by John Rea-Hedrick
“Some people swore that the house was haunted,” the woman behind the counter insisted. “Everyone who’s ever bought it has brought it back.”
I eyed her skeptically. Haunted? I always heard hauntings occurred in places of terrible suffering where spirits of the dead lingered when they couldn’t escape their pain. Not that I believed in ghosts, but even so, how could a dollhouse be haunted?
The old man beside her lovingly patted her wrinkled hand. “Never mind that, sir,” he said, smiling at me. “She’s got a bit of an imagination.”
“It’s no imagining! The little girl in the family that returned it told me so herself.”
He smiled gently in reply. “They told me they returned it because the rooftop latch is broken and they couldn’t open the dollhouse.”
“So it has been returned before?” I interrupted.
“Only once,” he corrected. “I’ve been meaning to fix it.”
I nodded then made a show of examining the rest of the dollhouse, intending to negotiate a reduced price. In truth, I’d made up my mind to buy it as soon as I entered the shop. My daughter’s birthday was the next day and as usual business travel had made this a last minute effort. If I picked something up today I could still get it to her by overnight express since I wouldn’t be returning home myself until the end of the week. Besides, it seemed to me a nice dollhouse was just the thing any little girl would want most for her birthday. Determined to keep my lunch appointment I turned to make my offer, but the shopkeepers had stepped away. I almost called them back, but I didn’t want to appear too eager. So, I contented myself by really looking at the dollhouse while I waited.
It was a beautiful, two-story colonial model, painted white with black shutters and a red door. I’d glanced into a few of the downstairs windows before I finally noticed them. Magazine clippings of assorted pairs of men and women had been glued to the walls in every room, and between each pair was a cutout photograph of a brown-eyed little girl. All three were staged in various activities together: eating, playing games, reading stories. The girl’s clothing varied, but the uneven cutting showed the same tattered patch of wallpaper behind her where she’d posed herself for each scene.
A heavy, sinking feeling filled my chest as my eyes slowly passed from room to room. The last room, which I somehow knew would be the master bedroom, had a black curtain hanging in the window. I couldn’t see inside. My chest tightened and my hands began to tremble. Full of a sudden, overwhelming dread, I knew I had to see what was inside that room. I fumbled with the rooftop latch, hoping to see inside the room from above. Someone had glued the rooftop down. Without thinking, I seized the rooftop by the eaves and wrenched it free from the dollhouse.
The bedroom below was empty.
I stood panting from exertion and spent emotion. It was true. The dollhouse was haunted. Its ghosts were the scenes this little girl had created for herself of the one thing she wanted most in the world but couldn’t have. Now they haunted me too. I paid the shopkeepers for the ruined dollhouse and then tenderly laid it to rest in a dumpster behind the shop. I drove straight back to my hotel, checked out, and booked the first flight that would get me home to my daughter before morning.
Nothing was ever the same again after that.
This story was my entry to the NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest in 2009. Per the contest rules the story must begin with the words…
“Some people swore that the house was haunted.”
and end with the words…
“Nothing was ever the same again after that.”
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