One of the strange things about it was that Aubrey Walters wasn't at all a strange little girl. She was quite as ordinary as her father and mother, who lived in an apartment on Otis Street, and who played bridge one night a week, went out somewhere another night, and spent the other evenings quietly at home.
Aubrey was nine, and had rather stringy hair and freckles, but at nine one never worries about such things. She got along quite well in the not-too-expensive private school to which her parents sent her, she made friends easily and readily with other children, and she took lessons on a three-quarter-size violin and played it abominably.
Her greatest fault, possibly, was her predeliction for staying up late of nights, and that was the fault of her parents, really, for letting her stay up and dressed until she felt sleepy and wanted to go to bed. Even at five and six, she seldom went to bed before ten o'clock in the evening. And if, during a period of maternal concern, she was put to bed earlier, she never went to sleep anyway. So why not let the child stay up?
Now, at nine years, she stayed up quite as late as her parents did, which was about eleven o'clock of ordinary nights and later when they had company for bridge, or went out for the evening. Then it was later, for they usually took her along. Aubrey enjoyed it, whatever it was. She'd sit still as a mouse in a seat at the theater, or regard them with little-girl seriousness over the rim of a glass of ginger ale while they had a cocktail or two at a night club. She took the noise and the music and the dancing with big-eyed wonder and enjoyed every minute of it.
Sometimes Uncle Richard, her mother's brother, went along with them. She and Uncle Richard were good friends. It was Uncle Richard who gave her the dolls.
"Funny thing happened today," he'd said. "I'm walking down Rodgers Place, past the Mariner Buildingyou know, Edith; it's where Doc Howard used to have his officeand something thudded on the sidewalk right behind me. And I turned around, and there was this package."
"This package" was a white box a little larger than a shoebox, and it was rather strangely tied with gray ribbon. Sam Walters, Aubrey's father, looked at it curiously.
"Doesn't look dented," he said. "Couldn't have fallen out of a very high window. Was it tied up like that?"
"Just like that. I put the ribbon back on after I opened it and looked in. Oh, I don't mean I opened it then or there. I just stopped and looked up to see who'd dropped itthinking I'd see somebody looking out of a window. But nobody was, and I picked up the box. It had something in it, not very heavy, and the box and the ribbon looked likewell, not like something somebody'd throw away on purpose. So I stood looking up, and nothing happened, so I shook the box a little and"
"All right, all right," said Sam Walters. "Spare us the blow-by-blow. You didn't find out who dropped it?"
"Right. And I went up as high as the fourth floor, asking the people whose windows were over the place where I picked it up. They were all home, as it happened, and none of them had ever seen it. I thought it might have fallen off a window ledge. But"
"What's in it, Dick?" Edith asked.
"Dolls. Four of them. I brought them over this evening for Aubrey. If she wants them."
He untied the package, and Aubrey said, "Oooo, Uncle Richard. They'rethey're lovely."
Sam said, "Hm. Those look almost more like manikins than dolls, Dick. The way they're dressed, I mean. Must have cost several dollars apiece. Are you sure the owner won't turn up?"
Richard shrugged. "Don't see how he can. As I told you, I went up four floors, asking. Thought from the look of the box and the sound of the thud, it couldn't have come from even that high. And after I opened it, welllook" He picked up one of the dolls and held it out for Sam Walters' inspection.
"Wax. The heads and hands, I mean. And not one of them cracked. It couldn't have fallen from higher than the second story. Even then, I don't see how" He shrugged again.
"They're the Geezenstacks," said Aubrey.
"Huh?" Sam asked.
"I'm going to call them the Geezenstacks," Aubrey said. "Look, this one is Papa Geezenstack and this one is Mama Geezenstack, and the little girl onethat'sthat's Aubrey Geezenstack. And the other man one, we'll call him Uncle Geezenstack. The little girl's uncle."
Sam chuckled. "Like us, eh? But if UncleuhGeezenstack is Mama Geezenstack's brother, like Uncle Richard is Mama's brother, then his name wouldn't be Geezenstack."
"Just the same, it is," Aubrey said. "They're all Geezenstacks. Papa, will you buy me a house for them?"
"A doll house? Why" He'd started to say, "Why, sure," but caught his wife's eye and remembered. Aubrey's birthday was only a week off and they'd been wondering what to get her. He changed it hastily to "Why, I don't know. I'll think about it."
· · · · ·
It was a beautiful doll house. Only one-story high, but quite elaborate, and with a roof that lifted off so one could rearrange the furniture and move the dolls from room to room. It scaled well with the manikins Uncle Richard had brought.
Aubrey was rapturous. All her other playthings went into eclipse and the doings of the Geezenstacks occupied most of her waking thoughts.
It wasn't for quite a while that Sam Walters began to notice, and to think about, the strange aspect of the doings of the Geezenstacks. At first, with a quiet chuckle at the coincidences that followed one another.
And then, with a puzzled look in his eyes.
It wasn't until quite a while later that he got Richard off into a corner. The four of them had just returned from a play. He said, "UhDick."
"These dolls, Dick. Where did you get them?"
Richard's eyes stared at him blankly. "What do you mean, Sam? I told you where I got them."
"Yes, butyou weren't kidding, or anything? I mean, maybe you bought them for Aubrey, and thought we'd object if you gave her such an expensive present, so youuh"
"No, honest, I didn't."
"But dammit, Dick, they couldn't have fallen out of a window, or dropped out, and not broken. They're wax. Couldn't someone walking behind youor going by in an auto or something?"
"There wasn't anyone around, Sam. Nobody at all. I've wondered about it myself. But if I was lying, I wouldn't make up a screwy story like that, would I? I'd just say I found them on a park bench or a seat in a movie. But why are you curious?"
"IuhI just got to wondering."
Sam Walters kept on wondering, too.
They were little things, most of them. Like the time Aubrey had said, "Papa Geezenstack didn't go to work this morning. He's in bed, sick."
"So?" Sam had asked. "And what is wrong with the gentleman?"
"Something he ate, I guess."
And the next morning, at breakfast, "And how is Mr. Geezenstack, Aubrey?"
"A little better, but he isn't going to work today yet, the doctor said. Tomorrow, maybe."
And the next day, Mr. Geezenstack went back to work. That, as it happened, was the day Sam Walters came home feeling quite ill, as a result of something he'd eaten for lunch. Yes, he'd missed two days from work. The first time he'd missed work on account of illness in several years.
And some things were quicker than that, and some slower. You couldn't put your finger on it and say, "Well, if this happens to the Geezenstacks, it will happen to us in twenty-four hours." Sometimes it was less than an hour. Sometimes as long as a week.
"Mama and Papa Geezenstack had a quarrel today."
And Sam had tried to avoid that quarrel with Edith, but it seemed he just couldn't. He'd been quite late getting home, through no fault of his own. It had happened often, but this time Edith took exception. Soft answers failed to turn away wrath, and at last he'd lost his own temper.
"Uncle Geezenstack is going away for a visit." Richard hadn't been out of town for years, but the next week he took a sudden notion to run down to New York. "Pete and Amy, you know. Got a letter from them asking me"
"When?" Sam asked, almost sharply. "When did you get a letter?"
"Then last week you weren'tThis sounds like a silly question, Dick, but last week were you thinking about going anywhere? Did you say anything toto anyone about the possibility of your visiting someone?"
"Lord, no. Hadn't even thought about Pete and Amy for months, till I got their letter yesterday. Want me to stay a week."
"You'll be back in three daysmaybe," Sam had said. He wouldn't explain, even when Richard did come back in three days. It sounded just too damn' silly to say that he'd known how long Richard was going to be gone, because that was how long Uncle Geezenstack had been away.
Sam Walters began to watch his daughter, and to wonder. She, of course, was the one who made the Geezenstacks do whatever they did. Was it possible that Aubrey had some strange preternatural insight which caused her, unconsciously, to predict things that were going to happen to the Walters and to Richard?
He didn't, of course, believe in clairvoyance. But was Aubrey clairvoyant?
"Mrs. Geezenstack's going shopping today. She's going to buy a new coat."
That one almost sounded like a put-up job. Edith had smiled at Aubrey and then looked at Sam. "That reminds me, Sam. Tomorrow I'll be downtown, and there's a sale at"
"But, Edith, these are war times. And you don't need a coat."
He'd argued so earnestly that he made himself late for work. Arguing uphill, because he really could afford the coat and she really hadn't bought one for two years. But he couldn't explain that the real reason he didn't want her to buy one was the Mrs. GeezenWhy, it was too silly to say, even to himself.
Edith bought the coat.
Strange, Sam thought, that nobody else noticed those coincidences. But Richard wasn't around all the time, and Edithwell, Edith had the knack of listening to Aubrey's prattle without hearing nine-tenths of it.
"Aubrey Geezenstack brought home her report card today, Papa. She got ninety in arithmetic and eighty in spelling and"
And two days later, Sam was calling up the headmaster of the school. Calling from a pay station, of course, so nobody would hear him. "Mr. Bradley, I'd like to ask a question that I have auhrather peculiar, but important, reason for asking. Would it be possible for a student at your school to know in advance exactly what grades "
No, not possible. The teachers themselves didn't know, until they'd figured averages, and that hadn't been done until the morning the report cards were made out, and sent home. Yes, yesterday morning, while the children had their play period.
"Sam," Richard said, "you're looking kind of seedy. Business worries? Look, things are going to get better from now on, and with your company, you got nothing to worry about anyway."
"That isn't it, Dick. ItI mean, there isn't anything I'm worrying about. Not exactly. I mean" And he'd had to wriggle out of the cross-examination by inventing a worry or two for Richard to talk him out of.
He thought about the Geezenstacks a lot. Too much. If only he'd been superstitious, or credulous, it might not have been so bad. But he wasn't. That's why each succeeding coincidence hit him a little harder than the last.
Edith and her brother noticed it, and talked about it when Sam wasn't around.
"He has been acting queer lately, Dick. I'mI'm really worried. He acts soDo you think we could talk him into seeing a doctor or a"
"A psychiatrist? Um, if we could. But I can't see him doing it, Edith. Something's eating him, and I've tried to pump him about it, but he won't open up. Y'knowI think it's got something to do with those damn' dolls."
"Dolls? You mean Aubrey's dolls? The ones you gave her?"
"Yes, the Geezenstacks. He sits and stares at the doll house. I've heard him ask the kid questions about them, and he was serious. I think he's got some delusion or something about them. Or centering on them."
"But, Dick, that'sawful."
"Look, Edie, Aubrey isn't as interested in them as she used to be, andIs there anything she wants very badly?"
"Dancing lessons. But she's already studying violin and I don't think we can let her"
"Do you think if you promised her dancing lessons if she gave up those dolls, she'd be willing? I think we've got to get them out of the apartment. And I don't want to hurt Aubrey, so"
"Wellbut what would we tell Aubrey?"
"Tell her I know a poor family with children who haven't any dolls at all. AndI think she'll agree, if you make it strong enough."
"But, Dick, what will we tell Sam? He'll know better than that."
"Tell Sam, when Aubrey isn't around, that you think she's getting too old for dolls, and thattell him she's taking an unhealthy interest in them, and that the doctor advisesThat sort of stuff."
Aubrey wasn't enthusiastic. She was not as engrossed in the Geezenstacks as she'd been when they were newer, but couldn't she have both the dolls and the dancing lessons?
"I don't think you'd have time for both, honey. And there are those poor children who haven't any dolls to play with, and you ought to feel sorry for them."
And Aubrey weakened, eventually. Dancing school didn't open for ten days, though, and she wanted to keep the dolls until she could start her lessons. There was argument, but to no avail.
"That's all right, Edie," Richard told her. "Ten days is better than not at all, andwell, if she doesn't give them up voluntarily, it'll start a rumpus and Sam'll find out what we're up to. You haven't mentioned anything to him at all, have you?"
"No. But maybe it would make him feel better to know they were"
"I wouldn't. We don't know just what it is about them that fascinates or repels him. Wait till it happens, and then tell him. Aubrey has already given them away. Or he might raise some objection or want to keep them. If I get them out of the place first, he can't."
"You're right, Dick. And Aubrey won't tell him, because I told her the dancing lessons are going to be a surprise for her father, and she can't tell him what's going to happen to the dolls without telling the other side of the deal."
It might have been better if Sam had known. Or maybe everything would have happened just the same, if he had.
Poor Sam. He had a bad moment the very next evening. One of Aubrey's friends from school was there, and they were playing with the doll house. Sam watching them, trying to look less interested than he was. Edith was knitting and Richard, who had just come in, was reading the paper.
Only Sam was listening to the children and heard the suggestion.
" and then let's have a play funeral, Aubrey. Just pretend one of them is"
Sam Walters let out a sort of strangled cry and almost fell getting across the room.
There was a bad moment, then, but Edith and Richard managed to pass it off casually enough, outwardly. Edith discovered it was time for Aubrey's little friend to leave, and she exchanged a significant glance with Richard and they both escorted the girl to the door.
Whispered, "Dick, did you see"
"Something is wrong, Edie. Maybe we shouldn't wait. After all, Aubrey has agreed to give them up, and"
Back in the living room, Sam was still breathing a bit hard. Aubrey looked at him almost as though she was afraid of him. It was the first time she'd ever looked at him like that, and Sam felt ashamed. He said, "Honey, I'm sorry IBut listen, you'll promise me you'll never have a play funeral for one of your dolls? Or pretend one of them is badly sick or has an accidentor anything bad at all? Promise?"
"Sure, Papa. I'mI'm going to put them away for tonight."
She put the lid on the doll house and went back toward the kitchen.
In the hallway, Edie said, "I'llI'll get Aubrey alone and fix it with her. You talk to Sam. Tell himlook, let's go out tonight, go somewhere and get him away from everything. See if he will."
Sam was still staring at the doll house.
"Let's get some excitement, Sam," Richard said. "How's about going out somewhere? We've been sticking too close to home. It'll do us good."
Sam took a deep breath. "Okay, Dick. If you say so. II could use a little fun, I guess."
Edie came back with Aubrey, and she winked at her brother. "You men go on downstairs and get a cab from the stand around the corner. Aubrey and I'll be down by the time you bring it."
Behind Sam's back, as the men were putting on their coats, Richard gave Edith an inquiring look and she nodded.
Outside, there was a heavy fog; one could see only a few yards ahead. Sam insisted that Richard wait at the door for Edith and Aubrey while he went to bring the cab. The woman and girl came down just before Sam got back.
Richard asked, "Did you?"
"Yes, Dick. I was going to throw them away, but I gave them away instead. That way they're gone; he might have wanted to hunt in the rubbish and find them if I'd just thrown"
"Gave them away? To whom?"
"Funniest thing, Dick. I opened the door and there was an old woman going by in the back hall. Don't know which of the apartments she came from, but she must be a scrubwoman or something, although she looked like a witch really, but when she saw those dolls I had in my hands"
"Here comes the cab," Dick said. "You gave them to her?"
"Yes, it was funny. She said, 'Mine? To Keep? Forever?' Wasn't that a strange way of asking it? But I laughed and said, 'Yes, ma'am. Yours forev'"
She broke off, for the shadowy outline of the taxi was at the curb, and Sam opened the door and called out, "Come on, folks!"
Aubrey skipped across the sidewalk into the cab, and the others followed. It started.
The fog was thicker now. They could not see out the windows at all. It was as though a gray wall pressed against the glass, as though the world outside was gone, completely and utterly. Even the windshield, from where they sat, was a gray blank.
"How can he drive so fast?" Richard asked, and there was an edge of nervousness in his voice. "By the way, where are we going, Sam?"
"By George," Sam said, "I forgot to tell her."
"Yeah. Woman driver. They've got them all over now. I'll"
He leaned forward and tapped on the glass, and the woman turned.
Edith saw her face, and screamed.