My grandmother died a few weeks back at the ripe old age of 85, passing away peacefully in her sleep. By all accounts, she lived a damn good life, and I tried my very best to make it so. Lord knows she did the same for me. This has been a difficult post for me to write. You see, when a treasured loved one dies, especially one that you grew up with, the little solar system of your life is thrown completely out of orbit. Not that mine was ever all that stable in the first place.
My parents died in a car accident when I was two years old, and I was a little too young at the time to fully absorb the emotional impact of being orphaned. When the prospect of being put into the foster system was brought up by the family lawyer, grandma took me in without a second thought. Her home was our home; it's where I built my childhood.
Honestly, you’d never meet a more charitable woman than my grandma. From the second I came into her life, all the way up to her death (and even beyond) she’s provided for me without fail.
Another interesting thing about grandma is the fact she was mute. I'm not talking about selective mutism here, I'm talking full-blown, constant silence. I've known that woman for my entire 32 years of life, and while I got used to it within a few months, to some it seems crazy that I never heard a word from her.
Of course, we had our own ways of communicating back then. I picked up sign language pretty quickly, as kids tend to, and she always used to write on this little chalk board for me. I thought it was awfully cute at the time.
I got a call from her lawyer a few days after she passed, telling me she’d left her entire estate to me in her will. It doesn't matter how well you know a person, that kind of thing always hits you deep: everything that wasn't covered by her donor card now belonged to me.
A week or two passed, some papers were signed, and money changed hands. The wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly as ever, as my grandma’s possessions became my possessions, and some eager patients became happy recipients of grandma’s remarkably healthy liver, kidneys, and lungs.
Like I said, she was the giving type.
The home was an old Georgian place: two storeys, three bedrooms, and a well-maintained garden. I felt like a kid who just got a pony for Christmas. The problem was, I’m not a rich enough guy to pay the rent on an apartment and a house, and I’m not such a heartless bastard that I’d immediately sell my childhood home either – especially on this bipolar property market.
I was speaking to a good friend of mine about it over a few drinks, and it was his idea to convert it into a rental property. I mulled it over when I was sober, of course, but my office job wasn't going anywhere, so I decided that being a landlord might be a welcome change of pace.
That was when things started to go downhill.
I showed up at the house with all my supplies on Monday - my car full of paint, tools, and industrial-strength bin bags. It took me a few minutes to gather the strength to go in at first; this house had a lot of history for me. Good times, bad times, like I said, this was where I grew up, and grandma's death had made all the nostalgia taste bitter to me.
The faster I did it, I kept telling myself, the less it would hurt; it's like ripping off a bandaid. The place had barely changed since I moved out at 21, it felt like a picture, frozen in time, waiting for my return. I guess I granted its wish in that sense, it just didn't expect me to start tearing down the wallpaper.
I was methodical, going from room to room, watching scenes from my childhood replay in the theatre of the mind, before I started repainting and remodelling everything in sight.
God, I forgot how ancient the place looked. Grandma's sense of style never really left the seventies.
Once the first floor was bare and I'd dragged all the furniture onto the front lawn (my drinking buddies were suspiciously absent when I needed help with the heavy lifting) I had a break for lunch, and did some exploring.
The rooms upstairs were just like I remembered them. Grandma's room, and the bed she'd never again sleep in, was laid out neatly as ever. My room was just the same: covered in peeling Nirvana posters and bearing all the hallmarks of your garden-variety edgy nineties teenager.
When I left home I told her to turn it into a games room, or a quiet room where she could read her books, just something she could enjoy. I guess she never got around to it, or she expected me to come back some day. Tears were welling up in my eyes when I saw that her old chalkboard was lying on my bed, with "Welcome Home! :)" written on it.
The one room I hadn't yet checked was the attic. Back when I was a kid, I was never allowed up there. Grandma said - or rather, wrote - that it was too dangerous, so I stayed downstairs whenever she occasionally made her pilgrimage up the hallway stairs.
But grandma was dead, and I'm an adult. I figured that if the attic was big enough, I could convert it into a loft room and take on another lodger. It'd be more income if I was right, so it felt almost stupid to miss out.
Flashlight in hand, I made my way up the stairs into the attic. The bulbs up there were long since fucked, so my only source of light was the thin shard emitted by the flashlight. I'd never been a superstitious man, but something about the attic made me feel uneasy.
Naturally, at first I didn't see anything but old bags, boxes, and suitcases. I made a mental note to check those later, while I forged deeper into the surprisingly spacious attic. My eyes were on the money, and the chances of being able to install a room up here looked hopeful.
Then a shape got caught in the beam of my flashlight and I felt my heart skip a beat. It was shaped like a leg, a baby's leg, like it'd been ripped from the socket. I rushed over to take a closer look, and felt the greatest relief of my life when I realised it was plastic.
Shortly after that, a second wave of creep set in, because what was a plastic baby leg doing in my grandma's attic?
I picked it up and swept the area with my flashlight, until I caught something familiar in the corner. That didn't make it any less weird, though.
There were dolls. Hundreds of fucking dolls. Big, small, old, new, expensive, cheap. From porcelain dolls to Barbie dolls to American Girl dolls to Cabbage Patch dolls, all various sizes, shapes, materials, and colours. I almost dropped the flashlight when I saw all their dead eyes glaring at me, thinking my grandma was the next Rose West, until I realised that they were all fake. They were arranged in a big pile, like some kind of shrine.
When my heartbeat had normalised again I took a few steps closer, letting my flashlight cut through the gloom.
So my grandma had been collecting these all these years, and she never wanted me to see them?
Not a bad call, actually. They made me feel uncomfortable then, god knows what I'd have thought of them 20 years earlier.
While I'm sure they had a lot of sentimental value to my grandma, they sure as hell didn't have any to me. And I figured that no lodgers would want to stay in a home that seemed like some demented serial killer's person-sized dollhouse. They had to go, all of them.
I fetched some of the bin bags from my car and started packing up some of the smaller ones, just chipping away at Mt. Creepy bit by bit. The way grandma had stacked them didn't even leave them all visible, it was dolls on top of dolls, each one just as horrible as the last.
All except one.
I found her lurking underneath the others, her face buried in the back of a tatty rag doll. It was like she didn't want to be seen, or that my grandma didn't want me to find her. She was bigger than the rest, about the size of a four year old child but with slightly-off proportions. Her little, pinched-up face was moulded from rubber and plastic, and her long, black hair looked like fibre-optic tubing.
It's one of those things that's difficult to put into words, but something about her just repulsed me. Maybe it was those vacant blue eyes or the little silk dress that reminded me of those post-mortem photographs they took of children in the Victorian era. It all just felt eerie and wrong.
Reaching out to touch her, the flashlight clenched between my teeth, felt like I was reaching to grab a live tarantula.
She was a lot heavier than I expected her to be; the torch glare revealed all the tiny scratches and imperfections in the plastic, making her look even uglier. Another thing I noticed when the light was shining directly on her face was that while her mouth was closed, the rubber on her tiny, life-like lips wasn't sealed together. There was a black slit running between them.
I have never felt as disgusted in my entire life as I did when those little lips twitched, like something was moving behind her dead face. My initial thoughts were animatronics, like those dolls designed to suckle on little bottles when you put them in their mouths, but this doll looked way too old for that kind of technology.
So, being curious like a certain dead cat, I put my thumb on the doll's chin and gently slid open the mouth.
In the darkness, something was stirring.
The doll had a tongue - a human tongue, not just a severed piece of flesh rotting away in there, but a moving, wriggling, salivating tongue. It came bulging out past the lips, writhing lazily, before licking at my thumb. It was hot, damp, and stank of cigarettes.
I screamed, dropping the flashlight onto the ground, and hurled the doll at the wall.
I bolted through the darkness on memory alone, knocking over boxes and leaping over suitcases, before tumbling down the stairs in panic. I must have cleared the second floor faster than any human being alive, and sprang through the front door of the house, never looking back.
The front door was open and the lawn was still covered in furniture, but I didn't care. The home was out of the way anyway, if people made the effort to come down here they could take what they like. Fuck that doll. Fuck that house. I jammed the keys into the ignition and took off like a gunshot, leaving the neighbourhood at three times the legal speed limit.
It must sound crazy now, I know, but logic was the furthest thing from my mind. I tore my way home at eighty miles an hour, and didn't feel safe until I was in my flat, the door slammed and locked behind me.
I was hyperventilating for a little while. I threw up once, almost fainted twice. At the time I tried to justify it, assuming that maybe it was the fumes from all that cheap paint making me see things. Making me a little kooky. I'd been under so much stress lately, I'd gotten so little sleep, it's no wonder I'm imagining such ridiculous things!
Fear is exhausting, it takes a physical toll on you. Once the initial shockwaves had passed, I couldn't think about anything but sleep. God, I was so tired, I could barely stand.
Moments later I collapsed into bed, fully-clothed. I was asleep before I even realised.
Sleep wasn't much of a reprieve. I kept dreaming about that terrible doll, crawling over my paralysed body like a spider, dragging its warm, stinking tongue across my face. No matter how hard I tried, there was no pushing it from my mind - its little blue eyes were branded into my thoughts.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt like I'd taken a twelve-gauge blast to the face. My head throbbed, my skin burned. I just felt so itchy all over, like my bed had been swarming with fire ants.
Over time the itches became more localised. When I realised that I could feel it definitively on my forearm, I peeled back my sleeve to take a look. There was a patch of skin that'd gone hard and smooth, and I mean rigid - rock solid. It had an almost reflective quality to it where all the hair had somehow fallen out. The skin around it itched like hell, but when I went to touch the patch itself, I didn't feel anything.
I found more of these patches on my body when I inspected myself in the bathroom mirror. Those hard, reflective, feelingless patches. There was one on my inner thigh, one on my belly, two on my chest, and another on my left bicep. When I tried to peel one of the patches away, it just started bleeding - the patches weren't growing on my skin, the patches were my skin.
The next day, I had an appointment with my local GP about the issue. I stripped off in his office, letting him see the patches - a few more had grown on my legs since last time - and worst of all, he seemed equally baffled.
"I must admit, these are really quite extraordinary circumstances," he said, while trying and failing to cross-reference my symptoms against known diseases on the medical database, "I can't say I've personally seen anything like this before."
"Please, doctor," I pleaded with him, trying my best to stop myself from itching at the patches, "there's got to be something you can do for me. Something you can give me, maybe, like pills or an ointment."
He'd fallen silent, reading more small-type from the screen of his computer.
"Well, I can book you an appointment with a dermatologist."
"Great! When's the soonest he can see me?"
"Not until next week, I'm afraid."
"Next week? But doctor, I can't wait until next week."
"I'm afraid he doesn't have any appointments prior to Wednesday of next week. If you feel as though it escalates severely before then, contact A&E through the standard emergency number and the hospital will take care of you as best they can. I'm sorry, this is all I can offer."
Things got worse after that. I pencilled my date with the dermatologist onto my kitchen-wall calendar, but my skin condition was worsening. The patches were covering at least a third of my body by Wednesday, they'd grown on my legs, my arms, my ass, my back, my chest, my stomach, and they were even starting to grow on my face. I couldn't go into a well-lit room without patches of my skin shining.
It all came to a head on Wednesday night, as I stood before the bathroom mirror. A patch of shiny, hard skin was beginning to grow on my cheek, making it harder to move my face. I picked at the ragged edges of soft skin, wincing in pain while I did so, until I noticed a piece of loose skin sticking out from my face, just on the edge of the patch.
I grabbed it between my thumb and forefinger and started pulling, and a long swathe of translucent, soft skin peeled away from my face, revealing more rigid, reflective skin underneath.
A few seconds later, I vomited into the bathroom sink.
This was the last straw, it pushed me over the edge. The floodgates of rationality gave way to maddening truth: it was all that fucking doll, I had to put a stop to it. I had to know what the hell was going on with me.
I got into the car with a kitchen knife slid into my belt, and started driving towards grandma's house. It was foggy out, low visibility, real horror movie weather. I was too angry to be afraid, too shocked to be uneasy. Soon there was going to be more of that awful, plastic skin than there was real skin; I'd look like some perverse shop-window mannequin.
The furniture was still all over the front garden when I arrived, the front door was still wide open. Nothing had been touched. Frozen. A picture. Waiting just for me.
I have to do it fast, I thought. If I do it fast it'll hurt less, like ripping off a bandaid.
Christ, Déjà vu.
I stormed through the front door and barged upstairs, knife in one hand and flashlight in the other. My footsteps slowed as I trudged through the second floor towards the attic stairs, the fear and trepidation was setting in. It felt palpable, like it was squeezing me.
Or maybe that was just my skin.
The attic, like everything else, was just the same as I left it. The bastard doll was still there too, I could see it very faintly, its face to the ground, its body crumpled in the corner where I threw it. Where it belonged.
I held the flashlight in my teeth again and headed over to the doll, remembering its bizarre weight. I grabbed it by the scruff of its dirty silk dress and yanked it up into my arms. Once again, the harsh light was shining directly into the doll's face.
Oh dear god.
The doll...it was covered in patches of skin, my skin, my soft, pink skin. Some were sporadic, some were close together, but what was unmistakable was that the doll was somehow growing new skin, growing my skin, while the skin on my body turned to rigid plastic.
I dropped the doll and stumbled backwards, the knife clinking to the floor and flashlight rolling off, casting errant shadows on the wall. My skin was on fire again, my head was spinning; I vomited onto the ground and clung against a wall, trying to steady myself in a world that didn't make sense anymore.
Just then, my phone buzzed in my pocket, resurrecting me from my trance. I pulled it out of my pocket with a trembling hand and pressed the answer button, before holding it against my ear.
"Hello, this is Dr Samsa speaking. I know you don't know me, and I'm sorry to call from home, but I'm one of the doctors who performed the post-mortem hepatectomy on your grandmother last week. I wasn't going to call, but something about it has been bothering me recently."
"What?" I replied in a monotone voice, barely in this world.
"Your grandmother, she was non-verbal, wasn't she?"
"When did she have the prosthetic fitted?"
This jogged me from the haze.
"I'm sorry, prosthetic? I don't follow."
"Her prosthetic tongue, sir."
My blood ran cold.
"Her prosthetic tongue - I wasn't even aware such a thing existed, in all honesty. It appeared to be polymer-based, but it was so perfectly fused to the tissue in her lower jaw that it didn't seem like any old replacement part. Perhaps some kind of bonding agent was used that..."
I dropped the phone while the doctor rambled on. He was wrong, of course, but he'd given me the final piece of this whole insane puzzle. Yes, it all made sense after that.
When you touch the doll, it takes things from you. It took my grandmother's tongue a long time ago, and now it's taking my skin. I can't imagine we were the first - there were some donors out there somewhere that made the doll that heavy.
I walked from the attic, silent, almost catatonic, and sat in my car. I didn't move for quite some time, and in the sideways glances I made towards the house, I could have sworn I saw the doll at one of the second-storey windows, staring down at me.
But who knows, the mind plays all kinds of tricks.
Time is short. I'm running out of skin. Thankfully, my fingers have lasted this long, but I don't expect them to be here much longer. It's only a matter of time before I'm a prisoner of my skin.
The doll's out there now, somewhere, just a leaf in the wind.
If that somewhere is near you, I hope to god you don't touch it. Because the last time I saw it, it still needed plenty of parts.