Scene from The Dollhouse

Alfred was literally humming with excitement when he skipped down the stairs into the Dollhouse. Angel was so surprised to see him she squeaked and pressed into the corner of the couch, hugging her knees, trying to be invisible. Bud tensed, hands clenched, ready to fight. Only Olivia seemed unconcerned.

"Hello, hello my darling Dolls! Are we ready for our very first photoshoot?" Alfred's sing-song voice matched his wide, crazy smile. Angel remembered an old movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, about a place that hated children. Alfred's expression reminded her of the child catcher, excited and cruel at the same time.

Without waiting for a response Alfred unlocked the door of the Studio, turned on the light with the clicker that seemed to manage all the lights in the Dollhouse. He turned to them and clapped his hands happily. "Come along, come along!"

Olivia ordered them up with her eyes. She was really good at silent communication, Angel thought nervously. She followed Olivia and Bud to the doorway of the Studio, and peeked in, gripping the door frame.

This single room was as large as the whole Dollhouse area. Three of the walls and the ceiling were covered with thick, gray padded stuff that looked kind of like egg cartons. Soundproofing, Bud said later. The fourth wall, opposite the door, was painted a bright white. There were lots of lights hanging from the ceiling, which made it even brighter. The ceiling seemed higher than in the Dollhouse, too. The floor was concrete, like the Closet floor. In the right corner, there was a real double bed, with a headboard and pillows and pretty covers. That must be where Olivia slept before they came. No wonder she was angry. It looked a lot nicer than a bunk bed with a thin mattress and even thinner sheet.

The left-hand wall was fitted with 16 feet of deep metal shelves fitted floor to ceiling, the kind big chain stores used. The shelves were filled with all sorts of things, and dozens of plastic storage tubs. Angel couldn't tell what was in most of the tubs but saw bits of fabric and some stuffed animals and other random things poking over the tops of a few. A fake Christmas tree and plastic Halloween pumpkin buckets were shoved into a section of bottom shelves. There were lots of rolls of canvas that took up a whole shelf, the way they stored fabric at the Quilting Bee back home. Angel could see a painted scene of a fall day on a loose triangle of the material on one of the rolls. A backdrop, she thought it was called. They used them in drama club to create different scenes.

The wall the door was on had a long table pushed against it, one on either side of the doorway. Each table was covered with equipment: computers, monitors, cameras, microphones, plastic-wrapped bundles of DVDs, and other gear Angel didn't recognize. Unlike the rest of the room and the Dollhouse as a whole, this area wasn't neat or organized. It was jumbled and messy.

The song "Don't worry, be happy" was playing over a sound system, on repeat. It had already played twice.

But the most interesting thing in the room was directly ahead, in the center of the back wall. Four plastic lounge chairs like you'd find at a pool sat under an umbrella open to give them 'shade'. A backdrop had been hung behind the chairs. It was a sunny scene with ocean waves and sandy beaches. A wooden box, two feet wide and two feet deep and about six feet long, was at the very edge of the scene. Mounds of sand had been piled around it to make it look as if it was part of a dune. All that sand would be a mess to clean up! At the edge of the set area, two large blue plastic barrels were covered with bright beach towels. One towel had the word "Nantucket" printed on it and the other was a puppy wearing sunglasses.

"What the hell is this?" Bud asked, bewildered.

Alfred clapped his hands together again, grinning broadly. "So glad you asked! Come, stand by me." He waved them over to the tech table, and he reminded Angel of the guy at the state fair carnival ride who looked super creepy but tried to seem nice and normal so you'd get on his ride.

A photo album, the kind with sheets of plastic to cover the pictures, sat on the table. It wasn't very thick. It looked like it had been touched a lot, although the "Our family" on the cover faded. Alfred opened the album, flipped through until he found the photo he wanted, and pointed to the photo on the right side. "Look!"

They looked. A group of people were sitting on a sandy beach with a fancy hotel in the background. A man and woman – mother and father? – were stretched out on lounge chairs, reading. There were cocktails on the table between them. A beautiful blonde girl, around Olivia's age, was sitting on a chair in a pink bikini, with a bright plastic beach ball clutched to her. A couple of teenage boys sat near her, and Angel didn't think they were part of the family. A boy, slightly younger, was hiding behind the woman's chair, looking away from the photographer toward other guests.

"Oh-kay," Olivia said, splitting it into two words. "I don't get it."

Alfred beamed at them. "We are going to recreate some of my most special memories! Update the photos. Create much happier memories!"

That didn't sound so bad, Angel thought. Maybe she was worried about nothing.

"First Doll, you're going to be the mom. I'll be the dad. Girl Doll, you're Felicity, Boy Doll will be the son." Alfred went to a video camera set on a tripod off to the right side of the room. It was directed at the beach scene. Oh. That's what Olivia was telling them about. A red light clicked on.

Angel wanted to ask who Felicity was but was afraid.

Alfred went to the wall of shelves and pulled out a box. "We each have a costume!" Bud made a face at the small, tight blue swim trunks Alfred handed him. They were identical to those the boy in the photo wore. Olivia's was a floral one-piece like the mom's, with low-cut legs, not like what you'd see at a pool today. Angel accepted the pink bikini he handed her – it was mostly strings and a couple of tiny triangles. She must be the Felicity girl.

"Girl Dolls, dress in the Closet. Boy Doll and I will change here."

Angel followed Olivia to the room next door and turned her back on the older girl. She kicked off the white underwear, then thought she should hide them. She folded them and slipped them under her pillow. Maybe Jennifer would forget Angel had them and she could wear them to sleep... She stepped into the tiny pink bikini bottoms and pulled them up under her skirt before letting the skirt fall to the floor. She kept her back to Olivia while she struggled with the bikini top until Olivia finally jerked the strings out of her hands and tied a knot behind her back. Angel whispered, "Are you nervous?"

"I don't understand what's happening, and that always makes me nervous." Olivia wasn't shy at all. She stripped off her clothes, then slipped on the one-piece suit, adjusting the top so it covered her slim body properly. She was the only female Angel had seen naked except Shine. Olivia was perfect. Angel hoped her own body was that beautiful when she was older.

Bud and Alfred were dressed when they returned to the Studio. Alfred's upper body was smooth and tanned, with well-defined muscles. His swim trunks, which rode low on his hips and came to mid-thigh, made him look like an actor in a surfer movie. Bud, who was a foot shorter and 60 pounds lighter, looked even scrawnier standing next to Alfred. His skinny arms and legs were bronzed where the skin was exposed to the summer sun, pale everywhere clothes covered - what Junior called a "Farmer tan."

Bud's bathing suit was different – not trunks like Alfred was wearing, but tight blue bikini briefs that clung to his young body and emphasized his comparative smallness. Seeing them side by side convinced Angel that Bud would never be able to physically overcome Alfred. There was no world in which he and Alfred could physically battle and Bud would win. If they were going to escape, it wouldn't be with might. They'd have to find a way to use their brains.

 "New Doll, lay in the box, please. On your back."

Angel's gut clenched and she looked to Olivia, who shrugged. Alfred directed the "First Doll" to sit in "the mother's chair" and "Boy Doll" to crouch behind it. Angel struggled to control her nerves but stepped into the box. She couldn't bring herself to stretch out. She stayed sitting, legs in front of her, hoping he wouldn't notice she hadn't done exactly as he said.

Of course, he noticed. "Girl Doll, lay flat." His tone scared her, and she laid down, but then that scared her too, and she immediately sat up.

Alfred roared at her. "Do what I tell you, Doll!" She could feel his voice as if it were inside her.

Terrified, Angel sobbed and rolled onto her side, tucking her knees to her chest, trying to make herself as small as she could manage. She'd made a bad mistake. Alfred squatted next to the box with a roll of duct tape. He shoved and prodded her body until she was flat on the bottom of the box. He strapped her ankles together, then her knees, then taped her hands to her side. He used more strips of tape to secure her to the box itself – at the ankles, at the waist, and at her shoulder – so she couldn't move. She tried to wiggle a foot and couldn't, and panic made her cry out.

Things happened quickly. Bud yelled "Don't hurt my sister!" then Angel heard him gasp and Olivia shout. She could see just enough of what was happening above and to the side of the box to watch Alfred wrap his hand around Bud's throat and lift him into the air. He was so strong! He made it seem like Bud really was nothing more than a doll!

 "You! Will! Obey!" Alfred thundered before dropping Bud. Angel couldn't see Bud, but she heard him groan.

"Stop it stop it stop it!" Angel shrieked.

Alfred peered down at her. She could see he was red-faced but trying hard to control himself. His eyes narrowed and he squatted beside the box again. Then he smiled.

It was the smile of the devil.

He pulled an old handkerchief, creamy white, thin, and scalloped at the edges, from a pocket in his trunks. He waved it above her face like he was fanning her. "Mother's." She didn't have time to understand what he was saying. Alfred laid the handkerchief over her eyes, her nose, her mouth. He adjusted it until it was exactly the way he wanted. Petrified, Angel twisted her head again to try and knock the material away.

Alfred's large hand came down over her face, fingers splayed, the most horrible spider that ever was. His fingertips squeezing into the sides of her skull, her cheeks, her jaw. The hard wood against the back of her head hurt. Panic made her suck in giant, wheezy breaths.

"Hold. Still." Alfred instructed, and she sobbed and gasped, but made herself be still while he repositioned the handkerchief. Once he had her face covered satisfactorily, she heard him tear more strips of the duct tape, then felt the sticky tape on her skin. He framed the material with the tape, into a square. Above her eyes, from outer eyebrow to outer lip, across at the bottom, then connected the square. The tape was itchy. At least she could breathe, although the fabric moved up and down over her mouth with each breath and pulled tight over her nose. She could open and close her eyes, but all she could see was shadows.

What was happening? Why was he doing this?

The shadow of Alfred went away. She heard a rattle, or squeak. The beach chair?

Alfred began speaking. "Now I'll tell you the story of that photo. I was eleven, my sister Felicity was 16. Our parents took us to a resort in Mexico for spring break. Felicity loved anything that gave her reason to wear a bikini and show herself off, and my father loved anything that made Felicity happy. By then my mother's love was reserved for the nearest bartender."

His voice drifted a bit. He was in the past, not the present. "I was a shy kid, and small, and preferred to read or build fantastical worlds for Dungeons and Dragons. Not that I was ever given a choice." Resentment hardened his tone. "But I did like to take photographs, and the location was beautiful. So there was that."

"On the last day we were there, Felicity and her pack of male suitors came upon me taking photos down the beach. I had stupidly strayed, away from the safety of the resort area and the crowds. At Felicity's direction, they grabbed me and held me down. Then they buried me in a deep pit of sand." It sounded as though he was up and moving again, coming closer. Angel tightened her muscles and squeezed her eyes shut, not sure what was happening but knowing it wasn't going to be good for her, no, not good at all. "And that is what we are going to recreate today!"

"First Doll, Boy Doll and I will fill the box with sand in the same way that was done to me," Alfred instructed. His voice was above her. "Boy Doll, over here. First Doll, do not hesitate. Do as I say. Now!"

What did he mean? What was he talking about?

Hundreds of little needles pricked her bare skin, damp, cold, and rough. Angel closed her eyes and commanded herself to stay calm. Bucket after bucket after bucket of sand rained down on her. At first, it wasn't bad, the physical feeling of the sand. It quickly became rough, and it was cold, and it started to feel very heavy, especially when someone – Alfred, she assumed – began to pack it tightly around her body. Angel couldn't move, not at all, not an inch, not a finger or toe. The sand pressed into her, on top of her, smashing her, getting so, so heavy. She was grateful for the cloth over her face. Without it, she would drown in the sand!

She could hear Bud crying. She could hear the glee in Alfred's voice. "More! More!"

Terror knotted Angel's stomach and she felt her guts churn, hot and liquidy.

"She's covered! Can we stop now?" Bud asked, trying to sound tough, but not succeeding.

"Oh, no, my boy, we're not close to done!" Alfred laughed. Angel felt paralyzed. The pressure of the sand was getting really uncomfortable. Fear had taken such deep hold of her she almost felt separate. Other.

She wondered vaguely if Alfred was going to keep covering her with sand until she suffocated. "Did you know that one cubic foot of sand weighs approximately 110 pounds? That's twice the weight of an equivalent volume of water. The pressure of that much weight on one's chest is enough to crush the ribs and possibly the lungs. It is certainly enough to suffocate someone. I speak from experience, I'm afraid..."

Angel felt her heartbeat, pounding, pounding, pounding, all through her body, even her throat. She was going to die. Alfred was going to kill her!

"Mother, uncover the second barrel," Alfred commanded. Angel jerked herself back from the edge of hysteria. Sand covered the handkerchief over her left eye, painful and itchy, so only her right eye saw his shadow. Alfred clapped his hands, "Continue! I don't want to see any part of Felicity! Go!"

More sand fell onto her face. The force of it caught her off guard and it stung, and she gasped and realized her mistake when the gasp sucked the handkerchief into her mouth, creating a small pond. She should be taking controlled breaths now before she couldn't. It was too late. Sand filled the pool of cloth in her mouth and she had to resist the urge to take a deep breath and suck it into her throat. Small breaths through your nose, careful, careful. Don't panic. Do not panic. Angel struggled to control her thoughts.

As the sand began to bury her head the sounds around her muted. The last thing she heard, from what sounded like miles away, was, "The sooner we get Felicity completely buried, the sooner I can take the new photograph and uncover her. The longer it takes, the harder it will be for her to survive. Mother, Boy, move quickly!"

Sand crashed down onto her face and Angel felt herself sinking, even though she wasn't moving, couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't think. She pushed her tongue toward the roof of her mouth to keep the fabric and sand from caving in, took in quick, shallow breaths through her nose. It was hard to get air. Her heart was pounding and that was bad it would use more oxygen. Even though she knew she was trapped, her brain ordered her arms and feet move, move, move and nothing happened and seconds felt like minutes and her lungs were on fire and her eyes felt gritty where the sand was getting through the fabric and now there was so much sand on her face she couldn't see anything, hear anything...

She couldn't breathe – there was so much sand on her face her nose was covered she was going to die she was going to die.

And then she felt cold water, so much water! poured over her face, increasing the pressure of the sand, filling the crevices and finding its way through the handkerchief, into her nose, her eyes, filling her mouth that was still partially open because she was so stupid!, and she was drowning and wanted desperately to buck, to get out from under the sand and away from the water, but she couldn't, and she was dying what a stupid way to die please God protect Bud, let him be okay, help him get out of this, please...

Angel couldn't hear anything but the blood roaring in her ears. The sand became concrete. She was in a tomb and water-filled her mouth and her nose and her eyes.

Angel stopped fighting. Stopped resisting. Stopped everything. Gave in.

But she didn't die. She was in her bunk, naked, wrapped tightly in a sheet and blanket. Jennifer was stroking her hair, muttering soft words under her breath. When Jennifer saw she was awake, she kissed her fingertips, touched them to Angel's forehead. "Sleep tight."

Angel closed her eyes and prayed for a dreamless sleep.