This short story stars Jillian Nightingale, nurse of supernatural creatures for The Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Health. If you'd like to read her other adventure I've written, it can be found here. This story takes place before the previous one, when Jillian is new to her rewarding, sometimes frightening, job!
- Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched.... -
“And you say the cough has persisted?” I asked, trying to look my patient in the eyes.
“Yes,” she replied. “It’s been three days, and it hasn’t gone away. A terrible tickle in the back of my throat.”
When I looked down at my electronic tablet, a steadying breath slipped between my pursed lips. I had been successfully looking Ms. Pfeffernusse in the eyes for two minutes, but I was getting exhausted. I pretended to look at the screen a for a few moments longer than necessary, touching it even though I had minimized the program that I used to keep track of my patients. When I could stall no longer, I said, “Well, we’ll see what we can do about that cough today,” and I looked up.
Into hundreds of pairs of dead, glassy eyes.
“Is there something wrong, dear?”
Ms. Pfeffernusse was my second patient of the day. Her house was a little four-room ramshackle structure that was probably older than my parents and was situated in the area of the city known as ‘Little Loch Ness’. She looked to be in her eighties, but, according to her file on my tablet, she was quite a bit older than that. Apparently, her appearance was deceiving.
But it wasn’t her appearance that was leaving me so unnerved. It was the hundreds of porcelain dolls that covered every available surface in her tiny living room. On top of her television and china cabinet, situated single-file on the couch, across the plant shelf that ran the perimeter of the entire room. Everywhere.
Even if this was a normal house call, I would think there was something seriously unhinged about a woman who kept that many effigies in her home. But this wasn’t an ordinary house call. I never did ordinary house calls, anymore.
“When did you first start feeling under the weather?” I asked.
“Maybe a day before the actual cough developed,” Ms. Pfeffernusse went on. “I felt a tickle at the back of my throat for hours. Even drinking water didn’t help.”
While my patient drolled on about her psychosomatic cough (I had already figured out it was all in her head; she hadn’t once coughed since I had set foot in her apartment), I finally let my eyes probe the room. It seemed that no two dolls were the same. There were boy dolls and girl dolls, each with a different combination of eye color, hair color, and skin tone. Even the ones that seemed almost imperceptibly similar wore different outfits, though they sat on shelves together, like twins.
I must have been looking at the dolls for too long, because suddenly Ms. Pfeffernusse cut off her statement about her imaginary cough and said, “Do you like my children? They’re really beautiful, aren’t they?”
I swallowed. The Agency had told me not to talk about the dolls unless she brought it up, and to try to divert the conversation as soon as possible if she did. “Yes, they’re lovely,” I replied, and when I put my eyes back on my patient I quickly added, “Are you allergic to any medications, that you know of?”
“Would you like to see my favorite?” She asked, struggling to her feet from her recliner. “I’ve had her for so long that I don’t remember exactly where I got her.”
“Would you mind looking at this list of medications, Ms. Pfeffernusse?” I asked quickly, acting like I was doing something important on my tablet. “All you have to do is tap the ones that you’ve taken before, and how they affected you. It’ll help me get a good idea of….”
“Janet is her name,” Ms. Pfeffernusse interrupted, and when I looked up from my tablet I found her turning from her piano back toward me. On the piano there was an empty spot in the layer of dust, as big as a doll’s bottom, and in her arms was the former occupant of that space.
The doll’s porcelain face was so perfectly handcrafted that, for a moment, I thought I was actually looking at a miniature child in Ms. Pfeffernusse’s arms. Then its unearthly pallid complexion, synthetic-looking brown hair, and disproportionate limbs revealed the doll’s true nature. The old woman slunk back into her recliner and cradled the doll in her arms. When she sighed contently, she almost seemed to melt down into the old chair.
I had been doing well thus far with addressing Ms. Pfeffernusse and drawing as little attention to the dolls as possible, like the Agency had instructed me. But now Janet’s lifeless glass eyes seemed to bore into me, and I couldn’t find the willpower to draw my eyes away from them.
The doll’s eyes blinked.
The Agency had warned me this might happen, and had told me that if it did, I above all shouldn’t panic. But even though I was half expecting, I still jumped like a frightened cat at the disturbing sight.
“What’s the matter?” The doll asked in Ms. Pfeffernusse’s voice.
The Agency had warned me that, if she slipped, it was very difficult to bring her back peacefully. That if I wanted to keep her calm, I had to choose my words carefully and exercise a great amount of understanding and tact.
Instead I panicked, fumbled my hand into my medical bag, and stammered, “Uh… um….”
Hundreds of glazed eyes turned in my direction.
If I had more experience, I would have been able to talk her down and deescalate the situation without immediately reaching for my trump card. But it was my first day visiting Ms. Pfeffernusse, and only my second week on the job. Though they were completely valid, I didn’t feel very confident in my excuses as I whipped a black wand from my purse and pressed the gem set into its end against my temple.
Dozens and dozens of porcelain mouths opened in silent screams. To my further horror, each doll began to lift from its place, scattering motes of dust about the room, and levitate inches into the air. The dolls drifted toward me, mouths open, staring with fixed gazes. Lazy circles of porcelain dolls drifted around me and my Agency-issued folding chair. I held my breath, bit my lip, and pressed the tip of wand against my temple until it started to give me a headache.
Janet Pfeffernusse had lapsed into a full poltergeist episode. The Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Health didn’t have many ghosts on in their caseload (ghosts’ physical health was rarely an issue, and they moved locations so frequently that they were often difficult to find), but Ms. Pfeffernusse was a special exception. According to her file, she had collected dolls during her life, and when she died, the compulsion to collect only became worse. As her house filler, her phantom developed a separate personality for each doll, even having a commissioning a life-size one made in her old image.
I was supposed to keep her talking, keep her phantom contained in the largest doll. But I’d screwed up.
Poltergeists are psychic phantoms. In her full poltergeist episode, Ms. Pfeffernusse was, not entirely of her own free will, trying to feed off of my fear. Luckily for me, the wand of mind-shielding the Agency had me pick up that morning was working perfectly.
Once I was convinced that I was in no immediate danger, my breath started to return to normal. Trying my best to tune out the horrifically creepy image of the open-mouthed dolls, I flicked my fingers across my tablet to find out what I should do next.
“Ghost touch” I murmured aloud as my eyes skimmed the screen. Urgently, I dropped the tablet and rummaged my free hand into my medical bag. A moment later I produced a piece of marble as small as my closed fist, carved into the shape of a headstone. Per the instructions on the tablet, I knocked twice on it with my knuckles.
The tiny headstone disintegrated into a pile of dust on my lap and released a subtle pulse through the room that made my ears pop. The drifting dolls froze in the wake of the ghost touch talisman. Their eyes rolled back in their heads (an image that was sure to visit me in my nightmares for months to come), and the drifted back to their places on the dust-covered furniture. The tablet had explained how each personality would follow its psychic trail back to its resting place, or some other supernatural mumbo-jumbo. All I was concerned with was that I was no longer surrounded by those horrible, silent faces.
The only two dolls that hadn’t moved were the little Janet, which must have been Ms. Pfeffernusse when she was younger, and, of course, the full-size doll that I had been talking to since I had stepped into the rundown little house.
I dusted the remains of the talisman back into my medical bag (I’d clean it out later) and, now sure that all the dolls were temporarily incapacitated, I removed the wand of mind-shielding from my temple.
In my bag was the medicine I was supposed to give to Ms. Pfeffernusse, disguised as treatment for whatever one of her personalities had convinced her she had come down with this week. I was supposed to have earned her trust with small talk and then offered it to her, to ensure that she’d take it every day and keep her multiple personality disorder in check.
So much for that.
I popped the top from the bottle, took one pill in my hand, and slipped it between the artfully crafted porcelain lips of the old woman. Awkward minutes passed, during which I watched and waited, trying to ignore the pupil-less eyes of the dozens of other dolls.
Finally Ms. Pfeffernusse’s eyes blinked open, and she sat up in her recliner. Her arm had been cradled around the doll of her younger self the whole time. “Oh… oh my, what happened?” She mumbled, pressing her free hand against her forehead.
“It appears your condition is a little more serious than I first thought,” I lied to the ghost inhabiting the huge doll. “You’re going to need to take two of these every day; one in the morning and one in the evening. Do you understand?”
Ms. Pfeffernusse still seemed disoriented, but nodded anyway.
Even though she had been dead for quite some time, my heart broke for the confused poltergeist. If I had done my job correctly, she wouldn’t have lapsed into the episode, and I wouldn’t have had to use the ghost touch talisman. Before I could talk myself out of it, I took a piece of paper from my medical bag and scribbled my number on it. “If you start feeling bad again, you can call me at this number, any time, day or night. Would that make you feel better?”
She looked at me with those glassy doll’s eyes, and for the first time I wasn’t creeped out. “Thank you, dear. That does make me feel much better.”
I left the medicine with Ms. Pfeffernusse, bid her a final good-bye, and left her little house. I can’t believe I just gave my phone number to a ghost, I berated myself. I’m just begging to be haunted. I should have just left the medicine and gotten out of there. I can’t save them all.
“Maybe I can’t save them all,” I told the doubting part of myself as I climbed into my car and started the engine. “But I can damn sure try to help the ghost of Janet Pfeffernusse find some peace.”
I pulled away from the little house and followed my GPS to the next patient prescribed to me by the Agency for the Betterment of Crypohumanoid Health. According to his case, which I had read the night before, he was a gorgon who had accidentally looked at himself in the rear view mirror of his car and turned himself to stone.