By Nicole VanderLinden

Katie came back in October, and that’s when we met Pim. Pim was a bundle of twigs tied with twine and a purple pipe cleaner wrapped around her with the ends pointed outward, to be the arms. Her head was an acorn held tight with super glue.

“Meet Pim,” Katie said, shoving this stick child in our faces when we lined up for lunch. Ms. Peony told Katie to put that thing away, but Katie didn’t, not really. She held Pim inside her parka.

At recess, Katie sat in the old oak and told us that we’d pass Pim around and that whoever had her had to do what Katie said. This is what Pim had told her.

“Why did you make a stick doll?” Lenny asked, but Katie shook her head.

“I didn’t,” she said. “I found her.”

“Who decides where Pim goes?” Jarrod asked, and just like that, we were doing the Pim thing. We studied her blank acorn face.

“We’ll just know,” Katie said. She’d been out of school for a month because she was sick, but no one knew what kind of sick and so we let her have her way. Something was puffy in her cheeks while rest of her had gone brittle. She was in a position to make wishes, or so we believed. The leaves in the old oak tree quivered as she spoke.

Annika had Pim first, and for one week, no one could talk to Annika, no one at all. She had to put Pim on her desk and take her to the lunchroom to show that she was still under Pim’s spell of no talking.

The first day, Annika carried Pim around like she was a crayon, a thing you’d have on hand for whatever. When Annika and Pim came to our lunch table to sit with us, we turned away and ate with our trays in our laps, spilling applesauce on our shoes but it was still better than being Annika.

The second day, Annika sat by herself two tables over while we stole glances and watched her poke at Pim with a plastic fork, Pim who was lying on the table, either face up or face down, we couldn’t tell, because she didn’t have any features. But by the seventh day Pim did have two eyes. “She drew those on with a sharpie,” we whispered in the lunch line, but Annika heard us and shook her head. She kept Pim in her palm during lunch, didn’t touch her sloppy joe, just whispered into that palm and smiled.

When Roberto had Pim, he had to wear his pants backwards. We watched them, Pim and Roberto, going to the water fountain, the zipper of Roberto’s jeans drifting down the hall like a goodbye. The boys laughed in the bathroom when he had to pull his pants down to his knees, Pim propped on the urinal, watching. “Don’t drop Pim!” the boys said. By then she had a little cotton shirt Betsy had taken off one of her dolls. Her pipe cleaner arms were always changing positions—sometimes hugging herself and sometimes reaching for the sky.

One time, Nina’s mom found Pim and got her story, her spells and her witchy ways. “This is a tool used for shame,” she told the principal, so loudly we could hear her from Ms. Peony’s class. Which, maybe this was true, but by then Pim had whispered in all of our ears, told us we’d been chosen for what was in us, that the laughs we got from the other kids were what we’d always had coming. This felt like a true thing, what Pim would whisper.

In this way, we came to love her.

Weeks passed, and one day, there was a new Pim, this one tied together with a rubber band and with garbage-twisty arms. A head made from a green triangle eraser. And then another Pim came, and another, and soon we weren’t even taking turns anymore; we each had our very own Pim.

When school got out for the summer and then, later, out forever, we went into the world. And it was so natural by then, that our Pims would come with us, the original Pim and the Pims that followed, sitting on our shoulders and nestled in our pockets and forever twisted into our hair. They told us what was in us and they told us what was true; they told us, again and again, what it was that we deserved.

Nicole VanderLinden’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review—where Lauren Groff selected her story as the winner of the 2020 NOR Fiction Prize—SmokeLong QuarterlyShenandoahThe Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She currently serves as associate editor for Colorado Review and as a fiction reader for Ploughshares and the Masters Review. Her book reviews have appeared in various places, including the Denver Post, and she can be found at nicolevanderlinden.com and on Twitter @vandanicole.

Art by Lesley C. Weston (Construction, on color washed background)

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