“Did you bring it?”
Michael took the handsaw out of his bag and brandished it. “Yup. You?”
Alec walked around to the back of his car, his flashlight still off. He popped open the trunk, and gestured to the aluminum case that was inside. “I got it,” he said. He took the case out, closed the trunk, and then switched on the flashlight. “Let’s go,” he said. He set off with a quick stride. Michael hefted his bag on his shoulder and followed.
In the summer, Lakeside Park would have been full of people, even as midnight drew near. They’d be having moonlight picnics, romantic get-togethers, maybe just lying back and counting stars. But as winter drew near, the park emptied out. Tonight, there was no one around, and that suited Michael and Alec just fine.
About a hundred feet from where they parked, in a clearing where people gathered for their barbecues on the Fourth of July, they set the case down and turned off the flashlight to let their eyes get used to the darkness.
“You ready for this?” Michael asked.
Alec nodded, and wondered how he had let five years go by so quickly. How he had allowed things to go this long. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m ready.”
“If you’re not, we can still-“
“I said I was ready, man.” Alec swallowed hard. This would be the night. This would be the last break he had to make, the final string to cut. After tonight, no one would ever be able to hurt him again.
When he could make out Michael’s face in the darkness Alec pulled the case towards him. He undid the latches on the front, and each one sounded like a gunshot. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and flung the top open.
The ventriloquist dummy inside was a masterpiece. Its face was hand-carved, with barely visible seams for the mouth. The eyes had been painted with large, blue irises that glowed in comparison to the doll’s short, dark hair. The overall effect was that of a strange intelligence, made only slightly more unsettling by the carefully cartoonish proportions of the head.
He sat in front of the case for a minute, looking at the doll. It seemed lifeless, carefully folded into its carrying case. For a moment, he worried that the tuxedo was getting wrinkled, but then remembered what they were there to do.
“You okay?” Michael asked.
“Yeah,” Alec said, holding up the saw. “It has to be this. He… It has to be unmade.” Quickly, without thought, he grabbed the dummy out of the case and lay it on the ground in front of him.
This was the present his mother had sent him when he graduated from high school. The day after graduation, when he was looking forward to one last summer of fun with his friends, this large aluminum case arrived in the mail. When his father saw who it was from, he walked out of the room without saying a word.
The case contained, along with the dummy, a videotape and an envelope. The tape was labeled, “Watch me first.”
Hello, Alec. His mother’s face on the screen looked older than he remembered, but ten years would do that. She wouldn’t look right at the camera, but kept shifting her eyes to the left and right, up and down as she spoke.
I know we haven’t talked much since I left, and I’m sorry about that. I meant to get in touch, I really did. She ran a hand through thin, graying hair. I guess there’s no time like now. Okay. She took a deep breath and let it out. By now, of course, you’ve seen the dummy. Its name is Mister Woobles, and it is your birthright. Whatever plans you have made, Alec, it is absolutely essential that you put Mister Woobles first. She finally stopped glancing around and looked right into the camera. Guard him with your life, Alec. Protect him from all harm, and he will protect you. Until-
Alec paused the tape and looked at the tuxedo-clad dummy in the box, then at his mother, frozen in mid-sentence. He was thinking so many things, had so many questions, that his mind could only focus on one thing – Mister Woobles?
He wanted to call his father into the room, to ask him what the hell was going on, but he knew that wouldn’t work. His father hadn’t so much as mentioned his mother’s existence in the last decade. As far as he was concerned, she never existed. Whether Mister Woobles was an element of madness that pre-dated her abandonment or not, Alec couldn’t even imagine. He looked at the dummy again. Its eyes were open, looking at him.
He turned away and resumed the tape.
-you’re ready to pass him on to someone else, you have to keep Mister Woobles with you. She paused, blinking. I know how this sounds, Alec, but it’s very important. I’ve done… I’ve made decisions I’m not proud of, Alec, and leaving you is at the top of my list. Sending the dummy to you doesn’t change anything or make things better, but I really do believe it’s something that needs to be done.
She stopped here, and hung her head for a moment. That’s all I can really say, she said. Take a look in the envelope now. She looked up, into the camera again. I do love you, Alec. Remember that. She reached towards the camera, and the screen went blank.
Alec shut off the TV and looked in the case again. The dummy was still staring at him, and it occurred to him that he had no idea how to make it close its eyes. He snatched the envelope from the case and slammed the lid shut.
It looked like it was some kind of hotel stationery, and his name was written on the front in large, uneven letters. When he opened it and started reading, he had to sit down.
If you’re reading this, it said, I’m dead. Well, I’m dead whether you’re reading this or not, but that isn’t really the point. By now, you should have watched the video, so you know that you have to keep the dummy with you from now on. It’s my last wish for you, Alec, and I know he’ll do right by you. He certainly did right by me. Until now, anyway.
Please let your father know. I would send him a letter, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t read it and that’s fair. If he’ll listen, tell him that I’m sorry, and if I could explain, I would.
I only ever wanted the best for you, Alec. I just never knew how to do it until now.
The letter and the video and the dummy had been from a crazy woman. That was the only explanation. He took the case up to his room and left it under his bed. He did show his father the letter that night. He read it, folded it up, and asked Alec what he wanted for dinner.
In the next few months, Alec only opened the case twice more. The first time was to close the dummy’s eyes. A quick Googling showed him how to do it, and he rested slightly easier after that, but not much. The case – Mister Woobles — was always in the back of his mind. It was like Tolstoy’s polar bear. The more he tried not to think about it, the more often it showed up.
He wouldn’t explain it, either. His father didn’t want to know what was in the case, and Alec made sure none of his friends found out about it. Those who had known him long enough were aware that his mother had run away. The fact that she had gone crazy and probably killed herself was more than they needed to know. Mister Woobles would be his alone.
When he moved away to college, he brought it with him. Not because he needed it, not even because he necessarily believed his mother’s words about the dummy “doing right” by him. He found that he couldn’t bear to let it go. The case called to him, lurked in the corner of his mind, and until he knew where it was, he wasn’t able to relax. His stomach tied itself in knots, and leaving the case alone by itself became harder and harder.
Michael was the one to set him on the path to freedom. He was Alec’s first roommate, and was naturally curious about the case when they moved in together. On the first day, Alec shoved it as far back in the closet as it would go, and when Michael asked what it was, all he’d say was, “Nothing.” He never mentioned it, never explained.
When he came back from class one afternoon and saw Michael playing with Mister Woobles, he erupted in rage.
His scream was wordless and furious. He dropped everything on the floor, ran over and grabbed the doll from Michael’s hands. By the time he managed to stuff the doll back into the case, he was weeping openly.
Michael watched him for a moment, and then said, “Dude.” He approached Alec gingerly and rested a hand on his shaking shoulder. “What’s going on?”
Everything came out that night. The tape, the note, the dummy. His father, his mother, five years of wondering what was going to happen next. Five years of carrying that case around from place to place, carrying it in his mind.
It took all night for Michael to convince Alec to destroy Mister Woobles. He skipped his classes and made sure Alec didn’t shove the case back into the closet again. It was Michael who came up with the plan, the location, the time. “Tonight,” he said. “Tonight and it’s done.”
He chose the park because of its serenity. The city had spent millions putting it together as a sprawling natural area, intended for the citizens to use as a way to recharge and refresh themselves. It had countless little streams and pools and fountains, green groves of trees and vibrant flower beds. There were barbecue pits and a small skateboard park, playgrounds for children and walking trails for the elderly. Very few people agreed on anything the city government did, but nearly everyone loved that park.
Michael had a streak of mysticism about him. He read books by long-dead practitioners of magick, had crystals on pendants and was known to dabble in tarot reading. He did rituals before tests – little things on a portable altar he had brought with him from home. When Alec asked about it once, he said, “Humans need rituals to keep the world in order. And without order, what are we?”
He was full of lines like that.
The saw was Alec’s idea. He needed to see Mister Woobles undone, to become something other than what it was. If he buried it, if he threw it in the lake, the dummy still existed – it still was. But in pieces, it would finally be dead.
There, in the darkness, Alec began to saw at the neck of Mister Woobles. The saw slipped at first, and he held his breath. But once the teeth bit into the wood, he started to saw faster at it. The eyes were still closed, and he expected them to burst open, for the mouth to move and to scream in his mother’s voice about the terrible thing he was doing.
But it didn’t. The saw blade cut quickly through the whole thing, and Mister Woobles’ head dropped onto the grass. Alec breathed a sigh of relief and looked up to Michael, who was holding a large pair of sewing shears. Alec cut through the dummy’s costume with ease. The tiny tuxedo lay in tatters on the ground, taking the arms and legs with it. All that was left was the hollow torso, with its intricate levers and rods.
Alec stood up, raised the remains of the dummy above his head, and dashed it to the ground. It cracked, but did not break. He started to stomp on it, bringing heavy boot heels down on the shell, and it shattered in moments. He did the same to the head, and pieces went spinning away. The dummy’s face was his face, was his mother’s face, his father’s. One of those blue eyes cracked in half and he stepped on it again and again until it was nothing but a pile of powdered glass.
He didn’t realize he was crying until Michael grabbed him by the arm. “It’s done,” he said. “It’s done. You can relax now.”
“No,” Alec said. “We still have to burn it. Then it’s done.”
Michael had a can of lighter fluid in the bag. They picked up all the pieces they could find, dumped them into one of the barbecue pits, and saturated them. Michael handed Alec a box of matches. He lit one, set the flame to the remains of the dummy, and stepped back as they exploded in flame.
He wanted to feel relief. All that was burning there was a pile of wood and fabric, and with it his mother’s madness, his father’s rage, his own terror and responsibility. He wanted the fire to burn away at him as well, to eat away those parts that had been so badly damaged and to renew him.
He just watched it burn, and tried not to think about what it all meant. That would be for tomorrow.