Published 6 March 202114 April 2021 · Fiction / Main Posts Fiction | Flaming dolls John Potts I first became aware of the flaming doll at 7.41am, May 16. This was a Wednesday. Irvine St at that time of day, in the middle of the week, was normally quiet and unremarkable. Greenway was a new, well-ordered suburb, occupied mainly by young families. On a Wednesday morning the most you would expect to hear was a radio or TV, as families ate their breakfast and children prepared for school. On the morning of May 16, however, this peaceful state was punctured by a scream. I immediately looked out my window and observed the source of this scream: young Teigan James, standing in her pajamas and dressing-gown on her front lawn, pointing at something on the road rolling slowly past her. It was a flaming doll, moving in a southerly direction down the hill of Irvine St toward Fairview Crescent. I threw on a jacket and strode outside. Naturally, I would lead the investigation into this incident. As I pursued the flaming doll down the street, I noticed other residents emerging from their houses, curious about this disturbance to their morning. In summary: Suburb: still Street: quiet Doll: on fire. By the time I arrived at the scene, the flaming doll had finished its descent down Irvine St and had entered the circular route of Fairview Crescent. My first examination of the doll’s movement revealed that it was crudely tied to a child’s tricycle, enabling it to attain a fair velocity as it rolled, burning, down the street. I estimated its speed to be approximately ten kilometres per hour. This velocity was sufficient for it to complete one full circuit of the crescent before slowing and coming to a fiery halt. Lloyd Dixon was washing his car, parked in the crescent where the flaming doll had come to rest. By pointing his hose in the direction of the doll, he was able to extinguish the flames in a few seconds. By this time, about half the street had come outside to see the blazing doll for themselves. I nodded my approval to Lloyd for his quick thinking and moved in to make a detailed investigation. The doll still smouldered, perched on top of the charred tricycle. It appeared to be a child’s doll of medium size, possibly of male gender judging from the remnants of doll clothing. It had been attached to the tricycle by string, wrapped around enough times to hold it in place despite the flames engulfing doll, bike and string. I leant forward to smell the doll’s smoking head, to determine the flammable agent. It appeared to be a liberal dose of petrol, or perhaps kerosene. The doll had been splashed with sufficient flammable liquid to burn for some time. It would certainly still have been ablaze were it not for Lloyd’s intervention with the hose. I stood back from the scene to reflect, taking in the murmurs around me as the street filled with puzzled residents. Victim: unknown, male? Culprit: unknown Street: abuzz. My next step was to interview any eye-witnesses, beginning with Teigan James. She was standing near the doll with a couple of her friends of the same age, that is, about six years old. They were all staring at the smouldering doll and tricycle with great fascination. I began the interview in an informal manner, to put the subject at ease. ‘Hello, Teigan, how are you?’ ‘Hello.’ ‘You saw the doll roll down the street just now, didn’t you? When it was on fire.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see who put the doll on fire?’ She paused at this question, unable—or perhaps unwilling—to answer. But one of her friends answered for her. ‘We know who did it,’ said Leah Robertson. ‘You do?’ I asked them all. ‘Yes,’ Leah replied. She turned and looked up to the top of Irvine St. ‘It was her.’ ‘Who?’ I pressed, following her gaze. ‘Imogen.’ I glanced at Teigan, who was nodding. ‘Why do you think it was Imogen?’ ‘It’s just the kind of thing she does,’ Teigan answered. ‘She doesn’t play with us, she plays by herself.’ ‘She’s a bad kid,’ Leah said solemnly. ‘She’s weird,’ Teigan confirmed. ‘Okay, thank you,’ I said, concluding the interview. I began walking up Irvine St, pursuing this lead. Suspect: Imogen Mason MO: flaming doll pushed down Irvine St Motive: unknown. The Mason family lived at Number 3 Irvine St, at the top of the hill. I strode up the street, eager to take advantage of the information I had received. Of course, the girls had not actually seen Imogen set the doll on fire, and their accusation may have been purely malicious. They seemed poorly disposed to her. But I hoped to interview the suspect and decide for myself. When I arrived at Number 3, I noticed one of the property’s double garages had its door open. From inside the garage, a small girl peeped around the corner, looking down the street. Imogen. She saw me approach the garage and I feared she might run and hide—but instead she stepped outside and faced me. She peered down the street with some interest, then returned her gaze to me. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Do you want to come inside? It’s warmer in here.’ It was almost as if she had been expecting me. I followed her into the garage, which I noted had been turned into a child’s play area. There was a rug covered with toys and dolls, a child-size arm-chair and sofa, children’s books in a book case, a toy tea set and doll house, and coloured wooden blocks with the letters of the alphabet painted on them. There was one other item which I noted with special interest: a kerosene heater. This heater was on in one corner; I studied the room and spied a small tin of kerosene stashed away in the far corner. The evidence was piling up against Imogen but I resolved to give her the benefit of any doubt. I needn’t have bothered. She sat down in the arm-chair and declared: ‘I did it.’ ‘You did what, Imogen?’ I asked gently. ‘I put Baby Jimmy on fire and pushed him down the street.’ ‘Baby Jimmy?’ ‘He’s a doll I’ve had for years. You pour water in his mouth and he wets his nappy.’ ‘I see,’ I said slowly. ‘And why did you put him on fire?’ ‘Because Baby Jimmy couldn’t look after himself.’ I studied Imogen’s face as she made her confession. She was composed, to a degree unusual for her age. I remembered to check her age, which I would need for my report. ‘How old are you, Imogen?’ ‘Five and a half,’ she said proudly. ‘I’ll be six soon.’ She displayed no remorse for her actions; in fact she seemed pleased with the effect she had created. She jumped up from her chair and skipped to the garage door, where she peeped around the corner again and watched the gathering of people at the end of the street. I followed her to the door, on the way noticing the strange arrangement of wooden alphabet blocks against the wall. The blocks were put together in sequences resembling words and sentences—but none of them made any sense. HGIBJL RSZA PTC OQV EWDX was one sequence. I looked in vain for any recognisable word but the blocks spelt out only unfamiliar or nonsense patterns. Did these sequences offer a clue to Imogen’s behavior? I framed some questions in my head for her, hoping to cast light on her motivation. At least she seemed forthcoming about her actions, so perhaps I would be able to solve this case. I found her leaning against the garage door, gazing at the scene below. The neighbours were standing around the doll and tricycle, some holding cups of coffee. Lloyd Dixon prodded the charred remains of the doll; others were staring at it and looking around the crescent. I could see the young girls pointing up the street towards Imogen’s garage. I was about to re-commence my interview with her when her mother swept into the garage and yelled at me: ‘What are you doing here? Get away from her!’ I took a step back, my hands in the air to protest my innocence. I looked to Imogen to confirm the harmless nature of our conversation. ‘Don’t even look at her!’ the mother continued, louder now, more shrill. She turned back towards her house: ‘Pete, can you get down here? That creepy kid’s here again.’ I didn’t wait for her husband to arrive. ‘That’s right,’ the mother cried after me. ‘Get out and don’t ever come back! If we catch you around Imogen again, we’re calling the police!’ The abrupt termination of my interview with Imogen was a major disappointment. I felt sure that with a few more astute questions, she would have revealed her motivation to me. Certainly the case of the flaming doll was resolved to the extent of establishing guilt. In summary: Victim: Baby Jimmy Culprit: Imogen Mason Motive: unknown. Only that final uncertainty prevented me from completing the report as: Case: solved. In striving for completion, I felt an intense frustration. Why had she done it? I had her own account, freely given in confession: ‘Because Baby Jimmy couldn’t look after himself.’ But this was hardly satisfactory. Why would she punish a doll for functioning as he was designed, that is, wetting himself with water poured into his mouth? Why set him on fire and roll him down the street, for all the neighbours to see? I began to suspect that the key to this case was the spectacle itself, and the pleasure the young culprit seemed to gain from it. That wide-eyed look as she gazed down the street, watching the aftermath of the flaming doll. She was proud of her achievement in pushing that burning doll down her suburban street, and in making people notice it. At least, that was the best conclusion I could arrive at, given the incomplete information I had at my disposal. I completed my report, reluctantly. I hoped that I would one day have the chance to ask Imogen further questions, but any new interview would need to be conducted with caution. There was one thing, however, that I was sure of. I had no doubt she would offend again. John Potts John Potts is a Sydney-based writer. His fiction has been published by Tincture and Seizure magazines, and Twisted Vine and Microfiction Monday Magazine (US). More by John Potts › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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