(Originally published in Attic Toys.)
The cottage where Darcy lived was set within the peaceful district of the Ryburn Valley. It stood on high grounds where heather, crowberry and cotton grass dressed the Yorkshire moorland in shades of green, purple and white. The limestone walls were cinereous in colour, becoming more charcoal when the sun settled behind the hills. The rapport between the snap and spit of burning logs, and cinder trails on the carpet from embers which had jumped from the open fireplace, were commonplace to Darcy. The autumn wind with its tortured voice baying upon every window pane had become her lullaby before bedtime and her birdsong when she awoke. Fear never exploited Darcy’s mind, for as her father contested on many occasions, all things can be explained. The low thundering rumble that tore a hole in the night was not that of a monster pushing its way from one world to the next, but the nightly groans from the heifers keeping warm in the farmer’s barn across the field. The unexpected squeak of a floorboard was not the heels of a ghost, but instead the yawning of wood as it waned under the heat of water pipes. The illusory evil that supposedly cowered in shadows, or became the cold breath of night that followed her from room to room, was only a mischievous current of air that fussed its way around the dank old cottage. All could be explained. Everything that is, except the dollhouse.
It was a perfect replica of the cottage in every detail. Shaped gable ends, stone quoining to front corner elevations, and detailed mullion windows with glazing were all perfectly crafted. The entire front of the cottage along with its roof opened to reveal the same three story, eight room accommodation. Stair railings, banisters and newel posts perfectly matched the deep mahogany like those her hands touched every day. The roll top bath was finished with similar gold fixtures and ornate feet, and the only noticeable difference was the absence of furniture in the rooms. But the dollhouse was beautiful in design, and would have probably remained hidden in the attic without Darcy ever seeing it had it not been for the ghost.
Darcy had awaked to a large bang. Believing it to be a door that had swung on its hinges due to the draft, she left her bed and felt the pinch of a cold wooden floor against her bare feet. The faint hue of a silver moon cast the landing in a static haze. Shadows huddled for warmth in every corner and the floorboards moaned and grumbled as each was stirred from their slumber by her tread. Darcy passed her parent’s bedroom and pressed her ear to the door. The sonorous breathing of her father bled through the wooden paneling. Their door was firmly closed, as was the bathroom’s. As she passed the attic she felt a cool breeze and turned to find the door was open. Crude steps made from wood ascended to a blanket of darkness beyond the staircase. Darcy approached and peered in with a quizzical, almost brazen air of displeasure. As her hand reached for the latch to close the door, she caught sight of a willowy form moving across the attic. She was not alarmed by this revelation, and assumed a car had passed outside; the light from the headlamp throwing a wayward shadow across the wall. A small light switch assured her steps as she made her way up to the attic.
Cardboard boxes of various sizes lay strewn across the floor, each labelled for every room in the house. Cobwebs hung from the apex and wooden beams like old rags and the smell in the air was like that of wet shoes and mothballs. A small window confirmed her suspicions that the ghost was only a light passing against the wall. She was about to leave when she noticed a large object covered under a dust sheet in the corner of the room. For years her parents had the habit of hiding gifts and birthday presents in lofts, attics and basements. Her ninth birthday was in three weeks and so Darcy assumed what lay beneath the dust sheet was her birthday present. She crept across the floor and lifted the sheet to reveal the dollhouse. That she had not hinted or requested one mattered little, for upon seeing it in that dimly lit room, she was completely happy to know it was hers.
Her clandestine visits became a nightly routine. Darcy would wait until her parents had gone to bed. She would then leave her bed quietly and visit the attic to see the dollhouse. An increasing number of ornamental furniture and fixtures were being added on each visit that matched perfectly those in the cottage. Her parents must have hired a master craftsman to fashion these items before placing them in the rooms every day. From the sleigh bed in her parent’s bedroom to the antique Wellington chest in the living room, all the way to the Georgian oak antique chest of drawers in the dining room, the world she physically lived within had been shrunk to Liliputian size. By the first week, wallpaper had been added, and by the end of the second, the same taupe Saxony carpet covered the living room. But the biggest surprise came three days before her birthday. Darcy arrived in the attic to discover three small figurines had been placed in the dollhouse. Each resembled in the most accurate detail Darcy and her parents. She took them out and marvelled at each. Her father’s figurine had the same Roman nose, designer glasses and widow’s peak. Cheekbones were prominent and neck lacking in muscle. Her mother’s hair was styled into the same bob that flanked a rounded face. Lips were like clam shells and eyes of onyx. Darcy’s effigy wore a pretty blue flowery dress, the same she had in her wardrobe and was her favourite of all her clothes. Her auburn hair was tied into a ponytail, much the same way Darcy preferred to wear it. The nose was delicate, its bridge peppered with tiny specks of brown paint. The scar upon her chin that she had gained when she fell from a tree when five years old was etched into the wooden face of her counterpart. The house was complete.
On the eve of her birthday Darcy visited the attic to play with the house for the final time. She undid the latch and pulled back the front façade and roof. Everything was there, from the tiny furniture to the bowl of quince in the kitchen. Darcy found her wooden parents lay in their wooden bed, just like her real parents lay sleeping one floor below. To her surprise, Darcy’s figurine was in the attic, knelt before a smaller version of the dollhouse, the most recent addition to the collection. Darcy moved her smaller self out of the way to get a better look of that tiny dollhouse. She did not wish to touch it in case it broke. In that moment, a noise like that of shifting feet presented itself behind her. Darcy turned, and for the briefest of moments saw an image of a man. His limbs were extended beyond that of what could be considered normal. He wore no clothes, and while shadows draped him like a veil, Darcy noted deep scars traversing his torso. The fingers of his ribcage were pressed against cyanotic skin, and a long, malformed face like that of a gnarled tree remained devoid of emotion. She had enough time to blink twice before the man disappeared. Darcy sprang to her feet and ran to the area the man had occupied, and with each step that pulled her toward the shadows, she convinced herself it was a trick of the light; a mix of fatigue and the sickly hue of the bulb. The space where he was stood was empty. Darcy reached her hand out to the blackness and found nothing residing there but a cold breeze that tightened her skin.
Darcy returned back to the dollhouse, and as she reached for the small clasp that secured the front of the cottage, she noticed the figurines of her parents were no longer sleeping in their beds. Her father was in the living room, his little wooden effigy lay suspended by a piece of brown twine; one end fixed to the wooden beam fixed to the ceiling, the other end wrapped around his wooden neck. She found her mother’s figurine lay in the roll top bath, a trickle of red paint bleeding from her wrists. Both her parent’s wooden faces of power pink and cream were bent by fear.
A dull thud came from the rooms below the attic, and in tandem, her heart beat out a similar sound. Darcy got to her feet and ran down the wooden stairs back to the landing. She opened the door to her parent’s bedroom and found a feral landscape of bed sheets and nothing more. She called out for her mother, skewering a cry for her father to its end. More stairs. Two at a time. Down she went. The moonlight was split upon the cold slate floor of the kitchen like a gallon of milk. Darcy slipped as she rushed through it and fell on her back. Pain danced up her leg and spine, elbows throbbed. She clambered up and limped to the door that divided the kitchen to the living room and paused to catch her breath. All can be explained, she said like a mantra. All can be explained. The wind was a werewolf trapped in the walls, the moon a phantom consuming the stars. The house creaked and moaned as though the souls of the damned resided under floorboards. The door’s handle cooled her sweltering palm as she twisted it slowly and pulled back, releasing a whimper from the hinges. The gap could not have been more than a few inches, but the naked heel of her father’s foot suspended in the pastel shades of a lifeless night was enough to force her to not open it any wider.
She assumed it was tears. The tips of her fingers were darker after she wiped her cheek, but when Darcy felt another large drop upon her face, she looked up. A patch of water had collected on the ceiling, its colour brownish in tone. Darcy moved back and every drip that hit the kitchen floor resembled a short-lived scarlet coronet. To her knees she fell, shaking, sobbing. The bathroom was directly above her. Flashes of a naked wrist cleaved to reveal open veins flooded her fragile mind. She scampered to the sanctuary of a shadow, wrapped it around her shoulders and wept. It had to be a dream. Darcy convinced herself of this. Her parents would not end their lives. They were happy, and they would have never left her alone. The noise from upstairs suggested something, or someone was still in the attic. If it was a dream, she had nothing to fear. If it wasn’t, then it was better she was with her parents than in an empty and cold cottage alone.
Her legs had turned weak. Nightgown, drenched with tears. She passed the bathroom without looking in. At the foot of the attic stairs she inhaled deeply, wiped her eyes and took the first step toward the beyond. The world slowed to a crawl. Silence overruled the clamour of what lain among the flotsam of domestic knick-knacks. Even Darcy’s weight held no influence on the steps beneath her feet. It was though the whole house was holding its breath in apprehension. She arrived in the attic to find it as it was. The boxes were unmoved, the cobwebs sloth-like as they hung from corners. Shadows hugged miserably to the walls and floor. And there the dollhouse glowed like a Halloween pumpkin in the dim light, a macabre symbol of her fate. There was no change to her parent’s figurines, which remained in their varying exhibition of death. But Darcy drew her attention to the small attic in the dollhouse. There was the small crafted model of herself kneeling before the miniature dollhouse, just as she was knelt before the larger one. On closer inspection she noted a red line that scored the throat of the tiny figure. The winter’s breath she grew to believe was only a draft fell upon her neck in that moment, and from the corner of her eye a hand came into view. The tips of each finger were sheltered by gauze, blood seeping through as if the toil of intricacy and detail had worn the skin to the flesh. Scars as thick as leaches chartered the hand, and the rasp of failing lungs stirred her hair. The glimmer of a small whittling knife constricted her pupils, and upon her throat its cooled edge prevented the words she longed to speak.
All can be explained.
All can be explained.
Craig Wallwork is the twice-nominated Pushcart Prize author of over 50 short stories and the novels, To Die Upon a Kiss, and The Sound of Loneliness, as well as the short story collections, Quintessence of Dust, and Gory Hole. He lives in West Yorkshire, England.
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