Harrison Cohen grunted, twisting and yanking the suitcase he had stuffed into his locker that morning and which now refused to pop out like a groundhog who had seen its shadow. "C'mon, c'mon," he urged it. "If you can go in, you can come out."
Harrison was large for his age, wide-framed and muscular, but brains seemed necessary rather than his natural brawn. Dark eyes narrowed, and his wide lips thinned in thought. The suitcase itself wasn't that big, but a stiff corner had become trapped against the locker door. If he twisted that corner away, the other side became stuck, but maybe if he tried...
"Harrison, what in the world do you have in that thing?" laughed a playful girl's voice behind him.
Harrison barely glanced at his best friend. "Just my number one prop for the talent show, bro."
"I don't think they give prizes for quoting The Muppet Movie backwards and forward."
"Not this year," he replied, "which is why I'm going with my other talent, Jillian." A final twist and the suitcase eased out. He spun to his friend, grinning. "Harrison: one. Locker: zero."
She gave a slow clap, but her green eyes twinkled. Jillian Zinman was the tallest girl in the sixth grade, a little pretty with small features in what her mother called a doll face and long black hair, and she was one of the snarkiest kids at Millwood Middle School. However, Harrison had been friends with her for five years and knew her humor had good intentions behind it. So, at her applause, he took several light bows with one hand on his chest.
"I'd like to thank my mom and my table for always helping me with my burdens," Harrison joked.
Jillian rolled her eyes with a snort and pointed to his suitcase. "You got a Super Soaker in there, pal?"
"Nope," he lilted. "Who's short and has the largest wooden teeth this side of the Mississippi?"
Jillian tapped her light chin, faking a puzzled look. "That narrows it down to either your grandma or your ventriloquist's dummy."
Harrison lifted the suitcase up to shoulder level. "Well, Bubbie didn't want to sit on my lap for a seven-minute skit, so I had to make do with Maxie."
"Shame, I would've paid good money to see Bubbie Cohen tell knock-knock jokes while you try not to move your lips." However, despite the playful smirk she gave him, Jillian's round eyes briefly narrowed in a look Harrison recognized as unease.
He quickly moved the suitcase behind his wide back. "Hey, if Maxie bothers you - "
"Naw, it's cool," she assured him, holding up her hands. "I always liked Maxie."
Harrison studied her face, which seemed a tiny bit paler. "You sure?"
She nodded, thinning her tiny mouth. "A lifeless dummy is always the best kind."
He didn't need to ask her what she meant.
They walked down the hall, following the flow of kids heading toward the entrance or after-school activities. Harrison kept his suitcase in the hand opposite to Jillian. He stole a glance at his friend as they turned left at the cafeteria doors. She wore a nice-looking red shirt dotted with tiny blue flowers, and her long ponytail had been thrown in front of her chest to make room for her blue bookbag. She gripped the pack's straps as she walked, but Harrison didn't think it was the weight of her homework that made her shoulders slump.
Maxie ain't the only dummy here, he inwardly sighed. He hadn't told Jillian much about his talent-show act since he signed up two weeks prior, but maybe he ought to have tried something else entirely, even if he did enjoy puppetry. Truth was, last autumn Jillian had no problem with Maxie at all. The bucktoothed dummy used to belong to Harrison's uncle, and he and Jillian had planned a whole skit to perform at a six-year-old's birthday party. Jillian had operated Maxie and came up with funny jokes for him to say while Harrison used a girl doll which had belonged to her little sisters. Then the day of party had arrived, and the unthinkable had happened to Jillian.
Harrison moved closer to his buddy. "Do you wanna hang out at my house later?" he asked. "I have time after talent-show rehearsal."
She shook her head. "Can't. Gotta watch the twins this afternoon."
"Want me to swing by your place then?"
"If you don't got too much homework."
"Homework is for the weak," he quipped.
She smiled a little, looking almost normal again. "So, what's your act with Maxie about?"
"A few ideas I've been wanting to do for a while," he said. "I got some great jokes for a dummy."
"Sure, but which dummy?"
Harrison pulled on her red scrunchie, causing her ponytail to loosen. "They got all kinds of awards in the talent show. I think I could get Most Unique," he said with a hopeful grin. "Everybody always plays the piano or sings a song, but who else is going to walk in with a ventriloquist's act?"
Jillian smirked. "Got me there," she said. "A kid who plays with dolls for seven minutes can't be afraid of anything."
"Hey, cheap shot!" he retorted, but privately he thought he might borrow that joke for his act.
Jillian walked with him right to the door of the auditorium. Harrison held out his fist. "Wish me luck."
She bumped his knuckles. "Luck." To his surprise, she then reached for the suitcase and made him hold it horizontal in front of her. She opened the locks and lifted the lid.
Maxie smiled at them between his ankles. Harrison had folded up his legs to fit him better inside the container. He had large protruding teeth and hazel eyes. Harrison had updated his costume from the striped suit he had worn to jeans and a maroon T-shirt which his mother had altered to fit the hole on the dummy's back.
"Hey, Maxie." Jillian patted his brown head. "If you are alive and if you turn out to be evil too, my dad has a table saw in our basement with your name on it." She closed the case again for Harrison and gave him a thumbs up. "Break a leg, buddy."
Kids from all three grades filled up the first few rows, and more were still arriving. Harrison scanned the auditorium, waving to the guys he recognized as he made his way down the main aisle. A few six-grade boys used their forearm like swords and pretended to fence, but one of the teachers supervising crossed over to end their impromptu match. Some seventh- and eighth-grade girls congregated on one side, gossiping and craning their heads to look at the older boys on the opposite end before whirling back around to giggle together.
Harrison had his eye on a seat near a few of his classmates where he could stow Maxie's case, but he happened to look toward his right - and he immediately halted. A tan girl with a short, black ponytail and a blue-and-white shirt lounged in the aisle seat of the third row, and she had her arms wrapped around a brown-haired ventriloquist's dummy in a green turtleneck.
So much for winning Most Unique, he thought, feeling his pride get knocked down a peg.
The mystery girl faced front, but her dummy sat sideways on her lap, facing the aisle. His fair face had faded paint, and one eye was completely white, but his good eye looked friendly. He swayed and moved his mouth, murmuring something, and the girl nodded back, obviously rehearsing.
On a sudden impulse, Harrison sank into a chair two rows behind the girl. Maybe he would take a few seconds to check out his competition.
The girl had given the dummy a high, shrill voice, and she made him hum as he swayed in and out of Harrison's view. The voice convincingly seemed to come from the puppet. "Rubber ducky, you're the one. You make bath time lots of fun. Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of you..."
The girl gave a soft shhh. "Not so loud, Dennis."
The dummy stopped swaying and leaned back to look at his companion. "Why not?"
"Because people will think it's weird that you're a better singer than me," she replied.
Harrison cracked a small smile in spite of himself.
Dennis laid his wooden head on her shoulder, like a little kid leaning against a favorite grownup. "But I like the way you sing, Amy."
"Yeah right. I'm completely tone deaf," she answered. "Even the cat sings better than me."
Dennis giggled. "What do cats sing about?"
"Their scales and arpeggios?" Amy joked back.
She's good, Harrison thought. Dennis's mouth moved perfectly in time with his words. Although Harrison couldn't see Amy's face, she seemed relaxed and in her element. Still, it's cool to find another kid who likes ventriloquism. And she's a girl to boot.
He laid Maxie's case on the floor. He unzipped his backpack and retrieved the notebook he had used for his script. With a worthy opponent like Amy, maybe he should tweak the act a little before he went up to perform.
Mrs. Philips the drama teacher and her assistants called for everyone to settle down.
"In previous years, we've arranged the talent acts by grade, but this year we're doing things a little differently," Mrs. Philips began. "I'm going to call you up alphabetically by your first names today, but it won't be permanent. We are going to arrange your acts to give the best flow during the show. So, instead of having five piano solos in a row like last year, we will mix it up with the poetry readings and drama skits and so on. Got it?"
Everyone chorused that they did.
"Alright, everyone will enter stage right and exit stage left on the big night, so when I call your name, please come in that way." She looked at her clipboard and called, "Amy Kramer! You're up!"
"Okay, Dennis," she whispered to her dummy, stowing him into his case. She carefully carried him up the left-hand steps, and a stage hand hauled over a chair for her to use. Amy adjusted the microphone and smiled at the audience.
"Last spring, my family adopted my little brother, Dennis," she began. "Would you like to meet him?"
"Sure!" one of the teachers called to her.
"Okay," she replied. "But if my parents ask, no, I didn't lock him in a suitcase."
Harrison chuckled at her joke. Now that he got a good look at her, she had a sorta interesting oval face and a friendly smile.
Amy opened her case and positioned her puppet on her lap. Dennis shook his shoulders as Amy slipped her hand into his back, and he looked from her to the audience like a puppy who wanted to greet everyone at once.
"Hey, bro," Amy said.
"Hey, sis!" he replied in a shrill, gleeful voice. "Thanks for the glow-in-the-dark stickers in my Happy Travel Case."
Amy pressed her free index finger to her lips. "Shh! Ix-nay on the Appy Travel Case-hay."
"Oh, right!" Dennis nodded, dropping his voice to a stage whisper. He leaned closer to her. "You know, Mom and Dad wouldn't keep grounding you if you gave me some air holes."
Harrison leaned on the seat in front of him, resting his head on his palm. While it wasn't the best joke, Amy made Dennis seem animated. She looked comfortable with him, like they were actual friends.
"So, you've been my brother for about a year now, Dennis," Amy continued. "How do you like living with us?"
"It's great! I got a mom, a dad, two sisters, and one brother. But I have a question."
"Why do you and Sara get your own rooms, and I have to share with Jed?"
Amy shook her finger gently at him. "Dennis, you know we only have four bedrooms altogether."
"But why can't you girls share a room and I get my own?"
Amy raised her eyebrows in a theatrically quizzical way. "Don't you like living with your big brother?"
Dennis stared at her, his head movements making him seem suddenly serious. "Have you seen what Jed has done to our room? When Mom told him to clean up last week, he stuffed everything into the closet. I tried to grab my jacket and almost got crushed in an avalanche. They had to send a St. Bernard to rescue me!"
Harrison burst out laughing, and a few other kids chuckled. It might not have been a great gag on its own, but the way Amy had Dennis deliver it - the inflection, the facial movements, having Dennis drop his upper body backwards to mime being in an avalanche - made it work.
Dennis perked up at the laughter; he swiveled his head to search eagerly for his approving audience. Harrison had never seen a puppet wear a more pleased expression. "And let me tell ya," he piped, "if I had been buried in real snow, at least it wouldn't smell like gym socks!" Amy made the shrill voice do a convincing yodel. "Yodel-le-hee-hoo! - Augh! Calvin Klein!"
Harrison laughed harder, and even a few of the teachers applauded.
Dennis's eyebrows shot up as high as they could go, and he jiggled happily on his "sister's" lap. "They like me, Amy! They really like me!" he squealed.
"Great job, bro!" Amy beamed, using her free hand to ruffle his hair affectionately.
Amy's routine continued with the girl asking questions about their home life, and Dennis shared his observations. When she finished, she stood, and they bowed together. Harrison applauded hard for them, and they exited stage left.
Tough act to follow, he thought with a half smile. Amy hadn't moved her lips once, and Dennis had such a distinct personality, even if he wasn't a smart alec like other dummy characters. Well, that just means I have to bring my A game, he decided.
Anna Pryde, Benjamin Zimmerman, and Briana Watts followed, and finally the H's had their turn. "Harrison Cohen!"
He took a deep breath, butterflies tickling his belly, and he hefted the case to the front. A stagehand offered him a chair, but Harrison motioned for the podium instead.
Once he had his bucktoothed buddy situated properly and fixed the mic, he started. "Hey, Maxie."
"Hey, Harrison," he made Maxie reply, giving him a voice closer to Goofy.
"How are you?"
Maxie snorted. "I should be asking YOU that. Please tell me you've been working out or something." Harrison had practiced for months to make the B sound by retraining his tongue to move differently when he made a D sound, and he was glad it worked excellently at this crucial time.
Harrison shrugged at his puppet. "I started taking karate classes. Why?"
"Because if a six grader thinks he can win a talent show by standing on stage for seven minutes and playing with his dolls, he'd better have a black belt!"
Several kids laughed, mostly guys.
Harrison frowned theatrically. "That's not fair, Maxie."
"C'mon, I'm three feet tall, and even I want to beat you up."
"Our school has a zero-tolerance policy on bullies. You'd get expelled."
Maxie blinked in surprise. "You mean, if I punch you, I wouldn't come to school anymore?"
Maxie leaned forward. "Brace yourself, nerd," he growled.
Harrison made a show of struggling with Maxie. "Hey, I know how to deal with your type, dummy!" he said. Harrison removed his hand from Maxie's back and let the puppet fall onto the podium. Then he took five large steps away.
"Harrison!" Maxie squawked. Harrison thought he did a good job throwing his voice. "Harrison! Come back!"
"Nope!" the boy said, shoving his hands into his pockets. He rocked back and forth on his sneakers.
"Harrison! If you don't pick me up, this act will never end, and I'll miss the new episode of The Simpsons!"
"Don't have a cow, man."
Some kids laughed at that. Harrison finally picked up Maxie again, and the rest of the act was pretty straight forward. When he finished, he bowed, and many of the students gave him applause.
"Thank you, Harrison," Mrs. Philips said from the front row. She didn't sound entertained.
Harrison scooped up Maxie and his case, and he hurried off the stage. He passed Amy on the way to his seat, and she gave him a smile and a nod of approval.
"...So, can you rework your routine into something more suitable by the next rehearsal? We don't want to make light of bullying," Mrs. Philips finished. The Anderson twins, Zach and Zelda, had completed their piano duet, and Mrs. Philips pulled Harrison aside while her assistants gave final instructions to the rest of the performers. "Do you understand?"
Harrison nodded, slumping. "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Philips let him return to his seat as the other kids were dismissed. Maxie sat in the chair where Harrison had left him. Seeing Amy continue to rehearse with Dennis inspired him to keep practicing while the other acts went on.
Harrison lifted his dummy and made Maxie say, "Well, I liked our act."
"Thanks, man," he replied, bumped fists with the dummy and stowed his puppet away.
Just as he clicked the fastenings in place, a girl called to him. "Hey, Harrison!"
Harrison's dark eyes bulged as Amy Kramer approached him. She carried Dennis with his legs draped over one arm and held his case in the hand which wasn't buried in his back.
Harrison straightened to his full height, grabbing Maxie's suitcase. As Amy drew closer, her tan face broke into a sunny smile which made Harrison's stomach flip flop. He self-consciously ran a hand through his dark brown hair. "Hey."
Amy stopped beside him, turning her dummy's head so that Dennis looked at him as well. "You were awesome!"
"You did great!" Dennis chirped.
Harrison grinned. "So were you. I didn't see your lips move at all."
Amy shrugged. "You're much better at throwing your voice."
"Thanks, it took me months to get it right." He noticed she had green eyes, but instead of light green like Jillian's, they were a nice dark shade. "I like the character you made for Dennis."
"Thanks," piped the dummy, seeming to study him with his good eye.
A bunch of kids started moving up the aisle, heading toward the exit, and the lights around the stage started to flick off. Harrison lugged his backpack onto his shoulders and then noticed Amy didn't have one.
"Do you need to swing by your locker?" he asked, patting his burden and pointing to her.
"Oh, my mom took my bookbag home for me when she came by to drop off Dennis," Amy explained. "Dennis didn't want to hang out in my locker all day."
"So boring," the dummy nodded.
Harrison and Amy fell in step with their peers. Harrison expected Amy to split, but she kept beside him as they stepped through the halls. The case slapped against her as she walked, but she didn't stop to put Dennis back inside.
Harrison rolled his shoulders a little. "What class are you in?"
"Mrs. Bairnsfather," she replied.
"You're in seventh then," he noted. "I'm in sixth."
"I know. You said it in your act."
"So I did," Harrison laughed, inwardly feeling silly.
However, Amy continued to smile. "I did a show with Dennis last year, but I didn't win anything. I wish I had had your act."
"I wish I had it too, but Mrs. Philips says I gotta change it," he sighed.
Amy frowned. "That's not fair. I thought it rocked."
"Me too!" said Dennis.
Harrison laughed. "You're really good at that!"
The entrance of the school loomed closer, and Harrison hurried forward to hold open the door for Amy. She grinned her thanks, and Harrison gave her a silly smile in response.
"So…" he started
"So…" Amy echoed, adjusting her hold on Dennis's case.
"Do you live nearby?" he asked, rubbing his neck.
Amy nodded. She gestured toward their right. "I live about five blocks from the Dairy Queen on Forest Drive."
Harrison straightened. "Hey, I live near there!" he said enthusiastically. "On Maple Avenue."
"Tuttle Road," replied Amy, grinning.
Not too far from his house, Harrison noted, conjuring up a mental map of his neighborhood. "Wow, it's crazy that I haven't seen you around before."
Amy shrugged. "We used to live over on the other side of town, but my family needed a new house."
Amy turned away. "Reasons," she said vaguely. She started trekking toward the sidewalk at the end of the school's property. Dennis leaned against her, bumping his head on her shoulder as if comforting her.
Harrison fell in line beside her, wishing he hadn't said anything. "Can I carry your case for you?" he asked quickly.
Amy slowed a little. "Sure, if you want." She handed it to him, and her green eyes cleared a little. "I like to walk with Dennis to practice with his controls while I talk," she explained.
"I should try that with Maxie sometime," Harrison said. "How long have you had Dennis?"
"I found Maxie in my uncle's attic last September," he said. "Uncle Joe was a big fan of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy when he was a kid. So, Maxie is pretty old."
Amy blinked. "Who's Bergen and Charlie What's-Its?"
"Have you ever seen The Muppet Movie?"
"Yeah, but we only rented it from Blockbuster a few years ago."
"You know the part where they meet Miss Piggy at the beauty pageant?" Harrison asked. At Amy's nod, he continued, "The dummy who judged the pageant was Charlie McCarthy, and the ventriloquist was Edgar Bergen. He was one of Jim Henson's inspirations."
Amy beamed. "I wondered why that dummy was there. So, what you're saying is without dummies, there might never have been any Muppets."
"Or Sesame Street," chimed in Dennis, who looked interested in their discussion.
"Makes you think, don't it?" Harrison grinned.
They talked the whole way to Maple Avenue. Harrison learned that Amy enjoyed both Bob Marley and The Beatles. (Harrison resolved to check his parents' record collection for both.) She also liked a whole range of video games, including Battle Chess (although she claimed her younger brother, Jed, always creamed her). She often used Dennis to put on shows to entertain her little cousins, and she had even gotten a few jobs thanks to her best friend, Margo, and her dad, who ran a business called The Party House.
"Hey, my cousin had his bar mitzvah there!" Harrison said brightly.
"Then if you saw a tiny girl bagging the trash afterward, that was Margo," Amy replied.
"I'm turning thirteen in a few months. Maybe I can have mine there too," he suggested.
"I'll introduce you to Margo sometime."
All too soon, they reached the edge of the stepping stones leading to Harrison's front porch. Harrison pointed. "That's me."
"I thought that was a house," Amy teased.
"Fair enough." Harrison fiddled with the case for Dennis. "I could walk you - uh, carry your case the rest of the way to your house." He shrugged. "If you want to keep practicing walking with Dennis."
Amy opened her mouth to reply, but Dennis turned his head toward her. "I don't mind if you don't, sis."
Amy shot her dummy a look that made Harrison snicker, and she smiled at her human companion. "Sure, let's go."
Harrison deposited his backpack and Maxie inside his house, and he continued with Amy, a wide grin cutting his face.
Down the street, three dots played on their front lawn and steadily grew bigger as Harrison and Amy approached. Jillian made good use of the spring weather with her twin six-year-old sisters. With her back toward her schoolmates, Jillian tossed a soft red ball back and forth with Katie while Amanda sat cross-legged on the grass making daisy chains.
Amanda looked up at the newcomers neared, and she waved. "Hi, Harrison!"
Her greeting must have caught Jillian off guard because she twisted as Katie pitched the ball at her, and she missed the easy catch. Katie giggled, and Jillian rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay, you get a point. Don't gloat."
Jillian then turned to address her friend, but she stopped as she saw he wasn't alone.
Harrison waved toward his ventriloquist companion. "Hey, Jillian! This is - "
"Amy Kramer," Jillian said promptly, coldly. Her green eyes narrowed.
"Yeah," replied Amy, looking taken aback. "Do I know you?"
Jillian's jaw tightened. "Not at all," she spat. For a moment, she raised her hands, like she wanted to slap the older girl, but she then rounded on her sisters. "C'mon, girls, let's go inside for a snack."
Both twins immediately protested.
"But I'm not done!" whined Amanda, holding up her flowers.
"And there's nothing to do inside until the good shows come on!" Katie insisted.
"Now," Jillian insisted, striding for the steps. "Or I'll lock you out of the house before Arthur comes on."
That got the girls running. Without even a goodbye to Harrison, all three sisters filed into the house, and Jillian shut the door as if she were closing it on a slasher in a horror film.
Amy spun to Harrison, looking aghast. "Was it something I said?"
Harrison rolled his shoulders, regarding Dennis who looked so lifelike. If he had to guess, seeing the dummy must've reminded Jillian of another puppet, but he couldn't mention a breath of it to Amy. Even if he had permission to share Jillian's story with a new acquaintance, Amy would think he was insane if he said anything about evil dummies coming to life.
"I'm sure it had nothing to do with you. Specifically," he said and started walking again. His stomach felt queasy. He hadn't seen an expression that hateful, that murderous on Jillian's face since… since…
…Since Slappy had controlled her.
Amy and Dennis watched Harrison saunter down the front walk from the long, thin window beside the door.
"I like him," Dennis beamed. "He's nice."
Amy nodded. "I would've never thought he was a sixth grader," she remarked. When Harrison had walked onstage, Amy had thought he was fourteen from his height and build. Had he been held back a grade? No, he said he would be turning thirteen soon, so he was just huge for his age. He's really kind though, she thought.
She set Dennis on the floor, and her dummy-turned-brother took her hand to keep balance. They strolled together to the kitchen to look for Mom and a snack.
Last spring, Dennis had finally revealed he was alive when he had heroically helped the Kramer family defeat an evil ventriloquist's dummy who wanted to enslave them. After the initial shock wore off, her parents had welcomed him into the brood, letting him call them Mom and Dad.
Although Dennis was an old dummy, he had the heart and mind of a child. Dad reasoned spending his whole life without talking to anyone or being properly cared for had stunted him mentally, so everyone tried to be extra social with him. Although Dennis had made great progress in the past year, he knew what he liked and stuck to it regardless of his age. When the Kramers did their Thursday Family Sharing Nights, Dennis's contributions were often to tell them what he had learned from Sesame Street that day.
Mom must have gone out to do errands, so Amy scavenged them some Little Debbie brownies and two glasses of milk. They sat at the table together, and Dennis slowly ate his treat, savoring each bite. Whatever magic made it possible for his ears to hear and his good eye to see also gave his painted mouth the ability to taste.
"Hey, Amy?" he suddenly said. "Wouldn't it be neat if Maxie was alive too?"
"Only if he was nice like you," she replied, having no intention of seeing history repeat itself. She shifted forward on her chair, lowering herself to meet her foster brother's functioning eye. "I wanted to talk to you about that, actually," she said slowly. "I think we should quit the talent show."
His little eyebrows shot up in alarm. "But why?" he squeaked shrilly. "We did great."
"Yeah, we did," she returned. "Me and a living dummy pretending to do a real ventriloquist act. I was fine when I thought we'd be the only ones doing a puppet show, but Harrison's doing a lot more work." She began to make a list, raising a finger for each item. "He's doing two parts by himself, writing his own material, throwing his voice, and trying not to move his lips. If we won a prize and he didn't, it wouldn't be fair."
"But can't we make it more fair?" Dennis protested. "Maybe you could move your lips when I'm speaking so that Harrison looks better to the judges."
Amy shrugged. "It might work," she agreed, but she still felt the pick on her conscience. "Let's ask Mom and Dad about what we should do."
Dennis nodded. Then he turned his head so that his good eye could see Amy better. "Could we invite Harrison over sometime?" he asked. "If he brought Maxie over, I could sit on your lap and talk to you guys, and he won't find it weird."
She ruffled his artificial hair. "We'll see, buddy," she promised.
Dennis's grin seemed to stretch. "Thanks, sis!"
Dennis no longer had to sit in the chair inside Amy's bedroom playing dead 24/7, but she knew he still got lonely. When everyone was at school or work, he only had George the cat to talk to. Any new social interaction would be like an early Christmas present to him.
She tweaked his faded nose and helped him move his milk glass to where he could suck the straw. "Who knows?" she said as the puppet took a long sip. "Maybe someday we can tell him about you. Hope he doesn't faint at seeing a living dummy."
"Mmm-mmm," Dennis agreed as he slurped.
The twins let Harrison into the house when he knocked, and he found Jillian in the living room on the couch, petting her lizard, Petey. She flinched a little when she saw him, and Harrison could tell she knew why he came back. He sat down beside her, leaning his arms against his lap.
"Do you wanna talk about it?" he asked softly.
Jillian raised her head, clearly looking around for her sisters. The twins had retired back to the den on the opposite side of the house, and the intro song of some Disney film played. Satisfied, Jillian drew back, practically curling herself around her little green lizard.
Harrison waited silently, not rushing her. It was his fault Jillian was like this.
It had all started after a ventriloquist's show at the nearby Little Theater. Harrison had discovered that the performer, Jimmy O'James, had discarded his broken dummy, Slappy, in one of the trash cans. Thrilled at his find, he had ran to Jillian's house to show her his new treasure. Jillian had advised him to try to give it back to the ventriloquist, but instead of listening to her, Harrison had left Slappy at her house for her carpenter father to fix.
Within two weeks, everything changed. Through a misadventure, Jillian and Harrison discovered that Jimmy O'James had skipped town, and in his abandoned diary he claimed Slappy had been created by an evil sorcerer and could come to life if someone spoke a certain magical sentence. Harrison hadn't known if they could totally believe it at the time, but at the birthday party they hosted, they learned just how real it all had been.
Slappy took over their act, replacing Maxie in his suitcase. He vomited on the party guests, took the six-year-old birthday boy hostage, then demanded a bride. Yet Slappy hadn't been looking for a doll: he wanted Jillian Zinman.
Fortunately, before Slappy could succeed in forcing Jillian into a horrible marriage, he had been killed soon after his demand, but - too late - they discovered a worse truth. Slappy couldn't die. His spirit just entered another nearby body, and that body had been Jillian. Thankfully, Jimmy O'James had come back to town, and Harrison convinced him to help free Jillian. Yet even though Slappy had vanished from their lives, Harrison knew the dummy's time inside Jillian still affected her even now.
And he would've never taken over you if I had just listen to you and took the dummy back to the theater, Harrison thought. A hot flood of shame reddened his face and neck as he waited for his silent friend to speak.
Finally, after several more strokes on Petey's back, she breathed, "I recognized her, Harrison."
He nodded, encouraging her to keep going. "From where?"
She gave a hollow scoff. "That's just it. I've never seen her before in my life. But when I looked at her, I felt this rise of anger, and it wasn't my own."
Harrison turned his body to face her. "What do you mean?"
She nuzzled Petey's head, and the lizard bumped his nose against her cheek. "Sometimes… I remember stuff. His stuff." She pushed her black hair away from Petey's claws, but her hand brushed her bangs down, as if she were hiding herself behind them. "Mom made me a ham sandwich the other day," she said. "I took one bite, and suddenly I remembered something that'd happened to Slappy."
Harrison leaned closer. "What was that?"
Jillian pulled a face. "He'd been fighting with a pawnshop owner, trying to enslave the man. The owner grabbed a ham sandwich from his lunchbox and shoved it into Slappy's back and right into his head." She shuddered. "I could feel it happening like it was my own memory. I couldn't finish my sandwich. I felt sick."
Harrison laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, Jillian."
"No, it's not okay." Anger made her voice hoarse. "When I saw Amy Kramer… I knew she was Amy Kramer. And I hated her. Because he hated her."
Harrison widened his eyes. "What?"
Jillian raised her head. "He knew her, Harrison. She used to own Slappy."
"Whoa…" He slumped back against the couch. He whistled. "Small world."
"Too small, if you ask me."
Harrison mulled that over in his mind. It was a lot to take in, but then again he had read the diary Jimmy O'James had left behind. He knew Slappy had been brought to life by an evil sorcerer and that the dummy had gone from person to person over the years. If Jimmy could find Slappy, why couldn't someone else in their city own him? It made sense, statistically speaking.
If Amy used to own Slappy, that means he tried to enslave her too, he realized. If she survived him, that means she probably fought him - and won. Suddenly, he felt a flood of admiration for Amy Kramer, and he wished he could rush back to her house and tell her everything.
But he could only tell his side of the story right then. He peered at Jillian, who cuddled Petey as if she were scared to put him down. Harrison sat up and put his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Maybe it's a good thing we met her," he pointed out. "Think about it. Out of everyone we could meet, we found somebody who knows about Slappy and won't think we're crazy. If Slappy ever did come back - "
"Don't say that," Jillian shivered.
Harrison gave her a tiny shake, a gentle version of when they kidded around. "But if he did, the three of us could be a team and work together to stop him. Safety in numbers. Let's try to get to know her."
Jillian bit her lip, not meeting his eyes. "I don't know if I can," she whispered. "When I saw her, I wanted to strangle her right there. I don't want to feel that again."
Harrison had no response for that. He just gave her another soft shake. He let her collect her thoughts, and at last she gave a long exhale.
"But," she said quietly, "I don't want Slappy to run my life when he's not even here."
He clapped her back. "You go, Jill." He smiled at her, glad to see Jillian's trademark determination again. "I'll talk to her tomorrow if I see her. We can make plans to meet somewhere and tell our stories."
"Yeah," Jillian nodded. She held Petey in front of her face and kissed his nose, looking more like her usual self. "Make new friends, but keep the old," she said, quoting a song she had learned back when she had been in a Brownie troop.
Harrison grinned, getting to his feet with her as she started to head for her room. "Hey, maybe someday I could team up and do a puppet show with Amy and Dennis," he joked. Well, half-joked.
Jillian stopped in the middle of the living-room doorway. She spun toward him. Her eyes narrowed. "Yeah, about that…"
He blinked. "What?"
She met his gaze, and she seemed to be trying to remember something. "I'm pretty sure that dummy she has with her is alive too."
A/N: "A kid who plays with dolls for seven minutes can't be afraid of anything." This was inspired by the line from Firefly about Jayne's hat. "A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything."