Dizzy raced through the Community Center, cursing out the bus driver for his fucked up punctuality. By the time she got to the meeting room, Megan was bone deep in another retelling of the Blackwater massacre.
Dizzy found a seat in a plastic chair and tried to look like she’d been there all along. Nobody seemed to care. Dr. Baines was nodding attentively and making notes on a clipboard. Kayla was biting her violet nails. Angry cartoon faces had been scrawled on the whiteboard behind her. Natalie was missing, like always.
Megan was talking about Mardi Gras. How the six of them skipped college to go bugfuck on Bourbon Street and only one came back alive. ‘When somebody says they need to go pee,’ she said, ‘You don’t really figure that they’ll be hacked up by a crazy person … ’ She quivered very slightly, like an animal at war with its instincts. Her voice rose to a shout. ‘Or a freaking … cannibal redneckmongoloid.’
Dr. Baines lifted an eyebrow. ‘It’s okay Megan,’ she said. ‘It’s okay to be angry about it.’ She slipped a hair back into place in her perfectly tidy bun.
Megan stared at the floor. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I hate when people say that. I meant rural. Not red – rural.’
Baines nodded again. ‘It’s okay.’
‘I mean, I’m just glad I can look back now and be, y’know, spiritual about it.’
Despite only attending the group for three weeks now, Dizzy had formed a fairly precise image of Megan. Everything came back to chakras and holistic therapies in Megan-Ville, except for the things that involved bleach and crash diets and shitty daytime talk shows.
Dizzy zipped up her jacket. The windows let in too much air, and there was a foul smell outside like something rotting. Garbage, said Baines, clogging up the storm drains.
Megan began to talk about Big Poppa. Her accent thickened as she spoke, honed to a blade after sixteen years on a West Kentucky pig farm. ‘He took Gary into his cabin,’ she said, ‘He was gonna eat him…’
Dizzy tried to imagine Big Poppa as Megan had described him. His fat head bobbing in the darkness of the swamp, squealing like some primordial swine. The bloated lips, the muddy whiskers; one bulbous eye about to pop like a pimple. No matter how she tried, he stumbled through her mind with his harpoon-hand like Homer Simpson’s inbred cousin. Compared to the Dollmaker, a backwoods hillbilly seemed positively comical.
Megan was talking about Gary again. Poor Gary. His position in her affections seemed to depend on who she wanted to be in each meeting. He always went out the same way though; harpooned through the chest during a botched diversion. Randy had suffered the same; running interference on the football field while Monica called the cops. They had almost gotten together that summer. Up in his room with the poster of Hova and the smell of so much wine. God, she had wanted him.
Megan was still talking. Big Poppa’s shack was ablaze and the killer trapped inside. Nobody said the M word. The three girls nodded their heads together and Dizzy remembered why she was there.
Megan stood to get water from the cooler. Her skeletal waist seemed likely to snap at any moment. 'Just to say,’ said Kayla, holding her paper cup aloft, ‘you can’t be hacked up by a harpoon. The term would probably be speared.’ She furrowed her brow, looking genuinely thoughtful. ‘Or harpooned. Go figure.’
Dizzy knew she was meant to find Kayla pretty impressive, but wasn’t really sure why. Her hair was enormous for one thing, blue and spiky and completely absurd. She popped up now and then in trendy magazines, looking cool and intense; utterly immune. Never smiling as a rule.
‘You know the first time you told that story,’ said Kayla, flicking a piece of fingernail at Megan, ‘there were only five of you in the car.’
The doctor cleared her throat. ‘I think Megan has finished for today Kayla. How about you tell us how you’re getting on?’
Megan made a face as she marched towards her seat, a magnificent scowl that hinted at her darkest reserves. ‘You know, that negative energy might go some way towards explaining why you keep – ’
‘Kayla,’ said Dr. Baines. ‘Would you like to contribute to the group today?’
Kayla sat up in her seat. ‘Sure,’ she said. Her eyes were focused on some faraway point. ‘I remember,’ she said, suddenly serious, ‘when everything was right there in front of me. Before the world stopped turning and I was lost in the night … ’
Her mouth split into a grin. ‘This before the fall stuff really turns my key, you know?’
Dizzy surprised herself by laughing. Baines made a note. ‘Thank you Kayla,’ she said. ‘Do you have any more for us? I think Dizzy might benefit from the things you’ve learned.’
Dizzy shrank back in the chair. Like we don’t have enough trouble being singled out already.
Kayla shrugged and set it up again. Everybody knew the story. She had been chased by Simon Sleet on every birthday for the past three years, each encounter prefaced by a series of bloody murders. She wouldn’t give the date, and it was no use asking. Said she didn’t trust anyone not to fuck with her, despite putting him down for good last time. ‘Gutted the fucker like a goddamn fish and set him off to sea,’ she said. ‘He ain’t coming back from that one.’
Simon was Kayla’s half-brother. The two grew up in California together, until the eight year old Sleet was taken into care for drowning another boy. Kayla was too young to recall. She went on to describe in appalling detail the first night he returned home, shaking very slightly at the story’s climax; the moment when she tore off his mask and heard her blood begin to sing…
It was hard to believe anything Kayla said. She had parlayed her numerous brushes with death in dubious fashion, writing a tell-all book and entering a show about celebrity rehab. People wore her brother’s mask on t-shirts and made fun of her online. All of this was unimaginable to Dizzy. She could not imagine wanting to relive the Dollmaker ever again. Natalie was always crying, and she knew she had Megan pegged, but Kayla… Kayla seemed to feed off of some undetectable force that made her immune to the pain; pop culture or sarcasm or something –
Megan’s phone announced a message. She lifted it from her purse despite Baines’ protestations and proceeded to type a reply. Kayla frowned and continued. ‘Haven’t really slept since it started,’ she said, stretching out and yawning. ‘Always wired for trouble, you know?’
‘Is this one of those things?’ said Megan, not looking up.
Kayla halted her movement, snapping forward as if to pounce. ‘What things?’
‘Those things you say to make you seem more dangerous.’
The doctor sighed. ‘Do we need to go back to the group contract?’ she said. ‘Mutual respect?’
Megan curled up in her chair. ‘Whatever.’
‘Kayla, would you like to tell us about the blog?’ Baines turned to Dizzy and smiled. ‘Kayla started a blog for young women in similar situations. Where they can share experiences, even warnings. It’s been quite a success, hasn’t it?’
Kayla mumbled into her hand, chewing on her sleeve like taffy.
‘Dizzy, if you’d like to go next?’
She was thinking about last month’s eye test. The alien compromise of the slit lamp, the optician, in need of a haircut, asking if she had ever considered lenses. She remembered the way she couldn’t help but flinch when his hand brushed against her face. And sitting in the corridor afterward, the wall clock ticking the days away to her first meeting with the group, feeling so strangely despicable, so sure that she had failed in some indescribable way.
Baines repeated her request. Dizzy fought the urge to upend her chair and flee. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Long as I’m not wasting your time.’
The doctor shook her head. ‘Absolutely not.’
She first heard the story from a fat kid named Jaime in Junior High. Everybody in the neighbourhood knew it. The creepy old white dude who wanted a family and created a bunch of dolls he could treat like kids. Everything was cool until some teenagers broke in looking for cash and wound up burning the house down. Dizzy remembered the house. They went to check it out after Lian died. It smelled of clay and cinders.
She took a sip of water and looked up from her lap. Baines was taking notes. Kayla and Megan were staring in her direction. She went on listing all the schoolyard rumours. How the old man returned to wreak revenge on the neighbourhood; how teens went missing in the dead of night and came back with doll eyes in their sockets. She had laughed at most of it. Right up until the summer she turned seventeen and they found Sarah sitting beneath the pear tree in her yard in an ill-fitting gingham dress. Her eyes were made of glass.
‘She called me right before it happened,’ said Dizzy. ‘When she was walking back from the club. I told her it was just the wind.’
It astonished her that she had not yet erupted into tears. Maybe her mom was right with that thing about repressing her emotions. Or maybe she had cried herself out and turned hard forever when she sent that piece of shit back to hell.
Her hand travelled to her neck to grasp the crucifix that was not there. It fell away just as swiftly. She had so far avoided the theological implications of a vengeful spirit, and had little intention of starting now.
Kayla exhaled slowly through her nose. ‘It’s never the freaking wind,’ she said.
Dizzy knotted her hands, squeezing until the knuckles flushed white. Sid was up next. Sid the psychology major, who came up with all those wacky theories. “See, this dude is mad at us ‘cause we ain’t kids no more. He wants us to play dress up ‘cause it’s somewhere safe for him. You can’t judge what you can’t see. And nobody dead gonna tell him what’s up.”
He was right of course. It just didn’t matter in the end. She found Sid before the Dollmaker had completed his work. He was blind, screaming, rushing down the stairs. He told her to run and she did, looking back once to see the plump spots of rouge upon his cheeks.
‘You okay?’ said Megan, as they walked out into the afternoon light.
Dizzy opened her mouth and fell silent. The words would not come.
‘Hey,’ said Kayla, ducking to check her hair in a car window, ‘you two are out tonight, right?’
Megan nodded her head. ‘Sure.’
Dizzy crossed the parking lot to join them, shaking her head all the way. ‘Wait a minute,’ she said, ‘you two hate each other.’
Megan shrugged. ‘Out is out.’
‘But you hate each other.’
Kayla smiled. Dizzy could see immediately why she rarely did so. There was nothing like warmth in it. She brought her hand to her mouth and sucked on her middle finger. It looked like something from one of her magazine shoots, some bullshit babydoll thing that Dizzy had seen a thousand times.
‘We’re celebrating,’ she said.
Dizzy shut her eyes as the finger came closer. It moved across her forehead, painting an X that dried in the sun. Her brain told her she was bleeding.
‘Being innocent,’ said Kayla. ‘Being alive.’
They started downtown, losing hours in a flurry of bars and coffee shops. Dizzy kept her mouth shut and drank as little as she could.
‘You ever notice,’ said Kayla, in the back of some hip café, ‘that they’re always guys? Nobody ever complains about a lady going crazy in the backwoods.’
‘Guys always gotta have their ladies,’ said Megan, whispering into her peppermint tea. ‘Maybe if people stopped needing things like that so bad, you wouldn’t get freaky doll lovers no more.’
Dizzy felt herself flush. She turned her head to watch the clock tick over to nine.
‘Oh,’ said Megan, ‘I didn’t mean nothing by it.’
Dizzy cleared her throat. ‘It’s okay.’
‘I just meant –’
Up until a few weeks ago, there’d been a brief and brittle thing with an actor from Baltimore. He’d been more engrossed in Dizzy’s mythology than anything else she could offer. They went at each other in backstage dressing rooms, in alleyways and bathrooms, hands and mouths and resignation. One night, she watched him sleep, thinking to herself that nobody so weak could have ever survived the Dollmaker.
‘Need,’ said Kayla, ‘is not the same as want.’ She waved at a boy drinking near the window, frowning as he looked away.
‘Well,’ said Dizzy, ‘at least we’re in the desert together.’
Kayla shrugged, snarling as the boy left the café. ‘It’s not so bad,’ she said. ‘We can always talk about what we’ve learned.’
Megan slurped her tea and grinned. ‘Don’t talk to strangers kids!’
Dizzy reached across the table to pick at the warped remains of a candle. ‘Or put a fork in the toaster,’ she said. ‘It’s just science!’
Kayla squeezed a piece of wax between her fingers. Tiny pieces collected on the dirty wood. ‘Let’s get out of here.’
They marched past a chain of lightless apartments, clotheslines intersecting every floor like a mesh of intestinal sinew. ‘It’s all gentrified now,’ said Kayla, their tour guide for the night. ‘They pull in all the artists and market the ambience. Either the vermin die off or they morph into professionals.’
Dizzy nodded, wishing she had something to say about art. Maybe she could text Willow. Willow, whose eyes were blank and soulless beneath the loam.
She stopped outside a 7/11, her feet seeming to have melded with the sidewalk. On the corner up ahead, a young girl smoothed out her skirt and stepped into a waiting car. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in days. Dizzy stared into the window of the store and did not recognise the world it reflected. What lived in there had no kindness to offer and no slack to give.
‘Hey,’ shouted Kayla, ‘Last one in is buying.’
She picked up the pace and hurried after.
They ended the night on top of a hill, crashed out on a dirt lane among bags of trash and rotten mattresses. Dizzy lay on her back, scanning the shattered windows of a nearby warehouse, its body entombed by dull moss the shade of congealed blood. Veins of dried up earth surrounded the building, spilling out onto fallen fences and obliterated waste ground. She remembered a dirty room with a pipe sculpture bar. Kayla sipping on a vodka coke, its surface reflecting the flight of a wayward glass. The sweet smell of vomit and the heady tang of dopesmoke. Nothing else.
Kayla unscrewed the top on a bottle of wine and brought it to her lips. ‘You guys figured out what you want at your funeral yet?’ she said.
Megan sat up, her eyes wide open. ‘You mean like songs?’ she said.
‘Songs, readings, stuff like that.’
Megan scratched her nose. ‘If I don’t act fast I’ll probably get Patsy Cline. But that ain’t too bad. Something sad anyway. I want people crying and freaking out and everything.’
‘Oh yeah, I want them to be fucking devastated. Fuck that wake shit.’
Dizzy felt herself nod. She squinted at the warehouse, sure there was something moving.
She woke up after two. Her mouth was dry, her head full of stones. She rolled onto a thick root and winced. Megan was sleeping, the empty bottle by her head. Dizzy reached out for it and dragged herself up. She moved down the hill, wholly unsurprised to find herself not alone.
‘Hey,’ she said, as Kayla emerged from the dark. They shared a burst of nervous laughter, each certain of what the other was thinking.
Dizzy allowed her fists to relax. Kayla did not.
‘You looking for something?’ said Dizzy.
Kayla dug in her pocket and produced a battered wallet. ‘I’m looking for a conversation of genuine significance,’ she said. ‘For this I will pay – three dollars? Fuck.’
Dizzy smiled. ‘I found a quarter behind that metal fish-thing at the bar,’ she said, continuing on.
‘Dizzy,’ said Kayla, before she could make it ten steps. ‘It’s my birthday.’
‘Oh, cool. Happy birthday.’
Something sank down inside her. A cold wave passed through her body. ‘Kayla,’ she said, ‘who are you waiting for?’
Kayla stretched her arms above her head, the tenseness in her shoulders briefly dissipating. The sky behind her was black and starless. ‘You know,’ she said. ‘Friends and family.’
She moved down the barren hill, swinging her arms in circles. She stopped in front of the warehouse, bouncing up and down like a boxer itching for the bell. ‘I’m right here!’ she shouted. ‘We’re all right here! Come on!’
Dizzy felt her chest tighten. For a moment she was back in another life, standing on the football field as Randy sprinted toward the bleachers, running and running and never seeming to get any closer. She began to shake, the motion infecting her voice. ‘Kayla!’
Kayla looked back as Dizzy stormed down the hill. She tried to laugh; something tightening in her voice as she forced out the sound. ‘What’s the problem Diz?’
‘You’re waiting for Simon? To come here and fucking… Jesus!’
Dizzy could no longer breathe, doubling over as the notion smashed her in the gut. Kayla bent to steady her, murmuring in rhythm as she gently rubbed her back. ‘It’s okay Diz, its okay …’
‘He’s gonna kill us. Jesus, he’s gonna kill us …’ She tried to hold it back and it just kept coming.
‘He ain’t gonna do shit Diz. What chance does he have against three badass chicks like us? Nobody else gets hurt. None of us get blamed for a bunch of shit that wasn’t our fault. It’s perfect.’
Dizzy pressed up against her, shuddering as she recalled the power she found in her hands that summer, the sick feeling of flesh tearing at her command.
‘You get that?’ said Kayla. ‘They ask you about the trail of destruction like it was a goddamn badge of honour. Yes, I’m glad that all my friends are dead. I’m glad he comes back every year and I get all of the blame. I super grateful for that one time a guy spat at me on my way to work. I hate Jews too, print that. I’m pro-Aryan. Who gives a shit? I wish I’d gotten to Chad Clarke right before he died and cut out his date-rape yo-bro heart. Thank you. I’m glad.’
She said it again, clutching onto Dizzy as though she might be pulled down into the earth. ‘Thank you,’ she said, her breasts slowly rising with each reptilian breath of her body. ‘I’m glad.’
Her eyes were cold and glassy. A dolls eyes.
Dizzy coughed, bile rising in her throat. She saw him then, on top of the hill, an immobile silhouette that could be anyone at all.
‘Megan, get up!’
She caught her foot twice on the rotten earth as she raced back up the hill. Each time it felt like the world was ending. She went down cursing Kayla, and came up hoping she still had what it took.
Megan was gone when they arrived. There was no sign of Simon. Dizzy’s hand moved against her will, smashing the bottle on a slab of concrete and swinging in a web of death. She bit back on the pain and pointed the jagged end towards the world.
There was a scraping sound in the darkness by the warehouse. ‘Time to dance,’ said Kayla, still bouncing on unknown energy.
Dizzy caught her arm as she padded towards the building. She pulled in closer, wanting more than anything to scratch past the don’t-give-a-fuck exterior and get at whatever lived inside. ‘If that girl dies,’ she hissed, feeling the anger – the old, old rage – bubble up and boil, ‘it won’t be carrot-top up there who comes creeping round at night, and it sure as shit won’t be left ‘til your goddamn birthday.’
Simon appeared much as Dizzy had imagined him. He stood tall and firm, certain of his place in the world. His hair was red and tangled behind the chintzy plastic mask he used to play at being human. Its Archie Andrews grin was terrible. He still wore the ragged varsity jacket he had returned to town in. There were scratches on his arm where the material had been torn.
Megan was crouched beside the moss wall of the warehouse, a rock clutched in each shaking fist. There was a trickle of blood barely visible on her scalp where the hair had been sacrificed for flight. Good for you girl.
Simon tilted his head at Dizzy’s approach, and dipped the axe he held in his hand. ‘Why?’ she said, knowing it was ridiculous to ask. ‘What’s the point of all this?’
‘Looks like you’re screwed,’ said Kayla, as she emerged from the dark beside him, holding the stainless steel combat knife she had often recommended in group. ‘Three for the price of one.’
‘This is crazy,’ said Dizzy. ‘Get on your phone and call the goddamn cops.’
‘Screw that.’ Kayla threw the knife from hand to hand, padding towards her brother as though walking in his shoes.
Dizzy pulled Megan to her feet, her eyes wet with tears as the girl coughed and sputtered, ‘Gary…’
It would be a good fight, but it wouldn’t take long. Simon wouldn’t fall. He wouldn’t fall because he was something beyond them. She held out the bottle and watched it shake in the moonlight. The rage she held for Kayla was nothing next to her fury at the goddamn design of it all.
‘Hey asshole!’ she shouted, ‘you gonna talk or what?’
Simon tilted his head, a tiny movement to signal interest. Dizzy wondered if he even understood English. His unreal face was dead and silent as he straightened his monstrous spine.
‘So this is how it is, huh?’ she said. ‘You put this girl through hell, you tear up everyone in your way, and why? ‘Cause you got the power, and they don’t? Well I got all the power in the world right here in my heart and it sings when it reaches my fist. So I wanna know, and you’re gonna tell me, and it better be worth a hundred bodies.’
He held her gaze for a moment, and there was something like intelligence flickering inside the human eyes he’d buried behind the mask.
‘I wanna know!’ The words came out as an order, the first time she’d screamed unrestrained in months.
Simon blinked. ‘We can only be who we are Dizzy.’ The mask could not muffle the essential normality of his voice. It made it worse somehow, so much worse.
She thought about Randy on the field rushing for the bleachers, eternally out of time. Hoping that a kind hand would sweep him up for the goodness of his deed, and knowing that it would not.
Kayla’s blade seemed blue in the moonlight. Megan scowled, the tendons of her neck like wire rope.
The bottle was sharp and still in her hand. What lived in Simon was a thing beyond them, just as they were beyond all others. They moved in like hunters in the night, like wolves in brand new skins.