By C.A. Verstraete
“Stop the car, Mommy!”
“Mandy? What’s wrong, honey? Are you sick?”
Alarmed, Cass Wilkes glanced in the rearview window at her daughter and quickly pulled the aging Buick to the curb.
“No, I’m okay. Look, Mommy, look!”
The six-year-old bounced in her seat and struggled to release the seatbelt latch. Before Cass could do anything, her daughter had the door open and rushed out.
“Mandy, wait! Where are you going?”
Cass shoved her own car door open and jumped out in a panic, keeping her eyes on the girl in the bright blue jacket and jeans who raced to the front of the dilapidated storefront.
Angered at her daughter’s behavior, Cass reached out and gave the girl’s shoulders a shake. “What is this about young lady? I’ve told you never jump out of the car and run off by yourself! You know how dangerous it can be.”
The girl appeared crestfallen for a second and stared at the sidewalk. “I’m sorry, Mommy, I am. But look!” She pointed at the store window. “That’s the house I dreamed about. It’s my house. Can we get it? Please?”
Cass didn’t know how to respond to Mandy’s sudden revelation. A dream? Her house? Where had that come from?
The dollhouse sat in the center of a big window display. The white house, over two-feet tall, featured large pillars and a porch decorated with small pumpkins. More Halloween decorations filled the space around it. A small handwritten sign, the lettering faded to a dirty gray, gave the details: Vintage Dollhouse, $100.
“Mommy, please, can we get it? Can we?”
“Honey, wait, give me a minute.”
Cass studied the aged storefront. Years of dirt and grime marred the window which read MILLER’S TOYS AND GOODS in cracked gold letters. Assorted toys and dusty games filled the rest of the front window.
“Isn’t it pretty, Mommy?”
An odd feeling came over Cass. She turned to her daughter. “Listen, honey, I think…”
The dejection on Mandy’s face made Cass pause. Her daughter never asked for much. She’d been so depressed since their recent move. It was only a dollhouse, right? Just an old, wood dollhouse.
“Okay, I guess we can go inside and take a look.”
Days later, Cass watched Mandy happily clipping out magazine pictures to decorate the dollhouse’s walls. The old storeowner had been kind and quite generous, cutting the price and adding a box of furniture. But Cass worried that Mandy had become too preoccupied. She spent almost every waking minute rearranging the small furnishings. Getting her to do simple chores or go to bed on time—things Mandy had been reasonable about before—had become big battles.
Of course, it was an improvement on her daughter’s previous moping around. Cass knew the move, plus going to a new school and trying to make friends, had been a lot for the girl to handle. Still… Maybe she’d been too lenient. She didn’t like how the house seemed to be taking over her daughter’s life.
Cass sighed as she stirred the pot of Sloppy Joe’s on the stove. “Mandy, time to put the house away. Set the table. Then you have homework.”
“Awww, Mom. Ten more minutes?”
“No, I said now. Dinner’s ready.”
The girl dawdled, pushing items around in the house’s interior.
Finally, they ate and chatted about Mandy’s schoolwork and her day. But Cass noticed how her daughter kept sneaking peeks at the dollhouse, like it would disappear or something. It was probably time to set more stringent rules so Mandy would do her homework and they could eat without distractions.
“Mom? Can I put the house in my room?”
Cass looked up from her plate with a frown. “No, I think we’ll keep it on the table for now. You have homework?”
Cass thought that would prompt some objections. Instead, the girl helped clear off the dishes before bringing out her backpack.
“I have a couple worksheets. Then can I finish my pictures?”
“We’ll see. I have to check your homework first.”
The dishes done, Cass sipped her tea and watched Mandy work on her assignments. Seeing the girl stop to look at the house again, Cass moved over to block the view and peeked at the girl’s paper.
“Mandy, don’t rush. Your teacher won’t like how sloppy your letters are. You better erase that line and do it over.”
“Please, no whining. Your spelling and writing are very important.”
Several lines had to be redone because of Mandy’s scribbled answers. Cass looked at the clock. “Honey, it’s late. Time for your bath and then to bed. Next time, do your homework right and you won’t spend so much time fixing things. Now let’s go.”
Her daughter off to bed with minimal arguments, Cass came back downstairs and straightened up. She stopped and peered at the dollhouse, peeking in the rooms, eyeing the details. It really was a well-made house. She moved a tall bookcase over to another wall when she noticed the bottom of the old wallpaper had curled up. It should be glued before it got damaged any further.
Grabbing the glue bottle, she lifted the edge of the paper carefully when her finger slid over a small lump underneath. She probed the spot. Hmm, something was in there. After getting a pair of tweezers, Cass tucked the tip under the wallpaper, grabbed the edge, and pulled. A yellowed slip of paper fell out.
Curious, she unrolled it, finding a note written in small block letters. It read: “My name is Mandy Lee. I am six. This is my dollhouse.” It was dated 1910.
Goosebumps broke out on Cass’s arms. How could this be? The man at the store had said the house was about twenty years old. Her stomach clenched. What were the odds of another girl named Mandy playing with the house before her daughter?
Uneasy, Cass tucked the note in her pocket and glued down the wallpaper. A shiver crawled up her spine. She wouldn’t tell her daughter about this.
She hoped that was the end of it. Something told her it wasn’t.
The next morning, Cass nearly dropped the spoon she was using to stir the oatmeal when Mandy came in and set several dolls on the table.
“Mom, look at what I found! Aren’t they awesome?”
“Mandy, where did you get those?”
“I found them in a drawer under my house.”
“A hidden drawer?”
“You have to feel under the house to find it.”
The lady doll, her hair piled on top of her head, wore a long, dark blue Victorian-style gown. Blonde, like me, Cass thought and shuddered. Oh, stop. It’s just a doll. Now who’s getting strange?
She looked at the black fuzzy dog and a little boy figure with dark hair next. See? We don’t know any little boys and we don’t have a dog.
A grimace crossed Cass’s face as she stared at the little girl doll wearing a long purple dress with a matching color band on her head. Dark brown hair fell down the doll’s back in unkempt curls.
Cass gazed at the doll, at Mandy’s long curls escaping her ponytail, and back again. Breathe, breathe. Get control of yourself.
“Aren’t they awesome? The dolls look just like me and you!”
Cass’s mind worked. Weird? Sure, but she shouldn’t make much of it. They were just dolls.
“Yes, they’re cool, Mandy. Okay, put them away, Time for breakfast.”
Cass checked that Mandy had all her homework and got her off to school. It didn’t take long to get the small apartment straightened.
Job applications kept her occupied for a couple hours, but Cass couldn’t help peeking at the dollhouse either. The whole thing seemed odd, from Mandy coming across the house by chance, to the mysterious note, and now the hidden dolls. She rubbed her forehead and sighed.
It had to be coincidences… Or maybe I’m the one getting neurotic.
Her questions had to wait once Mandy came back home full of news about her day. The girl babbled on, excited about the new friend she’d met on the school bus.
“Mom, his name is Sebastian. Isn’t that a fancy name? He lives two doors away. He and his mom just moved in. He looks just like my doll! I asked if he can come over to see it. Can he?”
Cass looked up from sorting Mandy’s school papers. “What? What did you say?”
“I said he lives near us.”
“No, what did you say about the doll?”
Mandy clapped her hands together happily. “He looks like my doll! Can he come over?”
“We should—” Someone knocked on the door. “Wait, let me get it.”
A peek through the door’s peephole gave Cass a glimpse of a tall woman with short red hair dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans. Must be the new neighbor. She opened the door, not surprised to see a little dark-haired boy with her wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans.
“Hi, I’m Lisa. My son, Sebastian, told me all about your daughter. I thought we should introduce ourselves before he rushed over here.”
“Hi, Lisa, Hi, Sebastian. Mandy was all excited when she came home. I’m Cass. C’mon in. Would you like some coffee or tea?”
Lisa held out a plate of cookies. “Coffee would be good. I can’t stay long. We have to get dinner and do homework.”
“Sounds familiar. We’ll be doing the same.”
The coffee poured, Cass sat and chatted with her new neighbor, glad for the adult conversation. Then Mandy piped up.
“Look, Sebastian, see? This boy looks like you.”
A shiver slithered down Cass’s spine at the boy’s answer. “Hey, I used to play with a black dog like that,” he said.
Lisa sipped her coffee and lowered her voice. “Our neighbor let him play with their dog until they moved away. Funny coincidence about your daughter’s dollhouse.”
Yeah, funny, Cass thought.
After a few minutes, Lisa rose with a smile. “I’m glad we met. I hope we can get together, maybe have dinner. I know Sebastian could use a friend to play with as there aren’t any kids his age close by.”
“I’d like that, too,” Cass said. “It’ll be nice to have some adult time, for sure!”
Lisa laughed. “I know what you mean. C’mon Sebastian. Time for dinner. Thanks for the coffee. We’ll see you soon.”
At their next get-together, Cass couldn’t shake the creepy feeling she got seeing the kids holding their near-look-alike dolls. It took every ounce of willpower to not sweep all the figures into the garbage. She put the rolls in the oven.
“Lisa, I wondered, do you think there’s a problem? All the kids do is play with that dollhouse.”
“No, actually I wanted to thank you. Sebastian’s pretty shy. That house, and meeting Mandy, have done wonders for him.”
“Hmm, that’s nice to hear.” She took the hot rolls from the oven, buttered them, and set them on a plate. “Okay, kids, time to eat.”
As dinner progressed, Cass noticed how everyone kept glancing at the dollhouse.
“That really is an amazing house,” Lisa said. “I always wanted a dollhouse when I was a kid, but my mom wouldn’t buy one. Mandy is lucky. I’m so glad Sebastian is having fun with it.”
Cass smiled and pushed her plate away. The kids helped clear the table before going into the other room. Watching them play together made Cass realize maybe she was making a big deal of nothing.
The clock struck five. Cass looked up from putting the dishes away. She hadn’t noticed how quiet the room had become. She didn’t hear the kids giggling or laughing like usual.
She peeked in the next room. Empty. Maybe the kids and Lisa had gone upstairs. She went down the hall. The bathroom door stood open. The house remained quiet. She peered in her bedroom. Also empty.
She stopped outside Mandy’s bedroom and pushed the door open. “Lisa, kids?”
Her heart felt like it stopped as she stared into the empty bedroom. Nothing looked out of place. She checked the windows. Still locked. So where did they go?
Stumbling down the stairs, Cass ran to the front door. The chain lock stood in the slot. All the windows remained closed. She stood there, alone, sobs tearing from her.
“Lisa! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY DAUGHTER?”
Cass looked around the room, her eyes finally resting on the dollhouse sitting on the table. “Everything started when I brought that thing home,” she whispered.
She shuffled toward the dollhouse. Leaning down, she noted the furniture carefully put in place. Old pieces of cloth served as rugs on the floor. Halloween skeletons sat on the couch. The kids had added some Halloween art to the walls.
Then she peered into the bedroom and jumped back with a gasp. The girl doll, now dressed in jeans and a floral shirt, sat on the floor, a tiny dollhouse in front of her. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail—just like Mandy’s.
“No,” Cass whispered. “No.”
The boy doll wore jeans and a blue T-shirt, just like Sebastian. The black dog sat next to him.
“This can’t be real.”
Cass stared at the dolls, her anger churning. This was some kind of cruel practical joke. “Kids? Mandy! This isn’t fun anymore. Get out here. NOW!”
The room stayed quiet.
In the small kitchen the blonde doll sat at the table, a small coffee cup before her. The long dress and fancy hairdo were gone. Cass glanced at her own pair of faded jeans and denim shirt, and then back at the doll. They could be twins. The doll’s hair now grazed its shoulders, just like hers.
Tears streaked Cass’s face. “I-I’m going crazy. What else can it be? Mandy, where are you?”
A soft tapping sound broke the silence.
She exhaled in relief. Finally, someone had heard her. “Kids? It’s okay, you can come out now. I won’t be mad, I promise.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Cass slowly moved to her left expecting to see her daughter’s smiling face on the other side of the house. Instead, she saw a new doll with red hair standing between the mini pumpkins on the porch.
The doll looked like Lisa.
Cass stared at the tiny plate in the doll’s hands. The smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies made her mouth water.
She dropped to her knees and began to scream.
Christine Verstraete loves writing stories with a touch of the macabre. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and publications including, Descent Into Darkness, Sirens Call Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and others.She also is author of the Lizzie Borden, Zombie Hunter series and The Haunting of Dr. Bowen, A Mystery in Lizzie Borden’s Fall River. Learn more at her website, https://www.cverstraete.com or visit her blog, http://girlzombieauthors.blogspot.com.