I'm no hero, believe me. I've never rescued babies from burning buildings. I've never volunteered to save humpback whales or the rain forest. I've never been to protest rallies, fed the hungry in Africa, or righted any of the eighty thousand things that are wrong with the world these days. Heroism isn't a trait commonly found in teenage boys.
Stupidity though? We've got that in spades.
Stupidity is why I'm huddled behind a large sofa bed, underneath a heavy blanket, drenched in my own sweat despite the AC humming in what is otherwise silence. The television is tuned to the least scary show I could find: a Jersey Shore rerun-horrifying in its own way, but not in the way that matters, which is the most important thing. I stare at the TV screen-and not because I'm eagerly awaiting Snooki's next freak-out. I watch the screen because I want to know when it's coming to find me.
Earlier this evening, I'd taken a raggedy-looking doll-its cotton stuffing already scooped out-and replaced it with uncooked rice and a few fingernail clippings. And I'd sewed it up with red thread. When you've done this as many times as I have, sewing becomes as good a weapon as any. Then I waited for three a.m. to roll around before filling the tub with water and dropping the doll in the bath.
"Dumbelina, you're it."
The name was not my idea, but it was what I had to work with. Using the same name that Sondheim and his girlfriend used in the ritual they started and never finished-that's how it knows you're singling it out. Just to ensure there were no misunderstandings, I said "You're it" two more times.
The doll, like most dolls, said nothing. It gazed up at me from beneath the water, a drowned, ball-jointed Ophelia with synthetic brown hair and plastic eyes in a yellow broadcloth dress made in some sweatshop in China. The doll was common enough, the kind that could have been a knockoff of a knockoff.
The air changes. Then that invisible spider crawls up my spine, tickling the hairs behind my neck. I have come to know this spider these last couple of years. It whispers there's something else in the room, breathing with you, watching you, grinning at you.
I hate that damn spider.
For one moment, the doll's stringy brown hair glitters a shiny black under the fluorescent lights. For one moment, the doll's glassy gaze takes on the faintest tinge of malicious self-awareness. For one moment, that thing's head breaks through the water's surface and looks at me.
I switch off the lights. I back out of the bathroom and close the door. I hide.
It sounds pretty idiotic, playing hide-and-seek with a doll. It's not. It's part of the rules I gotta play by.
The first rule is this: I have to finish the game. No matter what happens.
I've taken a mouthful of salt water at this point, and I begin counting in my head. One thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three, one thousand and four...
On the TV screen, an orange-skinned, heavily built Italian guy with gravity-defying hair is arguing with another orange-skinned, heavily built Italian guy with gravity-defying hair.
...one thousand and five, one thousand and six, one thousand and seven...
I briefly wonder where Ki is. She's often been quick to turn up when I've done other harebrained rituals like this one. At the moment, she's nowhere to be seen, which worries me. It's not like she's got something else to do.
I'm no hero, but I do have a superpower. Except my superpower tends to wander off when she's bored.
...one thousand and eight, one thousand and nine...
The noise of the television fizzles out. Then the sound returns, but it's warped, like an inexperienced DJ is spinning on a broken turntable and he has the song stuck on repeat. The voices drop several octaves until they're rough and scratchy and incomprehensible. Jersey Shore switches to static.
Immediately, my gaze swings back toward the bathroom door, which is standing wide open.
I'm pretty sure I closed it.
Something is moving around the room. I'm hoping it's Okiku, but I doubt it.
It sounds like something is dragging itself across the floor. Like it isn't quite sure how to use its legs properly yet.
I risk another glance over the sofa bed.
Wet tracks lead away from the bathroom, water stains seeping into the carpet. The television screen is blank, though the disturbing noises continue.
And then I see the doll lying facedown in a puddle of water several feet from where I am.
I retreat back into my blanket fortress to retrieve a plastic cup half-filled with the same saltwater mix that is in my mouth. I also pick up a small paring knife. Then I emerge from my hiding place, peering nervously up over the sofa again...
...and I come face-to-face with the doll, which is perched atop it. It has a small, peculiar, black gash across its face, which on a person would have been a mouth.
The doll in the bathtub didn't have a mouth.
It sails over my head and crashes into a painting behind me. I have enough presence of mind not to swallow the salt water or spit it out. I don't waste precious seconds looking behind me-I make for the closet, my backup hiding place in case anything went wrong, which it almost always did.
I slip in and slide the door shut behind me, wriggling in among the clothes and shoes, trying to make as little sound as I can. You don't need to find the most complicated hiding spot when a ghost is hunting you. The instant you trap them inside a vessel, like a doll's body, their perception of the world becomes limited.
I wait for several long seconds. Everything's quiet, but I'm not buying it. If you move when they're there to see, they'll find you. They'll find you fast.
Through the small slits of light coming in through the slatted closet door, I make out a movement. Then I catch a glimpse of yellow as something small and decidedly doll-shaped shuffles into view.
It's crawling on its hands and knees.
Its every movement sounds like crunching bone.
It's searching for me.
I hold my breath and wait until it twitches away.
The second rule of the game: it gets to look for me first. Then it's my turn. We swap roles every few minutes until someone succeeds. First one to stab three times doesn't get to die.
I count another ten seconds, because starting my turn late is better than starting it too early, while it's still on the hunt. Then I step out, curbing the desire to take the coward's route and hide 'til morning. Or better yet, to race out of the apartment screaming like a little kid.
The doll lies flat on its back, its midnight-black eyes boring through the ceiling. It isn't moving.
I run toward it, knife raised and ready, because the rules say I have two minutes, but experience says these bastards cheat. When it comes to dealing with ghosts, the general consensus is to hit first and hit hard, because chances are you'll be dead before you can get off a second attempt.
I strike. My knife finds its mark, plunging into the doll's chest. I spit the salt water that's in my mouth onto the doll, soaking its cotton dress. "I win!" I sputter and then rip the knife free so I can stab it again.
The television chooses that moment to flicker back on. Momentarily distracted, I glance at the screen. The two guys are still arguing. When I look back down, the doll is nowhere to be seen.
Trying not to panic, I search the room as quickly and as thoroughly as I can. I check under the couch, the bed, even take another quick look inside the bathroom. Nothing.
A drop of water landing on the carpet in front of me is the only warning I get. I have just enough time to look up as the doll bears down on me from the ceiling. Its mouth is too big for its face with rows of jagged-looking teeth and its eyes a terrifying window of hate. The two thoughts that immediately come to mind are uh-oh and damn it.
Ever had a possessed doll slam itself into your face at Mach 2 speed? It's like getting hit by a carnivorous chicken. I crash to the floor, the doll still clinging to me, jaws snapping at my cheek. I grab it by the scruff of its neck as I cry out in pain. I force it away, putting myself out of reach of those canines. What I don't expect is for the doll's neck to extend several inches from its body, still gunning for skin.
"SON OF A-"
I hurl the doll across the room. It hits the wall and flops onto the floor.
Something's wrong. After that first stab, it shouldn't be able to move, much less attack me like it's rabid. And the last thing I want is to get bitten.
The third and final rule of the game is this: don't lose. I'm not entirely sure what would happen if I did, but I don't want to find out. I've tagged it once and been tagged once. Not good odds.
A loud, ripping sound screams through the doll, which twists and writhes on the floor.
Its dress bunches up, something shifting underneath the cloth. I can see the red threads unraveling, stitch by painstaking stitch. I leap forward, burying the knife once more into that writhing mass. The doll falls limp.
But when I raise my hand again to deliver the third and final blow, the doll's body tears open. A hand bursts from the center of its chest to grab at my wrist. The hand is followed by a yellowed arm and shoulder. Another hand forces its way out, and then another, and then several more.
Finally, a head leers out of the tattered doll's remains. A horribly disfigured face sits atop a form that isn't so much an actual body as it is a confusing protrusion of arms.
It wails-a mewling, yowling sound-and reaches for me again.
I've never punched a woman before-dead or alive-but this feels like the time to be misogynistic. The creature reels back, loosening its hold, and I scramble backward. It crawls toward me again, and I kick it right in the jaw. I need another stab with the knife to end the ritual, but I'm not entirely sure how to keep it still long enough to do so without getting my own limbs chewed off.
Then something falls from the ceiling, and the creature is pinned underneath two pale hands, which would be slim and lovely if they didn't look like they've been decomposing underground for the last few centuries.
"Okiku!" I gasp.
There are similarities between my Okiku and the many-armed woman, in that they are both (a) dead, and (b) bloodthirsty when they've got a target in mind.
From behind her curtain of hair, Okiku looks almost quizzical. Her hands are steel vises, fueled by three hundred years of old grudges and tempered by her surprising fondness for me. Nothing the other creature attempts could dislodge her.
"Thanks." I pant, taking aim and driving the knife one final time into the point where the seven-armed woman's neck is joined to the rest of her, and then I brace myself.
The most horrible earsplitting wail I've ever heard rends the air, and the ghoul explodes.
I hit the ground, covering the back of my head with my hands, more from the force of the impact than from instinct. The wailing peters out, and I take that as a sign to lift myself up and assess the carnage.
The blast has shattered a small art-nouveau lamp, a Waterford vase, and the drooping clump of chrysanthemums that had been cowering inside it. A thick cloud of dust settles onto the floor and over the furniture, but all that's left of the creature is the ruined doll. Its black eyes are as creepy as ever, but at least its slit-mouth is gone.
I've read about hoso-de before. Generally, these benign spirits, characterized by multiple arms, are found in most Japanese households. Why it was so angry and what it was doing in the good old U.S. of A., I have no idea. Perhaps there's a foreign neighbor in this apartment block. People always bring their ghosts with them, holding on to them like faded photographs.
Okiku, naturally, sits in the center of the whole mess, impassioned as always, with broken remnants of the fight strewn around her like a dirty halo.
"I hope Sondheim's not expecting me to pay for this," I mutter, standing and trying to shake the sawdust from my hair. My spirit companion says nothing. Okiku never says much, never gives any indication of what she's thinking. I'm almost used to that by now. I ramble enough for both of us.
Okiku drifts over to me and places a finger against my cheek where the hoso-de scored a bite, the way Okiku always does when she wants to know if I'm all right. Which is rather nice of her. Up close, her face is the stuff of nightmares, an amalgamation of what it's like to be alive and dead all at once.
I'm almost used to that too.
"Never been better." I grin, trying to hide my shaking knees.
This was not the first attempt at exorcising ghosts for either one of us. Over the last year, I've gone against faceless women, disfigured spirits, and grotesque revenants. Some people have dangerous hobbies, like skydiving and driving in monster truck rallies and glacier surfing. Me? I cast my soul into the churning waters of potential damnation and wait for a bite. And Okiku's been doing this for three hundred frigging years?
Just to err on the safe side, I pour the rest of the salt water onto the doll's remains and sweep them into a large garbage bag. Okiku watches me but doesn't help. From the books Kagura lent me, I know the hoso-de are creatures of wood. Spirits of water, like Okiku, can't touch their vessels without having their own strength sapped. Fortunately, the fight didn't last long enough to weaken her.
I turn off the TV, then paw through the blankets to find my cell phone and punch in a few numbers. "It's done," I say as soon as Sondheim answers.
I don't have to wait long. Andy Sondheim plays wide receiver for Pembrooke High's football team and is so far up the social ladder from me that it's like trying to scale Mount Everest. With him is his perky cheerleader girlfriend, Trish Seyfried, though she's not quite so perky at the moment. Sondheim likes to boast about having his own place, even though his parents pay the rent. They're away on enough business trips that I suppose it's almost true.
He and Trish are fully dressed now. I'd assumed they'd just gotten back from some party and were making out before they'd called. Both are still white-faced and trembling, which I'll admit I enjoy, because when he's not in fear for his life, Sondheim's usually a jerk.
Okiku ignores them. She's been counting tiles on the floor, black hair flapping behind her like a bird's wing. Neither Sondheim nor Trish sees her. Most usually don't.
"It's gone," I tell them wearily, not bothering with the details.
"Damn, Halloway," the jock says, looking around his apartment. "How about doing it without trashing the place?"
I suppose a show of gratitude was too much to expect. "I got the job done, all right? That's more than you were able to do." I lift the garbage bag. "Wanna burn it?"
Sondheim takes a step back, eyeing the sack like it ate his grandmother. "Uh, no way, man. I'm not touching that."
"You're sure it's not going to come back?" Trish speaks up uncertainly. "I mean, really sure?"
"My mom's vase." Sondheim moans. "And the painting's got a hole in it!"
"It's only a Manet reproduction," I say. "And kitsch is in nowadays." The side effect of being a spoiled rich kid is that I know how much things cost.
The jock glares. Okiku stops by the vase's corpse and begins counting the broken pieces.
"I should never have listened to you," Sondheim snaps, turning on his girlfriend. "Why the hell did you want to play some stupid ghost game anyway?"
"Beth and Lisa played it," the cheerleader whines, tugging at a strand of golden hair. "Nothing happened to them."
"That's because you didn't follow the rules." I speak up, not feeling particularly sympathetic. One-man tag is a ritual that has no real purpose other than to mess with nearby spirits. Invite one into a doll's body, fool around with it for an hour to prove your manliness, then-hopefully-send it back to where it came from without repercussion. It's supposed to be a test of courage.
"You didn't use salt water, you didn't bother cleansing the place with incense beforehand, and worst of all, you didn't finish the game. You might have gotten away with that if you'd been in a public place, but by summoning a spirit here, you might as well have drawn a large exclamation point over your house."
Both stare blankly at me. "How the hell could we finish the game after seeing that...that thing stand up?" Sondheim demands.
"Beth and Lisa said the doll just lay there when they tried it," Trish chimes in.
Inwardly, I groan. About the only smart thing they did tonight was call me for help, though being woken up at two in the morning by people who never give me the time of day isn't something I enjoy. I don't even know how they got my number.
"Yeah, well, if you're not prepared to see things go bump in the night, then don't go playing with dolls in the first place."
I heft the garbage bag over my shoulder, knowing this will be the first and only time I score one over on Andrew Sondheim. "And one last thing, not that I'd recommend there be a next time-but at least pick a better name than ‘Dumbelina.' You don't want to anger the creature before the game even starts. You might not wanna take it seriously, but believe me: it takes you very, very seriously. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a doll to burn and classes in the morning."
I walk out, Okiku trailing after me. I can hear bits of an argument starting up again after the door closes behind me. The two of them will probably tell everyone what happened here tonight, stirring up new rumors to cement my status as a freak, but I don't really care. Trish has a fondness for hyperbole, so it's not like anyone in school will believe her.
It's 4:30 a.m. and I'm tired-but glad I only live a few blocks away. I bike back to my house and let myself in, not bothering to be quiet about it. Dad's away on business and won't be home 'til late afternoon, so I've got plenty of time.
I burn the doll in a metal trash bin I found in a junkyard several months ago. Most days it sits half hidden behind some bushes in the garden. Dad probably doesn't even know it's there. I've used it about thirty-five times.
It's a quick and easy bonfire. I empty the contents of the garbage bag into the can, making sure I don't leave anything out, then strike a match.
The doll burns easily enough. Its beady black eyes watch me until its face disappears into the flames and smoke. Soon, nothing will remain of it but black soot and angry memories.
When there is nothing left of the doll, Okiku smiles. She always does.
It's not that I have to do these exorcisms. I'm not responding to some higher calling that insists I don a cape, cowl, and tight spandex to rid my city of crime. I'm not about righting wrongs. All these creatures I've been trapping and killing during the last several months-there's no real purpose to it. I tell Sondheim not to meddle in things he has no understanding of, but I'm just as guilty. I mess around with spirits, test the boundaries of my fears, see how far I can step over the line without falling over.
Besides, Okiku delights in the hunt. She ended life as a victim and started death as an avenger. She doesn't kill for any higher purpose. She doesn't need a reason to take someone's life. She does it because she can. And I get that. I've been a victim for most of my life. She changed that.
I tell myself I'm doing this-ridding the world of these things that go bump in the night-because I want to. I tell myself I'm doing this because I'm not going to spend the rest of my life as prey.
I tell myself it's an adrenaline rush.
And, admittedly, that's where the stupidity comes in.
Okiku senses where my mind is wandering, and curiosity crosses her dead, mottled face.
"I'm all right. Let's finish this."
She smiles again.
Together, we stand and watch the night burn.