Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Weekly Story #42: The Price of Art

Another story about a painting? There's a method to this madness.

First is that this was written during the first full week of Orthodox Lent. Since every Sunday has its own special commemoration, I decided to take a theme for each week and word associate from there until I had a story. This story came after the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which celebrates the restoration of holy icons to worship. From "Icon," I rather naturally got a story about a painting. Update (4/30): Turns out I was actually thinking of story #43, "Pest Control," which is coming later this week. I don't believe this one's word-association exercise was related to Lent.

Second is that it has some small basis in fact. Back in the 60's, my late grandmother found a bronze relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for about $5 at a local antique store. This one, in fact. Some of you may know Saint-Gaudens for his reliefs in the Capital rotunda, or the double-eagle coin he designed. That savvy purchase paid for college for all of her grandchildren, myself included. 

And that's why I don't have any student loans, and am horrified that anyone does.

I combined that with a documentary I watched once with my grandmother, Who the $&% Is Jackson Pollock?, about a trucker who bought a painting at a yard sale and found it may have been a lost Jackson Pollock painting. But she couldn't sell it because the art community refused to believe it could have been Pollock, even when the paint was matched with his workshop and his thumbprint turned up on the back.

And finally, True Detective Season 3 had just ended, I was taking a break from work, and my roommate challenged me to write a detective story. So here it is!



THE PRICE OF ART


The doorbell rang, and Jackie peeked through the window before answering. A man in a gray suit stood on the front porch, glancing at her flower pots. Probably some salesman, or Jehovah's Witness. She flipped the lock and opened the door slightly. "May I help you?"
"Jacqueline Jarvis?" The man showed her his badge. "Detective Hoover. I'd like to ask you a few questions. May I come in?"
"I'll come out." She slipped through the door and shut it behind her. "Is something wrong?"
"Do you know a Ronald Netter?"
"Of course. From the antique store. Oh God, did something happen?"
"I'm afraid he was found dead at his store this morning. You were one of his last customers yesterday. I was wondering if you might know anything that might help."
"Are you saying he was murdered?"
Hoover nodded gravely. There was something oddly familiar about his eyes, but Jackie couldn't place him.
"Good Lord," she said. "What's going to become of the store? He hardly has any family. Was it a robbery?"
"Nothing seemed to be missing. The money was still there. You recently purchased a painting from him, did you not?"
"As a matter of fact, I did, about two days ago. How could that have anything to do with it?"
"Your order was up on his screen when he died. A painting by David Arnotte, correct? An artist like that, seems like you got it for quite a discount."
Jackie remembered her elation when she saw the price tag. Now she found herself shaking. "Right, only five dollars. Mr. Netter had never heard of him. He is… was… an antique dealer, not an art expert."
"And you?"
"I used to teach art history. Arnotte was never one of my favorites, but I'd know his style anywhere. And I couldn't let an opportunity like that slip by. Whoever sold it to him probably didn't know what he had, either." Jackie checked the street, saw only the one sedan. Surely if she were in any danger, he'd have brought backup. At least one other officer. But if someone were looking for that painting, and her address was on the monitor, then how could she be safe? "Shouldn't you be writing this down?"
"Photographic memory."
"I see," Jackie said. Maybe she could see that holding up in court. "Mr. Netter said he got it from a young man who was clearing out his great-grandfather's estate."
"Hm." Hoover scratched his head. "Well, it just so happens that a rare Arnotte painting was reported stolen recently. There's a chance it may have wound up at Netter's store."
"Not at Netter's." Jackie shook her head. "He's no crook. He may not be an art expert, but he does his research. He wouldn't have taken it if he had any suspicion that it was stolen." She was starting to realize why she recognized this man.
"You're positive about this?"
"I have personally seen him call the police on someone who brought him a stolen vase." Jackie slid her foot a little closer to the door. "The world has lost an honest man."
"Be that as it may, if I could just take a look…"
She put her hand on the doorknob. "Just one moment."
"I might need to bring the painting in for evidence."
When it wasn't even at the crime scene? Whoever this "detective" was, he seemed more interested in nabbing the painting than Mr. Netter's killer. "Just one moment."
"Please. The killer could be looking for that painting. You could be next."
"You should have said so sooner." Jackie slipped behind the door. "I'll be right back." She got the door shut and turned the lock.
Hoover knocked. "Please, Ma'am, it's urgent!
Jackie hurried into her living room. The painting stood propped next to her fireplace, with her photos of her children and grandchildren on the mantel. Her plan had been to sell the painting for what it was actually worth, and use the money to put the grandkids through college.
When she first saw the painting, she didn't just recognize the style, she recognized the subject. It was a portrait of Mr. Eustace Carver, founder of Carver carpeting, the employer of Jackie's dear departed father. Mr. Carver had himself only just recently passed away at the age of 95.
And "Detective Hoover" outside was definitely the spitting image of his great-grandfather.
But if Hoover—if that was his real name—was the killer, why hadn't he tried to hurt her yet? Maybe he'd gotten carried away with Mr. Netter, and didn't want to leave too much of a body count. You didn't necessarily have to be a criminal mastermind to commit murder. Or maybe he'd lied about Mr. Netter being dead in the first place.
She took the phone off the hook and dialed the direct line to the police department. A young woman answered. "Police department. How may I direct your call?"
"Yes, I was wondering if you had a Detective Hoover on staff."
"Let me check… No, I'm afraid we don't have anyone by that name."
"I had a feeling."
Pounding on the door shook the whole house. "Are you going to let me in?" Hoover yelled.
Jackie cringed. God, give her just a little longer to see her new grandbaby. "Listen, there's a man calling himself Hoover on the front porch claiming to be a detective, and I think he may have killed Mr. Netter, the owner of Netter's Antiques."
Jackie heard the operator begin typing furiously. "May I have your name?" the woman said.
"Jackie Jarvis. I'm at 800 Frankincense Lane. He's trying to get in. Please hurry."
"Officers are on their way. Can you hold on until they arrive?"
"Yes. Oh thank you."
They didn't take long. She'd hardly laid down the phone before she heard shouting, and loud thumps on the porch, followed by a knock.
Jackie peeked through the crack in the door.
On the other side was a uniformed police officer, with red and blue flashing behind him. "Ms. Jarvis?"
Jackie opened the door and welcomed him in. Another officer was leading "Hoover" into the police car. She poured some iced tea and gave the first officer a glass.
"Thank you," he said. "It's a good thing we got here when we did. He was just about to throw a flower pot through your window."
"Well, thank heaven," Jackie said. "He said Mr. Netter had been…"
"He took a serious blow to the head, from one of his own antiques. But we got him to the hospital, and he's in stable condition."
"Oh thank God thank God thank God." Hoover must have only thought he'd killed him. Definitely not a criminal mastermind. And not savvy enough to know how valuable one of his own paintings might be. "You got here pretty fast."
"Your order was on his screen when he attacked. We were already coming to check on you."
Jackie let out a long, slow sigh. "To think, all that for this portrait."
The officer stepped over for a closer look. "Not very good."
"Well, Arnotte's never been one of my favorites, either," Jackie said. "But that man thought it was worth all this trouble. Who am I to argue?"

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Weekly Story #41: Time Cards and Vengeance

Not sure I really have much to say about this. I definitely wanted to deal with a mundane situation in a fantastic setting; to use a small event to suggest a bigger world and a bigger conflict; to throw the reader into that bigger world with no context. Sort of like starting Highlander: The Series with season 5.

Oh yeah, it's also sort of an homage to Highlander. My friends and I were really into that in high school.


TIME CARDS AND VENGEANCE

The subway train screamed to a stop. As the doors opened, I took a quick glance around the station, and saw only ordinary commuters, families, and tourists. I fired off a quick text to my supervisor, letting her know I'd just be another five minutes. Maurice had called in sick, so my day off had come to an end, and I had to go in and cover his shift.
I took the stairs up to the street. The rain that had been falling off and on for three days straight left the sky almost as gray as the street. Traffic on both the roads and sidewalks was still sparse. I headed to the crosswalk and waited for the signal to walk.
On the other side stood Otis Aguirre, glaring at me through aviator sunglasses, with glowing eyes the color of blazing coal. No, not today! Especially not now! He and his extradimensional comrades had been infiltrating our world for months, and and not only was I one of the people chosen to stop them, I'd also killed his brother.
(Well, "kill" may be the wrong word. From what I understood I'd only destroyed a physical manifestation. The actual being still existed in his home dimension. And "brother" is only the closest equivalent to whatever incomprehensible relationship these entities have. But that's beside the point. It's like the mafia. Punch one of them, don't be surprised if somebody comes to whack you.)
I checked the other corner. The red light had started flashing, but there were still people in the crosswalk. I dashed over to the other side, checking the time on my phone on the way. If I looped around the next block, I might make it to work with a minute to spare. I also needed to get Aguirre away from this crowd. When I reached the curb, I saw him crossing on the opposite side.
The light between us switched to "Walk."
I ran down the block to Broad Street and crossed the road without checking the light. Here there was hardly anybody around. Aguirre was right behind me.
I unhooked the handle of the Jeek blade from my belt and gave it a flick to throw the blade out. It was just in time to defend against a karate chop that could have taken off my head.
"You think you can get away that easily?" he growled.
"No." I touched the field generator on my belt. The area around me, up to a three-yard radius, went out of phase with our dimension, to keep our fight hidden from the public. "I'm just busy." I slashed toward his chest. "This isn't exactly my main gig, you know!"
He'd dodged, and now swiped at me from above. I blocked again. He kept the edge of his hand pressed against my blade. "Is that the excuse you gave my brother?"
"Nah. I had plenty of time to ice him." I ducked, bringing the sword down with me. In the split second I had before he figured out his next move, I thrust the blade straight through his gut.
I yanked it out, and he doubled over.
Then he started laughing. "You know it takes more than that."
"Yeah, I do." I checked my phone. I only had a few minutes left of actual time, and the distortion in this field was only stretching it out to four. "Look, can your revenge wait? I have to get to work."
"Ha! As if your time cards and name tags are more important than my vengeance!"
"Well they are. Who else is gonna cover the shift?"
Aguirre blinked, then broke out in big guffaws of laughter. Creatures like him didn't take any human endeavor seriously—no politics, no economies, no faiths, no traditions. I must have sounded like an absolute idiot to him.
Well, let him laugh.
I swung the Jeek blade. His head dropped off of his neck, and dissolved as it hit the ground. His body dropped to its knees, and scattered to dust in a matter of seconds, leaving only the flat purple jewel I could take to Highboss as proof of Otis Aguirre's defeat.
I pushed the button to retract the Jeek blade as I took the jewel. I had only a minute of real time left, but with the distortion around me, I could just barely make it in time. Normally I wasn't supposed to use these items for personal gain, but I figured it was worth it this time. I ran until I reached the door of my office's building. Thirty seconds of real time left. I turned off the distortion. If anyone were around to look, they would have seen me appear out of nowhere.
I opened the door, saying, "I'm here! I made it!" I went to my desk and clocked in. This wasn't the best job in the world, but it paid a heck of a lot more than any fights against extradimensional invaders. And I am definitely not about to let that get me fired.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Weekly Story #40: He Snores on the Seashore

I'm cheating a little bit for this one. I originally wrote this last August on my typewriter, and only got around to typing it up the last week of February/first week of March. I also have a few other stories from last year that were written a while ago, originally shopped around to editors, but are now scheduled for upcoming weeks.

The fact that just about anybody can become a celebrity through YouTube is hugely fascinating to me. I mostly follow a couple of Let's Players, a couple of critics, and some musicians. The fact that teenagers can get big on YouTube is just mind-boggling. But then, I've got gray in my beard, so what do I know?




HE SNORES ON THE SEASHORE


She would have recognized his face anywhere, but Rally would never have imagined she'd see him at this beach, out of all the beaches in the world. She pointed him out to her little sister Faye, who was just as big a fan. They both loyally watched him on YouTube, where he went by CodeHalberd, and posted video reviews of 80's cartoons, as well as the occasional livestream where he played a retro game while answering questions in chat. And he was here with his parents, just like Rally and Faye were. He was only thirteen, a few years younger than Rally, and a few years older than Faye. He had over 400,000 subscribers to his channel, and here he was at the beach, just yards away from two of his biggest fans.
Faye was bouncing up and down on her knees. "Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh. That's really him! That's really CodeHalberd! He's right there!"
"Think we should go talk to him?" Rally said. CodeHalberd was sitting down, opening a can of Sprite. He always drank Sprite on his livestream.
"No. No, we can't. He'll think we're weird." An extra layer of pink appeared on Faye's cheeks. Rally had suspected for a while that her sister had a thing for him.
"But think about it, when are we ever going to have this opportunity again? He must have flown all the way across the country to get here."
"But… But… What if he thinks I'm ugly?"
"He will not," Rally said. "He seems perfectly nice." It wasn't like Faye to get so self-conscious. And anyway, CodeHalberd was in middle school. Faye was still a grade-schooler for a few more months. Odds were he'd see her less as a girl and more just a kid, one more adoring fan.
"What if he thinks we're stalkers?" Faye said.
She got Rally there. "We can just tell the truth. It's all a coincidence. Surely he'd know there was somebody here who recognized him."
To look at him now, sitting with his mother, who looked like pretty much every other heavyset middle-aged Mom in the world, and his father, who was a balding and hairy-backed Dad, one would hardly think he was anybody at all, just a regular kid like the boys and girls around him.
The illusion held until two boys and a girl—the girl being the oldest, closer to CodeHalberd's age—rushed up to him in a frenzy of excitement. They seemed to be asking for his autograph. CodeHalberd laughed in embarrassment as his mom handed him a Sharpie. He signed the hem of the girl's t-shirt and added his signature to the boys' arms. The youngest one asked him, loud enough that Rally and Faye could hear, "You wanna come build a sand castle with us?"
CodeHalberd's hand gestures suggested he would, but not just yet. The three ran off, waving back at him with the vigor of a grand flag-waving.
Faye grumbled over her breath. She was staring at that girl with the same harshness as when someone else had a nicer dress or a cooler toy than hers.
"Don't you want his autograph?" Rally said.
"I don't have anything for him to sign."
"He signed those boys' arms."
"They're dumb. It's just gonna wash off."
"That's what selfies are for." Rally snapped her fingers. "We'll take a selfie with him."
"Hm." Faye kept staring at him as she picked the green polish off her toenails. "You really don't think he'll mind?"
"C'mon, you saw that gallery he posted on Instagram. He's been in hundreds of selfies One more's not gonna hurt."
"Maybe…"
"I've got my phone right here." Rally shook her smartphone in front of her sister. "Look at me, trying to be the supportive older sister."
While they were thinking about it, CodeHalberd's parents got up, asking him if he needed anything. They left him alone on their beach towel as he lay down on his side.
Rally tapped Faye's arm. "Come on, now's our chance. Just think what all your friends are gonna say when you get to middle school."
"Mmnnghgh…"
Rally waited for a decision, though now she was starting to think she should have dragged Faye over there five minutes ago. Faye had always been kind of shy, but she'd never get anywhere as a teenager if she didn't allow herself to make a bold decision every once in a while.
A weird grinding noise came from some distance away, like someone trying to start a chainsaw.
Faye finally sprang to her feet. "Let's do this." Her knees were quaking. "It's our only chance, right?"
"That's the spirit." Rally took her hand, and the two of them headed over to him. On the way, Rally checked her own bathing suit, making sure nothing rode up or slid down too much. What was she even afraid he'd think? Was she really worried about her body image with a boy she barely knew and was frankly a kid compared to her? As confident as she'd tried to appear in front of Faye, she was really just as nervous. What if he brought them up on his channel? What would he say about the two of them? This could be the most mortifying moment of their lives.
That chainsaw noise was still going, and getting louder.
When Rally and Faye arrived at CodeHalberd's beach towel, they found him fast asleep on his side. His Sprite had spilled and poured its sugary contents into the sand. And he was snoring. Badly.
That was the chainsaw noise.
Faye's mouth hung open. She couldn't even seem to blink. "Listen to him go…"
"I know," Rally said. "Is that even healthy?"
"He sounds like Uncle Frank."
Rally nodded.
They both stood transfixed at such an unsound sleeper. Rally had her phone ready to take a picture, but only held it flat in front of her.
Faye slipped it out of her hand.
"Hey!" Rally swiped at her. "What are you doing?" Then she saw exactly what. Faye turned the camera to video mode. The timer was counting up. Her phone was recording the most violent snoring they'd ever heard from a barely-teenaged YouTuber.
"Sign that girl's t-shirt, will he?" Faye started orbiting around him, making sure the camera knew who it was.
Rally tried to snatch it back. "Faye! Give it!" But Faye managed to swing her arm away before Rally could snatch it. Rally reached for Faye's wrist, her hand, her phone, anything she might be able to wrap her fingers around. She even chased her around the beach towel like a cat and mouse. Was she really that jealous of a girl he'd only just met?
Faye jumped over him to the other side. Rally stopped short of jumping after her, and teetered above the boy for a moment, sure she was about to topple right on top. Meanwhile, Faye was still recording, with the phone pointed right at CodeHalberd's face.
As Rally circled around his feet, he opened his eyes. "Wh—at the… Hey!" He jumped straight up onto his feet. "What are you doing?"
"Faye! Gimme that!" Rally managed to hook her hand around Faye's wrist and wring the phone out of her grip. Her little sister was frozen in shock. Then Rally herself froze as well. "Oh, geez. We're really sorry!"
"Were you filming me in my sleep? What the hell? What happened to boundaries?"
"I—I—I'm really sorry, Mr. Mauve," Rally said, as if he were a head taller than her rather than a head shorter. "We w-were just hoping to get a selfie with you, and you were asleep—"
"Oh, you're fans."
Rally felt like she'd swallowed some bad sushi. Now he'd definitely think they were stalkers.
"Look, just because you're my fans, doesn't give you a right to record me without my permission. I mean, seriously." He spread his hand over his head. "You caught me snoring, didn't you?"
"Yyyeah," Rally said. "I'm really sorry, I tried to stop her. Faye thought it was funny."
"I'm sure," CodeHalberd groaned.
"It was funny," Faye said. "Play it for him, Rally. You snore really loud, CodeHalberd."
"Quiet, you," Rally said. "I'll delete it right now. Just watch." She opened up the phone and returned to the camera app and went through the archive. CodeHalberd crossed his arms. Rally tried to bring up the menu to delete it, but it ran too slow. "Come on…" She tapped the screen hoping it would finally listen to her.
That chainsaw noise once again roared. Faye leaned against Rally for a better look. The screen showed CodeHalberd lying on the towel, making a noise like an army of warthogs.
As he watched the video, CodeHalberd's voice turned a shade paler.
Rally couldn't even work up the strength anymore to say "I'm sorry." All she'd wanted was to say hi to one of her Internet heroes and take a picture to remember him by. Now all she had to remember was the horror in his eyes as her sister humiliated him. Soon the whole Internet would know how she'd wronged him. Even if he never named her, she would know it was her. She could never watch his channel again.
Faye, on the other hand, was laughing her butt off. Where was her shyness now? Did she even care what she was doing to him?
Why couldn't a tidal wave just come in and sweep her off to sea?
But all along, the snoring was mingled with shouting. The camera started shaking as the movie continued to Rally's feeble attempt to wrest the phone from Faye. Faye's jealous comments, and Rally's desperate shouts, and the snoring—all of it mingled together. Rally's embarrassment began to lift. Maybe this was actually helping her. CodeHalberd did seem to get some color back to his face. He could hear it quite clearly—Rally did try to stop her sister. He grinned as the screen showed Rally chasing after Faye with the face of an old movie monster.
"Well, I guess I can't call that creeping on me," CodeHalberd said.
"No, I would never, ever," Rally said. "Faye just got carried away, is all."
"I'm Faye, by the way," Faye said, a little more sheepishly than before. She must have finally remembered who was here. "I'm sorry, I guess."
"I really do snore loud, don't I?" CodeHalberd said. "I usually have to wear a nasal strip to bed. Can you play it again?"
"Seriously?" Rally said. "If you say so." She restarted the video. The snoring started back up again, shortly followed by the girls' shouts. CodeHalberd started laughing.
"You know," he said, "I'll bet this would be a hit on my channel. Can you send it to me?"
"Seriously?"
"Yeah, just DM it to me. Berdsters love this kinda stuff."
"Okay, s-sure."
"And I'll be sure to give you and Faye a shout-out. Except I didn't get your name."
"Rally. Not Raleigh, Rally. And sure, I'll send it over as soon as we get back inside. Sorry again for bothering you."
"I guess it comes with the territory. Nice meeting you. Rally, not Raleigh. Faye."
"Faye, do you have anything you'd like to say?"
Faye's face had turned almost as red as her swimsuit. "Can… can we…"
"Yes?" CodeHalberd said.
"Can we take a selfie with you?"
"Sure thing."
Once that was done, Rally said goodbye and took Faye back to their original spot. Faye could hardly take her eyes off the photo, her proof of this special day.
After Rally and Faye sat down, that other girl passed by along with her two brothers. Faye stuck her tongue out at her.
"Quit that," Rally said. "Or I'll delete the video."
"You wouldn't dare!"
Of course Rally wouldn't dare. But as far as she was concerned, they got lucky. Not everybody would have been as quick to understand as CodeHalberd. "You know, you're both fans. Why don't you go play with her when she gets back?"
Faye grimaced. "She thinks she's his biggest fan. I got a selfie and a video."
Rally lay on her back and sighed. Maybe Faye was going to make it as a teenager a little too well.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Weekly Story #39: A Room With Amanda Jane

This is the second reworking of a story I originally wrote for a creative writing class in college. Originally it was set at a hospital and involved no creepy dolls. The doll gave the second version of the story more of a hook. And when I decided it didn't have to be set at a hospital after all, I eliminated the need for a ton of research. The story Candy tells about her hospital stay draws from the second version.

The doll itself, Amanda Jane, is loosely based on a creepy doll that's been passed around by the girls in my family for a long while, and is currently owned by my mom. Not being a girl myself, I can't say Amanda Jane was ever much of a presence in my life, but why waste an opportunity to tell a creepy doll story? When I told my mom I was writing a somewhat mean-spirited story about Amanda Jane, she responded very positively.



A ROOM WITH AMANDA JANE


The eyes shone bright and clear in the darkness. Candy could only stare back from the bed, barely able to move with the cast covering her leg. At first the eyes seemed to belong to a short gremlin, a misshapen devil on the cabinet by the window, not caring if she saw it or not. Candy almost screamed right then, but the gremlin had already faded into the black, leaving only the eyes, like those of a hungry cat. If she screamed, it might make its move.
If only Daddy were here. If only she were home. But Candy couldn't go home until her brother Graham got over his flu. Mrs. Powell, their across-the-street neighbor, was kind enough to let Candy stay in her guest room until then, and even left a bell on the bedside table in case Candy needed anything. But it would be too loud. And it was so dark, and Candy was so dizzy from the medicine they gave her, she couldn't find it.
The eyes twitched.
Candy screamed, as loud as her seven-year-old throat could, and swung the bell. She didn't want to die, not with Mommy and Daddy so far away.
The lights came on, and Mrs. Powell appeared at the foot of the bed, in front of where the glowing eyes had been. "Candy, it's okay, I'm here," she said. "Were you having a bad dream?"
"No," Candy said. "There was a gremlin in here, and he was gonna eat me."
Mrs. Powell took a Kleenex and wiped the tears from Candy's face. "That sounds like a bad dream to me."
"No! I was wide awake! Honest! He was right there on top of the—"
Candy pointed, and now saw what she was pointing at. A little porcelain doll with big round eyes, wearing a peach-colored dress, was sitting in a tiny chair on the cabinet by the window. It had been there when they first wheeled Candy into the room. With the pins they put in her leg, and the drugs she took so she wouldn't hurt, she could hardly stand up for very long. She had fallen asleep shortly after arriving, so she'd forgotten the doll was there.
Mrs. Powell let out a little giggle. "Oh, you poor thing, that's just Amanda Jane." She went over and straightened the ruffles in the doll's dress. "My mother used to play with this doll when she was little. Then I played with her when I was little, then I passed her down to Leah. Did you frighten little Candy, Amanda Jane? That wasn't very nice." She turned back toward Candy. "I think she's sorry. She didn't mean it."
Candy set the bell down and sniffed. She could see perfectly well it was just a stupid doll. It didn't have any feelings. Maybe Candy wasn't a bigger girl like Leah, but Mrs. Powell didn't have to make her feel like a baby.
Mrs. Powell was waiting for a response, so Candy said, "It's all right."
"You poor thing. Those painkillers must be doing a number on you. I'll bet you just woke up, but you weren't done dreaming yet."
"I guess so."
"I'll leave Amanda Jane here to watch over you." Mrs. Powell adjusted the doll's back and left it upright in the chair, its big eyes pointed directly at Candy.
"Can you make her look somewhere else?" Candy shivered under her covers.
Mrs. Powell pinched her lips and shook her head, as if wondering why Candy wouldn't want those glassy eyes staring at her. But Mrs. Powell rotated Amanda Jane's head, so she now looked toward the painting across from the foot of the bed. Away from Candy. "There. Now don't worry, Amanda Jane's going to look out for any spooks or goblins or devils out there so they don't hurt you."
Candy pulled up her covers. Again with treating her like a baby. Amanda Jane was just a doll. It wasn't going to watch out for anything.
How could Leah have played with that thing?
Mrs. Powell adjusted Candy's pillow and tucked in her blanket. "How's the leg feeling?"
"Okay, I guess," Candy said. "Kind of aches. I wish Daddy were here." If only her stupid brother hadn't gotten sick. Stupid Graham, always ruining everything.
"Here, I'll be right back." Mrs. Powell left the room and came back with two Advil and a glass of water. Candy sucked the pills into her mouth and gulped the water down.
"I'm turning the lights off now," Mrs. Powell said. "Remember, if you need anything, just ring that bell."
"Okay. Good night." Candy lay back as the light went out, except for a crack of light at the door. Once again Candy was in darkness, with nothing and no one to keep her company.
No one but Amanda Jane.
Amanda Jane with her big, round, glassy eyes. Even at this angle, Candy could see the shine. The doll sat there, as if not only watching…
…but waiting.
For what, Candy didn't want to know.
She dug herself deeper into her covers, closed her eyes, and silently cursed whoever made that stupid doll. Then she silently hoped Amanda Jane didn't somehow know what she was thinking.
Of course not. Amanda Jane was just a doll. A doll wasn't going to get up and do anything. Certainly not hurt her.
Right?
Candy couldn't get that doll out of her mind. Every so often she opened her eyes and checked that chair on that cabinet to make sure Amanda Jane hadn't moved. She also checked the clock on her bedside table, and the time hardly seemed to move at all. At this rate she'd never get any sleep. Sunrise was still hours away. Who knows what might happen until then? Amanda Jane might hop out of that chair and try to climb into bed with Candy.
As soon as that thought crossed her mind, Candy knew she couldn't stay in this room. But how to get out? The wheelchair was folded up by the door.
The crutches, on the other hand, were propped up on the foot of the bed. Candy twisted herself around, shifting her cast over the mattress and pulling herself from one end to the other. But she managed to get her hands on the crutches. From there she lowered her good foot to the floor, then the one covered in the cast. She wobbled a bit—the floor felt like it was shifting around under her. Still woozy from the painkillers. But she got the crutches under her arms, and managed to work herself to the door.
Now the question was, where to go?
The closest room was Mr. and Mrs. Powell's, but Candy didn't want to see Mrs. Powell right now. Mrs. Powell would just make her feel like a baby again for getting scared of the doll. Further down, near the staircase, was Leah's room. Candy hesitated at first. What if Leah made fun of her for being scared of Amanda Jane? Plus Leah was in the same class as Graham, so she might even pass it along to him whenever he got back to school. But Candy liked Leah, and would still rather see her than risk going down those stairs to sleep on the couch.
Candy swung her crutches and moved past the bathroom and the antique dollhouse near the balcony. She drifted a little to the side, and had to correct course. If she got too close to the stairs, she might fall and break her leg all over again, or maybe even break something else.
But she made it to Leah's bedroom door. Should she knock? She lifted her arm, and nearly toppled to the side. So instead she grabbed the knob and tried to turn it. But again, the world kept swaying around her. The knob kept slipping out of her grip and clicking back into place.
Then it turned on its own, and the door opened.
"Candy?" Leah rubbed her eye and pulled her hair back. "What's going on? It's 3 AM."
"I can't sleep," Candy said. "Can I come in?"
Leah sighed. "Had a bad dream, huh?"
"I guess so." Might as well let Leah think that. Leah probably still loved Amanda Jane.
"All right, might as well." Leah stood aside and turned on the light, and Candy crutched in. The room was clean and pretty, just as Candy expected from a fifth-grader like Leah. Racecar posters hung on the wall, and in addition to the large basket full of big toys, there was a smaller one on the dresser full of Hot Wheels cars. Candy went over to the bed. Leah took the crutches, propped them up by the window, and went back to the door. "I better go get your wheelchair," she said. "You know, just in case you need it."
"Thank you."
Leah turned the lights back off. There was still enough light through the window from the moon and the street lamps that it didn't feel too scary. Candy didn't go to sleep right away. She wanted to be sure Leah was coming back.
And Leah did return a minute later, rolling the wheelchair in and setting it next to the window along with the crutches.
"Thank you," Candy said again.
"Sure." Leah crawled into bed and yawned. "I'm a little jealous, you know. I wish I could take off from school tomorrow."
"What? You're going to school?"
"Of course I am. It's only Wednesday. Say, how'd your leg get broken, anyway? Graham said you were roller skating?"
"Hm?" Candy shifted her bad leg aside. "Oh, yeah. Daddy took us to the roller rink. I'd never been skating before, and I fell, and it was like, one leg fell on the other. It really hurt."
Leah whistled. "I'll bet it did. What was it like in that hospital?"
"I dunno. It was okay, I guess. I felt really hazy the whole time. Kept falling asleep and waking up. I met a boy with one arm. He had these robot toys that he could put together into a big robot, and he let me play with it."
"That was nice. I'll bring out my toys before I go to school, so you don't get bored."
"Okay…"
"So what was it that got you screaming earlier?" Leah said. "It was Amanda Jane, wasn't it?"
Candy's head perked up. "Yeah, it was! How'd you know?" She remembered what Mrs. Powell said and lowered herself a little. "I'm sorry. I know she used to be yours."
"Are you kidding? She creeps me out big time. It's just Mom still adores her. I saw her in your room just now and figured she freaked you out. I actually forgot she was in there."
"I felt like she was watching me."
"Heh, yeah, same here," Leah said. "But she's a family heirloom, so we can't get rid of her." Leah moved closer. "Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I can hear something moving in that guest room. I could swear I've seen Amanda Jane running around the house, too."
Candy shook. "R-really?"
"Oh yeah," Leah said. "I think she goes into my room when I'm not here, and goes through my stuff."
Candy clutched her pillow.
Leah started chuckling. "I'm kidding. Man, the look on your face!"
"It's not funny."
"Sorry. I know, that was mean. I'll make sure Amanda Jane's put somewhere else before you go to bed tomorrow night. How's that sound?"
"Thank you," Candy said. She shut her eyes, and had a dream that she forgot by morning.
Leah's alarm went off at seven with a shrill beep. Candy woke up as Leah slapped the clock into silence. The sun lit the room almost as well as if the overhead light were on. Leah sat up. "You sleep okay?"
"Uh huh," Candy said. "Thanks again."
"Any time." Leah stood up and stretched. "Just be careful with that cast, okay? You kicked me pretty hard a few times."
"Sorry." Candy looked around the room, her eyes moving from poster to poster, from NASCAR to Indy 500, until they landed on the dresser. On top of that dresser was a small chair, and on that chair was a doll with big glass eyes and a peach-colored dress.
Candy screamed.
Leah clapped her hands to her ears. "Yow! What the heck?"
"Look!" Candy jabbed her finger out.
Leah saw Amanda Jane, and jumped with a shudder. "Oh geez!" She scrabbled back into the bed and buried herself under her comforter, up to her eyes so she could still see the doll. "That was not there when I went to sleep."
"Did she follow us?"
"I hope not." Leah shook. "I swear I was only joking. There's no way she could really…"
Candy wrapped her arms around Leah. "I'm scared."
"It's okay, it's okay. I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation for this… Let's just stay calm… and…" Leah sprang out of bed, pulled the case off her pillow, and swept Amanda Jane up inside it. Candy kept her eye on the pillowcase to make sure nothing was moving inside it. Leah placed the bundle inside her closet and shut the door. "There."
"How'd she get in here?"
"Beats me," Leah said. "I mean, she didn't just get up and walk in here." Leah added sheepishly, "Or did she?"
Candy whimpered.
"No, no, you know what? Mom always goes out for a walk at 5 AM. She probably saw that you'd come in here, and thought it'd be cute to bring the doll to look after us. Ugh. If I didn't know better I'd swear she knows it's creepy."
"So the doll isn't alive?"
"No way. But even if she were—" Leah clenched her fist. "I think I can take her. And anyway, who needs a doll to look after you when you got me around? You ready for breakfast?"
Candy nodded. "Uh huh!" After the way she'd dealt with Amanda Jane just now, Candy believed it.
"Here. Climb on." Leah bent over by the bed and let Candy onto her back. "Oof. There. I think I got you. I'll come back for your crutches and everything. I'll bet Graham's never done stuff like this for you."
Candy chuckled. "If he did now, he'd throw up. But you're cooler than he is anyday."
"Appreciate it."
Leah carried Candy out of the bedroom and down the stairs, where Mrs. Powell already had breakfast ready for them. "What was all that screaming about just now?" Mrs. Powell said.
"It was nothing," Candy said. "Leah took care of it."