A short story by Bekah Ferguson.
The morning after Maggie and Evan moved into their clapboard home in the woods, they unpackaged a new 55-inch TV and set it up on the stand in the living room. The house, formerly a rental, had been sitting on the market empty for ten years. The real estate agent said some kind of a missing child or such, and no one wanted to live there, least of all the bereaved mother. But Maggie didn’t believe in ghosts and thus hadn’t minded. Instead, she and her husband jumped at the chance to buy their first home for a fraction of its worth.
After successfully connecting the TV to the Internet through a device she’d bought online, a little black box, Maggie went about unpacking books and figurines while Evan went upstairs to work; the occasional sound of his footsteps shuffling above reminding her of his presence. A faint blue light blinked in and out on the device—Bluetooth she supposed—though she hadn’t connected it to anything besides the TV.
After a few minutes a screensaver switched on, presumably from the device, and an image filled the screen, drawing her attention: A grainy photograph of a girl doll sitting in a green wheelbarrow, a cluster of wildflowers at its side, and overgrown shrubs in the background.
How quaint, she thought. And sucky quality too.
Retrieving the remote, Maggie fiddled around until she found the screensaver settings and picked out something else—a crisp, high quality mountain scene. She shut off the TV.
But seeing a wheelbarrow had reminded her of something.
“Evan,” she called up to her husband from the base of the staircase. “I forgot to ask, did the lawyer give you a key for the back shed?”
“No,” he called down, “didn’t have one. We’re going to have to break the lock.”
Later on that evening, after a busy day of unpacking, Maggie and Evan watched a couple of TV shows together before heading to bed. At one point they paused to make a snack and when they returned to the room, the screensaver was on. But it wasn’t the mountains anymore. The doll scene was back.
“What kind of crap picture is that?” Evan said with a laugh. “It’s blurry, like a phone picture blown up too big.”
“Yeah, odd, eh? Wasn’t me.” She picked up the remote and changed the picture back to the mountainscape. “It lets me change the picture no problem, but I can’t find the actual file to delete it. Must be some kind of manufacturer’s default setting . . . ”
“But if that’s the default, then why such low resolution?”
She shrugged and put their show back on.
The next morning she turned the TV on to view her favorite cooking program while preparing a grocery list, and forgot to turn it off when she went to the store. Evan had gone to work and wouldn’t be back until dinner. An overcast day, it was drizzling by the time she got home and the house seemed unusually dark for a summer afternoon. It took a few trips to unload the car but she soon had all the grocery bags piled together on the old-fashioned hardwood flooring in the sun room. Kicking off her sandals, she carried the first load inside and stopped in the hallway. Through the opening to her left, the TV screen illuminated the shadowy living room like a muted lamp might do.
Maggie set down the bags and approached it.
The wheelbarrow scene again.
Up until now she’d barely focused on the image, not caring enough to take in the specific details. This time she examined it intently, feeling a tad uneasy. She’d seen that type of doll before, come to think of it, years ago. Bangs, curly platinum hair, gray irises, dusty rose lips. What had its name been again? She couldn’t remember.
Returning to the sunroom, she retrieved her phone from her purse, and asked it a question.
“What was the name of the popular child’s doll that was recalled several years ago?”
“The doll’s name was Lola,” came a slightly robotic, female vocal response.
“Tell me more.”
“Lola was the Bluetooth-enabled doll directly implicated when four children went missing in the city of its initial distribution.” The city and manufacturer’s name were then mentioned. “The doll was believed to have been hacked and used for espionage by an unknown child abductor,” the robotic voice continued. “Neither the children nor the abductor were ever found. The doll was permanently recalled and its production halted indefinitely.”
Maggie walked back to the living room and stared at the TV.
“Is there a news story regarding a child who lived in this house a decade ago?”
“Yes. A six year old girl named Penelope Clark was reported missing by her mother. The parents were ruled out as suspects and the child was later determined to be the first of the kidnapping victims. She is believed to be dead.”
Snatching up the remote from the coffee table, Maggie switched the screensaver back to the mountainscape, turned off the TV, and finished unpacking the groceries with a feverish pitch. More than once she glanced through the rain-spattered kitchen window where only the corner of the locked shed was visible in the backyard. She shuddered. No, the police would have scoured the entire property—a locked shed no deterrant.
By late afternoon the rain had let up, though it remained cloudy and cool. When Evan came home at suppertime, she told him what had happened to the previous tenants, and about the screensaver resetting itself.
“You’re reading way too much into it, hun—it’s just a coincidence, a default setting.”
“Can you find your bolt cutters tonight though, please? I know I know, it’s silly, but that shed is really creeping me out.”
Agreeing to help, if only to set her mind at ease, Evan finished eating and spent a half hour in the garage rummaging through unpacked boxes until he finally found the tool. She followed him out into the dank backyard, smacking or waving away each mosquito that honed in on her, and stood with arms crossed watching.
The windowless shed was somewhat secluded, backdropped by leafy trees and thorny undergrowth. Weeds and uncut grass grew up the wooden sides, and the shingled roof was curling in places.
“Probably empty,” Evan said with a grunt as he cut through the metal lock.
“Then why locked?”
He removed the two dismembered pieces and opened the door, peering into the dark interior.
“Nothing but a wheelbarrow,” he said.
“What!” She hurried to the opening as Evan stepped aside.
“It’s green,” she said, “like the picture.”
An overturned wheelbarrow was propped up against the wall in the right hand corner. A clump of something hung from a nail on the wall next to it and as her eyes adjusted, she realized it was a tied bouquet of dried flowers. The rest of the shed was indeed empty, including a single shelf.
By now the mosquitoes were swarming and pricking but she no longer noticed. Taking the wheelbarrow by the handles, she stepped back and pulled it outside.
In the now revealed corner of the shed sat a Lola doll coated in cobwebs, eyes closed.
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