“Hey!” I picked up the soccer ball after it hit the house for a third time. “I’m your new neighbor! They didn’t tell me the yard was the local soccer pitch.” I smiled and held the ball out, a gang of eight or nine kids looked at me in terror. “I don’t mind, just don’t hit the house so much. I don’t want it to fall down.”
“We do. That’s why we made it the goal.” The oldest of them spoke with an angry certainty.
“Why would you want it fall down?”
“It’s Mary Alice’s house,” he said, as if that explained everything.
“Well it’s mine now and I’d prefer if-”
“What are you kids doing?” The child’s guardian came over, obviously upset. “You get away from that house now. Play in the yard but not up on the porch. You know better.”
As the kids scattered away from his gruff tone, I introduced myself. “I’m the new owner.”
“You looking for another place yet?”
“I haven’t even unpacked.”
“Don’t bother. Just start looking now.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Mary Alice, of course.”
“I’m sorry? I don’t know who she is.”
His eyes popped out against his skin, going wide with surprise. “They let you buy it and they didn’t tell you?” He shook his head at the elusive ‘they’. Who were ‘they’ I wondered? My real estate agent had told me everything about the house, 1930s construction, built to last but not updated since the 70s. A gem that needed work for less than a quarter of the price of the rest of the neighborhood, cheap because of some local legend, which I suspected I was about to learn. “Let’s move away from here, out to the yard.”
We walked across lush grass to the detached garage. I’d been told the door was stuck shut, but the local kids hadn’t noticed. They used it to store soccer balls, bases for a baseball game, and at least one football. Apparently I’d bought not just a house but custodianship of the local park.
“Mary Alice was born too late you see.” My neighbor balanced on a cane with a crooked handle. An older gentlemen with distinguished gray hair, I suspected this wasn’t the first time he’d told the story. “Her parents were older, today we’d get it checked out, know if it was Down’s or Asperger’s or what have you. But then, all we knew was she seemed to have a connection to the other side. She’d go up to someone and hug them and love on them, crying the whole time, then the next day they’d be dead in a car accident. It was like she knew.
“The other kids tried to ignore it at first. Her papa was so proud of her he threw the best parties. You wanted to be Mary Alice’s friend, to play with her toys and eat her fine ice cream. But eventually none of the girls could take the way she was, just not right, not normal. She’d look up in the middle of a game and say, now you get home, get home right now, and then you’d get home and your mother would say she was just wishing you were there. It was eerie.”
I almost interrupted to ask if he’d been there, tasted that ice cream, but he didn’t give me the time.
“Her mother, Mrs. Ginther, started making these dolls, hundreds of them, replacement friends for Mary Alice, friends who wouldn’t call her spooky or run away.”
“They’re still there.” I’d found them this morning, in the upstairs bedroom, Mary Alice’s bedroom probably. The house was half museum, when the old couple died nothing changed. There were patterns for horrible 1960s knitting and 70s macramé, along with a collection of dolls all lined up. “I’m getting the collection appraised, the antique dealer comes tomorrow.”
“Don’t you move those dolls!” He barked at me. “She loses those friends, she’ll go looking for others!”
“She never had another friend?” I felt sorry for her, the picked on little girl. She’d have known she was different, and wished more than anything that she could be the same.
“Oh no, there was one… the devil. Ruthie.” He shook his head and spit on my lawn, a caricature of an old man. “Ruthie had the devil in her. When she saw that Mary Alice was different, she wanted to know how she could use it. Ruthie was the worst thing in the world for Mary Alice. Whatever her gifts were, Ruthie turned them into terror. She told kids your Mama’s gonna die tonight or if you don’t give me that toy I’ll make Mary Alice hurt you. Ruthie used that girl like a whip to make the world bend to her will. It killed her but it was her own fault.”
“Killed her?” I prompted. He’d gotten to the meat of his story but now he seemed reluctant to tell it. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“My father was working in the kitchen that day, fixing the old stove. The girls were upstairs playing, he heard them every once in a while, but let Mrs. Ginther deal with them. He didn’t hate Mary Alice, not like us kids did but he steered clear of Ruthie. But when he heard Mrs. Ginther screaming, he ran up those stairs.
“He said he didn’t notice the quiet when it happened, just afterwards, when the police asked about it. He got up there and Ruthie was stuck to the couch. Have you seen it yet, a big red velvet couch?”
I shook my head.
“Mary Alice would pile her dolls on it. Ruthie got uppity about it, and said she wanted to sit there. She shoved the dolls on the floor and sat down. Only she couldn’t get up. She said the couch was squeezing her, and begged my father to get her up. He grabbed her hand and he pulled but even though there was nothing around her she stuck fast. He was giving it all his strength when he saw the dolls there in a heap. He said it was like a hundred eyes staring into his soul. He could just tell they knew every mean thing he’d done and they were going to get payment for it. He wrapped his hand around Ruthie’s arm and he closed his eyes tight to stop them from looking at him.
“He pulled and he pulled, but when he opened his eyes, Ruthie was gone.”
“She slipped out of his hand?”
“No.” He spoke very slowly. “She disappeared.”
I raised my eye brow at him, the way I did in the classroom to let a kid know I didn’t believe them.
“Mrs. Ginther was looking at Mary Alice. Mary Alice was crying. But even with that Ruthie couldn’t have slipped away. They’d have seen her.”
“But your Dad had a hold on her hand?”
“Her arm. He was pulling and pulling but something swallowed her up.”
“And nothing. If you don’t want to be swallowed up you’ll sell that house, or at least stay the hell away from those dolls and that couch.” He shook his head at me, angry again. This was the part where the kids got scared and swore they’d never go near Mary Alice’s house. But it was my house now and I wasn’t scared.
“Thanks for the warning. Let the kids know not to hit the house with the soccer ball, okay?” I gave him a good-natured smile but he returned it with an angry jut of his chin.
Inside I marveled at the complexity of the story and how he saw it from one side. I kept thinking of Mary Alice, with all her dolls and just one friend. A friend she probably didn’t like much, who was mean and sassy. I took switch plate off the wall, the floral wall paper needed to come down, tropical flowers the size of my head hadn’t been in style for years. The wall needed to be prepped but…
But I found myself in the upstairs bedroom, Mary Alice’s room, talking to the air. “I’m sorry you didn’t have a good teacher to stop the bullying. It’d be different today, in my classroom.” The dolls were still there, store bought and handmade arranged side-by-side, dust on their eyelashes and coating their hair. They were arranged on a hope chest, watching out the window for Mary Alice to come home. She’d probably died a few decades after Ruthie’s disappearing trick, years before I was born. I lifted up some of the dolls and found it, the tiny red velvet bench. Maybe it was modeled after the one from that day, only small, so small only four of the best loved dolls could stand on it, skirts brushing up against each other. I put the ladies aside delicately for a closer look.
I ran my hands along the edges, thinking about the Ruthie’s trick. Had she slipped into the cushions and then run away when no one was looking? The story made the kids seem like they were eight or nine, but if they were really teenagers, in the 70s, well Ruthie might’ve been ready to run away and practice her manipulation elsewhere. My fingernail felt a crack, and I pulled it up. The bench had a storage space, just over a foot long and less than a foot wide. It held only one thing. Dusty and old, a single doll arm sat in the center of the space. I started at it from the top, not at the molded porcelain shape, the chubby arm itself wasn’t threatening. No the problem were the fingerprints, greasy like a man who’d been working on a stove, and shrunk down, like he left them on the arm when it was life size.
If your mother made dolls for you, it wouldn’t be odd to have a spare arm lying around but why would you put it away? And where would it get those fingerprints? I looked up at the doll collection. Had the yellow-haired one moved? I thought she’d been to the left of Bo Peep, but now she was on the right. Dolls don’t rearrange themselves, except that a feeling in the pit of my stomach told me they had. The glass eyes stared at me, questioning me, demanding to know what I would do next. I put the four dolls back in place, making a point of remembering which one went where so I didn’t trick myself into thinking they’d moved again. Then I walked out of the room, deliberately ignoring the noise, like the clicking of porcelain as it moved.