The Doll Garden- First two Chapters
I didn't think the next chapter in the Lingate, North Carolina Anthology would take me so long to come to life. After the world stopped with Covid, and other things going on in my life, I never expected a somewhat short novel to take me so long.
Some facts about The Doll Garden.
The story is the second installment of my House of Restless Souls anthology. Each book can be read alone, but I highly recommend reading the first book, The House of the Golden Butterfly since The Doll Garden features characters from the first book. The third book will be the same. The third book is tentatively titled, The Voice in the Wall.
Without giving out spoilers, The Doll Garden is loosely based on Georgia Tann, one of America's most notorious child traffickers. Her business dealings almost single-handedly changed adoption laws in the United States.
This is my second novel about a home being inherited. I tried to make it as different as I could so it wouldn't be the same old story from House of the Golden Butterfly.
The Doll Garden is also loosely based off the Island of the Dolls. A famous island supposedly haunted by a little girl. You can read about the island here.
Let's get started.
All Bill Saunders remembered about that day was his father’s angry yells and his mother clutching him to her chest as she tried to calm her husband.
Bill swung his oxygen tank over his shoulder as he gazed at the large brick house. A house that had become his burden and his curse after so many years.
A house he kept secret because that’s what his father told him to do, since it held so many secrets within its walls.
Now, those secrets would come out of the shadows and into the light.
Bill took a deep breath of oxygen that blew into his nostrils. His mouth turned down as he stepped onto the creaking wooden porch and approached the front door.
Bill debated telling his kids over the years about it. He almost did quite a few times. He wanted to sell it, abandon it, and let someone else deal with the burden of it, but something inside him always held back.
Bill grimaced when he placed the key into the lock and swung the front door open. Disturbed dust particles glinted in the early afternoon sun, only to be sucked back into the darkness inside.
Bill waved his hand around and entered the darkened foyer.
Memories of the years past came flooding back to him as his eyes adjusted to the living space just beyond the foyer.
He closed the front door behind him and gazed around. That familiar feeling hadn’t risen inside his gut just yet, but it was only a matter of time.
The house looked the same from his last visit around the same time the year before. White sheets covered furniture; plastic was wrapped around the chandelier above him. He’d tried to preserve as much as he could so he could pass whatever money the house sold for to his children.
“You should have told them, dumbass,” he muttered. However, he’d been a single father with four young children after Dottie’s affair and her abandonment of her family.
Bill sighed. He wondered over the years if he should have been a more attentive husband, if he should have gotten better work, or asked his wife sooner if she’d been happy.
Anne–his eldest daughter–tried to reconcile with her mother, but it was hard on her.
“Dad, her excuses get worse every time I bring it up,” she said.
Bill shook his head. He swore he’d never leave his children like their mother once did, and that’s why he never talked about or told them the truth about the house.
However, his burden would soon be over, and he hoped his children wouldn’t hold it against him once they discovered the truth.
Sighing, Bill made his way farther into the living area. Echoes of children floated around him as more memories came back from that time in his life.
His aunt had owned this house. She ran the home for abandoned children, but she never did it out of the kindness of her heart. She did it purely for riches and the town of Lingate, North Carolina, was happy to look the other way as long as she shared some of those riches.
That was until her evil deeds came to an abrupt end.
“It had to be done,” Lyle said, gripping the steering wheel that fateful day.
Lyle told him to never speak of the incident again, but they were stuck with the house now.
Lyle found out about his sister’s activities the hard way.
“She was never right in the head,” Lyle told his young son. “From an early age, Grandma and Grandpa knew she would never be right. She left and never came back when she was sixteen. They were relieved she was gone, though they’d never admit it. It wasn’t until your grandma passed that she tried to reconcile with me.”
Lyle’s muscles flexed in his face as he turned away from the road and stared at his son. “I didn’t want to trust her, but your mama said family is family. She came to visit us when you were no more’n three years old. One day we woke up and you and Meredith were gone.”
Bill flinched as his dad told his story. “Took us a week to find out where you were since Meredith gave a wrong address on purpose. I only found out where she was from a friend.”
Lyle set his eyes back on the road. “I shoulda shot her, but I couldn’t kill my sister. She tried to argue that you were better off with her and find you somethin’ better. She said she’d share the money.”
Lyle shook his head. “It wasn’t until I shot the gun into the air that she gave you back to us. It was your mama that stopped me from killing her because of all the children inside the house.”
“She kidnapped me?” Bill couldn’t believe his ears. “Did you report her to the sheriff?”
Lyle smiled bitterly. “I did but son, sometimes not all people are brought to justice and Meredith was one of them. She had money, I didn’t. It was our word against hers, and she had a lot of people in her pocket that I never knew about. I found out the hard way that I would live and let live by threats against us. We had you back, and that’s all that mattered to us.”
That was until Bill got older and some people in town had enough of Meredith’s control.
Bill remembered them pulling up to the house and Lyle said, “Son, your mama disagrees but I think you’re old enough now to handle what I’m about to show you.”
Bill walked deeper into the house as the memories continued to flow. He found himself at the back door and gazed over property now choked with overgrown grass and weeds. Saplings had started to sprout since the last time he set foot on the property.
He would usually clean up a bit, but this year was the last time he would ever step foot in this house, and soon the burden of it would be lifted from his shoulders.
Did he go into the forest beyond the overgrown weeds for one last look?
He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking back to when his father showed him the home’s deep, dark secret, justifying what they were about to do.
Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed several times so he wouldn’t go into a coughing fit. Those fits could put him down for several minutes, and he didn’t want to spend any more time in this house than he had to.
Bill placed his hand on the cool, grimy glass. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and decided to stay indoors since his breathing had become ragged and he needed to let the oxygen saturate his lungs.
Lyle guided a young Bill into the forest and that memory was seared on Bill’s brain forever. He should have run. He should have demanded that his father try another way and let someone else bear the burden of what he’d seen that day. Even after Lyle passed away, he should have sold it, and let the truth come to light, but he didn’t. He’d promised his father on his deathbed that he would continue to guard the house until his time came.
The doctors gave Bill less than a year.
Guilt racked his mind. There were so many should haves over the years with this house and now he thought of how he should have told his children about the house. He could have brought Brian and the girls here to make them understand why, but he never did. He thought of himself as a coward for not doing it sooner, but then he tried to convince himself that he’d been a single father raising four kids on his own and that time had slipped by before he could reveal his secret.
Bill’s breath caught in his throat when he spotted the figure in the distance. No matter how many years he’d been visiting this house, that always took him by surprise.
“Goodbye,” he said with a small wave of his hand.
Bill turned to give the house one last walkthrough before he said goodbye forever.
He turned and exited the dining area. The familiar heaviness came over him as he entered the main room.
He set his gaze to the top of the grand staircase and smirked.
A pale face stared back at him while the rest of its body was hidden in shadow.
“I was wondering when you’d show yourself,” Bill said.
He learned over the years not to fear it. Yes, it. That’s all he’d ever call the thing at the top of the stairs because it never deserved to be called anything else.
The thing never moved, it only watched him as he moved to the bottom of the stairs to return its stare.
Bill lifted his oxygen tank from his shoulder and held it up for the thing to see.
“This is it for me,” he explained. “My children will be here one day soon and they won’t be able to keep your secret.”
He slung the tank back over his shoulder. “I’ve been having a lot of dreams about Pop lately.”
Emotion tugged at Bill but he tried to stifle it. Never show weakness to the thing Lyle had always told him. Once you show weakness, it will try to take you.
“He’s waiting for me. He’s expecting me,” Bill continued. “My children will expose you. What will you do then?”
Bill and the thing stared at each other. He thought he heard a raspy breath escape the thing but he couldn’t be sure.
Bill smiled. “I hope you burn in the rotten pits of hell as you deserve.”
Bill stood his ground and stayed in the same spot as the thing became more agitated by his words.
The way the thing moved at the top of the stairs and the way it rasped and screeched, he thought it would finally attack him.
He was wrong. After a minute, it stopped and a grin spread across its face.
Bill scoffed and shook his head. “I don’t know why you’re smiling.”
“Soon,” it managed to rasp. “You will be dead, boy.”
Bill blinked. In all the years he’d been visiting the home, the thing never spoke to him. He had spoken to it but never received a response until today.
Bill’s heart pounded in his chest and when it did, it triggered a coughing fit that lasted several minutes.
Bill sank to the first step trying to catch his breath and removed his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth.
After he caught his breath, he said, “It’s true.”
With shaky legs and hands, he stood up once again to face the thing. It continued to stare at him from the landing. Its smile had left its face and no emotion remained.
Bill lowered his head and let the emotion flow through him. He tried to fight back tears as he said, “Goodbye Aunt Meredith. It’s a shame it came to this.”
Bill turned away from the thing and as fast as his weak body would let him, he exited the house and locked the door behind him.
He stepped down from the porch and turned to gaze at the house one more time, trying to memorize the size, the structure, and the shape of it before he departed it forever.
His eyes scanned the dark windows when he caught the pale face staring down at him from the second floor.
He smiled and gave a salute before entering his car and driving away.
He removed his phone from his pocket when it beeped as he drove to the end of the driveway.
Abby, his youngest daughter, sent him a text.
Dad, where are you? Bill smiled. Abby… always the worrier.
10 months later
Abby clutched her father’s favorite baseball cap in her lap. She sat at Brian’s dining room table with her other sisters as they tried to discuss taking care of the rest of her father’s affairs.
They were all exhausted from the past two weeks when Bill had taken a turn for the worst after entering hospice. All four of them took turns at his bedside for days while they waited for Bill to take his final breath. That came a little over a week ago, and all four of his children watched him quietly pass away.
Her oldest sister Anna had been downing wine, and her other sister Vivian leaned back in the chair after going over some paperwork.
Brian poured over their additional burden, with a frown etching his features. Brian was angry about the added stress of selling another house. One they never knew about until Bill became weaker as cancer spread through his body.
“Why didn’t Dad ever tell us about this house?” Brian asked no one in particular.
Around them, Brian’s wife, along with Anna’s and Vivian’s husbands were minding the kids as the siblings discussed their father’s affairs.
“Do you think he wanted to keep it from Dottie?” Vivian asked.
“That can’t be it. He knew about that house long before he met Dottie,” Anna said. “Long before she left us.”
Abby saw Brian’s jaw clench but he tried to hide it. Their mother Dottie had been a sore spot between the siblings for the last five years.
Anna was the oldest and always desperate for a mother figure and although their mom’s sisters tried to fill that spot it was never good enough for Anna. She was quick to forgive their mom over the others.
Vivian spoke to Dottie, but their conversations were strained. Brian blocked Dottie out of his life, but he let her attend the funeral as long as she didn’t bring the rest of her new family with her.
Abby tried to stay cordial but she was more with Brian. Brian and Abby were the youngest. Abby remembered little about that day, but Brian said a man showed up at their door, their mom had her bags packed, and left two small children alone until Anna came home from school. Brian said they were very lucky nothing happened to them.
Their mother had joined some kind of Doomsday cult. She ran into a man at the grocery store, and he told her his story. Their father said she had never been religious, but started attending church, became paranoid about the end of the world, and spent more time around the man with whom she later admitted to having an affair. Then the day came where she packed up everything and left two young children to fend for themselves until Anna arrived home from school.
Luckily, Anna was smart enough to call Bill and he rushed home to find all his wife’s belongings gone and a simple note saying she would not die unhappy. She left Bill with four young children but he had help from her mother’s family and her grandparents until they were old enough to care for themselves.
Anna said for a few years Bill tried to drink away his sorrows over his ex-wife until one day a stranger almost took Vivian, and that’s when Bill realized he had to get his act together or lose his children.
Abby’s memories were fuzzy over those years but all she knew was she had a wonderful father who sacrificed so much to keep his family together. He dealt with all of them firmly, but never aggressively.
Brian had tried to encourage Bill to date again but Bill never did. His sole purpose in life was his children and that’s all he wanted.
“I guess we’ll never know.” Brian rubbed his dark hair and continued, “We’ll have to take a ride to the house and see what kind of state it’s in.”
Abby was quiet as the rest of her siblings discussed their schedules. They had their kids, and they’d have to return to work. Abby was the youngest and still the single one.
She remembered back to when Bill confessed to her about the house. He handed her pictures and the paperwork.
“Dad, why?” Abby asked as she stared at the pictures. “Why did you keep this hidden?”
Bill lay back on his hospital bed and said, “I promised your grandfather I would keep it until my death. We’ve kept it hidden long enough. It’s time to sell it and dump that curse from this family.”
Abby turned to her father, confused. “Curse? What does that mean?”
“You remember the stories I told you about Aunt Meredith?”
“Abby, I always said I wasn’t a believer but I’m telling you now that house is cursed and you must get rid of it as soon as possible,” Bill said.
Abby raised an eyebrow. Was it the morphine that was making her father speak like this? He’d never been one to play into the paranormal.
Abby played along. “What’s the curse?”
Bill sucked in some oxygen and turned to face his daughter. His blue eyes were sharp and Abby realized the drugs were not affecting his mind.
His jaw clenched. “Have I ever lied to you, young lady?”
Abby almost flinched. He would only call her young lady when he became angry with her.
“I never wanted to keep that secret, but I did it thinking that I had to. I regret I didn’t tell any of you kids sooner, but it’s too late and I’m telling you now.” Bill’s eyes flickered. “Meredith was an evil woman and she did many awful things. I want you to get rid of it and never look back. Do you hear me?”
Abby nodded, still confused, but would do as her father wished.
Abby worked as a freelance public relations consultant around the Charlotte and southeastern areas. She loved her job and helped a lot of companies evade bad publicity over the years. It gave her a lot of freedom and traveling was so much fun. Now, she didn’t mind being home for a while. She needed her family and most of all she needed quiet time to grieve. Her beloved father was gone and she had to live the rest of her life with that void in her heart.
She clutched Bill’s favorite baseball cap a little harder and as the conversation intensified between the other three, Abby spoke up.
“I took some time off and cleared my schedule, so I’ll drive to Lingate and assess the house,” she said.
All eyes turned to Abby and all expressions changed to relief. She almost laughed and rolled her eyes when they met her with half-hearted arguments, but she understood, they all had families who were all sitting in the next room watching TV and playing games.
Abby would grieve alone and thought this trip to Lingate would do her some good. Yes, she could throw herself into her job, but maybe seeing the house her father seemed to fear would bring her some closure.
Abby hid a frown. Why would it do that? Her thoughts were so jumbled that she had an inkling that she would grasp at anything to help her stay close to her father instead of bringing her closure.
Anna picked up the pictures of the house and asked, “I wonder why Dad would say it’s cursed? He was never one to fall for that kind of stuff although Mom did.”
“Didn’t he talk about Aunt Meredith and how she tried to take him or something?” Vivian asked.
“She took over an agency for abandoned children. You know, single mothers, which was a no-no,” Brian explained while taking a sip of his beer. “Dad said he thinks she was trafficking children and made a fortune but when Grandpa tried to turn her in after she had taken Dad, the police told him to piss off. She had them all in her pocket.”
“Of course, because they got a cut,” Vivian finished. “I remember the kidnapping story, but why keep the house? Why linger on those terrible memories?”
Abby sucked in a breath. “I guess I’ll find out. Maybe something will give me more clues.”
“Besides, since I’ll be out there, I can stop by and meet Claire Wescott,” Abby said.
Vivian’s eyes lit up. “Oh! That’s right, she lives there. I just finished the book and it was amazing.”
Vivian and Abby were both voracious readers and shared that sisterly bond. They could talk about books for hours while Brian and Anna fell asleep.
“Make sure you get an autographed copy,” Vivian commented.
Abby grinned. “I plan on it.”
After that, the four siblings quieted in their shared grief over their father. They discussed when Abby would leave for Lingate and started an account for the house in case it needed some work before going on the market.
“We could do it from here,” Brian commented. “But, I’m curious about it.”
Abby thought this was a good thing. It would help her keep busy and maybe give her an idea of why her dad hated that house so much but kept it when he could have sold it years ago.
The four siblings all decided it was time to end the night and with hugs, some tears, and lots of love. The women left Brian’s house to head home.
Abby arrived back at her North Charlotte apartment after midnight. Abby flicked on the lights and the sudden silence hit her like a ton of bricks.
She changed out of her dress and wiped off her smeared makeup. Abby boiled a hot cup of chai tea and sat in front of her laptop on the coffee table.
She opened the laptop and spotted more condolences on her timeline on her social media.
Abby closed the laptop. She couldn’t handle more condolences and she didn’t want to message anyone this late.
Leaving her full cup of tea, she climbed into bed and covered herself. After a few minutes, the tears flowed down her cheeks and dampened her hair and pillow