In honor of Halloween — AKA All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, the Feast of the Dead — I offer you, my reader, a story. I wrote this for my very first writing competition, and as one of the delighted winners I had the fun of reading it aloud by kerosene lamplight to an audience gathered inside a 100-year-old mausoleum at Santa Rosa Memorial Park. In doing so, I rediscovered my taste for the macabre, for the dark and twisted tale. Since I had set out to write something unsettling, I started by asking myself what I personally find creepy. Spiders? Too obvious. Clowns? Overdone these days. Monsters? Nah. And then I remembered dolls.
Here follows my first-ever dark tale, which I present to you. Happy Halloween.
“Dollbaby, hurry up, he’s nearly here!” shouts Ma. I dab at my mouth a final time; my handkerchief comes away with a pink tinge and I shove it into my pocket as I hurry downstairs. This is the first room we’ve rented out since our last boarder cleared out when the fever took Papa, and Ma needs me. I’m all she’s got left.
“Be right there, Ma,” I call, as I sidle around the hired man who is hefting a black trunk up the staircase. A smell drifts from it, strong and sickly sweet. My chest tightens and I clutch at the newel post, struggling to keep from coughing.
In the vestibule, Ma fusses at me, patting my hair into place. She’s proud of my hair: she still likes to brush it out for me in the morning and I let her do it even though I’m almost fourteen. I duck my head and muffle a cough. “Things are going to be better for us now, dollbaby, you’ll see,” she says.
“Ma, please don’t call me that,” I remind her. She clucks her tongue, patting color into my cheeks.
A thin, dark-haired man arrives. His clothes are old-fashioned but elegant. Ma acts like one of the crowned heads of Europe have come to stay with us: when he takes her hand and makes a slight bow in her direction, she practically swoons.
“Mrs. Nolan, it is a pleasure to meet you after our correspondence,” he says, a slight foreign tilt to his words. “And this,” he indicates me with a swivel of his head, “must be the daughter you spoke of?”
Yes, this is my dollb . . . my Lizzie,” gushes Ma, and I want to step on her foot. “Lizzie, say hello to Mister, ah . . .” she falters.
“Mr. Beradoch Baladon,” he supplies, “an unfamiliar name to you, no doubt.” His outstretched hand, when I take it, feels heavy and waxen, and I pull away more quickly than I mean to. His eyes stay on me.
For dinner, Ma serves roast chicken, fresh buttermilk, peach pie. Mr. Baladon compliments her cooking but eats very little. He keeps Ma entranced with stories of his travels: Paris, Constantinople, New York. It’s stuffy in the dining room; I am twitchy with the constant effort to keep from coughing.
“What’s your business, Mr. Baladon?” I ask, interrupting him. Ma nearly drops her fork.
His head swivels toward me again. “My business? I am not, strictly speaking, a man of business. I travel to where my interests take me. You could call me a collector.”
“Is that what that trunk is for? What’s in it?”
“Elizabeth Nolan, that is quite enough,” Ma cuts in, her voice low. “Mr. Baladon has not come all this way to be questioned.” I feel my cheeks burning. I finish the meal in silence and am sent to do the washing up.
I feel better in the kitchen where the air is fresher. By the time I finish I’m so tired I long to go to bed, but Ma’s voice rises from the parlor, summoning me.
Mr. Baladon is standing close to Ma, holding a small figure by the hand. A young girl, slender, with hair the color of mine. He has a daughter? I think, but as I step closer I see that it’s only a doll. A large doll, and a fancy one, carefully made with a china head and hands, the kind that costs more than we could ever pay. But it looks wrong: its face is pale, not the full, creamy-pink face of a proper doll, and its eyes look sunken. There are clumps of hair missing from its scalp, and I catch a whiff of the same smell that came from the trunk.
“Oh, dollbaby, isn’t she wonderful? She looks like you!” Ma exclaims. She’s gazing at that doll like it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
Mr. Baladon is looking at me, waiting for me to say something. “You collect dolls?” I blurt.
“Among other things,” he replies, watching me.
“But you’re a grown man.”
“Lizzie!” Ma hisses.
Mr. Baladon takes no notice. “Since you are curious about my collection,” he says, “allow me to introduce you to my friend here. If you like, she can keep you company tonight.”
Ma gasps, “Oh, dollbaby!” as if he’s just handed me a bag full of rubies. It’s been years since I’ve played with dolls, and I don’t want this one. But Ma’s eyes shine with excitement. I thank Mr. Baladon politely.
“I am glad you accept,” he smiles.
I say goodnight and go to bed, taking the doll with me for Ma’s sake. It’s heavier than I expected. I am worn out; my legs feel as though they’re turning to stone as I climb the stairs to my room. I drop the doll on the bed, undress, pull on my nightgown. A wave of coughing seizes me; I double over, my ribs heaving until I can catch my breath in shuddering gasps. Exhausted, I sink into bed, next to the forgotten doll. Its eyes are open, looking, I could swear, at me.
Sleep doesn’t come. I’m burning up with fever. I cough and cough. I hear Ma’s footsteps in the hall and hope she’ll look in on me, but her steps continue past and her bedroom door closes. I sweat, then chill, then burn again. When at last I sink into a dream, I see the black trunk. It is enormous now, and open. I feel myself sinking backwards into its suffocating darkness, its smell seeping into my mouth and nose. I hear the latch snick shut, closing over my face. I cry for Ma: I struggle and thrash, and I think I’m screaming, but nobody hears. No one comes.
I blink awake, my eyes dry and hot. The doll is still looking at me, and in the morning light I notice she is smiling. Her face looks fuller, her cheeks rosy. She takes up more space in the bed, her long tresses draped over the covers.
I hear Ma downstairs, rattling at the stove. Breakfast is my job. I struggle out of the tangle of sheets, wobbling and flailing. I can’t feel my feet or my hands and the floor is farther away than it should be. My scalp prickles and tightens in the draft from my window. Chilled, I try to cover my cold neck with my loose hair, and I stare as clumps of it come away in my stiff hands. My heart hammers. “Ma, Ma!” I cry, but it’s as though I can’t get the sound through my throat and my lips are clamped shut. I want to climb back into bed, crawl under the covers and sleep until things make sense again, but the bed has grown too high.
I can hear someone else in the room breathing deeply, as if in slumber somewhere above my head. I have to find Ma. I start for the door, but my legs don’t obey me. Numbness spreads through me, from my hands and feet inwards. My legs slide out from under me and I crumple at the foot of the bed, leaning helplessly against the footboard.
I can’t move at all now, not even my head. My eyes are locked in an open stare. I hear the clock ticking on the landing, the clatter of plates and forks from the dining room below. The breathing from the bed. The numbness has reached my chest: I feel suspended between breaths.
The door opens, and I see Ma. She looks at me and I feel a flutter of relief, but her glance shifts away. She moves to the bed and the mattress sinks beneath her weight as she sits on it.
“Time to wake up now,” she murmurs. “I let you sleep through breakfast.”
I sense stirrings from the bed, as though someone is sitting up.
“How are you feeling, dollbaby?” Ma asks, her voice tender.
Ma, I’m here! I’m down here! Help me, Ma, I’m scared. The words can’t escape my frozen mouth.
“Oh, Ma, I feel fine! I feel so much better,” says a voice from the bed above me. A clear, strong voice: my voice. The mattress creaks and lightens. Two sets of footsteps sound on the floorboards, one set Ma’s booted feet, the other a barefoot patter.
“I’m sure Mr. Baladon meant well,” replies the voice that was mine, “and now we can give it back to him, can’t we?”