Enjoy this reprint of Daniel José Older’s “Skin Like Porcelain Death,” a short story that was originally published in his collection Salsa Nocturna by Crossed Genres Publications, available here.
In “Skin Like Porcelain Death” a half-resurrected cleanup man for the bureaucracy of death confronts a sorcerous collection of chipped porcelain dolls in an attempt to save the soul of a horny young man who chose the wrong girlfriend.
When Victor has something uncomfortable to say, he usually ends up eating and smoking a lot. Since his health-conscious girlfriend Jenny’s bustling around in the bedroom, all he can do is stuff his wide face with those papery, tasteless organic chips that she fills the cabinets with. He flinches slightly after each bite, like the snacks have been charged with tiny electrical currents.
“Spit it out, man.”
“You’re dead, right, Carlos?”
I roll my eyes. We’ve half-stepped this conversation so many times and I’m tired of tiptoeing.
“I’m partly dead.”
“Right, whatever, you’re deadish.”
The difference means nothing to him and I have to remind myself it’s only ’cause he doesn’t know any fully dead people. I deal with their chilly, translucent asses all the time. I nod at him to get on with it.
“And your job—you investigate, uh…”
You know what I hate? When someone stops mid-sentence and stuffs a bunch of food in his face. Then you’re just stuck there listening to all that crunching and smacking, waiting for the conversation to start back up. “Victor,” I say, “I’m hung-over. Breakfast was delicious but maybe I should come back when you’ve rehearsed a little better whatever it is you need to talk about.”
Victor swallows a little too quickly, sputters, and gets back in it. “My little cousin Jimmy…had a weird…experience.”
“Tell him it’s very normal and one day he’ll be able to do it with a real live woman, but not to hurt himself in the meantime.”
“No, Carlos, this is serious. He says he saw something. He’s all freaked out, wouldn’t even tell me what it was. He went over some girl’s house and something real off musta happened. Came back pale as shit and stuttering.”
“Also normal. Surely there’s some pills he can take.”
“Alright, Victor. He didn’t say anything else?”
“He mentioned something about dolls. That’s all I could get. I know it’s a cliché, but he looked like he saw a ghost.”
“That’s why you asked me over here for breakfast?”
“Look, Carlos—I never ask you for nothing, and it’s not like you don’t owe us a favor or two.”
Damn, he played that card. Most of the time when I show up at Victor and Jenny’s door it’s because some heavy supernatural shit went down and I need a little upkeep. Victor works overnights on an FDNY ambulance and Jenny has as many herbs and nerdy things to say about herbs as any botanica. It’s a strange, fiery combo—new age and 911—but my half-dead ass can’t just stroll into an ER and demand treatment, they might try to resuscitate me while I’m napping. “You know,” he continues unnecessarily, “we had to get a new couch cover after you bled out on our last one.”
“Thank you, I remember.” It was a nasty little run in with a million-year-old ghost mammoth. And yes, I stained the couch, but this guilt trip, I don’t need. Maybe I would be better off at an ER after all. “Alright, I’ll talk to him. But look, he doesn’t need to know about me and what I am.”
“Carlos, you already know I keep your shit under wraps. HIPPA, patient confidentiality, I got you, bro.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Bring him to Marcus Garvey Park in three hours. I’ll see what I can do.”
Jenny pokes her head in. She’s wearing a flowy pajama thing and her blond hair’s pulled into a tight and shiny pony tail. “I’m gonna do some yoga, boys.”
“Try not to hurt yourself again, baby,” Victor says. “I’m off duty.”
I like Garvey Park because the spirits here are very old and very chill. They don’t wile out and send kids hovering over swing sets or switch joggers’ right and left feet just to pass time. They watch, nod their ancient, glowing heads, appraise the spinning world around them, and confer quietly amongst themselves. They’re older even, than The New York Council of the Dead, that sprawling bureaucracy of the afterlife that keeps me busy with heinous errands in return for a modest income and a vague sense of purpose.
It’s one of those languid Harlem afternoons in late summer that the whole world has come out to enjoy. The park is thronged with barbecue families, bums, and flirting teenagers. Each group orbits in little clusters around the picnic tables and basketball courts. The occasional sweaty, spandexed jogger huffs and puffs past. The sun sends a golden, gentle glow through the trees as it gets ready to turn in for the night. And here’s when the nothingness sets in. These damn peaceful moments, when no bodies are dropping, no fanged fuckups are charging through subway tunnels at me. This is when I seem to be a sum of only negative parts: Not dead, not alive. Not a father or a son. No memory, no past. Aloof even with my closest friends, unless we’re laughing about some grim shit that just popped off. I think it’s all the happy families around that do it to me. All that cheery wholesomeness clogs my flow and gets me nostalgic for a time that never was. It’s why I usually don’t bother with the park ’til late, late at night.
In the woodsy slope above the playground, the ancient, blissed-out park spirits are watching the tiny theatrics play out and nodding silently. One floats just at the edge of the trees, staring back at me. Apparently onto my neither-here-nor-there status, his bearded face shines with serene uncertainty.
“That high-ass geriatric bothering you, Cee?” My partner Riley has materialized a few feet away. “Want me to fuck him up?”
I grin. “Nah, I’m used to it.”
“He’s either/or, abuelo, walk the eff along.” If nothing else, it’s good to have crude friends to stand up for you even when you don’t really need them to. The gently bobbing ghost keeps staring, his ancient mouth forming a little concerned O from within a long translucent beard.
“He’s not scared of you, Riley.”
“He’s bluffing, but we can let him have his moment. C’mon.” Riley flips the old ghost off and floats towards one of the winding paths.
“What’s all this about anyway?” he asks as we stroll along the outer rim of the rusty amphitheater.
“Victor’s little cousin got into some shit with a lady.”
Riley chuckles. “Okay, Anne Fucking Landers, but why am I here?”
“And he thinks there’s something about it that might pertain to us.”
“How’s she look?”
“The lady, Carlos. Jesus.”
“I don’t know, man, she’s probably a kid like the cousin. What’s wrong with you?”
Every once in a while, being dead catches up with Riley. The few shards that he remembers from his life swirl in repeat through his head and he gets all agitated and perverse like a damn teenager. I don’t think he can even really be horny, but something about that frisky interplay and all those gooey juices mashing up together just means life to him. It drives him even more crazy that it’s a game I could play but don’t.
“What’s wrong with me?” he says. “What’s wrong with you?”
Instead of responding, I light two miniature cigars and pass one to my partner. I do have a recurring fantasy, or perhaps it’s a memory, who can tell? She’s Puerto Rican, dark skinned, hair a black ocean of curls, eyes mahogany and penetrating, ferocious. She just looks at me, usually in that perfect dream-time between sleeping and waking, when everything is foggy enough to make thoughts and dreams indistinguishable. She floats towards me, always getting closer and closer but never touching. Her eyes bore into mine like delicious drills, evacuate everything that troubles me from the inside and leave me empty, wide open, charmed and with a huge-ass erection. Other than that, I don’t pay much mind to ass on the street.
Riley and I make our round, smoking in silence. Victor’s waiting for us by the half-shell stage. Beside him stands the tallest sixteen-year-old I’ve ever seen. His face is long, moose-like even, and he wears Malcolm glasses over a serious frown.
“Damn, Victor,” I say as we stroll up. “You miss out on some genes?” Victor’s not particularly short or wide but he looks like a fat midget next to his cousin. “You play ball?” I ask up at Jimmy.
Victor rolls his eyes. “You done?”
I nod. “Let’s walk.”
We start a wide loop around the ball field. Riley floats along beside me, invisible to Victor and the giant. It’s further into evening now; the little ones have been dragged off to bed and the park belongs to a few squirming teens and some quietly conversing homeless guys. The occasional rising firefly glistens against the darkening field.
“So me and this chick, right,” Jimmy says, “we been talking, you know, for like, two, three weeks now.”
“Talking means fucking in teenager,” Riley points out in my ear.
“When you say talking,” I say to Jimmy, “do you mean having a conversation or having sex?”
The boy flashes an awkward smile and waves his hand as if swatting the thought away. “Nah, we was just talking.” He giggles a little. “Yeah, you know, speaking, with words, to each other. Or whatever.”
Victor, I realize, has turned bright red and put his hands in his pockets, which means things will only go downhill for him from here.
“So then on, like, Saturday, was it? Yeah, Saturday. Mina—that’s the chick, Mina Satorius—asks me to come over to her house and watch a movie.”
“That also means fucking, by the way,” Riley says. “Ask him what this Mina looks like.”
“White chick?” I say.
“Yeah,” Jimmy nods but not, I notice, with any particular pride or boastfulness. “But she’s, like, white-white, not just Caucasian-white. Not an albino either, but her skin’s like fucking porcelain. Shiny and everything.”
“That’s kinda creepy,” Riley says. I nod, which to Riley means I agree with him and to Jimmy means ’go on.’
“Like, she’s definitely fine,” Jimmy shrugs. “I mean, dudes always sweatin’ her, so I was surprised when she started talking to me, ’cause I just kinda have, like, my boys I chill with and whatever, but we definitely not the cool kids, if you know what I mean.”
I say I do but I really have no idea what he’s going on about. High School, if I even went, is at the bottom of a pile of deleted memories for me.
“So whatever, you know, I go over there. She lives in Staten Island, so it’s like a serious journey; had to take a train to Manhattan, then the ferry and then a bus.”
Riley belly laughs. “And I know he was thinking, ‘This better not be for no damn movie.’”
“She meets me at the bus stop. She’s looking really fine, wearing one of them, what-you-call-it, spaghetti strap shirts?” Riley and I both shrug. Victor’s still turning colors and chain smoking menthols with one of his FDNY rubber gloves on to hide the hand stink from Jenny. “We walk a few blocks through the suburbs. But it’s, like, serious suburbs, like, manicured bushes on the lawns and tons-a space between each house, and mad pastels and shit. And I’m already feeling kinda on shaky ground, you know, ’cause clearly this place ain’t seen a negro since there was cavemen in it.”
“True, true,” I say.
“Not to mention a tall-ass Spanish-speaking one like me.” We’re all laughing now. I notice that the old park spirits have ventured out of their forest hideaway with the onset of dusk. They form a growing crowd of curious onlookers in our wake, marveling at this strange fellowship of night strollers.
“Her house was ornate, yo. I mean, like some kinda Disney movie shit: All fucking swirls and coordinated furniture and pearly crap in vases. She leads me inside, and yeah, I’m definitely thinking about getting ass, but I’m still shook from being this deep in unfriendly territory, and the house is just giving me weird vibes.”
“Ah-ha!” Riley says. “Get into that!” Which I was going to do anyway, but I let it slide.
“What kind of vibe, Jimmy?”
“I mean, the shit just felt spooky, like I was being watched by a hundred tiny eyes. Like, you ever go into one of those emptied out apartments in the projects and you can’t see ’em, but you know the wall’s fucking alive with waterbugs and centipedes and shit, and even if they don’t actually touch you, you can feel them all around? That’s what this was like, but it was crazy, ’cause like I said, the shit was ornate.”
“Now we’re talking,” Riley says. He is getting excited. So are the park ghosts; I hear them muttering and humming behind us in ancient languages.
“She leads me through the main room into a smaller one, and this one’s real dark and draped with all kindsa heavy fabrics, blood red and burgundy colored curtains. But that’s not even the thing with this room. This room is full, from top to bottom, of dolls. You know, like, the girly kind they’re always hocking on late-night TV and you’re, like, ’Who buys that shit?’ Well, this lady does—all of ’em. Grandma Tess I guess, that’s what Mina said. The old lady’s, like, a serious doll fanatic. Mina just rolled her eyes like it was some annoying grandma thing, but I was, like, truly chilled to the bone, yo. It was deep, because like I said, I had felt all those eyes on me, and then we walked into the room and there they were, hundreds of creepy little girls, all dressed in creepy little outfits and posed in mid-gesture. And no matter where you move in the room, they all looking right at you, I swear to God.”
“That’s fucked up,” I say. Riley nods in agreement.
“So babygirl starts getting all hot and heavy right then and there.”
“In the creepy doll room?”
“In the creepy doll room!”
“Oh hell no!” Riley yells. Even the elder ghosts swish back in disgust.
“And I was, like, ‘Oh hell no!’” Jimmy says.
“Good man,” says Riley.
“But she’s, like, fiddling with my fly, making like she wants to give me some brain.”
I look at Riley. “Bobo,” he says. I blink at him. He circles his fingers near his mouth and pokes his ghostly tongue out the opposite cheek.
I say, “Damn, son,” to Jimmy, who’s starting to wonder what I’m looking at. Victor shoves a fresh menthol into the dying embers of the one in his mouth and puffs ’til it’s lit.
“And I’m, like, ‘Don’t you have a bedroom?’ And she’s, like, &ksquo;Yeah but ain’t you want some right here?’ And I’m, like, &ksquo;Ain’t you feel like a million fucking porcelain freaks about to go Chucky on your ass?’”
“You said that?”
“Nah, but I was thinking it.”
Riley’s doubled over, slapping his knees.
“What’d you say?”
“I said, ‘Let’s go in your room, baby,’ and you know, eventually she let up. But for a minute I thought I was gonna haveta choose between head in the dolls-of-death-room and no head at all. And I really don’t know what I woulda done.”
Riley clicks his tongue. “That’s teenagers for you. I’m horny, but not that horny.”
“So we went to her bedroom…”
“What was it like?”
“It was normal, you know, like your average teenage girl shit: Band posters and half naked dudes on the wall. A few leftover stuffed animals from elementary school. Mirrors and makeup and shit.”
“Nothing creepy in there? No dolls?”
“Nah, it was cool. And when we get in she lays out on that big poofy pink bed and does the one finger c’mere thing and we just… You know.”
“You do it?”
“Well, you know, not all the way…”
“What base?” Riley says. I give him a what-the-fuck face. “Just ask!”
“What, ah, base?”
Victor scowls at me.
“First she went down on me. It was alright, but there was definitely teeth.” Riley coos sympathetically. “Then it was third base, like, right away.”
“That’s French kissing?” I ask.
“No, asshole,” Riley says. “Third base is finger in the pussy.”
“Nah.” Jimmy raises two fingers and two hopeful eyebrows.
“Right,” I say.
“Alright,” Victor finally pipes up. “Jimmy walk ahead a sec, I gotta talk to Carlos here.” Jimmy looks confused but strolls a few feet along the dimly lit path. Night has dropped her cool darkness around us. The air is fresh with the swirling of plant life and the churning urban forest. The elder dead watch us anxiously, unclear on what the holdup is.
Victor smokes and waves his hands like he’s trying to pick the words out of the air around him. “It’s just…” he takes another drag. “Jimmy was born when I was ten. I babysat him ’til he was twelve. I changed his fucking diapers. I’m not really ready for him to be getting to third base yet. That’s all.”
“For a paramedic,” Riley says, “Victor sure don’t have a very nuanced appreciation for the gooier aspects of human life.”
“Riley says you need to get your shit together, ambulance boy,” I tell Victor. “And I concur. Dirty diapers or not, the kid’s growing up. So you may not be ready, but he is. Deal with it.”
The funny part is, Vic can talk up as mean a sex story as any of us, and don’t get him started on the nasty traumas he catches on the graveyard shift. But that’s family for you. He’ll get over it. We catch up with Jimmy, who was clearly overhearing everything we said. “Can I continue to live my life now?” he says to Victor. Vic nods wearily. The ancient park spirits gather closer around us.
“After third base, it was sloppy seconds.”
Riley turns to the floating audience. “That means he licked her titties.” They nod solemnly.
“They were a little on the small side,” Jimmy reports, “but perky. Looked right at you. It was awesome. And I know this sounds corny, but the whole thing was just really sweet. Like, it was comfortable, you know? She didn’t try to act all pornstar like some of ’em do. We just kinda held each other for a while.”
“That’s sweet,” Victor admits.
“Then she blew me again ’til I nutted on her face.”
The whole park lets out a collective hum of muted fascination. Teenagers really are another species entirely.
“We passed out—well she cleaned up and then we passed out—and I dreamt some heavy shit. I can’t remember what was going on though, but this creepy carnival type song was playing the whole time.”
“You remember how it went?”
“I actually can’t get the fucking song outta my head. It’s haunting me. And I can’t figure out if it started before I fell asleep or not, like, you know, when you’re almost passed out, but not quite? That’s when the music started.”
“How’d it sound?”
Jimmy whistles an eerie minor key waltz, slightly off time and dissonant. It gives me the chills. The park ghosts have widened their circle around us by the time he finishes. Riley and I trade concerned looks.
“That’s evil,” Riley declares.
“Word,” I say. Jimmy looks confused. “That melody’s got some power in it.” I tell him. “But go ’head. What happened next?”
“When I woke up, Mina’s gone and the dolls are all around me in the bed.”
“Now that,” Riley says, “is some horror movie shit.”
“And I feel sick, like, physically ill. Not to mention terrified. I throw ’em off me and they’re so cold—it’s not natural. It was still dark out, just before dawn actually, and I just got up and fucking booked it outta there. I barely put on my clothes all the way, just was out. Out, son. My black ass was running down all them crazy Arthur Kill Road type-a streets and I wasn’t even afraida no crazy white people anymore. I woulda been relieved to see some sheet-wearing mothafuckas, just to get away from those dolls, I swear, Carlos. I was shook.”
“I caught the first ferry home. Passed the eff out and tried to forget the whole thing happened.”
“Alright,” Riley says. “So some phantomified American Girl dolls jumped him after he banged their owner’s granddaughter. He got away. It’s spooky but not much else. Open-shut.”
“Anything else go on since?” I ask Jimmy.
“That’s the thing,” he tells me, and I feel a little lump building in my throat. “I haven’t really been the same since.”
“What, you can’t sleep? Nightmares? That’ll pass.”
“No, man, I’m telling you, I’m off. Look.” He reaches his hand out to Victor and his fingers shudder dimly and fade into his cousin’s shirt. “I’m disappearing!”
This is bad. This is bad in so many ways. I can almost feel Riley’s gears turning at the same time as mine. The dolls. The girl. The grandma. And now our boy’s slowly checking out.
No easy way to do this: I reach a hand I hope will be comforting up to Jimmy’s shoulder. It doesn’t pass through him but I can tell the flesh isn’t fully there. “You’re dying,” I say. “You don’t have much time.”
Victor spits out his cigarette. “What?”
Jimmy just nods slowly. He’s fighting to get that man mask on, the one that doesn’t cry or feel anything, but he can’t do it fast enough. His eyes get shiny. I’m sure he’d suspected as much, but it can’t be easy to hear.
“The dolls kept your soul. Without it, your body won’t last long. When you go,” I feel horrible dumping this all on him, but it has to be said, “your soul’ll be trapped in that house, probably in one of those dolls.”
This is more than Jimmy can take. He starts trembling and tears flow freely now. “For how long?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Because we’re gonna bust up in there and stop it before it happens.”
Staten Island really is a pain in the ass to get to, especially late at night. I’m fast on land, even with my crook-leg, but that damn ferry goes from occasional to barely-ever after midnight and time is slipping quick for Jimmy. It’s damn near 3 a.m. when Riley and I show up to stake out the premises. The quiet little suburb is all dark patches and occasional foreboding mansions with high walls and security systems. We perch on a hill just outside the gates of the Satorius house and take in what we can.
“It’s bad,” Riley says. “I don’t like any of it.”
“You think the girl’s in on it?”
“Only by proxy. I’m guessing the old dame got the youngin involved in her shit, but baby Barbie prolly don’t know it.”
“Sounds about right,” I say, “but here’s what I really don’t like: Let’s say granny’s stealing dudes’ souls and keeping ’em in the dolls.” Riley nods. “Now you and I bust in there, swords a-flashing, and me—I’m a body and maybe I got half a soul, give or take.”
“Sad but true.”
“But you, Riley, you’re all soul.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“You know what I mean. It won’t be a slow decline for you; you don’t have a body. If things don’t go our way in there, and there’s a good chance they won’t from what I can tell, it’s gonna be a wrap for you quick.”
“Now hold on a minute…”
“Second of all,” I say, “I need you on the outside. I’m guessing a whole lotta souls gonna get released when things start getting hot, and I need you to be out here with Jimmy to figure out which is his and get it back to him. Feel me?”
“I feel you,” he says. “But I don’t like it. You wanna go in there all by yourself and you’re not even sure if both of us could handle it. That don’t make no damn sense either.”
I’m opening my mouth to get into it when a voice behind me says “Who’s that?”
I look up, and then further up, at Jimmy’s face. He’d walked up through the underbrush while we were arguing.
Riley says, “Uh-oh.”
“What do you mean, ’Uh-oh?’” Jimmy demands.
“You can see Riley?” I ask.
“If that glowing floating dude you’re talking to is Riley, yeah. What’s that mean?”
“It’s bad,” Riley says. “The living can’t see me.”
Jimmy says “Oh,” so sadly I almost have to sit down.
“It just means we don’t have much time,” I say. “Even less than we thought.” I look at my partner. “Stay with him, man. That ain’t no place for you to be with your dead ass.”
“That’s true for so many reasons,” Riley says. “But I still don’t like it.”
Halfway down the hill I pause and look up at them. “You wanna call the COD for backup?” Riley and I toss the idea back and forth silently for a second. You never know what you’re gonna get when you call in the Council of the Dead. They might come in all heavy, spirit blades a-rattling or they might not come at all. Usually it’s whatever would be least helpful in the given situation.
“What’s COD stand for?” Jimmy asks.
“Corpulent Old Dickheads,” I say.
“Corporation of Ongoing Douchebags,” Riley says.
“Nice one,” I say. “Let’s not. They’ll find out soon enough.” Jimmy just shakes his head at me as I turn and head off towards the mansion.
Normally, we have all kinds of slick moves we do to get in a spot we’re not supposed to be. I have my grumpy cop routine down pat and a range of fake badges and IDs in my coat pockets. But that’s for when we have some time to find out what’s going on. I hop the fence, limp-sprint across the lawn and kick the door in. One thing about houses that’re heavily spirited up, they rarely have much in the way of earthly protection, A) ’cause they don’t need it, and B) ’cause they don’t want a bunch of cops up in there, anyway.
Ornate is the right word. The kid was also on point about the icky, too-many-eyes feeling. I can almost hear them whirl around in shock and focus that sick stare on me from their perches. I pull a no-nonsense blade out of my cane and advance slowly forward, imagining ghouls lurking in every shadow. The next room is the doll house, but when I walk in, the shelves are empty. I don’t like that at all. I move through quick; don’t need to linger to know about all the bad things that’ve happened here. The room still echoes with lost soul screams.
Next comes a dark corridor with two doors at the end. One goes to Mina’s room, I’m guessing, and the other probably gets me to grandma’s. The energy seeping out of the room to my right is hot and old—a crude mix of fevered sepsis and sterile medical equipment that can’t have much to do with Mina. I click open the door and walk in, blade first.
It’s all dark but for a muted TV in the corner by the door. The screen projects shuddering, colored lights that dimly illuminate Grandma Tess. She’s sitting up in a steel outpatient bed on the far side of the room, staring at me. Long, loose-flesh arms wrap around the guard-rails. Her tightly wound bun and heavy makeup give her face that old-lady/demented clown look. The room is boiling hot.
“Ah, a visitor!” she croaks when I walk in. “How lovely! Come, sit by my bed. I do get so lonely these days.”
“You know why I’m here,” I say. Sweat has begun running unrepentantly down my face and back.
“I’m sure you’re here to keep me company, my dear. You can put that sword away.”
“You have quite a little operation going, lady.” My eyes are jumping around the room, from her forest of see-through orange medication bottles to the stacks of sterile sheets and catheters, but nothing seems about to pounce. “Where’s the dolls?”
“My children? I have quite a collection, you know. You’ll meet them soon enough.”
“This is what I figure,” I say, winding a slow orbit around the room. “You’re a lonely old lady…”
“Tut-tut,” she chirps. “Where are your manners, young man?”
I pick up an old black and white photo of a beautiful smiling woman. “You used to be all the rage, when you weren’t oversized and bed-bound.”
“I had my heyday, yes.”
“Probably quite the man-killer. And then…” My eyes scan the family photos decorating her bedroom wall and land on a fading image of a teenage girl with her hair in a horrific topknot. “You had a pretty young daughter.”
“And you inducted her into your ways. Taught her the art of luring a man in. And once she had him here, you went about your creepy soul-trapping business.”
“Nothing creepy about it, my dear. They all came willingly enough. Celeste was quite the little nymphette I’m afraid.”
The air in the room is getting heavier. Things shift nervously in the dark corners above my head. “You trapped their souls in those damn dolls, and when their empty bodies decayed they belonged to you.”
“Like I said,” grandma’s breathing comes in fast labored wheezes now, “it gets lonely up here. No one comes to visit. The young don’t give elders the respect we deserve. Such a shame, really.” Her edema-heavy hands reach over to the bedside table and retrieve a gold-lined, velvet jewelry box with dancing clowns on it and a crank sticking out of one side. “Such a shame.” She absent-mindedly starts twisting the handle, staring at me with that bright red smile all the while.
The music seeps out in lurching, timid jolts at first. Jimmy’d had the melody down perfectly, with all its eerie, off time elegance. It comes from all around me, envelops me in a hazy cloud of uncertainty.
“Pretty song, no?”
I shake my head no, trying to steady myself. If I speak I might puke, and that wouldn’t be a good look. “What happened,” I gasp, “to Celeste?”
“Bitch got a conscience,” Grandma Tess laughs. “Or more precisely: She fell in love. Broke the Golden Rule. I told her: ‘Celeste baby, never, never fall in love. You can have all the men you want, my dear, just don’t fall in love.’ It worked for so many years. I thought when she had Mina, something would change, but when I placed Mina’s father on my shelf with the rest of them, Celeste took it all in stride. I was so proud of her.”
I let myself sink into a chair at the foot of her bed, because otherwise I would sprawl out across the floor. The melody trudges on around me like a dying ballerina.
“But then, a few years later, this Maurice character starts coming around. A mailman, of course. I knew from the start he would be trouble, with all his good natured smiles and gentle ways. She should’ve known better. Soon enough, it’s ‘Mommy, not this one, don’t take this one from me, please.’ And what did I always tell her? There’s only one Golden Rule. A mother must be firm with her teachings in this day and age.”
I have to stop the room from spinning or I’m toast. The walls swim with movement, and I can’t tell if it’s the dolls lurking towards me or my own weary head.
“Mina was eight at the time. I told her it was cancer that took her mommy and she was too young to question it, poor dear. Now I’ve spent nine long years with the same old irritating companions, waiting for my granddaughter to come of age and my daughter’s ghost to stop moaning underneath my house. She’s given me at least two strokes and probably caused the renal failure, the bitch.”
It’s definitely the dolls. I slash out haphazardly with my blade. They’re moving faster than I thought they would, swaying and scurrying towards me like porcelain roaches.
“Now, now, young man,” the old lady’s voice rings out sing-songy and fierce. “No need for violence. We just want to help you sleep. I know you must not sleep very well, all that hard work you do. Sleep, my friend.” The music won’t stop. The dolls are everywhere.
Something deep inside me is calling out to get my attention but I’m too busy trying to swat away those tiny hands to notice. Finally, it gets me: Jimmy and Riley, waiting outside. In this moment of utter desolation, my soul has coughed up a stern reminder that folks are depending on me not to get myself taken down. People I care about. If I fail, not only will Jimmy be sucked forever into this Hell house, Riley will surely come in after me and get his ass evaporated too.
I force myself to stand up straight, block out the swirling melody with all my mental might and focus my eyes. Those shiny little porcelain faces glint up at me in the flickering TV light. I pick one and smash its head off with my blade. A bright ball of light issues forth, one of Celeste’s poor lovers, and scatters frantically towards the ceiling. I slice again, crack another, and swing my body backwards, almost toppling, as the light bursts out and swooshes past me. In the new illumination, I see there are many more American Girls than I had thought, and my mind is still swimming, in spite of my best efforts. I begin whacking viciously at the crowd with both my blade and the cane sheath. Porcelain explodes around me as lights burst upwards.
I’m ignoring both the creeping melody and the old woman’s screams but my energy is waning quickly. The dolls keep coming. Their little hands are grabbing at my ankles and their skin is cool and soft like dead flesh. It chills me, drains my drive. I have the notion that I’m hemorrhaging somewhere, which would be a quick wrap up to the situation ’cause I’m damn near anemic. But there’s no blood. I tumble towards a window and smash it with my cane. The swirling balls of light flush towards it and burst out into the night like an explosion of stars. Hopefully, Jimmy’s is in there somewhere. If so Riley will sort it out.
Meanwhile, the room has fallen back into darkness now that the shimmering souls have flooded out and the old hag switched off her soap operas. I swing my blade blindly for a second before an icy mound lands on my back and then another on my shoulder. I’ve lost all sense of direction. Tiny, frigid hands are working their way up my ankles. How many can I smash before I succumb? My knees are giving way, so I try to gauge where the majority of the little fuckers are gathering and aim my collapse that way. A terrific shattering greets my fall and for a second all I see is a giant flash of light, rising into the air. It illuminates the room just enough to afford me a glimpse of more legions of dolls scattering forward. As the world gives way to that horrific crawling feeling scrambling over my whole body, I hear Grandma Tess cackle and then the sound of a young girl screaming.
My lady friend is sad tonight. We linger together like extras waiting for our cue, somewhere between asleep and awake. I have the vague notion that something horrible is going on all around us, but right now, I am safe. As long as she’s here, it’s inconceivable that anything bad could happen to me. Her light is just that bright. But she’s been crying, or is about to—who can tell? She reaches out a hand towards me and for the first time in all the years that this beautiful morena has been blessing my dreams, she touches my face. It feels like I’m walking out into the afternoon sun after being in a basement for weeks. The warmth spreads over my whole body and I want to laugh and yell with joy but my friend looks so worried I clam up. I raise my hand to touch her face but there’s blood laced between my fingers. It’s my blood. That warmth all over my body…
I roll my head back to scream and then wake up pinned to a wall in the flickering lights of the damn soap operas. The dolls are standing perfectly still around me. There are noticeably fewer than there had been, but I’m still outnumbered, surrounded and bleeding. Grandma Tess is talking urgently into an old antique telephone, and the thought that she’s in communication with people outside of this house fills me with dread.
I’m trying to gather my strength and figure out where I’m bleeding from when Mina appears in the open doorway. She’s absurdly skinny, has big gawking kitty-eyes and is still rocking that spaghetti-whatever tube top. Jimmy has some work to do on his descriptive powers. From the way Grandma Satorious says, “I’ll call you back,” into the phone, I gather Mina had been here earlier—scream-ing I vaguely recall—and wasn’t welcome back.
“Can I help you, Mina?” the old woman says icily.
“I don’t know what it is you do in here, Grammy,” Mina says, “but it has to stop.” Not bad for a mousy chick.
Grandma’s not having it, though. “Go to your room!” she hollers with all the fury of a runaway elephant. “Get out of my sight! I’ll deal with you later!” Mina has a lot to learn from this one. If I wasn’t chained to the wall I’d be cowering to my room, but the girl stands her ground. Then I see why: All six and a half feet of Jimmy step firmly into the doorway behind Mina. For some reason, the first thought that comes to my head is: How did these two ever possibly get it on? Then the flood of relief kicks in. He looks good and solid so Riley must’ve gotten him his soul back.
Grandma Tess reaches frantically for her music box and begins cranking it as fast as her worn out old limbs will let her. That horrible song tiptoes eerily out. I’m about to yell to Jimmy when he pushes Mina to the side and launches across the room. The dolls clutter towards him. A few drop from the ceiling and find their mark on his shoulders and Jimmy misses a step and crashes forward. I’m pulling at my binds with everything I got but that’s not saying much. Blood is still leaking steadily from somewhere.
Jimmy’s up before too many dolls latch on to him, and he rips a few off and tosses them roughly at the walls. They shatter, sending light balls scattering out the window. Mina screams and runs towards him but he’s already lurched the rest of the way across the room and is wrenching the music box from Granny’s hands. “No!” she screams hoarsely. “No! Give it back, boy! That’s mine! Mine!”
“Break it!” I yell. “Millions of pieces!” Little colorful bubbles are clouding my vision, which I take to be a bad sign, but I’m desperate to stay awake and see what happens. Jimmy aims at an attacking doll and brings the music box down hard on its head. Gears, springs and shards of wood explode across the room as the song finally grinds to a halt. I laugh drunkenly and am about to let myself slip into nothingness when a tall, glowing form steps into the doorway. I squint at it until the old bearded soul from Garvey Park comes into focus. Was he spying on us the whole time? If he’s in on it with the fat witch, the deal is done; Jimmy wouldn’t stand a chance. I’m about to say as much when the happy colorful dots mount a full takeover of my eyesight and I pass the fuck out.
She’s smiling now, my friend, but the sadness waits just behind her eyes like a persistent lover. Her hands are on my face, all that good warmth spilling sloppily over my cheeks, down my throat. I look at her longingly. I’m so tired now, I want to let the world slip away but only if she’s coming along too. And her face tells me sternly that she’s not. That we have to stay. If I was in bed I would roll over and pull the sheets over my head and then wait for her to come find me. Maybe I’m a child again. I just want to let go, let the darkness keep closing in, but then she smiles and I can’t. I can’t be anywhere if that smile’s not with me. I fight the bleariness away and reach out, put my hands on her waist and pull her close to me. Turns out she’s naked and that sacred warmth wraps around me like a steamy bath as I enter her. We move in slow motion, find our rhythm and then fall into a breathless, joyful, steady fuck that seems to go on forever. I wonder what base this is and then I wake up drooling, grinning wildly and staring into an ancient bearded face.
I scream and the face curves its little O shaped mouth into what must pass for a smile in old spirit expressions. Riley peers curiously down at me. He looks truly concerned, but he’s not worried about old beardy being there, which means I don’t have to be either. I become vaguely aware of the forest breathing in and out around us. Riley speaks but it just sounds garbley to me. He’s looking at the park spirit. Then the spirit says something garbley to Riley. Why can’t they bring back my new girlfriend and garble at each other somewhere else?
“How you feeling, bro?” Riley asks me.
“I feel like God stepped on me.”
“You lost a lot of blood.”
“I didn’t have a lot of blood.”
“Yeah, well now you have even less.”
“Saved your ass. Soon as his soul burst out that window, we separated it from the fray, I worked it back into him and he bee-lined for the house. Brave kid, Jimmy. I barely had time to tell him to aim for the music box.”
“Ah, glad you picked up on that.”
We’re definitely in some remote corner of the park, deep in the underbrush. I test out turning my head. It works, but I don’t like what I see.
“We’re…not on the ground.” Not by about twenty feet from the look of it.
“Yeah, this fellow brought you up here. The COD was so pissed off about the sudden flood of dead souls at Intake they didn’t even want to deal with your hemorrhaging ass.”
“Charmingly Official Devastation.”
“Exactly. So we brought you here. Well, this old guy brought you here. He’d been watching us the whole time. He took care of the kid too.”
“He’s fine. But he can still see me, which is odd.” I’m strangely relieved to hear that. It makes everything a little less lonely knowing someone else will now have to put up with this in-between shit. Even if he’s not half-dead like me, we’ll be able to compare notes. And he saved my life.
“You got the heffa?”
“Heffa got away,” Riley reports with a twinge of shame. “Seems she had someone swing by and pick her up. Made herself scarce while we were hauling you out of there.”
There’s that vague sense of dread again. “She was on the phone with someone,” I say, “right before Jimmy and Mina came in.”
“Yeah, the boys at the Council are on it, but you know how that goes. The daughter’s ghost popped up from under the house as we were leaving. Celine?”
“Whatever, she took off after the old hag in a hurry. She was going on about unrequited love and a mailman named Morris or something. Looked to be a nasty cat fight in the works, but not the kind you pay money to see. The wee, skinny chick stuck around, though. She’s spooked but she’ll be alright.”
The old bearded spirit stirs slightly and warbles at Riley. It’s a low moaning sound, like air blowing past a flap that keeps saying fworp fworp fworp over and over again.
“What is that?” I ask irritably.
“It’s old ghost talk,” Riley says. “Very old. Mostly forgotten. Few phantoms even speak it anymore. Lucky for you I had a crush on my ancient languages teacher in the academy.”
Fworp-fworp-fworp, goes the spirit. Maybe it’s changing intonations slightly.
“Turns out he’s some kind of family of yours. An ancestor.”
“What?” It never occurred to me that I have ancestors. Of course, I do—everyone does. But why bother trying to find them when I don’t even know what decade I lived in? It’s all too much. I look up at his peaceful old face and smile. “He knows about my life?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” Riley says. “But he’s been dying to meet you. Says he’s sorry it had to be under these circumstances.” Speechless, I study him for signs of me but come up short. “He’s been keeping you alive for a few days now.”
I reach out a trembling hand to touch this brand new, very old piece of myself. All of the sudden, I am not the errant, half-dead weed in God’s garden I’d thought I was; I’m a link on a spiraling, ancient web. I have a towering young friend who saved my life twice. I have a partner that can make me laugh when we’re both about to die and a chain-smoking healer man that lends me his couch when I’m hurt. A woman loves me, even if she’s imaginary or long dead, she stays with me when everything else goes dark. I have roots. The old ghost puts his glowing hand to mine. It’s icy cold and barely there, but it’s real.