Black Petals Issue #91, Spring, 2020

Living Doll
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Mars-News, Views and Commentary
A Hole in the Somewhere-Fiction by Richard Brown
Everything Echoes-Fiction by Todd M. Guerra
Exit to Dove's Tail-Fiction by Ken Goldman
I Dream of Fire-Fiction by Matthew Penwell
Living Doll-Fiction by Carl Hughes
Angelika's Tough Decision-Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Cat-Fiction by Chris Alleyne
The Demon-Fiction by Misty Page
The Run-Fiction by Thomas Runge D'Amore
We Are the Monsters We Seek-Fiction by Karen Heslop
Brother of Mine-Flash Fiction by D. C. Plump
New Terror-Flash Fiction by Denis Alvarez Betancourt
The Flapping Thing-Flash Fiction by Robert Masterson
The Clown Loved Cherry Lipstick-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Ganymede-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Space Probe RH 120-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
The Buffoon-Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Just Another Day in My House-Poem by Tom Davidson
Blue Bell Hill Beast-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Plum Island-Poem by Richard Stevenson
The Thing in the Woods-Poem by Loris John Fazio

91_bp_livingdoll_blanch.jpg
Art by Darren Blanch 2020

LIVING DOLL

 

Carl Hughes

 

 

 

1

Chazzy found the doll in a dusty, beaten-up suitcase in the attic. She didn’t know whether to feel pleased or repelled. In the end she settled for cautious curiosity.

          It wasn’t a pretty thing. No cherubic lips, cream-smooth complexion or impossibly long eyelashes. This doll had a thin-lipped gash of a mouth, gaunt grey face and eyes as green and cold as winter bracken. Her dress was of grubby gingham, her limbs spindly and strangely elongated like those of Abraham Lincoln: a character that Chazzy had recently learned about at school.

          The doll would win no prizes for glamour but something about her, perhaps an air of vulnerability that often clings to the less fortunate, evoked pity in Chazzy’s heart. So while crinkling her nose as at an unpleasant smell, the girl also felt strangely protective towards this strange specimen.

          ‘Are you there, Chazelle?’ her mother called from the foot of the stairs.

          Chazzy bridled. She hated that name. Chazelle sounded like a cross between a cheetah and a gazelle. Melinda Tomlinson, the school bully with a personality as attractive as a warthog’s miscarriage, ridiculed her constantly because of Chazelle and encouraged her clique of hangers-on to do the same. Chazzy knew it wasn’t her name that really got the goat of that crowd, but the fact that she was cleverer than they were, always coming top of the class, and that she was Mrs Trickett’s favourite.

          ‘Chazelle?’ Mum called again.

          ‘Coming.’

          Chazzy decided on a whim to keep the doll. At twelve, she was too old to play with such things but then lots of people older than she collected dolls as a lifelong hobby. In fact Mum still had the teddy bear that she’d been given as a four-year-old. Bruno, he was called, and he sat in tatty splendour on a cushioned chair in Mum and Dad’s bedroom.

          ‘What have you got there?’ Mum asked when Chazzy stumped down from the attic.

          ‘I found this doll in an old suitcase in the attic,’ Chazzy said.

          Mum looked startled for a second, as if glimpsing the Devil’s armpits. Then she raised a tenuous smile. ‘I haven’t seen Lela for twenty years or more,’ she said.

          ‘Lela?’

          ‘That’s her name. Your grandma Dorothy gave her to me when I was six or seven. It was the Christmas your grandpa died and it rained non-stop on the day of his funeral. The bus drivers were on strike, I remember, and everything seemed bleak that year.’

          ‘She’s a strange-looking thing, isn’t she?’ Chazzy said, examining the doll judiciously.

          ‘That’s what I thought all those years ago. I can’t imagine what possessed any toy company to make an object like that and I don’t know why my mum gave me anything so peculiar. I suppose Lela must have been cheap and we were going through a hard time just then, what with your grandpa having been off work for so long with the lung complaint that killed him.’

          Chazzy’s mother was an older facsimile of the girl: fair-haired (although now a touch grey at the roots), face as fresh and guileless as that of an angel, eyes of cornflower blue.

          Mother and daughter had been sorting through Grandma Dorothy’s things, putting aside the stuff that would have to be thrown out. The old lady’s funeral had taken place five days ago. She’d suffered a stroke two years earlier, then developed cancer, and for the previous eleven months she’d lived with Chazzy’s family. Her belongings such as jewellery, old photographs and nicknacks had been stored in the attic ‘ready for the day you’re well again and can move back into your own place.’ That’s what Chazzy’s mother had said, though they all knew the day would never arrive.

          ‘It’s so long since I’ve seen Lela that I’d forgotten what a skanky thing she is,’ Mum said, taking the doll from Chazzy.

          ‘It isn’t her fault.’

          ‘I suppose not. There’s a button in her back – you can feel it if you probe about a bit. If you pressed it when Lela was new, she’d say “Hello Mummy”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m called Lela”. But the voicebox or whatever you call it stopped working when I dunked the doll in a tub of detergent. A stupid thing to do, I know, but at the time I just wanted to give her a bath. My mother rollicked me royally but by then it was too late to put the damage right. I suppose the voice thing must have rusted up or something.’

          ‘Can I have a go?’ Chazzy asked.

          ‘If you like, but I warn you it doesn’t work any more.’

          Chazzy took the doll and with fixed concentration she felt with her index finger around Lela’s back. She found the button and depressed it but managed to elicit only a farting noise from the doll. It made her laugh.

          ‘You shouldn’t laugh at Lela,’ Mum said with a severity that Chazzy sensed wasn’t altogether make-believe. ‘She doesn’t like being made fun of. She’s sensitive like that.’

          ‘Can I keep her?’

          Mum ran a hand through her hair, which had become coated with the generations of dust from her mother’s belongings. ‘If you want to, but Lela’s worthless now. I always thought there was something sinister about her. Sometimes she’d talk at night, those three phrases, without me touching the button. It gave me the creeps.’

          ‘I feel sorry for her. She’s the kind of doll who always gets neglected when prettier ones are around.’

          All dolls are prettier than Lela,’ Mum said.

          ‘Ssh. You know what you just told me – she’s sensitive.’

          Chazzy carried Lela to her bedroom and sat the doll on her dressing table, back resting against the mirror so she seemed to be looking two ways at once.

The sunlight of late May filled the room with a cosseting warmth like heated duckdown and the place smelled of Nag Champa incense, which Chazzy liked because it reminded her of that fantastic month she, Mum and Dad had spent in India two years back. The walls contained poster pin-ups of hunky pop and movie stars, while a laptop computer stood on a pull-out desk in one corner next to a bookcase that housed books by Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. Chazzy hadn’t opened any of those books, as she found the classics boring. They’d been given to her by Grandma Dorothy who felt that all children would become more responsible citizens if only they immersed themselves in nineteenth-century culture. Though Chazzy wouldn’t know a Thackeray from a lavatory brush, she had to admit that she’d enjoyed the Dickens ghost story, The Signalman, that the BBC had screened in its drama schedule last Christmas.

          This being the school half-term holiday, Chazzy had no lessons to attend and no homework to be got through but she settled on her bed with The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Now that was real writing. Occasionally she would glance up as if some movement had caught her eye. Each time, she found her attention settling on Lela. The doll’s presence unsettled her for a reason she couldn’t identify and it was as if gloom had settled over the bedroom, with shadows huddling conspiratorially in corners despite the sunlight. Frowning, Chazzy squirrelled away her disquiet and returned again and again to Tolkien’s fantasy.

          After half an hour, unable to concentrate, she left the bedroom and felt she were escaping from something unhealthy that defied logic. Maybe she should have stuffed the doll back into its suitcase, she thought. Perhaps. But some uneasy inkling told her it was already too late for that.

          Dad arrived home from his work at the drawing office looking as if he’d been through a colander. His skin appeared somehow shredded, his hair awry, his usual cheerful self drained away.

          ‘They keep cutting staff and expecting more and more from those of us who’re left,’ he complained. ‘They put us under so much pressure that we’re bound to make mistakes, then when we do they say we’re sloppy and not doing the jobs we’re paid for and aren’t going to get a pay rise.’

          Where Chazzy and her mother were fair, Dad had reddish hair with natural auburn tints, and a face that he said reminded him of a constipated fox.

          ‘My nerves are frazzled,’ he said. ‘I’m going for a run to get the stress out of my system.’

          ‘Don’t be late for tea, Alec,’ Mum told him, as she always did before he set off on his thrice-weekly runs.

          ‘Don’t worry, I’m only going to St Mark’s Church and back. Just about four miles.’

‘You’ll have to take part in the London Marathon, Dad,’ Chazzy said. ‘You could raise money for charity.’

‘And kill myself in the process. No, I’ll never run a marathon but then I only want to stay fit, not win gold for Britain.’

          Chazzy watched him go then helped her mother prepare tea. Mum sang softly to herself as if layered with a lightness of spirit.

          ‘Mum, shouldn’t we be grieving for Grandma Dorothy?’ Chazzy asked.

          Her mother stopped singing immediately and looked embarrassed. ‘I suppose we should but your grandmother wasn’t an easy lady to like, as you well know. She brought me up and did what she considered to be her duty as a mother but I never knew her to have a good word to say about anybody or anything, and certainly not about me. And you know better than most that after her stroke she became bitter and twisted, even saying evil things about you and your father. So I’m sorry, Chazelle, but I don’t miss her.’

          Chazzy looked up from the sink. ‘I wish you’d stop calling me that.’

          ‘Chazelle? I know you don’t like it but it’s your name and I think it’s pretty.’

          ‘I hate it. When I grow up I’m going to change it to something normal.’

          ‘And you consider Chazzy normal, do you?’ Her mother smiled, moving from cooker to fridge.

          ‘That isn’t what I’ll call myself when I get to be eighteen and can change my name legally. I’ll settle for Emma or Sarah – even Harper. Something no one’ll sneer at anyway.’

          ‘That’ll be up to you, but for now you’re Chazelle and so you’ll remain.’

          Chazzy sniffed and didn’t answer.

         

2

Chazzy slept restlessly over that long weekend of the Late Spring Holiday but nothing untoward happened until the small hours of Tuesday morning. It was just before two-thirty when the girl surfaced from a troubled dream, feeling that some movement in the bedroom had disturbed her.

          Propping herself on one elbow, she stared at Lela on the dressing table as had become her unwelcome habit. Moonlight was casting a misty radiance into the bedroom, throwing a pale glow around the doll as if she were surrounded by an unhealthy halo. Chazzy realised that if there’d been any movement, it hadn’t come from Lela. The doll sat as ever with her back to the mirror, cold green eyes gazing sightlessly into the room.

          Suddenly Lela spoke. In a creepy, creaky voice full of grinding gears and broken springs, she said, ‘I’m hungry.’

          Chazzy’s heart seemed to skip several beats. Her fingers clenched and unclenched, and a quiver ran through her body. She told herself frantically that she ought to feel pleased that Lela had regained her voice after so many years. And maybe that’s how she would feel, if only she’d pressed the button in the doll’s back. As it was, it seemed that in the dead of night Lela had taken on a life that shouldn’t be there. Breath compressed in her chest, Chazzy wished with strange intensity that the doll had remained broken and mute.

          Minutes passed as the girl waited in a state of dread for the doll to speak again. Nothing further happened, however, and after a long time the moon began to wane and Chazzy drifted into an uneasy sleep.

          Morning arrived with sunlight laying down a tracery of mosaic diamonds filtered through an abundance of spring leaves. The time wasn’t yet six o’clock but Chazzy had already risen, moving quietly so as not to disturb her parents. She had something important to do: something she’d resolved to accomplish before breakfast. Accomplish was a strange word for it, she knew, but this felt like a task that mightn’t be easy to carry out.

          In the event, it proved simpler than she’d feared. She grabbed Lela, half expecting to find the doll squirm in her hands, and carried her downstairs and out to the dustbin. Chazzy lifted the lid of the green bin, dropped the doll inside with a sense of relief, and returned to her bedroom. Suddenly the incense-scented air felt pure and refreshing, like something newly released from captivity and almost beside itself with joy. Chazzy hugged herself as if she’d completed in triumph one of those marathons that Dad had said would be too much for him. She felt she’d got rid of a suffocating menace.

          The half-term break being over, it was time to return to school. Chazzy attended Broad Pines High, a sprawling redbrick place on the site of a former manor house that had been in the Pines family since the time of Queen Anne. It was only within the last year or so that girls attending the school had been permitted to wear trousers. The previous head, the crotchety Miss Craddock, had insisted that skirts were de rigueur for all females, even in the worst of winter blizzards. The current head, Mrs Green, being much younger and more trendy, had declared that individuality mustn’t be stifled. Unfortunately for Chazzy, Mrs Green interpreted that as meaning, among other things, that all students should be allowed to say what they thought, as and when they thought it. Not to the teachers, of course, but to each other.

          ‘Here’s little Miss Perfect, our very own arse-crawling goodie – the cringingly named Chazelle.’ That’s how Melinda Tomlinson greeted Chazzy as they crossed in the school playground. Melinda’s coterie of six hangers-on sniggered and stared at Chazzy as if she were the ugliest creature this side of a slimeball convention.

‘Why don’t you grow up, Melinda?’ Chazzy asked. ‘And your friends don’t do badly either when it comes to crawling, only it’s up your arse that they’re to be found.’

With her black mascara, slash of scarlet lipstick and pointed canines, Melinda could have been Dracula’s daughter. Eyes narrowed, glittering, she stepped up to Chazzy so they were almost toe to toe, and she spat green snot into Chazzy’s face. Laughing along with her disciples, she turned away and said, ‘That’s more than you’re worth, you little shit. Anyway, I’m having a mega birthday party next week and everybody’s invited – everybody except you, prissy knickers.’

Chazzy wiped away the snot and saliva with her handkerchief, and feeling the hanky had been tainted irredeemably she dropped it into a wire waste basket that stood close to the staffroom entrance.

Things didn’t get better that day. Mrs Trickett picked out Chazzy’s essay on the Roman empire as a first-class piece of writing and told the other students that this was the standard they should aspire to. Instead of pleasing Chazzy, it embarrassed her acutely as she felt the glaring hatred of Melinda and her cohorts burning into her back. The envy of others in the class didn’t help either.

At the end of afternoon lessons, Melinda came up behind Chazzy and snatched her satchel. She then tipped its contents over the playground and trampled them underfoot, laughing at Chazzy’s dismay.

‘If you think you’re so hard done by, teacher’s pet, why don’t you try to stop me?’ Melinda asked.

Chazzy knew she’d be in for a severe beating if she got into a fight with Melinda, a girl not only several inches taller than she but who looked as if her skeleton were composed of iron girders and who had legs made to support verandas. Besides, Mum and Dad had always impressed on her the notion that bullies weren’t to be indulged when they picked on those physically weaker than themselves. ‘Stand up to them with dignity, not with fists when you know you’ll get the crap knocked out of you.’ That’s what Dad had told her.

Chazzy wasn’t sure that this advice always held good, as Mr Platton the vicar preached that all bullies were cowards at heart and would back down if you met violence with violence. That didn’t seem to Chazzy to be a very Christian way of thinking (turn the other cheek and all that), and anyway she wasn’t willing to put the reverend’s bit of homespun philosophy to the test. After all, Mr Platton had probably never had to trade blows with somebody who displayed the finesse of a pissed-off Sherman tank. So Chazzy picked up her broken and soiled things, packed them into her satchel and made her way home.

It would be easy for her to mess up her schoolwork in future, to draw Mrs Trickett’s wrath rather than her praise, but that would be playing into the sulphurous hands of Melinda and her toadies. Besides, Mum and Dad were proud of their smart daughter and Chazzy wasn’t going to disappoint them for the likes of any braggart with big tits, as Melinda had.

She could of course complain to Mrs Green the headteacher, asking her to prevent further bullying; but that wasn’t an option. Janice Longfellow had got her parents to confront the head about that very thing after months of torment at the hands of Melinda, and Mrs Green had put the bullying down to banter and playfulness and told Janice not to be so sensitive. In other words, to get a life. Which had delighted Melinda and since then her persecution of Janice had intensified. Now Janice had started self-harming, cutting herself with razor blades, and Mrs Green’s only advice to the parents was to take the girl to see a psychotherapist.

The day had been every bit as grotty as Chazzy had feared it would be, and the grottiness wasn’t over yet.

On reaching home, she found that Mum had finished her shift at the hospital, where she was a sister in the acute unit, but was suffering from a blinding migraine. She’d gone to bed after dosing herself with a drug that never seemed to work and she had left a note asking Chazzy to be a good girl and see to tea for herself and her father.

Chazzy didn’t mind cooking; in fact she enjoyed it although Mum had convinced herself that being a vegetarian, Chazzy would eventually turn into a turnip or something.

Before preparing tea, Chazzy went upstairs to get changed out of her school things and into a yellow sweatshirt and maroon jeans. And that’s when the afternoon descended from the miserable to the sinister.

For she found Lela sitting on the dressing table again, her back against the mirror and staring with green-eyed vacuity into the room. Splay-legged, stretchy-armed, the doll seemed to Chazzy to be exuding a menace that ought never to have been released from that tatty suitcase in the attic.

From the door, where she’d come up as short as if meeting a tram going the other way, Chazzy sidled into the room, her gaze fixed on the doll. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see Lela get up and totter across the top of the dressing table.

‘What’re you doing back here?’ the girl whispered. A rhetorical question, for dolls couldn’t talk. Or at least, most of them couldn’t.

The answer, when it occurred to her, seemed obvious. Mum must have found Lela in the dustbin and for some reason, a really inexplicable one, she’d restored the doll to Chazzy’s dressing table.

Chazzy’s instinct was to dump Lela in the bin again but she told herself that would be tantamount to saying Mum should mind her own business. The reality, and there really was a twist to her logic, was that she dreaded the thought of touching the doll again. Because she feared that if she returned Lela to the bin, the wretched doll might find her way back to the bedroom once more without the aid of human hands. At a churning subconscious level, where the darkest dreams and nightmares dwell, Chazzy didn’t want to risk or even consider that possibility.

This day really had turned out like the business end of smallpox.

 

3

Cloud built during the evening and when Chazzy turned in for the night she found that dense drizzle had begun to fall beyond the bedroom window like celestial dandruff. It was a cheerless sight and one that matched her mood. She had a foreboding of more than natural night-time darkness emerging during the coming hours.

          And she was right.

          The red numerals on the bedside clock were showing two thirty-three when Chazzy surfaced with a jolt from a sleep punctuated by rags of restless dreams. Something had disturbed her: some movement that had no place in her bedroom in the dead of night.

          The drizzle had turned to steady rain, pattering against the windowpane like a million centipedes in clogs. It wasn’t this sound, the work of nature, that had aroused Chazzy. She didn’t mind rain. Or wind or even lightning. No, the dread that thumped in her heart now concerned Lela: the thing she’d come to hate and fear. For she believed that’s what had wrenched her from sleep.

          Too scared to move, hoping she’d simply been spooked by a forgotten dream, she lay for a minute. Two minutes.

          Then the doll spoke. In the same creepy, creaky voice as before, but this time uttering something that shouldn’t have been possible, Lela said, ‘Daddy’s going to die.’ The broken springs and grinding gears were mechanical things but somehow they managed to convey not just menace but also a sense of glee as if the doll had become more than the sum of her machine-driven parts.

          Terrified, Chazzy squirmed up the mattress until she was sitting upright, her knees humped beneath the duvet. With a trembling hand she reached out and turned on the bedside light and squinched her eyes in its sudden brightness. Then she stifled a scream. For the doll, instead of sitting on the dressing table, was now perched on the side of the bed less than an arm’s length from where the girl had been sleeping.

          The doll’s gash of a mouth, cold green eyes and gaunt grey face seemed in some indefinable way to hint at mockery, at a wickedness no toy should possess. The spindly, elongated arms dangled like tentacles that on a whim could wrap themselves around a child’s throat.

          Sobbing, Chazzy snatched the doll and flung her away. Lela hit the wall with a soft thud, like wet rags, and fell in a heap by the door.

          ‘What d’you want with me?’ Chazzy whispered. ‘Why don’t you leave me alone? And you aren’t meant to say anything except what Mum told me you could say.’

          The doll, being a mere toy, didn’t answer. Nor did Lela speak again that night although Chazzy remained awake, with the light on, in tense expectation of more witchery.

 

4

Morning arrived with thick mist and grey rain more suited to November than the start of summer. Chazzy made her way to school wearing a crinkly blue anorak that had been bought from an outdoor centre at Llanberis in Snowdonia during a family holiday the previous autumn. The wild mountain air and freedom from care seemed so far away now that desolation cloaked the girl like an icy mantle. Cars, lorries and buses were throwing up muddy globules on this filthy morning, their tyres hissing on the greasy roads like angry serpents that had been trodden on.

Chazzy felt confused and raddled. Should she have told Mum about the impossibility of what had happened during the night? Mum would never believe the doll capable of uttering anything other than the three phrases the thing had been programmed to spew out. She’d say Chazzy had been dreaming, and no one could blame her for that. After all, dolls didn’t come to life. Only, in this case, Lela had.

          The morning lessons passed in a fuzz of inattention that caused Mrs Trickett to speak more sharply to Chazzy than she’d ever done before. Chazzy scarcely heard what the teacher said; hardly even registered the sniggers of Melinda Tomlinson and the usual suspects who cosied up to her. Melinda was in a particularly bitchy mood that morning. Before lessons began, she’d been boasting of her coming birthday party and dictating to her cronies the sort of expensive presents she expected them to deliver.

          At lunchtime, instead of drifting off to the school canteen, Chazzy sat in the empty classroom pondering the implausibilities of what she’d experienced. Perhaps it really had been no more than a dream. But no, seductive though that argument was, it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. This morning, the cursed doll had remained where Chazzy had flung her in the early hours. That was a fact, not a dream. And the words Lela had uttered: they’d been robotic in a cranky way but they were clear enough, not to be confused with ‘I’m called Lela’, ‘Hello Mummy’, or ‘I’m hungry’. Yet logic, and Chazelle prided herself on being blessed with a fair dose of it, suggested that this particular conundrum went beyond the range of implausibility and entered the territory of impossibility.

          So the lunch hour passed and the kids returned to class for the first of two periods of English. This was a subject in which Chazzy normally excelled but now she had to endure more reproaches from Mrs Trickett.

          ‘Pull yourself together, girl,’ Mrs Trickett scolded. A spindly, bespectacled woman with a stick-like nose, she resembled most people’s idea of the archetypal spinster. Indeed, Melanie Tomlinson spread it about on what she termed ‘the best authority’ that Mrs Trickett had never allowed the unfortunate Mr Trickett to get into her knickers.

          It was midway through the second period that the classroom door opened and Mrs Green, the headteacher, entered. Chazzy frowned as the head tiptoed across to the teacher’s desk as if treading through something from the rear end of a giraffe. Mrs Green usually left the teachers to get on with their work without imposing herself on them outside the staffroom. Now as she and Mrs Trickett went into a huddle, an expectant hush fell over the twenty-three students sitting behind their desks.

          Icy fingers ran up and down Chazzy’s spine, freezing her marrow, as the eyes of the two women picked her out with what could only be described as expressions of mega tragedy.

          ‘Chazelle, will you come with me and Mrs Trickett, please?’ Mrs Green said. ‘The rest of you, get on with your work and if I hear a sound from this classroom there’ll be trouble.’

          Chazzy knew without needing to have it broadcast in deafening decibels what this was all about.

          In the corridor, Mrs Green took her hand and Mrs Trickett put a consoling arm around her shoulder.

          ‘Now then, Chazelle, I want you to prepare yourself for a shock,’ Mrs Green said. ‘Your mother’s in my office. She’ll explain things that are far better coming from her than from me.’

          As they made their way to the head’s office, Chazzy found a baneful mantra running through her mind. The doll. Lela. The doll. Lela.

          She found her mother in tears. Sobbing, in fact, a damp handkerchief clutched in her hand. She looked ancient, haggard, as worn as a statue ruined by acid rain.

          ‘My secretary’s fetching a pot of tea,’ Mrs Green said in sepulchral tones. ‘And of course Mrs Trickett and I are here for you both. We’ll do whatever we can.’

          Mum had been sitting on the visitors’ side of Mrs Green’s desk but now she stood up, staggered forward and hugged Chazzy.

          ‘Dad’s dead isn’t he?’ Chazzy said. She felt she were suffocating yet at the same time experiencing a strange calmness, as if an inevitability had been released at last.

          Mum nodded, sniffing, nose oozing greasy snot. ‘It was a heart attack. At work. He’d been under incredible pressure to do more and more – I’m sure that’s what caused it. He tried to keep fit but the body can stand only so much stress.’

          ‘Mum, you won’t believe this but I knew it was going to happen,’ Chazzy said.

          ‘Don’t be silly. How could you?’

          ‘Lela told me. During the night – she said “Daddy’s going to die.”’

          Mum hugged her tighter. ‘You had a nasty dream, that’s all. None of us could possibly know this would happen.’

          Which was pretty much what Chazzy had expected her to say.

          Rain lashed the window, washing down in cascades. Chazzy felt her own heart were flooded too, with dread and anger. She wanted to scream, to yell, to rage at the malevolence that had entered their lives.

          Instead she buried her face in her mother’s shoulder and wept.

 

5

Chazzy and her mother slept little that night and neither of them went to bed. Chazzy dozed on the sofa and her mother in one of the squashy armchairs that she and Alec had bought in a sale at Price’s bargain-basement furniture shop so long ago. She choked up now, perhaps recalling how proud they’d been on saving enough money to replace the old suite that they’d been given as a wedding present by Alec’s parents.

Mum and daughter were joined on that harrowing night by Alec’s distraught widowed mother, Trudy, who occupied the other armchair. Chazzy thought that Grandma Trudy, by far the favourite of her two grandmothers, probably didn’t sleep a wink. At any rate the elderly lady was awake and grieving silently every time Chazzy surfaced from her brief dozes.

If Chazzy hadn’t been so distressed herself, she would have attempted to comfort Grandma Trudy. In good times the pair had spent hours together, Chazzy enjoying her grandmother’s fabulous tales of pixies, elves, pirates and ghosts. Grandma Trudy always had a treasury of such stories, and she and Chazzy doted on each other. Ramrod-straight, brisk, belying her sixty-odd years, Grandma Trudy loved high-octane thrills and anything that gave her an adrenaline rush. Even at this harrowing time she epitomised stolidity but Chazzy sensed the wretchedness enveloping her heart.

Morning seeped in at last. A dismal morning it was, thoroughly matching the mood of Chazzy and the two adults. Lowering cloud, as heavy as a diseased bladder, hung over the town, blowing dingy drizzle on a callous wind.

‘Go and change into fresh things, Chazelle, while your grandma and I get breakfast ready,’ Mum said when it became obvious that none of them would manage any more sleep.

Chazzy was still wearing her school uniform. Her blouse and trousers had become crumpled and creased, and she felt as if ladlesful of sweat coated her body. So she stumped upstairs obediently and washed herself in the bathroom before, with monumental reluctance, entering her bedroom where the doll remained in a heap by the door. Chazzy avoided glancing at the loathsome object.

Determined to spend no longer in the bedroom than necessity dictated, she dragged a pair of blue jeans from her wardrobe and was just plucking a turquoise sweatshirt from a drawer in the dressing table when the thing happened that she’d dreaded.

The doll spoke.

Chazzy knew it was about to happen even before the words emerged. A chirring, rasping sound emerged from the bundle by the door, then Lela said with a distinctness that belied her broken springs and rusted gears, ‘Grandma Trudy’s going to die.’

Leaping back, dropping the fresh clothes and reacting as if stung by a near-lethal dose of electricity, Chazzy screamed, ‘No, you bastard! Shut the fuck up and leave us alone!’

Sobbing, feeling she were coming apart in scorching fragments, she bolted from the room. As she did so she heard the doll emit an oleaginous, creaky laugh.

Less than a minute later, bawling and blubbing like a toddler who’d witnessed horrors beyond comprehension, Chazzy erupted into the kitchen. Her mother and grandmother turned, as startled as if the roof had fallen in.

‘Good God, Chazelle, whatever’s the matter?’ Mum asked, almost dropping the kettle.

‘It’s that voodoo doll Lela,’ Chazzy yelled. ‘She says Grandma Trudy’s going to die.’

Mum and Grandma Trudy exchanged alarmed glances as Chazzy hugged them both, drawing them into a tight embrace.

‘The poor girl’s hysterical with grief,’ Grandma Trudy said, as distressed as if she’d experienced the horror herself.

‘No I’m not,’ Chazzy insisted, her throat choked with snot and saliva. ‘The doll talks to me when I’m on my own and she says terrible things. She told me Dad was going to die and now she says you are too, Grandma.’

‘Calm down, Chazelle – your grandma isn’t going to die,’ Mum said.

‘Of course I’m not,’ Grandma Trudy declared. ‘I’m as healthy and strong as an ox. We’re all upset about your dad, Chazzy, and that’s to be expected. Imagination’s a fine thing when it creates magic but sometimes, at times of sorrow like this, it can conjure nasty thoughts and illusions.’

‘But I tell you Lela really talks – she’s cursed.’ Chazzy stamped her foot and realised how foolish and immature that must seem coming from a twelve-year-old girl. She didn’t want to appear childish, not at her age; she wanted only to convince Mum and Grandma Trudy that what she’d experienced was real, not the ravings of a lunatic with crazily firing synapses in the brain.

          ‘You’ll feel better after you’ve had some breakfast,’ Mum said, which infuriated Chazzy so much that she felt like hitting out at anyone and anything within reach.

          Clenching her fists, rigid with tension but determined to appear calm and rational, she said, ‘You’ve got to believe me. Lela’s haunted or cursed or something and she’s evil.’

          ‘Please, Chazelle . . .’ Mum began.

          ‘And don’t call me that!’ Chazzy yelled.

          ‘I’m sorry, pet. I know you like being called Chazzy and I’ll try to remember. But you must see we’re all upset and you’re only making things worse for me and your grandma as well as for yourself. Of course you were close to your dad and he adored you, but this talk of a haunted doll is just foolish. Surely you understand that?’

          Beyond the kitchen window, sycamores shivered and pampas grass bent almost double in a strengthening wind that rumbled around the house like a beast striving to find a way in. It was a bleak scene but compared to the iciness in Chazzy’s heart it could have been the very apotheosis of summer.

          Realising that nothing she said would convince Mum or Grandma Trudy of the truth, Chazzy collapsed inwardly. It was as if a great stultifying weariness and defeat settled on her, draining her strength and gobbling her willpower like a bug-eyed leviathan that fed on human emotion.

          Little was said after that. The three ate breakfast in near silence, grief and confusion creating an awkward distance between them. Chazzy scarcely noticed the scrambled egg, the toast and marmalade that Mum served up. She didn’t even think much about Lela. It was as if unawareness as dense as sodden cotton wool now filled her skull.

          ‘I’d better go home and change into fresh clothes,’ Grandma Trudy said at last, carrying her plate from the breakfast bar. ‘But we need to be together so I’ll come straight back. That is, if dear old Gertie’ll start up. She’s on her last legs, I think.’ Gertie was her ancient Ford Fiesta, a rattletrap of a vehicle that burned almost as much oil as petrol and frequently broke down in the most ill-chosen places and usually in the direst weather. In happier times, Grandma Trudy joked that she had a hotline to both the AA and RAC and was on first-name terms with the personnel of both those motoring organisations.

          Chazzy continued to sit at the breakfast bar, staring blankly at the mottled Formica top. At the periphery of consciousness she knew that Mum and Grandma Trudy were worrying about her, which raised guilt in her heart as she knew they already had far too much to care about without her adding to their woes. But still she sat as Grandma Trudy and Mum left the kitchen. A minute or two later she heard Gertie’s engine grumping to itself, the starter motor and battery struggling to elicit a response from the car’s innards. Eventually the engine fired, chugging and chuntering, and Grandma Trudy set off.

          On returning to the kitchen, Mum said, ‘You’re still in your school uniform, Chazelle. Sorry, I mean Chazzy. You’d better get changed so you’ll be fresh when your grandmother gets back.’

          ‘I won’t go into the bedroom on my own,’ Chazzy said. ‘Not while Lela’s there.’

          ‘That wretched doll has a lot to answer for. You’ve fixated on something unhealthy. Never mind, we’ll go upstairs together.’

          Even then it required all of Chazzy’s resolution to follow her mother upstairs.

          And it didn’t surprise her to find that Lela had now returned to the dressing table, all gangly legs and arms, sitting with her back to the mirror, staring with cold indifference into a room that had become polluted by her presence.

          Once changed, Chazzy accompanied her mother downstairs and together they wept for Dad and, in Chazzy’s case, for what she feared was about to happen next.

          And happen it did.

          When Grandma Trudy failed to return after two hours, Mum began to grow worried. A third hour passed and she phoned Trudy’s house. The ring tone went on and on. No answer.

          ‘Perhaps she’s on her way back,’ Mum said with a degree of tension that spoke of an ugly foreboding.

          It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon when a police car pulled up at the door. Chazzy, standing at the window, knew what was about to happen. Not the details, just the essence of what was to enfold in the next few minutes. She felt as hollow as if a great cosmic purgative had scoured her insides.

          Two police officers entered the house: a man with a cherry nose and a woman with kind eyes and a frizz of hair wisping from beneath her hat.

          Gertie’s engine had blown up in Dove Street, the main thoroughfare through town, and the car had come to a grinding stop. A tailgating lorry travelling behind, far too close for safety, ploughed into the back of the vehicle.

          Grandma Trudy hadn’t stood a chance.

 

6

Relatives and friends called at the house, all full of condolences and exclamations of disbelief about tragedy having struck twice in successive days. When Chazzy tried to tell them that evil had been visited on the family in the form of a deformed doll, they tutted and sympathised with her mother, saying they realised what a shocking psychological impact these deaths must be having on the girl.

          Even after what had happened, Chazzy’s mother refused to countenance the idea that a doll could be imbued with malevolence. The capacity to produce monstrous events wasn’t in the gift of an inanimate toy, she insisted. Chazzy had been overwrought and only imagined the talking doll. As for the rest, coincidences happened all the time and Trudy ought never to have trusted in that blasted car: a death trap if ever there’d been one.

          Chazzy escaped from all the tears, the condolences and the hushed words of solace and reminiscence. Resolute, enraged rather than fearful, she went to her bedroom, snatched the doll with a hatred previously alien to her nature and in a demonic fury she ripped off its head and limbs. As she did so, the doll spoke again, possibly for the last time. That same grating, rusting rasp. The thing said, ‘You’ll be sorry.’

          ‘Bollocks to that and fuck you,’ Chazzy responded. She meant to ensure that never again could the doll spread its malignant tentacles into the life of her family.

Unseen by friends and relations, who were too preoccupied by their own concerns to wonder what she was doing, she carried the doll in its various pieces out to the garden where Dad used to burn rubbish in a brazier. Chazzy dumped Lela’s remains in there, fetched some paraffin from the shed, soaked the doll in the stuff and set it alight.

The thing burned with a putrid odour like rotten eggs. The flames were purple and blue, immolating the plastic and fake hair and gingham, reducing it all to ashes.

‘May you rot in a snake pit of your own wickedness,’ Chazzy said. ‘Now go to Hell.’

          She knew that Mrs Penton, the neighbourhood gossip who lived next door, was watching this procedure through her kitchen window. Mrs Penton never missed anything that happened in the avenue and was given to putting her own malicious spin on even the most innocuous things. God knew what she’d make of this. Chazzy didn’t give a tuppeny damn. Mrs Penton could go to the devil in a horse-drawn hearse for all she cared.

          There was no sense of triumph in Chazzy’s step or her bearing as she returned to the mournful gathering in the house. Too much tragedy had been wrought for even a grain of satisfaction to prevail.

          Mum was telling Auntie Eileen and Uncle Bob that there’d be a joint funeral for Alec and Trudy. Mother and son would be laid to rest together in Mount Pleasant Burial Ground: one of those modern cemeteries with lots of trees and acres of grass where the dead lay below stone plaques set into the manicured lawns. No monumental weeping angels or granite headstones or lichen-stained crosses there. Mount Pleasant was a memory storehouse of lives well lived, a place of reflection, rather than a dismal and morbid wasteland of mourning.

          The relatives and friends finally dispersed, leaving Chazzy alone with her mother. Chazzy felt washed out, grainy-eyed from weeping, defeated. The jinx doll had gone but the thing had left immeasurable sorrow as its legacy. Dad and Grandma Trudy, two of the lights of Chazzy’s life, the people she revered and whose words she had accepted as gospel, were gone beyond recall and she blamed herself. If only she’d never discovered that hideous thing in the attic, both Dad and Grandma Trudy would still be alive, the family would be intact and there’d be no blight to confront for years to come. And Chazzy was under no illusion: that blight really would last for years. In fact she doubted she’d ever cease to condemn herself for the cataclysm she’d unleashed. As for Mum, she had been robbed of the man to whom she’d been devoted and with whom she had expected to remain happily united for another forty years or more.

          The long summer day dwindled to a late twilight, the mantle of night not falling until after ten o’clock. It was nearer eleven when Chazzy and Mum surrendered to exhaustion and made their way to bed.

          ‘Wrecked though I am, I doubt I’ll get any sleep,’ Mum said.

          ‘I’m sorry, Mum – I truly am,’ Chazzy said.

          Her mother probably thought she was merely sympathising for the coming insomnia, but that wasn’t what Chazzy had meant.

          Mother and daughter parted on the landing, to go to their respective bedrooms.

          Chazzy opened the door of her room, turned on the light . . . and found Lela sitting on the dressing table. The doll’s gash of mouth seemed to be smirking as if in mockery of Chazzy, or perhaps in gloating glee at Lela’s own indestructibility.

          Girl and doll spent what seemed like aeons staring at each other. Chazzy didn’t feel scared, merely defeated. Weary of a battle lost.

          She backed out on to the landing, muscles and sinews weighed as if with sacks of lead. She went to her mother’s bedroom and said, ‘Mum, can I sleep in here with you tonight?’

          Mum’s look of sympathy struck like a stiletto to Chazzy’s heart. ‘Of course you can, Chazzy. I can understand you not wanting to be on your own.’

          I wouldn’t be on my own – that’s the trouble, Chazzy thought.

          Outside, a cold wind like something out of December, buffeted the window as if a malign entity were trying to gain entry.

 

6

Some of Chazzy’s classmates expressed sympathy and strove to be kind to her, but the majority refrained from saying anything. They were too afraid of reprisals from Melinda Tomlinson. That girl, the school bully, spoke to Chazzy only once. She said, ‘It’s a pity it wasn’t you that croaked, you little shit. And if you expect me to invite you to my party tomorrow because I feel sorry for you, there’s more chance of Ma Trickett handing out dildos to give us all a thrill.’

          Chazzy had called at Murrell’s newsagent’s shop on her way to school to buy a birthday card for Melinda. She also had a special gift for her tormentor wrapped in her satchel and ready for delivery.

          Feigning a migraine, Chazzy skipped the last lesson of the day. She left the school and threaded her way through Torrington Terrace and Bury Drive, places in the best end of town, and reached number nineteen Broad View just after three o’clock. This was Melinda’s home. It was a strange place: something that looked like a bungalow that decided to become a house, then changed its mind halfway through.

          Chazzy left the unsigned card and the gift on Melinda’s doorstep. She didn’t know what Melinda’s reaction would be on opening the gaily-wrapped package and finding inside it a weird doll with a thin-lipped gash of mouth, gaunt grey face and eyes as green and cold as winter bracken. No, Chazzy didn’t know what the reaction would be but she could guess. Melinda would probably express disgust and chuck the repulsive thing in her dustbin. Only, she might find she couldn’t get rid of Lela so easily.

          Satisfied but strangely lacking any sense of triumph, Chazzy made her way home.

          ‘You’re a bit early,’ Mum said.

          ‘I had a headache so Mrs Trickett told me to come home,’ Chazzy replied.

          ‘How are you now? You shouldn’t have turned into school today, not while you’re so upset for your dad and grandma.’

          ‘I’m fine. Really. I think I’ll go upstairs and get my homework done.’

          The house seemed unnaturally still, as if bricks, mortar and plaster could collectively embody lungs and heartbeats. Only this house now had no heart.

          On the landing, Chazzy was about to open her bedroom door when a presentiment of something unhealthy awaiting her on the other side descended like dust from the ceiling. Like that dust in the attic where the tatty suitcase still lay.

          Was it movement she heard from the bedroom? Movement or mere imagination?

          Her hand had been hovering on the handle of the door. Now it fell to her side.

          Turning, backing away, she felt like a helpless and lost little girl as she called downstairs, ‘Hello Mummy – I’m hungry.’

 

 

Carl Hughes is an award-winning writer whose fiction and non-fiction has been published in newspapers, anthologies and magazines worldwide. He has also won many writing competitions and has worked for the national and provincial press in his own country, as well as for television and radio. He lives in the county of Norfolk, England, with wife Linda and specialises in writing horror, the offbeat and bizarre. More of his stories can be read in ‘Lester’s Locket & Other Horrors’, ‘That’s Your Funeral & Other Horrors’, among other ebooks available for the Kindle and other ebook readers.