The following is a short story from Wesley's upcoming collection 'Terrors That Tingle'.
Alfred was a peculiar man; society shunned him wherever he went. Childhood was difficult for such a character. He found no pleasure in regular pastimes such as reading, TV, or the internet. Serial killers, taxidermy, and hunting were the key to Alfred’s heart, not that he wanted a relationship. The sixty-year-old had never been a people person. The second he turned eighteen he left home and never looked back. He worked any job that didn’t require too much contact with people. A childhood therapist claimed he was simply an introvert, but the explanation was simpler still: he just didn’t like people. Then, around the age of forty, he surprised himself by opening a store.
This was no ordinary store. It was a doll store. Surprisingly, the shop became a success. People flocked to see the incredible work of one Mr Alfred Thompson. Doll fanatics were amazed and even passers-by couldn’t resist taking a peek inside. He was a hit. Alfred even learned to deal with people, regardless of his disdain for them. However, despite initial success, people eventually grew tired of dolls. He became a one-hit wonder of wooden dolls.
Alfred, never one to give up at the first hurdle, found a resolution. He travelled from country to country. He would rent store space for several months, then when the hype wore off, move on. This worked well for almost twenty years, but little did anyone know, his inspiration was drifting.
Alfred worried, until he rented store space in the quaint British village of Holmfirth. Mere days after his arrival, word had spread throughout the entire village. Nosey residents swung by to see the grey-haired man and his exquisite creations. There was nothing unusual about his first week in Holmfirth. No one knew the man was considering retiring, until a young girl came by his store one day after school and gave him the inspiration he needed.
Zoe was a young girl of thirteen, who had no friends and lived in a foster home. Nobody paid her any attention. With unkempt frizzy hair, huge glasses, and dishevelled clothing, people preferred to ignore her existence. Zoe’s foster parents only cared for her as they received financial benefits from the government. She knew this. So, the young girl kept her nose buried in a book and out of people’s business.
After overhearing two kids at school gossiping about a new doll store in the village, Zoe was uncharacteristically eager to check it out. As luck would have it, the new store stood only minutes from her house.
One Monday, after the school bells rang and the gates creaked open, Zoe scurried ahead of her classmates and headed for ‘A Doll’s World’. Not the most original name, but she hoped to be pleasantly surprised.
The typical British weather of rain and wind chilled Zoe’s bare calves, and ruffled her grey school skirt. She gripped the handles of her backpack tighter, as the afternoon chill grew colder. Her oversized yellow bubble coat warmed her torso, but didn’t stop the wind prickling her face and neck. By the time she reached the cobbled street, her face beamed red. Her eyes watered from the cold. Her nose ran.
Numb and shivering, Zoe found herself in front of ‘A Doll’s World.’ She pressed up against the smooth window pane and peered inside. What was normally bare brick walls and a cement floor, had been filled with wooden shelves and a table holding an outdated cash register.
Zoe’s eyes fell on an ageing man working in the far corner. Holding a tiny knife, he carved a doll’s face. Wooden shavings sprinkled the now linoleum floor. The teenager questioned how he could work in such meagre light. Save for the receding daylight pooling the floor near the windows, darkness consumed the rest of the store. The many dolls formed shadows on the shelves.
“Eurgh!” Zoe found herself whispering. Dolls had always creeped her out yet simultaneously fascinated her. These were big. They were almost as big as her. There were boys and girls in various clothing and costumes. Expensive looking wigs sat atop their heads. Wow, he has gone all out.
Growing impatient, Zoe sidestepped to the entrance. Her icy hand met with the equally cold doorknob and twisted it. The rusty springs attached to the door resisted. Zoe cringed at the ruckus. The last thing she wanted was all eyes on her. As far as she could tell, however, she was the only customer. She was thankful for that. Despite the well-worn door springs, the second her hand fell from the knob, the door snapped shut. Squeak. Boom.
Zoe inhaled, shoulders hunching.
“Don’t be shy child, come on in,” Alfred muttered without turning to see her. How did he know I was a child?
Zoe coughed, partly out of awkwardness, partly from the dust the door had kicked up. “Thank you.”
“Do you like my dolls?” He asked, whittling the nose of a boy-doll.
Zoe took cautious steps towards him. “Yes. They are very pretty,” she replied, eyes darting and head turning.
“Thank you, I think so too,” he responded, still running the knife down the boy’s nose. Whispers poured into the store with every stroke of his knife. It sounded as though someone repeatedly said ‘shhhhh’ in sync with every precise etch. The man’s hands were wrinkled and splattered in age spots, sprouting an unusually large amount of hair. Zoe dreaded the day her hands would succumb to the ravages of age.
“Feel free to explore my child,” he offered.
His repetitive use of the word ‘child’ unnerved and annoyed Zoe.
Following his suggestion, she wandered around the store. She admired the various dolls, pausing at one in particular. She found herself running a hand across the smooth wood. Up close and personal, it became clear no expense was spared when it came to detail. From knuckles, kneecaps, veins, and even freckles, to the vividly painted eyes and finely chiselled facial features. Zoe noticed metal nails on the dolls, which didn’t make sense, but she wasn’t the expert.
Each doll burst with colour, each as unique as the next. An exploration of most time periods and fashion trends was told through dozens of dolls. Each doll had only one running theme: the look of nervousness in their eyes. Zoe wasn’t sure how he achieved this. It was unnerving yet simultaneously alluring.
“Oh, you like that one, do you?” Alfred asked, startling the young girl.
She jerked from the doll, immediately retracting her hand from the doll’s leg.
“That’s one of my favourites,” he whispered, as if his preference was a secret, or the other dolls could hear and would get jealous. A flash of rageful dolls attacking the old man ran through her mind. Eurgh. Zoe’s back fell victim to a deep chill.
“Yes…. It’s nice,” Zoe replied, admiring the doll attired in a white sailor’s uniform.
“Nice?” his voice rose.
“Oh… no…. I mean….” Zoe stuttered.
“Young lady, that doll took several months to carve!” he was yelling now, anger drenched his voice.
Alfred rose from his chair and approached Zoe, his nostrils flared. Each hand became a fist, one still wielding a knife.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted, hunching her shoulders. Underneath the yellow bubble coat her heart pounded.
Surprised by Zoe’s outburst, he stopped mid-stride. He relaxed, unclenching his tensed features.
“Oh, I am sorry child. I just spend a lot of time working on these. And I don’t get out much. Also, one loathes the word nice.” His face crinkled in disgust, as if the mere word was so sour it curdled in his mouth.
“I didn’t….k…know,” Zoe again, struggled with speech. Her lack of conversational skills from poor social interaction - if you don’t count being surrounded by kids but constantly ignored – didn’t help.
Alfred, wearing a discoloured white shirt and tatty tweed trousers, knelt by her side. His face softened as a hand gently cupped her shoulder.
“Of course you didn’t. Now let’s be done with that. Would you like some tea? And perhaps a chocolate biscuit or two?”
“Oh, yes please,” the tense atmosphere cleared at the mentioning of chocolate. It was one of Zoe’s guilty pleasures. Her salivary glands gushed as she imagined the creamy, sweet goodness melting on her tongue.
“Then come in the back,” he rose, guiding her forwards.
“What about the shop?”
“Oh, I am closing up now. I just need to lock the door and pull down the outside shutters.”
Alfred opened a red velvet curtain, exposing an outdated but charming living room. Wooden chairs upholstered in more red velvet, sat in the dark room. Several dirty mirrors were nailed to the walls. A mahogany coffee table was sandwiched between two of the larger chairs, resting on a fluffy purple rug.
“Now you make yourself comfortable and I’ll be right back,” Alfred suggested as he nudged her into the living room.
Zoe noticed one door at the back, beside one of the many mirrors. Its paint was peeling and the handle was bronzed from rust. It stood open by a sliver, enough for Zoe to see a tiny green kitchen. It was bare and a scent of mildew slithered through the crevice.
Zoe backed up to a chair. She unzipped her stuffy winter coat and folded it on the floor beside the chair. Her rucksack fell to the yellow coat, as she sat on the chair. It embraced her rump with surprising comfort. Scooting further into the chair, she took in more of her surroundings.
Cobwebs hung in the corners, the brick walls were chipped, and the rug’s seams were coming apart. Apparently, Alfred’s attention to detail was exclusive to his dolls, and nothing else. The longer her eyes stayed focused in one place, the more obvious flaws became. Give him a break, he only moved in a matter of days ago. Zoe thought, yet couldn’t help but judge the mess.
Screech. Bang. Click.
Alfred dashed by Zoe, bizarrely graceful. Was he one of those men who like men? Nah, from what I’ve read they are for the most part, trendy and normal. This man was peculiar, and in no way followed fashion trends. His trousers were stained, torn, and wrinkled. His shoes were scuffed. Nope, this man definitely didn’t care about fashion.
“Tea and biscuits coming up,” he announced before vanishing into the kitchen.
Zoe sat patiently as the kettle cried out. Mugs and plates clattered, and cupboard doors clunked. In a jiffy, he returned, carting an oak tray. It held two mugs, four saucers, a plate of biscuits, and a tiny cup holding sugar sachets and two silver spoons. He placed the tray on the coffee table and took a seat opposite his new friend.
“By all means, go ahead,” Alfred smiled, his hands gesturing to the tray.
“I took the liberty of adding milk to your tea, and one sugar. The one closest to you is yours. If you would like any more sugar, go ahead.”
Zoe took a saucer holding a mug of tea, and dunked a biscuit into her milky brew. To avoid tea dripping from the biscuit, she yanked it out and shoved half of it in her mouth. Zoe worked on the crumbly biscuit and melted chocolate, savouring the taste before it slid down her throat.
“Good?” Alfred inquired, taking a sip from his own tea, smirking at her gusto. He sighed, “Ahhh, nothing beats a good old cuppa. It’s so British and proper. One of only a few things I actually enjoy about life.”
Zoe nodded, a mouth full of biscuit, pondering the strange comment. Alfred laughed at her biscuit-inflated mouth. “I’ll never understand those monsters who drink it without milk though.”
Once the biscuit had made its way down Zoe’s throat, she took a few sips of Earl Grey tea, overcome with an urge to be polite and ladylike. That won’t last, she thought.
“Don’t let it get cold sweetheart, go ahead,” he suggested, before taking a sip himself, his pinkie pointing to the ceiling.
At his suggestion, she took a couple of hearty gulps. What’s with the pet na…. Zoe’s eyes all of a sudden became warm and heavy. What’s with the… Abrupt exhaustion prevented her from even finishing a thought.
A mug and saucer plummeted to the concrete. Tea sloshed onto the legs of the coffee table and splashed the rug. The saucer was the first to break, exploding into several pieces and dispersing along the living room floor. Next, the cup broke. Chunks of it swam in the puddle of tea, while others flew every which way.
“Oh, dearie me,” Alfred tutted.
Zoe squinted at the old man. He became a Caucasian blur. “What…” was all Zoe managed to say before she slumped into the chair, limp and unconscious.
Damn it’s hot. Why is it so hot? Eww, what’s that smell? Sweat? Burning? Pee?
Clang. Clang. Clang. What’s that ruckus?
Zoe’s eyes peeled open to a dark, odd room. No windows. One single bulb swung above, squeaking rhythmically. Chipped wooden planks covered the walls and ceiling. The floor was cold concrete. Cold?! Zoe looked at her bare feet, flat on the concrete, bound to the legs of a chair. The rope itched. Her eyes shot up her bare legs and naked torso. She gulped. Both wrists were strapped to the arms of a chair with the same itchy rope. A scream left her lungs, but never made it out her mouth.
Huh? Her tongue poked at the back of her lips, prodding tiny sharp pieces. The tip of her tongue tingled with pain. Beads of sweat broke out on Zoe’s forehead. What’s going on? Panic churned in her stomach.
Another muffled scream could be heard, but it wasn’t Zoe. Her eyes darted across the darkness, searching for the noise.
She wept as her eyes came to a halt at a cage. Inside were several children wailing against the poles. Well, that explains the clanging. Shockingly, that resolve gave her no comfort. The children, draped in dirty white cloths, were stuffed inside like sardines in a tin can. That explains the smell.
Most were Zoe’s age, but some were younger. Some sobbed hysterically, while others sniffled quietly in the corners of their confinement. Most looked exhausted, sat or leant against the poles. However, a few were rambunctious, hitting the cage or rattling the door. Despite their suffering, not one of them screamed. That’s when Zoe saw the stitches at their lips. Shrieking would be pointless.
What the hell is going on? That thought was fast becoming the theme of her current situation.
Then, a muffled scream far louder than the rest, took centre stage. Zoe followed the sound to a corner of the room. A young boy sat in some kind of device. A seat with several straps held him firmly in place. Likely, the reason his scream was so loud was because his tongue was the only muscle he could move.
A golden glow washed his face. Tears trailed his cheeks, despite his face being oddly still. There were no creases of distress. It was as if he was sat on a beach in the tropics. His eyes however, told a different story. The rims were raw and enflamed, presumably from constant crying. Lashes were clumped together. But the clearest sign of fear was the widened eyes. What made him so terrified? Zoe didn’t want the answer, but was handed it anyway.
Alfred sat on a chair at the boy’s side. With hunched shoulders, he doodled on his arm by the looks of it. Zoe frowned. She wriggled to get a better view.
Behind Alfred, built into the wall, lay a furnace. Flames whipped violently behind a tiny glass window. Now Zoe noticed it, she heard the crackling. Holy hell, is he going to burn us alive?
Panicked, Zoe attempted to escape the rope. She pulled and twisted frantically, but it was too tight. She studied her surroundings, hoping to uncover something helpful. Save for the furnace, Alfred and the boy, and the cage chock-a-block full of children, everything was smothered in darkness.
“Don’t worry my dear, it’s your turn soon,” Alfred uttered.
Turn for what?! Zoe’s heart beat quickened, thumping hard. Her attention wandered to Alfred, turning in his seat. She watched as he peeled off the flesh from the boy’s forearm. Despite his lips being stitched together, the scream was unbelievably loud. Zoe cringed, looking at the stringy flesh being torn off.
He’s being flayed alive. Zoe had read about it in some of her spooky books, but never imagined she would see it first-hand. The ripping sounds were almost as bad as the boy’s muffled shrieks of agony. Her blood ran cold. His blood on the other hand, ran down the loose skin and dripped on the concrete.
Alfred yanked off the final inch, completely detaching the skin. Blood oozed from his upper forearm, trickling down the sides and adding to the growing pool at his feet. Bone peeked from underneath the gushing blood.
Zoe gagged. Don’t vomit, it has nowhere to go! You’ll choke to death. She warned herself.
Alfred rose from the chair and opened the furnace. He discarded the stringy flesh by tossing it into the hungry flames. It sizzled, blackening and shrinking in a matter of seconds. The smell stung Zoe’s nose, as she turned away from the sight, clamping her eyes shut. It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, it’s just a – wake up! This is not a dream! Start thinking of a way out you idiot!
A creak pulled her focus. Alfred opened an upper compartment of the furnace and retrieved a small wooden plank. He returned to his seat and placed it on a metal table by his side, which also held small pieces of equipment Zoe couldn’t quite make out. A sizzle roared as Alfred planted the plank over the flayed forearm. Again, the boy’s shriek was riddled with unthinkable agony. Blood seeped from between the stitched lips.
“Bloody hell, you’ve got a right set of lungs on you!” Alfred chuckled, holding the plank down as the fizz faded.
Alfred reached for the table and clutched a hammer with one hand, and scooped up nails in the other. Surely not?! Zoe watched in morbid fascination, praying her predictions were wrong. Nail by nail, he hammered the wood to the boy’s arm. Crinkles lined his sweaty and tear-filled face. His cheeks reddened as he half-cried half-wailed. Whack. Whack. Whack. Alfred continued hammering as if this was a normal day at the office. The boy’s suffering did nothing to deter his strikes.
In what felt like a lifetime later, Alfred let the hammer clatter to the table and wiped sweat from his brows.
“Blimey, it is getting hot in here! I think I will go make myself some lemonade,” he casually muttered.
The boy’s head leant zombie-like to the side, exhausted from the pain. Alfred gently slapped the boy’s cheek, each eye opened a peep but his face remained expressionless. “Now don’t you go anywhere!” He warned, his unsettling giggle echoing off the walls.
Before he left, Alfred snatched a needle from the table and approached Zoe. Stay away from me you freak, she yearned to say. All she could do was attempt to resist by squirming in the seat. This didn’t benefit at all when he grasped her upper arm and sank the needle into it. From the corner of her eye, Zoe watched his thumb lower as the fluid entered her system. Within a few frantic heart beats, the medicine took effect as her body slumped in the chair.
“Don’t worry dear, I’ll spare you that suffering,” he whispered into her ear.
“Isn’t she pretty?”
“Oh, she’s adorable!”
“She’s so bloody cute!”
“What a charmer.”
Compliments came in waves at Alfred’s latest addition to his collection. She was propped at her own table, to the front of the store. Customers came by the dozen, barely fitting into the store, each drawn to the little girl doll at the table.
“Her hair looks so real.”
“Her eyes are so life-like.”
She had been stuffed into a red and white striped dress, complete with red shoes and a white bow neatly looped in her hair.
“The detail is incredible.”
The day blurred by. Flocks of people continued to pile into the store until closing. “Well, look at that. You’re famous!” he squealed.
Alfred stood by his latest creation. He smoothed his hand over the face, bringing his eyes to hers. Although underneath the wood, Zoe was paralyzed even to the eyeballs, he knew she understood him.
“I have already had several offers for you! But I like your company Zoe, you are a remarkable young girl. So, what do you say? How do you feel about being my inspiration and reminder that I truly have a gift? You can be my lure to bring in customers, but at night when I work on new dolls, you can be in the basement by my side, watching me work, acting as my muse. How does that sound?” Alfred laughed hysterically, his shrillness bouncing off the store windows.
Unbeknown to the naked eye, underneath the finely sculpted wood, Zoe screamed louder than she ever had before. Of course, nobody would ever hear her cries.
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