She followed you. That’s the only explanation. You left her in your daughter’s room, left her behind a closed door, yet here she is! She crawls behind you as you ease down the frozen-food aisle. The pale light from the glass-doored freezers casts a harsh glow on her, as if she had been anointed to some position you with your lineless tan could never hope to attain. So down the aisle you go, grocery list crumpled in your hand, while Change-Me Chelsey scoots after you. Her palms and paisley jumper are stained black from the grungy supermarket floor.
Even among the echoing chatter of the other customers and intermittent loudspeaker price checks, you can hear her: Change me, change me, change me.
She’s an ugly bitch. Your husband brought her home just days before Christmas. “It looks like someone punched her in the face,” you said. You held up the box and looked through the cellophane window at Change-Me Chelsey. The clear apricot plastic skin. The white-blonde hair stiff as paintbrush bristles. The nose like a tiny cauliflower. And the comic bulge around her rump where the mother lode, the diaper itself, awaited removal. You had seen her before at the toy store, hundreds of her synchronized like an ant army. But to look at only one of her, the one your daughter will love and cherish as you hope she does yourself, is almost too much. You looked at your husband. “It’s not just for her,” you said. “We’ll have to put up with this, too.” Your husband kissed your cheek because that’s how he deals with hysterics. “It’s a toy,” he said. You placed it on the kitchen counter, but you were in a hurry, the stew sputtering on the stove, and the box fell to the floor and landed on its back end. Change-Me Chelsey stared up at you, her longing lips pursed lewdly behind the cellophane. Her stubby arms opened wide and up, reaching for you. “Change me,” she said. “Change me.”
Your daughter cannot see the doll stalking her and her mother down the hair care aisle. She sits at the head of the shopping cart, her legs threaded through the metal lattice, as you push forward the cart. She wears an oversized purple sunhat. Your daughter is nothing but thrust elbows and pendulous feet underneath her hat. You cannot see her face.
Change me, change me, change me.
You want to ask your daughter if she hears anything. You want to reverse her position in the cart so she cannot see Change-Me Chelsey behind her. But that is not the proper use of a shopping cart child seat, and the last thing you want is to receive the contemptuous look that greets you in the mirror every morning. Another doleful exchange with your husband, his eyes puffy. No. With renewed conviction, you speed up the cart, your body at a slight incline like a hiker climbing a hill. “Wheee!” your daughter screams. “Faster!” You don’t respond.
What were you so afraid of? A doll. A goddamn doll. So what? It followed you to the store. Big deal. The five lighted intersections between your house and the store, the eleven stop signs, the railroad crossing. (Flashing red means danger! Hurry, Chelsey, hurry!) You’ve made that same trip for years, will make it for years to come. So what if she wants to follow you, begging to have her diaper changed, roving the tiles on all fours like she’s constantly taking it up the ass? Let her spend eternity trailing you, the clicks of your black pumps a metronome beat she cannot refuse.
Change me, change me — change yourself.
“Mommy, look!” Your daughter has twisted herself around in her seat and points ahead of you. Change-Me Chelsey waits at the end of the aisle beside a display of toilet paper. Super absorbent. Safe for delicate bottoms. You look behind where you had just seen — well, heard at least — Change-Me Chelsey’s endless cry. No doll. No child. Just a middle-aged woman in a loose gray cardigan inspecting a box of hair dye. “Mommy, that looks just like my doll.”
You see, even your little girl knew better than to jump to silly conclusions.
“We need to go,” you say and wheel the cart around, nearly tipping over a sports drink display, heading toward the checkout lanes. “But I want my apples,” your daughter whines. You say her father will get some on the way home, but this does not please her. So little does. “Apples! I want my apples!” “God dammit, let me think!” This quiets her. Because of the sunhat, you can’t see her face, but you do risk a glance backward to see Change-Me Chelsey gaining on you as you slip into the shortest checkout line.
You’re stuck. You can’t leave behind all these groceries. You can’t run for the parking lot, stolen food and all. Your daughter wails. The people in line look at you like you let loose a foul odor. You bow your head, beaten by your daughter’s talking, pooping toy. It only wants what you want.
Change me, change me, change me.
Fix me, hug me, love me.
After a few moments, a woman who entered the line behind you urges you forward, and you sense something at your feet. You look down and there is Change-Me Chelsey. She is lying on her back — or would be if she didn’t possess a twist-off head and pivot limbs. She looks contorted and inert. You pick her up and then hold her. You turn to your daughter and show her the doll. That’s all it is: a doll.
“Look what I found,” you say.
From underneath the sunhat, two small, bony arms emerge, hands grasping like hungry hatchlings. “Give me,” your daughter says. “Give me.”
About the Author: Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Gertrude, A cappella Zoo, Split Lip Magazine, Cutthroat, Litro, Berkeley Fiction Review, PANK, BULL: Men's Fiction, Gulf Stream Magazine, Wraparound South, Night Train, 3:AM Magazine, Word Riot, Storyglossia, Driftwood Press, Adroit Journal, The Matador Review, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, Sundog Lit, The Citron Review, The James Franco Review and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives near Houston and works as a cashier. His debut collection of short fiction, Steers and Queers will print at Lethe Press in 2019.