The mailbox sat on a freshly mowed lawn. Beyond the lawn, a handsome stone path led to a white clapboard house. Dormer windows. A bricked chimney. Neatly clipped hydrangeas hugged the porch while five acres of forest lunged in the rear waiting to be tamed. If you looked closely, as many onlookers would, the mailbox was an exact replica of the house.
Like many New Yorkers, Chelsea’s parents had escaped the pandemic by setting up camp in Connecticut. At first, they rented. For over a year they lived in a state of limbo. Chelsea finished seventh then endured eighth grade learning on a computer. Her parents taught their NYU classes online. But when restrictions were lifted, instead of boomeranging back to Manhattan, the Goldbergs decided to stay. The house was what everyone wanted—something old that with plenty of money looked new.
Chelsea was told that she was lucky. No one in her family contracted the illness. No one lost their jobs. But the ins and outs of their daily routine had been irreversibly upended. It was as if mysterious microbes had invaded her parents’ brains and restructured them. Who were these people? And what were they doing living in her home?
Her mother, a tenured Professor of English Literature, was now reconsidering her career. Each week Evelyn threw herself into a new project. A manuscript that had been shelved years ago. Research for that family memoir. And while bookstore readings, pretentious restaurants, and art openings once coursed like blood through her veins, Evelyn now seemed perfectly content living in a small town.
There was nothing she didn’t consider cute. Isn’t this the cutest grocery store? Isn’t this the cutest library? Instead of monotones, Evelyn’s clothes grew splattered with flowers. She wore Birkenstocks in the summer and duck boots in the winter. She had let her hair go gray.
And while her mother had undergone a complete personality transplant, Chelsea’s father refashioned himself as Martha Stewart. He cleared an acre of their yard for a homegrown garden. Planted pear and apple trees. Blueberry and raspberry bushes. Devoted himself to the study of maple sap. In his previous life, before the undead had taken over his mind, he never lifted a finger. Now every household chore became a cosmic test.
His latest obsession was a woodworking shop he created in the garage. It took him weeks to make the mailbox, then another three days to mount it on a railroad tie. When he was finally finished, he asked Chelsea and her mother to appreciate his handiwork. On a Monday early in September, he unveiled the results.
It was a typical school morning. The breakfast dishes sat on the table, the toast cold, a batch of pancakes uneaten. The three of them walked outside, ambled to the mailbox, and dutifully gawked.
Evelyn, as usual, was dressed like an L. L. Bean ad. “It’s awfully large, Henry.”
Chelsea opened the mailbox door and stuck her arm all the way through. “It’s big enough for a rabbit. Can I get a rabbit?”
Nodding his head, her father admired his creation. Then he bounced on his heels and flipped a hidden switch. Suddenly a light bulb flickered. “Look,” he said. “Isn’t it great? At night, people will spot our house for miles around.”
Looking back, the comment was more than prescient. It was positively spooky. Who could have predicted the lemonade stands and the pop-up shops? If only we could bottle and store the knowledge our future had in store.
Evelyn stole a quick glance and studied her watch. Then she held up her nose in a doglike sniff. “Very nice, Henry, but aren’t we running late?” She had spent all summer creating a study in their attic. Now she headed there every morning only to emerge hours later. She patted her husband on the shoulder then turned to Chelsea jingling the car keys in her hand.
“I believe you have a bus to catch.”
The ride to the bus stop took only five minutes but felt like hours. Meanwhile Chelsea’s stomach cramped, and her head pounded. She dreaded every minute of ninth grade in her new school and doubted things would get better. The seatbelt strangled her. The road seemed endless. Scanning the horizon for divine intervention, she suffered daily through Evelyn’s pep talk.
“Just give them a chance, sweetheart!”
Chelsea was used to disappearing. Her old public school was a stew of languages and skin colors where everyone was different, and difference was celebrated. Her new school was white, blond, and fiercely athletic. There was nothing Chelsea hated more than being noticed. All she ever wanted was to blend in and vanish, hide like a chameleon that sinks into a leaf. Instead, Chelsea stood out like a splinter in a varnished plank of wood.
“And don’t forget your lunch!”
Her long brown hair was a tangle of curls. She was deathly allergic to grass. She avoided gym and disdained sweat. Plus, she was Jewish. Did she look Jewish? In her old life, surrounded by other Jews, Chelsea never felt Jewish. But now, with only a handful of Jewish students at her new school, Chelsea felt like Jewish was stamped on her face.
The one and only bright spot in her life was her new friend Simone. Six feet tall, Simone had a five o’clock shadow and the world’s most extensive collection of Victoria’s Secret underwear. They huddled on the long bus ride to school.
“It’s like someone is shining a UV flashlight in our faces,” said Simone. “We’re creatures of the night, you and me… And now everyone can see us.”
Simone’s parents had also fled the pandemic. In her old school, she had melted into the background. But the administrators of their new high school had no idea what to do with her. Instead of taking PE, Simone was assigned Health class. And instead of using the student bathrooms, they directed Simone to the faculty lounge.
Health was taught by Mr. Nadowski, the basketball coach. Besides Simone and Chelsea, the only year-round attendants, anyone suffering an injury joined them. Basketball players with broken fingers. Football players with torn ACLs. Wrestlers with aching ears. Nadowski’s job was to teach about birth control and STDs while keeping a straight face.
It was the week of the first football game when Nadowski discussed ectopic pregnancies. On the blackboard, his drawing of the female anatomy looked shockingly like a goal post. Someone had snuck into the classroom and written Score! in big bold letters underneath.
My father finally finished the mailbox, texted Chelsea.
What’s next?” wrote Simone. Canning chutney? Pickling tomatoes?
Meanwhile Nadowski was struggling for the classes’ attention. “Can anyone tell me where the uterus is?”
You going to the football game? texted Chelsea.
Of course, it was forbidden to use cell phones in class. But Nadowksi and his students had come to a mutual understanding. He scrupulously avoided eye contact while his students painstakingly ignored him.
“And where exactly are the fallopian tubes?”
I’ll meet you on the top row, middle bleacher, texted Simone. Look for the freak in a red wig.
Gazing at the ceiling, Nadowski droned on. “Anyone? Anyone?”
Did you hear, wrote Chelsea, that they’re benching Brandon again?
In one simultaneous move, they both stared at the beautiful boy sitting in the first row. Hair with sun-kissed highlights. Broad shoulders. Ropey arms. Brandon had dislocated his thumb during the first week of football practice. What was the school’s loss was their gain.
May his recovery be long and painful, typed Simone.
Chelsea was walking home from the bus stop that afternoon when her life forever changed. Her parents had given her a list of daily chores (empty the dishwasher, set the table, feed the cat) along with checking the mailbox. Most of their mail was sent electronically. Only a handful of catalogues and magazines usually arrived.
But that afternoon was different. When she stuck in her hand, her knuckle brushed something unfamiliar. She grabbed a handful of brochures and peeked inside. To her shock, three wooden dolls roughly six inches high were standing straight up. They looked hard-carved. Someone had crafted little wigs on each of their heads and sewn clothes onto their bodies. Two were taller than the other. A mother and father, Chelsea supposed. Then once again, she bent over and took another look. Tucked in the back of the mailbox were three beds. Tiny calico quilts covered each one.
Her first thought was her father’s woodworking experiments. But it was totally out of character for her father to tackle a project like this. Somehow, a gift had been laid onto Chelsea’s lap. And like a stray kitten that finds its way under a bush, she somehow felt the gift demanded her care and attention. She carefully put the dolls back and snapped the mailbox door closed.
She kept her discovery secret until the night of the football game. As usual she and Simone kept a healthy distance from the other spectators. They rose and fell as the crowd did the wave. They cheered when others cheered and booed at all the appropriate times. It was like going to synagogue, thought Chelsea. The rising and fall, the group participation, the collective sighs. She felt both a part of the crowd and separate and wondered how in the world that distance would close.
On the sidelines, a cheerleader was shouting, “GIVE ME AN A!”
She leaned onto her friend’s shoulder. “I found something,” she whispered.
“What?” said Simone.
“Come over tomorrow. Four o’clock. I’ll show you.”
There was no telling what Simone expected. But the next day, instead of directing Simone to her room, Chelsea led her friend to the mailbox. Then she cracked open the door and told her to look inside.
“Holy shit!” said Simone. “Can I touch them?”
Chelsea was already feeling protective. “Gently.”
Then closing one eye, Simone reached in and grabbed the doll Chelsea called Mother.
“I have no idea who made them,” said Chelsea.
Simone carefully laid the doll in its place and looked again. “Three beds. Three spools for nightstands. A table and three chairs.”
“What?” said Chelsea. Elbowing Simone aside, she gazed into the wooden house. “There’s more furniture today. I’m gonna need a flashlight to see everything.”
“It’s so Boo Radley,” said Simone. Then she put her hand under her chin in what she imagined was a gesture of intellectual intent. “We should put up one of those hidden cameras. You know. Stick it on the post or on a tree. Then we can find out who’s sneaking this stuff in.”
Of course, Chelsea was curious. But somehow she felt that the identity of the dollmaker ought to remain private. If they wanted themselves known, that was their choice and not hers.
Simone took another look. “There’s tinfoil for a mirror. A thimble for a vase. It’s not exactly Barbie’s Dreamhouse, you know. These dolls are kinda raw.”
Chelsea snapped the mailbox closed and headed toward the front door. “They may be ugly but they’re mine.”
Each holiday saw a new addition. On Halloween, a tiny toy skeleton was glued to the back of the mailbox door. On Thanksgiving, three plates were laid on the table. As Christmas neared, the atmosphere grew increasingly festive. A miniature tree appeared with gifts wrapped in green and red paper. Candy canes were propped against the walls.
It’s almost Chanukah, texted Chelsea during Health class. I’m throwing in my own personal touch.
It took her nearly two weeks. But after hours of cutting and pasting, Chelsea created a menorah out of wooden matchsticks and covered matchboxes in blue and white wrapping paper. She snuck them into the mailbox late at night hoping that the dollmaker was watching. But two days later, she discovered a plastic pail outside the mailbox with her presents inside.
What the fuck!
Chelsea felt both stupefied and hurt. The dolls, after all, were squatters in her mailbox. Out of all the mailboxes in the universe, they picked hers. Ungrateful. That’s what they were.
It was one more injustice laid on top of all the other injustices. Could life get any worse? Plus, December in Connecticut had been brutal. The stone path to the house was knee-deep in snow. Cars slid and swerved on the streets. Waiting at the bus stop was torture. She missed Rockefeller Center! The Rockettes at Radio City! Window-shopping at Macy’s! Civilization!
The two friends were buried underneath layers of clothing while they stood in a snowdrift and glared.
“It’s bad manners if you ask me,” said Simone. “I mean I always imagined this was your family. Didn’t you?”
Chelsea had to admit her friend was right. A set of parents. A child. Sometime in November, the dollmaker had even added a cat.
“Let me try,” said Simone.
A week later, she came over carrying a paper bag tucked inside her backpack. They trudged to the mailbox, and Simone extracted rainbow-colored clothes for the three residents.
Chelsea’s jaw dropped. There were snaps at the back of collars and neatly basted waistbands.
“My parents made me join the 4-H when we moved here,” said Simone. Then she shrugged her shoulders. “Believe me, I didn’t last long.”
They checked the mailbox every day. The month was almost through when they searched the bucket and once again found it filled. This time Simone’s creations were carefully folded inside. Of course, the dolls weren’t left naked. Instead, a new set of clothes had been neatly sewn on.
The two friends fled to Chelsea’s room and locked the door.
“This dollmaker dude must be homophobic,” said Simone. “I mean Santa had elves, right? And Good Lord, everyone knows they were gay.”
Chelsea had to admit the gesture was rude.
On Near Year’s Day, the Goldberg family flew on their annual pilgrimage to Florida. For as long as Chelsea could remember, they had visited Evelyn’s parents every winter. Muslims had Mecca. Catholics had Rome. Jews, supposed Chelsea, had Boca Raton.
Though her parents dutifully dragged Chelsea to synagogue, it was Grandma Shirley and Grandpa Herb who made her Judaism stick. Eight gifts arrived on every Chanukah. A box of matzoh appeared on Passover. And for a solid week every year, they were fattened like livestock, overfed and pampered, and paraded in front of her grandparents’ friends.
Chelsea’s guard was down when she confessed. She was sitting at Shirley’s kitchen table. Her stomach was bulging from a dinner of brisket, braised potatoes and freshly baked challah. Then after a dessert of mandelbrot and sponge cake, Chelsea felt a veil falling, like she had entered a food coma and would never wake up. Her grandmother had cleaned all the dishes and was polishing the table to a sheen.
“I think I have a secret admirer, Grandma.”
Shirley stopped in her tracks and lifted an eyebrow.
“What? A boy? A boy at school likes you?”
Chelsea felt her face redden. Then the words spewed out. “No no no. Someone’s sneaking stuff into our mailbox. First there were these three tiny dolls. Then there were beds, a table, a cat, some lamps, some rugs. Each month I get another gift.”
Her grandmother sat down. “And what do your parents say?”
The truth spurted out. “They don’t know about it. I mean if they did, they’d tell everyone, or maybe they’d hire a detective or blab to the police.” Then she clasped her hands on her head like she was holding it together. “You know how they are. They’d probably put it in the neighborhood newsletter. Or on my mother’s Instagram page.”
The tears streamed down, and an avalanche of heartache poured out. “My parents are different people now. A new house. New friends. New careers. They’re like strangers, strangers who look vaguely familiar and pass me in the hallway each night.”
Then she hiccupped sobs while the remnants of dinner rose in her throat. Swallowing hard, she gulped them down.
“Even the dolls are hateful. They hated my Chanukah presents, they hate my best friend, and they hate me.”
Somehow two steaming cups materialized on the table. Her grandmother, thought Chelsea, was some sort of magician. Chelsea had no idea how they got there.
“Have some tea,” said Shirley. “It pushes the food through.”
Then cup in hand, the old woman gazed into the distance. “When you’re young, you see the world only through your own eyes. These miniature people may not be you and your family. They may be someone else’s family. Someone else’s story. Someone else’s life. And whatever choices your parents make, are their choices and theirs alone. They’re entitled to be happy. And sometimes happiness is found in the oddest places. Places like Connecticut. Or places like Boca Raton.”
As soon as Chelsea arrived home, she formulated a plan. She figured it was her turn to leave gifts. Each week she laid an offering in the bucket. A freshly baked brownie. A handmade thank you card. A conch shell she had found one summer on the beach. And days later, when she’d find the bucket empty, she’d feel taller, lighter, more grown-up.
Of course, her parents eventually discovered her secret. It was spring when Chelsea’s mother decided to visit the mailbox. Her newly published book was due to arrive any day, and instead of one surprise Evelyn found another.
As Chelsea predicted, her family would share the discovery with everyone they knew. Cars lined their driveway. Onlookers pointed. Children ran to the tiny windows and grabbed a stolen glance. But like that perfect ice crystal on your windowpane, not all miracles last. Soon the dolls collected dust and the miniature home was abandoned. The mysterious dollmaker left gifts in the bucket untouched. Time passed, and soon the two friends became architects of their own salvation. Simone made the cheerleading squad. Chelsea joined the chess team. Their classmates accepted them for what they did if not for who they were. And on a day like any other, Chelsea carefully moved the little people to the bookshelf above her desk. And for many years they stood there-steadfast and stalwart–valued as veterans who had done their duty and laden with promises of gifts to come.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and World Literature Today. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.