It sat on my doorstep. A small nondescript brown package. No return address. Only my name scrawled in childlike handwriting with black marker.
Now I know I should have called the police; perhaps even the bomb squad. The box fit the bill for a suspicious package. It could have contained anything; explosives, anthrax, Kanye West albums, body parts, who knows.
However, I wasn’t anyone important. I lived in the small town of Hanford, California. I got along well with my neighbors and coworkers, and as far as I knew, I didn’t have any enemies. Haters? Sure. Enemies? Not so much.
At the time calling the authorities seemed a little excessive. Instead I did what any other sane person would do. I grabbed the broom from the kitchen and tipped the box over. I didn’t hear any ticking, clanking of metal, or anything else for that matter. I pushed the box around with the broom a couple of more times just to be safe.
Convinced the package was relatively harmless, or at worst containing animal dung, I picked it up and brought it inside. Looking back, if this were one of those instructional safety videos, this would be the part where the instructor would pause the film and ask, “what did he do wrong.” The correct answer would be, everything.
Setting the box on my coffee table and using the tip of a pen, I tore through the packing tape and opened it up. The inside of the box had been crudely painted black and packed full of black feathers. Atop the bed of feathers lay a porcelain doll.
She was small and delicate. Hand painted with care. Her lifeless blue eyes sparkled in the light. Her hair was as black as the feathers in the box and went just past her waist. She wore a vintage black dress complete with ruffles and lace.
She was a haunting funeral dirge cradled in the palm of my hand. A carefully crafted melody. If the mysterious sender meant to unnerve me with this enchanting doll, they were completely unaware of my preference for the Gothic aesthetic.
“Emily.” I said.
The name rolled off my tongue naturally and seemed fitting for the little doll. I set her on my favorite bookcase. A case filled with books of strange and questionable subject matter, and decorated with oddities such as crystals, cleaned animal bones, blessed salts, sage, and incense burners. A place of honor.
I sifted through the feathers remaining in the box looking for any clues that might identify my mysterious gift giver. Yet nothing, save for the feathers and the black painted interior, was to be found.
The whole gift seemed thoughtfully put together, and I couldn’t bear the thought of tossing out the little box the doll had arrived in. Whether an act of menace, or a token of some secret admirer, it had a wow factor I couldn’t deny. I placed the box in my storage closet with the hope other similar gift boxes might later join it.
Emily was a natural fit for my humble apartment, and I was glad to welcome her into my home. I spent much of the day enamored with her. Several times I picked her up to take in the fine details of the doll. I’ve never been the kind of guy who had a particular fondness for dolls, but Emily was a work of art.
She reminded me of those gothic dolls you find on craft sites on the internet; the kind that sell for hundreds of dollars. I’ve always wanted a few to keep around the house, but the price of such commodities was always a bit out of my budget. Emily was not only similar to those dolls, but exceeded their quality.
After a thorough search on the internet, I was unable to find any clues to her origins. Nothing came up indicating whether she was mass produced or a specialty item, or who the manufacturer might have been.
The only thing I could find had more to do with mysterious gifts left on doorsteps. There were a host of urban legends regarding cursed objects, not limited to dolls, left at the home of unwary targets. These objects would wreak havoc often ruining the lives of the recipients.
I discounted these urban legends as just that; legends. Superstitious nonsense used to scare and control the gullible. Besides, I didn’t know anyone into black magic or the occult. I certainly hadn’t done anything to warrant the time and energy invested into creating a curse.
The rest of the day had been uneventful. Filled with lounging and movie watching. The community college where I taught was on its annual winter break. I was blessed with two weeks free from all adult responsibility. Showering and getting dressed every morning was the extent of my obligations, and depending on the day’s plans, even those points were negotiable.
That night, however, I could hardly sleep. What little sleep I did manage was plagued with nightmares. Visions of twisted human forms clad in black hooded robes, sadistic sacrificial rites, and beings outside the natural order, swept through the dreamscape of my unconscious mind.
I woke numerous times drenched in a cold sweat. Dread overwhelmed me. My heart beat like a flailing animal caught in the snare of a trap. The darkness of my room was heavy and ominous. I couldn’t bring myself to reach out for the light switch fearing what unnatural creature might have escaped my nightmares and stalked the shadows.
When day broke, and I had managed a few extra hours of sleep into the late morning, I attributed the bout of nightmares to the late night horror film binge and the large pizza with extra jalapenos I had for dinner.
Still somewhat shaken by the vivid horrors from my nightmares, I allowed myself a cigar and a tumbler of whiskey for breakfast. Though not the breakfast of champions advertised on television, it did the trick to settle my nerves.
The phone rang somewhere around two in the afternoon. It was Matt.
“Matt?” I answered.
“Hey Chris. How’s it going?”
“Pretty good, man! How are you? How’s the book tour going?”
Matt had been on tour promoting his book, Red Sky Blues, an incredible fast paced thriller set in our little town. It had taken two print runs for the book to pick up speed, but when it caught on with readers, it sky rocketed onto the best seller’s list.
I couldn’t have been happier for the guy. He was one of my best friends. An incredible artist and writer. Red Sky Blues was the break he needed, and now the nation was finally able to see what I had seen ever since I met him.
“Wild. I still can’t believe I’m on tour. I never imagined the book would take off like this.”
“I did. And I’m hoping you’re starting on the next one. This begs to be a series! Also, you owe me an autograph. I have three copies of your book.”
“Yep. The original print run, and two copies from the second run. And I expect hearts and a sweet love note on the one you sign. Start it with, ‘To My Biggest Fan.'”
“You worry me.”
“Good. Someone has to keep you disturbed.”
“Well, tell you what. If you meet me at the Coffee Hause in twenty minutes, I’ll sign all three.”
“What? You’re back in town? Hell yeah!”
“Only for the day. I have a book signing in L.A. tomorrow.”
“Well well Mr. Fancy Pants! Yeah, I’ll head out now and save us a table.”
“Cool. See you in a few.”
After a quick change, I grabbed my bag and went to get my keys from the tray in the kitchen. My keys were missing. It was strange because I always put my keys in the tray. Always.
Okay, not always. Placing my keys in a specific spot had become habit only recently. Two months ago, after paying to change the locks of my apartment and replacing my car keys for the third time, I bought a cheap desk tray to keep on the counter. In it I kept my wallet and my keys. My wallet was there, but the keys were not.
The next fifteen minutes were spent rummaging through the house, swearing at the top of my lungs, looking for the damn keys. I was certain I had left them in that stupid tray. I found them sitting on my favorite book case next to Emily along with my drivers license.
This struck me as strange. I couldn’t remember setting my keys on the book case, but I must have. There they were. It wouldn’t have been the first time I placed them there, and probably not the last. What was odd about the whole thing was finding my drivers license next to the keys.
I never take my drivers license out of my wallet. I know if I do, I’ll lose it. Also the license tends to stick to the inside of the wallet, so I leave it alone.
A quick call, and few shortcuts through town, and I was at the Coffee Haus only five minutes late. Matt had already arrived and had saved us a table.
“Sorry man. I couldn’t find my keys.” I said.
“Don’t worry about it. I just got here a minute ago.”
“Cool.” I said sliding over all three copies of Red Sky Blues. “Remember. Hearts and an outpouring of love. And don’t forget, ‘To My Number One, and Sexiest, Fan.'”
“I thought you wanted, ‘To My Biggest Fan.'”
“Yeah, but that’s lame. This is better.”
“Whatever. I’m not writing that.”
Instead he wrote a note of appreciation for the years of support and friendship, signed it, and then scribbled a hand giving me the middle finger.
“Awww. I knew you loved me.” I said.
Before Matt could respond, Beth, friend and owner of the Coffee Haus, brought us two cups of black coffee.
“The usual, I assume.” She said with a smile as she set the cups before us. “On the house. I haven’t seen you two in ages. How are things?”
“Good.” Matt said.
“By good, he means he’s on a world wide tour promoting his famous book. And with this fancy note he just wrote, I now have a few copies worth tens of billions of dollars!” I said.
Beth laughed. Matt cringed.
“Ah Matt. I knew you could do it. Knew you were going places. Hell we can’t keep the few copies we get on our shelf.” Beth said. “I remember when you two first starting coming here. Ordering the cheapest thing on the menu and hanging out for hours. You were a pain in the ass.”
“But now look at you. You totally love us.” I said.
The Coffee Haus had been one of our favorite hangouts. A locally owned coffee shop which also served as an indie bookstore and art gallery. After months of daily visits for the inexpensive, no frills, black as sin coffee, we had befriended Beth.
She was an interesting person. A widow who lost her husband to the War on Terror. She opened up the Coffee Haus hoping to support herself. Finding a unique niche, and standing firmly against the odds of competing with an established coffee chain already set up in town, business was thriving.
“Not world wide. Just a couple of cities up and down either coast.” Matt said.
“Rick.” Beth called over her shoulder. “Hold down the counter for a few.”
Rick, a young hipster with slicked back hair, thick rimmed glasses, and a full beard, flashed a thumbs up at Beth as sat down and joined us.
“So how long you in town for?” She asked.
“Just for the day. I have a signing in L.A.” Matt said
“Look at you. All fancy. I’m so proud of you. Not as proud as Chris, obviously, but still very proud.”
“I swear I think Chris is more excited about my success than I am.”
“True story.” I said.
“What about you, Chris? What have you been up to?” Beth asked.
“Well nothing as exciting as Matt here. I’m still teaching at the community college. I’m working on a second Masters. This time in counseling. Oh! I got an awesome gift on my doorstep yesterday.”
“What was it?” Matt asked.
“This mysterious box appeared on my doorstep. Inside was a gorgeous porcelain doll laying on a bed of black feathers. I named her Emily.”
“Collecting dolls now?” Matt said.
“Don’t judge me, hippie! She’s bad ass!”
“Who was it from?” Beth asked.
“That’s the thing. I have no idea. There was no note. No return address. It didn’t even have my address. Just my name scribbled across the box.”
“That’s, uh, kinda creepy.” Matt said.
“A little. But cool as hell. I have a picture. Wanna see it?”
“This I have to see.” Beth said.
I pulled out my phone and open up the photos.
“What’s with the filter?” Matt asked.
Something was wrong with the photo. The image was in a high contrast gray scale finish, and the doll’s face was blurred. Everything else in the photo maintained some sense of detail, but Emily’s face looked as if someone had taken their thumb and smeared it away.
“I didn’t add a filter.”
“No, dude. Really. I didn’t. I snapped the shot yesterday after I set her up. It looked fine. Well, it did look fine.”
“Get rid of it.” Beth said.
Her face was stern. Her voice flat. She sat perfectly still staring at the photo unsettled and unnerved. After a moment she looked up at me.
“Burn it. Bury it. Weigh it down and toss it into a lake. You have to get rid of it, Chris. Before it settles in your home.”
“Settles in my home?”
Matt and I exchanged confused glances.
“Look. I know this sounds strange, and it could just be a glitch in the photo, but something feels incredibly wrong about the whole thing. It just appears? This photo? Has anything else strange happened lately?”
“Well last night I had a lot of nightmares, but that was probably the late night pizza and movie binge.”
“Extra jalapenos and horror flicks?” Matt asked with a raise of his eyebrow.
“See sweetie! You do know me!” I said leaping at the opportunity to break the tension in the air.
Matt dropped his head and let out a long sigh. “I hate you. So much.”
“Anything else?” Beth asked.
“Well today I lost my keys and…”
“Nothing new there.” Matt interrupted.
“Matt, please. Chris, go on.” Beth insisted.
“Like I was saying, before I was rudely interrupted, I lost my keys. I had been really good at keeping them in a tray, Matt, but when I looked, they weren’t there. I looked all over the house and found them on the book case near Emily. Now I may have accidentally left my keys there a hundred or so times before, but this time my drivers license was with them. And I never take my license out of my wallet.”
“Still sticks to the inside of your wallet?” Matt said.
“Matt, how do you know these things?” Beth asked.
“God, I don’t even know. He shares a lot.”
Matt massaged the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. A mix of frustration and good humor ached in his head.
“Anyhow,” Beth continued, “something isn’t right. I have a sense with these things. Get rid of the doll.”
“But what if this is all just coincidence? I mean, she’s pretty cool. I’ve always wanted a doll like this to decorate the place, but anything that looks even remotely close to her is going to cost me two-hundred dollars. Easy. Etsy is not a cheap place to shop.”
“I tell you what. You get rid of her, and I’ll get you a new doll. Maybe I can even find one that looks like Matt here.”
“Wait. What?” Matt looked at Beth, his eyes wide.
“Let me think about it. If anything else weird happens, I’ll get rid of her. And you don’t even have to get me a Matt doll.” I said.
“Oh thank God!” Matt said.
“I already have Matt, and he’s quite the doll.”
“I really fucking hate you!”
Beth laughed. Life and joy seemed to return to her face. She got up, wished us well, and went back to the counter.
“You really going to get rid of the doll?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know man. She really fits in with the decor. I’m sure all this has been some weird coincidence.”
“I hope so, but hey, if she’s bad energy, dump her ass. We carry enough negative shit in our lives; why hold on to the things you can let go?”
“I miss your sage wisdom.”
“I’m never that far.”
“I know. Hey, you wanna come over and check her out?”
“I wish I could. This doll thing sounds like quite the story.”
“Dibs. I’ll be writing this story.”
“All you man. I’ve got enough crazy shit of my own that can fill a library.”
Matt and I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up. When evening drew near we bid each other farewell and parted ways.
I wish I had listened to Beth and Matt. Beth’s warning and Matt’s wisdom would have served me well. But I didn’t listen. I’ve always tended to be the person you hear about who has to learn things the hard way.