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Secret Pal

by Barbara Stanley

Abra los ojos.” Soft squeaky voice, like a far-off dream.

My lids fluttered but did not open. It was sometime Saturday morning, and I wanted to sleep in.

Abra los ojos!” A tiny shriek now, muffled.

I opened my eyes and stretched. Bright sunlight poured into my bedroom, highlighting the torrent of dust motes stirred by my movement. Except for the dust and the birds chirring outside my apartment window, I was alone.

Puta. I know you’re awake.”

That got my attention. My Spanish might be limited, but I knew when I was being called a whore. I opened my eyes again, and glanced at the clock. Hm. Eight-thirty a.m. and someone was dissing me already.

“Who’s there?” My tongue felt shriveled, and my breath reeked of the tequila shots I’d done last night. I heard my boyfriend Gabe down the hall, cursing and fumbling with something in the bathroom. Had he slept over last night? I couldn’t remember. “Who’s talking?” I tried again.


It couldn’t be the kids downstairs. Luis and Angel had booming voices but spoke Spanish only to the grandparents. Besides, they liked me, and their parents didn’t teach them to talk trash about the neighbors.

I stretched forward to listen. A scrabbling sound came from inside my nightstand. Great. Disembodied voices and bugs in my drawer. I should have rented that duplex downtown.

I pulled open the drawer, half-expecting a giant cockroach to leap out and attack me. Instead, I saw my normal jumble of birth-control pills, red-hots, and rolling papers, plus a heart-shaped birthday card from my Mom, sent last month, crammed in a corner.

And something else.

A tiny oval box, quivering.

I slammed the drawer shut, and immediately the voice started yelling again. “That’s right, you got it. Open up.”

This couldn’t be happening. This must be a dream. I scanned the room, taking in the ancient dresser, frayed silk curtains, patchwork quilt on the bed and clothes strewn on the floor. My room, all right. The sleep-creased face in the mirror, with complementary matted hair — also a familiar sight. This was too ordinary to be a dream, and I was too hung over to be scared.

I opened the drawer.

Scratching came from inside the little box. This was my worry box, a birthday gift from my roommate and best friend, Lisa. Inside were tiny dolls fashioned from yarn, bits of cloth, and wire — Guatemalan worry dolls, they were called. Legend had it that children told one worry to each doll, and then put the dolls under the pillow at bedtime. In the morning the worries would be gone, taken away by the dolls.

I didn’t know about that, but I did remember Lisa making off with the tiniest doll, one that looked like a Guatemalan Elvis Presley. Now the box was rumbling as though something living was inside.

“Let me out, honey,” the voice said, more reasonable this time. The box lid shifted.

I gently pulled the top all the way off. Inside was a jumble of match-sized bodies, all piled together except for one, the inch-high chica with orange yarn top, turquoise skirt, and pink smear of a mouth. She clambered up and hung on to the edge of the box with her wire arms. I shrieked and dropped the box, scattering the other bodies into the drawer.

“Crybaby,” she said. “You afraid of a little doll, hah?” She cackled a tiny witch’s laugh.

“Wha...” My brain/mouth connection was down. I pinched my arm, hard, till it hurt. Yep, I was really awake.

“Listen, I can’t take this no more.” Her blurry face looked up at me. It was hard to tell where her brown hair left off and her eyes began. Her creator had been sloppy.

“All day, the talking in here. Over and over — and still nothing gets done.” Her screeches were giving me a headache.

“What are you talking about? What the hell is going on?” At last I could speak, even if it was only in clichés.

“You know what I’m talking about,” Inch Girl said. “I know what you did that night. Don’t you remember? You told me when you were drunk. You and your man’s best friend. How could you do it?” She spat, but nothing came out.


“Sleeping around!” she shouted.” You got a good man. Why you do him like that?”

This was actually worse than a nightmare. The truth usually is, I’ve discovered. “Hey, it only happened once.” I couldn’t believe I was defending myself to a doll.

“Your man needs to know.” She waved a tiny arm. “And I am going to tell him!” She ended in a triumphant laugh.

Oh yeah? I flicked the box with my finger, scattering the dolls further, and picked up the talking one.

“You one-inch bitch,” I yelled, “I’m gonna — oww!

Her wire arms and legs had embedded themselves in my thumb. The pain was incredible. Already, my thumb was beginning to swell.

I waved Inch Girl around like a castanet, stomping and swearing, trying to pry her out of my skin. But each tug brought fresh pain.

“Gabe — Lisa — help!” I did a mad dance now, jumping around the room, arms flailing.

I heard footsteps, and then Gabe and Lisa stood huddled together in my doorway, watching me — Gabe in his briefs, Lisa in a skimpy tee—

Huddled way too close together.

I stopped jumping around and faced them, holding my injured thumb. Inch Girl began to laugh.

“I’ve got something to tell you,” I said.

“Yeah,” Gabe said, twining his right arm through Lisa’s. She cradled his left hand gently — probably because the Elvis Presley doll was embedded into Gabe’s swollen thumb.

Gabe cleared his throat, then looked down at his feet.

Lisa pulled him closer and stared me down.

“We’ve got something to tell you, too,” Gabe said.

Copyright © 2012 by Barbara Stanley

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