Act One: 10 years
It started when she was little, under the pier as she waded in the water, her socks and shoes off, her left hand holding the hem of her knee-length dress so the small, lapping waves did not get it wet.
It was blue, with little white flowers. A light blue that changed colour to much darker when wet. This is why she held the hem of her dress, because mother, who was sitting with Marjorie, her three-year-old sister, had taken time out from vaping her lungs into oblivion to shout, “Don’t get your dress wet!”
It was all a question of power. You feared and obeyed those with more power than you. This fact became clear to her at an early age, and thus had she come to the conclusion that, since she did not enjoy the experience of fear, the only sensible course of action in life was to gather power over others and instill it rather than suffer it. She very much enjoyed seeing fear in others. And misery.
It was a matter of timing, then, to evoke the maximum amount of fear and misery. Close enough to be obvious and noticed, yet far enough to require effort to retrieve. That would be the third post in the water, she predicted, and waded out far enough to stand behind the creosote-covered pole, putting it between herself and the beach. With one hand still holding her dress out of the water, she took off her backpack and brought it in front of her chest. While she held the top handle of the backpack with her teeth, she opened the zipper of the outside pocket and brought out a cloth shopping bag. The sun glinted and twinkled off the contents of the bag. After some juggling she held the bag handles with her chin and cradled the bottom with the palm of her free hand.
It wasn’t easy to dump the contents of the bag far enough from the pier’s support, but she managed. Many small splashes and trails of bubbles appeared as the contents sank to the bottom and lay in the sand. They were still visible through the distortion of the small waves, but when she pushed her hand through the water the winking of their transparency in the sunlight all but disappeared.
She then pulled the doll out of the main pocket of her backpack. It was dark-haired but pale of skin, with a bright red dress that should be visible from quite a distance. She placed the doll, carefully, on the surface of the water above where she had dumped the contents of the bag, then stood back to observe it for a moment.
It was one of those dolls that closed its eyes when you lay it down, then opened them again when you made it stand or sit. The doll floated on its back in the water, the gentle waves lapping over its face, making the eyes flutter open and closed, open and closed, like someone trying desperately to wake up, but their eyelids would not cooperate. She imagined looking up at herself from those eyes. She would appear in frames of light between frames of dark, moving like a character in a Kinetoscope. Oh how she wished the doll could have feelings! What naked terror such a vision would bring!
It was no effort at all to sneak beneath the pier to the other side, then wade back to shore and approach them from behind. Mother was dozing. She knew this because the eternal vapour stream of her mouth was without its rising plume, like that of an underwater volcanic vent. Marjorie, eternal victim that she was, buried a toy in the sand with a plastic spoon.
“Where’s little Maggie, then?” she asked the scene, turning her head and eyes this way then that, as if interested in the answer.
Marjorie looked up, squinting at her big sister standing in front of the sun. Marjorie’s eyes narrowed. She was only three, but even so young she had learned her big sister was not to be trusted, especially when she took a neutral or friendly tone.
“Maggie?” Marjorie repeated, as the question worked its way into her awareness. Big sister turned and walked up the beach towards the changing rooms. Now the implications of the question began to flood Marjorie’s thoughts, shrouded in malevolence because big sister was involved.
“Maggie?” said Marjorie, as she began to survey the toys about her and her mother. Maggie was nowhere she could see. Marjorie stood up and looked some more. Maggie was always there. Mother had tried to say “no” to Maggie coming to the beach, explained how the sand and water could damage the doll, but when mother saw the eruption building for this fight, she had relented.
Now, Maggie was gone. Because she was only three, the terror of her missing doll pushed any wariness of sister’s involvement aside.
April woke from a rather dirty dream that left her lady parts feeling warm and tingly. The screaming that woke her, however, moved that tingle up to her stomach, where it became anything but enjoyable.
When the content of the screaming reached her brain, that fuzzy feeling, now masquerading as terror, migrated once more, this time into her head, where it began to set the stage for an earth-shattering migraine.
“Maggie! Maggie is gone! Gone! Maggie!” Marjorie was slapping April’s shoulder with both hands, punctuating random syllables of her words that only found justification in her daughter’s pseudo-mind.
“What… what is it baby?” April asked, hoping to reduce the kid’s eruption and prevent, or at least stave off, a looming migraine.
With her mother’s attention gained, Marjorie turned on her tears and moaned that Maggie was not with them. “She’s gone goned,” she announced, with grammatical creativity.
“Let’s just look around,” April suggested, retrieving her sunglasses from the blanket and putting them over her eyes, which were beginning to see prismatic effects around every bright object. Oh, this migraine was going to be biblical, a world-buster. Still, she looked around their spot in the sand, then took a more exhaustive search when the doll could not be seen. After a few minutes of searching, and as Marjorie’s complaints started running up the decibel scale, April finally stood up and increased her search area. The beach was sparsely populated. It was the middle of the week and the problem child was serving a three-day suspension for trying to set another girl’s pigtail on fire. Pretty fucked up, April had thought to herself as she listened to the Vice Principal drone on about how things could have been much worse than stinking out the classroom and half a head of burnt ends.
It was that three-day suspension which brought them here. Two days with the older brat and the air raid siren had just about done her head in. At the beach she knew she’d get at least some time to relax, and even Marjorie couldn’t howl loud enough to destroy the outdoors. Or so she’d thought.
Then she spotted something red bobbing in the water, just to the side of the pier. Don’t look, she warned herself, but she was too late. Marjorie had seen her gaze and followed it out over the water.
A moment after Marjorie screamed “Maggie!” and ran toward the water, April managed to pull herself out of the migraine setting itself up for a nice long stay in her head, and went after her daughter. For a moment she wondered where her pyromaniac daughter was, and her face darkened with a grimace. Each thump of a foot in the sand caused a tectonic event in the seismograph of pain that was overcoming her mind. The world was fracturing in two with each lumbering stomp.
She caught Marjorie at the waterline. The kid looked ready to run headlong into water above her head, despite the fact she could not swim and had no water wings or inflatable toy to hold onto. The gates of hell opened its maw as April caught Marjorie beneath the arms and lifted her off her feet, because the air raid siren outdid herself and released something that was not so much made of decibels as it was crystal needles that flew from her mouth, lanced their way through April’s temples, pierced her brain, paused for a moment, slowly twisting and turning for full effect, before exploding in a staccato agony that beggared description.
“Maggie!” Marjorie screamed in April’s face, while she struggled to get down from her mother’s grasp. April was tottering on the edge of a migraine blackout, but even so she could see everyone on the beach was now watching the spectacle.
“I will get Maggie,” she managed, surprising herself with how calm and steady her voice sounded. “But you have to stay here, out of the water.” She paused, and when Marjorie did not reply, she added, “Do you hear me? Stay out of the water, or I’ll let Maggie float away.”
It was the tiny nod that set April moving. She put Marjorie on her feet at the waterline then lunged for the stupid doll. All she could think around the darkening cloud of her growing migraine was retrieving Maggie would mean no more screaming, and she would have time to take some medication before getting everyone home. Then, put problem child in charge of Marjorie before cool sheets, shut door, and whisky to take the edge off.
It was easy to reach the doll. The water didn’t even reach to her shorts—though they were short shorts—one can never know when one may meet a live-in babysitter and foot massager. Eyes open, as they say on patrol. She was up to the doll now and took one long, last lunge with her right foot to put her hand within reach.
It was clear something was wrong the moment her foot hit the sand. Before she could become aware of what exactly had happened, her left foot came even with the right and settled on the bottom for balance. This wrong was much slower. She became aware of something sliding with little effort into the meat of the arch of her foot.
When she lifted her left foot to see the glass bottom of a pop bottle attached to the bottom of her foot like a button pinned to a jacket lapel, and the stream of blood dripping into the water, the “wrong” she sensed in her right foot, on which she had placed all her weight, began to describe itself. There appeared to be two such pop bottle bottom buttons in her right foot, and as her ankle acted like a gimbal to keep her upright, she thought she could hear one of the impaled glass shards grinding against the bones in her foot. It felt like a blade grinding over sandstone. It was impossible, but she thought she could hear it, like a sword tip being dragged against a castle wall. The dawning of this podiatrical emergency did not overwhelm the migraine, which was on the verge of bursting into her brain like the flood from a collapsing dam; rather, it became its complement, the two becoming one, like the soulful harmony of a country ballad.
It was like a slow-motion car wreck, her slowly falling backwards into the water, her scream cut short as water poured back from the displacement of her body, turning the scream into a fury of bubbles, before the water rolled off her face and her vocal cords hit the atmosphere again.
“Shark!” a woman on the shore screamed, pointing to April, who floundered in the water much like someone being eaten by a shark, as blood poured from her feet and spread out in a red froth from her body.
Two men came to her rescue, running into the water to bring her back to shore. When they discovered she was not being eaten and appeared to have damaged herself, they looked disappointed, but diligently carried her to dry land and her blanket, nevertheless. Marjorie came behind the men and waited patiently for them to let her near her mother. When she managed closer—all the social action was taking place around her feet as amateur doctors debated if they should remove the glass from her feet or not—she did not see Maggie. Big sister appeared, seemingly from nowhere, a pasteboard mask of concern covering her actual face, and spoke, “Oh dear. It seems Maggie is lost.” Marjorie followed her sister’s pointing finger to see a small blob of red, now far beyond the pier. All the troubles in the water had pushed the doomed doll farther and further out, and now a surface current had captured it, beginning a journey of wonders, untold to Marjorie, who was now the cruel victim of a pernicious fate.
Wonder of wonders! Miracle of miracles! Not only had her plan worked, it had received the blessings of a most malicious god. Now mother was crying out in agony, not one foot impaled in the trap, but two, and driven into those two feet were not two carefully crafted spikes of glass, still attached to their glass bottoms, but three. The forward spike in her right foot was peeking out the top of her foot, through the tender flesh between her toes.
And this even more glorious glory, that stupid doll was now lost forever, bringing Marjorie to such an intensity of sound it seemed unnatural. Mother had that look on her face, that pinched look in her eyebrows she could not mask, even with her feet impaled like a victim of torture in a medieval dungeon, that a migraine was being birthed.
It was true; you obeyed those who were stronger than you, but this did not preclude sabotage, if the stronger was vulnerable. Now, looking at the scene before her, as a nun might adore the nativity of her blessed baby Jesus, she could not help but let tears fall from her eyes. Mother in the double-throws of agony, being hoisted by two paramedics onto a gurney, the wretched of balling placed on her chest to scream daggers into her migraine head, and all the spectators could surmise was this wonderful, young daughter of hers let fall tears of despair over the agony of her family.
The paramedics managed to get their stretcher off the sandy beach and into their ambulance. Even with the doors closed she could hear Marjorie shrieking like a nightmare come to life.
But just before the ambulance back doors closed, her eyes met Marjorie’s, as the toddler looked back to confirm the impossible, that Maggie was gone, and she could tell the tiny, screaming harpy could see right through her. She knew then that one day soon, she would need to deal with this problem, before she could articulate clearly to mother. The thought gave her thrill chills.
It was night. There would be school tomorrow. This was good. More opportunity to make her mark, and from now on the goal would be to match her brilliance at the beach. She must not be caught any more. She must develop patience. She was getting too old to expect her youth to shield her from consequences, as it had done so far in her life. She would make them fear her, not only for what she did or what she might do, but for how she could get away with it, leaving them her victims striped of both safety and recourse.
She lay beneath her covers, exhausted but too thrilled to sleep. It was a spartan room, she supposed, noting the small desk and nightstand as the only other pieces of furniture other than her bed. Everything else was to her left, in the…
Closet! There was a noise from inside the closet. She knew where it was coming from because she had carefully mapped the floor of her room, marking on a scale miniature of the space on graph paper, every spot that produced a click, a creak, or a groan. Stealth was a skill she sought.
This was a creak, caused by a floorboard third in from the door jam, and half a foot off the doorway’s centre. It only made a noise when she put her entire weight on it while standing on one foot.
Something in her closet was moving, and it was heavy.
Dread flooded her body with adrenaline, but even so she could not move. All she could do was shift her eyes towards the closet door, which was always open a crack because the latch was broken and would not let the door stay shut.
Then she felt a moment of relief. She was almost asleep. She must have imagined the noise from her closet. What did they call this state, sleep paralysis? Her confidence began to return. Yes, she was paralyzed, but this was a physiological event, nothing more. She might even imagine a terrifying old hag come sit and on her chest. Scary, but harmless.
The closet door slowly swung open. Slowly, but steadily, as if something on the other side was providing constant pressure. It groaned like a horror movie, which she had never heard before. She always opened the door more quickly, and it made a higher-pitched squeak when she did; the hinges needed lubrication.
Could a hallucination open a closet door, or make you think it was opening? she asked herself. In her mind, of course, because she still could not move anything but her eyes. But if the door moving is an hallucination, is it now open or closed? Will it just pop back to closed when I finally…
Something was inside the closet, crouched in the blackness. No, that was not exactly right. There was some ambient light coming through the curtains from lights outside the house, but it did not penetrate inside the closet. Instead, there seemed to be an absence in there, into which this light was being absorbed. It blended into the other darkness, amorphous and indistinct, all except for its face, which seemed to twinkle and flash, reminding her of the glass shards she’d dumped into the ocean earlier.
Then it began to crawl towards her, taking form as it left the lair of her closet. At first she thought it looked like some monstrous insect, a bug with only four legs, its joints pistoned, extended and retracted, as if it was a well-oiled machine. But then, as it crept into full view, it seemed more like an animal, a jaguar or puma, slinking along the floor towards her bed, a predator preparing to pounce upon its prey. The floorboards groaned and complained with each contact, yet its limbs made no sound when they touched the floor with those deliberate steps.
Don’t look at its face! A voice in her mind warned. She tried to heed this voice as terror crept from her chest out into her limbs, as if her heart was now pumping freezing water instead of blood, driving ice-cold terror into every corpuscle of her body.
The thing did not come directly to the side of her bed. Instead, it crept out of view behind the footboard, where her eyes could not follow. But she felt herself jostled when it bumped the bed.
Hallucination! Only a hallucination! she told herself, unable to clutch her hands into fists in fear. Soon I will be able to move again, and it will be gone, and…
Two black hands clumped over the footboard of the bed. Then it stood up, now looking like a person with unnaturally long limbs. With that voice still screaming inside her, she used all of her will and did not look at its face. She could see that strange winking and flashing of its face in the periphery of her vision, but it was out of focus.
Now the thing—man?—crawled over the foot of her bed and crept toward her, its limbs pressing into the mattress on either side of her, her body a ship tossed by bad weather. She turned her eyes away, looking back at the now empty-closet, the inside no longer looking like a darkness carved out of reality, but like her darkened closet. Meanwhile, the thing continued to crawl over her until its head was poised directly over hers. It made no sound when it stopped moving. It simply hovered, motionless. She could not hear it breathing, if it even was.
But she could hear her own ragged breath, feel the beat of her pounding heart, her fingers twitching with each thump of blood pressure. What did it want?
It wants you to look at its face, that voice inside her warned. Don’t do it! But the voice was weaker now, losing volume and passion, like a puppy being distracted from play by sleep.
No! No! she screamed in her mind, as her eyes began to roll away from the closet and focus on the thing on top of her.
Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes focused. It had no face. No, that was not right. It had her face, and she was screaming.
She woke soaked in sweat; the covers were twisted around her as if she’d been trying to cocoon herself in her sleep. A quick, nervous look at the closet proved the door to be shut, but not properly closed, just as always. She could hear her mother and sister getting home from the hospital. Mom was angry and cursing, her regular voice accompanied by an unknown banging.
“Mom,” she said quietly, to herself, tasting the word and finding it no longer bitter. “Mom!” she cried out, racing out of her bedroom and to the front door.
She was stuck half-way through the entrance, Marjorie in one arm, a bag in the other, and each arm hobbled by a crutch. The ride share gave a little honk as it backed out of the driveway and drove away. April wanted to flip her the bird, but she was all out of spare middle fingers.
“Bitch!” she yelled at the back of the receding car, leaning against the door jam and ready to scream in Marjorie’s face to shut up! “Here, let me take Marjorie,” she said to her mother, holding out her hands. April paused for a moment, wary, before handing her daughter to her other daughter.
“And let me take that bag so you can get to the living room and put your feet up. I’ll fix you a tea.”
Again a shadow of distrust darkened April’s face, but she relented, handed over the bag, then watched her daughter walk to the kitchen, her sister supported on one hip, the bag swinging in the other.
“Let’s make mom a cup of tea, what do you say?” April heard her daughter say, as she turned into the kitchen. April heard Marjorie give a healthy “yeah!” in response, and the sound of a kettle filing came from the other room.
April had been preparing to launch into a tirade about “that jobless drive-share cunt” for not helping her get inside the front door, but instead, struck dumb by her daughter’s sudden and uncharacteristic behaviour, she absently shut the front door and hobbled over to the couch to sit down, putting her throbbing, Frankenstein-stitched and bandaged feet on the ottoman for comfort, then waited in stunned silence for her tea.
Which was forthcoming, along with a shot glass creatively repurposed to carry two ibuprofen and one antibiotic, accompanied by a glass of cold water to wash them down. This was further accompanied with a warning that the tea now sitting on the small table beside the couch was quite hot, followed by a lecture on how she could take two painkillers every four hours and must take her antibiotics four times a day, which basically meant four hours in between, leaving eight to sleep. As she listened to this stranger, this doppelgänger assuming her daughter’s identity, she saw the water glass she’d handed back, after a sip to help the pills go down, had been placed on the table with her prescription, resting on a coaster as she had asked her daughter a thousand times to use so she didn’t ruin the fucking table!
‘Fucking’ made her wince. Her daughter had not become a stranger, she had reverted to the loving, wonderful creature she used to be. And that was why the cursing had affected her so. There used to be so much less cursing back then.
Without any time to digest what was happening, a TV remote was placed in her hand and an intention made reality, to take Marjorie to her room so the sisters could play and let mom relax until dinner.
Later that night, April crutch-staggered her way to her bedroom, lay the crutches against her bed, sat on its side, and cried softly to herself in her darkened room.
Then, with sudden resolve, she retrieved her crutches and prepared to storm into her daughter’s room, to demand to know what was going on. But the crutches were noisy, even on the carpet, and she seemed to specialize at banging them on every solid surface she encountered. So she lay them back down and limped purposefully to her daughter’s bedroom door.
Which was not closed. It sat open half a foot. She never left her door open, asleep or otherwise. Even more shocking, the hand-scrawled, “Hey, fuck off!” sign they had fought over had been removed, unilaterally. Her daughter was fast asleep, looking like her ten-year-old self, no longer looking some kind of diabolical possession from a horror movie.
The room had been cleaned within an inch of its life. On her bedside table lay the cordless screwdriver that lived in the kitchen tool drawer. With the dim light from outside, April could see the closet door—broken since they had moved in two years ago after the divorce—had been fixed. The door was now properly closed. She had repaired the latch, without being asked.
April stood for some time, looking into her daughter’s room, crying quiet tears. Then her daughter stirred in her sleep, began mumbling to herself.
“No,” she said clearly. “Not that man! His face is a mirror.” Poor thing, April thought to herself, haunted by all the rotten things she’s done. But now she’s back! My little girl is back!