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Mistress Mary

By Caren Hahn

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“You’re exaggerating. It can’t possibly be that bad.”

“Says the guy who’s on the other side of the country. You have no idea. I don’t think she’s ever thrown anything away in her life. Every toy from her childhood. Every moth-eaten blanket and afghan that she’s ever made. Every gift she’s ever been given.”

“Hey, those could be priceless heirlooms.”

“They could be if they weren’t stamped with Made in China. You wouldn’t even believe what I found yesterday.”


“Doll parts. Like dozens, maybe even hundreds, of doll heads, arms, legs, the works.”

“Yeah, my mom was really into making dolls when my sisters were little.”

“But that was what, like forty years ago? What is she going to do with all these dismembered doll parts? It’s weird. Face it, your mom’s a hoarder.”

Stan sighed on the other end of the line. “Whatever, Mona. Just see if you can get her to hold an auction or something. Then she could earn some money out of the deal and I’ll buy her something really nice.”

“No. You are not allowed to buy her anything. Ever. I am not wading through a lifetime of crap in order to keep it out of my house, just to have her move in and fill it up with new stuff.”

“Come on, Mona. Think how she must feel. Only widowed a year and having to sell the old place. It can’t be easy for her to leave the house she’s lived in for fifty years and have to move in with her son. Let her keep some sentimental stuff, even if you and I know it’s just crap.”

Now it was Mona’s turn to sigh. She leaned her head back against the bed and closed her eyes. She was sitting on the floor of the little guest room, leaning against the old brass bed. From there she was out of sight of the door and was reasonably sure if she kept her voice low enough that she wouldn’t be overheard. Plus, she could look out the window over the river. It was her favorite view of the 20-acre property where Stan had grown up as a child. It was so peaceful and idyllic. So unlike her own childhood spent in foster care being passed around from family to family. When she’d met Stan, his parents and two sisters living in this farmhouse seemed like something out of a made-for-tv family movie. She didn’t think real people lived that way and had fallen in love with the dream as much as she had the man.

But now, fifteen years later and faced with the prospect of Cynthia moving in with them, the dream-like quality of her new family was feeling a lot more like a nightmare.

“Mona? You still there?”

“Yeah. I’ll see what I can do. I’m just so tired, Stan. We work from sunup to sundown sorting through closets and rooms full of junk, box after box. If it were just me, I’d toss it all. But she won’t let me. So it takes hours to go through a single box and in the end, she makes me put it all back and insists we keep everything. We haven’t even started on the garage or the shop! I just don’t know how long I can do this.”

“You’re an angel, Mona, you know that? I know she can be stubborn, but I’m sure she’ll see after a while that some of it has to go. Just be patient with her.”

A knock sounded on the door. “Mona, you in there?”

“Gotta go, Stan,” Mona murmured. “She needs me.”

Cynthia waited out in the hall, a pie in her hands. The crust was beautifully tipped with golden brown and looked so flaky that Mona’s mouth watered just looking at it.

“June and her daughter brought this by. Wasn’t that nice? I taught June in school when she was little. She’s always been so kind to me,” Cynthia said. Her blue eyes shone with gratitude. Mona felt a stab of pity. What would it be like to live in the same place for almost fifty years and suddenly lose your husband, your house, and all your friends in a forced move across the country? Mona couldn’t imagine it. She’d never lived in the same place for longer than four or five years. But looking into Cynthia's eyes, she saw bittersweet loss, and she knew Stan was right. She needed kindness and patience. Deserved it.

Kindly, she took the pie from Cynthia's wrinkled hands. “That was very nice of them. Would you like me to cut you a piece? I’m starving. Those pot pies didn’t do much to fill me up.”

They’d been living off of frozen food for the past two weeks. Mona wasn’t much of a cook anyway, and there was no way she had any energy left at the end of each day for something so tedious as making dinner.

Cynthia smiled, all yellowed teeth and yellowed skin. “Don’t use the boring everyday pie cutters. See if you can find the sterling silver set from my 40th anniversary. This pie deserves special treatment!”

Mona squared her shoulders and went in search of the special pie cutter. There were stainless steel, tupperware, silicon, and two sets that looked like sterling silver. But none of them were right. Cynthia got increasingly agitated with each rejected cutter.

“Where could that set be? Paul gave it to me for our 40th wedding anniversary. It was special, engraved with our names.”

Soon Mona found herself digging through boxes in the bedroom, boxes under the stairs, and boxes in the attic.

The attic reminded Mona of a fairytale cottage bedroom. The ceiling slanted low, perfect for a child, and windows on each end let in an abundance of bright yellow sunlight. Built in cupboards on either wall housed fabric and craft supplies, enough to clothe a small army, Mona guessed. This had been Cynthia's sewing room when her hands had been steady enough for sewing.

As Mona looked quickly through the cupboards, hoping to see a box labeled, “40th Anniversary present” or some such useful title, feeble steps sounded on the stairs. She looked up in time to see Cynthia pulling herself up the last step, leaning on the wall for support.

“You shouldn’t be up here, Cynthia. Those stairs are too steep.”

“I’m sure I can find it. It’s got to be up here somewhere.” Cynthia shuffled through the boxes and piles of detritus littering the wooden floor. She stumbled against a curtain rod and Mona gasped, reaching out to catch her. “I’m fine,” Cynthia chided. “You’re too worried about me, always hovering and not letting me do anything.”

She waved Mona away and reached a shaking hand toward the nearest cupboard. Mona bit back a retort and turned back to her search. The summer sun was low in the sky outside, making the white walls blaze with gold. Mona was about to suggest — not for the first time — that they give up their search and use one of the dozen other pie cutters downstairs, when Cynthia gasped.

“Look at this!” She pulled out a large rectangular box made of thin cardboard. The lid was torn and smashed but Cynthia lifted it carefully as if it were a priceless treasure.

I really don’t care
, Mona wanted to say. One more thing you’ll want to keep. But she found herself looking out of curiosity anyway.

Cynthia reached into the box and lovingly withdrew a large porcelain doll.

Mona stifled a groan of revulsion. The doll was ancient, that much was clear. But not in the sweet way of precious antiques. Its hair was missing in patches. The skin was mottled and gray like a corpse. Her lace dress was yellowed with age and ragged. And her smiling lips looked purple and bruised. But her eyes. Her eyes prickled the skin on the back of Mona’s neck. Whatever color her irises had been had since turned milky white.

Cynthia stared at the doll with an enamored expression. “This was my first doll. Her name was Mistress Mary. Like the nursery rhyme, you know?”

Mona didn’t. “You sure her name isn’t Tiffany?” she asked drily.

Cynthia just looked at her confused. “No, it’s Mary.” Then she murmured in a sing-song tone, “Mistress Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” Her voice sounded hollow and eerie and in the stillness that followed, the sun dropped below the horizon and the light in the room faded, bringing a chill on the breeze.

“I’m telling you, it’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen!” Mona whispered into the phone. “You’re sure you’ve never seen it before? She says she’s had it since she was a little girl. Mistress Mary?”

“Look, babe. You’ve had a long day. It’s almost 2:00 here and I’ve got to get to sleep. Go to bed, get some rest, and I’m sure you’ll laugh about this in the morning.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You didn’t see your mom’s face. It’s like this doll is the most beautiful thing in the world, not some prop from Little Shop of Horrors. I tried to make a Bride of Chucky joke but it totally went over her head.”

Stan yawned. “You’re surprised my mom doesn’t watch slasher films?”

Mona felt a twinge of irritation. “You know what, forget it. I’m going to go to bed. But tomorrow I’m sending you a picture and then we’ll see how well you sleep at night.”

She hung up and tossed her phone on the bed. The breeze coming in through the window was sweet with the smell of summer-baked fields, but oddly cold for July. She dug through her suitcase for a sweatshirt and grabbed her toothbrush.

She turned off the lamp so as to not disturb Cynthia sleeping across the hall. Cynthia slept lightly and just the light coming under the crack of her door was enough to wake her. It was almost midnight and Mona didn’t want to be rude.

Carefully, she opened her bedroom door without making any noise and stepped out. A haunted face and sightless eyes greeted her.

Mona jumped and covered her mouth to stifle a yelp. “What the — ?” The hallway was faintly lit by moonlight filtered through a curtained window at the end of the hall. Mistress Mary rested against the wall, staring at Mona’s bedroom. Cynthia must have left it propped here when she went to bed. Why didn’t she leave it back up in the attic?

The doll stood almost three feet high, the size of a small child. Its milky white eyes stared at Mona, and the skin looked even more mottled than in daylight. The smiling lips looked black in the moonlight.

“I’m sure you were lovely once, but now you’re a freaking terror,” Mona whispered, and she grabbed the doll and turned her around to face the wall. “No offense.”

Mona glanced over her shoulder as she continued to the bathroom. Mistress Mary looked like a child standing in the corner like some Norman Rockwell painting. If Norman Rockwell painted demon children dressed in tatters and standing in shadowy hallways at night.

When she left the bathroom a few minutes later, she looked immediately for Mistress Mary. But it was gone.

Mona paused. Had Cynthia gotten up while she was in the bathroom? All was quiet in Cynthia’s room. Mona stepped cautiously into the hallway.

Maybe Cynthia had awakened when Mona went into the bathroom, seen that she’d turned the doll around, gotten offended, and taken Mistress Mary into her room with her.

Maybe Cynthia liked sleeping with psycho dolls.

Mona paused at Cynthia’s door. “Cynthia?” she said in a loud whisper.

There was no response. But as she stood there absolutely silent, she could feel rather than hear faint snoring coming from the other side of the door.

Maybe Cynthia was faking. Maybe Cynthia was a hilarious prankster.

Mona sighed. This was ridiculous. She needed some sleep. Everything would be better in daylight.

She went into her room and closed the door. Without bothering to turn on the lamp, she slipped into bed and plugged in her phone. But when the screen from her phone lit up to charge, it illuminated a shape mere inches from the bedside table.

Mona swore and fumbled with her phone to turn on the flashlight, heart pounding. Mistress Mary smirked at her, its ghostly white eyes seeming to see right through her. She half expected the doll to raise its hand, gripping a gleaming kitchen knife. But it just stood there, unblinking.

“That’s it,” Mona muttered. She threw back the quilt and grabbed the doll. It was large and heavier than she expected, and just the weight of it demanded to be held close to her body. Snuggled.

With revulsion she held it awkwardly out in front of her, trying not to touch it more than she had to. She moved through the dark house, around the boxes and piles of furniture (just how many dining sets did one person need?) until she reached the attic stairs.

Mistress Mary stared at her as she carried it up the stairs and thrust it into a cupboard. Mona glanced over her shoulder twice before she reached the stairs again, but the cupboard door remained closed.

Still, she hurried down the stairs as fast as she could. Once inside her bedroom, she locked the door with trembling hands and jumped into her bed, pulling the quilt up over her head.

You’re like a little kid
, she scolded herself. You’ve gotten yourself freaked out over nothing. But still her heart pounded and her breathing was loud in her own ears. With great effort, she tried to calm herself down. It’s just a doll. Creepy, yes, but creepy dolls don’t kill people. Not in real life. I’m here in Stan’s old childhood home. This old house filled with who knows what kind of secrets. Miles away from anyone else. With only a crazy old lady to hear me if I scream. No one to come to the rescue.

Self talk wasn’t helping.

Mona reached for her phone. Stan would be mad if she woke him up. But she had to talk to him. She needed him to reassure her that she was just letting her imagination run wild. She needed to talk to another person who could help her laugh at herself and the doll.

The phone lit up as a blank gray screen.

Of course, now it updates the operating system.

Well, she’d just wait. She certainly wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. She’d wait with her phone clutched in her hands, and as soon as it finished updating, she’d call Stan.

A faint thump sounded from somewhere in the house. Mona sat up, ears straining. Had Cynthia fallen out of bed? Pulse racing, Mona looked at the door. If Cynthia had fallen and needed help….

After a long minute, she heard the sound again. Only this time it definitely sounded like it was coming from the attic.

Get a grip, Mona. There’s no one in the attic.

Except that there was. She had put it there herself.


This time Mona could have sworn it came from the kitchen. She tried to push away thoughts of a deranged doll grabbing a butcher knife. It was probably just Cynthia. Surely it was Cynthia. Just getting a drink of water.

Heart pounding in her throat, Mona gripped her phone tighter. But the screen was still gray.

A scratching sound like something being dragged down the hallway.

“Cynthia?” Mona called out. Her voice sounded high and tinged with hysteria.

There was no answer. Only the dragging sound getting closer.

Mona tucked her legs beneath her, and reached for the lamp. But in her desperation she knocked it off the table and it fell to the floor with the loud crash of breaking glass.

The noise reverberated through the house and Mona held her breath. For several long minutes she held perfectly still, listening.

Scratch. Something scraped against her bedroom door.

The doorknob rattled.

Mona’s eyes widened but she couldn't seem to make herself move.

“Mona, are you okay?” Cynthia's voice sounded muffled through the door. “Did something break in there?”

Mona let out her breath with relief. “Yeah, I knocked over the lamp. Sorry to wake you.” She congratulated herself that her voice didn't quaver. She slipped out of bed and hurried to unlock the door, giving the broken lamp a wide berth.

Cynthia stood in the hallway, moonlight falling on her flannel nightgown and illuminating her white hair like a halo. Shadows fell across her face, making her wrinkles sag and accentuating dark pouches under her eyes. Mona held the door between them, still feeling the residue of fear clinging to her.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” she repeated. “I’ll clean it up in the morning.”

“All right then. Just making sure you’re okay.”

I’ll be okay when I burn that creepy doll of yours tomorrow,
Mona thought. But she just said, “Thanks. I’ll see you in the morning,” as Cynthia turned to go back to her room.

Cynthia closed the door behind her and Mona moved to do the same. But as she did, a trace of a shadow caught the corner of her eye. Something stood just out of sight around the corner of the hallway, casting a shadow from the kitchen window. Something that hadn't been there earlier.

A figure the size of a child.

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About Caren Hahn

Caren Hahn writes relationship dramas in a variety of genres. With deeply empathetic characters and richly layered plots, readers of her fiction will enjoy an emotionally resonant experience—and have some fun along the way!

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