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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Dolly at the End of the World

Given the option, Amanda C. Davis would open Pandora's box every time. Her work has appeared in Shock Totem, Redstone Science Fiction, and two Triangulation anthologies, among others. Search on DailyScienceFiction.com to read her other work for us. You can find her at amandacdavis.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/davisac1.

"Never open the box," said Pappy, and since Pappy had been dead twenty years and no one ever came along to tell her otherwise, Dolly never did.
She stood on the porch in her grandmother's dress, scowling at the sky. The clouds to the west had parted to show a gash of sunset pink. She'd been a little girl the last time the sky was anything but grey.
"Don't like," she said.
Unnerved, she went inside. The red box in the living room shuddered. She gave it a friendly pat as she passed. "Don't open the box, Dolly," she said. "Okay, Pappy."
She went into the cellar and picked out a can of food. "One in the morning, one in the middle, one at the dark of night," she sang. "Don't choose the puffy ones, Dolly. I won't, Pappy."
When she got to the kitchen, there was a man there.
Dolly froze. Her fingers tightened around the can.
The man held out his hands. "Hey there. Don't be afraid. Do you understand me? Man, I knew someone must still be alive out here. I'm Malcolm."
Dolly's mouth opened and closed.
He dropped his backpack, clattery with pots and cups and tools. "Is that dinner?" he said. "What are we having?"
"One in the morning," said Dolly, finding her voice, "one in the middle, and one at the dark of night."
"I guess it's the dark of night right now!" said Malcolm. "I saw a pump outside. I'm going to wash up. Cook something good for me, darlin'!"
Dolly heated the food on the cast-iron stovetop and put it all in a bowl at Pappy's old seat at the table. When Malcolm came back in, beaming, he said, "I believe I could eat that whole thing! I guess you already ate."
He guessed wrong, but Dolly didn't say so. She didn't say anything.
After dinner, Malcolm pushed back Pappy's chair. "I haven't had hot food since--boy. You know how far a walk it is even to the burnt-out cities? Weeks. But I knew--" He wagged his finger. "I knew there was something out here in the boonies worth going for. And for the taking too. Everything a man could need." He eyed her. "Come here! Let me make you feel good."
So she did, and he did, so that she didn't know how to feel when he was done.
"You're not such a bad lay for a quiet little porker," said Malcolm. "What's your name, darlin'?"
Her head swam at his nearness, his newness. "Don't open the box, Dolly," she whispered.
"Dolly?" he said. Then: "What box?"
She didn't answer. Even though he was right there, and still talking, and still alive, she drifted off to the comfortable dark of sleep.
While Dolly heated canned yams in the morning, Malcolm talked.
"You wouldn't believe how many people didn't get out in time. It's a regular gold mine. The last house I found, the lady must have been wearing every piece of jewelry she owned. Dolled herself up to meet the Grim Reaper. That was days ago. I'm going to be famous when I get back. The new Lawrence of Arabia. Malcolm of the Dead Zone. Say cheese, darlin'." A bright flash went off in Dolly's face. "Yeah, we used to say the only way anthropologists make any money was sellin' books or robbing tombs. I say, why not have it both ways? You'll make a hell of an essay. The New Yorker'll love this. Hey, what were you saying last night about a box?"
The word "box" drove Dolly's head up. She backed closer to the stove. "Don't open the box, Dolly."
"But what's in it?"
She groped for words. "Don't--"
"Oh, I gotta see this," said Malcolm. He stood. "Don't burn that breakfast now."
She pivoted between the oven and him, torn between new loyalties and old ones. "No," she said again. "Never open the box."
"Is it this one?" said Malcolm, from the living room. "The red one?"
Dolly stared at the skillet full of yams. "Come here, Dolly," she said. "Let me tell you a story, Dolly. Okay, Pappy. Once upon a time a lady lived in a forest and everything was perfect, but some people didn't like that, so they put bad things into a box and closed it up and told her to never ever open the box. But she did. And that's why people get sick and die. But she closed it before everything could get out. She gave the box to her baby. And the baby gave the box to its baby. Just like I'll give it to you, Dolly. What's in the box, Pappy? More sickness, Dolly. More death."
"It's kind of stuck," called Malcolm.
Dolly spoke, but not to him. "You can't devote your life to a superstition, Frank. It's not a superstition, Mary, it's important! What about your family, Frank? Is that important? Dolly, get in the cellar! Get in the cellar!"
She shivered.
"I'm hurt. Be a good girl. Don't open the box, Dolly. Never open the box."
Malcolm called, "I think I've got it!"
Dolly went into the cellar.
She came out when the thunder had stopped, when the dust stopped shaking from the basement rafters. Malcolm slumped against the opposite wall--not far from where Mommy had been after she didn't listen to Pappy's words. She propped him up. The lid of the red box was shut. She put her ear near the top and heard the familiar scraping within. Not everything had gotten out. Pappy's story still had a happy ending.
She went to the porch. The clouds had closed again over that rogue scrap of sky. All was dark. Familiar. Quiet. Dolly, keeper of the trapped evils and queen of the Dead Zone, watched the roils of deep gray churning above the house. "Okay," she said. She smiled.
All was well at the end of the world.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Author Comments

Like my previous DSF stories, "Dolly" was first drafted in the bimonthly flash fiction contest held on the Shock Totem forums. The theme that month was a photograph of a red box in a dilapidated room; boxes immediately evoke Pandora to me, so that's the direction I went. I enjoyed writing this one for the characters. The apocalypse and its aftermath are pretty well-trod subjects, but for my money, there aren't enough people like Dolly in speculative fiction.

- Amanda C. Davis
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