Prague is a storybook city. A hodgepodge of brick and stone with narrow streets that curl and unfurl but never seem to lead you where you want to go. When Erin realized her itinerary was worthless, she surrendered to the chaos. Every day was a long drop into an M.C. Escher print, and she loved it. As she crossed the Charles Bridge, she noticed a marionette shop almost hiding under it. It had black medieval lettering and an ivy-covered façade. Erin barged in and the bell clattered against the door. The one-room shop was empty and silent.
The marionettes were in two parallel rows across the walls with hand-painted flowers on vines above and below. Erin stepped deeper into the store, peripherally aware that something was different about these marionettes. They were modern and individualized with different hairstyles and clothes.
Erin approached the nearest one. It was a little Black girl with her hair in box braids and a look on her face like you couldn’t make her do anything. That snapped the girl into place for her. It was Erin’s childhood best friend Imani. The one she saw less and less when they went to separate schools until the effort to maintain their friendship became too much.
The artist had captured Imani’s personality fully, effortlessly. It wasn’t evil. It didn’t have a piece of her soul. It was just a copy. Erin reached out to touch it. The soft skin smelled like cocoa butter. Yelping, she jumped back.
A woman appeared at her elbow. “Can I help you find something?” Her English was solid, and she seemed genuinely happy to help.
Blood pounded in Erin’s ears. “Um, no thank you. I’m just browsing.”
“Let me know if you need help or have questions.”
Erin nodded and watched the woman retreat to the register. She turned back to the wall. Now that she was paying attention, she saw all sorts of people from her past. Crowds and crowds of people she only saw on Facebook when they got married or had kids or decided to double their debt by going to grad school. Small moments of recognition and cringe nostalgia. But seeing them side-by-side made her world feel so much bigger than she remembered.
A Baskin Robbin’s merch shirt caught her eye. Amy. Amy was the first co-worker Erin befriended the summer she turned sixteen and wanted to save up for a car. Erin thought the AC would be enough to make the job bearable, but it was Amy with her laugh like butterflies that made the post-lunch rush better than a series of orders issued by over-heated children. That was the summer Erin learned to hate ice cream and love her body. When everything good had been because of Amy.
With a sigh, Erin kept walking. Working her way into the center of the wall, Erin spotted someone she didn’t recognize. A woman with dark hair, pale skin and a long nose. She wore too much eyeliner around her wary, hazel eyes and there were two indents above her eyebrows that made her look like she was perpetually frowning. Her mouth was in a thin line. And then she noticed the pockmark at the very tip of her chin. Erin gasped. The marionette was her.
The shopkeeper hurried over. “She is so interesting, yes?”
In a flurry of movement, the woman picked up the marionette and made her dance by manipulating the rod and the string attached to each limb. The woman’s skill was evident, but so was the way the marionette danced exactly like Erin.
Static electricity in Erin’s brain stopped her from thinking. Emotions erupted like lava past the barriers she’d installed. They melted everything meant to mark the borders of acceptability and keep her safe. A moaning, rippling sadness spread through her body.
“Enough!” Erin said.
The woman stopped, startled, and began to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” Erin said, closing her eyes. “I’d like to buy it.”
The shopkeeper handed her the marionette. As Erin grabbed the top of the mechanics and swept its back toward her, there was a whiff of rose and hibiscus. It wore her favorite shirt circa college that she’d recently lost to moths. Her hair was halfway down her back. This was her at her happiest, and yet she was nervous, frowning and noncommittal. She wanted to change the expression on her face, maybe soften it. Erin tried pulling her features to reshape them, but the lime wood wouldn’t give.
Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Cleaver, The Nottingham Review, After the Pause, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine and others. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Find her online at www.chelseastickle.com or on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.