The Doll does not play.
Her name is Audrey Ames, but in the papers, she’s The Doll. A notorious, dedicated woman thought to be responsible for the recent disappearances of young professional men. Physical evidence always useless, digital trails all cold, The Doll’s hunting grounds, as best anyone can tell, are dating websites, where her targets of preference are plenty. No one knows exactly why she selects the victims she does, all that’s known is that they’re single, and by the looks of it, they had it coming. What makes The Doll interesting to the authorities however isn’t her victim preference, it’s her methods. You see, before they’re deposited on the side of a road or in a gutter somewhere…she plays with them. But in her own mind, The Doll doesn’t see her work as play. She sees it as justice.
Born to a prominent newspaper family in a gritty fictitious American city where the sun never seems to shine and the construction material of choice is concrete, Audrey is the middle and only girl of five children, easily overlooked by all but her grandmother, who she was named for. Grandmother A doted on Audrey and spent years helping her hone her skills as a creative writer, while all the other Ames children were being naturally groomed as journalists. Aspiring to a life outside of charity balls and posed pictures, Audrey largely rejected her family’s money, power, and influence, and chose to live quietly in a flat on the rather bohemian East Side.
The power and wealth of the Ames family dated back four generations, they enjoyed a dynasty largely void of scandal and manipulation, a rare accomplishment, particularly in this town. The World Star, now in print for over 100 years, had long been the known source of the incorruptible truth. Every newsstand and coffee shop from downtown clear up to the river was stocked and sold out of the periodical, daily. It was rumored to be unofficial required text each morning at the local college, as well. The Ames clan was also known for being a strictly law abiding family, demanding adherence to the law from each other, as well as from all those who enforced it. Many a dirty cop met his end on the front pages, as orchestrated by the unshakable Ameses.
With power came the public eye, and Audrey often felt overly observed by the expectations of her family name. It was not her desire to be known as one of those Ameses, so she created a life for herself that brought her peace. She earned her living by writing pulp novels, tales of magic and fairies and adventures beyond the cold, damp streets of her city.
Her solitude and noted absence from her family’s social circles left Audrey with a stark truth: she rarely met new people, and had a fraction of the cohorts known to her siblings. As she reached her late twenties, Audrey was single, the only one of her siblings as such. And as everyone in this city knows, you simply can’t be that. Never that. Never single.
Audrey did what any single gal would do, she ordered her favorite Thai food from the family downstairs, careful to give the unfathomably lazy Golden Retriever at the door a treat for good manners, and ascended to her flat to spend the evening creating an online dating profile. She used her grandmother’s maiden name, Lyman, for privacy. She also wrote professionally under that name, which she always felt gave her a bit of mystique.
At first it wasn’t so bad. A dinner date here, a glass or two of wine at a hotel bar there. And then slowly, darkness came. Unsolicited messages at 2AM, asking Audrey for all manner of ill-mannered things. Seemingly “nice guys” who disappeared into thin air after fourth and fifth dates, and that was if Audrey was lucky. When she was unlucky, they forgot her name after six months of sharing a bed. As if she’d never known them, never existed. Audrey won’t tell you about the photos she received, the insults and degradations from men she kindly declined to meet for walks in the park.
She won’t describe the ones who sat closer to her than she was comfortable with, the unwanted attempts at end-of-evening kisses, the way men used to imply she should feel guilty for rejecting their advances. She learned to never meet in her own neighborhood, to only suggest restaurants that were well-lit. She recruited a cohort, Charles, doorman at The Grand Type hotel, who knew to summon a cab when she moved her coat from the right arm of her chair to the left. He was always well compensated for his assistance.
Things got worse, over time. The men grew more bold, blatant, and entitled in their behavior. The ones that wanted Audrey demanded everything from her, offering nothing in return, and the ones that didn’t want her made her feel no more significant than an old newspaper, now lining the bottom of a curbside trash bin, soaked in rain and discarded coffee and goodness knows what else.
Audrey had started this dating journey simply, with simple intentions. She wanted company, someone to occupy the other end of the couch and accompany her on camping trips upstate. She wished to wake up with someone else in the home, a reason to make more than a single pancake at breakfast. A kiss on New Year’s Eve, a second opinion on that evening’s movie. Simple, comforting, and impossible.
She didn’t deserve what she got for her efforts. And after five entire years of nothing good, nothing but rejection, cruelty, disgust, foulness, and a general observation that the single and dating men of her city were casually, corruptly taking advantage of their access to her, after five years of this, Audrey found out she wasn’t alone.
While sitting in a cafe, latte and a croissant to keep her content and out of a sudden storm, Audrey overheard two women in conversation nearby. They spoke of their recent dates, each one more horrific, unnecessary, and invasive to the women's lives than the one that came before. Three women sitting one table over joined this conversation, with total strangers, sharing their own takes of dating misery, and woe.
What Audrey found so interesting was that all the women seemed to concur that what was happening to them was somehow just “the way things were.” As if a dating space void of consequences for men but full of nothing but consequences for women was a completely understood and accepted dynamic.
Of course, these views were reinforced. Every morsel of advice and feedback they received from partnered family and friends served to suggest to these women that they were doing something wrong, something that was causing the ill behaviors of men. And all would be confirmed so simply: well, you’re still single, so you must be doing something wrong. Try changing this, or that, or doing this, or doing that, anything to make themselves so attractive to the opposite sex that they could convince the opposite sex treat them properly. As if that was their job. But the bad behaviors of men not only continued, they intensified. Women were being told to be more right, while men were never told to stop being wrong. Audrey’s coffee grew cold in its cup.
These women were so clearly being told that no matter what, they had to keep trying. They had to keep serving themselves up to the snake pit, because somewhere, somewhere in there was hiding a husband. He must be in there somewhere, if single women would just dig, and suffer, and ignore, and stomach everything that men did to them in the dating world, for however long it takes. Audrey wondered why companionship and love were attainable only after suffering such a plague. She didn’t deserve it. Neither did these women. Neither did any women, and Audrey suspected there were more, many more, just like them.
Something changed in Audrey that day. There was something about kind, good women entering the dating space for common companionship and being met with nothing but the sludge and sourness of men that burned Audrey from the inside out. The unfairness, the misplaced shame and blame, the casual and unfeeling rejection. It was as if single women deserved no respect, as if they were simply single men’s playthings. Over, and over, and over, and over again.
Audrey Ames could do nothing no longer.
She went, where most dutiful daughters go, straight to her father. Her intention was to utilize the considerable voice at her family’s disposal to expose the male dating population for its ill behavior—to call it out, to achieve some justice. She booked an appointment at The World Star, sneaking in a pre-lunch audience via his secretary Samuel, with whom Audrey was always very close. She recounted her story to Archer Ames, who received it with a far more tepid tone than Audrey was anticipating. Her family loved justice, her family loved acting in accordance with what was right. But instead, all her father said to his only daughter was:
“Maybe that’s just the way dating is now.”
He followed this assumption, naturally, with a recommendation that Audrey attend the next political fundraiser hosted by her family in honor of the newest candidate for mayor, a bright young man with a husband and two children set to take office serve as a beacon of order and success for all the city to see in years to come. Archer knew of several young men in the DA’s office who would be in attendance, of course. Two of them played rugby with Audrey’s eldest brother, in fact.
Audrey was defeated, let down by yet another male figure she went to with pure intentions. Her own father, the man who should have taken up arms if not a baseball bat the second he heard of the man who wanted Audrey to describe her favorite pornographic film to him, and posed his request before the bartender had even poured their drinks. Or the miscreant who dated Audrey for two months, introduced her to his family, and then snuck away at 5am after at last sleeping with her, thereafter blocking Audrey’s phone number and leaving the spare key she gave him on the countertop on his way out. He made sure to collect the jacket he’d loaned her the week prior when she caught a chill though, don’t worry.
As she left the towering home of The World Star, Audrey stood on the hard concrete sidewalk and thought her rage might melt it to molten mud. She thought she could tell the truth about what was happening to the women of her city, that it might cause a disinfection, an improvement in the dating behaviors of men. She thought she could help, change things, incite a little justice for single women who are exhausted with searching for love and finding nothing but foulness instead.
Her own family wouldn’t give her that chance. So Audrey decided that she therefore, would give them hell.
When Audrey was 24 years old, Grandmother A passed away from natural causes. Her death saddened the family and indeed the whole city, but no one felt the loss like Audrey. Grandmother A, anticipating this, left her largest bequeath to Audrey alone—the Ames family west country house. It was a sprawling Victorian estate, not too far outside the city. Consisting of countless rooms and corridors, it’s antique demeanor and distance from city life meant that no one in the Ames family apart from Grandmother A, cared to venture there, much less make it a home. The estate kept a small staff for daily management, structural upkeep, and grounds, but apart from that no one had lived there in nearly 40 years but Grandmother A. Having spent countless weekends and full summers there, Audrey knew that as its inheritant, one day she would make it her home.
A newfound mission in life made “one day” arrive for Audrey much sooner than she thought. The house was about to be put to much use.
Audrey relocated to the west country house the very afternoon she left her father’s office. She abandoned her lease, said goodbye to the family who owned the restaurant downstairs, and never looked back. Wisely, she’d kept the staff on since Grandmother A’s death, a fact for which they were all very grateful, and were thusly quite loyal to Audrey. This, as it turns out, would prove useful.
Her first night in the west country house, Audrey slept in Grandmother A’s bedroom. On her way up to bed, Audrey wandered the halls and rooms, each one delicately and carefully outfitted with furnishings, much in the same way one would carefully place pieces in a model. In fact, the lavender exterior paint of the home earned the estate a nickname, almost from the day it was built: The Dollhouse.
Audrey sat at her grandmother’s vanity, and spotted a drawer at the center, one easily missed if the matching chair was pushed in. A tasseled key still remained in the lock. Inside, she found a trove of her grandmother’s belongings, all laying beneath a note, addressed to Audrey:
My darling doll,
If you’re reading this, you’ve come home. This place is yours, I hope its walls and passages bring you the comfort they’ve given me. I know you’ll put our little palace to good use.
What inspired me about you—your entire life—was your creativity. Use it. Use it well, use it to shape worlds to your liking, for you and perhaps only you have the power to do so.
PS- Here’s a little gift, something I found most useful in all my years as an Ames. Put it on any time you feel that the world isn’t as you’d like to see it, let it alter your perspective, and protect you from all you care to experience differently.
Audrey picked up a veil, meant to be worn across the entire face, in dense black dotted mesh. She would never leave home without it, for the rest of her life.
…Six months later.
At approximately 3am, Eastern Time, Edgar the butler saw headlights in the circular driveway. He knew Miss Ames was returning home.
“Anything for me, miss?”
“Yes Edgar, thank you, the trunk please. And if you wouldn’t mind, a cup of tea would be fantastic.”
“Of course miss, I put the kettle on not five minutes ago in fact.”
“Thank you Edgar, I’ll be in my room.”
Audrey removed her veil and tucked it into a small black handbag that matched her wrap coat with oversized collar. Edgar approached the trunk of Audrey’s car, a 1974 Rolls-Royce Corniche Series I, in Magnolia paint, formerly belonging to the late Mrs. Ames. He popped the trunk, where a shaking, visibly sweating man in his early 30s was bound and gagged with what might be called an abundance of duct tape. Edgar removed a syringe from his jacket pocket.
“Trust me son, you want this.”
Audrey ascended the foyer stairs and turned left down a hall adorned in a rosy shell print wallpaper. On the way to her room, she opened one of the other bedroom doors. Inside was a man named Brian Westin. Two months ago, Brian went on a date with a woman named Zoe Grey. He failed to attend the second date that he himself had booked with Zoe, because he’d confused her with another woman he was also seeing, who he then slept with that evening before declining to spend the night. On his way downstairs, he texted a third woman in his collection, to make plans to do the same to her in in 24 hours. In Audrey’s home, Brian sat secured to a child-sized table, poised over a game of Go Fish, frozen in time. He had not been fed or given water in four days.
Audrey closed the door to Brian’s room, and walked past the doors to nine other rooms on the way to her own. None of the rooms were empty, though they would be…soon.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, pretty frequently actually.