This story is by Emily Mall and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lulu woke up in the hallway closet. She could already feel a knot in her stomach telling her that today was going to be a bad day. She shook her head and forced herself to the kitchen to make toast, pulling one of her sticky notes that said “DON’T FORGET” in black marker off of the sole of her flip-flop. She crumbled it into a ball.
She had hoped the neon reminders stuck all over the house would force her mom to remember something other than herself for once, especially today. Lulu had an important job interview this morning and she needed her mom’s car.
Her toast popped, along with a slice of sunrise through the dusty kitchen window. The soft light drew Lulu’s attention to a torn piece of McDonald’s bag, trapped under an unwashed mug. A note was scribbled amid grease spots: Had to run in to work early. Take care of dinner and the wet laundry. Mom.
Her mom had forgotten. Again.This job was a chance to escape this life of being responsible for her family. With this job, she could move out on her own. Her wish of having her own room and a soft mattress would come true. She’d be able to upgrade her musty hand-me-downs for the chemical smell of new clothes and shoes. She’d finally be free and alone to do whatever she wanted, forcing her mother to step up and be a responsible parent.
A desperate dismay clutched her throat as panic rose up from the knot in her stomach, forcing her to abandon her toast and her dreams. In her baggy pajamas and flip-flops, Lulu threw open the back door and ran, her golden curls flapping as she plunged into the forest.
Tree branches scratched at Lulu, punishing her for her wishes of a better life. She wanted to be cared for instead of having to take care of her siblings. She wanted a job she loved instead of her mother’s responsibilities. She wanted to be like other girls her age and wear cute, new clothes.
The sky laughed at her dreams as clouds spit rain, her feet sliding and twisting in her flip-flops. Identical trees towered high above, isolating her in a wet, wooden cell. Lulu was lost. She turned and ran again, eventually stumbling into the clearing of a beautiful mansion. At the front door, she raised her fist to knock but found it open.
“Hello?” Lulu said into the crack. She took a squeaky step into the grand foyer.
“Can I help you?”
A tall, beautiful woman wearing red lipstick and an elegant suit walked into the room. As she took in Lulu’s drowned appearance, her frown quickly changing into a satisfied smile while she shut and locked the door with a loud click, making Lulu jump.
“Uh, hi. I got lost and it started to rain…” she said, noting the puddle she was creating on the floor.
“Poor baby,” the woman said. “What is your name?”
“Lovely! Come with me, Lulu. I was just making tea,” the woman purred as she pulled Lulu into the kitchen. “Are you in a rush?”
Tears pricked at Lulu eyes as she shook her head and sat at the counter. She wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
“Excellent. My name is Caroline. Welcome,” she said, making tea and placing it on the counter front of Lulu.
“So, darling, what brought you here,” Her eyes dropped to Lulu’s feet. “in flip-flops?”
Lulu cringed and sipped the tea. It scalded her tongue so horribly she spit it out all over her lap.
“Oh dear! Are you okay?” Caroline took the cup from Lulu and handed her a napkin.
“My mother was supposed to leave her car for me to get to a job interview this morning, but…” Lulu hesitated, wiping up the spilled tea. “She’s awful and only cares about herself. I panicked about what to do, so I just ran.”
“How upsetting!” Caroline gasped. She placed another cup of tea with ice cubes floating at the surface in front of Lulu who shivered as she took a sip. “Too cold this time? I’ll try again.”
“I’m sorry to bother you. I should get going,” Lulu said, standing up.
“If you don’t mind waiting a bit,” Caroline said, firmly pushing Lulu back down and placing a third cup of tea in front of her. “I’d be happy to help. Would you like to stay here, Lulu?”
“That’d be great,” Lulu said gratefully. The tea tasted odd, but the temperature was just right. She was not used to being cared for, and felt her body relax.
“There are clothes upstairs if you’d like to change,” Caroline said. “Feel free to make yourself at home.”
As Lulu explored the mansion, she was startled to see two girls her age, wearing frilly, pink dresses and sipping tea at a dining table. She almost greeted them, until she noticed that they were frozen in place—like dolls having a tea party. Another life-like doll in a pink dress stiffly sat nearby, holding a book up to her face. Lulu tried to shake a foggythat said “DON’T FORGET” in black markerfeeling from her head and checked more rooms, wondering why such a well-to-do woman had a giant doll museum in the middle of the forest.
Each door she opened revealed more creepy dolls, their eyes making them look more human than not. She found a doll-free room with a golden trundle bed and stumbled over the threshold, feeling a sudden rush of dizziness. She held on to the doorknobs of the mirrored closet nearby. She slowly swung them open, greeted by rows and rows of matching pink doll dresses. Underneath them, a glint from shiny Mary Janes on the floor caught her eye.
Curious, she pushed the dresses aside and gasped. The wearer of the shiny Mary Janes was shoved into the corner of the closet, and she was not a doll. She was a real girl, who was gagged, and bound at the hands and feet. And she wasn’t moving.
The room was spinning now. Bracing herself against a wall, Lulu blacked out and slid to the floor.
Lulu woke up in the dark on the trundle bed. Her head throbbed at the light when she switch on a bedside lamp with three brown bears on its ceramic base. She turned to her reflection in the mirrored-closet doors and stifled a scream. Her lips were stained red, her cheeks had been painted with pink circles, and her blonde curls were tied in two braids with shiny ribbons. Instead of her baggy pajamas, she had on one of the pink dresses and on her feet were shiny Mary Janes.
“Lulu doll…” she heard Caroline call from the hallway.
Lulu wasn’t sure how much time she had before becoming another doll in Caroline’s collection. She tried to open the bedroom door, but it was locked. She tried the window next, but it didn’t have a latch to open. She panicked as she heard the jingle of keys outside of the door, her stomach jumping into her throat as she wildly looked around the room.
Grabbing the bedside lamp, she heaved its ceramic base into the bedroom window pane, shattering them both. Using the heel of the Mary Janes, she pushed the remaining pieces of sharp glass out of the way. She ignored how the glass tore at her skin and dress, and sat on the window sill, staring down at the grass three stories below. At the sound of the door clicking open behind her, Lulu launched herself from the edge and fell fast.
The fall knocked the wind out of her, but she was still alive and breathing. And free. She rolled to her back in the wet grass, staring up at her escape from yet another life she didn’t want. Once again Lulu found herself running through the forest alone, but this time, she’d be careful what she wished for.