This story is based on real life urban myth, Robert the Doll. You can find out more about him here: http://robertthedoll.org/
I’d heard the stories. Respect Robert or something bad would happen. Something bad, but it varied from person to person. They warned us, told us the rules: introduce yourself, ask if you want to take a picture, thank him, and say goodbye before you leave. People who broke these rules sent letters of apologies, claiming all sorts of bad luck. Missed planes, car crashes, broken engagements, that sort of thing.
I thought it was a load of shit. I don’t know the extent of it all, what powers Robert has. Even now, I don’t know if he knows entirely himself.
When I met him, he’d seemed surprised at what he could do. That day, Robert the Doll stole my body and nearly escaped from the East Martello museum in Key West.
About a year ago, I was there for vacation with my girlfriend. Samantha and I wandered in on accident. Now that I think about it, maybe it was fate. I’m not sure. I was there, taking pictures of everything I could without thinking when I must have accidentally taken a photo of Robert. I didn’t even realize he was in the frame until afterwards, after we’d switched.
It happened in the blink of an eye. I was in a different part of the room, seeing everything like it was through a fish-eye lens. I could look around, completely aware that something had changed, but trying to move was like sleep paralysis—any progress I felt like I made was nothing and it took all of my energy to do it.
The body of Robert the Doll was old and stiff, made of straw and rags. His only comfort was a small stuffed animal, inferior to himself, but company nonetheless.
People surrounded me, asking to take pictures before they clicked the shutter, jumping at the slightest noise or movement. Then I saw myself—my body. Moving. My body examined my hands, flexing them, rolling its head.
Robert must have been amazed at how easily a body could move.
And I could do nothing but watch helplessly as people watched me, without knowing that they were not taking photos of Robert the Doll. They were taking photos of me, trapped inside the body of a doll as he looked around at the things he’d been forced to stare at all day long with newfound wonder in new eyes. But that wonder gave way to excitement once he saw the door.
Around me, peoples phones stopped working, or they dropped them. Peoples voices sounded dimmed, blocked, like I was deep, deep underwater and far away from them, but I could see distress and their photos of black squares instead of Robert the Doll.
Whatever his powers were, they were attached to this body—to the alleged voodoo that had brought Robert into this world.
I looked frantically for my girlfriend—she was my lifeline. She was going to be the only chance I had, even if she didn’t know it. Didn’t she notice I wasn’t there with her?
The sound was still muffled, but I heard her voice. They were talking. She grabbed my body’s arm to stop him, opened her mouth. Argued.
Robert looked surprised that he even could. He was pleased, happy, even, that he could argue with her.
They were drawing attention.
I thought I might stand a chance, the longer he was in the room with me.
But I didn’t know the rules—not for this. I still don’t. This was out of my depth. This was different than bad manners and apology letters. What could I do? Where did I even start, to try to get my body back? All I knew was that he was still there, thanks to Samantha, who knew something was wrong. That was a good sign.
People politely tried to ignore my girlfriend’s desperate attempts to keep her longtime boyfriend there with her. They avoided looking at them, squeezing around the awkward, fighting couple as other people asked if they could take photos of me, of Robert the Doll.
Robert, in my body, was getting increasingly agitated. If I knew how to refuse a photo, would they stop focusing on me and help her? Why wasn’t anybody helping her?
People started paying attention when Robert flung my phone across the room. Not at Samantha but enough to scare her. She jumped, and she looked like she’d never seen me before in her life. Robert smiled like he’d won. Like he was free.
She spun around and started to leave.
And I knew I was done.
I was gonna be there forever. Robert was going to go ruin my life if he hadn’t already, and I was going to be stuck. All because of an accidental photo I took of a stupid, haunted doll. It was too much. It was so… so stupid. I couldn’t even cry.
But the body could laugh.
Both my girlfriend and my body stopped when they heard the small chuckle from the doll’s body, and people flocked to the case I was in.
Samantha came back to the display. She looked back at my body, frozen in the middle of the room, then again at the doll I was in. “Eugene?” she asked, careful.
Something about the name must have triggered something in Robert, because he marched back up his body, putting his hands down on the case like he wanted to break it, despite the employees attempts to stop him. “What do you think you’re doing?” He scowled. It was weird to hear my own voice, growling at me like that.
Samantha looked between the two of us, and I saw recognition in her eyes.
Maybe Robert would know how to answer, in this body, with no vocal cords, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even move. He slammed his hands down on the glass, then took a few angry, nervous steps backwards.
Samantha looked at the body I was in—and I felt like she was seeing me. She saw that it was not me in my body. That it was a mannerless monster in my body.
She grabbed my forgotten phone from the floor and raised it as she approached us both.
“No,” Robert said in my body. He watched her do it, glanced back at me.
She snapped a picture.
His—my—eyes were locked onto the beady eyes of The Doll. For a fleeting moment, I saw a glimpse into Robert’s soul as we exchanged bodies again. I saw Eugene Otto, the first boy he’d ever played with. I saw his other owners, the caretaker who had given him the stuffed animal he held. People coming and going, all day long. He was furious now. He was tired of being here. He wanted to play.
He must have been so lonely, for all these years.
When I was back in my body, it was like taking a breath of fresh air after being underwater for too long. Samantha caught me by the elbow. “Eugene?” she said, eyes searching mine. “Is it you?”
I nodded, walking back to the case.
“I’m sorry,” I said out loud. It was a relief to feel my own voice in my mouth, to feel how easily I could move and talk. “I’m sorry, Robert. Please forgive me. I’ll come visit you again and we can play some other time.”
“You could have introduced yourself,” Samantha said beside me. “Next time, let’s really talk instead of just yelling.”
Robert the Doll didn’t move.
I apologized to the staff for the scene. I said goodbye to Robert. Then I took my girlfriend’s hand, and we moved on.