A forever friend she called it. Someone to play make-believe with and to hold close to her chest at night. Someone who would never leave her, like her parents had.
Jessi found her forever friend at the strangest of places. The storefront was tucked away from busy streets in the French Quarter like Bourbon and Royal, devoid of tourists, panhandlers, and discarded mardi gras beads. Jazz echoed down the block, fading the further the girl went. The quiet and stillness were unfamiliar. She rolled off the unease crawling along her spine. On the wall of the building was a portrait of a bearded woman. Tapped beside it, a flyer said, “Love the bizarre? Come to J. Allister’s Oddities & Antiques to behold a collection of the weird and the strange. $5.00 entry.”
Below the words: a black and white photograph of a doll. It was poor-quality—grainy and not completely in focus—but the doll’s pale face was perfectly clear to Jessi. High, curved eyebrows. Eyes large and wide—pupils nearly exploding—with thick eyelashes. Lips, a heart without the pointed bottom. Cheeks rounded with painted circles. The doll had lopsided dark bangs and wore the expression of someone paralyzed by fear. Jessi thought it looked beautiful and lonely, like it needed a friend. And Jessi planned to be just that.
To visit the museum, she needed $5.00. Every now and then a stranger would take pity on the skinny girl with greasy, limp strands of brown hair and yellowed skin—wearing a t-shirt and jean shorts pockmarked with holes and dirt. Usually, however, she was ignored, seen as a pest. Most days she was lucky to end up with a dollar or two. And that was hardly enough for a bag of potato chips, let alone entry into the museum.
It took two weeks—an eternity to the nine-year-old—to save the money. When Jessi entered Mr. J. Allister’s store, she thought she must be in the wrong place. The shop was dark, the air dusty, filled with little specks and cloaked in shadows. Only a few dim lamps lit the space. Shabby, moth-eaten oriental rugs went wall-to-wall, so it was impossible to see the floor beneath them. Chairs, benches, desks, and end tables were scattered around the room. Old paintings, some with gilded frames, featured portraits of white men and women and plantations.
From the moment Jessi saw Mr. Allister, she knew he was bad news. Her best friend, the Bell Man, always said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover unless it’s a rotten cover and then you drop it and run. Mr. Allister was a wicked-looking man—his back hunched so much the girl and he were eye-to-eye—with waxy black hair streaked white and silver. The little hair he had was yanked across his head and glued into place as though he’d plucked strings from a violin. His nose was large, birdlike, and his olive skin was ashy, dusted like everything else in the shop. He wore a withered tuxedo, stained and marked with holes.
“Where’s the doll?” she said, approaching the counter. She smoothed the crinkled flyer. “This one.”
The old man eyed the girl. “That’ll be $5.00.”
Jessi dug into her pockets. With care, she pulled out two sweaty dollar bills, six quarters, ten dimes, seven nickels, and fifteen pennies, setting them onto the counter. She met the man’s gaze.
He studied the change, his face contorted in disgust. Picking up a pencil, he pushed the change around with the eraser end. “The glass doorknob behind you. Close it once you enter. Don’t,” he said, “touch the glass. Or anything else for that matter.”
She turned away from him, walking toward the door with the glass knob. Pausing, she craned her neck to read the word scrawled in faded white ink. It started with an m, but she couldn’t sound it out. Later, the Bell Man would tell her it said Museum. She clasped the knob and twisted. The door creaked open. She stepped inside and closed it behind her.
The museum differed from the rest of the shop. It was well lit with fluorescent panels on the beige ceiling; there was no space for shadows to hide here. The museum was nothing more than a room—about double the size of the antique shop. Rows of floor-to-ceiling glass cases were erect. Light poured through them, demanding visitors’ eyes to examine their items. Dozens of items were displayed inside these glass cases. Disembodied eyeballs of all shapes, sizes, and colors that seemed to follow you as you walked by them; an entire case dedicated to marionettes—human-looking ones, animals, dragons and other beasts—made from wood, cloth, string, and wires; a section of deformed skeletons, belonging to someone who had had a hunchback, one with six toes and fingers, and adult conjoined twins. There was even a case filled with human body parts—brains and hearts and giant cysts. These things were strange and frightening, sure, yet none of them could distract Jessi from the object she desired.
She found two cases filled with dolls in the last row of displays. Jessi scanned the plastic, glass, porcelain, and cloth faces. She bounced with excitement when she recognized the doll from the photo. It was even more beautiful in person. The doll’s blue eyes flickered. Goosepimples tingled along Jessi’s throat. She looked around, scanning the other dolls’ faces. They appeared almost lifelike; she half expected them to stand up and begin to move about. The girl shook her head. Quit scaring yourself. She turned back to the doll from the flyer. “What’s your name?”
She heard a whisper. “Josette,” it said.
Jessi braced herself to fight or run. She surveyed the room. No one was there.
“My name is Josette. Can you hear me?” This time the voice spoke louder, revealing itself to be a woman’s soft and melodious voice.
“Hello. Over here.”
Jessi followed the sound of the voice, her hand over her mouth. She gulped air through her nose. The sound seemed to be coming from the doll. She leaned closer to the glass, thinking she might be able to find a wire or recording device. She wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Allister played tricks on his customers.
“Hello. Can you hear me?”
Jessi crossed her arms. “Very funny, old man. Let’s see how funny you think this is when I give you a meatball sandwich.”
“What the hell is a meatball sandwich?”
“A meatball sandwich is…wait a minute. I’m not telling you. You’ll feel it soon enough.”
“I’m afraid I don’t feel anything. Not physically, anyway. That’s a basic principle of being an inanimate object. I’m like a damn pillow. I can’t move on my own. I’m not supposed to talk—I have no teeth or a tongue—but,” the voice exhaled, “here we are.”
“This is some kind of trick. Dolls don’t talk. Well, fancy ones do sometimes,” Jessi said, “but not like this.” Her forehead and temples perspired.
“It’s no trick. I wish it was. Look as hard as you want. Check the entire room. You’ll find no wires, no speakers. This is me, baby. Josette.”
The girl did as Josette suggested. She searched the museum for wires, speakers, and recording devices. She found nothing. She came back to the case after several minutes, her face flushed.
“Let me guess, you found nothing?”
Jessi shook her head. “Nothing.”
“That’s because I’m telling the truth.”
“Does he know?” She thrust her thumb backward.
Josette laughed. It was eerie to hear the maniacal sound come from the doll’s sealed mouth. “Know, honey? Who do you think did this to me?”
“He made you a talking doll?”
“God, no. He turned me into a doll.”
Her eyes popped in wonder. “What were you before?”
“What the hell is that?” After a beat, she said, “Heck,” correcting herself. The Bell Man said to never curse in front of company. Josette seemed like company.
“An aahna is a magical being that can give life temporarily to inanimate objects.”
Temporarily made Jessi think of tempura and she fought the urge to giggle. A few weeks ago, the Bell Man had said life as we know it is temporary, and then he explained what the word meant. Jessi didn’t know inanimate though. She tried to sound it out, but only inanimal came out of her mouth.
“Inanimate. Rocks, toys. That sort of thing,” Josette said. “Things that aren’t alive.”
Jessi understood. “Dolls?”
“But if you can only turn toys tempura-ir-ily into being alive, then you’re going to go back to being yourself soon. Right?”
“I wish. The old bastard used dark magic to twist mine. I don’t have any powers in this body, but even if I did, I wouldn’t know where to begin. My magic gives life; it doesn’t take it.”
Jessi felt her cheeks spike with heat like when she had a fever. Her eyes stung. She squeezed them shut, feeling moisture coat her eyelashes. The door creaked open. She blinked her eyes open, ignoring the building tears.
“The museum’s closed for the day.” The old man stood in the doorway, his face pinched.
“But I—” Her cheeks were on fire now.
“Closed,” he said in a way that made it clear she couldn’t negotiate. “Remember, don’t touch anything on your way out.”
Jessi scowled at the old man. Then she turned back to Josette. “I’ll be back,” she promised.
The girl visited every afternoon she could afford—her rule was eat first, then play. She begged for spare change from tourists, locals, and street artists around Jackson Square and along Bourbon Street so she could buy a beignet or a lemonade; whatever was left went toward the museum. It was her favorite place in the entire world—or at least what little she’d seen of it—and she found it funny that her favorite place was also the scariest. The Bell Man said it wasn’t ha-ha funny, but ironic. She agreed, even though she didn’t know what ironic meant.
Since her first visit, she had met other dolls trapped in Mr. Allister’s museum. There was Colleen, a blond-haired china doll, who would curse anyone who owned her, or so a piece of paper on the glass to the right of her said. Before, she had been a witch. “My specialty was curses. If someone even looked at me the wrong way, I’d place a hex on them.”
Then there was Benjamin, a large, cloth doll with two white fangs hanging over his bottom lip. Red speckled the pointed teeth. Before, he had been a vampire.
“Vampires are real?” Jessi’s mouth hung open.
“Does that mean Frankenstein and werewolves are real too?”
“At least she didn’t ask if you really drink blood,” Christophe said.
Christophe and Darlene were a pair of wooden puppets in matching his and her outfits. Darla had flaming bouncy curls and Christophe had shiny black hair styled to the side with a slight wave in the front. Unlike the others, they had been created, not born. Yet they had been sentient, able to talk and move on their own free will from the beginning of their existence.
It took several weeks for them to talk to Jessi; they were wary of her, having never met anyone else who could hear them. Like Josette, they were magical beings trapped by and bound to Mr. Allister. “Think of it as a magical tattoo,” Josette said. “Except it’s not just body art. It’s a way to tail us. Because of it, we’re tethered to him for eternity.” They told her the only way to break the spell was death, and none of them were ready for that.
“At least you’re together,” Jessi said. The Bell Man always told her to look at the bright side of things.
The dolls agreed.
“Why is he trapping magical beings?” Jessi asked.
“Collecting,” Josette answered. “He says we’re part of his collection.”
“A collection of what?”
“Why would someone want that?”
“Power. What else?” Josette said.
Jessi asked how a hunchbacked old man could trap these magical beings. A vampire, a witch. Josette and the others remained quiet. All they would say was that he was a lot stronger than he looked. And to never, ever let him touch her. “Why not?”
“Just don’t get near him, okay?” Josette pleaded.
“Okay,” she said. “I won’t.”
She asked the Bell Man about Mr. Allister. Afterall, her friend knew many things.
They sat side-by-side on a bridge overlooking a fountain in Armstrong Park. The park was nearly empty, save for a few teenagers getting high and several homeless folks. The Bell Man nodded, his lips thin and tightly knit together.
“He’s evil, huh?”
The Bell Man nodded. His lips parted. “Don’t get too close to him. You don’t want him to see your light.”
She twisted to face him. “My light? What light?”
“Have you ever thought it odd that only you can hear the dolls and puppets?”
The girl’s forehead wrinkled. “No.” She could feel the word but warm and heavy on her tongue, ready to come out. She let it go, let the word fall back into her throat, and closed her mouth.
“What if I buy them? Everyone has a price.”
The Bell Man nodded. “That might work.”
Jessi rested her head on his shoulder, a few bells clanging as she adjusted herself. The pair sat in silence as the sun set.
For three months, Jessi worked to raise the funds. She did a one-man show where she played a variety of kooky characters, she sang, danced, juggled, anything she could think of to draw in a crowd. She wasn’t very good at singing—her voice sounded like tourists crunching forgotten mardi gras beads under their feet, or so a little boy told her one afternoon—and her dancing was sloppy and spastic. But it worked fairly well, and she stole the rest she needed, pickpocketing bills and change here and there, lifting entire wallets out of backpacks and back pockets.
On a Thursday, she strolled into Mr. Allister’s shop with the money gripped tightly in her hand. She rolled her shoulders, trying to seem relaxed. At the register, the man read an old leather-bound book. She waited. He continued reading his book, ignoring her. She cleared her throat. When he looked up, his gaze burned through her. She blushed.
“I don’t mean to bother you, mister, but I have a proposition for you.” She had been practicing the word proposition for weeks.
The old man’s face twisted into a sinister smile. “A proposition?” He mulled the word over, his tongue rubbing against his teeth.
“Yes, sir. Mr. Allister,” she said, correcting herself. Josette had suggested calling the man by his name.
“I’m listening.” His eyes narrowed.
She swallowed. “As you know, I’ve been coming to your museum for months now.”
“I love the dolls and puppets you have in there. I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“I can’t imagine you have.”
Jessi told herself to ignore his blatant dig. She didn’t need him to like or respect her, just take her money. “That’s why I’m prepared to offer you $300 for them.” Another sentence she’d practiced.
Mr. Allister’s eyebrows threaded together, making one long line of peppered black. “For what?”
“For Jo—” she remembered herself. “For three dolls and two puppets. I can show you which ones I mean. That’s sixty bucks a pop.”
The old man slapped the desk with his hand and his neck jiggled, laughter erupting from his throat.
“You don’t believe me? Here.” She slapped the cash on the wooden surface. The bills were crumbled and gray from her sweaty palms.
Mr. Allister laughed even harder.
Jessi placed her hands on her hips. She gave the man a nasty look, her lips pulled back like a dog growling, preparing to tell him off. The doorbell bellowed behind her, distracting her from her rage. Her lips curled into a smile. Jessi watched Mr. Allister take in the man entering the shop. His eyes bulged, the red veins swimming around his irises like little snakes. His mouth snapped shut, the faint echo of his laughter remaining in his throat.
The man was tall with an average build. His skin was ghostly pale, translucent, with an icy blue sheen to it. He looked as though he had just climbed out of freezing water. His eyes were black pits. For lips, two thin blue lines set in a perpetual frown. Slight creases extended from each side of his lips from the downturned expression. He appeared middle-aged or older, but his face bore no lines or signs of wear. He donned a black suit with a white dress shirt and a long skinny black tie. On top of his head was a black bowler hat. On every available surface of his clothing hung tiny bells. They were not ringing. Not at the moment, anyway.
The Bell Man.
He strode toward Jessi and Mr. J. Allister, pausing beside the girl. He nodded to her, a glimmer in his eye.
“Mr. Allister,” she said, “have you met my friend?”
The Bell Man bowed to the old man. Mr. Allister shrank from them, trembling.
“Originally, Mr. Jerome Allister and I weren’t supposed to meet for quite a while, but things changed. Destiny changed.” The Bell Man spoke carefully, his words pointed. His lip twitched to the right, pushing up his cheek. “I believe my friend has given you a proposition.” The old man remained silent. He blinked rapidly. “A simple nod will suffice, Mr. Allister.”
The old man nodded, reminding Jessi of a bobblehead.
“Very well. I assume from your reaction, you don’t want to sell your dolls or puppets for a monetary value.” He smirked, air audible from his nostrils. “A nod will suffice again, Mr. Allister.”
The old man shook his head.
“I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement, don’t you? Perhaps a trade? You and I know how valuable one of the items in your collection is. There are plenty of others here. You and I can both sense that.”
Jessi frowned. What did he mean by sense? Was the Bell Man suggesting one magical being for another? She didn’t want to save her friends only to trap someone else. She remained quiet; she trusted the Bell Man.
“A trade,” Mr. J. Allister said, his voice hoarse and shaky. “I might agree to a trade. The girl can choose one of the five she wants in return for a new item of equal or greater—” He paused, his eyes darting to Jessi. “Importance.”
“That sounds reasonable.”
“Good. My collection is extremely valuable.” The words hung in his throat.
The old man’s face flushed. His shoulders relaxed. “I actually have an item in mind,” he said. He looked at Jessi again. “Can we talk openly in front of the girl?”
The Bell Man met Jessi’s gaze. His eyes said trust me. “Why don’t you go in and see your friends? Choose the one you’ll take tomorrow.” His phrasing wasn’t accidental. It was a hint; her friend intended to make a deal with the old man today and find a way to double cross him in the future. He was going to save them all.
Jessi and the Bell Man walked hand-in-hand. “I don’t like that man,” she said. “He acts like I’m stupid. Maybe he doesn’t like girls. Maybe he’s a seck-ist.”
“You mean sexist.” The Bell Man enunciated the x. “Why do you think that?”
“Because he wouldn’t talk to you in front of me. And he kept giving me weird looks.”
“That is because he was scared.”
“Of me?” Her chest swelled with pride.
Her friend wheezed, his version of laughter. “No.” She asked who then. “The man is scared of me. Mr. Allister is used to threatening and frightening magical beings. Then trapping them. And he’s very good at it.” The Bell Man’s face creased. “He doesn’t see your light though. He’s unaware you have magic in you. He thinks you’re just a girl. And that’s a good thing. We don’t want him to figure it out.”
Jessi’s face wrinkled in confusion. “Is that why I can hear the dolls and puppets?”
“So the old man just thinks I want some dolls to play with?”
“And if he finds out that I’ve got magic he might try to trap me like others?”
“He’ll certainly try.”
“How come he doesn’t try to trap you?”
“Because I don’t exist solely on this plane. His powers cannot trap me.”
“So that’s why he’s afraid of you.”
Jessi twisted her mouth. “But what exactly are you?”
“Some call me the Seer of Death.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What am I then?”
“A Seer of Life.”
She liked that answer. “That’s pretty cool.” She began to swing their intertwined hands.
“Yes, it is,” the Bell Man said.
They stood at the entrance of a themed playground in City Park, below a pink and yellow sign that read Storyland. It was evening, the sunset bathing the sky in soft twilight. The sign was supposed to be a vibrant medieval banner, the sides of it around yellow poles. To the left, Humpty Dumpty sat on a brick wall. To the right, Little Bo Peep and her sheep. Behind them were live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, low bushes and plants, and a black fence enclosing Captain Hooks’ pirate ship, a red, yellow, and blue ship for children to run around on, pretending to be pirates or Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.
The whole thing seemed silly to Jessi. Mostly because she didn’t know who these characters were. The Bell Man tried to explain the tales, but she dismissed them. “Why would I care about a made-up story about an egg that kept falling off a wall and a lady who lost her sheep when witches and vampires are real? And I know them!”
“Fair point.” The Bell Man gestured with his arm to the park in front of them. “This is where the old man said he’d chased her.”
Her head tilted. “The voodoo doll is a girl?”
“It appears that way.”
She perked up, her chest pushed forward. “What’s her name?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. She might not have one.”
Jessi planted her hands on her hips. “But everyone has a name.”
“Over there,” the Bell Man said, pointing. “Under the tree. Do you see her?”
At first, she saw nothing but nearly black bark. She kept looking, however, and saw a tiny burlap sack against one of the tree’s revealed roots. “Should we go over to her?”
“You should. You know the kind of reaction I typically receive.”
She nodded. Anytime someone saw the Bell Man straight on, he reacted like Mr. Allister had. Some ran, some shrank into themselves, some even screamed. Because of this, the Bell Man usually only came out at night, leaving Jessi to tend to herself during the day. She never understood what they saw that she couldn’t. Sure, he had a peculiar look with his pale skin and collection of bells. But he looked no stranger than many of the people she saw everyday around the Quarter. One guy, for instance, dressed up as a neon-colored cat monster. The Bell Man wasn’t nearly as frightening as that thing.
When Jessi saw her friend, she felt at home. Afterall, the Bell Man was the closest thing she had to a family. No one had stayed with her as long as he had. She even thought his face appeared kind sometimes—like when he smirked or almost laughed.
She walked over to the voodoo doll and kneeled. It had no mouth, nose, or ears, but it did have black eyes made from buttons. Its head was round and it had two arms and two legs streaked with dirt. There was a tear in her side and moss trailed from it like internal organs. “Hello,” Jessi said, her voice low and soft.
The voodoo doll didn’t respond.
“I’m not here to hurt you. My name’s Jessi. What’s yours?”
“Me,” the doll said in a meek voice.
“Me,” she repeated.
Jessi smiled. She liked that.
“Wait. You can hear me?”
“Of course I can.”
“No one’s ever heard me before,” her voice sad. “I’ve always been invisible.”
“Well, I hear you and see you. And it’s very nice to meet you.” Jessi put her hand out for the voodoo doll to shake. She felt Me’s hand on the tip of her middle and ring fingers. It was no heavier than a leaf blown from a tree.
“Do you know the scary man?” Her voice trembled.
“Are you here to save me from him or take me to him?”
Jessi’s stomach twisted. She didn’t want to tell Me the truth. But could she lie to her? Pretend she was going to save the voodoo doll? Jessi looked over her shoulder at the Bell Man. He remained below the sign for Storyland. Only his chin was clear in the evening night; the rest cloaked by the brim of his hat. He nodded. She turned back to Me. “I’m here to save you,” she said. “You never have to see that scary man again.”
Jessi scooped the voodoo doll and carried her over to the Bell Man. She knew he would understand why she couldn’t turn over Me to the old man, she knew he would help her, but how were they going to save everyone?
Jessi and the Bell Man sat on the wooden steps leading to a bridge in Armstrong Park. The nearby lanterns cast shadows through the handrails that lined them. Me was in Jessi’s lap, her head against the girl’s belly. The voodoo doll snored softly. “Can voodoo dolls dream?” Jessi asked the Bell Man.
“I don’t know.”
Jessi’s lip quivered, the start of a frown.
The Bell Man eyed her. “But I don’t see why not.”
Her cheeks rose into a grin. Then her forehead wrinkled, her smile vanishing. “What are we going to do? How are we going to get out Josette without giving him Me?”
“Let’s think on it for some time.”
“Okay. Let’s think on it.” She leaned her head against the Bell Man’s arm. Think, think, think. Her eyes began to flicker, closing a second longer each time.
When she woke the sun had begun to rise, casting away the darkness like a spell. The sky was both orange and gray, a combination the girl loved. It reminded her of the Bell Man and herself. He was night, the gray clinging to the sky, and she was day, vibrant and promising light. She sat up, raised her arms above her head, and stretched. She looked down at Me, who was still asleep against her stomach. She then glanced at the Bell Man, who was staring ahead at the sky. “I fell asleep,” she said. “I didn’t come up with any ideas.” Her voice was heavy, weighted with guilt and fear.
“You did?” She exhaled with a huff, her lungs pulsing, unaware she’d been holding her breath. “What is it?”
“It’s simple, really. We promised him a trade and we’ll stand by our word.”
“A magical being for a magical being. That was the deal.”
Jessi didn’t understand.
“We will trade him a magical being, however, it won’t be this one.”
“Who will we trade him instead?”
“He wants this voodoo doll.”
“Me,” Jessi said, feeling the need to use her name, making her alive and more than an object.
“He wants Me. I pressed him about why he wants this particular voodoo doll. He finally told me it was because of who made her.”
“A powerful Quarter witch who took something from him. Me won’t be just another item in his collection. Her purpose is revenge.”
“He told you all that?”
The Bell Man shrugged, the bells rattling in their cages. “I have methods to get people to talk.”
Her face cracked into a grin. “I’m sure you do. So, what are we going to give him instead?”
“Another voodoo doll.”
The girl shook her head so fiercely the tendrils of her oily hair lashed at the Bell Man’s jacket sleeve, creating a whipping sound. “We can’t trap another doll. These beings are alive. Conscientious.”
“You mean conscious. Aware.”
“Yeah. That.” Her face flashed red.
“I don’t know any other voodoo dolls that are conscious. Do you?” The hint of a smile pressed into his cheek.
“No, I don’t,” Jessi said.
She was beginning to get it.
They stood outside of Lavender’s, the Quarter witch’s shop. Me was in a safe spot, hidden with Jessi’s sweatshirt behind the dumpster. They would get her after. “Before you go in,” The Bell Man began. “I’m going to cloak your light. Just in case.”
“How do you do it?”
The Bell Man was silent for several moments. He looked down at his chest, where his beating heart would have been if he had one. Here, a small hook attached to his black tie. Hanging from it was a brown bell with little smudges on its brass surface. He lifted it, holding it in front of him so that Jessi could get a good look. The bell was skinny compared to the hundreds of others on his clothing. It reminded her of someone or something that she couldn’t quite place. The Bell Man reached inside the bell. Jessi watched his wrist flinch, then still. His hand remained inside.
She tongued her upper lip. “You hold the bell to hide my light?”
“I hold the clapper to keep your light hidden.”
“So all of these bells…?”
“Each represents a person or being, yes.”
His lips pressed together, forming a thin line. “For now,” he said. “Go on it. I’ll be out here.”
Jessi knew not to push her friend for too many answers. He never gave more than he was willing.
Inside the shop, she found a voodoo doll that resembled Me; which wasn’t difficult as several of the dolls could have been Me’s twin. She said hello to them to see if any would talk back. But none did. The shopgirl smiled at Jessi when she greeted the dolls. Jessi knew she probably looked crazy, but didn’t care. She needed to know. She felt a pang of guilt at her relief that these dolls weren’t like Me. They were just wax dolls with herbs and moss inside. Not alive. Or conscious.
Outside, she showed the Bell Man the doll. He put Jessi’s bell back over his heart and it chimed cheerily back in its rightful place. “This should work,” he told her.
They made their way to J. Allister’s Oddities & Antiques. Knuckles white, Jessi held the doll to her chest, her other hand gripping the Bell Man’s jacket sleeve. They passed the bustle of Bourbon Street, green, purple, and gold mardi gras beads swinging from drunken hands, a cacophony of shouting and thumping music, the stink of humid bodies, spilled beer, and urine.
They turned down a narrow street lined with houses and hotels. Colorful flowers spilled over the railings of the building’s balconies. Gas lanterns flickered yellow in the sunlight. It always amazed Jessi how in the city one turn could transport you to another world.
“This trick will work once,” the Bell Man said.
Jessi scowled. They were outside of Mr. Allister’s shop, beneath the small wooden sign swinging over the entrance. “What?”
“This trick will work once.”
She shook her head. Jessi didn’t know what he was saying. Really, she didn’t want to hear it. She knew the deal had been for one of the magical beings. She had hoped there would be a way to save all of her friends. “But what about your powers? Can’t you threaten him with death? You scared him pretty bad before.”
“Badly,” he corrected. “I see death, like smelling rain before a storm. I do not control when it comes; that is Destiny’s power alone.”
“So we have to leave the rest of them there?”
“I won’t be able to come back to visit, will I?”
“You won’t ever see them again. It’s too dangerous. Allister could figure it out. You out.” For a moment he was silent. “I can silence your bell, dimming your light, as I have every time you’ve entered the store, but it doesn’t ensure the old man isn’t clever enough to figure you out. Even the fact he knows you are important to me leaves you vulnerable to his dark desires.”
“I understand.” And she did. But it felt as though pieces of her were breaking off, like she was imploding. She didn’t want to leave the others behind. “Thank you,” she said after a beat, “for helping me. For coming up with this idea.”
The Bell Man replied, “What are friends for?”
Mr. Allister’s shop was dark and dusty as ever. The old man stood behind the register in his faded, moth-eaten suit, his face obscured by shadows. Jessi imagined the Devil’s face emerging from the darkness, a snake baring its fangs ready to bite. “It pleases me that you’ve returned so quickly,” he said.
Jessi gripped her friend’s arm tighter.
“We made a deal,” the Bell Man said, his voice monotone.
“So you have it?”
They walked closer to the shadowy figure. Jessi’s hand shook, jingling the bells on that jacket sleeve. “Why don’t you go in and pick your doll?” the Bell Man said to her. “Mr. Allister and I will complete our transaction. Out here.”
Jessi nodded; he was giving her time to say goodbye.
Once inside the museum, she pressed the door shut, the vintage hinges whistling, and made her way to the cases that held her friends. Her hands twisted in front of her. “Hi, guys.”
They said hello.
A smile crept onto her face. “It’s good to see you all.” She studied their faces, wondering how long they would be forced to live in these bodies, unable to smile or frown or move their limbs. Her chin dropped to her chest. Sobs poured from her open mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Josette said.
Jessi brought her hands to her face, crying harder. The skin of her palms grew soggy.
Her friends remained silent while she cried. Then Colleen said, “It’s okay, honey. We know you did your best.”
The rest chimed in, agreeing they were grateful she had tried to free them.
Jessi lifted her head and gazed at her friends. She sniffled before speaking, wiping the back of her hand against the bottom of her nose. Her hand glistened with snot and tears. “You knew I couldn’t save you all?”
“We knew you’d try,” Colleen said.
“And we appreciate it,” Christophe said.
“Yeah,” Darla said.
Benjamin sighed, which Jessi took as his agreement.
“You’ve given us a sliver of life we never thought we’d have again,” Josette said. “For that we’ll always be grateful.”
Jessi’s stomach flipped. “My friend—my other friend, the Bell Man—he and I made a deal with Mr. Allister. I get to take one of you. Josette.” She hoped her other friends wouldn’t hate her for this. Josette was her first and dearest friend at the museum. She could never abandon her.
“The old man thinks we’re making a trade—one of you for another one like you—but I couldn’t do it. Not to another magical being.” She sighed. “But I won’t be able to come back. Not ever.” The words rushed from her mouth: “I hope you’ll forgive me. I wanted to save all of you, I wanted us to all be together. I’m so sorry.” She looked at the ground.
“There is nothing to be sorry for. You did something no one else has been able to do,” Colleen said.
“Thank you,” Christophe and Darla said in unison.
“Thank you for trying,” Benjamin said.
“Protect yourself from him, Jessi,” Colleen said. “Don’t ever let him see your light.”
Jessi opened her mouth, ready to promise her friend she’d do her best. Before she could speak, however, she heard Mr. Allister enter. “Ready?” the old man demanded.
The girl said yes, gulping back the howl building in her throat. It wasn’t safe for him to see how much these dolls and puppets meant to her. Not for them or for her. She turned her head to face the glass case on the right. “I want this one.” She pointed to Josette.
The old man eyed her, the many lines and crevices of his face deepening. He hobbled over, a ring full of golden keys jangling in his hand. He unlocked the cabinet and took out Josette. Jessi snatched the doll from his wrinkled hand and drew Josette to her chest, giving the old man her meanest expression.
“That’s it then,” the Bell Man said. “Come on, Jessi. Let’s go.”
The air was still and heavy. The girl’s heart rapped in her chest. She hurried toward her best friend, her legs soft at the knees, ready to take off. When she reached him, she took his hand in hers. She worked to slow her breath. They had fooled the old man so far, and the plan was almost done. They just needed to get away undetected.
The Bell Man nodded at Mr. Allister.
The old man bowed his head. “It was a pleasure doing business with you.”
Once they were outside, Jessi curled into the Bell Man, sobbing for the friends left behind. He held her until she was able to walk. Josette remained in her arms, repeating it’s okay in a sing-song voice to soothe the girl.
Jessi didn’t stop crying until they got Me. Sniffling, she asked, “What do we do now?”
“We go somewhere new,” The Bell Man said. “There is a place outside of the city where magical beings are safe from prying eyes and evil sorcerers.” His face twitched, an almost smile. “Somewhere new would be good for a while.”
“I agree,” Me said.
“Me too,” Josette said.
Jessi hugged the dolls to her chest and slipped her fingers into the Bell Man’s. “Somewhere new sounds nice.”
The little girl walked with her three friends away from the Quarter and J. Allister’s Oddities & Antiques. The bells on her best friend’s jacket, pants, and hats clanged with each step, a symphony of life and death and shrill clanging.