“She’s dead. Emily is dead. She is dead. Emily died.”
I kept saying those words to myself, over and over again, hoping that eventually, they would feel real to me. That her death would feel real to me. It wasn’t working. If anything, the repetition had the opposite effect. Even with the variations, the words quickly lost all meaning. They were just empty sounds doing nothing to solidify the swirling chaos in my mind.
A month had passed since I found her lying in the tub with a gun clutched loosely in her right hand, her face an unrecognizable ruin. I remember nothing else about that night and little about the weeks that followed. I was lost, unable to cope or function.
I stopped showing up for work. My first appearance following her death ended quickly and disastrously. I wasn’t certain at that point if I even still had a job and I didn’t much care one way or the other. I barely ate and slept less. I couldn’t stand the emptiness of the apartment at night.
There was a rat living in my ceiling and I could hear the damned thing scratching and chewing incessantly. Every time I closed my eyes I could imagine it chewing through the ceiling and dropping down onto me, skittering foully over my body in the darkness. I never actually saw it.
Television and books did nothing to distract me. Distract me from what? By the third day, I was so fried from lack of sleep and nutrients I could not scrape together a coherent thought. Eventually, I stopped trying to find solace in these diversions.
The television was nothing but chattering heads, their laughter growing ever more screechy and desperate. I thought I could see the terror and panic in their eyes, the knowledge that death would soon find them no matter what they did to fend him off. The words on the printed page swirled and wavered, refusing to stand in line and resolve themselves into meaningful sentences. My floor was littered with, among other things, discarded books. In my frustration, I would hurl them across the room and they lay akimbo, pages bent and fanned out, their tales never to be told.
Hours passed where I did nothing but stare up at the ceiling and watch the old water stains blur and transform into leering faces and other less identifiable shapes. My eyes would lose focus as I lay there unblinking, and those shapes would bulge and contort as if viewed from the bottom of a pool. Or a bathtub. The water turned pink. From her blood.
I remembered screaming. I didn’t remember tearing at my own face with my fingernails, but I saw the marks there later, in the mirror. I saw her laying there. I smelled blood and gunpowder and I screamed.
The sight of those water stains grew unbearable and so I rolled off the bed and set to pacing from room to room, bereft of purpose or direction. I stared at the paintings hanging on the wall and felt nothing at the sight of once beautiful images. I stared at nothing. I stared at my feet. I paced and I stared and I thought about nothing. Not bathtubs. Not handguns clutched loosely in hands submerged in pink water. Not of a pair of cat-eye glasses found underneath the toilet, snapped in half. I thought of nothing. And I paced.
In my malnourished state, I grew faint from the mild exertion and sat on the floor among the discarded books and other detritus. I would have to eat something.
Her parents, her friends, they blamed me. Of course they did. I suppose they thought her continued survival was my responsibility. Fuck them. When she was well they would come around, sure. Her so-called friends. Family. When she was sick she became too much to deal with, and they all disappeared. When she was sick it was up to me to help her, but I didn’t have the tools. I thought I was trying my hardest, but…
I would go out, I decided. There was nothing worth eating in the apartment. Nothing worth the effort. There was a gas station a couple of blocks away, and I would walk there and find something to eat that required no thought or effort. That was the point of such places. So convenient, you didn’t even have to think.
It was February, and it was a cold bastard of a February. Going out required putting on shoes, a coat, a hat. Somehow I managed to complete all of those tasks without giving up and sinking further into starvation and despair. Somehow I managed to leave the house. I could not immediately recall the last time I had done so. Weeks, at least.
Snow had piled up against my door, a crystalline wall I kicked through with a grimace. The mail had piled up too, but that I left where it lay. The winter storms came again and again and never receded long enough to facilitate a thaw. Eventually, those who had the will to shovel the sidewalks gave up on the effort and I couldn’t blame them. You could only fight a losing battle for so long. I knew that.
I trudged along accompanied only by the constant crunch, crunch, of my footsteps. The snow dampened all the ambient sound and transformed the world into a bright and featureless expanse. I used to think it was beautiful. I vaguely recalled the morning after a winter storm a couple of years ago. A heavy rain came and froze overnight. That morning I was walking and found a fallen tree branch, broken under the weight of the ice. Under the thick glaze were bright red berries like a Christmas decoration. The beauty of winter touched me then. Now it only reminded me of the end of things. Now all I felt was the bitter, constant wind, cutting effortlessly through the scarf I had wrapped around my face.
Somehow, I found myself more at peace out in the empty world. Even the distant growl of those few motorists who would brave the treacherous roads did not disturb the illusion of solitude. It was a mild comfort, but it soothed my fried nerves. In the apartment, I was surrounded by memories and for those long weeks, I wallowed in them. Out here I was numb, and not just because of the subzero temperatures.
I reached the convenience store and I passed it, my hunger forgotten for the moment as I reveled in not-feeling. I walked on and on seeking no destination at all. I saw no one else walking the streets and I was glad. Occasionally those few motorists would glance my way, perhaps wondering why anyone would be out in this grisly weather. They didn’t know the truth, as I did. I would not let them intrude upon my newfound world.
It was the dog that finally broke the spell. Her cruel and thoughtless owners left her locked away in a kennel constructed of cyclone fencing. A crude wooden doghouse buried under snow was her only refuge from the elements. She sat out in her tiny yard shivering, unable to muster the energy to bark. She simply gazed at me pathetically, pleading with her eyes for aid.
My eyes stung with frozen tears borne not only of pity for the poor animal but in rage at her careless owners. They had every opportunity to help the dog and instead left her to suffer. A sin of omission. I would damn them if I could.
I thought of setting the animal free, so at least it could find some more suitable shelter, but I couldn’t. The most likely outcome would be for the dog to be picked up by animal control and put to sleep. Death was no way to ease its suffering. I was in no position to care for the animal myself, so I had to dismiss that solution as well. Finally, I did nothing, committing a sin of my own. God knows, it wasn’t the first time.
Heartsick and robbed of my moment of peace, I turned back.
In her last days, Emily spoke of a dog. For a long while, she seemed to be getting better. It was like that, cyclical. In her darker times, I tried my best to help her, to pull her out of that dank pit. Sometimes I almost felt successful in the endeavor. Most of the time it seemed that the only thing that really helped her was time. The better times always came eventually, though the dark times seemed to grow longer and longer.
Her last dark period ended months before, and her brightness was more brilliant than ever. She smiled again, she laughed again. Her interest in sex, once long lost, was renewed with an almost startling vigor. Her interest in hobbies and creative pursuits were similarly revived. In those months she painted almost nonstop, finishing more work than she had in the span of years prior.
They were fantastic too, beautiful and rich with emotion and symbolism. Her talent with watercolor was, at least in my layman’s eyes, on par with the greats of the medium. I always thought if she would only display her art for others, success would quickly follow. That didn’t seem to be the goal for her. She painted because it was the only way she knew to speak the language of her deepest thoughts and feelings. To express that effectively seemed to be her only goal. I respected that, even if it frustrated me at times.
She even began to speak of the future again and in a positive light. Which was to say, she spoke of the future as if it held any hope or promise for her. She talked of our relationship, of career, of travel. She wanted to see Europe with me, which seemed impossible considering our finances, but I didn’t dare dampen her enthusiasm.
She spoke of adventure and excitement, passion and life. In every aspect, she renewed my faith in the possibility of our shared happiness. I saw her again for the vibrant, brilliant woman she once was before the weight of mental illness began to take its toll in earnest. I was happy then. We were happy then.
Until she started hearing the dog.
I have no idea when it first started, because I never heard the dog myself. The dog was in her head. She suffered from hallucinations, had experienced them with all five senses. She considered touch to be the worst, the most disturbing. Sound was the most common and normally she dismissed auditory hallucinations easily. Not this time.
The first time she mentioned it aloud, without thinking I simply said, “I don’t hear any dog.”
This upset her greatly.
“It has been barking nonstop,” she said, crossly. “It’s giving me a headache. It keeps getting louder.”
“It must be a hallucination,” I said. “I’m sorry, honey. I hope it goes away soon.”
That was all I could say. Empty words that did nothing whatsoever to help. I hated that. I wanted so very badly to help her, to ease her suffering. It wasn’t just hallucinations, in fact normally hallucinations were the least of her worries. There was also the paranoia, the invasive thoughts, the anxiety, the depression, and the mental static she called ‘bees in the brain.’ When she described the symptoms she experienced, I was frankly astonished. It blew my mind to think that anyone could even breathe under the weight of it all.
I tried my hardest to help her cope with it all, but I felt so powerless. There seemed to be so little that I could do. I couldn’t seem to talk her out of the delusions from which she suffered. Even when she knew academically that her fears were impossible, or at least phenomenally unlikely, they did not seem any less real in her mind.
I felt certain there was some key to the whole thing, some kind of mental skeleton key that would release all the tumblers in her psyche, but I never found it. I began to see it as a failing on my part, perhaps a deficient emotional maturity leaving me without the proper tools. Who knows? Maybe that was true.
Anyway, the dog. She called it “The Black Dog,” which I should have taken as a serious red flag. First of all, as far as I knew, she never saw the dog, only heard it. How could she have known it was black? Second, the image of The Black Dog has been seen as a portent of death going back centuries. I have no idea if she knew that or not, but as a name it held deeply ominous undertones and I should have been paying closer attention. I guess I thought it would pass soon, and maybe when it did the better times would resume.
Instead, she grew ever more withdrawn and paranoid. I kept catching her peeking out the window as if watching for it. The sound of a neighbor talking in the next room or a rabbit bounding through the snow outside would send her into a complete panic. The rest of the time she would sit in her chair staring into the middle distance with an empty expression. For a while, months before this, she was on a medication meant to treat her symptoms. If it did so at all I have no idea, because she would spend days just like that. Any time I would speak to her or touch her she would jump as though I appeared from out of nowhere wearing a Halloween mask and screeching.
One night we were laying in bed. I had just drifted off to sleep when she started screaming bloody murder. I leaped to a standing position with my heart feeling like it was trying to tear itself in half.
“What is it!” I cried.
“It’s right outside the door!” she wailed.
I spent half the night trying to soothe her until finally, I drifted off to sleep. The next day I spent my entire shift at work haggard and exhausted, physically and mentally. It seemed quitting time would never arrive until at last, it did. When I came home that evening, she was dead.
With all these thoughts weighing heavily on my mind, I nearly tripped over the package someone had left on my doorstep. I supposed the mailman must have come and gone while I stared at the dog, seething. I bent to pick up the nondescript box, which had about the same dimensions as the box a pair of men’s work boots would come in, but twice as tall.
It was addressed to Emily.
A blob of snow had rendered the return address all but illegible, but I could see that it was in another language at any rate. Possibly Korean. That would seem strange to most people, I think, but it told me with a fair degree of certainty what I would find within. I took the box inside, immediately thankful for the relative warmth therein.
Grabbing a pair of kitchen scissors, I sliced open the box and found more or less exactly what I expected: A doll, unstrung, with its pieces cocooned in bubble wrap. Normally she ordered dolls strung, but used dolls occasionally came this way.
Emily collected and customized ball-jointed dolls, typically referred to as BJD. Every articulated piece of the doll is a separate piece. There are no fixed joints. The dolls are bound with a thick cord of elastic which, at a proper tension, holds the doll together snugly enough that the joints don’t flop around, but loosely enough that it is possible to manipulate the joints into different positions without any snap-back. The feet and hands connect to the rest of the limbs with s-hooks that double as anchors for the elastic. The head attaches the same way.
Because they are intended for adult hobbyists, the dolls are normally anatomically correct and have detailed sculpts. The faces have a huge range of appearances and most are either intended to be realistic or are influenced by anime. Their faces can be easily wiped clean and repainted, and the hair and eyes are interchangeable.
Sometimes collectors of BJD will leave their dolls with a factory paint job and outfit, but hobbyists tend to order a blank doll and customize the appearance according to their own vision. Many hobbyists make a tidy living sewing clothes and painting faces (commonly known as a “face-up”) for others, and some even make their own hand-crafted eyes and wigs.
Emily was one such hobbyist. She designed her own doll clothes and lent her painting skills to the art of the face-up. She was equally skilled at both. Though I did not share her interest in the hobby, I was in awe of her ability. She never made enough to support herself entirely, but she still made a respectable income from her efforts. I always thought she could have made even more, but the community tended to be sort of cliquey and lesser artists made more money because they were trendy. Who can understand such things?
It frustrated her, and it frustrated me too, but she never stopped trying. When her illness made it too difficult to leave the house or to deal with people, she threw herself into the doll hobby. I suppose for her, these dolls represented a world she could control, avatars of people whose motivations and desires made sense to her. She had a couple dozen of the dolls, each complete with a name, a personality, and a fashion sense.
The sheer number of the dolls she possessed was staggering on its own. A new fashion doll might cost as much as thirty bucks, but a BJD could cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a couple thousand. As I said, they are for serious hobbyists and collectors.
Admittedly, their staring faces staring down at me from every available shelf space grew powerfully eerie at times. I can recall many occasions where I walked into a room catching one looking at me from the corner of my eye and felt my heart race. The way Emily painted their faces, even the most fantastically sculpted doll seemed almost alive, knowing. I know, it’s silly. To be afraid of a doll. Normally it is. The doll that arrived that day was something different.
I unwrapped the pieces of Emily’s posthumous doll one by one and set them on the table. It was a female doll, I knew that at once. The first part I unwrapped was the pelvis with its crude slash of a vagina. That was kind of funny, we discussed that from time to time. Male BJD tended to have lovingly crafted and detailed genitalia. Female genitalia in BJD always seemed to be a sort of afterthought, there because it needed to be, but rarely more than a thin line on the mons pubis.
Her body was thin and long-limbed. I thought it looked much like the designs by Castle of Doll, although I did not see the maker’s mark on the bottom of the foot. Her hip and rib bones showed prominently and her breasts were small and pert. The overall look was one of emaciation. Her hands were long, thin, and delicate. Her feet were long but narrow, and flat. Some dolls came with feet for wearing heels, and others did not.
I unwrapped her head last, and upon revealing her face I grimaced. It was hideous. The right side of the face was mostly normal, though unpleasant. Its eye hole was opened to a narrow slit, and the brow furrowed. The nose was narrow and sharp, the mouth twisted into a thin scowl. I barely noticed these features, so distracted was I by the left side.
Of the left eye hole, well there was none. Instead, the doll had a mound of scar tissue, as though the eye had been ripped out. The mouth on the left side was torn at the corner, with a gash of ravaged flesh running along the left cheek. Horrible. Worse yet, were the holes.
The left side of the doll’s face was peppered with holes of varying sizes, close-set and numerous. They disgusted me in ways I could scarcely articulate. They looked like the hive of some diseased species of insect, a colony of disgusting multi-segmented horrors. God, I hated it. I ran my finger over the holes and immediately regretted the action. I gagged as though I had touched something slimy and somehow obscene. Unclean. I wiped my hand on the leg of my jeans.
What a horrid thing this doll was! Why would Emily think to purchase such a creature? Certainly, the thing fell far outside her usual aesthetic. She preferred dolls with a beautiful, realistic style. Male or female, she found comfort in their pleasant countenance.
Now, I should mention, horror dolls did in fact exist in the BJD world. It was not unheard of. In fact, I can recall Emily showing me a few that were objectively worse than this one. One of them had the appearance of a desiccated corpse whose body ended at the torso in a ragged profusion of spine and viscera. Why this one should disgust me so, I am at a loss to articulate. It was awful, certainly, but it also disturbed me on a perhaps subliminal level. I found myself growing nauseous the longer I looked upon that pockmarked visage.
Perhaps only to hide that face from my sight, I turned the head around. Dolls who lacked a maker’s mark on the foot usually had one stamped into the back of their heads. This one did not. I removed the head cap.
BJD either had removable faceplates or removable head caps. This allowed the collector to change the eyes and remove the head from the body. The eyes could be affixed with putty, but Emily found that silicone earplugs worked wonderfully for this purpose.
Inside the hollow of the head cap I found the only identifying mark the doll possessed: A name. Not just any name, but a name that I found immediately significant. Emma. The doll’s name was Emma. That was my pet name for Emily.
I turned the doll’s head around and looked again at the unblemished left side of the face. It was easy to miss since the head was unpainted, but on closer inspection, I thought I knew this face. It had Emily’s nickname, and it had her looks too. It wasn’t a perfect match, and she wore a cruel expression I never saw the real Emma wear, but the resemblance was uncanny once I noticed it.
I guess that’s why I didn’t just pack the doll back into the box and throw it into the closet. I thought it meant something, the name, and the face. I didn’t know what, but I thought perhaps Emily did. Before she died. Maybe she wouldn’t have wanted the doll to languish in storage forever.
Instead of packing the doll away, I crossed the room and threw open a plastic tote containing Emily’s doll supplies. After a bit of rummaging, I found a length of elastic, some s-hooks, and a bit of wire.
I’ve helped Emily string dolls numerous times, though never by myself. Still, I managed. It took me close to an hour to get the whole thing right. In the end, I was actually proud of myself. Emma was complete. Her arms and legs could hold a variety of poses without snapping back, she could stand on her own, and none of her joints hung loosely. It was as perfect as I could ever hope to achieve on my own.
The finished doll stood at about seventy centimeters, which was tall for a female doll, and appeared gaunt to the point of emaciation. Her arms seemed too long for her body, even considering her thin, rangy legs. Her neck was long and narrow, delicate. She was beautiful in a way if one did not consider her grotesque, ruined face.
I confess that in the intervening weeks between her death and that day, I did little to change the appearance of my living space. All of her things still littered the apartment, and as such most of her dolls still sat in their appointed place atop shelves and furniture. Upon her dresser was a miniature couch of her own construction, in perfect doll scale. It was a thing of beauty. Two of her dolls sat upon the sofa, Sasha and Raynor. I placed Emma between the two of them, still nude. After the exertion of stringing the doll, I found little energy to find clothes that might fit her. Perhaps I had done enough, for one day.
The task complete, I set my compass upon my typical night’s destination: to drink and find oblivion. The drinking was easy, but oblivion always seemed to skate ahead just beyond my reach. I couldn’t sleep. The longer I closed my eyes, the clearer the image of Emily’s ruined face became in my mind’s eye. It did not seem like I would ever make peace with what had happened.
Over and over again my traitorous memories revealed moments when I could have helped her, could maybe have prevented her death. The most common motif was my failure to encourage her to seek help in the form of medication. I’m certain now that the right medication would have saved her life.
I mentioned before the drug that left her almost catatonic. I guess that sort of confirmed prejudices about antipsychotics that I had always subconsciously held. The medication would perhaps alleviate some symptoms, but in the bargain would rob her of everything I loved and admired about her. That’s what I thought. I realize now what an ignorant and selfish concept it was to which I held so dearly. She told me she wanted to stop taking the drug and so of course I quickly supported the idea. I did so without so much as a moment’s consideration for replacing the drug with one that may be a better fit. The subject was never seriously broached again.
I killed her as surely as if I had held the gun myself.
I poured another few fingers of whiskey into the tumbler at my right side and lit a cigarette, staring into the middle distance. I never used to smoke inside. In fact, before she died I rarely smoked at all. Rarely drank at all. Shortly after her death, I began to drink every night, usually with a cigarette in my free hand. Sometimes I would play music, somber pieces I never enjoyed before. Mostly I would just sit in silence trying to will my mind into emptiness. What I would do when my money ran out, I neither knew nor cared. I didn’t have the headspace for another problem.
Some unknown interval passed and the liquor bottle, at last conquered, lay defeated on the carpet among the ruins. My last cigarette smoldered lazily in the ashtray, having failed one more time to set my apartment ablaze. My mouth tasted of bitter bile, but I hardly noticed. I finally caught up with oblivion.
Usually, sleep such as this was dreamless, or if there were dreams they were forgotten by the time I regained consciousness. Tonight I did not find this to be the case. I dreamed. I remembered.
I was walking barefoot down some anonymous street in Breckenridge. A fresh layer of snow had fallen, erasing the tire tracks and road grime that would have otherwise sullied the pristine stillness of the place. Much like my diurnal journey, the quietude and the peace of the outside world lent the illusion of true solitude. All the houses were dark, and this time there was not a single motorist to shatter that image.
Though I was barefoot and treading through a deep snowfall, I did not feel the cold. I did not feel anything. I had a destination, though. I was going to see. There was something I was meant to witness, I knew that. I knew it in the way you just know things in dreams. The fact existed and was inalienable.
Perhaps time itself had stopped. That was the way it seemed, out there in the frozen world. I was the only element in the world bringing any observable change. I turned around and I could see it. Stretching on to infinity was a double track of footprints. How long had I been walking? It didn’t matter. What mattered was to see.
Before me stretched a hill, impossibly steep. It seemed to stretch above the clouds. My destination was at the top. I knew this. I immediately began to scale the hill, my heart fluttering with anticipation. I climbed and climbed, the zenith ever out of sight. I never tired, and I never felt the cold. If not for the footprints behind me, I might have been a wandering spirit.
To my left and to my right were a continuous stream of homes, yards, fences. They all jutted out from the ground at an impossible angle, as if the hill itself rose from level ground overnight. It was a wonder the occupants did not roll off their beds and out the window as they slept. Perhaps they were belted in place. That made sense.
A hand slipped into mine and I was startled out of my reverie. I turned to my left and saw that Emily was with me. She smiled at me and gripped my hand tighter. My heart soared at the sight of her and I could feel something for the first time in that strange dream: I could feel hot tears rolling down my cheeks.
She spoke, saying, “Hurry, we’re almost to the top. I have to show you something.”
I nodded, unable to speak. I glanced behind us and saw that she left no tracks, herself.
Suddenly the way ahead was obscured by a thick fog, and I realized we were in the clouds. The hill grew ever steeper and I wondered how I kept my footing. Perhaps Emily helped. Emily.
“I’m so sorry, Emma,” I said.
She only smiled in a sort of wry way and held a finger to her lips. I could scarcely see her for all the fog. The clouds, I mean.
We climbed the rest of the way in silence. I felt impossibly relieved to find myself in her presence again. I could even smell her. The air was so clear up in the clouds.
All at once, the ground seemed to level off again. The peak was clear, no impossible houses to obscure the view. Below us the clouds parted and I could see the entire town spread before us, a grid of streetlights. We sat together in the snow and waited. Waited to see.
I could sense some feeling of anticipation from Emily. It was coming, at last. She held my hand ever tighter. I turned to her but she just pointed ahead, to the horizon. I turned, and I saw.
Two moons rose in the night sky, side by side, brilliant and impossibly large. Something stirred within me at the sight of the twin satellites. I felt a powerful awe, as if I was seeing something great and rare, impossible. But as great as was my awe, even greater was my terror. It was like looking into the face of…
“Those aren’t moons,” Emily said, gravely, “Those are his eyes.”
Immediately I saw what she meant. There was a shape beyond the luminous orbs, a greater darkness than that of the night sky. Something so massive that it blocked the stars. The streets and houses below us cracked and shook, torn asunder by great heaps of moving earth. An earthquake?
“He is rising. He is coming.” Emily told me. She turned to me, her eyes blazing. She clutched me by the shoulders. I could smell blood on her breath, and gunpowder.
“Who? Who is that?” I asked, bewildered.
The pavement, the sidewalks, houses, and great heaps of earth sloughed off the great hills that rose all across the darkened town. Something massive was pulling itself out from a shallow grave measuring miles across. To what terrible coming was I a witness? What was the liberated colossus? I turned to Emily for answers.
Her tone and the set of her face expressed a boundless dread, “You can’t think about him. Don’t think his name. He is always listening. He is always listening. Thinking about him gives him power. Do you understand?”
“No!” I cried, “Don’t think about who?”
“He can hear us,” Emily said, and her face changed.
Great weeping sores erupted over the right side of her face and her right eye blistered and knotted over with scarred flesh. Her mouth gaped open wider and wider until the flesh ripped at the side of her mouth. She was becoming the doll, Emma.
I screamed, I screamed and I tried to pull away from her. I looked away and I thought I could see the body of the thing pulling itself out of the ruptured earth. I screamed again and the ground slipped out from under me. I screamed and I fell.
A thunderous crash reverberated through my apartment and I snapped awake, my heart pounding in my chest. I was sure the sound was my body crashing into the pavement, but it wasn’t. It came from the other room.
Dazed, I picked myself up, the strange and surreal images from my dream still crystal clear in my head. They never faded at all. None of the dreams that followed ever did, either.
In the other room, I could immediately see the source of the sound that woke me. Raynor lay on the floor, cracked and broken in several places.
“Fuck.” I whispered, scooping up the doll and surveying the damage. His face was cracked, Emily’s face-up chipped and scarred. Several fingers had snapped off and both legs had broken mid-shin. He was ruined. Ruined.
Waves of guilt and remorse washed over me anew. He was hers. She left him and the other dolls in my care. It was my job to keep them safe and whole. I should have packed them away safely in their boxes. She always saved the doll boxes. They occupied an enormous amount of space in the closet, but it was the safest way to store them. I should have put them away, but I was too busy wallowing in self-pity. Now Raynor was destroyed.
I knew it was my fault, too. He had been sitting there on the miniature couch for months without a bit of trouble. I must have bumped him off balance when I placed Emma between him and Sasha. He must have been just on the edge of falling all night long, until some subtle settling of the foundation caused him to teeter over the edge. My fault.
He must have fallen hard, too. While thin parts such as the fingers did snap easily, the resin was for the most part very sturdy. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the face chipped, but cracked through? I thought I would have to throw it to the floor for that, not just let it fall. Well, it was surely just dumb luck that it happened to hit the floor in the worst way possible.
Unable to throw the ruined doll away, I placed him carefully back into his original place, feeling sick inside. Every time I entered the room I would be reminded of my carelessness and the havoc it wrought. The easy tears of a self-pitying burgeoning alcoholic wretch stung at the corner of my eyes.
With the ravaged Raynor securely in place, I thought to check on Sasha. Sasha was a Steeplehouse doll. I can’t remember the sculpt name. Her features were realistic and sultry. Her lips were full and pouty, her eyes intense and alluring. A beautiful doll, I could not bear to see her meet Raynor’s ignominious fate. I confirmed her stability beyond any shadow of a doubt. She would not fall.
From Sasha my gaze turned to Emma. She was unquestionably secure in her position, nothing short of an earthquake would unseat her. Despite my disgust, I couldn’t help but study her face yet again. Something was different.
I thought her face, which is to say the unscarred right side of her face, was set in a scowling expression of hate and disgust. That’s what I thought it looked like. Now, in the full light of day, I saw that she did not scowl. It was a grimace. Her brow was not furrowed, her eye was not slitted with fury but apparent sorrow. Perhaps it was the hideously scarred right half of her face coloring my perception, but something seemed false about her expression of grief. Mocking? But that would be ridiculous. Bizarre.
It must have been a trick of the light, of course. Without the help of color and texture, the mind was made to draw all sorts of conclusions about the expression a blank doll wore. There was my state of mind to think about, too. My head was not at its clearest when I saw her the first time, I know that. Hell, it wasn’t exactly lucid now. No, I decided, I was wrong before. It wasn’t scowling.
Who would buy a scowling doll, anyway?
Just like that, I decided I saw it wrong the first time around and left the matter at that. Not only was it the only answer that made any sense, it was the answer that allowed me to slip most comfortably back into apathy. None of this really mattered.
I switched off the light and shut the door behind me. Trudging into the kitchen I rubbed my arms absently and futilely trying ward off the chill. My apartment was a sectioned off quarter of an old house. It was so drafty I could actually feel the wind blowing through the windows and down by the floorboards when it blew in the right direction.
The summers were stuffy and airless, even with the feeble window unit A/C running nonstop. The winters were frigid and the gas furnace always sounded ominously like it was about to explode every time it kicked on. The overhead lights in the kitchen didn’t work because of a water leak from the upstairs apartment. The toilet flushed only when it wanted to. I hated the place, but the rent was cheap and the landlord was so negligent of the property that I doubt he would come down from Topeka to evict me until I was at least three months late on my rent. So there was an upside to it.
In the kitchen, I chugged a plastic tumbler of water, mostly to rinse the nasty sleep film coating my mouth. I searched the refrigerator for something edible, something I had somehow missed the last several times I searched. Still nothing. It didn’t matter. I didn’t feel much like eating anyway. I had a sour, turbulent feeling in my gut that seemed both sentient and diametrically opposed to the introduction of food to its ecosystem.
My head buzzed and ached and I didn’t feel up to the prospect of thinking about anything. I couldn’t decide whether or not to turn on the television or some music. Eventually, I just settled into my chair to stare into space. Only, once I did, I realized I had to take a leak.
With a sort of surly grunt, I rose back to my feet and staggered into the bathroom. The toilet water was still clouded with my previous piss and so I tried the handle. The lever inside the tank just tapped uselessly against the lid. No dice. Scowling, I did my business with the reek of stale piss wafting up at me.
I glanced at the water pitcher sitting on the sink. If I filled it twice with the shower faucet and emptied the water into the tank I could flush it. It wasn’t easy, but I summoned the will to do so. I left the bathroom feeling pathetically accomplished, and I celebrated by slumping down into my chair and staring vacantly.
Something seemed off. Too much light. I glanced to my right and saw I had left the bedroom light on.
“I could have sworn…” I muttered to myself, rising yet again to correct the problem. For once I didn’t have to gather the will required to engage in a physical activity. It was force of habit.
Emily couldn’t stand to have the light on in an empty room. It was just one of those things. She couldn’t stand to have wrinkled covers at the foot of the bed or walk down the sidewalk on the left side of a person either.
It wasn’t the waste of electricity, you see? We had LED bulbs in the fixtures, they couldn’t possibly be that large of a drain. She just couldn’t stand the thought of wasting the light, and she wasn’t able to ignore or forget about things like that. So you just learned to live by her rules, if not to keep her happy then at least to keep the peace.
I switched off the light with a violent slap and slammed the door shut behind me. I want to make this perfectly clear right now: I felt the door latch. I heard it latch. I saw the room go dark. I am positive of all those things. I then turned around, crossed the room, and with a sigh I sat back down into my chair.
And what did I see when I turned to my right? The light was on and this time the door was standing open. Wide. Open. I thought I would be furious but a different feeling welled up inside of me. I was afraid. There was someone else in the apartment.
I glanced at the door, and of course, I had left it unlocked the previous night. I have no idea why, but remembering to lock the door has always been a sort of blind spot for me. My first car was stolen right out of our driveway because not only did I leave the car door unlocked, but that night I also left the keys in the ignition. Good riddance, I would say. The car was hardly worth selling for scrap. My parents didn’t feel the same way, of course.
One could imagine what a point of contention this blind spot created between Emily and myself. Her paranoid delusions were many and varied, but many of them involved nameless entities who conspired and plotted to steal everything precious to her. She took to checking the locks on a regular basis to police my indiscretion. I had no one to do that now.
I’m a large man, but not a brave one. I didn’t own a gun, nor did I wish to. The nearest thing to a weapon I owned was a butcher knife, and before I confronted my apparent intruder I fetched it from the kitchen. While in the kitchen I could not see the bedroom door, but the only way out of the apartment was through the living room, and I could see in there just fine.
The apartment was entirely floored with vinyl tiles, and it was impossible to move through the apartment without making a sound. I was relatively certain, therefore, that my intruder was stationary. Surely he was still in the bedroom.
“Stay where you are,” I called out, trying to sound brave and succeeding at sounding petrified, “I have a weapon and I’m dialing 911.”
A lie. My phone was still on the floor by the bed, nestled on a pile of dirty clothes.
With deliberate slowness, I crept into the bedroom with the cleaver held at the ready and my free hand raised in what I figured to be a defensive stance. I thought that if the intruder came at me with a knife of his own I could deflect his blow and return with an attack of my own. Realistically, I would only end up losing several fingers in the attempt, but it was something.
I swallowed hard and stepped into the bedroom, checking my blind spots first. It was something I picked up from playing online shooters. Always check the blind spot. I didn’t see anything, and the room didn’t really have a place where a grown man could hide.
It was a bedroom in name only. No one slept there. In order to take full advantage of the apartment’s lackluster heating and cooling, our bed was set up in the living room next to the window unit. The bedroom was converted into a work room for Emily. She painted in an empty corner and sewed at a desk set up on the other side of the room. There was the dresser her doll couch sat upon, and a few shelves, but no other furniture.
The closet. He must have slipped into the closet. It was the only answer. The bedroom walk-in closet was situated in the far corner of the room. The inside of the closet was the underside of the staircase leading to the upstairs apartments, and so I called it the Harry Potter closet. It would have been a tight fit with all the doll boxes, but in theory, my intruder could be hiding therein. He had to be. There was nowhere else.
With no small amount of trepidation, I crossed the room and flung open the closet door. I almost chopped through a box of summer clothes before I determined that the closet was empty, or at least empty of malicious life.
I found myself feeling stupid, which could only mean the fear was fading. Of course, there was no intruder, that was idiotic. Why would an intruder come in here to play a joke on me? If he meant to kill or rob me, he could have done so while I dreamed of impossible hills and a buried colossus.
The door didn’t latch properly because this rickety old house settled weird in the winter and the door frames went askew. The door was open because of a draft. I knew this to be so because the house was drafty. And the light? God, who knows. I supposed it would be more surprising if the house did not have any electrical problems.
Turning back to the living room, I glanced at the doll couch and noticed that Emma was resting askew. She was leaning over Raynor’s lap and seemed to be just at the verge of taking her own tumble.
Well, I thought, that settles it. Those damned dolls are going in their boxes before I break another one.
I reached out to pluck Emma from her tenuous resting place when the lights went out and the door slammed violently shut, apparently riding the caprices of another draft. With the sound of the slamming door still ringing in my ears I blindly caught Emma in midair. I also dropped the butcher knife, which hit me on the outside of my right foot.
“Augh!” I cried out, dropping to a sitting position to clutch my wounded foot. I didn’t think it was bad, but I was sort of a free bleeder. I could already feel a warm trickling sensation running through my fingers. Thank God I never bothered to sharpen the damn thing. If it wasn’t so dull it could have done some real damage.
I set Emma down on the floor with more caution than she probably deserved and limped to the door in search of peroxide and bandages. I glanced back at her, and in the dim light afforded by the curtained window, I could see that I smeared her with some of my blood. I would have to see to that. I didn’t want to leave a stain.
I tugged at the door. It wouldn’t open. Panic began to grip at my lungs and heart. I tugged harder, twisting the knob violently. Nothing. I could feel a puddle of blood forming at my feet.
“Let me out of here, dammit!” I shouted at no one in particular, pounding on the door.
The next time I tugged at the handle, the door opened freely, catching me by surprise. I slipped on the puddle of blood and fell on my ass, shaking the entire apartment. None of the dolls fell, thankfully. Rubbing at my wounded pride, I rose to my feet and crossed the doorway before it could change its mind.
Its mind. I was apparently losing mine.
A knock came at the door, causing me to emit a not-altogether-manly yelp. I stared at the door for a moment, not knowing how to respond.
The knock came again and someone shouted from the other side, “Hey Justin, it’s us. Can we come in?”
‘Us’ had to be Christina and Lucas. They were the only two friends I had left.
“Come on in!” I called, “It’s unlocked.”
They let themselves in and gasped at the sight of me, bleeding and bedraggled.
“Give me a second,” I said, trying vainly to downplay the situation, “I cut myself a bit.”
“Jesus Christ, Justin!” Christina cried, rushing to my feet, her short blonde hair trailing behind her like a pennant.
Lucas followed, looking sheepish and kind of green, scratching at the back of his head and grinning his crooked Lucas grin. He shut the door behind himself and took a moment to survey the room. It was trashed. Somewhere in the post adrenal jitters and Christina so busily trying to inspect my injured foot that she almost flipped me on my ass, I had time to feel ashamed at what a wreck the place had become. It was the first time anyone had stepped inside since Emily’s death.
“Don’t just stand there, numb nut,” Christina called over her shoulder to Lucas, “Grab the first aid kit!”
“You got a first aid kid, Jus?” Lucas asked, trying to mask his fright by acting nonchalant. I noticed he was taking great care to look anywhere but my feet.
“There’s a kit under the bathroom sink,” I told him as Christina dragged me to a chair.
I was momentarily thankful for the cheap linoleum flooring. If I had carpeting I would never get all the bloodstains out. Lucas appeared with my first aid kit. Or- actually it was Emily’s first aid kit. I never thought of things like that. It was a source of comfort to her to be ultra-prepared for any situation. She’s the reason I had a fire extinguisher and health insurance, too.
Christina poured peroxide over my wound and I hissed. She said, “Quit being a baby, Justin. You want to get an infection? Lucas?”
Lucas was standing at my bookshelf, riffling through the paperbacks. He turned back inquisitively, focusing on Christina’s blazing blue eyes with laser-like precision so as not to catch a glimpse of any blood. He was notoriously hemophobic. I have personally witnessed him faint over a paper cut.
“Grab a trash bag and pick up the place,” she told him, “It smells like a hamburger has the beer farts in here.”
I blushed. Although I admired Christina for her guts and her directness, it was more than a little embarrassing to have those qualities aimed at me. I decided to change the subject while Lucas followed her commands with a nod. They were like an old married couple in a sitcom, and never mind that they had never so much as dated.
“How bad is it?” I asked. After the peroxide she swabbed the wound clean with an alcohol wipe, which also stung like a bastard, thank you for asking.
“You should probably get a couple of stitches,” She said, digging through the kit, “but since I know you won’t, these butterfly strips will have to do. It’s not actually that big a wound, but it’s kind of deep. What were you doing?”
I blushed again, or else I blushed deeper. I’m not sure if the previous blush had abated by that point. I told her, “There’s not really a way to explain this where I don’t sound like an idiot-”
“I assumed,” She interjected. Over the butterflies and a blob of antibiotic ointment, she layered a couple of regular bandages. “That should do it, unless you need me to kiss the boo boo, too.”
“All I really needed was a hug,” I said with a mock-quaver in my voice.
“Shit, Justin,” Lucas crowed, wrapping me in a bear hug, “That’s all you needed to say!”
“Get off me!” I cried, laughing. That must have been the first time I laughed in weeks, but that was Lucas’ special talent, I guess.
“So?” Christina asked. She was still kneeling before me like Jesus when he washed the feet of the Apostles, except Jesus didn’t have a mixed expression of anger and concern on his face. I don’t think he did, anyway. God knows what those guys had on their feet walking around in Birkenstocks all day.
“Yeah,” I said, averting my eyes, “I, uh, thought there was a burglar in the bedroom. The light kept coming on and…”
“And you thought there was a burglar stealing your kilowatt hours?” Lucas asked, incredulously. He was still collecting trash.
“I don’t know, I thought it must have been someone. The door opened, too.”
“In this slanty shanty, I’m not surprised,” Christina said, settling onto the couch. “I can actually see how far out of level that door frame is.”
“Yeah…” I said, realizing my prediction was proving true. I sounded like an idiot. Nothing left but to see it through to the end. “So I, uh, grabbed a butcher knife from the kitchen and went in to investigate-”
“And you dropped it on your dumb foot. Is that it?” Christina asked.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much the whole dumb story,” I told her.
She was silent for a moment. The only sound in the apartment was the clink and rustle of Lucas collecting trash.
“Are you okay, Justin?” She asked, leaning forward, her brow furrowed.
“Yeah. Yeah!” I said, a little too forcefully, “Just paranoid, I guess.”
“Not that,” She said, reaching forward to take my hand, “I mean in general. We didn’t come here to bandage your foot, we came here to check in on you. Nobody has heard from you in weeks, and we care about you. How are you doing after Emily’s… after what happened?”
I opened my mouth to give some sort of dismissive denial but the levees broke inside me and I burst into tears. I unloaded everything on the two of them, all of my grief and guilt and everything in between. I told them I felt totally lost and I had no idea what I was going to do. Everything felt all fucked up and broken beyond repair. I rambled on and on, unable to stop the flow once it started. I even told them about Emily’s doll falling on the floor and breaking. I still felt absolutely wretched about that.
Lucas and Christina, they just listened. I needed this and somehow they knew it, knew that I didn’t need the sort of useless homilies that people tended to offer in these situations. I didn’t need to hear that I should take things one day at a time or that time heals all wounds. They were good friends. One thing I have learned over the years is that real friends, true friends, are some of the hardest things to come by. They’re the ones who will still come around in the bad times. The rest just disappear as soon as they see a rain cloud forming.
Finally, I was spent. After the catharsis I felt embarrassed for having opened up so much. It wasn’t like me. I was always the stoic one who kept all my own worries bottled away for the sake of others. I apologized but Christina and Lucas both waved me away.
“Don’t apologize, man,” Lucas said, seeming a little embarrassed, himself. “We all have to let it out sometimes. It’s important. You get all bottled up and it comes out in bad ways, I guess you- Listen, the other thing I came to tell you was that I talked to Nathan at work. He agreed to cover your absence with the personal time you have saved up, and if need be he’ll cover the rest with a leave of absence, so you’re not fired or anything.”
“Just don’t leave us out of the loop, Jus,” Christina told me, “We’re your friends, and we want to help. You know?”
“Yeah,” I managed to say through the lump in my throat. “I know.”
“So,” Lucas said, “Is there anything else you want to get off your chest?”
I almost told them about the new doll, Emma. I’m not sure why I thought I should have, and I don’t know why I decided not to. I suppose it all came down to a feeling. It was a feeling that there was something wrong with that doll, something so insidious that it would be impossible to put my fears into words. I could try, but I would just look like a fool. They wouldn’t understand, they would just look at me in a sort of pitying way that I didn’t want. That’s what I feared. I guess I should have trusted them more.
“I guess not,” is what I said, instead.
Even after I poured my insides onto the floor, both literally and figuratively, Lucas and Christina didn’t take this easy excuse to make an exit. The two of them sat and shot the breeze with me for almost two hours after that. We spoke of gossip and movies, everything and nothing. The only subjects considered by an unspoken consensus were death, grief, loss, and suicide.
I felt almost normal for those two hours, even with the dull ache in my foot reminding me of vivid nightmares, open doors, and lights that turned themselves on. I couldn’t express to Lucas or Christina how I was so certain of another presence in the apartment. I couldn’t even explain it to myself.
Maybe I should have tried harder. I can say that now, knowing what would come next. At the time I was willing to believe that nothing strange or unnatural happened in that apartment. At the time I had no idea my troubles had only just begun.