Tommy Nier wakes thinking it’s still the middle of the night. If he’d look at the clock above his dresser across the room, he’d know it was 6:59 a.m., but it’s been raining all night and the stormclouds have yet to disperse. The sky outside his window is charcoal and the voice coming under his bedroom door sets his tiny heart pounding. Tommy can’t make out words. It’s just a stream of high-pitched, questioning tones, broken now and then by a listening silence, muffled by doors and carpet and walls until it’s like the house itself is sobbing.
Tommy climbs out of bed at 7:00 and creeps to the door. He pulls it open and steps out into the dark hallway. He sees his mother’s bedroom is open. Her voice, coming from somewhere else in the house, is clearer now, though Tommy still can’t understand what she’s saying. He starts his way down the hall, glancing into his mother’s empty room as he passes.
Her curtains are drawn, blocking even the dim, rainy light from the charcoal clouds, but the green of her alarm clock picks out highlights. The jagged outline of crumpled cloth. The pale crescent of a domed forehead.
Tommy scurries away with a gasp and comes to the stairs. Looking down, he can finally catch hints of language: “…sick joke…who’s she?…I’m not…”
The steps creak under Tommy’s weight, and the voice downstairs cuts off sharply. There’s a moment of breathless silence, then rapid footsteps. Nancy Nier appears on the landing below. Mother and son stare at each other in the dark; Nancy’s eyes sit in red sockets. “Go back to bed, Tommy,” she says.
“Who’s on the phone?” Tommy asks, eyeing the device in his mother’s hand.
“Go back to bed,” Nancy repeats. She vanishes toward the kitchen.
Tommy hovers over the stairwell for a minute, listening as the conversation downstairs resumes. He shivers, then turns back toward his bedroom at the far end of the hall. He’s halfway there when he freezes. His heart thuds to an absolute stop inside his chest. He feels like every drop of fluid in his body has chilled and drained into the soles of his feet.
Something lays across the floor, protruding from the darkness of his mother’s room. A white shape made gray by the darkness. A small arm that tapers quickly to a tiny hand with five baby fingers.
Tommy sways on the carpet for a second, feeling himself meld with the shadows around him. All the while his eyes remain open and glued to that still shape reaching out of his mother’s bedroom. When he finally draws breath, he screams.
Nancy Nier is aware of the time from the moment the phone rings at 6:56 a.m. Cursing the class of idiot who would wake an exhausted single mother so early on a Saturday, she rolls out of bed and takes a small amount of pleasure in walking slowly down the stairs to the kitchen where the phone waits impatiently.
“Hello,” she says, making no effort to mask her feelings.
“Nancy? It’s Ben. Is everything alright?”
Nancy’s yawn turns to a choke. “Ben? Ben Morris?”
“Yeah. Is everything alright?”
Nancy’s disbelief becomes revulsion. “You’d better have a good reason to believe it’s not.”
There’s a deep sigh on the other end, then Ben says, “Hannah and the kids are dead.”
“I just came from their house and they’re all…” He falls silent, and Nancy imagines him rubbing a pale hand over an exhausted face.
“This is a sick joke, right?” Nancy asks.
“I feel plenty sick, but I’m not joking. Listen, Nancy, you have to get Tommy and get out. She’s coming—”
“What are you even talking about? Who’s coming?”
“When we went to that house, I stole them from her. Now she wants them back—” He breaks off as if in realization. “You still have it, right?”
“Have what…” Nancy begins, but she trails off because she knows exactly what. The only thing Ben could possibly be referring to. “Yes.”
“Get out of the house, Nancy. Bring Tommy with you and leave it behind. If you’re not there when she finds it, maybe—”
“She—the one we—look, I can’t explain it quickly enough!” Ben’s shrill voice causes Nancy to jerk the phone from her ear, and she misses the first few words of his next sentence. “…driving and I’ll meet you at—”
“I’m not meeting you anywhere until you give me some solid answers! I’ve waited three years for an explanation; I’m not waiting a second more!”
There’s a creak from the direction of the stairs. Nancy jumps and falls silent.
“Nancy?” Ben calls. “Nancy, are you there? What’s wrong?”
Nancy goes to the landing and looks up to see a small figure standing at the top of the stairs. “Go back to bed, Tommy.”
Faintly, Ben’s voice drifts up from the phone, “What? No! Don’t go back to bed—” Nancy shifts her grip to smother the speaker.
“Who’s on the phone?” the shadowed figure above her asks.
“Go back to bed.” Nancy doesn’t wait around to make sure he complies. Instead she heads back toward the kitchen. Rain drums against the window overlooking the backyard. “Ben, I’m listening, so you’d better tell me everything.”
“Nancy, this is not the time. People are dying, and you’re next if you don’t do as I say! Meet me at Thilda Park and I promise I’ll explain.”
A rumble of thunder rattles the dishes in the drying rack.
“Is it raining there?” Ben asks.
“Yeah, so what?”
“Get out of the house, Nancy. Now.”
And he hangs up. Nancy scowls at the phone for a few seconds, then Tommy screams.
Ben Morris takes a seat on a bench in Thilda Park at 7:13 a.m. He stares at his shaking hands for a while, then coughs. It’s no good. He can still feel it in his lungs.
The shaking in his hands spreads through his entire body in a violent shudder as memories break through the makeshift barriers in his mind. He blinks hard. Once. Twice. Forcing the images back.
Once he’s in control, he looks out toward the houses in the distance. Listens for the sound of a car. Hopefully he warned them in time. Hopefully his abrupt termination of the conversation spurred Nancy into action.
The clouds overhead are thinning. Morning is finally allowed to paint everything in gray light. Ben prays that means it’s over—really over, this time. He coughs again, and his eyes water.
The growl of a vehicle draws his attention to the parking lot across the grassy field. Ben holds his breath. The driver’s door opens, and a woman steps out. Nancy. Ben’s tense frame collapses in relief, and he buries his face in his hands. Thank goodness. When he looks up, Nancy and Tommy are walking across the grass toward him, their feet crunching in the leaves that have begun to fall. Tommy is bigger than Ben remembers, but three years will do that. Nancy’s put on some weight. She carries a small backpack over one shoulder. Mother and son both look pale.
We’re all that’s left. Just the three of us.
Ben feels his eyes swelling, and he buries his face again to hide the tears. When he finally looks up again, the surviving Niers are standing right in front of him.
“What the hell was that?” Nancy is trying to sound angry, but the quiver in her soft voice robs it of all fury. Beside her, Tommy stares past Ben, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular.
“She has what she wants now,” Ben says. “It’s over.”
He coughs. This time, he can’t seem to stop. The constant tickle in his throat, the burn of some foreign particle in his lungs. Once more, the images come bursting to the forefront, and he wants nothing more than to get that awful sight off his chest—but no, he has to start at the beginning.
“Ben, you promised me.”
“So I did,” he manages between coughs. He pats the bench next to him, inviting the Niers to sit. As they do, he clears the last bits of phlegm from his throat and says, “As you know, it began when…”
Ewan never came back. That was the first subject of concern. The second was that the police did come back, only to say that no such place existed.
“But what about the picture we sent you?” Chris demanded. He brought up a photo on his phone and shoved it at the officer, explaining, “He emailed it to us the afternoon he went missing. It’s exactly like he described.”
The officer studied the image briefly.
“See those two dead pines in the background?” said Chris. “Kind of leaning on each other? Crossing each other?”
“Yes,” the officer said, “we found those trees, but there’s no house there.”
“What do you mean, there’s no house?” Jerome said. “It’s right there in the freaking photograph! He was there. He snapped a photo and sent it—”
“Or he doctored it up beforehand,” the officer replied. “Ever hear of a thing called Photoshop?”
“Look,” the officer continued, “we located every landmark you gave us, and scoured a five-mile radius around each one, just to be safe. There is no house in those woods.”
“It’s not Photoshopped,” said Ben. “Ewan does things the old-fashioned way. The only computer he ever uses is his phone.”
“I’m just telling you what we found,” the officer said.
“Or didn’t find,” muttered Chris.
We may not have found a house,” said the officer, “but like I said, we found those trees.” He pulled out a creased, printed photo of his own. It was similar to the one on Chris’ phone, crossed pine trees and everything. The heavily overcast sky in Chris’ photo was replaced by clear blue, and instead of a white-painted house, there was only a clearing and geometric hints of stonework beneath the leaves. “Something was there once. Now it’s just a foundation. No trace of your friend.”
And that’s all they had to go on. Two photos. Two conflicting stories. The cops said Ewan must have gone somewhere else. Their explanations were legion. He changed his mind. He lied. He got lost. He was abducted.
“They must have gone to the wrong place,” Chris said later. “Found another pair of crossed pines.”
“But they’re identical,” said Jerome. He was holding Chris’ phone in one hand and the police’s photograph in the other.
Ben sat on the other end of living room. He was poring over his laptop screen, scrolling through emails, searching for some clue they’d missed. Now and then he closed his eyes and tried to recall, word for word, the few verbal conversations he’d had with Ewan about the place.
It was almost two weeks ago now. Ewan had met them in a coffee shop, clothes dirty, giant camera dangling around his neck.
“Guys, I found the coolest place this morning. Couldn’t get any pics of it ’cause I’d already used all my film, but I have to go back.”
After calming down enough to order a drink, he sat down with them and shared his discovery.
“I found this old house, smack in the middle of those woods. Looks like it’s a hundred years old and hasn’t been lived in once. Honest. I peeked in the windows, and all the rooms were empty. I’ve never seen a place like it.”
A couple days later:
“I’m going back to that house on Saturday. You guys want to come?”
“Don’t you usually insist on doing these photoshoots alone?” asked Jerome.
“Yeah, but this place, I feel like you all should see it. It’s so cool.”
Ben failed to see how an empty old house in the middle of nowhere constituted anything approaching “cool”. He was the first to turn down Ewan’s offer. Jerome said he already had plans with Hannah and the kids. Chris said he might not mind, but then he remembered Nancy had asked him to fix the kitchen sink that Saturday.
So Saturday came and Ewan left for the woods by himself. At least, Ben assumed he went by himself. That afternoon the three of them got an email from Ewan with an attached photo of a dirty white house in a clearing in the woods.
Later they met at the coffee shop again, but Ewan failed to show.
Sunday, Ben called Ewan to ask how things had gone, but couldn’t even get his voicemail. There was nothing but static on the line.
Wednesday, Chris called Ben asking if he’d heard from Ewan.
Thursday night, the three of them met at Ben’s house, engaged in a brief debate, then carpooled over to Ewan’s apartment, which they found locked. No one answered when they knocked.
On Friday, Chris called the police.
Monday night, an officer met them at Ben’s house and showed them the photo of the crossed pines and the empty clearing.
Which brought them to Tuesday night, once again in Ben’s living room, discussing what to do next.
“We have to go see it for ourselves,” said Ben.
“What’ll we find that the police didn’t?” asked Chris.
“We can at least confirm that the police looked in the right spot.”
Ben looked up from the photograph at the trees. A great black X cutting across the darkening sky, piercing the rainfall haze that turned everything else into a sloppy gray mist.
The crossed trees loomed up and over, seeming to grow as Ben followed their stripped trunks higher and higher until his neck was arched as far as it would go. And below, growing out of the clearing, mud-stained white walls and black windows: the house.
“Come on,” shouted Jerome over the roaring downpour. “It’ll be dry inside.”
Chris followed him, then Ben. Although Ben went slowly. Ewan never came back. If he was still here after all that time, what would they find? Did they really want to find him at this point?
Don’t be morbid. He’s not in there. This is just a starting point for our search.
The door clung to its frame by just a single, rusted hinge. The other dangled freely, clanging against spongy wood in the rainstorm. Jerome and Chris hurried inside. Ben took more care. He couldn’t possibly get any wetter, and he didn’t trust the sagging planks of the wooden porch.
The other two vanished in the house’s gloom. Ben stepped over the threshold, and collided with Chris’ back. Chris was standing perfectly still, and two feet in front of him Jerome did the same. Ben blinked.
“Won’t be needing our flashlights,” Jerome said. His voice fell flat against the white walls, the white floor, the white ceiling.
Ben rubbed his eyes and looked over his shoulder. Rain continued to fall. The sun was nowhere to be seen. Back inside. He almost had to squint. Looking around, he saw no sign of electricity; no fixtures, no outlets, no switches. And yet everything—the crown molding, what looked like an empty coat rack against the back wall, each and every floorboard—stood out clearly in a straightforward light. It was an honest light, Ben thought. Not embarrassed by the dust that touched every surface. Looking down, he saw little puddles of mud where he and his friends dripped into the dust.
“Makes our search easier,” said Chris. “Let’s get moving. This place is weird.”
“We should split up,” said Jerome. “Cover more ground.”
“Heck, no,” answered Chris. “Ewan got lost here.”
“I’m with Chris,” said Ben. “We’re in no rush. Last thing we need is for someone else to go missing.”
They took a moment more to absorb their surroundings. Two doors, both shut, led in opposite directions. Right or left?
“This way,” said Chris, taking the lead from Jerome and heading for the right-hand door.
Ben cast one more look outside—the cascading rain, the black clouds, the skeletal trees—before following the other two.
It was another white room. The empty floor stretched dustily to the closed door on the far side, and against the left-hand wall hung an elliptical mirror. The frame was wood, painted white, and the glass was tarnished. Through the reflection, Ben saw a window in the opposite wall. An oval around a rectangle around a damp forest scene. Ben turned to regard the window directly; drops of water tapped against dirty glass. The woods outside rippled with the movement of the water. One tree in particular stood out from the rest, black and bare, clawing in the wind. The way its branches grew, it made Ben think of a creature with three arms, one growing in place of a head.
Jerome coughed. He’d crossed the vacant chamber to open the only other door and kicked up a small cloud of dust. “Ewan?” he called.
Ben and Chris came running. “What did you find?” asked Ben. Then he stopped.
Just another empty room. This one had two windows in the far and right-hand walls; a corner room. The left-hand wall boasted only a single door, shut like all the others.
“Nothing,” said Jerome. “Just thought I’d give it a try, in case he can hear us.”
“He’s probably not even here,” said Chris. “Or if he still is—”
“Let’s just keep looking,” said Ben. “And get out of here as soon as we’re done.” He shivered. It was cool inside the house, but not cool enough to entirely explain his discomfort. Something else…was it the lighting? Where did it come from? It was like the house had been cut from a magazine and pasted in a different photo. Ben felt like he was walking through a scrapbook.
He followed the other two through the corner room, passing the two windows and glancing out each of them in turn. There was that tree again, its three arms bending beneath the weight of the rain and the force of the wind.
“This place smells like my grandma’s house,” Jerome muttered from the next room. Ben sniffed as he passed through the door: moldy pine, cottony dust. Not unpleasant, but it did make him think of old things.
The room was much like the others. Window in the right-hand wall, some meager decoration on the left—in this case, a wood carving of what must have once been a face, but time had worn the details away—and a door directly ahead. The dust cushioned their steps as they crossed the room; muffled thumps echoed off the ceiling as the three men progressed.
Another room. And another. Slowly, they circled the house, coming to another corner room. Chris paused by one of the windows and peered out. “Man, that is one creepy tree.”
“Didn’t come here to gawk at the foliage,” Jerome said, flinging open the next door. “For crying out loud, we’re just going to end up right back where we started. Ewan!”
“Don’t shout,” said Ben. Feeling he had to give a reason, he added, “It’s been long enough, if Ewan was in any state to answer, he wouldn’t be missing.” It seemed a weak reason to Ben, but more believable than his true motive for silencing his friend. Perhaps it was just the dust, nearly invisible against the dirty whiteness, stirring as they passed, but Ben felt like there was a fourth person in the room, moving always to stay just out of sight. If Ben turned fast enough, he might…
He spun on his heel, looking back the way they’d come. Barely perceptible footprints followed them through the chain of rooms behind. That light, perfectly acceptable for a summer afternoon but at odds with the autumn rainstorm beyond the windows—the windows! They seemed like holes cut in a sheet of white paper, that scrapbook effect.
“Wait a minute,” came Chris’ voice from the next room.
Ben hurried to catch up and found Chris standing at the window, staring out through the rain-pelted glass.
A tree stood out amidst the forest, black, a trio of limbs like arms spreading and terminating in a scribble of fingers.
“How is that possible?” asked Ben.
“You noticed it too?” replied Chris.
Jerome turned back to join them at the window. “It’s just a freaky tree.”
“It’s following us,” said Chris. “The tree is following us.”
“It’s not a tree,” said Ben, not sure why except that trees couldn’t move, so the thing out there, that had moved with them around the outside of the house, could not be a tree.
“It is a tree,” said Jerome. “And it’s not following us. It just looks like one you saw earlier.”
“You sound like the police,” said Chris.
“It’s exactly the same,” said Ben. “The branches, the size, even—” He blinked. It was hard to tell with how the water cascaded down the glass, but yes, even its position against the other trees was the same. If that tree had moved, then the whole forest had moved with it. Ben felt dizzy. “We have to get out there, figure this out.” He started to retrace their steps through the chain of open doors behind them, but Chris stopped him.
“At this point we’re closer going forward than back.”
“Assuming this house is just one big ring,” Jerome added.
“We can finish our search, then we can figure out the windows.”
They continued forward, passing through room after identical room—identical, save for whatever bit of decor occupied the bare inner wall. A picture frame without a picture, a bundle of frayed wires that might have once connected to a lamp. One room had nothing save for a large crack running down the otherwise flawless white surface. Ben shivered as he walked past it, and couldn’t bring his eye to look directly at it. Just a hairline fissure, but it bled and grew in his mind like black vapors.
And outside every window, that tree.
Ben fancied he could detect a pattern to its movements, like he wasn’t really looking out into the world, but rather at a movie screen, playing the same few seconds over and over again. He found himself predicting each sway of the branches, each twitch of those scraggly twigs.
They passed through two more corner rooms, then opened a final door and found themselves back at the main entrance. The front door stood closed across from the dusty coat rack. Jerome continued leading the way, saying, “Nothing here. Nothing at all.”
“Ewan was never here,” Chris said, following to the door. “If he was, we’d have seen his footprints in the dust.”
That observation struck Ben, and he wondered how he’d failed to notice. Their own tracks, vanishing through the open right-hand door, stood out plain as day, but they were the only ones, the only sign of life in the entire house.
But Ewan had been here! The photo he sent, the crossed pine trees! Without thinking, Ben looked out the nearest window, one room back, and saw them looming over everything else, a great black X that dwarfed the other strange tree.
But that wasn’t right, was it? The pine trees were behind the house, and this window looked out the front—
A wooden clatter broke Ben’s concentration. Jerome was tugging on the front door.
“Try pushing,” said Chris.
Jerome set his shoulder against the wood. It creaked, but nothing gave. Chris joined him, but even the two of them together failed to do more than scuff their feet against the floor. Ben didn’t see a lock. No chain, no bar, nothing to block the way. The door was simply stuck fast.
“What the hell,” muttered Jerome. “Did anyone even close it after we came in?” He and Chris looked at Ben, who’d been the last to enter the house.
Ben couldn’t remember. He recalled lingering on the threshold, wondering over the change in light. He remembered stepping inside, but…no, he did not remember closing the door. And besides—a spark in his memory—“The hinges were practically rotted off.”
Jerome nodded with recollection, then attacked the door with fresh fury. The wood shuddered, perhaps even flexed beneath the assault. Hollow thuds echoed through the room, down the corridors of rooms to either side, circled around the house and came back to them a distorted echo. But still the door did not open.
“If we didn’t close it,” said Chris, “then…” He looked like he had just smelled something bad.
“The wind,” said Ben, thinking of that black tree and its waving arms.
“Right,” said Chris. “The wind.”
“I can’t,” panted Jerome, finally giving up his battering of the door. “I can’t.” He turned away in defeat, and froze. “What the hell is that?”
Chris and Ben spun to follow his gaze. He was staring at the empty coat rack, not so empty. A frayed, dirty nightgown, once white and trimmed with lace, dangled from one of the hooks.
The three of them stood in perfect silence, perfect stillness. Even the low moan of the wind and the distant tapping of the rain faded until all the world seemed fixed on that limp bundle of fabric.
Finally, Ben said, “We need to get out of here.”
“The windows,” said Jerome.
The three of them backtracked to the last room. Ben felt around the edges of the window frame, looking for purchase, but it quickly became apparent that this window wasn’t meant to be opened.
“Stand back,” said Chris. He’d removed one of his shoes and raised it over his head. He threw it as hard as he could.
The shoe thumped against the glass and fell harmlessly to the floor.
“You need something heavier,” said Jerome. He pulled out his flashlight and brandished it like a club, bringing it crashing against the glass.
Ben watched a tiny crack leap out from Jerome’s flashlight, a thread of weakness.
Encouraged, Jerome attacked again, and again, and again. Each blow spread more white lines across the window, marring the rainy scene outside where a black, three-armed tree waved, beckoning—or warding?
A spiderweb of jagged lines now covered the window. Cracking and crashing. A few more strikes and they’d be free.
Chris, who had turned away from the window, cocked his head curiously. He took a step, hesitated, then slowly crossed the room.
Cracking and crashing.
“What is it?” asked Ben.
Chris had passed through the door to the next room, where he stood staring at something beyond Ben’s sight. The rhythm of Jerome’s assault on the window went on and on, cracking and crashing. Chris looked back toward Ben, opened his mouth to say something.
Crack. Crash. THUD.
The door between Ben and Chris slammed shut.
Jerome jumped, stumbled back from the window which was now nearly opaque with shattered patterns. Ben ran toward the door just as Chris, on the other side, began hammering on the wood.
“I can’t open it!” came Chris’ muffled voice.
Ben tried the handle, but it seemed fused with the rest of the door, carved from a single slab of timber and painted gentle white. The door itself seemed a sculpted part of the wall, a facade that had never been open to begin with, couldn’t possibly have just closed itself because it was an immobile piece of the house. “Just come around the other way,” Ben called. “The whole thing’s a ring, remember. We’ll meet you.” He heard Chris run off into the distance, then beckoned to Jerome. “Come on.”
“But I’m nearly through,” said Jerome.
“You can finish once we get Chris. We shouldn’t be separated.”
Jerome finally nodded, and together they ran off in the other direction.
In those few seconds before the wooden door severed his connection with his friends, Chris saw something. The nightgown on the coat rack had been eerie, but this was a whole different level.
From where he stood, Chris could see all the way down to the corner room. Doorways framed within doorways, with a window at the very end, shimmering with rain. Halfway, reaching out from behind one of the doorframes, was an arm.
A pale arm, pale like the walls and the floor, short and chubby with a delicate wrist. The knuckles in the round hand were mere dimples, the fingers too stubby to do more than pinch. It lay there, motionless.
And that’s when the door slammed.
Chris lost all sense for a moment. He knew only that he was in a strange house; behind him lay something with hands, the feel of which he couldn’t bear to imagine; before him rose the immovable door, trapping him with that thing, refusing to open no matter how he hammered against it.
“I can’t open it!”
Ben’s voice, from the other side, was a forced calm. Sensible instructions, but to go the other way would take Chris past that arm and whatever creature owned it.
Chris turned away from the door to regard that disembodied appendage.
It wasn’t there.
The floor where it had lain was bare, and even the dust was undisturbed.
He had seen it. It had been there. But then where…?
Chris couldn’t follow those thoughts any further. Rejoin the others. He had to rejoin the others. He took off running. The sooner he came back around to the front of the house, the sooner they could get out, the sooner he could cast the image of that arm from his mind. That arm. That tiny hand.
He reached the corner room, turned toward the next door, and there it was, spread out on the floor in front of him. Pudgy fingers splayed, the lump of an elbow amidst doughy white flesh. And a body of dirty white cloth. A doll. Just a doll, looking up at him with glass eyes. Once-rosy cheeks were scratched and soiled.
Chris inched his way around the doll, never taking his eyes off it.
There were no footprints in the dust aside from his and Jerome’s and Ben’s…but that meant nothing. Whoever had left the doll there could have hidden their tracks in those of the three men.
Chris forced his breathing to slow. He was panicking because the house was so strange, but nothing had happened that couldn’t be explained. Without breaking eye contact with the doll, he went over everything in his head. The strange lighting? The ceiling could be semi-translucent, diffusing an unseen source so that everything was bathed in a dreamlike glow. The nightgown? Obviously, there was a fourth person in the house, keeping just out of sight, changing things when they weren’t looking—which also explained the doll. What about the doors? Drafts? It was stormy outside, but that didn’t explain why, once shut, they couldn’t be reopened…unless the impact of their shutting triggered some delicate locking mechanism.
He shook his head. These explanations all suffered from the same root problem: why? Why would someone build such a weird house in the middle of nowhere? Just to mess with anyone who happened to stumble by? It was an awful lot of trouble and expense just for a prank.
But it was all he could come up with at the moment. An expensive prank. If nothing else, it gave him something concrete, something he could understand. With that rationale, he could ignore the little tugs in the depths of his brain, remain calm enough to find his way back to the front door and his friends.
Taking a deep breath, Chris finally broke eye contact with the doll and moved on to the next room. He passed through door after door until he came to the room with the empty wall, the one with the narrow crack meandering down its surface. There he stopped. The wood of the house settled around him. The rain tapped against the window, gradually intensifying from a light sensation of static to a heavier beat like fingernails on glass. Slowly, Chris turned to face the crack in the wall.
Near the floor, just above the baseboard, the crack widened. Bits of plaster and wood were punched outward, forming a jagged black hole, just large enough for a person to crawl through.
Sticking out, almost beckoning with its pillow-like fingers, was the white arm of a doll.
He couldn’t see the rest of its body, except maybe the dim glint of reflected light off a glass eye. Peering out from that hole, it seemed so alive, like a child trapped in the walls. He couldn’t see its face, but Chris imagined it smiling at him—not playful, but expectant, perhaps eager. Waiting.
No, he told himself. It was just a doll. He could tell by the absolute stillness of that arm, its vile proportions, the slight texture of its porcelain skin. To prove it to himself, Chris knelt down, reached out a finger to brush what he knew would be cold, hard—
The creaking came from two directions at once. Chris looked first to his right, then to his left. Then he ran to the left-hand door but was too late to stop it from clicking shut. A half second later, the other door did the same.
Chris’ heart pounded in sync with the rain. He didn’t even try to open the doors; they’d be locked, just like the front door and the one that had separated him from Ben and Jerome. Whoever the fourth person in this house was, they’d singled Chris out, herded him to this particular room, and trapped him inside. Trapped him inside with…
He turned back toward the crack and the hole. Just before it swung into view, a sense of motion tickled the corner of Chris’ eye. A withdrawing impression. When he beheld the hole once more, the doll arm was gone.
They hadn’t gone very far when Jerome gagged.
“You alright?” asked Ben.
“I think the smell’s getting to me.”
Ben took a tentative sniff. The sweet decay of damp wood fibers, muffled beneath pungent dust.
“Reminds me of—” Jerome shook his head. “Let’s just find Chris and get out of here.”
They passed through the entry room and came to the room with the mirror. The rainstorm was intensifying. Ben felt each drop like a blow to his eardrums. The window to his right rattled as the panes were buffeted by wind and water. The house itself groaned beneath the tempest. Ben resisted the urge to look outside—if he saw anything beyond the waves washing down the glass, it would be that tree, and he’d seen far too much of that already.
They kept going, rounding the first corner room and starting up what Ben thought of as the right side of the house. Chris would be running up the left side, or perhaps even crossing the back. If they hurried, they’d meet up with him soon. In fact, with all of the doors open, Ben could see all the way to the back, and half expected Chris to come running into view at any moment.
But they reached the next corner without seeing him. As they turned down the next stretch of rooms, Ben had a clear view all the way to the left side of the house, and there was no sign of Chris.
“Where is he?” Jerome said, echoing Ben’s thoughts.
“He should be here,” muttered Ben, and he accelerated into a jog, forgetting caution, worried now that something had happened and that he’d find Chris injured and tucked away in a corner; maybe behind one of the doorframes, which was why they couldn’t see him.
He’d passed through three rooms when he skidded to a stop. For several seconds he refused to turn his head, to look at what he knew he could see out of the corner of his left eye. It couldn’t be there. It couldn’t!
“Jerome,” he called back, still refusing to turn, “The room with the mirror, was it the one just to the right of the entryway?”
Jerome caught up and stared at the mirror. “I think so. I don’t know, man. Maybe there were two.”
“No,” Ben insisted. Every room had a different decoration; there’d been only one mirror. But there was no way they’d circled the entire house already, right? If they had, they would have found Chris, they would have passed the front door again—assuming of course that the locked door that had separated them had somehow reopened. “Did…did we get turned around somewhere?” He checked his sense of direction: the outside should be to the right, and it was. The window looked out onto the storm and the forest and the black tree. If they’d accidentally turned around—and how could they have done that without realizing it?—then the window would be on their left.
But the mirror!
A half-formed thought drifted through Ben’s mind, something about reflections and reversals. He turned to face the mirror dead-on, and froze.
He felt like he was looking at a surrealist work of art. The mirror was the frame, himself a crisp, fixed subject pasted in the foreground. The light of the house was a revealing one, laying bare every blemish. Not like the abstract painting behind him, in which solid forms were fragmented and made fluid by the distorting rain. The painting might have depicted a forest, might have depicted something like a tree or a man with a third arm in place of his head, might have depicted—
Ben spun, his heart racing. The window stared back at him, shimmering. He turned back to the mirror, where the same vision greeted him, except that under the black tree stood a human figure.
Ben looked back to the window, back to the mirror, several times over to confirm that his eyes weren’t just playing tricks on him. That person in the rain only existed in the reflection, only in the outside that was inside. They stood, like Ben, perfectly still. Even the ripples of the falling rain didn’t seem to distort them as much as everything else. Details were impossible to distinguish, but they were draped in something white.
“Jerome,” Ben said. His mouth was dry. “Is there someone outside the window?”
In the mirror, Ben watched Jerome peer outside and shake his head. “No one, man. You’re just confused. There’s just more than one mirror room. We couldn’t possibly have gotten lost. Now let’s get out of here, this place is weird.” Jerome moved off into the next room.
Without taking his eyes off the mirror, Ben moved after Jerome. He half expected the person outside in the reflection to follow him, to at least turn their head, but no. The figure remained as motionless—more so, even—as the trees of the forest.
Ben ran into something hard and solid, and fell back into a sitting position. Clouds of dust burst around him; his eyes watered. His entire face throbbed with each beat of his heart, and something warm trickled over his upper lip.
“Ben? Ben!” Jerome’s voice was muffled, accompanied by a rapid pounding of knuckles on wood.
Ben wiped a hand over his nose and mouth; it came away red. His head spun. The door. The door Jerome had just walked through. It had slammed shut in his face. “I’m alright,” Ben said. “Keep going. Find Chris. I’ll wait here.”
Jerome didn’t reply at first. The doorknob rattled. There were a few heavy thumps against the other side of the door. Then Jerome said, “Fine, I’ll go find Chris. You just…you sure you’ll be alright?”
A few receding footsteps. “And you’ll just…wait there?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Alright.” And Jerome finally left.
So much for not separating, Ben thought. He waited for his head to stop spinning, waited for the pain to dull a bit, before attempting to stand. How are we going to get out of here? He remembered Jerome’s progress with the flashlight earlier, and pulled his own from his pocket. He could work on this window while he waited. He approached the glass, raised his flashlight, and hesitated.
He looked over his shoulder at the mirror.
There it was, that figure, visible through the window in the reflection. In spite of all appearances, Ben couldn’t think of it as human. Whether because of its proportions, its posture, or something…else. Why did it only appear in the mirror? Was it an illusion? Was it outside waiting for him, invisible due to some trick of perspective? If it was, did he really want to break through the window and meet it?
His hand shook, still raised in the air. But with doors locking themselves at every turn, how else would they escape?
He brought the flashlight down against the glass. Cracks appeared. Encouraged, Ben attacked again, just as Jerome had done earlier. If he could get out here, then maybe he could go around the outside of the house, find whichever rooms Chris and Jerome were in, and break them out. Then they could all go home—
But what about Ewan? Ben had nearly forgotten the reason they’d come in the first place.
Ewan wasn’t here. They’d been through every room in the house, and there was no sign of him. It wouldn’t be giving up to leave this house and never come back; they’d simply look somewhere else. This was just their first stop. Now they could check it off the list and move on.
A long, high-pitched creak made Ben stop mid-swing. It had come from somewhere in the house, somewhere far away. Instinctively, Ben turned. Nothing he could see had changed. Jerome’s door was still closed, the corridor back to the entryway was open, the mirror—the mirror showed the same scene as before, except the white-robed figure was gone.
Three rooms after leaving Ben behind, Jerome was confused. He stood with his back to the window, staring at a mirror.
There was only one, he thought. But then we found a second, and now…
He couldn’t have gotten lost. It wasn’t possible to get lost in a house like this.
But the mirror hung there, mocking his logic.
Is it a different mirror, or the same one? Have I actually found a new room, or have I somehow circled all the way back? How can I be sure?
His flashlight. He thought it would be useless when they first entered the house and found it bathed in invasive light, but not anymore. He bashed it once against the mirror, just enough to crack it, to mark it. Now he’d know, if he ever came across another mirror, if it was the same one or not.
Nodding to himself in satisfaction, Jerome continued down the never-ending chain of rooms. He came to a corner, rounded it, passed the two windows and noted with a shiver that the same black tree jeered at him from both. He hurried from that room and its impossible optics. The next chain stretched on before him, but before he could start down it, something in the distance creaked.
The sound was long, torturously long, and more than anything reminded Jerome of an ancient rocking chair, half-rotten timbers tilting beneath its overweight occupant. Jerome had a flashback to his childhood, of the last time he’d seen his grandmother alive. A nursing home, a rocking chair, old person piled atop it. She’d tried to give Jerome a kiss, but the sight of those dry, cracked lips, the equally dry and wrinkled skin falling around her face like ornate drapery—Jerome had cowered behind his mother.
He remembered the smell of the nursing home, felt like he was there again, everything too-well lit and stinking.
And then, in the far distance, down impossibly far given what he knew about the size of his house, something moved.
Crossed the hall of rooms, in and out of sight.
Something bent and stick-like, with dirty lace draped over its frame.
As Jerome threw himself behind the nearest doorframe, he remembered the coat rack from the entryway and thought, It got its robe back; at least it’s not running around naked anymore.
Ben’s question, asked just minutes ago: “Is there someone outside the window?”
No, not anymore, not outside anymore. She’s in here with us and she’s going to give all of us a kiss because I didn’t give her one before she died—
Stop it. It wasn’t his grandma. She’d been dead for more than ten years, dead and buried on the other side of the country. And besides, the thing that had crossed the hall looked nothing like her.
Still, there was no way Jerome was going any farther. Instead he’d go back and wait by Ben’s door. Maybe Chris would find them. He had to be looking, right?
Jerome backtracked to the room where he’d cracked the mirror. Except now there was no mirror, just shards of glass scattered on the floor and a frame that surrounded a gaping hole in the wall.
Jerome backed away from the hole, the dark, sucking hole. He felt watched, swore he could even see faint reflections off a hundred eyes, staring at him.
Something crunched beneath his foot. Thinking he’d stepped on a piece of glass, Jerome carefully shifted his weight and looked down.
A tiny, white, cracked face stared up at him with wide glass eyes.
Jerome shouted and stamped his foot back down.
Break the thing. That’s how you handled a house like this. Break the window to escape, break the mirror to mark your path, break the face to make it stop staring—
It had stopped. The eyes had rolled clear of the debris, and now a headless doll lay on the floor at Jerome’s feet. The head, now a pile of porcelain shards, was replaced with a pile of gray dust spilling out from the plush body.
Chris sat in the center of the floor. He didn’t know what else to do. He certainly wasn’t about to investigate that hole. The window was a potential escape route, but every time he considered smashing it with his flashlight, that three-armed tree loomed in his mind. Its flailing was exaggerated by the falling rain, which beat with enough force now that Chris could feel it. The doors he still hadn’t tried, but he had good reason not to.
About a minute after they’d shut him in, something had started knocking on the other side.
Little, hard impacts, about knee height.
Ben and Jerome will get here soon, Chris thought. They’ll chase them away.
A creak worked its way through the room, shook the floor, dissipated throughout the entire house. Bits of plaster dust tumbled down from the crack in the wall. Was it widening? Chris fixed his gaze on the hole at the base of the crack. It was the most dangerous point in the room, the den of whatever thing had dragged that doll away.
And something had dragged it away. The little impacts at the doors had set Chris’ imagination firing down weird paths, paths he refused to tread.
Is this what happened to Ewan? Did he get trapped in this house, die of starvation, get dragged away into that black hole?
Thunder boomed outside—or was that another shudder of the house enduring the storm? It was so loud, so grating, that Chris squeezed his eyes shut and clapped his hands over his ears. When the vibrations settled, Chris opened his eyes, and all he could say was, “Oh.”
The crack had indeed grown. It had widened to form an irregular, triangular opening in the wall. And spilling out, like the contents of a mass grave upended, a tangle of plush bodies and porcelain limbs.
The knocking at the doors grew louder, more insistent. Excited. The light from Chris’ room seemed to…flicker into this new space. Beady eyes seemed to blink from the pile, dirty forms seemed to writhe—all imagination, Chris told himself. All because of what the light was doing.
It was bright enough now that Chris could make out the rough dimensions of the space behind the wall. It was another room, enormous, and every square inch buried beneath dolls. They piled up against the walls like heaps of garbage, almost reaching the ceiling. And beyond them, set in the far wall, was a door.
The sound of tiny, cold hard hands hammering became deafening. It became one with the rain and the thunder and the staccato creaking of the house’s timbers. Somewhere in that creaking, Chris’ brain interpreted syllables, a voice.
Poor thing, damp and frightened. Come to Grammy.
Across the heaps of lifeless dolls, the door slowly opened.
Chris yelled and stumbled back against the window, as far as he could get from that inner room full of dolls. Something slipped through the door on the other side. The door had stopped moving, but the creaking went on and on. It was that thing’s joints, those brown knobs peeking out from beneath a stained, white nightgown.
Come here little one, let me dry you off.
The thing didn’t speak, not by moving its mouth, if a mouth you could call it. The face, like wrinkled brown paper or knotted tree bark, was pocked with round, black holes instead of features.
Chris spun away from the thing and began hammering on the window. The glass refused to give beneath his fists. Then he remembered the flashlight strapped to his belt. He whipped it out and resumed his assault.
The window reflected the vague form of the thing from the doll room. Spindly legs waded through the dolls, gently moving them aside. Its progress was slow. Chris risked a glance back to see it more clearly—
And it was there, in his face, so close Chris should have been able to feel the breath flowing out of that gaping hole of a mouth. But there was nothing, not a breeze, not a gasp.
Let me keep you warm.
Chris felt a pressure on his stomach. He looked down and saw five bony fingers splayed against his shirt. He struck downward with his flashlight and heard a sound like crumpled newspapers being crushed together. The thing withdrew, but did not leave. It stood there in the center of the room and stared, head falling toward the side, wisps of gray hair hanging limply.
Chris stared back, waiting for the thing to move.
And then he coughed.
A tickle deep in his belly. His diaphragm heaved, and Chris’ throat was wracked with another barking cough. Still the tickling refused to abate. Chris tried to take a breath, but that only spurred more coughing. His eyes watered. The tickling began to feel like cold air spreading through him, rising, filling his lungs—but not air he could breathe. Chris couldn’t do anything but hack and gag and cough. He fell to his knees as his vision throbbed. His flashlight rolled away and he could barely feel the splintering wood beneath his palms. His abdomen clenched, his jaw dropped open, and out of his mouth flew a cloud of thick, gray dust.
And he heard, distantly, a voice, as if the very timbers of the house were attempting to sing for him. A lullaby.
Jerome stared at the spilled dust. There was something disgusting about it. Something about its color or its smell. Jerome held his breath, unwilling to risk inhaling one speck of the mess that tumbled out of the doll’s plush body.
A barking sound echoed through the house, reaching out of the black hole behind the broken mirror and into Jerome’s hypersensitive ears. It went on and on, growing louder, hoarser, and then it stopped. In its wake came a rhythmic creaking. Jerome once more thought of overburdened rocking chairs and ancient limbs straining against their ligaments. He took a hesitant step toward the hole and peered inside.
He couldn’t see much. The room seemed filled with a vague, lumpy form. In one wall was a jagged shape filled with white light, and something moving, a skinny figure bent over, working on some task Jerome couldn’t see.
Then it straightened and turned to look directly at Jerome. An object dangled from one of its hands, something that looked like a tiny, lifeless child.
“No,” Jerome muttered, “no way.” He inched away from the hole.
Don’t be afraid. I’ll keep you dry and warm forever, dearie. Come to Grammy.
And it began to walk toward him.
“Stay away!” said Jerome. He raised his flashlight like a club.
The figure didn’t seem to hear. It entered the darkness of the central room and became a silhouette. Light from the far side penetrated its loose clothing, outlining a skeletal form underneath.
Knees and elbows bent the wrong way.
And suddenly it was there, right on the other side of the hole. It raised a dowel-like leg and stepped through the opening.
“Ben!” shouted Jerome. His raised arm shook, his fingers lost strength, and his flashlight fell to the floor. “Ben!” He stumbled back, tripping over the crushed doll, noticing that it was a doll clutched in the apparition’s twig fingers.
The thing looked down at the empty form of cloth and porcelain on the floor, at the shattered pieces, the pile of dust. The atmosphere seemed to thicken, filling Jerome’s ears with cotton, and then the entire house began to moan. The creature raised its face; behind a thin veil of lank, gray hairs gaped three round, knot-like holes. Brown, papery flesh twisted around them, funneling that anguished, creaking voice.
Jerome screamed, clapped his hands over his ears, and ran.
Ben was nearly through the window. The disappearance of the figure in the mirror was unnerving, but it made the forest outside seem all the safer. The glass was now a spiderweb of white lines. One more blow should do it—
And then the house started screaming. Ben shouted, dropped his flashlight, and crumbled to the floor. He curled there with his arms over his head, trying to burrow into himself and away from that awful noise. He heard wood splinter and felt the floorboards shifting under him.
And then stillness. Silence.
Ben opened his eyes and peered out between his elbows.
The room looked crooked. Right angles were skewed, the walls were cracked, and the one door he could see had been twisted on its hinges so it no longer fit within its frame.
A tiny flame of hope lit within Ben and spurred him to his feet. He gripped the doorknob and pulled with all his might. The wood groaned, then snapped, and the door yawned inward, squealing on damaged hinges.
If this one opens, maybe the others…
He sprinted through the door, calling his friends’ names.
Jerome rounded one of the corner rooms and dashed through the chain of doorways. The house had changed. Perfect rectangles had become trapezoids and parallelograms. Windows were cracked, and doors leaned at awkward angles. He flung open one of these doors and stopped so abruptly he almost fell over.
In the middle of the floor lay an empty outfit. Shirt, pants, shoes. Laid out in the shape of a person, although no person was present.
Jerome circled the clothes, then he noticed the inner wall.
The outline of the hole was familiar. Jerome remembered seeing it before, but inverted, a glowing shape in the dark. Now, in this bright room, it was utterly black.
The same hole, seen from the opposite side of the house. Sure enough, looking through, Jerome could see across the darkness to another hole, and beyond it the room where he had stepped on that dust-filled doll.
He looked down at the clothes by his feet. This was where he’d seen that stick figure doing…doing something. The clothes. The empty clothes were…
Jerome gagged and staggered away. He recognized them: Chris. That was Chris’ shirt and Chris’ pants and Chris’ shoes with his socks still in them like desiccated feet. But where was Chris?
Let me give you a kiss.
Jerome sobbed. He turned away from the empty clothes and ran toward the sound of Ben’s voice. A door tried to slam shut and bar his path, but it bounced off its crooked frame. Jerome squeezed through and saw Ben running toward him.
“What the hell happened?” asked Ben. “The house—”
“She got Chris,” Jerome cried.
“She got him and she came for me next, but I broke one of her dolls and she didn’t like that, no she didn’t like that—”
“What are you talking about? Who’s she?”
“We have to get out, we have to get out—the doors are broken! She can’t keep them shut anymore, she broke them with her screaming, so we can get out!”
“She has him, has him in her little fist now, he’s gone, it’s just us now.”
Ben’s stomach grew cold and his arms prickled. He had no clue what Jerome was going on about, but he remembered that figure in the mirror, and he could feel the doubt emptying from his mind like an icy draft.
And that meant Ewan was, too.
“Alright. The front door. Unless we find a broken window first, then we’ll go out that way.”
Jerome grabbed Ben’s arm as they started running. Rooms sped by in a blur. Identical rooms. Ben didn’t notice any broken windows. Not even cracked ones. He couldn’t remember if any of these windows were ones that they’d tried to break out of earlier, but his suspicions were confirmed when he saw a wall, marred by a meandering black crack, seal itself together again.
The house was healing itself.
“Hurry!” Ben shouted to Jerome. The chain of rooms ahead of them appeared to twist as doorframes righted themselves. Behind them, Ben heard doors slamming. The house was reforming, trying to lock them in again—
Ben saw the entryway. Just one more room to dash through, just one more door, one more door that began to close.
Ben yanked free of Jerome and dove into the space. The door slammed on him, pinning him, but it couldn’t close. “Go, Jerome!”
Jerome squeezed through the narrow gap, managing to avoid kicking Ben’s face but stepping on his fingers. Ben hardly felt it. Once Jerome was through, he turned to help Ben.
But before he could reach down, Jerome let out a harsh cough. He clutched his chest, wheezing and barking, then he doubled over and vomited a cloud of gray dust. He fell on all fours, and behind him stood what Ben at first imagined to be a weathered sapling draped in a white nightgown. In one hand it clutched a doll, filthy and ancient except for a row of fresh stitches down its stomach. With its other hand, the figure bent down and stroked the back of Jerome’s neck with one long, crooked finger. Jerome went limp, and before Ben’s eyes he disintegrated.
Nothing but empty clothes and a man-shaped pile of dust.
Ben screamed and struggled against the door that pinned him. The woman-tree-thing knelt by Jerome’s remains and set her doll gently on the floor. She then produced another doll from inside her gown, this one limp and floppy. The creature began scooping up handfuls of dust and stuffing them into the doll’s body.
The dolls, thought Ben. That other one must be Chris.
Ben kicked and clawed at the floor. He could feel the door still trying to close on him. It pinched into his waist, turning his pelvis into a hook that anchored him in place.
But he did not want to die like this.
He drew his arms back, twisting his shoulders so he could grip the doorframe. Then he pushed with his back against the door, forcing it open inch by inch, until he was able to slide his hips forward.
The thing was nearly finished. It stuffed one last handful of dust into the doll, then reached up and plucked a gray hair from its own head. Using one of its impossibly long fingers as a needle, it began sewing the doll shut. It worked quickly, closing the gap, sealing Jerome inside. Once it was done, it would come for Ben.
Ben took a second to catch his breath before pushing again. The door groaned against him. Ben pulled his knees up and braced them against the doorframe, pushed for all he was worth. Wood splintered—
And he was free. The door slammed hard enough to shake the house, and Ben was on his feet, charging toward the woman-thing who had just finished the last stitch and now turned her head to regard him. Before she could react, Ben snatched Chris’ doll from the floor and raised it high. “I’ll smash it!” he screamed at the creature. “You move a muscle and I’ll smash its dusty brains out!”
In response, the thing howled. It sounded like an old woman screaming and a tree folding in an icy wind. But it didn’t move.
Ben crept forward and took Jerome’s doll by the arm. The creature held tightly to the other arm.
“Hand him over,” Ben growled, raising Chris’ doll as if to smash it against the floor.
The thing relented.
Ben backed away, both dolls raised over his head, backed up to the front door, and tried the knob. Locked. “Let me out,” he ordered.
She howled again, rising to her feet and reaching for him.
Ben swung Jerome’s doll at the wall, stopping just short of impact. It did the trick. The creature retreated.
“Let. Me. Go.”
Behind him, the door clicked open. Ben pulled it the rest of the way and backed out into a roaring downpour. The thing stayed where it was, spindly arms held up at an awkward angle, like sick tree branches, lacy garment hanging like tattered curtains. The storm outside didn’t seem to affect the air inside. She stood motionless as a photograph. But her eyes, those round, black pits, burned.
Ben forced himself to maintain eye contact until he reached the edge of the clearing. Then he turned his back on the house and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. He didn’t dare look back. When he reached the car, he glanced briefly in the rear-view mirror before gunning it away from the woods. The rain grew weaker, the clouds grew thinner, and soon the sun shone down on him.
Ben let the car coast to a stop in the middle of the narrow, dusty road. The woods were now a distant line of darkness in his mirrors. Fields stretched out to either side.
Ben stared at the passenger seat, at the two motionless dolls piled atop the leather.
What should I do? Call the police?
What good would police do? Ben knew what had happened to his friends. Ben knew who had done it. She couldn’t be arrested, tried, or imprisoned. The police would take the dolls.
Ben’s stomach tightened at the thought of Chris and Jerome passed around as evidence, denied a proper resting place for the sake of a hopeless investigation. No, he couldn’t go to the police. Missing person reports would have to be filed, of course, but no one needed to know the whole story.
Not even their families?
No. Hannah and Nancy wouldn’t believe the truth any more than the police would. If Ben didn’t start the investigation, they would. They couldn’t be told the truth. But the remains, what to do with the remains?
They belonged with their families. Even if no one except Ben knew the truth, Chris and Jerome could at least be returned home.
What about Ewan? With a sick jolt, Ben realized that Ewan must still be in the house somewhere, nothing but dust stuffed into a doll. But there was nothing on earth that could make Ben go back. At least he finally knew what had happened to his friend. That would have to be enough.
Having convinced himself, Ben moved his foot back to the gas pedal and slowly accelerated down the road, back toward civilization.
Nancy Nier stares at Ben Morris. Her brow is gathered in a knot above her tired eyes. Tommy Nier has fixed his wide gaze on his mother’s backpack. Somewhere in the distance beyond the trees of Thilda Park, a bell tolls the eight o’clock hour. As if summoned by the hollow chimes, dark clouds converge overhead.
After a long, measured breath, Ben says, “That doll I gave you three years ago. It’s all that’s left of him.”
“Chris?” breathes Nancy. Her voice shakes.
“She put him inside. Sealed him up against the damp.”
A lone raindrop lands on the bench between Nancy and Ben, leaving a black stain against the faded wood. Ben looks up, and seems to notice the reforming clouds for the first time. His face pales. “She did the same thing to Jerome. I brought them all back. I brought them back to their families—”
Another raindrop hits him in the forehead.
Turning back to Nancy, Ben continues, “Hannah and the kids, I led her to them. They’re all—it’s my fault. I killed them.” He buries his face in his hands and begins to sob.
Tommy, who’s remained silent since arriving at the park, asks in a quiet voice, “So Dad…is in here?”
Ben’s sobbing stops. He looks up from his hands and sees Tommy still fixated on his mother’s backpack. The rain continues to fall, solitary drops joined by a spattering of companions. The clouds suspended overhead are thick enough that it feels like dusk. Tommy reaches over and slowly unzips the backpack. Ben holds his breath until he sees a white face, a dull glimmer off a glass eye—
“I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE IT WHY THE HELL DID YOU BRING IT HERE—”
A peal of thunder cuts him off, and when it fades Nancy is screaming as well, “WASN’T ABOUT TO LEAVE IT IN OUR HOME—”
“—YOU’VE KILLED US YOU—”
“—IF YOU’D EXPLAINED YOURSELF ON THE PHONE—”
“Mom,” says Tommy, but neither Nancy nor Ben can hear him over their own shouting.
“—WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST LISTEN—”
“—YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME—”
“Mom?” says Tommy
“—WE’RE ALL DEAD BECAUSE OF YOU—”
“—YOU BROUGHT IT TO US YOU BROUGHT THAT AWFUL THING INTO OUR HOME—”
Tommy’s plea finally breaks through. Nancy and Ben stop shouting and see Tommy standing with his back to them.
A woman stands in front of him. A woman in a tattered white gown and skin like flaking leather. Before their eyes, she touches one shriveled hand to Tommy’s cheek, and the boy collapses. He writhes on the grass, coughing and screaming and choking, and gray stuff spurts out of his mouth in a violent cloud. His cheeks cave in until they’re just films of transparent skin, then another cough finishes them off and Tommy’s entire face crumbles to dust. His clothes hold the shape of his body for a moment, but the rain pummels the fabric flat and all that’s left is a pile of dust quickly turned to gray mud by the rain.
“Tom—” Nancy starts to shriek, but a gaze from the woman silences her. That head like a wrinkled paper bag tilts to the side, tilts and tips and keeps falling to the side until it seems it’ll fall right off.
And then she’s standing right in front of Nancy, inches from her nose. Nancy smells mothballs and old linen and dried vomit and dust, dust so thick the stink burns her nose and reaches down into her stomach where it begins to tickle, and Nancy realizes the woman has brushed a twig-like finger against her belly. A barking cough, a dry heave, and Nancy is on the ground. For a moment all she can see is a pair of brown, leathery feet, and beyond them the pile of clothes that used to be Tommy. Then her eyes turn to dust and there’s nothing more.
Ben is on his knees by the time she reaches him. “There,” he sobs, pointing to the open backpack on the bench. “It’s in there, take it!”
The head swivels on its broken neck. Black sockets come to rest on the doll inside.
“I’m sorry,” Ben pleads. “I’m sorry I stole them from you, please just take it!”
That head swivels back toward him. Ben can hear the creak of stretched parchment and stiff cords. And in his head, like an icy breath through brittle leaves, Poor thing, all cold and wet. Grammy will dry you off. Come to Grammy. Grammy will keep you safe and dry. Come to Grammy.
“No,” sobs Ben, crawling backward from her like a crab. “No!”
But she’s not there anymore. Through vision blurred by rain and tears, Ben sees nothing but the remains of the Niers, the park, the cars in the lot across the grass—
He backs into something solid, and before he can scream he’s wrapped in arms that make a sound like chewed celery as they bend, smothered in hands that feel more like paper than flesh.
Come to Grammy.