Nightmare Magazine





There is a man locked in the dollhouse.

He is not a doll-sized man. He is a full-sized man. The structure is designed for miniatures, and he is trapped inside it, knees up against his chest, head scraping the ceiling. He only fits because the architects of the little house equipped it with a palatial foyer, the kind that, in real houses, is designed to make visitors gape at the sheer magnificence of the space. The effect is lost on the full-sized man. To him, it’s more like a cabinet.

Seen from the outside, the front of the house is a great white mansion, with pillars supporting a flourish of an overhang. The door has a bronze knocker hanging from a gargoyle’s mouth. The entire front wall is itself a pair of double doors, designed to swing open and reveal the grand foyer where the man squats imprisoned, as well as the ballroom, a dining room with seating for twenty, a kitchen, and an expansive library. In the foyer, two sweeping staircases (which further constrict the space the naked man is forced to occupy), lead to a second floor with a master bedroom and the domains of four children; two boys and two girls. Each room is completely furnished with miniatures down to a thumbnail-sized notebook on the oldest girl’s tiny little desk. Every detail has been produced with absolute fidelity to the suggested reality, including closed doors that exist in places that must represent toilets. Of course, the naked man does not know what lies upstairs, or in the rooms to his left and the right. He is far too large and the house too small to permit any wandering from room to room. He is the prisoner of the foyer.

He is not completely locked in darkness, this naked man. One of the design elements of the house, high above the front door, is an arched, semi-circular window cut into panes that resemble orange slices. It is positioned at eye level for the naked man, and through it he has his only view of the outside world. He can see the wallpaper, the edge of a sliding closet door, and the foot of a canopy bed, all shocking pink. He sees a giant teddy bear at the foot of the bed, head cantered at an angle that simulates eye contact. He sees a nutcracker in the shape of a toy soldier mounted on the wall, its cheeks adorned with perfect circles of rose color.

This is clearly the bedroom of someone’s pampered baby girl. He is a decent man, and this makes him as uncomfortable morally as he is physically, because it makes him feel like a lurking predator. He does not want to be found naked in the room of a child. But the flip side of that is, of course, that if he is found, he might be let out, and so much time has passed since he first disappeared from his own comfortable life and found himself here that he aches for that to happen, regardless of the consequences. He is kept from realizing that he has been locked up, and alive, for far too long for his plight to make any sense. Months. Years, maybe. He lives in the moment. Sooner or later, the girl will save him.

There is a woman sewn inside the teddy bear.

Its dimensions are not human dimensions, its proportions are not human proportions, but she has been folded and arranged in ways that position her long limbs within the creature’s stubbier ones, her hands clutching her shoulders, her lower legs tucked in a kneeling position, so that where the beast’s limbs end with padded stubs, she has elbows and knees. Her head is of course in the stuffed animal’s head and she can see out, albeit not through the glossy black circles it has for eyes, but through slits harder to discern, hidden against printed patterns on the bear’s cheeks. What she sees, because she has been arranged with her head facing that direction, is the dollhouse, and she can see the two blinking eyes behind that skylight of an upstairs window. She has been blinking nonstop for forever, to get the attention of those eyes, to instill in them the knowledge that she is here, staring back at him, but it seems that he cannot see past the bear’s face, to her own equally captive heart, stuck in this place just like he is stuck in hers.

She thinks she knows who it is.

This is paradoxical because she doesn’t know who she is. That knowledge was removed from her on the same day she was brought here and stuffed forever motionless inside the bear, but she nevertheless has some sense of the person she once was, the life she once lived, getting up and putting on clothes and leaving the house and going to her job, all specifics that escape her, but that she knows to have been daily routine. Once she smiled. Once she cursed like a sailor. Once she had friends and lovers. Once she had purpose. But now she’s inside this bear, her limbs constrained by stuffing. She cannot seek solace in memory because the memory has been placed just outside her reach, so tantalizingly close that with sudden leaps of mental energy she finds herself brushing it, before the limitations that have been placed on her bring her back down to her tiny prison inside the bear.

But she does know who the man is. She can picture his face, at least. She can formulate images of him laughing, of him shouting, of him doing the O face as his head bobs up and down, above her. She knows all about his pug nose, his rounded chin, the thin scar that cuts through his right eyebrow, that doesn’t disfigure but instead provides character. She knows that once she loved him and once she hated him. It seems horribly unfair that he cannot answer any of her questions about who she is, who he is in relation to her, and what crime they may have committed to be sentenced to this place. The only hope lies in the knowledge that this is a bedroom and that bedrooms are inhabited; sooner or later, its tenant will return. And even if she’s just a little girl, maybe she will do something to free them from this place. It is the only sensible outcome. Sooner or later, the girl will save her.

There is a boy inside the toy soldier.

More has been done to the boy in order to fit him inside his prison. He has been diminished, reduced to doll-size himself, poked and prodded and stretched in various ways in order to fit his dimensions inside the figurine of carved wood. Still, he is in there, not just as a spirit but as a body, his mouth clamped open within the powerful jaw assembly, which fits him like a brank. He is no more able to move than the man or the woman, two beings who (he senses) once filled his entire world, in ways good and bad, and are still just as prominent, inside the teddy bear and the doll house where he knows them to be. He hangs on the wall, forced by the contours of the figurine around him to stand at eternal attention, holding his cartoonish bayonet upright.

His elevated position gives him a much better panoramic view of the room than the ones afforded the man or woman. He can see the teddy bear, leaning against the foot of the bed with its head tilted in a manner that suggests utter fascination with the doll house. He can see, by a kind of magic, the woman inside, who is if only by default exactly as single-minded on the occupant of the house as her ursine suit pretends; he can smell the scent of her trapped sweat and he knows it to be a completely different perfume than he is forced to breathe himself. An unwanted telepathy informs him that she cannot remember her name, or the man’s; and this provides him with at least something to occupy his time, time that seems enough to grow old and die: empathy.

Of the man in the dollhouse, he remembers nothing except that it’s his father.

He is the only one of the three who has any idea who put them here, and why.

Above the dollhouse hangs the room’s one set of double windows, which look out on a sky that could not possibly be real. The clouds are pleasant and fluffy, set against a blue sky, but the angle of light on the sky never moves, and the clouds never shift the way clouds do. The boy has figured out that they are paintings on a blue wall, and that means that there is a façade past that window, and maybe another façade beyond it: maybe uncounted legions of them.

The boy cannot always see his sister, from where he hangs.

But sometimes she appears in the window

where neither the man nor the woman can see her.

Her face fills the available space. The eyes alone are the size of footballs, the blue irises between them brilliant in a way the painted sky behind her cannot rival. Her hair is gold. She appears to be about seven, though of course in sheer years, based on how long the man and woman and boy have been here, she might actually be a very old woman. But she looks seven, and there’s something cruel and knowing about her delighted gaze, something insolent about the eye contact she makes with the toy soldier hanging on the wall. And then she moves on to whatever other distractions she’s created for herself, whatever other entertainments a girl like her might look to.

Maybe someday, the boy thinks, she’ll save me.

But when she’s not there, the window frames nothing but painted clouds, on a blue wall that could be on any world at all.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, His The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.