The Doll in the Basement

There was nothing unusual or out of the ordinary about that day–at least, not at first.

It was just another in a string of  lazy end-of-summer afternoons, the kind of day that lingered, unhurried, like a traveler sitting on the front porch of some country store in a small New England town, feet up, sipping lemonade and chatting with the guests.

betterporch

 

lemonade

And that was fine with me.  With the new school year set to begin the following week, the day could take as much time as it wanted as far as I was concerned.  I was about to enter the fifth grade, and the teacher, a veteran of three-plus decades, had a reputation for being a no-nonsense disciplinarian who expected his students to perform from the get-go.  I knew I had to be ready.

But that was next week.  No need to dwell on it, not while a last sliver of summer vacation stood, like a buffer, against the onset of roll call and homework.

The day was hot, clear but humid, the air like a moist blanket that needed to be wrung out, drip by drip.  I decided to head down to the basement–the coolest space in the house.

The basement was split into two distinct zones.  The front, or “Light section,” as I liked to think of it, was partially finished, with food shelves, a freezer, a pool table, and a ping pong set.

pingpong

 

Every time I went down there, I felt as if I were being greeted by an old friend.  I could relax, unwind, let my imagination wander, as I dreamed up new stories to write or new games I could play with my friends.

But the back . . . the back of the basement was unfinished, darker, with metal pipes straddling the ceiling; an old furnace, tucked away in a corner that hummed like a living thing on cold days; a mysterious window, which I had nicknamed “the window to nowhere,” that led to a narrow crawl space; a workbench built in against the far wall, cluttered with hand tools and scraps of wood and paintbrushes; and a snug, pitch-black little compartment under the stairs, where all manner of knickknacks and other assorted sundries were stashed.

clotheslinesandpipes

 

I enjoyed scaring my friends with ghost stories about these tucked-away corners of the basement, and they were genuinely in awe of “the window to nowhere.”

windowtonowhere

 

But while I acted cool and confident in front of them, the truth was . . . I was uncomfortable being in the back of the basement, alone.  I imagined furry things curled up in secret nests; slithery, poisonous things that lived under the workbench or behind the water heater, who would reach out with tentacled limbs and pull me in.  Sometimes, when I ran upstairs, I could swear I heard something stirring in the shadows behind me, and my pace would quicken, my feet rushing, rushing . . .

monster

 

But on that day, with the afternoon heat at its worst and the reality of fifth grade and the demanding teacher on the near horizon, I didn’t think of unseen monsters or dark creatures with fangs and feral, angry eyes.  I just wanted to escape to someplace cooler.

So I went down and played pool with myself, pretending to be a high-stakes player performing in front of thousands of riveted spectators.

pool

 

It was fun for a while, but after a few minutes, I wanted something else to do.  I peered in toward the back of the basement.  Sunlight filtered in through a small window, and I could see particles of dust dancing in the beams.

Why not?  I thought.  Maybe I could discover something new with which to frighten my friends.

The first thing I did when I went back there was yank the chain that lit the naked lightbulb fastened to the ceiling.  The sunlight through the window helped.  But it was not enough–I needed full-on, bright light if I were to venture into this section of the basement, alone.

lightbulb

 

I walked slowly, alert, ready to bolt in a heartbeat if anything should happen.  The sound of footsteps upstairs, muted by the floor above my head, descended upon me.  It was a comforting sound, secure.  It injected me with a fresh dose of courage.

I continued on, heading for my father’s worn, paint-speckled workbench.  Clotheslines crisscrossed in front of it–though no clothes were presently on the lines.  What did hang from one of the lines was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll.

doll

 

I jerked back, not expecting to see her.  Whose doll was she, anyway?  My sister, never a big collector of dolls to begin with, had recently started college.  It wasn’t hers.  One of my cousins, perhaps?  I didn’t know.  And I hesitated, considered turning around and going back to the relative safety of the front portion of the basement.  From upstairs, I heard the dull thud of more footsteps.

The doll was pretty, wearing a dress, with a bow in her hair.  But something about her disturbed me.  I had never liked dolls anyway–maybe that’s all it was.  They always seemed like living things, sentient, only pretending to be dead.

dollalive

 

But when the lights were turned off, and night fell over the house like a shroud, I imagined them walking, on whispery feet, down the hallway, rummaging through dressers and drawers, scheming their secret schemes.

I approached the clotheslines and the doll, slowly, quietly.  Finally, I stood there, face-to-face with her.  I shook my head.  Why had I been afraid?  How ridiculous!  She was made of porcelain, not flesh and blood.  Besides, what could she possibly do?  I scolded myself for being so jumpy over nothing.

I swallowed, reached for the doll.

The doll winked.

I stumbled back, nearly falling over, and was sure I could hear the murmur of some unseen piece of machinery grow louder, closer.

thingsinthedark

 

I turned away from the blonde doll with the blue eyes and the hair bow.  I raced for the stairs, forgetting to switch off the light on the way.  As I took the stairs, two at a time, my mind imagined the doll on the clothesline, smiling now, her eyes staring, empty, calculating, wanting me to return.

childdoll

 

I never did.  I did not venture alone into the back of the basement again until that doll was gone, nor did I tell anyone about what I’d seen.  I’d occasionally head down with my father if he needed to search for something on the workbench–though I always made sure to keep my distance.  I peeked in, sideways, checking to see if she was still there.

Finally, nearly a month later, the doll was gone.  Just as I never learned where she had come from, I never learned where she went.

*****************

To this day, I still ask myself:  Did that doll really wink at me?  I was nervous as I approached her, so it’s possible my mind created the illusion.  Marc Kuslanski would favor that theory.

But I have always believed that she did in fact wink.  I saw her eye close, slowly, and then open again–as clear as the sunlight that filtered in through the small window on the other end of the basement.  Perhaps, in her own way, she was the reason the blue-eyed “ghost girl” appeared in my nightmares years later, the same girl who haunts Mitchell Brant‘s dreams at the start of The Eye-Dancers.

ghostgirl

 

That version makes for the better story, anyway . . .

betterstory

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: