It is tradition, on these urban expeditions, for everyone to take a suvionier - a token of proof that they’d gone somewhere they were not supposed to go and saw things that they were not supposed to see. Tim takes little things, bits of broken wire and buttons left floors, anything small enough to stuff in a shoebox shoved in the far corner of his closet. Kelly went for florals - dried up weeds and dead leaves and little bouquets of wildflowers that she pressed inside her biology textbooks.
Olivia, true to form, is the most bold. She keeps a crate in the back of her parent’s shed, hidden behind the ride-on mower and a large assortment of rakes, behind the boxes her mother packed up for the yard sale that they never had. There she had books from the library of an old orphanage and an unopened package of surgical masks from the county hospital that closed down when they were just kids; she took full staff manuals with the covers missing and cracked coffee pots from retired break-rooms, state issued blankets that were no longer fit to be issued. She takes things that once mattered, things with names on them - full folders of files that once meant something, and now doesn’t. She likes to go for the weird things: the single shoes left in empty halls, the jackets forgotten on dusty coat racks.
This time, though, she finds the strangest treasure of all.
“Don’t take that,” Kelly says.
“Why not?” Olivia asks.
“It’s creepy is what it is,” Tim says.
“That thing’s possessed for sure,” says Kelly.
The thing in question is a doll. A simple doll made of felt, with black button eyes and a smile made of squiggled switches that were probably endearing before some spiders made their webs across it. It wears a dress that looks like it used to be a tablecloth; homemade, Olivia thinks, and that makes her want it more.
“You guys are nuts,” she says, sweeping her sleeve across the doll’s face to clean off the dust and cobwebs. “I think it’s cool. Kind of cute, once you clean it up.”
“You have a weird definition of cute,” says Kelly, but Olivia is not listening. She’s turning the doll over in her hands, inspecting it. It’s well made, she finds, the stitching hardly frayed except for at the hem of the little blue dress. On one of the doll’s feet the name Libby is written in black ink.
“Look at that,” Olivia says, pointing to the ink. “She’s even got a name.”
“That just makes it worse,” Kelly says. The doll goes into Olivia’s bag anyway.
When she arrives home, she bypasses her parents’ shed and instead goes straight inside. She cleans the doll up with some washcloths from the bathroom cabinet and and sets it on a high shelf in her bedroom. No one seems to notice it, no one but her sister, who swears it changes positions throughout the day.
“You can stop moving it,” Olivia tells her, “you’re not going to scare me.”
“Are you kidding?” says Natalie. “I’m not touching that thing!”
“Sure,” Olivia says. “So it just jumped on my bed of its own accord?”
“It was on your bed?!”
“Very funny, Nat.”
“Liv, I swear,” says Natalie. “You brought home a goddamn demon.”
Olivia dismiss this with a quip about Natalie’s Oujia board, a quip that does not go over well because apparently when Natalie is really scared of something she doesn’t want to try to talk to it with the stupid spirit board. Too bad. Olivia would have liked to mess with her - make the planchette spell out things like I’m here, and Right behind you, and Yes, I am a demon.
Little Libby the Doll continues to move around Olivia’s room. Once, it even ends up in the living room, just perched on the couch like it was gearing up for Sunday football.
Natalie stars to have nightmares, too. She tells Olivia about them. She talks about finding the doll at the foot of her bed with a knife gleaming in its little felt hand. She talks about blood dripping from the doll’s button eyes and sometimes woke up with terrible headaches, swearing that they were all the doll’s fault.
“The joke’s getting old, Nat,” Olivia tells her sister one night when she found Libby sitting on the front porch when she’d come home from school. “Give it up.”
“It’s not a joke, Liv,” Natalie swears. “Get rid of that fucking thing.”
Olivia just rolls her eyes and sets Libby back on her shelf.
Kelly doesn’t go into Olivia’s room anymore. Eventually, she stops coming over all together, instead inviting Olivia and Tim to her basement rec room for movie nights and to plan their next expeditions into their next condemned building. One night, over popcorn and bottles of cola, Olivia tells Kelly and Tim about Natalie’s obsession with Libby.
“It’s not scary,” Olivia says. “I don’t get why she keeps at it.”
“Do you ever think that maybe she’s telling the truth?” Tim asks.
“Natalie? No,” Olivia says firmly. “She’s just stuck on this gag.”
“If you say so,” says Kelly. “But I still think that doll’s bad news.”
Olivia stands firm in her belief that Libby is just a doll and nothing more. She swears allegiance to rationality when Natalie’s headaches grow into migraines so severe their mother rushes her to the hospital. She swears this when her mother starts to get nauseous whenever she steps in Olivia’s room, and when the family dog stops crossing her narrow threshold. She swears it even when her father wakes up in the middle of the night pacing the ground floor with her mother’s cooking knife in his hand, nearly stabbing Olivia when she tried to wake him up. (It was my mistake, Olivia reasons, because you’re not supposed to wake a sleepwalker, and that’s all that was happening.)
The hardest thing to rationalize is when Natalie tries to burn the doll in the firepit when her friends are roasting marshmallows, only to have the doll show up on Olivia’s shelf with a thin film of ash on its little felt hands.
She thinks Natalie is lying about using Libby as kindling, that her little friends are all in on it and backing her little sister up when they swear up and down that they watched the thing go up in flames so high Olivia’s father came out of the kitchen to dump water over the pit.
The nightmares come and go - for Natalie, and their mother, and their sleepwalking father, and eventually even to Olivia. The dreams are different for Olivia, though. Different than the way Natalie and their mother describe them - Olivia does not dream of blood and knives. She just hears a soft voice whispering in a language she doesn’t understand.
Kelly tries to get her to get rid of the doll.
“We’re going back anyway,” Kelly says. “You can dump it there.”
“It’s a doll,” Olivia says.
“But nothing,” Olivia swears. “It’s just a doll.”
Even when she’s drawn to the knives her father drags from the kitchen each night. Even when the takes one for herself instead of waking him. Even when she brings it into her little sister’s bedroom. Even when the police put it, red slicked, into a plastic bag and slap cuffs over Olivia’s slender wrists.
It’s just a doll.
Just a doll.