(What’s the worst thing you can say to a ghost?
I dunno. What?
“I don’t believe in you.”
Ouch! I admit I kinda’ love the irony, though. You can’t actually talk to ghosts because they don’t actually exist.
You want more irony? You can’t actually talk to ghosts—unless you believe in them.)
The night I found the doll…wait. Always ahead of myself these days, always so tired and caffeine jumpy. The house first.
Three months ago, I bought this lacy, pumpkin and ochre Victorian house renovated to within an inch of kitschy in the middle of this rainbow bright town of lacy Victorians renovated to within an inch of kitschy. As I waved the mammoth moving truck to a spot that wouldn’t harm the fluorescent pink crepe myrtle out front, a rare swell filled my chest. I was a homeowner. Even Mom had congratulated me, her wavering voice almost hopeful over the phone. She’d long ago stopped asking if I was seeing anyone new, stopped her soft, isn’t it time to let go?, but I wished she would have asked this time, because I believed I finally was.
I just didn’t realize that moving isn’t the same as moving on.
Moving. Moving trucks and crepe myrtle. And kismet. I believed it was kismet I’d found the last cute house in this apple-turnover of a town, revived with gusts of new people fleeing the shit show of cities exploding with disease, polarized politics and protests. But their reasons, I told myself, were different than mine.
I wasn’t running from anything but toward something.
(Keep on fooling yourself, m’love.
You’re not really here. I do not believe in you.)
As I directed the movers into number twelve Apricot Street that first day, something darkened the corner of my vision, an unpleasant splatter on the Oz-technicolor. A fly on the cotton candy. How had I not noticed the house next door? It looked drunk, a leafless, crooked tree scrabbling its peeling shades-of-depressing-gray clapboard and sagging porch. Sad eyes for windows. A cliche Sam would have loved, conjured, lock stock and barrel out of one of those 1930s Frankenstein B-movies he used to make me sit through. It made me smile a little, thinking how Sam would have wanted to fix it—help the dear, old person who surely lived in the wreck, organizing neighbors to clean up the overgrown garden once the weather cooled off. He’d probably befriend the aged inhabitant, sit on their weathered, creaky porch and drink their watery lemonade, listening to their stories about the old days, whiling away steamy, summer afternoons while cicada-whirs and the smell of cut grass filled the air…
That’s not me. I’d left the blighted city behind for a reason—because I couldn’t fix it. It wasn’t my problem. Besides, I needed…no, I deserved a fresh start.
(You just wanted to hide. From everything. Admit it.
Dammit, stop! I told you, I don’t believe in you.)
The moving truck left by early afternoon, and my good mood somewhat restored, I tackled kitchen boxes first. “No more takeout,” I sang into my brand new wooden spoon. “Pizza delivery ist verboten,” I intoned with a clang on my shiny, German-made dutch oven that had never been filled with anything but possibility. Good things were going to happen here. So much personal growth. Learning to cook was only the first. Maybe I’d even learn to can things like my plucky midwestern grandmother used to. I mean, why not?
Sometime after six, my stomach yowled at me. I decided on a quick bite at the little diner on Nectarine Street after wrestling briefly with the little voice telling me I was already failing to live up to my home-cooked meal vow. For god’s sake, woman, nobody cooks while moving in! Besides, I might meet a few townspeople there. Connect with them. Surely it would be easier in a small town.
I walked two blocks east, two north. Cherry Street Diner had set up an ad hoc outdoor seating area on the sidewalk, and I staked my claim at the only empty table. Popular place. The waitress sauntered up, her blond and gray hair in a bun. Maskless. Stinging panic shot through me, but I reminded myself where I was: a small, rural town with no cases.
“No mask, eh?” I pulled my own mask down briefly to give her an affable smile, but her frown made me dubious about what it actually looked like.
“Why should I?” The crease between her penciled-on eyebrows deepened. “It’s just bull. A plot.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding as I tugged my mask back up. “So. Anyway, I’ll have the BLT on sourdough.”
“What’s that? Can’t quite hear you under that thing.” Her mouth, bedazzled in bright pink, wrinkle-feathered lipstick, was pulled up at the corners. A “fuck you” smirk. All heads at the surrounding tables turned toward us. Not making any new friends here tonight, I guess.
I held out the menu and pointed.
“Hmph,” she grunted, grabbing it. She turned, slow-swinging her hips aggressively toward the kitchen. I decided not to drink water here unless I watched her pour it.
When the BLT arrived I wolfed it down, ignoring what could have been done to it in the kitchen, and avoided the pre-poured water. I got home around seven and pulled out the only thing in the fridge, a chilled bottle of Möet.
I toasted my first night in my new home, guzzled down a glassful, then abandoned the glass altogether. I cradled the bottle like an infant, sipping at it as I rattled around the echoing halls, avoiding the picture window that looked out onto the eyesore next door, looming and ominous in the moonlight.
I don’t really remember climbing the stairs or turning on my bedroom light. But after I did, surprise at what I saw on my bed made me drop the empty champagne bottle on my foot, the jolt of pain and fear clearing my head.
A doll I’d never seen before sat primly on the unmade mattress on the floor.
Heart drubbing my ribcage, I limped over to get a closer look. Porcelain head, arms and legs. Wide blue glass eyes fringed with hard dark lashes, dark (human?) hair in braided pigtails tied in white bows. A frilly Victorian dress the same blue as its eyes. Knickers. Kid leather boots. The kind of doll that might belong to a girl who lived in the house when it was first built in 1889. The kind of doll I’d told Sam I’d longed for when I was a kid, an antique that looked like me.
I burped up champagne-flavored acid, gagged it back down. How did it get here? Did my realtor drop it off while I was dinner, an odd and weirdly invasive little housewarming gift? Only, she didn’t have keys anymore, and I’d definitely locked the house before my diner run.
The doll stared up blankly, offering no explanation, only benign, creepy cuteness. I picked it up and carried it into another bedroom—my intended craft room once I settled on a craft—placed it gingerly on top of a sealed box and shut the door.
I fell onto my bare mattress and curled up under a packing blanket the movers had forgotten.
Thirst woke me. Head spinning in the profound dark, foot throbbing, unpacked flotsam hindered my way to the dark wall, which I patted blindly to feel for the unfamiliar light switch. I wished I’d taken Mom’s advice, to always have a clear path between the bed and the bedroom door in case I ever needed to get out fast.
Finally, I found the switch and shuffled, now limping, out into the hall, floorboards creaking and groaning with each step to the bathroom. A feeling overwhelmed me, that the house, like a nocturnal creature awakened, was watching me.
Once I finished in the bathroom, I scurried back toward my lit bedroom, ignoring my foot. Sam would have laughed at me for imagining all this. Sam. The old, barbed ache I thought I’d tucked away forever, surged, scraping and re-gouging well-worn grooves of longing. How I missed his laughter, the warmth of his body in our bed, his ever-open arms ready to wrap me in comfort, easing my anxious fears with his dumb jokes.
Warm tears blurred my vision as I stumbled across the threshold into my bedroom. But not enough to unsee the doll, once again propped up on my bed.
Was there someone in the house with me now? So much for small towns being safer. I grabbed the closest thing I had to a weapon, the spindle leg of my faux, unassembled Victorian bed-frame. But I couldn’t muster the courage to wander the dark house to check, so I moved the doll to the floor and crawled under the blanket with the leg, sleepless until dawn.
When I emerged from my blanket, the doll was gone. You and your famous imagination, Sam would’ve said, shaking his head, eyes twinkling. First night in a new house, super drunk, blah, blah, blah.
(But it wasn't your imagination this time.
I. Said. I. Don’t. Believe. In. You.)
That day, I continued to move in as if nothing had happened the night before. I set up my bed, figured out where all the light switches were upstairs, hung a sheet over the window that faced the crumbling house next door, and went shopping for food at the Orchard Grocery. Thanks to YouTube, I even cooked a fairly edible dinner.
You can’t blame me, really. I did what we all do in the light of day, when darkness is chased, skittering from the corners, so that it feels like it was never there to begin with. I rationalized.
I hand-washed my few dinner dishes, and, exhausted but sober, I headed upstairs.
On my bed, arms raised in frozen supplication, in yearning, the doll waited.
Fear and fatigue snaked through me, tangling my legs. I stumbled to my knees.
“No! I don’t…I can’t,” I moaned. “I left it all behind, because I can’t deal with any of it, I admit it, okay? Now please, please, leave me alone!”
The doll stared mutely, holding out its arms.