Five days after the funeral, little Maddie LeBlanc returned to her second-grade classroom, back into the care of Mrs Bastion, whose teethy smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, who offered a nod in lieu of empty words of solace. All three LeBlancs were sufficiently solemn, the mother wiping her eyes with a stiff handkerchief, the father clenching his fists around the car keys, and, of course, little Maddie.
But solemnity in a child is absurd, and even Richie Adams, who was slow for his age, turned his head when Maddie entered the classroom. She made a beeline for the crumbling five-foot dollhouse in the back corner of the room, kneeling down in front of the kitchen. Maddie held the position for hours, head bent as if in prayer, and disregarded any attempts at engagement or conversation. Mrs Bastion let her be and told the other children to do the same; truth be told, she didn’t know how to handle a child who’d gone through that sort of ordeal, and was only glad that Maddie wasn’t responding in what she’d see as more typical ways: screaming, shouting, throwing tantrums. Quiet was eerie, but easy.
The classroom was silent at lunchtime, save the occasional scratch of a pen; Maddie hadn’t moved from her spot, and Mrs Bastion had opted to stay inside with the girl, trusting no one else to watch for signs of improvement. Mrs Bastion and Mrs LeBlanc were roommates in college and would go for drinks, hence the responsibility Mrs Bastion felt for the seven-year-old in front of her. Her dutiful vigil was soon rewarded; fifteen minutes into the recess, Maddie reached her hands inside the dollhouse and pulled out the plastic baby doll donated to the classroom by some long-forgotten alumnus, cradling it carefully in her arms.
Mrs Bastion watched the interaction closely, remembering some long-ago lecture about girls and dolls and sexual trauma, but Maddie did nothing out of the ordinary with the doll. She dressed it, combed its hair, fed it from the bottle, and rocked it to sleep. The routine continued with bath time and playtime when the class returned from recess, and Mrs Bastion glanced over in the middle of Green Eggs and Ham to see Maddie taking a nap with the baby doll wrapped tightly in her arms.
The days passed in a similar fashion. Maddie took the baby doll everywhere: home, church, car, park, swimming pool, ice cream parlour, never speaking a word, never giving a glimpse of what was going on inside. The doll’s hair was braided, clothes matched nicely, water bottle was rinsed twice per day. But Maddie paid no heed to anything — or anyone — else. On the fourth day, Mrs LeBlanc grew sufficiently concerned to take Maddie to the doctor. Grief was one thing, she and Mrs Bastion agreed, but this was too much. No speech, no engagement, no acknowledgement of anything in the outside world except the baby doll. Maddie was only seven, in any case. What did she know about death and dying?
Dr Moreau’s office was filled with screaming babies, wheezing tots, and germ-infested toys. Maddie ignored the multitude of dolls, cars, stickers, and sweets Mrs LeBlanc brought her way, only rocking the tiny baby doll she already held with far too much care to be normal.
“She’s been this way since Adelaide, well, you know,” Mrs LeBlanc told the doctor. “I’d say it’s grief, but she’s too young to act like this. And she certainly isn’t seeing it from anyone at home. We’re not mad. We cry a bit, of course, but not like this.”
“And she never puts the doll down?” said Dr Moreau, stroking his earlobes. “I wouldn’t be too concerned. It’s still soon after everything, and it’s not an unusual response. She’s probably transferred her attachment from Adelaide to the doll. She needs time. And distraction. Perhaps Nathalie could come over some time? She misses the girls, and she’s been begging to see Madeleine again. And you and Pierre could do with a break. Go to dinner, or watch a film. You deserve it.”
“That does sound lovely,” said Mrs LeBlanc. “But only if you’re certain Nathalie won’t mind. I know girls her age can get irritated by children, especially once the boyfriends start coming on the scene.” They set a time for the next afternoon, and Mrs LeBlanc lead her daughter back to the car, not noticing the hairs Maddie had started to pull out of the doll’s head, one by one.
The next day, Maddie was distraught. Her movements were stiff, rushed. She refused food, refused water, refused to get dressed. The doll was thrown about, soaked in the bathtub, singed by the cooker, and caught by the arm in the car door. Halfway through morning recess, Mrs Bastion found Maddie rocking a headless doll in the crib. Its neck had been twisted, then snapped in two.
“Maddie,” Mrs Bastion said. “Maddie. Maddie, what happened to your doll?”
“It was crying,” Maddie said. She continued to rock the crib forcefully, her eyes wide, wild. “I had to make it stop crying. It was too noisy. Too loud.”
“Oh,” said Mrs Bastion, her voice rising to a shrill squeak as shards of realisation began to piece together. “That’s a…different way to make a baby stop crying.”
“It’s what Nathalie did,” said Maddie. “She showed me. With Addie. They never cry, not ever again.”