The place was bright, well-lit by banks of windows that let in the afternoon sun. The shopkeeper, a stout, dark-skinned man with graying hair, greeted me from his place behind the counter, barely glancing up at me as I began perusing the tables and shelves piled high with artifacts from bygone decades.
Eventually I found myself in the back of the shop, a dusty corner situated so I couldn’t examine its contents without blocking the warm sunlight and casting it into shadow. Nestled in this darkened corner was a collection of toys: pretty dolls with porcelain skin and old-fashioned dresses, marionettes suspended from frayed strings, teddy bears with matted fur and beady eyes. It was the bears that drew my attention, thinking what a fine gift one of them would make for my sister, who loved antiques and was expecting her first child. None of the toys had price tags on them, so I was about to call the shopkeeper over, but then something else caught my eye.
From the darkness between the misshapen mounds of fur, there flashed an open-mouthed smile that exuded friendliness. Carefully brushing aside the piles of worn teddy bears, I uncovered the owner of that beguiling grin: a figurine of a man, eight inches tall, dressed in baggy clothes that had once been brightly colored. His clownish face was slender and round, and its flaking paint gave him a tired look that contrasted with his sparkling glass eyes.
I lifted him gently from the shelf, eliciting a soft, metallic rattle from somewhere deep within his tiny body. A large, silver key protruded from his back, tarnished and discolored.
“How much for this?” I asked.
The shopkeeper hobbled over and examined the little toy. “I forgot he was here,” he muttered as he leaned over the figurine. “Thought someone bought him years ago. Ah well. Let’s see.” Taking the toy from my hands, the shopkeeper gripped the key and began to turn. It resisted him as he twisted, protesting his efforts with a series of metallic clicks as the inner workings contorted. When the shopkeeper relented and set the little man free, the mechanical innards came to life. Starting and stopping, rusted joints threw the figurine into a spasmodic, unpredictable dance. It shuffled across the shelf in this sporadic manner, its painted face tilting jerkily back and forth out of time with its halting, uncertain steps. Its glass eyes remained fixed ahead, staring in my direction without actually looking at me, and its mouth continued to hang open, frozen in that disarming smile. There was, I began to realize, something behind that smile, something hidden within those staring eyes. It knew something, I could tell, and it found great pleasure in gloating over that knowledge as it advanced on me.
What secrets could a toy have? I wondered as I listened to the uneven click of its steps and the grinding whir of its gears. What could it be hiding?
Its energy spent, the mechanism died. With a final, desperate spasm, the little man fell still and silent, resting dangerously close to the edge of the shelf. Its face, stopped at an awkward angle, continued to charm me with its friendliness, but it seemed a façade had cracked, if only ever so slightly. I detected a hint of disappointment, of frustration even, at being forced to fall lifeless once more, at being cheated when it was so close.
“A little worn,” the shopkeeper concluded, “but still works. I don’t know…how about…” He screwed up his face as he tried to conjure a fair price. “Thirty bucks?”
I cringed a bit inside. Too expensive, my mind told me, but as I looked again at the little man on the shelf, his dark eyes held me. My ears still rang with his metallic song, and I thought I detected the subtle remnants of his mechanical dance, repeated over and over again in my imagination. Before I knew it my wallet was out.
“Hi, you’ve reached the home of…”
I hadn’t expected my sister to be home that night, so I waited patiently for her recorded voice to finish speaking so I could leave my message. As I stood by the phone, shifting my weight from foot to foot, I glanced over my shoulder at the kitchen table. There stood my purchase, looking terribly dramatic under the dim overhead light. His peeling skin was dull and plastic, but his eyes were so lifelike in the gloom—
“Hey, it’s me,” I said. “I got something for you today. Why don’t you stop by tomorrow and pick it up? I’ll be home all day.”
I returned to the kitchen table and studied the toy. He looked so old and dirty and ragged, but that was what my sister liked. It gave him a sense of authenticity, she’d say.
I absentmindedly wound the key in the toy’s back, then set him down again to begin his performance. I rested my chin on the table so my eyes were level with his. I could feel the tiny vibrations as his gears shuffled his feet unsteadily forward. My gaze drifted to and fro, following the oscillating motion of his face as he danced, jerkily rocking back and forth, back and forth, always continuing his uncertain advance, as ponderous and unstoppable as—
I leapt from the table with enough force to knock over my chair. The little man, still standing at the far end, wobbled slightly, but remained on his feet, unmoving and lifeless as ever. His head rested on his left shoulder. What had spooked me? I looked around the room, but could find no explanation for it. I listened, but received no clue.
I glanced at the clock. 12:00! I couldn’t help but shudder in spite of the cliché. Where did the time go? I couldn’t account for the last few hours. Had I fallen asleep? No, I was watching the dancing toy the whole time. I remembered that much at least. I shook my head. Time for bed, you old coot.
I kept imagining I heard soft clicks coming from downstairs. Each time I’d jerk awake and sit up for several agonizing minutes as I tried to remember if I had been dreaming or not. I must’ve been, for I had some bizarre memories that nothing but a dream could provide. I’d been with the shopkeeper from the antique store, and we were dancing foolishly atop a mountain of teddy bears. I must be crazy, I thought, climbing out of bed and locking my door. Why would I do such a thing?
I lay down again, slipping under the covers and out of consciousness. I had no more dreams that night, and in the morning I attributed it to my locking the door. Why that should’ve settled me was a mystery, for I’d never been in the habit of locking myself in at night, and could name nothing that would’ve prompted me to pick it up so suddenly.
I found the little man as I’d left him, standing off-kilter at the end of the kitchen table, his head tilted crazily to the right. He watched me as I ate breakfast. I could feel his smile even when I turned away, and I could imagine the thoughts that ran through that mechanical, rusty head of his.
If only you knew what I know, ha ha! You eating fool, if only you knew.
Yes, yes, I replied in my head, don’t gloat. I’m ignorant, so enlighten me with your infinite wisdom. Tell me what knowledge causes your eyes to sparkle so brightly.
In my mind he answered, and I imagined all the profound things he’d say. What a crazy old fool I am, I thought. How pathetic, spending the morning talking to a toy. Then I wondered, Which is crazier: that I talk to a toy, or that I imagine it talking back? And then, Why would I imagine a toy saying such things, to speak of sunshine and puffy clouds and laughter and friends, of games and bouncing balls and cars, of wheels and screeches and screams, of tears and blood and darkness, of dead friends and laughter and laughter and laughter—
The pounding on the front door echoed like a cannon in my ears, and I realized all was quiet. I sat there wondering what I’d been thinking about when it came again, but not so loud, and I remembered with my sister was due to stop by. Jumping from my seat, I went to the door and opened it.
“I got your message,” my sister said. “What’s the surprise?”
“Come on in,” I beckoned, “let me go get it.” I returned to the kitchen to retrieve the toy, and paused. Where did I leave it? I thought…
There it was, lying on the kitchen tile. I must’ve bumped the table when I went to answer the door. I bent over to pick it up, and felt my heart sink a little. The painted face had cracked from the fall. An ugly, dark line ran jaggedly across one eye, around the pointed nose, and split the faded lips down the center. Should’ve gone with a teddy bear, I thought, wondering if my sister would really care about one more crack in an already-worn antique. I meant to get a bear. What was I thinking?
The little man’s expression seemed altered by the fresh damage. His black eyes glared accusingly at me, and I couldn’t help but apologize in my mind. There I go again, talking to a toy.
“I was at an antique shop yesterday,” I said as I rejoined my sister, “and found this. Thought you might like it, especially with the baby on the way”
“Ooh!” Her eyes lit up as she examined the figurine. “It still works?”
“Yeah. Just turn the key. It’s a bit stiff, but…”
“Thank you,” my sister exclaimed. “I love it!”
We chatted for a bit, then she had to go run errands so we said goodbye. Once the door was shut, I leaned against it with a sigh. I felt…relieved. During the conversation, my mind had felt like water kicked up by a storm, but now it was calm. What was I doing, I thought, trying to remember what I’d been planning before my sister’s visit. Did it matter? It was gone now. My life could go back to normal.
I shivered as my thoughts betrayed just how uneasy I’d been during the short time that toy was in my possession. I really should have gotten a teddy bear instead.
“Look what my brother got us,” I said upon returning home. I’d found my husband in the nursery, which we were hurrying to finish before the baby was born. Most of the furniture was ready, tucked away in other parts of the house, but the room still needed painting.
My husband looked up from where he was kneeling, applying painter’s tape to a window sill, and grimaced. “Dreadful old thing, isn’t it?”
I walked over and smacked him lightly on the head. “I think it’s adorable.”
“But it’s…” He tried to find a nice way of saying it, but gave up and said, “…broken. The face is all cracked.”
“It’s an antique,” I protested. “It’s supposed to be a little worn. Besides, it works just fine, see?” I wound the toy up and set it on the floor, where it spasmed and shuffled and cocked its head back and forth.
“That’s supposed to make me like it?” My husband stared at the odd dance with a look of disgust. “It’s horrifying.”
“Oh, get over it. You don’t have to like it. We’ll just leave it on a shelf next to all the baby’s other toys.”
We stored my brother’s gift in a corner where it crowned a pile of stuffed animals. There it sat for the next few weeks, staring and smiling at us as we put the finishing touches on the nursery. The walls were painted a pale blue, just a few shades darker than the white of the window trim. We moved the furniture in. My husband installed a toy shelf next to the crib, which we then populated with various cotton-stuffed critters. Perched among them, a bit incongruously I must admit, was the antique.
A few weeks later, our son was born.
I awoke to our child screaming his head off. Even the worst stories told by our predecessors along the path of parenthood hadn’t prepared us for the severity of these nocturnal interruptions. Every night, several times a night. My husband and I could hardly function in the mornings.
With a sigh I got out of bed. I stumbled across the hall, not bothering to switch on any lights. The moon was full and provided plenty of illumination. I reached into the crib and pulled my baby gently from the blankets, holding him close as I tried to offer him a bottle. He settled down a bit, so I carried him to the nearby rocking chair, sat down, and waited for him to fall back asleep.
At first I simply stared out the window, admiring the moonlight while listening to the baby suck on his bottle. Then my eyes wandered through the nursery, idly scanning the furnishings and decorations, feeling my eyelids grow heavier and heavier as I rocked myself to sleep.
I woke up again to the baby crying, still in my arms. The bottle had fallen and rolled across the floor.
“Hush,” I cooed, trying to retrieve the bottle with my foot. Inside I wondered, How can you still be hungry? To prevent myself from falling asleep again, I stood up and began pacing the nursery. My feet padded softly on the carpet, a soft gray sea under the light of the moon. Pff, pff, pff, click.
I paused mid-step, my head cocked as I wondered what that sound was. The creak of the floorboards, I decided, and I continued pacing. Pff, pff, pff, click. No, it couldn’t have been the floorboards. I listened closely, and heard it again. Click…click…click, click, click. The sounds came faster and faster until they formed a hum of mechanical energy. What is that?
There was a soft crash, and my head spun toward the toy shelf by the crib. Nothing seemed out of place, although I could see little amidst the shadows of the stuffed animals. I walked over for a better look, and as I approached the shelf my son began to squirm in my arms. “Shh…” I sang comfortingly, but it seemed of little use. He began to whimper, and by the time I was within arm’s reach of the crib he was crying again.
I released a shout of surprise as something crunched under my foot. I stumbled back and looked down. There on the floor was the antique figurine my brother had given me. That must be what I heard. Clutching my son with one arm, I knelt down to pick up the toy. There was a metallic rattle from within the little man’s body, and with a sense of disappointment I saw fresh cracks running across his smiling face. I doubted it would work anymore. I gently restored the toy to its place on the shelf, then returned my child to his crib. He’d been fed, his diaper was clean, and I didn’t know what else to do. Please go to sleep, I thought. I stayed for just a few more minutes, long enough to see that he was gradually calming down, then I went back to bed.
I was surprised the next morning to find my husband looking even more haggard than I did. He only had to see to the baby once that night. I’d done it twice and spent most of the night awake. Even more surprising, however, was his response when I asked him if he’d gotten any sleep: “I was worried about the baby. About you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. If I could put it any more clearly, I would. There was just something…Look. When I was in there last night, I didn’t feel safe. It was like there was someone watching me.”
“Well that’s just ridiculous,” I said. I couldn’t tell why, but it felt like he was accusing me of something. Realizing how defensive I sounded, I added, “You were just paranoid because of the dark.”
“I’m not scared of the dark.” It was his turn to sound defensive. “You know that.”
“Well, I didn’t feel in any danger.”
“I never said anything about danger, just…not safe.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I DON’T KNOW!”
The baby started crying, upset by his outburst.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, rubbing his palm against his face. “Sorry, I just…like I said, I don’t know. I’m just tired.” He glanced down at his watch. “Oh—” He bolted out of his seat, exclaiming, “I’m going to be late for work.”
With the afternoon sun streaming through the window, the nursery was as cheerful a room as ever, and my husband’s concerns seemed more and more groundless. I stood before the toy shelf, looking sadly on the damaged face of the antique. I felt so bad about it. Probably because it was a gift, and one simply didn’t treat gifts in such a careless manner. Maybe it still works, I tried encouraging myself. I gingerly removed it from the shelf and wound the key, wincing at the painful rattling sound of the loose machinery inside. To my great relief, when I set the toy on the carpet, it began its contorted dance just as it always had. I couldn’t help but return the wide, friendly smile as the head wobbled jerkily from side to side. The cracks across its face served to enhance its personality. Its black eyes stared up at me, looked through me, and I laughed, hardly noticing how my body rocked back in forth in time with the dance—
“What are you doing?”
With a startled gasp I turned around to see my husband standing in the doorway. How is he here? He’s at work! Then I noticed the dimming sunlight. Impossible!
“The baby’s crying. Can’t you hear him?”
Indeed, now that he mentioned it, I did hear our son wailing away downstairs. I wondered guiltily how long he’d been going at it.
“Really,” my husband muttered as I stumbled past him to tend to the baby, “what were you doing?”
I felt like I was on a boat at sea, tossed back and forth by crimson waves until my eyes opened and I realized it was only my husband shaking me awake. I shot a quick glance at the clock. Almost 2:30.
“Are you all right?”
“What?” I asked.
“You were…you must have been dreaming. You were laughing, but then it changed, and you started screaming.”
I tried to remember what I’d been dreaming about. Nothing serious. I had vague, playful memories. Something about dancing. I told my husband everything I could remember, then asked, “Has the baby woken up?”
I heard him shake his head. “Not a peep all night.”
“Finally,” I sighed. ”A full night’s sleep.”
My husband’s silence unsettled me. “I’m going to go check on him,” he said at last.
I listened to his feet shuffle out into the hallway. I heard the doorknob rattle. I heard it rattle again, harder.
“Did you lock the door?”
What a ridiculous question. The nursery door didn’t have a lock. He knew that. I jumped out of bed and ran out to join him. He was twisting the knob back and forth, but it refused to budge.
“Let me try,” I said. He stepped aside, I placed my hand on the cool metal, and it turned without a sound. The door swung gently open, and there was our boy, fast asleep in the crib.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” my husband growled. ”How come I couldn’t open it?”
“Woman’s touch,” I said sleepily. “Now that you can see our baby’s fine, I’m going to get some much needed rest.”
My husband looked dreadful the next morning. Before I could ask, he explained, “I stayed up all night, sitting with the baby.”
“Something’s not right,” he interrupted me. ”I’m telling you.”
He refused to elaborate further, so we ate our breakfasts in silence. As he stood up to leave for work, my husband said, “I don’t want you going in the nursery today.”
“Why not? What if I need something from in there?”
“You’ll just have to make do. Stay out until…well, just until I say so.”
My husband returned home that night with a hammer clenched tightly in his hand.
“What are you doing with that?” I asked.
“Nothing. Supper ready yet?”
“Almost.” Before I could continue he’d vanished upstairs. As I turned back to the stove, I heard him walk along the upstairs hall, pause, and begin fiddling with something. The fiddling noises grew louder and louder, until at last I was sure that he was pounding on a door. Turning off the burner, I ran upstairs to see what he was doing.
I found him standing in front of the nursery, his arm wound back in preparation to strike the closed door with his hammer.
“What are you doing?”
He halted his swing to stare at me with wild eyes. “It won’t open, so I’m knocking it down. It doesn’t want to let me in, but it can’t keep me out. No, no. I’ll get it!”
“W-what are you talking about?”
“That thing! If I don’t take care of it now, it’s going to kill us!”
I darted in and caught his arm before he could land another blow on the door’s scarred panels. “Wait. Let me.”
Just like the night before, it opened easily under my touch. My husband tried to dart in, but I stood in his way.
“Stop. Tell me, what is going on?”
He pointed a shaking finger at the toy shelf, at the antique figurine that stood nestled between the soft fur of the other toys.
I followed his mad gaze incredulously. “That’s ridiculous!”
“You can’t feel it watching you?” he demanded. “You haven’t heard it? Last night it was trying to—”
“Stop it!” I yelled. “Don’t you realize how crazy you sound?” I advanced on him, forcing him back until I was able to shut the door.
You went in there, today, didn’t you?” my husband accused. “I told you not to, but you did, you let it get to you!”
“Of course I did no such thing!” I replied, letting the betrayal I felt at his accusation color my voice. “I just—”
We both stood still and rigid as statues when we heard a small crash from the other side of the door.
“A-all your banging about must’ve shaken something loose,” I stammered, but that was a thin explanation, and it was quickly stripped away when a quiet, metallic sound, like a tiny bell, drifted out of the nursery. The hammer fell from my husband’s hand with a soft thud and we backed ourselves against the far wall. The mechanical ringing continued.
I laughed. “It’s mocking you,” I said to my husband. “It knows you can’t get in, and it’s laughing at you.” Then I started dancing, teetering unsteadily up and down the hall as my husband watched, horrified. I began to sing. I couldn’t understand the words. They were like a blur through my mind, but they had something to do with laughter and friends and sunshine and screams and tears and blood and dead friends and laughter and laughter and laughter—
I fell to the floor, my cheek stinging where my husband had slapped me. At first I was only hurt that my husband would do such a thing, but then my pain turned to bewilderment. “What was I doing?” I looked nervously up at my husband. His eyes were wide, but there was no malice in them. Only fear. He slowly bent down and picked up his hammer, then advanced once again on the nursery door.
“Don’t!” I cried. “Don’t go in there! If you do I…I don’t think you’ll come back out.”
He hesitantly stepped back, then let his arm drop in surrender.
“Just leave it be,” I pleaded. “Board it up. Hide it. The baby will sleep in our room. We’ll get a new crib and everything, just don’t…please don’t…
My husband nodded slowly. “Alright.”
“Maybe I’m all turned around, but I could’ve sworn there was a room here.”
“No,” said the realtor. “No, there’s nothing there. That’s a solid wall, that is.”
The woman shook her head. “No, I’m certain of it. When we were outside, I counted the windows. This is the front of the house, yes? There should be something here.”
The woman’s husband stood close to the wall, running his hands over it. “She’s right,” he said, beckoning the realtor closer. “See, the paint here is off, just a half shade. I bet if you knock down this wall, you’ll find a hidden room.”
“Really,” said the woman, “we can’t be the first to have noticed. There’s a window right there.”
“Well,” said the realtor, “we’ll certainly look into it.”
“Why don’t we do it now?” asked the woman. “I mean, how can you expect to sell a house if you won’t show interested parties every single room?”
“I don’t—” began the realtor.
“Stand back,” interrupted the woman’s husband. Before the realtor could protest, he’d delivered several solid kicks to the drywall and punched a hole big enough for them to see what lay beyond. There was a door, marked and pitted as if someone had attacked it with a hammer.
“You see,” said the woman. “Just as I suspected.”
Her husband tore at the drywall for a few more minutes while the realtor stood aghast. Once the hole was big enough, he opened the door and led everyone inside.
They found themselves in a tidy nursery, fully furnished with a crib, changing table, and shelves stocked with stuffed animals. A suffocating layer of dust covered everything, and in the center of the floor, perfectly still and lifeless, stood an antique, wind-up toy.