A Trumped-Up Tale of Terror
The doll had sat on the corner of the president’s desk for longer than any of his aides had been there, which was never very long.
The turnover on the president’s personal staff was high, very high. People would quit, or be fired, with alarming regularity. The only constant was change: changing faces, changing directions, even changing facts and dates.
Some said it was a deliberate tactic employed by a dictator in order to keep his subordinates in awe. Some said it was a desperate tactic employed by a bad boss to hide the fact that he had no clue what he was doing. Some wondered, very quietly, if there was any difference at all between a dictator and a bad boss, beyond scope of power and scale of consequences.
No one ever asked him about the doll, the rag doll in the blue pantsuit with no mouth on its face and a pair of shiny black button eyes that stared unblinkingly at the president all day while he worked, for as long as anyone could make him work, at his desk.
It was understood, through the received wisdom of the telephone game that dominates a workplace with high turnover and where nothing is written down, that the doll was very important to the president.
“It was a gift from his daughter,” was the most explanation anyone cared to offer. No one actually knew if this was true or not, but it sounded true, which was the most anyone could hope for in his administration.
He had two daughters, of course, but no one had to specify which one they meant.
No one ever had to specify which one they meant.
The doll was, in fact, a gift from his daughter.
She had brought it into the Oval Office one day, very early in his term of office, on a day when he was particularly sour-faced, sneering, surly, and short with his staff.
“Oh, Daddy,” she said at the time, as she frequently did. “Cheer up! You’re the president.”
“For all the good it does me,” he replied. “President. Ha! No one told me it would be hard.”
“That’s why you have Jared. I brought you something, anyway, to make you feel better. You remember at dinner last night, when Eric said you didn’t have Crooked Hillary to point to anymore, and you were so upset?” That was when she produced the doll from inside her bag. “See what I found? Now you have your own Crooked Hillary again!”
“Why do I want one?”
“Oh, well? Jared had this thing, it’s called a ‘dammit doll’ and you’re supposed to, you know, whack it when you get upset,” she had said. “Like squeezing a stress ball? Or you could just point at it when you need someone to blame.” She giggled, and propped the doll up on the desk. “We’ll just put her right here. How’s that?”
“Bah!” the president said. He glared at it.
“Okay, well, bye!” his daughter said. “Oh! And if you hear about a ‘style alert’ for my new handbag, don’t worry. It’s just the liberal press on another witch hunt. Love you! Mwah!”
Then she left him alone, with his security detail and the doll. The doll. Crooked Hillary. It did look like her a bit, didn’t it? Stringy yellow hair and shiny black eyes, and no mouth. He liked that. Crooked Hillary.
It wasn’t just what Eric had said that had set him off. It was the fact that his own staff, his aides, even Jared, kept telling him that. They’d bring him a piece of bad news, come looking for him to clean up some mess, somewhere, and he’d start launching into a tirade about how Crooked Hillary was worse.
Who cared if some lobbyists kept getting hired somewhere in his administration? Everybody knew Crooked Hillary was worse. He’d been saying that for months, and it had put him in the White House, but as soon as he was there, people stopped caring.
They cared that Giuliani had done business with Iran and Qatar and all those places that were dripping with blood and bile in his mind. They didn’t care if Crooked Hillary had.
He hadn’t been allowed to choose his own vice president, and he hadn’t been allowed to choose his own cabinet, and now he was getting updates from Steve about ‘his’ legislative agenda, and even though he wasn’t allowed to have his own way about anything, somehow it was all his fault when talks broke down with some person he didn’t know in some country he’d never cared to learn about.
And did anyone care what Crooked Hillary was up to?
“Bah!” he said, and he shoved the doll away.
He hadn’t intended to do more than get the wretched thing out of his sight, but… it had felt good, hadn’t it? Knocking the damned thing to the floor. Serves her right. Crooked Hillary. Should be in prison.
Jared had said it wasn’t “expedient”. Mike had agreed. He was always being asked to do the expedient thing, but never to look expedient. If expediency was supposed to be a good thing, why on earth couldn’t he brag about it? Nothing in this damned city made any sense.
When his aide came in minutes later with a pile of urgent requests — printed out, he wouldn’t deal with emails, they’d never catch him that way — he almost stepped on the doll.
“Pick that thing up off the floor!” the president thundered. “What do I pay you for?”
“Sorry, sir,” the aide said. “Mr. President.”
He tried to hand him the doll, but the president pointed a stubby little finger at the corner of the desk.
“That’s where it goes,” he said. “That’s where she belongs. Where I can keep my eye on her. Crooked Hillary for prison, right?”
“Crooked Hillary for prison,” the aide agreed, trying to arrange the doll in a way that it would sit up.
“Leave it, leave it!” the president yelled. “Don’t you have any work to do?”
By the end of the day, word had spread: the doll belonged on the corner of the desk. Sometimes when aides entered the room, it would be on the floor by it. Sometimes, across the room, against a wall. Sometimes, when the president wasn’t in his office, they would find the doll with its head smashed in a drawer or crushed between a pair of otherwise ignored binders. Wherever the doll was, they would wordlessly replace it on the desk.
The president would point to the doll, when things were going bad. He called it “Crooked Hillary” and asked his aides to join him in mocking it.
When new favorability ratings came in, no one wanted to give them to the president. He had to ask to hear them, and he always wanted to hear them, and he never liked to ask twice.
He never liked the answer.
It was a bit better after the doll, though.
He’d still follow up by saying, “Well, what are Crooked Hillary’s numbers like?”, even after the election and both campaigns were over, and in the immediate aftermath the answers had made him feel better. But as she moved out of the limelight and the reality of his administration sunk in, they came to realize they were paying pollsters to track an approval rating that no one cared about except the president, and he would never be happy with the answer.
After the doll, though, it got better. Because it wasn’t exactly lying to the President of the United States if you gave him made-up numbers for a doll.
The doll wasn’t real. The numbers weren’t real. It all balanced out. That was mathematics.
“Everybody hates Crooked Hillary,” they told him. They’d made a spreadsheet program that would “track” her approval rating, always something dismal, always something lower than his, but not a flat offset, just enough variation that no one worried they’d be insulting his intelligence. “She’s so bad. So corrupt! No one likes her at all.”
One staffer tried to tell him that in a head-to-head match-up, one hundred percent of voters would vote for the president over the doll that sat on the edge of his desk.
It had sounded funny in his head.
It didn’t when he said it out loud.
The longer the doll sat there, the more the president seemed to rely on it to get through the day.
When word came that the speaker was ramming through a bill to gut Medicare when he hadn’t done a thing about the ACA, the president glared at Crooked Hillary and shook his finger. When opinion polls said that the he, the president, was being blamed for not defending Medicare and not delivering on his campaign pledges, the president knocked Crooked Hillary to the floor.
“Look what you did!” he said.
When it came out that Christie, having burned his last bridge, was writing a tell-all book about the campaign, the president knew who to blame: Crooked Hillary. When congressional Republicans started distancing themselves from his administration in advance of the midterm elections, he knew whose fault it was: Crooked Hillary. Mike was supposed to be taking care of the day-to-day stuff, but somehow that still left him with an awful lot of work to do each and every day, and somehow he got all of the blame for what went wrong and none of the credit for making anything great again, and who was the cause of it all?
When he was alone — or as close to alone as the president could be — he would talk to it, bargain with it, plead with it, rage at it, scream at it, collapse crying over it.
The worst abuse seemed to happen at the end of the day, when the president was ready to turn in. No one wanted to be the one who would walk in on the leader of the free world whacking a rag doll against the edge of his desk or pounding it against a wall.
Everyone knew it happened.
No one said anything.
No one knew what was up with the doll, not really. But everyone understood that in some way, the doll was important to the president’s ability to keep functioning as well as he had been. No one wanted to be the focus of his ire if the doll wasn’t there to take it.
So, they always took care to put the doll back in place as best as they could, smoothing its yellow yarn hair and its smart blue pantsuit, snipping any loose threads, and making repairs where needed.
If the president popped a seam, an aide would stitch it up. If the president knocked the stuffing out of the thing, someone would stuff it back up. If the president knocked one of the button eyes off, then everyone would get down on their hands and knees and find it, so it could be sewn back on.
After one late night emergency run to every 24-hour pharmacy in the DC metro area to try to find a button to match a missing eye exactly, the president’s staff started buying them in bulk. Not long after, one enterprising staffer figured out where to buy all the components of the doll and found a pattern off the internet, and put all of them in a shared file on the common server.
That staffer didn’t last much longer. The clever, well-prepared ones never did. Too many people at the top — not just the man at the very top — were concerned that anyone who was too good at their own job was gunning for someone higher’s.
The files on the shared server outlasted their maker, though, and were handed down along with the general lore governing the keeping of the doll: never talk about it unless the president mentions it first, always put it back where it goes, always keep it in good order.
The president had theoretical access to the file server where the doll repair files were kept. It had been set up by Jared for those things that just weren’t worth keeping an official government record of. The president never used a computer if he could help it, though, and this was one of the few things he could help.
No one ever said anything to him about the nocturnal repair jobs. Some of the staff might have thought they were done on his order, but if there was one thing he hated — and there were, frankly, a lot of things he hated — it was having his orders questioned or being asked to explain them. So, no one ever asked, and no one ever explained.
The president was used to things being done for him. Dishes, papers, all that clutter taken away. Things were taken care of, by God, or he’d know the reason why. He wasn’t always one hundred percent aware that people were doing it, but he knew it got done.
So, he never questioned the fact that the doll was always back on his desk, in more or less the position it was meant to be in, because in his world, things always wound up back in their place.
He did it find it slightly unnerving that it was never in exactly quite the same place, even when he was sure he’d left it on the desk. He didn’t know anyone was picking it up to inspect it for loose seams or scuffing. He just knew that sometimes when he came in and sat down at his desk in the morning, Crooked Hillary was just a bit… crooked.
He didn’t like the way her head was tilted kind of cockeyed at him, sometimes. He couldn’t see her mouth, because she didn’t have one, but that just meant he couldn’t tell if she was smirking at him.
He’d turn her around, facing her beady, button eyes away from him.
An aide would come in with the latest whatever for him to look at, and, without missing a beat, turn the doll back around the way she was supposed to go.
And so it went.
The actual doll was replaced entirely about once a month, although never all at once, so in the style of the fabled ship of Theseus, it was always the same doll. The president knew nothing of this. He just knew that whatever he did, whatever damage he inflicted, Crooked Hillary was always there, good as new, in the morning.
He? He’d lost weight, though he didn’t look any better for it. He’d lost sleep, lost friends, lost respect, he was sure of that. The man who’d never had much use for sleep to begin with missed it sorely now that he wasn’t allowed to sleep in his own bed anymore.
While no one could make him do much actual work — they went to Jared, or Mike, or Steve if they had to, for that — still, he’d keep at it until the wee hours of the night, alternating things like returning phone calls to distant time zones with giving rambling monologues to and demanding reassurance from aides, in between trying to read the things they kept telling him it was urgent he acquainted himself with and dictating memos and orders and agenda items that he’d forget about the next day.
Every night, he kept himself up until he wasn’t ready to go to sleep so much as to fall unconscious from exhaustion. It was the only way he got any rest at all.
His wife still lived in New York. It was a short shuttle flight away. Every night he was consumed with the knowledge that he could be there in an hour, sleeping in his own bed, in his own penthouse, if they would just let him. Too expensive. Too big a risk. Too much of a security concern. New York wasn’t going to shut down Fifth Avenue for him, and the Secret Service wouldn’t clear the building for him to go in if they didn’t.
There had been a big fight over that, when he took office.
He didn’t know what galled him more: the idea that they wouldn’t do it for the president, or that they had never needed to for him before. President was a step down! Didn’t they see that? He’d gone from king of the world to the whole world’s lackey, its whipping boy. If the head of a multi-billion-dollar company could sleep safely in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, why would a measly president be in any danger?
Then Jared had asked the Secret Service to show him, and they had, and that had been when it hit him like a punch in the gut: people hated him. His rallies had been huge, and he was told that if you counted it the right way, he’d even won the popular vote, but there were people in the country who despised him. He was loved, but he was hated. To anyone who understood how deeply he had divided an already polarized nation, that would have seemed a foregone conclusion, but it was more paradox than he could withstand.
He’d given up on going home, but he hadn’t gotten over it. His city, his home, didn’t want him anymore. All around the world, buildings and companies and organizations were shedding his name and treating him like a leper. His own daughter was “rebranding”. She said it was just the fashion line, but her people made sure she was always referred to by just her first name. She wasn’t Ivanka Trump anymore, she was Ivanka!
With the exclamation point, even. Ivanka!
“People like it,” she told him, when he saw it in the news. “The marketers say it connotes high energy.”
That night, he fed Crooked Hillary most of the way through a shredder. It jammed when it got to the eyes, leaving half of her pinched face staring up at him. He screamed out his rage and kicked the shredder over, then stormed off to his bedroom.
The next morning he went into the office, and there she was again. Whole. New. Staring.
“Doesn’t the president ever get to take a personal day?” he’d screamed.
The president did not, but the president was allowed to take vacations, and everyone agreed it was time he took one. He’d had several already, though they hadn’t been like any vacations he was used to.
What the president really wanted to do was fly to his resort in Florida, but the Secret Service were saying no, as they always had. There was a house in Key West, though, that was reserved for his use and that they were sure he would find to his liking.
He wasn’t convinced. He’d seen what passed for “luxury” for the President of the United States and it was a joke. Public housing! Museums with office space attached, no flash, no sense of style, and no privacy to speak of.
Everyone told him he’d love it. The “Little White House”, they called the Key West place. Bah! He’d seen the real thing and he wasn’t impressed.
But whatever Key West lacked, he knew there was one thing it wouldn’t have: Crooked Hillary. He would leave that damned doll right where it was, fly probably two or three million miles away, at least, and forget about it.
He’d still have to work, everyone was very clear about that, but he’d do it without that damned thing staring him in the face. And his wife would be joining him, and there would be photo ops. The president couldn’t visit Old Key West without photo ops, apparently. Fine with him. That was the kind of work he believed was fit for a president.
The keeper of the house in Key West was very happy to see him, said something about resuming a tradition. The last president had lived in Hawaii or something and so had not properly appreciated a Key West hideaway.
“But you, you’re practically a Florida resident,” the keeper said. “So this is a bit like coming home for you.”
“Bah,” the president said.
The man rambled on about how the house had been built for a commandant or something. They were putting him up in barracks! What a disgrace!
His chief of staff gave him his schedule for the trip. His wife would be joining him late in the afternoon the next day, and he had no public appearances until then. The two of them along with their young son would be meeting the press and taking in the sights, including a visit to something called the East Martello Museum, some kind of old Spanish fort.
“You’ll find this fascinating,” the dreadful man who came with the house said. “There are many interesting artifacts of authentic Key West history there, art exhibits, historical dioramas, and of, course, our most famous resident: Robert.”
“Robert the Enchanted Doll,” the man said, grinning.
“What? What did you say? Is that a real thing?”
The grin faltered.
“Mr. President, some of us… a lot of us… take our local legend very seriously. I would caution you against…”
“No, I’m serious!” the president said. “Is that a real thing?”
“Well, people say…”
“How many people? Which people? What do they say?”
It was the work of an hour calming him down, during which time an aide back in Washington happened to go into the Oval Office to retrieve some papers that had been left behind. Noticing that the doll had been left behind, as well, she slipped it into the courier packet bound for Key West.
So it was that the president, coming back to his desk in the Little White House after a lunch of conch fritters and scallops, was greeted by the sight of two shiny, black button eyes, glinting in the sun that streamed through the windows.
The president’s vacation was cut short due to what was termed “pressing matters in Washington,” though the First Lady was said to have had a marvelous time in Old Key West, finding the appointments quite charming. The photo of her and her son flanking the glass case of Robert the Enchanted Doll (taken, as all photos of the notoriously shy celebrity, only after those present had respectfully asked permission and then waited for an objection) ran on the front cover of several periodicals.
All of these were gathered up by dutiful aides and included in the morning spread of papers given to the president at breakfast.
The president didn’t set foot in the oval office that day. He had no pending appointments with anyone important enough to require meeting there; his schedule for such had been cleared when his vacation was announced. He worked at the breakfast table until it was time for lunch, then haunted the hallways and offices of the West Wing until it was late enough that they became sufficiently lonely.
When the President of the United States announced he was turning in early, nobody said a word. They all just breathed a sigh of relief.
He didn’t know this, but the Oval Office had, in fact, been empty of more than himself all day long. The doll he had come to hate and fear and loathe and need was still packed away with other oddments from his abbreviated trip south. A junior staffer, on her first real day on the job, was going through those oddments when she came across it.
“What’s… what’s this? A souvenir?”
“No, that’s the president’s doll!” one of her more senior colleagues said. “Strange, he never goes anywhere without it.”
“I’ll bet that’s why he was so weird today,” another said. “You’d better make sure it’s in place when he wakes up tomorrow, or there’s going to be hell to pay!”
“Where’s it go?” she said.
“Oval Office, his desk, right on the empty corner, facing him. Snap to it!”
Because she was new, though, she still had the idea that it might be a good idea to distinguish herself by going above and beyond. If the president was out of sorts because he’d been separated from his beloved doll, maybe it would be a good idea to see that he had it as soon as he woke up, not just when he first sat down in the morning.
No matter how much the president might have decried his lack of privacy, a staffer cannot simply go to the president’s bedroom in the middle of the night. She had been impressed during orientation on what was in bounds and what was out of bounds, and so she went up to the very edge of what was in bounds for her and told an officer of the secret service that it was vitally important that the president have his stuffed doll when he wakes up.
The people who guarded the president enjoyed a turnover rate only slightly lower than the people who worked under the president, and that only because they consider it a point of pride and discipline to the do the job no matter what their personal feelings might be.
The man she handed the doll to was fairly new. He had been there just long enough to understand that the President of the United States was essentially a temperamental toddler with a highly demanding desk job. He had been there long enough to hear that there was something about a doll, but not quite long enough to feel comfortable asking anyone, “Hey, what’s the deal with the doll?”
Thus, when this earnest young woman came up and gave him a rag doll and said that the president had to have it, he did not question it. The doll, was naturally, fluoroscoped and x-rayed, and passed through many different hands on its way to and through the executive residence. Each time it did so, the accompanying message that it was to be placed in the president’s bedroom becoming a bit terser and gaining a bit more of an official imprimatur.
So it was that a secret service agent came to tiptoe into the president’s bed chambers in the dead of the night. The president was sound asleep, deeply asleep. The agent looked around for a place to put the doll, and finding nothing obvious, he chose to prop the doll up on the empty pillow, facing the president. He resisted the urge to tuck her — it — in, and left.
“Said he’s got to see it when he wakes,” he muttered to himself as he closed the door behind him and resumed his post. “He’ll see it when he wakes.”
“Christ,” his partner said. “This job.”
“This job,” he agreed.
They were relieved shortly after, and so there was a fresh pair of agents on the door when the president woke up that morning.
He would have been an early riser on even the best of days if there had been any good ones, and after an early night and the soundest sleep he’d had in years, he woke up on this day as the first traces of dawn lightened the window.
And the first stray glints of rosy-fingered sunlight that filtered through the curtains fell upon a shape on the pillow, and touched the gleaming, shiny plastic surface of a pair of too-new, always new, always fresh button eyes.
The president screamed. The president screamed a high, throat-tearing, heart-stopping, wordless scream that had the agents in the hall frozen for half an instant longer than their training would have demanded, and when they shook themselves out of it and barreled through the door to go to the stricken president’s aid, they found that it didn’t matter, because there was no one there, no one to tackle or shoot or bark orders at, no threat to nullify, no bomb to neutralize.
Just the president, and a doll, and a scream that went on and on until the medic was there to sedate him. When he was calmed down, they tried to get him to speak, to say what was wrong. His wife was called, down in Florida, and she promised to be there as soon as she could possibly get away. It was hoped that she would calm him enough to get him to tell the story, because no one else could get more than two words out of him.
The same two words.
Over and over and over again.
“Crooked Hillary” is a darkly satirical tale of political horror by crowdfunded author, poet, and commentator Alexandra Erin.
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