The Lost Child

Everyone was searching for her.

They saw a head poking out from the dirt in the woods. Its right eye was gone, and a worm had burrowed in the empty socket. They thought it might be the corpse at first, but soon realised it was only a doll. They pulled it up and sent it to the forensics. She was used as evidence in the case, I believe. She was shown to everyone in the courtroom. The poor thing looked so confused, very lost and far away from home. I swear I can see that desperate flicker of emotion in its remaining left eye, but of course, that’s ridiculous. I was just a child, attaching meaning to things that were not there. After the trial, it was given back to the family, but her mother abandoned it and screamed that she wanted it out of her sight. The mother’s sister – my mom – said not to do that, and that she would give the doll a home cause it’s the last thing that my cousin held dear.

Thirty-five years later, now everyone involved in that case is dead. The doll is still in my possession. But now, it’s all rusty and old with color faded hair. During the day it is simply an old doll with a glassy eye and a waning face. But when viewed in the night, things change considerably. Darkness always has a way of warping the reality. I would become a child again feeling haunted by its mere presence. That doll just gives me the feeling of living with ‘Annabelle’.

The doll was no longer a mere toy that children plays with; it has become a haunting memory, a lost child crying in the woods. It reminds me of her; like forever trapped in youth, forever entwined with the doll. I would begin to question the possibilities that what had happened to her, and why she would ever leave the doll behind. I’d sit for hours and wonder, staring the doll and hopelessly thinking. I had been watching it that morning, surveying the doll with dull and tired eyes when I found something written in its socket. Since leaving work, I thought to see it later as I would need a magnifying glass to read the small letters.

In the evening when I started to examine it, I heard the telephone.  It’s incessant ringing quickly drowned my macabre thoughts, and I went out to the hallway to answer it. “Hello?” The voice on the other end was a familiar one, which always unnerves me more than hearing a stranger’s. Family always want something. True enough, my cousin Swati had a favour to ask. Our mutual uncle, Ramesh needed somewhere to stay while she went and pleasured herself with a four-week cruise. “He says he’s okay to be left on his own,” she said “But we all know he isn’t. We’d be so grateful if you could.” I cordially accepted the offer as uncle gave me a lot of gift in the past and was a frequent visitor at our house. He’s a lone figure that traipses through my childhood memories, with ropes of sentiment or emotion binding him to me. I hadn’t seen him for a decade, after my mother’s demise. But whenever he’s around I feel chilling waves passing through me, I don’t know why.

The doll slumped as usual against the wall, stared at me. Dolls can’t look at people, so I suppose I mean that I was staring at it. Either way, our eyes met. So, I took the magnifying glass and read what was written there. It read: “2845/56/2 9764” I know as much as the next sane person that this is related to some code but don’t know what it is and where it leads to.  In my bedroom, I took a damp cardboard box from the wardrobe and spilt the contents over the mattress of my bed. Yellowed newspaper clippings and legal documents tumbled onto the sheets, curling at the edges like stale sandwiches. I searched through them, spreading each one out in search of a pattern.
Search for missing child continues

Local man suspected in child’s disappearance

Thirty Years On- The Mystery of the Lost Girl and the Doll she left behind.

My Uncle arrived a few weeks later, and it was evident he had succumbed to the pitfalls of age as much as the poor doll on the mantelpiece. His face was mapped with creases and dips, grey eyes sunk back into their sockets. His hair, once thick and Auburn has been reduced to smoky grey tufts between canyons of the bare scalp. “Sam…” his greeting was cold, distant. “Nice of you to have me.” “My pleasure…” He’d brought a stuffy grey armchair from home, and I seated him in it carefully. Dust clung to it like creeping ivy. We seated him few feet away from the TV. The doll was almost hidden from view, tucked away in the corner of his eye.

We rarely spoke, quickly adopting the template of an embittered married couple. I brought him his food and helped him to the toilet, carrying out menial tasks that required no conversation. Sometimes I’d close the door and eat my food in the kitchen just to avoid talking to him. I’d sit there, listening to him watch the television. There was an unspoken awkwardness between us, one neither of us could rightfully place. I couldn’t help anyway. Not at first. “Where’s the doll?” I showed him the doll. I glanced casually upwards from vacuuming. My hand gripped the side of his armchair. “The doll looks rather pale.”, He said. I sighed through gritted teeth.

“What do you mean?” “I loved this doll as it reminds me of her, so I thought it to be kept in better conditions.”

“I am too busy in my job and was not able to maintain the place together,” I replied. “It’s a shame, Sam. Why don’t you let me take it?” That stayed with me for days. One night, we were watching television. He’d dozed off in the chair, and I was about to join him. As my eyelids fell heavy over my vision, I suddenly caught sight of the doll; its face turned enquiringly at me. As I stared at it, half asleep, my uncle’s words from floated back in my mind. “Why don’t you give it to me?”

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The following day, while uncle had fallen asleep watching daytime television, I took the doll from its rightful perch and marched it upstairs with me. There were photos too, black and white snapshots of the two of us standing together in matching dresses. We were both smiling; innocent smiles in the box that I had. I remembered how we would play in the forests, treating the quarries and mines as though sections of our private play area. But, then I again started going through the clippings. My smile soured. I wanted to fight the thoughts that were creeping into my head, but instead I let them flow over me. What if it had been him? I knew I was acting on irrational impulses – namely the evidence of a child’s doll – but I couldn’t stop myself.

He had always been searching for the doll like he’s looking for the code, never having married or held a steady job. I’d overhear my mother and aunts talk pityingly of him, wishing he’d find a nice girl to settle down with. I tried desperately to make something of it, trawling my memories for any hints or clues. My recollections of her death are hazy in the extreme, and I’ll only occasionally remember the odd scene or snatch of dialogue in passing. I could have repressed some of it, perhaps because of him.

Crouched over my patchwork of papers, I failed to prevent a steady stream of tears rolling down my cheeks and into my mouth.  If these cloudy speculations formed into a hard truth, then the repercussions were colossal. It also meant I was sharing a house with a child killer. My blood boiled, chilled, ran in cold streams through my veins. I ran to the door suddenly and bolted it. I picked up our photograph again, the black and white snapshot in the lives of two little girls. I was wearing a smug smile, my thick black hair bound in clumps. She, curly and freckled, presented a gap-toothed smile to the camera. The doll hung from her hand, lopsided head and also looking absently into the lens.

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I dropped the tray of processed, ready-cooked food onto his lap. He winced with pain and looked up at me with a flash of anger. “Do you mind not dropping it on me like that?” “Sorry…” I opened the curtains in a rush, and unwelcome light sprayed into the room. I decided that I should interrogate my Uncle about the subject, so I sat down on the sofa opposite his armchair, and our eyes inevitably drifted towards the doll. “Why didn’t you want me to have that doll?” He grumbled into the hollow globe of his teacup. “It’s because you are not keeping it well.” “How so?” The anger crept into his voice. “Because it’s the doll of my dear niece. And it reminded me of her, how she was before she died.” I pounced on a single word he had chosen.

“You’re assuming she’s dead then?”

“Of course, she’s dead. We held a funeral.”

“I know, but they never found her body, did they? You don’t think she….ran away?” He turned, his wrinkled face taking an age to incline toward me. He raised his eyebrow slowly. “Do you think she ran away?” I averted his gaze. “Maybe…” We sat in silence for a few hours, and then I helped him to bed. I returned to the living room and watched the doll. It seemed unusual to find the pieces falling into place so long after the jigsaw had been thrown away, but perhaps things had been overlooked or rushed at the time. Ramesh had indeed been questioned by the police initially but released due to lack of evidence. Sitting alone with my thoughts, I quickly fell asleep.

Suddenly back in my house, we watched the television, and I told him not to scare me like that again. He laughed loudly, and his laughs mutated into knocks at the door. As I got up to answer, I shot a casual glance at the mantelpiece. The doll was gone and in its place a little girl. A dead girl. With empty eyes and a bloody mouth and pale as a mortuary slab. I remember trying to scream. Then suddenly I woke up. When I awoke, the living room was cold, and my mouth was dry. I heard shouting, so I ran to uncle’s room. He was sat in bed, looking helpless and impotent. “Where have you been?” “Sleeping. I’m sorry.” “I can’t get out of bed by myself.” “I know…I know…” I felt a pang of sympathy for him, a momentary lapse that quickly dissipated. I jerked him upright suddenly, and his face winced in pain. “What?” “Nothing, nothing…just my leg…” I wasn’t thinking rationally at this point, already starting to convince myself that he had been held up in her death, and all for that doll. I felt drawn to the mystery surrounding her, as though a shard of my life was trapped there too. I thought that what’s up with the code and why he had to kill her for a doll.

“Will you bathe me?” There was a painfully long silence. “I told Swati I could manage by myself….but I’ve realized I can’t. I need a wash….could you help me in and out of the bath?” The initial thought filled me with revulsion, but then something clicked at the back of mind. “Yeah…yeah…no problem…” I told him that I would bathe him the following night. This ample amount of time helped me to check and re-check my questions as I was totally convinced that he was the murderer, and now I just have him spill out all the beans. Why did he kill her and what’s with the code? The beans about my cousin’s disappearance as well as his connections to the code in the socket.

The following morning, I placed a bacon sandwich on his lap. He murmured thanks we have reduced our conservations to almost null and asked “About that bath?” “Yes, tonight.” That night, I took him for the bath. I watched as the cold ceramic was filled with piping hot water. The temperature of the room rose steadily; the sweat was running down my arms and mingling with the bathwater before I could stop it. I heard him coming.  I listened to the deep thuds of his walking frame as he made his way across the landing toward me. When he did finally emerge, our eyes refused to meet. Walking slowly to the bath, his cane fell from his grasping hands and hit the cold white tiles of the floor. The noise it produced made me feel like I’d been smacked in the face. I had to undress him, working through each layer of clothes until we reached his bare and wrinkled flesh. Watching him standing in the cold sent a shiver down my spine. Age was a cruel, circular thing and in Ramesh’s spotted, stretched body I saw the worst it had to offer. I lowered him into the tub, the clear water making his body sway and ripple as though it weren’t real. I brought the doll from downstairs. He started watching it, rather than me, as I stepped back to the bath and knelt down beside it.

His head turned to me suddenly, still waiting for an answer. “Well?” “I want answers, Uncle”Answers about what?” “About her and the doll.” The muscles around his mouth twitched, his tongue stroking empty words.  He spoke carefully, each letter and syllable carefully enunciated. “What do you want to know, Sam?” I felt my confidence failing. The sheer idiocy of the situation knocked me sick in the stomach, and I almost laughed with embarrassment. I almost stopped dead, but then I saw her face. The face that has always lived on in my memory, long after the death and decay of the original.  I paused for what seemed like endless time, before finally soldiering on. “I think there might be something you’ve not told me. I think you may have been involved in her death and that you have something to do with the code written on the doll.” His eyes widened in what appeared to be a genuine shock. Then, his face sunk back down. He didn’t answer my accusations, but rather directed a question back to me.

“Do you remember her, Sam? Do you remember her?” I was puzzled by the question. Rather than bringing him back to my point, I decided to answer. “I remember her about as well as anybody else. Obviously, there are gaps.” “Really? And how much do you remember about her?” A nostalgic smile wet my lips. “Oh, plenty. Her curly hair, her cute little dresses, her laugh…I loved her…” He sneered. Gooseflesh rippled across my arm. “Are you…laughing?” His clawed hand reached from the bathtub and grabbed my hand. Water ran from his skin to mine. His eyes were aflame, more life burning inside of them than I had seen in many years. “You hated her. Hated. You went out of your way to make her life a misery, didn’t you?” I balked at the suggestion. “You’re lying! None of that’s true.” “You pushed her, you kicked her, and you tore her hair because it was nicer than yours. You were an absolute bitch to her, Sam, and only I ever seemed to notice…” I shook my head in utter defiance, pulling away from his plastic grip on my arm.

“You’re just taking attention away from yourself! You’re making all this up!” “And that doll…Christ, you were so jealous of that thing….you used actually to pull it out of her grasp, poor thing…” A change had fallen over the doll’s face. Before I had viewed it as a living being, the personification of her killer’s guilt. Now I saw only a child’s doll. An empty thing. “Can you look me in the eye and tell me you’ve forgotten?” I met his angry gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “You were a nasty, malevolent little girl,” his lip curled over with a vigorous and biting hate. “I always said that something would happen…” He was leading me somewhere with these questions, down a dark and dusty path. I let him take me there, dragged into his poisonous re-imagining of our past. “You’ve got some nerve….accusing me of something! We both know what happened to her…” I spat out a mute reply, mouthing only the ghosts of the words I had planned to say. Memories were slowly coming back to me, developing like darkroom photographs. Everything coloured, memories were bright and vibrant again. His face was soured; lips were snarling. “I knew, I knew it all along…I knew you were a malicious child….but the police wouldn’t listen…they thought I was unhinged….I tried…I tried to tell them that it was…… You…..” My hand slipped against the wet surface of the bath, and I lost my balance. My head missed the porcelain by inches. I tried to steady myself again, shaking. “No, I wouldn’t…I would never…” I would, and I had.

I remembered the childhood jealousy stirring inside me, the plans hatching in my mind, and the day where I told her we were going to play a little game in the forest. She had laughed, and skipped behind me as we entered the woods. “There were so many of those old mines in those forests…so old that people had forgotten they were there …” He recounted the story as a despondent narrator, grimly retracing my bloody steps. “I don’t know what happened; I wasn’t there. My guess at the time – and my guess now – is that you lead her into the forest, into one of those mines….and…” His eyes were shining with tears. I reached and my mouth filled suddenly with warm and sickly bile. I spat it out against the cold, white floor. I wanted to shout out my denial, to scream at him that he was a dirty little liar. I couldn’t because I knew he was telling the truth. Everything was clear now, all the vivid memories forcing themselves against my skull. It was like peeling off layers of my skin, revealing a rotten inner self. I knew all the words: projection, denial, repression – but couldn’t believe any of them applied to me. I wasn’t a killer. Sameera Saxena was not a murderer. Never.

I remembered my gleefully sadistic behaviour towards her. I loved to tease and torture her; it gave me some naïve sense of power over weaker creatures. All the sympathy, all the grief had been an invention of my guilty psyche. Even my memory of leaving her funeral crying had suddenly been altered; I remembered it correctly now. I had been told to leave because I couldn’t stop laughing. “Only now you’re remembering?” Ramesh said, reminding me he was still in the room. “I don’t believe you.” I didn’t reply because there was nothing left to say. My whole life I had let her bloody murder scab over with false memories and invented stories, trying to fool everyone so badly that eventually, even I fell for it. He rose from the bath, and the water ran in snakes across his body. I turned around and stared at the doll. Running towards it, I picked it up and held it against the light. I remembered burying her, covering her beautiful white face with handfuls of dirt. It had stuck under my nails, and I’d cleaned them in the pond. I started to cry. The doll looked at me impassively, giving me the same blank look it had for the past forty years. It had known all along. “You sicken me; Sam…you disgust me…” I ran from the bathroom.

My head throbbed suddenly, and I felt as though my whole body were pumping with sick. I stopped, nearly laughed, and remembered that all this was happening. I tried to make it fiction, but the reality was screaming in my head. I don’t know what’s happened to him. I’ve left him in the bath. Maybe he’ll get out or maybe he will just give up and drown. I don’t know. I can’t care. I am in my room, with the newspaper clippings. Mystery? There was never a mystery. Just the usual horror cliché, a killer hiding behind a mask. In my one hand is the doll, and in the other, I clutch the telephone, ready to call the police. I will have to drop one of them. I don’t know what to tell them if I do. Sameera Saxena didn’t kill anyone, at least not the Sam she thought she was. I’ve changed so much. I’m not the same person anymore. Am I?

Am I?

The doll cracks as she hits the floor.