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An Idolwood story
Start at the beginning of the Idolwood series
Grey opened one eye, and then lifted himself onto an elbow, pulling the cream-colored bed sheet along with him to cover his naked chest. Morning light slanted through the blinds - brighter than it should have been, he thought.
"Isaac ... what are you doing in here?"
"It's past eight, dad."
Grey blinked, and turned to the clock. Ten past eight.
"I took a sick day," he said slowly. "I wasn't feeling so good last night."
"Me either," said Isaac, holding a hand to his stomach. "Maybe I should stay home from school, too."
"Nice try. Come here," said Grey, coming to a sitting position. He allowed the sheet to fall from his chest and pool around the slight spare tire he'd picked up over the past year, though it remained wrapped about his legs and waist. As Isaac came forward, Grey held a hand out and pressed it to his son's forehead.
"When did you start feeling bad?"
"After dinner. Maybe it's food poisoning."
"You'd have lost it all by now if it was food poisoning, Isaac. Now look at me." His voice grew stern. "Are you really feeling sick?"
Isaac hesitated. "I...no, dad."
"Don't lie to me, Isaac. We've been over this." The words made Grey uneasy even as he spoke them. Wasn't he lying himself, to cover for the fact that he'd overslept - for the fact that there was no more job to take a sick day from? "Are you ready for the bus?"
Isaac's shoulders sagged. "Yes, dad. But I haven't had any breakfast."
Grey nodded. He'd taken to making Isaac breakfast in the mornings before work, to give them some quiet time before either got on the other's nerves. He'd enjoyed the little ritual, knowing full well that his mother would just thrust a piece of fruit into his hands while she talked to her friends on the telephone.
"And that's on me. I can accept that. Listen, just for today, there's a box of waffles in the freezer. Throw two in the toaster while I get dressed and grab some orange juice. I'll drive you to school today to make up for missing your eggs, okay?"
"Okay...do you feel good enough to do that, though?"
Grey shut his eyes and smiled despite himself. Isaac was getting sharper. "Yes. I feel good enough for that. Now hustle for your breakfast."
He rubbed a hand across his forehead as Isaac left, glancing back at the alarm clock. He couldn't recall the last time he'd overslept, and it had been only a few days since he lost his job. Got to watch that, he thought to himself, at least when Isaac's around.
He'd been up late on the computer, not unusual in itself, only now he was looking for work rather than chasing down clients or reviewing proofs. He picked up a dark green Michigan sweatshirt and pulled it on, running fingers quickly through his hair and along the jaw line. No real need to shave, he realized, though his facial hair came in thinly enough at the best of times. He pulled on a pair of brown slacks, normally reserved for golf trips or poker nights, and turned to make the bed. It would be, he thought, a casual day - if not a sick one.
In the kitchen, Isaac sat sullenly over his plate, swirling his fork through a mess of syrup and butter next to a large glass of orange juice. The hyacinths Mrs. Allaway had sent home with him sat in the center of the table, their curving, organic presence incongruous among the modern lines of the kitchen table and chairs, but a welcome reminder that spring was on the way. Grey looked at Isaac critically.
"Do you actually have any waffles under all of that?"
"That?s a lot of sugar for the morning. You don't need the orange juice if you're going to drown them like that."
"It's just juice!"
"Isaac. Don't talk back." Grey took the glass of orange juice from the table and poured it into the drain, listening carefully for any whispered rebellion. He'd picked that up from his mother.
"Like I'm the one who needs to watch his fat..."
"I said don't talk back. If you think I'm getting heavier, son, just remember that you're going to take after me."
"No, I won't, dad! I won't take after you!" Isaac slammed his fork down, accidentally spitting with the words, and Grey turned in surprise. "I'm going to do what I say, dad, all the time, and I'm going to let my kids actually stay in one place instead of moving all the time, and I'm..."
"Isaac!" Grey stepped forward. "You had better think about everything you're saying. You had better think very carefully. Do you understand me?"
Isaac's face screwed itself up into a mass of frustration. "I...I'm just..." His shoulders sagged again, deflating his chin into his chest. "Sorry," he said quietly.
Grey shook his head. "I'm going to take you to school today instead of having you run for the bus now, because I said I would. But you get on the bus this afternoon and you come straight home, you understand? You're..."
He stopped in mid-sentence, thinking. Usually he would ground Isaac for that outburst, but he realized that would mean he'd have to stay out of the house until late every evening himself - unless he admitted the truth. Pressing his lips together, Grey took a deep breath.
"You're going to come straight home this afternoon. Don't stop to talk to that plant lady again, don't dawdle along with anyone, and you especially don't bring Brandon here. Don't even talk to him today. You understand?"
"Yes, sir." He was a caricature of adolescent depression, hands at his sides, bangs falling into his downcast face.
"Good. Finish your waffles."
"You made them, so you finish them anyway." He turned to the sink, stomach churning, and set to washing the empty glass he'd taken away.
He walked into Starbucks ready to hate the world and everything in it, ordered a Venti Americano, and set up his laptop at a corner table with a comfortable chair. The usual suburban crowd of underage baristas, retired lawyers and women in underused workout gear kept up the usual chatter about last night's party, this year's taxes and this morning's news.
It took only moments for Grey to grow sick of the constant hum. Every site he'd read about surviving unemployment was clear that getting out of the house was important, but compared to the ridiculous conversations and insipid music, a solitary slide into depression was beginning to sound better and better. He'd have to remember to bring along some music next time.
One new job opening had been posted in the past twelve hours, but the salary was far below his target range. He checked a few more sites, then took a long drink of his coffee and looked out the windows. It was a watery grey day, the kind which defined late spring in Illinois; uncertain and uncommitted to either of its seasons. Maybe he was trying too hard. He'd spent the entire evening watching job sites, reading job advice, and polishing his resume. Maybe oversleeping was a sign that he actually should take a full day for himself, let off some steam.
He surfed to a local jazz calendar, saw without surprise that there were no afternoon shows anywhere; then considered what Alex had said about the Morgan Glen forest preserve. He'd mentioned the little trails that ran along the river, a good place to go out and get some air ... but then, he'd found the latest creepy doll along those trails, hadn't he?
He'd told Alex he'd look into it online, too. Yesterday he'd been pulled away by a phone call from Deborah, and after the shouting was over he'd all but forgotten about the strangeness of his situation. Given the lack of job postings, he typed "creepy dolls" into his browser.
The images that came up were horrifying - but familiar. So many dead and soulless eyes, staring back at him from the screen, eyes that looked so like the emptied sockets and strange modifications on the dolls he and Alex had found in their quiet little neighborhood.
He opened the link to show all images and scrolled through, coffee and conversation all but forgotten. How many people made these terrifying things? It was insane, he thought. The screen was littered with hollow-eyed porcelain children in blood-soaked clothing, patchwork jesters with mouths sewed shut, two-headed creatures baring fangs to the world.
"Christ," he whispered, coming across a particularly unsettling image of rat-tailed conjoined twins gnawing on one another's cherubic cheeks. "What is this all about?"
The first few images gave little enough information - humor sites, or blogs written by people trawling the web for the strange and unusual. Some were stores, however, places where people actually bought and sold or traded these strange little creatures amongst themselves. It was a shadow trade in unreal children, a place for collectors of twisted innocence to market their darlings or trumpet their latest finds.
He was both captivated and repelled. It was a peek at a world he'd never known existed, an upside-down reality where the bizarre was called beautiful and the strange sublime. There wasn't a hint of normalcy throughout the entire thing, and what's more, the people involved seemed to revel in that outcast state, the inversion of the expected. Grey began thinking that the dolls were nothing more than that, little toys left behind by someone involved in this subculture of ... artists, he guessed they would call themselves, though he personally thought 'freaks' made a much better label.
Then he saw a title which slammed all the tightness back into his chest.
A ghastly exploration of Victoria's greatest men!
"Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief / Knox the boy who buys the beef."
(If you don't know the little schoolboy sonnet, the band End These Endless does a wicked version. Go forth and make it yours.)
Burke and Hare, my lads and ladies. They were men well ahead of their time in the late 1820s - the original Igors, grave robbers who sold corpses to the gallant Dr. Knox for his anatomical research and classroom discussions. But when business got better, Burke and Hare turned into entrepreneurs extraordinaire.
They murdered seventeen people, whores and beggars of the sorriest sort, suffocating them as they slept. They would take those corpses and continue to sell them to Doctor Knox. It wasn't until some of Knox's students recognized one of their classroom examples that anyone realized something was wrong, and even then, Knox worked to save his skin by beginning his dissection with the young woman's face - insisting all the while that his students must be mistaken about her identity, as though clamorous young collegians wouldn't know their courtesans.
Burke was hung after Hare turned Queen's evidence, saving his skin at the cost of his friend's - the literal cost, you understand, as Burke's tanned skin and death mask are displayed even today at the Edinburgh Medical College Museum.
I could tell you more about Hare - how he was attacked by a mob and tossed into a lime pit, losing his sight and dying a penniless and blind beggar in the wicked streets of London. I could tell you more about Knox, how he remained comfortably enthroned in his ivory tower until the law in its wisdom decided to make corpses more freely and legally available. But we don't care for Knox and Hare. What we care about are the dolls.
You see, a group of Scottish schoolboys found seventeen dolls in seventeen coffins while they were playing around the landmark of Arthur's Seat, back in 1836. These were dolls the size of a finger bone, in delicious little carrion-coffins in delicious little mounds. Locals thought they were a sign of Witches, the dears; but they were kept and preserved in various locales until they came to rest at the Royal Museum.
Now a clever man from National Geographic's teledevision came across them and put the pieces together. These are effigies of Burke and Hare's seventeen victims, and all of them carved by Burke himself! They've run DNA tests on bits of Burke's skeleton and compared them to DNA on the dolls, and even though the tests didn't prove anything, it's clear as conscience that Burke understood.
He understood how important the effigy is, how much the fetish ties you to your targets. The TV crew said he carved them out of sympathy and guilt, but we know how much sympathy exists in the souls of such as we.
We know better. We know that Burke carved the dolls before every death - marked those lower sorts he deemed worthless, useless, enemies of purity; and called them forward to their suffocating slumbers. He was a man who knew the way to work his will within the world, who knew the truths of Magick. He understood the darling darkness and the laws of life and power - how sweet and sacred every breath must be for those who dare, for all of we who will.
They say Hare was a mastermind, and Burke was simpleminded. They're wronger than the righteous, pets. Burke was not simpleminded. He was focused, he was intent. He knew the power and the Magick that comes from diving headfirst into the only things that matter.
Why do you think we call it the Craft, my darkest darlings? For all you make makes the world your own.
Alex lowered the printout. "That's messed up."
"Yes. And these are real people, Alex. Real people who call idolize murderers and think they can use these dolls on people."
They stood on their shared walkway, Alex with his omnipresent workout bag at his feet and thermos in his hand, Grey's face lined with anger and frustration.
"Maybe it's just a joke...or a story?"
Grey shook his head. "I don't think so. You should see some of the things these people make. They're insane."
"Do you think the police should know?"
"They can't really do anything, can they? I suppose they could trace the author, but even then, there's no way to tell who made the dolls we found."
"It says here they used DNA tests, yeah?"
"Yes, but that only works if you have the DNA from the doll and from its maker."
"Well..." Alex checked his watch, then set to shaking the thermos in his hand. Grey set his teeth. The man's insistence on routine was starting to grate on his nerves.
"I'm sorry, but do you have to do that right now?"
"Oh, yeah. Schedule. I'd normally put it in the blender but I kinda thought you might have something to look at, so I packed it like this. The supplements, you know, they flood the muscle fibers after a good workout. Anyway, what about your window?"
"Your window. When the person tried to break in. Could there be any DNA on that?"
Grey blinked. "That's...a very good thought."
"Yeah, there's more to me than muscle." Alex's smile was wide and bright. "So how about it?"
"There might have been, but I had the window cleaned out and boarded up. There's nothing left that might have held it. If I'd thought of it earlier...damn, that would have been a very good idea."
"Too bad." Alex opened the thermos and began to drink.
"Do you know a woman named Allaway in the neighborhood?"
"She's the garden lady, yeah? Know her to say hello. Why?"
"Well, here's the thing. She's got one of these shops. She makes these dolls, Alex."
"Yes. They're not exactly the same, but close enough. I found her on one of those crafting sites. Here, look." He held out another sheet of photos.
The dolls were multi-limbed - this one dancing upon five misshapen legs, another with three arms, yet another with a single leg and arm on which fingers had been filed away to create a cartoonish three-fingered hand. These were not painted or enameled in the grim black and ochre combination of so many similar pieces, but rather, clad in knitted gowns in bright and placid hues of pink, blue and shades of red.
"I don't know," Alex said. "They're not as creepy, yeah?"
"What do you mean?"
"They just feel different, you know. No fangs, and they all have eyes. Too much or too little, but they don't look as creepy. Not like threats, you know?"
"It's probably because they're just photos rather than real dolls. Or else you've become used to them. They look menacing enough to me."
"Edie Allaway," Alex read. "You know it's the Ms. Allaway here?"
"No, I don't know for sure. But look in the background, here - that row of plants? Isaac told me her house was literally overgrown. And the tag on the site says she's located in Chicago. We're close enough that a clever woman living alone would claim she lived in the city in case anyone came stalking her."
Alex put the thermos away, looking at him sideways. "You get pretty concerned about things like that, don't you?"
"I've just had a break-in attempt," said Grey coldly. "I think I've got a decent reason to think about security."
"No offense, yeah? Just wondering. So what do you think we ought to do? Talk to her?"
"I'm not sure. We can't prove it's her, but your DNA idea is good...what if we did stop by to talk to her and tried to get her prints on a glass or something?"
Alex straightened. "No...probably better to just talk to her first. See if she's the one who makes these dolls, and why."
Grey's lips tightened. "Did you read the printout? Did you see the part about making your fantasies real, about controlling people through the dolls?"
"Yeah. You don't really believe you can, though, do you?"
"Well...no, of course I don't. But you're talking about dementia, Alex. These are people with serious mental issues."
"Sure. Don't you think you could tell after talking to her? I'm no detective or thief. Pocketing a glass from her would be too much. If she's crazy, so okay, we can probably tell. If she's not, she's still a neighbor. No point in making her mad."
A moment passed between the closed bedroom door. "Yes, sir."
"I'd like to come in."
No answer. Grey opened the door and found Isaac sitting at the small desk they had brought home from a yard sale, one that looked enough like his to be funny to both of them at the time. He had a textbook open along with a number of worksheets spread across the surface. Isaac was focused on the papers, pencil in hand. He did not look up.
"How's your homework coming?"
"Listen, Isaac, stop working for a minute. I'd like to talk to you."
Isaac turned around in his chair, watching Grey carefully as he sat on his son's bedside.
"Okay. First off, I'm not going to ground you for this morning. I was the one who overslept and I want you to know that I can own that like a man. Now that doesn't mean I want to hear you talk back again, understand?"
"You came right home today?"
"But yesterday, when you stopped to talk to Ms. Allaway in her garden...tell me about her."
Isaac blinked. "What?"
"Just tell me about Ms. Allaway. You said her house was a mess and she liked plants, but you didn't really say anything about her."
"She was okay. She's older than you, I guess. Really short hair, like grandma had when she got cancer. She's kind of funny how she talks."
Grey's throat started to close off. She'd had his son so close, she could have actually taken him into her house. What if he had gone? What if he'd agreed to go in just for a minute, and what if...
"How do you mean, funny?"
He shrugged. "Just weird. It was like, she wasn't talking to me the way most adults do. She talked like I was older."
"You didn't go in, did you?"
"Okay, good. Listen, Mr. Pajari and I are going to go talk to her tomorrow after dinner. I don't want you to talk to her before then."
"Is something wrong?"
"I don't know yet," he said, and realized it felt good to tell the truth. His chest and stomach relaxed slightly, easing some of the tension. "Don't tell anyone I told you to stay away for right now, but I do want you to come right home again tomorrow."
Isaac looked down. "Dad...if you're going to be busy after dinner, can Brandon come over just for an hour or so?"
"No. I've told you before that he's a bad influence on you."
"I know, but we'd stay indoors. I promise."
"No, Isaac. You know how I feel about him."
There was a moment of silence. "Dad, I don't...I don't want to be in the house alone after dinner. Not since you told me about the break-in."
"Oh," said Grey. "Okay, I understand that. What about one of your other friends? They could come over."
"They live too far away to walk. If you're going to see Ms. Allaway then could you drop me off at Joey's, if his mom says it's okay?"
"That's fine. I can do that, and I can come pick you up. Do you want me to call her and ask?"
He didn't correct Isaac's grammar, but reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "It's okay. I do understand. I don't like being here alone so much, either. So you come straight home tomorrow and I'll take you to Joey's if his mom gives the okay. You get back to work now, but bring the finished sheets down and if you've got the right answers you can have a scoop of ice cream."
Grey closed the door and walked into the hall, breathing deeply. Tomorrow night he'd find out more about their resident doll maker, and what exactly she'd meant by giving Isaac those plants to bring home. What she meant by planting the dolls under his house, around his neighborhood. He'd get some answers about this place, with Alex along to help persuade her into honesty. If she'd meant any harm to Isaac.
He'd know soon enough.
Story by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011