photo of baby doll torso with detached arm

Like Doll Parts by Cathy Ulrich

Your parents are always telling you to watch out for the man next door.

Mad scientist, they say. You know how it is.

But he invites you in for tea. He is polite, with kind eyes and fluttering hands. You let him kiss you once, leaning across his dining table where you had been having tea. You let him kiss you; his mouth is soft and trembling.

When you go home, he has replaced your left arm with a robot arm. It is the same size as your old arm — he made sure of it, he said — but heavier. He has you pick up your teacup and set it down with the robot arm. Pick it up and set it down, pick it up and set it down.

Good, he says. That’s very good.

He doesn’t try to kiss you again.

Your parents make disappointed faces when you return home with a robot arm.

I like it, you say.

I’m going back, you say.

At school, you have become popular, thanks to your robot arm. One of the boys from the wrestling squad asks for your number. He used to date a girl with a prosthetic leg, says he liked the stiffness of it against his thigh when they made love.

My parents don’t want me dating, you say. Your parents don’t want you seeing mad scientists either, but you go to his house again after school. He opens the door before you knock, like he had been waiting. He has a robot leg for you, has schematics. His hands, when they touch your leg for comparison, are warm.

How does it feel? he asks once your new leg is on.

Heavy, you say. You wish he hadn’t put the robot leg and arm on the same side. It feels like you’re sinking into the ground.

You would like him to kiss you again, or to want to. He pats you on top of the head instead.

Come again tomorrow, he says.

The kids at school can’t stop staring. Your mother sobs and your father shakes his head.

What did we tell you, he says. What did we tell you.

The boy from the wrestling squad leaves love letters in your locker, walks too closely behind you in the hallway.

You’re beautiful, he says.

The mad scientist says it too. Takes off your other hand, replaces a portion of your torso. He still lets you sip tea at his dining table.

Beautiful, he says.

You say: Do you love me?

The mad scientist only smiles.

It’s all right, you say. You don’t have to. I just wondered.

At school, the freshmen dare each other to touch you. The boy from the wrestling squad has flowers delivered to each of your classes. The other girls stare, jangle the buckles on their fancy boots.

They say: Nice flowers.

Your parents are gone when you ride the bus home from school, the house dark and musty, curtains closed. You don’t bother calling out to them, walk over to the house next door.

The mad scientist answers as soon as you rap.

Hello, there, he says. There were flowers delivered for you. They left them on your doorstep.

You say: I don’t want them, reach out to him with one hand. You think of them as your hands, still, though they are probably more his. You can still remember how warm his touch had been against your skin. You remember his soft mouth on your mouth.

The mad scientist leads you down the stairs. There is a pot of tea cooling on the dining table, a jumble of limbs in a wheelbarrow.

What’s this? you say, picking up one hand, admiring its neatly trimmed fingernails.

They’re yours, if you want them, says the mad scientist.

Oh, you say. They look like doll parts.

Cathy Ulrich might have had a crush on Cyborg from X-Men when she was in grade school. Her work has been published in various journals, including Longleaf Review, Cheap Pop, and formercactus.

Lead image: “Project 365 #340: 061218” (via Flickr user Pete)