THE ROOM WAS STACKED FLOOR to ceiling with antique dolls. It was the summer of my senior year of high school. Outside, August summer heat dissipated like mist off the sidewalk. Elm trees kneeled over the back porch of the small mansion. Their leaves were tinged with red and orange, a reminder. September was nearby.
I was wildly stoned, mouth agape in the doorframe of a stranger’s house, horrified at the sea of small limbs. I was lost. My friends and I had just sailed a bass boat across the Kanawha River. We were freezing, teeth full of dead bugs. The boys had all acted impressed, clapping the owner of the boat’s back. They told him how “sweet that ride was.” I nodded, silent. I couldn’t tell if it was the half edible I’d eaten, but things didn’t seem to be going my way. I was visibly twitchy. Testosterone threatened to overwhelm my already small personal bubble. The only girl present out of six almost-men, I pretended busy by rapid-fire texting Regan, one of my two girlfriends, both of which were smart enough to decline the invitation to get stoned and visit Kanawha City without any real plan. I started dialing Regan when her number showed up as an incoming call. I didn’t give it time to ring.
“Regan,” I hissed. “I’m freaking out.”
“Why are you whispering?” she asked me, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
I cupped my hand to my mouth. The owner of the ornate river house I was stumbling around tunnel-visioned stood a few feet away from me. Tall windows with a view of the river were dotted with rain. Mahogany and royal red seemed to stretch from wall to wall. The air smelled like wealth: leather and wood shavings. I didn’t belong here. But despite my level of fucked-upness, I still knew it was probably best to not insult the host.
“You have to get me out of here,” I whispered. “This guy or his mom or someone has a legit scary doll collection.”
I wandered further out of sight. The boys had gathered around a black couch set in an open living room. An oriental rug in the middle. Sleek black lamps stood on either end of the room like watchdogs. The boys examined a bottle of brandy that looked like it cost more than each of our lives combined. I grimaced.
Out of eyeshot, I heard the guys discussing how to get Game of Thrones on the big screen. They seemed to be having trouble. Probably a side effect of the weed.
“They’re trying to watch TV, Regan. They want to stay. Oh, god.” My chest constricted.
“Tell them you’re sick or something,” she offered.
I imagined her painting her nails, flipping through the newest issue of Vogue. She was probably on her beige sunken couch, That 70’s Show on loop, one of her father’s seven cats curled at her feet. I imagined it was warm. I imagined the smell I’d come to recognize as home: litter box dust, flowery shaving cream, underdone toast. I imagined a cup of cocoa filming over on the floor next to her. Cocoa sounded so good. And bagels. Regan’s house always had bagels. Are you eating a bagel? I wanted to ask.
“You know they don’t listen to me,” I cried. “I don’t count.”
Someone behind me laughed. They sounded like they were straining. Maybe someone else felt uncomfortable, too. I held out for hope.
The sound of rain ripped wind rapped against the house’s siding. Silently I slipped past them, back to the room of animated doll sets. Even they seemed better company than the group I’d come with. Pushing the door open slightly, I peered in. The air carried the slight smell of mothballs or a cold basement. There must have been over two hundred of them. The shelves themselves were hidden beneath limp girl legs. The floor, I assume wooden, was flooded with stacked bodies. Pearl white prom dresses. Lavender satin gloves. A cotton red bandana. They all seemed to be facing the same way, wearing the same placated smile.
“Yeah, my mom’s been collecting them since she was young,” a voice ventured. The host was angled towards me, hands busy with electronics. “She cleans them up, makes their outfits sometimes. You know, refurbishes them?”
They were pretty and neat, expensive and well-taken care of. Their faces were animated, cheeks rosy. Almost life-like. It was like staring into a mountain of gingham and lace. Trying to focus on one face was difficult with their bodies so close together, pressed so tightly on top of one another. Maybe I was just high, but the room felt thick with their presence. I was afraid to breathe and drain their limited supply of oxygen. All struggling to be seen while holding a pose they’d practiced in the dark next to their sisters. One boot-laced cowgirl’s lips lifted in a slight smirk. A plantation daughter in a blue bonnet held her hands delicately in her lap. A pretty set of blonde twins looked down on me from a top shelf, heads tilted together, as if by mere proximity, they shared a secret thought. As if recognizing a familiar face.
The plan was never to take time off from school. My senior year of college, I applied to a few graduate programs, mostly in screenwriting. I figured the hours I spent memorizing scenes and dialogue from critically acclaimed movies would translate into knowing how to recreate them myself. It didn’t. I failed to get into a single university. My whole life had been spent in an academic bubble in which I thrived and was now expected to live outside, doing what? In elementary school I tested into the gifted program. I graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA. Through college I made the Dean’s List every semester, earned highest honors. I worked multiple jobs. I maintained so-so personal relationships and a somewhat healthy body. I was under the impression that I was untouchable. My future was spelled out in certainty until it wasn’t.
I hastily applied for waitressing jobs across Morgantown after receiving my last rejection letter and found myself mid-May hosting at a local tavern, ashamed and totally lost. My college friends all moved back to their respective homes or desk jobs across the country. I moved onto a street where chained dogs yelped into the night after their absent owners, where a concrete bridge overlooked stripped mattresses and spent syringes. Coal trucks cracked daily against the pothole lined main road. A mechanical rooster. Ramshackle houses lined the street like crooked teeth, a shadow of what was clearly once a stretch of purposefully built and maintained homes. Paint chipped from their sidings as if the wood had grown weary of itself, had given up the false hope that in time, attention would translate to healing.
The house I’d signed a lease for was already occupied by a girl who decorated it with self-portraits and Asian antiques she covered in tie-dye paint. My bathroom hallway walls, she was pleased to inform me, she’d just redone in taped, metallic wrapping paper. But the rent was cheap, my roommate perpetually AWOL, and I needed to save up so I could book it to the closest city as soon as possible to start my real life.
Despite what could only be described nicely as a bad attitude, I quickly became friends with my food service coworkers. I found new patterns of living that I adapted to easily. Wake up late. Go to work. Stay out past two. Rinse and repeat. My coworkers and I became something of a clan—cooking meals together and consuming large bottles of cheap wine and promotional vodka left for the bar to sample. Cocaine was recreationally doled out late at night before attending music venues which we stayed at until closing. These people, by and large, were in the same predicament I was: uncertain of where they were going next, but sure that they would get there.
And I was happy for the distraction their company afforded me. Under the guise of liquor and coke, control felt within my reach. I chose the spins. I chose twelve-hour long hangovers. I chose busted knees and elbows from biting curbs. Tending to a scuffed-up arm was easier than working on my cover letter. When I dropped to the ground of a venue, music throbbing around me, it felt earned. I could watch the things I put in my body lead me to the edge of recklessness. But I couldn’t make sense of the errors I’d made to get to these parties in the first place.
They were happy to be a part of this thing, this family of washed up college graduates, parents, soon-to-be professionals. And I was, too. They made me feel a little less worthless. Like my derailment from the star-studded career track was normal. Healthy, even. Over time, though, I found myself questioning just exactly what I was doing with my life. What if I didn’t get into graduate school this round of applications? What if I never made it out of West Virginia? Waitressing, I reasoned, was acceptable, but only for the young and beautiful. At twenty-one, I felt somewhat in the clear. But during some of those late nights in my friend’s bathrooms, I held confession. I’d lean in close to the mirror, pull at my skin. I’d press my forehead to the glass. I’d watch my breath fog up near my mouth and quickly dissipate. How much longer did I have before my opportunities were spent? I wondered. The time to be someone was now.
Shrieks of glee, fucked-up fumbling, and a warped bass always seemed to be playing from just outside my closed door. Somewhere, there was a half-finished bottle of liquor with my name on it. The bottom seemed so far away. The mirrors I religiously tended to were always covered in someone else’s prints. I struggled to make out my reflection.
I search for scary doll collections online. I find Pinterest boards of dead-looking little girls, occasional YouTube clips. I find Buzzfeed articles about recent horror movies. I discover Pollocks Museum. Lines of colorful antiques can be seen through their front windows, antique figurines filling the photo’s frame. The museum sits along the strip on Scala Street in London, England. Pollock’s has been around since the 1850’s. They sell toys and prints for children and adults alike. It’s many rooms offer up a range of childhood memorabilia: trains, board games, and stuffed animals all call this place home. Museumgoers and tourists journey through the store, reveling at the wide-reaching collection. That is, until they reach one of their last stops: the doll room. Many adults cite feelings of unease and avoid it altogether, choosing rather to trek through the entire museum to leave out the front door rather than the closer back entrance. One of the exhibit’s workers, Ken Hoyt, states that many speak vaguely but strongly about the room.
“‘Oh, I’m scared of dolls’, they offer. Or, ‘I can’t look at those, I hate them.’” One of the most commonly said things about the room and its inhabitants, though, is that it is undeniably, irrevocably creepy. This, Smithsonian writer Linda McRobbie claims, “Is a different emotional state altogether.”
Creepiness, I read, has its roots in uncertainty. And uncertainty, researchers state, can quite literally be paralyzing. In the middle of the night, if one hears a sound, many find themselves strapped to their bed. Alert, but too terrified to move and leave their situation. At a club, if a gun goes off, people duck. They freeze. When we hear a door slam, most of our instincts are to jolt and tense up. We do not sprint towards the sound.
As a species, humans are planners. The risk of being out of control is one many don’t enjoy entertaining. We like to believe we run our own lives. That we’re autonomous, in charge of our fates. Reconciling with the fact that this is often untrue isn’t easy. Vulnerability reveals itself with tragedy. Powerlessness manifests when things are taken without consent. The sensation of feeling as if some omnipotent force pulls our metaphorical strings is unnerving. Nobody likes being kept in the dark.
I was almost running by the time the group of men behind me started laughing. It was late. Around midnight. The air was just losing its warmth. The dark August sky was dotted with stars. Crossing the South Park bridge had never given me pause in the two years I’d spent going over it, day or night. And I was feeling good. I’d just left a local music venue with my friends. I’d had a few beers, danced. About a quarter of the way over the bridge, a group of five or so college-aged guys got on it, too. In the distance, sirens wailed.
“Hey,” one yelled. “Where you going, pretty?”
I kept my head down. I was used to being cat called. Guys, though sometimes inappropriate, are normally harmless.
“I love that dress,” one yelled after me. “Come here.” They laughed between themselves. Their voices seemed to grow. The trees at the end of the bridge trembled. Hurry. I picked up the pace. My hands shook.
“Look at that, she’s trying to run,” someone said. His inflection, as if addressing a dog.
And then I was sprinting, tears running down my face. I imagined: a series of strong hands gripping my wrists, pulling apart my legs. I imagined their bodies over me, hot breath on my neck. I imagined them pinning back my arms. Butterfly wings on cork. Skin cells slipped in a vial. Preserved beauty.
My chest tightened. There would be an outline of fingernails I’d discover later dug into the fists I’d not realized making. I was suddenly grateful for my brief stint on my high school track team. I flew past the townie dive bar, past people on the street. I didn’t look back. I reached my front door and fumbled with my keys. I remembered: my ex-boyfriend’s friend. Remembered: soft hands on my ankles, the open bottle of lubricant. The open window, quiet sunshine. The walls that I raged against like high tide. I really thought I could escape. Remembered: so little. Remembered: laying there, frozen, eyes half-open, drunk and exhausted. Limp. Like a doll. Remembered: being twenty-two years old with nothing truly bad to tie myself to. Remembered: believing, once, that I was invincible.
I cradled my newly-purchased pepper spray, feeling useless. Slumped against the door, I struggled to breathe. I sat there for what felt like a long time. Streetlights slipped in through my windows like concerned eyes. My living room, blue-hued and empty. I held my head in my hands. My muscles tight with unspent energy, but unable to hold me up. With both arms wrapped tightly around my face, I screamed.
We didn’t have an attic or basement. Most of our playthings just passed from one daughter to the next. Memorabilia was hidden beneath beds, in wardrobes. The blue Furby locked in a hope chest, gurgling beneath layers of sheets. The pogo stick crammed behind stacked suitcases. Pieces of our physical histories took up a lot of space. They spoke to us from behind closed doors, in the dark of our rooms. Inside a half-opened closet, their outlines could be made out to be anything. A forgotten doll likens to a looming presence, waiting for the signal of closed eyes to come to life. The things we and our families once loved so deeply seem to hold their own kind of power. Their button eyes staring at us from the floor a subtle reminder that we, too, are as fragile as our toys. That we can be used and left behind.
There was something in the attic. Muffled sounds of movement echoed above me. The moon’s shadow sliced through my curtains while cars purred quietly past my house. I’d been in bed for a couple of hours struggling to fall asleep, which had lately become elusive. My pink quilt was wrapped tightly around my legs and tucked under my feet. My heartbeat felt audible. I felt around for the pepper spray and knife I’d started sleeping with, planning how I would strike when the intruder eventually came for me. I laid there paralyzed for beat longer before a loud crash came from upstairs. I grabbed my phone and texted my friend Bryce. I know this sounds crazy, but I think there’s someone in the house, I said. Please come.
My room was on the second story of our house, my bed positioned close to a large window. I took my key and tied it to a dum-dum and threw it out for Bryce to find. When the front door opened a few minutes later, I flew down the stairs. I ran straight into his arms, breathing a sigh of relief. He ran his hand over my hair and kissed my forehead.
“Hey, hey,” he said. “You’re okay. Let’s see what’s going on.”
He started in the basement, wielding his phone flashlight like a coal miner in the dark. The house was large, too big for two college-aged girls. With that much room, someone could hide between the three floors for hours. Days. My roommate had done what she could to fill the space with her bizzaro art and statues. I wondered how she walked through these halls at night, fearless. By the time Bryce got to the second story, my mood had shifted to hot embarrassment.
“I’m an idiot,” I offered. “I’m sorry. Thank you for coming, though.”
“Of course,” he said. “You know I’m happy to do it.”
We stood in the doorway to my room, the darkness just outside the window no longer something to be afraid of. Then, the patter of feet echoed above us. My eyes widened.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Bryce. He looked at me, brow furrowed.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s in the attic.”
I nodded my head towards the door that leads up to the third floor. “You check,” I told him. He twisted the knob and stepped back. My cats exploded from behind the closed door like bottle rockets.
“What the actual fuck,” I said. “I hate them right now.”
Bryce laughed easily. “See? No big deal.” he reassured me.
“I wonder how long they were stuck there.” I shook my head. “I can’t believe it,” I replied. “At least I wasn’t just hearing things.” I brushed my hair from my eyes and sighed.
“Thank god there was something there.”
Six years old. West Virginia. I was shuffling my mother’s socks around her dresser drawer when I came across a porcelain Mammy doll. I was in elementary school. I was curious. I, like many children, spent hours devoted to excavating my parent’s histories in the hopes of better understanding myself. I’d found stained love letters my parents had written and exchanged in cartons kept under their bed. A tiny spoon collection, yearbooks stuffed with photos, friendship bracelets, and childhood pet dog clippings, and a Ziploc of baseball cards were all unearthed by my curiosity. I marveled at these small treasures, the process of finding them almost magical. They felt like tokens into another uninhabitable world. Binoculars into the hidden lives of my parents. These bits of memorabilia were clues into creating a timeline that led to my own life. With them, I made meaning.
But the Mammy doll was different. She was tucked in the furthest and deepest corner of my mother’s sock drawer. She was kept in a plastic bag. She wore a white bonnet and apron against a red checkered dress. Her face was dark porcelain, but her body was soft and frail, like a poorly stuffed pillow. She had no legs and her arms hung lifelessly at her sides. Lifting her from beneath the layer of stockings, my stomach dropped. I looked around before slowly pulling her out of her sheath. Her cheeks were discolored with stains of age and the material for her dress was thin. She was smiling serenely, her eyes wide open but aimless. Holding her, I waited for the familiar sensation of marvel to manifest. But her eyes stayed glossy and empty. She did not feel like a part of my history I wanted to unearth, but a dark, quiet secret that needed to be buried deeper than the twelve-inch drawer could provide. I realized, looking at her, what it meant to have a smile painted on.
Later, my mother approached me, holding the doll gingerly. She had never brought her out before. I knew that she knew I hand handled her. I cringed, kicking myself for misplacing the sock mounds when returning her to her grave. Getting into trouble over something I didn’t ever care to see again seemed a punishment I knew I would receive but didn’t deserve.
“Did you touch this?” she asked me.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the kitchen table. I looked at the bookshelf filled with my favorites. I looked outside at the thick forest beyond our land, the end of which seemed didn’t exist. I looked everywhere but in my mother’s eyes. I was six. I touched everything.
“Yes,” I replied. “What kind of doll is she?”
“My nana gave her to me when I was little,” she said. “And she’s very fragile. I don’t want you to play with her without me there. Do you understand?”
I looked at the doll wrapped in plastic, her cotton lungs struggling for air, trying to make out any semblance of expression on her face. She didn’t budge. I nodded.
Amanda Gaines is a PhD candidate in creative nonfiction in OSU’s creative writing program. She is the nonfiction editor of Into the Void. Her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction are published or awaiting publication in The Oyez Review, Gravel, Typehouse, The Meadow, Pithead Chapel, The Citron Review, Yemassee, Redivider, New Orleans Review, Southeast Review, and Ninth Letter.