“Mama,” she said, quietly. I almost didn’t hear her; my mind had drifted, far away from the seemingly endless stretch of asphalt and sand, away from the hot vinyl seats that stuck and peeled away from my skin every time I moved. Away from my daughter, sitting quietly in the seat beside me, playing on the tablet she’d received for her last birthday.
“What is it, Ophelia?” I asked, glancing over at her. She was all but stabbing at the smudged screen with one delicate finger, her frustration apparent. I saw the familiar bright colors and dark lines of the dollhouse game she was too old to be playing, but I had given up on trying to convince her to find something more age appropriate. Better something too young for her than too old, I supposed. We passed another sign, warning us that we were almost upon Strangetown, and I sighed.
“My doll won’t stop crying.”
“What do you mean she won’t stop crying?” I stole another quick look at the screen. I saw, again, the same dolls, designed simply and without much variation. A Mother doll, a Father doll, a Brother and a Sister doll, and a sexually ambiguous Baby doll. All with little black dots for eyes, two small black lines for eyebrows, one big black slash for a mouth. They were gathered together in the Kitchen, one of six rooms the Doll family could navigate.
For the first time since she’d downloaded it, I saw that the Mother’s usually blandly smiling face had changed – two thick blue streams meant to simulate tears now ran down her face, and the corners of her mouth were clearly downturned. She looked surprisingly miserable.
“Is she hurt?” I asked, feeling silly, but genuinely lost for anything more helpful. I hadn’t paid much attention to the game once I realized that it was mostly just opening and closing doors, changing clothes, and flushing toilets. I knew that there were additional games in the franchise which enabled the Doll family to visit the school, the grocery store, the police station, and the hospital, but I assumed that it was more of the same in each different setting. The only thing I’d ever found even remotely interesting was that she was able to stock the fish tank in the police station with different fish – everything from clownfish to tiny sharks, whatever she earned through collecting little red hearts hidden throughout the game. Perhaps, I thought, the “crying” function was an indicator that Mother needed to visit the Hospital.
“No,” Ophelia replied, tapping at the Mother’s face. Another thin window popped up, with a row of selectable facial expressions: Happy, Surprised, Angry, Confused, and Sad. “You can change their faces, but it won’t let me.”
“Have you tried restarting the game?” She had. “How about the tablet itself?” She had not.
A moment later, she was happily playing the game again, and when I snuck a peak at her a few miles down the endless road, Mother was at the Grocery Store, smiling pleasantly in the canned goods aisle.
“What is it, baby?”
“My dolls are crying, again.”
I emerged from the bathroom with my mouth burning and minty. The Deadtree Inn was the first place we’d found on the other side of the “Welcome to Strangetown” sign, and we’d both been too tired to embark on a search for better accommodations.
“Did you reset the –”
“Yes, and I restarted the tablet already, too.”
I sat beside her on the bed and she passed me the tablet. The Mother again, with the tears streaming down her cheeks, and her mouth, nothing more than a thin black line, bowed with grief.
I remembered Ophelia telling me earlier that you could select their faces from a menu, and tapped my finger on the Mother’s face. Nothing happened. I tried again several more times, pressing harder each time, as if though the added pressure would somehow make the game more responsive. I tried touching other areas of the screen, moving the children around the room, opening and closing cabinets, I even discovered that the clock on the wall could toggle the lighting between day and night. Everything was working fine, but still the Mother wept.
After several minutes of fruitless attempts to resolve the Mother’s condition, I gave up. Shrugging helplessly, I handed the tablet back to Ophelia.
“It’s late, anyway,” I said. “Why don’t you turn it off, and tomorrow morning, I’ll reinstall the whole game.”
The next morning, I did as I promised. I uninstalled and reinstalled the game and all of its little add-ons. It was quite an ordeal with the motel’s dreadful wi-fi, but I was able to have it done by the time Ophelia had completed her morning routine.
The game started up as usual and to our collective relief, the Mother was her usual cheerful self.
“Thank you, mama,” Ophelia said, immediately settling in. I watched as she sent the children to School, where they stood around in a classroom backdrop and ate apples.
She really is too old for that game… I thought, but pushed it away. She would spend the rest of her life being told she was Too Something for Everything, I refused to take away a virtual doll game just because I thought she should be playing — what? A math game? Fruit Ninja? Solitaire?
I left her to her Doll family and began to collect our stuff so we could get back in the car and try to make it to my sister’s by dinner time.
“That girl is too old for that game.”
“Nervous quit playing with dolls years ago.”
“He didn’t quit playing with them, he broke them all, and you refused to buy him any new ones.”
“Why should I buy him more when he was just going to break them?” Olive glared at me. “I don’t think she should have one of those… electronics, either. What’s wrong with real dolls?”
I sighed, and lowered my voice. “The tablet was a gift from Creon.”
“The more you say, the worse it gets,” Olive snapped. “Leave it to that twit to give her fake dolls she’s too old to be playing with.”
“Really, Olive, it’s fine. It’s got all kinds of other fun things for her to do, and she loves it.” We watched as Ophelia pointed something out to her cousin, who had crept in from the yard at some point and joined Ophelia on the couch. He was a few years older than her, but he was quiet and reserved and small for his age. This particular combination of attributes made him seem somehow much younger. “You should consider getting one for Nervous.”
“Why?” Olive cried. “You think he’s running out of things to break? Keep that thing away from him, I’m not buying Ophelia a new one, either.”
Nervous looked up from the screen, his face void of emotion, and watched as his mother stormed out of the room.
“I wouldn’t break Ophelia’s things,” he said flatly.
“Of course you wouldn’t, sweetheart!”
“Not unless she provoked me. I don’t care for it when others provoke me,” he said, and then slithered off the couch and followed Olive’s path. Ophelia and I sat, speechless, until we heard his bedroom door close.
“Do we really have to live here, mama?” Ophelia whispered, holding the tablet to her chest, as if though she were afraid that perhaps her question would Provoke Nervous and he would come charging out of his room and destroy it.
“Yes, baby, but not forever,” I said. It felt like a lie.
“But Aunt Olive doesn’t like me,” she said, a complaint I’d heard repeatedly ever since I’d told her that we would be moving to Strangetown to live with my sister until the dust settled. Aunt Olive doesn’t like me! I don’t want to leave!
She doesn’t like anyone, I wanted to tell her. So much I wanted to tell her. Like, I don’t want to leave any more than you do, but your father’s new girlfriend is itching to move in, she won’t let him touch her until he makes her a commitment – because clearly it worked so well for me, his wife – so we have to go, baby, gotta hit the road, toad, but at least you got a shiny new tablet out of it. That’s more than a lot of kids in this situation get.
Instead I told her: “Don’t be silly, baby. Aunt Olive loves you very much. She’s just eccentric.”
“What does that mean?”
“Eccentric? It means… she’s a little weird. She doesn’t show her feelings like we do.”
She went back to her tablet.
“How is your doll family?”
“Fine,” she said, without looking up. “The Father had to get a shot in his head.”
“Oh, no! Is he okay?”
Ophelia didn’t answer.
Olive’s yard should be condemned. Perhaps it would be, except she lives alone in a corner of Strangetown, at the end of a road long enough to keep the various smells from reaching the rest of the town.
First, there is the pond where the water doesn’t move, and you can’t see the bottom. It used to terrify me when Ophelia was a toddler. I mentioned it to Olive this morning, how relieved I felt now that Ophelia was bigger and the pond was too shallow to be any real threat.
“It goes much deeper than you think,” Olive had replied, and all of my old fears came rushing back.
Next to the pond, there is a short line of wire strung between two wooden poles, where Olive keeps several large fish, all in varying stages of decay. I’d asked her once if the fish came from her pond, and she’d looked at me like I was quite stupid before telling me that nothing lived in that water. Of course, I’d been curious why she would buy fish just to hang them out to rot, but she’d shushed me and told me I I wouldn’t like the truth even if she told me.
She pulled a dead and reeking fish from a line she kept beside the pond, and gently placed it into the water.
“This is supposed to be Nervous’s job,” she said, “but he forgets.”
We both watched it loll on the surface, then quickly sink down into the darkness. As if though something had caught hold of it and pulled it down.
It was strange and irrational, even if it was deeper than I thought, it couldn’t possibly be that deep, and nothing lived in that water, anyway… but I told Ophelia to stay away from the pond, regardless.
Then there are the chickens, which squawk and squabble and smell like their meat has already begun to go bad. The eggs they produce are so much larger and darker than anything I’ve ever seen in any store, and the yolks are a rich, warm orange. But they don’t smell like eggs.
Almost immediately upon our arrival, Olive tasked Ophelia with feeding them and collecting their eggs. I was quietly grateful to Olive for pushing her own responsibilities off on to my daughter; the chickens were the only things that could tear Ophelia away from her tablet.
Finally, there was the graveyard.
Pets, my sister assured me, but Olive didn’t like animals.
The graveyard took up a large part of the yard, just past the pond. There were no real tombstones (“Why would there be?” Olive had demanded. “Animals don’t need real tombstones! They’re lucky they even got buried. I could have thrown them in the trash!”), only crude wooden crosses, old discolored boards nailed together, crooked more often than not.
“I don’t like it, mama; it makes me sad,” Ophelia said, every time she saw it.
“I know, baby. It makes me sad, too. But there is nothing we can do except try to get used to it.”
I looked up from my laptop, my mouse hovering over a promising job listing. I hadn’t worked in some time, but I was desperate for stable income so I could get myself and Ophelia into our own place.
She held her tablet out to me, nearly thrust it at me. “All of the fish are dead.”
“At the police station. All of my fish are dead.”
I turned the screen back on and found myself at the police station. None of the Family dolls or police dolls were present, so the room was empty save for the large fish tank, which Ophelia had been working so hard to fill.
It’s an odd sensation, to be unnerved by a doll game meant for preschoolers. I had seen this particular room many times before, had helped Ophelia pick out fish and watched her dress up the Mother and Father in the spare uniforms hanging on the wall.
“Did you re-decorate this room?” I asked, and she shook her head.
“You can’t decorate in this game,” she said.
Then what happened to the walls? I wanted to ask. Why is that bowl of fruit on the counter starting to turn brown?
I tried to focus on the fish tank.
What remained of it.
They were all dead.
Not floating at the top, like dead fish normally do, but layered at the bottom. The little black dots that represented their eyes were now little black x’s. The clear blue water was dark and murky.
“Were you supposed to feed them?”
“Are you sure?”
“There isn’t any fish food.”
Between this and the crying Mother, I was getting irritated with the game. The crying I could possibly understand – games glitched, even I knew that – but this had to be deliberate. Whoever was responsible for this had intentionally coded this into a game meant for small children.
Yet when I went to the app page to complain and demand an explanation for this bizarre and inexplicable display of cruelty, all of the reviews were glowing. Not one single person had experienced a crying glitch, or the dead fish issue.
I left a review, anyway. The developing team behind the game responded almost immediately, expressing shock and outright disbelief at my claims. They allowed for the possibility of the crying face occasionally getting stuck, but were adamant that there simply was no way for the fish – or anything else – to die. Everything within the game would live on indefinitely, with or without food.
Naturally, I wanted to delete the game altogether, but Ophelia cried and begged me to let her keep it, and I relented. But reinstalling it didn’t resolve the fish issue. I even tried restoring her entire tablet to factory condition and then reinstalling the game – the fish were still dead. The walls were still scarred. The fruit was still rotting.
The Mother started crying, again, but this time Ophelia didn’t tell me.
I think she was afraid I would finally snap and really would delete the game.
I didn’t find out until the whole family started crying.
Until the little menu with the different facial expressions now displayed only five crying faces.
Until the game’s happy music and cheerful sound effects had been replaced by the incessant buzzing of flies and soft, continuous weeping.
By that time, the option to uninstall had disappeared, and not even a factory reset would remove it from the tablet.
I disabled the volume and told her not to play it anymore. She readily agreed, apparently having finally reached her own breaking point with the game’s antics.
I promised to buy her a new tablet as soon as I got my first paycheck.
“Just play something else until then,” I said.
“Go play with Nervous,” Olive said.
Ophelia and I watched him exchange punches with another little boy through the window; the little boy rubbed his arm where Nervous’s boney little fist had collided with it. Nervous pulled his arm back, apparently deciding to press his advantage, but the little boy ran past him, through the gate and out of our line of vision.
“Or we can spend some time together, just you and me,” I said, softly, and lead Ophelia back into the kitchen to make cookies.
The clock on the bedside table read 2:14 AM. Ophelia hadn’t woken me up at this hour since she was an infant.
“What’s wrong, baby? Did you have a nightmare?”
She put the tablet on the bed beside me. I didn’t even have to look at the screen to know what was on display; I could hear it just fine.
Buzzing and weeping, and something that sounded a lot like my daughter’s name.
“I didn’t touch the volume,” she said, quickly. “I woke up and it was like that.”
I narrowed my eyes and tried to affect The Look, the one she wouldn’t dare lie to. “Were you playing it again after I specifically told you not to?”
“No, mama. I’ve been playing a Scooby Doo game.”
I believed her.
She wasn’t the only kid in the house, after all.
I turned my attention to the screen, and nearly jumped out of my bed.
The Doll family was still crying, all seated around the kitchen table. Everything in the background was so darkly shaded it was nearly indistinguishable. It was like they were just floating on a black screen.
It made everything else so much easier to see, though.
The kitchen floor, grimy and dirty as if though it hadn’t been cleaned in years, was coated in broken glass and brackish water.
The table was strewn with dead fish.
Out here in the desert, you don’t see a lot of rain.
I’ve been to visit my sister many times throughout the years, and I’ve never seen a drop.
It was pouring when I stepped outside, wrapped in my bathrobe, a flashlight in one hand and the tablet in my other. I nearly lost my nerve as the sky above me rumbled and growled.
I was experiencing a peculiar sensation, then. Whatever fear that had clawed and bitten at me in my bedroom had fled, chased away by a deep and pulsating rage.
Whatever was going on here, it had made a terrible error in targeting my daughter.
The pond was even more sinister and unfathomable in the darkness. If I hadn’t known for a fact that it was filled with water, I might have thought that it was merely a large black hole in the sand.
I did not sink the tablet with the care or reverence that Olive had used with the fish. My sister had knelt, and placed the fish gently in the water. I stood at the water’s edge and let it tumble from my grip. The black water splashed my feet and legs, warm but not unexpectedly so. It made the terrible kind of sense this town was infamous for.
I stood and watched the water ripple, waited in the pelting rain and thunder until it had gone still once more.
Satisfied, I turned to head back inside, where it was dry and where my daughter waited, curled up in my bed, sad to see her tablet go, terrified that it would take me with it. With that damned thing gone, I was suddenly consumed with the need to comfort and be comforted.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Olive and Nervous watching me from her bedroom window. Olive turned and left her son at the glass, and a second later, the room went dark around him. I imagined I could still see his odd, watery eyes peering out at me, but only in the seconds before she called him back to bed.
He’s told old for that, Olive, I thought, bitterly, but knew I would never say it out loud.
Especially not when I was hoping so intently that my own child would stay with me for a few nights, while we waited to see what would happen next.
The days that followed were unremarkable.
I received my first paycheck from my job as a substitute teacher, and as promised, I bought Ophelia another tablet. Thanks to a sale at the local tech shop, I was even able to buy her a newer model. We filled it with games, but thankfully, nothing of the dollhouse variety. I suppose if nothing else good came of this particular experience, it encouraged her to explore things in her own age range.
I enrolled Ophelia in the small k-12 school that served as Strangetown’s sole educational hub, and she was quickly befriended by two local boys. A third boy, she told me, was nice enough to her, but bullied and tormented her new friends. It seemed they had both committed unpardonable offenses in the eyes of this particular bully – one had green skin and a fairly spectacular lineage, and the other was the bully’s brother. As a substitute teacher, I was familiar with all three of them, but not enough to remember which Grunt boy, with their matching brown crew cuts, dark blue eyes, and army fatigues, was which; and as the three of them seemed to be on their best behavior in my presence, I had rare opportunity to witness any of this notorious rivalry Ophelia had told me about.
I tried to encourage Olive to place Nervous within the school system, but she was, unsurprisingly, aggressively resistant. She insisted that he was doing just fine with his homeschooling, although I never actually saw her work with him, and the house seemed mysteriously bereft of any pertinent curricula. I found it somewhat doubtful that she had enrolled him in any manner of schooling, home, public or private. After a strenuous series of fights, during which time Nervous frightened two little girls so badly that their parents got the police involved, I waved my little white flag and left them to it. Perhaps one demented little bully was enough for that school, anyway.
Life with my sister and nephew was tolerable enough, and my “move far, far away” fund was rapidly growing thanks to Olive charging me a pittance in rent, and while Ophelia’s new tablet had proven to be a poor investment – she spent most of her free time with her little crew now – it wasn’t nearly the rechargeable nightmare machine her first one had been, either, and I considered that a small victory. I was even considering real estate within Strangetown, hoping to keep Ophelia here with her new friends.
It wasn’t until I arrived home from school one day that my happy little illusion was unceremoniously shattered.
Creon was waiting for me on the front steps. Though I knew it had nothing to do with sisterly loyalty and everything to do with Olive’s incurable misanthropy, I was still pleased that she had refused him entry into the house.
“Willow,” he said, warmly, his eyes lighting up at the sight of me. The way they used to before everything had gone wrong. It had been some time since he’d looked at me with anything but sly calculation, trying to mentally align our schedules so there wouldn’t be any unfortunate conflicts between our marriage and his dating life.
It would be a while yet before I looked at him with anything but contempt.
“What a pity you wasted all of this time and effort coming all the way to Strangetown when it would have been so much easier for me to just tell you to drop dead over the phone,” I said, breezing past him.
“Now I know you’re angry, darlin’, and I don’t blame you, but at least let me explain –”
The keys nearly leapt out of my hands at the sheer audacity of him standing there, demanding to be heard after he’d evicted me and Ophelia to make room for his new girlfriend.
“Explain? Explain what, exactly? I’m not an idiot, Creon, I know how these things work. She had hair that wasn’t starting to go gray, skin that wasn’t starting to wrinkle and fold, and a body that hadn’t grown and nurtured a child. And you, well, you had your needs.”
“Willow, please,” he cut in, placing his palms together a gesture of prayer. Praying for my forgiveness, as if though he could ever atone for what his betrayal had done to me and Ophelia.
“But I signed the papers, Creon,” I continued as if though he hadn’t spoken at all. “You’re her problem, now. If she’s having a bad case of buyer’s remorse, well, I can’t say I don’t sympathize, but that’s really just too bad, isn’t it? All sales are final.”
Hellbent on having the last word for once, I slammed the door in his face, and then cried until Ophelia came home from Johnny’s.
“Phephe, honey, tell your mother she’s being unreasonable.”
Ophelia looked at me helplessly, and I could have strangled Creon to death right there at the kitchen table for putting her in that position. I could have summoned his ghost and strangled that for using her to gain entrance into a house where he wasn’t welcome in the first place.
“Why don’t you go play a game or something, baby?” I suggested, trying to give her an easy escape. It was too late to send her back out to Johnny’s, but getting her out of the fallout zone was still a priority. “Apparently, your father and I need to talk in private.”
Ophelia nodded, grateful for the reprieve, and grabbed her tablet off the counter where it had been gathering dust for the past couple of weeks.
“Hey now, that’s not the tablet I bought you,” Creon cried. He turned his big sad eyes to Ophelia and dialed his Woe is Me act up to eleven, knowing she’d be distraught with grief at the thought of hurting her poor old daddy. “What happened to the one I got you, Phephe? Didn’t you like it?”
“It was really nice, daddy, but…” Her lower lip began to tremble, and her voice trailed off.
“Did that scrawny little weirdboy break it?”
“First of all, Creon, don’t teach our daughter to call people names,” I said, unable to fully mask my anger. “Second, I got rid of that tablet because we were having issues with it.”
“Oh, were you?” He turned away from Ophelia and locked his eyes on me, but the hurt that had filled them a moment earlier had already dissolved into angry suspicion. “And what issues would those have been, darlin’? The fact that I bought it for her, or the fact that she was playing games on it you didn’t approve of?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Creon,” I said, rolling my eyes. Ophelia took the opportunity to slip out of the room, quiet as a wraith. She could have marched out while wailing on a set of bagpipes for all the difference it would have made, now that Creon had moved the target for his emotional archery on to me. “The fact that you bought it for her as a farewell gift didn’t really thrill me, but I was willing to overlook that. A spoonful of sugar, right?” And with medicine as bitter as what Creon had been administering, why begrudge her a little sweetness? “I wasn’t in love with the doll games, but they made her happy, and we both know that has been my top priority since the test came back positive.” I shook my head, allowing myself to really get riled up. “No, actually, the problem with that particular tablet was probably that you apparently bought it off of some haunted auction. Tell me, darlin’, did the demons cost extra, or did they knock the price down? Something like that could go either way, I imagine.”
The look on his face was almost worth the price of admission.
“Have you lost your damned mind, Willow?” He cried, standing up so fast he knocked his chair over. At his full height, he towered over me, but I’d never been less impressed with him. “Demons? Demons? It’s a tablet, for Christ’s sweet sake, not a Ouija board. My God, you’ve been living with your fucking lunatic sister for eighteen months and now you’re downloading Satan from the app store. This is incredible. Unbelievable. What are you going to do next, get naked, cover yourself in printer ink, and sacrifice a Playstation?”
Of course he didn’t believe me. Who would? I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t endured it myself.
“I don’t know how else to explain anything that happened with that tablet, or that game. All I know for sure is that something dark got into it, and I got rid of it before that something dark could get out. I’ll do the same to you if you try to stick around.”
“Can you even hear yourself right now, Willow? You sound completely off your fucking rocker. I could have you put away for this… this delusion –”
“You can ask Ophelia yourself when you’re ready to be a big boy about it – and only then if you’re willing to actually listen to her. I won’t have you trying to rewrite her memories, or make her second guess what she knows to be true. Until then, leave her alone. You’ve done enough damage to last that poor girl a lifetime.”
I left him standing there in the kitchen, muttering about demons and lawyers, figuring he’d either show himself out or linger like a bad smell until Olive came to cleanse the house herself.
That night sleep came easily, but not quietly.
In my dream, they were crying.
My sister’s house was dark. Olive, Nervous and Ophelia sat at the long table that took up most of the dining room, all with tears streaming down their cheeks.
They cried and cried but the cheerful music was so loud that I couldn’t hear a thing.
The glass on the floor crunched painlessly beneath my bare feet. Brackish pond water dripped from every surface and fish scales, wet and rotten, rained down from the ceiling.
As I drew closer, I could see that the table was covered in dolls.
Dozens of little dolls with little black x’s for eyes.
Dolls that looked just like me and Creon.
A week has gone by.
Every night, the same dream.
I catch myself humming during the day. A happy song, even though I feel like crying.
Nobody hears the buzzing but me, or maybe they just aren’t listening.
I checked Ophelia’s tablet today for the first time since I bought it for her.
There are the familiar icons on the second page. The game doesn’t load when I try to select them; instead, I get a little white box with an error message:
“Error Code 1717: There is no time to Play”
I asked Ophelia and Nervous about it, but they both swear up and down that they didn’t download them. I contacted the app store and the game developers, but nobody knows what to do. A factory reset restores the tablet to all original settings, except of course for the background, which used to be generic blue but now is a bunch of little black x’s.
I turned the tablet off and put it away. So far, Ophelia hasn’t asked for it back.
Creon wants to have me committed. He thinks I’ve lost it.
He thinks I am a danger to Ophelia. My own daughter.
I am trying to protect her.
Ophelia has gone to Johnny’s.
Creon finds me by the pond.
“I’ve hired a lawyer,” he says by way of greeting me.
“That’s nice, Creon.” I dipped my fingers in the water. Warm. Like taking a bath. “There’s going to be so much to sort out when this is done.”
“What are you –” he stopped himself. “This is exactly the kind of erratic behavior I’m talking about, Willow. Where’s Ophelia?”
“Who in the hell is Johnny?” He gave me the obligatory two seconds to respond, and then got snippy. “Well?”
He never did have any patience for me.
“Johnny is the green boy with the yellow hair. I don’t know which one Ripp is, but he’s probably with them.”
Creon opened his mouth to say something, probably something mean and disbelieving, but then he snapped it shut again, which was surely a blessing.
He winced, rubbed his eyes.
“Something the matter, dear?”
“You’ve got that damned song stuck in my head.”
I smiled at my reflection, and my reflection smiled back from underneath the water.