I didn’t sleep well that night, having nightmares where the townspeople were mobbing my house with pitchforks and torches. In one I had kidnapped Teri (her wearing a rather pretty, old-fashioned gown) and was in the middle of climbing to my roof when I woke up with a start.
Cold sweat made my sleeppants cling to my legs and I felt like throwing up. As a teenager, these nightmares were common (even including Teri at times) but I wished they hadn’t started haunting me again.
I shoved the blankets away and swung my legs out, my feet softly hitting the floor. Penny, still in doll form, was by my bed. I gripped the edge of my mattress as I took in a few deep, calming breaths. I need to talk to her.
It was still early and I wasn’t sure what hours she kept but I knew putting it off any longer would make things more difficult. For me, at least. As the phone rang I realized this might not be her number anymore. Crap! I thought as someone answered.
But it was Teri, and she sounded really groggy. “Hullo?” she murdered, her voice still thick with sleepiness.
My Adam’s apple quivered as I gulped, trying to calm my buzzing nerves. “It’s Calcifer,” I said. “Teri, can we meet sometime today?”
There was silence. I fully expected her to hang up on me or start yelling. I glanced over my shoulder at a burst of light and saw Penny turning into her life-sized form. I gave her a little wave, still waiting for Teri to say something. Anything. Please talk to me!
“Today?” she inquired, sounding slightly more awake.
“Yes!” I said, knowing that I had half-shrieked it and sounded really goofy. “If you can?”
“No,” she said flatly and I nearly dropped the phone. “Not today,” she added after a second’s hesitation. “Tomorrow night, maybe?”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes,” I agreed. “That sounds really good. Um, how about at the Bistro? I’ll pay.”
When once again I waited for an answer, I realized it almost sounded like a date. We used to go to the Bistro as teenagers. In fact… I remembered now that it was also the last night we had seen each other. A muggy summer night right before my father died. Mosquitoes trying to get past the citronella smell in the air, the humidity finally dropping. We had held hands during the entire time we ate, making things difficult. Since it was my right hand being held I was forced to use my left hand. I was quite clumsy and kept dropping my food. Teri was in fits of giggles that night and we ended the date with a rather passionate kiss on her doorstep.
Two days later, my father was dead. I had told her over the phone and promised to see her at my father’s funeral. She told me she’d go back to my house afterward to help with some cleaning and packing up some of my father’s stuff. She never showed up, and I took off that night.
“That sounds fine,” she finally said. “Is eight okay?”
I work till nine, I realized miserably. But there was a concert so maybe I could cut out early. It was worth it, to be able to explain to her. “Yes,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow at eight.”
I hung up and turned, grinning at Penny. I gave her a thumbs-up then whistled cheerfully as I went to get a bath. Luckily it waited until I was clean before deciding to go on the fritz. I stared at the tub, wondering what to do. I had no idea how to fix things (the handiness skills as a teen going only so far as learning how to break them) so I wound up having to call a plumber. She was busy that day but promised to come in the next morning, bright and early.
At work I talked to my boss about getting off early the next day and he told me it was fine, though I would have to be docked some pay. I promised that that was fine and went about my work, feeling very hopeful about seeing Teri.
In the morning, I woke up early so I could let the plumber in and then started painting. Penny was at my side, watching my brushstrokes, and when the plumber came I just called out that the door was open.
I felt eyes on me but didn’t turn around. “The bathroom is the farther away door,” I told her, squinting as I tried to figure out whether to add a little more blue to the color I was mixing. “I dunno what’s wrong with the tub.”
“I’ll figure it out,” the plumber replied as she walked towards the bathroom.
As soon as the door was shut, Penny leaned in closer. “She was staring at you.”
I raised one eyebrow and shrugged, dismissing it. I figured the plumber was probably staring at my painting or something, then she called out for me asking me to please come in to help clear something up. Sighing, I put my palette down and went into the bathroom.
“I’m Candy,” she said as soon as I stepped into my bathroom.
“Um, hi Candy,” I said, rubbing the back of my head as I tried to figure out what she needed. “Is it the drain?”
“Huh? OH!” She began giggling a bit. “Yeah, that’s easily fixed. I just thought, er…” She stared at me for a moment, as if wanting me to engage her in conversation. When I didn’t, she blushed and began talking again. “You’re a pretty talented artist.”
“Oh, uh, thanks,” I said, confused at why she brought that up. “I’m new to it though.”
“I never would have guessed,” she cooed out, leaning in and batting her eyelashes. “I just wanted to say that it might be a while before this tub is fixed… so if you or your wife need in here just let me know.”
“I don’t have a wife,” I said a bit stupidly as I raised my hand to show the lack of a ring.
“Girlfriend?” she asked with a slight smirk.
“Um…” I backed up slightly, feeling for the doorknob. “Not exactly,” I said, feeling uncomfortable at the turn of this discussion. “Take as long as you need with the tub!” I turned and hurried out of the bathroom, feeling the plumber’s eyes on me the whole time.
I worked on my painting, feeling ill at ease until she left. As soon as she did I started chatting to Penny, having kept quiet till now.
“That was so weird!” I said, concentrating on my work. “Did you hear her talking to me? I wonder why she asked those questions… she must be really nosy.”
“She was interested in you,” Penny said impassively.
I snorted slightly and put the finishing touches on my newest painting, then turned around to grin at my friend. “That’s crazy! Why would she be interested in me?”
“You are a man,” Penny said, still sounding strange.
“I know,” I chuckled. “Just because we’re of opposite sexes doesn’t make her automatically interested in me, you know.”
She made a sort of ‘hmm’ sound then began picking at the cloth on one of her arms. “Wouldn’t most unattached human females be interested in a half-naked man?”
I blinked once, twice, then looked down at myself. Suddenly I went extremely red, realizing finally that I wasn’t wearing a shirt. I lifted my arms, as if trying to cover my bare chest a wee bit too late. “PENNY!” I yelled. “That–you–she–that doesn’t mean–” I sputtered, unable to say anything properly. “Guys go without shirts all the time! It doesn’t… I’m sure she… wasn’t…” I spread my arms out, waving them as I worried over what to say.
“You are attractive.”
I wasn’t sure how to react to her words. She was a doll, and couldn’t really feel any real emotions–not until she was real at least. Could she? And what on earth did she mean ‘attractive’?! Did she even know the meaning of that word? Penny was very intelligent, surely she knew… but perhaps that was it. She knew it was a word people liked hearing and she was just spouting it out for no reason. Dolls couldn’t, after all, feel attraction to anything.
“Thanks Pens.” I turned to take my painting off the easel. For some reason I felt too afraid to face her as I said,”I’ll be home late tonight. I’m seeing Teri for dinner.”
There was no answer, and suddenly I felt my world tilting strangely. I felt as though there was something over my eyes, stopping me from seeing… what? I gripped the canvas tightly, squeezing my eyes shut and wishing I could see the problem clearly, wishing I knew why everything seemed so wrong.
At ten after eight, I was waiting for her. I had gotten off at seven, hurried home to get a shower, took a cab to get here, and now I had nothing to do but wait. I hope she shows up. It was just ten minutes late, that never meant anything. Right?
I tried sitting down but felt too jumpy to stay seated, so I stood back up and paced, ignoring the looks the other patrons were giving me. I checked my reflection in the window twice more then was about to attempt sitting down again when I heard her voice.
“Sorry I’m a bit late,” she said after I greeted her. “Things got a bit hectic at home and I couldn’t find my keys and–“
“It’s fine,” I said quickly, starting to reach for her hand. I pulled back, though. “Thanks for meeting me.”
Our eyes met and she looked away, a very faint tint of pink creeping into her cheeks. “Yeah, well, you have a lot of explaining to do,” she said a bit loudly.
I went over to the table I had reserved and pulled out a seat. “Can I do it while we eat?” I asked, a half-smile playing on my lips.
She put her finger delicately against her mouth, chewing at her nail in thought. But she nodded and sat down in the seat I was offering. I pushed her chair in and went around to the other side of the table.
We didn’t talk about anything of importance while we waited for our food. I talked a bit about my job and she talked about hers. She was a coffee courier for Doo Peas.
Once our food arrived and we started eating, she broached the subject we were both afraid of. She asked why I had left, without a word to her. I gripped my fork tightly, speaking carefully and quietly so nobody would overhear me.
“It’s because of me my father died at the age he did.” I couldn’t meet her eyes, all I could do was stare down at the lobster I now regretted ordering. My stomach was twisting in knots and my appetite was quickly leaving me. “I’m not a normal person, Teri. I don’t exactly have a mother.” I ducked my head lower, pushing the prongs of my fork through the lobster until the utensil hit the plate. “I’m a product of scientific experimentation.”
I stopped speaking for a moment until she prompted me to please continue. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of something called Lab C…” I finally looked up and saw she was watching me, not eating either. When our eyes met she pressed her lips together and grabbed her fork, quickly putting some of her food into her mouth.
“My father’s mentioned it,” she said, obviously nervous. “He told me a couple years ago that when he was a lot younger there was a big mess in town when ‘Lab C’ was found to be doing illegal human experimentation.” Suddenly her eyes widened and she dropped her fork, looking up at me again. “You mean…? You?”
I nodded, turning my head to stare at my reflection. “The town turned against Lab C, and against my father.” I put my hands on my lap so she wouldn’t see me clenching them into fists. “They treated my dad horribly. Lab C made him pregnant. With me.” Now my jaw was clenched and I had to work hard at forcing the words out. “It was because of that he had so many health problems. Because of me he…”
“Stop it,” she said, slamming her hand against the table. I jumped and whipped my head around to stare at her in confusion. “Your father was a wonderful man, I’m sure he wouldn’t want you blaming yourself.”
“A wonderful man,” I echoed and then nodded, smiling slightly once more. “He hated when I blamed myself, but how could I not? I had to watch him deteriorate with the knowledge that it was because he had been pregnant with me. I had to watch as he died, unable to get help because the hospital had no idea what was wrong with him since he didn’t have a normal body. I know it’s not entirely because of me but it is partly my fault. At least, that’s what I believe.”
Teri slid her hand across the table and rested it near me, palm up. I slowly put my hand in hers and she squeezed gently. “Is that why you left town?”
“Yes,” I said, holding her hand tighter. “I thought people might remember Lab C and my father being pregnant. I was worried some people might accuse me or want me to be locked away because I’m not human. Least, I don’t think of myself as human. I was stupid, Teri, and I was scared. I made a huge mistake…” My fingers tightened around hers a little more and I pulled her hand closer to me. “I know it’s a lot to ask but will you please forgive me?”
She breathed in deeply and I saw her lips curving into a pleasant smile. “On one condition.”
“Anything,” I said, hoping it wasn’t anything too bad.
“Take me on another date this weekend?” she asked, her eyes softening. “And we can talk some more about this.”
I stared in disbelief then grinned so wide that my cheeks hurt. “Gladly,” I answered, pressing my fingers against hers once more before letting go. “Gladly.”
I had quite a spring in my step when I got home that night. Teri had dropped me off, since I didn’t have my own car yet, and as soon as I went inside Penny came over to me. She seemed very excited about something.
“How did it go?” she asked, rocking back and forth on her uneven feet. “Is she still mad at you?”
“Nope!” I beamed at her. “I mean, she still is pretty upset but I think we’ll be able to work it out. I have another date with her this weekend. I’m thinking about a movie… what do you think?”
Penny’s arms fell and she took a step away from me. “Another date?” she asked, her voice extremely small. “I thought she hated you.”
When I looked at her, about to tell her about what Teri and I had talked about, I felt shocked. For a brief second it seemed as though Penny’s face had traces of… something on it. That was impossible. She was a doll, she couldn’t have facial expressions. But there had been something almost defeated in her face for just a split second and with it, sudden clarity about… what? Now they were both gone, and as the foggy confusion settled in my brain I wondered if I had even seen anything in the first place.
The feeling of something being wrong, however, was stronger than ever.