by Hannah Spencer
It was the creepiest thing Craig had ever seen. Just what you’d expect a maiden great-aunt to give a five-year old.
Ellie had silently stared at it in the tangle of wrapping paper until he’d gone to look. He jumped in shock as the doll’s eyes met his and blinked.
It was one of those old-fashioned antique things, with a painted porcelain face and carefully stitched clothes. Its deathly white face was horribly life-like. He shuddered.
‘Wow, that’s nice!’ he found himself saying. ‘You’ll have to write to Auntie Dot and thank her.’
Ellie looked round at him. He was shocked by the emptiness in her eyes. ‘A dolly,’ she said.
‘That’s right. A dolly.’ He plastered a cheery smile on his face. ‘But you’ll have to be careful with it. It’s very fragile, I expect.’
Perhaps he could sell it. It was the last thing he wanted in the house. It had been his aunt’s childhood toy, apparently, stuck in an attic for ninety-odd years, collecting dust and God only knew what else. He shivered as its eyes found his again.
Probably worth a quid or two, more to the point. And God knew he was pretty desperate for the cash.
Ellie turned her eyes back to its face and rocked on her chair. He’d never seen her like this before. The Exorcist came to mind. The doll blinked again.
‘I’ll put it away for now, OK? You can play with it later.’
‘Dolly,’ she answered.
Craig gathered the thing up in its wrapping paper. He almost threw it from him as it seemed to shift under his hands. He couldn’t help but hold it at arm’s length. He glanced back and saw Ellie’s eyes were following him.
He went through into the kitchen but couldn’t think where it would be safe. He couldn’t bear the thought of it sitting on the worktop, its cold eyes boring into his back as he heated his baked beans and microwaved his cut-price chips. He stuck it in the washing machine on top of his dirty underwear where Ellie couldn’t get it. A second later, he shut the machine door on it, cursing himself for a fool as he did so. Hardly responsible parent mode, was it?
In the living room, Ellie seemed to have forgotten about it. She was cross-legged on the threadbare carpet, playing with her technicolour bricks. She grinned up at him. ‘Look, Daddy! I’ve built a house!’
‘That’s great, sweetie. How about we build a whole street now?’
She clapped her hands and giggled as Craig knelt on the floor beside her.
Even by the time they’d arranged a dozen multi-coloured constructions on the floor, he hadn’t quite shaken off the feeling of something stirring in the kitchen behind him.
* * *
It was the quiet scraping that woke him. Craig lay still and listened. Ellie going to the loo? But it didn’t sound like the bathroom door.
It came again. From the floor, in his room. Like a stealthy, unsteady footstep.
He raised himself on his elbow, slid across the bed and looked down. Ice-cold terror crept over him. The doll was slowly stepping towards him. Its empty eyes were on his face. They blinked once.
‘Dolly,’ it said. ‘Dolly.’ It raised its arms as if to be picked up.
Closer now. Closer. Craig couldn’t move. A great weight pinned him to the bed.
A scream tore through the house and he jerked upright, gasping for air. He flung himself from the bed and spun round. The room was empty.
He was in Ellie’s room in a second. ‘What is it, sweetie? Daddy’s here.’
He snapped the light on and wrapped his arms round her trembling body. ‘Was it a nightmare?’
She could barely speak through her sobs, but Craig understood one word with blood-chilling clarity. Dolly.
‘Do you want to sleep with Daddy tonight?’
She sniffed and nodded, beginning to relax. Against all parenting rules, he knew. But...
All he had to do was go into the kitchen and open the washing machine door. Like any sane, grown man would do.
But he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not with his daughter clinging to him like life itself. He was frightened what he would find.
It was an uneasy, sleepless night, although Ellie was soon asleep at his side, blissfully certain that whatever was out there, Daddy would keep it away. Dads were good at that. Sharon, before she’d walked out, had never managed to scare away any of the nightmares.
Eventually he must have fallen asleep. He opened his eyes to daylight. A dirty pigeon was on the window ledge, looking down five storeys as if contemplating suicide. Ellie was gone. He could hear childish voices on the TV.
He lay back, enjoying a moment’s freedom from nightmares and debt collectors and piling bills. Someone shouted in the flat next door. He got up and went into the living room, then stopped in shock.
The TV was off. Ellie was playing with the doll, chattering away to it. He’d never heard her talk to her toys before. He fought an urge to snatch it from her. ‘Ellie, where did you find the doll?’
She didn’t know he’d put it in the washing machine. And she couldn’t open the door anyway. The doll’s eyes blinked slowly.
‘Ellie! How did you get it?’
‘She’s not an it, Daddy. She has a name.’
‘OK, what’s her name?’
What the hell? How had a five-year old dreamed up a name like that?
‘Where did you hear that name, sweetie?’ Craig kept his voice calm and measured.
‘She told me, silly!’
‘She can walk, and talk, and do all sorts of things.’
‘What else did she tell you?’
Ellie looked down and made the doll shuffle across the floor.
‘What like?’ He knew his voice was getting loud.
‘Stop it, Daddy. You’re so cross all the time.’
‘I’m not cross. I’m just—’
He took a breath. The doll was looking at him. It blinked. Took a step forward.
But he was sure Ellie’s hands hadn’t moved.
‘Let’s go to the playground. It’s a lovely day.’
‘No! I want to play with Ophelia.’
‘You can do that later.’
He hated himself for tearing the thing out of her hands. He threw it on the sofa then pulled her crying from the flat.
Nosy Nigel next door was lurking outside his flat, as usual. He always wanted to talk. Sometimes, Craig almost felt like talking back. Not now, though, he couldn’t cope. How are you? How you feeling? Are you sleeping bad? I hear you pacing round half the night. Therapy. Sleeping pills. Anti-depressants. No, no, no.
‘Hi, Nigel. Lovely day. We’re going for a walk.’
He could feel his eyes on them as he tugged Ellie snivelling along the landing towards the stairs.
He pushed her on the swings, bounced with her on the slide, but she didn’t really cheer up. And neither did he.
Such a betrayal. He’d never lost his temper with her. Not once. Not even when Sharon clearing off with lover-boy had slowly cost him his job, his friends, and a whole lot more besides. And now look. All because of a damned stupid doll.
A little boy came up and pulled her away to the slides. A moment later the kid had achieved what he’d failed miserably. Craig watched Ellie’s whooping face as she whizzed down the slopes while he slumped on a picnic bench.
He endured the suspicious looks from the mums at play-school and in the park. Those who spoke to him expressed scandal, sympathy. Occasionally, admiration.
‘How do you cope?’ someone once asked. As a man, she presumably meant. A mere dad. Incapable of the enduring rigours of childcare. He’d tried to avoid the mothers after that.
At last Ellie came back, tired and happy. And he was happy for that. They walked home hand in hand, and he knew everything would work out OK.
But when they got inside the flat, he knew it wouldn’t.
The doll was on the floor. As if it had tried to climb down, but slipped. Ellie ran and picked it up.
‘Ophelia! Where are you hurt?’ She rocked and crooned to it. Craig’s anger surged back.
‘Let me look,’ he said as gently as he could. He held the thing at arm’s length. It blinked at him.
He almost dropped it. That wasn’t Ellie. No way.
He looked down at her. Her face was empty of expression. Her eyes looked black, her face horribly pale against her black hair.
‘Mine. Give her back.’ The toneless words struck ice into his heart.
‘You need your tea. Come and give me a hand.’
‘Give her back.’
‘Later. Tea, then bath, then playtime.’ He went into the kitchen and stuffed the doll in a cupboard — the one with the broken latch, he realised too late — before she could see. He needed a drink. The whisky was on the top shelf, whispering to him.
He couldn’t. He was responsible. Maybe one, later.
‘Daddy, what’s for tea? Fish fingers? Pleeease!’ She hopped in the doorway.
‘Sure thing!’ He was too relieved to deny her. ‘We’ll run your bath while they’re cooking.’
As they left the room, he heard a sound inside the cupboard. As if something had quietly stirred.
* * *
Its movement was more fluid now. More practised. It stepped towards him with confidence. ‘Dolly. Dolly. Dolly.’
Craig couldn’t move. How had it got out of the cupboard? He should have locked it, nailed it shut. Something. Anything.
Screams from Ellie’s room. Louder, more desperate. He couldn’t tear himself from its paralysing stare.
Just a dad, after all. Not cut out for childcare. He’d only meant to have one drink, but he just couldn’t stop himself. Every inadequacy he’d ever felt crippled his mind.
He was drowning in the blackness of its eyes. Open. Shut. Open. Shut. Just a dad. Open. Shut. Dolly. Dolly. The screams filled his mind.
He tore himself from his bed. He didn’t know how he did it. Like wading through treacle, he staggered towards the door. The doll turned towards him. Dolly. It stepped faster.
His bare foot caught something protruding under the bed. His tennis racket. Abandoned for months now. He snatched it up and hammered its edge into the doll.
The porcelain face shattered. Its body crumpled. An empty black eye rolled across the floor towards him. Impossibly, it still managed to blink.
He struck again. Again. He was dimly aware of his snarling. When nothing remained but slivers of porcelain and crumpled clothing, he leant his hands on his knees and gasped. Its long black hair shrouded his feet.
It didn’t have hair.
He lunged for the light switch. He could see it now, the growing dark pool on the floor. Sour whisky surged back into his throat.
‘Daddy, you’re scaring me.’
The voice was behind him, in his bedroom doorway. She was staring up at him. Blood on her face, spots of it on her nightie. Dear God, had he hurt her? He took a step towards her, then spun round. The carpet was bare. No blood. No shattered porcelain.
Something whispered and scratched. Ellie’s eyes turned to the darkness under his bed. He seized her arm and dragged her into the hall.
A loud banging. He couldn’t make out what it was.
‘Sir! Open the door please, sir!’
He fumbled with the lock. He had to get out of here. A sound like nails clawing across the carpet. He jerked the door open, but it caught on the chain.
He stared at the cops on the landing. Three of them. Nosy Nigel peering over their shoulders.
‘Sir? Can you tell us what’s going on? Open the door, please.’
‘Craig, I’m sorry, but I really think you need help.’
He pulled Ellie tighter to him, tried to think of words to deny it, then heard the clawing sound again. Right behind him. Ellie jerked from his grip. Something ice-cold stung across his foot. Red droplets spattered the floor.
He turned and screamed and screamed.
Copyright © 2017 by Hannah Spencer