"... the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out."
-Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying
The problem, Amanda reflected, passing down one row and up another, was that you could find "anything" at a swap meet. From the crude to the refined, if you looked hard enough you could find it. Bumper stickers. Jewelry. Fuzzy dice. More Elvis memorabilia than you could shake a stick at. Anything, really, even valuable antiques. Amanda's thing was dolls. She collected them. Not the cheap, and sometimes not so cheap, plastic toys put out by the major manufacturers for children, nor really the special collector's items dolls for adults sometimes advertised on TV or in magazines, like those for John Wayne or Princess Di or the whole cast of "Gone With The Wind" even. Amanda's tastes were more specialized. She collected Parisiennes, French lady dolls, like those produced originally in the mid to late 19th Century. Mostly she had to settle for imitations - Parisiennes were very expensive and hard to find - but she owned a few prize real ones as well, carefully sealed away under glass in cabinets. It was a costly hobby, but a satisfying one.
Amanda frequented swap meets and craft shows like the one she was at now just on the off-chance she might find something interesting. The movie posters, the food stalls, the people selling rugs and hand-crafted furniture, all these she ignored as best she could. She checked out the stalls with the doll arrangements instead. Usually she walked away from them again mildly disappointed. They usually never had what she wanted.
But not today.
Her eyes were drawn to it the moment she had seen its stall. This swap meet was being held in an old department store, now out of business, its interior cleared out for the independent marketers who had come for the week-long event. Amanda had already been there an hour slowly cruising the rows. The old fluorescent lighting was giving her a headache. She had turned a corner, stepped quickly out of the way for a young boy shrieking happily and running back to his mother, and that's when she had seen it . . . the doll, that magnificent doll.
Its head and arms were porcelain, bone white and glassy finished. The face was exquisitely painted, with a little rosebud of a mouth, blended perfectly with the shaped china and the set of platinum blonde hair framing it. It was real hair, Amanda thought, or something very much like it, never having seen that particular shade of coloring on a French lady doll before. The dress it wore was of the finest cloth, a pale shade of sky blue with delicate white trimmings. A tarnished brass or copper tag dangled on a light chain from one hand. The doll was everything Amanda had wanted to be growing up a little girl, pretty and delicate. Her hair was blonde, too, though now in her forties it was starting to fade a little, and while Amanda had never been an overly large woman, she knew her still slightly overweight and plain, mousy features could never have attracted others the way a real woman with this doll's appearance might have.
Her headache forgotten, Amanda walked over to the doll's stall. It was seated casually (criminally, in Amanda's opinion) next to others worth not even half its value. Amanda had long experience in the market, and she knew about these sort of things. A woman of about Amanda's own age, wearing a tee-shirt reading "I Love Dolls," stood up when she approached.
"See something you like?"
"Yes," Amanda said, keeping her tone carefully neutral. If this woman didn't know what she had, and if she did she wouldn't be treating it so carelessly, Amanda sure wasn't going to tell her.
"May I see this one," she said, pointing to a bisque imitation next to the one she wanted.
The stall proprietor picked up and held the indicated doll so Amanda could examine it. It was good craftsmanship, but nothing like that of the divine angel sitting beside it. Amanda pretended to appreciate the bisque, then bent down as if to get a closer look at its neighbors.
"Are you a collector, too, ma'am?" the stall owner asked.
"Mmm, not really," Amanda replied, not looking up. "I have one or two at home. For the kids, mostly."
"Oh, you should be careful with these dolls here, then. They're very dear, very fragile. They're not meant to be played with." She put down the bisque and picked up the antique Amanda now rather desperately wanted. "Take this one, for example. She's at least a hundred and twenty years old. A real collector's item."
More like a hundred and forty, Amanda thought, putting on a poker face and trying to be casual about the marvel being presented to her. "I've heard dolls are a good investment. How much for something like this one?" she inquired.
The stall owner quoted a price that was expensive but at least $200 lower than what Amanda herself would have wanted in her place.
She paid cash.
Twenty minutes later Amanda was home and busy rearranging her doll collection in order to make room for her latest purchase. As soon as she had walked in the door she had sat down and minutely examined the incredible antique, comparing her to the other Parisiennes she had. The doll was flawless, and Amanda again mentally congratulated herself on her shrewdness.
The doll definitely was not a fake, which had been Amanda's first worry, and she was completely undamaged, which had been her second. She was remarkably well-preserved in fact for her age. Her legs were porcelain, too, as much as her arms and as well as her face. The body was stuffed kid and artistically proportioned. Again, if the doll had been a real woman, she would have been an absolute knock-out.
The only strange thing about her was the metal tag she wore, which was in such dire need of a polishing that Amanda had absolutely no chance of reading it at that moment. She carefully unclipped it and put it off to the side for examination later.
That evening just before bed Amanda came back into her living room to look at the doll again. She had made her the star of the collection, the whole set of which filled one wall. She had one entire shelf all to herself right at the top . . . but something about the arrangement didn't satisfy Amanda.
This doll is special, she thought. She deserves special attention.
Unlocking the glass cabinet, Amanda took the new doll down and carried her back into the bedroom. There she carefully put the figure on top of her dresser, balancing her carefully so she wouldn't tip over.
That's better, Amanda thought, standing back and looking at the new placement. She needed to be in here with me.
We have the same shade of blue in our eyes.
Amused somehow, and lulled somewhat by that observation, Amanda turned off the lights and went to sleep with the doll watching her.
Neither stirred for hours.
* * * *
Change, profound change, when it occurs, happens either very slowly or very quickly. When it's fast, everyone notices. When change comes slowly, though, when it creeps along and build steadily towards some momentous ultimate transformation, it can go unobserved for a long while.
Amanda named the doll Giselle. She became a companion of sorts to her new owner. Amanda lived alone. Her divorce had been finalized years before, and she had never had children. She sometimes thought of her dolls as her children, but only when she was feeling maudlin. She didn't make a habit of talking to them. Giselle, however, was different. Amanda couldn't explain how she was different, but she was. She seemed in some way hungry for Amanda's attention, like the way a faithful pet might be. Amanda found herself talking to the doll periodically after work on long days. She didn't conduct actual conversations with the inanimate object obviously, she wasn't crazy or anything, but every once and awhile she did offhandedly mention a bit of office gossip at the bank. "Susan came into work late again, Giselle, " she would say. "She's going to be sent packing, mark my words."
And other such meaningless things.
It was harmless, really. Just kid stuff, an attempt to liven up otherwise dreary afternoons when all Amanda had going for her was her latest Harlequin romance.
It wasn't as if the doll ever answered her back.
* * * *
Lunch at work.
Amanda was eating a salad and going through the accounts receivable of an associate of the bank when she noticed someone standing next to her table.
"Ms. Placer? Amanda? May I join you?"
Amanda looked up and saw Mark Jefferies there, from Savings. She gulped a little, then nodded. He sat down next to her.
"Is it all right if I call you Amanda, or do you prefer Ms. Placer?" He smiled brightly. His teeth were perfect. He was gorgeous.
"Amanda's fine," she fluttered.
They began talking, really talking, and before the lunch ended (far too soon!) Mark had asked Amanda out for dinner the next night. She had nodded numbly, and he had walked off beaming, promising to pick her up after work tomorrow.
A date! I have a date with Mark Jefferies, the corporate stud, the most handsome man in the bank!
I can't believe it.
Amanda went back to her office floating on air . . . but then she began wondering. Mark (Mark, and not just Jefferies, as she had always thought of him before) had been with the bank for five years, and in all that time he had hardly ever spoken to Amanda, and never about anything other than business. Why ask me out on a date now? Amanda had been with the bank ten years, and she had seen men like Jefferies come and go numerous times. Certainly they had never expressed any interest in her before.
Jefferies (Mark, Amanda thought) went out only with the bank's younger women employees.
That definitely left her out.
The more she thought about it, the more Amanda became sure Mark had just been playing with her, conducting a cruel practical joke or something. On the other hand, though . . . it did occur to Amanda that over the past couple of days she "had" been receiving some unusual looks, or at least unusual looks for her. Men's eyes lingering where they'd never lingered before, that sort of thing. Amanda also remembered the secretaries talking and looking over in her direction a couple of times.
Were they talking about her?
About a change in her appearance, maybe?
Amanda had noticed perhaps only in the back of her mind the strange new attention she had been receiving, but it had taken her conversation with Mark Jefferies to get her to actually sit down and think about it. When she had been younger, sometimes, very occasionally, men would give her "that" look . . . but that had been a long time and several pounds ago.
A knock on the office door interrupted Amanda's memories. Before she could say anything, her friend Janie had walked in, shut the door again, and leaned back against it.
"Give," she ordered, smiling brightly.
"What? I don't know what you're talking about." But Amanda thought that she might.
"Mark Jefferies, that's what." Janie scrambled over to in front of Amanda's desk and planted herself there. "Tell me everything."
Amanda hesitated, then told her friend about lunch and her upcoming date. Janie squealed in all the right places. They'd both mooned over Mark Jefferies for years, but neither apparently had ever drawn his attention before.
"You gotta tell me your secret," Janie finally said. "Are you going to a new dietitian or something, because whatever he's doing for you I gotta get done too. And what about your hair? Is that a new dye or what?"
Amanda only shook her head but did walk over with Janie to the executive washroom. She had no answers for her friend.
But when she saw herself in the mirror the changes there were apparent. It was funny how she had never noticed before. She was definitely slimmer, and her hair had regained most if not all of its original color. It almost did make Amanda look younger.
The thing was, though, despite what Janie said or others thought, Amanda hadn't been on a diet, or at least no more of a diet than ordinary, and she hadn't changed her hair dye.
She hadn't done anything different.
But mirrors don't lie.
So she was forced to.
Amanda told her friend about this new spa she'd been going to, very exclusive, which of course Amanda had never once stepped foot in, and promised to make an appointment for Janie, dear that she was. Then Amanda went home early in a strange mood. She walked past her living room doll collection with not so much as a glance. She went into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of her bed and began staring down at her feet.
She thought even they looked a size smaller.
Good, Amanda admitted, but weird.
She didn't know how long she sat like that before she noticed her new doll staring at her. Giselle was still on top of the dresser where Amanda had put her a few days ago. The doll stared blankly at Amanda, and Amanda began to stare back at the doll. Eventually, she got up, walked over, and carefully took down the porcelain and cloth figure.
Their clothes were similar, Amanda noticed.
The doll was wearing a blue dress: high waistline, loosely hanging skirt, and short full sleeves. Classical Empire fashion. Amanda's business outfit was a trifle shorter, more suitable for the workplace, but it was cut much the same way even in spite of that fact, and it was exactly the same shade of sky blue.
Their hairstyles were also exactly the same, she noted.
The doll's hair was arranged up in a classic 1800's chignon.
So was Amanda's.
She hadn't thought about it, hadn't consciously decided that morning to tie such an old-fashioned knot in her hair anymore than she had deliberately tried to dress like Giselle, but there it was. Once seen, it could not be unseen.
Amanda now bore more than a passing resemblance to her doll.
She took down and read through every doll book she owned that night. She compared her mysterious new doll again to every other one in her collection, and she looked at hundreds of photographs. She examined Giselle in every conceivable way short of actually taking her apart.
Hours later, Amanda came to two separate conclusions.
One, the doll was even older than what she had previously thought, though exactly how old she couldn't be sure of. Giselle went back to at least the 1860's, and perhaps even as far back as the 1840's.
Second conclusion, the doll really didn't look like any other collectible Amanda had ever seen or heard of before. The materials used in it, her, were similar to other designs of the 19th Century, but the make of the doll fit no regular type. There was nothing like a signature anywhere on her, no identifying mark of any kind.
Except, maybe . . . .
Amanda found the metal tag she had removed earlier and polished it in a cleaning solution. It turned out to be brass, not copper after all, and an inscription in it, now that it was clear of grime, could clearly be read: Le Cirque de Artificiel
Le Cirque de Artificiel?
Amanda's French was rusty, but she thought it translated out to "artificial circus" maybe, or "circus of the artificial." But what did that mean? Did Giselle come from a circus, or was that the name of a company?
What did it mean?
What was going on?
* * * *
"I'm sorry, Ms. Placer, I really can't tell you how old the doll is, or even where it came from for sure."
Amanda had taken Giselle and the brass tag to a person she knew, Hans Goeter, an antiques dealer she had conducted business with in the past. He was an expert, especially in the field of dolls and toys, so when she heard his verdict Amanda was taken more than a bit by surprise.
"You can't tell me anything?" she asked incredulously. Amanda had watched the man examine Giselle for nearly an hour in the back room of his shop, scrutinizing the doll and occasionally going back and forth to consult a book on the subject. Goeter was elderly and bald save for the white tufts of hair on the sides of his scalp. With his old bifocals on he was the very image of wisdom in his craft.
But he was shaking his head sadly.
"In forty years I've never seen anything quite like her. Here," he said, pointing down at the doll with his finger. "Take a look at this."
He handed Amanda a magnifying glass and indicated the doll's head near the hairline. "I don't know what that material is, but it's not human hair, nor animal as I can make out. It's some kind of fabric, sure, but I can't identify it. It's kind of like silk, only it's not silk."
Amanda didn't know what to say. She just looked slightly amazed.
"Don't ask me how, but each strand is inserted individually into the porcelain. I mean, each strand! I can't believe the kind of work that must have required."
Amanda glanced up, more than a little disturbed. "Can't you give me any kind of estimate, please?"
Goeter reached back behind him, grabbed his stool, and sat down on it behind the counter. "At a guess," he began, "I would say it was made in the 1850's, France more than likely, but that figure could be off by twenty years or more either way. I've never heard of anything called Le Cirque de Artificiel, so about that I couldn't say. Usually you would find some identifying mark or other to give the doll a precise origin, but here . . . ."
He waved abstractly.
Amanda had tried going back to the swap meet to ask its previous owner about Giselle, but the stall owner had already moved on. In any case, she decided, if Goeter couldn't tell her anything about Giselle, surely that ignorant woman wouldn't be able to either.
Still, though . . . .
"I will make you a bid on her, though," the antique dealer finally said.
He named a price for the doll over twice what Amanda had paid for her.
It was a deal, though, she couldn't accept, not now. Amanda shook her head, thanked Mr. Goeter kindly for his help, and then left with her doll. She returned home and sat down in her living room with her. Giselle stared up at Amanda, and Amanda stared back down at the doll.
After a few minutes, Amanda went into the bathroom to examine both herself and Giselle in the mirror at the same time. She had made a point that morning not to dress like her, and she had let her hair spread down naturally. Even so, Amanda could still see a resemblance. Her hair, undone, was slowly taking on the same unusual platinum look Giselle's had. Her winkles and crow's feet, too, had almost completely faded away, and even without any makeup her face shone brightly, her lips tinged a lovely red, her eyes large and attractively displayed. Doll like, one could even say.
She looked younger, five, maybe even ten years or more younger.
Amanda stepped up on her bathroom scale.
She had lost nearly thirty pounds.
The doll was "definitely" having an influence.
Amanda put Giselle back on her dresser, then phoned Mark Jefferies and canceled their date. She hadn't gone to work that day, had claimed to be sick, and she used this as an excuse for a rain check. Mark sounded disappointed, which pleased Amanda slightly in an obscure way, and she promised to get back in touch with him soon.
She frankly felt too strange to go out on a date.
Was it magic?
What exactly was happening to her?
She felt good, really, spectacular even, at least physically. Better than she had felt in years. Was she really getting younger?
When would it stop?
Amanda decided to keep Giselle. She wasn't sure what the doll was doing to her, or how, or why, but so far she liked the changes.
I mean, she thought, who wouldn't? It's a dream come true. I'm getting younger, I think, I really am. I'm becoming the live woman Giselle would have been had she been a real person.
It was wonderful.
"But I'm not going to go into this totally blind," she said to the doll sitting there on the counter. "I'm going to find out where you came from, little girl. And if I don't get the answers I want, I'm going to rethink this little experiment. You understand?"
Giselle had nothing to say apparently.
* * * *
The next day was the start of the weekend, and first thing Saturday morning Amanda went over to the public library to do some research. She left Giselle at home. She went through the Internet terminal first, looking up anything even remotely connected to dolls, toys, circuses, and related subjects. She accumulated a long list, and armed with this she waded into the book stacks, checking every conceivable reference.
She found her first mention of the Cirque de Artificiel in a history on the French theatre, that it was the name of a group of performers who had traveled around Europe in the early 1800's. The book, unfortunately, said nothing more about them. Who they were and what they performed it simply did not say. Amanda enlisted one of the librarians to help her, and after a few minutes fruitlessly searching the stacks he suggested she go over to the university library. It was more suited to hard research, and the librarian said he would call ahead so that the people there might get started for her.
Amanda took his advice. By that early afternoon, with the extra help, she had found all that she was ever likely to find concerning this very narrow subject. Not many books talked about the Cirque; three of the four did mention the performing group only in passing. However, from what little there was, the Cirque apparently lived up to its name. Its "act," which was not discussed in detail, was concerned with the artificial mimicry of the human form. Dolls, statuary, waxworks, things of that nature, and very controversially used it seemed. The one book the library had that talked about the Cirque de Artificiel at length compared the troupe to England's infamous Hellfire Club of almost a century earlier: decadent, deliberately provocative, and titillatingly corrupt, with more than a slight hint of erotic sensuality. There were also certain occult undertones, too, the Cirque being linked to reports of disappearances wherever they performed, usually of young, attractive men and women.
Whatever happened to the Cirque de Artificiel? None of the books said, just as none of them could say anything about the group's exact origins. The records were either all lost, misfiled, or deliberately left blank.
Amanda left the library feeling despondent. She didn't know what to do next. She had come away from her research with more questions than she had answers . . . and the few answers that she did have were perhaps not all that good.
She decided then on the spur of the moment that she needed a distraction, and that's when she saw the boutique coming up on the right side driving home. Amanda pulled her car into the parking lot, got out, and went inside. It was a fancy dress shop, the kind of place where young people mostly went to. There were summer dresses, gowns, formal wear, sure, but there was also a lot of spandex, leather, and fur, too. The clothes suddenly appealed to Amanda in a way they never had before . . . and now she finally had the body for them, she thought.
"Can I help you?" a young clerk asked coming up to her.
"Yeah, I think you can."
What followed proved to be a massive spending spree. Black, thigh-high skirts. Chokers. Stockings and hose. Frilly corsets. Amanda went wild. At first she tried to maintain her, well, "respectability," trying on only those fashions the "old" her might have felt comfortable wearing . . . but as the afternoon wore on she became more and more daring, until with a sudden and shocking realization she found herself in a dressing room wearing something that simply would have killed Janie had she been there to see it. The "dress," for lack of any better term, consisted of only two narrow straps of red cloth that started at the waist and barely went over her perky breasts to meet behind her neck. Below the waist the spandex material tightly stretched over her bottom and left her legs bare almost to the crotch. It made her look like a whore.
Amanda bought it.
She also bought a black satin blouse that cut off just below the breasts, a micro-skirt so micro she might have been arrested for wearing it in public, a leather and rubber catsuit that outlined her now ample figure in liquid black glossiness, and a blue teddy with white lacey trims that Amanda felt both complimented and made her look even more like her doll. She became totally absorbed in the shopping experience. She hosted her own private little lingerie party . . . bikini panties, half-slips, nighties, the works.
Amanda looked at herself in the dressing room mirror.
She looked young, fit, beautiful.
Younger even than she had looked that morning.
But still essentially her, she was relieved to see.
At least for the time being.
* * * *
The music throbbed and pulsed to a fast beat. The lights shimmered off of the strobes and created a kaleidoscope of color on the churning dance room floor where a hundred or more sweating bodies gyrated to the recorded music of the DJ. Nameless singers sang meaningless verses. The dancers didn't care. All they wanted was to move to a quick rhythm.
It was the trendiest night club in town.
Mark Jefferies was on the prowl. He had struck out the night before with Amanda Placer, but, hey, there was always tomorrow. Right now, there was the club, and, hey, the women there. He cruised contentedly, in his element, admiring and being admired. He didn't know exactly what it was, but the woman at the office, Amanda, had changed somehow. She had been an old frump before, he remembered, but now . . . now she was looking pretty fine. Mark had misjudged her or something, and he definitely meant to talk to her again Monday. But right now, it was Saturday.
Mark stepped over to the bar and ordered a drink. While he was waiting he scanned all the available ladies around, available because they were alone or with another girl and were without him. He liked that redhead off in the corner, and that blonde over there, yeah, she could really be fun, and then there was the . . . .
"Hello," a low, girlish voice purred beside him.
Mark jumped and turned around . . . and standing there was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
"Uh, hi. I'm, uh, Mark. Mark Jefferies."
He offered his hand, suddenly feeling absurd.
She took it in a grip that felt velvet smooth. She was a perfect platinum blonde, her hair cut short and daintily ringleted. It was amazing to look at, that almost purely metallic shade. Liquid blue eyes, softy ruby lips, a flawless complexion. Mark couldn't tell if she was wearing any makeup, so fantastic her appearance was.
Yet, strangely, so damn familiar.
"You can call me," she said, her voice incredibly seductive, ". . . Giselle."
Giselle. "That's, ah, French, isn't it?"
"Mmhmm," she nodded. Everything about her was flawless.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked.
Amanda nodded again and slipped even further into her make-believe world as a "doll flirt." She couldn't believe she was doing this.
It was so unlike her.
Mark was captivated. He talked, but he couldn't remember what he talked about. She was wearing a tight blue hose dress, showing just enough cleavage to be interesting without being gaudy. The dress flowed smoothly down her body like it had been merely painted on, ending just below her thighs. Her arms, pale and long, were left bare. A ribboned cameo choker encircled her throat. She introduced herself as Amanda's younger sister ("Amanda? Oh, you mean at work? That Amanda?") and said that she was in town visiting.
They went back to her sister's house.
She slowly led him into the bedroom, her silken hands tugging at his shirt, at the front of his pants. He found the short zipper at the top of her dress. He let his fingers and lips caress the beautiful young girl's body as he slowly, deliberately peeled her out of the clinging material she wore. She was bare underneath. She pulled him down on top of the bed, his body partially on top of hers. With lips and tongue she followed the outline of his face, his neck, his chest. She heard the sharp intake of breath as she moved her attentions even further south. Mark moved himself up, flailing his legs about to cast aside the last of his clothes. He positioned himself this time completely on top of the nocturnal stranger, pinning her delicate and oh so tight body beneath his. Her legs parted, and he penetrated the deep, deep warmth of her.
Amanda's cry of pleasure was low and gurgling, joyous. She arched her small, lithe body beneath Mark's. Her legs, silken fine, wrapped around his thighs and drew him even deeper inside her. Mark's hands gripped the bedposts. Light flared inside them. Ecstasy.
And the doll sat there on the dresser watching them.
* * * *
Amanda curled around the bed the next morning, stretching her arms and legs out like a cat, feeling limber and silken smooth. Her hand strayed beside her, coaxing, but it found no one there.
She opened her eyes, smiling.
Only then did she notice her lover was missing, and she gave a short, girlish pout. "Pooh," she muttered, suddenly very lonely.
What had happened last night?
Amanda remembered the boutique, then the hairstylist afterwards, then .. . . a club? Mark Jefferies?
She noticed a letter sitting on the dresser next to Giselle. She padded out of bed, nude, and tried to read it, but it proved too confusing for her, the words mysterious and unclear. Something about not talking to her sister, bad at work, his position at the bank, and so on. Amanda wasn't sure she understood it.
She had left the hairstylist and . . . gone looking for someone?
After a few moments she just shook her head, laughed coquettishly, and decided it wasn't important.
She was getting ready to climb into the shower when the telephone rang. Amanda looked at the odd device for a moment, then muttered a quick, "Oh," and picked it up.
It was the librarian from the university library.
"Ms. Placer? Hello? Are you there?"
Pause. Then, "Yes, I am. How can I help you, sir?"
"Ms. Placer? It doesn't sound like you."
Amanda giggled again softly, like a little girl.
"It's me. How can I help you?"
"You wanted me to help you, remember? You wanted me to find any more references to this group, the Cirque de Artificiel, right?"
That sounded vaguely familiar. "Go on."
"Go on, please."
Pause. "Uh, OK. Anyway, I called a friend of mine at the state university, he's interested in the occult kind of, you see, and he had heard about this group of yours."
Amanda was focusing better now. She vaguely remembered asking this man to go to extra efforts for her. He hadn't been going to, she had thought at the time, but then she had let him receive a better look at her. That charmed him.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you very much. What did your friend have to say?"
"Ah, well, let me see. I have my notes here. OK . . . it appears this Cirque de Artificiel goes back to the late 18th Century. They were linked to all sorts of weird stuff. Alchemy. Mesmerism. My friend says they were more a traveling magic show than a theatrical group. They had this shtick, see, where they could somehow convince their audiences that they were dolls or statues or something. The audiences, I mean, them, too, like. Like they were hypnotized and couldn't move. Must have been a real blast."
Amanda thought the man's voice sounded very distant. "Anything else?" she asked.
"Well, it was the freezing the audience bit that really must've upset people. They did other things, too, like bringing waxworks to life, painting people different colors, turning 'em into animals. All illusions, of course, but it was enough to keep the Cirque constantly on the move. People must've wanted to burn 'em for being witches, probably."
"And the reports of missing people?"
"Yeah, there was that too. But you have to remember the time period. Young men or women, when they left home, they might never get an opportunity to get back, even if they really wanted to. With the Cirque, it was probably just gossip."
Amanda was nodding slowly to herself. She didn't believe that for a moment.
"Does that help, miss? If you want, the two of us could get together later and talk about it more. And we could . . . ."
"Yes, thank you for your help," Amanda said, not listening anymore, and hung up. More herself again she thought, she walked into her bathroom and examined herself in the mirror.
The librarian had said it was only illusion, but she knew better.
It was something else, something . . . different.
After all, she was living proof.
Amanda thought she looked twenty years old now, if that. It was an almost totally different person staring back at her from the glass. A beautiful person. High upthrust breasts. Waif-like build. Creamy skin. Shiny, metallic hair. Rose-bud mouth.
It was a different person standing there.
It was Giselle brought to life.
The transformation was happening much more rapidly now, she saw.
And it could no longer be hidden. There was no way she could return to the bank tomorrow morning looking like this. A diet they could believe in, but this . . . . Amanda realized suddenly her old life was gone forever. Janie, Mark, she could no longer afford to let any of them see her.
She would have to leave her house.
Amanda began shivering suddenly, frightened.
If only . . . only . . . if only she could think more clearly. She still wanted the transformation, the youth and the beauty it offered, but the price she was paying, she just hadn't anticipated . . . .
Amanda felt as though she were losing herself.
Her eyes strayed to her open closet door, to all the clothes she had bought . . . when? Just yesterday?
They seemed so . . . comforting.
She ran to the closet fleeing her unwelcome thoughts much like a little girl might trying to escape a horrible monster.
* * * *
The night club again.
An opportunity to flaunt one's beauty, to showoff.
Men gazing appreciatively, women jealous or envious.
She liked that.
She liked shopping, too. And changing clothes. And being beautiful.
And being wanted.
Yes, she liked that most of all.
* * * *
A concert. Flickering lights. Heavy music drowning all conversation. The fans become rowdy. Remaining in one's seat through the show becomes impossible. The audience chants louder and louder. The bass and drums on stage crash with devastating noise. The band squeals through its numbers, its members all the while checking out the girls in the front rows. No conservative dress here, no one over the age of twenty-five. Bare midriffs, shocking hairstyles, exaggerated and purposefully enticing motions . . . these girls wanted to be noticed. And chosen.
Perks of the trade, they were. The lead singer screams his tunes out at the top of his lungs. He spots the one he wants right away. Platinum hair, pale skin, short shorts and a string bikini top. He finishes the set, makes a practiced motion to one of the roadies, and soon enough the groupie is taken backstage. He ends the show quick, his leather pants tightening every minute.
She clings to him till dawn.
* * * *
The band's security was handled by a motorcycle gang.
The cyclists were in it for the booze, the drugs, and the sex. They worked cheap. Everything was secondhand, of course, but it was still a lot. The mornings after the show the men in leather jackets and chaps got their pick of the available groupies left. Most went willingly. Those that didn't learned a high price for their devotion.
They played, and they were played with.
* * * *
The girl woke up slowly. She smiled and purred contentedly. The man beside her opened his eyes too. His hand reached down to cup her firm bare bottom, squeezing. She giggled and climbed on top of him, anticipating the pleasures that she would be giving him again. He grabbed her hips, his thumbs stretching towards her warm center.
God, she was so tight.
Her skin was marble white, free of blemishes, free of the sun's rays. Her breasts were as firm as her ass, with small tender nipples. She kissed his chest, stroking downward. His hands flowed over the liquid bumps and curves of her form, so tight, so smooth. She took him in her mouth, her unadorned but lovely red lips only ever so slightly parting, pushing till she felt them press up against the hardness of his body.
Oh, God, he thought.
Slow rhythms. Gentle bobs up and down. His nerve endings shivered in response to her ministrations. She licked, she caressed. She performed those functions for which she had been made. She was lost in his pleasure, his moment, and when he came she came, the heat in her releasing simultaneously in an explosive orgasmic charge.
Later, after she had cleaned him off, kissing him so long, relishing his taste, his return, the girl wondered how she had happened upon this wonderful place.
Everything was wonderful. The ratty drapes. The cheap bed. The stained walls. The piles of discarded clothes (I'll have to clean those for him, she thought). All perfectly wonderful. She saw the world through a rose-colored light.
Eventually, the girl decided it didn't really matter. It was hard to think about anyway. All she really needed to know was . . . was . . . .
She struggled for an answer.
Was . . . was being taken care of, that was it.
Her face brightened, and she smiled again.
She was being taken care of.
The Cirque took care of all its properties, she knew.
Now, if only she could remember her name . . . .
* * * *
"Amanda? Amanda? Are you home?"
Janie closed the front door behind her and called out again.
No one home.
Janie was worried. Amanda hadn't shown up for work all that week. She had given no word, asked for no sick days. Nothing. The police had been alerted, but they said there was very little they could do without more evidence. And there simply was none. Amanda was just gone. Fortunately, Janie had her own key, so she looked around, hoping to find some clue the cops might have missed.
But there was nothing.
Amanda's clothes were gone, but her dolls remained. Her cosmetics were missing, but she had taken little else.
Janie just didn't understand what was going on.
"Excuse me. May I come in?"
Janie jumped and turned around. A man was standing at Amanda's door, now once again open. He was well-dressed. Janie couldn't place his age, but he seemed young . . . maybe. His eyes were a penetratingly sharp green.
Why was she suddenly so nervous?
"Who are you?" she asked, stammering.
"Just a gentleman caller, ma'am," he replied. He had a strange accent. Foreign but nothing quite like anything Janie had ever heard before. "I'm looking for the owner . . . a Ms. Placer, I believe. I have only recently become aware of a certain purchase she made concerning an item I had thought long since lost or destroyed . . . an item I would now like returned."
"I don't . . . don't know what you're talking about," Janie said.
The man approached closer. His eyes . . .his eyes . . . .
"Yes, I see that you don't. Please, do not be alarmed. You are in no danger from me. I am among the kindest and gentlest of men."
Janie just stood there, unmoving, unblinking.
The well-dressed man passed her, gave the doll collection in the living room a brief glance, and then moved into Amanda's bedroom. He saw Giselle immediately and picked her up with easily apparent reverence.
"Ah, my dear. It has been such a long time. I see you are not the worse for the wear, fortunately. And now that I have found you, finding your owner will be much, much easier."
He fingered one of the doll's hands, the one where her brass tag had once been affixed.
"Yes, much easier," he said again.
* * * *
Janie woke up about fifteen minutes later wondering why she was in Amanda's empty house, or how she had arrived there.
She closed her mind around the answers and didn't think about her friend again until the next swap meet almost three months later.
* * * *
The gang put the young platinum blonde to work as a stripper.
She was fantastic at it.
She danced around the stage and strutted her stuff like she had been born for the job. She was eager to please. The girl was desperate to please, in fact, and the cyclists enjoyed that attitude just as she enjoyed theirs.
Until the man in the expensive suit showed up that day, she was the favorite girl they had. He came in and very politely asked for her, and the weird thing was no one in the whole sleazy bar tried to bother him. Maybe it was the guy's chauffeur, who looked as big and strong as he was pale, or perhaps it was just the stranger's eyes, which no one in the bar could bear to meet with their own.
Whatever it was, the man was left alone.
He examined the girl in the back room.
She stood before him wearing only a G-string. Her hair was metallic and shiny, curled delicately around a small graceful head. Her skin was porcelain fine, her figure perfect in every way.
Down to the last specification, too..
"Do you remember who you are?" the man asked her. "Who I am? You should by now."
The living doll nodded.
"Yes, Doctor," she said in lightly accented French. "My name is Giselle."
The man took off his long coat and wrapped it around the beautiful young thing.
"Ars est celare artem. True art conceals the means by which it is achieved. And to whom do you belong, dear?"
"Le Cirque de Artificiel." She was so happy, so in her element. She had been recovered . . . after so many years finally recovered.
The man led the doll through the bar and out to his waiting car. As they were driven off, he took Giselle's hand and gently latched around her wrist the brass tag he had found earlier.
Now she was complete.
"What you purchase is who you are," he said meditatively.
Giselle nodded attentively.
"It's time we go home, my dear. The others have missed you."
And she smiled.
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