Stephen Graham leaned on his handlebars, staring at his watch and fighting the compulsion to turn his bike around and race home. In bed by 8:30 PM. Even in the summer, his parents permitted no exceptions. As the seconds ticked away, the knot in his stomach cinched down so hard that it hunched him over. His fingers went weak. He wanted to vomit.
Alone in the twilight, on a newly paved street tucked in the back of a working-class subdivision, Stephen watched 8:30 come and go, and the winding tension… evaporated. He was late. He’d pay dearly for it later, but he couldn’t undo his decision. As if he had broken through to the other side of a storm, Stephen experienced a calm that he’d rarely felt in his eleven years of life.
Crickets and cicadas chirped and roared from the tall grass. Street lights winked to life. Stephen smiled. Unaccustomed to the expression, his cheeks quickly grew sore.
“How long have you been waiting out here?”
Wrapped up in his own world, Stephen hadn’t noticed Vishan Henry rolling up behind him. He turned, awkwardly as kids do when they’re straddling a bicycle, and shrugged for the benefit of the other boy. “Not long,” he lied. “Just hanging out.”
Vishan bobbed his head. “Cool, cool, cool,” he said in time with the movement, turning away from Stephen as he nodded.
Stephen bit his lip, unsure of how these things went. Vishan seemed comfortable with the silence, but then he was always relaxed. He’d never stood, embarrassed, waiting as everyone else was picked for a team. Though if he had, Vishan would somehow make it cool to be picked last.
“Should we knock or something?” Stephen finally asked.
“Chill,” Vishan admonished him. “Corbin’ll be out in a minute. If we go knocking, his mom’s gonna wanna make us wear helmets and take a snack.”
Stephen nodded resolutely, then saw the mischievous curl to Vishan’s lips and tried to relax a little. He felt like a complete dork. At least he’d had the good sense to ditch his helmet once he’d gotten out of sight of his house.
Before long, Corbin Prigge emerged from the side door of his garage and lifted his chin in acknowledgement of the two boys. He gave his bike a push down the steep driveway, then hopped gracefully onto one peddle and coasted into the street, his long blond hair trailing like a streamer.
“What’s up?” he asked and turned a lazy circle around Vishan and Stephen. “You guys ready?”
“Always,” Vishan said, kicking his bike forward to join Corbin in his narrowing orbit around Stephen.
Stephen tried to track the boys but felt himself getting dizzy. Throwing caution to the wind, he launched his bike into the spiral. The three boys circled a few times before turning out and forming an echelon rolling down the center of the street.
“You want to head over to Chris’s pool?” Vishan suggested to Corbin. The simple question made Stephen’s heart freeze and sent his brain scrambling frantically for an excuse, for any alternative. Subconsciously, and then self-consciously, he tugged the long sleeves of his shirt down to his wrists.
“I, ah, don’t have my bathing suit,” he squeaked, sounding whiny even in his own ears.
Corbin smiled, but there was something unkind in the expression. “Don’t you worry, Stevie. I’ve got something special planned for tonight.”
Stephen cleared his throat, willing his voice to drop an octave. “Oh?”
The blond boy pulled his bike dangerously close to Stephen’s, their handlebars nearly touching. “It’s your first night hanging with us. You’ve got to prove you’re up to it.”
Stephen focused intently on keeping both his voice and his bike steady. “I’m cool with whatever.”
“Yeah.” Corbin traded a look with Vishan. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we? We’re taking you to The Doll House.”
Stephen involuntarily sucked a breath through his teeth. Everyone at Seagate Elementary knew the legend of The Doll House, or at least part of the story. It was whispered across lunchroom tables, retold on cold mornings waiting for the school bus, and routinely invoked whenever anything mysterious happened on the southern edge of town.
“You know where it is?” Stephen asked.
Corbin snorted. “Of course. My brother showed me when I was eight.” Standing on his pedals, he looking down on Stephen. “Wait, you don’t?”
“I don’t have a brother.”
The reply was just the first thing to pop into Stephen’s mind, but it made Vishan chuckle. Corbin narrowed his eyes. “Well, you’re going to see it tonight.”
The blond boy took the lead, as he often did at school. There was an aspect to him, his complete lack of self-doubt maybe, that made him easy to follow. Even the cool kids were sucked into the wake of Corbin’s charm. Stephen, with his off-brand clothes and bowl-cut hair, was helpless under the wash of the boy’s raw charisma. He followed behind as Corbin led them out of their familiar old neighborhood, never saying a word as the elation he’d felt at being out past his bedtime gave way to a gnawing sense of unease.
As they biked, the last of the long day’s sunlight faded from dull orange to indigo. Stars blinked into existence as evening gave way to night. The trio crossed a four-lane road through a break in traffic and entered into a neighborhood Stephen had only seen through the windows of a school bus.
The houses were much older, the oaks and maples in the wide lots having grown into a dense canopy that shrouded everything in shadow. The street lights, what few there were, burned a sickly green. Weeds clawed their way through the cracks and splits in the driveways. Rumor had it that every few months, the police found the remains of a missing pet in the woods that marked the neighborhood’s eastern edge. In spite of the warm summer night, the fine hairs on the back of Stephen’s neck stood on end.
The boys, who’d kept up a steady banter since leaving Corbin’s house, fell into silence as they rolled down the empty streets. A barn owl hooted. A chorus of frogs began croaking, each one slightly out of phase with the rest. A growling dog rattled the gate of chain-link fence, shattering the night’s disjointed cacophony.
Corbin bunny-hopped his bike over a crooked manhole cover in the middle of the street. “What do you know about The Doll House, Stevie?” he asked. There was a mocking, singsong quality to his question.
“You know,” Stephen said as casually as he could manage. “The usual. It’s supposed to be haunted. Some lady died there, I think.”
Vishan lazily slalomed his bike back and forth. “It’s not supposed to be haunted. It is haunted.”
“You got it all wrong,” Corbin declared. He looped in a big circle and pulled up on Stephen’s left, sandwiching him against the curb. “It wasn’t a lady who died there. It was a little kid.”
“Brianna,” Vishan added.
“Oh?” Stephen said in spite of himself.
Corbin sneered. “See, twenty years ago, Brianna was our age. She went to Seagate, too. You used to be able to go to the library and look her up in old yearbooks. My brother did, back before they all disappeared. He said she was a pretty girl, but her eyes were weird, too dark, like black glass.”
Vishan hummed his agreement with the statement.
“They say her dad loved her too much,” Corbin said with a sinister emphasis that put a sour taste at the back of Stephen’s mouth.“When some boy at the park bullied her for having weird eyes, he showed up at the kid’s house with a sledge hammer and smashed his skateboard to splinters. The cops got called, but everyone was too scared to press charges.”
Stephen thought about his own father. He was familiar with that level of rage.
Corbin spun his pedals backwards, the gears clicking like a snake’s rattle. He swerved sharply, as though he were going to crash into Stephen, then corrected at the last minute, smirking.
“Brianna’s mom disappeared one day, just took off. Brianna got left behind and had to stay in their big old house, just her and daddy. It messed with her head. She got serious depression and had to repeat the fifth grade.”
The trio turned down a narrow road, its rough asphalt in noticeably worse repair than the rest of the neighborhood. The potholes weren’t even patched, just filled with loose rocks. The occasional porch lamp augmented the weak silver light from the waning moon, just enough to see shapes and silhouettes, but no more.
“Mommy sent home dolls from all over the world, every country she visited. She must have felt guilty for leaving. Her dad built these shelves in her room, right up by the ceiling, so she could always look up and see her dolls. It didn’t help.”
The three boys slowed, coasting their bikes to a stop as the road, now mostly gravel, took a sharp turn in front of a large, dilapidated house. Vishan interrupted the narrative, his voice somber. “Tell him what happened next.”
Corbin, little more than a grey figure in the darkness, flipped his hair back out of his face. “One day, he came home to find Brianna strung up by a rope on the front porch, her tongue hanging out of her mouth and her big, weird, black eyes wide open. Brianna’s dad cut her down and carried her inside.”
Corbin laid his bike on the ground and Stephen reluctantly dismounted. The blond boy’s voice dropped to a whisper. “After the funeral, he came home and gathered up all the dolls. Twenty or thirty of them. He wound string into little nooses and hung every one in the front window so no one passing by would ever forget what happened to his daughter.”
In a way, Stephen was thankful for the darkness. It meant Corbin and Vishan couldn’t see him shivering. He hugged his own arms. The action was instinctive, an effort to both sooth and hide himself. As usual, it failed on both counts.
The three boys left their bikes and crept along an overgrown hedge that ran from the curve in the road to the house set back on a wide, wooded lot. When they were close enough, they knelt down behind a bush, genuflecting before the shrine that was The Doll House.
Stephen had grown up in tract housing. He could look at any neighbor’s home and know exactly where the bathrooms and closets were. Though he’d never really thought about it, the uniformity was subliminally comforting. He found the haphazard design of the Doll House unsettling.
Long gutters sagged under the weight of years of fallen pine straw. A covered porch ran half the length of the hulking structure and included a set of stairs leading to the front door. A single yellow bulb burned on the wall, its jaundiced light illuminating dead and dying plants in mismatched buckets. Most of the windows were clouded and streaked, the sole exception being the massive bay window that dominated the front of the house. Bereft of shade or curtain, the window was taller than any of the three boys and as wide as all of them standing at arm’s length. The lights behind the bay window glowed an old-fashion, incandescent orange and allowed Stephen to see the inside of what looked to be a formal dining room. There, arranged in concentric circles on the ceiling, were two-dozen effigies of a little girl hung by her neck until dead.
Stephen gasped as though he’d been plunged into a cold bath. His instincts screamed for him to run, to grab his bike, to go straight home even with the punishment surely waiting. That would be bad, but at least it was familiar. The Doll House held the terror of the unknown.
He started to back away when he felt Vishan crowding him forward. Corbin’s hand fell on Stephen’s shoulder.
“See that rope at the edge of the porch?” the boy whispered into his ear and pointed to where a frayed and tattered cord dangled from the corner of the house. “That’s where Brianna Black-Eyes hung herself. You’ve got to sneak up there and steal it.”
“Really?” Stephen gulped. He was having a hard time not panting. “Do I seriously have to?”
“No, you don’t have to. You can go crying home alone.”
Stephen drew a deep breath. He’d waited a long time to be part of a group, to have friends who’d hang out with him because they wanted to and not because they felt sorry for him. The opportunities were few and far between.
He slipped from under Corbin’s hand, stood up, and stalked towards The Doll House.
Stephen’s heart thrummed in his chest, and his nostrils flared wide as he sucked air to keep from getting lightheaded. The big bay window threw enough light into the darkness that he had no trouble avoiding the branches and limbs littering the yard, but he had to go slow. Gingerly, he mounted the front steps, the old boards protesting even under his slight frame. Stephen tried to roll his feet, heel to toe, in an effort to navigate the minefield of creaks and groans.
The front door to The Doll House consisted of a heavy, wrought iron gate over a glass storm door. The porch light, as dim as it was, front-lit the door so that Stephen couldn’t see through the glass. It wasn’t until the thing swung slowly open that he realized someone was standing there.
“Hello,” a man said, his voice soft.
A decade of conditioning froze Stephen in place. Movement brought danger, stoked rage, intensified violence. The still rabbit survived while the panicked one drew down the fox.
An old man stepped out of the doorway and into the light. His stout cane thumped on the deck boards. He worked his jaw in a circular motion, as if chewing a piece of gristle. “I said, ‘Hello.’ I guess little boys don’t learn manners anymore. Are you selling magazines or here to leave dog poop on my doormat?”
In a voice as small as possible, Stephen said, “Uhm, neither, sir.”
Still chewing, the old man nodded. “That’s good. Can’t say I care for either. You know, I don’t see many kids willing to come all the way up to the door like this. Most times, they hide in the bushes like your little friends over there.”
The old man sidled towards Stephen. He planted his cane out in front, then balanced all of his weight on one arm and dragged the rest of his body forward. The unusual locomotion gave the man the asymmetrical build of a fiddler crab.
“My name’s Arthur Lowe. What’s yours, son?”
“Stephen, sir. Stephen Graham.”
The old man spat, and something bounced down the porch steps. “Okay, Stephen. How about you tell me what you’re doing on my porch?”
“I am… I’m…,” Stephen sputtered before finally resigning himself to the truth. “I need to borrow that rope.”
The old man followed the line of Stephen’s pointing hand to the rope that dangled from the corner of the porch. “Oh,” he said wearily. “Some sort of scavenger hunt?”
“Yes, sir. Something like that.”
With his free hand, the old man rubbed at the coarse stubble on his chin, considering. “Go on then,” he said. “Take it. I don’t have any use for it anymore.”
Stephen edged sideways, unwilling to turn his back to the old man. He reached the edge of the porch and slowly turned to look up to the rope, the same rope that in years past had closed on the throat of the old man’s daughter, stealing her life away.
As Stephen’s eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that the rope wasn’t a cord at all. The brittle cotton had been woven into an intricate, almost decorative pattern. Stephen reached up with a trembling hand and lifted the rope from the hook it hung upon. It felt rough and slightly damp, but surprisingly mundane. It was just old cotton.
“I used to keep a nice spider plant hanging there,” the old man said, “but we had a hurricane way back when and I forgot to bring it in. Got a bad knee, but that’s no excuse. The pot broke and I swept it up, but I never got around to taking that macramé thing down. It’s yours now. You’re actually doing me a favor, Stephen Graham.”
The old man tapped the deck with his cane and turned away. “Don’t mention it. Now you get on home. It’s got to be near your bedtime.”
Stephen walked down the steps, now heedless of the noise it made. Acting on impulse, he turned, but Mr. Lowe was already back inside. A second later, the old man appeared in the big bay window, lifted his hand in a wave or a possibly a benediction, and hobbled deeper into his creepy old home.
Stephen took a moment, tilting his head to look up into the dining room from the new angle. What had appeared to be a morbid doll collection hanging from the ceiling was actually just a unique chandelier ringed with unusual ceramic baubles. Stephen hefted the old plant hanger in his hand. The soreness in his cheeks told him he was smiling again.
Corbin and Vishan weren’t behind the bush anymore. Stephen found them already mounted on their bikes, poised for flight.
“Wh…what happened?” Corbin asked, unable to hide the breathlessness in his voice.
Stephen offered him the rope, but the blond boy recoiled as if it were a live snake. Shrugging, he handed it to Vishan, who dipped his chin in an almost imperceptible show of respect.
Stephen picked up his bike and, with a smile on his face, asked “What do you guys want to do next?”