Home > The Dollhouse(9)

The Dollhouse(9)
Fiona Davis

Maybe Griff’s panic could be contained. The pressure he was under, from the mayor, from Connie, must be intense. He would change his mind, once they talked again. She’d fix this, and everything would go back to normal, a simple blip in a long, loving relationship, one they’d laugh about on their honeymoon.


New York City, 1952

Stella cornered Darby as she stuck her key into her door. “Where on earth have you been all day? Better get yourself changed, Defiance: We’re off to the theater and dinner and you must come.”

Darby had hoped to avoid the gazelles. Earlier that morning, she’d read quietly in her room until they left on yet another outing, and then she slipped out through the lobby without making any eye contact. From there, the day improved. She walked each street between Central Park and York Avenue, going east and then west and then east again, until she reached Fifty-Third Street. She ate a quick bite at a cafeteria, then continued on.

The grid pattern made her feel safe, and as she walked, her shoulders dropped an inch or two. She began looking up at the buildings instead of down at the sidewalk, and eventually a dizzying amazement replaced the buzz of dread.

But now her feet throbbed, her calves ached, and all she wanted was a long bath.

Stella cocked her head. “You look exhausted.”

“I was out walking, seeing the city.”

“Do you feel a little more at home now?”

Darby nodded. “Funnily enough, I do.”

“New York has that effect, doesn’t it? I love it now. Can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Darby wasn’t quite at that point yet, but she agreed there was a kind of magic to it. “The city makes sense, though not in the way I expected. I studied several maps before I came, but it’s different when it’s three-dimensional.”

“Huh. You’re an odd little bird, aren’t you, Darby?” Stella put her hands on her hips. “Anyway, we’re one short for a show and dinner afterward, and I need you to come.”

Darby’s right eye gave a twitch. There was no saying no to Stella. She’d been far too nice. Plus, her beauty was captivating. Staring at her was a pleasure, and Darby could only imagine the effect she had on men. “I’m not sure. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Stella laughed. “You sit back and enjoy yourself, silly. I’m seeing a boy named Thomas, and he has a friend Walter, and I promised I’d bring someone for Walter tonight. I’d lined up Mary—you haven’t met her yet, but you will—but she’s come down with a chill and refuses to join me.”

Darby started to shake her head, and Stella quickly continued on. “Don’t worry, we’re a group of ten, so it’s not like a true date. Just some friends going out for a night on the town; won’t that be delightful?”

Her first impulse was to make up an excuse, any excuse, to avoid going out with the gazelles and their beaux. But then she imagined the letter she’d write to Mother tomorrow, providing all the details of what they ate and where they went, the witty conversation that flowed back and forth. Mother would be so proud. Sometimes you have to push through your fears, she’d advised, just as Darby had done today walking about the city.

She changed into the umbrella dress and combed her hair. Stella had given her ten minutes to get ready and meet them in the lobby. Darby chatted with the elevator girl the entire way down, explaining that she was going out to the theater and dinner with her girlfriends.

Her heart sank, though, as soon as she spied Stella and the other girls. They wore fancy evening frocks, jewel-toned dresses made from taffeta and silk. Stella looked like a princess, in a sequined, black lace bodice over a bouffant skirt made of tulle, so airy and light it seemed as if she might float off at any moment. Darby was a farm girl in comparison.

Before she could turn to run back upstairs and hide beneath her bed, Stella swooped her up and planted her in a taxi, and then they were funneled into the theater lobby. There was no time for introductions with the boys, as they were all running late, and the curtain rose as soon as they took their seats. The musical was wonderful, and for a giddy moment Darby was transported to old Siam, where women with hoop skirts waltzed with exotic foreigners. After, they walked as a group to the Café Brittany on Ninth Avenue. Darby didn’t speak much, but she didn’t have to, for the boys were all trying to outdo one another with jokes and teasing.

“Darby, this is Walter.” Outside the restaurant, Stella dragged over a slightly pudgy boy whose cheeks were dotted with red spots. He looked her up and down, then reached out his hand.

“Pleasure to meet you, Darby.”

Darby held up a gloved hand and gave him a firm but elegant shake, just as Daddy had taught her.

Walter laughed. “You’re a spirited girl, I can see that. Where are you from?” He held the door open as she walked through into the foyer.

“Defiance, Ohio.”

“Well, look at that. I’m an Ohio boy myself. From Cleveland.”

He smiled broadly, exposing pink gums. She liked the way his almond-shaped eyes lent him an air of mischievousness. He must’ve been a sweet-looking little boy, before the acne ravaged his skin.

They sat down next to each other at a large, round table covered with a red-checked tablecloth. Darby tried to catch Stella’s eye, but her friend’s body was angled toward Thomas, the tall, blond boy sitting next to her. Thomas laughed at something Stella said, then draped his arm on the back of her chair, curving his hand around her bare shoulder. Stella moved in closer. When Darby finally caught her eye, she winked.

Walter ordered their meals, which was a relief. The first course, escargot, was slippery and rich.

“Oh my.”

“Too much for you? I’m disappointed—I thought you’d enjoy it.”

“We don’t have this kind of thing where I’m from. But there’s something compelling about the taste. I’m not certain whether I love it or loathe it, to tell you the truth.”

He laughed. “I like you, Darby; you have a unique perspective on the world.”

She’d have to remember that for the letter tomorrow. “Well, thanks.”

“And how do you like living in the Dollhouse?”

“The what?”

“That’s what we boys like to call it.” He gestured around the table. “The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you.”

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