Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love

Karen thought of them as her daughters, and tried to love them with all her heart. Because, really, wasn’t that the point? They came to her, all frilly dresses, and fine hair, and plastic limbs, and eyes so large and blue and innocent. And she would name them, and tell them she was their mother now; she took them to her bed, and would give them tea parties, and spank them when they were naughty; she promised she would never leave them, or, at least, not until the end.

Her father would bring them home. Her father travelled a lot, and she never knew where he’d been, if she asked he’d just laugh and tap his nose and say it was all hush-hush—but she could sometimes guess from how exotic the daughters were, sometimes the faces were strange and foreign, one or two were nearly mulatto. Karen didn’t care, she loved them all anyway, although she wouldn’t let the mulatto ones have quite the same nursery privileges. “Here you are, my sweetheart, my angel cake, my baby doll,” and from somewhere within Father’s great jacket he’d produce a box, and it was usually gift-wrapped, and it usually had a ribbon on it—”This is all for you, my baby doll.” She liked him calling her that, although she suspected she was too old for it now, she was very nearly eight years old.

She knew what the daughters were. They were tributes. That was what Nicholas called them. They were tributes paid to her, to make up for the fact that Father was so often away, just like in the very olden days when the Greek heroes would pay tributes to their gods with sacrifices. Nicholas was very keen on Greek heroes, and would tell his sister stories of great battles and wooden horses and heels. She didn’t need tributes from Father; she would much rather he didn’t have to leave home in the first place. Nicholas would tell her of the tributes Father had once paid Mother—he’d bring her jewellery, and fur coats, and tickets to the opera. Karen couldn’t remember Mother very well, but there was that large portrait of her over the staircase. In a way, Karen saw Mother more often than she did Father. Mother was wearing a black ball gown, and such a lot of jewels, and there was a small studied smile on her face. Sometimes when Father paid tribute to Karen, she would try and give that same studied smile, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever got it right.

• • • •

Father didn’t call Nicholas “angel cake” or “baby doll,” he called him “Nicholas,” and Nicholas called him “sir.” And Father didn’t bring Nicholas tributes. Karen felt vaguely guilty about that—that she’d get showered with gifts and her brother would get nothing. Nicholas told her not to be so silly. He wasn’t a little girl, he was a man. He was ten years older than Karen, and lean, and strong, and he was attempting to grow a moustache; the hair was a bit too fine for it to be seen in bright light, but it would darken as he got older. Karen knew her brother was a man, and that he wouldn’t want toys. But she’d give him a hug sometimes, almost impulsively, when Father came home and seemed to ignore him—and Nicholas never objected when she did.

Eventually Nicholas would say to Karen, “It’s time,” and she knew what that meant. And she’d feel so sad, but again, wasn’t that the point? She’d go and give her daughter a special tea party then, and she’d play with her all day; she’d brush her hair, and let her see the big wide world from out of the top window; she wouldn’t get cross even if her daughter got naughty. And she wouldn’t try to explain. That would all come after. Karen would go to bed at the usual time, Nanny never suspected a thing. But once Nanny had left the room and turned out the light, Karen would get up and put on her clothes again, nice thick woollen ones, sometimes it was cold out there in the dark. And she’d bundle her daughter up warm as well. And once the house was properly still she’d hear a tap at the door, and there Nicholas would be, looking stern and serious and just a little bit excited. She’d follow him down the stairs and out of the house; they’d usually leave by the tradesmen’s entrance, the door was quieter. They wouldn’t talk until they were far away, and very nearly into the woods themselves.

He’d always give Karen a few days to get to know her daughters before he came for them. He wanted her to love them as hard as she could. He always seemed to know when it was the right time. With one doll, her very favourite, he had given her only until the weekend—it had been love at first sight, the eyelashes were real hair, and she’d blink when picked up, and if she were cuddled tight she’d say “Mama.” Sometimes Nicholas gave them as long as a couple of months; some of the dolls were a fright, and cold to the touch, and it took Karen a while to find any affection for them at all. But Karen was a girl with a big heart. She could love anything, given time and patience. Nicholas must have been carefully watching his sister, just to see when her heart reached its fullest—and she never saw him do it; he usually seemed to ignore her altogether, as if she were still too young and too silly to be worth his attention. But then, “It’s time,” he would say, and sometimes it wasn’t until that very moment that Karen would realise she’d fallen in love at all, and of course he was right, he was always right.

• • • •

Karen liked playing in the woods by day. By night they seemed strange and unrecognisable, the branches jutted out at peculiar angles as if trying to bar her entrance. But Nicholas wasn’t afraid, and he always knew his way. She kept close to him for fear he would rush on ahead and she would be lost. And she knew somehow that if she got lost, she’d be lost forever—and it may turn daylight eventually, but that wouldn’t matter, she’d have been trapped by the woods of the night, and the woods of the night would get to keep her.

And at length they came to the clearing. Karen always supposed that the clearing was at the very heart of the woods, she didn’t know why. The tight press of trees suddenly lifted, and here there was space—no flowers, nothing, some grass, but even the grass was brown, as if the sunlight couldn’t reach it here. And it was as if everything had been cut away to make a perfect circle that was neat and tidy and so empty, and it was as if it had been done especially for them. Karen could never find the clearing in the daytime. But then, she had never tried very hard.

Nicholas would take her daughter, and set her down upon that browning grass. He would ask Karen for her name, and Karen would tell him. Then Nicholas would tell Karen to explain to the daughter what was going to happen here. “Betsy, you have been sentenced to death.” And Nicholas would ask Karen upon what charge. “Because I love you too much, and I love my brother more.” And Nicholas would ask if the daughter had any final words to offer before sentence was carried out; they never had.

He would salute the condemned then, nice and honourably. And Karen would by now be nearly in tears; she would pull herself together. “You mustn’t cry,” said Nicholas, “you can’t cry, if you cry the death won’t be a clean one.” She would salute her daughter too.

What happened next would always be different.

When he’d been younger, Nicholas had merely hanged them. He’d put rope around their little necks and take them to the closest tree and let them drop down from the branches, and there they’d swing for a while, their faces still frozen with trusting smiles. As he’d become a man he’d found more inventive ways to despatch them. He’d twist off their arms, he’d drown them in buckets of water he’d already prepared, he’d stab them with a fork. He’d say to Karen, “And how much do you love this one?” And if Karen told him she loved her very much, so much the worse for her daughter—he’d torture her a little first, blinding her, cutting off her skin, ripping off her clothes and then toasting with matches the naked stuff beneath. It was always harder to watch these executions because Karen really had loved them, and it was agony to see them suffer so. But she couldn’t lie to her brother. He would have seen through her like glass.

• • • •

That last time had been the most savage, though Karen hadn’t known it would be the last time, of course—but Nicholas, Nicholas might have had an inkling.

When they’d reached the clearing, he had tied Mary-Lou to the tree with string. Tightly, but not too tight—Karen had said she hadn’t loved Mary-Lou especially, and Nicholas didn’t want to be cruel. He had even wrapped his own handkerchief around her eyes as a blindfold.

Then he’d produced from his knapsack Father’s gun.

“You can’t use that!” Karen said. “Father will find out! Father will be angry!”

“Phooey to that,” said Nicholas. “I’ll be going to war soon, and I’ll have a gun all of my own. Had you heard that, Carrie? That I’m going to war?” She hadn’t heard. Nanny had kept it from her, and Nicholas had wanted it to be a surprise. He looked at the gun. “It’s a Webley Mark IV service revolver,” he said. “Crude and old-fashioned, just like Father. What I’ll be getting will be much better.”

He narrowed his eyes, and aimed the gun, fired. There was an explosion, louder than Karen could ever have dreamed—and she thought Nicholas was shocked too, not only by the noise, but by the recoil. Birds scattered. Nicholas laughed. The bullet had gone wild. “That was just a warm up,” he said.

It was on his fourth try that he hit Mary-Lou. Her leg was blown off.

“Do you want a go?”

“No,” said Karen.

“It’s just like at a fairground,” he said. “Come on.”

She took the gun from him, and it burned in her hand, it smelled like burning. He showed her how to hold it, and she liked the way his hand locked around hers as he corrected her aim. “It’s all right,” he said to his little sister gently, “we’ll do it together. There’s nothing to be scared of.” And really he was the one who pulled the trigger, but she’d been holding on too, so she was a bit responsible, and Nicholas gave a whoop of delight and Karen had never heard him so happy before, she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him happy. And when they looked back at the tree, Mary-Lou had disappeared.

“I’m going across the seas,” he said. “I’m going to fight. And every man I kill, listen, I’m killing him for you. Do you understand me? I’ll kill them all because of you.”

He kissed her then on the lips. It felt warm and wet and the moustache tickled, and it was hard too, as if he were trying to leave an imprint there, as if when he pulled away he wanted to leave a part of him behind.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too.”

“Don’t forget me,” he said. Which seemed such an odd thing to say—how was she going to forget her own brother?

They’d normally bury the tribute then, but they couldn’t find any trace of Mary-Lou’s body. Nicholas put the gun back in the knapsack, he offered Karen his hand. She took it. They went home.

• • • •

They had never found Nicholas’ body either; at the funeral, his coffin was empty, and Father told Karen it didn’t matter, that good form was the thing. Nicholas had been killed in the Dardanelles, and Karen looked for it upon the map, and it seemed such a long way to go to die. There were lots of funerals in the town that season, and Father made sure that Nicholas’ was the most lavish, no expense was spared.

The family was so small now, and they watched together as the coffin was lowered into the grave. Father looking proud, not sad. And Karen refusing to cry—”Don’t cry,” she said to the daughter she’d brought with her, “you mustn’t cry, or it won’t be clean”—and yet she dug her fingernails deep into her daughter’s body to try to force some tears from it.

• • • •

Julian hadn’t gone to war. He’d been born just too late. And of course he said he was disappointed, felt cheated even, he loved his country and whatever his country might stand for, and he had wanted to demonstrate that love in the very noblest of ways. He said it with proper earnestness, and some days he almost meant it. His two older brothers had gone to fight, and both had returned home, and the younger had brought back some sort of medal with him. The brothers had changed. They had less time for Julian, and Julian felt that was no bad thing. He was no longer worth the effort of bullying. One day he’d asked his eldest brother what it had been like out there on the Front. And the brother turned to him in surprise, and Julian was surprised too, what had he been thinking of?—and he braced himself for the pinch or Chinese burn that was sure to follow. But instead the brother had just turned away; he’d sucked his cigarette down to the very stub, and sighed, and said it was just as well Julian hadn’t been called up, the trenches were a place for real men. The whole war really wouldn’t have been his bag at all.

When Julian Morris first met Karen Davison, neither was much impressed. Certainly, Julian was well used to girls finding him unimpressive: he was short, his face was too round and homely, his thighs quickly thinned into legs that looked too spindly to support him. There was an effeminacy about his features that his father had thought might have been cured by a spell fighting against Germans, but Julian didn’t know whether it would have helped; he tried to take after his brothers, tried to lower his voice and speak more gruffly, he drank beer, he took up smoking. But even there he’d got it all wrong somehow. The voice, however gruff, always rose in inflection no matter how much he tried to stop it. He sipped at his beer. He held his cigarette too languidly, apparently, and when he puffed out smoke it was always from the side of his mouth and never with a good, bold, manly blast.

But for Julian to be unimpressed by a girl was a new sensation for him. Girls flummoxed Julian. With their lips and their breasts and their flowing contours. With their bright colours, all that perfume. Even now, if some aged friend of his mother’s spoke to him, he’d be reduced to a stammering mess. But Karen Davison did something else to Julian entirely. He looked at her across the ballroom and realised that he rather despised her. It wasn’t that she was unattractive, at first glance her figure was pretty enough. But she was so much older than the other girls, in three years of attending dances no man had yet snatched her up—and there was already something middle-aged about that face, something jaded. She looked bored. That was it, she looked bored. And didn’t care to hide it.

Once in a while a man would approach her, take pity on her, ask her to dance. She would reject him, and off the suitor would scarper, with barely disguised relief.

Julian had promised his parents that he would at least invite one girl on to the dance floor. It would hardly be his fault if that one girl he chose said no. He could return home, he’d be asked how he had got on, and if he were clever he might even be able to phrase a reply that concealed the fact he’d been rejected. Julian was no good at lying outright, his voice would squeak, and he would turn bright red. But not telling the truth? He’d had to find a way of mastering it.

He approached the old maid. Now that she was close, he felt the usual panic rise within him, and he fought it down—look at her, he told himself, look at how hard she looks, like stone; she should be grateful you ask her to dance. He’d reached her. He opened his mouth to speak, realised his first word would be a stutter, put the word aside, found some new word to replace it, cleared his throat. Only then did the girl bother to look up at him. There was nothing welcoming in that expression, but nothing challenging either—she looked at him with utter indifference.

“A dance?” he said. “Like? Would you?”

And, stupidly, opened out his arms, as if to remind her what a dance was, as if without her he’d simply manage on his own in dumb show.

She looked him up and down. Judging him, blatantly judging him. Not a smile upon her face. He waited for the refusal.

“Very well,” she said then, though without any enthusiasm.

He offered her his hand, and she took it by the fingertips, and rose to her feet. She was an inch or two taller than him. He smelled her perfume and didn’t like it.

He put one hand on her waist, the other was left gently brushing against her glove. They danced. She stared at his face, still quite incuriously, but it was enough to make him blush.

“You dance well,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“I don’t enjoy dancing.”

“Then let us, by all means, stop.”

He led her back to her chair. He nodded at her stiffly and prepared to leave. But she gestured towards the chair beside her, and he found himself bending down to sit in it.

“Are you enjoying the ball?” he asked her.

“I don’t enjoy talking either.”

“I see.” And they sat in silence for a few minutes. At one point, he felt he should get up and walk away, and he shuffled in his chair to do so—and at that she turned to look at him, and managed a smile, and for that alone he decided to stay a little while longer.

“Can I at least get you a drink?”

She agreed. So he went to fetch her a glass of fizz. Across the room, he watched as another man approached and asked her to dance, and he suddenly felt a stab of jealousy that astonished him. She waved the man away, in irritation, and Julian pretended it was for his sake.

He brought her back the fizz.

“There you are,” he said.

She sipped at it. He sipped at his the same way.

“If you don’t like dancing,” he said to her, “and you don’t like talking, why do you come?” He already knew the answer, of course, it was the same reason he came, and she didn’t bother dignifying him with a reply. He laughed and hated how girlish it sounded.

At length she said, “Thank you for coming,” as if this were her ball, as if he were her guest, and he realised he was being dismissed. He got to his feet.

“Do you have a card?” she asked.

Julian did. She took it, put it away without reading it. And Julian waited beside her for any further farewell, and when nothing came, he nodded at her once more and left her.

• • • •

The very next day, Julian received a telephone call from a Mr. Davison, who invited him to have dinner with his daughter at his house that evening. Julian accepted. And because the girl had never bothered to give him her name, it took Julian a fair little time to work out who this Davison fellow might be.

Julian wondered whether the evening would be formal, and so overdressed, just for safety’s sake. He took some flowers. He rang the bell, and some hatchet-faced old woman opened the front door. She showed him in. She told him that Mr. Davison had been called away on business and would be unable to dine with him that evening. Mistress Karen would receive him in the drawing room. She disappeared with his flowers, and Julian never saw them again and had no evidence indeed that Mistress Karen would ever see them either.

At the top of the staircase, Julian saw there were two portraits. One was a giantess, a bejewelled matriarch sneering down at him, and Julian could recognise in her features the girl he had danced with the night before, and he was terrified of her, and he fervently hoped that Karen would never grow up to be like her mother. The other portrait, much smaller, was of some boy in army uniform.

Karen was waiting for him. She was wearing the same dress she had worn the previous night. “I’m so glad you could come,” she intoned.

“I’m glad you invited me.”

“Let us eat.”

So they went into the dining room and sat either end of a long table. The hatchet-face served them soup. “Thank you, Nanny,” Karen said. Julian tasted the soup. The soup was good.

“It’s a very grand house,” said Julian.

“Please, there’s no need to make conversation.”

“All right.”

The soup bowls were cleared away. Chicken was served. And, after that, a trifle.

“I like trifle,” said Karen, and Julian didn’t know whether he was supposed to respond to that, and so he smiled at her, and she smiled back, and that all seemed to work well enough.

Afterwards Julian asked whether he could smoke. Karen said he might. He offered Karen a cigarette, and she hesitated, and then said she would like that. So Julian got up, and went around the table, and lit one for her. Julian tried very hard to smoke in the correct way, but it still kept coming out girlishly. But Karen didn’t seem to mind; indeed, she positively imitated him, she puffed smoke from the corner of her mouth and made it all look very pretty.

And even now they didn’t talk, and Julian realised he didn’t mind. There was no awkwardness to it. It was companionable. It was a shared understanding.

• • • •

Julian was invited to three more dinners. After the fourth, Mr. Davison called Mr. Morris, and told him that a proposal of marriage to his daughter would not be unacceptable. Mr. Morris was very pleased, and Mrs. Morris took Julian to her bedroom and had him go through her jewellery box to pick out a ring he could give his fiancée, and Julian marvelled, he had never seen such beautiful things.

Julian didn’t meet Mr. Davison until the wedding day, whereupon the man clapped him on the back as if they were old friends, and told him he was proud to call him his son. Mr. Morris clapped Julian on the back too; even Julian’s brothers were at it. And Julian marvelled at how he had been transformed into a man by dint of a simple service and signed certificate. Neither of his brothers had married yet, he had beaten them to the punch, and was there jealousy in that back clapping? They called Julian a lucky dog, that his bride was quite the catch. And so, Julian felt, she was; on her day of glory she did nothing but beam with smiles, and there was no trace of her customary truculence. She was charming, even witty, and Julian wondered why she had chosen to hide these qualities from him—had she recognised that it would have made him scared of her? Had she been shy and hard just to win his heart? Julian thought this might be so, and in that belief discovered that he did love her, he loved her after all—and maybe, in spite of everything, the marriage might just work out.

For a wedding present, the families had bought them a house in Chelsea. It was small, but perfectly situated, and they could always upgrade when they had children. As an extra present, Mr. Davison had bought his daughter a doll—a bit of a monstrosity, really, about the size of a fat infant, with blonde curly hair and red lips as thick as a darkie’s, and wearing its own imitation wedding dress. Karen seemed pleased with it. Julian thought little about it at the time.

• • • •

They honeymooned in Venice for two weeks, in a comfortable hotel near the Rialto.

Karen didn’t show much interest in Venice. No, that wasn’t true; she said she was fascinated by Venice. But she preferred to read about it in her guidebook. Outside there was noise, and people, and stink; she could better experience the city indoors. Julian offered to stay with her, but she told him he was free to do as he liked. So in the daytime he’d leave her, and he’d go and visit St. Mark’s Square, climb the basilica, take a gondola ride. In the evening he’d return, and over dinner he’d try to tell her all about it. She’d frown, and say there was no need to explain, she’d already read it all in her Baedeker. Then they would eat in silence.

On the first night, he’d been tired from travel. On the second, from sightseeing. On the third night, Karen told her husband that there were certain manly duties he was expected to perform. Her father was wanting a grandson; for her part, she wanted lots of daughters. Julian said he would do his very best, and drank half a bottle of claret to give him courage. She stripped off, and he found her body interesting, and even attractive, but not in the least arousing. He stripped off too.

“Oh!” she said. “But you have hardly any hair! I’ve got more hair than you!” And it was true, there was a faint buzz of fur over her skin, and over his next to nothing—just the odd clump where Nature had started work, rethought the matter, given up. Karen laughed, but it was not unkind. She ran her fingers over his body. “It’s so smooth, how did you get it so smooth?

“Wait a moment,” she then said, and hurried to the bathroom. She was excited. Julian had never seen his wife excited. She returned with a razor. “Let’s make you perfect,” she said.

She soaped him down, and shaved his body bald. She only cut him twice, and that wasn’t her fault, that was because he’d moved. She left him only the hairs on his head. And even there, she plucked the eyebrows, and trimmed his fine wavy hair into a neat bob.

“There,” she said, and looked over her handiwork proudly, and ran her hands all over him, and this time there was nothing that got in their way.

And at that, he tried to kiss her, and she laughed again, and pushed him away.

“No, no,” she said. “Your duties can wait until we’re in England. We’re on holiday.”

So he started going out at night as well, with her blessing. He saw how romantic Venice could be by moonlight. He didn’t know Italian well, and so could barely understand what the ragazzi said to him, but it didn’t matter, they were very accommodating. And by the time he returned to his wife’s side, she was always asleep.

• • • •

The house in Chelsea had been done up for them, ready for their return. He asked her whether she’d like him to carry her over the threshold. She looked surprised at that, and said he could try. She lay back in his arms, and he was expecting her to be quite heavy, but it went all right really, and he got her through the doorway without doing anything to disgrace himself.

As far as he’d been aware, Karen had never been to the house before. But she knew exactly where to go, walking straight to the study, and to the wooden desk inside, and to the third drawer down. “I have a present for you,” she said, and from the drawer she took a gun.

“It was my brother’s,” she said.

“Oh. Really?”

“It may not have been his. But it’s what they gave us anyway.”

She handed it to Julian. Julian weighed it in his hands. Like his wife, it was lighter than he’d expected.

“You’re the man of the house now,” Karen said.

There was no nanny to fetch them dinner. Julian said he didn’t mind cooking. He fixed them some eggs. He liked eggs.

After they’d eaten, and Julian had rinsed the plates and left them to dry, Karen said that they should inspect the bedroom. And Julian agreed. They’d inspected the rest of the house; that room, quite deliberately, both had left as yet unexplored.

The first impression that Julian got as he pushed open the door was pink, that everything was pink; the bedroom was unapologetically feminine, that blazed out from the soft pink carpet and the wallpaper of pink rose on pink background, And there was a perfume to it too, the perfume of Karen herself, and he still didn’t much care for it.

That was before he saw the bed.

He was startled, and gasped, and then laughed at himself for gasping. The bed was covered with dolls. There were at least a dozen of them, all pale plastic skin and curls and lips that were ruby red, and some were wearing pretty little hats, and some carrying pretty little nosegays, all of them in pretty dresses. In the centre of them, in pride of place, was the doll Karen’s father had given as a wedding present—resplendent in her wedding dress, still fat, her facial features smoothed away beneath that fat, sitting amongst the others like a queen. And all of them were smiling. And all of them were looking at him, expectantly, as if they’d been waiting to see who it was they’d heard climb the stairs, as if they’d been waiting for him all this time.

Julian said, “Well! Well. Well, we won’t be able to get much sleep with that lot crowding about us!” He chuckled. “I mean, I won’t know which is which! Which one is just a doll, and which one my pretty wife!” He chuckled. “Well.”

Karen said, “Gifts from my father. I’ve had some since I was a little girl. Some of them have been hanging about for years.”

Julian nodded.

Karen said, “But I’m yours now.”

Julian nodded again. He wondered whether he should put his arms around her. He didn’t quite like to, not with all the dolls staring.

“I love you,” said Karen. “Or rather, I’m trying. I need you to know, I’m trying very hard.” And for a moment Julian thought she was going to cry, but then he saw her blink back the tears, her face was hard again. “But I can’t love you fully, not whilst I’m loving them. You have to get rid of them for me.”

“Well, yes,” said Julian. “I mean. If you’re sure that’s what you want.”

Karen nodded grimly. “It’s time. And long overdue.”

• • • •

She put on her woollen coat then, she said it would be cold out there in the dark. And she bundled up the dolls too, each and every one of them, and began putting them into Julian’s arms. “There’s too many,” he said, “I’ll drop them,” but Karen didn’t stop, and soon there were arms and legs poking into his chest, he felt the hair of his wife’s daughters scratching under his chin. Karen carried just one doll herself, her new doll. She also carried the gun.

It had been a warm summer’s evening, not quite yet dark. When they stepped outside, it was pitch, only the moonlight providing some small relief, and that grudging. The wind bit. And Chelsea, the city bustle, the pavements, the pedestrians, the traffic—Chelsea had gone, and all that was left was the house. Just the house, and the woods ahead of them.

Julian wanted to run then, but there was nowhere to run to. He tried to drop the dolls. But the dolls refused to let go, they clung on to him, he could feel their little plastic fingers tightening around his coat, his shirt buttons, his skin, his own skin.

“Follow me,” said Karen.

The branches stuck out at weird angles, impossible angles, Julian couldn’t see any way to climb through them. But Karen knew where to tread and where to duck, and she didn’t hesitate, she moved at speed—and Julian followed her every step, he struggled to catch up, he lost sight of her once or twice and thought he was lost for good, but the dolls, the dolls showed him the way.

The clearing was a perfect circle, and the moon shone down upon it like a spotlight on a stage.

“Put them down,” said Karen.

He did so.

She arranged the dolls on the browning grass, set them in one long neat line. Julian tried to help; he put the new doll in her wedding dress beside them, and Karen rescued her. “It’s not her time yet,” she said. “But she needs to see what will one day happen to her.”

“And what is going to happen?”

Her reply came as if the daughters themselves had asked. Her voice rang loud, with a confidence Julian had never heard from her before. “Chloe. Barbara. Mary-Sue. Mary-Jo. Suki. Delilah. Wendy. Prue. Annabelle. Mary-Ann. Natasha. Jill. You have been sentenced to death.”

“But why?” said Julian. He wanted to grab her, shake her by the shoulders. He wanted to. She was his wife, that’s what he was supposed to do. He couldn’t even touch her. He couldn’t even go near. “Why? What have they done?”

“Love,” said Karen. She turned to him. “Oh, yes, they know what they’ve done.”

She saluted them. “And you,” she said to Julian, “you must salute them too. No. Not like that. That’s not a salute. Hand steady. Like me. Yes. Yes.”

She gave him the gun. The dolls all had their backs to him, at least he didn’t have to see their faces.

He thought of his father. He thought of his brothers. Then, he didn’t think of anything.

He fired into the crowd. He’d never fired a gun before, but it was easy, there was nothing to it. He ran out of bullets, so Karen reloaded the gun. He fired into the crowd again. He thought there might be screams. There were no screams. He thought there might be blood  . . . and the brown of the grass seemed fresher and wetter and seemed to pool out lazily towards him.

And Karen reloaded his gun. And he fired into the crowd, just once more, please, God, just one last time. Let them be still. Let them stop twitching. The twitching stopped.

“It’s over,” said Karen.

“Yes,” he said. He tried to hand her back the gun, but she wouldn’t take it—it’s yours now, you’re the man of the house. “Yes,” he said again.

He began to cry. He didn’t make a sound.

“Don’t,” said Karen. “If you cry, the deaths won’t be clean.”

And he tried to stop, but now the tears found a voice, he bawled like a little girl.

She said, “I will not have you dishonour them.”

She left him then. She picked up her one surviving doll, and went, and left him all alone in the woods. He didn’t try to follow her. He stared at the bodies in the clearing, wondered if he should clear them up, make things tidier. He didn’t. He clutched the gun, waited it for to cool, and eventually it did. And when he thought to turn about, he didn’t know where to go, he didn’t know he’d be able to find his way back. But the branches parted for him easily, as if ushering him fast on his way, as if they didn’t want him either.

• • • •

“I’m sorry,” he said.

He hadn’t taken a key. He’d had to ring his own doorbell. When his wife answered, he felt an absurd urge to explain who he was. He’d stopped crying, but his face was still red and puffy. He held out his gun to her, and she hesitated, then at last took it from him.

“Sorry,” he said again.

“You did your best,” she said. “I’m sorry too. But next time it’ll be different.”

“Yes,” he said. “Next time.”

“Won’t you come in?” she said politely, and he thanked her, and did.

She took him upstairs. The doll was sitting on the bed, watching. She moved it to the dressing table. She stripped her husband. She ran her fingers over his soft smooth body, she’d kept it neat and shaved.

“I’m sorry,” he said one more time; and then, as if it were the same thing, “I love you.”

And she said nothing to that, but smiled kindly. And she took him then, and before he knew what he was about, he was inside her, and he knew he ought to feel something, and he knew he ought to be doing something to help. He tried to gyrate a little. “No, no,” she said, “I’ll do it,” and so he let her be. He let her do all the work, and he looked up at her face and searched for any sign of passion there, or tenderness, but it was so hard—and he turned to the side, and there was the fat doll, and it was smiling, and its eyes were twinkling, and there, there, on that greasy plastic face, there was all the tenderness he could ask for.

Eventually she rolled off. He thought he should hug her. He put his arms around her, felt how strong she was. He felt like crying again. He supposed that would be a bad idea.

“I love you,” she said. “I am very patient. I have learned to love you.”

She fetched a hairbrush. She played at his hair. “My sweetheart,” she said, “my angel cake.” She turned him over, spanked his bottom hard with the brush until the cheeks were red as rouge. “My big baby doll.”

And this time he did cry, it was as if she’d given him permission. And it felt so good.

He looked across at the doll, still smiling at him, and he hated her, and he wanted to hurt her, he wanted to take his gun and shove the barrel right inside her mouth and blast a hole through the back of her head. He wanted to take his gun and bludgeon with it, blow after blow, and he knew how good that would feel, the skull smashing, the wetness. And this time he wouldn’t cry. He would be a real man.

“I love you,” she said again. “With all my heart.”

She pulled back from him, and looked him in the face, sizing him up, as she had that first time they’d met. She gave him a salute.

He giggled at that, he tried to raise his own arm to salute back, but it wouldn’t do it, he was so very silly.

There was a blur of something brown at the foot of the bed; something just out of the corner of his eye, and the blur seemed to still, and the brown looked like a jacket maybe, trousers, a uniform. He tried to cry out—in fear, or at least in surprise?—but there was no air left in him. There was the smell of mud, so much mud. Who’d known mud could smell? And a voice to the blur, a voice in spite of all. “Is it time?”

He didn’t see his wife’s reaction, nor hear her reply. His head jerked, and he was looking at the doll again, and she was the queen doll, the best doll, so pretty in her wedding dress. She was his queen. And he thought she was smiling even wider, and that she was pleased he was offering her such sweet tribute.

Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman, photo by Ellen Datlow

Robert Shearman has written five short story collections, and collectively they have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize and three British Fantasy Awards. He began his career in theatre, both as playwright and director, and his work has won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, the Sophie Winter Memorial Trust Award, and the Guinness Award for Ingenuity in association with the Royal National Theatre. His interactive series for BBC Radio Four, The Chain Gang, ran for three seasons and won two Sony Awards. However, he may be best known as a writer for Doctor Who, reintroducing the Daleks for its BAFTA winning first series in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award.