Cameron lay upon the bed, waiting. His clothes were rumpled from sleep, though he couldn’t remember going to sleep. His entire body ached from the unforgiving surface. He twisted his head this way and that, checking it for kinks. Just some tight muscles, no pinched nerves. Things could always be worse.
He lay there, slowly stretching himself out. It was a cold morning, or else he had lost all his heat from lying upon the bed. He wanted to get some more sleep, or just lie there and stare at the low ceiling, but his body was in too much pain. It would never allow him to relax, now that he was awake, and his muscles were sore from where they rested against the bed. Cursing, he swung to his feet and rose, hopping in place and clapping himself in an embrace to get the blood flowing and build up some heat.
He stalked over to what was supposed to be a writing desk, or maybe a vanity. It was hard to tell: the edges were round and slick with glossy, blobby paint. The carelessness of it made Cameron angry, as though the manufacturer were dumping the burden of function and interpretation upon the consumer. “You know what we meant,” said some indolent wage slave in China. “Close enough for someone like you.”
He wanted to kick it over, but it looked solidly affixed to the floor, just like the lump representing an armoire was melded with the wall. Lazy to the point of arrogance. “What are you going to do about it?” He could hear the laughter over assembly-line chatter. He stomped out of the room, his worn, leather shoes slapping against the psychedelic whorls that represented a rug.
The next room, he didn’t even know what it was purported to be. A picture frame was printed on the wall, showcasing an amorphous tangle of black line over blotches of pastels. The wallpaper was little more than wobbly blue lines running down a field of pink. This arbitrary cell served only to connect the bedroom to the circular staircase, which he nearly threw himself down. After a week of living here, he still wasn’t used to the irregular steps, unevenly spaced and improperly deep for his feet. It wouldn’t have been so bad if there had been a handrail; as it was, Cameron clutched at the walls as though trying to invoke some kind of latent gecko superpower, moving like a drunkard in a refrigerator crate rolling down a hill.
That reminded him of the last time the house fell over, and he forced himself to move slower. Sometimes it was just easier to sit down on the ersatz steps and slide down the spiral in a controlled descent.
On the main floor, Cameron emerged in the foyer. More detail was paid to this layout, at least. The printed carpet in here had a coherent design. The front door was an actual a panel that swung on a hinge, as opposed to the gaping, almost sphincter-like portals that led to every other room. The built-in hutch opposite the front door had little gold rings for the drawer handles, though the drawers were a facade and could not pull out, and featured a working mirror.
The mirror wasn’t great, being only a foggy strip of silver adhesive, with a couple bubbles here and there, but it served to allow Cameron to examine himself. The whiskers, he could feel by rubbing his chin. His slept-on hair created a lopsided silhouette in the mirror, and his disheveled clothes lacked a pleasing symmetry. Out of reflex he tucked his shirt back into his pants, then took off his jacket to flap out the wrinkles and put it on again. He wiggled his toes: they writhed in moist socks. His feet felt swollen. He should have taken off his shoes and socks before going to sleep last night, but he didn’t recall going to bed in the first place.
He remembered the fight, the shouting match. There was booze, but did that cause the fight or was it meant to remedy it? He sighed, running his fingers through his oily, matted hair. His scalp itched and he scraped at it, with nails long enough to pick at the fine details.
He sucked in the cool air of the foyer, thick with particle board and glue and paint and held it for four seconds, trying to calm down. Isn’t that what Special Forces did? Inhale for four, hold it for four, let it out for four, hold it out for four. That was supposed to work. Cameron had few other options.
He had to see if breakfast was ready, if it was there at all.
He knew the layout of the house by now. Orienting himself as if he had walked in from outside, on the immediate left was the library, evinced by the warbled images of loaded bookshelves on all four walls. At least the recliner in here exploited the advantage of roundness and lack of detail. There weren’t supposed to be any sharp edges to it, so it was only wide and accommodating, if as hard and solid as all the other furniture in the house. Enter the library and turn right, step over the seam, and you found yourself in the music and arts room. There was what Cameron had to suppose was a half-piano or a full harpsichord, round and creamy like all the furniture, with a row of keys inadequately printed upon what must’ve been its front. No bench, of course, this was a standing harpsichord. Across from it was a long, tall triangular blob with a picture frame printed upon it. This represented a painting easel, obviously, but what idiot would have mounted the frame upon the canvas? It was difficult not to feel as though he were being mocked, again.
To the right of the foyer was a parlor. Shapeless couches faced each other, glowing in the light of a bay window with a window seat. Lots of places to sit in here, if one were to have guests. But no one visited him in the week he’d been here. No one that could come in, anyway. The parlor was separated by the seam from a kitchen, if you sprayed a kitchen with wet plaster and then viewed it through a piece of frosted glass. That could be a sink over there, next to what looked kind of like a larder, and something resembling a butcher block stood in the center. The floor was printed with black-and-white tiles, which suggested food preparation.
The art room and the kitchen flanked the grand dining hall, Cameron thought wryly. It was only slightly wider than the foyer, since the art room and kitchen had been shaved down to allow for it. There was a long table running its length, and one could excuse the way its shape ran down and melted into the floor like marshmallow fluff if you chose to instead see it as an abundant tablecloth. Sure, that wasn’t impossible. But rather than two rows of high-backed chairs lining its sides, guests would have had to make do with the knobby little lumps that erupted from the floor and became one with the tablecloth. They would have to ride these elegant dining chairs like the saddle of a moped, clutching these little stalagmites with their knees to keep from sliding off and collapsing upon the printed hardwood floor boards.
Cameron didn’t intend to sit at this table, to rudely rest his elbows beside the imperfect circle of a dinner plate and run his hands over impressionist images of silverware. All he needed was sitting in the center of the table, so he walked over and picked it up.
In his two hands, it looked like an asteroid but with more holes. An asteroid of pumice, maybe. It was craggy and brown, with lots of edges that would’ve been cruel to hold, except the whole thing was soft and moist. He brought it up to his face: cinnamon, nutmeg, banana, and burnt sugar. He resented how his stomach growled, wishing he could make a noble show of tossing it aside in a gesture of dignity or rebellion. Instead, he turned it over to find one of the smaller crags and latched his jaws around it. It was cool against his cheeks, as he strained to tear a piece off.
He’d choked down a few bites when he heard the thumping. Boom, boom, boom. Always those three, as though that’s how people got around. He ignored the commotion and continued working on the morsel, glancing around the room for a drop of water and not finding it. Maybe there was enough moisture in the banana bread to keep him from dehydrating.
A bright, bold voice rattled the house. “Yoo-hoo, Mister Delacourte!”
His name was not Delacourte. It was Fort, Cameron Fort. He had no idea where Delacourte came from.
“Mister Delacourte, are you in there? Don’t make me come looking for you, now!” The sing-song tone made this bellowing no less hideous. He dug his teeth into the bread and stifled a scream.
Something began hammering at the front door, the panel on the wire hinge. He could hear it easily in the dining room, with a house between he and it. “Mister Delacourte, I know you’re in there! Why won’t you come out and greet me? That’s not very neighborly of you, is it.” There was a long pause. “Are you ill? Do you have a headache? Perhaps I should come in there and find you.”
He clenched his eyes at that notice. There was nowhere to run. The next rooms only put him closer to his intruder, and even if he could make it to those nightmarish stairs, being upstairs wouldn’t help at all. Not a shade, not a whit. All he could do was put his back against the wall and await the inevitable.
The house resounded with a metal clack. The air filled with the breathy rasp of the halves of the entire structure dragging over a wooden table, an actual wooden table. Light poured into his half of the house; he watched the back of the foyer drift away, watched the parlor and library empty out into nothingness.
“There you are, Mister Delacourte! Oh, I’m so glad to see you’re enjoying my banana bread! I baked it especially for you. Is it delicious? I made it with extra love, that’s what makes it taste so good.”
All the air rushed out of Cameron’s lungs. The large morsel lowered in his grip as he stared up at the woman looming over the exposed halves of his house. Or the house he found himself living in, anyway. The sight of her terrified him in a way he never could have come up with in a year of nightmares, he was certain. Unwilling to step onto her table, he remained in the shoddy, careless representation of a dining room.
“Aren’t you going to say anything, Mister Delacourte?” The large woman shook slightly, glaring down at him. “It’s very rude to—”
“Good morning, Miss Blanchard.”
She didn’t smile, but then, she couldn’t. “Good morning to you, Mister Delacourte! How is your breakfast?”
“Oh, I’m so glad to hear that! I was slaving away over a hot oven all morning, making that for you.”
“All morning? What time is it?”
“Yes, well, I wake up quite early to get these things started.” She paused, trembling. “It’s… nine… thirty. Almost.”
Nine-thirty. Goddamn it. He should be… Cameron struggled not to think about what he would be doing at 9:30 on a Friday morning. What he should be doing, who would be missing him. His fingers dug into the banana bread, resentful of how it resisted his grip.
“You look very nice today, Mister Delacourte!” The massive woman bounced in place, like a building in an earthquake. Her arms flapped against her sides.
He shuddered and took another pass at gnawing on the craggy lump of banana bread. A morsel to him, a crumb to her.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Pointed throat-clearing thundered against his ears.
“This is very delicious, Miss Blanchard. Thank you very much for it.” He gulped, choking on the words and the bread. “Can I get some water?”
“That’s not what I meant.” The large woman shook, nearly vibrated. “I said that you look very nice today. You’re supposed to tell me how I look.”
Wisely, Cameron bit back his reaction. “You’re looking very large today, Miss Blanchard.”
Giggling pealed through the dining room. “No, silly! You’re supposed to say something nice.”
“You’re looking very gigantic today, Miss Blanchard.” More laughter. “Why, Miss Blanchard, you’re looking positively colossal this morning!”
The large woman rattled so hard her head banged against her own ceiling, taking more than a few savage cracks. When the voice returned, it was gasping for breath. “You’re very silly, Mister Delacourte! But seriously, you have to tell me how pretty I am.”
Cameron took a step back. “I’m a married man, Miss Blanchard. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Since when are you married, Mister Delacourte? I don’t see anyone else in your house.” Pause. “Do you have a wife somewhere? Should we meet? Would you like her to move in with you?”
“No! No, that won’t be necessary, Miss Blanchard. I… I was making a bad joke.” He swallowed bile. “You’re looking very lovely today, Miss Blanchard. Positively radiant.”
Pleasure glowed in her voice. “That’s so sweet of you to say, Mister Delacourte! Perhaps you would like to give me a little kiss?” The woman swung threateningly low into his personal space. Her head was nearly as large as his entire body. She couldn’t fit into the dining room, but it wasn’t safe to hide from her there. He learned that Tuesday. He raised himself up on tippy-toes and craned his head up toward her, then pressed his lips against her cold, porcelain cheek.
“No, on the lips!” Before he could dodge, the large woman lunged at him. Her painted mouth smacked into his; her painted nose crushed his, and he collapsed onto the table on which his house stood.
“Oh, no! Mister Delacourte! Are you okay?”
He lay on the ground, clutching his face. Stars swirled in his vision, and his nose didn’t want him to breathe at all for a while. How he wanted to swear, to throw something, but he knew that would lead to much worse. Wednesday showed him that. He could only shield his face from further damage, crying hot, angry tears as he suppressed his natural reactions.
“Mister Delacourte, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you were so delicate.” Something patted his arm.
He swiped at it, knocking it away. “I’m not fucking delicate! You’re a monster, an abusive monster!” So much for self-restraint.
Her voice was darker now. “Mister Delacourte, I thought we talked about that kind of language— oh, no! Blood! Are you okay? What should I do? Should I get a Band-Aid?”
Slowly, Cameron rolled to his knees, sitting upright. “You should go get your mom. This feels pretty serious, I think you broke my nose.”
“I can’t do that, she’ll kill me for breaking another one of you guys!” The high, worried tone was immediately replaced by a lower, bossier one. “I mean, I am the mom around here. There’s no mom. Here, let me look at you, maybe I can clean you up.” Hard, flat paddles with fingers painted on them swatted at his biceps and shoulders.
“No, please don’t. This is actually serious. Just… get me some water, I’ll clean myself up.”
“Oh, no! Look at your shirt! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that!”
“It’s okay, I just really need some water, please.”
“I don’t have any water. What if I sang you a song?” The large woman started to sway, her porcelain head whipping around on her shoulders.
“No, not the doll! You, the real you! The girl holding the doll!” Cameron pointed at the large fingers wrapped around the large doll’s waist. “I need you to get your mother to give me some first aid! I’ll talk to her, I promise you won’t get in trouble!”
The doll wavered, then swung upright. “I know where to get some water. I’ll do it after I take a nap.” Miss Blanchard collapsed to her floor, and the huge hand withdrew from her living room. There was a tremendous rumbling and darkness filled the room as the two halves of Miss Blanchard’s house closed shut. Through Miss Blanchard’s own bay window, from the miniature table on which his house stood, Cameron could see little more than a truly immense pair of blue jeans rise up, up, up, and run away.
Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash
2 thoughts on “The Caretaker”
I liked the stream of consciousness on this one. The pace of the reveal is the plot itself, and the extra layer of “Miss Blanchard” was an excellent tweak for the jaded dollhouse denizen.
I appreciate how you challenged yourself to be faithful to the header image. It was a very economical way to both set the scene and establish Cameron’s perspective.
After multiple exercises at whittling down narratives to fit an arbitrary limit, this one feels just right, and to expand upon it would burst the moment. The final line reminds me of nothing so much as a submarine glimpse of giant tentacles vanishing into the deep.
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I find it amusing that the idea of a child entertaining herself with a tiny man is terrifying to me. She obviously doesn’t know what she’s doing, and poor Mister Delacourte is going to end up broken, the same as the the previous “dolls” she broke.
I’d like to imagine an escape for him. Maybe Miss Blanchard will stop visiting him if he puts on a lot of pounds from all those carbs.
While my heart pounded with feeling for the little guy, I also laughed several times. “Cameron clutched at the walls as though trying to invoke some kind of latent gecko superpower” produced a nice giggle. Thank you for that. And excellent writing, of course!
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