Which came first?
Did Jackie start talking to Mr. Jimmy so much because the kids at school made fun of her and called her Wacky Jackie? Or did the kids at school start making fun of Jackie because all she ever did was talk to Mr. Jimmy?
No one really knows; not even Jackie knew.
But she thought she did.
She would get home from school and take Mr. Jimmy out of her backpack and sniffle over his cold, wooden head.
“Oh Mr. Jimmy,” she would say, crying into the mirror, which made things all the more awful, because she hated her uncontrollable hair and her pimples and how she looked like a string bean boy in her clothes, “why do they have to be so mean to me?”
And Mr. Jimmy would say something soothing like, “You shouldn’t care so much about what they think, Jackie. Jackie, they’re scum. Jackie, they’re little creeps. I hate them so much. Don’t you hate them?”
But Jackie would shake her head. “No. Hating’s bad. Mom and Dad say so. You shouldn’t hate people, Mr. Jimmy. Please don’t.” And then she’d put Mr. Jimmy away. He frightened her when he said things like that.
One day, though, it was the first warm day of spring, and Jackie had worn the prettiest sundress to school. It had polka dots and ruffled cap sleeves and a bright red belt. She had felt like an absolute princess, like a flower full of petals. But instead of everyone at school being impressed by Jackie’s style, they had poked fun at her—for dressing up too much, for dressing too old-fashioned, for being able to see through her skirt, for trying to be so pretty when she obviously was so not.
Jackie ran all the way home from school, and tore up her matching red shoes.
Her parents weren’t home yet, and she was glad. No one should have to see her like this. No one but Mr. Jimmy. She hugged him tight and cried over his crisp little blue suit.
“Oh Mr. Jimmy,” she said at last, when she stopped crying enough to speak. Her voice was full of hiccups. “I do hate them. I do hate them.”
Mr. Jimmy was quiet for a very long time. Then he said, “Oh? Is that really true?”
Jackie nodded fiercely. “I hate every single one of them.”
“Then we should do something about it. Don’t you think?”
Jackie wiped her eyes and stared. “What do you mean? What could we do?”
“Oh.” And Mr. Jimmy, even though it shouldn’t have been possible, seemed to smile. Not his painted-on smile, but one from deep inside himself. “I have lots of ideas. I’ve had lots of ideas for a very long time.”
“What kind of ideas?”
“We could get back at them.”
“Trust me, Jackie. Trust me. I have your best interests at heart. I love you, Jackie.”
And poor Jackie, her face all red, smiled. “I love you too, Mr. Jimmy. You’re the best friend I have in the whole world.”
“And I have been for a very long time.”
“And I always will be. Your very best friend.”
Jackie laughed. “Of course! Don’t be silly.”
“This isn’t silly to me, Jackie.”
There was that tone of voice that sometimes scared Jackie, the tone of voice Mr. Jimmy had when he talked about hating people. But Jackie was too tired from crying to care very much. So she put Mr. Jimmy on his stool and crawled into bed for a nap. It was exhausting to cry so much. She didn’t even stop to take off her ruined red shoes. She nestled into her pillows and stared across the room at Mr. Jimmy’s face until she fell asleep.
And Mr. Jimmy sat on his stool and stared back, which is the only thing ventriloquist dummies are supposed to be able to do.
But Mr. Jimmy was special. Jackie would have been the first to tell you that.
The next day, Jackie’s parents heard a slight wooden clatter at the kitchen table, and looked up from their cereal to see Jackie settling Mr. Jimmy onto her old booster seat, from when she was too little to reach the table on her own.
“Jackie,” said Jackie’s mom, “why is your doll at the kitchen table?”
Jackie’s dad frowned and fiddled with his glasses. “Aren’t you a little old for such things?”
“Don’t listen to them, Jackie,” Mr. Jimmy said through his bright white wooden teeth. “Things will be different from now on. People might not understand us, Jackie. They might not understand how much we love each other. But you and I understand, and that’s enough. That’s enough.”
Jackie worked very hard to pretend like Mr. Jimmy hadn’t said anything at all. She had figured out a long time ago that no one else could hear Mr. Jimmy but her. It made her feel special. It made her feel beautiful, like a thing that people wanted instead of a thing people teased, a thing people tripped in the hallways so she would drop all her books, a thing people pinched like she was some kind of ugly toy to be tortured.
“His name, Mother,” Jackie burst out, her cheeks bright red, “is Mr. Jimmy. He’s not a doll. He’s my friend.”
Her mother gasped at the meanness in Jackie’s voice. Jackie’s father stood up and tugged his shirt straight. “Now see here, Jackie-kins . . . ”
But Jackie didn’t listen. She pushed her chair back so hard it crashed into the refrigerator. She grabbed Mr. Jimmy and cradled him against her chest as she ran out the door. She kicked the cat when it got in her way, and as the poor creature yowled and scrambled away, Mr. Jimmy laughed against her ear.
“Such a pretty girl, Jackie-kins,” he said, and his breath was foul, but his lips were smooth. “We’ll show them. We’ll show them.”
On the school bus that day, Jackie held Mr. Jimmy in the bookbag on her lap and fussed over him, petting his smooth, painted-on black hair, running her fingers down his smooth, painted-on suit jacket.
“You’re so handsome, Mr. Jimmy,” Jackie said dreamily, although she didn’t say it as quietly as she thought she had, and a couple of boys nearby—Greg and Michael, were their names—turned around to look and point and laugh.
“Me?” said Mr. Jimmy. “You think I’m handsome?”
In answer, Jackie kissed Mr. Jimmy’s bright red lips.
“What are you saying to Mr. Jimmy today, Jackie?” said Greg. He had switched places with Mary, in the seat in front of Jackie’s, so he could bend over the back of the seat and get right in Jackie’s face. He was a handsome boy, and he had secretly always liked Jackie, and was the one who pinched her the most when no one else was looking.
He didn’t understand why Jackie preferred a doll to him.
“None of your business,” Jackie said, turning toward the window.
Mr. Jimmy’s bright blue eyes stared out of the open bookbag, right at Greg.
It made the deep, secret part of Greg—the same part that told him when he was in danger, or when someone was watching him—feel uneasy. But Greg wasn’t good at reading the deep, secret part of himself, so he just got angry instead.
He grabbed Jackie’s arm and twisted her around so she would look at him. Some of the other kids—Michael, and Mary, and Timothy and his sister Elizabeth—gathered around. The bus driver didn’t care; the bus driver never cared.
“Let go of me,” Jackie said, miserably. She was not good at standing up to these people. When they treated her like this, she felt ten times smaller than she actually was. She felt squishable, and dirty.
“No,” said Greg. “Not until you tell me what you’re saying to Mr. Jimmy.”
“Mr. Jimmy!” Michael said, in this high, fake-girl voice, and he batted his eyelashes and made kissy faces. “I love you, Mr. Jimmy!”
Mary laughed nervously. Timothy and Elizabeth watched with their mouths hanging open.
This went on for a while, and soon the whole bus was singing a song Greg had invented: “Jackie and Jimmy, sitting in a tree! One is a doll, and the other’s a fre-eak!”
Mr. Jimmy was very calm in Jackie’s lap. “I’ll bite them. I will, darling Jackie. If you want me to.”
“No,” said Jackie, and her whole body was shaking. “We can’t hurt them. It isn’t right.”
“But yesterday, Jackie, yesterday you said we could hurt them.”
Jackie squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands over her ears, but that seemed to make Mr. Jimmy’s voice even louder.
“Yesterday, Jackie, yesterday you said you loved me.”
Jackie opened her eyes. Mr. Jimmy was very close to her; his eyes seemed alive; his mouth seemed wet. He smelled like something burning.
“I do love you, Mr. Jimmy,” she said, wiping her tears.
Mr. Jimmy did not seem very sorry for her. His voice was cold and rattling. “Then prove it.”
So Jackie stood up in the middle of the aisle, one fist clenched, the other holding her bookbag with Mr. Jimmy’s head poking out.
“I’ll tell you what Mr. Jimmy said,” she announced, and the whole bus quieted because they thought this was going to be good.
“Shut up,” Greg said, punching Michael, who couldn’t stop laughing at his own mean jokes. “Wacky’s got something to say.”
“He told me,” Jackie said, “that he wishes he was alive, so he could hurt you—every one of you—for being mean to me. He said he wishes he could make you cry. He said—he said—”
Jackie’s bravery left her as quickly as it had come, and she sank back onto her seat, hugging Mr. Jimmy.
The other kids sat back down too. They weren’t laughing anymore. The deep, secret parts of themselves were screaming out warnings. It made their bellies feel funny and their skin feel cold.
That night, sirens filled the air of Jackie’s neighborhood. She lay in bed, breathing hard under her covers. Her bedroom flashed red and blue. When she got up to peek out the window, she saw the ambulance and the police cars the next street over: Greg’s street. And that house was Greg’s house. And that broken window was Greg’s window.
Was that body, on the stretcher, Greg’s body?
“Mr. Jimmy,” she whispered, “what did you do?”
He was there, at her feet, lying on the ground with his limbs askew. His cold wooden fingers touched her ankle.
“Just what you wanted me to do,” he said kindly. “I did it so you didn’t have to.” And when Jackie went back to bed, she held Mr. Jimmy close under the covers. He whispered how much he loved her against her ear until she fell asleep.
“So horrible, what happened to that poor boy,” said Jackie’s mom, at breakfast the next morning.
“I heard he’s going to be all right, though,” said Jackie’s dad. “That’s what I heard from the neighbors.”
“What happened, exactly?”
“A nasty fall. Apparently, he fell right through his window.”
Jackie was shoveling cereal into her mouth like a robot. Mr. Jimmy sat beside her.
Jackie’s mom tried to ignore that smiling, frozen face. She had never liked that doll. She wished they had never visited that antique store that one, hot summer.
“Jackie,” Jackie’s mom said, “are you all right? You look terrible.”
Jackie paused, a spoon of cereal halfway to her mouth, and glared at her mom. “Gee. Thanks.”
“I mean it, sweetie.” Her mother pressed a hand to her forehead. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all. You have dark circles under your eyes. You’re burning up.”
“Maybe you should stay home from school,” said Jackie’s dad.
“No!” Jackie bolted up out of her chair. “I have to go to school.”
“Poor thing,” Jackie’s mom said, concerned. “We’ve been talking about little Greg too much, haven’t we? Don’t worry, Jackie-kins. Your friend will be all right.”
“He’s not my friend,” Jackie said, as she walked out of the kitchen with Mr. Jimmy dangling from her left hand.
“Did her voice sound funny to you, just then?” Jackie’s dad said, after a moment.
Jackie’s mom shrugged. Like most grown-ups, she had not listened to the deep, secret place inside herself for years. “I hope she’s not getting a sore throat.”
“He deserved what he got. He deserved what he got.”
Jackie sat in the girl’s restroom at lunchtime, Mr. Jimmy in her lap. The tile was cold against her skin.
“You shouldn’t sit on the floor like this,” Mr. Jimmy said. “It’s probably covered with germs. You will get germs on your pretty legs.”
“Are my legs pretty?” Jackie asked, feeling pleased.
“Of course. You know I think you’re pretty, Jackie-kins.”
Anger exploded inside Jackie. She threw Mr. Jimmy across the room. “Don’t call me that!”
Mr. Jimmy did not break, but the sound of his wooden body careening across the floor was awful anyway. Jackie was horrified with herself. She ran to him and swept him up in her arms.
“Oh, Mr. Jimmy, I’m so sorry,” she said, crying. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It’s all right, Jackie,” said Mr. Jimmy, very quiet.
“I just got so angry! Thinking about Greg. Thinking about the others.”
“What about the others? That there are so many of them left? They are all the same, you know. They will just keep doing it, again and again, unless we get them first. They are making you angry, and sad. They made you hurt me, just now.”
“Did I hurt you?” Jackie’s face ran wet with tears.
“You did. But I don’t care, because I love you.”
“You still love me.” Jackie clutched him close. “You do, you do.”
“Of course I do. But I feel a bit betrayed now, you understand.”
Jackie nodded vigorously. “I understand, of course. You’re right to feel that way. I was so terrible to you, throwing you like that.”
“I know how you can make it up me.”
“Anything for you.”
Mr. Jimmy’s fingers were cold on Jackie’s neck, on Jackie’s cheek. It made Jackie feel nice. “Anything?”
It was Michael’s house this time, which was close to Greg’s—just across the street, in fact. All the children lived close together. All the children rode the same yellow bus.
It was two nights after Greg fell. Two nights later, and the neighborhood once again filled with sirens and flashing lights. There was another broken window. Michael had fallen, too, and this time they were not sure if he would be all right. Michael’s family was richer; Michael’s house was taller.
The police officers did not know what to make of the marks across the paint in Michael’s bedroom. It was like something had dragged him, like he had dug his fingernails into the walls. The marks disturbed the police officers, but what disturbed them even more were the footprints.
Muddy footprints, in Michael’s bedroom. Girl-shaped footprints, with ten girl-shaped toes—down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the kitchen door. Into the backyard, down the sidewalk.
The footprints were easy to track. It had rained, earlier that very night. The world was wet and sloppy and quiet.
“They go through there,” said one of the police officers to the others. She pointed down a garden path that led between two lovely paneled houses—one white, one yellow. Flat gray stones marked with muddy brown footprints led into bushes and shadows. Sounds met the police officers’ ears—sounds of wood crashing against a hard surface, someone crying, someone in pain. A deep voice, and a high voice.
The police officers hurried into the space between the houses, flashlights first.
“I couldn’t stop him!” It was Jackie, crouching there in the mud, barefoot and still wearing her pajamas. They were painted brown and red—an awful, sticky red. Surrounding her were the parts of a doll—there, a wooden leg; there, a chubby little hand
“Holy smokes,” said one of the police officers.
“Here now, little girl,” said one of the other officers, crouching low, “just calm down.”
“No! You don’t understand!” Jackie backed away, trying to pick up all the shattered parts of Mr. Jimmy, but there were too many of them, and they tumbled out of her arms. She had destroyed him. She had beaten him to smithereens. “He said he needed my help, but I didn’t know, I didn’t think he would—I didn’t think I would—”
Jackie looked up at them, these men and women with their shining white lights. Behind them, Jackie’s mom and dad came out of the house in their robes and slippers. Jackie’s mom put her hands over her mouth.
“Grab her,” muttered one of the police officers. “She looks nuts.”
“But she’s just a little girl!” Jackie’s mom cried.
The police officers took hold of Jackie’s skinny arms and wrenched her out of the mud. She kicked and screamed, she bit at them. She hit them, and her hands scraped their cheeks, because her palms had bits of glass in them, and splinters of wood.
“But I love him!” Jackie screamed. One of the police officers threw her over his shoulder, and Jackie reached behind him, struggling toward the pieces of Mr. Jimmy. “It was only because I love him! He told me to do it. He told me to!”
One blue eye stared back at her from the muddy ground. One blue eye above a shattered red smile.
The story of Jackie and Mr. Jimmy is similar to that of the chicken and the egg.
Which came first?
Did Mr. Jimmy come to life because Jackie loved him? Or did Jackie love him because he was alive?
Or maybe it was like the real answer to the chicken and the egg question:
What does it matter? The end result is the same: One loses its head, the other gets cracked open.