Human/Super #8: Dollhouse

 

HUMAN/SUPER #8

DOLLHOUSE

 

 

 

 

 

Molly Quaid crouched behind a rock and stared down the shaft of an arrow. She took a deep breath, lined up the shot, and fired. The first target fell. The second ran.

She climbed up onto the rock and took aim on the fleeing creature. The arrow arced through the air and struck the animal in the shoulder. It stumbled for a moment and limped behind a pile of debris.

Molly hopped to the ground and rushed forward, nocking another arrow. Howls echoed in the darkness, growing silent as she approached. She raised her bow as she crept around the debris, but her quarry was nowhere to be found.

A heavy weight struck her from behind, spinning her around. The beast reared onto its hind legs, poised to strike, and she fired her arrow into its chest. It staggered backward and collapsed.

When the dying gasps subsided, Molly dragged both bodies to a sheer stone face where a rope ladder hung beneath a shaft of light. Her muscles ached as she climbed up toward the light and staggered out into a massive open space.

She removed her armor piece by piece and placed it into a large crate sitting by the hole, along with her bow and arrows. She took a deep breath and the world began to shrink around her. The sun floating high overhead became a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and the ground became a hardwood floor.

She slipped into a pair of coveralls and kneeled by the hole in the floor, now just a few inches across. Reaching inside, she pulled the two dead rats from the gap beneath the floorboards and dropped them into a black garbage bag filled with similar bodies. She drew the little rope ladder out of the hole and placed it in her toolbox next to her armor and weapon.

Taking one last look around, she picked up the toolbox, slung the garbage bag over her shoulder, and stepped out of the pantry.

///

Molly slid her wedding ring back onto her finger as she pulled up in front of an old ranch-style house in the suburbs. Her wife, Sergeant Lynn Lorenzini of the Victory City Police Department, stood in the driveway wearing her dark blue uniform. Her blonde hair blended in with the house’s pale yellow façade.

“Sorry I’m late,” Molly said, climbing out of the van. “Things got a little hairy at work.”

“That’s okay,” Lynn replied. “We haven’t been waiting long. We figured you’d get delayed so we adjusted our timetable accordingly.”

“Good thinking,” Molly said, chuckling. “Where’s your mother now?”

“Inside,” Lynn said. “Follow me.”

They headed up a weathered driveway flanked by an unkempt lawn to a screen door that squeaked when Lynn opened it. Molly cringed.

“Don’t make that face,” Lynn said as they stepped inside.

“What face?” Molly asked.

“Your ‘I have a bad feeling about this’ face,” Lynn replied.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Molly said. “This is my ‘cautiously optimistic’ face.”

“Are you two arguing already?” Lynn’s mother, Karen, asked, standing in the foyer with her arms crossed.

“I don’t know,” Molly said, glancing at Lynn. “Are we?”

Lynn shrugged.

“Well, come on in then,” Karen said. “Let me give you the grand tour.”

Leaving their shoes by the door, Molly and Lynn stepped into an empty living room with cream-colored walls and a hardwood floor. Molly planted her feet and felt the wood groan beneath her weight as she leaned from side to side.

“We moved most of their things into storage,” Karen said. “but you might find odds and ends here and there. If you do, just set it aside and I’ll take care of it later.”

Karen crossed the room to a doorway in the far left corner and motioned for Lynn and Molly to follow. They stepped into a hallway bisecting the house, front to back. The first door on the left led to a large room with a bay window overlooking the street.

“This was my parents’ bedroom,” Karen said. “It gets lots of natural light, especially in the morning. I used to come in and curl up by the window with a book all the time.”

Next door, a smaller room sat at the back of the house, overlooking the yard. Karen ran her hand up the doorframe, tracing a series of notches carved in the wood.

“And this is where I grew up,” she said. “It’s kind of small, but a perfect place for a kid. Or… grandkid.”

She winked and Lynn sighed.

“Yeah, yeah, when you’re ready,” Karen said. “You could always rent the room out if you needed the extra money. Or just use it as an office.”

At the end of the hall, a door opened to a small bathroom with a frosted window and discolored white floor tiles.

“The bathtub’s older than I am,” she said. “Cast iron, incredibly heavy, but solid. The toilet’s been around almost as long, but the years have been less kind. It probably doesn’t have a whole lot of life left in it.”

The door to their right led to a laundry room.

“The washer and dryer were only installed about ten years ago,” she said. “You shouldn’t have any problems there.”

She reached up and pulled a trapdoor down from the ceiling. A ladder slid down to the floor.

“Attic,” she said. “Not much space up there. You can barely do more than crawl. It gets infested with pigeons every other year, but that’s nothing for someone with your expertise.”

She winked at Molly and rolled the ladder up, pushing the door back into place. Heading back to the living room, Karen opened a door opposite the foyer and led Molly and Lynn into the kitchen.

The room was overwhelmingly green, from the floor tiles to the countertops to the cloth on the kitchen table. Even the refrigerator was green, save for a sizable portion of its surface that had given way to rust.

“You’ll likely want to replace the stove,” she said. “Half the elements are dead, and the dials don’t quite match up to the actual temperature. Mom was just so used to the way it worked that she refused to get a new one.”

Karen opened a door to the left, behind which a stairway led down into darkness.

“The furnace and the freezer are down there,” she said. “The basement’s been known to flood on occasion, but it’s never too serious. Oh, and be sure to watch your head on the stairs. There’s a beam about halfway down that probably has Dad’s faceprint on it if you look close enough.”

She shut the door and turned right, to another door leading out to the back porch. Two large oak trees stood in the middle of the overgrown yard and an old shed sat in the corner, with a white picket fence enclosing the entire area.

“When I was a teenager,” Karen said, “I used to sneak through my bedroom window and over the fence at all hours of the night. I’d slip out, raise a little hell with my friends, and come back to find Mom and Dad in my room, waiting for me to return. Needless to say, I was grounded a lot.”

“Sound just like me at that age,” Molly said, and glanced at Lynn. “Maybe we were switched at birth.”

“Hey, it’s possible,” Karen said. “I still don’t know how I managed to raise such a straitlaced daughter. I kept telling her, ‘You don’t have to do all your homework,’ but she just—”

Mom,” Lynn said.

“Okay, okay,” Karen said, holding up her hands. “I’ll go inside and… find something to do. You two can talk things over out here.”

She stepped back into the kitchen and shut the door behind her. Lynn turned to Molly with arms crossed.

“Okay, go ahead,” Lynn said. “You hate it, right?”

Molly shook her head.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” she said. “I mean, it’s a mess and needs a lot of fixing, but I’m not one to look a gift house in the mouth. And if all else fails, we can always sell it on later. Instant profit.”

Lynn smiled and turned toward the yard.

“You know, I really think we can make this work,” she said.

Molly slipped her arm around Lynn’s waist and said, “Stranger things have happened.”

///

Molly crept through a maze of twisting corridors, senses primed and knife at the ready. She rested her free hand on the dirt wall and glanced around the corner. A large chamber lay ahead, stacked to the ceiling with foraged food. This should be the last of them.

Stepping forward, she removed a heavy bag from her back and scattered an assortment of fist-sized pellets over the food supply. She backed out of the room slowly and retraced her steps, hiking uphill for what felt like hours.

Sunlight shone down from above, but was quickly eclipsed by the silhouette of one of the colony’s soldiers. It marched down the corridor toward Molly and she pressed herself against the wall, raising her knife.

Antennae flicked in her direction and mandibles flared, but the armored creature continued on its way down into the network of tunnels. Molly exhaled and crept carefully to the exit, emerging atop a mountain of sand.

Sliding down the side, she plunged into a forest of grass and emerged onto vast, rocky terrain. She found her rope ladder hanging from a metallic cliff high above, and she climbed up into a massive, dank chamber.

Her toolbox towered over her, about as tall as an apartment building. She cast off her armor and returned to normal size, throwing her coveralls on in the process.

She retracted the rope ladder and climbed out the back of the van. The anthill by the driveway marred an otherwise impeccable yard, but the poison would make short work of it over the next few days.

Staring up at her client’s house, a two-story building with a stone façade and a built-in garage, she wondered if she would ever live in such a nice place. She climbed back into the van and pulled out of the driveway, watching the house disappear in the rear-view mirror.

///

The moving truck was already at the old house when Molly pulled up out front. She climbed out of the van and headed up the driveway. The front door of the house opened and Karen stepped out with one of the movers in tow.

“Hey, kiddo,” she said, smiling. “How’s it feel to officially be a homeowner?”

“It… hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” Molly replied.

“It will, soon enough,” Karen said. “I hope you like it here. I’ve had a lot of good memories under this roof. Be sure to make some of your own.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Molly said, smiling.

The mover, a tall, broad man, hoisted a computer desk over his shoulder and climbed the front step. Molly opened the door for him and headed inside after him. She found Lynn in the kitchen, loading food into the fridge.

“Take this to the basement, will you?” Lynn said idly, handing Molly a large tub of Neapolitan ice cream.

Molly wrapped her arms around the tub and headed downstairs. She shrank a few inches to avoid hitting her head on the beam jutting out from the ceiling.

The basement was small and dank, with plaster walls and an uneven floor. Holding the ice cream under one arm, she reached up and pulled the cord that turned on the bare lightbulb overhead. Dark shapes scurried off in all directions.

“Perfect,” she muttered, sighing.

She put the ice cream away in the freezer and headed back upstairs. She returned to normal size as she stepped out into the kitchen. Lynn shut the fridge door and took a step back, dusting her hands. Molly smiled sheepishly.

“Uh oh,” Lynn said. “What are you up to now?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Molly said, “but it looks like we’re not the only ones living here.”

///

Molly stood in the middle of the room and panned her flashlight along the walls. She paused on a moldy patch and noticed a small hole at the base of the wall. She set her toolbox on the floor and opened it.

“You can go back to unpacking if you want,” she said over her shoulder. “I may be in there a while.”

“I want to make sure you’re safe,” Lynn said.

“Honey, I do this all the time,” Molly said, standing to face her wife. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“Just don’t take any unnecessary risks, okay?” Lynn said.

Molly leaned down and kissed Lynn on the forehead.

“There’s no such thing,” Molly said.

She removed her clothes and handed them to Lynn. Stepping back, she took a deep breath and the room began to expand around her. Lynn grew to godlike proportions, towering over Molly in the middle of a vast, rocky desert.

When her toolbox had reached the size of her van, Molly reached inside and selected a set of body armor. Once dressed, she tied her hair back, slung a quiver of arrows over her shoulder, and armed herself with her bow and knife.

She approached the hole, now chest-high, and ducked inside. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she spotted tunnels branching off through the insulation in several directions. She chose one at random, nocked an arrow, and began to climb.

///

Judging by the sound of running water, Molly was somewhere adjacent to the bathroom. She’d been searching for hours but still hadn’t found a sign of any pests; no rats, no mice, not even termites crept these walls.

She was about to head back when she spotted something moving in the corner of her eye. She spun and opened fire on a patch of fur in the distance. Crawling over a vast stretch of insulation, she found her arrow buried in a young girl’s face.

Pinned to a beam, a plastic doll in a faded pink dress stared up at Molly with glass eyes. A mop of blonde mohair fell about a face weathered with time. Molly yanked the arrow free and the doll crumpled at her feet.

She slung the doll over her shoulder and made her way back down to the hole in the basement wall. She changed size and clothes, and headed for the stairs, where she found Lynn sitting on the bottom step.

“False alarm?” Lynn asked.

“Apparently,” Molly replied, sliding her ring back onto her finger. “I could’ve sworn I saw something.”

“I think you saw an escape route,” Lynn said, winking.

Molly glanced down at her feet.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I seriously didn’t mean to skip out on all the unpacking.”

“Don’t worry, there’s still plenty more to do,” Lynn replied, and glanced down at Molly’s hand. “What’s that?”

“Oh, I found her inside a wall,” Molly said, holding up the doll. “Accidentally nailed her between the eyes.”

“Wow,” Lynn said, leaning forward. “It looks really old.”

“I bet it was your mother’s,” Molly said.

“My what?” Karen asked, appearing at the top of the stairs.

Molly tossed the doll up and Karen caught it, turning it over in her hand.

“Definitely not mine,” Karen said, tossing it back. “I was never allowed to have dolls.”

“Why not?” Molly asked.

Karen shrugged. “It was just one of the house rules,” she replied. “By the time I was old enough to question it, I’d already outgrown dolls, so I never thought to ask.”

“Then how’d it get here?” Molly asked. “It was hidden in the bathroom wall.”

“Beats me,” Karen said. “It probably was mine. It’s been so long, I don’t remember. But my parents were practically fanatical about their rule, so if I did manage to sneak a doll into the house, I’m sure I would’ve stashed it somewhere they wouldn’t find it. Like the inside of a wall.”

“I suppose,” Molly said. “I just—”

“Maybe you should leave the detective work to those of us with badges,” Lynn said, squeezing Molly’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go upstairs. There’s a bottle of champagne in the fridge just waiting to be popped.”

Molly smiled and said, “Well, I can’t argue with that.”

///

Molly lay in bed, watching the sun creep across the blue-green carpet on their first morning in the new house. Lynn was already dressed, and frantically popping in and out of the bedroom, poking around in the dresser and the hamper and the closet.

“Have you seen my watch?” Lynn asked.

“No,” Molly replied, sitting up. “Where did you leave it?”

“On the nightstand,” Lynn said, “but it’s not there now.”

“Maybe it fell off,” Molly said, climbing out of bed.

She shrank to just a few inches tall and peered beneath the bed. The thick grassland of carpet stretched out as far as she could see, but there was no sign of a watch.

She stepped into the crevasse between the wall and the towering nightstand but, again, found nothing. She grew back to six feet and shook her head.

“Where all have you checked?” she asked.

Lynn sighed and said, “Never mind, I’m running late. I’ll look again tonight.”

She kissed Molly goodbye and headed out the door.

///

Molly shut the office door and shrank to about two feet tall. She donned a set of armor and scaled a ladder to the ceiling. Lifting one of the tiles, she poked her head through and looked around.

She couldn’t see much, but she could hear the distinct chirping of baby raccoons. She climbed above the tiles and crept toward the noise, gripping her snare pole with both hands.

When Molly was close enough to the nest to see all four kits, the mother leapt out of hiding and took a swipe at Molly’s arm. Molly hopped back and thrust the snare forward.

The raccoon caught the pole in her paws and yanked it out of Molly’s hands. Molly cracked her knuckles and expanded, straining against her armor.

“The hard way, then,” she said, and charged forward.

She evaded teeth and claws, and managed to wrap her arms around the raccoon’s neck. The animal struggled and tried to run, but Molly expanded further, weighing her down. The ceiling tile warped beneath them, but held in place.

The raccoon hissed and growled as Molly dragged the animal down the ladder and into a waiting cage. Molly brought the babies down one by one and placed them gently in a cardboard box, where they chirped and stumbled around in confusion.

She returned to normal size, put her coveralls back on, and opened the office door. Several employees came in to fawn over the kits for a few minutes before Molly took them and their mother down to her van.

She dropped the family off at a wildlife rehab centre on the way to her next appointment.

///

When Molly returned home in the evening, she found the living room completely upended and Lynn digging around behind the couch cushions.

“Still looking for your watch?” Molly asked.

Lynn stood and dusted herself off.

“Did you take any cash out of my wallet?” she asked.

“Uh, no,” Molly replied.

“Well, someone did,” Lynn said. “I had fifty dollars in there yesterday and it was gone when I went to get lunch today. And I know I didn’t spend it already.”

“Maybe someone took it at the station,” Molly said. “You deal with criminals all the time.”

“From behind a desk,” Lynn said.

Molly chuckled. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly innocent explanation for this,” she said.

She stepped forward and her foot brushed something on the floor. A pair of glass eyes stared up at her. She picked up the doll and smoothed its dress.

“You know something, don’t you?” Molly asked, jabbing her finger at the doll’s chest. “Come on, spill it, or we’ll have to take you downtown. And don’t bother lawyering up.”

Lynn rolled her eyes and returned to her search. Molly set the doll down on the coffee table and headed to the bathroom. She thought she saw movement when she turned on the light, but she found nothing. She shrugged and stepped into the shower.

///

Molly stood in a vast, metal cavern with her bow drawn, listening to the sound of wings beating in the distance. A bat the size of a small airplane emerged from the darkness and let out a shriek as it soared toward her.

She loosed an arrow and the animal crashed to the floor, skidding to a halt at her feet. The flapping continued, growing to a roar as dozens of bats followed the first. Their bodies rained from the sky as Molly opened fire, but many slipped by.

She spun and gave chase, firing more arrows after them. The air grew colder as she rounded a corner, and the cavernous corridor gave way to blinding light. She shielded her eyes and tumbled face first into waist-high snow.

She rolled onto her back and looked up at a giant man with frozen skin sitting by an array of vents lining the walls. Shrieking in panic, the bats flew up toward the ceiling. The man jumped to his feet, firing blasts of ice from his hands at the animals.

Molly rose from the snow and opened fire. The man spun around, frantically dodging the bats. She tried yelling, but at her size, her voice was just another squeak.

One of the animals made a beeline for the nearest vent. Molly took aim and shot it out of the air. She grinned as she watched it fall to the snowy ground below.

As she turned her eyes upward again, a massive chunk of ice crashed to the floor nearby and rolled toward her, rapidly. She tried to dodge, but the ice struck her in the side and threw her across the room.

The last thing she remembered after slamming into the wall was the snow rising up rapidly toward her.

///

Molly shrugged off Lynn’s offer of assistance and limped up the front steps into the house. She leaned against the wall for a moment before hobbling the rest of the way to the couch. She put her feet up on the armrest and lay back.

“I called Mom,” Lynn said. “She’ll stop by in a bit to check in on you.”

“I can take care of myself,” Molly said.

“Molly, you almost died today,” Lynn said.

“I know,” Molly said. “I can still feel the adrenaline in my system. It’s pretty amazing, actually. You should try it sometime.”

“I think I’ll pass,” Lynn said, and glanced at a clock on the wall. “I have to get back to the station. Try not to hurt yourself while I’m gone.”

“No promises,” Molly said, winking.

Lynn rolled her eyes and headed out the door. Wincing, Molly leaned forward and grabbed the TV remote. She spent ten minutes channel-surfing before losing interest and standing from the couch.

She limped to the bedroom and grabbed a pair of pajamas from the dresser, leaving her coveralls on the bed. Continuing down the hall, she drew a bath and climbed into the tub. The pain melted away as the hot water enveloped her.

She took a deep breath and the bathtub expanded around her, becoming a hot spring, a swimming pool, and finally a sprawling lake. She tried to swim, but her limbs were too sore, so she just drifted a while.

She replayed the morning’s events in her head. The frozen man was mortified when he realized what he’d done, and apologized profusely, but Molly knew she had no one to blame but herself.

She should have disengaged the moment the man came into play, but she got cocky, reckless. She’d been so swept up in the excitement that she hadn’t even stopped to consider the consequences. She was lucky the guy didn’t step on her.

She grew back to full size and pulled the plug. Drying herself off, she slipped into her pajamas and headed back up the hall. She paused in the doorway of the little room that had belonged to Karen as a child.

She reached out and touched the notches in the doorframe marking Karen’s growth. Molly stood next to it and shrank through the ages, from eighteen on down to the first entry when Karen was ten.

Molly’s pajamas hung loosely about her shoulders as she glanced around the hall through a child’s eyes. Behind her, she heard a thump.

She stepped into the bedroom, currently filled with boxes still waiting to be unpacked, and found herself standing by the wall this room shared with the bathroom. The placed her ear to the wood, and the noise repeated.

“What are you doing?” Karen’s voice asked. “And why are you four feet tall?”

Molly expanded to full size and turned to the doorway, where Karen stood carrying two Styrofoam containers.

“You shouldn’t be on your feet,” she said, guiding Molly back to the living room. “Not in your condition.”

“I’m fine, really,” Molly said. “Lynn’s blown this whole thing out of proportion.”

“She’s just worried about you,” Karen said, “and I am too. I know I wasn’t always as supportive of this marriage as I could’ve been, but I’ll be damned if I see it end with my daughter becoming a widow. Do I make myself clear?”

Molly nodded.

“Good,” Karen said, lowering Molly onto the couch. “Now, let’s get some lunch into you.”

She placed the Styrofoam containers the coffee table in front of the doll and sat beside Molly. She opened one dish and dug into a large serving of shrimp chow mein. Molly opened the second container and impaled a chicken ball on a chopstick.

“What happened to your wedding band?” Karen asked.

“Huh?” Molly replied, glancing down at the empty space on her ring finger. “Oh, I must have taken it off for work.”

She stood from the couch and limped to the bedroom. She picked up her coveralls and checked the usual pocket. Empty. She reached into all the other pockets but found nothing. Shrinking, she checked under the bed; still no sign.

“Is there a problem?” Karen asked, appearing the doorway.

“Not sure,” Molly replied, heading down to the bathroom.

She shut the door behind her and shrank again, searching under the bathtub and behind the toilet. She found a rat hole in the cabinet under the sink, but no sign of her ring. She returned to normal size, pulled her pajamas back on, and opened the door.

“I lost it,” she muttered.

///

“What do you mean you lost it?” Lynn snapped.

Molly stared at her hands, listening to the creak as Lynn paced over a weak spot in the floor.

“I don’t know what happened,” Molly said. “I had it in my pocket at work and it should have still been in there. Maybe… maybe someone at the hospital took it.”

“You think a nurse picked your pocket?” Lynn asked.

“I already said I don’t know,” Molly replied, “I’m just throwing ideas out there.”

Lynn stopped pacing and turned her back on Molly.

“You’re not having money problems, are you?” Lynn asked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Molly replied.

“Nothing,” Lynn said. “It’s just… given your past….”

“No,” Molly said firmly, wincing as she stood from the couch. “I’ve been honest with you about that, from the start. I didn’t have to, but I chose to be. You have no right to throw it back in my face like this.”

“Well, can you blame me?” Lynn asked. “It’s not the first thing that’s gone missing since we moved in.”

“Oh my God!” Molly said. “I can’t believe this! First you think I, what, pawned my wedding ring? And now you’re accusing me of stealing your shit?”

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” Lynn said. “I just—”

“I’ve heard enough,” Molly said.

She limped to the bedroom and shut the door behind her. She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms, listening to Lynn pacing in the living room. After a couple minutes, the footsteps approached the bedroom door.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Lynn said. “I shouldn’t have said any of that. I’m a cop, you know? Sometimes it’s hard to turn it off.”

Molly opened the door. “You’re a desk sergeant,” she said. “That doesn’t count.”

“Smartass,” Lynn replied.

///

Molly pretended to be asleep while Lynn got dressed in the morning. She heard the nightstand open, and rolled over to see Lynn taking her wedding ring and wallet from the drawer. Lynn smiled weakly at Molly and shut the drawer.

“Go back to sleep,” Lynn said. “You need your rest.”

“Actually, I feel much better,” Molly said.

She sat up, and shuddered as a stabbing pain shot down her spine. Lynn placed her hand on Molly’s shoulder.

“I’m serious,” Lynn said. “I’ll handcuff you to the bedpost if I have to.”

Molly swung her legs off the bed and wrapped her arms around Lynn’s waist.

Now you’re speaking my language,” Molly said.

Lynn stroked Molly’s hair and sighed.

“You’re so annoying,” she said.

“That’s why you married me,” Molly said, looking up.

“Actually, I married you for your body,” Lynn replied. “That’s why I’m so concerned with keeping it in one piece.”

Molly grinned and said, “You could always call in sick and make sure I stay in bed.”

“Tempting,” Lynn said, “but you know I can’t do that.”

“Yeah,” Molly said. “You’re too much of a square.”

Lynn flicked Molly’s forehead with her finger and said, “I love you too.”

“Have a nice day,” Molly replied, rubbing her face as she watched Lynn walk out the door.

Waiting until she heard the car driving off, Molly opened the nightstand drawer and glanced inside; Lynn had stashed jewelry, cash, and various other valuables within.

“So much for trust,” Molly muttered to herself.

She closed the drawer and stood from bed. A dull ache pulsed through her body, but she ignored it and limped to the living room.

She shrank and crawled inside the couch, searching every nook and cranny. She went to the kitchen and wandered around in the cupboards, under the fridge and stove. She even used one of her rope ladders to lower herself down the drains of every sink in the house. Nothing.

She returned to normal size and hobbled back into the bedroom. She reached for her pajamas and paused; something wasn’t right. She stared for a moment until she realized: the nightstand drawer was open… and empty.

She caught movement in the corner of her eye, at the end of the hall, and rushed after it. The bathroom was empty, but the cabinet under the sink was slightly ajar.

Grabbing her equipment, she shrank and approached the hole in the wall beneath the sink. A vertical shaft plunged down into darkness, and extended up toward the attic. She stepped out carefully and began to climb, her body aching with every inch.

When she finally reached the top, she climbed through a knothole in the floorboard and lay back on a thick cushion of dust. She stared up at the sloping ceiling of a boarded-up cubbyhole somewhere in the attic. In the middle of the chamber, a large, pink house loomed over her.

Scrambling to her feet, Molly limped toward the house. She pushed the front door open and a dozen glass eyes stared at her from within a spacious living room. Six dolls sat side-by-side on plastic couches, clothed in a spectrum of frilly dresses like the one on the coffee table downstairs.

The couches were arranged in row before a towering pile of treasure in the middle of the room. Cash, jewelry, and coins made up the bulk of the loot, along with some silverware, a few watches, and a wedding band engraved with “MOLLY & LYNN”.

Molly stepped forward and lifted the ring from the pile. She slid it up her arm and over her shoulder. Backing out of the house, she pulled the door shut and returned to the hole in the floor.

As she climbed down, a plastic foot stomped on her hand, and she fell.

///

Molly’s head throbbed as she sat up in darkness. Her eyes adjusted quickly and she looked around. Tunnels diverged in several directions through pink foam, and she followed a familiar path on hands and knees.

Emerging into the basement, she removed her armor and returned to normal size. She smacked her head on a beam as she hurried upstairs, hobbling back to the bedroom in more pain than when she began.

She threw on some clothes and slid the ring back onto her finger. The back of her hand was swollen, a black bruise already beginning to form. A wide assortment of cuts and scrapes covered the rest of her body.

She returned to the living room and stood over the coffee table. The doll stared blankly up at her from where it sat. Molly stooped painfully and picked it up. It hung limply from her hand.

Turning the doll over, she probed the dress for a zipper or buttons, but found nothing. In the end, she gripped the doll by the legs and yanked the dress off. She checked the doll for any marks or engravings that might indicate its origin, but its plastic skin was smooth and spotless.

As she tugged the dress back over the doll’s head, she noticed a white tag sticking out from the seam of the pink fabric. In black ink, a neatly-scrawled note read, “The Dollhouse Toyshop.”

///

Molly stood in front of a small storefront in the middle of Victory City’s downtown core, staring up at a faded sign that read “The Dollhouse.” Her hand throbbed and her back ached, but she was too focused on the mystery to care.

The shop was filled to the brim with handmade toys, many of them antiques. They lined the shelves, crowded the floor, and hung from the ceiling.

Molly stared in awe at the vast selection, ranging from dolls to stuffed animals to model cars. She limped to the counter and a middle-aged man smiled up at her.

“Good afternoon!” the man said cheerfully. “Is there something I can help you find?”

“I’m not sure,” Molly said, and placed the doll on the counter. “Is there anything you can tell me about this?”

The man picked up the doll and adjusted his glasses.

“Oh my,” he said, “I haven’t seen one of these in a long time. The shop’s original owner made them. They were his specialty.”

“So you’re not the original owner?” Molly asked.

The man laughed.

“I’m not that old,” he replied, returning the doll. “I was still in diapers when my father bought this place. The original owner built it in the early ‘40s.”

“What do you know about him?” Molly asked.

“Guy’s name was Dahl,” the man said. “Calvin Dahl. I never met him in person, but I’ve heard stories. He was a young man at the time, they say, and a passionate artist. Kids came from all over town to buy his work, especially the dolls. But then… something happened. One day, he dropped everything and put the place up for sale. Never looked back.”

“When was this?” Molly asked.

“Well, I was about a year old at the time,” the man said, “so I guess it would’ve been 1967.”

“Do you have the guy’s contact information, by any chance?” Molly asked.

“I think so,” the man replied, flipping through an old address book on the counter, “but it’s not going to do you much good. He died several years ago. Ah, here we are.”

He spun the book around and slid it across the counter, pointing to the entry for Calvin Dahl. Molly eyes widened; it was her address.

“Um, I have to go,” she said.

She stepped out onto the sidewalk and climbed into her van, sighing with relief as she sat down. She fished her cellphone out of her pocket and dialled the number for Lynn’s parents.

“Hello?” Karen answered.

“Who’s Calvin Dahl?” Molly asked.

“Uh, my father,” Karen replied. “Why?”

“Why didn’t you tell me your father was a dollmaker?” Molly asked.

“Because… he wasn’t?” Karen replied. “Dad was a carpenter.”

“I’m sitting in front of a toyshop downtown,” Molly said, “and the owner says it used to belong to Calvin Dahl. The name of the place was written on that doll I found the other day. There’s a bunch more in the attic. I think your father made them all himself.”

“I doubt it,” Karen said. “Like I told you already, Dad hated dolls.”

“Maybe there’s a reason for that,” Molly said, starting the engine. “The guy at the shop said something happened in 1967 that made Dahl give up his work and sell the place.”

“Well, that’s definitely not right,” Karen said. “If my father owned a toyshop when I was ten years old, you can be damn sure I’d remember.”

“I suppose,” Molly said. “Listen, I know this is last minute but… could you take me to see your mother?”

“That’s not going to do you any good,” Karen said. “Mom’s barely said a word since Dad died. Five years ago.”

“I’d at least like to try,” Molly said. “Something really weird is going on and I need to find out what it is. Please.”

Karen sighed. “Okay, fine,” she said. “Meet me at Saint Joseph’s Nursing Home in one hour.”

///

Molly expected a sterile, hospital-like environment, but instead found herself standing in front of an ordinary single-story house. Karen was waiting by the entrance, and her eyes widened as Molly approached.

“What the hell happened to you?” Karen asked, looking Molly up and down.

Molly rubbed the back of her hand and said, “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“Well, come on in then,” Karen said.

She turned and led Molly inside. The residents milled about a large living room, playing board games and watching television and such. Karen passed through to a hallway lined with doors, and stopped at the second door on the left.

“So, um, you probably shouldn’t get too specific about how you know us,” Karen said. “Mom doesn’t know that Lynn’s… married.”

She knocked and opened the door. A woman in her eighties sat in a rocking chair by the window of a sparsely-decorated double room. She stared vacantly at her visitors.

“Hi, Mom,” Karen said. “It’s me, Karen.”

The woman nodded.

“And this is Molly,” Karen said. “Molly, this is Carla.”

Karen pulled two chairs up in front of her mother and sat.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Molly said. “I was wondering if I could to ask you about something from… a long time ago.”

Carla shrugged. Molly took a seat and held the doll out between them.

“Have you ever seen this before?” Molly asked.

Carla stared blankly for a long moment.

“Every time I close my eyes,” she said finally.

Karen’s jaw dropped, and she glanced at Molly.

Molly leaned forward and said, “Your husband made this doll, didn’t he?”

“He was so innocent,” Carla said, staring past them. “He toiled away, poured his life into his work, and all he wanted in return was to see the children smile. The adults thought him strange, perhaps even dangerous, but to me, he was wonderful.”

She stood shakily and faced the window.

“I was ten years old when the darkness awakened within me,” she said. “Twelve when I mastered it. Fifteen when I met Calvin and showed him what I could do.”

“What darkness?” Molly asked. “What could you do?”

“Do you believe in magic?” Carla replied, glancing back.

In Molly’s hand, the doll came to life. Its glass eyes blinked and it squirmed free of her grip, bounding across the floor to Carla’s side. The old woman picked it up and smoothed its dress.

“I was blinded by power,” she said, “and he was blinded by love. We both were. Right and wrong became an afterthought. We never wanted to hurt anyone, we just… took.”

The doll hopped from her hand to the nightstand. Leaning over the side, it opened the drawer and lifted a string of pearls from within. It climbed back up into Carla’s hand.

“But soon money wasn’t enough,” she said. “We craved something more. We started drawing attention to ourselves, leaving calling cards and, eventually, wearing costumes.”

“Hold on,” Karen said. “You were supervillains?”

Carla nodded.

“We faced Captain Victorious many times,” she said. “The thrill of the chase was… intoxicating. We called ourselves—”

Karen stood from her chair and said, “I can’t listen to any more of this.”

She stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her. Carla sighed and returned to her chair.

“When Victorious died, we put that life behind us and decided start a family,” she said, and closed her eyes. “Our first child died in the womb. And so did our second. After the third, we finally acknowledged the truth….”

She stared down at the doll as it walked back and forth across her lap.

“I could mimic life,” she said, “but never create it.”

“But then… what about Karen?” Molly asked, glancing back at the door.

“Years later, Calvin crafted a special doll,” Carla said. “A perfect, beautiful little girl. His finest creation. When I saw her, I understood… the power had been in me all along. I closed my eyes, and the doll came to life. Not like this one, but a real, flesh-and-blood child, alive and fully formed.”

The doll on her lap started dancing.

“We were so happy,” she said, “but there was a cost. There’s always a cost.”

Molly leaned forward and said, “What cost?”

“Life for life,” Carla said. “As our child drew her first breath, dozens of unborn lives ended before they had the chance to begin. The authorities blamed it on a virus, but we knew the truth.”

The doll fell limp across Carla’s knees.

“Calvin swore he’d never make another doll,” she said. “He sold his shop and sealed away the last of our minions in the attic. From then on, we lived every day as if we were a normal family, as if we weren’t burdened by guilt.”

She laid the doll on the nightstand and stood from her chair, turning to face the window again.

“And the worst part?” she said. “When I think back over all these years, when I think about my daughter and our life together, I can’t help but think that it was all worth it. Everything I’ve done, all the suffering I’ve caused, if I had a chance to do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Does that make me a terrible person?”

“Probably,” Molly replied, “but I’m not one to judge.”

Carla glanced back over her shoulder and smiled.

“Thank you for listening,” she said. “I haven’t shared this story since… well, ever. I’m sorry it was so unpleasant.”

Molly shrugged.

“I’m just glad I wasn’t imagining things,” Molly said, standing. “Anyway, I should probably go. Thanks for your time.”

“You’re welcome,” Carla said as Molly limped toward the door. “Just do me one favor: be good to my granddaughter.”

Molly froze and turned back. “How did you…?”

“I’m not as trapped in this room as you might think,” Carla said, glancing at the doll. “Sorry about your hand.”

Molly opened her mouth to reply, but instead backed out of the room and closed the door.

“What did she say?” Karen asked, then held her hands up. “Wait, never mind, don’t tell me. Let’s just get out of here.”

Molly smiled and said, “Good call.”

///

When Molly pulled up in front of the house, Lynn’s car was already in the driveway. Molly grabbed a crowbar from the back of the van and headed inside.

“Molly, we need to talk,” Lynn said, standing in the bedroom doorway with her arms crossed.

“In a minute,” Molly said, marching down the hallway.

She pulled the stairs down from the ceiling and climbed to the attic, shrinking to about half her normal size. Leaning against the crowbar with all her weight, she pried open the boarded-up section of the wall.

The dollhouse sat in the cubbyhole, exactly as she’d left it. She wrapped her arms around it and pulled, growing inch by inch as she backed toward the stairs. She reached full height as she stepped down into the hallway.

She carried the dollhouse to the living room and set it down on the coffee table. Kneeling beside it, she started running her fingers over the walls.

“Could you just stop for a second?” Lynn asked. “I need you to tell me what you did with my—”

“Honey, if we’re going to make this work,” Molly said, “you’re going to have to start trusting me. I’m not the only one with skeletons in my closet. Aha!”

She turned a latch on the side of the dollhouse and the entire rear wall swung open, exposing the living room. The dolls still sat on the couches, staring at their loot. Molly reached inside and handed Lynn her watch.

“Okay, seriously, what’s going on?” Lynn asked.

“You should probably ask your grandmother about that,” Molly replied, “but trust me, you don’t want to know.”

 

 

 

END