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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Puppet Theatre
by Pamela Gates

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I told them to go ahead, told my husband to take Mikey in before he missed the show, that I just needed a cigarette. In truth, the place terrified me. The two buildings looked harmless enough on the outside. They were both painted in bright blues and yellows. In the center, a large courtyard. Oversized panels - the wood shaped like angels, their faces decorated with brilliant smiles and eyes made of stars - ran along a tall fence.

I stood frozen at the threshold, body numb, heart pounding, staring at the sign before me:

Puppet Theater.

With a deep breath, I mustered enough courage to walk into the courtyard. Rust-colored slabs of stone adorned the path, intermixed with yellow shards of mosaic glass. Dark rocks shaped like a set of footsteps led to a small glass door.

I stepped on the first footstep-shaped rock. A tingle of apprehension grew, spread like wildfire through my body. The courtyard housed a variety of garden knickknacks: imps, gnomes, little green frogs with smiling faces. The head of a cherub, so childlike and innocent in appearance, sat before a large wire cage with its door open.

A slight breeze blew through the courtyard, sent the door swaying back and forth. A small lock clanged against the thin metal. I stepped closer. Red liquid had dried on the lock. Ketchup? No, too dark. Punch, maybe? Whatever it was, it smelled like copper, coated my tongue with a bitter taste. Inside the cage, flies buzzed over a grayish-green substance someone had heaped into a dog bowl. A stained blanket sat in one corner. What kind of animal had lived inside this thing?

Heat worked into my fingers. I looked down. My cigarette had burned to its end and was moving its way through my skin. I let it drop to the ground, crushed it with my shoe, then turned toward the glass door. Jack was probably glancing at his watch right now. Mikey would be tugging on Jack's sleeve, his blue eyes wide, asking where Mommy was, if he could have popcorn after the show, why the sky was blue, or a dozen other things a normal five-year-old wondered.

A jingle rang through the air as I opened the glass door and stepped inside. A musty smell greeted me - the odor of wet wood and old newspapers. I was glad to be away from the courtyard, at least until my eyes adjusted to the dark room. Marionettes - hundreds of them - lined up in neat rows across the walls, dangled from hat racks and store display shelves.

Thousands of eyes stared back at me: a court jester that looked more like a hunchback, a dragon bearing sharp fangs, a gypsy with a widespread grin. The gypsy had silver hoop earrings hanging down her earlobes, a shiny bandana pulling back her raven hair, a long, black dress, and a dozen glittery bracelets on her wrists. She seemed to gaze right at me, her green eyes just waiting for me to look away so she could cast her evil spell.

A ripple of laughter echoed through the room, startled me from my trance, and I found myself releasing a nervous laugh. Dolls, they were just dolls. I followed the source of the sound down a thin hallway, and into another room. Dozens of children sat huddled on the floor in front of a small stage. Their eyes were glazed over, their bodies still, all hypnotized by the show.

"I wish I could have a child of my own," a wooden Geppetto said.

I scanned the crowd and searched for my son's flaming red hair. Mikey did not sit among the other children, so I looked for my husband instead and found him in the back of the room. "Where's Mikey?"

"They let him go backstage to watch." Jack's face beamed with pride, yet fear gripped me like a vice.

My stomach turned into a series of complicated knots as I took a seat. Five, ten, fifteen, agonizing minutes later, the show ended. The lights came on, illuminated walls painted with Disney characters. In the brightness of the room, I felt foolish for being afraid earlier. My husband and I moved to the stage and waited. And waited.

Mikey never came out.

I could finally take it no longer and approached an older woman working the sales counter. "Excuse me. I'm looking for -"

"I know." Her green eyes lit up as they met my gaze.

Silver hoop earrings hung from her earlobes. A shiny bandana pulled back her raven hair. She wore a long, black dress with short sleeves. A dozen glittery bracelets clattered on her wrists as she brought a marionette out from underneath the counter.

One look at the doll, and I fell in love. A patch of flaming red atop the wooden boy's head intoxicated me, sent a whirling fog into my brain. And those blue eyes were perfection. What had I been looking for?

"Raggedy Andy," I whispered.

Yes, I was looking for a Raggedy Andy doll. My fingers curled around the smooth wood. I could not wait to show it to Jack and, sure enough, he was just as charmed by it as I'd been. We paid for the doll, then left the theater. The air outside had grown chilly, the sky darker. The sun crept lower and lower toward the horizon.

The cage was no longer open, but a small creature with flaming red fur poked its stubby fingers through the mesh of wire. Its sad, blue eyes seemed to beg for something. Maybe it was hungry. I felt I should recognize that hair, those eyes, but all I could think about was my new doll.

Jack and I walked to the car, the marionette gripped tightly in my hand. I stared at the doll, then glanced over my shoulder. Was I forgetting something?

"You know, I don't really like the name Andy," my husband said.

I opened my car door and crawled inside. I set the doll on my lap, could not help smoothing the red hair away from the boy's face. "Me neither. What do you think about Mikey?"

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