Little Cracks

Little Cracks
by Jesse Sprague

At the foot of the stairs, two steps away from the light switch, sits the doll. Cracks web her ancient porcelain face, and her hair is thinning in the wig over her carved scalp. A quirk of the house puts the light switch at the bottom and not the top of the wooden slat stairs. After I descend, I must frantically slap the light on. Before the bulb illuminates, her eyes are the only thing I can see—orange with tiny pinpoints of black at the center.

“Is this a joke?” Father yells. “This is how people get sick! Does this water feel hot enough to kill anything?” His grip on my wrist tightens as he drags me back to the sink and shoves my hand into the soapy water.

Silence is golden when he’s like this. I should know.

“They’re clean!” I say. “Leave me alone!”

He turns on the spout, still bellowing. The words strike my ears, but I don’t hear them. Steam begins pouring up as he tosses the dishes I just finished cleaning into the sink. Only the red handle is on. I take a few steps away from him as the last of the plates plunges into water so hot even Father thinks it kills germs. What does he think it will do to me?

“Scrub the dishes, Ally.” There is so much steam. “I ask so little of you, so very little.”

I clench my fists and run out of the kitchen toward the basement door.

She waits for me below, but the house is bright. My fear of her seems flimsy when I’m facing Father. In the light, he is my only fear.

I want to cradle her in my arms. She is my one true confidant. She listens patiently, this doll of my grandmother’s youth. She loves me as long as the light is on, and I love her ivory dress and tiny, painted mouth.

The door opens at my frantic handling, and I dive inside. The door slams. I clamp my hands over the knob.

The doorknob twists on the other side. I hold tight.

“Stay in there, then. You filthy ingrate.” The lock clicks.

My hand falls off of the doorknob and I turn to face the blackness.

Her gaze is different in the dark, and I see sharp little teeth under her lips. She is afraid of the dark. She hates living in it.

I will tell her about Father, and she’ll agree that little hands burn faster than germs. Locking a child in the dark is evil. She understands that better than anyone. But first, I have to make it all the way down the stairs. It would be simple for her to reach me in the dark and let her tiny teeth rip open my throat.

I hear Joe’s voice upstairs. He’s yelling. Has Father picked a fight with him, or is Joe trying to defend me? Sitting down on the middle stair, I wait for her to come for me. I don’t want to be afraid. My hands press my ears and the shouting muffles, but now I won’t hear her if she comes. She has never come for me before. Maybe she sees my cracks and forgives me for living in the light she is denied.

From the house, there is a crash. A small squeak that was supposed to be a scream erupts from my lips and I run down the remaining stairs. My hand swats at the light switch.

It misses.

The darkness is closing in. I try not to be afraid. She likes the taste of fear in the dark, and she will forget we are friends.

Would her voice be black as her time-infected cracks or the same violent yellow-orange as her eyes? I can’t see them glimmering where her eyes should be on the shelf.

A shrill scream escapes my throat. No one will come. Father wants me to be scared, and Joe is no match for a full-grown man. I hate Mother because while I know she loves me, that she loves us, I know she will not contradict him. Calling it a “unified front” is her excuse not to see.

I hate her most. She stores her doll at the bottom of the stairs because Father does not want it in their room. It’s her job to take care of all of us, and if she did her job, the doll wouldn’t have so much hate.

My hand moves again and misses. I don’t want to cry. She doesn’t like tears because she can’t cry.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

Is there a sound? There can’t have been a sound. There is no one in the basement except me.

“Please,” I say again. This time my seeking fingers find the switch and the light bursts on. It flickers at first as the old bulb warms up.

She is not on the shelf.

I rotate looking for her. If I can see her, she won’t hurt me. The stairs creak and my eyes move to the source.

Finally, I see her crouching by the bottom step. One fist is resting against the post and the other on the stair. I sit and touch her remaining hair with a trembling hand. She almost reached me this time. And then, I think of it, and I pick her up.

“Tonight,” I whisper to her—she is my co-conspirator—“Tonight I’ll put you on Mother and Father’s bed. If Father was gone, you could sleep in the house every night. You could live in the warmth and the light.”

I switch off the light and hope she lets me reach the top of the stairs. I know she likes my fear, but I think she likes my caresses too. I have to trust she can see my cracks. At some point, you have to trust someone.

Copyright © 2015 Jesse Sprague