It was several weeks later, and Jane had all but forgotten about the doll, the dream, and even the friction with Ram. She had exchanged a few routine emails with Khajee, to confirm that all was going smoothly with the new supplier in Vietnam. There were no problems to speak of, and Jane turned her attention to other issues, of which there were plenty. She also readied herself for David Haley’s return. Less than a week now. Jane could hardly wait.
Jane returned from a hurried lunch one day to find a large cardboard box placed atop her desk. It was not wholly unusual for such containers to be delivered directly to her office. When there were quality problems with a component within Jane’s sphere of responsibility, a plant quality manager would sometimes box up a sample of the defective parts and ship them to Jane for her reference and personal inspection.
This was a practice that Jane encouraged, where appropriate. When she needed to describe a quality problem to a supplier representative located six or eight time zones away—a man or a woman who spoke English as a second language—the task was made much easier if Jane had a sample of the offending components in her hands. Sometimes she snapped photos of the components and emailed them to the supplier representative before calling.
As Jane approached the box she noticed right away that it bore the return address label of the TRX Automotive plant in Thailand. Khajee Wongsuwon’s information had been written with a black felt-tip pen.
As Jane began to tear open the box, her first assumption was that it would contain, as usual, defective mass production components. Her only hope was that these wouldn't be components from the new supplier in Vietnam. There would be no end to Ram’s gloating, and he would immediately lobby to get the old supplier reinstated.
The size and weight of the box suggested a collection of large, fragile parts—definitely portions of an ignition system’s electronic circuitry, rather than one of the heavier housings.
She lifted open the top flaps of the box, and then removed a covering of several Styrofoam sheets. Then she caught a glimpse of the object that had been shipped to her attention.
Her initial, immediate impression was that someone from Thailand had sent her a severed human head—for the first thing she saw of the main contents of the box was a length of braided black hair. But not even the wildest flight of fancy could permit this impression to persist for long. There were limits to what Jane could believe, even after that disturbing dream she had in Thailand, a dream that she now rarely thought about.
Jane almost screamed, though, when the overhead fluorescent lights of her office revealed exactly what Khajee had, in fact, sent her: Little Lawan, the luk thep, the angel/spirit doll, was seated in the box amid a pile of Styrofoam chips. Lawan was clad in the same red and white dress, her pigtails as neat and tightly braided as they had been when Jane had seen her a few weeks ago, in Khajee’s office in Thailand.
The doll looked exactly as she had in the dream, sitting in the corner of the hut while the adolescent girl murdered her latest sibling…
For a moment Jane believed that she was going to swoon. Suddenly, she had an image of the doll climbing into the box by its own power, then closing the flaps of the box above its head, so that it could make the journey to America.
That was ridiculous, needless to say. As ridiculous as Khajee shipping this, of all things, to her all the way from Thailand.
What the hell?
There was a note in Lawan’s lap. Now Jane was once again catching flashbacks from the dream, the murderous girl in her early teens, doing what she had done to her infant siblings. All three of them. Nevertheless, Jane was able to summon the objectivity needed to make a crucial discernment: the note was not from Lawan, either Lawan the doll—or Lawan, the girl in the dream. The note was from Khajee. The very human Khajee who had now sent her an inexplicable package. Perhaps the note would provide an explanation.
The note was written in blue ink, in Khajee’s hand. Despite Khajee’s otherwise fluent English, the hand-printed letters revealed Khajee’s lack of intimate familiarity with the shapes of the Latin alphabet. The letters curved and swirled like the Thai script. Khajee’s words were legible, however:
I hope you’re well. As for me, I have great news! I met the most wonderful man. His name is Tom and he's British. Tom works for a multinational here in Thailand.
I think that Tom and I will end up getting married! This means that I’ll have children of my own, and I won’t need Lawan anymore.
I’ve therefore decided to give Lawan to you, Jane, in order that Lawan may bring you happiness. As she has brought me happiness!
Just then, someone spoke behind her. A male voice.
“Jane! There you are. I was looking for you.”
Jane turned and saw that her boss, Martin Tully, had walked in. Martin was in his mid-forties. He had the bearing and gently declining physique of a former athlete who now spent most of his waking hours in a corporate setting. Martin had walked in while Jane was opening the box.
“I wanted to check the status of the status of the Santos Electronics issue,” Martin said. “I have to go into a board meeting this afternoon. The production VPs are going to want to know where we stand.”
Santos Electronics was a TRX Automotive supplier located in the Philippines, outside Manila. There had recently been quality problems with the components Santos manufactured.
“I think we’re okay now,” Jane said. “They’ve improved their work-in-process inspection procedures and the defect rate has gone way down, close to zero. I’ll forward you an email that has all of the relevant details.”
Martin nodded. “That’s good news. Thanks Jane.” Martin looked over her shoulder, at the open box. “Hey, I don’t mean to be nosy, but that looks like a—”
“It is,” Jane said. “It’s a doll.”
“Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a doll quite like that.” Martin made as if to step closer to the box, to examine the doll; and then he paused. “May I?”
“Sure,” Jane said. Though I’m not sure why anyone would want to get close to that thing.
Martin peered down into the box where Lawan sat, smiling her eternal smile. Somewhat to Jane’s surprise, his reaction was not revulsion, but a mixture of admiration and awe.
“Very realistic,” he said. “What kind of a doll is that?”
“It’s called a luk thep.” Jane then gave Martin a brief explanation of the concept of the spirit doll, and how the dolls were popular among educated, affluent, childless women in Thailand. Jane summarized Khajee’s note, and the Thai woman’s purported reason for giving away the doll.
“That’s an interesting custom,” Martin said. “Where do you plan to put it? That’s the sort of thing that might look good in a display case in your home.”
The thought of Lawan in her condo filled Jane with a mixture of disgust and dread. There was no way she could fall asleep with Lawan under the same roof.
“I think I’m going to send it back to Khajee,” Jane said, more sharply than she had intended. “To tell you the truth, the doll gives me the creeps, and I certainly didn't ask for it.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Martin’s brows furrowed. “I understand that tastes vary, but I’m sure that Khajee was only trying to be kind. I remember meeting her when she visited headquarters last year. She’s a nice woman. Seems to be very considerate. A team player.”
“You’re right,” Jane said. “She is.” Jane recalled Khajee’s constant assistance with work matters: the change to the Vietnamese supplier, and everything since then. Jane was now able to focus on other suppliers in other countries, because Khajee was so capably handling the situation in Thailand.
“If you don’t want the doll,” Martin said, “then fine. Give it away. You can throw it away, even—though I think that would be a terrible waste. The doll looks expensive.”
“It is.” Jane recalled the amount that Khajee had paid for the doll, and its equivalent in dollars.
“But don’t send the doll back, Jane, please. That would be insulting. We’ve both spent a lot of time in Asian cultures, and we both are aware of the importance of gift-giving in that region of the world. Asians seem to particularly enjoy giving us cultural artifacts, which is nice for us—because they have some really beautiful handiwork over there. My house looks like an Asian culture museum. Beautiful stuff.”
Martin paused and nodded in appreciation, no doubt picturing the gifts from Japan, Korea and elsewhere that adorned his home.
“So I see this doll, Jane, as just another one of those items. It’s a little atypical, sure. But let’s keep this in perspective. That doll was made in a factory out of plastic and synthetic materials. What I’m saying is, it’s not like Khajee sent you a shrunken head from New Guinea.”
Jane had to agree that Martin had made a valid argument. Like Martin, Jane had received many gifts from overseas business contacts over the years, and a handful of them were mildly macabre. She owned a grimacing kabuki mask from Japan that—according to the explanation she had received—was supposed to depict a Japanese oni, or devil. She also had a small statuette of a skeleton dressed in traditional Mexican garb. The statuette had been made by hand, to celebrate Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” festival in early November.
These items did not bother her. So why should she become so overwrought by a doll? It was, as Martin had duly noted, nothing more than a mass-produced collection of synthetic parts. From an analytical perspective, Lawan should be no more repellent or threatening than an ignition system made in one of TRX Automotive’s factories.
The dream was her sticking point, of course. Had she allowed her subconscious to psyche her out? And if she yielded to that self-imposed intimidation now, how would it manifest itself in the future? Today she was afraid of a doll. Tomorrow her subconscious might make her afraid of mirrors or clowns. Fear could easily become a slippery slope.
Perhaps it would actually be a good idea for her to take the doll home, at least for a little while. That would force her to confront the spooky feelings that had been troubling her ever since she had first laid eyes on the doll in Khajee’s office. She didn't have to keep it forever. After a month or two with the doll in her condo, she could sell it on eBay if she didn't want it.
Such an outcome wouldn't be problematic, from a psychological perspective. That would be nothing more than the rational disposal of an item that didn't fit her taste and the décor of her home. But to throw away the doll now would be an act of instinctual, gut-level panic. It would represent a willing submission to fear, a cowering to superstition.
“Perhaps you’re right, Martin,” she said. “Maybe I can find a place for this in my condo, after all.”