“Let’s play hide-and-seek.”
“Rules: you can hide anywhere in the house—”
“But not grandma’s old room.”
“Because…well…there aren’t any good spots in there anyway.”
Much of my childhood memories have been forgotten, gradually replaced by the more demanding worries of adult life, but I’ll always remember that weekend sleepover at Billy’s house. It was raining.
“I was here first! Find another spot.”
“No! Go someplace else! You’ll give me away!”
Where can I hide?
“Ready or not, here I come!”
It turned out I was no good at hide-and-seek. No matter what closet I ducked into or which table I crawled under, I was always caught. My friends had no trouble at all. It was Billy’s house, so naturally he knew all the good spots. Tim was the smallest, so he could fit into all sorts of obscure crannies. Jake just had a talent for not being seen.
“Gotcha! You’re It.”
As I slowly counted to ten, I thought of where I could hide next, and an idea hit me. After six rounds of being It, I didn’t care that it was cheating.
A loud roll of thunder made my last turn as It a short one. A frightened whimper led me right away to Tim’s hiding place. As the littlest boy began his count, I made straight for Billy’s grandma’s old room. Billy’s grandma had been dead for nearly two years.
“Ready or not, here I come!”
Tim’s voice echoed through the house, and before long I heard his footsteps thundering up the stairs. But I wasn’t afraid of being caught. Not this time. Even as I listened to Tim run up and down the hall, past the door where I pressed my ear to listen, I knew no one would ever guess where I was.
I don’t know exactly when I noticed that awful feeling of being watched. I only remember turning around and finding myself assaulted by the lifeless stares of dozens upon dozens of porcelain dolls. They were lined up on shelves, piled on the neatly made bed, seated on little chairs in dusty corners.
A commotion sounded from the other end of the house. Billy’s defeated whine echoed shortly after Tim’s triumphant laugh. I waited out the round with my back against the door. Outside, the rain fell hard, beating a staccato rhythm against the window pane. Droplets of water trickled down the glass, casting translucent shadows across the silent collection of dolls, like tears rolling down their pale faces.
The detail I remember most from that day was the eyes. Glass orbs, black as night, set into flawless white skin. The longer I sat under their unblinking stares, the more I began to feel as though I’d intruded on something. Before I’d cracked the door to this forbidden room it had been filled with life, and those piercing eyes resented my presence which now forced them to line up so still and lifeless. Somewhere in the house, Tim caught Jake.
I jumped to my feet. The last rumble of thunder was loud enough to shake the house, but hidden underneath its ominous growl I thought I heard a whisper.
The game was done, so I crept out of my hiding place. I was more than a little relieved to escape the oppressive stares of the dolls, and I hoped no one would catch me coming out of the forbidden room. No such luck.
“What were you doing in there?”
“Yeah, that was out-of-bounds!”
We all returned downstairs. Billy stayed behind just long enough to shut the bedroom door.
Billy’s grandma had not died well. She developed dementia after her husband filed for divorce, and it had only grown worse with old age. The last year of her life was spent in her bedroom, talking to herself. Billy told me once he peeked into her room and saw her having a tea party with her dolls. When his grandma found him out, she was livid. She spent the rest of that evening ranting about shameless brats and suggesting harsh punishments to teach them some respect.
“She had a name for each one,” Billy told me, “the dolls.”
We slept in Billy’s room that night. I had trouble drifting off, as I always did when sleeping in a room not my own.
I don’t know how long I lay there before it happened. I became aware of a soft whimpering, and as my mind wrapped itself around the noise I realized it was someone crying. Probably Tim, I thought. The smallest. He always tried to act tough to make up for his size, but we all knew he was the baby in our group.
“Tim?” I hissed across the room, trying not to wake any of the others. But there was no reply. Only the continued whining, quiet, lonely. Was he homesick?
I propped myself up on one elbow to peer through the dark at Tim’s little sleeping bag, a shapeless mass in the shadows that shifted with the boy’s deep, even breathing.
He’s asleep, I realized. Maybe one of the others—
But all of them lay still, except for their breathing, fast asleep. Then who is…
And with a chill my eyes turned toward the bedroom door.
No other children in the house, I thought. Who?
I lay awake listening, and as is always the case in such situations, it wasn’t long before I had to use the bathroom. No, I told myself. I won’t go out there. Not until morning. But a quick glance at my watch told me that would not be possible. I’d never be able to hold it for that long.
I squirmed in my sleeping bag, all the while shrinking back from the door and the mysterious cries drifting in from the hallway. At last I could wait no longer. Without giving myself time to rethink, I rose from the floor and stepped over my slumbering companions.
As soon as my bare foot crossed the threshold into the hall, the whimpers stopped. It was so sudden, like I’d disturbed them with my appearance. The shock of the ensuing silence was enough to freeze me in my tracks, and I didn’t move again until my bladder reminded me why I’d gotten up in the first place.
The bathroom lay at the far end of the hall with a nightlight serving as a guiding beacon across the ebony expanse. Nearly halfway there, my pace slowed. I was approaching the forbidden room, and the door was open.
I turned my head to face the other way as I passed. I won’t look, I won’t look, I repeated over and over again. I could feel them, their cold stares, and I dared not even peek. What would I see if I turned? Little white fingers gripping the doorframe? Glass eyes glistening as they followed my passage?
I exhaled deeply when I finally reached the bathroom and flipped on the light, and realized I’d been holding my breath. I spent far longer in the there than I needed to, pinned to the cool tile as I contemplated the return journey. They know I’m up, I thought. They’ll be waiting for me. As soon as I turn off this light, they’ll come. I shivered at the thought of feeling their cold porcelain hands running over me, pinching my skin with their stubby fingers, punishing me for disturbing their forbidden room.
I don’t remember how I finally convinced myself to leave my sanctuary, but I found myself making the long trek back to Billy’s room. When I once again found myself at the halfway point, I shivered and looked away. My muscles tensed, begging to run past the room with the dolls, but it wasn’t until I heard a soft giggle, barely audible above my own frightened breathing, that I bolted and buried myself in the stifling heat of my sleeping bag.
Billy once told me that he didn’t like having his grandma around. She was never nice to him. He told me about another time he’d spied on her, this time without being caught.
“Why can’t Billy be like you, Gwendolyn?” She was talking to one of her dolls. “Why can’t all boys be like you sweet, pretty little girls?”
“She spent all her time with them,” Billy said, “brushing their hair, having tea parties. She liked them more than us.”
I was the first to wake up that Saturday morning. I groggily made my way downstairs, noticing as I passed that the door to the old bedroom was shut.
“Did your grandma really die in that room?”
“That’s kind of scary. Is that why you made it out-of-bounds?”
“You think I’m scared? I’m not scared.”
“Then why don’t you want to go in there?”
“I never said that.”
“I think you’re scared.”
We were sitting around the breakfast table, finishing the pancakes and eggs Billy’s mom made for us. Jake was the one who began asking about the room.
“Leave him alone, guys,” I said.
“What?” asked Jake. “Were you scared when you were in there?”
The truth was yes. “No.” I wasn’t about to open myself up to their teasing.
“I know what we can do today,” Jake went on. “We’ll take turns seeing who can stay in that room the longest.”
“I don’t think we should—“ began Billy.
I knew it,” Jake interrupted. “You’re scared.”
“I am not!”
“Then come on. You go first.”
Jake led the way. Billy brought up the rear, occasionally throwing out an excuse to serve as a thin veil for his fear. Tim snickered at his trembling voice. I was quiet. I felt a bit guilty, but I didn’t want to admit that I was scared too.
When we came to the old bedroom, Jake pushed the door open. The hinges squealed softly. To me it sounded very much like the cries I’d heard during the night.
“Go on,” Jake prodded.
“Yeah,” added Tim. “Prove you’re not a chicken!”
I stood silently by, transfixed by the black eyes staring at me from the bedroom.
Billy shook his head. “Guys, this isn’t a good idea.”
“Come on, chicken!”
“Get in there!”
Finally, Jake grabbed Billy by the arm and forced him over the threshold, slamming the door shut behind him.
The day Billy’s grandma died was a rainy one. Billy was spying on her again, watching her brush the dolls’ hair and sing to them. When his grandma caught him, she went into a fit, had a heart attack, and died.
“She said,” Billy confided in me once, “that it was the last time. She wouldn’t put up with me anymore. Sometimes I feel like it was my fault.”
At first all was quiet on the other side of the door, then Billy’s voice whispered, “Let me out.”
Tim and Jake looked at each other. “I think he can take a little more.”
“No, guys,” pleaded Billy. “Please, let me out!”
Jake held the doorknob tightly as it began to rattle. “Nope. You gotta wait…ten minutes. That’ll prove you’re not scared.”
The door rattled for a few seconds as Billy tried to turn the knob, then he spoke again, this time louder. He sounded panicked.
“All right! I’m scared! You happy? Now let me out!”
“Ten minutes,” Tim replied firmly.
Everything was quiet again for a moment, then Billy gave a startled shout and began banging on the door. Goosebumps erupted down my arms when he yelled to us, “Guys, let me out! Let me out now!”
Tim and Jake laughed, but I said, timidly, “Maybe we should let him out.”
Tim gave me an amused look. “No way! This is too much fun!”
I wasn’t having any fun. The panic in Billy’s voice was turning into desperation.
“This isn’t funny, guys! You gotta—oh my gosh! No…no, I’m sorry!”
I’d had enough, but I didn’t say anything. The others were enjoying themselves too much to listen to me. I got shivers as Billy’s voice went on, sounding more and more terrified with each word.
“Let me out of here! Let me out, let me out, let me…no, no, no, NO!”
Billy pounded on the door harder than ever, shaking the frame as he continued to cry out. Then he stopped. We all crowded together, listening, but we couldn’t hear anything, not even his breathing. Jake cracked the door open and peeked inside, then pushed it wide so Tim and I could see.
The bedroom was empty. There was no sign of Billy anywhere.
“Where’d he go?” asked Tim as we crept into the room.
“Billy,” Jake called into the dusty air. “We’re sorry. You can come out now.”
I didn’t follow too far as they began searching for our missing friend. Tim peered under the bed, piled high with its dolls. Jake checked in the closet, but found only more porcelain girls inside.
“He’s not here,” Jake concluded.
“Let’s go,” said Tim. “These dolls are giving me the creeps.”
We searched the rest of the house, just in case Billy had found some other way out. We asked his mom if she’d seen him. She said he was probably just hiding somewhere. Eventually, we gave up.
We went outside to sit on the back porch. None of us said anything. The rain had stopped sometime during the night, but the air was still wet, and as the morning sun warmed the damp ground, a thick cloud of mist obscured the backyard. It was like we were being swallowed in a weird ghost world. We stayed out there until, one by one, Billy’s mom called to us, saying our parents had come to pick us up. I was the last to leave.
That evening, there was a news report on television about a missing boy. Billy’s parents had called the police, and an investigation was started. But they never found anything.
A few years later, Tim, Jake, and I sat huddled in my bedroom for another sleepover. We talked about that strange weekend, and all of us agreed it was our fault. The other boys said I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I wasn’t comforted. I hadn’t done anything to stop them.
I never told my friends about the dolls. I never told my friends that I knew what happened to Billy. To this day, I haven’t told a soul. After all, who would believe me?