The Husband Doll
The calls have turned violent. A nasty voice on the other end tells me what he wants to cut and what he wants to eat and what he’ll do to my body after I’m dead.
Lisa. Leeeeeesa. If you die with your eyes open, I’ll let you watch.
Arnie totally freaks. “It’s insane what women have to deal with these days,” he says, and rushes into our basement with a plan to fix it. He’s down there for two days straight. I know he’s busy because I can hear ’90s rock through the heater vent. His getting-shit-done music.
The nasty voice asks if I know what it’s like to be killed to Alice in Chains.
When Arnie emerges on the second night to eat dinner, I tell him that whoever it is who’s calling can see us. “He knows what you listen to.”
“Whoa,” Arnie says, spicing the food I made with hot sauce. “Scary.”
I chew and swallow, but a hot lump in my throat remains. It’s been there since our wedding day, but it’s gotten worse since the phone calls. Also, the food is perfectly seasoned.
“What’s going down there?” I ask. “Seems a little counterintuitive to leave me alone right now.”
Arnie’s face sours. He pauses with the hot sauce bottle hovering over his next bite. I immediately regret saying anything.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m just trying to help. Trying to be a good husband.”
“Oh, honey,” I say, scooting close to rub his back. “I didn’t mean it. You’re a swell husband.”
“You mean it?” he asks, tears balancing on his eyelids. We embrace and he mashes his wet face into my chest. “I’m almost done,” he says. “And then you’ll see. It’ll be worth it. Promise.”
My phone buzzes, rattling against the table. Unknown number.
“Just don’t answer it,” Arnie says, and he looks proud to have offered such sage advice. I let the phone ring, pretending it’s the first time I’ve ever used common sense.
Arnie emerges on the third day, carrying the thing up from the basement, tucked under his arm like he’s transporting a sack of hair. I almost laugh.
He brushes the record sleeve of Pearl Jam’s Ten off a chair and sets his creation next to his turntables. “Voila!”
A dummy with a burlap sack for a head stares back at me with googly eyes. Ears made of orange construction paper have been affixed to the sides of the sack with hot glue that has dried hairy. I see old kernels of crumpled newspaper sticking out of the neck hole of a Primus shirt that used to be Arnie’s.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“What is it?”
“It’s me!” Arnie says. “A perfect replica to foil that creep on the phone.” He swishes his hands together, dusting off the hours of hard work. “What do you think?”
“I mean, it’s kind of creepy. I’ll give you that.”
Arnie’s eyebrows turn upwards in concern. “It’s not meant to be creepy. It’s for your protection.” He removes his glasses and uses his thumb and forefinger to spread the skin on his forehead in frustration. “I mean, it’s not, like, DONE done. Just a work in progress, really.” Arnie’s voice wavers; I hear the vibrato of emotion, and it’s not something I really want to deal with right now.
“No, it’s perfect,” I say. “Thank you.”
My boss has insisted that I work from home because of the threats. Now I just feel like a prisoner in my own house. I sit on the couch, edit filler content for a surprisingly popular website, and try not to be bothered by the doll. It’s hard to concentrate. Wherever I move, the doll’s eyes seem to follow. I actually scream when the phone in my pocket buzzes. The display reads “ARNIE.”
“I’m going to gut you like fucking fish,” Arnie says, using a low, gravelly voice.
“Whoa, dude. Not funny.”
“Hey, just kidding. Sorr-eeee,” he says, extending the apology like a long, nagging violin note. “How’s Lil Arnie working out?”
“That’s his name.”
“Oh.” I look at the doll; it looks back. Disquiet rakes my skin. “He’s fine.”
“I’ve been showing a couple guys at work pics, and they think Lil Arnie is a little creepy.”
“I already told you that,” I say.
“Well, you don’t need to be a B about it.”
There’s a knock at the front door. I stand up to answer it with the phone still pressed against my ear. I open the door and no one’s there, just a little note fluttering on the welcome mat.
In capital letters it says, I’M GOING TO GUT YOU LIKE A FISH.
“Arnie,” I say, “He knows where I live.”
“I mean, now that I look at it, I guess the doll is a little creepy,” Arnie says. “But that’s kind of cool, right? Kind of spooky?”
One of Lil Arnie’s googly eyes hangs off the burlap sack by strings of hot glue, swinging in the breeze. I’m not supposed to have the window open, but the room has begun to smell like Lil Arnie. Kind of horsey. Of course my husband would not have thought to wash the head beforehand. Lil Arnie’s good eye remains fixed on me, and I can’t remember if the drawn-on mouth had always been smiling.
The phone makes me jump again. I can’t remember the last time a phone call didn’t make me panic. Arnie’s name fills the phone screen.
“Hey—” I say, but the nasty voice cuts me off.
You’re going to die soon, Lisa. I’m watching you. I’m going to floss my teeth with your hair. I’m going to wear your skull on a chain around my neck.
“Arnie,” I say. “Stop.” My voice shakes from trying not to cry. I touch my throat. The hot lump has returned.
This is definitely not Arnie. The nasty voice pauses. But I see him there in the room, doing a good job of protecting you. As soon as he leaves, you’ll be sorry. I wait for him to disconnect the call. Finally, he whispers: Despite all my rage, you’re still just a rat in a cage. Then the line goes dead. When I look up from the phone, the smile on Lil Arnie’s face seems bigger.
“Lisa, wake up.”
I sit up too fast. Red, floating digital clock numbers blur and then sharpen: two-something a.m.
Arnie lifts me from bed by the armpits and drags me until I find my footing. He marches me into the living room, and points to a Temple of the Dog record sleeve resting on the floor. “Did you do that?”
I yawn, rub my eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t remember. Sorry. There’s been a lot on my mind lately.”
Arnie gets down on his knees and lifts the record sleeve, pinching it with delicate curator fingers. “This is an original pressing.” Arnie’s eyes go wide and he slowly turns his attention to Lil Arnie, still sitting next to the turntable.
“I think Lil Arnie did this,” Arnie says. “He knows how much I love this album.”
“Did you call me the other day pretending to be the killer?”
“I think the doll’s become possessed.”
“Did you threaten to floss with my hair?”
“I’ve created a monster,” Arnie says, ignoring me. He scoots backwards on his knees, away from the doll. The window is still open and a sudden breeze shakes Lil Arnie. My husband screams, scrambles up to his feet and into my arms. “I’m so scared,” he says.
“There, there,” I say.
My husband shoves Lil Arnie in the closet and doesn’t take his eyes off the closed door as we we eat. His aim is off as he attempts to douse his mashed potatoes with Sriracha sauce, and red splatters his plate. He shovels beige globs into his mouth without precision and the potatoes that stick at the corners of his mouth make him look slightly rabid.
Nine Inch Nails plays so loud that we have to yell.
“Maybe we can turn this down?” I ask. “You seem really tense, and the music isn’t helping.”
“You don’t like my music?” he asks, finally looking at me.
“I didn’t say that,” I yell. “You’re just being a little distant.”
Arnie sighs and makes a big show of walking over to the turntable to turn the volume down, like it’s the hardest, most heroic thing he’s done. “I have to tell you something,” he says when he returns. “It was me who called you the other day and said the thing about your skull.”
“Yeah, I saw your name on the caller ID.”
“I have an app to disguise my voice.”
“It was meant to be funny.” His face puckers and his eyes redden. “But now I know how scary it is when someone’s after you.”
“Are you talking about—”
“Lil Arnie.” His eyes move back to the closet. “He’s alive, and now he’s trying to kill me. I’m sure of it. I don’t know if he’s angry at me for giving him terrible life, for bringing him into a world where a woman can’t feel safe in her own home, or whatever. I just don’t know.”
“Was it you the entire time?”
“I was playing with powers beyond my control.”
I snap my fingers in front Arnie’s face. “Pay attention.” The sound strikes him like a slap, so I soften my face and add, “Please.”
“No, I just did the last couple of calls, but not the first.”
“So there’s still someone out there who wants to kill me.”
“Lisa, lighten up. They’re just prank calls. The real issue here is the thing in the closet.” Arnie raises his voice again, yells over Trent Reznor.
“My doll has come to life and is trying to kill me.”
A loud crash wakes me. I reach over to wake Arnie but only find the indent his body has left in our mattress. I feel like I should be more scared, but the low-key terror I’ve felt over the last few days, weeks, months, years has dulled the sensation. As I leave the bedroom, the thing in my throat returns and I realize that I’ve spent a life accommodating fear, clearing out a little space for it to dwell within.
I find Arnie at the bottom of the stairs, his leg still propped up on the broken banister. His neck bends at an impossible angle. Bulging eyes tell of a painful end.
I trace Arnie’s path up the stairs. The doll sits at the top, smiling down at us. Lil Arnie’s hot-glued eye idly spins on stringy bit of hot glue.
The doll stands up. I cover my mouth.
“I didn’t do that,” Lil Arnie says, pointing to my husband, and I immediately recognize the nasty voice underneath the gunny sack. “He just saw me and freaked out. Tripped himself. Must be pretty scared of this thing, huh?” Lil Arnie points to his face. I nod. “Gotta say: It’s pretty effective. Had me fooled for a while. It’s spooky but also kind of cool.”
“That’s what my husband said too.”
Lil Arnie descends the stairs. He pulls out a large, dull knife that looks handmade from a better knife. I step backwards and my foot falls on a crumpled ball of newspaper—stuffing that previously had filled the doll. My ankle twists and I fall.
Lil Arnie sings Radiohead as he walks down the stairs: “But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here?” He pauses when he gets to the bottom. “Now, I’m going to stab you in the heart.”
I close my eyes, hold my breath, and feel the knife puncture my ribs. It hurts, but not as much as I expected. I still scream—I don’t want to defy his expectations—and as the lights dim, I realize how good it feels to finally say what’s on my mind.
Ryan Bradford is the author of the novel Horror Business, as well as the founder and editor of Black Candies, a journal of literary darkness. His writing has appeared in Quarterly West, Vice, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, New Dead Families, and [PANK].
Illustration by Meg Murphy.