Alan gazed upon the body in the casket with relief. The sight of that obese figure, stuffed into its box, marked the end of a long, depressing chapter in Alan’s life.
He’d lived with his grandmother ever since his parents had died in an accident. As Alan grew up and Grandmother grew senile, their roles gradually reversed. Alan became the responsible adult. Grandmother kept to her bedroom, tending to her ever-growing collection of dolls.
That was her chief hobby, even before Alan came to live with her. But the change, as Alan called it, came after, triggered by the death of her daughter and worsened by old age. She filled her room with dolls, stacking them on the dresser, piling them in corners, gathering them into bed with her at night.
Toward the end, Alan often heard her muttering to the dolls. Speaking to each of them by name, as if they were alive. Her conversations often revolved around Alan’s father. Grandmother had never approved of him, never in all the days he’d been married to Alan’s mother.
One afternoon, Alan went upstairs to fetch Grandmother for lunch. Mealtimes were the worst parts of his day. Usually, he could just ignore her, let her remain in her room to play with her dolls. But at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he had to go get her. Had to trespass on her domain. See her, speak to her, listen to her. This particular afternoon, her bedroom door was open just an inch, just enough for Alan to see inside before he knocked. What he saw made him pause with his hand raised.
Grandmother was seated with her back to the door. She was a massive woman, comically round. The legs of the wooden chair on which she sat seemed to bend beneath her weight. What a sight it would be, to see Grandmother fall on her backside, go rolling around the room like a beachball in a windstorm.
“…killed her, he did,” she muttered in her creaky voice. “Reckless, disgusting creature he was. No consideration for daintier things. Just like all of them, they’re all the same. Not like you, my sweets. Come here, Gwendolyn, your hair’s all knotted.” She leaned forward to pick up a little blonde doll and began brushing its synthetic hair.
Alan wished he could turn around and leave her. Let her starve. He allowed his hand to fall at his side.
Grandmother suddenly stopped brushing. The doll in her lap was turned so it faced the door, faced the gap, where Alan stood holding his breath. Grandmother slowly turned her head, straining to peer over her swollen shoulder. “Spying, are you?” She rose with such force that her tiny chair flew back. “Insolent brat!” Her feet, so bloated they seemed almost toe-less, pounded the carpet, propelling her forward in a rage.
Alan instinctively stepped back, cutting off his view of the bedroom. He heard Grandmother charging toward him. Then there was a scuffle, a heavy whump, and something massive crashed against the door, slamming it shut.
It had taken a team of three men to force it back open. Even more than that to carry her body down the stairs. Heart attack was the coroner’s diagnosis.
And now here she lay, an overstuffed dummy surrounded by flowers. Harmless, and, most importantly, out of Alan’s life. The house was his alone, now. No more helping an old, demented woman up and down the stairs for meals. No more listening to her bitter diatribes. As Alan left the funeral, he felt a weight lifting from his shoulders. Freedom.
Still, when he returned to his house that evening, Alan’s stomach instinctively tightened. Years of memories. A conditioned panic response. He fought them down. The house was empty now. Just him. No other human beings to care for. No one’s anger to appease.
He headed upstairs to change out of his funeral suit. When he was halfway down the upstairs hall, between one step and the next, a chill embraced him. He became lightheaded. In a moment of unexplainable nerves, he drifted toward one side of the hall, away from something, something he knew, and yet could not name.
As quickly as it appeared, the feeling passed. Alan rubbed his arms and continued on, on to where his own room waited near the end of the corridor. Waited with an open door that admitted the last, cheering haze of sunset into the hall. As he changed his clothes, Alan thought how quiet the house was. So peaceful. Ever since he was a child, Alan could remember hearing some proof of Grandmother’s presence. The clink of dishes in the kitchen sink, the shuffle of socks on carpet, the grumbling of a bitter soul. This silence was so much nicer. Alan didn’t feel lonely; he felt liberated. A new world had opened up to him.
He finished changing and began thinking of supper. It would be wonderful, only having to prepare a meal for one. Alan didn’t even feel guilty over such thoughts; he’d spent so many years in thankless service to that woman, he deserved to be happy.
But as he emerged from his room and headed for the stairs, that happiness vanished. Alan became hyper-aware. Each individual carpet fiber, every bump in the subtle texture of the drywall; all of it stood out to his eye in vibrant contrast. He even perceived the swirling wood grain of a doorframe, sensed its patterns beneath the obscuring layer of white paint. Could feel its texture without touching it. And yet the door itself remained a blur, a generic impression of the concept of door that his eye refused to rest on, his brain refused to clarify.
Then Alan’s foot came down, and he took another step, and that eerie sense of awareness faded. He glanced over his shoulder without breaking pace, saw plainly that door in its frame in the wall, saw nothing to elicit such a nervous reaction. It was Grandmother’s door, of course. Shut. And behind it, an empty room. Nothing more.
Alan thought about that room as he ate supper. He’d have to clean it out. Get rid of all Grandmother’s things—especially those dolls. Then he could leave the door open, air it out, purge the last remnants of her awful memory from the house. But that could be tomorrow’s task. For now he just wanted to enjoy the fact that he’d only have to wash one set of dishes.
In one hand, Alan gripped a black plastic garbage bag. His other hand rested on the doorknob to Grandmother’s room. Placing it there had taken an enormous effort. Now, looking at it, it didn’t seem real. It looked like someone else’s hand resting on a doorknob in someone else’s house. The sweat on his palm felt alien, something foreign to Alan’s person; something, perhaps, that bore witness to the tragedy of that room. He immediately wanted to run to the bathroom and wash, purify himself of the room’s taint. Instead he gripped the knob tighter, twisted it, and pushed the door open.
The cold he felt was like physical blow, like something had rushed out of the bedroom to strike him in the chest. After the initial shock had passed, the coldness remained as a bitter feeling between his stomach and spine. A primal urge to hide from those staring eyes. Those glittering eyes staring out of dead faces.
Grandmother’s dolls, arranged as she had left them. Occupying the very same places they had on that day when Alan had peeked into the room. Except now, Grandmother’s bulk no longer intervened. There was nothing to intercept those lidless gazes of paint and glass. Nothing to shield Alan from the full, icy weight of all those eyes.
Get out, thought Alan. Get out of here. He took a step back, then stopped himself. No. This is my house. He unfurled the black garbage bag in his fist with a crack. The noise seemed to break something. The air became thinner, easier to move through. The eyes, they still watched him, but now Alan saw them for what they were: glass orbs set in porcelain shells. Their malevolence was imagined. A projection of Alan’s memories. He was in control here. These crafted pieces of inanimate matter were not his masters. They were nothing. Worthless. Garbage.
And so into the garbage bag they went. First a curly brunette. Then that abhorrent blonde. Alan remembered that one: the one whose hair Grandmother had been brushing when…
It fell into the bag with a rustle and a clink. Alan swept across the room, clearing first the floor, then the bed, then the dresser. Within minutes, he’d collected all the dolls. His plastic sack was heavy with them, stuffed with dresses and ribbons and painted faces. Alan was about to tie the bag shut when he turned toward the door and saw one he’d missed. One lonely girl seated on a chair in the corner. Watching him. Waiting. Wondering. Would he come for her next? Was she, too, destined for the black sack that had claimed her sisters? Alan met her gaze and challenged it with his own. You are just a toy, he thought. Don’t look at me like that. He grabbed her by the hair and dropped her in the bag.
Alan made one last scan of the bedroom to make sure there were no more dolls hiding in corners. When he was satisfied, he dragged the sack into the hall and, leaving Grandmother’s door open, continued dragging it down the stairs. Each step produced a clinking sound as tiny hands struck against painted rosy cheeks. Alan carried the bag out to the street and left it there on the curb.
Alan didn’t return upstairs until bedtime that night. When he did, he lingered a moment at the start of the hall. The hall that was lined with doors, all flung open. All save one. That one. The one Alan had to pass on his way to his room. An oddly dark patch where the influence of the overhead lamp seemed weakened. Alan distinctly remembered leaving that door open. It must have swung shut during the afternoon. Perhaps a draft, or unbalanced hinges.
As Alan made his way toward that door, his chest tightened. Worse than ever before. Why? It’s empty now. His windpipe felt swollen and his heart was but an iron lump in his chest. As Grandmother’s room drew closer, Alan’s head turned of its own accord, refusing to let him gaze upon the door’s blurring impression, the door his brain now refused to even imagine. There was no picture of it in Alan’s mind, just an empty spot beyond his sight, a place where the house ceased to exist, a void.
He stopped when he drew even with it. Forced the welded vertebrae in his neck to twist back and acknowledge the closed door. It remained a blur, a vague shape in the wall, refusing to clarify until Alan gripped the knob in his sweaty hand. Then he shoved the door open and forced himself to look inside.
Empty, just as he’d left it. No more Grandmother. No more dolls.
He darted in just long enough to grab a tiny wooden chair and prop it against the door to keep it open. Then he scampered—something he never thought he’d do as a grown man—all the way to his own bedroom.
They’re gone, he told himself as he crawled into bed. She’s gone.
Although Alan had thus far insisted he felt no guilt regarding Grandmother’s death, there must have been something, at least on a subconscious level, that worked its way out through his dreams. Black, cold dreams. Dreams of stiff limbs, icy soreness in his joints. He could see nothing, but he heard, as if from far away, a voice calling. A creaky voice. A voice he knew and hoped never to hear again.
Alan sat up in the nether hours between night and morning. It had to be guilt. It was the most sensible explanation.
He was about to roll over and fall back asleep when he heard a sound from out in the hallway. A thump, as of a heavy, linen-filled sack dropped on the floor, followed by an interminable dragging. Then there was a period of silence. A moment for Alan to realize he was holding his breath, and it started again.
The sound moved along the hall.
It drew near Alan’s bedroom door.
His heart beat out an echo to that final, gentle impact. That impact right outside his room. He waited for it to move on, to continue down the hall, to leave him alone.
But not against the carpet this time. This time against the wood of the door. Softly against the top of the door. Up somewhere where the shadows rose and gathered in heavy bundles. And then it slid down against the wood, slid down and down forever until it reached the very bottom. And there it seemed to spread, as if expanding dozens of little fingers to grasp the bottom of the door, to reach under the crack and gain purchase.
And then the most awful noise: the click of a latch. The plaintive squeal of brass turning against brass.
Thoughtlessly, Alan threw himself off the mattress, onto the floor, and under the bed. There he buried his face in the carpet.
Toward his bed.
The mattress above his head shook. A swishing sound, like someone brushing their hand through the tousled sheets. The bedframe groaned as something heavy pressed its weight against it.
“Wwhherre?” rasped a hollow, creaking voice.
Alan willed himself to sink into the carpet, to disappear through the floor.
“Wwhhere arrre my girrrls?”
The swishing above Alan’s head became a violent thrashing and pounding. And then—
The pressure on the bed disappeared.
Drawing back, out of the bedroom.
Out into the hall.
Alan risked a glance from under the bed. His door was open, and what little he could see of the hall beyond was empty. As quietly as he could, he crawled out and stood up. The air was frigid. Little eddies like fingers tickled up his spine. He could feel each hair on his arms, rigid as needles against his skin. He stood there in his bedroom, listening. Waiting for some sign that it was over, that whatever had invaded his room was truly gone. After a minute, he worked up the courage to go to his door and look out.
The hall looked longer in the darkness. It seemed to stretch on forever, vanishing into black dizziness. Then Alan gasped.
Something in the darkness moved.
It tumbled forward. Pulled itself along. Gathered itself up only to spill forth once again. At first, Alan could form no other explanation for what he was seeing other than that it was a great heap of laundry, wrapped in a bulging sack. Then, as it rose a final time, he realized it was a figure—what in another context might have been described as a comically fat human figure. Something out of a cartoon. But as it stood there with its back to him, there was no mirth to be felt. No laughter to be heard. Indeed, whatever air laughter required was sucked away, as if the thing that shuffled before him—now beginning to turn—had drawn all the oxygen into itself, drained the last of it in order to keep itself inflated. Alan heard the scuff of what he imagined to be feet—great, swollen feet without toes—and that linen bulk swung around, seemed to unfold, inverted itself in a slow lurch that he felt in his stomach and in the tightening of his chest.
The figure was hunched. Beneath the asymmetrical mound of its shoulders hung a head that seemed far too small. A little round head draped in a shawl of yellowing lace. And out from under the tattered and puckered edges, through stray wisps of gray hair, peered a face. The most perfect face. Hard, ivory skin laid out in flawless curves. A high, smooth forehead. Crisply defined lips in a frozen smile. And yet, Alan’s horrified gaze was drawn, in irresistible spirals across all that cold perfection, toward the two black pits, the empty holes, the infinite darknesses that were its eyes.
“Wwhhere arrre my girrrls?” gasped the void. “Wwhhere?”
Alan staggered back. His mouth was too dry, his throat too constricted, and his mind too disordered to form a response.
The apparition tumbled toward him, collapsing in a rolling heap and billowing back up, lunging forward so that its terribly perfect face loomed closer. That face, just like the dolls Grandmother used to love so much. “Wwhherrre?”
Alan backed into the wall and pressed himself against it, sliding along it toward his bedroom door. “Th-they’re gone!” he managed to croak.
“I-I threw them out!”
The apparition before him went absolutely still, and so too did the air in the hallway. The temperature seemed to drop. Alan began shivering. If he could make it back into his bedroom, he could close the door and hold it shut, keep that thing out until morning, and then…then—
The apparition billowed forward, unfolding and inverting like a wind-driven storm cloud. And always that face, craning out from beneath the stooped shoulders, reaching for Alan as if to swallow him in those empty eyes, eyes that seemed to suck everything into themselves with a rattling gasp.
Alan spun and smacked his forehead against the doorframe to his room. Points of light danced across his vision. For a moment he could see nothing. He could only feel as something soft and delicate and bitterly cold began to wrap itself around his left wrist.
Alan pulled away with a cry and, in another panicked spin, hurled himself into his room and slammed the door shut. He leaned hard against the wood, panting, trying with his left hand to grasp the knob and keep it from turning. But his fingers wouldn’t work. They were too cold, too numb. They knocked against the metal doorknob with a clink.
Alan looked down at the hand.
His fingers. They rested in motionless arcs, uncannily still. Moonlight from the bedroom window highlighted perfectly smooth curves, texture-less. Alan raised his other hand and gingerly touched it to those fingers.
Cold and hard as porcelain. Like a doll’s.
The door shuddered. Alan braced himself against it, using his good hand to hold the knob. He brought his other hand, his doll-like hand, the one the thing outside had touched, before his eyes. What did she do to me?
Thump, thump, thump against the door. The knob twisted beneath Alan’s sweaty palm. What could he do?
His eyes flew to the bedroom window. Maybe he could climb out onto the porch roof. From there, make it to the front lawn. And maybe…maybe—
His grip on the doorknob failed. Rather than try to regain control, Alan threw himself across the room, rolled across the bed, dove for the window. Behind him, he heard the door fly open, crash against the wall. And the dreadful sound of that thing’s approach.
With one hand, Alan fought with the window latch. It clicked open. Then he threw the window up, felt the cool night air wash over his face, felt it wash over every part of him, every part except for that emptiness at the end of his left arm.
He also felt the sucking, gasping pull of the apparition closing in on him. He felt the hollowness of those black eyes boring into the back of his skull. Alan leaned out the window and kicked himself over the sill, out onto the roof. Something wrapped around his ankle, and Alan kicked it away with a scream—Not my foot, too! But it was just the curtain.
Once he was free, Alan rolled several heart-stopping feet until he found traction on the shingles. Then, as quickly as he dared, he slithered down the slope of the roof until he reached the gutter.
Alan didn’t think the porch roof was that high, but now that he perched on the edge, the ground seemed dreadfully far away. His limbs seized up. Refused to move him another inch.
Then he heard the rustling sound of something moving through the curtains behind him, linen spilling out over the sill. Alan screamed and flung himself out into space.
Air rushed around him. His stomach rose and fell. It seemed he hung there in the void of night for an eternity—
And suddenly the ground was slamming into him, forcing his legs up into his gut. He pitched forward and rolled, only faintly aware of a sharp chink to his left.
He sprang back to his feet and sprinted toward the street, toward the curb where a dark, amorphous lump sat waiting for the garbage truck. He lifted the bag, feeling the weight of all those dolls with a sense of relief. Hearing the clink of their tiny hands knocking together.
Then Alan looked down at his own porcelain hand, and his heart stopped.
What remained of the appendage was laced with a spiderweb of cracks. The pinky finger and a large chunk of the palm were missing.
Alan remembered his fall, that small incidental noise. He felt sick. His hand…his ruined hand, permanently broken—
An inhuman howl from the house reminded Alan that he wasn’t finished yet. Hefting the garbage bag in one hand, he returned to the front door, grateful to discover that he’d forgotten to lock it before going to bed. Once inside, he set his burden down on the entry floor, and waited.
Upstairs. It moved down the hall.
Alan stood on the landing and looked up the staircase.
It slid into view at the top of the stairs, billowing up until the mound of its shoulders brushed the ceiling. Then it folded in on itself, collapsing to the floor. It slithered down the steps, pulling itself down with tiny hands, just like the dolls’, just like Alan’s—
Alan stumbled out of the way as it reached the landing, and he pointed to the garbage bag in the entryway.
“Mmyyy girrrls?” the apparition hissed.
Alan nodded, then reached down, used his teeth to tear open the knot that held the bag shut, and upended it. The dolls spilled out, spread out across the floor.
The apparition lurched forward and leaned over the pile of dolls. A hideous, gurgling, cooing sound filled the air. Those tiny hands reached down toward the dolls.
Alan didn’t stay to watch any more. He fled up the stairs, to his bedroom, shut the door, and locked it this time. For good measure, he swept everything off his dresser—lamp, clock, keys—and shoved the piece of furniture up against the door to hold it shut. Then he sat on his bed, and waited for morning.
The house was quiet when the sun came creeping in through the bedroom window. It had been quiet for hours. Alan pushed the dresser out of the way, unlocked his door, gingerly pulled it open.
The upstairs hall was pure. Sunlight streamed in from the other rooms. There was no sign of last night’s disturbance.
A bad dream, Alan thought. But the numbness from his left hand cruelly contradicted him.
He crept out and made his way toward Grandmother’s old room. The door was shut. Did he dare open it? What did he think he would find?
After standing there for several minutes, he finally worked up the courage to raise his good hand to the knob. Hinges squealed. The hallway brightened.
Dozens of glass eyes stared at him from inside. Unblinking, soulless. The dolls were neatly arranged, perched on the bed, on little chairs, atop the dresser. But nothing else was out of the ordinary. No sign of any other presence.
Alan quietly retreated and shut the door. Maybe it was over. Maybe now, with her girls where they belonged, she would rest in peace.
Alan considered going to the hospital about his hand. But what would he tell the doctors? And what could they possibly do for him?
That afternoon, Alan went outside to look for the missing pieces. He found them, but they were too shattered to repair. His cracked and ruined hand would remain so. The gaping, black hole where the pinky used to be would forever gasp at him. He was too afraid to look at it closely. Too afraid of what he’d see if he looked inside.
The day passed so quietly that, when the sun began to set, Alan finally allowed himself to sigh in relief. It was over. She was appeased.
He was so exhausted from his harrowing all-nighter that he decided to go to bed early. As he trudged down the hallway toward his bedroom, he paused. Had that been the sound of his own shuffling footsteps? The rustle of his pant legs sweeping against each other?
A chill blossomed inside of him, and his gaze turned slowly toward the closed door next to him.
And a low, creaky babbling, like ancient whispers.
Alan left the closed door behind and retreated to his own room. Shut and locked the door. Hid himself under the bed sheets. She had what she wanted, Alan insisted. As long as she had her girls, he’d be safe.
Alan rested his head on his pillow, the cold touch of his porcelain hand against his cheek, and tried to sleep.