by Tara Campbell
When Kyra really concentrates on time, she thinks it has only been a couple of days since the dolls took her hostage. She was a bit groggy for part of it, after she tripped on their booby trap and hit her head on the living room floor of her mother’s house. Now that she’s had time to look, she can see where they hid the string that brought her down, can almost appreciate their ingenuity. The dolls, perhaps due to their smallness, are attentive to details, like how to properly anchor a tripwire, and how to tie a rope into wriggle-proof knots around a person’s wrists and ankles.
She’s tried asking about her mother, why she hasn’t come downstairs from her bedroom in two days. But the dolls can’t tell her anything—they don’t speak at all. The dolls gave her glasses back to her after they slipped off in the fall—fortunately unbroken—and brought her a pillow when she complained about her neck, but they won’t let her near the couch by the window, keeping her out of sight down on the dusty old Persian rug.
She’s tried pleading with Teddy to untie her. He slept at her side when she was little, way up until that slumber party in junior high when mean Anita laughed at her for sleeping with a stuffed animal. That was the last time Kyra shared a bed with Teddy. She can’t imagine he’s held a grudge that long. And yet, there he is, shiny black eyes trained on her, fuzzy brown paws curled around the grip of the pistol her father kept in the closet. She told her mother to get rid of it after he passed, but obviously, she hadn’t. To his credit, Teddy only points the gun at Kyra when she tries to stand.
The dolls bring her water, feed her Nilla Wafers, even bring her a bedpan and roll of toilet paper when she tells them she has to pee. They know that much about a human body, but they have no conception of the ache twining down her arms, the stiffness in her thighs. Spending this much time on the floor isn’t the best thing for her fifty-something-year-old back, but at the moment, that’s not her most pressing concern.
Kyra worries most of all about her mother, Lillian. The fall should have been loud enough for her to hear, to check on, even with the radio going upstairs. But she hasn’t come downstairs at all, which means she’s sick or hurt. Maybe she’s fallen and is lying on the floor too. None of the dolls can tell her a thing.
Kyra has counted about a dozen of them: two rosy-cheeked china dolls with synthetic yellow ringlets and lacy dresses, two brown baby dolls, Barbie and Ken, their Black counterparts Christie and Brad, a Hawaiian doll in a rustling grass skirt, a Black Raggedy Ann, a zebra, and Teddy. She’s certain, however, that there are more dolls waiting in other rooms of the house. There have to be; how else would they have been able to care for her mother for so long? How else could they be caring for both of them now?
Well, keeping them from dying, at any rate. She hopes.
Music spills endlessly from Lillian’s bedroom upstairs, day and night, too loud for Kyra to call out to her. It’s the radio, tuned to one of those world music stations her mother discovered when Kyra was in high school. Many were the days she and her brother Kenny would come home to a cacophony of drums and squawking flutes, metallic twanging, endlessly looping guitar riffs, and weird harmonies sung in foreign languages.
“Mom, please!” they’d moan, clamping their hands over their ears. “Change the station!”
“You kids,” she’d yell over the music, “need to get in touch with your heritage.”
“Mom, come on,” one of them would say. “You’re from Ohio.”
Then she’d smile and swat them with her fingertips, pull their hands into hers, and make them dance till they couldn’t help but laugh.
Kyra waits for the song to end, listens for the brief moment of quiet before the mellow drone of the radio host begins, and breathes in, about to yell for her mother until the dolls stuff rags into her mouth.
• • •
A couple of months ago, when the bills stopped coming from the nursing service, Kyra called her mother to see what was going on.
“Are you okay, Mom? Did the nurse stop coming?”
“I’m fine, baby. Better than ever.”
“But who’s taking care of you?”
“I have a new service.”
“A new—what happened, did someone hurt you?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I said I’m fine, I just found a better service.”
“Oh. Better? I mean … how MUCH better?”
“Don’t worry honey, Medicare’s paying.”
Kyra had to admit, her mother’s voice was brighter than it had been in a while. And Medicare was paying? She made her mother promise to send a selfie after the call, and said she’d visit when she could.
The picture Lillian sent was a relief to Kyra. Her mother was sitting up in the recliner by her bedroom window, wearing a clean shirt instead of a nightgown. Her hair had a smooth wave to it—someone had set it for her. And she was smiling, showing off those new partials. Everything seemed okay.
She should have known it was too good to be true.
• • •
Kyra wakes with a start, mind leaping from confusion to dismay at her captivity within a few thuds of her heart. She must have dozed off in the ruby-tinged twilight streaming through her mother’s drawn curtains. The rags have been removed from her mouth, but her phone, in her purse, is still out of reach.
Kyra finds herself wishing for nosy neighbors even though she, like her mother, generally minds her own business and wants others to do the same. She’s been too damned efficient, notifying her neighbors she’d be gone for two weeks, listing other colleagues to contact on her out-of-office message, even leaving a note with her mother’s neighbors explaining that she was visiting—didn’t want anyone freaking out and calling the police after seeing an unknown Black woman wheel her bag into the house.
“Teddy,” she says. “I’m worried about Mama.”
The bear stares at her, a permanent smile stitched into the fur of his snout. Pan flute wafts from the radio upstairs.
She sits up to face him. “She hasn’t come downstairs the whole time I’ve been here. She knows I’m coming; she would have checked down here for me by now.”
Kyra curses herself for not being firmer with her mother about moving. She knew the stairs were going to be a problem eventually. She paid to have them carpeted, and installed railings on both sides, and there’s a landing for a breather midway, but still. I just take ‘em slow, Lillian says, poo-poohing Kyra’s concern. But what if she can’t take them at all anymore, slow or otherwise?
“Please, Teddy, untie me so I can check on her.”
The Christie doll approaches Teddy and their heads dip toward one another as though they’re conversing. Kyra begins to hope, holding her wrists out for release, but then Teddy shakes his head. Christie plants one tiny hand on her hip and points the other in Teddy’s face. Moments later, the zebra trots out from the kitchen with a paring knife balanced on its back.
A drop of sweat trickles down Kyra’s back. She tries to squirm away, but stops when Teddy points the gun at her. When Christie lifts the knife off the zebra’s back, Teddy toggles his aim between the doll and Kyra. Kyra’s face feels flushed—it occurs to her that she’s gone days without her blood pressure medicine while tied up.
Everyone freezes at the sound of a key in the door.
Christie drops the knife and runs toward the entrance. Teddy swings the gun in widening arcs between the two before settling on Kyra, while Kyra twists her head toward the door, too afraid of startling the bear to scream. She hears the door swing open, then her mother’s voice: “Well, what in the—”
A few footsteps later Lillian enters the living room. “Kyra, honey! What’s going on?”
Everything is a blur at that point—dolls scurry around as Lillian scolds them, Kyra’s hands and feet are cut free, her mother helps her up to the couch, the zebra trots up with a cup of water balanced on its back.
Despite being out of breath, Kyra clutches her mother’s arm and stands up. “We have to get out of here, Mom.”
Her mother remains on the couch. “Settle d—”
“No, come on. Now.”
“Kyra Madison Jefferson,” snaps her mother, snatching her arm out of Kyra’s hand. “Sit your butt down and listen.”
Kyra’s head feels light. She does as her mother says.
“Drink your water,” Lillian scolds. “Have you taken your pills? Baby Betty, would you get me her purse?”
A baby doll toddles over to where Kyra’s purse landed days ago and brings it to Lillian, who places it on her daughter’s lap.
“Thank you. Baby Bobby, go up and turn that music off, would you?”
A second baby doll scurries off on its errand.
“Has that been going all weekend?” Lillian calls after it. “You know better.”
Kyra’s head spins. “Mama—”
“First, take your medicine.”
Kyra examines her mother: calm, hair combed, wearing a fresh pink blouse and one of her flowery perfumes. Not in the least panicked.
“I’m serious, what’s going on here?” she asks, rummaging for her pills. “And where have you been? I told you I was coming.”
Lillian hands her the cup of water from the zebra’s back. “Did you? My goodness, my mind some days. I guess I put it on the calendar then clean forgot.” She pats at Kyra’s stray hairs, lowers her eyebrows. “Honey, you all right?”
“Are you kid— Mama, I’ve been tied up for days! They took me hostage!” She gestures wildly at the dolls, her eyes snagging on Teddy, still holding the gun, barrel resting on the carpet.
Lillian purses her lips and puts her hand out. The bear shuffles toward her, stitched-in smile at odds with his downcast posture, and holds the grip out toward her. Lillian tucks it away in a bag next to the couch.
“Honey, I’m sorry, they just want to protect me.” Then, to all the dolls: “This here’s Kyra. How could you not remember her?”
“Mama, what the— What’s going on?”
Lillian pats her hand, then stands. “Come upstairs and we’ll talk.” She picks up a wicker basket as she moves toward the stairs. “Would you mind helping me with my weekender?”
Kyra grabs the travel bag from next to the couch, glad that the gun is inside it, away from Teddy. She follows her mother upstairs into her bedroom, where Lillian shuts the dolls out in the hallway and leads Kyra toward a plush settee in front of a heavy old vanity.
Kyra sits and leans forward, elbows on knees, removing her glasses to rub her face. She puts them back on and blinks at their smudges; and as she cleans them on her shirt, just pushing the smudges around, she realizes how much she’s sweated, how musty she smells. She’d like nothing more than a shower, but first things first: “Mom—”
“Yes, yes,” she sighs, sitting down on the foot of her bed. “I’m gonna tell you what happened.”
“No. That can wait; first we have to get you out of here. Your bag’s already packed. I’m not letting you stay with these—these things.”
“These ‘things’ have been taking care of me while you and your brother have been off living your lives.”
Kyra’s mouth hangs open while the sternness melts from her mother’s expression.
“I don’t mean it like that, baby.” She leans forward and puts a hand on Kyra’s. “I’m just glad to have them.”
Kyra looks at the bedroom door, imagining the toys lined up on the runner carpet in the hallway beyond, waiting for instructions. “Where did they come from?”
Her mother looks down at her hands in her lap, then begins. “You know I’ve been missing your father. It’s been ten years, but I still miss him like he left us yesterday. I know it was for the best, with how the cancer was eating him up, but still …”
Kyra reaches over to squeeze her mother’s hand.
“It was right here at home, you know. Right here in this room.”
Kyra nods. She remembers the adjustable medical bed, the equipment, the catheter bag, medications lined up at the bedside with even more pill bottles crammed into drawers—everything she and Kenny had to get rid of afterward to make it their mother’s room again, to keep her from drifting all night from couch to guest room to couch again like a ghost haunting her own house.
“I know you kids want me out of this house and somewhere easier to manage. I do get tired of these stairs sometimes. And I don’t always feel like cooking—”
“Mama, the home health people were supposed to—”
“Oh, they did, they did. But, you know, they never make stuff the way you want it.” Even now, Kyra has to smile, because her mother still has a heavier hand with the salt and the heat than is good for her.
“Anyway, I know I should move, but … Your father’s …” Lillian raises her palms, gesturing at the room in general. “I don’t want to leave him.”
Kyra exhales a burden of air. “But you know he’s not really here, right? He’s in heaven or wherever, fixing a car or flying a glider or going for a hike or, I don’t know, something outside. Why would he stick around here?”
Lillian’s eyes narrow.
“Come on, Mama, don’t take it like that. What I mean is, and this sounds corny as hell, but it’s true: he’s in here.” She points at her chest. “And there.” She points at her mother’s chest. “And in Kenny, and everyone who loved him.”
“Maybe so, but what I’m trying to tell you is—” She hesitates, then lifts the wicker basket onto her lap and taps on its lid. “I think part of him is here, too.”
Kyra waits for her mother to burst into laughter, tease her for falling for her joke, but she doesn’t. Instead, Lillian gestures to a book on her nightstand, asks her to bring it over.
“Zora Neale Hurston,” Kyra murmurs, picking it up. “Mules and Men.” Kyra didn’t know much about Hurston until college. After reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for class, she read Mules and Men on her own. But that was eons ago. She flips through it now, refamiliarizing herself with this alien world—folk tales and the dozens, juke joints and card games. Itinerant preachers. Voodoo. She hands the book to her mother and sits back down on the settee.
“This book, it’s about our people.”
Kyra raises an eyebrow.
“Don’t be so skeptical, girl.” Lillian thumbs to the last section of the book and hands it over to Kyra. “This is our history whether you know it or not.”
Kyra’s eyes widen at the opened page. “Formulae of Hoodoo Doctors. Really, Mama?” She scans the subheaders: “Concerning Sudden Death. To Rent a House. For Bad Work—(Death). What does have to do with anything?”
“Keep going,” she says, eyes misting.
Kyra turns the page. “Oh.” Circled on the page: To Make a Man Come Home. She looks up at her mother. “Oh, Mama.”
Lillian opens the wicker basket and lifts out a stuffed polar bear. “Baby, he came home.”
“Fairbanks?” Kyra remembers the family friend who came by with the bear and a bunch of flowers once the cancer finally knocked her father into bed for good. She feels numb for a moment, then shakes her head no, no, no. “Please, Mama. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Kyra doesn’t want to think about her mother’s brain falling apart. What she wants—needs—is for her mother to realize she’s the last thing Kyra has to hold on to. She has no husband, no children, not even a cat; just a job she doesn’t hate but doesn’t love either, and a brother who may or may not be there when she calls. If she ever called. They only hear about each other through their mother anymore.
Without Mama, what is there?
“You’re saying that’s Daddy?”
At the word “Daddy,” the bear turns its head toward her.
Kyra’s head feels full of cotton itself, her pulse churning in her ears. “No, Mama, this is crazy. We have to—”
She checks herself. If seeing this means her mother “needs help,” then so does she.
“No.” She swallows the lump of fear in her throat. “This isn’t real.”
Lillian stands and steps close to her, then leans down and wraps her arms around her. Kyra closes her eyes and relaxes into the embrace. Breathing in the familiar light scent of her mother’s hair pomade, she can forget for a moment that she’s dealing with a stuffed polar bear supposedly animated by the spirit of her dead father, with dozens more spirits animating a menagerie of toys outside the bedroom door. But just for a moment.
“Mama,” she pleads into her mother’s hair. “Can we just get out of here?”
Lillian releases her and sits on the bed, where she picks up Fairbanks and puts him into her lap. “I’m not leaving your Daddy.”
• • •
That night Kyra lies sleepless in her childhood bedroom, trying to piece together how to get her mother out of the house without using force or getting the authorities involved. And she’s certainly not leaving her in the house alone.
Although she spent close to two decades of her life inhabiting this room, it is almost unrecognizable now. Her mother has transformed it into her culture corner: walls adorned with Kente cloths and African masks, shelves crowded with woven baskets and clay pots. A slim-waisted Djembe drum stands in a corner.
Kyra has carefully shut out all toys, but cannot sleep for fear of a new object coming to life. Will the mahogany mask decorated with cowries and feathers lift itself from the wall and speak? Will she wake to find a hand-painted drinking gourd floating inches above her?
She’s glad her mother doesn’t seem to be interested in collecting African weapons.
Kyra gives up on sleep and checks her phone. Her brother still hasn’t texted back. She texts him again, not caring if she pings him awake. Then she picks up Mules and Men, which her mother pressed on her before bed. It opens easily to the section she’d shown her earlier that evening, spine creased with use. When she turns on her phone’s flashlight, it shines on one word: Hoodoo.
She closes the book. There’s no such thing as voodoo, not for her family—it’s just something shops serve up in New Orleans to make a buck. Maybe, if you grew up like that, a true believer … But you can’t just conjure it out of a book. She shouldn’t even be looking at this. It’s like looking at another culture’s bible, cherry-picking prayers.
Small plastic feet clack quietly on the hardwood floor just outside her room, a sound she knows from days of watching and listening while tied up. A doll, probably Christie or Barbie, must have stepped off the hallway runner rug to get closer to her door. She thumbs off the flashlight, imagining a doll pressing its ear to her door. Her skin prickles.
Tiny feet clack again, then she hears nothing. Kyra burrows under her blanket, opens the page, and taps on the flashlight icon.
There, after the spell on how to make people fall in love with you, is another one: How to Break Up a Love Affair.
Kyra tries to imagine her mother lighting candles, scrawling names on slips of paper and sticking things with pins. As little as she wants to admit it, she can. There’s a new energy to Lillian, a kind of sparking vitality. After watching her carry Fairbanks around all evening while a menagerie of toys and stuffed animals unpacked her “weekender,” did her laundry, and cooked dinner for both of them, Kyra is starting to imagine that all kinds of things are possible.
• • •
By lunchtime the next day, Kyra has decided to start gathering materials, just to see what a counterspell might entail—if one really believed in that sort of thing.
The morning had been unsettling: When Kyra sat down to breakfast, Baby Betty and Baby Bobby toddled toward her ankles with a rope until Fairbanks took it away from them. That’s when she noticed the polar bear’s—ostensibly, her father’s—new leather holster, with her father’s old hunting knife sheathed inside.
Her mother noticed her noticing. “I locked up that stupid gun.”
Her mother was vague about where she’d been over the weekend—just said she and Daddy liked to get away from things from time to time. She was similarly breezy with Kyra’s questions about the other toys, saying she only meant to work with Fairbanks when she “brought Daddy back,” that she didn’t know who—or what—the others were.
“But,” she insisted, “they don’t bother anyone.”
Now, over a lunch of leftover fried rice, Kyra tries to ignore Fairbanks watching her and her mother while they eat. He never leaves them alone, like a devoted father and husband protecting his family. She just wants to know from what.
Kyra finishes her last forkful of rice, knowing that she could well make things worse mucking around with juju. But her mother still won’t leave the house, and she’s sure not calling the police while Lillian’s claiming to have brought her dead husband back to life inside a stuffed polar bear.
Right now, she doesn’t know what else to do.
The needles aren’t difficult to get. While the dolls clean up after lunch, Kyra tells her mother she has a hem to fix, and scrounges nine pins from the bottom of the Danish cookie tin of sewing supplies. Paper is everywhere, but candles will be a more conspicuous item to gather.
While her mother takes a nap, Kyra shuts herself up in her former bedroom and pokes around in the desk where she used to do her homework. She finds almost enough candles tucked into the back of one of the drawers, and breaks a couple in two to get the right number. They’re all white, though. She shoves the drawer shut and listens. The rustle of dolls just outside her door stops a moment later. Instead of leaving the room to look for paint, she uses one of the pins to etch each candle with the first letter of the color it’s supposed to be: five B(lack), four R(ed), three G(reen).
She breaks the pins using her bedspread to protect her fingers, tears up the paper into nine pieces, and writes down the names Lillian G. Jefferson and Fairbanks/Spirit/Daddy? forward and backward as per the instructions. That night, she’ll tie one of the candles upside-down in front of the door, putting a pie pan underneath it to catch the drips. How does she get a pie pan without looking suspicious? If she hurries, she can get one before her mother wakes up—but the dolls will see. What if Fairbanks tells her mother? She can’t let anyone find these supplies.
Kyra fumbles a little unzipping the pocket of her canvas travel bag where she keeps the lock and begins gathering the materials up into one of her scarves.
“Kyra, honey?” Her mother’s voice is right outside her door. “Can I get that book back from you?”
Kyra drops one of the pins, cursing under her breath when it rolls into a crack between floorboards. “What book?” she asks, digging her fingernail into the seam.
“The one I gave you last night.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m just finishing a chapter.” She maneuvers the needle out from between the floorboards and wraps it up with the candles and paper. Then she feels for her phone, to take a picture of the spell, but her pocket is empty. She looks for her phone on the desk, the bed, in her purse, her bag—nothing. Her chest tightens, but she tells herself she just left it out somewhere in the house.
“I’ll bring it down in a sec,” she calls out. Her mother’s footsteps trail away down the hallway and the stairs.
Kyra grabs her laptop and types the spell into a document. Then, as quietly as possible, she packs the laptop and all of her materials in her bag, zips it up, locks it, clears a spot for it on a high shelf in the back of the closet, and stacks boxes on top of it. When she steps out of her room and looks down the hallway, a bonneted doll head ducks back into her mother’s bedroom.
Gripping the book, Kyra closes the door to her room behind her and descends the stairs. Her mother sits on the couch knitting, feet up on an ottoman, magnifying craft glasses perched on the tip of her nose.
“You movin’ in up there?” she asks, not looking up from her work.
“Huh?” Kyra holds out the book. Her mother nods for her to put it on the coffee table while she continues winding stitches around needles.
“Help me with this yarn, would you?”
Kyra sits next to her on the couch and untangles a knot that has formed inside the skein. “Mama, why don’t you use that yarn bowl I got you?”
“I should,” she says, without stopping. “You want to use it? It’s in that box there, with the needles. There’s a pattern there too, you probably need some new dishcloths by now.”
Kyra picks up the needles and a skein of yarn, casting on without using the yarn bowl either. The dolls are still, sitting on armchairs, lying on the floor, almost as though they had never been walking around taking prisoners with ropes and guns. Kyra knits by rote, glancing at the dolls periodically while making one of the first patterns her mother taught her. The toys remain still. Perhaps waiting. Détente.
For the first time this visit, she begins to relax. The slip of yarn through her fingers comforts her, reminding her of evenings from a better time, her father tinkering on something in the garage, her brother submerged in his beanbag with a book or a game, while she and Mama knitted scarves and sweaters no one really needed.
Kyra leans back further into the couch, trying to forget for a moment about the dolls, and the “countermeasures” stuffed in her travel bag upstairs. Maybe, if she can just pretend things are normal, she can get her mother to come out for a walk. Better yet, a nice drive—then get her the hell away from here and never come back. She lets a tiny smile curl her lips, hoping to set an easier tone.
“You dating anyone?” Lillian asks.
Kyra feels her smile quirk, turn sour. “I’d tell you if I were.”
“You work too much.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” She glares side-eye at her mother.
“Now, don’t get all—”
A thump from upstairs startles them. Kyra sets her needles aside, thinking about her supplies. She jolts from the couch and hustles up the stairs to find the door to her room open. A jumble of blankets and boxes have spilled off the closet shelves; the two baby dolls and the zebra lie splayed on the floor around her travel bag. She kneels, dreading what must have happened to her laptop falling from that height.
Her mother appears in the doorway. “Honey? Oh my god!”
Kyra follows Lillian’s horrified stare to Fairbanks, lying half underneath her bag. She flips it over, and folds of clothing bulge from a jagged cut in the canvas. The polar bear’s hunting knife sticks up out of his chest.
The anguish in her mother’s voice gives Kyra chills. “Mama, it’s okay. That’s not Daddy.”
Lillian kneels next to her. “Oh, Leonard!”
The baby dolls and the zebra stir, sit up. Kyra holds her mother, squeezing her harder as more dolls rustle into the room. “Please don’t cry, Mama. That’s not really Daddy.”
Lillian pulls the knife from Fairbanks’ chest, then holds him close, rocking. The dolls crowd around them. Kyra catches a whiff of something vegetal. Earthy.
“Kyra, honey, can you do something for me?” Lillian uses Kyra’s shoulder to lift herself to her feet, knife clutched in the fist holding the polar bear to her chest. Krya rises as well, then holds her mother’s elbows to steady her—and herself. The dolls surround their ankles, the soft press of them raising goosebumps on Kyra’s skin.
“Come with me.” Her mother steps over the toys and bustles out into the hallway. The circle of dolls divides like a cell, some following Lillian, some staying with Kyra. She steps over them and follows her mother out to the top of the stairs. That vegetal smell, stronger now, peatier, wafts up to Kyra’s nose as the dolls collect around their feet. Her mother gives her that look, the one she’s always used to caution her children without words in dangerous situations or mixed company—follow my lead—then hurries toward her bedroom. Kyra follows, legs carrying her faster than the toys can scurry. Lillian doesn’t have to tell her to slam the door shut in the playthings’ faces.
Kyra leans against the closed door, breathing hard and gawping at her mother. Plastic hands and feet clack against the door from the outside. Lillian hands the knife to Kyra and roots around her room for Mules and Men, Fairbanks tucked under her arm. She puts both on her bed for a moment to reach into her closet for her wicker basket.
“Mama, what’s going on?” Kyra feels the soft thud of plush animals throwing themselves at the door against her back. And that smell. It’s wafting through the cracks under the door, stronger now. More pungent now, like something rotting.
Lillian lifts the lid of the basket, blocking Kyra’s view, and mumbles to herself while rummaging around inside: “Red. Green. Yellow.” Then she nods, tucks the Hurston book inside the basket, looks up at Kyra and says, “Baby, can you keep them out there for a minute?”
Something pokes Kyra’s foot and she shrieks. A doll’s leg jabs blindly from underneath the door. Another leg joins it, then an arm. Her mother motions toward a chair, which Kyra grabs and jams under the doorknob. Just as she secures it and turns around, the door to her mother’s master bathroom swings shut. Kyra doesn’t hear the click over the thump and clack of dolls banging against the bedroom door, but when she reaches the bathroom and tries the handle, she realizes her mother has locked herself in.
Has locked her out.
The bedroom door shudders under the blows of the toys in the hallway. The chair jiggles, but doesn’t give.
“Mama, what’s going on? Let me in!”
“Just a minute.”
Kyra scans the room. The wicker basket has vanished from the bed. Fairbanks has also disappeared, she presumes, into the bathroom with her mother. The pounding at the bedroom door intensifies. Her fist tightens around the handle of the knife her mother has left her.
She faces the bathroom. “Mama—”
Kyra has known that tone since childhood, and it brooks no interruption. The door to the hallway rattles and thumps; she imagines baby dolls and teddy bears throwing themselves at the door like cannonballs. Then the pounding stops, and for a moment, all she can hear is her pulse roaring in her ears. She forgot her blood pressure medication again this morning.
Kyra listens, switching the hand holding the knife and flexing her cramped fingers. She tiptoes across the room to the hallway door, where she presses her ear to the wood. It’s warm, and a pungent funk seeps in around its edges. The stink of decay. Of death.
Kyra crosses the room again, taps on the bathroom door. “Okay, let’s go, they’re gone now. Let’s get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving your father behind.”
Kyra hears the rip of paper and the hiss of a match, then smells a whiff of smoke.
“Mama, stop lighting candles. Those—things are going to hurt us!”
“They were letting Leonard and me be, until you—”
“That’s not Daddy. That’s just a stuffed animal. Please!” Kyra hears herself and stops. Wheedling won’t work, not with her mother. She stands taller and speaks firmly: “That’s not your husband.”
All she hears through the bathroom door is another match, the turning of pages, and her mother mumbling, chanting something over and over, soft and low. Kyra bangs on the door, then looks for a long pin to stick through the hole in the handle to trip the lock. She curses herself for leaving the sewing materials in her room, along with her laptop on the floor. And she still doesn’t know where her phone is.
A racket springs up downstairs, the thump of things falling, slamming cabinet doors, as though they’re ransacking the place. A crash of glass. Then silence—and a creak on the stair.
Kyra backs up to the bathroom door, switching the knife from one sweaty palm to the other. “Mama? Where’d you put the gun?”
From inside the bathroom, another match hiss, another candle lit, a whisper: “Leonard, are you with me?”
“Mama!” Kyra kicks the door. “Where did you hide the gun?”
Her mother, annoyed: “It’s in the lockbox under my bed.”
Kyra darts to the bed and flips back the bedspread, lowering herself to her hands and knees. She sees a dark shape at the foot of the bed and pulls it out: a metal box splayed open—and empty.
Her teeth clench, but then she remembers her mother said it was unloaded. Kyra stands, ignoring the popping of her fifty-something-year-old knees, and knocks at the bathroom door. “Mama, where are the bullets?”
She smells warm candlewax and burnt sage, hears her mother’s whisper: “Leonard, she stayed. She’s here.”
From the hallway, something thumps on the bedroom door. The chair wedged underneath the handle jiggles.
“The bullets. Where are the bullets?”
Kyra hears voices inside the bathroom, one soft and light, the other low. She watches the chair to see if it’s holding, and notices something pushing into the crack below the door. Cloth. Her clothing from her travel bag.
“The bullets are where your father always kept them,” says her mother through the door. “In the curio cabinet.”
Kyra recalls the crash of glass below. From the hallway comes a click, a crackle, a low, soft rumble. Smoke curls in under the door.
“Mama, there’s a fire. We’ve got to get out right now.” Kyra speeds through a list of bad options in her mind: the bathroom window’s too high to climb down from; even if they knotted sheets together, it’s too small to squeeze through; there’s a fire in the hallway, and likely a gun.
“I knew she’d keep us safe,” says the low voice.
“She sure did,” Lillian answers. “We raised her right.”
“Mama? Please, we have to leave now!”
The bathroom lock ticks and the door cracks open. Kyra pushes it wider, blinking through a haze of aromatic smoke.
“You ready to go, Lillian?” asks the voice. “Is she?”
Kyra waves smoke away from her face as she crosses to the small window. It’s stubborn, and she strains against it, ignoring what she thought she just heard. Right now, she will clear the room of smoke, she will get her mother out of here, she will not even think about what it might mean to “go.” She will not let herself wonder if whatever lies next might be different, fuller, than the life she’s leading now.
The window finally creaks open, and wisps of incense slither outside. Braced by the fresh air, Kyra goes down on one knee next to her mother, who looks surprisingly comfortable sitting on a folded towel, cross-legged on the floor.
Fairbanks lies in the middle of a circle of colored candles and small cones of incense. Lillian’s chin is on her chest, her hands knotted together in her lap. Before Kyra can speak, her mother looks up. “I’m sorry, baby. You were right. That wasn’t your father.” She picks up a candle, blows it out. “He would never ask you to do that.”
Kyra swallows against the tightness in her throat. “Mama, we’ve got to go.” She leans toward the bedroom, listening for the rumble of flames.
Lillian points under the sink. “Fill up the bucket, put the fire out. I’ll handle the rest.”
Kyra runs the bucket back and forth a few times, until there’s nothing more than a soupy, charred mess at the base of her mother’s bedroom door. She listens, leaning in, fingertips propped against still-warm wood. Nothing from the hallway.
When she reenters the bathroom, the sink is full of extinguished candles and incense. Her mother sits on the edge of the tub, a lifeless Fairbanks in her lap. “It’s safe now.”
“It’s safe.” She stands and takes Kyra’s arm, leading her out of the bathroom, out of the bedroom, stepping over a jumble of motionless dolls and stuffed animals. Kyra spots the gun next to Teddy and picks it up.
She notices that her mother has no trouble taking the stairs down into the living room, where they discover chaos: books, papers, broken glass, throw pillows, yarn, knickknacks—everything strewn across the room.
Kyra groans and rubs her hands over her face, tired already from all the work it will take for her to clean this mess up, make sure those things don’t come back, ensure that her mother is really, truly okay.
She catches her mother considering her, head cocked, hands on hips. “You worry too much.”
Kyra widens her eyes and spreads her hands out, incredulous. “Mama, really? All this? And you? How am I gonna …?” She can do nothing but shake her head.
Lillian twists her lips in thought. “Where’s your phone?”
The two of them sift through the wreckage until her mother spots it. She asks for Kyra’s code and pecks at the screen for what seems like hours before handing it back to her.
Kyra sighs. “Who were you trying to call, Mama?”
“I texted your brother.”
Too surprised to comment on her newly tech-savvy mother, Kyra simply reads her last outgoing message: Kenny call me. Mama got arrested!
Kyra’s mouth flops open.
“You shouldn’t be alone in this,” Lillian says.
When the phone rings in Kyra’s hand, her mother giggles, then erupts into a full-throated laugh. Kyra stares at her mother—hand on her stomach, head thrown back, beautiful in her mirth—and can’t help but smile herself. She takes another moment to bask in the peals of her mother’s laughter. Then she looks down at Kenny’s call in her hand and presses Accept.
Copyright © 2021 by Tara Campbell