As it turns out, horror stories aren’t just for Halloween. To all my romance readers, I apologize. I’ve been doing a lot of shorts for a writing class, & if I have to keep it on a PG-13 level, my instincts steer toward sci-fi or horror.
No warnings for this one. I wrote it for my daughter, Bella. My little artist.
Katie always had a vivid imagination. She liked to draw and tell stories. When she was a little girl, she would write plays and perform them for her mom and dad. It was through her drawings, though, where her imagination really took flight. Her mom let her paint on her walls. Her entire room was a mural. As she became older, she would paint over the walls and start over. First, there was an enchanted forest filled with pixies and faeries. Then a tropical rainforest with all the animals her mind could conjure. Lastly, an ocean filled with tropical fish, mermaids, and even the Kraken. She imagined they were real. Sometimes, she immersed herself in her imaginary worlds so completely she forgot where one ended and one began.
When she was a teenager, her parents began fighting more often. Sometimes they drank. Sometimes they drank and fought. Those times were the worst. Katie would curl herself into her mattress with her sketchpad and draw. Sometimes it got so bad that not even drawing helped drown out the noise, even when she wore headphones.
One night, it got particularly bad. She was listening to music in her room when she heard her parents come home, and of course, they were arguing. When weren’t they arguing? She tried to ignore it. She turned up her music and continued drawing. She needed an escape; she envisioned a lakehouse. Perhaps it was from a dream, or maybe it was an almost-forgotten childhood memory, but she couldn’t be sure.
Her parents’ voices grew louder in the next room; Katie’s hand moved upon the drawing pad more quickly than ever. She drowned out all the rest, focusing on the lakehouse.
Her eyes drifted closed, yet her hand moved faster still upon the page. She concentrated on the smooth weight of the pencil between her fingers and ignored the cramping of her hand. A blister was forming between her second and third fingers, but she didn’t care.
The lakehouse. The lakehouse.
She could picture it so clearly. A summer breeze rustled the leaves on the trees bordering the small cabin; she imagined she could feel it. Through the trees, the water glistened in the setting sun while lapping the shallow banks. There was a rickety dock with a loose board; Katie’s hand moved faster across the page as the images came to her.
Her parents’ voices faded away. The music faded away until there was nothing but silence—deafening, resounding silence that rang in her ears. The ringing grew louder until her eardrums felt like they might explode. Katie gasped and dropped the pencil; she grasped her ears with both hands as the ringing grew to an unbearable crescendo before ceasing abruptly.
She felt sunshine on her face. Her eyes flew open—
She was no longer in her bedroom. Impossibly, she now stood on the rickety dock from her imagination, facing a setting sun over a crystal-clear lake. She stood immobile for several stunned moments, observing the sunset; its hues of burnt orange, pink, and yellow were just as stunning as she’d imagined. Turning, she looked toward the house. It was just as she’d drawn. Just as she remembered. She had been here before—of that, she was almost certain. Or perhaps it only felt so familiar because she’d invented it years ago in her mind. Perhaps it had always been there in her head, lying dormant.
When she began walking toward the house, the boards felt solid and real under her shoes, but the closer she got, she realized that something was off. No chirps of insects or calls of birds reached her ears. No breeze rustled the leaves of the nearby trees, and when she focused on the backdrop behind the house, it seemed synthetic, like a green screen in an old movie.
By the time she reached the cabin, the sun had set entirely, and every light inside was ablaze. The house beckoned her, and she answered its call, opening the sliding glass door and stepping inside. The room was familiar yet not. Cozy-looking furniture and a fireplace that would warm the room on a cold day. But it wasn’t cold. Nor was it hot. Katie crossed the room and picked up the framed photo on the mantel. It was her and her parents, smiling from the frame, but this wasn’t a photo that Katie recalled taking, and it gave her the heebie-jeebies. The smiles were artificial. Like everything in this room, she realized suddenly. When she picked up the old rotary phone from the side-table, she realized it was fake—a prop, like they used in the theater department at school.
Katie went from room to room. Everything seemed homey and inviting on the surface, but underneath, everything was hollow. A prop. The flatscreen in the living room. The apples, bananas, and pears in the fruit bowl. The blueberry muffins left on the countertop.
She ascended the stairs. Studied the pictures on the walls. More trips she never took, with artificial smiles and artificial backgrounds. This was what she wanted, she realized quite suddenly. The perfect life she craved. But her imagination hadn’t been able to correctly fill in the gaps—or maybe perfection simply didn’t exist.
She hesitated outside the first bedroom door she encountered at the top of the stairs, deliberating on whether she should knock. Would her artificially perfect parents be awaiting her? Did she want to know?
Maybe she should try to wake herself. I am dreaming, right? She ignored the nagging voice telling her this was too real to be a dream, the details too precise. Either way, she had brought herself here. Surely she could get herself back?
Steeling herself, she flung open the door. The harsh overhead lights revealed a country-chic bedroom suite and two human-sized lumps beneath the duvet. Katie’s heart pattered in her chest as she approached the bed, eyes locked on the oddly-still forms. Were they dead? She didn’t wanna know. She didn’t wanna know. Yet her feet propelled her forward, and before she could stop herself, she was reaching out for the edge of the comforter. Her hand shook as she grasped it, and then, bracing herself for whatever was to come, she yanked it aside.
Staring unseeingly up at her were two mannequins, plastic replicas of her mom and dad. Dummy-Mom wore a sundress and pearls. Dummy-Dad donned khakis and a button-down shirt. Her parents never dressed like this, like…like some Leave it to Beaver weirdos. Was that what her subconscious wanted? Assimilation? Artificial perfection?
At least, like this, they can’t argue, a snide voice sounded in her head.
As she stared at the mannequins, she became fascinated by the intricate details. They resembled her parents, but all imperfections had been erased. The scar on Dad’s jaw and the gray at his temples were gone. Erased, the mole above Mom’s lip and the deep purple beneath her eyes. Strangely—and eerily—their eyes were lifelike. Almost human, but not quite.
Abruptly, something hard latched onto her wrist. Katie started, jerking back when she realized that Dummy-Mom’s hand had her in a firm, cold grasp. As she wrenched her arm away and stumbled back in shock and horror, Dummy-Mom focused on her with those eerily lifelike, human eyes. “Isn’t this what you wanted, darling?” she asked in a falsely sweet voice, so like Mom’s—yet so different. “You wanted things to be perfect. Now they can be.”
When Dummy-Mom sat up, Katie roused herself from her stupor. She turned and sprinted for the door, needing to flee this nightmare. She flew down the stairs, and the portraits mocked her with their smiles. Stay, stay, stay, they seemed to be saying. Heart pounding, she half-expected the back door through which she entered not to open—Katie had watched enough horror movies in her life—but to her relief, it slid open with no trouble, and when she stumbled across the threshold—
She sat up on her bed with a gasp. She was clutching her sketchpad with both hands, and on it—her drawing of the sunset lakehouse. Two figures in the upstairs window—Katie didn’t recall drawing them—stared out of the page with falsely cheerful smiles. With trembling hands, she tore the drawing to shreds and tossed the sketchpad in her rubbish bin.
As her breathing steadied, she became aware that the house was now silent. Her parents must have called a ceasefire and gone to bed. Katie stood and changed into her shorts, almost managing to convince herself that she’d dozed off and that the entire incident had been a nightmare. She’d had vivid nightmares as a child, but it had been a while. In the bathroom, she brushed her teeth and rinsed her mouth. As she spat out the mouthwash, she realized quite suddenly that the house was too silent. The air conditioner had clicked off, and she discerned not even the chirp of a cricket.
Heart hammering in her chest, she shut the medicine cabinet—and was greeted not by her own reflection in the mirror but by her Dummy-Self.
Katie tried to scream, but the image in the mirror merely smiled, its plastic visage a horrifying mockery of joy.
Isn’t this what you wanted, Katie? To be happy always?
© 2020 K.A. Raines
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