Fifteen years before Dorian knocks.
There were no sounds in the house. That wasn’t unusual for Saturday.
Stef lay in front of her closed bedroom door, peeking under the tiny, tiny crack beneath the door, looking for any approaching feet.
Everything was still quiet.
Her mother and father always slept in on Saturday mornings, and then he’d go do something grown up and boring, like golf or hang out with his not-friends at the club. Mother would do grown-up-lady things like shopping or go get her hair done, and only sometimes take her with her. And there was always warning when they were going shopping, cause she’d have to pick a purse and a dress the night before so she didn’t hold things up. She hadn’t picked a dress, she hadn’t picked a purse. Saturday was hers, at least until ballet.
She slowly counted to a hundred, while listening at the door, only hearing one set of footsteps – the quiet ones that belonged to William the valet, then she pushed herself up off the white carpet and went across to her play area.
The large dollhouse sat in the middle of a circular pink rug next to the window seat. It was nearly as tall as she was – a house even bigger than the one she lived in. Some of the girls in class had dollhouses that looked like the houses they lived in, and they had tiny little copies of their room for their Barbies to play in.
Which meant they were playing with themselves as Barbies, which was kinda creepy and weird, and like it should be a Goosebumps story.
She pulled open one of the drawers under the window seat and pulled out the pink-and-gittery box of dolls, dumped the contents beside her, spilling the many different types of Baribies onto the floor, with little baggies of outfits landing softly on top of them.
The middle drawer kept her colouring books and craft stuff.
She flipped open the big colouring book of horses – one that actually had real-looking horses in it, not the star-and-love-hearts ones, and spent five minutes adding a saddle to one that looked like Buttercup.
She counted a long count again, listening for any footsteps, then pulled the middle drawer out, carefully placed it on the window seat, and reached into the little space behind the right drawer and found the pencil case that held the secret dolls.
The pencil case looked like the other ones that her craft drawer held – her name, spelt the wrong way written across it, with flowers and junk over both sides.
She unzipped the case and pulled out Queen Charlie and Princess Stef.
Queen Charlie was a proper Barbie – her mother was a tall, pretty blonde after all, and Princes Stef was one of the stupid little kid Barbies that at least gave the proper height difference between Queen Charlie and Princess Stef. The little kid Barbie though, had come with the wrong hair colour, and it had taken a little bit of mess and a lot of work to colour the hair with marker pens.
The plait she’d given Queen Charlie had come loose, so she clamped the doll between her knees and redid the tiny braid before tying it off with a piece of red ribbon.
Mother would never wear a braid with red ribbon, but Queen Charlie was so much cooler.
She pushed the pile of regular Barbies out of the way, and pulled open the front of the dollhouse. Queen Charlie went into the top room – which had started out as an attic, but only took a couple of glow in the dark stars and a little cardboard tube to turn it into an astronomy tower. Queen Charlie liked astronomy. And comets, especially comets. Comets were cool.
Princess Stef went into what had been, and kinda still was, the kitchen. The kitchen had a Ken doll in it. The Ken doll didn’t have to be hidden away like the others, only his costume.
She laid the Ken doll on the floor, and found his costume in the secret pencil case – made from bits of a teddy bear that had lost when she’d drawn straws, and morphed him from Ken to Ursa Rex, the mutant king of the bear people. He was a sometimes player in the stories – sometimes you needed a crazy half-bear man, sometimes he just got in the way, so he got to stay in the kitchen.
Rex bowed to Princess Stef, then went back to cooking eggs.
She froze when she heard noises at the door, then relaxed as she heard the vacuum cleaner.
She grabbed Princess Stef and a blue marker, and began to draw symbols on the doll’s skin – magic to fight whatever monsters were coming. They weren’t real magic, just the weird little squigglies that were next to the horoscope predictions in her mother’s magazines – astrology wasn’t astronomy, but it was the closest connection between Queen Charlie and the real Charlotte.
The blue market smudged, and she gave up, and just began to colour the entire doll blue – woad armour instead of symbolic sigils, but it was still a step up over what the doll had originally looked like.
She wiped her hands on tissues she’d hidden in the pencil case, and set Princess Stef on top to dry.
While Rex cookied and Queen Charlie watched for dangerous moon men from Mars, or Martians from the moon – aliens who had already conquered on planet were far more dangerous – she went back to colouring the picture of the horse that looked like Buttercup.
There was a soft knock on the door, and it was pushed open.
Her mother stood there, hair pretty and perfect, far from the simple plait with the red bow. ‘Stephanie?’ she asked.
No, I’m Stef.
She grabbed onto one of the regular Barbies – the helped her transform into Stephanie, the proper dolls for the proper girl. ‘Yes mum?’
Her mother walked into the room, opened the wardrobe and pulled out a dress and a pair of stockings. ‘With the black shoes,’ she said. ‘Come downstairs and I’ll do your hair.’
She clutched onto the Barbie and pulled herself closer to Stephanie. ‘Yes mum.’
Her mother left the room.
She hung her head, disappointed.
Princess Stef went back into the pencil case, as did Queen Charlie. Ursa Rex became Ken again, and the impoper girl’s toys were hidden away again. All but one of the Barbies went back into the box, and the drawer went away, as did the craft things.
She closed the dollhouse, and the room was perfect again.
She went through to her ensuite and washed her hands, the blue marker disappearing down the sink, then dried her hands.
The dress was one of the not-pink ones at least, green velvet with black bow – not-pink, but one of the more dolly-looking dresses. She got to play dress-up with her dolls, her mother got to play dress-up with her. It was sorta fair. She pulled the white stockings on, then stamped on the black shoes before putting them on.
She grabbed the Barbie and the aqua brush, then walked down to the parlour, where her mother stood, organising her hand bag.
Her mother smiled – she’d done a proper morph into Stephanie, then she sat on the day bed, and waited for her mother to sit beside her. Her mother joined her a moment later, pulled her from the loose ponytail and began to brush it. Mother always brushed it a little too hard, but she was careful not to complain – complaining made her mother sad, and her mother sad made her father mad.
Getting hurt by the hairbrush was better than getting yelled at.
She brushed the Barbie’s hair while her mother brushed her hair. It was something mother seemed to love – it was a very Stephanie thing to do. Stephanie loved wasting time as a her hair was brushed into perfection. Stephanie loved looking like a perfect little dolly. Stephanie didn’t want to wear woad and have adventures with mutant bears.
Princess Stef was so much cooler than Stephanie. Even regular Stef was cooler than Stephanie. But Stephanie was who mother loved. Stephanie didn’t get yelled at. Stephanie was happy.