STORIES TO READ ALONE AT NIGHT


Mr. Stringy Comes Home

Emily was pregnant. She shared the news over breakfast. She had broken the yolk of a runny egg and began to cry as the tendrils ran into her hash browns. “I can't” were the only words she had managed to get out before turning green and making a mad dash to the bathroom.

She had been adamant about not wanting children. She said it wasn't a good time since we weren't on our feet yet career-wise. “It would be irresponsible,” she would say. Never mind the fact that a lack of money didn't seem to be stopping any of our friends. They were more than content to let nature run its course. But I knew there was something else at play. Something to do with her Aunt Sicily and what had unfolded years earlier at that burned out trailer.

I had hoped that the inevitability of our new arrival would awaken her maternal instincts, but she was apathetic, if not downright morbid about the whole affair. At the ultrasound, she just shrugged when the doctor told us we'd be having a boy, even when they showed us the little man illuminated and swimming on the monitor. The sound of his heart beat only seemed to reconfirm her notions that there was something alien inside her. “Feeling him move like that, it just makes my skin crawl,” she said. She would get up in the middle of the night and sit at the kitchen table. Wrapped in her robe, she'd stare out the window and cry.

When I told her that my parents wanted to help furnish the nursery, she replied flatly with “my parents are dead.” My temper flared, but I retreated as usual.

That night, I confronted her at the kitchen table. Her eyes were moist and her nose was runny. “I know you're unhappy, but we're going to be parents now and we can't go on like this. It's not fair. Not to me or you or our little man. He's coming whether you like it or not and he deserves better than this. He hasn't do anything wrong, you know.”

“I know,” she replied.

“I need you here,” I said.

“I know.”

She wiped the tears from her eyes. “I'm sorry, I'm here...I'm here. I'll do better, I promise.”

I stammered. I was wound up for a fight and didn't quite know how to react now that it was clear we weren't going to have one. “Good! Then I'll see you in the morning! Try to get some sleep! I love you!”

Triumph.

The next morning we discussed preparations for our new arrival. We would clear out the den to make a nursery. I would paint it yellow. We would prepare a bag for the hospital and install the car seat. And one of those mirrors so we can see him from the rear view mirror while we drive because he was going to be just that cute. And a baby monitor, a good one, with video, so we can watch him while he sleeps. We would choose an outfit for him to wear home; Something comfortable and warm, but smart. There was a lot to do, but I was determined to make sure that I would do everything short of birthing the baby myself if it meant that Emily would come around.

Things progressed smoothly for the next week or so. There were times when Emily's spirit would begin to fade; generally when my parents would call, or she'd get tired, but I would do my best to divert her attention. It worked for the most part. My parents sent the check they'd promised and we set out shopping for all the new furniture and clothes we would need to make our little man feel at home.

The only thing we were missing was a baby swing. Our friends with children all swore up and down that it was a must have, so I set out to the local consignment shop in search of something gently used. As luck would have it, I spotted a nice one in the window as I parked. I entered the store and went to ask the clerk about the price, only to be interrupted by a peculiar barking.

“We-want we-want.” It was coming from a boy of about eight who dashed to the counter with his worn out mother in tow. “We-want we-want,” he waved is arms frantically, and pointed to something on a shelf behind the clerk. “We-want we-want.”

“Oh, him,” The clerk said, turning his attention to a ragged doll sitting loosely on the shelf behind him.

“You . . . you have that?” I blurted incredulously.

“It's a classic example of mid-century Oregon string and craft,” The clerk said. “Rare and quite valuable.”

I was certain he had made the term up just then.

“We-want we-want,” The boy barked. His mom tried to quiet him, but this only agitated him further. “WE-WANT WE-WANT.”

“How much is it?” she finally relented.

“Oh, it's extremely rare and in very good condition,” the clerk yammered, “I couldn't let it go for less than seventy-five.”

The mother shrugged. “I'm sorry, sweetie, but mommy doesn't have enough money.” The boy crumpled to the floor in a fever pitch of we-wants that rang coarsely through his coughing and tears.

“Ma'am,” the clerk said, “he can't be in here like that, he's scaring the customers.”

She glared back at him with a look that caused him to cross his arms and take a step back. She finally relented and began to drag her son out of the store when I piped up.

“I've got seventy-five dollars.” The voice sounded alien, but it was mine. And I did have seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five exactly. It was the last of the money my parents had sent us and it was meant for the swing.

The woman stopped while her son thrashed about wildly in her arms.

I put the money on the counter. “Here, now give me the doll,” I said. The clerk counted the money and began to write up a receipt. “Just give me the doll,” I said. The clerk obliged and handed him over. I cautiously took hold of the thing, half expecting it to come alive and sink its fangs into my hand. Only it didn't have any fangs, just those puffy hand sewn lips and button eyes and mismatched strands of yarn sprouting from his scalp. It was Mr. Stringy, there was no denying it.

As I turned, the boy straightened up expectantly and looked me in the eyes. “Me-want?” he said reaching out to the doll.

“Sir, that's the nicest thing anyone has ever done for Joshua,” she said.

I realized the mistake.

“I'm sorry,” I began, trying to think of an easy way out of this. Part of me thought to just hand the doll over and give the poor lady a much needed reprieve. “Sorry, but this is for my collection,” I said unconvincingly. “I've been looking for just such a piece. I'm a historian. Local history. Old history. Artisanal dolls. Couldn't part with it.”

“You're a real asshole, you know that?” She said as the boy collapsed anew into a one-man symphony of shrieks and flailing limbs.

Lady, you have no idea. I scurried out the door, doing my best to sidestep the feral child.

Outside, I took a deep breath and examined Mr. Stringy. He was an affront to good taste, that was for sure, but there didn't appear to be anything outright menacing about him. No more than any other home made doll.

I went to put him in the car, but the sight of the car seat put a pit in my stomach. I didn't want him to have anything to do with our child. So I wrapped him in a shopping bag and tossed him in the trunk. Once inside the car, I hesitated. My mind raced back to what the sheriff had told us, “something had got to her eyes,” he said. Disquieted by the thought, I went back to the trunk and wrapped the bag tightly in duct tape.

I took the long way home to buy myself some time. I had to think of an excuse to explain the missing money and a game plan for disposing of the doll. I could explain the money. That was easy. She might not even think to ask, for that matter. But what was to be done with Mr. Stringy? Was he a truly a killer? That seemed highly unlikely. I chalked the previous events up to stress. I was projecting my fears and insecurities. That's what a professional would say. Nothing more. No fangs, no murdering, no curse. Just a reminder of Emily's tragic past.

And it was a reminder to me that I needed to be more sensitive. She had been through a lot. She had lost her parents early and carried the burden of watching over Aunt Sicily. She deserved to put those things to rest. She deserved to be happy and I had an obligation to ensure her happiness- I had to make sure she never saw this wretched doll again.

Determined to put an end to this once and for all, I pulled into the driveway with the intention of grabbing some poultry shears and a butcher knife from the kitchen. It was simple, really: I would cut the doll to shreds and dump what remained in the garbage.

It was evening already and already quite cool, but once inside the house, my spirits were lifted. There was singing coming from the nursery. It was Emily. She was home early. And she was singing? It was a lullaby.

“It's finally coming together,” she said as I entered the nursery. “You were right about painting the walls yellow. It makes the room feel so cheery, even on a gloomy day like this.”

I couldn't help but smile at that. She really was coming around. “Can you give me a hand hanging the pictures? They always come out crooked when I do it.” I agreed and promptly forgot about my grisly errand.

We worked late into the night, and even though I was exhausted, the night proved restless. When I did manage to doze off, I would dream about our trip out to Aunt Sicily's, complete with the fire and the screaming.

When morning finally did come, we were woken by a knock on the door. I sluggishly answered to find our neighbor.

“I didn't want to disturb you last night with your wife's condition and all,” he said, “but I had to take Sammy out for a walk and noticed your trunk was open. I heard some rustling, but didn't see anyone. We must have scared them off. Nothing looked too out of place so I closed it and notified the police. They said they'd keep an eye out, but they don't do anything with property crimes. Probably just those tweekers again.”

My stomach sank. I went and examined the car. Nothing appeared to be out of place. But when I opened the trunk, it was empty, save for some shreds of duct tape and remnants of the shopping bag I'd put Mr. Stringy in the day before.

I tried to calm myself down before going back into the house, but when Emily saw me her eyes widened and she asked me what was wrong. “Nothing, just someone broke into our car last night,” I said.

“Oh my God, did they take anything, did they break any windows?”

“Nothing's broken,” I said. “. . . it's just that . . . the seventy-five dollars. The swing money. I left it in the car and now it's gone. I'm sorry,” I said. “I'm sorry.”

I looked down and noticed my hands were shaking. That was interesting.

“It's okay,” she said. “We'll get a swing. We'll get a new one, not something second hand. Our little man will love it. It's okay. Really, it's nothing worth getting upset over.”

I nodded, oblivious to what she was saying.

When I calmed down, I checked the car again, just to make sure he was really gone. Then I checked the yard and walked the perimeter of the house. Nothing else looked out of place. It could have been tweekers. They were notorious for petty thefts and they would take anything that looked like it could be of value; even an Oregon string and craft doll. For all I knew, it could be sitting in a pawn shop by now, or lying discarded by the side of the road. I tried my best to push the events from my mind. If he had been stolen, then there was nothing more to be done about it. He was someone else's problem now.

The important thing was that Emily didn't find out. She didn't need this kind of stress. It couldn't be good for baby. Not to mention our marriage.

By evening, everything seemed to return to a state of normalcy. The due date was approaching fast and we had spent the rest of the afternoon running through our checklist. The hospital bag was packed, the nursery was ready, and I even double checked the car seat to make sure nothing had been tampered with. Everything was accounted for. Exhausted, we turned in for the night.

Around early morning, I was woken by a faint static. I listened carefully, thinking that I must have left the TV on, only to realize the sound was much nearer than that. Then the blue light of the baby monitor came to life and the volume increased to a deafening roar of white noise. I fumbled for the monitor, trying to turn it off, when the static stopped and the light began to flash.

“Emily, oh, Emily,” a voice said over the monitor. It was a woman's voice and oddly familiar.

“Emily, it's that Mr. Stringy again, he's being naughty.”

In a panic, I tried my hardest to find the off switch to the damn thing, but was all thumbs. It was too late: a wicked laughter filled the room for a split second followed by an abrupt silence.

The blue light stopped flashing.

I got up to inspect the house, hoping Emily had somehow slept through the cacophony, but found her sitting up next to me.

“What was that?” she asked.

“I think the monitor must have caught some interference, maybe a CB from a passing truck,” I answered, trying not to sound too alarmed.

“Honey,” she replied, but before she could say another word:

BAM BAM BAM

It was coming from the nursery.

I ran from the bedroom and crashed into the nursery, hoping to catch whoever be in there, but couldn't see anything in the dark. Emily followed on my heels, turning on the light.

“Oh my God!” She screamed.

A small gold disc had been nailed to the wall above the crib. I moved closer for a better look. It had the name “Ralphie” engraved on it. That was Aunt Sicily's dog, the one we found out at her trailer. The one who didn't survive the night. I didn't remember Emily taking it.

“He's come for the baby!” Emily shrieked and then she let out a low guttural moan. I turned to see her doubled over. Her pajama bottoms were soaked.

“Oh my God,” she said.

“Let's go,” I said, “now.”

“I think my water broke,” she said in bewilderment.

“We have to go now,” I said, leading her by the elbow through the house and out to the car. She was sobbing.

It was just a short drive to the hospital, but it felt like an eternity.

“I don't know how he found us,” she finally said.

“I'm sorry,” I replied as we pulled into the hospital. “I'll fix it. I'm going to find it and destroy it. With fire. And whatever else it takes.”

“It's not your fault, besides . . .” Emily's voice trailed off.

I glanced over at Emily, she was wide eyed and frozen with fear. I followed her gaze up to the rear view mirror. There, reflected in the child seat mirror, was Mr. Stringy- his dumb stare meeting mine in the early morning light.

I slammed on the brakes.

“Get out now,” I said.

We ran as fast as Emily's legs could take her. Before we knew it, we were in a birthing room with a nurse. Emily was struggling with the contractions. When they came, she'd squeeze my hand so hard, I was certain she would break a bone. When they finally passed, she'd ease off and try to catch her breath, then she'd cry. She was trying to tell me about Mr. Stringy, but couldn't get the words out.

I tried to console her. “I'm sorry,” I said, “I will get rid of him. I'll cut him up and burn him.”

But she just shook her head, “No,” she said. “My Dad said the same thing. They were going to visit Aunt Sicily, and he said he was going to get rid of the damned thing once and for all. I don't know what happened, but I know he did something to upset Sicily. They were driving home from their visit when the accident happened. I always thought it was because of what he said about that doll.” She sighed. “I always knew it would come after me.”

Emily's hand tightened around mine and her face contorted in pain.

The nurse said the birth went smoothly, except for the part where I almost fainted.

The next day, Emily got some much needed rest and we took turns holding the little man. Emily frowned when I said he looked like her. “I was hoping he would take after you,” she said. I responded that it was hard to tell since he was still so squished from the delivery. But still, she frowned.

“I always thought I'd be the last,” she said mournfully. “That maybe this curse would die with me.”

“It's going to be alright. Besides, he hardly looks cursed to me.” I answered.

“I know,” She said, “it's just this feeling I can't shake.”

We were interrupted by a knock at the door. “Congratulations to the new family,” a woman said as she entered the room pushing a small cart of stuffed animals.

“I'm with the local Optimist Club, just here with a little welcome to the world gift for your new arrival.” She was all smiles as she studied the various stuffed animals on her cart. “Let's see here, I always say there's the perfect match in this cart for each and every perfect little baby. Oh, now isn't this sweet,” she said as she lifted a ragged doll from her collection. I always say nothing tops the love and dedication that goes into these homemade dolls . . . only . . . this one looks familiar, I could swear I've seen it before. Yes, in the pediatrics wing last year, there was this boy . . .” Her voice trailed as she looked ponderously at Mr. Stringy. Then she chippered up, “of course, these all sort of look the same,” she said, forcing a smile.

Emily burst into to tears as I took Mr. Stringy from the well wisher. When she turned to leave, I quietly stuffed him into my backpack and double knotted the cinch tie.

“Whatever you do, don't say that everything is going to be alright,” she blurted.

“I won't,” I answered flatly. “But what are we supposed to do now?”

“I don't know . . .” she said wistfully, “Just don't threaten him, I don't want him to hurt the baby.”

Between Mr. Stringy and the birth, we were both exhausted. I tried my best to process what Emily was getting at. We couldn't just set him free, and destroying him was too risky because we might not succeed. Finally, I waited for Emily to fall asleep and slipped out of the room with the backpack.

On my way home, I stopped by the hardware store and picked up a small safe and some length of chain. The safe was on the small side, but it seemed heavy enough; lugging it down to the basement was certainly no small task. I removed Mr. Stringy from the backpack for one last look. He was as wretched and lifeless as ever.

But when I placed him in the safe, I swear that his expression changed. His puffy lips seemed to curl at the edges, forming a wry and wicked smirk. Startled, I slammed the door and wrapped the safe in the chains, securing it tightly with a series of locks. Satisfied that he wouldn't be making any great escapes, I turned to leave and that's when I heard it: a muffled sobbing emanating from inside the safe. It sounded so much like a child that my first instinct was to free him. I wondered if that's why Aunt Sicily couldn't keep him locked up in his trunk. I would have to keep the combination from Emily, just to make sure.

Before returning to the hospital, I set about tidying up the house, hoping to remove any signs of the previous night's events. In the nursery, Ralphie's nametag was still hanging from the wall. I didn't have time to patch the wall, so I substituted a small oil painting in its place. It was a landscape of a small lake near Mt. Hood that Emily had found some years earlier. The scene was bucolic and not anything like her normal taste in art. I gazed at the painting for a moment, trying to figure out why it had caught her eye, but couldn't make heads or tails of it. It made me wonder what else she had been keeping from me.

We weren't home more than a couple of days when it happened. It was near sunrise when I woke to find Emily's side of the bed empty. Concerned that something was wrong with our little Georgie- a name we had chosen after my great-grandfather, I got up to find him sleeping soundly in the cradle we had moved into our bedroom.

I poked my head into the living room, only to find it empty. I called out her name, but when no answer came, I began to worry. Instinctively, I opened the door to the basement where I was greeted by the soft sound of singing. It was the same lullaby she had been singing the night I found her decorating the nursery. I quietly descended the stairs and spied her sitting on the floor in front of the safe. Her fingers tenderly caressed the combination lock as she sang, unaware of my presence.

Unsure of what to do, and not a little creeped out at the scene, I retreated back up the stairs to check on on Georgie who was still swaddled tightly and sleeping soundly. I briefly considered disturbing his slumber in hopes that the sound of his cries would lure Emily up from the basement, but did not want to risk a provocation. Lord only knows what was going through her mind. Instead, I settled back into bed, my mind racing through possible explanations of what I had just witnessed- maybe the whole ordeal left her missing her family, of which Mr. Stringy was a morbid, but undeniable part, or maybe she was suffering from a bout of postpartum depression. When she finally came back into the bedroom, I feigned sleep, thinking she might explain her actions when she was ready.

Only she never did. Each night, when Georgie was settled and she thought I was sleeping, she'd quietly get up from bed and make her way down into the basement. And each night, I'd follow her, careful not to make a sound. She'd sit in front of the safe, idly playing with the combination lock, or tracing the lengths of chain with her fingers. There in the diminished light of her phone she'd sing her lullabies and whisper stories- the same ones we had been reading to Georgie. Sometimes she'd giggle, and other times, I swear it sounded like she was bargaining with the captive jape. Then, in the early morning, around the time Georgie would wake to nurse, she'd slip back into bed and lay quietly until he began to fuss.

I couldn't explain why Emily was so attracted to the doll, perhaps a mix of hormones and a savory dash stockholm syndrome, but it was clear that my plan of holding him captive in the basement was a resolute failure. She was wearing herself ragged by staying up all night and I was afraid that her nightly serenades would escalate to a full blown jailbreak, something that would have to be avoided at all costs.

The next night, when she got up from bed, I made sure Georgie was fast asleep and followed her down. I didn't try to muffle my footsteps and she must have been alerted to my presence because I found her standing wide-eyed in the middle of the basement.

“I couldn't sleep,” she said, “so I thought I would dig around to see if I couldn't find that old photo album we were talking about.”

“I know what you've been doing down here, you've been here every night since we brought the baby home.” I was too tired to play coy.

“What?” she said incredulously.

“You've been singing to him. Em, has he been talking to you? You need to tell me the truth.”

She lowered her head and mumbled to the floor.

“What's that? Has he been talking to you?”

“It's so cold down here,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

“He told you he's cold?” It's a doll, Emily, a horrible ragged doll.

“Don't yell at me.”

“I wasn't yelling.” Maybe I had been yelling, just a little, because soon more tears followed. “Look, I'm sorry, I'm upset, it's true, but I don't know how else I'm supposed to be acting.”

I tried to embrace her, but she pushed me away and looked to the safe.

“Your son's upstairs and you're down here playing mommy to that monstrosity.” Unhinged might have been a better word for how I was feeling. “Fine, you want him so bad, you can have him.”

I had secured the chains so tightly around the safe that I had a hard time getting the keys into the padlocks, and the combination lock didn't go any smoother. By the time the lock clicked and the latch moved, we had both calmed down enough to speak in coherent sentences.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I finally asked before opening the door.

“I don't know,” she stammered. “He's just so lonely.”

I cracked the door to the safe and produced the mangy occupant, careful to hold him by the nape of the neck. Emily's face brightened at the sight of him and she held out her arms, tenderly reaching for him the way did in the hospital when she saw Georgie for the first time. I thought of what she had said in the hospital about hoping the curse would die with her and recoiled.

“I'm sorry, but we can't do this to Georgie,” I said, stealing the doll back up the stairs.

Emily followed, close on my heels. “You can't do this, he belongs to me. He needs me.”

“Your son needs you,” I said, hoping to jar her back to her senses.

I made my way to the backyard and lit the grill. I turned the gas to high and threw the doll on the grate and promptly shut the lid. The tears returned to her eyes and I stood defensively with one hand securely on the lid and my other arm outstretched, forcing her to keep her distance.

Orange and blue flames spewed from the grill's chimney emitting a sound that, under the right conditions, could be mistaken for a high pitched scream. After the flames died, we stood silently like mourners by the pyre. I had been holding the grill shut so tightly that my hand began to cramp, but despite the pain, I was reluctant to loosen my grip.

“You think I'm crazy, don't you?” Emily asked.

“I don't think you're crazy.”

“It was just so lonely, I could feel it, you know?”

I didn't know. “It's going to be okay,” was all I could offer. But my arm was throbbing and I didn't want this moment to last any longer than it had to.

“Let's just do this,” I said, motioning to the grill.

Emily nodded. “Do you think that's it, then? Is he really gone?”

“The flames have died, I can't imagine there's much left.”

I turned off the gas and slowly opened the lid. There were bits and pieces of charred fabric left on the grill. I poked at them apprehensively with a pair of cooking tongs, just to make sure there was nothing left, but discovered some solid bits mixed in with the remains. Bits that were too hard to be plush or fabric.

“There's something here . . .” I said, still unsure of what I was looking at in the early morning light.

Emily fetched a serving tray and, carefully, I transferred the remains, piece by piece, with the tongs. We brought the tray inside to study under the light, and as I poked through the ask, small ivory bits began to reveal themselves.

“My god,” Emily gasped. “Please tell me those are animal teeth.”

I wanted to tell her that, but there was no mistaking what we were looking at.

“They must have been sewn into the doll. Didn't you tell me once that Sicily had a younger sister?”

“Rosemary. She died when she was very young. That was the reason they sent Sicily away, but she had always maintained it was Mr. Stringy's fault.”

We stood silently over the remains, each searching for an explanation; something that might smooth over and cast light on the postmortem spread out so haphazardly on our kitchen table. I still wasn't sure if we were looking at a murder scene or, perhaps, something more innocent, if not equally macabre.

In the end, we opted to inter the remains in a small cedar box and buried them in a shady spot beneath a maple in the backyard. We planted a rosemary bush to mark the location. I'd spot Emily out there sometimes early in the morning when she thought Georgie and I were asleep. She would tend to the plant and quietly sing her lullabies. And, sometimes, when she was in a particular mood, she'd complain that it was so cold and lonely out there and I would be reminded that, while curses may take different forms, they only ever truly die with us.