Her mother always called her a “late bloomer” and therefore rarely asked much of her. Today, we might have diagnosed Gloria Lin with something as a child, a label she’d wear for the rest of her life, for good or probably ill. But, then and there, in that suffocatingly small Midwestern town, there wasn’t anything to diagnose. She was just a little slow and disinterested in whatever the other children were interested in. As she grew, she remained disinterested in much of anyone. Her mother, Martha, would say, “someday you’ll find something you love and you’ll feel complete.” Her mother meant children, a husband, that sort of thing, but for Gloria Lin, that wasn’t the path her life would take. They lived in a nice house up on a hill alongside what they used to call a coachhouse—all windows close to the street. They were happy, even though Gloria’s father was long long gone.
Gloria went to college in a bigger city, met people “like her” so her letters said. People who she at least had a marginal interest in. People she might have even called friends. More than that, she found a trade but perhaps not the drive to fight for a career. To be an artist, you often have to be willing to fight, and Gloria was never much of a fighter.
When she returned from the big city with a fiancee in tow, everyone back home was so excited they didn’t say a word about how… boring he was. He was an accountant or something to do with bookkeeping, he never talked much about it or much of anything for that matter. He wore one of eight or nine pairs of similar khaki pants and long sleeved polos every day of the week and while no one could say he was unattractive, there was simply nothing appealing about him. Whereas Gloria had a kind of ethereal otherness to her, a sort of allure, he was a blank slate. A mannequin who brought home a paycheck and wore sweater vests when it got cold. Gloria’s mother loved him because he provided for Gloria even if she forgot his name from time to time. Travis? Trevor? Trent? It didn’t matter. He never minded. He made Gloria happy. Didn’t he?
Her art was strange.
She made these dolls, you see, a strange habit or hobby or art depending on how you looked at it. It was an odd thing for a woman in her late twenties to do, everyone in town agreed, but she’d always been a late bloomer. Gloria had converted the little coach house into a studio, displaying her beautiful and bizarre little creatures in the big picture window facing the street. She was proud of her work. Maybe it would lead to children. Wouldn’t that be nice for Martha in her golden years?
Children never came. Sometimes she’d sell a doll, and while no one understood why, it was often to some kind of fine art collector. The locals didn’t have much in the way of art knowledge, they couldn’t see what she was doing as anything more than making dolls. They were more than dolls. They were art, perfect strange unique expressions of art and doll making. Incredible articulation and posing. Their eyes sparked with life in the way they caught the light. There cheeks, perfectly painted, had a flush of health that gave the impression the doll might draw in a tiny, shuttering breath any second. Some of the dolls were tiny horrors, mutilated and mutated images of tiny human suffering, or animal decay, but those dolls tended to be sold off more quickly, taken from her workshop window where the neighbors could see and packed up off to their final destinations. Sometimes she’d make larger dolls too, nearly life size and lifelike, which men would come and carefully pack for her. Rumor had it she was making a small fortune in her art, even if no one really understood why. Her husband seemed to make enough, Trevor or Trent, and shouldn’t she focus on starting that family her mother wanted so badly? He never seemed to notice, no one ever saw him come and go from the coachhouse workshop where she made her dolls. He left the main house in the morning and came home at night.
Rumors went on, suggesting that Gloria’s mother had grown to hate the dolls. She’d mutter answers when asked about them, and scowl when she walked past her own home facing her daughter’s workshop. She’d chase children away who came to stare at the marvelous little creations because she simply didn’t see them that way. “Poor substitute for grandchildren,” she’d say in darker moments, and her friends understood and never pressed her on the subject.
Despite income from her husband, and from her art, Gloria lived in her mother’s home. “Why?” She’d ask, wide eyed and confused when pressed why she hadn’t moved out yet. “This is my home. Always has been. And the light in the workshop is perfect.” A late bloomer, but clearly it was taking its toll on her mother. People began to talk.
In the Fall three years after Gloria started making her dolls, her mother grew sick. People suspected cancer, the way Martha had gotten thin and weak, her skin getting yellow and maybe some of her teeth fell out. Martha had long been a dedicated and stubborn woman. If she didn’t want to see a doctor, she wouldn’t, and so everyone simply shook their heads and said to themselves and each other, “That’s a shame about Martha.”
Eventually, a neighbor stopped by, worked his way politely past Gloria’s annoyance at being interrupted while working to ask after Martha. “What about her?” Gloria asked, hands on her hips, frustration written across her pretty brow and her eyes just as dull and disinterested as ever.
“She’s sick, dear, is she getting help?”
To this, Gloria looked shocked, jerking her head in the direction of the main house, narrowing her eyes. “She’s sick?” It was news to Gloria, she simply hadn’t noticed, and so the neighbor beat a hasty retreat. This exchange made it into the rumor mill as well.
Two weeks passed and no one saw hide nor hair of Martha or Gloria, only her husband coming out at seven am for his work, and home at seven pm at night like clockwork. No one stopped to ask him about mother and daughter. No one could really bring themselves to talk about anything, really.
Then that third week, out of the blue, there was old Martha going about her chores and routine like nothing was wrong. The color returned to her cheeks, the teeth to her mouth and the smile to her face. “Have you seen Gloria’s latest doll? Isn’t it darling? I worried for so long, you know, but these days, it’s like I have a dozen grandchildren floating about. Aren’t they just perfect?” she told anyone who would ask.
That’s how they are to this day, no matter what we might think about it. A happy family on that hill. Gloria and her strange strange dolls. And her mother. And her husband. Nobody goes up there anymore, note even the children to go see her creations in the window. It’s not like they’re hurting anyone, it’s just that people talk. And worry.