I don’t know why I had to take the damn music box. It was pretty, sure, beautifully made. It wasn’t like I could have wound it up to hear the sound it made, because I was in the middle of robbing a house, so it definitely wasn’t the tune it played. It looked old, possibly valuable though how would I know? But something…something possessed me to take it when I found it in the child’s room.
I regret it now of course. I’d give it back if I could.
Why had I been robbing a house? I wasn’t desperate, just tired.
I had a job, cleaning houses, and I was studying, but most of the money went for rent, utilities and university (books, fees, etc). At the end of the month I was left with a dollar or two if I was lucky. So I lived from paycheck to paycheck, and though it wasn’t the best way to live, I was getting by. But I was tired. I was tired of always calculating in my head. I was tired of browsing several shops for discounted groceries and food that tasted like cardboard, but I bought it because it was cheap and it didn’t kill me, so how bad could it be? I was tired of skipping meals at times, because I had bought a monthly ticket for public transportation, since it was so cold that my hair froze when I was walking to uni. I was tired of having to do laundry in the middle of the night, because that’s when electricity and water were the cheapest. I was tired of turning my heater off and sleeping with five layers of clothing, because I had to pay the next semester’s fees.
You get the gist, I was simply exhausted of always having to choose between things most people took for granted. So, when I was cleaning the Fischer’s house and happened to find an envelope filled with several 100$ bills taped to the backside of a family picture hanging on the wall, I knew that I would take it. Do I feel ashamed? I do now, but back then all I could think about was how I could finally turn on the heater again, so I wouldn’t have to freeze in my own home. Had you asked me before if I would ever steal, I would have been appalled. But we all think we are better than we really are. I know that now. I didn’t take it that day of course. That would have been stupid. The company I cleaned for rotated the cleaners: you cleaned a different house every time. They kept a record of who was cleaning which house though, there was a virtual schedule sent to everyone and I knew that the HR guy kept an excel list, as I had seen it. So had I taken the money then, there would have been no other suspect than me.
No, I knew I had to be patient and I would find an opportunity. I did fear that someone else would find the money before I did, though I didn’t think it was too likely, as most of the cleaners only dusted the pictures, but never took them off the wall. Neither did I, to be honest. I had just discovered it by accident. I had finished with the living room and was going to move to the bedrooms upstairs, when I noticed that the picture had fallen down. The glass didn’t break and I hadn’t heard it fall, though the second part was not surprising since I was listening to music on my mp3 player (yes I still had one of those). Empty houses could be creepy, so I preferred to have music blast into my ears. Also cleaning was easier that way.
Anyway, the picture was on the floor, face up which I now realize was also weird, though it didn’t strike me as odd back then. I picked it up and felt something in the back. Curiosity got the best of me and I checked what it was, and found the cash. I put the picture back where it belonged and continued cleaning.
When you clean someone’s place you learn a lot about the person. You learn more than what they tell even their closest friends, trust me. I’d never let anyone else clean my apartment. The Fischer’s were no exception. I knew that the husband and wife slept in separate beds, because I had to make them. I knew they had two daughters, one liked chaos and the other was very tidy. I never had to do much in her room. And I knew from their mail that they would go on vacation soon, for a week. The tickets to some kind of big fair had arrived in the mail. I was not on to clean their house that week, which I took as a sign of the universe that I was supposed to be doing this.
It was not that hard in the end. We had several copies of the keys, in case they got locked in or lost (first one happened a lot actually, people leaving the key inside). It was easy to take them. I know that they got checked regularly, but always at the end of the week, at which point they would be back where they belonged. And two days after the start of the exhibition, on a Wednesday night, I put my plan into action.
The house felt even emptier at night. I listened intently when I entered through the backdoor, but there was nobody there. I tiptoed to the family picture, the four of them beaming at the photographer, reached behind it without taking it off and grabbed the envelope. My heart was beating like crazy. I was sure someone was going to grab my hand any minute and ask me what I was doing.
I checked the cash in the envelope; ten $100 bills. I was holding a thousand dollars in my hand. It was almost over. I started to walk towards the door, when I thought I heard something from the tidy girl’s room. I stopped dead in my tracks, holding my breath. There it was again, rustling. I don’t know how long I stood there frozen, but eventually I forced myself to move. I crept towards the room, her door was open and I could see the moonlight coming through the door. Who was in there?
I was right next to the door, and I heard the rustling clearer than before. I knew I had to look, but I didn’t want to. I was convinced something was waiting in there for me, not someone because a person would have shown themselves by now. Finally I decided to just get it over with and stepped forward to look into the room. Nothing.
There was nobody there. The window was slightly open, it was one of those that could be tilted from the top. The family had simply forgotten to close the window and the breeze coming through was probably causing that rustling sound. I almost laughed out loud at my own stupidity.
I turned to leave and that’s when I saw a little flash of gold. I turned back and saw the music box. It was one of those old-fashioned ones that are egg-shaped. It was sitting on the little desk and I didn’t remember ever seeing it in the girl’s room before. I walked into the room, and without even really knowing what I was doing I grabbed the music box and stuffed it into my pocket.
I left the house, carefully locked the back door and made me way out of the backyard without being seen. At least I didn’t see anyone see me.
I took a long hot shower at home, not caring about how much it would cost. The music box was forgotten. I turned on the heater and made myself a nice cup of tea, then looked again at the envelope. I don’t remember much else from that evening, only that I slept well for the first time in a long time.
They never caught me. I spent the next few days in anxious anticipation. Every time I went to work I expected the police to wait for me, but they never did. I was even assigned to clean the Fischer house the week after and I was so worried, but nothing happened. The house was empty as usual.
I started to relax and I to think that I had made it.
The evening after cleaning the Fischer house was when I remembered the music box. I didn’t recall taking it out of my pocket, but I did, as it was sitting on my nightstand. I still didn’t know why I stole it, though I did admit that it looked beautiful. It was about as big as the circle I could make with my hands. It was made from jade, or another green gemstone like that. There was a golden circle on top and another one around where the opening was. It had four legs, and they were golden too. I wasn’t sure but it looked like real gold. There was no key to wind it up, so I assumed that it was one of those that would play music when you opened it. I wondered what sound it would make.
I opened the music box delicately, anticipating the music. There was none. The little dancer was turning, so at least part of the mechanism worked, but there was no sound. I was strangely disappointed, though it didn’t last long. The insides of the music box were painted over, so it looked like the ballerina was dancing on a theater stage. The insides of the top half were the stage and the curtains, and the lower half looked like there was an audience in front of the dancer.
The dancer had a green dress speckled with gold, long pale legs and long arms like they usually have, black hair in a bun, with a little golden crown, but she didn’t have a face.
At first, I thought that the years had chipped away the face or washed away the paint that used to be the face. But when I looked closer I could see that where the face should have been, the smooth stone was caving inwards. It looked like it had been purposefully designed to not have a face.
I shivered despite the heater running. Who would make a music box with a dancer that didn’t have a face? And why would a little girl want to keep it?
I didn’t sleep so well that night, though I didn’t really think it had anything to do with the music box. The next day I was tired and irritated, though that wasn’t an unusual state for me as you know by now.
I worked during the day and had classes until ten. So by the time I came home I was ready to go to bed. The heater was running, making my tiny studio flat warm and cozy. I decided to make a cup of tea before bed. After I put on the kettle I sat down on my reading chair – I didn’t have a sofa, so apart from my bed this was the only seating- and grabbed the novel I had been reading since last year.
Just after I read the first sentence I heard a high sound and I thought it was the teakettle, but I was wrong. I frowned, and then I heard it again. There was a succession of high notes, it sounded really strange and it took me a couple of seconds to recognize that it was coming from the music box. The hair stood up on my arms and neck.
I was sure I had closed it the night before and yet here it was open and playing a strange melody. The high notes were shrill, but I could hear some really low notes in the background. It was slow too; the sound was dragging as if something was wrong with the mechanism so it was slowing it down. But the dancer was moving at normal speed, the same as yesterday. I froze and I watched her turn around and around, every time her no-face disappeared in a turn I was sure that when she turned back to the front she would have pitch-black eyes and a huge mouth full of teeth. But there was no face at all.
The whistle of the teakettle brought me back to reality and I could move again. The music, if you can call it that, had stopped and the dancer was facing me, not moving anymore. And though it didn’t have eyes, I could tell it was staring at me. Before I got the teakettle, I closed the music box and put it in the drawer of my nightstand.
I wanted to make sure the music box was locked away, just in case it would start again after I got the teakettle. I thought about throwing it out of the window, but a part of me still thought that it was too valuable.
I was shaking even though the flat was warm, and I was sure I would not be able to sleep. But after drinking some tea, I felt much better. “I probably just left it open and forgot. Maybe the heat got it working again.” I theorized and even managed to laugh at my own stupid fear. It was just a toy after all. A toy couldn’t be dangerous.
Though I kept waking up at night expecting something to happen, nothing did. The music box was still in the drawer the next morning and I was even more convinced that nothing supernatural was going on. Like any protagonist in a horror movie I chose to go with the rational explanation. I even went as far as to think that it was maybe my own guilt, because I stole something I really didn’t need.
I didn’t have work that day only classes in the evening, so I decided to go to the library and work on a paper that was due. Instead of writing the paper I spent the whole morning researching haunted music boxes, but I found nothing relevant for me. Sure, there were quite some accounts of music boxes playing on their own, but there was no other music box that had a dancer with no face. I also looked for reasons why a music box could start playing on their own suddenly and there were some satisfying explanations.
By the time my classes had started I was convinced that I had just overreacted. I went for a drink after classes to the surprise of my friends. I told them that I had won some money in a lottery game, not much just a little, but enough to afford some drinks (the lottery was my cover story in case people would ask me how I got the money).
Thinking about it now, I was probably afraid to go home. The rational part in me might have been louder, but the other part, the one that believed that something strange was going on was still pulling the strings and I did not want to be alone with the music box for too long. Eventually I had to go home. Fortunately I was tipsy and I fell into bed without even taking off my clothes, but not before I had turned on the heater, or so I thought.
I woke up in the middle of the night, still a bit dazed but positively freezing. I could see my own breath.
“I thought I turned on the heater.” I thought. “Strange.”
I was about to get up and turn on the heater, when I saw it; the music box. It was sitting on the table next to the reading chair. It was dark in my apartment, but since I didn’t have blinds only curtains on my window, it was not too dark to see that the music box was open- but the dancer was missing.
A cold hand grabbed my heart, so that now I was freezing on the inside as well. Where was the dancer? Did I drunkenly do this? Did I break it and forget about it?
As if it had waited for me to notice that a crucial thing was missing, the music box started to play the weird high notes again, followed by the lower ones, slow and dragging every note. I started shaking. Where was the dancer? What had happened to it?
A movement from the corner next to the kitchenette caught my eye. It was too dark to see, but something was there.
“It can’t be.” I thought.
I could see the figure in the dark now, forming with my recognition, the arms too long and the legs too long joined together in a pirouette.
“No, no, no.” I thought over and over again. “Please no.”
It was moving though, and it was definitely moving closer. I could see flashes of the green dress and golden flecks, though both colors looked greyish, dirtier. The music was playing still, the melody repeating itself, and it was the only sound in the flat. For the thing approaching was silent.
I tried to run for it, but I couldn’t move, I was glued to the bed. Tears were turning to little icy pearls on my cheeks. For every couple of notes played the thing would come closer, it was twirling and what should have looked ridiculous looked terrifying. I still could not see the face and I didn’t know what was worse, to see whatever its real face was or to see that it really had none. I was shaking all over, even on the inside. I opened my mouth to scream, but there was no sound, as if the melody from the music box was sucking all other sound in to produce its own.
Four feet away.
Three feet away.
Two feet away.
One foot away.
My mobile rang and I blinked and suddenly the thing was gone. The flat was empty and warm. The only proof that I wasn’t mad was that the music box was still sitting on the living room table. It was closed now and not in a million years would I have tried to open it to see if the dancer was still there.
I checked my mobile and it was one of my friends calling. They had stayed out longer than I had. As I walked over to the now silent music box, I picked up the phone.
“Yeah.” I said a bit out of breath.
“Heeeey!” Lisa, my best friend yelled into the phone. “Listen to this!”
All I could hear was thumping, and some distorted electronic music. I laughed tears streaming down my face. Normally I would have been so mad at her for waking me up, but I couldn’t have been more grateful tonight.
I grabbed a cloth and put it around the music box, as I didn’t want to touch it, and I left it on the other side of my apartment door. I did want to throw it out of the window, but I was scared that it would break and that I would set whatever lived in there free by breaking it. And since I didn’t want it in my flat, I felt safer with it outside my door, in the hallway. Maybe someone would steal it, I hoped.
Lisa was saying something though I couldn’t hear. I asked her to come over, and even though she was drunk she heard the fear in my voice, and fifteen minutes after she was standing in my flat. I didn’t tell her then what happened. I told her I was going to tell her in the morning, and that she would only forget it if I told her now. She agreed. The real reason I didn’t want to tell her is that I was scared I was going to make it more real, that I was going to invite that thing back.
So she stayed over and I felt so much safer, knowing I wasn’t alone anymore. Nothing else happened that night.
In the morning I told Lisa that I had been feeling weird because I was tipsy. She teased me about it before she left and I knew she would continue to do so for a while, but it was better to be teased about being silly than being called crazy.
When Lisa was leaving we had to open the apartment door and I saw that the music box was still there, nobody had taken it. I saw Lisa notice it and frown, but she didn’t ask me anything about it.
Could it have been a bad dream? Had I just been drunker than I thought I was? I didn’t think so. I wasn’t prone to hallucinating, even when drunk.
I thought the best would be to return the music box to its owner, before it drove me insane. So when I left for work, I put it in my bag (wrapped in the cloth and a bag that I sealed with duct tape – better safe than sorry). I wasn’t due to clean the Fischer house today, but I was determined to swap with someone who was due to clean it this week. They wanted someone to come on Wednesday, so I only had to wait one more day anyway.
After cleaning I stopped by the office, the music box heavy in my bag. I asked my boss, if I could swap my Thursday for Wednesday (because you couldn’t request to clean a specific house) as I had a paper due on Friday and she was sympathetic. When she opened the excel file however, her face darkened.
“Is something wrong?” I asked clutching my bag stronger.
She looked up at me frowning still. “Well, I am really sorry, honey, but you won’t be able to swap this Wednesday.”
“Oh,” I murmured, already trying to think of other unassuming ways I could get back to the Fischer’s house.
“You see, the only house we have on for Wednesday’s usually is the Fischer’s house.” She stopped and looked at me expectantly. I felt my face flush. Did they find out about the money? Then why wasn’t she firing me? When she didn’t get the reaction she wanted, she sighed heavily. I was getting ready to be fired, feverishly thinking of excuses.
“It’s the anniversary of the day their daughter disappeared.”
“What?” My jaw hit the floor and I started to feel sick.
“You didn’t know…” She gestured for me to sit down, and I did, as I wasn’t sure I could keep standing. “Three years ago, their youngest daughter vanished; one minute she was playing in her room the other she was gone. The window was open, but apparently that wasn’t unusual. They believe someone took her. It was all over the papers, honey, how did you miss it?”
I was shaking my head slowly, though I did vaguely recall a missing children’s case a few years ago. TV stations picking it up, the parents being suspected, it was slowly coming back to me. “That’s why her room is always tidy…” I whispered finally understanding. They kept her room for when she would return. Nobody lived in there, so why would there be anything much to clean? My boss bent over her desk to tap my hand. “I am sorry, dear, I thought you knew.”
“They never found her?”
“No, there was never as much as a trace. The parents were suspects in the beginning, and I am sure some still believe they killed the girl, but they were cleared. The scariest thing was that she seemed to have dissolved into thin air. The mother claimed that she had seen the girl play in her room as she was carrying the dry laundry to their bedroom. And when she got back a few minutes after the girl was gone. That was also one of the reasons why people suspected the parents, there was something off about their story how she disappeared. Poor family, it must be so hard to lose your child and be treated like you are responsible.”
“I just…I never connected it to the Fischers.” I said finally to say something.
“Do you want to swap to Friday then?” My boss asked moving to daily business already.
“No, it’s okay, I think I’ll manage somehow.” I said trying to force a smile.
“Anything else?” She asked and I knew I was being dismissed so I shook my head and said goodbye.
I went to the bathroom because I needed a few minutes to collect myself and to decide what I was going to do. The little girl had disappeared from her room. I had found a mysterious music box that was clearly haunted in her room. Whatever was in that box had taken her, I was sure of it. Maybe if I gave it back it would leave me alone?
I decided that I would go to the Fischer’s house and return the music box. I would tell the family that I had taken it while cleaning. If they complained and I got fired, I would accept it, because I did deserve to get fired. I wasn’t going to say anything about the money though, because I would have to return it otherwise.
Leaving the office I went to the Fischer’s house immediately. There was no point in losing time. I knocked on the front door, and waited, and waited. I rang the bell a couple of times, and finally the mother opened the door. She only vaguely resembled the woman on the family picture where the envelope full of cash had been hidden behind. It looked like with her daughter something had also taken all color from her; like when you try to make your picture artistic and you remove most of the saturation from it – that’s what she looked like.
“Mrs. Fischer?” I still asked politely.
She nodded. “How can I help you?” her voice was barely above a whisper.
“Can I please come in? I clean your house sometimes, I’m with Cleaners & Co.”
She stepped aside and let me enter. I closed the door behind me. Even though she was at home the house still seemed terribly empty. Or maybe I was just projecting now that I knew what had happened here.
I didn’t take off my coat and she didn’t offer me to sit down. She just stood there in the hallway, hugging herself. I opened my bag and searched for the music box. At first I couldn’t find it and I started to panic, but it had just slipped into one of the side pockets. So I took it out, removed the bag and the cloth and showed it to her. Mrs Fischer’s eyes grew wide.
“Where did you get this?” She asked and looked at me. “I am so sorry, Mrs. Fischer, I took it from your daughter’s room. I don’t even know why, I just did. You can tell the company if you want. I am so sorry, I just want to give it back.”
She shook her head as I was trying to pass her the music box.
“Maybe you should sit down.” She said and disappeared into the kitchen. I put the music box on the living room table and sat down, still in my coat. I heard her setting up tea, but I was contemplating just leaving anyway, as she emerged again with a tray and two cups. She set it on the table next to the music box and sat down on one of the chairs opposite me.
“It was Marion’s, my daughter’s.” She said but she wasn’t looking at me or the music box. “She just showed up with it one day and wouldn’t tell me where she got it from. She said she found it, which I thought meant she had stolen it. None of the neighbors was missing it though, nor was anyone at school, so I let her have it. No harm in that.” She said and a sad smile crossed her face.
“She loved it, really loved it, even though it didn’t work anymore. You know it doesn’t play music.” She glanced at it the first time since sitting down. “Then the nightmares started. She was scared of the dancer because it had no face. I took it from her, you know. I hid it at first, but she would always find it. Then I threw it away, or I tried, but she would go through the bags and get it again. Of course she told me that it wasn’t her, that it just appeared in her room. A child’s imagination can be very persuasive.” She said and looked directly into my eyes.
“She knows.” I thought.
“You know what is strange” she asked, but she didn’t wait for me to answer. “The day Marion disappeared; I passed her room and saw her playing with her dolls. I also saw that the music box was open. But the dancer was not there. I noticed this and thought that maybe Marion had broken it because she was scared.”
“I don’t…” I started but she continued, ignoring me.
“On my way back from the bedroom I heard strange music coming from her room. I looked and Marion was gone. But the music box was open and the tiny dancer with no face was making her turns to this eerie music, too slow as if it was somehow still not working properly.”
She stopped talking and started staring at the music box. The hairs on my arms stood up. I was sure it would spring open and I was close to throwing my hands over it, so it couldn’t.
“You see, the strange thing is, after Marin went missing and we searched the whole house, every room, the music box went missing too. I have not seen this…thing since the day my daughter disappeared.”
Now she looked at me, smiling again. This time the smile wasn’t sad. Her eyes had a feverish look and the smile stretched her lips, making her mouth seem too wide. She reached over, and the tea kettle started to whistle. The smile was gone now, replaced by the same expressionless mask she had worn before.
“Excuse me.” She said and walked over to the kitchen. I did not wait for her to return, I bolted out of there. I ran and ran until my lungs were burning and the cold air was hurting my throat. I was sweating but I was shivering too. I found a bus stop and took a bus that would get me home. Even though there were plenty of people on the bus and it was warm I was still shivering. I was going to get sick I thought.
I arrived home, still shaken but relieved that I had returned the music box, and that I wasn’t going to suffer the same fate as the little girl. I turned on the heater, just threw my clothes on the floor and went for a nice warm shower. I stayed in there long enough for my flat to warm up. I felt much better, almost a bit upbeat. I decided to skip classes today and just stay in and read. I deserved a quiet evening.
I left the bathroom, toweling my hair, and that’s when I saw it. The music box was sitting on the table in front of my reading chair. I had definitely not brought it back. I remember Mrs. Fischer’s words: “Of course she told me that it wasn’t her, that it just appeared in her room.” There was no point in running.
I dropped the towel and turned around, as if it would help if I didn’t look. I could hear it opening though and I knew if I turned back I would not see the tiny dancer with no face. The room turned cold and darker. I closed my eyes as the music started to play.