The eyes were staring at me through the window, colder than the breeze that caresses a lake in the winter.
They were intimidating, but they didn’t scare me. In fact, they were interesting. Something within them was enough to whet the appetite of anyone that peered into them, and it was the only thing that was present in them. No feeling, no liveliness. Just the incomprehensible. captivating, tempting.
The year was 1985, and I was standing outside the front window of Schroeder’s Antiques, a quaint, unimpeachable store that stood on the edge of the street of Maple Lane. It was surrounded by a handful of other businesses and stores, so it was typically overlooked. Not by me, though. I had always loved that store. The smell of the old wood filling my nostrils always relaxed me, eased my nerves. Besides, it was a nice distraction from all of hullabaloo rummaging through the town.
It wasn’t everyday that something like this happened in a small town like mine. Four children murdered in a span of three weeks? It was almost too much to handle. The town was still trying to wrap its head around it, but I didn’t want to. I just tried to ignore it. I had to ignore it. Dark things had no business being in such a bright place. And I guess you could surmise that my mind was on the list of bright places. You know what thoughts like that could do to you.
But I couldn’t ignore the doll in the window. Those eyes. The way it stood in the window like he was waving at everyone on the other side. He had been there since the first murder. I could remember him so vividly, yet I don’t remember why. I had never stood outside the window of the store before, I had always gone in. But yet it still lingered in my mind that I had seen this particular doll before, felt it before. And though I couldn’t recall every exact detail of it, it appeared to me like garden variety on that day on Maple Lane. Some part of me could only place one singular plastic balloon in his hand when I had first seen him, but somehow he had four as I watched him that day.
The eyes that were gazing at me were queerly human-like. Mere yellow orbs with their own life inside of them, like they each had their own heart. And though they were plastic you could almost see the breath rising behind them. I knew it wasn’t the case, though. There was no way that a doll could be even remotely human-like. That was stuff that only happened in movies.
Even if the doll was a clown, and it resembled something so alive, like it did there in the front display of the store.
In the reflection on the window in front of the clown’s face, I could see Jax. My son with chocolate brown hair like mine whose eyes would light up when the sun glinted against them just right. My pride and joy, the one that made it seem like everything that was good in the world was thriving inside of him like glorious caged heat. Jax was seven-years-old, and he had the liveliest attitude I had ever seen. How thrilled would he be to see a doll like the clown in the window.
One of Jax’s favorite things was to go see the circus with his father whenever it came to town. I never came along — the circus had always creeped me out — but Jax would always come home cheering of all the remarkable things he had seen. The music, the acrobats, the animals. But he had always loved the clowns; those seemed to be his favorite.
So of course, when his dad left and never returned, it was hard to see something like that stolen from him. To Jax, the clowns were his father, and when his was father was gone, so were the memories. The saying goes to let the dead dog lie, but when the dog was something that Jax needed, then I couldn’t just turn my head and walk away. It was medicine that he lurched for.
I scrutinized the doll a little closer. His demeanor seemed to send chills backflipping down my spine. His skin was a pallid, porcelain white, a scarlet painted-on smile hung over his face like Christmas lights. Those eyes that were staring so intently at me were a bright hazel, narrowed almost to slits, like a cat’s. He was dressed in a rainbow jumpsuit, with red pom-poms running down his front, finished with oversized, orange shoes. Tufts of vivid, sunset-orange hair protruded from his hairline, rays of the sun circling his head.
With my hair tickling the nape of my neck, tugging my sweater closer around my body, I made a decision. Swinging the door open to the store, I strolled in, the familiar smell of the ancient oak overwhelming my senses, giving me a similar feeling of strong vellichor. It seemed like I was the only customer. There was only one other person in the store besides me: a short, stout man with a thick mass of curly, brown hair on his head, dressed in a red floral Hawaiian shirt tucked into worn jeans. He was standing behind the counter of the checkout desk, and he flashed me an amiable smile upon entering. Anything to keep a customer, I guess. Any other reason couldn’t service the forced smile on his face, and it wasn’t like this place was Disneyworld.