When I was a little girl, I believed that my toys would talk behind my back and have parties while I was away. I'm twenty-five years old, and I still believe that.
It was a foggy day when I came upon Duke. I was making my rounds before dinner, as usual, when I decided to make a stop in the local antique shop. I can indulge myself just this once, I thought. The trinkets and things there are always so much fun.
An ancient, owl-eyed man behind the counter turned in my direction. "Hello, miss." I nodded my head in acknowledgment. After noticing how intently I was examining agèd diaries and jewelry boxes, he added, "Is there anything in particular you are looking for today?"
"No, I'm just looking, thank you." I stroked my thumb across a Victorian locket that I was considering purchasing. Looking up, I surveyed the room with interest. The necklace clattered on the table as I locked eyes with a worn out puppet sitting on a shelf across from me. My eyes narrowed as I approached it like I would a man-eating tiger. I could have sworn it was frowning when I entered the shop. The doll was nearly a foot tall, and its stitched mouth curled to one side of its face.
"Ahhh, are you interested in The King?" The shop owner hobbled over to the shelf and brought the puppet down. The thing certainly looked like no king to me. It wore an off white shirt and plain navy trousers, coupled with a pair of felt brown boots. He let it sit on his left hand while he supported its back with his right. I nodded, unsure of what to say. "The story has it he was a famous king of a luxuriously rich and prosperous empire who was punished by a sorcerer for his vanity and greed, cursed to live as a puppet for the rest of eternity." He produced a gold foil crown to slide on its head and gave me a wizened smile.
I held back a snort of disbelief. Nothing but a fairy tale. I cocked my head side to side, scrutinizing the doll. "How much is it?"
"I bought him for ten dollars, but for a pretty young girl like you, I'll let him go for five." His eyes twinkled, and I almost thought the doll's button eyes glinted in unison.
"I'll take him." My hand seemed to reach into my wallet to produce the bill on its own accord.
"Thank you, and please come again soon."
As I walked home that evening, I held the doll with both hands and continued to stare at it. "A king? Hardly."
I awoke that next morning feeling obligated to greet it. "Good morning
" The puppet's expression had changed again, now to a self-satisfied smirk. "
Duke," I finished. I bopped him on the head. "Not quite a king, but still royalty."
The days passed like the grains through an hourglass, and no matter what I did, I could not get Duke to respond to me. Though it wasn't like I cared if the stupid thing would actually talk to me. I sat him up on my bookshelf and always stopped in front of him before going out. Some days I would simply hold his buttoned gaze, others I would hold a civil one-sided conversation with him. There was some part of me that still held onto that thread of hope that he would actually say something back.
I swear to God, Duke holds parties with other toys while I'm gone. One day I find some of my books dog-eared on the floor, another my old crayons and scraps of construction paper strewn across my dresser. The first day it happened I didn't think much of it. Perhaps the other night I had failed to put my things away and completely forgotten. But when I find him sitting on the kitchen counter and a few cookies missing, I was certain something was up. I couldn't ask him up front; he wouldn't say a word regardless. Somehow I was going to get to the bottom of it, though.
Even though being a college student with a part time job doesn't leave much room for leisure, I still made time for Duke. I felt some sort of connection with the little guy, and I would often dig up a stuffed bear or two and a few old action figures to be his companions. I'd let him be royalty once more and rule over my toy kingdom. One night I even pulled out little rags that I had outgrown to fashion him some classier attire. It wasn't an illusion; I know I saw him smile a little wider when I had changed his clothes. I swear. I could just feel it.
I soon grew so attached to him that I constructed a small bed, complete with covers and pillows. I allowed him to rest on my dresser near me. From time to time I would treat him to a bedtime story, but usually I would just chat with him until I fell asleep.
The first time I brought a friend over, Duke seemed determined to make me regret it. I could see it in his eyes. Mitch was a new acquaintance from my English class, and he had agreed to tutor me a bit in math. My eyes shifted back and forth when we had returned home; a sense of tension glazed over me. Something felt wrong. I ignored the feeling and invited Mitch to sit with me in the living room. He started going on about our English teacher when a resounding shatter rang from the other room. I excused myself to find out the problem. Somehow I wasn't surprised to find my favorite Ming vase, destroyed and Duke sprawled out nearby. I hastily swept up the pieces and hurried back to my classmate as if nothing had happened. Things only worsened from there. A window broken, my journal shredded
I was about ready to chuck that doll into the garbage disposal.
Then, the phone rang. I picked up, expecting one of my girlfriends or perhaps a family member. "Hello?" There was no answer. My lips shriveled in annoyance, and I dropped the phone back into its receiver. "I'm sorry, Mitch, but today's just not a good day for me. Could we maybe do this some other time?"
I wasn't about to let a damn puppet dictate my life. I finally mustered up the nerve to throw him away. My hand shook as I lobbed him into the trash. For some odd reason, I was unfazed to find him sitting on my bosom the next morning when I awoke, that serene crooked smile on his face. He held a tiny origami heart and wilting bouquet of white daisies in his hands. I couldn't help but smile and hold him close. Nothing about his antics ever shocked me. I just accepted it.
That night, I discovered where my RC car had disappeared to in my mountain of doodads from days long past and delighted in giving Duke a ride around the apartment. I sensed his forgiveness and felt the guilt subside soon enough.
I didn't go out much after that incident. Nor did I invite friends over. It was just me and Duke, lost in our little toy kingdom.
I noticed a change in his behavior, though. He still wouldn't do a thing while I watched him, but something fishy was up. I came home and inadvertently squashed a rolled scroll of paper, which I presumed to be his first attempt at a lance. I started to uncover the most imaginative office supply weaponry I had ever seen, from thumb tack maces to a pasta battle axe.
It had been a difficult day at school for me, and I was starting to unravel. I yanked open the door and shuffled my way inside. I paused to glance toward the floor to check that I wasn't going to step on one of Duke's latest creations. I smiled at the miniature paper clip sword covered in tin foil. He had coiled a stem of forget-me-not around it and engraved a word into the weapon. Princess.
"Good sir, do you wish to be my knight in shining armor?" I laughed, clasping the sword in my hand. I searched around the room for the rascal when something tripped me up.
I fell to the floor midscream with a dull thud. I could feel my insides turning to mush and my eyes growing glassy.