Home > The Dollhouse(4)

The Dollhouse(4)
Fiona Davis

The clerk returned from a back room, clutching a white piece of paper. “Saunders is the name it was filed under.”

She breathed out a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s my stepfather. Mother took his name after she married him. But mine remained McLaughlin.”

The owl-eyed woman threw Darby a largely indifferent look. “Well, I have Saunders here, miss. Do you want me to change it?”

“Yes, please.”

“Good enough. Wait here and Mrs. Eustis will be with you shortly.”

She had no sooner sat on the hard bench than the woman appeared. She was what Darby’s mother would describe as horsey: a tall, solid woman with an aquiline profile, wearing a navy suit that sported a floppy fabric corsage. Darby stood and shook her hand.

“You look exhausted, Miss McLaughlin. I hope the trip wasn’t too arduous.”

“No, not at all. I quite enjoyed it,” lied Darby. “Trains are terrific.” Mother had handed her a book titled The Art of Conversation at the train station, and she’d dutifully read through it because the cover promised a “fascinating new way to win poise, power, personality.” Make your rejoinders positive! it had decreed.

Mrs. Eustis gave a curt nod. “Come with me and I’ll show you to your room. You’re on the fifteenth floor, and I think you’ll find it quite accommodating.”

The elevator doors opened. Darby tried not to stare when a young girl in a uniform yanked open the interior gates for them to enter. Mrs. Eustis indicated for Darby to step inside. “Male visitors must be signed in and are only allowed in the public lounges. The safety of our girls comes first.”

The elevator girl rolled her eyes and Darby suppressed a smile. As they trundled up, Mrs. Eustis ticked off the pertinent information in such a rush that Darby was certain she wouldn’t remember a thing. “Meals are served in the second-floor dining room. The hours are posted in the lobby, but you can always pop in to pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee. Socials are held every Thursday evening in the West lounge. Anyone found sneaking a man up into the private rooms risks expulsion. You may use the pool, gymnasium, and squash courts in the basement from eight o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night. At the top floor you’ll find the sky terrace and solarium. You’re enrolled at Katharine Gibbs, is that correct, Miss McLaughlin?”

The elevator door opened and they stepped down a narrow hallway. “Yes, ma’am. I’m due to start classes Monday.”

“Very good. I’m afraid there were no vacant rooms on the floors where the Gibbs girls are housed. You’ll be here, with girls who work for Eileen Ford.”

“Like the cars?” Darby asked. She imagined all the secretaries learning the names of automotive parts.

“No, not the cars.” Mrs. Eustis let out a frustrated sigh. “Here we are.”

She stuck a key into a doorknob and opened the door. The long, narrow room smelled of mustiness and hair spray. Darby touched the surface of the bureau, happy to discover it wasn’t sticky with residue.

A twin bed hugged one wall, with a small wooden desk and chair squeezed against the foot of it. The bedspread sported a garish poppy design, as did the curtains, which hung down almost to the floor, making the window appear longer than it actually was. A scuffed wingback chair, too small to curl up in, was wedged into the corner opposite the desk.

“No pets are allowed, no fish, no turtles, nothing of the sort.”

Darby wasn’t sure where she’d get a live fish in the first place. Did they have stores for such things in New York City? Of course they did. They had everything.

“You look quite dazed. I say, are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Mrs. Eustis.”

“Very well, then I’ll leave you be. Most of the girls on your floor are out on a trip to the Museum of Natural History today, so you’ll find it rather quiet until they return.”

Darby hung up her dresses in the closet and put away the rest of her clothes. She placed her brush and comb on the top of the bureau and lay on the bed, unsure of what to do next, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

A girl’s scream woke her. The noise was high-pitched and terrifying, and Darby sat up quickly. With a sinking heart, she remembered she was in the middle of a strange city, alone. Out the window, the sun had disappeared behind the horizon in a dull haze, lending an otherworldly glow to the rooftops and water towers.

The scream dissolved into helpless laughter as the racket outside her door increased. The Ford girls must have returned from their outing.

Darby got up and brushed her hair, then put on her favorite dress for courage. It was a creamy cotton that buttoned right up to the neck and had short, cuffed sleeves. The dress flowed out from the belted waist, from which dozens of images of closed umbrellas and parasols hung down among the many pleats. The varying shapes and colors made her smile whenever she looked down.

In the mirror, her face had a sallow cast and her brown hair hung limply in the heat, making her ears seem bigger than normal. The Ear Beautifier that Mother had ordered and insisted she use nightly hadn’t made them any less pronounced. Still, the dress was awfully pretty.

Taking a deep breath, Darby ventured into the hallway.

A gorgeous redheaded girl stopped mid-stride. “Well, hello.”

Darby stuck out her hand. “Hello, I’m Darby McLaughlin.” She plastered a bright smile on her face.

“Darby, I’m Stella Conover. I haven’t seen you before.” Stella stood several inches taller than Darby and had the tiniest ears she’d ever seen.

“No. I’m here for secretarial school. From Ohio. Just arrived today. For a moment they didn’t have my reservation, and I figured I’d have to turn around and go right back. But then they found it. They’d put it under my stepfather’s name instead of mine. He’s Saunders; I’m McLaughlin.”

She was babbling. This was not at all what The Art of Conversation advised.

“Well, I’m glad it was sorted out.” Stella took her by the arm. Maybe Darby hadn’t sounded idiotic. “I love your dress, by the way.”

Stella brought her to an open door. Inside, six or seven other girls lolled about while one read out loud from a fashion magazine. When Darby appeared, they all stared up at her.

They looked as if they’d drifted right out of the pages of the magazine. One wore a bright-red lipstick that showed off her perfect bow lips, while another had a tousle of golden curls. Their clothes were tailored and crisp: embroidered white blouses atop pencil skirts, rayon dresses in colorful stripes. A bevy of princesses holed up in a high tower. Even though she’d be turning eighteen in three months, Darby felt more like an ankle-biter in the presence of such beauties.

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