In which Alyssa begins to connect with her houses . . . in very different ways

The bathroom in Alyssa’s rented house would have been perfect with one of those old-fashioned club-footed bathtubs in it, especially with the sweet little octagonal stained glass window that was set high in the wall over the toilet, next to the sink. But someone at some point in the house’s history had put in a one-piece surround that was so cheap, it had a deep rust-coloured ring around it that no amount of scrubbing would remove. Alyssa had tried everything from her grandmother’s favourite, Comet, to Scrubbing Bubbles, to plain old bleach, but nothing worked. 

At the very least, she reminded herself with every shower, she knew it was clean. And it was only herself, after all. If she ever had company over, her pretty flowered shower curtain would hide the appearance of the tub. 

Turning the water on before undressing, she leaned toward the mirror to pluck away some unwanted hairs while the stream heated up. The warming air and steam were reassuring, but when she looked over at the tub, Alyssa sagged with disappointment. “Damnit, not again!” she cursed aloud. 

The water was red.

Stomping as she crossed back to twist the taps off again, Alyssa stifled an urge to kick the tub, knowing it would only result in a broken toe. “Stupid rusted pipes. Getting what I paid for, I guess.” She tried the hot water again, but it was clear. The cold was the problem: it flowed richly, darkly tinted, the flakes of rust swirling like clots of blood around the drain.

Alyssa turned it on full-force to flush the pipe. When it was finally clear, she let the tub drain fully, wiped it down with an already-stained old towel, and then started the whole process of finding her temperature again. 

By the time she stepped out, freshened and dripping, the sun was no longer shining through the stained glass. She realized with dismay that because she still wasn’t quite used to living alone, she’d forgotten to leave a light on downstairs again.

The bathroom was suddenly a bastien of safety, warmth and light, even with the awful red stain around the white tub. And the way the red stoplights at the intersection nearby gleamed through the sections of coloured glass, the window evenly partitioned like the iris of an eye. Suddenly Alyssa didn’t want to stay there, either. A shiver crawled up her spine, a half-remembered moment from a childhood sleepover. Something about Mary in the bathroom, and what you’d see in the mirror if you said her name three times. 

Alyssa avoided looking in the mirror. She snatched her bathrobe off the back of the door, gripped the doorknob, and took a breath.

“Stop it with the overactive imagination, Lyss,” she told herself, firmly. “It’s just nighttime. Nobody in the house but you. There’s no such thing as — as that.”

But there was the dollhouse, sitting in the darkness of her kitchen, its rows of empty windows staring out like dead eyes in the face of a skull . . .

Ashamed of herself, Alyssa vowed never to tell anyone that she was a big scared baby in her own home. She opened the door a crack, her hand faltering on the knob, and reached a finger out just enough to hit the light switch in the hallway. Her heart beat faster at the thought that something might brush her finger back, or be still visible in the light, but —

“I’m an adult!” she cried out. She swung the door open and stepped into the hallway.

Of course, it was empty. 

Retying her belt with emphasis, Alyssa jutted her chin high and marched down her stairs to make a cup of tea. And turn the rest of the lights on.

The white shell of the dollhouse was only creepy for the short time it took her to locate the switches on each of her living room lamps, but she studiously looked the other way, even averting her eyes when she walked past it into the kitchen. With the steady glow of electric light passing through its open, curtainless windows, they no longer looked quite so freakish. Alyssa filled her kettle and set it to boil, and then perched on her counter, one foot propped on a nearby chair, contemplating what to do with it next.

“I could always cover you with a sheet for the night,” she said to the dollhouse. “But picture you with light glowing through the windows and the sheet — kind of a reverse Caspar. Not sure about that. What if I come down for a midnight snack later, and I’ve forgotten you’re there? Big hulking white sheet in the middle of my kitchen, that’s going to give me a heart attack.” Alyssa shook her head, hopped back down from the counter, and went across to the pantry cupboard to choose her tea. 

Once there, she paused, her hand outstretched over the boxes of orange pekoe and lavender and chamomile. “That’s funny, I smell roses. But I don’t have any rosehips.” Alyssa turned around and saw a few dried petals on the floor. Realizing they’d fallen from the dollhouse and she’d stepped on them, she suddenly had a wonderful idea. “Oh, that’s PERFECT!”

Ignoring the faint warning whistle of the tea kettle, she dashed back up the stairs to the second bedroom, where she had some souvenirs from family events in a box. Among them was an old throwing bouquet from a cousin’s wedding, made of large silk flowers like peonies and daisies. She snatched it up and rushed back down to the kitchen, where she rescued the kettle before holding the lei up to the dollhouse’s windows.

“That is cool,” she told herself praisingly. The peony petals were long and wide enough to cover the windows like curtains, and their pale pink shades seemed to compliment the old-world paint textures. “Maybe with some glue, or tacks . . .”

Alyssa poured her tea, contemplating the best way to turn silk flowers into curtains that would fill the empty eyes of the soulless dollhouse.

More creepy dollhouse story: setting the stage

When she finally cleared the dead and dying brush away from the dollhouse, Alyssa was surprised to see that it was, by and large, intact. The miniature Colonial had stout walls and the shutters had real, tiny hinges that squeaked when she tested them. The doorhandle was tarnished, suggesting that it was real brass, and as if that wasn’t unusual enough — she’d expected it to be rounded, like a pin-head — the miniscule latch on the handle worked, too. 

Someone had taken great care to build the toy. Alyssa didn’t have the heart to put it out by the curb, without any other reason than it was still a bit spoooky. It only smelled a little mildewy, and when she lifted it out of the earth to turn it around, there was zero evidence of live creepy-crawlies. A few old webs swung from the eaves, festooned with tiny bug corpses, and she thought she recognized spider nests by the chimney. But they weren’t problematic. Just gross.

In fact, she was less disgusted by it than fascinated, particularly in the remains of the doll furniture that shifted and slid around as she awkwardly set the thing down on the grass to get a better grip. Crouching on the damp ground, careful of the wet dead leaves, she found the latch to open the back side of the house and swung the wall open. “Maybe there’re some old antiques in here worth something to a dealer,” she muttered, craning her neck to peer inside. “What shape they’d be in, though . . .”

Instead of gnawed old walnut four-posters and moth-eaten upholstery, however, Alyssa saw to her great surprise  bed-sitters marvellously crafted from twigs and twine, their bedspreads of downy feathers fallen to the floor with the movement of the house. A sink made from an acorn top rested on what looked like a mushroom pedestel, although she didn’t think that could be possible. A flat stone, the kind she’d use to skip across a lake, had been balanced on frame of crossed twigs fashioned like the beds, but it had fallen and damaged its perch when she’d lifted the thing. She also saw to her great astonishment several cross-stitched and twig-framed samplers no bugger than her fingernail, some of which were still attached to the walls.

“Wow,” she said, sitting back. “Didn’t expect that.”

She poked a skillfully designed twig rocking chair, and noticed little trails of dirt down the first floor hallway and in the kitchen. In fact, there looked to be a wad of bulrush silk or goose down or something soft by the front door, markedly dirty and matted down in the middle. She supposed it could be a mouse nest, but it was curious that there were no droppings around it. “Poor thing, you probably got snapped up by some owl or a neighbourhood fox before you got to finishing it. Or a cat, those things are like serial killers.” Alyssa clicked her tongue, shaking her head. 

Closing the wall back up, she debated what to do. 

It was a darling thing, really. It just needed a fresh coat of paint, maybe some wallpaper samples and some cloth remnants to make it worth more than a week on the curb. Possibly the junk of her backyard could become someone else’s treasure . . .

Then Alyssa remembered that it wasn’t actually her backyard. She was just a renter, after all. What if this had belonged to the previous tenant, and she (or he, to be politically correct, she reminded herself) had not had time to come back for it? Life had a way of interfering in stuff like that. Maybe some little girl was begging her mom or dad to go back to the house before the winter buried it (never mind that the thing looked as though it had been there for several winters, or longer than that, even). 

Better to be safe and build a good relationship with the landlord than to be sorry, Alyssa decided. She picked the dollhouse up again, bending her knees with the awkwardness of the load, and carried it into the house.