The gurgle of pouring liquid. The clunk of a half-full bottle being set back down on a solid wooden surface, then the double gulp of someone downing a good belt. A bit of a gasp from the throat of a woman as the bourbon slides down her throat, then the sound of her picking up the bottle and pouring another. This she downs as well, but with a little less urgency, and sets the glass back beside the bottle. This time, the glass remains empty for ten seconds or so, ten seconds she examines her hand in the kitchen light, forcing it to remain steady. Bourbon has killed some of the shakes, willpower does a little more. The blood streaming from the gash in her palm runs down her forearm, the red brilliant in the florescent light above. It is not deep, physically, but shows no signs of stopping. She pulls the edges apart, her stomach rolling a bit at the sight of her exposed meat. It does not appear to be debilitating. That’s good. The tremors come back as she pours for the third time. She’ll need it. She has to kill her daughter tonight.
The belt she administers herself this time makes the others seem like cheap imitations, filling the glass near to the top, and her willpower alone this time keeps her stomach from rejecting the poison she drops into it. She leans back into the corner of the kitchen counter, arms bracing her upright against the two sides surrounding her. She’s dripping onto the counter, faster as the alcohol thins her blood, pooling and dripping from the counter to the floor. The world spins when she shuts her eyes and doubles when she opens them. Closing one seems to be just the ticket though. The spins go away and there is only one of everything. Once this last dose hits bottom and gets comfortable, she can get down to business.
The business of killing her daughter.
Chuck E Cheese is a pit of madness, and a child’s birthday party is only another layer of madness atop it. On this day, there are no less than three separate bashes going on amid the general chaos. Through this maelstrom Nancy fights her way, clutching her daughter’s birthday present, narrowly avoiding a dancing mouse and a screaming two year-old. Someone bumps into her, hard, and she curses. Her ex-husband would choose to have Sandra’s birthday party here, in the middle of downtown, in the middle of rush hour, at the end of his weekend with her.
The thrift store across the road had offered the only parking within blocks of Chuck E’s, and for a mere $15 she secured a space of pavement for two hours with just enough time to dash inside and find a present for her daughter. Nancy had always struggled with procrastinating, and promised to rectify it every January 1st. Now as she rummaged through a wet-smelling selection of other people’s leftovers, she made the promise again. She hadn’t forgotten about the party, or Sandy’s birthday, but the time had just gotten away from her. Now she would have to show up with thrift gifts and Eric would smile that smug smile and point out the brand new bike or designer clothes he had bought for Sandy with his fancy salary and he could go fuck himself already…
Her hand stopped. It had been pawing through a pile of dolls. Now almost of its own volition, it moved aside a Raggedy Anne who had seen better days. Two pairs of black eyes looked at Nancy from worn china faces.
The decision was made. Yanking them from the back of the pile caused the rest to tumble to the floor but Nancy was already halfway down the aisle to the checkout. She thrust the dolls at a tattooed cashier who raised an eyebrow at Nancy’s harried expression.
“Something wrong, ma’am?”
“No, nothing’s wrong, just in a hurry,” Nancy said, and tried a smile in the cashier’s direction. It must have looked as phony as it felt, for the cashier’s raised eyebrow stayed.
“You sure? If you’re in some trouble…”
“I’m sure!” Nancy’s voice was a trifle hysterical, and several people looked over. She lowered her voice. “I’m just in a hurry to get to a goddamn birthday party with these dolls, that’s all.”
“Chuck E’s?” the cashier inquired, at last dropping her eyebrow and beginning to ring up the dolls in slow motion.
“Yes,” Nancy said, closing her eyes for a moment and praying for patience. “Do you gift wrap?”
The cashier barked a laugh, dropping the dolls into a plastic shopping bag. “There you are. $24.57, with tax, that’ll be–”
“Keep the change,” Nancy said, dropping thirty dollars on the till and snatching the bag, already halfway out the door.
“Mommy!” Sandra squealed, threading her way through Chuck E children like a nimble snake. All Nancy’s irritation at the store, the day, at Eric and the world in general evaporated as Sandra leapt into her arms and she clung her daughter to her, laughing. “Happy birthday you little stinkpot!” Nancy cried, spinning Sandra in her arms as her daughter giggled. “You’re way too big for your old mom these days, gonna break my–”
“Nice of you to join us, Nancy,” came a voice which brought the world back in a crashing rush.
Nancy pretended not to hear. “How’s your party, honey? Are you having any fun?”
“Yeah I’m having fun,” Sandra bubbled, already squirming to get down. “We were playing tag, then the pizza came and we all ate and then I saw you!”
“You’d better get back to it,” Nancy said, depositing the girl back on her feet. “Come get your present when you’re ready for a break.”
“Okay mommy!” She was off like a shot.
“Didn’t think you were going to make it,” the voice came again, closer. Resigned, she turned around.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Nancy said, the coldness in her voice palpable. The man standing before her had possessed her heart once. Now, he turned her stomach. “How are you, Eric?” She turned to the blonde standing beside him and a little behind. “And you, Vivian?”
A sneer from the blonde. “Nancy.”
“We are doing fabulously, thank you,” Eric said, straightening his straight tie. “Our new house is nearly built, my investments are performing above market averages, and every day is better than the last.”
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Nancy said, turning to watch Sandra run screaming after a little boy who had possibly stolen her tickets. “I’m starting a career in porn next month, maybe you could give me some pointers in fucking yourself.”
The children ran and screamed, the adults mingled and bemoaned the fact that Chuck E’s had no bar. Nancy was gratified to see the children slowing down and some parents beginning to gather the belongings which had been scattered. She had judged the ebb and flow of the party correctly. Everything went well, and she had to suffer less than an hour under the same roof with the new Mr and Mrs Eric Mayhew. She did not envy the bitch for ascending to this title in her, Nancy’s, stead. She just wanted herself and Sandra as far as possible.
By the time Sandra, yawning, had been buttoned into her coat and shepherded into Nancy’s vehicle, the parking lot’s sodium lights overhead had begun popping on in the dusk. Between yawns, Sandra kept up a nonstop stream of chatter as Nancy drove, narrating the weekend and the party as only a little girl can. Nancy nodded in the right places and exclaimed over her daughter’s doings, keeping her opinions of ”daddy’s new friend” to herself.
“Mommy!” Sandra cried, astonishment breaking through the enormous yawn that threatened to consume her face. “I forgot about your present!”
“That’s okay honey,” Nancy said, glancing into the rearview. Sandra looked genuinely distressed.
“You’re my mommy, I shouldn’t have forgotten your present.”
“Well here you go, stinkpot,” Nancy said with a smile and and grabbed the bag of dolls from the passenger seat, handing it back to Sandra. “Sorry I didn’t have a chance to wrap them.”
“Them?” Sandra asked, diving into the plastic bag. She stopped short, inhaling sharply. “Oh, mommy!”
She reached into the bag and pulled out the larger of the two dolls. It was dressed in a plain white dress which in the rearview reminded Nancy of the garb she had seen on women in stories about polygamist sects. The collar was buttoned all the way up and the doll’s long blonde hair was in twin pigtails down to her chest, tied with pale blue ribbons. The face had a sweet smile, but there was a crack above one of the black eyes, giving it a wicked glare from one angle. Sandra’s face was a mask of wonder and delight as her eyes took in the doll.
“Mommy she’s so pretty!”
“Did you see the other one, honey?” Nancy said, watching her daughter’s avid face with greed. Eat your heart out, Eric, you and your blonde bimbo, she thought with savage glee.
Instead of answering, Sandra brought out the other doll. This one was shorter than her companion, her hair in black pigtails instead of blonde, and the dress was black with shorter sleeves. The eyes were the same, down to the evil slant.
“They’re beautiful, mommy, thank you, thank you thank–”
Nancy’s eyes were caught by the glare on the doll. Just like the other.
A horn blared and Nancy’s eyes snapped back to the road. She yanked the wheel hard to the right and the car leaped back into its lane, narrowly avoiding an oncoming minivan whose driver laid on the horn another few seconds for good measure.
“Oh Christ,” Nancy gasped, her heart pounding in her mouth. “Shit, shit, shit, Sandy, honey, are you ok? Sandy?”
She spared a glance in the rearview. Sandra was gazing at the two dolls cradled in her lap, stroking the black pigtails with one slow hand.
A glance at the road. Nothing ahead but blackness. Back to her daughter. Sitting. Staring. Stroking.
“Sandy, are you all right? What’s wrong? Answer me!”
The eyes raised and met Nancy’s in the rearview.
“She’s fine,” Sandra said.
That night, Nancy slept badly. She tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable, while in her dreams she was chased through moldering old houses with piles of dolls in every corner, begging her to come play with them, forever, while her daughter’s unintelligible screams echoed through the halls. She raced into the only room with light, and the door slammed behind her.
Nancy jumped, and her eyes opened. She was in bed, her room lit by the streetlamp outside. Sandra stood by the closed door, her face a blank. Then, she grinned. It was monstrous, and Nancy felt her nerve quiver.
“Sandy, what’s wrong?”
“Sandra isn’t here anymore,” the little girl said, and with a swooning sickness Nancy knew it was true. The voice coming out of that body was manufactured by Sandra’s vocal cords, but there the similarity ended. There was nothing human in that voice. As though whomever had originally owned it may have once been human but that was long forgotten in a history of deceit and camouflage.
“You’re the dolls,” Nancy said. “You’re those fucking dolls, aren’t you?” Her voice shook with terror, and outrage. “You took my daughter.”
Sandra’s face twisted in a grimace of fury. This wasn’t part of the plan. They aren’t supposed to figure out until later. With a scream, she raised the butcher knife from the kitchen and charged.
Nancy’s bedsheets nearly killed her. In an attempt to vault from the side of the bed opposite the door, they had tangled around her feet and she vacated the mattress just in time. Her screaming daughter slashed at the mattress she had occupied so recently and came around the bed waving the knife. She rushed at Nancy, who stepped to the side and threw Sandra against the wall behind her with a sob of grief as her little girl’s skull connected with the wall and she fell to the ground. Nancy ran for the door, scrabbled at the doorknob with a sweat-slick fist and had the door half open before the slightest sound alerted her.
She turned just in time to raise her hand to block the knife her daughter swung at her throat. Blood streamed from Sandra’s nose and trickled from her ears. One eye was dilated, the other glared madly as she sawed the knife into Nancy’s palm Nancy screamed a guttural cry of horror, pain and revulsion. She grabbed Sandra by the shoulders and heaved the girl bodily from her, nearly losing an eye to the flying blade. Sandra hit the ground hard but was back up almost immediately, ramming into the door just as Nancy slammed it. She locked the knob a split second before it began jiggling with mad fury from the inside
Now, downstairs, Nancy pours one last drink. Maybe. Maybe she’ll have another. She’s in no real hurry. Sandra can’t get out through that door. Even if she does, there’s only one way out of the house, and she has to go through the kitchen. The second story bedroom’s window overlooks a concrete walk.
No, her little bird is safely caged. Caged and dangerous. The proof drips from her hand as she drinks again. Her other hand walks over the knives in the block set, looking for the right one. The butcher knife is already upstairs, of course, and the proof drips from her hand as she pulls out the bread knife, tests its serrated edge, slides it back in. She drains her glass and pulls out the second largest knife. This one was always her favorite. The butcher knife was too unwieldy for all but the largest squash or watermelon. This one she always kept sharp and ready for cutting meat.
She goes upstairs, and the thing inside the bedroom has gone quiet. She doesn’t trust it, and is ready for any tricks as she unlocks the door as silently as possible, muscles tense and ready for the ambush that never comes. The thing is sitting on the bed, and tries to talk to her, tries to trick her, to convince her it is her daughter again. But Nancy knows better. Even as she drags the screaming, pleading thing out from under the bed and slits its throat, she knows it can never be the way it was, it can never go back to the way it was before she walked into that thrift store. Now that she’s seen the dolls behind her daughter’s eyes, it can never be the same.