Authors: Dan Keohane,Kellianne Jones
The ice cracks into jagged spikes in Regina’s stomach. It constricts and conforms to the shape of her esophagus. Like a gush of coagulated oil, black bile curls from her mouth and into the plastic feeder tube.
I am heavy laden
, she thinks. Regina cannot breathe, like when she was young and had the flu, locked in dry heaves, certain she would never breathe again. It’s like that at this moment, waiting to die, feeling the man on Wednesday who had shoved a steak knife into his lover’s eye now pour out of her in a surreal birth.
To John it feels like a tongue of magma burning from his throat. Then it’s out. Cooling. He can breath again. The boy curled on the couch in his office fades away. The torment, sin and disease of the week passes with a few remnant pieces spit into the tube.
Regina does not think any more about the people who should be burned alive, who leave her office feeling freer than before, freer than they should. For Regina, there is only this joyous moment of breathing. So much air inside her, around her for the taking.
The black tar stretches the limits of the plastic housings - frosting one feeder, steaming to translucence the other. Above them the screams in the trees soar to a deafening crescendo. Greens, blues, yellows dart among the branches. High-pitched whistles drop suddenly to deep-throated impatience. The tiny demons take flight.
John is caught unprepared and sees them clearly. He wishes he hadn’t, feels close to dying at the consideration of their existence. He pulls his wife away with quick steps and firm grip. She does not resist, taking the summer evening coolness into her lungs. The sky above and around them is fraught with the wings of small bodies, asexual and naked, chittering in hunger and anger.
Out of my way
, John muses the sounds are saying to them.
Let us feed on what you have given back to us
John and Regina walk unsteadily along the driveway. Before the corner of the house blocks her view Regina gives in to temptation and looks over her husband’s shoulder. The feeders are covered in swarming colors. She focuses on one, a small blue with narrow face. Its wings spread and flutter as it eats. A shorter, yellow demon knocks the blue’s wing aside. Above them, gripping one of the protruding metal bars with curved talons, a green man-shape holds in its fist a wad of steaming mucus. It buries its face into some child’s sin.
Before the house obscures her view Regina wonders what human blemish it is devouring.
* * *
They are inside now. Stillness becomes calm.
The kitchen is darkened from the drawn window shade, the feeding outside dancing shadows upon it. John succumbs to the thick coffee smell and lifts the cup to his lips. Though he is shaken, he feels a welcome lightness and tries to recall the details of the past week. All of it remembered, but when he searches for empathy, the pain built with every confession and diverted stare, there is nothing.
Standing in the dim-lighted kitchen sipping from his mug, John knows he is free.
Eventually the shadows outside flutter away. Regina is empty, free as well to be only herself. For the weekend. Until Monday, when it will start all over again. Doctor Regina and her beloved husband will open their souls and become vessels into which their patients shall pour their pain and sins. The world expects nothing less of its caretakers. Nor do the demons, which will always return. They will alight upon the trees even when the leaves have gone and the snow contrasts their skin, dimmed in the cold to subtle pastels and gray. They will come, expecting to be fed.
— — — — —
About “The Doll Wagon”
In the summer of 2000, while playing softball during an my very first Necon writer’s conference, I struck up a conversation with two other writers: Suzanne Donahue and Stefano Donati. Come to find out each of us had stories slated to appear in the same issue of a horror magazine which never materialized — it went out of business beforehand. Suzanne and Stefano also happened to be editing an upcoming anthology entitled,
Poddities: A Creative Tribute to Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers
. They asked if I could write something for them to consider. When I got home and was cutting the lawn (I get most of my story ideas in one of two places: the first is behind the lawnmower, the second I’ll save for the introduction of “Ptolemy”), a quiet simple story came to mind.
I wrote “The Doll Wagon” in just over a week - a new personal record. Now, evil dolls aren’t exactly new to the horror biz, but this seemed like an interesting take on the idea, and I think it came out as one of my best stories. It garnered some nice recognition in the field, including an Honorable Mention in the
Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror
. That’s always a nice thing to see.
The Doll Wagon
The Doll Wagon came on a warm night in July, rattling down Claisdale Avenue at nine o’clock. The sky glowed with a prolonged sunset, shimmering ultramarine between the rustling leaves of Maples and Oak. Claisdale Avenue was quiet, most of the children having run home at the call of their mothers or the switching-on of outside lights. Cars in driveways ticked away the days’ heat and living room windows cast the neighborhood in a soft, yellow glow.
Dolls!” shouted the woman in robes.
She pulled the cart behind her. Wind chimes tinkled. Pale white dolls swung from hooks and loops of string, in time with the turning of the large irregular wheels.
Dolls!” she called again. Her robes fell behind her, lost in the cart’s shadow. Black tousled hair fell across her shoulders, over the robe’s unused cowl. She seemed out of time, a peddler from another century lost in this quiet, modern suburb.
Faces peered nervously behind screen doors and over the backs of couches. They watched the pale woman walk slowly down the center of their street.
Dolls,” she called, loudly but with patience. On both sides of her cart, dolls of ages past mingled with those found in the local Toys R Us. They bounced and swung as if in dance, tiny blue eyes reflecting the window lights as they passed, searching out the faces behind the screens. Looking for a home.
* * *
I see one! I see one!” Megan was out the door before her mother could react.
Joanne hesitated, screen door held open, and watched her daughter run across the lawn towards the wagon. “Meg, come back here,” she shouted, but her call was without heart.
The wagon stopped. Its burden swung like living tassels. Joanne walked quickly down the two front steps and across the grass, following her daughter’s path. The woman in the robes knelt before Megan and smiled, reached up to where the little girl pointed, and handed her a chubby baby doll. Its skin matched that of the woman, shiny in the dim light.
As Joanne approached, she saw her neighbors at the edge of her vision. They moved cautiously over lawns, led by their children.
* * *
I’m going to call her Megan,” Megan said joyfully. William pulled the covers tight under her chin and that of her new doll.
But that’s your name,” he said.
Megan pulled the doll out from the covers and held it aloft. The toy face peered down, back into her own. “That’s why it’s a good name,” she said. Her voice had already taken on its pre-sleep sigh. William smiled and kissed his daughter on the cheek. He moved as Joanne came to the bedside.
Good night, Megan,” she said after her own kiss. Her daughter whispered her good night, never taking her eyes from the other Megan. Joanne stood back and watched the girl slowly lower her arms until the doll rested on her chest and nuzzled under her chin.
* * *
You’re sure you checked it out?” Joanne lifted the pot of decaf from the coffee maker. A late drop fizzled on the heating unit. “Nothing inside? And you washed the skin?”
William leaned on the edge of the sink and lightly played with his wife’s hair.
Yes,” he said. “I promise. I didn’t rip the dolls’ head off but I squeezed the body and its little legs and arms,” he moved his hands in a pantomime of his earlier search. “Nothing.”
Still, all of this is too weird.”
William returned his hand to Joanne’s hair. “I have to agree with you there. By the looks of the crowd, though, it’s a great idea. I mean, hell, when you came back inside I saw more people walking out across the street.” He looked past the kitchen towards the living room and added, “Kind of reminds me of when the ice cream truck comes by.”
Joanne didn’t reply at first, merely took a tentative sip of coffee and wandered towards the front door. William followed her and together they gazed into the street. The wagon, and its driver, had long moved on.
* * *
The Doll Wagon returned the following night. The air was humid and thick with mosquitoes, more oppressive than the previous evening. She rolled the cart down Claisdale at nine o’clock, calling, “Dolls,” in her loud but undemanding tone.
* * *
But I want to get one for you!” Megan bunched her fists and stood defiantly in front of her mother. Joanne kept her hand on the door handle and tried to look stern.
Megan, I understand this is an exciting thing, but you’re not taking care of the doll we bought you last night. It wasn’t even in your bed this morning.”
I take care of it. It just fell behind something. PLEASE. There were some really nice ones out there, and it’s almost your birthday, and there were so many pretty things in there, and oh Mommy, please just one more...”
Dolls!” called the woman in the robes. The tinkling, swinging cart passed gradually by their house. Joanne turned from her daughter and looked outside. As many people hurried towards the cart tonight as before. Mothers or fathers, pulled along by excited children. Some of them, if Joanne could tell through the cross-hatched screen and dim street lights, looked as worried as she. No one had seen this woman before, and now here was the wagon two days in a row.
Joanne looked down at her daughter and knew any further argument would be fruitless. “One more,” she whispered. Instead of whooping with joy as Joanne half-expected, Megan only smiled and led her mother by the hand, out across the grass, like so many children were doing on similar lawns along the street.
* * *
Megan heard the thing talking to her mother, convincing her to buy another doll. She screamed from under the bed, “Mommy! Don’t buy one! She’s not me! Don’t buy one!” Her words never sounded, never made it past Megan’s own plastic doll mind. As she had been doing all day, the girl tried moving her arms, turn herself over, but the arms were fixed, immovable. She could think, could feel her skin on the dusty floor. But none of it felt right.
Her head was turned to one side. A chubby, plastic doll arm stretched away, one finger pointing across the room. A tiny mote of dust stretched web-like between Megan’s new hand and the floor.
This isn’t my hand,” she sobbed. She heard the thing and her mother go outside. Megan wanted to scream again, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. No one could hear her. When she cried, no tears fell from her glassy blue eyes.
* * *
Coming to bed?” Joanne leaned on the door frame.
William looked up, startled. “What? Oh.... no. Not yet. I want to stay up and watch the news.”
Joanne looked at the delicate figurine which Megan had picked out. It leaned against the small clock sitting on top of the television. The doll was a Chinese princess, nine inches high with flowing pastel robes, white-faced with a red dot on each cheek. Joanne had to admit it was stunning. She said, “If having that thing stare at you all night is distracting just drop it down anywhere.”
She tried to sound light, but there was a harshness to her voice.
William looked confused for a moment, then smiled. “Oh, the doll? No problem. It’s actually kind of pretty.”
Joanne shook her head. “Maybe, but it’s bizarre. All of this is.”
She wanted to say more, wanted to
. Everything about these past two nights buzzed across her skin like electricity. People didn’t wander down streets selling dolls, she thought. She’d said as much to William earlier, and to her friend Nancy when the two ran into each other at the store that morning. The robed woman had found her way onto Nancy’s street, as well. How that mysterious woman could do both neighborhoods after being so swarmed with customers on Claisdale, Joanne couldn’t say. Yet Nancy said she’d come by around nine o’clock. Maybe there were two of them. Jehovah’s Witnesses trying a new tactic, perhaps. She’d have to ask Nancy if the cart came by tonight.
Joanne thought all this, but said nothing. William stared transfixed at something on the television. Finally, she said, “Don’t be too late,” before turning and going to bed.
* * *
The woman pulled the cart off the road, into the old Mahew Dye Works’ shipping and receiving yard. The pavement buckled with roots that had long since pushed their way skyward, reclaiming the air above. Mahew Dye Works had seen few visitors since closing forty years earlier. There it stayed, crumbling, most of the glass in the windows long fallen inward.