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Vicky's disappointment in the antique dollhouse she receives for her birthday gives way to curiosity as she is drawn into the lives of its unusual inhabitants
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For more than thirty years, William Sleator has thrilled readers with his inventive books. His House of Stairs was named one of the best novels of the twentieth century by the Young Adult Library Services Association. He divides his time between homes in Boston and rural Thailand.
AMONG THE DOLLS
Chapter OneThe poplar trees along the roadside shimmered in a light breeze, and there was hardly a nip in the autumn air. It was altogether a perfect day for a family outing. Certainly it did not occur to Vicky to wonder about what the approaching, more bitter season would hold for her.What she was thinking about more than anything else as they drove along the winding country road was the ten-speed bicycle she hoped to get for her birthday.Her father looked briefly back at her from the driver's seat and smiled. "You haven't said a word for miles, Vicky," he said. "Something on your mind?""Oh," she said dreamily, trying not to make the hint too obvious, "I was just thinking about what a wonderful place this would be to go for rides on a brand new, ten--""Wait! Stop!" her mother cried out, startling Vicky and not giving her a chance to finish. Her father pulled the car abruptly over to the side of the road where there was a hand-lettered ANTIQUES sign nailed to a tree. Vicky sighed. Her mother was always searching for old phonograph records and sheet music.Her father winked at Vicky. "It won't take long," he said, and they followed her mother up to the dilapidated wooden farmhouse that sagged behind the sign.It was dark inside, and there was a moldy basement smell. The room was so crowded with old dusty things that there were only a few narrow corridors for walking. While her mother rummaged through tattered piles, Vicky drifted circuitously through the dimness, trying to decide whether she wanted a yellow bike or a blue one, with racing handlebars, of course, but should the tape be--Suddenly, from the other side of the room, her father exclaimed over something. Her mother hurried over to him, and they exchanged a few excited whispers. The old woman who had let them in, who was so fat that her legs bent outward and she had to hobble with a cane, seemed particularly pleased about whatever it was they had noticed. Her toothless mouth puckered into a smile; she stood up a littlestraighter and brushed the hair out of her eyes.To Vicky's relief they left the farmhouse soon after that, taking nothing with them. As they drove away Vicky caught one last glimpse of the old woman staring at them from the shadowy doorway, her wrinkled face eager with curiosity. Vicky forgot her immediately, however."It really is beautiful here," she said dreamily. "The perfect place to go for long rides on a brand new, ten-speed bike."But her parents, who were now preoccupied in an odd way, did not seem to hear her.
As her birthday approached, her parents grew more and more excited. Vicky was sure they had gotten her the bicycle. And when finally the day arrived and they told her the present was too big to wrap and had been hidden in the basement, she was certain. Hardly daring to look, she kept her eyes closed, hopping with anticipation, as they led her down the stairs.When she opened her eyes and saw, not the gleaming, streamlined vision she had been imagining, but a musty antique dollhouse with old-fashioned, faded furniture and dolls, her disappointment was too great to hide. Her parents beamed proudly, waiting for herto respond. All she could do was mumble something and look down at her feet.Vicky cried easily, and the tears started just after her father had carried the dollhouse up to her room. There it sat on the floor across from her bed. It was nearly as tall as she was, and its dark gray Mansard roof and shadowy little rooms cast an aura of gloom over her bright bedroom. All at once she realized that she would have to be alone with it at night. It was the thought of that thing watching and waiting in the darkness, even more than her disappointment about the bicycle, that suddenly brought on her tears.She struggled to get down her ice cream and cake while her parents asked her over and over again what was wrong. At first they seemed bewildered, then disappointed, as though it were somehow Vicky's fault that the day had gone badly. All of Vicky's explanations seemed childish and silly, and at last they stopped asking. Her mother took away her half-empty plate briskly, without a word. It was undoubtedly the worst birthday she had ever had.
The dollhouse was the first thing she saw when she woke up the day after her birthday, and she turned her head quickly away from it. But, though she triedat first, the dollhouse was impossible to ignore. Not only was it so large, but now she began to be aware that it held a peculiar fascination for her.She looked more closely at the dolls that belonged in it. With a strange reluctance, she picked them up one by one and turned them over in her hands. There were four of them: a mother, a father, another woman, who she decided must be the aunt, and a little girl. They were all old, and somehow seemed to share the atmosphere of the house, as though they had lived in it for years and years.And that was what gave her the idea that what the dollhouse needed was one more doll. If there could be something new in it, something that she chose herself, then perhaps the atmosphere would change just a little. She might even dislike the house less.At first, her mother objected. It was always a mistake to interrupt her when she was playing the old upright piano in the kitchen, but Vicky was too hopeful of her new idea to wait."But it won't fit in with the other dolls," her mother explained, sighing, her hands still resting on the keys. "Everything in that house is an antique, it all belongs together. Something new would destroy the atmosphere."But that, of course, was just what Vicky wanted;and at last her mother relented. She gave her some money, and Vicky dashed out of the house to the strains of an impatient Chopin Waltz.Most of the miniature dolls in the department store resembled tall and thin young women, like fashion models. Vicky lingered over them for awhile, but at last decided against any of them. Not only did they seem to be too large, but there was also something in their blank and cold expressions that reminded her of the dolls already in the dollhouse. At last she came upon a small plastic toddler with a head too large for his body, a pathetic little face, and short, fat arms and legs. He seemed to be just the right size, and, more important, radiated innocence and a gleaming newness.When she first set him down with the other dolls in the conservatory he stood out uncomfortably, pink and shiny among the gray, dusty figures. But somehow his presence was just what she needed to overcome her repugnance. She began to give in to the pull of the dollhouse.And it was actually rather amusing to play with the dolls. The mother and the aunt would cook and clean; the father would read and work at his desk; the children played with their toys. They gathered around the dining room table at mealtimes, and retired to their beds at night. It was all very calm andpleasant; until one night at dinner the doll family began to fight.At first there were nothing but uncomfortable little squabbles. The brother would refuse to eat and the mother would send him to his room. The sister would grab one of his toys and claim it was hers. The mother would criticize the father; the aunt would complain that she was working too hard. Gradually, the quarrelsome life in the dollhouse became more dramatic, and day by day more fascinating to Vicky--especially as her own life began to change.School was a trial for Vicky. She was shy, and never seemed to make any friends. Home had always been the place where she could find peace and comfort. But now that was no longer true.One day her mother fell down the stairs, breaking her hand, and she was different after that. She couldn't play the piano, and in her frustration began bullying Vicky's father, who strangely enough seemed to be unable to stand up for himself. Nor would he stand up for Vicky anymore, but instead would retire to his basement study when her mother began to scold. And now she scolded and nagged more than she ever had before, criticizing Vicky about her poor grades in school, about the fact that she had no friends. It was so bad that Vicky hardlydared to approach her. Mealtimes were agony.As her own life became worse, the dolls' arguments grew more intense. The mother doll began to strike the children, to throw things at them, and the daughter would scream insults back at her. The aunt would brutally scrub the children's faces and hands and lock them in their room without supper. The mother would then berate the father, who would fling himself upon his bed and sob.And then the day came when Vicky brought home her report card, the worst report card she had ever received. When her mother saw what was on it, she flew into a rage and slapped Vicky across the face. She had never struck her before.The dollhouse that day was blurred through Vicky's tears. Almost too miserable to play, she moved the dolls about dispiritedly, sending the daughter up to her room for throwing food, then creating a long argument between the mother and father over the lunch table, which ended in his retreating to his bed. She had just been about to take the daughter out of her room, when the sunlight coming in through the window had dimmed. Vicky looked up, then felt suddenly dizzy and closed her eyes.When she opened them she was inside the dollhouse.Copyright © 1975 by William Sleator
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