Her day began to slide out of control with the presentation of underwear. Skimpy, low-rise panties, to be exact. It became obvious in retrospect but at the time, held high, a pair of dusty, plump hands in the leg holes, it still felt like a game. A heavy thumb print marred the panties’ perfect whiteness like a period, marking the end of where her day, her life, had been heading.
Tammi had been visiting his workshop for weeks, pedaling her bike the twelve miles from school as the year wrapped up and the twelve miles from home now that summer had begun. That he’d built the workshop himself was the least extraordinary thing about him. He made wooden toys for a living. Mail order and reputation kept his business alive, so far from anywhere. Most of his work was traditional; wagons, boats (which floated but were not motorized; in fact, none of his toys were motorized), trains (his most popular item), and cars. He had tried crafting puppets but found no love of sewing in his hands. The toymaker also did custom jobs. His largest was a bed frame, the headboard fashioned into creatures from Maurice Sendak’s island, the rest of the frame the waves which had brought Max to where the wild things lived. His smallest custom was a pair of wood-turned chopsticks. Not technically a toy, and not his favorite method, but the hand-carved monkeys at the end added a touch of childishness, in a good way.
The toymaker specialized in figurines. Before his hair had turned white and receded into a u-shape tucked over his neck and ears, when his body was more pear than globe, he’d started with the traditional toy solider popular around Christmas. The only remnants of those days were the life-sized wooden soldiers on either side of the doorway to his shop. Over the years, as his hands thickened into mitts of fat and sinew, their capacity to cull fine beauty from chunks of wood also grew. He imbued his work with unusual attention to detail. He also had a flair for embodying movement. More than one recipient of his figurines imagined them coming to life during the night as they slept.
His workshop lay at the end of rows and rows of corn, or what had been corn at some point. Sun and neglect had withered them to rows of brownish yellow stumps, an acre between the toymaker’s house and his shop. Tammi wondered if the toymaker had grown corn at some point. Her family didn’t farm.
He had visited her school, showing off figures, demonstrating how to turn a chair leg and whittle a toy solider, answering questions. Behind his smile, he seemed sad. Lonely.
Tammi decided to pay the toymaker a visit. He was more than a little surprised the first time he looked up from his lathe and saw her standing between his twin soldiers. Against her freshness, a pretty vigor too youthful for beauty (to a normal eye), the toymaker realized he needed to give his sentinels some attention. The sun had bleached their red coats to a dull pink and their navy pants to sea foam, peeled the flesh from their faces, faded their mustaches grey. Only their buttons gleamed as gold as the day he’d painted them.
“Yes, young lady?” The toymaker’s fat fist swallowed a small chunk of black walnut. He kept a magnifier clamped in his eye socket, a fine point palm gouge poised over the tiny figure in his hand. Telling the girl she was an interruption without saying it.
“Hi.” She stood tall between the soldiers, hands resting lightly at their belts. The image forcibly reminded the toymaker of Marilyn Monroe dancing between twin lines of tuxedoed men. Not in figure or face, of course. It was the cocky cant of her shoulders, her saucy, hip-shot stance, her ease between the two larger bodies.
He knew her type. Starting to be regarded beyond her years, considered for things she had no way of understanding. She was not worldly, not wise, merely playing to the part people seemed to expect as her body blossomed, becoming the version of herself reflected in people’s eyes.
All fire and no heat, in other words.
“My name’s Tammi. Tammi with an i.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Tammi, Tammi with an i. My name’s Walter, Walter Rosendale.” He mimicked her cadence, making her giggle. The toymaker imagined her not in the jeans and tank top she wore but in pigtails and crinoline dresses.
“I saw you at school today… Walter, Walter Rosendale.”
Hesitant, feeling her way through a game without knowing the rules. Utterly ridiculous, and a waste of his time. He had work.
As if responding to his thoughts, she walked into his workshop.
“Haven’t your parents taught you manners?”
Clouds over a sunny day at the mention of her parents.
“My parents are dead.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Tammi.”
Her tone held wistfulness rather than pain. Her parents were probably not bad people; she simply didn’t want to be reminded of their existence. She was here, in his shop, trying to be her own person. He allowed the lie to stand.
Children with their sloppy tongues and sloppy manners, like puppies blundering through the world, endlessly eager and clueless and destructive.
“What I am making is-” He pronounced each word as precisely as he carved, holding his palm flat so she could see the tiny figure inside.
“What is it?”
He had choices. Politely asking her to leave. Ignoring her until she went away. Demanding her phone number so he could call her parents and tell them what their daughter was up to, wandering into the private areas of strange men four times her age.
Instead, his life went awry.
Talented as he was, comfortable as he’d been in solitude for years, he was growing restless. Not lonely. He much preferred the company of wood and tools to people. But solitude was revealing things to him, things about himself. He scattered these thoughts with a spinning lathe, chased them with the swing of an axe and the buzz of a saw, held them at bay with the minute movements of tools shaving the barest slivers from hard wood. So far, it was enough. But for how much longer, he didn’t like to think.
Then there was vanity. Most of his business was done over the internet. A deposit, an email, a check, nothing like a live reaction. Here stood this girl, staring into his palm like the rest of the world had disappeared. Swayed by her fascinated tone and wide-eyed stare, he explained himself
“Do you know the Lord of the Rings?”
He frowned at the assurance in her tone, then remembered the movies. She didn’t know Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, she knew Hollywood’s.
“This is a goblin.”
The malformed thing lay sideways on his palm. Its face was only suggested, a hooked chin and flat nose, but its sinewy arms stretched forward, the tendons of its claw hands standing out as it pantomimed choking. He was just working its armored tunic and the weapons at its belt into existence. The dangling crescent knife and dagger, forsaken in favor of the more intimate weapons of its hands. Even without a face, this gave the goblin a distinct personality.
“It will be a pawn in this set.” The toymaker gestured to his work table, a chessboard with figures scattered over and around it. “They’re all from the Lord of the Rings.”
For a second, Tammi forgot to breath. Until she saw the chess set, she hadn’t really known what had drawn her to the toymaker.
His work looked haphazard. In the pieces carved from butternut, the king and queen were complete, along with four pawns. Three more pawns were nearly finished. The two rook spaces stood empty, the rest of the butternut figures were only suggestions. On the opposing side, the goblin pawns had been completed, none of them alike, with one empty space for the pawn in the toymaker’s hand. Two Ring Wraiths on top of wyverns made the knights, in complete, terrifying detail. Two black bishops looked like they would end up human. The rest of the black walnut side was empty.
Tammi ran her fingers along the edge of his work table. She longed to feel the pieces but didn’t dare. The detail made them delicate. She imagined the sword snapping off one of the Hobbit pawns, the spikes breaking off a wyvern tail.
“Why not, you know… do it more…” Tammi gestured at the figures, not sure what she was trying to express.
“Use a system? Go square by square?” The toymaker smiled. “Finish one side and then start on the other?”
“I go where the wood takes me.” The toymaker looked over the scattered figures, then at the larger pieces of wood that had been gathered in his workshop over the years. “Wood speaks to me. There’s something inside, trapped, trying to get out. My only job is to listen. Sometimes, it’s a whisper, sometimes it’s a shout. But one thing I’ve learned after doing this for so many years; when you don’t hear that voice, you stop working.”
“What if it doesn’t come back?”
“It always comes back,” he said kindly.
“But what if it doesn’t?”
She looked up at him with doe’s eyes.
“It does. When I first started out, I used to panic about that. Now, I’ve been doing it long enough to know I’ll work through it. Working any piece, there will come a moment where it stops calling to me. I’ll question why I started it at all, or if it’s even worth finishing. Now I’m used to my doubts. When that happens, it’s time to move on to something else. When the wood is ready, it will call me back.”
She hadn’t fully formed. Talking to her was too much like talking to himself. The toymaker would need to watch his words.
When she came to see him, she leaned her bike against one of the toy soldiers (except after they’d been repainted, when she started leaning it against the shed), and greeted him with hello Walter, Walter Rosendale and he responded with hello, Tammi with an i. I have something for you, Tammi.
What’s that, Walter?
He could tell she enjoyed saying only his first name, like a grown up. He tried to hide how much he enjoyed hearing his name on her lips.
It’s a present. Then he’d hold out his latest failed attempt at creating the last white pawn, another young girl carved in butternut.
Her visits had corrupted his work. Every piece sang, but all of them had her voice. He had attempted to finish the line of white pawns twelve times. He’d given Tammi twelve figurines, twelve avatars, twelve silent pleas.
So far, she’d given no indication that she realized her effect on his work. And if she noticed the increasing dissonance of these figures, the gradual youthening of their countenance coupled with their increasingly provocative dress and pose, she said nothing.
“Where do you put the presents I give you, Tammi?”
“I hide them in a shoebox in my closet.”
“Good. That’s very good.”
“Except for the first one. I keep that one on my nightstand.”
“That should be fine, Tammi.”
Soon, the doubling of his name wasn’t enough of an inside joke. She would call him Rosie (sometimes Rosie with an ie if he looked particularly solemn). He would call her Tammi but pronounce it Tam – MY.
Tammi began to dress for his visits. It may have been the effect of the figurines the toymaker had given her. It may have been fledging exploration of her wiles. But the effect was an escalation of the game, the dance between men and women that she didn’t, couldn’t, understand.
“Why are you wearing that, Tammi?” the toymaker would ask.
“Summer,” she would say.
The toymaker didn’t need to fear intimacy, revealing too much of himself. During her visits, Tammi did most of the talking. What she talked about was boys. The toymaker wondered at the significance. Maybe she found him a safe male perspective, emasculated by age and fat. Maybe she was testing him.
“Roger Zolezzi kissed me in front of Iggy’s. With tongue.”
“What’s an Iggy’s?”
“IGA? The grocery store?”
“I see. Who’s Roger Zolezzi?”
“A boy in my class.”
“How long have you been seeing him?”
A high, sweet giggle.
“I don’t see him, silly.” Silly was what she called him, since she’d seen how dork, loser, or stupid hurt his feelings. She couldn’t speak to him like she did to her classmates. Sometimes it frustrated her. “We just hang out sometimes.”
“I see. How was it?”
“Gross. Nice. I don’t know.”
Through these stories, the toymaker’s understanding of her deepened. She’d developed sooner than her classmates. This would be her last innocent summer. Boys would flock to her like maggots to a corpse. Urging, pressuring, expecting. In fall, the rumors would start. I heard she gives handjobs behind the movie theater. I heard she’ll suck your dick for five bucks. I heard she took on the whole football team and ended up covered in jizz. Then, the name-calling. Skank, whore, slut. Rumors and epithets would devour her old life, and usher her into an adolescence she couldn’t imagine.
“Ethan Gallery took me to the movies.”
“Who’s Ethan Gallery?”
“A boy at school. He’s a year ahead.”
“Did he pay your way?”
A jump from the workbench, a sulky walk.
“What did I tell you about that?”
Leaning over, feigning interest in the drill press.
“That boys would expect things from me if I let them pay.”
“What ‘things,’ though? You never say.”
“Just trust me.”
“Maybe you’re right. When the lights went out, he tried to… touch my bra.”
“Did you let him?”
“No! A little. I don’t know.”
Sometimes, instead of a new story about a new boy (it was always a new boy; the toymaker bet that come fall, Tammi would attempt to fight her peers’ aspersions by embracing them, or at least appear to), she’d rant about old girlfriends who were acting totally stuck-up and weird. Familiar enough with jealousy, the toymaker listened to these rapid-fire ravings with half an ear. Instead of paying attention to her words, what he did was experience her presence. The tiny movements of his work table as she swung her legs in frustration. The hint of fruit and flower from the combination of shampoos and soaps she chose. The fluttering birds of her hands. The beads of sweat on her increasingly bare skin.
In the weeks since she first appeared, Tammi had changed. She’d grown taller, her shoulders more broad. Her bra squished her breasts, her shorts cut into the flesh of her waist and thighs. Her dusky hair had passed an in-between length she couldn’t do much with and she had started wearing it up. Her face had gone from innocent and childlike to awkward, the chin and eyes too large, dots of acne over the cheeks and forehead. As her features floated from childhood to adolescence, seeming to reform almost daily, the toymaker saw that she would end up beautiful.
He wondered if her parents – not dead but neglectful enough watch their daughter outgrow her clothes and do nothing – ever told her.
One day, he grew tired of her too-short shorts and too-tight tank tops.
“Hello, Rosie,” she called, coasting her bike to a stop.
She came inside and sat on his workbench, her back to him, looking down at her nails.
“I have something for you.”
“What’s that, Walter?”
He’d left the chess set alone. Another girl was taking shape beneath his hands, a larger one, cut from a fourteen-inch square of black and white ebony. It was nothing he could give to her, nothing anyone could ever see. He’d been working as slowly as he could, hoping Tammi wouldn’t see too much. He had no carving to give her. Instead, he slid a small stack of bills across the table until it came to rest beside her thigh. She didn’t notice. To get her attention, he laid his hand lightly on her hip. It wasn’t the first time he’d touched her, nor was it the first time he’d let his damp palm linger a moment too long.
If it bothered her, she gave no sign. Instead, her eyes widened at the money.
“Is that for me?”
“Wha…” She looked back at him over her shoulder, her eyes shaded, wise beyond their years. “Walter. You said boys expect things when you let them pay.”
The toymaker felt a flush rise to his cheeks.
“I am not a boy.”
“O-kaaay.” She rolled her eyes. “What’s it for?”
“I’m tired of seeing you gasping in here on your bike. You can’t breathe in those clothes. Don’t your parents see you need new ones?”
It was the first time he’d mentioned her parents since the day they’d met. Strictly against the rules. He’d been thrown by her words. You said boys expect things… and didn’t he, on some level? Didn’t he imagine her gratitude taking a certain turn?
She snatched the money, hopped off the table, and stuffed in it her back pocket.
“You should keep it in your front pocket.”
“You know, maybe my parents aren’t rich like you.”
“Rich.” The toymaker’s shoulders stiffened. She’d admitted she had a family. Their time could be coming to an end. The idea filled the toymaker with equal doses dread and relief.
“My father doesn’t have a fancy workshop and a big field. We don’t live in a big house with a porch all around it.”
“I mean, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
She took the money out and frowned at it like it was a difficult math problem.
“You can keep it,” he told her. “I don’t have a lot to spend my money on, and it would make me happy to do something nice for you. Do a lonely old man a favor.”
“You’re not old,” Tammi said, stroking the money with her thumb.
“Old enough to be your father.”
“I think you’re older than him, actually.” A hint of humor brushed her lips.
“You know what? I think I changed my mind.” He held his hand out and she smiled, showing him the beautiful woman she was becoming. She tucked the money back into her shorts. In the front pocket.
Working feverishly through the night, he finished the arching black and white ebony figure. Then, as always when he finished a piece, he stepped back and looked with distance, critique, and appreciation.
Burn it, his mind whispered.
Hide it, his mind whispered.
Make another, his mind whispered.
So lovely, his mind whispered.
The next day, Tammi shopped. She shopped so she could take a day apart from the toymaker. She shopped so she could spend time with Michelle (although Michelle only agreed to come when Tammi offered to buy her a pair of jeans). Mostly, she shopped because her old clothes didn’t fit.
Michelle acted weird the whole day.
“I still had my shorts on, but he put his hand between my legs. He said he wanted to finger me.”
“Oh, God,” Michelle said.
Michelle’s tone was all wrong. The boy in question was Mark Warlock, so no problem there. Mark was totally cute. The activity was strictly off-limits and Tammi had expressed disdain for it, so again, no problem. Michelle should have sounded sympathetic. If not, then the disgust in her tone should have been directed toward Mark, his crude words and his presumption. But Tammi knew it wasn’t. Michelle, boy-hipped and flat chested, skin clear as milk. Her eyes crawled eagerly over Tammi’s body as they changed, but that seemed to be as close as she wanted to get. Tammi did most of the talking. In fact, she couldn’t shut up.
Michelle looked amused by everything she heard, but not in a good way.
Tammi biked to Walter, the toymaker, passing his dark chocolate house with the cream trim and toffee shutters. She couldn’t wait to unburden herself. He listened so well. Weaving carefully through the stalks of dead corn, she approached his workshop for the last time. She wore brand-new shorts and a brand-new t-shirt, and saleswomen had been very nice about finding bras that fit. Thanks to the toymaker, she could pedal as hard as she could without losing circulation in her legs or getting short of breath.
Again, only retrospect revealed the irony.
When she stepped between the soldiers, her usual greeting (hi, Rosie!) died on her lips. The toymaker wasn’t working. He stood behind his workbench, head cocked, like he had been waiting for her. She imagined him frozen in exactly that pose for two days, like he stopped when she wasn’t around. The thought made her uneasy, but pleasantly so. Their time together had begun to feel pat.
A rectangular box, purple and roughly the size of a ream of contract paper, sat on the work table in front of him. Her first store-bought present from him, and the last.
They looked at each-other in silence for a while. She shifted from foot-to-foot.
“What do you think?” she said finally, twirling in a circle, her arms out slightly. He winced, then looked away.
“Tammi, about yesterday… I didn’t mean to insult your family.”
She didn’t know what to say, whether she was even supposed to respond. His eyes, blue as sunlight on ice, were focused somewhere over her shoulder.
“You should understand… having that, having a family, you’re richer than I could ever be. A workshop is what I have instead of a family.” His voice was barely audible. “I’ve been working for such a long time now. I’m no good for anything else. Work has been my only real love. I’ve buried myself in my work for… well, my whole lie, I suppose. These last few years have been tough. You see, I’m starting to resent what I used to love about it. The things that made me happy, they’re like wheels of wood someone left on the side of the road. Gorgeous rings, solid heft, good bark, but when you get them home for a good look, they’re rotten inside. But you’ve lugged them all that way, and they’re all you have, so you work with them…”
Words tumbled from the toymaker’s lips. He lost track of what he meant to say, searching for some ultimate expression of his personal truth, groping with words. On and on, his thoughts on himself, the world, and his place in it. When he ran out of words, the silence rang like the aftermath of a gunshot.
“I think you just broke my heart.” Tammi’s voice was as soft as the toymaker’s.
He started as though from a nap. His eyes focused on hers, pinning her, making her heart pound. Had she ever looked him directly in the eyes before? Surely, she’d remember. His Russian nesting doll body, his kindly uncle’s face with the white crescent of hair and the ruddy goatee, his eyes put the lie to all of that. They belonged on a bird of prey.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The thickness in that single word, like she was about to cry, surprised them both.
“You said no one cares. I care.”
The toymaker nodded. Tammi felt something odd, like a bat resting on the nape of her neck, a knot of unease. It looked like he wasn’t acknowledging her words, but deciding on something. Whatever it was, he didn’t look happy about it.
“I’ve got something for you, Tammi.”
His words were as full as hers had been. The air between them felt heavy, ritualistic.
He pushed the purple box toward her. When she reached for it, he snatched it back to his chest. He chuckled, then set it down again, waving one thick hand over it.
“It’s nothing special, really.”
“Probably not.” She wrinkled her nose at him, smiling, leaving the bottom on the table and lifting the lid. White tissue paper, clothing folded inside. She lifted it by the straps. It looked like a white, a-line dress, but it was too short and too frilly. And it came with panties. An outfit.
“It’s a dress,” he said, unable to meet her eyes.
Not a dress. Not a dress at all. Lingerie. She let the lie stand.
“It’s pretty,” she told him.
“I’d like to see you in it.”
Her stomach pounded. She dropped her hands to her sides.
“I mean, you should try it on, to see if it fits.”
His work area and storage area were divided by a curtain, not unlike a dressing room. The walls between them didn’t reach the ceiling. Had that ladder always leaned against the short wall? He had so much junk lying around. Probably she hadn’t noticed before now because it had no significance.
The toymaker pulled the panties from the box and held them high between his fat fingers.
“Plan on spying on me?” Her tone was playful, and she couldn’t keep the smile from her face. The desire to watch her change radiated from him, but she couldn’t believe he’d do it.
“No, no, no.” Chuckling, blushing, tossing the panties back into the box, backing away with his hands raised. “I’ll be right here.”
What would she look like in the outfit?
What would she look like to him in that outfit?
“You sure?” she asked. The toymaker was so lonely and harmless. Let him watch, if that’s what he wanted. It wouldn’t cost her anything.
The way he’d looked at the panties between his fingers, like a child looking at a Christmas tree. He would see her that way, all bright lights and sparkling beauty, filled with love and promise. She wanted him to see her. She wanted to burn in his artist’s gaze.
“Okay.” She took the box from the table and went into the storage area. She flipped the light on and turned back, raising a finger at him. “No peeking.”
He put his hands over his eyes, making her laugh.
She drew the curtain, pushed chunks of wood out of the way with her feet, and kicked her sandals off. She used the box to nudge some free shelf space and pulled her t-shirt off. Nothing but silence in the workshop. No shuffling steps, no sweaty palms on wooden rungs, no pallid, round face over the top of the wall. She unsnapped her bra, folded it on top of her t-shirt, and dropped them in the purple box. She pulled the frilly top over her head. The elastic band fit snugly around her upper torso, falling from her breasts to her pelvis in the front and halfway over her butt in the back. The fabric flowed when she moved. It might have been a little sheer, but it was tough to tell in the storage room’s weak light.
Still nothing from the workshop. Was there enough space between the curtain and the floor for him to see?
Trying not to think about what she was doing, Tammi pushed her shorts and underwear to the floor. She tossed them into the box and shook loose woodchips from the white panties she’d put aside. With the outfit complete, she slipped back into her sandals (even though they really didn’t go) so she could take a few experimental turns around the storage area.
“Fits good,” she called.
Inspired by the figurines the toymaker had given her, Tammi took the elastic bands from hair.
She pulled her hair into twin, short ponytails on either side of her head. They probably looked stupid and uneven, but he wouldn’t notice. He would see her as he’d carved her, a little girl playing dress up.
Did she actually plan to show him?
“There’s no mirror in here.”
There was no mirror out there, either, but she didn’t think he’d say anything.
“Do you want to see?” Still no answer. That foreboding or whatever it was, that tiny creature resting at the base of her neck, stirred slightly. “Rosie?”
She pulled the curtain back. The toymaker stood as he had when she’d gone into the storage room, in the corner, behind the work table, doughy face cradled in his hands. Maybe he had stopped covering his eyes, was looking between his fingers but couldn’t bring himself to drop his hands.
“Rosie?” She swallowed, suddenly dying for a drink.
When his hands dropped, he stared into the corner, looking like he might cry. Tammi shifted her weight, trying to catch his eye. His gaze flickered, but he couldn’t have seen much. Her heart pounded with the effort of standing, waiting to be seen. She felt it at her throat and temples.
She took the purple box, piled with the clothes she’d been wearing when she came in, and tossed it on the work table. The toymaker flinched, hugging himself. His eyes scanned her clothes, spilled across the table. He cleared his throat, rubbed sweat from his forehead, sneaking glances at last.
He looked scared.
He looked greedy.
When he finally gave her his full attention, his body went slack, the way a cat sometimes goes limp before it flops down. Emotions welled in Tammi’s gut. It had some connection with the unease, spreading now from that small knot, flowing down her spine. Fear and Walter didn’t go together, so it had to be something else.
The toymaker gave himself another little nod. He moved around the table toward her, eyes wide and staring. Not like she was Tammi, but like she was an open door. He crouched to rummage on the shelf beneath the table as he approached, sweating, staring.
The churning in her stomach, the thickness of her tongue against the back of her throat. Still, she stepped toward him. Twice. They met at the edge of the work table. His eyes were blank as ice as he stood before her, devouring her body with his gaze. In one hand, he held a wide carpenter’s chisel. In the other, a wooden mallet. He squatted down, rested the point of the chisel against her ankle. He drew the mallet back.
Tammi snatched the chisel from his loose grip. The mallet made a short arc through the air, hitting nothing. He looked up, blinking his confusion.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Hobbling you,” he said.
The emotions roiling inside her clenched into a fist, like a jumble of noise resolving into a chord. His odd magazines, his figurines, not even the underwear had made her want to run. Looking into his eyes, she saw it all. The toymaker’s desire to dress her up, to keep her prisoner, to do things to her. Sex things. Gross sex things. Over and over until she died, because he would never let her go.
The weight of the chisel in her hands, the reality of it. He still held the mallet. Tools that had become weapons.
She drew the chisel back in both hands and brought it down between the ice chips of his eyes. He gave a single barking cry and fell back, dropping the mallet so he could stop the blood flowing from his forehead into his eyes.
Tammi’s skin crawled inside the toymaker’s outfit. She dropped the chisel on the table and snatched her shorts up, pulling them on over the skimpy panties, watching the toymaker sniffle and founder on the floor. She stuffed her bra and underwear into her pockets, grabbed her t-shirt, and ran to her bike.
“Tammi,” he grunted. “Please, help me.”
Help you, help you, help you what?
She stood on the other side of the wooden soldiers, ripping the frilly top in her haste to be rid of it. She threw it into the dirt, stepping on it, grinding it deeper into the earth. She didn’t want to cry, there would be time for crying when she was home in her room, but she couldn’t help it. She pulled her t-shirt on and swung herself onto her bike.
He knelt in the doorway, blood flowing down his cheeks like tears. Skin puckered from his forehead, revealing the bone beneath. His eyes looked bleary, but not enough. She should have hit him again.
Slowly, she backed away. He put one foot up, started to struggle to his feet. It didn’t matter; she angled her front tire away from him and kicked off, around the back of the workshop. When she was twenty feet away, she cut back. She’d make the road before him easily.
He wasn’t running. He wasn’t looking at her. He looked at his feet as he lumbered toward his house, the frilly top clutched in his hands. No, not his house. His car. He wasn’t in any hurry because he knew he could catch her.
At the end of the toymaker’s drive, she saw nothing coming in either direction. She pedaled toward home, knees firing like pistons, heart pumping steam.
Behind her, the engine of the toymaker’s car coughed into life. He had an old station wagon, green and brown metal with wood paneling. Her bike would fit in the back easily, as well as her unconscious body.
Despite the sun blistering over her face, arms, and legs, Tammi’s speed created its own breeze. Pumping hard, she rode to beat the devil.
She snuck a glance over her shoulder and couldn’t believe how quickly he’d caught up. His fat body consumed most of the front seat. Did he really think he’d catch her? She had a dirt bike, not a speeder (even if she’d had a speeder, she would have beaten it to death over rocks to get away). His grill winked at her in the sunlight. No time to wait for a low patch or clear area; Tammi pulled into the high grass off the road, standing on the pedals to let her knees take the shock.
To her surprise, the toymaker followed, one set of wheels spitting gravel from the shoulder of the road, the other tamping down the grass behind Tammi. A wooden fence surrounded the field, but she couldn’t afford to stop and climb it. She said a silent prayer to the God who had let her escape the workshop in the first place and shot back over the road. No cars came. She pedaled through the opposite shoulder to the grass, aiming for the field. The bike seat slammed into her thigh as she cleared the ditch, but she kept going into the rocky field beyond.
The toymaker followed in a winding arc. He couldn’t risk getting caught in the ditch, so he pulled ahead of her on the road, looking for a drainpipe he could cross.
Tammi broke hard, looking around. She could maneuver better but he was just too fast, so the road was out. A creek ran through the middle of the field. Maybe once he got off the road, she could strand him on one side of the creek while she was on the other. The woods at the back of the field would be perfect, but they were so far away. She pedaled hard, thankful that there was no waistband digging into her stomach, shortening her breath, no cut offs strangling her thigh muscles.
She watched the toymaker’s station wagon pull onto the soft shoulder, fifty feet away, idling over the drainpipe where the creek met the road. Looking at him made bile rise to the back of her throat. Leaning forward in the front seat, he looked like some fat insect in a clear cocoon.
His matter-of-fact tone. Had she found him charming? Really? Or had she been attracted to how she imagined herself in his company, beautiful and sophisticated?
If she made for the woods now, she’d never make it. He’d drive her down, hit her bike, peel her bleeding body off his hood, and take her home, take her home, take her home. First he’d nurse her back to health, and then, oh, then…
Tammi cut for the road at nearly a right angle. The toymaker pulled into the rocky field and sped toward her. She wished it hadn’t been such a dry summer; the wagon would have been buried in mud. Then again, so would her bike wheels.
Her thighs ached with the effort of keeping the bike moving at top speed over the grass. Air burned in her throat, her teeth rattled over the terrain. She willed his wagon to take an unlucky hit on a rock, for a stray branch or abandoned piece of machinery to puncture a tire.
She had a direct line to the road. He curved the station wagon’s course to cut her off, ready to catch her in the field. She turned back toward the woods. He curved back so he could cut her off there. Again, she cut toward the road. Again, the toymaker steered his wagon to cut her off.
He lost ground but not enough to make it a close race to either the road or the wood, which was fine with Tammi. She couldn’t beat him right or left, but she could shoot past him and beat him to the creek, which was her real goal. Each zig and zag brought her closer. If she could get him to commit, she could get past him and make the creek before he had time to turn around. She could walk her bike over the rocks and he’d be stuck on the other side. There’s no way he’d try catching her on foot. He’d have to drive all the way back to the road to get around the creek, which should give her enough time to reach the woods. She’d be through the trails and gone, and her first stop when she got to town would be the police station.
The toymaker hunch over the wheel, grimacing. She knew the expression from his work. He’d reached a tricky part and needed to concentrate. Tammi made a sprint for the road. She only gave it sixty percent, enough to make it look good while saving her energy for the real work ahead. The toymaker bit, as his expression told her he would. He hit the gas and sped into her path, slamming the breaks just as she cut left. His door was already open, anticipating her hitting the passenger side of his wagon. Instead, he watched in the rearview mirror as she pedaled away. He let out an angry squawk that was almost her name, pulling the car back around.
As she approach, Tammi saw that the creek was little more than a trickle of water through some rocks. Not ideal, but the toymaker would still risk getting stuck if he tried to drive over it. Was he angry enough to try? How bad did he want her?
Tammi stepped from the bike and began to navigate it over the creek.
The station wagon made a wide circle and came back to the creek, between her and the woods. The wagon’s engine ground high, its tires squealed in the dirt. Instead of going around the rocks to meet her on the other side, the toymaker straddled the creek. The wagon shot toward her with dizzying speed. Images flashed through her mind. The grill would crush the bike, send her flying. He might get stuck on the rocks, he might not. Either way, she’d be seriously injured or dead, stored in the back like luggage while he found a way to free his station wagon. By the time she healed, escape would be impossible. Her life would be reduced to a room, to a bed, a being some strange man’s thing.
The sound of the wagon’s undercarriage scraping on stone grew closer. She stopped being careful, losing a sandal in the muck beneath the water, cutting her foot on the rocks. The engine filled her ears. She slipped, skinning her shins against the wet rocks, twisting her ankle between them, ripping the skin from her knees, dragging the bike along. Light glinted off the grill behind her. She was sure that the heat from the engine was burning her legs like a dragon’s breath.
When she reached the grass, she took several lunging steps before mounting the bike. A huge, metallic crunch surrounded her. Ignoring the sting of her raw shins, the pain in her wrenched ankle, the bruise on her thigh, and the cuts on her bare foot, she pedaled furiously for the woods at the back of the field.
She heard the toymaker’s muffled shout as she pedaled past him. He rolled his window down and grabbed for her, yelling the entire time. She could tell he was making words but she had no idea what he was saying; he sounded like a roaring beast. Whether she imagined his fingers brushing her shoulder or it actually happened, it gave a her a burst of adrenaline that erased thought, drowned her pains, turned her legs into pistons.
Behind her, the engine revved, rubber squealed on rock, then the rush of the wind in her ears blocked out everything else. Tammi kept her eyes on the trees. Her lips pulled back from her teeth, spittle flew from her lips. Her thighs had passed pain and found some terrible hollow burning, but she didn’t stop pumping. When she reached the trees, a triumphant cry escaped her lips. She leaned against the nearest trunk, straddling the bike, breathing in whoops and gasps. At last, she chanced a look back.
For a large man, the toymaker was fast. His wagon had gotten wedged into the creek at an angle and he’d left it behind. He was barely ten feet away, the mallet swinging in one hand. She heard his labored breathing, a grunt that may have been her name. She could never have imagine his jovial face arranged in the hateful grimace it wore, but there it was. Had she been afraid before? Not enough, not like this.
Her mind raced. There wasn’t a trail in this part of the woods. If she rode her bike too quickly, she risked spilling herself or damaging the bike. She’d be lying there, looking up at the sky, wondering if a rut had thrown her or a branch had gotten caught in her spokes, then the toymaker’s angry face would loom over her, the mallet raised in one fat fist…
She couldn’t fight him, could she? Beneath his fat lay muscle from years of lugging wood. She might have already caught her breath from a bike escape while he labored to close the distance of a yard over a rocky field, but she didn’t like to think what would happen if he caught her.
There was a bike trail on the other side of the rocks. She’d reach it, and she’d be gone.
Tammi got off the bike. He was almost on her, close enough to smell the animal sweat pouring off of him. The mallet in one hand. The lingerie in the other.
She swung her bike around and mounted it, pedaling back into the field just as the toymaker reached the trees. His jaw dropped. He’d been so focused on keeping his feet moving he had no idea how close he’d come.
“Tammi!” White cloth blowing into the trees as he reached for her. His bright, weepy, predator’s eyes.
Through the field, back to the road, then home again, home again.
When she passed the wagon, still idling, she stopped the bike. Making sure the door was locked, she slammed it closed. He’d be forever getting another set of keys, or calling for a tow, or for a mechanic to open his door. Then he’d have to somehow get his car off the rocks. She smiled at the toymaker, imagining him trying to explain how his wagon had ended up where it was, with the keys locked inside.
At the road, a field of green between her and her tormentor, Tammi turned back. For some reason, her scalp felt tight. Then she remembered the ponytails. She pulled the bands from her hair and left them around her wrist. She wanted to feel the wind whipping her hair against her shoulders as she rode.
Walter stood at the wagon, one hand on the roof, watching her. His shoulders heaved with effort. Blood ran from the cut on his forehead.
She smiled, raising her fist in triumph. Unable to resist, she popped her middle finger high.
“Fuck you, you fat pervert!” she screamed.
He laughed. Then he used the mallet to smash the window of his station wagon.
The bottom of her stomach broke, filling her legs with needles like she’d lost control of her bladder.
Never catch me, never catch me, never catch me.
Forget the road, then. Tammi bent over her handlebars and went for broke, navigating the rocky field as quickly as she dared, making for the trail through the woods. She ignored the revving engine, the squealing tires, the shouted curses. All that mattered was speed, and keeping the bike beneath her. With a final screech of metal, the toymaker freed his station wagon from the rocky creek bed. She reached the trail and stopped. He was on the wrong side of the creek, facing the road, head in his hands. His shoulders shook. With laughter or tears, Tammi couldn’t tell.
I never have to think about him again, she told herself. Never.
She pedaled through the woods, making the long, winding trip back to town. Before that day she might have gone home, showered, scrubbed her skin raw, burned the box of figurines, burned the clothes the toymaker’s money had paid for. She might have started the business of forgetting about him and the time they’d spent together, putting the end he’d planned – I’m hobbling you – from her mind. She might have known horror as young girls in her town went missing, one or two a year, until she left for college. She might have fooled herself that the disappearances had nothing to do with her. She might even have believed it.
But the toymaker had changed her. She’d burned in his regard, but not like she’d expected. That hateful, predator’s gaze had burned the last of her childhood away. She made her first stop the police station, where she found the toymaker waiting, bleeding, livid.
“There she is officer,” he yelled, pointing. “The child who assaulted me. I demand you arrest her at once.”
There was no light in the toymaker’s gaze, like there was in his shop. Beneath the fluorescents of the police station, he looked like a confused old man.
The toymaker was smart to paint himself as he looked, as a kindly, avuncular figure who’d felt sorry for a neglected girl, a neglected girl who was not as innocent as she seemed. She took to the workshop just fine, had even helped him repaint his old toy soldiers, but eventually her true colors emerged. A little allowance for odd jobs wasn’t enough. She repaid his kindness by robbing the shoebox where he kept his cash, a shoebox which – to Tammi – looked exactly like the one she used to hide his “gifts.”
“I want this dusted for fingerprints,” he said.
That meant he knew where she lived, that her parents were rarely home. Had he been watching her?
She fought the panic rising inside her. It knotted her stomach and rushed her breathing, but she couldn’t let it scatter her thoughts.
He’d taken the time to go to her house and remove the shoebox from her closet, but he’d still beaten her here. That meant that he hadn’t had time to get rid of them, not in any permanent way. They didn’t look exactly like her, but they proved he didn’t see children the way he should. He probably still had the top half of that flimsy outfit stashed somewhere, too.
She still wore the panties he’d given her. The panties with his fingerprints in wood dust.
Tammi took a deep breath and waited patiently for her turn to speak.