The Doll Master

Bill Baker trudged through the masses of tall douglas firs that cropped together behind his home in Oregon, the bitter wind cutting through him to the bone. It was getting late. The moon risen over head provided slivers of milky white light in the blackness of the night as it poured down through the canopy of thick branches above.

Bill swung a flashlight back and forth, damn near in a state of panic, sweeping the bright cone of light over every rock and bush he came across, hoping that Jeremy would pop out somewhere and this whole ordeal would be over. Despite not being the kind of man who just handed out physical affection, Bill ached to grab his son and wrap the little booger in the tightest bear hug humanly possible. Though, at this point, there was a real possibility if he did that, he’d never let him go. Ever.

“Jeremy! Jerrrremy! Can you hear me?” He called walking deeper and deeper into the woods. He could hear the echoes of the voices of other members of the search party he put together along with Sheriff McCall as they too called out Jeremy’s name.

They’d all been out looking for Jeremy for several hours now, ever since he failed to come home at sundown, which was when the ten-year-old boy was supposed to come in each night. This wasn’t a rule that Jeremy had ever broken before in the past, which is partially why Bill was almost hysterical, sweating in the middle of a cold snap, eyes wide and brimming with tears.

However, that wasn’t the only reason he was a mess. None of this shit would’ve ever happened if it wasn’t for him. Yep. This whole thing was Bill’s goddamn fault, and he knew that was one hundred percent the truth.

If only he hadn’t let what happened during his meeting with Jack Modelo, his supervisor at the office, get under his skin so badly. If he hadn’t decided to stop off at Buck’s for a beer or three to commiserate with a few co-workers afterwards and really gotten himself worked up.

Maybe Jeremy would be at home right now, sprawled out on his stomach, chin propped in his hands, watching those stupid YouTube videos of people playing that game with the blocks instead of lost out here, in the middle of the goddamn woods, in the freezing cold. The thought of his little boy, his lips numb and blue from the cold, hungry and wishing for a peanut butter granola bar nearly made him start blubbering.

Bill shook his head trying to shake the thought from his mind as he worked his way through a cluster of low hanging branches. He stopped for a moment to wipe away the tears that clouded up his vision. A small bunch of evergreen shrubs off to his right rattled. Bill jumped, his flashlight slipping from his hand to the forest floor. He bent over and put his hands on his knees to steady himself, his heart beating like a hummingbird. After he took a deep breath, he picked the flashlight up and pointed it at the bush.

“Jeremy? That you?”

The bush shook again, dry branches scraping against each other.

Bill thought for sure he could see a small patch of blue deep within the bushes, the same color as Jeremy’s jacket, rustling around as if the boy was about to pop up and announce the whole thing had been a mean joke designed to get even with his dear old dad. No harm. No foul.

Hope perked up Bill’s sullen attitude.

A moment later, something finally emerged from the evergreen shrubs. Bill’s heart immediately sank. No Jeremy. Just a baby raccoon, fumbling through the foliage looking for a late night snack.

Bill stood up as a another wave of sadness splashed over him. A spigot of tears opened, flooding his face with wetness and a wobbly little sob slipped out. He put his hand over his mouth to keep himself from wailing.

“Guys! I think I found something!”

Bill immediately turned toward the voice. He could see the glow of a flashlight about thirty feet to his left. Though he hadn’t ran in years and the spare tire he carried in his gut put a lot of extra pressure on his joints, Bill thudded through the woods like he was a seventeen-year-old linebacker again.

Several individuals in the search party, including Bill and his best friend Jim McCall, converged on a tall, lanky hunter in camo pants and a jacket, shining his light down at the base of a tree.

“Oh, God. What is it, Henry?” Bill huffed. His chest was heaving, a nice little reminder that he was definitely not a seventeen-year-old linebacker anymore.

Henry rubbed his free hand through the scruff of his beard and spit a long strand of brown tobacco juice onto the ground beside him.

“Welp, to be honest, Bill, I ain’t sure. Never seen nothin’ like it a‘fore.” Henry looked at the three men crowding around him. He shrugged his shoulders and gestured toward the tree.

“Take a look fer yerselves. Jesus.”

Bill started toward the tree but a hand shot out across his chest bringing him to a halt.

“Uh, Bill. Maybe, you know, you ought to just stay right here. Let me and Tommy go take a gander at what Henry found,” McCall said, a thin, friendly smile on his face.

Despite the kindness of the good sheriff, Bill wanted to shove his hand away and go see what Henry found, even if it meant finding pieces of his boy scattered beneath the tree, but he knew, really, he couldn’t handle seeing that. It would kill him dead right where he stood.

With more than a little reluctance, Bill stepped back a bit and nodded slightly for Jim McCall to go take a peek. He watched McCall and Tommy Sanderson, the seventy-year-old owner of a greasy spoon diner in the middle of town, slowly saunter over to the tree and get down on their haunches to have a look at what was underneath.

They stayed like that for what seemed like forever. The waiting made Bill feel like he was about to crawl out of his skin. He chewed at the inside of his cheek trying to be patient, but failing miserably.

“Is it my boy, Jim? Is…is his body…is he…” Bill tried to keep his voice from cracking, to not let them all see how close he was to coming completely unraveled, but he just couldn’t help it.

“Uh, no. No, Bill. Your boy’s not here,” McCall said over his shoulder.

“Then what the hell is it?” Bill was getting irritated. If they found something that would help them figure out what happened to Jeremy, he wanted to know what it was. Now.

“Well, uh, it’s kind of….hard to explain. Hold on a minute, Bill. I’ll bring it over to you and see if you can make heads or tails of it,” McCall replied, a tone of puzzlement hanging on his words.

Bill shot a confused look at Henry who only stared back like a blank page and spit more of that nasty tobacco juice in the dirt.

Bill watched Jim crawl under the tree on all fours, the light from Henry’s and Tommy’s flashlights bathing him in brightness. A few seconds later, Jim crawled backwards easing himself out from beneath the thick limbs of the fir tree, trying not to get poked by the pointy needles protruding off the branches.
He stood up slowly and turned toward Bill and Henry brushing the dirt off his pants with one hand, cradling something close to his chest with the other.

As Jim drew closer to him, Bill rubbed his eyes vigorously. His vision was getting blurry. He suddenly felt like the world was spinning, like he was caught on a Merry-Go-Round suped up by that wacky guy on that Home Improvement show he used to watch. What was it that guy used to say all the time? More power?

Jim stopped in front of him and held out the object in his hand. Bill glanced down at it, his hand over his mouth, gently rubbing his lips. He looked up at Jim, puzzled, then back down at the object.

“It’s some sort of doll,” Jim said.

“Fuckin’ creepy’s what it is,” Henry piped in.

“But it looks a hell of a lot like —” Jim started to say, but Bill finished his thought for him.
“— Jeremy.”
Bill slowly, almost delicately, took the doll from Jim in both hands and held it in front of his face.

The doll was made of a rough material, something like burlap, looked hand crafted, and was about a foot in length. Shaggy tufts of brown hair covered the top of its head. The eyes were hard, clear plastic with glassy looking green pupils. The same color as Jeremy’s. The doll was wearing a little blue windbreaker, black jeans, and small red high tops.

It was the same outfit Jeremy was wearing the last time Bill saw him. Before everything turned to crap.

“I don’t get it. What does this mean?” Bill gestured toward the doll.

Jim adjusted his black Stetson and whistled through his teeth.

“I don’t have the foggiest, Bill. I really don’t. Never seen a doll like that before. I mean, look at the face. It’s a spitting damn image of Jeremy. Never seen someone be able to capture a person’s likeness in such fine detail on a rag doll. “

Bill couldn’t take his eyes off it. It really left him feeling unsettled. At the same time, looking at the smile on its face reminded him so much of the way Jeremy used to grin at him. The way he did just before he finished off his pops in a game of Checkers. It brought him a strange feeling of calm. Comfort.

He licked his lips.

“I think, uh, I think…I’m just going to hold on to this awhile”

“Uh, well…okay, Bill.”

Sensing Jim wasn’t exactly on board with the idea of him keeping the doll, Bill felt his chest tighten, the panic rising back up in his throat.

“I mean, it’s just a doll, right? This is gonna sound weird, but, it, well, it sort of makes me feel better. Can’t explain why, exactly, but it does.”

Jim McCall dropped a heavy sigh.

“Sure, Bill. You go on and hold on to that for awhile.”

Bill grinned ear-to-ear and squeezed the doll to his chest like a child.

The light pitter-patter of rain drops plinking off the trees turned into a full on down pour, heavy sheets of rain coming down hard and fast. Visibility dropped to just a few feet in front of the men’s faces.

Bill tucked the doll inside of his heavy, black rain slicker.

“Welp, I hate to do it, without findin’ the boy yet and all, but it’s dark as Satan’s asshole out here and we ain’t gon’ see shit in this rain. We better stop for the night. Pick it up again, t’morrow,” Henry said as he rubbed the back of his neck.

Jim gave a tight lipped grin and put a hand on Bill’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“How’s that sound, Bill? We can head back to the house, grab a cup of coffee and plan out the search for tomorrow.”

Bill nibbled on his lip, unsure as to what to say next. The doll had strangely brought a lot of peace to his mind, but Jeremy was still lost somewhere out in these woods, soaking wet, scared out of his mind, and probably desperate for that granola bar.

At the same time, Bill had this weird feeling that Jeremy wasn’t as far away as he thought he was. He knew if they stood any real chance of finding him, they’d have to wait until morning, when there was daylight and the rain had stopped.

Bill nodded reluctantly. His shoulders sagged a bit, still feeling the weight of this whole situation crushing him like a thousand blocks of concrete.

“Hey, now, Bill, don’t you hang your head low like that. Don’t you give into thoughts of defeat, buddy. Your boy’s fine. We’re going to find him. You hear?”

Jim leaned in close and looked Bill right in his eyes.

“We’ll find him, Bill. We. Will. Find. Him.”

Bill nodded and the search party turned and headed back toward Bill’s house.

*********
Bill sat on the back porch of his two story home, the wood beneath his chair squeaking softly as he rocked back and forth. This was his favorite place to sit and think. He loved this old, dark brown wooden rocking chair more than any of his other possessions. His grandfather had carved it by hand, long ago, as a gift for his grandmother.

The rain continued pouring down and the night was growing colder. Bill could see his breath every time he exhaled. The porch light glowed softly behind him, casting a slight yellowish tint on everything, chasing back the shadows to the edge of the yard.

Bill held the strange, floppy doll in his hands. He gently rubbed the eye with one thumb.

A lump jumped up in his throat as thoughts of Jeremy, all alone in the dark, scary woods, wet and cold and hungry bounced around his mind.

None of this would have happened, he thought to himself, if I hadn’t done what I did. It’s my fault. It’s my fault here’s out there and not in here, in his jammies, watching TV.

The screen door behind him whacked shut.

“Here you go, Bill. Nice, hot cup of coffee,” Jim said as he stood next to the guilt stricken father, offering him a mug of liquid energy.

Bill tossed a small grin at Jim and put the doll down on the little table to his left to accept the coffee.

“Thank you.”

Jim nodded then took a seat in the rocking chair on the other side of the small table. He took off his Stetson and fidgeted with it as he spoke.

“I was thinking tomorrow we could head on over to Rabbit’s Gorge, that little valley-like area lot of the kids around here like to play in, see if maybe he stayed the night down there or something like that. We can check the river on the way back. Just to make sure he ain’t hiding down there in one of them little caves.”

“This is all my fault,” Bill said as he sipped on his java.

He was staring out at the woods, the events that transpired earlier in the evening replaying for the thousandth time in his head.

“No it ain’t, Bill. It ain’t your fault it all,” Jim said as he stared directly at his hat, picking and scratching at the brim.

“Yes, Jim, it is in fact, my fault.”

Bill’s voice took on a sudden edge.

“If I hadn’t gotten all worked up over that shitty performance review, if I hadn’t gone to Buck’s, I wouldn’t have yelled at him. I wouldn’t have called him names…”

Bill’s voice cracked as he sobbed out the rest of his sentence.

“I called him names, Jim. My boy. My precious boy. The greatest gift God ever give me, and so fucking help me, I called him awful, awful names.”

Bill sat the coffee mug on the table beside the doll and put his face in his hands.

“His little face. I’ll never, ever forget that little face. I crushed his soul. I did the worst goddamn thing a father can do to his kid. I crushed his soul.”

He looked over at Jim, tears streaming down his face, eyes red and said, “You know what he did that set me off?”

Jim just stared at his hat and let Bill keep spilling his guts. Confession is good for the soul and all that.

“Jeremy was playing with his legos and he was being loud while I sat there watching TV, feeling sorry for myself. I told him to be quiet and he gave me a little lip. Instead of giving him a warning, I just went off on him. That was the last straw for me, you know? I’d been disrespected all damn day, and I wasn’t about to let my own son think he was going to get away with doing what everyone else was doing. No sir. If no one else was going to respect me, I’d make damn sure he did.”

“You got to stop beating yourself up, Bill. What’s done is done. Jeremy knows you love him. I bet you ten-to-one the little guy will forget all about what happened as soon we get him home, okay?”

Jim stood up, put his hat on, and started off toward the porch steps, clearly not comfortable with all of the emotions Bill was puking up. He paused in front of his still sobbing best friend. He patted him on the shoulder.

“Hang in there, Bill. Just hang in there.”

Jim quietly ambled down the steps and disappeared around the corner of the house. Bill heard the engine of Jim’s truck roar and sputter and the crunch of the gravel as he backed out of the driveway.

He used the bottom of his still damp shirt to wipe his eyes. Reaching for his coffee, his hand brushed against the doll. He picked it up and held it in front of his face. A million still pictures of Jeremy’s smile flashed by, memory upon memory flooding over him.

Bill buried his face in the doll and started to sob again. Fresh tears soaked into the smooth fabric of the little blue jacket the Jeremy replica was wearing.

As waves and waves of despair poured out of him, a faint breeze picked up, blowing dead dry leaves across the yard. Some tumbled across his porch too, scraping and scratching at the wood. The faint sound of voices floated about on the wind, a kind of whisper like people were talking far away. Bill pulled his face away from the doll and looked around the porch to see where the sound was coming from.

He was alone.

The neighbors that lived to the left of his house were gone on vacation and the old man who lived on the other side was a hermit who rarely came out of his house. In fact, Bill couldn’t remember the last time he actually saw the guy out and about.

The voices grew louder as the wind blew harder, though what they were saying was indecipherable. Bill had no idea what was going on, but a feeling of unease settled in his gut.

He sat back in his chair, putting his hands over his ears, the doll falling to the porch floor in a heap. The whispers enveloped him, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Louder.

Louder.

Bill’s hands trembled. His heart did jumping jacks in his chest. Sweat busted out of his pores and leaked down his forehead.

“Dadddddy….”

Bill’s eyes immediately shot down to the doll crumpled up on the porch at his feet. He was almost positive that’s where the small, dry, croak had come from.

He grabbed the doll, held it in his hands, and stared at the eyes. They were….different. He couldn’t quite place what it was, but something about them had changed. They sort of looked…sad.

But that couldn’t be right. It was just a doll with glassy button eyes. He’s losing his marbles, that’s what’s happening here. All of this stress is making him crack up.

He closed his eyes and shook his head.

Silence.

The voices vanished along with the eerie breeze that had blown up out of nowhere. He peeked through a slit in one eye, cautiously glancing around the porch before landing back on the doll in his hands. Bill let loose with a nervous giggle.

No sad eyes. The doll looked the same as when he found it in the woods. The whole thing must’ve been his mind playing tricks.

Sucking in a deep breath, Bill decided it was time to try and get some sleep so he’d be fresh for the search tomorrow. He needed to be sharp, coherent, in his right damn mind, when his son came home.

Bill got up and went into the house. Fifteen minutes later, when his head hit the pillow, he fell fast asleep, the doll snuggled tight to his chest like a teddy bear.

****************
“Look what I made, Daddy,” Jeremy shoved a mangled block of multi-colored Legos under Bill’s nose, his tiny, chubby face beaming with pride.

Bill, almost going crossed eye, peered down and looked at his son’s creation and though he had no damn clue what it was actually supposed to be, gave him an encouraging smile.

“That’s awesome, buddy. Really neat.”

Jeremy, barely six-years-old, turned around and flopped down on the floor in his father’s lap, the pair of them sitting amidst piles of lego blocks scattered all over the living room floor.

Jeremy started adding more blocks to his creation. Bill leaned in and kissed him on the top of the head. He loved spending time with him. Even doing something as coma inducing as playing Legos. All that mattered was Jeremy was there with him. That they were together. A family. All he needed was his boy and no matter what else happened, no matter how much the shit hit the fan, he still felt he had the world by the short and curlies as long as he had Jeremy.

Bill picked up some blocks and attempted to build a mini replica of the Millennium Falcon and failed spectacularly.

“I made a spaceship, Daddy. A BIG one!” Jeremy twisted around to look at his father and held up his creation, now fitted with all sorts of new random additions.

“You are just awesome, Jer Bear. I’d love to take a ride in that spaceship. Want to go for a ride?”

“Okay!”

Bill took Jeremy’s hand in his own and making a blubbering, bubbly sound by vibrating his lips — it was the best way he could think of to do a spaceship engine — the two of them steered the weird little lego ship all through the cosmos, shooting down killer asteroids and blowing up hostile aliens to save the galaxy.

This was Bill’s happy place. Not the living room, obviously, but Jeremy. Jeremy was all that Bill had left of Susan, and that alone made him a priceless treasure, but that wasn’t the only reason he adored his son.

Jeremy was special. He had a way of looking at life with this contagious kind of joy that made Bill feel like he was seeing the world for the first time, through a fresh set of eyes.

When the cancer finally took Susan a few months after Jeremy was born, Bill wasn’t so sure he’d be able to look at his son without feeling bitterness, let alone raise him by himself. After all, the kid would be a constant reminder of the love of his life, torn away from him way too early. But the moment the nurse placed Jeremy in his arms and those deep, emerald eyes looked into his, he fell in love. This kid was going to be his world.

Which is why building Legos or playing dinosaurs, all that silly stuff, was Bill’s favorite way to spend his time. Nothing gave him greater joy than Jeremy.
A knock at the door interrupted the pair’s space adventure.

“Hmm. Wonder who that could be? Be right back, buddy.”

Bill moved Jeremy off his lap and went to the door, peering through the peephole to see who was there. Nothing but pure blackness. Bill glanced over his shoulder at the antique clock on the mantle over the fireplace.

Seven o’clock.

Being that it’s late October, it’s not all that shocking for it to be dark at this time of the evening. He flicked the lightswitch next to the door waiting for the porch light to come on.

Nothing happens.

Bill frowned.

The damn light must be out again.

Another thud, thud, thud on the door.

He shrugged and turned the lock on the door, cracking it open with a smile on his face to greet whoever his guest might be.

The smile faded instantly. There was no one there. He poked his head out the screen door and looked along the porch. Not a soul in sight.

Must just be some kids playing ding, dong, ditch or something.

An ear splitting scream from behind him in the house shredded the quiet peace of the night. Bill spun around, terrified that Jeremy had stuck his finger in a socket. Expecting to be greeted by the lifeless body of his freshly toasted son, Bill was not at all prepared for what was standing in his living room.

Jeremy was sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by his Legos, screaming bloody murder as a figure stood in the doorway that led to the kitchen. The figure was tall, well over seven feet, the top of its head almost scraping the door frame. It wore a long, black coat that stopped at it’s ankles. Unnaturally long arms flowed through the sleeves of the coat, stopping at its knees, elongated fingers unfurled to reveal thick, black claws.

The creature’s face made Bill’s blood immediately turn to ice. It had long, scraggly, greasy hair that hung like a curtain over its features. Bill could see through the tufts of hair the thing had no mouth, just a piece of flesh where the lips should’ve been. Its eyes were deep, gaping black holes.

A sensation of dread creeped along Bill’s flesh, the hair along the back of his neck stood on end. He watched the terrifying thing reach one arm out toward his son who was still screaming on the floor. The arm stretched and stretched, covering the fifteen feet from the kitchen doorway to Jeremy in an instant.

Bill leapt into action, set to dart across the short distance from the door to Jeremy, but nothing happened. He tried to move once again. Nothing. He looked down…and then screamed.

His feet were sunk deep into the floor, the wood completely closed up over them. He was stuck. Bill grabbed one of his legs and yanks furiously, doing his best to try and get his foot free. It was useless.

Bill looked up to see the thing’s hand close around Jeremy and start to reel its arm in. Jeremy was crying hysterically, calling for his daddy. Bill stretched an arm out toward his son.

“Jeremy! Oh, please, God….please…don’t take Jeremy. Don’t take my boy.”
Bill sobbed, straining to free himself from the floor, twisting and writhing, trying anything to get to his son.

The man in the coat now held Jeremy by the shoulders with his long, bony fingers. It shook its long mane of hair out of its face, revealing ashen white skin stretched over bony, sunken cheeks. It locked eyes with Jeremy, whose cries stopped.

Bill watched with pure, helpless terror as his son’s body went completely limp.
“Don’t hurt him. Don’t you hurt him, motherfucker. I’ll kill you. I swear to God I’ll rip you apart if you hurt him.” Bill slammed a fist against the wall beside him.

Thin, white wisps of smoke slowly leaked from Jeremy’s eyes, being sucked into the cavernous black holes where the man’s eyes should’ve been.

Jeremy’s skin started to fade to a modled gray. He looked like a corpse. His precious baby boy, who loved to build Legos, was having the life sucked out of him and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it……

*********
….Bill sat up, the sheets clinging to his chest, unleashing a scream that could’ve cracked mirrors. His breath came in ragged heaves, a slick sheen of sweat covering his body.

Confused, he glanced around the dark room, trying to get his bearings. His bedroom. He was at home. He ran a hand through his hair, taking long pulls of oxygen to try and slow his galloping heart.

A nightmare.

A bad dream.

The whole damn thing was just a bad dream. Bill felt around on the bed behind him. The sheet was soaking wet. He sat up on the edge of the bed and put two fingers against the artery in his neck. His hands shook a bit, which made it difficult to find his pulse at first, but he eventually felt the familiar thump against his finger. His heart rate was slowing back down.

The panic was wearing off a bit, though he couldn’t seem to shake the image of the white smoke stuff being sucked out of Jeremy’s eyes. The whole thing had felt so real. It didn’t feel like a dream so much as a memory that had been invaded by someone, something, that didn’t belong there. He felt…violated. That’s the word. Violated. Like an uninvited guest was peeking through the window while he was naked in the bedroom or something.

He grabbed his phone off the night stand beside the bed and hit the button on the side to bring up the lock screen.

It was three-thirty in the morning. Bill sighed and stood up, going through his usual morning stretch routine. There was no way in hell he was going to try going back to sleep after that.

Bill was actually pretty shocked he’d fallen asleep in the first place. He’d been a wreck all evening. Several panic attacks during the search threatened to sideline him, but he fought through it.

He’d been feeling pretty wired when he came inside and hit the sack. The blow up he had with Jeremy just kept repeating on an endless loop, so he tossed and turned for a few minutes and that was all she wrote. The next thing he knew he was watching his son die right before his eyes.

Bill pulled a pair of jeans out of the bottom drawer of his dresser and an AC/DC shirt from the drawer above it and put them on.

The more he thought about the previous evening, the more things just weren’t sitting right with him. He couldn’t place his finger on what it was exactly. There was something that happened last night, but he was having a hard time recalling what it was. It sat in the fog at the edge of his memory, shadows moving behind a curtain. As he retrieved his phone and slipped it into his pocket, it hit him.

The whispering.

Bill had almost forgotten all about the weird whispering outside on the back porch. The voices seemed to have been coming from all around him, a cacophony of silky smooth whispers that kept getting louder and louder. He swore he’d heard one of the voices come from the doll.

He stared out the window behind his bed taking in the scenic view his backyard and the woods that skirted his property provided, furrowing his brow at the mere thought of such a ridiculous idea.

Even as Bill tried to dismiss the idea as the result of being under extreme stress and total exhaustion, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something not quite natural had happened to him last night.

Speaking of the doll, he thought to himself. Bill turned toward the bed to retrieve it. He had laid it on the bed beside him, careful to place its head on the pillow and pulled the big, fluffy blue comforter up to its chest to keep it warm.

Bill stood looking at the doll, his hands becoming blocks of ice. In that moment, he began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he was losing his mind after all. Compared to the alternative, the idea of going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs was actually rather comforting.

“What the hell?”

The doll’s stuffed arms covered its eyes as if trying to hide from something. It instantly reminded Bill of how a kid tries to keep from seeing the monster in a horror flick.

What really left him feeling unsettled was the doll’s mouth. The mouth was a typical stitched on grin, just a couple of lines of thread made in the shape of a smile.

Only now it wasn’t smiling. It was shaped like an “O.”

It was screaming.

*********
Bill walked across the room and picked up the doll. He blinked and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, unable to process what was happening right now. The doll’s mouth was no longer twisted into the horrific scream. It was just a silly stitched line again. Like it always had been. Like it probably always was.

I’m losing it. Buy ole Billy Boy here a one way ticket to the funny farm.

Bill and his strange little companion went downstairs to the kitchen where he put on a pot of coffee and grabbed a banana. He put the doll in the chair next to his at the small round table in the dining room, the spot where Jeremy always sat for meals. His son’s crayons and fresh paper were stacked neatly on the place setting to the left of him. He nibbled at his breakfast while an image of the doll’s face, stretched in that horrible scream haunted his thoughts.

There was something both disturbing and comforting about the presence of the doll. As strange and as weird as it sounded, even to himself, the doll didn’t just look like his son, but felt like him too. When it was around, it felt like Jeremy was in the room with him. At first, he chalked this up to simply being some sort of crazy coping mechanism, his subconscience latching on to an object for the sake of comfort to relieve the constant state of pure terror and anxiety he had been in during the better course of the day. But now, he wasn’t so sure.
Perhaps this doll had something to do with why they couldn’t find Jeremy? Maybe some creepy old witch in the woods turned his little boy into a rag doll as punishment for catching her doing something…well…witchy. Bill shook his head at the absurdity of the thought.

“You’ve been watching too many horror movies, Bill,” he said aloud as he got up from the table and poured himself a cup of coffee. Reaching in the cupboard to snag the container of sugar, he thought he saw movement outside the kitchen window. He set the sugar down beside his favorite Garfield coffee mug on the kitchen counter and moved over to the curtains covering the window.

Adrenaline started shooting through every vein, pure gasoline tossed on the pumping piston of his heart. His gut clenched up and for a brief moment he thought he was going to drop a turd in his pants, but while his grip on his sanity seemed to be slipping, he still managed to have a handle on bowel control.

Given the weird stuff he’d experienced since the previous evening, he wasn’t too excited about taking a peek outside. He was probably just being paranoid, the stress of this whole experience making his perceptions hilariously unreliable. Still, a sense of foreboding tickled at the hair on his neck.

What if there really was something outside? What if he threw back the curtains, and that thing from his dreams, with it’s black holes for eyes, sunken cheeks, and mouthless face were waiting on the other side of the glass to suck his soul out of his body?

Or, he thought, maybe it’s Jeremy. Did you ever think of that?

This last thought kicked his ass into motion. With fear gripping every inch of his being, Bill slowly, carefully, parted the kitchen curtains, just a crack mind you, and peeked outside.

An eyeball was staring right back at him. He jumped and let out a scream that sounded like something that should come from the body of a prepubescent girl instead of a grown man. Once his heart stopped skipping rope, he started giggling to himself. The monster from his dreams didn’t have eyes. It was own reflection in the glass. Time to switch to decalf, Bill.

Once again he peered through a small crack in the curtains. The back porch was clear. No signs or evidence that anyone had been there, at least that Bill could tell. He scanned the backyard, but due to the fact it was still pretty dark out, he couldn’t see much.

He was just about to say forget it and finish preparing his coffee and get everything ready for the morning’s search when he saw it. At the edge of the tree line, moving in toward the yard, coming toward the house. The moonlight wasn’t bright enough to provide a lot of details, but the figure was tall and thin, slightly hunched over at the shoulders.

Bill’s breath caught in his throat.

The arms.

The arms hung unnaturally long by its sides, swaying gently with each step, not stopping until the finger tips reached the knees.

“Oh, shit. Oh, God,” Bill stumbled back away from the window. This couldn’t be happening. This was the real world. There were no boogeymen in the real world. This simply couldn’t be real. He had to be cracking up. That was the only rational, logical explanation for what was happening here.

He bumped into the table behind him. Bill turned to grab the doll, a natural urge to cradle it in his arms, to protect it and keep it safe flooding over him.

His hand stopped, frozen in mid-air. Bill’s eyes went wide, his chin trembled.

In front of the doll at the table was a piece of white computer paper with fresh, red crayon scribbles all over it. The crayon in question was gripped in the sack doll’s right hand, but it wasn’t moving. Not anymore.

He’s coming. He’s coming. He’s coming. Daddy, please. He’s coming for me. Please don’t let him get me, Daddy. Don’t let the Doll Master take me. He’s coming. He’s coming.

Bill scanned the paper several times, feeling as though he’d fallen through the gaping crack in his sanity. Then came the pounding at the back door of the kitchen and he snapped out of it, realizing this was indeed real, this was actually happening.

The banging on the back door continued, always coming in threes, getting louder with each set of knocks. Bill grabbed the doll and ran into the living room.

As he passed by the front door on the way to the stairs, the banging started up again, whatever was on the other side slamming into it so hard the entire frame of the door shook. Bits of dust and plaster fell on the thick brown carpet.

Bill kept on moving, bounding up the steps two at a time. In his bedroom, he tossed the doll on the bed and threw open the closet door. On the top shelf was a safe. He yanked the safe off and tossed it on the bed. He pressed his right thumb against a little red square on the silver plated located on the front of the safe.

The safe beeped a couple of times, then the locks popped. He lifted the lid on the safe and pulled out a nine millimeter Glock G19. Bill thumbed off the safety and pulled back the slide, chambering a round. He stuffed two extra magazines from the safe in his jean pockets. Bill put the safety back on and stuck the gun behind his back in his waistband.

A loud boom from downstairs echoed up into the bedroom, the force of the blow sending little shockwaves through the floor beneath Bill’s feet. It sounded to him like the door had been shattered into pieces.

Bill clutched the doll under his left arm and walked around the bed so he could face the bedroom door. He got into his shooting stance and lifted the Glock, held in both hands just like he was taught at the shooting range, and waited.

He didn’t know who or what the Doll Master was, nor did he, at this particular moment, give two shits. All he knew was that it wanted the doll, and that if he gave it the doll, he’d lose his son forever, and there was no way he was about to let that happen.

He was going to give this freaky bastard a lead salad, John McClean style.

Yippie Ki-Yay, motherfucker.

The loud thump of feet coming slowly up the stairs filled his heart with dread. Then again, over the last twenty-four hours, fear and terror had become his constant companion, so the feeling wasn’t exactly new at this point.

Despite feeling like he might piss his pants, there was no way in hell he was going to back down. Nothing brought up a man’s courage like protecting his children. Bill didn’t really understand what was happening here, how it was all possible, but he knew that he had to keep the doll safe in order to keep Jeremy safe. Thats was all he needed to know for now.

Voices, like those he heard the night before on the back porch, started filling up his head again. Only this time, he could actually hear them. He understood what they were trying to tell him.

Daddy. Please be careful. Daddy, just run away. Don’t stay. Go out the window. Get out, Daddy. Now. Please, don’t let him get me. He wants to keep me. Oh, God… Daddy he’s here….

The thumping on the steps falls silent, the air so still and quiet Bill can hear his own heart thudding away in his ears. He stayed locked in place, gun pointed at the door. His hands trembled.

Bill suddenly became aware that his teeth were chattering. He could see his own breath, a hot vapor coming out in big huffs like smoke. The temperature in the room must have dropped a good fifteen degrees.

The door knob squeaked as it slowly turned. The door creeps open, hinges squealing, revealing the imposing figure of the Doll Master.

Bill wasted no time. He squeezed the trigger. A blast of white hot light spit from the barrel of the Glock followed by the deafening crack of exploding gun powder. He fired three more shots.

If he hit the Doll Master at all, then the bullets had absolutely no effect on him. He stood tall in the door way, those wells of black that served as eyes boring deep into his soul, leaving him frozen in place.

“Give…me….the…boy…His soul is mine…” A gravely, high-pitched rasp echoed off the walls of his brain, so loud it almost hurt. Bill flinched at the awful sound, which reminded him of nails on a chalkboard, but he still kept the gun trained on the demonic figure before him.

“Fuck you. You can’t have him,” Bill pulled the trigger until the slide racked back indicating the magazine in the gun was empty. He pressed the release button on the side of the weapon and the empty magazine clacked to the ground.

Squeezing the doll gently, but firmly beneath his arm, he pulled one of the spare magazines from his pocket and jammed it into the gun, racking the slide and chambering a round.

He could hear that awful scraping rasp in his head again, laughing.

“Pathetic. You know, none of this would’ve happened to poor little Jeremy if it wasn’t for you, Billy.”

“Fuck off.”

“You kiss your mother with that mouth? You know it’s true, Billy Boy. Jeremy would’ve never wandered around the woods, would’ve never stumbled on me feeding, if you had just kept your shit together. But you lost control, didn’t you?”

Bill felt fat drops of sweat start sliding down his forehead and cheeks.
“It’s not my fault. I didn’t mean to.”

The words sounded weak and Bill knew it. While he hated this monster with every fiber of his being, the truth was, he was right. What happened to Jeremy was his fault.

The Doll Master scoffed.

“Don’t give me that shit, Billy. You know I’m right. That I’m telling you the truth.”

“You may call me a monster,” it said with a flourish of its elongated hands, “and I suppose, you’d be right about that, but one thing I am not, is a liar, Billy Boy. Honesty has always been my policy.”

“Stop talking to me! Just stop fucking talking to me! Get out! Leave us alone!” Bill screamed, his voice thick with rage and tinged with a layer of sadness. He was on the verge of sobbing.

The Doll Master, long flowing robe billowing out behind him, though there was no air stirring in the hallway, took a small step inside the room.

“You don’t look so good. Want to know something, Bill? The last thing your precious little boy said before I plucked the ripe, juicy soul from his carcass and stuffed it into the doll…it was about you. Can you believe that? What a joke.”

Tears flooded down Bill’s face. A swirling mass of hatred, mostly aimed inward at himself, at his failing Jeremy, flooded over him as the Doll Master continued to speak. Fathers were supposed to keep their kids safe, to protect them from the wolves that longed to devour them. It’s the most basic, fundamental calling of a dad, and he had failed completely.

And now the light of his life, the best thing that ever came out of his pointless existence, that which gave him a purpose for breathing day in and day out, for putting up with his supervisor’s dumb bullshit fifty-two weeks a year, had paid the price for it.

Bill broke down into heavy sobs. His arms fell to his sides, the gun slipping from his fingers and clattering against the bedroom floor.

“Despite the horrible things you said to that poor child, Bill, despite the hurt and brokenness you caused him with all of that pent up anger and rage, the little guy still loved you. He called out for you, Bill. He wanted to be with you, to play Legos again, like you used to. But….because of your anger, that’s never going to happen.”

The Doll Master started stretching his arm out toward Bill, the bones popping and snapping as it lengthened far beyond natural proportions. The creature’s hand, with fingers twice as long as a normal man’s and blackened nails that curled like talons opened, ready to receive the doll.

Bill collapsed to his knees and sobbed. It was all his fault and he wished, oh how he wished so, so bad, that he could twist the dials on Father Time’s watch and walk back all of the hurtful words, all of the disgust and bitterness he spewed all over the kid. But he couldn’t. There was nothing he could do to fix this, and that thought, the thought that this was something beyond his ability to repair, drove the despair straight through his heart.

“Bill, please be reasonable,” it said with an almost tired tone of voice.
“You cannot stop me. Bullets do nothing, as you’ve clearly seen. There’s no way to destroy me. You are beaten. Accept it. Give me the doll.”

Bill’s heart shattered into so many pieces there was no way anyone on earth could ever count them all. He knew the Doll Master was right. There was no way to beat him. It was over. Finished. He’d once again failed to keep his son safe from the horrors of this world. He looked up and watched that disgusting hand continue reaching out toward him.

Bill took the doll from beneath his arm and looked at its face. Tears were sown on the face beneath the eyes. Bill blubbered, his face slick and wet. He caressed the doll — Jeremy’s — face.

“Jeremy, buddy, I’m so, so sorry. So…sorry for everything I said to you. If I could, I would go back and punch myself in the mouth, make me bite my own tongue off in order to stop those awful, awful things from coming out.”

He looked up again. The hand had stopped coming forward. It hovered in the air by the side of the bed, five feet in front of him. The Doll Master was staring at him, head tilted to the side like a dog. He continued speaking to the doll.

“I know I failed you, buddy. I failed you big time. Daddy was supposed to keep you safe. Instead, I pushed you away. I hurt you bad.”

He squeezed the doll tight to his chest and sobbed.

“There’s nothing I can do to fix this. I caused all of this, and now I can’t undo it. I can’t unbreak what is broken. Please, son, I need you to know that I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything in this world. I wish I could’ve done better. You deserved better, buddy. Please…oh, God….please, Jeremy…please forgive me.”

Bill buried his face in the doll’s face.

Daddy…it’s okay…don’t be sad. I love you, too. I know you didn’t really mean those bad things you said. You didn’t fail me. Don’t be sad anymore, Daddy. I’ll be okay. I’ll be with Mommy. I’ll give her a big hug and kiss for you. We’ll be together soon. No more crying, Daddy. I love you.

Bill collapsed in a heap on the floor, heavy sobs wracking his body making it convulse and shake. He cried and wailed, wailed and cried for what seemed like an eternity. When the little wells inside his eyes had finally run dry, he sat up, ready to hand the little doll over to the Doll Master.

Gone.

The Doll Master was gone.

The room was completely empty. The gun was on the floor next to the bed and despite his blurred vision, he could see the bullet holes in the hallway wall.

Sitting on his knees, he picked the doll up and looked at it’s face.

It was smiling.

*********
“I really feel like we’re making progress with the doll therapy, Bill. Would you agree?” Dr. Mason asked from behind his desk. He pressed stop on the little digital recorder he used to tape these sessions with Bill.

Bill sighed and ran the back of his hand across his eyes, clearing away the wetness. He flopped the doll down on the desk.

“Yeah. I guess so. I just, I don’t know, expected to be further along by now. It’s been six months, since the, um, since…”

“Since Jeremy died?” Dr. Mason said. He folded his hands on the desk and flashed a slight understanding grin.

Bill cleared his throat and wiped his palms on his legs.

“Yeah. Since Jeremy died.”

“Losing a child is one of, if not the most traumatic experiences someone can go through, Bill. Given the circumstances, I think you’re doing remarkably well. You’re too hard on yourself. Progress is made with small steps forward. You’ve taken many small steps, Bill. You should be proud of yourself.”

“Yeah. You’re right, Doc. I just…I still miss him, you know? When I walk by his room, see his Lego table in the corner…I don’t know, it just sort of digs up the old ghosts again. All that guilt, the shame, the feelings of failure. I mean, they’re not sticking around as long, the ghosts I mean, so yeah, I guess I’d call that progress.”

Bill smiled weakly.

Dr. Mason sat back in his chair and said, “You’ll never ever be rid of all the pain, the loss, or the emptiness. Part of that will be with you, a psychic scar, if you will, for the rest of your life. Healing comes from learning to accept that, from being okay with it all and knowing you’re going to be alright. That goal may seem like a hell of a long way off right now, but…”

“Small steps forward,” Bill finished his sentence for him.

“That’s right. Small steps forward.”

“I can do that, Doc. I can do that.”

The End

Author: Michael Cantrell

Michael Cantrell is a huge nerdy dude who's into stuff like Star Trek, Star Wars, Trek Wars, War of Stars, and any other combination of those two phrases. He loves to write and tell stories, especially scary stuff designed to make you drop a bowl of chocolate pudding in your underpants. So yeah. Read his stuff and consider supporting him if you like original content put out by creators. The world is so much better with stories, right?

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