Hattie clambered up into bed and rolled herself up inside the cold pink Barbie quilt, imagining she was a snug little worm, wriggling around with a human head. Footprints crept along the strip of light at the bottom of the door and the seal cracked open. As the door opened, light from the rest of the house flooded in and clung to the fairy dust dancing around in Hattie’s bedroom.
“You almost forgot Myrtle,” Hattie’s mum said as she stepped into the room.
Hattie’s face beamed in the new blinding light as she giggled and outstretched her fingers for the dolly in her mother’s hand.
Myrtle was Hattie’s favourite birthday present of the day. Myrtle was a smaller-than-usual China doll with a porcelain snowy face, rosy flushed cheeks and luminous blue eyes. She wore a floral patterned dress with lacy hems and a matching bonnet that concealed some of her wiry tightly curled blonde locks. The label attached to the doll’s flimsy ashen neck read: Myrtle Adams born in 1839 to John and June in Cambridge, England. When Hattie held Myrtle she could sense the lightness and hollows in her arms and legs and wondered why she wasn’t whole.
Myrtle’s scent was a musky smell with several intricate layers. At first, the scent was purely an overwhelming odour of thick festering dust, but the doll’s hair had the pungent scent of dampness; a stench so strong that Hattie imagined little green germs scuttling around under her fingernails and had a strong urge to scrub her hands with bubbly soap after running her fingers through the yellow strands. But when Hattie held her warm living cheek to Myrtle’s cold hard face, she could almost taste the sugary fragrance of fresh baby powder. Myrtle was Hattie’s fifteenth China doll in the collection that her grandmother had originally started.
Hattie cuddled Myrtle to her chest, said goodnight and placed her with the rest of the dollies on the large Victorian fabric armchair across from her bed and beside her blackboard and colouring books. Hattie’s mum turned on the blue starry nightlight before kissing Hattie on the forehead and leaving the room. Hattie loved her nightlight. The spinning blue cylinder filled the room with faint swirling liquid light that made Hattie feel like she was underwater. She lay in bed flailing her arms and legs around, doing the breaststroke on top of her mattress until her limbs were tired from all the swimming. She finally decided to stop fighting sleep and closed her eyes.
Through her thin eyelids, Hattie could still see the glow of blue water swaying in the room. Just as Hattie was about to doze off into dreamland, a small electrical pop sparked from the nightlight and snapped Hattie awake. Her eyes flew open and she realised the bulb had blown. All the water drained from the room and she was now in complete darkness.
“Uh oh,” Hattie whined. She was frozen and too afraid to call for her mum.
Hattie jumped up from under the covers, reached up, threw the curtains of her bedroom window open wide, collapsed back onto the bed with a thud and threw the duvet back up over her head. She stayed hidden under the quilt until her stunted breathing settled again. After building up the courage, she finally edged the covers away from her eyes and had a peek. The room was still dim and filled with shadows that Hattie could have sworn were forming shapes and moving around, but the moonlight now illuminated her dolls which made her feel safer. Her fifteen little dolls with bleached, painfully white faces were all huddled together and stared at her with perfectly still turquoise eyes.
Hattie held Myrtle’s gaze until her pulse steadied to a normal rhythm and then to a silent beat. Just as Hattie felt relaxed, Myrtle’s dead eyelashes twitched and her eye winked. Hattie’s pupils widened, she blinked hard and looked back at Myrtle. The China doll’s glass eye winked again. As Hattie edged up in her bed, the lifeless eyes of all fifteen porcelain dollies blinked together in perfect haunting unison. Hattie whimpered and shook her head repeatedly, biting her lip to hold back tears. The dolls’ cold eyes shuddered closed and jerked open again in a restless, agitated motion and their arms began to spasm.
The dolls’ makeshift joints creaked as their arms robotically elevated and stretched towards Hattie. They edged forward in the armchair and as the dolls towards the back of the chair pushed, the line of figurines at the front fell off and landed on the floor.
Hattie finally found her voice and let out a shrill baby’s cry, as loud as she could. When no-one responded, she called for her mum but nobody heard her screams.
“Get away! Get away!” Hattie shouted at the dolls in an attempt to be brave but they didn’t stop.
All the dolls had now jumped from the chair to the carpet and were slowly skulking across the floor to Hattie’s bed. Hattie tucked her duvet underneath her feet and pulled the blankets tightly over and under her body so that she was wrapped up in a skin-tight cocoon. She imagined her quilt was bewitched with a protective magic that would stop the dolls from getting to her. She closed her eyes, hoping the dolls would disappear, and repeated “please make them go away” over and over.
Hattie held her eyes shut so tightly that she started to see a kaleidoscope of fuzzy pixilated colours in her eyelids, until a piercing sound forced her eyes to fly open. It was the jarring, sharp and agonising sound of a piece of chalk being slowly dragged down a blackboard. A sound that pierced into Hattie’s ear, pushed through her brain and back out of the other ear like a long thin needle. Myrtle was dangling from the corner of the blackboard.
Myrtle was holding a piece of milky chalk that matched her complexion with an unsteady, shaking hand. In childlike, rickety handwriting, next to the long line she had just made, Myrtle etched onto the board: DON’T BE AFRAID. WE ONLY WANT TO PLAY WITH YOU, HATTIE.
Like the head of an owl, Myrtle’s face slowly turned on its axis away from the board and towards Hattie. In the corner of Myrtle’s face, her porcelain shell was beginning to crack and crumble. Her floral lacy dress was torn, her blonde locks were now straight and standing on end as if electricity had jolted them alive, her glazed blue eyes were flickering around the room in panic but her features remained frozen in a dainty China doll pout. Hattie glanced down to the bottom of her bed in horror to see the other fourteen China dolls descending on her.
Their necks broke with sickening cracks as their heads snapped back and they stared at Hattie. From the gapes in their broken necks floated the silver translucent faces of several little girls. The ghostly faces contorted in agony and they screamed without sound. The dolls were now crawling up the bed posts on their hands and knees, creeping onto the fringe of the mattress and slowly, they edged towards Hattie’s tiny recoiled toes.