Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.
In any other city or suburb, the old Wentworth Place on Carter Street wouldn’t have been worth a second glance. Once, somebody had put care into its appearance. Heavy brass knockers hung from the doors and finicky gingerbread trim edged the gables. But years of wind and rain had dulled the brass so that the knockers looked dark and grimy. The wooden hangings were gapped and clogged with dirt. Even so, the house was better looking than most of the buildings in Moore Ridge.
Tara had lived in Moore Ridge all her life. Like many Great Lake towns, it was filled with stucco strip malls and brightly painted cookie-cutter duplexes. We’re new, we can’t help it, the duplexes seemed to say. The Wentworth Place rose above these homes, imposing in its football field expanse of brownish lawn.
“The McAllister Place now,” Mother sang. Bryce smiled. Tara didn’t. She was definitely not a McAllister. She had been born Tara Singwi. Singwi was her father’s last name, though they’d never met. When she was older, she asked if she could use Mother’s maiden name instead, but Mother refused, worrying that people would think Tara was, well…
A bastard, Tara had chimed in helpfully, and was smacked.
After Mother married Joe Bryant, Tara became Tara Bryant. Not that she really liked Joe, or his name, but she was weary of questions from teachers… babysitters… doctors’ receptionists. How do you pronounce Singwi? Where are you from? Were you adopted? Makes sense, your mom and you looking so different and all.
Now, Mother was married to Bryce and Tara had no last name. Like Drake, or Beyoncé. Of course, it was only temporary. She had to pick something soon or the school secretary would throw a fit.
Mother had exclaimed with delight when they first toured the Wentworth… no, now the McAllistergrounds. Spike-tipped wrought iron gates, a few diseased trees whose bark was peeling off in strips. (The realtor claimed they were ash but Tara knew they were maple.) She shuddered. The whole place was like a giant snaky thing shedding its skin.
Mother made a few pointed remarks about how much Tara would enjoy gardening with her. The exercise and fresh air would clear up Tara’s acne wonderfully. Tara made a face. Mother liked to brag that she only used soap and water on her skin. She’d never had a zit in her life. Tara had to admit Mother’s fair, freckled complexion was nice. She stayed out of the sun as much as she could in the hopes of looking like her, but her skin kept its beige-brown shade, fading to sallow yellow in winter. Though she didn’t envy Mother’s frizzy auburn hair. Her own dark mane was straight and shiny.
The house was only a few blocks from their old apartment. Mother and Bryce had insisted on a fresh start after their wedding. Tara had hoped they would move to another city — Toronto, Montreal. Across town, at the very least. No such luck. She’d even be going back to the same high school, Pine Grove, this fall for her grade ten year. Known as “Crime Grove” for its wannabe students who dressed and acted as if they were neo-Nazis or drug dealers.
Mother, Bryce, and Tara had packed their scanty belongings in cardboard boxes and enlisted a couple of rheumy-eyed Russian men armed with a cube van. “We could just use Bryce’s SUV,” Tara said.
“Where’s your sense of adventure? More fun this way!”
As recently as six months ago, Mother would have snapped at Tara and then given her a shove between the shoulder blades. But since the divorce, after the judge had ordered family counseling, Mother had been suspiciously sunny-tempered. Twice a week, Mother, Tara and Bryce were herded into a cramped room. They would sit in plastic folding chairs as a balding man with bifocals and bad breath talked at them. Cohesive family-unit structuring, he called it. Mother loved it. She felt like a new person and claimed that she was coming to grips with things. She made a point of dragging Tara for mother-daughter manicures, shopping trips, “girl-talk” sessions at Dairy Queen. Tara missed the irritability of yore. At least she didn’t feel bad for hating it.
The Russians moved their belongings and were soon off, their van puttering black smoke down the winding driveway. Bryce gazed into Mother’s eyes and gave her a sloppy kiss. Mother playfully swatted him on the butt. “To a new beginning.”
Tara chewed a hangnail. Tara Bankhead sounded all right. Or Tara Harlow? Tara de Havilland?
Too fancy. The kids at school would laugh.
The kitchen was filthy. Bryce lined shelves and drawers with sheets of wallpaper. Mother tucked her curls under a shower cap and tackled the paneled cabinetry with a soft cloth. She handed Tara a mop. “I’m really tired,” Tara said flatly. “I could use a nap.”
She could see Mother struggling to hide her exasperation. Tara imagined the voice of the family counselor whispering in Mother’s head. Count to ten, measure the gravity of the situation with what you’re feeling. Then she smiled.
“You’ve had a long day, kiddo,” Bryce said. You know where your room is. Go get some shut-eye.”
Tara padded up the stairway. The banister was dark wood, scratched but still pretty. And the house’s high ceilings were like something out of a movie. It wasn’t so bad. She could pretend that she lived alone. A reclusive heiress, maybe, sealed away from a deadly epidemic.
Hers was the only bedroom on the third floor, and her bed and dresser were brand new. Bryce had thrown everything from their apartment away and suggested a trip to IKEA for a shopping spree. Tara suspected that he was trying to get rid of all evidence of Joe. They had picked a blond wood bed with a matching credenza for Tara’s room, along with curtains and pillows splotched with primary colors. Yuck. She missed her old furniture horribly. She and her grandmother had clumsily cobbled makeshift chairs and tables from antiques salvaged from her grandmother’s basement.
Not that Tara herself was the epitome of style or taste. Cara Mallinson at school had nicknamed her “Wal-Mart Catalogue” for wearing Mother’s cast-off clothing. Until Andrea Pratt pointed out that Wal-Mart didn’t have catalogues. Only flyers. “Wal-Mart Flyer Model” didn’t quite fly, so Cara coined a new moniker: “Sears Sweater.” Tara bore the insults. If she had the money for a new wardrobe, like stuff that Instagram models wore, she’d be mocked even more for caving. And for not knowing her place. A paki was a paki was a paki, Cara had said. Even a half one.
Why had Mother and Bryce picked such hideous furniture? It didn’t take an idiot to see they clashed with the dark flooring. In a rare show of affection (and acknowledgment), Joe had given Tara a spot of cash before Mother kicked him out. She could do something with the place.
She climbed into the high bed and crawled under the scratchy comforter. It wasn’t for nothing that she’d read her grandmother’s old Harper’s Bazaar magazines, in which people named Babe Paley and Brooke Astor were photographed in Upper East Side lofts. She’d stain her new bed frame a deep mahogany tint. And she’d never held a needle in her life, but curtains couldn’t be that hard to make. She’d buy dark, velvety fabric for drapes and pillow covers.
Ugh. Bryce would tease her for trying to be domestic. He never missed a thing. In the next breath, he’d drop hints about fixing up the rest of the house and maybe even suggest sewing buttons on his shirts. He was that type of jerk.
Bryce had come into their lives a year and a half ago, not long after Mother and Joe were married. Joe had hired him as his new apprentice at the steel plant. He was the older brother of “Pistol” Pete McAllister, Tara’s classmate since nursery school. Pete had cemented a spot in the Cool Clique at school by using Bryce’s ID to buy booze and cigarettes for weekly basement parties. Everyone (even Tara, who was never invited) knew Bryce was a fixture at these events, along with his girlfriend Sherry, a leggy college dropout who was a cashier at Foodland, and a group of factory workers and welfare lowlifes who’d nothing better to do than smoke hash and play video games with a bunch of high-schoolers.
Mother hated Bryce in the beginning, or at least she’d pretended to. She’d raged at Joe for bringing such a punk into the house, especially when Bryce made a habit of visiting Sunday and Wednesday evenings to watch hockey with Joe, drink beer and smoke the odd joint. Soon Mother resigned herself to his presence. She even deigned to say that, for a derelict, he had a nice ass (a comment that Tara pretended not to hear). Sooner still, Bryce was dropping by whether Joe was home or not. Before Tara knew it, he’d moved in. Joe didn’t even seem bothered by the stealth usurping. He’d packed his things and left, mumbling something about keeping in touch.
The kids at school had a field day when they learned that Pistol Pete’s older brother was shacking up with Sears Sweater’s mom… and for all they knew he was boning Sears Sweater, too. Tara had wanted to switch schools, but Bryce said it was better for her to stick things out. If she showed her mettle, the other kids would respect her for it. Up until that point, Bryce’s vocabulary had almost exclusively consisted of grunts. Since when was he using words like “mettle”?
The change was almost overnight. Bryce dropped his welfare and blue-collar buddies. He was promoted to foreman and took out a loan for a Vegas wedding and a down payment on the Wentworth place. Weekend parties were replaced with trips to Foodland for groceries and toilet paper. During family shopping excursions, he ignored Sherry’s glares from behind the cash register.
Tara didn’t know what to make of him. She was used to men drifting in and out of Mother’s life. Trips to the aquarium, dinners at Denny’s. Playing Dad. But she couldn’t lump Bryce in with the rest. Perhaps it was the way he looked at her, with an earnest, almost eager expression. She couldn’t fathom why.
The next morning after breakfast, Mother shoved an armful of garbage bags at Tara. “Time to start pulling your weight.”
The Stepford Wife smile was gone from her face. Tara counted four days since their last counseling session. “What am I supposed to do?”
“The attic’s a disaster,” Bryce explained. “Lots of garbage from past tenants. We need the space for storage.”
“Can’t we just shove our stuff with theirs?”
Mother’s lips tightened. “I’m not going to tell you twice, Tara. Upstairs. Now.”
Tara knew without looking that Bryce was flashing her a syrupy, apologetic grin. She had heard him discussing kids with Mother the other day — how Mother was only in her early forties and they had all the reason to try to give Tara a little brother or sister. Tara hoped it happened soon. Someone else besides her should have to put up with them.
The stairway to the attic was next to her bedroom. She ascended hesitantly, expecting bugs and a dark loft that smelled stuffy and dank. But she was surprised when she flicked on the overhead light. The room was spacious and airy despite the low, gabled ceiling. The walls and exposed roof joists gleamed with a fresh coating of white paint. Everything was scrubbed clean.
Rows of neatly filled cardboard boxes were arranged with geometric precision on the highly-polished floor, each labeled with magic marker. Receipts, tax returns, catalogues. All she had to do was haul the bunch downstairs. Let Bryce worry about dragging them to the dump.
After several trips, she was sweaty and red-faced with exhaustion, but the room was nearly empty. Mother came upstairs to check. “Wow, Tara. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be so fast. So clean and tidy.”
Tara shrugged. “I just moved a few boxes.”
“It was a nightmare when the realtor showed us. Dirt and garbage everywhere.”
“Everything was pretty much done when I got here -”
“Take credit where it’s due, Baby Doll. Now, run downstairs for a break. Bryce is making coffee.”
Tara grimaced. “If you please, Mother. I’d prefer to get this done.”
“Okay, but don’t work too hard. Plenty more on your plate.” She trotted downstairs.
Maybe the realtor had tidied things after Bryce and Mother left, fearing they’d back out of the sale.
Except the remainder of the house was filthy.
She shouldn’t dwell on it. Less work for her, and that was all that mattered.
She turned to a box labeled “Toys.” Intrigued, she slit the taped flaps with her ragged fingernails — she couldn’t stop biting them, Mother had flipped when she saw how she’d chewed away her manicure — and pried the box open.
At the very top were piles of vintage paper dolls. Tara wasn’t a stickler when it came to history, but the clothing looked to be from the late 1800s: bustles, lace-trimmed underwear and buttoned boots. They’d been inked on stiff cardboard and delicately shaded in watercolor. A little faded and dog-eared and not really her thing, but interesting all the same. She’d tape them to the walls of her room, along with the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations she’d Googled and printed in the school library. Bryce would snark how normal girls her age plastered their walls with posters of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. Tara made no secret of loathing them.
Underneath the dolls was a rectangular wooden cabinet crafted from the same dark wood as the attic flooring, with a brass handle on top. She lifted it carefully and staggered. It was heavier than it looked. She set it on the ground.
The front wall was missing, likely to display the contents. Or scenes, to be exact. It was a dollhouse.
An inner wall bisected the box into two equal rooms about a foot wide. The left side was a bedroom papered in flowery print, with a carved mahogany bed and a white embroidered eyelet quilt in the middle. Next to the bed was a marble-topped dresser and engraved mirror. Tara took in all the details. The tiny stone pitcher and basin on the bedside table. A bookshelf piled with real printed magazines and books. She withdrew one and flipped frail onionskin pages with awkward fingers, marveling at the miniscule typeface. There was even a small chamber pot under the bed.
A plain, jointed wooden figure was slumped on the floor near the window. (Fitted with glass and lace blinds and hinged shutters and everything.) This doll was simply made, almost crude in contrast to the dainty, detailed furnishings, with a smooth, featureless face. The limbs sprawled limply, as though to suggest the figure was asleep. Or dead. The head hung at a strange angle.
The other room was furnished to resemble a sitting room. Plush sofas and marble finished tables flanked the walls. Silver candelabras with miniature wax candles were mounted above the fireplace mantel. The nubby wall-to-wall carpet was printed with leaves and flowers.
Two more wooden figures were posed in the room. One reclined on a couch. Tara imagined wire-framed spectacles and a pipe dangling from its eyeless, earless head. Next to the couch was another figure, hands behind its back. She picked it up and examined it.
It was holding an axe.
The edge of the blade was razor sharp and flecked with red spots. Shuddering, she replaced the figure.
There was no doubt the dollhouse was an heirloom or antique. Why would anyone leave it here, with so much work and money put into it?
She glanced at a small newspaper next to the figure. Funny, a minute ago, it had looked to be covered with nonsense symbols approximating words, but now the print was almost legible. She could barely make it out.
GAVE THEM FORTY WHACKS
Dinner that night was macaroni and cheese from a box, sausages and ice cream sandwiches. Tara refused all of it. She went to the backyard and picked at wild herb patches. Back in the kitchen, she sliced organic tomatoes and fresh mozzarella she had bought with her allowance. She arranged the greens on top and drizzled them with olive oil.
Bryce grimaced. “The hell is that?”
“Caprese salad. Grandma showed me how.”
“Tara, hon, you need some meat on your bones,” said Mother. She speared a sausage and dropped it on Tara’s plate. “Save the rabbit food for when you’re my age.”
Mother spoke with her mouth full. “You’ve a perfectly decent room on the third floor.”
“My room could be a guest room. There is none. I’ll do all the moving myself.”
Bryce patted Tara’s hand. “We can put the computer there. I might even get an air hockey table, make it a games room.”
Tara moved her hand out of reach. “Hey, Mom, what do you know about forty whacks?”
“I was… someone on TV mentioned something about giving forty whacks, something that happened a long time ago.”
Mother smiled. Tara — most people, for that matter — didn’t often pick her brain. “Sounds like Lizzie Borden.”
“Oh man,” Bryce said. “I know that story. There was a movie about her on A&E. That chick who killed her parents, way back in the olden days.”
“Oh yes. There was even a rhyme. We’d jump rope to it in the schoolyard. What was it again?”
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
gave her mother forty whacks.
“I forget the rest.”
Tara found herself whisper-singing in a high-pitched voice.
When she saw what she had done,
gave her father forty-one.
“So you have heard it.”
“She didn’t really axe them forty times,” Bryce said. “The newspapers made that up.”
“So she didn’t kill them?”
“Oh no, she did. At least they think she did. But it wasn’t nearly so bad.”
“Either way is pretty awful,” said Tara. She felt sick for some reason.
“Definitely. Don’t get any ideas in your head, Baby Doll!” Mother and Bryce laughed. Tara found herself joining in.
After dinner was yard detail. As Tara had predicted, it took forever to mow the stupid lawn. And even longer to rake up leaves and stuff them into garbage bags. The trees were shedding unusually early this year. It wouldn’t have been so bad if someone were there to help. Someone her age. They could jump in the leaves and toss them around, play Leaf Monster.
When she finished, it was past bedtime. She made a cup of cocoa and trudged to the third floor. This fall, she was getting a job so she could pay someone else to be yard slave.
To her surprise, her room was bare of furniture. Bryce popped his head in, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. He motioned towards the attic. “All done. Your mother helped with the bigger stuff.”
Tara averted her eyes. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I thought it’d be a nice surprise.”
“Bryce, honey,” Mother’s teasing voice echoed from their bedroom downstairs. “Back to bed. Don’t keep me waiting.”
Bryce’s face flushed. “Slow your roll!”
Disgusting. Tara rushed up the attic stairs, pounding her feet hard against the wooden steps to muffle Mother’s response. She envied the heroines of her favorite books whose parents slept in separate twin beds, and who were raised to believe babies came from storks or doctors’ black bags. Mother had educated Tara about sex early on.
She didn’t like how Mother and Bryce had arranged her furniture, but the layout would do for now. Bryce had even made the bed for her. Number One Dad Extraordinaire. She plopped in and pulled the covers to her chin. She was filthy, but she’d shower in the morning.
Bryce had put the cardboard box with the dollhouse in her wardrobe, assuming it was brought from home. Tara had resealed it. For some reason, she didn’t want him or Mother knowing about the dollhouse. They’d probably say she was too old for such things and would sell it on eBay. Money had been tight since the move; no doubt something that old, in such good condition, would bring in a lot of cash.
Come to think of it, Tara wasn’t even sure why she wanted to keep the toy. She wasn’t really into old-timey stuff. Grandma’s old furniture was another story. Tara loved her fake Tiffany lamps and chipped teak tables. (Grandma used a lot of words like “Bauhaus,” and “art deco” to describe them.) But she turned her nose up at flowers and trim — at anything fancy and girly.
She found herself thinking about the forty whacks rhyme. Weird that Mother was once a little girl who skipped rope and sang nursery songs. Tara imagined her in pigtails and a checked dress running around a playground chalked with bright hopscotch outlines. The jump ropes back then were probably braided cord instead of the plastic ones foisted on Tara in gym class. With smooth wooden handles, painted with red and blue stripes. She smiled at the thought and drifted into sleep.
She dreamed she was in the dollhouse living room — a life-size version. There were a few new items: photo albums and a cart bearing steaming cups and saucers. She lifted a teacup from the cart and took a small sip. It was robin-egg blue and rimmed with gold, so thin and fragile that it was almost transparent. Her hand trembled and pale amber liquid splashed to the floor.
“Fabulous, darling. Love what you’ve done with the place.”
She wasn’t alone. The room was filled with people, all dressed to the nines. She turned to a tubby, balding man at her elbow. He was wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a natty dark suit, and seemed familiar, somehow. Had she seen his picture in Grandma’s magazines?
“You’ve made quite the statement. Little Women meets Lady Windermere’s Fan. I wouldn’t have thought of it.”
“I didn’t do any of this.”
“Hush, Baby Doll. Credit where it’s due.” He traced the smooth surface of a marble end table with a chubby finger (“lovely, just lovely”) before turning his attention towards a series of framed photos atop the fireplace mantel. “Your family, I presume?” Tara nodded. There was a sepia-tinted photo of Mother and Bryce, dressed like they were headed to a tennis game. Grandma was in another picture, younger and prettier than Tara thought she could be. She wore a nubby tweed jacket and white blouse and carried a leather riding crop. Her hair was short, shaped into waves. “And this dreamboat?”
He motioned to the far end of the mantel, at a picture of a man. He was younger than everyone else, turbaned and dressed like an Arabian Nights prince. Dark-skinned and handsome. Tara’s breath caught when she saw his eyes. They were the very ones she saw in the mirror every day.
She woke with a start.
“How come you never talk about my father?”
Mother’s spoon paused midway to her mouth. Bryce’s freckled face reddened in a sheepish blush. They were eating breakfast in the vinyl-upholstered nook in the kitchen. Tara hadn’t touched her Frosted Flakes.
“Where is this coming from?”
“You didn’t even when the counselor asked.”
Mother shifted in her seat and checked her nails for chipped polish. They were perfectly shaped and radiated an opalescent pink glow under the dingy ceiling lights.
Bryce shrugged. “If the kid wants to know, she should.”
God, stay out of this.
“Well, he was… is… Amal Singwi, a doctor I knew back in Newport. I worked reception at his office. We hit it off.”
“How come I never see him?”
“He’s not ready for a family.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Mother sighed. Why did Bryce have to sit through this? As if on cue, he rose from his seat. “Should be heading off. Be back around six.” He made a big show of grabbing his lunch box and leaving to fetch his coat from the foyer. Tara knew that he was still listening.
“He wasn’t ready for a family with me. He was already married, see, with a few kids of his own.”
Silence from the foyer.
“I was getting on. Twenty-nine, several abortions under my belt. I had to keep you.”
“Does he know about me?”
“You know he sends money every month. Never a whole lot, but we always had enough to get by, you and me. And he got me this job here in Moore Ridge.” Mother’s face clouded. “His wife couldn’t find out about you. Or his parents and kids. It would kill them. Things are… different in their culture.”
Tara cleared the table and washed the dishes without being asked. Mother was quiet. She handed her a few bills and told her to go to the mall for school supplies. Grandma had given her enough paper and binders to last a lifetime, and she had wanted to fix her attic room that morning, but she didn’t protest. Outside, she was surprised to see Bryce still in the driveway, lounging against his SUV.
“Don’t have to be in for another hour or so, but I thought your mom wanted some alone time.” Tara nodded and began walking down the driveway. “Need a lift?”
She shrugged. Why not?
Bryce usually drove well above the speed limit and was prone to cutting in front of others. Today, he was subdued, stopping at lights at the right time and giving pedestrians the right of way. “Must have been hard, growing up.”
“I wasn’t trying to cause trouble today. I just wonder about things.”
They were silent for several minutes. Tara found herself looking at him, at his eyes trained on the road. Maybe he meant well. He probably just wanted her to take him seriously, which was understandable. He was still a kid, really. Although tall, his body had the lanky, loose-limbed appearance of the boys at her school. And no amount of hair gel could tame his shaggy blond hair.
He sensed her stare and smiled, resting his arm on the back of her neck. She didn’t cringe away.
That night, after Tara showered and got ready for bed, she removed the box containing the dollhouse from her wardrobe. It was starting to give her the creeps. She felt as though the wooden dolls were watching her through the walls of the dollhouse and its cardboard sheathing. Which was dumb, seeing as the dolls weren’t alive. Superstitious garbage.
She put it under her bed, climbed under the covers, and emerged after a few seconds to slide the box back out and put it back in the wardrobe. She didn’t want it underneath her either. It had to go, period. The next day she’d sneak it to the basement so that Bryce or Mother could “discover” it and sell it. But that would mean having it around for a few more days, at the very least. Tara wanted it gone as soon as possible. She’d make up some story about finding more garbage and bug Bryce to take her to the dump. The thought relieved her. She soon fell asleep.
She was back in the dollhouse. The tubby man was back, along with even more people in fancy clothing. He paid special attention to a white-haired man with a youthful face flanked by a beautiful, slender girl with short yellow hair. But as soon as the tubby man saw Tara, he rushed to her side. Before she knew it, she was holding a cup of tea and a saucer of teensy sandwiches. Cucumber and watercress, her favorite.
“Darling, darling, you’ve made another statement. We didn’t think you’d top the last, but look what you’ve done!” He waved at the easy chair, where a slumped figure sat. The wooden doll. No longer small, but life-size.
“Oh that. Yes. I thought he’d make things interesting — “
“Shocking, certainly. But, well… none of us have seen anything like it!”
She felt a warm wetness seeping between her toes and looked down. Her feet were soaking in a pool of blood. The wooden doll was gushing quite a river. Except it wasn’t a wooden doll, but a tall, thin man wearing a cravat and dark suit. His tow-colored hair was stained crimson from the oozing gashes on his head.
Tara inclined forward to see into the adjacent bedroom. Feet encased in buttoned boots flopped in the doorway. Her mouth dropped open in an attempt to scream, but nothing came out.
“The poor dear. There’s no need for dramatics. We love it!” The tubby man’s eyes narrowed and grew bloodshot. Tara backed away. “But if you don’t mind my saying so,” he moved his head closer, “you might want to do something about this… ensemble of yours.”
He pointed at her body. She followed his gaze.
She was naked, her legs scarlet to the knees. Her stomach was spattered with bone fragments and spongy blobs of brain. Now she was able to scream, and once she started, she couldn’t stop. The shrieks tore from her throat until she was hoarse.
She opened her eyes. She was standing in the living room of the Wentworth… the McAllister Place. All just a dream. Her hand felt strangely weighted. She was still holding a teacup. No, a mug, the one she brought up to the attic the other day. She was holding it like a teacup though, with her pinkie outstretched.
“I saw you walking, I followed you downstairs.”
A fuzzy blotch turned into the shape of a man sitting in an easy chair. Bryce. He was staring at her with a peculiar, fixed gaze. She realized that she was only wearing an old gym shirt over her underwear. She looked awful. Her hipbones protruded through the stretchy fabric — she barely weighed a hundred pounds — and her skin was covered with goose bumps.
He rose, grabbing an afghan from the couch and wrapping it around her shoulders. Her teeth chattered. He gently guided her to a seated position. “I didn’t want to scare you. The worst thing you can do when someone sleepwalks is to wake them up. You can, like, get a heart attack or something.” She nodded. He took the mug from her hand. “You were screaming.” He slipped an arm around her waist. “It’s this whole dad issue that’s worrying you. I always told your Mom you had a right to know the truth.”
As if he had been around for years. “Sorry for scaring you.” His hand was under the afghan now, tracing her rib cage. She edged away.
Footsteps creaked above. “What are you all doing down there?” Mother’s voice called from upstairs, faint and furry with sleep.
“Nothing. Tara had a bad dream.”
“Well, get her to bed. You have to work early.”
Bryce hesitated. “I’m okay,” Tara said. “Don’t worry.” She made her way to the rickety banister and tiptoed upstairs.
That morning at breakfast, Mother went out of her way to be extra nice, and fixed a mess of soggy pancakes and charred bacon. Bryce must have said something. She gave Tara double helpings of everything with a wavery smile and was so pleasant that Tara thought she should take advantage of the situation. “I thought we could go back to the dump today. I need to throw out a few more leftovers from the attic.”
Mother’s smile didn’t falter but her forehead creased. Tara didn’t notice. Bryce did. “I’ll be out shopping, then coffee with the girls. Wait a few days until everything’s in order and we’re all sure what needs to go.”
“It’s no problem,” said Bryce. “I’ll take her after work.”
The frown on Mother’s forehead deepened. Tara sensed that the wooden dolls in the attic were listening. She imagined the life-size doll from her dream standing behind Mother. With both of its hands behind its back…
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Maybe the dump wasn’t a good idea. Bryce would ask a bunch of questions and end up worming the truth out of her. He was so nosy. Mother would think she was crazy and there would be more sessions with the counselor. And even if Tara succeeded in throwing the dollhouse away, what if someone else found it…
“You’re right, Mom. We should go another day. I was thinking to do more gardening anyway.”
“Again? You just mowed.”
Tara swallowed. “I like it. You were right. It is fun. In a… Zen sort of way.” This time, Mother smiled for real.
After Bryce left for work, she called Tara into the living room to keep her company as she framed photos. “We haven’t talked in a while.” Tara sat and picked lint from her sweater. She had to choose now of all times. Mother tapped her fingernails against a plastic picture frame. “I couldn’t help noticing. You,” she paused. “You’ve been getting friendlier with Bryce.”
“He drove me to the mall yesterday.”
“I thought you couldn’t stand him.”
“He’s okay. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Mother snipped a white border from a photograph. “This change. I have to wonder if it’s from asking about your father yesterday.”
“Sure.” Couldn’t she hurry this up?
“Well, I’m glad we’re settling down, learning to be a family.” Tara couldn’t help looking up, in the direction of the attic. The dolls were listening again. “I know I seemed angry yesterday, but I’m proud of you.”
She left soon after, to Tara’s relief. Going upstairs and fetching the dollhouse with nobody around wasn’t easy, but she gathered her nerve and hauled it to the backyard. For the next hour, she raked leaves into a big pile, sneaking a good many from neighbors’ lawns.
There was a metal garbage can in the garage leftover from Bryce’s partying days. It had been reserved for spiked punch. As Tara picked it up, she glanced at the sidewall of the garage, which the previous owner had covered with nail hooks. Bryce had hung an assortment of woodworking tools, to Tara’s amusement. Who was he kidding? The guy couldn’t even put together a puzzle, let alone carpentry.
Among the saws and hammers was an axe. It didn’t resemble the toy replica in the dollhouse. Its wooden handle was marked with a neon green “clearance” sticker. Tara felt uneasy nonetheless.
She dragged the garbage can behind the backyard shed and placed the dollhouse inside, chasing it with a lit book of matches. She had considered dousing the wood with gasoline but decided against it, figuring that the varnished surface would do the job. It did — the box was good and fiery in no time. She heaped leaves on top and left it alone. Soon, clouds of black smoke billowed from the can. She prayed that the neighbors wouldn’t come nosing around to see what she was doing.
By the time Mother and Bryce came home, only a few ashy embers glowed at the bottom of the can. The dollhouse was a sooty hulk. Most of the furniture had burned away. Except for things like nails and screws, which had merely warped in the heat. Good enough. Tara went inside, satisfied with a job well done.
Mother was in the kitchen heating a frozen casserole in the oven. “Phew, you stink like campfire.”
“I burned a bunch of leaves for fertilizer. We learned about it in biology.”
Bryce ruffled her hair. “You’re really serious about this gardening thing.”
“You’re lucky the neighbors didn’t call the fire department. Hop on upstairs and clean up before dinner. You’re not fit to be around.”
Her dream that night didn’t start off too badly. She was with the same fabulous people in the dollhouse. The walls and furniture had burned away. Only their framework remained. She should have felt scared, but somehow she wasn’t. Cool breezes blew through the charred walls. People were free to enjoy the open air and sunshine. Nobody — not even the tubby man — talked about décor or statements. They chatted of television shows, food they liked, the glorious weather.
One man, a lone fellow sitting in an easy chair, refused to join the conversation. The oppressive halo of silence that hung about him soon spread to the other merrymakers. Tara was annoyed. Here they were having a good time and he was bringing down the mood. Something had to be done. She perched on the edge of the adjacent couch (now just a few blackened pieces of metal) and tapped his shoulder. He didn’t respond.
Tara looked closer and realized he had no mouth. His face was a blank mound of wood.
She woke with a jump — she was beginning to get used to this — and was back in her room. The figure was now seated on the edge of her bed, peering at her face.
“Thought I’d check on you. I heard you talking in your sleep.”
“I want you out of here,” Tara whispered.
A flash of irritation crossed his face. “This what I get for looking out for you?”
He stalked out, leaving the attic door open. Tara could hear faint snoring from the bedroom downstairs. Mother must have dipped into her Valium.
He didn’t speak to her the next day. Tara wasn’t sure if he was angry or fearful that she’d say something to Mother about their fight. Both, probably. She didn’t care one way or another, so long as he stayed out of her way.
It was Sunday. Mother had gone to the salon and splurged on highlights and a blow-out, so that her hair hung to her shoulders in a smooth, gold-flecked sheet. She had a “special” evening planned for the three of them: mini-golf followed by dinner at some new chain restaurant. Tara begged off, claiming a headache. Mother looked at her curiously, but didn’t say anything. She pulled on a new dress and touched up her lip-gloss. As she left with Bryce, she scowled at his outfit. He hadn’t bothered to change out of his jeans and plaid shirt.
The garbage can only held a few remnants of burned leaves. There were no hunks of wood. No metal fragments. Raccoons or hobos must have gotten into the trash. Or Tara had dreamed the whole thing. Impossible, but she’d force herself to believe that she was imagining things if it meant the dollhouse weirdness of the past few days was over with.
That night, she snuck one of Mother’s Valium pills before going to sleep. It probably wouldn’t stop the dreams, but was worth a try. She slid into bed and closed her eyes.
She was walking, her steps falling into a familiar path down the attic stairs, down the third and second floor into the living room. Her ears hummed with jazzy music and lively conversation. She looked for the tubby man and his friends, but to her dismay they were nowhere to be found. So where were the voices coming from?
She was surrounded by wooden figures. The floor was cluttered with disjointed limbs. Arms, legs, and torsos.
She tried to run, but a knotted leg jutted out and tripped her so that she fell, thrashing, onto the couch. A doll loomed above. She pushed at it but it toppled heavily and pinned her down. Figures closed in all around her. They clung to her arms and legs so that she couldn’t move. Never before had she felt so impotent. She squeezed her eyes shut.
When she opened them she was back in the attic. Something… someone… was on top of her, a pendulous weight. Her forehead itched. Bryce’s cowlick brushing against her face. She stifled a scream and turned her face away from him.
Even in the darkness, Tara could see it, next to the bed. An oblong object with a silvery head, just out of reach. She was reminded of something that danced outside the periphery of her memory. A book? Maybe a television show? A schoolyard rhyme. She slowly stretched an arm until her fingertips brushed smooth wood. Don’t fight or struggle, he’ll know something’s afoot. Her hand encircled the handle and shifted back and forth.
She swung the axe in a fluid motion, the blade glinting in the pale moonlight as it gained momentum.
Bryce flailed away from her and cursed. He lurched around the room. Either his limbs had stiffened or he was pretending to be a marionette. Tara heard herself laughing. She couldn’t help it. Bryce swore and slapped at her face, which made her laugh harder. And then he had his hands on the axe. She held tight, even when sticky wetness sprayed her eyes. Blood? Saliva? Her eyelids drooped as Bryce’s yells grew weaker. Then she heard only faint murmurs.
She woke in bed — alone. No Bryce. Her sheets and quilt were neatly folded about her and glowed pristine white in the morning sun. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the bureau. A doll perched in bed, dressed in flannel pajamas and ready for playtime. She could hear cupboards opening and closing downstairs and the hum of a microwave. Mother must be up already and preparing breakfast. As she eased out of bed, she realized that her hands hurt like hell. She must have been clenching them in her sleep, during her dream. Was she even wearing pajamas last night? She thought she remembered pulling on her usual old shirt before sleeping.
She went downstairs to the kitchen where Mother, wearing a terry housecoat, was sipping instant coffee at the table. Although she had brightened her green-grey eyes with mascara, her face was wan and tired. She never let anyone see her without mascara. “Where’s Bryce?”
“Left early this morning. Said he had an extra shift,” She peered at Tara’s face. “You look terrible.”
Tara took a deep breath. “I… I don’t like it here.”
“I don’t want to live here anymore. If I stay,” Tara’s voice cracked. “I keep having these dreams. If we stay, something bad will happen.”
“You’re talking crazy.” Mother rose from the table and dumped her mug in the sink. “Please, please don’t pull this shit now, when everything’s going so good.”
“We can stay in a motel until the place is sold.”
Mother closed her eyes, inhaled, exhaled. “Look, I don’t know what has you spooked, but you’re being a baby. We’ll talk with the counselor today. Tomorrow,” she amended. “I’m at the office this afternoon.”
“I don’t want to see the counselor.”
“Why are you making trouble? We’re happy here, the first real home we’ve ever had.”
“You don’t feel it, all around us? Something not right? As though the place is… ”
Mother was losing her temper. “Is what?”
Evil, Tara thought. It occurred to her how ridiculous she sounded. She clamped her mouth shut. Mother was right. She was going crazy.
“I don’t know.”
“Eat something and go back to bed, get some rest. Everything will be okay.”
Tara took a seat at the table. Mother set a plate of lukewarm microwave waffles before her. Tara ate obediently, stifling her usual complaint about refined sugar and preservatives. It hurt to use a fork — her hands were still sore. She examined her raw, reddened palms that were chafed from the base of her fingers to her wrists. Fingernail marks? It couldn’t be, her nails were bitten to the quick. It felt as though she had been holding onto something. Something that was pried away from her.
Had somebody tidied away all traces of the struggle she thought she dreamed of? Tara closed her eyes. She vaguely remembered being tucked in bed with fresh sheets and blankets. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.
She rose from the kitchen table, ignoring Mother bitching that she didn’t live in a hotel and should wash her dirty dishes, and went to the garage, not bothering to wear shoes. The cement floor felt cool and comfortable against her bare feet. She dragged her steps to the far wall where Bryce’s tools were mounted, reluctant to see what she already knew.
The axe was missing. There was a space between the hammers and saws.
Tara sat on the floor and covered her face with her hands. She permitted herself a few minutes of crying. It gave her something to do while she figured things out. An hour later, she got up unsteadily and made a phone call.
The doorbell rang in the middle of dinnertime.
The meal had been silent. Bryce sat across from Tara, avoiding her eyes. He had called earlier saying that he’d be home late. The guys at work had wanted to go for a beer. Unusual for a weeknight. Mother had snapped that Tara wasn’t feeling well and she had a nice supper planned. Real food, that wasn’t frozen or out of a can. He had sullenly agreed to come home.
A bloody strip of gauze was wound about his hand. “Caught my hand in the conveyer belt,” he said, when asked about it.
The doorbell rang again. “Who could that be?” asked Mother. “It’s too late for solicitors.” She left the kitchen to answer. Tara heard the front door opening and her grandmother saying hello. “What are you doing here?”
“Cordial as always, Janice. I’m here for Tara. She’s not well.”
Bryce got up, scraping his chair loudly, and ambled to the foyer. Tara followed. Grandma frowned when she saw her. “So pale and thin!”
Bryce snorted. “What’s it to you?”
Grandma didn’t even look at him. “We’re taking her to see someone tomorrow,” Mother said defensively.
“She needs a real doctor. A psychiatrist. Not a counselor. You know you can’t afford it.”
Their voices dimmed as Tara crept upstairs to fetch her suitcase, which she had packed before dinner. It was small — she had been tempted to put the rest of her things in garbage bags, but Mother would be upset if she took everything at once. She went downstairs and heard Mother’s jagged voice rising above the other two talking. “I’ve had it with you spoiling her. I didn’t raise her to think the world’s going to take care of her.”
“Mom.” Everybody looked at Tara. She dropped her suitcase on the hardwood floor. “Please.”
Mother started to say something and stopped. Perhaps it was the fear in Tara’s eyes. “All right. But she comes back the first week of school.”
Grandma refused the mug of coffee and plate of leftover pasta that Mother halfheartedly offered. “It’s getting late. We should be off before dark.”
Bryce moved to take Tara’s suitcase but Grandma cut him off, clutching it in her right hand. She held Tara’s arm in her left as they walked to her ancient Cadillac. Dark patches of oil dripped from its underside, staining the driveway. “I can walk, Grandma.”
She squeezed Tara’s arm. “You’re not coming back to this place if I can help it.”
But Tara knew she’d have to return at some point. I’ll worry about it later, she thought.
As the car drove away, she stared at the old Wentworth place. She could never think of it as the McAllister house. The sunlight was fading behind its high, shingled gables. Bryce and Mother stood on the porch. Their stiff posture and empty faces reminded Tara of plastic figures on a wedding cake.
Tara glanced up at her attic room. She always kept the window closed, but it was open now and the curtains rippled in the evening wind. Something was perched on the ledge. A long, rectangular box of dark wood. A rigid, jointed figure sat atop, its hand raised.
Suri Parmar is a Toronto-based writer with a background in architectural design who identifies as 55% Ravenclaw. She is a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Writers’ Lab and the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing, and her fiction has appeared in Crannóg magazine, The Stonecoast Review and New Haven Review. You can view her portfolio at scumoftheearth.ca and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @SOTEfilms.