Nima uncrosses her arms despite the cold, taking steps towards the old house. Refusing to go in the dilapidated house after Jennifer and Sadie is starting to seem like a terrible mistake. They’ve been gone far, far too long. Nima shivers, rubbing her bare arms as her curly hair bounces with her movement. The September night is cool but not cold enough to necessitate anything other than a light jacket.
“Jenna! Sadie! Come on! Stop screwing around!” Silence greets her. Nima scowls, considering just flipping the house, and by extension her friends, off and heading home. She would never hear the end of it if she did though. So she gathers her anger and walks up to the front door.
The weather-worn door opens with ease at her touch and she leaves it open behind her. It feels safer that way. She calls again for her friends, scanning the foyer slowly as she takes a couple steps into the room. They had screwed with her before and she ended up the butt of plenty of pranks thanks to them.
Again, there’s no answer. But there is a noise from upstairs. Nima surveys the stairs and the area around them, deciding that there isn’t some sort of trap awaiting her if she climbed up. The stairs themselves are highly suspect as is. Dark wood but bent and curved in a few places, where the weather has snuck into the house and done a number on them.
“God damnit,” Nima curses under her breath, slowly heading up the stairs, making certain each step can take her weight before she takes the next. She reaches the landing and looks around, ears perked and listening for any sound other than the trees rustling outside. A sound comes from down the hallway, barely a murmur, and Nima starts towards it.
“…that’s why you shouldn’t do such things.” The voice that comes through the closed door however is distinctly young, not even pubescent, and rather feminine. Nima pauses, a sense of unease running through her but she powers on, walking up to the door. “Do you understand? It’s really, really rude of you.” Nima pushes the door open with caution and as quietly as possible.
She looks in and sitting in the middle of the floor is a small, blond girl dressed in a pretty, frilly dress. The little girl doesn’t notice her pushing the door open, focused on a doll in hand that she’s brushing the hair. Nima glances around the room, eyes skimming over a box with two small dolls in it before she steps into the room, the floor squealing in protest at her weight. The little girl’s head snaps up to look at her, her long hair falls in curls from two ponytails, framing an angelic face, complete with two little blue eyes.
“Who are you?” The little girl questions and Nima feels her throat close up. Internally, her instincts are telling her to run, to run and never look back.
“I—I’m N—Nima.” Nima glances at the dolls again, her mind continuing to yell at her to look at them.
“Oh! A new friend, my name’s Aimee!” The bubbly little girl announces with a smile pushing cherub cheeks upward. She’s ignoring the platinum blond doll on her lap with the worn face and clothing.
“Nice to—to meet you.” The dolls in the box remind her of someone. They’re starting to look suspiciously like her friends. “Have you seen my friends? They came in here a while ago.” Nima keeps an eye on the little girl.
“They needed a pep talk.” Aimee giggles as she brushes the blond doll’s hair.
“O—Oh?” Nima looks from the little girl to the two dolls sitting by themselves in a box. The pair match her friends’ description, right down to Jenna’s dyed red hair and the bags under Sadie’s eyes from lack of sleep. In fact, Nima’s certain that the two dolls are her friends.
“Yep yep!” Aimee giggles more, continuing to brush the dolls hair out. Literally out, as with each brush stroke, a few strands of hair come out into the small doll brush. The strands drop to the ground, littering the dark hardwood floors with small streaks of blond. Nima winces internally, wondering if that was another person at some point and time in the past.
“Why—Why did they need a pep talk?” Nima questions. Aimee turns her head and fixes those bright, baby blue eyes on her with the most innocent of expressions. It sends a chill up Nima’s spine.
“They were fighting over mamma’s jewelry. I found them in her room. So I’ve been talking to them about how stealing and arguing are wrong until you came.” Aimee returns to brushing the hair off the doll she’s holding, grinning.
“T—That makes sense.” Nima attempts to gather her courage, stepping closer to look into the box. The dolls are even dressed like Jenna and Sadie. And in the quiet, Nima swears she hears distant screaming, bringing her to a terrifying conclusion. She jumps when Aimee starts humming, a bright smile on the little girl’s face when Nima turns to face her.
“You’re jumpy!” Aimee smiles at her, teeth too white and too sharp. Nima forces a smile to her face, swallowing thickly.
“Y—Yes, I—I am.” Nima steps away from the box, hoping she won’t be joining her friends.
“Oh!” Aimee lets the doll slump into her lap, clapping her hands with excitement. “Let’s play a game!” The blond doll’s green eyes stare at the ground and Nima imagines it screaming too.
“Mmhm!” Aimee beams, picking the doll up and setting it to the side as she gets up. “We can play hide and seek!” The doll slumps over, its head of blond hair notably thinned. Nima trembles at the sight.
“I—I don’t know.” Aimee’s smile falters, the warm blue eyes going notably chill. “I might be able to play one game. And… And then I have to go home with my friends.” Aimee’s eyes travel, troubled, to the pair of dolls in the box. The silence draws long before the little girl beams at Nima.
“Okay! We play one game!”
“What are the rules?” Nima worries her hands, hoping there’s nothing special. Aimee brushes her white dress off, still beaming with red cheeks.
“You hide and I try to find you! And if I do, you have to come back again or stay longer.”
“How long? Because I can’t stay hidden all night.” Nima points out. “I have to go home.” Aimee hums, a finger on her chin. She stays that way for a very long time. Nima presses her luck, hoping to get this over quickly and in the best possible way. “How about fifteen minutes?”
“But my clock’s broken.” Aimee points at the clock. It’s hanging sideways, the twelve where the two probably should be. Nima retrieves her phone, finding the timer feature and making sure the volume’s up and checking her watch at the same time.
“Here, this’ll time it.” She sets it for fifteen minutes and Aimee clasps her hands together tightly as she grins at Nima. “I’ll time it with my watch too. It’s five-twenty, so five-thirty-five and I have to go home.” Nima taps the watch and Aimee looks from the phone to the watch, blue eyes chilly.
“Okay then! You run and hide after starting it and I’ll count to twenty.” Aimee grins more, showing more teeth than necessary.
Nima shivers, hitting the button as Aimee turns away, facing the blank wooden wall, starting to count loudly. She turns and runs as fast as she can down the hallway, the wood protesting every step with loud, terrifying groans.
“Five! Six! Seven!” The sound of the little girl’s voice follows her, Nima shivering at the sound. She would have to make this good. Otherwise, she’s certain that she will be the next doll in the box. “Eight! Nine! Ten!” Nima thumps into the end room before slipping back out and starting to sneak her way down the questionable stairs. One step gives a quiet squeak and Nima pauses, readjusting her steps on the way down.
“Fuck, fuck…” She hits the bottom of the stairs as the counting continues.
“Eleven! Twelve! Thirteen!” The voice is getting further and further away as Nima hurries around, attempting to find somewhere to hide. Her heart hammers in her chest as she stumbles over something, the floor slightly uneven under a rug. “Fourteen! Fifteen! Sixteen!” Nima finds a trapdoor, leading down into a hidden basement level.
“Please don’t know about this,” she pleads in a low voice. She forces it open and slips down onto the rotting stairs, one step giving away and sending her onto the next. It thankfully holds and she’s able to throw the rug enough over top as she pulls the door closed behind her.
“Eighteen! Nineteen! And Twenty!” Nima stumbles down to the bottom in the dark, trembling in fright. “Ready or not! Here I come!” Nima wishes for her phone despite the fact that it was still helping her from its spot upstairs. She could at least see around her if she could. Or that she smoked, a lighter would do nicely in the situation. Her watch only lights up a small area, not enough to see by.
She listens to the footsteps, the little girl running abnormally fast over to where Nima thundered into the room at the end of the hallway. Instead of staying close to the trapdoor however, Nima begins to feel her way deeper into the basement, praying that she makes no noise. She feels along the wall, feeling mold and mildew under her fingertips as they brush it, the stench of rot filling her nostrils.
“Ugh,” she mutters but pushes on through the dark. The wall falls away suddenly and Nima comes to a stop, feeling for it again. Footsteps thunder by above with a set of giggles, knocking dust and dirt down into Nima’s face. She holds her breath, listening intently. Through the floorboards, she can hear Aimee giggling, the disturbing little girl searching for her.
“Nima! Nima! Where are you?” The angelic voice floats down to her. Nima shivers and finally finds the wall again, beginning along it again. She finds a switch and pauses in thought before flicking it. Dim bulbs come to life, barely pushing the darkness back.
What she sees makes her gasp with a hand over her mouth to try and muffle it. The walls are coated with writing and drawings. Things float in standalone containers towards the center of the room. Nima takes slow, deep breaths, stepping further into the room. There’s a thick layer of dust coating everything in the underground lab. Footsteps echo by overhead and Nima looks up, unable to see anything through the thick floor. More dirt and dust float down through the air where the footsteps go by.
“Nima! Where are you?!” The angelic voice is angrier now. Nima worriedly watches the trail of falling dust head towards where the trap door’s entrance is. She scans the room, finding a place she can hide before flicking the lights off again. They take a long time to turn back off and by the time the room is completely dark again, she’s tucked away behind a console. The footsteps thump by overhead again and Nima shivers in the dark, hitting the button on her watch to light it up.
She swallows a scream. There’s a mummified corpse in front of her, empty eye sockets lit up in the glow of the watch. The glow goes out and she’s left in the dark without the faintest idea as to what time it is and a desiccated corpse in front of her. She takes a couple shallow breaths before pressing the button again.
The watch lights up, unaware of the ghastly sight in front of her. Nima glances down at it. She’s only halfway through the fifteen minutes. The light flicks back off and Nima puts her head in her hands as the footsteps thunder by overhead again.
“Where are you?!” Aimee’s voice is angry, screaming the words in a tone that doesn’t match the image Nima has in her head of the pre-pubescent girl. There’s a thump and Aimee screams down into the lab area. “You’re down there! I know you are!” There’s the sound of crashing and the sound of a small body landing at the bottom of the basement stairs.
Nima twitches, imagining the angelic little child injured and wanting to help, before remembering Jenna and Sadie trapped as dolls upstairs. Footsteps slowly work their way down the hallway to where the light switch is. Nima trembles as the lights come on but there isn’t the sound of Aimee coming closer. The corpse is lit up in front of her, with a lipless grin.
“I know you’re here, Nima.” The words slither across the floor and wrap themselves around Nima’s throat, paralyzing her in fear. Nima’s wide eyes focus on a floating container, seeing Aimee reflected in it. The girl isn’t coming any further into the room however, pacing in the entryway to the lab. She’s seething from what Nima can see, and the footsteps are getting quicker and heavier as her image mutates in the reflection. “I know that you’re here! Come out! I’ve found you! I’ve won!”
Nima stays still, watching the reflection in horrified fascination as the angelic little girl shows how malevolent she truly is. Aimee stomps back and forth, grabbing and pulling at her hair repeatedly as Nima checks the time again. Four more minutes. Just four more minutes.
“Get out here! Get out here!” Aimee shrieks, taking a step forward but steps back again, pacing at the entry to the room again. “You’re going to stay here with me! You’re going to stay!” Nima shivers, continuing to stay still, eyes moving to focus on the corpse in front of her. The empty sockets and grim grin send a couple tears down her face, a silent sob shaking her body as she curls up tighter, closing her eyes.
Aimee falls silent after her screaming and cursing before there’s a thump from upstairs. Nima listens as Aimee scurries away before checking her watch again. Two minutes. Nima watches the seconds tick by as the footsteps thump by overhead again and Nima tries hard not to look at the corpse, tempted to move but not feeling safe enough to do so.
Another slow, torturous minute ticks by before she can hear her alarm, a sense of relief spreading through her before she checks the time on her watch. She still has a full minute to go, it’s five-thirty-four, not thirty-five. Nima stares at the watch, watching the seconds tick by before the alarm falls silent at about the thirty second mark.
“You’re cheating!” The voice echoes throughout the entire house, Nima clapping a hand over her mouth. “Cheater cheater cheater!” Aimee screams at the top of her lungs. The clock slowly ticks forward despite the little girl’s protests and the time jumps to five-thirty-five. Nima sits, waiting as she listens for her phone. It starts to beep a few seconds later, echoing like Aimee’s voice.
Nima picks herself up, stumbling towards the exit, leaving the lights on as she heads up the half-broken stairs as carefully as she can. Aimee is nowhere in sight at the top of the stairs. Nima hurries and heads up the stairs towards the little girl’s room. The stairs are silent and she makes it there without incident, her phone still blithely beeping away that the fifteen minutes are up.
“I won!” Nima claims, holding her beeping phone, looking around the room. The Jenna and Sadie dolls are missing, she suddenly realizes, staring at where they had been in the box. “Oh fuck.” She mutters before hurrying back out of the room and down the stairs.
“Get back here cheater!” Aimee’s voice has an unnatural, deep undertone to it, coming from not far behind Nima.
“I didn’t cheat!” Nima yells in response, hurrying down the steps towards the door. She glances over her shoulder and sees Aimee standing at the top of the steps, clutching the two dolls. “If I won, I could go, with my friends, you agreed to that.” Nima’s body is tense, ready to flee and there’s only a slight pause before Aimee scowls, pitching the dolls at full-force down at her.
“You cheating liar! You lie! You cheat!” Nima barely manages to catch Sadie, Jenna hitting the ground and the arm breaking, Nima scooping her up. “I’m doing nothing for you! You can’t leave! I want another pretty doll!” The door slams and a chill runs up Nima’s spine again as she looks back at it. It’s locked tight when she tries to open it.
“I didn’t cheat! Let me out!” Aimee stays at the top of the steps, glowering down at Nima.
“You cheated! You went downstairs! I saw you come back up!” Aimee crosses her arms. “You cheated, so I get another dolly.” The voice winds around Nima like a snake.
“No! No—you told me there were no other rules!” Nima points at Aimee, her body shaking. “I asked you what the rules were and you just said hide. You didn’t say anything about downstairs being off-limits!” Aimee looks startled, taking a step back into the dark of the upstairs hallway. “So you need to turn my friends back now and let me leave!”
There’s a long silence, Nima barely able to make out the white of Aimee’s dress. She continues to stand, pointing at Aimee with one shaking hand, putting on a much braver face than she feels inside. The quiet draws long between them, Nima’s arm slowly growing tired. Aimee’s eyes glimmer in the darkness and a shiver runs through Nima, tempted to turn and run but she holds her ground against the unnatural child.
“No. I want a dolly. I don’t have a dolly with skin like yours.” Aimee’s voice is quiet and Nima’s expression turns horrified.
“N—No!” Nima chokes out. “T—That not—not—” Nima watches as her hand starts to change, becoming smaller. “I—I’ll tell your mamma! You’ll get in trouble!” The change stops sharply, leaving her hand looking smaller and more doll-like. “You being unfair to me when we made a deal, I’ll tell her and she’ll get angry at you!” Aimee gives a howl, the noise echoing like a banshee’s scream.
“Not fair! Not fair! You cheated!” Nima’s hand returns to normal and the shutters on the house slam over and over again. “You cheated! You cheated!” The door hits Nima in the back and she stumbles forward before staggering out of the house the next time it opens. Stumbling down the steps, she lands hard in the grass, dropping the dolls.
“Oh God, oh God help me,” Nima murmurs and there’s a scream from beside her. When she looks up, Jenna and Sadie have taken the places of the dolls, Jenna holding her arm as it hangs at an odd angle. Nima gets to her feet, helping Jenna and Sadie up and the girls flee the property, the house’s shutters and doors and windows all slamming and opening repeatedly like some rabid beast. It falls silent the second they’re on the sidewalk, running away, sitting and waiting for its next victims.