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The dripping of mildew echoed in the distance as Igraine walked down a ruined corridor. The glow of fluorescent fungus and alien reefs illuminated her path through the blackness of the grotto’s crevasses as she moved ever onward. The reason for her return to this place eluded Igraine. But for all its savagery and decay, the halls of Hades had grown on her, despite all the memories she could do without.
*Jus keep goin’.* whispered a woman from the dark.
Every joint in Igraine’s body locked up upon hearing the familiar phrase. “Neir?” her voice echoed through the ruin. Looking down, she found herself amidst a void with no ground to stand on. And yet, there she was, standing in a vacuum.
As Igraine peered into the blackness, a formless shape sheared her by, plunging into the abyss below. Breathless, she watched it go down and down until it was swallowed by the void. There was a deep desire to jump into the fathomless depths, just to see what became of it. Just so she’d know. It wasn’t even about the truth. She just wanted the uncertainty to vanish.
The darkness devolved, revealing the ceiling of her bed chamber.
Igraine rubbed the tears from her eyes. Even years later, her conscience was submerged beneath recollections of past insecurities and mistakes which had been seeping inside her mind like poison. The harder she tried to fight it, the more she feared drowning in self-pity instead. She felt something pulling at her blanket. Through her tears, she saw a doll’s shape in the twilight.
Anwin’s face was smiling, but her posture was like that of a scared child clenching its sheets.
Igraine held Anwin's soft head to her cheek. “Oh, I’m sorry, Anwin. Did I scare you?” She couldn’t help but smile when Anwin reached for her face, brushing away the tears with her plush fingers. “Merci.” Resting her head on the pillow, she caressed Anwin’s red mop made of Igraine’s own hair.
“For something cherished to be revived, a girl has to sacrifice something of herself,” Dr. Jenever had said when she was recreating Igraine’s favorite toy.
Igraine gasped as she felt more tears coming on. The last thing she wanted to think about was what happened to the doctor after RA had her arrested. Caressing the doll, she opened an eye. “Anwin? I know where I can find you some new clothes.”
“Dr. Jenever’s doll collection?” Mr. Butler replied to Igraine who was standing by his desk.
“Oui. Is it still here?” asked Igraine, hopeful.
Mr. Butler looked around his office which doubled as a storage space. “I think so,” he said, glancing at the steel door partly concealed behind some shelf closets. “It was stored as potential evidence after the uhm… Signalite affair, miss. But since the doctor’s… Detention, it hasn’t been moved.” [ To find out what happened, read The Wrench in the Machine.]
“Is it still considered evidence?” asked Igraine.
“I don’t think so. Why, miss?”
“I’m in need of some clothes for Anwin.”
“Doll clothes? Enough of those,” he said. “She made Anwin for you, didn’t she, miss?”
“Well, it’s... She made me a new one,” Igraine confessed.
“Where can I find her collection, Mr. Butler?” Asked Igraine, eager to move on.
“Of course. I would have to look in the catalog,” he said walking up to the library cabinet and reached for the drawer labeled ‘P’. “Lets see,” he mumbled, flipping through the cards. “Here she is. Path 32, shelves nine through thirteen.”
“That many?” asked Igraine.
“It includes some of her dollhouses, among other things,” he said. “We store things there till it's time to make room for others.”
“What will you do with them?”
“Destroy it,” he sighed. “Most of those are personal items and archives stored for safekeeping. They deserve a better destination to be honest. Like with those twins. The girl likes her toys. The boy I’m not so sure of.”
“I wouldn’t know. Miss Taylor won’t let me near them.”
Butler nodded. “You never got along, did you, miss?”
“I remember Dr. Jenever having to mediate between the two of you,” he reminisced to Igraine’s chagrin.
“Please, don’t mention her, Mr. Butler,” she insisted. “I just want the clothes.”
“Forgive me, miss. I’ll open the storage room.”
The key was gnashing inside the keyhole as the steward unlocked the door. As the light was flicked on, rows of floor-high racks stuffed with coffers, crates, and random furniture stretched deep into the basement.
Upon entering, Igraine was greeted by the sweet smell of old paper and dust. “Good thing I didn’t bring Anwin,” she mentioned, for she would have lost her in this place right away.
“I’ll return to my duties,” said Mr. Butler. “Please close the door when you’re done, Associate.”
“Merci,” she said and walked in between the isles. Igraine read the path numbers out loud as she passed the towering structures. “Path Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one… There we are.” She took a turn and entered the aisle. It wasn’t hard to recognize the doll houses hidden beneath the blankets. All of the doctor’s belongings were stuffed inside cardboard, crates, and old hat boxes. Igraine grabbed the round container covered in leather and removed the lid. She gawked at the sight of a ragdoll in a plaid skirt on top of the other toys. It had black eyes and a stitched smile just like Anwin. To think the Doctor used to have a store filled with toys like these in Dover. Igraine went through the pile looking for any clothes that would fit Anwin. By the end, she found two life-size baby dolls and a porcelain lady. One was dressed in underwear, the other in a nightgown, and the last in a blue dress with ruffles and lace. She felt bad for undressing the toys, for they deserved a better fate than this. Igraine considered for a moment what would happen to Anwin if she was gone. What was the lifespan of a doll anyway? Igraine bit her lips together when imagining Anwin stuffed inside a hat box left on a dusty shelf until it was time to make room for other objects whose time had come to be forgotten.
Igraine quickly took the clothes and closed the lid hoping to stop herself from thinking about an uncertain future. Never before had Igraine felt this trapped in the present. “What to do with that doll?” she whispered when heading for the exit. Then she paused. Her lips curled up a little when she inspected an item that would come of use.
The sound of squeaky wheels could be heard on the sixth floor as Igraine pushed a baby crib back to her room, its wicker basket loaded with items she collected from the storage area.
Back in her chambers, Anwin was standing on her toes reaching for the blue dress Igraine was holding over her.
“Non, mademoiselle,” Igraine teased. “You need to work for this.” Anwin’s gaze was following her new wardrobe as Igraine lay it on the commode. “First, I want you to do some assignments.”
She put Anwin down on the desk before the display of wires and toggle switches the tutors used to educate their students on the basics of electricity. Then Igraine leaned on the edge of the table to be at the doll’s level. “Regarde, Anwin,” she said, flipping a combination of toggles. “Regarde. If you flip the right ones, the lamp will go on. Like thi-” She stopped when she realized the doll was looking at the dress instead. “Anwin!”
The she faced her reluctantly.
Sighing, Igraine rearranged the switches. “Can you do it? Can you turn on the light?” she insisted.
Anwin touched Igraine’s nose instead.
She frowned her eyebrows. “Very funny. Now flip some switches. When that light is on you’ll get to wear your pretty dress.”
After showing her a couple more times, Anwin finally flipped a switch herself.
“Good girl, now make the lamp go on!”
Anwin flipped the same toggle.
“Ok… Now try another,” she encouraged her.
Anwin pulled the same one again.
“And the next?” suggested Igraine.
Once more Anwin chose the same.
Igraine groaned. “Is plugging yourself in really all you know how to do, Anwin?”
Anwin walked up to Igraine’s face to put her arms around it.
Igraine couldn’t help but smile as Anwin rubbed her cheek against hers. “Alright, you can also give hugs. And I guess you learned how to flip a switch.”
Anwin eagerly took off her green robe as Igraine fetched her new dress. “Calm down,” Igraine hushed as she attempted to dress the doll dancing in glee. It took Anwin some effort to contain her excitement while slipping her hands into the sleeves. Once dressed, Anwin admired her new clothes and jumped up and down to get Igraine’s attention.
“Oui, you're pretty,” said Igraine. “But I can’t watch you all day. You know what, let’s go for a walk.” She then put Anwin in the wicker carriage. “Let’s see how you like your new pram.”
The doll looked around her new accommodation and then raised her hands into the air.
“Non,” said Igraine as she grabbed the handlebar. “I don’t want your new dress to get dirty. Now, hold on.”
Anwin was startled when the pram came into motion and took shelter under the canopy.
“Don’t worry,” Igraine assured her when leaving the room.
In the common area on the ground floor, the doll stared in the distance as Igraine was pushing the child carriage. “This is much better than a leash, isn’t it?” Igraine said, but the doll paid her no heed as she raced from one side of the pram to the other curiously looking down the sides as the floor passed by beneath her.
Speaking of a leash, Igraine whispered to herself when she saw Miss Taylor tending to the twins who were sitting at the table enjoying tea and biscuits.
Igraine ignored them, in search of a table away from Ms. Taylor’s judgmental glare. But-
The girl's high-pitched voice called Igraine out in her intelligible language.
Groaning, Igraine lowered her shoulders as Ms. Taylor took notice. Disdainfully the governess glanced at the doll waving at her.
“I see you restrained your ward.”
“You approve?” asked Igraine with a smirk.
“If it keeps her from causing trouble,” said Ms. Taylor.
The twins looked on as they were chewing their biscuits.
“Associate. What is it you intended to do with it?”
“How do you mean?” Igraine asked, feigning ignorance.
“How do I- Is it your attention to cart that creature around for the remainder of its lifespan?”
“Should I abandon it?” Asked Igraine aghast. “She’s harmless.”
“Harmless? Then what good is it to an Associate?”
“She- There is more to me than an Associate. Or an Outsider.”
“Or a child?”
“I’m - not - a…” She got distracted by Anwin looking up at her, hiding away in a corner of the pram. “Look what you’ve done,” she said, picking up Anwin to comfort her. “Now she’s upset.”
“I see,” said Miss Taylor curtly. “I tried my best to prepare you for adulthood. I suppose I only have myself to blame.”
Igraine frowned her lips. “Your words. Not mine,” she said while rubbing Anwin’s back.
She grabbed the carriage with one hand and walked away in a huff with Anwin pressed to her shoulder.
The doll was unusually still while clasping Igraine’s collar.
“It’s alright, Anwin,” Igraine whispered. But she could not help but feel self-conscious about holding a toy to her chest as she walked past the dining denizens of Sanctuary. She, Associate 212; a protector of this world. And the living urban legend of Arkology was wandering around with a toy.
Igraine looked up to the man calling her. “Dr. Drambuie?”
The doctor folded up his newspaper. “Hello, miss. Care to join me for dinner?”
“Would love to, but…” she looked at Anwin.
“Ah,” he gasped, leaning forward. “So, this is the little lady everyone is so up in arms about,” he remarked while Anwin was staring at him. “Mind if I hold her?”
“I don’t know if she…”
“The child needs to learn and trust strangers at some point.”
Carefully, she handed Anwin over to the doctor, ready to her back at the first sign of resistance.
“Oh, what a pretty dress you have,” he complimented the doll as he lowered her down in his lap. “She likes clothes?”
Anwin flayed her limbs about as he rubbed her tummy. “Ah, you like that too. You are ticklish, aren’t you? I wonder what kind of intelligence she was given,” he thought out loud while doing some rough and tumble game with her.
Igraine looked on with frustration about the ease with which he won Anwin’s affection, who was rolling in his lap like a puppy. “Show me how strong you are. That’s right. Hold my finger. Oh, you’re strong. Let go now. Anwin. Let go! Go-od. Those are some powerful pincers,” he told Igraine, massaging his finger.
“Those clothes. Where did you get these?”
Igraine swallowed. “From Dr. Jenever’s collection.”
“We still have those? Well, they look very pretty on you, Anwin,” he told the doll. “Something wrong, Associate?”
Igraine hesitated for a moment. “I- I don’t know what to do with her.”
“How do you mean?”
“I’m told to observe her for a week. I don’t know what to do after.”
Drambuie and Anwin looked at each other for a moment. Then, he put her down on the floor.
The doll seemed somewhat confused by this. But then ran up to Igraine and raised her hands in the air.
“Well, look at the progress you made,” Dr. Drambuie said as Igraine was picking her up. “You are creating a safe environment for her. She learned to walk, use her hands, and even developed a personality in a couple of days.”
While Anwin was settling on her lap, Igraine’s lips curled up despite herself. “Je suppose.”
“We got a cat once from my brother who had passed away. The poor thing was trying to hide in closets. Now, it’s another member of the household. Things take time.”
“But…” she sighed, petting Anwin’s head. “What if I need to go away for a long time? Or, you know…”
“Get her a babysitter. I’m sure some child would love to watch over a doll like her. Well, anyway. She is young. We have no clue what her potential is, do we?”
“Well, I am old enough to have seen my children, and others, grow into responsible adults. It is hard to see in what ways they’ll develop. She needs a lot of guidance now, but who knows what she’ll teach you.”
She looked at Igraine while sitting in her lap while carefully arranging her dress and smiled, thinking that one day, maybe, she could take care of herself.
Hope you enjoying these odd slice-of-life stories. The feedback on these tales has been great so far. Few people could imagine Igraine with her fluffy friend. And I agree. But can it last? Maybe this is just the start of Anwin's transformation. But how did it happen? Continue reading in part 6 (coming soon)!
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