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Aunt Sicily died. She was my wife's great-aunt and last surviving relative. My wife, Emily's parents died in a car accident when she was a freshman in college. It was then that she reached out and began communicating with Sicily.
Sicily was old even then and something of an eccentric. She lived alone on a ten acre plot of unincorporated land about seventy miles south of Pendleton. She was a spinster who devoted her time to watching her stories, as she called them, and making dolls that she would donate to terminally ill children.
Emily and I married soon after graduation and used her remaining life insurance money for a down payment on a small house here in Portland. During that time, Emily would call Sicily a couple times a month and regularly send care packages which contained everything from simple necessities to materials for her dolls. For all I knew, that was the extent of their relationship. I had offered to drive us out to visit her on more than one occasion, but she always demurred, making some excuse or other about how it wasn't a good time. I soon stopped offering.
Over time, Sicily began showing signs of dementia. It started small, often with her repeating the same story or asking the same question two or three times in succession. It was a slow descent at first that soon began to snowball. On more than one occasion, I'd catch Emily crying after talking to her.
“She's perfectly normal at first, then she starts talking about those damn dolls!” she'd explain. “Mr. Stringy is being feisty," or "Mr. Stringy won't stop bothering Ralphie.” Ralphie was Sicily's dog. He'd wandered onto her property one day and decided to stay. He filled his days hunting rabbits, or stealing Sicily's spools of thread only to vomit them up later, hence the name.
Occasionally, my wife would call Sicily repeatedly without an answer. That's when things would get really tense around the house. Being unable to reach her, Emily would then call the local sheriff to do a welfare check. He'd drive out to Sicily's property and find her confused and disoriented. I urged my wife to put her in a home, but she said that Sicily wouldn't have it and that there was nothing we could do to make her go.
When Sicily failed to pick up the phone after two days of incessant calling, my stomach sank. The sheriff called us later that day to inform us that Aunt Sicily had passed away. He gave Emily his condolences. Emily spent the rest of the day on the phone making arrangements. As it turned out, Sicily had prepared for everything in advance, so there was little to do. She had requested and prepaid for a cremation, asking only that her ashes be spread on her land and naming my wife as her sole heir.
“We should go out there,” I told her that night. I could tell she was hesitant, but I felt it was important.
“They can mail anything that I need to sign,” she said. “Besides, she explicitly said that she didn't want a memorial, so there's no point.”
I spent the next day doing my best to convince her. I told her she'd regret not going, she was family and was nice enough to leave the land to us. She finally relented and we left the next morning. We didn't know where we would stay, so we packed our camping gear and food as a precaution.
That afternoon, after a few wrong turns, we pulled off at a gas station to ask for directions. Inside the mini-mart, we found the Sheriff who had stopped in for a cup of coffee. He said he was glad someone came out for Sicily, it was a shame the way she lived alone like that. He gave us directions, pointing out the landmarks to look for as most of the roads were unmarked.
On our way out, he pulled me aside and gave me a pained look.
“You're not planning on seeing her, are you?” He asked, doing his vest to avoid making eye contact.
“I don't think so, at least my wife didn't say anything about that,” I answered.
“Well, this isn't something I'd bring up in front of a lady, but she was there for a while before we found her. She was just so remote.” He stammered. “Look,” he finally said, “I don't want to upset you, but something had gotten to her body before we did . . . probably rodents— well, she was chewed up pretty good.”
He leaned in close and whispered “They got her eyes. It's best that you don't see her like that.”
I was speechless. I nodded to the Sheriff and wandered to the car in a daze. It was only a short drive to Sicily's home, but we never would have found it by ourselves. The whole area was a confused grid of dirt roads. Pulling up, we found a dilapidated double-wide set among a field of debris. The place looked like the beginnings of a landfill. We exited the car and after a brief survey of our surroundings, I knew why my Emily hadn't been keen to visit.
“This was a mistake,” she said, “let's go home.”
I was thinking the same thing, but we had already arrived and I still thought it that the trip was the right thing to do.
“It's getting late,” I told her, “I don't think we should be driving on these roads at night. Why don't we spend the night and we'll leave in the morning.” I could tell she wasn't happy, but she agreed.
We decided to explore the trailer to see if there were any loose ends that needed to be tied up. I have to admit that I was hoping to find some long forgotten valuables, but kept that part to myself. The door was unlocked and upon opening it, we were hit with a stench that nearly knocked us to our feet. It was a potpourri of rotting food, garbage, and stale air. We stood at the doorway for a while, hoping it would air out, but it didn't.
Once we braved our way in, the smell was obvious. The entire trailer was strewn with piles of garbage. Stacks of newspaper and magazines sat on top of old food containers, the detritus of a hoarder. The kitchen was full of dirty dishes all with food in various forms of decay. Once I adjusted to the stench and filth, I noticed the dolls. They were everywhere. They were large soft dolls that she had sewn together from various types of fabric complete with button eyes and hand stitched smiles.
It wasn't just the multitude but the fact that the dolls had all been posed in various still lifes. Four were seated at the kitchen table with rotting food set neatly before them, I found one perched casually on the sofa watching television and even one in the bath donning a shower cap. Everywhere you turned, you were greeted by a blank stare and dumb smile.
“We shouldn't have come,” Emily said, clutching my arm. She was right. I wanted her to find comfort here, not the realization that her last relative had lived in squalor and neglect.
We slowly made our way through each room. I was keeping an eye out for buried treasure, scanning the piles of refuse for anything that might be of value. Venturing into a narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms, we found something entirely different. Dolls lined the hallway, some missing limbs—all of them mutilated to some degree. In the guest bedroom we found one with a pair of sewing shears sticking from its forehead and yet another impaled with a fireplace poker. It was as if we had wandered onto the scene of a harlequin mob hit gone awry.
All those years of dismissing Sicily's erratic behavior as eccentric or a bit of dementia were betrayed by the face of mental illness. In the master bedroom, the sights were the same with the exception that the all the dolls in this room were all missing their eyes. If you looked close, you could see loose threads dangling from imaginary sockets; the telltale signs of trauma. An overturned bookcase blocked most of the floor of the bedroom, forcing us to walk across the bed to make it to the other side.
It was there, that I spied a large trunk set against the wall. It looked to be antique and possibly the only thing of any value in the trailer. I tried to lift the lid, but it was locked. I thought about forcing it open, but decided against it for fear of looking insensitive in front of my grieving wife. We were walking back across the bed to leave the room when I noticed a large old fashioned key on the nightstand. Not thinking, I picked it up and returned to the trunk. The key was a match and an instant later I had the lid lifted open. I was expecting to find a stockpile of cash or at least a family keepsake, but found only a doll.
It was soft like the others and large at about forty inches tall. It had red yarn for hair and ebony buttons for eyes. But instead of a stitched smile, it had large red lips sewn to it that gave it a wry smirk. I lifted the doll and showed it to my wife who was on the other side of the room.
She flinched when she laid eyes on the doll. “That's Mr. Stringy,” she said.
“He's the one she was always going on about?” I asked. She nodded.
“Do you want to keep him?” I asked, but she just shook her head. “Put it back,” she said, “I don't want that thing in our house.” I put the doll down like she asked then we waded our way back through the carnage to the car.
The sun was already beginning to set, so we pitched our tent and prepared to camp for the night. I made a small fire and we sat down to eat some sandwiches and enjoy a bottle of wine. Before long it was pitch black out and you could no longer see the trailer from where we were camped.
“I'm sorry,” I finally said, breaking the silence. “If I had known, I never would have suggested we come out here.” Emily nodded, peering solemnly into her glass of wine.
“I came to terms with it, you know.” she finally said. “My parents, I mean. That was a long time ago and I dealt with that.”
“I know you did,” I said; “I know you did.”
We stared blankly at the fire for a while longer before climbing into the tent. The air was still and quiet, save the occasional crackle of the fire. Once settled in the tent, we laid silently, drifting off to sleep when suddenly Emily broke the silence:
“She was an outcast, you know.”
“I know,” I answered.
“No, I mean it wasn't her choice, my great-grandparents abandoned her. Mom told me that once. She said that before my grandma was born, Sicily had another sister who was only a year younger. I guess their parents always favored the younger sister and pretty much ignored Sicily. That's why Sicily started making dolls, so she'd have friends to play with.
It wasn't long after she made Mr. Stringy that the younger sister got really sick and was bedridden. My mom didn't really know the details, but she said that the younger sister later died and the parents blamed Sicily. Sicily insisted it was Mr. Stringy's fault and that it was an accident. They sent Sicily away and my grandma grew up thinking she was an only child.”
I had never met Aunt Sicily but after hearing that story and seeing the trailer she'd lived in for so many years, the tragedy of it all made my heart sink. She'd spent her entire life alone, spending her time making dolls for sick children.
I was lost in thought only to be brought back by the sound of sniffing. “Do you hear that?” I whispered. I could hear Emily nodding in the darkness. The sound grew louder until it was right outside the tent. The walls of the tent trembled as something began to scratch at the nylon. We laid there, paralyzed and trapped. I reminded myself to seriously rethink my stance on gun ownership if we survived this.
I grabbed the flashlight tightly and got to my knees. I tried to look brave for Emily, but I'm sure she saw my hands shaking. “Look,” I finally said, “It's probably a coyote and I've never heard of one attacking a human. If we just make some noise, I'm sure it will run away.”
We counted to three and broke out yelling and hitting the sides of the tent. It went quiet for a moment then we heard the sound of something whimpering outside. It went on for a minute or two until it was too much to bear. “I'm going to take a look,” I said, arming myself with a plastic flashlight while I unzipped the door. I craned my neck out of the tent to see a dog, whimpering there in the darkness.
“It's just a dog,” I said.
“It's Ralphie,” Emily said, opening the tent flap wider. Stood before us was the most pathetic dog I'd ever seen. He was shivering in the cold and the ribs poking through his matted coat suggested he hadn't eaten for days. He swayed his head from side to side, revealing that one of his eyes was caked shut with dried blood.
I got up from the tent and tried to approach him, but he kept his distance, whimpering and swaying his head to watch with his good eye. I poured some water and put out some lunch meat which he greedily devoured. We watched him eat and I turned to see the tears streaming down Emily's cheeks. She patted Ralphie on the head and crawled back into the tent. I followed her and a minute later Ralphie scratched at the door. We exchanged looks and I relented, unzipping the flap to let him in. He looked us up and down a last time before curling up to sleep at our feet.
“Thank you,” Emily said.
“He smells worse than the trailer,” I replied.
I don't think either of us slept that night. Every time I would come close to dozing off, I'd get jolted awake by the sound of crashing. Sometimes it sounded like metal, sometimes the sound of dishes breaking, only I couldn't determine if it was real or just a dream.
“Did you hear that?” Emily finally asked.
“It's just racoons, they must have made their way into the trailer.” I said, trying to sound convincing.
“Raccoons laugh?” she asked.
“You heard laughing?”
“That's what it sounded like, children laughing.”
“Well, raccoons have shrill calls, I guess it could sound like laughter,” I said, hoping it was true.
I strained my ears but could not hear anything other than the sound of our breathing. Slowly, the tent started to grow lighter.
“The sun's coming up,” I said pulling myself up.
“Let's go now,” Emily replied.
We sat up and got out from under our sleeping bags. Ralphie was still sound asleep. “What are we going to do with him?” I asked. Emily answered that we could decide that later, but that we couldn't just leave him. I shook him and called his name. I kept shaking him, but he wouldn't budge. He was cold.
I looked at my wife and saw tears welling in her eyes. We climbed over him and out of the tent where we were surprised to see it was still night out. The light was coming from the trailer that was now engulfed in flames. We approached, but were stopped dead in our tracks by the sounds of screaming.
“Someone's in there,” my wife said frantically.
“No one is in there, we're in the middle of nowhere. You'd need a car to get out here and there aren't any cars around.”
“So it's raccoons?”
“There were a lot of things in that trailer,” I said. “I don't know, but I'm sure there's no one in here.”
I went to the tent to get our backpacks, but Emily stopped me. “Leave it,” she said, “It's time to go.”
We drove straight back to Portland without saying a word.
I was at home a few weeks later when the mailman came to our door with a package. At first, I assumed that Emily had ordered something from the internet, but was disabused of that notion when I saw the return address.
“Who was it?” she called from the kitchen.
“Umm, no one, just someone selling something.” I muttered.
I stole myself to the bathroom, package in hand. Once the door was locked behind me, I opened it to find Mr. Stringy peering up at me through his button eyes and wearing the same wry smirk. A note fell from the open package. It was from the Sheriff. It said that he found the doll in perfect shape, just a few steps from the trailer. The rest was a total loss. He said he was sorry for our loss and to contact him if we had any questions.
Without hesitating, I put Mr. Stringy into the bathroom trash and emptied everything into the bin outside. I didn't want to upset Emily, but to be honest, the sight of that doll just stirred memories I would sooner forget.
That wasn't the last I would see of him. I spotted him clutched tightly in the arms of a wheelchair bound girl at the mall.
Months later, I saw him again in the arms of a blind boy grocery shopping with his mom. I approached them, trying to warn them, but ended up rambling like a mad man. The mother reproached me, telling me to mind my own business. I insisted, but it was no use. She grabbed her son by the shoulder and abruptly turned away.
I watched as the two marched away, the boy made his way carefully with Mr. Stringy flopping over his shoulder, his ebony eyes looking right at me. I know I was in a state, but I swear I saw Mr. Stringy's plush red lips part, revealing a grotesque smile of yellow fang-like teeth.