Burying a Doll on the Beach with Your New Girlfriend
I met Lia in an ad for her Haunted Doll Hotel. I suppose I didn’t meet her, but her personality was clear:
YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR A HAUNTED DOLL COMPANION.
THESE ARE MY HOURS: WKNDS, 8 P.M. / 4 A.M.
PINE BARRENS. FOLLOW SIGNS.
She was right, and I wasn’t busy, so I drove down there. The sun was setting in an unsettling haze of fleshy pinks. An ocean breeze slapped at the open windows, filling the car with the scuttling rot of ghostly crabs. In the side mirror I was frowning, but when I looked closer, I wasn’t at all. I was busy imagining Kit the American Girl Doll—competent, boyish, haunted? I was driving towards someone like that.
I thought the signs would appear esoterically, but I only saw billboards.
HAUNTED? ALMOST THERE, and then, NOW. EXIT.
It was easy enough to find. I pulled up a gravel driveway and parked in front of the Hotel, a faded old saltbox surrounded by bog. When I got out, the ground sank and sighed beneath my boots. The whole place was steeped in a two-hundred-year-old bad mood.
HAUNTED DOLL HOTEL. COME IN.
I opened the door. Inside, like a tired nightmare, the walls were lined with nooks of dolls. They sat clustered in baskets hanging from the ceiling. A musty green couch was crowded with frilly dresses, porcelain hands and faces struggling to peek out. Dolls made from sticks and corn husks, paper dolls, Barbie dolls, off-brand dolls with glitter makeup and feet that twisted off to expand molded shoe options—every doll that ever lived.
A section of the wall opened and Lia walked in. She looked startled to see me, which I found hypocritical in someone standing in a trick door. I was a little disappointed a place called the Haunted Doll Hotel had jump-scared me so easily.
“I’m Lia,” Lia said. “Hi.”
“I’m here to get a haunted doll?”
“That makes sense.” She stared at me. She had a sloppy buzzcut and a natural frown. She wore a faded red sundress like someone who’d never worn a dress before. Three rosaries clicked and slid around her neck.
“Okay,” I said. “Well.”
Lia’s gaze followed me. A thousand glass eyes followed me.
I pulled a doll out of her nook because her arms stuck out, reaching for me. She wore a leopard-print leotard. She looked very serious. Some of her hair was cut down to her plastic scalp, and the rest was tensed with the distinctive crust of salt water, like a little girl had dipped her in the ocean in the 80s. She looked haunted by an Olympic athletic career, or by New Jersey.
Lia nodded. “I’ll need to check if you’re compatible.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’m a medium,” she said. “And I’ve got a lab. It’s very scientific.”
She nodded at me through the doll-door. We walked into a kitchen, also filled with dolls, but dolls that held beakers and tongs and wore tiny lab coats. Lia turned to face me, twirling a pair of metal pincers. “Open up and scream.”
I did, and she measured my mouth. Next she sprayed some terrible perfume in my face, and when I coughed so hard my eyes watered, she edged one of my tears onto a slab of glass and slid it under a microscope. She took measurements of my hands, of my tattoos. While she did this, she plucked a gray hair from my temple and gave it to the doll to hold.
“Your haunting goes pretty well with this doll’s haunting,” Lia said finally. “Nice.”
“My haunting? I’m not haunted.”
“You’ll see it in mirrors, if you look,” she said. “Everything you’ve ever felt hangs around in your brain, seeps into everything you’re about to do. You’re haunted by yourself from all points in time, no matter how you look at it. Don’t worry, lots of people are.”
“Damn,” I said.
“Yes.” She held out the doll to me. “Henny, this is your new person. Their name is—”
Lia cracked a smile. “That’s a very doll name.”
I didn’t know what to say about that, so I held onto Henny, trying to feel what made us compatible. “Do you think you’ll haunt a doll when you die?”
“Sure,” Lia said. “I’ve already got her picked out.” She pointed to a wooden doll in a red apron, with magic marker scribbles on her arms and legs. The doll was beautiful, frowning.
“Do you want to go to the beach with me?” I said.
Lia smiled again and I felt Henny settle in my arms. “Yes.”
We locked up the Hotel and piled into my car. Lia leaned back to buckle Henny’s seatbelt. We stopped for gas and bought ice cream. Waves dragged over sand in a baleful hiss.
“How do you stop being haunted?” I asked. “Is it easier for dolls or people?”
“Don’t know,” Lia said. She licked her ice cream. “But it’s not all bad.”
I wondered what Henny missed enough to stick around. If I was haunted now, why would I want to inhabit another doll body after it all ended? I bet Lia knew.
She did. A few weeks later I moved down to the Pines. I got a job cleaning haunted houses. I guess they can’t all have been haunted, but it felt like they were. Lia and Henny and I went to the beach every night, late, so we could hold hands and watch the sun drool all over the ocean, sinking into orange, wet doom. I think I was very happy.
“Huh,” Lia said, one night. She crouched down to Henny and waved in her face. “Henny’s not haunted anymore. I guess she liked you.”
We decided to bury Henny on the beach, where she had a happy haunting, and we did, in the dark of the moon, joyfully, scooping sugar sand over her and patting her safe from the waves.
Mariah Gese is an artist and writer from a swamp in New York. They received their MFA from Indiana University, where they were the Editor in Chief of Indiana Review. They like plants, math, and other scary things. Their work has appeared in Adroit Journal, Split Lip Magazine, The Offing, and Cleaver Magazine.