Sweat beaded on Weezie’s heavily powdered forehead as she typed the amount of her final bid: $484 dollars. It was a lot for her, half her monthly disability payment, but still—she had to have her. The amount, when it came down to it, was immaterial.
She patted at her brow with a damp-from-the-bag fast food napkin, furiously wiping away both the sweat and a waxy gob of peach-colored foundation. Weezie had layered it on over the past few weeks of spring and now, steeped in humidity, her face resembled the thick and lustrous veneer of a mannequin from Madame Tussaud’s—lumpy, uneven, human-like, but something was off. Something was always off with Weezie. Normalcy had often been an unreachable and nebulous thing to her.
Weezie’s agitated wiping left behind a star-like crater, a deep impression in the gunk. In the frantic light of her attic bedroom, it resembled the emptied socket of a third eye, deep and oozing. Beneath the layers of make-up were other scars too, the real ones, from the mauling. She knew they were there, of course, so she tried her very best to conceal them, any way she could.
In the mirror, she preferred to see this new face, the one she’d built up from cheap dollar store cosmetics and concealers. As it grew, like a tumor, in its own unnatural, molten opacity, she felt safer and protected from the world. She could peek out now, comfortably from this new vantage point, from underneath the growing layers of her second, artificial, and significantly thicker skin.
She hit enter on her keyboard. The auction would end in seconds, and she couldn’t bear to watch. Too much was on the line. Betty Jo was on the line.
Weezie took a deep swig of orange soda and turned to preview her glass curio cabinet, imagining the exact spot where Betty Jo would go. She felt girlish, excited, and swirled her finger in the air like a witch from one of her worn-out VHS tapes, as if she were casting a spell. She was casting a spell of sorts, hoping in her heart this doll would soon be hers, finally, after all her previous failed attempts had left her empty and dispirited.
That was all behind her now. This doll was destined to be hers. Betty Jo would soon be home with Weezie and amongst her newfound friends in the cabinet.
“There,” she said and giggled at the sound of her own voice. And with that, she was decided. Betty Jo would go between Tibby, her pioneer doll, and Renee, her doll from Jamaica. Weezie was giddy and bounced in her chair, excited by her plan.
“What’re you doing up there?” she heard Mama yell. “You stop shaking the damn house!”
Weezie stopped bouncing. She hated getting Mama’s attention. Mama would be furious if she knew about Betty Jo, especially if she found out about all the money. Mama only cared about money, and she’d start cashing Weezie’s checks again if she ever found out what she’d done.
She closed her eyes and turned to face the screen, making one last, silent plea to Jesus. She opened them and stared. She smiled wide, cracking the dry layers of foundation that circled her mouth. Dense flakes tumbled onto her keyboard, adding to the already accumulating pile on her messy desk. She ignored it—this was a time for celebration. Weezie’d won the auction, and Betty Jo was all hers!
She bit her lip. More make-up tumbled onto the desk.
The wait for Betty Jo was agonizing. Weezie paced the attic and fretted as the days passed. She also feared Mama would retrieve the doll from the mailbox before she could get to her. Although she rarely left the house—the idea of walking outside terrified her, the idea of DOGS terrified her—Weezie crept out early in the afternoons, eyes on the sidewalk, and underneath the cloak of a heavy, black umbrella to check the box. But Betty Jo never came.
After two weeks, Weezie contacted the seller, who emailed her back, agreeing to discuss what the hold-up was.
“Honey, I’m 83 years old,” the seller told her. “I’m not going out in all this.”
“What do you mean? Please mail her. Oh, please mail her now,” Weezie pleaded. She’d won the auction. Betty Jo belonged to her! Why wouldn’t this woman send her? Weezie didn’t understand.
“Honey, please calm down. As soon as this disease—or whatever it is—passes through, I’ll be sure to get down to the post office and send you out your doll.”
Weezie was confused. She didn’t know anything about a disease. Mama’d never told her.
“You just have to be patient, honey. I’m sure this will all blow over in a couple of weeks.”
Weezie had always been drawn to the beauty of dolls, so perfect in their own ways, with cherubic smiles eternal and frozen stares that could never look away—no matter the human frailty they observed. The dolls sent her to a fantastical place of imagination, far removed from the realities of her own scarred face and tiny existence here, with Mama, on 145 Broadhurst.
Even now, years after the accident, she lived out of her childhood bedroom, the same sunken mattress, the same pockmarked ceiling. With a tattered and sun-bleached Debbie Gibson loosely hanging off the peeling carnation wall, her drab room largely limped, unaltered, through the decades.
One change, however, that brought Weezie great satisfaction, was her growing collection of dolls, all viewing her from behind the glass of her newly purchased curio cabinet. The tiny sentinels watched over her, and she felt further protected from the outside world, and even from Mama, who, now, with her gout and abundant heft, could no longer safely navigate the eight steps up to her room.
“Treacherous,” Mama’d said at last. She spat and pointed up at Weezie’s bedroom like she was identifying a heretic in a tree. “Treacherous.”
Weezie hadn’t known if Mama meant the steps or else Weezie herself. She didn’t know what treacherous meant—she was too terrified to say anything at all.
But Mama never came back to her room again.
It had been three weeks since she’d talked to the seller, and still no Betty Jo. Every time she glanced at the empty space in her cabinet, her heart dropped. Where was she? Would Betty Jo ever come?
She asked Mama about the disease. All Mama did most days was watch TV. Surely, she would know.
“Huh? Why you caring about all that now? You just go back up to your room and stare at those dolls. That disease don’t mean nothing to you.”
Mama plunged her heavy hand deep into a canister of cheese-balls, pulled out a fistful, and dumped them, like a dusty cascade, into her waiting and cavernous mouth, a virtual Grand Canyon of unfulfilled wants. A bright orange ringlet shone around the collar of her housedress in lieu of a pearl necklace or an 18-carat choker—this was, after all, the closest Mama would ever get to such refinery. Any youthful vanity she’d once possessed was now long abandoned, like an empty beer can, to the landfill of time.
“And wipe all that fucking shit off, too,” Mama said. “You starting to look like a real freak, Weeze.”
Oh, how the back of Weezie’s neck steamed. She hated no-no words. And Mama used them all the time.
She stomped up to her room, foot after foot, to finalize what would normally be an unthinkable plan, a plan to free Betty Jo. She’d been collecting information, going to websites Mama would never have approved of, writing down the steps, and reading them over and over again. It was difficult for her to memorize things, important details were like butterflies to Weezie, flittering in the wind. But this plan was simple, and even though Weezie hated lying, she knew Mama’d never find out about it—not ever.
She awoke at 4 A.M., knowing Mama would sleep for another six-to-eight hours. There was plenty of time to find Betty Jo and get her home without Mama ever noticing. She snuck out the back of the house with her umbrella, and everything was dark and wet. Rain poured heavily from the sky. A splash accompanied each of her steps. And water quickly soaked through her thin, canvas shoes. It slowed her down, and she could even feel make-up running down her neck. It was like the whole world was melting around her.
Weezie stopped on the sidewalk. She was losing her nerve already, fearing all the horrible things Mama would do if she caught her—but she reminded herself, this was for Betty Jo. She had to find her, no matter her fears, the rain, or even Mama. She had to push on nevertheless.
She made it to Druid Hill Avenue and hailed a cab. The driver didn’t speak the entire ride, but Weezie noticed he kept glancing at her through the rearview mirror; his eyes were wide and searching.
Weezie thought she looked beautiful.
The ticket man at the bus depot told Weezie the trip from Baltimore to Bethesda usually took an hour and a half, but with the disease spreading, the travel time had doubled. Buses had to go slower now, he told her; drivers had to watch out for all the abandoned cars sitting on I-95. Folks were dying just like that, in the middle of the road, slumped over their steering wheels, all going out to grab one last penny for their families.
“A damn shame,” the ticket man said from behind his glass shield. He shook his head and bent over to take a bite out of a large bagel sandwich. He chewed and punched a button, and Weezie’s tickets dropped into the tray.
She grabbed them and stuffed them into her pocket.
The seller lived in a white house on the edge of a golf course. It was an idyllic place, lush and green, with gorgeous, pruned hedges and tall trees. It was a perfect place for dolls to live. Even in the morning rain, it was beaming and verdant. It reminded Weezie of the garden from Alice in Wonderland. She’d watched the movie hundreds of times by now; it was one of her favorites. As she approached the house, she imagined cartoon flowers sprouting in the bushes, spouting out joyful songs to her, serenading her as she took her final steps to free Betty Jo. Oh, how Weezie loved her colorful imaginings—they always made her feel hopeful and filled her heart with glee. She became giddy and skipped buoyantly down the seller’s wet sidewalk and up to her door.
Weezie twirled her umbrella in the air like she was some sort of molting Mary Poppins and knocked excitedly.
“Yes?” the seller said through the door. She opened it and stared at Weezie, wildly, through the glass of the outer storm door. “Can-can I help you?”
“It’s me! Weezie!” she smiled wide. She could feel the tightness of the make-up pulling against her cheeks. She hadn’t yet noticed all the specks of foundation that had landed on her jacket, the milky particles in relief of the dark fabric. It was a bright galaxy of sheer madness.
“What?” the seller stammered.
Weezie watched her grip the doorknob tighter.
“Weezie. I bought your doll!”
The seller continued to stare—she was tracing the contours of Weezie’s oddly shaped face.
“Oh-wait. Yes,” the seller said. She laughed and brought a hand to her chest, visibly relieved. “The doll.”
“I would like her now, please,” Weezie said. She extended the palm of her hand like a trick-or-treater’s.
The seller shook her finger at the glass.
“Hold on. Hold on,” she said. She disappeared into the house.
Weezie raised her head, trying to peek inside.
The seller returned swiftly, holding a small, taped box.
“Now honey, I need you to stand back. I will sit your doll outside the door, and then you can take her. OK?”
Weezie nodded emphatically. She took a big step backwards and flung her open umbrella onto the porch. She balled her fists in anticipation, thumping her knuckles against her legs. She jittered with excitement.
The seller cracked the door open and placed the box on the doormat. Then she slammed the door shut tight and waited behind the glass.
Weezie dove for the box, tore at the tape, and peeled open the cardboard. She sat on the woman’s doormat, her legs sprawled as she forcibly pulled Betty Jo from the hole she’d made.
The seller stared down at Weezie.
Weezie foisted Betty Jo into the air as though she were a newborn baby just freed from a suffocating birth canal.
Betty Jo was finally free!
“Honey, do you need me to call someone to come get you?” the seller asked.
It stopped raining.
Later, back on the bus, a girl got on at Elkridge and plopped down in the empty seat beside Weezie. Weezie ignored the girl at first. She was contentedly snuggling with Betty Jo, her head resting against the window as provincial Maryland flew by them. She had Betty Jo tucked up inside her jacket, close to her heart, where it was warm and dry. Weezie would’ve fallen asleep too, if she hadn’t been so hungry. She’d forgotten to bring any food along with her, and so now her stomach was beginning to ache and growl audibly. It was hours before they would be back in Baltimore, and Weezie didn’t know what to do.
Then she smelled the girl’s French fries. It was an aroma with which she was quite familiar, the greasy warmth of it radiating both feelings of comfort and satisfaction.
Weezie remembered Mama taking her to McDonald’s after her stay in the hospital, letting her have all the French fries she wanted—even letting her dip her fries in the McNugget sauce instead of ketchup. Mama had been so happy then, telling her how proud she was of her, telling her how they were both now set for life. Mama’d hugged Weezie tightly in the booth and helped her wipe the gooey sauce off the bandages that lined her face.
Weezie’d never seen Mama that happy again.
She peeled her face off the glass, leaving behind an orange, gummy imprint. She glanced over to investigate the girl. The girl wore a paper mask, covering her nose and mouth. Her head was tilted backward, her eyes closed. Weezie thought the girl was asleep. In her lap was a barely touched carton of French fries, just sitting there, growing cold.
Weezie told herself the girl was probably going to waste them, throw them away at the next stop. People were always throwing away perfectly good things. The girl couldn’t eat French fries through a mask anyway. It was so silly! She convinced herself it wouldn’t be a big deal if she had a couple of them—the girl wouldn’t even notice.
She reached her hand towards the girl’s lap, slowly, furtively, and plucked three large fries from the pile. She quickly smushed the fries into her mouth. She tasted the warmth of them, their saltiness, but she also tasted the make-up, a viscid chemical flavor, plastic-like and bitter. It overtook the flavor of the fries, and Weezie made a yucky face, knowing that what she just ate was probably poison.
Then she looked up, and the girl was staring at her. The girl’s eyes bulged over her mask, and Weezie could tell that even though it was hidden, the girl’s mouth was wide open too. The girl shoved the rest of the fries onto Weezie’s lap, a few of them falling on the floor. The girl stood up and rushed towards the front of the bus. Weezie grabbed more fries and stuffed them into her mouth, greedily, handful after handful. She thought the girl moved to another seat, but when she looked up, she saw the girl pointing at her and talking to the bus driver.
Weezie froze in horror.
The bus slowed down and then stopped on the side of the road. The driver stood up and started moving towards Weezie. Weezie grabbed Betty Jo tightly and let the rest of the fries tumble to her feet.
“Ma’am—Ma’am, what do you think you’re doing?” the driver said. “You must be out of your mind stealing a little girl’s food with this shit going around. You could catch it; she could catch it from your irresponsibility.”
Weezie cowered deep in her seat. The driver sounded like Mama when she was mad, hollering and spitting. Weezie was terrified.
She looked over her shoulder at the back exit and with Betty Jo in tow, Weezie ran out the back of the bus with the driver yelling after her.
“You can’t mess with this shit, Ma’am. It’s gonna kill us all by the looks of it! You hear me?”
Weezie hid in some sticker bushes until the driver got back inside, and the bus pulled away.
Weezie walked for an hour after that, until she came across a small municipal park with a few benches. Though many houses were nearby, no one was outside. She was so tired, exhausted really. Her head felt heavy and started to ache. With Betty Jo in the crook of her arm, she rubbed at her temples. It must be from getting up so early, she thought. She needed to lie down, not for long, just a little bit. Then she would think of a way back to Baltimore. She curled up on one of the benches, holding onto Betty Jo tightly. She fell asleep immediately.
“We got another one over here,” Weezie heard a man say.
She clutched at Betty Jo as men in plastic hoisted her, squirming, onto the gurney. She hadn’t seen the insides of an ambulance since the accident, but it all came rushing back to her now: the brightness, the sterile white of the vehicle’s insides, even all her own futile crying and twisting against inevitability. Weezie knew this must be the last thing some people saw, this orchestrated blankness, a pause, and then nothing. She held Betty Jo close to her chest, tight as she could, even though the pressure, waning as it was—she was growing weaker—seemed to hurt her deeply, a pain going past her chest, her heart, her lungs, her spine. She felt like she was dying.
Days later, Weezie awoke. It was a slow process, her thoughts addled, her mind hazily accepting her new reality. She was enclosed inside a plastic bubble, hooked up to many tubes and monitors, a rubber mask stamped to her face. The straps hurt, digging deep into her scalp and neck, but she didn’t have the strength to rip them off; they were as much a part of her now as her second skin was.
Before she tumbled back under the ether, she spied Betty Jo again, ever the vigilant sentry, protecting her from afar, beneath her own sheath of plastic, smile unabated. She was perched on a nearby chair.
The bag in which Betty Jo was enclosed, read, in bold crimson letters: BIOHAZARD.
Weezie didn’t know any better, hoping it meant a good thing, believing Betty Jo would be safe now. She was lulled back to drowsiness by the drugs and the gentle pumping of the machines. She smiled and closed her eyes, thinking good thoughts about Betty Jo, imagining her again in her special spot inside the curio cabinet, a place where she would always be secure, safe, and happy.
— A recent MFA graduate, S.H. Woodgeard teaches and writes out of Columbus, Ohio.