The sunlight through the back window filtered onto Jenny’s dirty blonde hair, lightening it several shades closer to the gold she had been blessed with as an infant. Now, she had what her father called dishwater blonde, an ugly way of saying that the shine had dulled ever so slightly. What was once a princess, now just a girl, but in the eyes of her grandmother, she was as lovely as any young lady had ever been.
Margaret sat behind her in the dusty, faded recliner that had once looked stylish in some long-forgotten showroom some twenty years ago, and her granddaughter sat on the matching ottoman, back toward her and head down as if in prayer. She fiddled with the ragged, ice-cream stained doll in her lap as Margaret pulled her hair back into a single, brambly handful to attempt to bring order to the chaotic tumbling curls.
“What do you think? One braid or two?”
The little girl didn’t respond, but Margaret already knew the answer. Jenny always liked to go with two braids, a pair of neat little ropes that stretched down just low enough to brush the bony tops of her shoulders. She fiddled some more in her seat, wiggling as if she sat on the hard, unyielding wood of a courthouse bench. The thought gave Margaret pause, and for a brief moment, she was back there, back in the courthouse with little Jenny, hoping that she was ignoring the things her parents were saying about each other.
The lawnmower droned out front, and she thought of her son, Mark, who had grown into such a fine man. Even now, she wondered what she had done to deserve such love and care. Here she was, an old woman, weak and arthritic, unable to garden or tend the lawn or mulch the shrubs. And there he was, strong as ever, and always eager to help with whatever chore she might have, whatever need might need tending. The humble home he grew up in was where he now spent his weekends, and for that she was eternally grateful. And what did she have to repay him? A meal here and there, a hot lunch and a glass of sweet tea, and all the hair braids that Jenny would ever want. He was always here it seemed, always remembering the things that slipped through her mind like oiled stones. Oh, she had always been a bit flighty as her husband said, and it occurred to her that her son was now the one that kept her grounded. Kept her cart on the path, so to speak.
“We’ll go with two,” she said.
Jenny fidgeted, but still remained silent. There was something weighing on her, Margaret thought, and even an old woman could see what it was. Things weren’t the same for the little girl since the split. She tried to sympathize, but Margaret’s own parents—God rest them—had stayed together for the long haul. No paternity battles, no late-night scream fests, no court mandated custody arrangement. It was so surreal to see the situation unfurl from the outside.
“I know what this needs,” Margaret said, determined to see a smile on the sweet girl’s face. “We need a couple of your big bows…one for each braid should do.”
She stepped away and dug through the small box she kept on her nightstand. Once, you could have called such a thing a jewelry box, but Margaret had never had much jewelry to speak of. Now, it was Jenny’s box, a catch-all that housed all sorts of little girl treasures in one easy place. There were a handful of hair bows, a few of them great, looping curls of ribbon that would have looked silly on anyone over the age of 8. There was a prismatic display of barrettes, and chintzy pieces of dull plastic jewelry that only a child could love. Here was a thimble, a few old-fashioned glass marbles she had played with when she was that age. Margaret picked out a pair of white bows that almost, but not quite, matched each other. They might not do for school or church, but for a lazy Saturday they were just what was needed.
“Well, I think I’ve found something you’ll like…”
The room was empty, and Margaret felt that old familiar pang she used to feel whenever her children got out of sight unexpectedly. A strange feeling washed over her, a memory perhaps, the antiseptic smell of cheap disinfectant blended with something else, something hidden. A feeling gnawed at her insides like a bad meal threatening to make itself known. The feeling rolled over her like a cloud blotting the sun, and it was gone, shivered away, replaced by the familiar drone of the lawnmower and the unremarkable wonder of a day just like any other.
“Jenny,” she said aloud to the house. “Where did you get off to?” There was something playful in her voice, an intentional softening that turned the suddenly misplaced child into a planned event, just a scheduled part of a scheduled game. “I’ll bet I know where you are.”
Yes, that’s it. All part of the plan. And if there’s a plan, there’s no reason to panic.
“I’ll bet you’re in…the closet,” she said as she flung the door wide. She expected to see the familiar stack of towels and sheets, the guest linens as her mother called them, but they weren’t there. Instead, she saw stacks of toilet paper and paper towels, and she struggled to remember when she had moved the closets around.
No worries. She liked to stay busy, always had, and even if there was no work to be found, she would dig some up just to find something to pass the time.
She passed the small dining room, taking a quick moment to glance under the humble, postage-stamp table before making her way to the first floor bedroom, just past the stairs and to the left. Or right? The hallway ended with a bathroom on one side and the bedroom on the right.
Oh you old bitty. Getting lost in your own house. What would Harold think?
She forced a chuckle, but it was a weak, unconvincing thing. The truth was, she was tired today, just like she always seemed to be these days, and chasing Jenny around wasn’t helping anything. The girl was almost twelve years old now; she needed to start considering others. Soon, she would be dating and…
She’s already dating.
“Who said that?” Margaret snapped to the empty, strangely stale air of her bedroom. It sounded, for all the world, like someone was whispering in her ear, so close that she could smell them. They smelled like…urine.
Something skittered under the lacy dust ruffle of her bed, and her head whipped around to see a small, white shoe darting out of sight. Margaret smiled.
“I see what’s going on here,” she said, the fear leaving her momentarily. “I think I see exactly what’s going on here.”
She strolled over to the long, oaken dresser and reached for the small lamp made of blue, rounded glass. The curtains were drawn, but the day was still vibrantly shining through the windows. It worked best at night, when the room was black as soot, but it would do well enough to coax Jenny out of hiding.
“I think,” she said playfully as she flipped the switch and removed the lampshade, “I think that someone wants to make shadow puppets.”
It was an old game, of course, older than her mother’s mother, but she remembered it fondly from her days as a child. That house was barely a house, and she could remember the days before electricity, all of them, boys and girls alike, hovered around the woodstove. Some nights, Papa would get his great lantern, the one with the rusted hinges that sounded like the ancient swing behind Mama Patty’s, the one Mama said never to get on because if it broke, you’d crack your tailbone. Papa would come in late, swinging that lantern and smelling of dirt and sweet manure, and he’d light the brown wick within and let them have at it. The rough-hewn wall of the sitting room was a fine place for shadow puppets, especially on starless nights where you couldn’t see more out the windows than your own reflection.
She sat the lamp down a few feet from the wall and kneeled next to it. You had to get the distance just right, not too close or too far.
“Tim,” she said, “That’s my oldest brother, you understand. He was always the best at shadow puppets. His fingers didn’t seem to have bones in them. He could make just about anything.”
She focused on the wall, willing her tender hands into shapes one at a time. First, it was a dog, his mouth draping open to bark here and there, and his ear wagging just so. That’s what sold it, the subtle, simple movement of the ear.
“Bradley was pretty good too. Where Tim just seemed to be born for it with those rubber fingers of his, Bradley learned from stubborn, dogged practice. I’d see him, leaned against the wall in his little bed, bending his fingers this way and that trying to make it work.”
Next came a bat born from both hands spread wide and overlapping at the thumbs. The wings reached broad and flapped to wonderful effect, and once again, the ears twitched ever so slightly.
“Charlotte didn’t care much for them. She had a doll she liked to brush over and over with Mama’s old hair brush. I can still see her, sitting right there at the edge of the light, looking at us like we were the silliest things she had ever seen.”
She twisted one hand into the unmistakable visage of a duck that quacked a few times, working hard for a laugh. Six year-olds loved ducks. Everyone knew that.
“Tim’s been gone almost twenty years. Bradley for five. Charlotte…”
She saw her sister’s face just on the edge of her mind’s eye, but she couldn’t quite place it. There she still was, sitting in the shadows, a girl no more than half a dozen years old. That was plain as day, but everything else was just out of sight.
“Jenny,” she said turning toward the bed, still expecting to see her granddaughter peering out to see the show. But the dust ruffle was down, and the girl was nowhere in sight.
“Jenny, I know you’re sad about your mom and dad. But I promise you, it will get better. You still got two parents that love you very much, and that’s about the best thing you can ask for.”
She slid over on her knees and peeled back the cover. “Now let’s go and eat some lunch…”
The girl was gone.
“Jenny,” she said peering over her shoulder and into the closet.
In there. Lots of room to hide.
The whispering voice made her shiver, not because of the tone, but because of its certainty. What if it was mistaken? What if that certainty was just a mask covering up the truth? She drew open the door and puzzled over what she saw before her.
The closet she knew, the wide, spacious walk-in with the hanging light switch, was nowhere to be found. It had, quite simply, transformed, metamorphosed into something terrifying in its unfamiliarity. There was nothing naturally unsettling about stacks of clean white sheets and thick, disposable feminine pads. These were things that had a place in the world, but that place was not here. This was the place of dozens of pairs of shoes, and musty, moth eaten jackets and suits that Margaret hadn’t been able to fit into in three decades.
“Jenny?” she said weakly as she let the door knob slide through her fingers. A wave of cold sweat washed over her like a rainstorm, and she feared she would vomit any second. She stumbled into the bathroom and gasped when she saw the changes here.
“No,” she said breathlessly as she looked at the sturdy stainless steel rail clamped onto the wall where the towel rack once stood. The claw foot tub Harold and his brother had muscled into the house was replaced by a walk-in shower with a stool inside.
Someone has changed it all. You understand that, don’t you? They took Jenny, and they want you to lose your mind.
Jenny was nowhere to be found, and Margaret felt herself screaming for her at the top of her lungs, her voice as wild as a dying coyote, her screams filling her up to the top with a fear she had never felt before.
She ran from the room, fleeing that place, searching for the world she knew still existed somewhere, somehow. Darting through the hall, she nearly fell over a couch she didn’t recognize, and the truth floored her. There was no hall, no stairway, no second floor. Just a bedroom and a small living room attached to a smaller kitchen.
The smell of antiseptic seemed to fill the room along with the subtle but unmistakable smell of urine. You couldn’t cover that smell, no matter how you scrubbed, and she remembered how Mark had wet the bed as a boy, how the smell never left the bed no matter what she sprayed.
The familiar drone of the lawnmower whined outside, and she knew he was still there and that there was still hope. Mark was the one who held her hand after Harold died, the one who hauled mulch for her, who still kissed her forehead even as a teenager, a boy too old to love his mother, too embarrassed to admit he needed her. All of this was a dream, a horrible, waking dream, but Mark would wake her up. She spilled out the front door and onto the porch, out into the sunlight and sanity, and there she knelt, waiting for the breeze to blow that awful, stinging scent from her nostrils.
But there was no sun and no breeze and no porch. Her fingers noticed it first as they curled into little fists on what should have been concrete. She opened her eyes and stared down at the narrowly cut pile carpet, and a line of hysterical spit dribbled down onto her lap. As disoriented as a waking child, she looked up and saw the man who stood a dozen feet away, a small, dark skinned man who smiled politely at her as he pushed the droning vacuum cleaner back and forth.
The hallway stretched in both directions, a cavernous mile lined with pastel green doors. Next to each was a plastic placard with a name.
“Ma’am,” the man said as he turned off the vacuum. “Can I get someone to help you?”
She stared at him as if his words were traveling a thousand miles to reach her. He didn’t even look real to her, like a mannequin brought to life or a man casually standing on the other side of a glass aquarium.
In seconds, she was on her feet, moving past him and towards the door at the end of the hallway. He reached for her, and she slammed back against the wall, avoiding his touch as if his hand were aflame. Some doors were open as she bolted past, and the images only confused Margaret further.
Then, she hit the door and turned the knob feverishly, but it refused to open, refused to budge. There was a small plastic rectangle on the wall, some type of lock she assumed, but she didn’t pay it much attention. Instead, she leaned her shoulder into the door and began slamming into it with all her remaining strength.
The door wouldn’t move an inch, and she cried out in pain. Behind her, the man was pointing and a pair of girls suddenly flanked him and began running toward her.
They were coming, moving towards her so fast. If she could just find Mark, it would be okay. Together, they would track down Jenny. They would make sense of all this. Together.
“Miss Margaret,” one of the girls said. “Honey, just calm down.”
Both of them were younger and stronger than her, and they led her back down the hallway. She felt very weak now, very sleepy, and her body just seemed to obey the pair without a word of protest.
“Jenny,” she moaned. “Mark. Where’s Mark. Where’s Jenny?”
The girls sat her down on the couch, the one she had never seen before, and they talked a bit in the doorway. One of them retreated, returning a short time later with a small white cup holding a pill inside.
“Do you want us to call Jennifer?” the girl asked in a voice much louder than necessary. “I believe she’s at work, but she said we can call?”
“Where’s Mark?” Margaret moaned as one of the girls handed her the pill.
“Here, just take this and we can…”
“I’m not taking anything,” she said as she swatted the cup away and sent the pill flying across the floor.
The two girls glared at each other for the shortest of moments. “Maybe we should just call Jennifer.”
“Jenny? Where is she? I can’t find her?”
“You just sit here and rest a minute, and we’ll give her a call.”
The girl turned on the TV and stepped out of the room. Time seemed to shift strangely as she stared at the set without seeing a thing. None of this made sense, and she felt like a songbird locked in a cage. Time swirled around her, and sometime later, another woman stood in the doorway, a cute, professionally dressed young lady.
“Nana,” she said as she walked through the threshold and sat on the couch next to her. Margaret stared into the face, knowing and refusing to know all at the same time.
“Jenny,” she said in dawning confusion. “I…I lost you. I couldn’t find you. Or Mark…where’s Mark at…”
“Shhh,” her granddaughter said as she patted her hand. “It’s okay. Dad’s gone, remember? For eight years now.”
Tears, fresh and raw and hot, formed at the corners of Margaret’s eyes.
Jennifer’s face wrenched in a quick but fleeting moment of exasperation mixed with sadness.
“Here,” she said holding out the small paper cup. “Take this, and I promise I’ll tell you everything.”
So that was that. Her son was dead, gone for some eight years now. Her dear Jenny was grown, an accountant, a successful one from the sound of it. This place, this prison, was hers, a place to keep her safe, to protect her from what must surely be the most dangerous thing in the world; her own mind.
How did the time get away? How many days had passed without her noticing? For a long time, she sat there, wondering.
Later that night, the home—her home—grew as quiet as a mausoleum, and Margaret tentatively stumbled to her bedroom and drew the door closed. She sat in bed for a long time, watching the shadows from the road walk across the bedroom wall like shadow puppets.
She sighed and leaned back into the bed and willed her eyes closed. Sometime later, sleep overtook her in a warm, numb wave. Later that night, with the moon still shining through the blinds, she awoke suddenly with a fear she couldn’t place. Then she remembered that Jenny was coming tomorrow, and she let herself fall back into bed. Maybe the two of them would take the shade off the lamp and see what they could make.
D.W. Gillespie is a long time writer who focuses mainly on the horror genre. Like most of his work, there is a dark edge to “Shadow Puppets,” but the overall drive of the tale is longing for times past.