Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Young Adult Honorable Mention

Doll in a Box

by Helen Tian

Author Bio

Helen is a rising senior at Gunn High School, and currently lives in Palo Alto. For as long as she can remember, she's loved stories. Her earliest memories were of sitting on her dad's lap, listening to him read picture books for entire afternoons and evenings. Throughout elementary school, she drew comics, newspapers, and even tried writing novels with friends. Now, Helen enjoys going for runs, watching movies, reading, and spending time with friends and family.


Before I started writing, I knew I wanted to write about a societal problem, with my own personal touches. Starting with a massive brainstorming session, from reading through lists of story prompts, to staring at household objects while spacing out, the idea for a story involving a doll slowly took hold. When writing, I was dieting, and conscious about my appearance, so I included elements of focusing on one's appearance into the story. As a rising senior, I've been thinking a lot about my education, and about how much of an effect socioeconomic privilege can have on one's education, so I also incorporated elements of that. Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story that may not be uncommon, but is not commonly told.

The girl's chubby fingers grip the clear, plastic box. She pulls the box close to her face, smushing her nose against the box, and stares straight into a pair of blue eyes. The pair of eyes stare back at her. They're such beautiful blue eyes, a necessary part of the dazzling ensemble before her. The blue eyes are placed on a smiling face, belonging to a doll with wavy blonde hair, long lean legs, sun tanned skin, and a hot pink mini dress. There's a glittery disco ball the size of a walnut hanging off the roof of the box, dangling over the doll's head. An image of a pink convertible in front of a mansion is printed on the cardboard background behind the doll inside the clear plastic box.

"It's perfect. Mama, can I get this one?"

"Honey, you don't need that. Don't you remember why we came here?" The girl's mama tugs on the girl's hand, trying to guide her down the aisle. She is barely 30, yet her blonde hair is already streaked with grey, and her sallow visage already lined. She's wearing a floral sundress that had been scrubbed a few too many times. Though once vibrant with colors, the flowers on the dress are now faded, and the dress droops over its owner's thin frame. But despite her mama's tugging hand, the girl stands still.

"Yes, because I won the spelling bee. So you promised me a present."

"I promised you a book. I never got the chance to finish school, and I want you to get a good education. I want you to be a good student."

"But I don't want a book. I want her, she's so perfect, look how pretty she is! Please, Mama, please!" The little girl fervently waves the plastic box in her mama's face. Her cheeks are flushed, and her eyes shine with tears.

She simply needed this doll. Why couldn't her mama understand? The other girls would only play with her if she had a pretty doll to dress and preen alongside them. They told her they only liked pretty girls with pretty dolls. What good would a dusty old book do for her?

Her mama can not help but feel tears in her own eyes. Her daughter hardly asked for anything, and every day she came home, crying that the other girls would not play with her. She sighed. She could skip one more meal. Her daughter's expression hurts her more than the hunger gnawing at her stomach.

The girl and her mama leave the store. The little girl hugs the plastic box close to her body with one hand, and holds her mama's hand with the other. Her mama holds the little girl's hand with one hand, and grips onto the single remaining bill in her pocket with the other. The single bill that was not enough to buy even the cheapest book in the store.

Every day, the girl carries the doll with her wherever she goes. When she is not playing with her doll, her doll rests inside her little plastic box. The girl combs the doll's long blonde hair each morning, dreaming of growing out her own hair just like it. She borrows a myriad of dresses and skirts to put on the doll from the girls at school who have started playing with her. They tell her they will be her friend now because she has the pretty, limited edition doll that none of the other girls got their hands on in time. Right before the girl goes to sleep each night, she stares at the beautiful face, hair, clothes, and body. What a perfect world the doll lives in, inside that plastic box! She doesn't have a mama who nags her to read each night, a papa who comes home stinking of beer, or a teacher who keeps saying to her, "If you keep playing with your doll during class time, I'm going to take her away!" The doll can take refuge inside that box, with her disco ball and her beauty that all the girls love.

As the girl grows taller, her friends swap trading dolls' clothes for trading lip glosses, cigarettes, and boyfriends. They still let her stick around, because she steals cigarettes for them from the little shop around the corner. Her teachers stop asking her where her homework is, not speaking a word to her. Some of them glare at her, while others smile at her with pity in their eyes. The girl's mama's frame only gets smaller, the faded floral sundress swallowing up her emaciated figure more than before. The girl's papa comes home each night with beer in one hand and a belt in the other. Every night, the girl comforts herself by looking at her doll in the plastic box. Her doll is still beautiful, still in her perfect little world inside the plastic box, untouched by the mess surrounding her.

Every day, the girl dreams of how she can live in a world like her doll's. She dreams of having enough money to dry up her mama's tears and her papa's beer, to make her home a beautiful sphere.

Yet her mama insists that her daughter not work a job, so that she can continue excelling in school. She doesn't know her daughter has shredded her truancy letters, and edited those Ds into Bs on her report card. She doesn't know her daughter has lost all hope for graduating.

So what can the girl do? She stresses about this every day, and before she goes to sleep each night, she continues to press her face to the plastic box with the beautiful, perfect doll inside of it! If only she were this beautiful doll, how much easier her life would be! One day, the girl notices her own reflection in that clear plastic box. She sees that she has long blonde hair, a slender waist, and a beautiful smile when she cares to display one. Perhaps she is not so far off after all. She thinks of the middle aged man. The middle aged man comes to her school every day, waiting near the entrance as school lets out and stares at her legs as she walks home. He had pulled her aside once before, and told her that she was pretty, and could make good money if she went with him. That time, she did not go with him because he stunk of beer.

But now is different. Her mama came home crying yesterday, and the girl saw the bills on the table when her mama went to sleep. There were two new ones on the pile. One was from the courthouse, a fine for her papa's felony. Another was from the hospital, for her mama's chemotherapy.

That night, as the girl looked upon her doll in the box, she let the tears flow out. She longed to be in that box, living with her disco ball and her beauty, away and protected from this life outside. She saw her reflection in the clear plastic of the box. She saw lips covered in borrowed gloss from her friends, but long blonde hair she could call her own. She told herself that if only she had good money, she would be able to pay for Mama's life, for Papa's freedom, for a perfect little world she could call her own. She would be able to buy a mini dress and a disco ball, and live in a beautiful little world, away from all of this. The girl resolved that she must begin building her own little box.

Upon this resolution, the girl approaches the middle aged man after school. She leaves with him.

It's been 10 years now. It's 10 o'clock at night, and the young woman sits in front of a mirror. Her long blonde hair falls to her waist. She leans forward and powders on another layer of makeup, adding glitter to her cheekbones as a final touch. She grimaces. Her hot pink bandage mini dress is tight, and digs into her skin when she moves her body too much. She smiles into the mirror. Good. The black eye is completely concealed by the makeup. The choker neckline of the dress covers up the hickey.

The young woman glances at her phone. It's almost time for her to head out. On her cracked screen, she sees a text notification from her mama. "Thank you for the tea set you sent me, I'm so proud of you for working hard at that publishing firm! I miss you honey, for you work so far away, please visit soon XOXO." The young woman feels tears welling up in her eyes, but she forces a smile. It's a secret she must keep, to keep paying for her mama's hospital bills, to keep her mama happy as long as she can. She blinks the tears away, and her gaze wanders to the dressing table. On the table, amidst the array of perfumes and lipsticks and powders, is her beautiful doll in the plastic box. The doll smiles at her, and she lightly taps the box for good luck as she stands up, and steps out of the dressing room.

The young woman walks onto the stage. She smiles and swings herself to the beat of the music as a hoard of men whistle and stare. When she finishes her set, she gets off and walks into the crowd in search of her regular clients. She finds one of the more bearable ones. He's only 60, and always tips generously.

She leads him into her special room, about the size and shape of a phone booth. She's proud of this room, for one of her clients had paid to decorate the room to her liking. The walls of the room are hot pink, and have a reflective plastic sheen. A glittery, disco ball shaped light hangs off the ceiling of the room. She flicks it on, and wraps her arms around him, smiling and letting the disco ball shine over her face, the lights hitting her cheeks like a thousand diamond shards. He leans into her embrace, and kisses her. She can taste the beer in his breath.

"How long are you here tonight?" she murmurs into his ear.

"All night, Baby," he gasps between kisses, "I could play with you all night. You're so beautiful, just like a plastic doll in a plastic box."