It hadn't crossed his mind not to pick the doll up. It had been the last thing she'd had, according to the paramedics, when she'd fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. Did he want it? Of course he did. She may not have liked the doll...
Or maybe she did. Maybe she was carrying the doll and tripped. Maybe she'd realized she was being really silly and decided the doll wasn't to blame.
(Maybe, he thought on odd days like today, maybe it was his fault. He'd given her the wretched thing, after all.)
But at the time, it had been the last thing she'd had near her, and it had fallen down the stairs with her, and somehow, in his mind, it was all he had left of her. So Duo Maxwell took the doll with him.
He had spent an entire day looking at the doll. Sitting in that old easy chair he'd liked because it could fit him comfortably with her across his lap and was perfect for watching movies. He spent the whole day, maybe longer, looking at the doll, tracing the crack from where Hilde had thrown it at the wall, looking into the ruined eye that wouldn't close no matter if she was on her back or not, running his thumb across the pretty, pursed lips.
He knew it was time to go to bed when he wondered why the doll wouldn't move like Hilde kept claiming.
He knew he'd stayed up too long when he could have sworn he heard a little girl's angry voice say that Hilde was a bad girl, and all the doll had wanted to do was to play.
What he didn't know was that those things were only the beginning.
"I'm tellin' you, Doc, I'm not crazy!"
The doctor watched Duo pacing back and forth in front of the couch, raising a brow while simultaneously writing with his stylus on the notebook computer in front of him."I didn't say you were, Mr. Maxwell. I said nothing of the sort. What I did say was, "How are you today, Duo."
Duo scowled. "Yeah, and the answer is 'not crazy.'" Duo nodded, as this made perfect sense. The doctor did not argue, but continued to write, calmly.
"Why don't you have a seat, Duo. Relax a little bit."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Duo looked at him askance. "You'd like me to lay down on this couch here and spill out all my troubles and talk about how my girlfriend died of some hideous accident and now the momento I keep of her is talking to me and telling me all kinds of freaky stuff in this freaky little girl voice and I am NOT fucking CRAZY!"
The doctor merely smiled up at Duo thinly. "You were making me nervous with your pacing. But thank you." He continued to write while looking at Duo, who slumped down onto the couch.
"I think I'm going crazy, Doc." He scrubbed his face with his hands, sighing, his elbows on his knees.
"Why don't we start with your girlfriend. What was her name?"
"Hilde," Duo said, a mixture of wistfulness and grief coloring his voice. "She's... she was... great. She was a soldier like me, yanno? So she got it. She understood, sometimes." He turned and lay back against the couch, closing his eyes. "Got to the point where all I wanted was to make her smile. And I did, which was awesome." He was silent for a while, and when he spoke again, his voice broke slightly. "I got her a doll. I thought it was pretty, and she like- liked girly things. You know. It made her special. She was a hard ass, tough little soldier in the mobile suits or in a confrontation, but when it came to frills or dolls or tea parties, she could squeal like a ten year old."
He didn't open his eyes, but could still feel the room spinning. "She said the doll was... moving. Whispering to her. I thought she was just stressed out about something. She asked me to take it, so I did. No big deal, right? I just tossed it."
He paused, not speaking, but swallowing for a few moments. Then, he said in a kind of awed and horrified whisper, "They called me the next morning and told me she'd fallen down the stairs. The doll was next to her, and they asked if I wanted it. Well, yeah, I wanted it. If it was important enough for her to get it back..."
He sighed, then looked at the doctor, who was writing on his pad. "So I kept the doll."
"So you kept the doll. But that's not the end of the story, is it, Duo?"
"Of course not, Doc. I wouldn't be here if it was, right?"
"So why don't you go on?" The doctor's voice was calming, bordering on patronizing. It was not lost on Duo.
"So it's taking over my life! What else is there? Did you not hear my little freak out just a little ago?" Duo stood and paced, running his fingers through his hair roughly. After a few moments of frenetic pacing and no speaking, the doctor cleared his throat.
"Duo, I believe what you're experience is... common."
"Yeah. 'Cause dolls always talk to people. How silly could I get?"
"No, no," the doctor said, chuckling. "I think you're feeling what many people feel when they lose a loved one. It's called 'Survivor's Guilt', and, believe it or not, it's not uncommon."
Duo turned to glare at the doctor, but said nothing. His fists clenched and unclenched. The doctor continued. "You hear the doll speaking to you, but in truth, you are thinking those things."
"Oh, screw you!" Duo stepped menacingly toward the doctor now, his face contorted in rage. "You're saying I actually think that Hilde was a bad person, and all the doll wanted to do was to play, and it was her fault she died?" He was so close to the doctor now that they were nose to nose, and he was breathing heavily, swallowing rapidly.
"No," The doctor said, gently and smoothly, looking Duo in eyes that were nearly brimming over with tears. "I'm saying that you are dealing with your grief in understandable, even natural ways, and that any negative thoughts you may be expressing, either yourself, or through the doll, are simply manifestations of a stage of grief." Duo's eyes flickered with confusion, and the doctor continued, his voice soft. "Think of it. You bought her a doll, which she didn't appreciate, and before you could deal with it, she was killed. Many people feel anger at people who they cared for and died, but, for you, the guilt of feeling angry at her forced you to deal with it in a way that seemed... unnatural." He allowed himself a small smile when Duo finally pulled away from his face.
"So what do I do?" Duo sounded lost, vulnerable. If he'd not forced himself to be emotionless, he might have felt sorry for the lad.
"I have a suggestion. Get out."
"Nice," Duo sneered. "Try to get some advice, and they throw you out. For being CRAZY!"
The doctor chuckled. "No, no. I mean, get out for a while. Go to places. Get out of the house. You might even try to do some activities that you used to enjoy with Hilde."
Duo shook his head, sitting on the couch. "How is that suppose to help?"
"It will replace any negative feelings you have with positive memories. You should remember Hilde in a positive way." When Duo continued to look dubious, the doctor leaned closer. "Trust me."
After a long pause, Duo nodded. "OK, Doc. Maybe you're right."
"I know the perfect place. Oh, and one more thing. Why don't you leave the doll with me."
Duo blinked, looking afraid. "I... I don't think that's a good idea, Doc."
"I insist," said the doctor. "Leave behind the thing that is tied to your worst memories will weaken them. Now go get it out of your car and I'll keep it for a while."
Duo began to rise, then stopped. "How'd you know it was in my car?"
The doctor smiled. "You seem like the obsessive type."
The doctor had suggested a tiny little town on the very outskirts of civilization, rustic and cozy. He knew, from the moment he saw it, that Hilde would have loved it.
He spent the first day walking through the town, entering the shops, simply looking at the merchandise. The citizens were kind, almost to a fault, and some even seemed to realize that he'd suffered a loss. Duo didn't notice it until he passed a closing antique shop on his way back to the hostel. The man closing the door was withered, with skin the texture of rice paper. His otherwise bald head had sparse stringy hair hanging from it, and he was so thin that he looked like little more than a skeleton with skin. Duo could swear he heard the old man's bones creak.
He turned and spotted Duo as he passed, one eye bulging slightly. As he passed the pilot, the shopkeeper sighed out, "Sorry fer yer loss, son." Before Duo could stop him, he was gone, as if he'd disappeared.
A wind blew as Duo stood on the spot, bemused. He shook his head and walked the rest of the way to his accommodations.
The next day he wandered the outskirts of town. Surprisingly, the doctor was correct; Doing things that he'd known Hilde would have enjoyed was easing the pain of her death. Being without the doll for a while also eased his mind. It was as if a weight had been lifted from him. He even forgot to be concerned about the doctor's having the doll.
In the woods surrounding the town was a path, and along that path was a hill upon which the path split, one fork meandering deeper into the forest, the other going up the hill. Duo took the path up the hill, unwilling to go into the dark forest. At the top of the hill sat a house, showing a little wear, but otherwise resplendent despite (or because of, Duo could not figure out which) it's age. The first thought that had crossed his mind was that Hilde would have loved this place on first sight. The second, after he pulled his cell phone from his pocket to call the realtor, was that there was no cell service on top of this lonely hill, and that alone cemented his desire for the house.
He practically ran back into the little village to the realtors storefront shop, and announced his desire to buy the home. The astounded realtor was skeptical at first, of course, but a quick call to the bank (once again, the town itself lacked a any kind of network, cell or otherwise, which Duo was, surprisingly, finding more and more endearing) quickly put his reservations out the door. It took a shockingly little amount of time before he was signing papers to own a house. He would have to travel back to get cash for the transaction, but the settlement from the colonial and terran government would have covered the price a hundredfold.
The realtor was quite happy, looking forward to seeing his "big city money", dropped a key into Duo's hand. Duo looked at him quizzically, but the Realtor merely smiled at him and patted his back. "I guess you do things different in the big city. We trust around here. Besides, all the paperwork and everything's just a formality now. Enjoy the house, son." With that, he ushered Duo out the door and walked down the street, whistling and swinging his keys in time to the music.
Duo shrugged and started walking down the road, taking the long way through the town back to his future home. He wanted to take a look inside before he went back to the Hostel for his things. He'd pack up and start arrangements to move out of his apartment and into his new house.
When he got to the door, there was his bag, sitting on the porch. On top was a note, explaining that the Realtor had let them know he was moving in. Duo shook his head. "Must be a small town thing." He unlocked and moved in.
The house was furnished, and surprisingly newer looking on the inside than it looked on the outside. It was... nice.
He walked through the lower portion of the house, looking up the stairs with a strange sense of foreboding. In the kitchen was a full set of dishes and cookware. In the parlor were seats and couches. There were books in the library, and on closer inspection, they were books that either he or Hilde would enjoy. The sense of foreboding came on stronger.
As he passed the staircase, he heard a noise. It made him stop. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, unbidden.
The noise sounded again, a kind of thump, then a slide, as if something were being dragged over the wood floor.
It sounded again. Duo swallowed, then mentally shook himself. Something was in the house. He had to figure it out what it was. If Heero was here, Duo would never hear the end of it.
He climbed up the stairs, ignoring the creaking stair, ignoring the thump and drag sound, and ignoring the creepy whispering of his name that seemed to float on the breeze.
At the top of the stairs, there was a door, unremarkable, slightly worn, with a single rusted knob on the front. Duo looked at it for a long time, unable to reach out and grab the handle to open the door. When he finally did, again cursing himself for a fool, it was freezing cold.
He turned the knob and pulled. The room was empty except for some cobwebs, visible only by the moon coming through the single window. Though the window was closed, a gingham patterned curtain seemed to flow in an unearthly breeze.
Duo had seen no curtain when he'd inspected the outside of the house. From the outside, the window was unadorned.
The curtain began to twirl, and the breeze whipped into a wind strong enough to be felt, and finally to pull Duo into the room. The curtains swirled and spun and resolved into a figure. The figure of a tall, pale faced girl. With a scar over a pale, milky eye that opened even when she blinked.
She screamed and lunged at him.
He looked around, frantically, the covers sliding off his chest. He was sweating so much his hair was wet. Duo gasped and shivered. As his heartbeat slowly came under control, he closed his eyes. "A dream. It was just a dream..."
As he dressed, he did his best to put the dream out of his mind. Unlike most dreams, however, it was so vivid, so realistic, that he couldn't shake it. The image of the scarred, milky eye, or the hate in it's opposite haunted him.
And he couldn't shake the fact that Hilde had seen the doll do things that were impossible before she died.
Duo walked into town. The dream of the night before had bothered him and brought back his fear and his anger. The doctor's advice had worked before, and he decided to try it again. As he walked down the street, he felt himself drawn to the antique shop he'd passed the day before. Inside was the old man, skeletally thin. On closer inspection, the shop keeper had one eye that seemed to look anywhere but where the man was facing
The scarred, milky eye filled his vision and he screamed as if his life depended on it...
and Duo swallowed and waved hello. The man waved back with a hand that was bent into a claw.
Duo looked around, but saw nothing of interest. In a far corner of the store he saw an ancient looking tea set. He turned to ask the old man the price. The old man was right behind him. "GAH! Don't DO that, old man!" Duo clutched at his heart.
"Sorry," the man rasped, sounding decidedly unconcerned. "Got this today. Thought you'd like it." He held up a box in his withered hand. It looked vaguely familiar. The top was slanted to one side, like the roof of a shack, and there was a small window carved into the side, complete with a frame that separated the little window into four panes. There was a lock on one side.
"It's nice, but it's locked," he said, moving to give the wooden box back. The man smiled and pulled a tarnished, silver key from his pocket. "It's yers if ya want it. Was built the same time as yer new house."
Duo shook his head incredulously. "I just bought it last night. How does everyone know already?" The man laughed with a sound like sludge in a pipe, coughed, and waved him to the front. Duo bought the tea set, intending to leave the box on the counter. As he left the store, however, he looked to see that the tea set was properly packed. Inside his bag, along with the tea set, was the wooden box.
He turned to return to the shop. He had not paid for the box. But the door was closed, the lamps were extinguished, and the little sign announced that the shop keeper would return in the morning.
Duo blinked, and looked inside. There was no indication that anyone had been in there, except that there was a single line of footprints in the think dust on the floor. The footprints followed the path that Duo had taken as he meandered through the shop.
There were none that matched the shopkeeper's path to the front. Duo shuddered and moved on.
As he came to the path leading to his house, he reached into his pocket and found his key. A clinking noise caused him to dig deeper. Inside his pocket, though he was certain he'd left it beside the box on the counter, was the tarnished, silver key that the shop keeper had given him. On the shaft, in rough, hastily engraved letters, was a single word: Duo.
Duo shuddered, swallowing thickly. He knew what was in the box. He knew what was in the box, and he knew he was going to open it. But he was absolutely terrified. It couldn't be. It just couldn't be.
He put the key in the little lock and twisted it. He briefly had a desire to wrench the key, break it in the lock and trap the little bitch in the box forever, but he stopped. He couldn't tell if he'd stopped himself or if something had stopped him.
The lid opened with a little creak. It opened slowly, the hinges resisting. Duo pulled until the interior was exposed.
The first thing, oddly, madly, that struck Duo, was that the room was decorated just like his parlor, with the same pattern as his wallpaper drawn inside, and a tiny fireplace.
A rattle brought his attention back to the contents. There it was, she was, looking at him with the one eye that wouldn't close, even though he was holding the box so that it was laying on its back.
Then the other eye opened. I want to play, Duo.
Duo snapped the box shut and left it on the counter.
The weeks that followed were a blur to Duo. He'd head into town, trying to rekindle the memories of Hilde, and come back home, invariably to be tormented in some small way by the doll. It was if the doll was waiting for him, sitting on the table in the foyer, even though he constantly left it in places that were pointedly not the foyer. Such as the bed. A high shelf. The trash. Each day he came home she was in the foyer.
It got worse. She would make suggestions instead of trying to simply get him to play. If he went to the bathroom, he'd hear her calling that she had to go and to hurry up. When he went to read, she would somehow already be in the library, with the book he wanted in her lap, open. When he fixed a snack, she said that she wanted one too.
On a cold winter night, he snapped.
He'd woken in the wee hours of the morning, staggering groggily to the kitchen. He put the kettle on and made tea, and was fixing it just the way he liked it when a girly voice sounded from his left.
"Do you really think you need that much honey?"
Duo slowly turned his head, and there, on the counter, was the doll, sitting up, looking at him. The blue, always open eye had turned milky. The crack had widened somehow, looking like a scar.
Duo grabbed her up. "Too much honey, huh?! Too much? I've had too much, all right!" The doll screamed as he shook it, half in a kind of fear, like a little child being shaken by a once trusted adult, and half in a kind of sick exultation, like a grown woman revealing that she liked it rough.
Duo looked at her in disgust, then took up the box, which had never left the kitchen, slammed the door shut, twisted the key in the lock until it twisted and broke.
The doll inside screamed, and the box shook in his hand. He dashed to the parlor, lit the kindling he'd set up the night before for the morning, took a bag full of old bank records and tossed on to stoke the flames, and tossed the box, doll and all, in.
He sat down in the chair, watching the fire, listening to the screams of the doll, which rose in pitch from fear to pain as the fire began to consume the box.
He coughed. That was odd to him, but he thought he might have breathed in some soot when the box hit the fireplace.
He coughed again, and the screams changed pitch again. This time, they came in short, staccato bursts.
Duo coughed again. And the screams shortened, rising and falling.
A haze descended on him. He looked around, seeing the window, just like the one on the box, become obscured.
The doll laughed. He dashed to the fireplace, but there was no fire there.
The doll continued to laugh as the room filled with smoke. He rushed to the door, but it was locked, jammed, would not budge. A glint of silver shone through the lock, twisted and broken on closer inspection.
Laughter and smoke filled the room, and Duo was having trouble breathing. He rushed to the window to break it and try to get fresh air. Before h e got to the window, he stopped.
Looking in was a giant doll face, with a ruined, milky eye that never closed, even if she was on her back. A crack down the side of her face above and below the eye, like a scar. And a pretty, pursed lips that, now, laughed and laughed.
Duo screamed. He screamed despite the smoke in the air that had clogged his lungs just seconds before. He screamed as the fires licked at his clothes and flesh, but he did not scream in pain. He screamed because, much, much too late, he realized it was not the doll in the box that burned. It was he who was in the box, it was he who burned.
And the pretty mouth began to open, and Duo felt his soul pull from his body.
"You were the only person he had as a contact, Doctor," said the town's sheriff. He indicated a small wooden box. "No phone, nothing of the kind. Damn place was so run down he had no business living there. House burned to the ground. This was the only thing we could save." He pushed the box to the doctor, who sat looking at it with glassy, blank eyes. "You want it, Doctor?"
The doctor's hand hovered over the box, staying over it, shaking slightly. His expression never changed. Finally, he dropped his hand on it and picked it up, as if it weighed a ton. "Yes. Thank you."
He pulled the key, whole and straight, from the lock. He didn't look at it. He didn't have to to know that his name was engraved on it.
As he walked to the car, he could swear he'd heard a voice. Just as he'd heard for the week he'd had the doll when he'd sent Duo away. Just as he'd heard when he'd made the box, weathered it, and decorated the inside with wall patterns and a fireplace. Just as he did when he carved the little window in it.
Just as he did when he sent the ball to the small town.
You did well, Doctor, the doll said into his mind, and he resisted. But I want to play. I understand you have a daughter.
He said nothing, not until he got to the car. He started it, leaned forward, and sobbed, once. Only once.
"Yes. I have a daughter."
This song was based on the song "Creepy Doll" by Jonathan Coulton. It can be downloaded for free on his website.