Home > The Dollhouse(5)

The Dollhouse(5)
Fiona Davis

“Ladies, this is Darby; she just arrived today for Katie Gibbs.” Stella pointed to each girl, their names tripping off her tongue. “We’re all with Eileen Ford, the modeling agency.”

That explained it. She was terribly out of place, like a panda in a room full of gazelles.

The girls said hello, and the one with the magazine, named Candy, invited Stella and Darby to join them. Darby tucked herself into the corner, eager to deflect any attention.

“I was just reading the newlywed tips from Mademoiselle. Do you read it, Darby?”

“Of course.” Well, not exactly. Mother bought the latest issue for her every month, and Darby would pretend to leaf through it. The willowy models, with their knowing gazes and impossibly tiny waists, intimidated.

“Anyway, here is the advice, ladies. Number one: ‘Comb your hair and wash your face before breakfast and put lipstick on before you put the coffee on.’ Number two: ‘Never touch your husband’s razor or tidy his desk.’”

“Ugh, I wouldn’t want to touch his razor.” The blonde tossed her head and grimaced. Even while making an ugly face, she was pretty.

“Number three: ‘The first time your baby and your husband call you at the same time, go to your husband.’”

Darby imagined a baby crying its head off in hunger, while the husband needed help looking for a missing sock. Didn’t seem right.

“Number four: ‘Don’t compete with your husband.’ And finally, number five: ‘Remember that marriage is fun.’”

The girls clamored to comment, the words tumbling out.

“I comb my hair before coming downstairs anyway; that wouldn’t make much difference to me.”

“And I’ll have a nurse to see to the baby, so I’ll be free to mind my husband.”

“What do you think, Darby?”

Candy stared at her. This was a test. She needed to respond with an air of élan and a witty comment. If she did, she’d make friends for life, and these girls would ask her to be a bridesmaid at their weddings and invite her to their baby showers and they’d exchange letters, remembering their time together in New York City when they were young and the world was ahead of them.

“I don’t plan on marrying,” Darby said.

Candy’s jaw dropped open. She fiddled with the pearls around her neck. “Ever?”

“That’s why I’m here, to go to school and learn how to earn my own wage. I don’t want a man to support me.” She remembered the look on Mother’s face, both stricken and triumphant, when Daddy had passed away. The other girls stared at her, dumbstruck, and she tried to explain. “A woman shouldn’t have to depend on a man.”

“Right. Maybe you prefer to depend on a woman instead?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Candy’s eyes shone with a menacing glee. “You really don’t know what I’m talking about?”

“All I’m saying is that I plan to make enough money to support myself. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

Candy cackled. “No, sugar. I’m looking to find the richest man I can. Don’t be a nosebleed.”

Before she could respond, Stella announced it was time for dinner, and the gaggle sprang up and trotted out the door. The magazine fell to the floor and Darby carefully picked it up and laid it back on the bed.

She’d said the wrong thing. She smoothed her umbrella dress and followed them down the hallway.

The clattering of dishes and lively chatter rebounded around the dining room, which was as fancy as any restaurant Darby had been to, with crisp white tablecloths and an art deco chandelier of Odeon glass hanging from the ceiling. Darby followed Stella like a lost puppy, trailing behind the one person who’d been kind. Stella filled her own plate with broccoli and a spoonful of mashed potatoes, but Darby was famished and asked for an extra chicken filet. Her girdle would be tight afterward, but she didn’t care.

“Now, tell me, where are you from in Ohio?” asked Stella once they’d sat down at the table filled with their hall mates.

“Defiance.” Keep your answers short and sweet; don’t drone on.

“What an original name for a town. Much better than Granite Falls, anyway—that’s where I’m from in North Carolina.” Stella took a dainty bite of potato and continued. “It’s strange they put you on the same floor as the models, though. The Gibbs girls are up on sixteen and seventeen.” She put a hand on Darby’s arm. “We’re happy to have you, of course.”

“Why, thank you. Happy to be had.” Wrong. Stupid. Stella threw her an odd glance.

Darby wished she were at home, cuddling her dogs while Mother cooked, enjoying the few quiet hours after school and before Mr. Saunders came home. She’d brought several books with her, including her beloved anthology of Shakespeare’s plays, and part of her wanted nothing more than to run up to her room and lose herself in Twelfth Night or Cymbeline, imagining the stage sets and costumes in her head as she read.

“I’m sorry, I’m out of my element here.” Darby fiddled with her cutlery as tears pricked the corners of her eyes.

“There, now.” Stella lowered her voice. “I felt the same way before I settled in. Granite Falls doesn’t even have a bus depot, so you can imagine how overwhelming this was for me when I arrived.”

For the first time, Darby noticed the other girl spoke with a soft Southern lilt. Her voice was musical, like a song.

“I like your accent.”

“Thank you. I try to play it down—the modeling agency thinks it makes me seem unsophisticated.”

“How can they say that? It’s beautiful, like a melody.”

Stella drew back, pleased. “That’s so well put. You should be a writer.”

“You’re kind, but I can’t waste time daydreaming. I’m here to learn to be a secretary. Mother used all of the insurance money she got when Daddy died to get me here. I won’t have another chance.”

“I see,” said Stella. “And where would you like to work once you’re through with Katie Gibbs, Little Miss Serious?”

Darby smiled. “Funny, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” The din was nice; it offered them a cocoon of privacy.

“Well, I think you should aim high. You could be the secretary to a top businessman, to someone who runs a publishing house or a fashion line. Someone who’ll appreciate a girl who has a way with words.”

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