1. His surroundings are blurred. Inverno watches the Girl scratch her nose in her sleep, the cover coming up to her ear. Exhausted, he jumps off the bed and makes his way to the living room. Legs aching. Body feeling heavy, feeling elsewhere. Inverno drags himself under the see-through table from where he loved to observe the Man prepare the food and the Girl stare at the noisy box. He can't remember what he ate today. Salivating, he lays down his head and dreams himself to death.
2. Marco finds him in the morning. Whispers, Oh, buddy, while covering his mouth. The need to wake up Gio and tell her what happened weighs on him but he thinks better of it. He grabs Inverno's favorite brush, squats by the poodle's body, and brushes the white coat with gentle strokes. Marco weeps silently while doing so.
3. Gio doesn't shed a tear. Doesn't verbalize her pain either. Always been the kind to suffer on the inside, like her mother. Still in pajamas, Gio sits next to Inverno and hugs him. She refuses to get up for the rest of the day, shaking her head when her father tells her that she has to eat something, anything, until eventually the man gives up and lets her be.
4. The following day they aren't ready for goodbyes but they know they have to bury the body before nature starts disrupting their memories with images of fleshly decadence. While Gio rests the poodle inside a cardboard shoebox, Marco digs up a fifty-by-fifty centimeters hole in the backyard. It's Wednesday. The neighbors awoke at dawn and went downtown to pretend that their jobs still matter, so around there's nobody to pry. When all the prayers are said and the bitter smiles and sighs sent Inverno's way, Marco lowers the makeshift coffin into the ground and covers it with dirt.
5. The next two days are a xerox copy of one another -- Gio, pacing about absentmindedly and mute, refusing to touch any food. She doesn't find solace in watching her favorite TV show or reading any of her novels anymore. She's a tiny, apathetic zombie now. Marco calls her best friend Maria and tries to organize a sleepover in an attempt to distract her. She'll bounce back, Maria's mother says when Marco shares his concerns. We've lost a rabbit too. It takes a while before stuff's back to normal. Marco believes otherwise. Inverno was almost eleven when he died, only one year Gio's junior. The girl has had him all her life. To lose a chunk of your reality all of a sudden, and right as puberty knocks at your door nonetheless? This here, Marco tells himself, could define her forever.
6. Gio doesn't speak but her eyes widen up at the sight of the paper. A phone number is handwritten on it.
Just this once, Marco tells her.
Color returns to Gio's cheeks as she picks up the phone. She uses the landline for the call. Nobody answers, which means she didn't mess it up. Instead, the too, too, too gives way to three short beeps, followed by silence. Gio waits for her father to nod, then hangs up.
7. He can't decide if he's a caring father or a cruel owner.
He can't decide if the first justifies the second.
8. In the morning, they find a box in the hallway by the entrance. A one-story roofless dollhouse containing a replica of their living room. The bookshelves, the sofa, the Moroccan poufs, the glass table, the decorative pinecones, the TV -- everything is there, identical and functional, only smaller.
Resting by the side of the table, Inverno, coin-sized and lively, starts barking as soon as he notices Gio's eye lay on him.
You're back! Look, Dad, Inverno is back!
A festive atmosphere spreads everywhere and Marco can't keep himself from smiling as the miniature poodle, now on Gio's palm, jumps up and down trying to lick what to him must appear like a ginormous face.
9. They have many names for It. The Mailman of Yesteryear. The Toymaker. The Bite-sized Architect. The God of Second Chance. It's said to inhabit the phone wires, to vacation by the lingering losses of one's heart. Unseen. Unspoken. Is It real, the question on everybody's lips, or are we imaginary?
10. The goofy explanations as to why things are the way they are.
The sound of her feet running around the house.
Tiny pawns like needles on glass.
The TV being always on.
Things are back the way they used to be.
11. As days race by, however, the status quo chances once again.
12. The dimension of her grief materialized and alienated from her body, Gio starts neglecting Inverno. His size robbed her of the joy of playing together. He can't run after her anymore, nor can she hug him to her chest or use his belly as a pillow. The poodle necessitates too many precausions now; he's so small a book left upright might fall and squash him dead. Gio is less and less keen on taking him out of his own miniature living room. He's regressed to being a toy, and like with all toys, his novelty wears off fast.
13. Once inseparable, now the poodle only rarely sees Gio. He spends his days inside the dollhouse on Gio's bedside table, walking in circles and wailing his tail and looking up, to where the girl's familiar face, hopefully, will appear again. Any time now, he tells himself.
14. Any time now...
15. Eventually, as Inverno fades into oblivion, Marco discovers himself merciful enough to put the poodle to sleep.
This time he doesn't weep.
16. On Sunday afternoons Marco drives to the edge of the city. Here, a plastic wall reaches for the sunless, cloudless sky. The wall extends on all four sides, caging the entire city in. They stand here, eighty-seven men and women, staring skyward and waiting for a big puffy face to peek over the wall and acknowledge them. It's been more than a decade since they last saw a glimpse of somebody up there, by the giant lampshade. Will today be different? Will whoever conjured them as grief dolls have mercy and tell them if their fate has been accomplished, if this matryoshka existence of theirs is really living?