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The Van Etten House

Kelly and I met at Ithaca College. Then we both dropped out and rolled down the hill, living in a limbo where we weren’t quite townies but our friends who had stayed students were a bit suspicious of our strange schedules and sudden access to cash. This was back in the late 90s when you could do that, go inbetween, fuck around, and still live. We rented a place and stayed in town after what would have been our class graduated and left. I got to be the pulp paperback and ephemera expert for one of the used bookstores downtown; Kelly scoured the thrift stores and estate sales of the Finger Lakes region for dolls, stuffed animals, and toys to sell on eBay. I phoned her when someone brought in a load of old Oz books and there was a Raggedy Andy at the bottom of the box. She called me when someone had slipped a Tijuana bible in with little Bobby’s Archie comics.

The way I remember it, I got the call about the Van Etten house first, from a guy I knew who hauled crates of vinyl from record fair to record fair all over the state. His name was Clint, and though it’s probably unrelated, I never saw him again after that weekend. I heard later that he tried to open a record store in Rochester, then when it failed he moved out west.

From the outside, the house was just what I expected. Two stories, the blackened ghost of a collapsed porch, front door high and useless so we went around back and through the garage.

There was a bad smell of smoke and blood even from the outside. It made me wary. Clint hadn’t said anything about the guy died in there. It was damn hard to get that smell out of paper or the fabric of soft toys.

When we got into the house proper, then I was surprised. I’d heard of hoarders, but this was before you could see them on TV. I’d never walked into anything even close to this. Clint and Tom the book guy were already at work, like ants at the base of a pyramid, shifting grains here and there in the living dunes of crap. It made me dizzy and for a moment I couldn’t see the ceiling, the walls, where it all ended.

I forced myself to concentrate on the details—the split seams of cardboard boxes, still-bright dust jackets and album covers peeping out. Tom gave me a thumbs-up and hoisted the A.A. Blue Book, first edition, then pulled aside his dust mask and said “You two are going to want to take a look upstairs.” Clint, flipping through a crate of vinyl, didn’t even break concentration to greet us. It was going to be a rich and fruitful day.

Kelly and I sidled on through the stacks of cardboard boxes that reached, I could now see, to the ceiling. I mean really to the ceiling, the topmost boxes were crammed in, slightly squashed in a way that seemed impossible to achieve from the top of a ladder. From what Tom told me later, he and Clint ended up having to chop up the boxes and pull things out Jenga-like until they could let an entire column collapse without getting squished. There were a lot of twisted spines, a lot of snapped vinyl towards the bottom. Tom won’t shut up to this day about the signed Helter Skelter he found far down in the mess, beyond repair.

The walls I glimpsed as we worked our way along the goat paths towards the stairs didn’t give me great faith in their structural soundness. I went up anyway.

It was an old-fashioned house, with none of that master suite business going on, three bedrooms and a bathroom spaced evenly along a central hallway. The first bedroom was already almost clear. Tom told me later that the new owner had come in early that morning, hauled out heaps of clothes and the mattress with the sheets still on and set them on fire at the edge of the backyard. Tom, who can be very nice when it won’t cost him anything, cautioned the guy that even ugly vintage clothes can be worth money. The guy told him they were too gross to sell.

The second bedroom, though, made Kelly gasp despite the stale air. “Jesus,” she said on the exhale. “He must have loved his kids.”

Along the left-hand wall was a solid rank of cardboard doll boxes, colors sun-faded, cellophane windows thick and gray with filth. On the opposite side, stacks and stacks of magazines; the ones that had slipped to the floor were glossy-covered but black-and-white. Youth for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes Magazine, that kind of thing. I rolled my eyes but I also counted stacks and mentally made bundles for eBay.

Kelly, quicker than me, crossed over and grabbed the most convenient box, wiped it with her sleeve. Then she said something unladylike.

“What’s the matter?”

“They’re bootlegs,” she said, thrusting the box towards me. “He probably made them himself.”

The name, printed in faded yellow on the faded pink box, was Emily. The doll was amateurish. Its smile was more of a grimace, the seams at its wrists and neck were painfully visible, its clothes were of cheap cloth and awkwardly cut.

“Well hell.” I took the box from her, turned it over. “Are they all like that?”

“As far as I can tell.” But she kept digging, because the only way you make money in this game is to find the one diamond buried in a heap of crap.

The magazines had smiling teens on the cover, and stories like “What is True Modesty?” and “Can a Christian Believe in Evolution?” I flipped through the issue asking “What is True Modesty?” because it seemed like it might be more funny than depressing. It was in good shape, full of smiles and ads for Bible colleges, nothing cut out or torn or wrinkled by water. Except a page somewhere in the back was off. Something making the whole magazine a little uneven.

I let it fall open to the damage, hoping something could be salvaged. It was in the back, in a section of classified ads from kids seeking pen pals. There was a dog-ear, crisp enough that I could almost have flattened it out and pretended I never saw it, except that on the dog-eared page one of the ads was circled in blue ballpoint pen hard enough to score the paper.

The name, Agnieska Kowalchik, caught my eye. Strange that a girl named Agnieska was in a WASPy Youth-for-Christ group and not lighting candles to Mary.

“Look at this,” I said to Kelly, carrying the magazine over to her. “I’m equally screwed.”

She grabbed the magazine from me before I could tighten my fingers. “Huh. Check that out.”

She poked the toe of her shoe towards one of the discarded doll boxes spread around her like a moat. When I bent to pick it up, I saw that it said “Agnieska.” The doll had dark hair and an hourglass figure that harkened back to the earliest Barbies, but the same flaws as Emily—the grimace, the seams.

“I think our defunct benefactor here might have been a little weird,” I said, and dropped the box again. I didn’t like touching the gray clinging dust.

“A little weird?” Kelly picked Agnieska back up, tilted her side to side. “I think we’ve got the full Henry Darger scenario here.”

“Score!” I held my hand up for a high-five but she left me hanging.

I lowered my hand and stepped around the pink boxes towards her. “If we’ve got an outsider artist on our hands, we can make bank. He’s all ours, his heirs sold out.”

“But what about Agnieska?”

“What about her?”

“If she was in high school in,” she flipped the magazine to the cover, “1963, she’s probably still alive and she never asked for some creepy old guy in Van Etten to make outsider art about her.”

“Well . . . no. But it isn’t hurting her any. No one will be able to tell which Agnieska she is from a crappy doll.”

“But if someone does . . . ”

“Then she’ll have a good laugh about that weird guy who wrote to her one time, it’s not a big deal. She’s got no claim on it.”

Kelly looked at the dolls around her. “I guess. And they’re no good for anything else.”

We spent the rest of the day loading box after box into Kelly’s Bronco, driving back and forth to Ithaca to unload. When we’d cleared the bedrooms we found more of the same in the attic, and we stopped looking at anything, threw it all in boxes as fast as we could.

By our last trip, in the slanted light that separated late afternoon from early evening, Tom and Clint had barely made it into the second big downstairs room.

“This is nuts,” Clint said, holding up a semi-rotted block of paper. “This guy had phone books from everywhere. Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver, fucking Montana.”

The next day Tom’s assistant manager, Logan, called me and asked if I could cover a few shifts at the store that week, so most of the initial sorting fell to Kelly. She went at it like a fiend. In three days, she’d mapped seventy-five dolls to pen pal ads or photos of kids who had appeared in the magazines. A slight majority were girls, but there were plenty of boys too, and they weren’t all teens—there were toddlers, elementary school kids, a couple who looked like they could be in their early twenties.

I made a face at the first baby Kelly showed me, a thumb-sized thing with features that looked like what an old white man in an old white town might have thought were East Asian. The name on the box, Soo Jee, confirmed my suspicions.

“At least he was trying,” Kelly said, and then, when my face stuck that way, “and honestly, it makes me feel a little better. If they all looked the same, I’d think we needed to dig up his basement.”

“Arthur Shawcross switched from killing kids to hookers when it suited him.”

“Sex workers. Sex workers who looked extremely young. And only because it was easier not to get caught that way.”

“Easiest of all not to get caught if you don’t have a type to begin with, right?”

“Knock it off. Or you can get yourself a dust mask and do the rest of them yourself. It would only be fair.”

She had a point, so as soon as I got a day off again I decided it was time to pull my weight. I sorted, I batched, I correlated.

“Ok,” I said that night over dinner. “I take it back about our guy. He was way progressive. I mean, it was only what, last year when everyone got freaked out about the pregnant Barbie . . . ”

“Midge,” Kelly said, not looking up from the spaghetti she was knotting around her fork.

“Yeah, but this guy was making pregnant dolls like twenty, thirty years ago.”

“I’m not sure that makes him less creepy.”

“You should check them out when we’re done. They seem kinda respectful, in a weird way.”

“If you say so.” She seemed dubious, and I didn’t press the issue. I left the pregnant doll, a brunette named Laura, to one side, thinking that eventually I’d remind her. I’m not sure why I was so determined she needed to see it.

I got sidetracked quickly, called into the bookstore again. Spending time in the Van Etten house had played merry hell with Tom’s respiratory system. He’d tried to tough it out, but now he was in the hospital after a bad attack of asthma. Normally I would have been excited about the extra hours.

Kelly didn’t complain, just redoubled her efforts with the dolls to the point she wouldn’t come downstairs when I yelled up that I was ordering a pizza or that the pizza had arrived or that I was putting the other half of the pizza in the fridge now. Some mornings I’d discover the leftover pizza untouched and light still trickling from under the door of Kelly’s room.

So dolls got sorted and stacked, magazines got read, names got matched and written in spiral-bound three-subject notebooks, different colored notebooks and different colored inks for categories that increasingly, as the week and the week after wore on, confused the hell out of me even when Kelly tried to explain them so I could make one of my rare and rarer stabs at helping. What nothing got was listed on eBay or sold. Dolls and magazines from the Van Etten house moved from the living room to Kelly’s room and then no further.

Our first big fight about the damn things wasn’t over that, though. It was because I finally went looking for the Laura doll again. It wasn’t where I had left it, and that pissed me off, even though I knew it was irrational. Why shouldn’t Kelly have bundled that one up with the rest? I’d only held it aside so she could look at it.

So I did a little deep-breathing exercise and went over to Kelly’s room. She had the door shut even though it was late August and we relied on a cross-breeze to keep the house sort of habitable during the day. When she opened it to my knock, the odor inside took me back to Van Etten, and I worried for a second that we’d brought black mold or mildew home.

“What’s going on?” Kelly dusted her hands on her jeans, frowning. She looked like she usually did before she got a migraine, and if I’d been in a better mood I might have started the conversation with a little sympathy. Instead I said “Open the damn window, geeze,” and walked inside.

There wasn’t much room left to walk into, and enough boxes piled on the bed to make me wonder where she was sleeping. On one of the few remaining patches of floor I saw dozens of identical pink boxes that could have been the Laura box, but I doubted it would be that easy.

Kelly didn’t move to follow up on the window suggestion and I dropped it. I knew I was being rude and I didn’t understand exactly why. “That pregnant doll I wanted to show you a few weeks ago, do you still have it?”

Kelly stared at me for a second and then smiled, like there was nothing in the world she would rather have been asked. She was still migraine-pale, though, so the smile looked out of place.

She squeezed between two stacks of boxes where it didn’t seem like she should fit. In the second, and it was only a second, before she returned I considered leaving the room and forgetting the whole thing. Then it was too late.

She held out a box and I took it. It seemed to have picked up a new layer of dust from proximity to the others. I could see enough, though, to know she’d brought the wrong doll.

“No,” I said, thrusting it back at her. “The one I wanted was pregnant.”

Kelly nodded. “This is what she looks like now.”

This doll did look similar to the Laura doll, the same color hair, same too-young look, similar clothes. But instead of a rounded abdomen it had a tiny infant-scale doll packaged alongside it. The name on this box was “Laura and Sophie”.

“Ok, so he was building a series?” That was kind of neat, actually, and it explained some of the notations Kelly had been making.

“No, she’s the exact same doll.”

I tried to take a deep breath again but in the dust-stink that only made things worse. “Why are you fucking with me? I was curious about the doll is all.”

“See, I knew you were going to be like this.”

“Like what? Sane?”

Kelly’s frown was back. “Look. Look at this.” She bent and picked up a stack of boxes from the floor. The doll inside the topmost one had a big yellowish bruise around one eye. Another one’s dress was torn from the neckline to the waist and pulled aside to reveal perfectly symmetrical, nipple-less dolls breasts covered with fine red parallel scratches. A doll held a razor blade to her thigh. A doll that looked about nine clutched a tiny, perfectly-wrought bottle of Arbor Mist—the label more detailed than any of their faces—and had a tiny spring of straw stuck in her hair.

“Jesus Christ! So dude was a sicko after all.” I tried not to sound freaked out, sensing that that would pop the top off the whole fiasco. Kelly was the sensitive one and she’d been cooped up in here alone with these horrible dolls that were not only mindfucks but smelled awful and were probably making her sick with lung rot like they’d done to Tom. No wonder she was losing it. It hit me like another wave of stench that I was an awful housemate, an awful business partner—hell, an awful friend—for letting her take so much of the weight on this.

So when she shook her head and said “I don’t think he was, exactly,” I didn’t say anything sarcastic, and when she held out the Laura and Sophie box and said “Take this one and keep it in your room for a few days, then tell me what you think,” I agreed without arguing. It seemed like the least I could do, to let her have her way.

I guess that doesn’t really qualify as a big fight. But it felt like a tiny bone or a ligament snapped in our relationship and then set wrong.

The phone rang early the next morning, and I woke directly into Logan from the bookstore wanting me to come in again, and I said yes before I remembered all my intentions from yesterday. I didn’t even look at Laura and Sophie.

As soon as I got there, Logan hit me with the big news—Tom was so bad off that the cheap bastard had authorized her to hire another full-timer. And she wanted me, since I already knew the store. It meant less freedom, but it also meant health insurance and a steady idea of what would be coming in every month, and a first look at a lot of material that could go toward eBay. I thought about how it would mess up my plans to make things easier on Kelly, but for about ten seconds. I couldn’t pass it up.

“Thanks,” Logan said, as I nodded. “He’s not taking it well, I bet you can imagine. Convinced if he doesn’t get better and get back in here the whole place is going to tank in a month. Have you seen him?” I shook my head—Tom and I weren’t visiting-each-other-in-the-hospital type friends. “He’s aged ten years, they have a tube up his nose, it hurts to look at him. I wish to god he’d never gone to Van Etten.”

“They’re sure that’s what it was, then?” I thought of Kelly in her dusty overheated room. Maybe I could buy an air purifier with the extra bookstore money.

“They’re not sure about anything, but all the signs point that way. He was there almost twenty-four hours straight, didn’t stop, didn’t eat, and then, boom, he was sick and he hasn’t been well since. He never even got to see any of the crap he pulled out of there on the shelves.” She grimaced, half sad, half annoyed. She’d been warning Tom for years that he was going to kill himself with overwork but I don’t think she expected to be right. “Wait, that reminds me. He had something from the house that he thought should go with your and Kelly’s stuff. A notebook. I put it . . . ” she walked as she talked, back to the little room behind the kids’ section where Tom used to sit and price books at an antique desk with an antique computer. She opened a drawer and pulled out a bundle wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. She unwrapped the plastic to reveal a notebook, not a cheap spiral-bound piece of undergrad junk like Kelly was using but a real book covered in sturdy blue cloth.

Logan handed it to me. It was heavier than it looked, and when I flipped it open it had that awful smell. The handwriting was not the half-legible scrawl I’d expected, though. It was the solid, blocky, readable print of a tradesman who’d had to do up his own receipts and invoices with a pencil, and made sure the columns of numbers were always straight. What the hell had happened to that guy? Or was his notebook something that had gotten pulled into the maelstrom by mistake?

The first page didn’t give many clues. Just the phrase “Some Notes on The World System” centered and capitalized like it was supposed to be a title. The pen strokes had been pressed hard into the paper, like I’d seen in those magazines, but that didn’t prove anything.

I flipped through it. Spotted the name Agniezska. Our guy, then. The smell was making me sick, and Logan was edging for the door of the tiny room, so I slammed the book shut. Normally I would have stuffed it in my bag but I didn’t want everything I carried to smell like death funk so I wrapped it back up in the plastic bag and put it in my car instead. Then I drove all the way over to Cortland to buy an air purifier from Wal-Mart and hid the receipt at the bottom of the recycling bin when I got home, because Kelly hated Wal-Mart. It was hard enough getting her to accept it anyway. It wouldn’t fit in the room with the dolls as spread out as they were and she suddenly, far from wanting help, didn’t want me touching them at all.

I got frustrated and retreated while she shuffled boxes around, trying to keep them sorted to a specification I couldn’t see and she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, explain. By then I didn’t want shit to do with dolls, or notebooks, or anything from the Van Etten house. I spent the evening watching The Food Network and trying to convince myself I didn’t smell anything funny until I passed out on the couch.

I woke up stiff and still cranky, but prepared to at least try to be rational. Watching Bobby Flay wouldn’t get the dolls out of the house—out of our lives—any faster. I still wasn’t in a good frame of mind to deal with Kelly, though, so I went to my room with the blue notebook and propped the window wide open.

I went to grab Laura and Sophie, to compare them to the notes I suspected I would find on them.

I was sure Sophie had been an infant tucked in a box with two names. And yet here I was looking at two boxes, both thick with dust. One containing a Laura who no longer looked young, and one containing a toddler Sophie in no clothes but a sagging diaper, face smudged with the dirty remains of popsicle or fruit punch, eyes serious but uncomprehending—a sad doll’s eyes.

A sad doll’s eyes. I put the boxes down and made myself think about what I’d thought, about what I’d been expecting, a living girl’s eyes in the molded plastic.

Kelly could have done this, in the sense that she’d had physical access to the dolls and the room while I was out of the house, in the sense that if there was a series she could have made a swap. I couldn’t even tell myself it seemed out of character for Kelly—she’d been out of character lately, there was no getting around that.

The hallway seemed dim as dusk, which made it easy to see that Kelly’s door was open. It hadn’t been when I’d come upstairs, I was almost sure—and yet if she’d left her room or gone downstairs I’d been too distracted to hear it. I rapped on the doorframe and stuck my head inside. There was no answer except the overwhelming smell. I checked the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room—nothing. And the Bronco was gone. No answers for me, not right now.

I went back up to my room and the notebook. From the corner of my eye it seemed like there was only one box now where I’d left Laura and Sophie on the bedside table, but I refused to look straight at it.

There were pages and pages of just lists of names, cities, ages that ranged from 6 months up to 25 years. More names than there had ever been dolls—unless we’d missed a hidden room. There was Agnieska again. 16. Chicago, Illinois. A little cross next to her name. And a number—35. About half the names had symbols and numbers—not just crosses but stars and checkmarks and upside-down triangles, not just 35 but every two digit combination of three and five and two and six, some names graced with a whole string of them. As I flipped forward the neat columns started to change. Cities and ages, but question marks in the name column. Forward a few more pages and there were lines that were all question marks except a star or a cross.

The roster finally ended halfway down a page, the characters as neat and square but growing fainter until they stopped. Blank pages followed, five or so, as though he’d planned to write more. Then the writing began again, as clear and dug-in as on page one. Now there was a new scheme, though—the numbers, marking columns on a grid.

22—Unknown and disappeared. Names and names and names.

23—Addicts. Names and names and names.

25—Whores. Kelly would say, sex workers, if she were here, where is she? Names and names and names.

Next page.

26—Suicide. Names.

32—Prison, Assault (inc. Sexual). Names

33—Prison, Murder. There was Laura.

At last, 35—Dead. There was Sophie. There was Agnieska.

I heard the Bronco pull up and slammed the notebook shut. There were still 36 through 66, three more pages at least, and I didn’t care to see what came after death in this handwriting.

As I left the room, I glanced to one side despite myself, and I could have sworn that under the dusty cellophane the Laura doll was now dressed in orange. But the light was slanting, and it could have been a reflection.

I tried to compose what I would say to Kelly as I walked down the stairs but when I saw her face as she came through the front door I decided to let her talk first.

“I figured it out,” she said. She was panting a little, as though she was overexcited or had run up the driveway, but her voice was flat and the truck was right there. “I see the whole thing.”

“Ok, tell me.” I wondered if she’d found another list of the names and numbers somewhere and they’d knocked the wind out of her like they’d done to me. She sort of herded me into the living room until I was sitting on the couch exactly where I’d fallen asleep last night. The whole time, her breathing never let up, and when she started to talk again, she coughed.

“Hold up,” I said, “let me get you some water. Or—” as I looked at her expression again—“a beer?”

She nodded and in a moment I was back with a couple of cans, already slippery with condensation. Only after she’d swallowed the first mouthful did she make another stab at talking.

“The dolls. They’re effigies, I guess? They’re sacrifices . . . Human sacrifices. The sacrifices that let the rest of us live our lives.” She coughed again at the last word, and then started to sob, waving at the room, the tv, the stairs. “All of this.”

“What? No.” I grabbed her wrist, not hard, just to calm her down. “No no no. A lot of them aren’t even dead.” A lot of them are so alive it’s downright creepy, I had the common sense not to say. But I did say “Wait here,” and went and got the notebook, which was equally stupid in its own way. I didn’t look at the doll box, or boxes, whatever they’d decided to be right now.

“Here,” I said, opening the stinking thing carefully. “He didn’t kill them. See? He just wrote down what happened to them. Maybe they’re, like, memorials.”

Kelly looked at me with an expression of genuine disgust I’d never seen before. Or maybe—definitely, I told myself even as I recoiled—the disgust was for the book.

“Of course he didn’t kill them all by hand,” she said, and took it from me. “He picked them out. Marked them for all the horrible shit in the world.” She gestured toward the page.

“Sure, sure. Some random guy in Van Etten made them all turn into junkies and hookers and whatever the fuck else.” Her glare was definitely for me now but I was too wound up to care.

“You act like it’s so implausible. You know all those books Tom took out of the house? Do you know how many were about effigy-based magic?”

I snorted, not helping things at all. “Like voodoo dolls? Some New Orleans shit?”

“That’s a disrespectful joke for tourists. Doll magic has been practiced all over the world basically forever. You would know that if you’d looked at the books, but you were too busy selling them as fast as you could, weren’t you?”

“I was selling them, yes. That’s my job. That’s what actually lets us live our lives!” I repeated her gesture around the room, but using my beer hand, which was a mistake. It sloshed onto the upholstery, onto my jeans, adding another note to the miasma. Kelly pulled the book closer to her body, out of the way of the spill, and then stood up and stomped upstairs.

I immediately felt stupid and awful, but going after her wouldn’t help. I finished up the beer—I really hadn’t spilled that much of it—and then had another. And another. And then it was time for a nap. I took the box containing the pregnant Laura—that was what she was now—and set it on the floor outside Kelly’s door. No way I was sleeping with that thing in the room.

I woke up hungry and cotton-mouthed in the dark. The red numbers of the clock said 1:00 am. I groped my way downstairs and into the kitchen. We had everything I needed—orange juice, bread and peanut butter, I thought about frying an egg before deciding it sounded too much like work—and we were damn lucky in that regard. What was so wrong about selling the damn books anyway? If Kelly had wanted them I could have gotten her a discount. She just needed to say. It was completely unfair to blame me for this, like it was unfair to blame the dead guy for somehow sabotaging the lives of hundreds of kids? With freaking magic?

As I slapped peanut butter angrily onto my toast, a light from outside startled me. The Bronco was pulling out. I was breathing in to scream for Kelly that someone was stealing her truck when it reached the streetlight and I saw that she was the one driving.

I could not possibly have been so angry and distracted that I hadn’t heard her come down the stairs and out the back to the garage . . . could I have? I took the stairs two at a time to reach her room. There was a note on the bed saying she’d be gone for a few days, she was going to do more research. She’d travelled to see rare toy dealers in New York or Philadelphia before, it wasn’t quite an open fuck you. The room, of course, was empty.

Not empty. Still crowded with all the fucking dolls.

I wanted them out of the house. They were in stacks, and I had some vague idea of keywords that could tie those stacks together. I made myself some coffee and by the time the sun rose I had them all listed, though I’d had to make the batches bigger as I went along. My fingers hurt from the typing, not my tendons or joints, the actual pads of my fingers. My eyes hurt too.

As my energy ebbed and my anger with it, it became apparent how stupid I’d been. Doing this behind Kelly’s back was going to make things worse. And I was going to lose us a boatload of money with those half-assed listings.

I sighed, called myself an asshole out loud to the gray dawn light, and clicked back to my list of sales to start canceling them. There, in blue and black, were numbers I’d never seen before.

I clicked the first batch of dolls and magazines I’d listed, a small one assembled by grabbing the dolls I hated most. The picture was of clearly-pregnant Laura, blurry because I couldn’t be fucked and because Kelly was the one with the good digital camera. There were already over a hundred bids, the price well into the four digits.

Not believing in my eyes, my screen, I clicked Refresh. The number went up. I did it again and so did they.

I must have fallen asleep soon after, since I woke up with my glasses on at high noon. It was far too late to roll the listings back. The bid for the largest batch was over ten thousand dollars.

I was sure Kelly would forgive me now. But then I thought about explaining it to her, and for a moment, I was scared.

The listings ended; Kelly, had she only known it, was rich. Temporarily rich, the kind that pays off a car, not a mortgage; but she didn’t have a mortgage—or a car payment, the Bronco was so old.

Which is something that comes up in the accident report; old car, old tires. Also it was late, she hadn’t slept. I didn’t find out about it until after the dolls were shipped. I was only the roommate, the best friend, the business partner. I was not the next of kin. Given which, I didn’t even think about letting her survivors in on the money.

Instead I banked it. Thought about investing it but that world seemed so much more vague than the world of buying and selling physical objects, so I got through the next few years’ economic bullshit ok and after a while I did have mortgage money. I bought the house we’d been renting, and eventually I bought Tom out of his bookstore too; he had to retire early and go someplace with better air, for his health. It hasn’t always been easy since, but I’ve done ok, except I miss Kelly. I’ve never had a friend as good since.

And I do wonder sometimes what happened to the notebook, since it wasn’t in her room. It might have been in her car. Would’ve been returned to the family I guess. I wonder what might have been on the pages after death.

About the Author

Carrie Laben is the author of the novel A Hawk in the Woods and the forthcoming novella The Water Is Wide. Her work has appeared in such venues as Apex, The Dark, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, and Outlook Springs, winning the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction (for “Postcards from Natalie”) and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize (for “The Wrong Place”) along the way. She’s been a MacDowell Fellow and a resident at the Anne LaBastille Memorial Residency and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and lives in Queens, where she is at work on her next novel.