Saturday, February 22, 2014

Porcelain - original short fiction

by Alli Kirkham

Everyone knows that if you kill yourself it's not murder; it's suicide. That raises the question (for me, anyway, and I know I'm probably alone on this): if it's your own house is it still arson? What if your burn site is really safe? What if you don't want insurance money, just to wreck something? What if there was a very good, possibly universe-saving reason to burn this fucker to the ground and close the door forever? Or maybe it's only arson if you're crazy instead of right.

It started with bugs which, I know, is not the best way for something not-crazy to start but that's how it happened so what are you gonna do about it? There were bugs. At first it was just big beetles with colorful wings, and they weren't frightening so much as they were wonderful. Sure, you might not want bugs in your bedroom but if you're going to have them they might as well be jewel-bright and make music with their wings. The beetles were eaten by some kind of beetle-eating-termite that chittered and clattered and kept me up at night (they didn't eat the beams or my bed, just the beetles, but they looked a whole lot like termites). Those in turn got eaten by a plague of spiders. I slept in the yard for a week, not wanting to see what was awful enough to destroy the spiders and when I moved back in (covered in bites from totally normal mosquitoes) the bugs were gone and I was okay for a while.

Don't get me wrong; once in a while there were clanking sounds in the middle of the night, blood ran up the walls in the bathroom every three days, and the ground floor of the house held steady at freezing for three months, but none of that was a patch on a sudden invasion of spiders because seriously, fuck spiders. All of this was real, by the way. I still have one of the beetles in a jar (hot pink and the size of my fist), I sent some of the bathroom blood to a lab (it came back B positive with early-stage syphilis), and I had a webcam trained on a thermometer in my living room the entire time. I know that all of that stuff can be faked pretty easily but proving that any of it was real will be really hard (except the bug, but I want to wait 'till he's dead before I ship him off to get sliced into bits by some asshole at MIT or something).

I don't do drugs or anything either, if that's what you're thinking. That shit killed my dad and it killed my brother and I've been sworn off anything stronger than apple cider for more than a decade.

So there were weird things going on. It happens. I tried not to let it get to me, not to get in the way of my day-to-day life. Nobody in management cares that you have to schedule your showers around a menstruating plumbing system. You still have to buy groceries, even if you have to put them in the fridge to keep them from freezing solid on the counter. Life goes on.

But then there was the doll.

Some people have a thing about dolls anyway - Charlie MacCarthy dolls and porcelain dolls are profoundly creepy even if they're just sitting quietly on a shelf. Cabbage Patch Dolls are lumpy, gross little near-human shapes. Dolls just have always had a way of slipping right into the uncanny valley, even before the valley was defined. This doll was different. She was creepy, all right - a porcelain doll with fixed curls and a frilly dress and slightly off-kilter eyes. The fangs were unusual, though.

Through all of human history there have been haunted doll stories. I know my situation isn't unique, I know you've already heard it before, I know you're expecting something to jump out of a dark corner or to just shift slightly in the periphery of my vision or climb up into my bed at night, but you have to understand that all of that had already happened. I was used to seeing nightmares in the edges of the vision and picking bugs off of myself in the morning; that had become standard by that point in my life but the doll was different. For all her fangs and horror the problem was that I loved her.

She showed up next to my butter dish at first. I came downstairs to find her on the kitchen table, wearing a pretty satin dress the exact same shade of blue as her eyes with painted freckles that matched her russet curls. I shrugged it off and turned on the stove and heated a pan. Shit shows up, you know? Then I turned back to get the butter and saw off a chunk to cook my eggs and saw that a jagged bite had been torn out of the frozen cube, a bite made with needle-fine, closely-spaced little teeth. A bite about twice as wide as her painted smile, but one that I was sure was hers nonetheless. Her little head was bent forward. Her little hands were clean. I backed out of the kitchen and decided to give up on cooking breakfast - I could grab something on the way to work.

When I came home she was gone; I checked the house very carefully to make sure, not wanting to find one of those needle bites taken out of my face or my throat in the middle of the night. There was no sign of her.

I pissed in the yard the next morning. It was the bathroom's day to bleed so I made use of a tree in the yard. I found a skinned, decapitated rodent by the stoop on my way back in. Breakfast was bacon sandwiches and milk. The doll was sitting on the passenger seat of my truck, neatly buckled in and wearing a bleeding squirrel-tail stole.

"Did you eat its head?" I asked, not expecting a response. That I didn't run screaming for miles and miles when she answered probably speaks poorly of my sanity. She turned her little face toward me, grinned widely and horribly with her terrible little teeth, and nodded. I closed the door and left her in the cab. I called in sick to work. I cried and tried not to remember the fur caught in that grin and I failed.

I had collected a lot of books about magic and witches and fairies and nightmares since all that shit had started to seem real. A few of those books had chapters on cursed objects, some had mentions of haunted or living dolls. None really seemed to touch on my dolly exactly. She could bite through frozen butter. She could bite through squirrel gristle. She had teeth that looked like hatred.

I had a bunch of mason jars in the basement. She probably couldn't bite through glass. Hopefully. I spent a few minutes hot-gluing iron nails to the inside of the lid of my biggest jar just in case. Iron's supposed to help against magic, right? I made sure to grab the salt off of my icy counter on my way back out the truck, unscrewing the lid to the shaker and holding the jar under my arm.

She was still buckled in, still grinning, and still tracking my movements with her head. Her curls rustled as I unbuckled the seat belt and pulled it away from her and her hands fell into a cruciform position. I poured a half-circle of salt around her on the seat and got to hear her voice for the first time - it was like the whistle of a teakettle, grating and harsh. She started to rock back and forth as I lowered the jar over her, but her body was soft and stuffed and didn't have any real joints so she couldn't move all that quickly. She shrieked in that bubbling whistle and I worried for a second that the glass would break but the sound cut off when I slid the nail-covered lid under the lip of the jar. Just like that, quiet. Her sharp little mouth had opened in horror and she was trying to kick away from the nails. I flipped the jar right side up so that she wasn't touching the metal and she stopped struggling. She looked almost like she was panting, actually. But she couldn't have been - she was only porcelain and silk and stuffing. She didn't have lungs to pant.

I carried her back into the house, refusing to look down at the jar, refusing to see that little stuffed chest rising and falling. The tink-tink-tink of porcelain on glass went down with me into the basement, faster than my footfalls. Not something rocking. Something tapping. Something that I didn't let myself look down and watch.

The bathroom stopped bleeding at midnight so after a long day of getting solidly drunk I went upstairs and took a shower. It was hot and comfortable. I relaxed under the water and tried not to think about exactly how bizarre my life had become.

That night I dreamed of silk and a gasping mouth calling out my name.

I was happy to piss in a bowl instead of in the dirt the next morning. Every time the bathroom bled the walls and floors were miraculously clean the minute the clock struck twelve, so at least I didn't have a part-time gig cleaning up a syphilis vector.

I threw on a cozy scarf and cooked breakfast, taking the time to pack a lunch as well. I'd been eating too much fast food since my life went haywire. Before I left for the day I tromped downstairs to check that my jar had held up and the dolly wasn't wandering lose with her shark smile.

The jar was still on the shelf where I'd left it, a clear space far back from the edge so that she couldn't tip it over onto the floor. As a precaution I'd drawn a circle of salt around it as well. Dolly was still in there, hissing at me silently through the glass. I tipped a mock-salute to her that stalled halfway through.

She looked different.

Still the same blue eyes and dress, still the same reddish curls and freckles, still the same mouth full of nightmares. But something was off. Since I couldn't pin it down I shrugged and completed my salute. Went back upstairs, hopped in my truck, and drove off for a long, fulfilling day of screwing lids on at the mayonnaise factory. I was halfway to work before my head finally put together what had been different about my little guest. Her stuffing had receded. When I put her in the jar yesterday her hands, shoes, and head had been porcelain - everything else was just a lumpy stuffed body. Today she'd been porcelain up to her elbows - the sleeve of her dress had pulled up enough to see that she now had wrists, at least. Maybe she had ankles today too.

I forced myself not to turn around and check. Clocked in to work, tied on my hairnet, and spent the day twisting lids and reciting nursery rhymes to myself so I couldn't think about her in her jar at home. She hadn't knocked herself off the shelf, she probably couldn't, that was all there was to it. I had gotten her before she could get me, and I should leave her alone in the basement to moulder forever.

On the ride home I realized that I'd forgotten my lunch and left it sitting out all day. When I walked into the kitchen my sandwich had been spun up into a cocoon and was spitting maggots the size of my thumb. I picked it up in a trash bag and threw it into one of the ice-edged puddles in my back yard. I checked the kitchen again just to make sure that the maggot-moths hadn't infested my fridge and I hadn't left any other edibles out for them to find. The last time I'd left the butter uncovered overnight I'd woken up to find a feeding frenzy - those little squirming shits stank, and they bit, and I didn't want to spend another three days worrying about what happens to someone who gets bit by a monster maggot. I went out for dinner, then to Denny's until it was late enough that I could collapse into sleep the moment I hit the bed. When I slept hard I never dreamed. At least I didn't used to.

I didn't dream that night, or the next, or the next, but when I finally dream again, it was a shock. I dreamed of blue silk and rustling curls all around me, and beyond that there was only green glass and distorted darkness. I tried to run away but there was something wrong with my legs. I tried to claw myself standing but my fingers were frozen and I couldn't catch hold of anything. Finally I forced my numb legs to stand but I knocked my head on the roof and it burned me. I fell back down and put my hands to my face with a soft little clinking noise. I had dreamed that I was the doll, locked in a jar in the dark, but before my sleeping mind understood that I was swept into another dream, one in which a high, sweet voice sang me my sins as a cold, hard hand ran over my chest. I awoke with a screaming orgasm from the first wet dream I'd had in more than ten years.

I got up, shaking, and threw my pajamas into the hamper. My towel was wrapped securely around my waist and I was halfway to the bathroom when I remembered that it was bleeding today. Defeated, I stormed back into my bedroom and got into my sticky bed. Then I heard a slight tink-tink-tink that may have just been branches against my window. I got dressed and went down to the basement.

There was no denying it, now. She had changed. Her wide, child-like face had grown narrower and had shapely shadows tilted across her cheekbones. The blue silk dress had lost its ruffles and was shorter, sleeker. More adult. I could see her knees now, and her shoulders; she was losing more stuffing as more of her turned smooth, cold, and perfect. When I realized I'd just thought of how perfect she was, she bared that vicious smile at me and I backed away from her, up the stairs, and went right out the door. It was Saturday; I didn't have to work and I sure as hell didn't have to be here. I went to Denny's to drink coffee until the movie theater opened, then went to the movies and watched the same three insipid shows until it was dark again. Back at the house at ten o'clock at night I stuffed my sheets into the washer, keeping my back turned to hide her shelf, and remade the bed. I showered in my once-again-perfectly-normal shower and took an antihistamine to help me sleep. I didn't dream.

It carried on like that for a while. Once a week or so I'd dream of her then I'd go down to see how much she had changed and try to keep myself from fixating on how much more lovely she was becoming. I went to work, strange things happened around the house, periodically I'd go get coffee and avoid my home. Each time I walked down to the basement I knew that I was fighting with myself and eventually I knew that I was fighting to keep myself from reaching into the circle of salt and lifting the lid off of her jar. She wanted out and she let me know it by letting me believe that she wanted me with all of her perfect, cold little heart.

It was almost spring. Shoots were rising cautiously out of the ground and there were longer and longer stretches of days when the cold of my ground floor seemed like a welcome relief from the heat instead of a frigid wasteland. I could smell green honeysuckle blooms blowing their pre-flower scent into my window at night. I dreamed more frequently. I dreamed more deeply. I dreamed of her. Finally I woke up one night, the whistling of her sighs still high in my ears, only to realize that I was in the basement; I was reaching a hand out to her and the grin spread across her face was obscene in its savagery. It took so much effort to keep that hand moving after I saw her smile but I did. I picked up her jar and walked up the stairs and into the back yard. I took a shovel and walked with her to the dampest patch that I could find, trying not to hear her little hands tink-tink-tinking on the walls of her prison the whole time. I think the hole must have ended up being at least six feet deep, deep enough at any rate that I had to work hard to recover myself from it. I put her at the bottom and saw her hissing and howling at me as I shoveled dirt over her, stopping every foot to tamp it down as much as I could, hoping she wouldn't be strong enough to dig her way out if she ever did manage to get through the glass. Filthy, I went back into the kitchen and grabbed a canister of salt - one of a pack of six restaurant-sized containers that I had purchased after I first trapped her. I went out to her little grave and salted the earth above it, knowing that if someone came by and saw this that they would think I was crazy, think I was burying a person, would dig her up and let her out and she would kill me and I'd never be able to explain. But no one came by.

Things got almost normal, for a while. The bathroom took a day off of bleeding, and then another, until it only happened sporadically and then for only a couple of hours at a time. The kitchen warmed up, I slept better, no more bugs came. And then one night I heard a tink-tink-tink sound that might have only been branches against my window.

I walked through the house, through the cold kitchen, and down into the basement. The circle of salt was still there and her jar hadn't returned. My Dolly wasn't there. Instead there was a darling little ballerina doll lying alone in the center of my concrete floor, missing one slipper. I didn't take my eyes off her as I gathered my supplies - a jar from the workbench, some iron nails from the same dropped into the jar, salt swept off of Dolly's spot on the shelf to cover the nails, and finally a lid to that jar. I approached this new doll and upended the contents of the jar onto her. She immediately began writhing and shouting - where my Dolly had sounded like a teakettle, this doll sounded like grinding gears. I scooped her into the jar and closed the lid, the noise cut off but she continued to squirm away from the nails and salt, tink-tinking as her porcelain elbows and knees knocked into the glass. Her smile wasn't as awful as Dolly's had been, but she had long, raking claws to make up for it.

When Dolly had first appeared, I hadn't questioned it. Why would I? Weird shit had been happening for a long time before Dolly - you don't question rain when it shows up because it's just part of the weather. But rain isn't generally homicidal. I started to explore the basement. Large parts of it were just general basementey types of things - an old coal bin, a work bench, canned fruit. I started moving things away from the walls, checking behind tools and stacks of peaches. Nothing. But nothing didn't feel right. I eyeballed the coal bin and decided that it would be more crazy not to check it than it would be to dig through all that coal, so I started to dig. Halfway down I found the top of the door on the far side of the bin. I dug until I found the bottom of the door, a fairy door - no more than a foot high. I pushed it open and warm yellow light poured out into my basement. There was a single pink ballet slipper just within the range of my vision in that little yellow hallway. And all that I could hear coming from beyond that was the soft tink-tink-tink of porcelain on a hard surface.

It took less time than you might expect to pack everything I cared to keep into the back of my truck. It took more time than I had expected to dig up the first doll, probably because I had to be so careful not to break her jar open with my shovel. I didn't bother cleaning that jar, though. I didn't want to get anything more than a glimpse of what she was now - momentary flashes of her eyes and her teeth have been enough to haunt me ever since that day, so I'm glad that I didn't see more. I put her jar next to the ballerina's jar in a rectangle of salt and made sure to put more salt in front of the little door before I went to the local big-box store. I got iron sheeting. I got pounds and pounds of salt. I got twenty gallons of gasoline and maybe ten gallons of olive oil.

Dolly and her Ballerina friend were frenzied and rocking in their jars when I got back. I think they knew what I was planning. They got put on the other side of the fairy door, as far in as my arm could reach, and the space between them and the door got filled with salt as high as I could pour it. I riveted the iron sheet to the wall and pounded in all the nails that I could find for good measure. The coal I'd moved when digging for the door got pushed back over the iron shield. Then I started making use of my accelerants.

I live far enough away from town that no one called in the fire. I waited, on standby, with a garden hose in hand until the whole structure had collapsed into the basement and until the basement stopped throwing up flames. I hosed down anything in the yard for fifty yards around that might have been slightly dry, but it had been a wet winter and I didn't think anything would catch. I did not turn the hose on the smoldering mess that had been my house because I wanted to make sure that slag and ash were all that remained before I drove away.

It took another two days for smoke to stop rising but I was satisfied that the coal bin had been completely destroyed, and no passage remained from my basement into a porcelain world full of little smiles and yellow light.

I drove away. I hadn't had much of a social life in almost a year, and no significant bills since I'd paid off the house, so I had a few thousand dollars socked away. I wasn't going to seek insurance money, maybe just wait a few years and put the lot up for sale. Maybe to someone who wanted to build a landfill. The beetle was still buzzing in his jar when I crossed the state line - I caught him some flies to eat. I kept driving and as I did I kept thinking of haunted dolls. Every culture has a story about them. Every generation has their own unique version. Talking Tina. Chucky. You know what I mean. I thought of little porcelain hands and little yellow hallways and asked myself if there was anywhere I could drive to, no matter how far I went, that I could be sure wouldn't have a fairy-door full of russet curls? I didn't have an answer to that question that made me comfortable. I just kept driving.

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