Prologue - Annabelle Has a Bad Dream
Annabelle Has a Bad Dream
Tall grass tickled her skin. A soft summer breeze rippled her honey hair and tossed the grain like waves before her. The clouds had just begun to part, with the lining of the clouds catching the silver glow of the sun. A butterfly floated into view, its orange wings batting lazily in the air. It landed on her hand for a moment. She turned back to show Aunt Lydia, but Aunt Lydia was no longer behind her. The butterfly rose from her finger and flew away from her with a renewed vigor. She thought about turning back to look for Aunt Lydia, but the brown grass behind her was crashing violently and the way before her was calm. So she chased the butterfly through the field, her legs feeling fresh and strong and independent of her own thought. It was so hard to see beyond the tops of the wheat or to see anything besides its golden hue. The butterfly drifted was right ahead of her. She reached out ever so slightly to grab it, and fell forward into the dirt. She cried out for her knee had hit a rock. She lifted herself back up, feeling the pain reaching through her leg and up into her spine. The butterfly had gone off a bit and had found a new perch. A figure stood alone – a darkness with no face. But if it had had a face, it would have been staring directly at her. It held up its arm, raising the butterfly in the air. The bug burst into flame with a loud popping noise. The figure lowered its arm and began to move toward her – slowly at first, then quicker and quicker, until it was nearly upon her. She saw its red eyes gleaming…
“Where were you?” Mary was standing by the open door, with a sliver of light pouring in from behind. “My dear girl, you were screaming again.”
Annabelle was sitting up in the dark, a broken glass rested beside her bed. She could feel a veil of sweat across her brow, gluing her golden hair against her forehead. “Outside. In the grass. There was a butterfly.” She started to cry. “I saw it again. The monster. It killed the butterfly.”
“That sounds terrifying,” Mary said sadly. “You are a very brave girl, Annabelle. Do you know that?”
“Can you make the dreams stop?” Annabelle asked between sobs. “I don’t like dreams.”
Mary tsked her. “You know that there’s no such thing as dreams, honey.”
“I want to go home,” she sniffled. “I want Aunt Lydia.”
“This is your home, Annabelle. We are all family here. You and I are family.” Mary came and sat next to her on the bed. “You know how special you are to us.” She gave the child another glass of water. Annabelle drank it very quickly and handed it back. “We need to go to the playroom now, Annabelle. Will you walk with me?”
Annabelle stopped crying and started to shake her head quickly back and forth. She thought of the playroom – the clean room with the piles of stuffed animals. The room where they played the sad music. The room where they strapped her down in a chair and said funny things. There was a dead spider in that room, Annabelle could remember feeling the air shift when it died. “No, no, no. I don’t want to go! I just want to sleep.”
“You can sleep when we are done. We have very important work to do,” Mary said, dragging a wet cloth across her forehead. “I’ll give you a treat. Just please come with me.”
“No, I won’t! Stop!”
“If you don’t cooperate,” Mary said with a smile, “you know what happens.”
“I just want to go back to bed,” she screamed, the tears starting to burn in her eyes again.
Mary grabbed Annabelle’s hand, but was quickly rebuked. The little girl leapt from her bed, her nightgown whipping violently around her ankles, and sunk into a ball in the corner. “Why must you always make things so difficult, Annabelle? We are only doing what is best for you.” She tutted her tongue and walked over to the door, hitting a large red button beside the frame. “You’re not going to get a treat because of this. You have to learn.”
Thirty seconds later, two men shuffled into the bedroom yawning. “You can’t handle one little girl on your own?”
“She bites,” Mary said. “I have a date tomorrow, and bite marks may draw suspicion.”
Through her tears, Annabelle could see the two men shrug at each other, before descending upon her. They grabbed her by the arms, despite her flailing them about wildly. She kicked and tried biting, but the men wore long sleeves and gloves and only muttered obscenities out of annoyance instead of pain. Finally, she let her body go limp as they carried her down the long hallway. They passed several wooden doors, behind which her friends were probably sleeping peacefully through the night. She wanted to run behind one of those doors, and hold one of her dear friends.
But the only door they passed through was a metal one that was already ajar. The fluorescent lights flickered on revealing the room. Its sky blue walls and ceiling were a poor imitation of the real thing. She was the shelves full of stuffed animals staring at her – dead things with dead eyes. She looked over to the corner and saw the dead spider laying on its back with its legs in the air. They put her in the chair and quickly wrapped the chains around her wrists and ankles. She looked at the man with the big red beard who would give her extra carrots at lunch. He did not return the look. She did not try to look at the other man because he smelled bad and had a scar that frightened her. Mary entered the room with her clipboard and pen. “Thank you. You can leave now,” she said to the men.
“We serve at your pleasure,” the red-bearded man said. There was an unmistakable acerbic bite to the remark.
Mary closed the door behind them, and slid the lock into place. Annabelle thought she was very pretty, like a princess out of her favorite movies. Her brown hair fell straight and sleek to her shoulders. Her eyes mirrored the sky more closely than the walls. And the freckles painting her skin gave her the appearance of a woman of eternal youth. “Are you ready to begin?” she asked, her voice dripping with sugar. “I will be very quick.”
Annabelle relented as Mary turned on the machines in the room. They whirred to life and hummed along with the melancholy music. “It’s Bach,” Mary said, as she clicked away at her computer. “Do you like it?”
“No,” Annabelle said.
“That’s a shame. I find it so beautiful. Music, Annabelle is the truest path to the soul. It makes that little flame inside of you leap and dance. Don’t you want to dance?”
She and Aunt Lydia used to dance in the kitchen. She would let Annabelle lick the brownie batter off of the spoon. And then Aunt Lydia would sing into the spoon like a microphone, joining in a chorus with the happy voices playing on the radio.
“Are you ready to begin?” The music played louder now. “I am going to ask you some questions and I am going to need you to respond truthfully. It’s our favorite game, Annabelle.”
“I don’t want to play.”
“Yes, you do,” Mary said. “We are so close Annabelle. So close to being done. And then you can see your parents again.”
“My parents are dead.”
“There’s no such thing as dead; not if you help us.”
Mary cleared her throat. “What is your name?”
Mary looked at her crossly and cleared her throat. “Full name.”
“Where are you Annabelle Thompson?”
“In a chair,” she murmured.
Mary tapped her pen against the clipboard impatiently. “No, you have to play by the rules, Annabelle. If you don’t, you won’t get to see your parents. Don’t you want to see them again.”
Her parents liked to play hide-and-seek with her. She would hide from them, and they would have to find her. They always had to search for a long time, they said, because she was such a good hider. Now they were hidden from her, and the only place she could find them was in her dreams.
“Where are you?”
She looked at the walls and listened to the hum of electricity mingling with the ringing of the piano from the speakers. “In the ground. Deep.”
“And how do you know that.”
“I’m cold,” she said. “It’s so cold.” She almost started to cry again.
“What am I thinking right now?” Mary asked. The grin was unyielding. “Tell me what I am thinking.”
Mary said upright in her chair. “You’re afraid.”
“No, I’m not,” Mary said. “I’m excited. Excited for my date tomorrow. He sent me flowers.”
“No, you’re not. You’re scared.”
“You’re going to have to try harder than that…”
“You’re afraid that you will have a good date. That he will love you, and you will love him. But you’re afraid that it won’t be real. That he will love you even when you don’t love him anymore. Because you can’t love anything for a long time. Because you always get bored.”
Mary’s smile flickered and then returned to its normal resting position. “A seven-year-old does not understand love like an adult does. But a good guess.”
“I’m going to start the machine. It might sting a little at first.” Mary turned a dial next to the computer. The electrical hum increased, and Annabelle felt a tingle course through her. “We’re just going to open you up a little. It hurts, but then it feels good, doesn’t it?” Mary scribbled some notes while looking at some other screens. She then came and sat back down in the swivel chair across from her. “The new boy Billy. You played with him the other day. Did he tell you what happened to his sister?”
“No,” Annabelle said. Billy had a little smudge on his nose, as if he had it stuck in the mud all day. They had played a game of jacks together just the day before. He was very kind to her.
“I want you to tell me about Billy’s sister. Really think.”
“I don’t want to play anymore.” She was becoming tired and the stinging under her skin was starting to hurt. “Can you turn it off? Please?”
“Not until we’re done. Tell me about his sister.”
Her head started to hurt. She shivered involuntarily. “I don’t know.”
Mary pulled a picture off of the clipboard. It was a picture of a little girl.
Annabelle studied the picture and thought back to her conversation with Billy the day before. HE had a kind face, but it was also a sad face. “Smoke,” Annabelle whispered. She could smell it like it was being piped through the vents. The world around her had started to blur. “I smell smoke.”
Mary scribbled down a note. “Think about Billy. Think about what you felt when you spoke with him yesterday.”
Annabelle closed her eyes. Bursts of yellow and red exploded behind her eyelids in a cacophony of light. She could hear screaming from somewhere far off. “She burned to death.” Annabelle was starting to squirm, her palms sweaty against the metal chair. “It’s so hot. It’s so hot where she is.” She could see the little girl in the fire, almost dancing as it licked at her. Her pretty white dress was singed and ruined.
“Very good,” Mary said. “I’m very proud of you. You’re doing so well. We’re almost done. Who lit the fire?”
Annabelle opened her eyes and started to cool down once more. “I think it was an accident.” When the electricity flowed through her, the words would just spill out of her. They were not her words at all – she was just the mouthpiece it seemed. Sometimes it scared her, how the adults would look at her. Other times it delighted her, when the adults would laugh as though they were all in on a joke.
“That’s not quite right, I’m afraid,” Mary said with a frown. “Billy set the fire that burned his little sister alive. He likes to play with fire. Troubled boy.”
“No!” Annabelle exclaimed. That was her word. She knew what she was saying, and she believe it.
“I’m afraid it’s true. Careful with him.”
“Now, one more notch.” Mary moved the dial a bit more and Annabelle sat bolt upright. It was as though, she had been kicked or punched in all directions all at once. The music grew fainter in her mind, the hum louder and louder. She looked from the creepy stuffed animals to her dead spider in the corner, almost desperately.
“Where are your parents? Is that where you went tonight?”
“My parents are dead. I should be dead.”
“Don’t say that. You survived that car crash for a reason!” Mary said. “You’re special to us, Annabelle. But you must answer the question. Did you go looking for your parents tonight?”
Annabelle thought back to the tall grass whipping playfully at her. She could almost hear the shouts of Aunt Lydia on the wind. “No, they weren’t there. It was just a dream.”
“No such things as dreams. Do you ever listen?” Mary asked, her voice rising. “You saw the monster again. You see it every night? Tell me what it is.”
“I don’t know,” Annabelle said. “Please stop, it hurts!”
“Tell me about your parents. We need to know where they are!”
“You must play fair!” Mary shouted. She was now standing before the small child. “Where are you parents?”
“You’re parents are dead!” Annabelle yelled. “They’re dead. And you’re glad.” Mary sat back down.
“I’m not asking about my parents. I’m asking about your parents.”
“You think about them all the time. How much you hated them. How much they loved you. How weak you thought they were. You were poor. You like nice things. Your mom would tuck you into bed every night and kiss you, and you hated her. She would make you waffles, and you hated her. She said you were her little angel, and you hated her. They did not give you things, they only gave you love. And you don’t understand love. You just don’t want to be alone. But you always will be, because you can’t love. And it’s sad.” Annabelle was sobbing. “It hurts you so much, because you know it’s true. And you want to feel love, but the only thing you’ve ever loved is yourself. And, and you hate it.” The truth of it was like a blade in Annabelle’s heart. The pain that she knew rested inside Mary, felt like her own. In that moment it was a shared grief, borne on the electrical current between them.
Mary no longer looked like a princess. She looked like an evil queen. The sugar in her voice had gone sour. “You think you’re so smart. You think you’re so good.” She turned the dial even higher until Annabelle could barely stay conscious. “Tell me what the man with the big red beard is like. I know you like him and he likes you. Tell me, does he like other little girls, or is it just you?” Mary’s eyes narrowed. “I push that red button so that he can come and hold you while you scream. You’re my little gift to him. Now, tell me about him.”
Annabelle was screaming but there were no words. The world was going dark. “You’re right. I hated my parents. And I hate myself for hating them. But what I really hate is you – how special you are to them. You’re nothing!”
Annabelle could feel herself falling. Mary was still yelling at her, looking crazier by the second. But she could not understand what insults were being hurled at her. In the descending darkness, she saw something creep up behind Mary. It was almost shapeless. It had long arms with pointed ends. And it had red eyes.
Suddenly Mary was shouting, “Oh God. Don’t die. Please don’t. They’ll kill me.” She was turning the dial all the way around until the machine stopped humming. Annabelle could still feel it in her bones. It was like she was floating. She was there in that room, but she was not there. Some piece of her felt dislodged, as though she were no longer whole. The red-eyed monster was standing behind Mary, and Annabelle could almost see a devilish smirk in the shapeless mass.
When Mary saw that Annabelle has stopped seizing, she started to breath normally. But there was still a fire behind those bright blue eyes. “You’re just a stupid little girl. They may worship you, but they’ll never love you. You’ll never get out of here…”
Mary’s eyes rolled into the back of her head, and quite suddenly, she crumpled to the ground in a heap. She convulsed on the ground for a moment, foam seeping out of her open mouth, and then she stopped. All that remained was the sound of Back.
“Yes, I will. But you won’t.” She felt whole once more. The shadow monster had disappeared. Perhaps it had never been there. She was quite alone.
Except, she was not. She could feel something else moving. The air in the room had shifted.
The dead spider skittered over to her, up the leg of the chair, and finally came to a rest when it had crawled to the tip of her finger. Annabelle had once been afraid of spiders; she had dreamed of giant spiders eating her whole. She had once dreamed of seeing her parents awake again, having merely been playing a long game of hide-and-seek. In her dream, they jumped out of the closet and wrapped their arms around her.
Annabelle smiled at the ugly creature – once alone and dead. But they were no longer alone. There were no such things as dream. And now, there was no such thing as dead.