“Stone Mask Girl”

Short Story by Jeff Hill

 

A haunted house in the middle of a small college town is the setting for a brutal death on a hot summer night. The kids around the neighborhood all say that the house is haunted before this night, but it’s really just old and full of secrets. There is a woman who lives there, but no one even knows she’s there.

They see her every once in a while; in the windows, in the back yard, but never during the daytime. They say she’s dead, but no one ever bothers to ask her. Other than vandals or kids on a dare, she never has any visitors. For all the town knows, she is a ghost.

But she’s not.

The old woman is not that old. She is only twenty-six. She is in a constant state of mourning. Her husband left her. Her son left her. Her parents are long dead, and so are all of her friends. The life she led in her past days was that of danger, deceit, and drama. But she would take it all back just to be considered among the living again. Her biggest mistake was not leaving the life of crime behind her. No, the old woman who is really not that old made a far worse mistake. She tried to change. She tried motherhood. But, as luck would have it, she gave birth to something evil.

Living a life of betrayal and wickedness never helped anyone, but she thought that by bringing a pure child into her environment, she would be forgiven for her past mistakes. But she was wrong. And after three stillborn babies, a record among the townspeople, she did not, as her husband said, “get the hint.” But that didn’t stop her. She kept trying.

Then, one day, she succeeded. The child was born; a little girl whose beauty was only paralleled by the glimmer of hope in her eyes. And that was what she was called, from day one. Hope.

But the child was born different, and in this world, different never means something good. She was an outcast, born with a rare skin disease, allergic to the sun. Constantly shrouded in darkness, Hope and her mother were shunned by the father and his perfect son. When the father left Hope’s mother, she stopped speaking and she stopped going out into public.

The girl also stopped speaking, but for a different reason. A few years later, people would say that it was because she wanted to mimic her mother. Some would say that she chose not to, for a deed that happened in her name; one so heinous, so evil in nature that she simply did not deserve to speak again. But her doctors would have a more logical explanation. She simply couldn’t.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I promised a ghoulish tale, and no ghost story is complete without a ghost.

After two years of being regarded as a supernatural being, Hope’s mother got sick and tired of being a ghost. She did not leave a letter. She did not leave a message. The only thing she left, when she raised the gun to her temple, was her daughter.

Time went on. And Hope survived.

At least, that’s how they tell it…

Tim’s Aunt Mindy died last week, and I’m only a little ashamed to admit that my curiosity outweighs my remorse. The doctors said that it was just her time, a plain and simple heart attack. But I can’t help but wonder if the little girl she adopted had something to do with it. I know it’s horrible to think such things about family, but, in my defense, I didn’t even know them. I never actually met her and it had been at least ten years since Tim had even spoken with his aunt. Not since she adopted the stone mask girl.

Her name was Hope, and the first few years of her life were full of tragedy and horror. She was born with a rare genetic disorder, a form of photodermatosis that rendered her completely incapable of going into the sunlight. Abandoned and left for dead by her birth parents as a baby, she was found in the woods behind her birthplace and went through several Catholic orphanages until finally finding a home with a young couple on the eve of her sixth birthday. The man and his wife were wealthy and prominent citizens, but could not conceive a child of their own. It seemed that poor little Hope was going to finally find a happy ending.

But tragedy struck again, and a car accident claimed the lives of the man and woman who had promised the small child love and affection. Hope survived the wreck, but was not found until roughly four hours later, a victim of the sun’s harmful rays. Before she could be put back into the Catholic orphanage, her disease had demanded an urgent visit to the emergency room. That is where Hope and Tim’s Aunt Mindy first met, in the intensive care unit. Mindy was in fact a nurse at that hospital, a childless widow herself, and felt a strange connection to the child, bringing her home with her after months of operations.

The papers were properly filed and within a few short weeks, Mindy and Hope were a family. Mindy put in for early retirement and devoted the last ten years of her life to the little girl who wore a stone mask to protect and hide her face from a cruel and unforgiving world. They seemed to be a happy little family, but little things make me wonder. It’s the little things that have kept me up at night, like the fact that the girl doesn’t talk. She is at least sixteen by now, but she has never spoken a word. Or the fact that she lives in the basement den, modeled after a dollhouse.

Tim dismisses my suspicions as cruel and unwarranted. But even he can’t ignore the padlock on the outside of the stone mask girl’s door. Or the fact that Mindy’s reclusive nature over the past ten years was unbelievably uncharacteristic of a woman of her caliber. Even though this frail girl had never spoken a word, and had never hurt a fly, I couldn’t help but wonder what her power over Mindy was and where it came from.

Regardless of what I wonder all day long, the simple fact still remains. I don’t have a job. Tim does. Someone needs to watch her. Easier said than done. Why am I so afraid of this little girl? Why do I see only blackness when I stare past her stone mask and into her eyes? Why do I think that the first day living in Mindy’s house is going to be the longest of my life?

Oh my God! I saw them move!

Tim doesn’t ever believe me. He always says that I have an overactive imagination, just like that of a child. But I say that he just has an under-active imagination, like that of an idiot. Always saying that I have a “flair for the dramatic,” he dismisses almost everything that I ever tell him. He doesn’t even believe my stories of funny things that happen at the store or the library.

I swear to God that I just saw them move again! The freaking walls are alive or something! I hate this house. I look at the clock on the wall, the one that is about five feet farther away from where it was less than ten seconds ago. It’s only nine o’clock. Tim’s not going to be home from work until after at least six. Damn him and his painfully predictable, stereotypical, and inconvenient job.

“You just need to stay on your meds,” he’d tell me. But that’s just his under-active imagination talking again. He doesn’t want to understand me. I’m a writer. I can’t just look at something and ignore it like he does. Things like this don’t only happen to me, I’m just the only one who sees them.

I can’t believe we’re living in a freaking haunted house. With a mute deformed retarded girl living in our dungeon. This is like something straight out of a Gothic horror novel. No one would believe this, the more I think about it. Even I am having trouble grasping what’s going on this morning.

Earlier today, when Tim left for work, I went up to the attic and did a little bit of looking around. I found some old picture albums, most of little or no importance. But one in particular stood out. It was a photo album of, get this, dead people. They were all posed in their finest clothes, after being dead, and underneath each one was a handwritten date of birth, name, and date of death.

As I turned the pages, I heard a loud thump below me, probably the stone mask girl. Tim said that I should make her some soup or something around noon because that’s what she eats and that’s when she wakes up. Why was she up so early, I wondered? Would I be breaking her routine if I fed her this early? Oh, well, I thought.

So I went downstairs again, walking into the kitchen and starting to wonder what I should make her for breakfast. I thought about things that a girl her age would eat, but then I thought about her condition. Tim said that he heard that the cancerous legions she got from the sunlight had spread to her mouth, which could have explained why she ate only soup. It could also explain the reasoning behind her speechlessness. Either that, or she just chose not to speak.

That’s when I saw the walls move. Literally. The entire kitchen shook and I thought it was an earthquake or something, but then I realized that this was Nebraska. There pretty much was no such thing as an earthquake here in the Midwest. The only ting we ever had were twisters, and those were few and far between. So I know what I saw, and the walls definitely moved.

I hear scratching on the door to the basement and I can’t begin to tell you how much that creeps me out. I can’t even bring myself to say anything to the girl. I can’t even ask her what she wants, or if she’s hungry, or if she’s got a weapon held high as she waits for me to open the door and let her kill me.

What a thing to think, huh? This is crazy, but then again, that’s exactly what Tim would say. Mister no imagination would not think twice about going into a room alone with a girl like that. He says that my fear is mean. Plain and simple. But I think that he’s just too naive to see what I see. Like that time we went to New York.

We were walking down the street, pretty late at night, after I had met with my editor and gotten turned down for publication for my fifth or sixth time that year, and I wanted to go back to our hotel room. I wanted to sleep, but Tim wanted to sight-see. Long story short, we were mugged after we went into an alley that I had been saying all night did not look safe. He actually thinks there is no evil in the world. But then again, he doesn’t really think there is good, either. Just lots and lots of shades of gray.

Like I said, an idiot.

But I love him. I really do. He’s the best thing that has ever happened to me in my whole boring and unsatisfying, adventure-free life in Nebraska. He says we met because we went to school in the same college, but I tell people that we met because he saved me from failing out of school by sitting by me in art history. Again, who’s story is better? Exactly.

Thump.

Dammit! There it is again! The freaking pictures are all falling down as I walk away from the door that the stone mask girl is hiding behind, the one that she is plotting behind. Maybe she’s doing this, I start to wonder. Maybe she’s somehow controlling events from down there, like an elaborate stage or something. That stone mask hides a theatrical genius, a puppet master of the creepiest kind. I’ll bet that’s it. She’s just really bored, really warped, and really, really creepy.

After the ninth or tenth wall move, I decide that she will have to wait until lunch, as planned, for her antics. She’s just messing with me, trying to make me go crazy. But the jokes on her. Tim and all of my doctors already think I’m crazy. I have enough meds to make a living selling them to junior high kids after school, it’s actually kind of ridiculous if you think about it.

Going back up the stairs, I see a new closet that I haven’t looked in yet, and decide to take a gander through more of Mindy’s things. As I open the door, what I see scares the crap out of me. I swear to God, it’s a freaking noose. The closet is entirely empty, save for the noose and a single wooden chair.

Screw. This.

As I slam the door shut, I turn just in time to see someone walk right into the bedroom that Tim and I have commandeered.

“Tim!” I scream. “Thank God you’re back!”

Then I look at my watch. It’s only nine thirty. That’s not Tim that just walked past me. The walls are moving again, I can hear them down the hall. The noose is smacking against the closet door, I can feel my skin crawling as it does so. And the stone mask girl is scratching at the door again. What does she want from me?

I pick up the phone and dial Tim’s office.

“Tim!” I yell into the phone.

“Sorry, Gwenny, he’s not in right now.”

Crap. It’s his secretary.

“He’s got a business meeting with the board of directors until about noon-thirty. You want me to have him call you when he gets back to the office?”

“No, I…”

“Gwenny,” she sighs, “You sound stressed. You okay?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s just… Tell him I called.”

“Will do. Have a good one.”

“You, too.”

Maybe I am imagining all of this. Maybe I should just take some pills and go to bed for a few more hours. Yeah. I think that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll just go to the kitchen, fix myself a glass of water, take a few pills, and go to bed. I’ll just go sleep this paranoia off and wake up when…

What was that?

I just heard a loud crash in the basement. Oh my god. What horrible things have I been thinking all morning? That poor helpless little girl probably just hurt herself and can’t cry out for help. Before I even know it, I’m at the padlock door, opening it with the one of the hundreds of keys that Aunt Mindy left in her will. She has a key for every single room in the house, including storage closets and the doors that lead to doors, that lead to white blank walls where rooms should be.

I’m inside the basement, walking down the stairs, and the dimly lit room is not reassuring that something good happened down here. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight up. I hear nothing. The walls aren’t moving anymore, the scratching stopped when she probably fell down the stairs or wherever she fell. I think I imagined the noose, but I’ll have to look later. I don’t hear a thing.

Not a sound.

I’m frantically looking around the stone mask girl’s room, not quite sure what to expect. I’ve only seen her once, and that was just for a brief time. And there were policemen, doctors, and of course, Tim was at my side the whole time. I’ve never seen her face to face, well, you know what I mean. Not with just me and her in the room, and certainly not in this room.

This room.

What a trip. I swear, it couldn’t be creepier if it tried. It’s almost as if it has a life of its own. Mindy always thought of Hope as a sort of innocent little girl, one who never grew old and never matured. It was very evident she treated her like a child from the first time I laid eyes on the photographs of this place. It’s like a doll’s house. Lots of pink. Lots of antique furniture. Lots of places to hide.

“Hope?” I ask. “You down here?”

Of course she’s down here. Where would she possibly have gone? Unless it’s somehow her messing with the house when I’m not looking. Maybe she lives in the walls like the villains of those old Lifetime Original Movies I used to watch with my mom when I was a teenager. Yeah. Right.

I start to move forward, away from the staircase, and notice that this basement is a lot larger than I had imagined, and only the front room is actually done up like a dollhouse. The rest of it is, well, a stereotypical, scary, dirty cellar-type basement. Hope’s room is not the dollhouse. That’s just what Mindy showed everyone. No, she lives somewhere else. Somewhere far worse.

She lives in a dimly lit closet-sized room at the end of the hallway, with only one lamp and a bed that looks as if the sheets haven’t been changed in over a decade. There are rats and roaches everywhere, and I almost start to understand why the girl killed her foster mother.

No! I can’t think such things! This is a poor and innocent little girl, who didn’t do a damn thing to deserve the life she’s been given. I should be ashamed of myself… by I’m not. I’m too scared to be mad at myself. I can barely even open my mouth to form another word, let alone ask the girl if she’s alright.

Then I see her.

She’s sitting in a chair, next to her bed. She’s got something in her hands and is dressed in a doll’s outfit, one that looks not only uncomfortable, but outdated on top of that. I can’t take my eyes off her mask. It’s so damn creepy. All I can see is the white stone, expressionless, faceless, soulless. And those eyes. What am I talking about? There are no eyes! Only blackness. She has no freaking eyes!

Compose yourself.

I take a few deep breaths and try again.

“Hope, honey. Do you want something to eat? Is that you that’s been making all of those noises?”

She suddenly stops rocking in her chair, lifts her head up, and looks directly at me. She holds up her doll to the light, and I see all that I am willing to see for today. The doll has no face. It’s been crushed in.

“Never mind,” I say, “I’ll come back later.”

I’m lying, and as I turn to walk back towards the stairs, she gets up. Oh my God. She knows I’m not coming back down. She knows that I’m going to wait for Tim to get off work and then send him down and then leave her forever. I’m never going to be her mother, I’m never going to love her. And she knows it.

She starts walking toward me, and I turn my brisk walking pace into a full-on sprint to the stairs. As I climb each step, I imagine how she’s going to murder me. You know, stab me a million times, then stuff me and put me in one of her dresses that Mindy made her. I’m going to be stuck down here forever with the stone mask girl and she will play with me, just like one of her screwed up creepy little dolls with no face.

My legs are heavy, my heart is beating faster and faster. Each step is getting harder and harder to climb, and before I know it, I’m being grabbed on the ankle by the stone mask girl. I fall up the stairs, landing square on my face.

And then I black out.

When I come to, I’m lying on several steps, and my head hurts like crazy. There’s a bit of blood on my forehead, but I’ll live. That is, if I get out of this dollhouse in time. I look around the room frantically, and expect to see her lunge at me with a pair of scissors or a knitting needle or something that she means to kill me with, but I’m wrong. She’s just sitting there, on the bottom step. Not moving, just stroking her doll and looking back at the dollhouse room.

Then I cough, and she turns. I swear her head pulls a Linda Blair on me, but that can’t be possible. I’m just so scared that I’m starting to imagine things again. My overactive imagination is going to be my downfall, according to Tim. But I think, in this case, it’s going to save my life. I bolt up the stairs.

Slamming the door behind me, I go to put the key in the door, seeing the white stone mask brush past it and the eye of the stone mask girl look directly at me. Her eyes aren’t black at all, but that doesn’t register until I put the padlock on and hear what sounds to me like crying.

Then the doorbell rings. It’s Tim, back home. He always rings the doorbell when he’s carrying in groceries.

He’ll be coming into the house any minute now. That means I only have a few seconds to do this. I have to go back into the basement. He’s coming, I can hear him cussing up a storm outside, but that doesn’t make what I have to do any less scary, believe me.

I’m unlocking the padlock as I hear the front door open, Tim’s footsteps coming toward me. I shut the door. His voice calls out my name, but I am silent. Just like Hope.

And there she is. Waiting for me.

“I’m not scared of you,” I tell her.

Her stone mask glowing in the darkness, she doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t move a muscle. She just sits there, watching me. I swear to God she’s just waiting for my next move, waiting to lunge out and kill me, just like her father has been doing for years.

“You killed her, didn’t you?” I ask her. “Mindy, I mean.”

No response.

“It doesn’t surprise me. I mean, just look at you.” Come on. Move. Do something! “You’re a freak. You’re not even human.”

No response.

I hear Tim calling me from above, looking through room after room in this haunted mansion. His under-active imagination keeps him safe, but my overactive imagination keeps me focused. I know what’s going on now, and I know what I have to do.

There are sewing utensils on the table next to Hope. She looks at me as I look at them. Then she moves her head toward them. Even though she is closer, I think I could get them before she does. But I have to act quick.

I jump forward, grabbing one of them, but what happens next surprises me. She doesn’t even move. She just looks at me. I’m frozen with fear, looking face to face with the stone mask girl. She lifts her hands to her mask, removing it and her hair covers her face. I drop the scissors to the floor.

As she gets up out of her chair, dropping her doll onto the floor in front of her, I inch backwards, back to the stairs. I know now that I wasn’t wrong. I know now that she is exactly what I thought she was the first time I laid eyes on her.

I’m crying, begging, when she begins to raise her arm. Just when I think she’s going to strike me down, I notice that she has stopped moving. Her hair parts, and I see her face.

Before I can register what has just happened, before I can understand what is really going on, I hear that damn rope swing again. Upstairs. Tim is silent. I can’t hear him. All I hear is the noose, swinging, and it sounds different. Heavier. But I don’t want to hurt this poor girl anymore. She’s been hurt enough. I take the scissors to my throat.

And after all was said and done, Hope survived.

 

Originally published in Larks Fiction Magazine in 2013.

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