’t tell,” I said. “I won’t tell, but you can’t do it. You can’t go in the shed, because both Mom and Dad said so.”

She spoke into her pillow. “Don’t tell. If you tell, you’ll be mean forever.”

The next morning, Annabelle was up before Mom or Dad. The only reason I woke up was because she had to turn our sticky doorknob, and it always squeaked as it clicked open. She hesitated and turned to look at me, but I pretended I was still asleep. As she headed for the stairs, I got up and put on pants and sandals and followed her as she let herself out the patio door and ran across the yard. I caught up to her at the bank, where she’d paused to figure out a route down around some exposed tree roots. I grabbed her arm, and she pulled so hard to try and get away from me that I could feel her bruising underneath my hand.

“I’ll go, I’m bigger. I’m the one who should go, not you,” I said quickly, trying to get her to calm down.

“I don’t believe you,” she said. “You’re a tattle tale.”

That did it. I hadn’t been sure if I’d meant it, that I would go down into the shed on her behalf, but suddenly I did. “You don’t know anything. Watch.” I kicked off my sandals and eased my way onto the tree root, then dropped into the water. I was relieved when my toes dug into river muck rather than rock. “No snakes, no snakes, no snakes,” I whispered as I waded over to the shed.

Up close, I could see it was in bad shape. The once-floor had been punched through, and the hole was jagged, the aluminum edges sharp. Slime covered the blue walls, and my shoulders shuddered as I tried to find a not-slick spot to grab hold and hoist myself up onto the front wall of the shed. Once I did, I peered down through the doorway into dark water. “There’s no one in there,” I called up to Annabelle. “It’s nothing but river.”

“They’re in there, I swear!” she whisper-screamed back at me. “I can hear the doll girls, and they’re crying. They’re really, really scared in there.”

I had no idea what else to do except to jump down into the shed, splashing river water up the walls and over my own head. I stood up straight and the water came up to my knees, smelling like fish and dirty bathwater. The inside walls of the shed were covered in filth and muck. I felt the smooth metal paneling, and then I tensed up, certain a snake had just slithered past my leg. I was too paralyzed with fear to move an inch in any direction. “Get me out of here!” I screamed.

My mistake was immediately obvious. I wasn’t tall enough to jump, grab the frame, and pull myself up and out like Dad could do. I had no way out of the shed. I was trapped in it, stuck, until Dad woke up and came out to rescue me. My only other hope was Annabelle, who was still standing on the bank, waiting for word on her imaginary friends. I had never hated her more.

“Don’t worry,” a little girl voice said, and I spun around and looked up, expecting to see Annabelle peering down at me from the door of the shed. But there was no one. “Stop messing around and go get Dad!” I yelled at Annabelle, certain she was up there, hiding from my view.

“You are mean,” a second voice said, and my whole back prickled.

“No snakes, no snakes, no snakes,” I chanted, trying to talk over my own fear.

“We chased them all away. You’re safe here, it’s just us. And Harry.”

I remembered what Dad told me once during Mardi Gras when I was too scared to get on a Ferris wheel set up in the school parking lot. Breathe in and out, just suck up air like a vacuum cleaner, and then hold it in your cheeks. Now pop them like a balloon with your fingers, there you go, make a big show of it. I’d giggled as I popped air out of myself and calmed down enough to walk back to the car with him. In the shed, I sucked in air and held it in my mouth, willing myself to ignore the smell. “You look funny,” the first voice said, and the air leaked out of my nose. I was miserable and wet and cold, and I wanted to sit down in the water, but I knew I should not.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” the second voice said. “We were going to have a tea party with Annabelle, but we can have it with you instead.”

I closed my eyes and willed myself to be back in bed, to yell for Dad when Annabelle opened the door of our bedroom instead of following her. I strained so hard that I briefly saw stars when I opened my eyes again, and I started to cry when my vision cleared and I saw it hadn’t worked, that I was still in the shed, in the water. My breathing got faster, and I felt my chest tighten up.

“Here, silly, relax and drink this,” the first voice said. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt something touching my hand. I looked down and jerked my arm back, away from nothing.

“Stop it, you’re scaring me,” I said, and both voices cheered.

“Finally! It’s so nice to have a second friend to talk to,” the second voice said.

“No, you aren’t real. Only little kids believe in imaginary friends,” I said. Both voices laughed.

“Have some tea. You’ll feel better after you have some tea.”

I felt something pressed into my hand again, and this time I decided to play along. I held my hand up to my mouth and pretended to sip. “Mm, delicious,” I said.

The first voice sighed. “You’re faking. You’re making fun of us.”

I frowned and looked at my hand again. My thumb and forefinger were now grasping the handle of a delicate little teacup painted with pink roses, like the ones at Grandma’s house. The teacup was almost too hot to hold and I raised it carefully to my lips, not wanting to spill any of it on myself. I pursed my lips and drank just a little.

It tasted like fish and dirty bathwater.

I threw the teacup down and gagged as the voices laughed. “I could get sick, why would you do that? Why would you make me drink river water?” I asked, so upset I began to dry heave.

“Oh, we were just having a little fun. Did you really think we had tea in here?” The second voice was close to my ear, too close. I took a step to get away from it and my toes felt something on the once-wall.

“The river is so beautiful this time of year, isn’t it,” the first voice said.

I shook my head. “It’s dirty and brings in rotten things, like this shed.”

The two voices laughed again. “You’re so funny, like a bunny. Funny bunny. We’re going to call you that. Wriggle your toes, Funny Bunny!”

“No snakes, no snakes, no snakes,” I whispered, but the mass at my feet didn’t feel like a snake or move like a snake. Instead, it felt mossy, maybe furry. I held my feet still.

“Harry says it’s nice to meet you, Funny Bunny,” said the second voice.

I pretended to shake hands with the air in front of me. “Hello, Harry.”

The two voices laughed. “Oh Funny Bunny, you’re just pretending again. Harry is in the water. You just bumped him with your toes and woke him up from his morning nap.”

I felt my breathing speed up again, and I screamed for Annabelle, who still didn’t answer. “I am not mean,” I said to the daylight above me, wishing harder than I’d ever wished for anything that Annabelle would appear in the door frame. “I have never been this mean.”

“Well, it wasn’t very nice to disturb Harry from his sleep,” the second voice said.

I felt the mass at my feet shift and I backed away from it as it bobbed to the surface of the water. The dark fur splayed out and two beady black eyes stared at me, vacant and lifeless. A groundhog, a dead groundhog.

“Daddy! Daddy please!” I screamed so hard my voice broke, and then something large filled the door frame above me and splashed down into the water with me. I closed my eyes and held my entire body tight as the something lifted me up and out of the water. I heard Dad’s voice and smelled his sour morning breath, but I didn’t trust it, I didn’t believe.

He set me down in the grass on top of the bank, and when I felt Annabelle’s hands on my cheeks, I opened my eyes and sat up so fast my forehead knocked hers and she fell backward with a cry. Dad wrapped his arms around me told me to breathe. “In, out, slow down now, take it easy.”

Annabelle looked worried and I let go of Dad and reached for her. She leaned in to hug me, and for a moment I wanted to hit her, but instead I let her hold me. She whispered into my ear, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I stayed close to her. “For what?”

“You rescued them, you got them out.”

I wrenched back from Annabelle and yelled, not caring that Dad could hear us now. “I did not! I left them down there and I hope they drown!”

Annabelle shook her head. “No, you didn’t. They’re right there, waving at you. They’re so excited to be out of the dollhouse. They’re going to come live at the real house with us!”

I looked at the grass where Annabelle was pointing. I didn’t see them, but I screamed anyway. Dad picked me up and carried me across the yard, waving at Randy on his porch that we were fine, just fine.

<strong>Sandra K. Barnidge</strong>
Sandra K. Barnidge

Sandra K. Barnidge is a writer based in central Alabama. Her fiction has appeared in Barren, Nimrod, The Fiddlehead, Allegory Ridge, and elsewhere.