Kelly sat on her front steps, tapping her feet with impatience. Today she and the British sisters from across the street, Pamela and Cynthia, were going to hunt for treasure. It was Queen’s Day and official Holland celebrated with speeches and parades, but ordinary people held flea markets. They set a wild array of old possessions on the sidewalks in front of their houses, and all of it was for sale. Kelly and the sisters had saved their guilders in hopes of finding something wonderful amid the wealth of second hand goods in their neighborhood.
It had come as a stroke of luck the day Kelly, the daughter of Americans living in Holland, discovered the two British girls living so close by. Since then, the three girls had become inseparable. Kelly preferred Pamela because the younger girl, Cynthia, could be a pain; but the sisters came as a package, so Kelly made the best of it.
Most days, the streets of The Hague, the city where they lived, were shiny with rain, and the North Sea wind bent the trees like pretzels; but today, the weather gods had scattered soft clouds around the Delft blue sky like throw pillows. A breeze, light as dandelion fluff, ruffled the lacy new leaves of the trees. Kelly couldn’t believe the luck of such a day, and on a holiday, too.
But, like a worm in an otherwise perfect apple, the familiar “Eau de Holland” scented the gentle breeze. That was the name expats called the smell created by the sea air combined with the odor of the city’s ancient sewer system. Whenever the weather turned warm, this distinctive scent polluted the breeze. In just the way that there was no Pamela without Cynthia, there was no Dutch spring without its special smell.
As soon as Kelly saw Pamela and Cynthia come out of their house, she crossed the street and met them at the curb.
Cynthia spoke right up. “We’ve each got three guilders. How much do you have?”
Kelly thought it was a nosey question, but she answered it nicely because of Pamela. “I’ve got five. I want to get some ice cream later.” Kelly turned to Pamela, preferring to talk with her.
Pamela obliged by asking, “What are you shopping for?”
“I don’t know. I’ll know when I see it. How about you?”
And so they started their search for something wonderful. Like bees buzzing from flower to flower, the girls moved from one collection of stuff to the next. “Hey look at this,” said Cynthia. She held up an old telephone and pretended to talk on it, her mouth flapping silently and her head bouncing like a bobblehead.
In spite of herself, Kelly chuckled. Cynthia could be fun when she wanted to.
The seller smiled at the girls and said, “Two guilders.”
The girls consulted with a look, unable to decide.
“We might be back,” Pamela said.
At the next house, Pamela rummaged through a box of books while Cynthia examined old clothing. Kelly knelt on the sidewalk, curious about the stuff on some low shelves.
Something way at the back caught her eye. Her fingers started to tingle. It was a nice feeling, like a tickle. The sensation grew stronger and a desire to see and hold whatever it was took over her hands. It made her hands push things aside. The feeling grew stronger, like a flame in her fingers, which worked independently of her mind’s instructions. The feeling intensified to the point that it was no longer a nice feeling. She had to struggle to keep her hands from sweeping the other objects to the ground with one big smash. Was she going crazy? Was some weird disease affecting her hands? Sweat gathered on her upper lip and heat rose in her cheeks. In spite of the beautiful day, she felt surrounded by pulsing, throbbing shadows. Although she wanted to escape, an outside force kept her rooted to the spot.
There! She could see the object whole now, darkened by time and dust. With a huge satisfied sigh, and a sense of ownership, she put her hands around a wooden box covered with carved swirls. Recognition flashed through her, like she was finally claiming something that belonged to her. She lifted it, ever so gently, and set it on the sidewalk. When she unlatched a little hook, the top opened up and both sides opened out, like wings. The inside of the wings had a narrow shelf filled with circular holes. She squinted, trying to figure out its purpose.
An old man a few feet away came towards her and stepped into the shadows surrounding her. On this warm day, he was dressed in a battered suit of heavy wool, too short in the sleeves and baggy in the pants. His unshaven face sported a mouth with few teeth, and those that remained were nicotine-stained. The glowing end of a badly-rolled cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. He looked as old as the box. Kelly smelled the man’s personal “Eau de Holland,” made up of smoke, dirty clothes, unwashed body, and boozey breath.
Her parents’ warnings about strangers sounded in her head. Her heart thumped and her stomach flip flopped. She wanted to get away, but her body refused to obey her head. She stayed glued to the sidewalk in front of the shelves. The man’s ice blues eyes commanded her attention.
He looked at the old box. “Apotheek,” he said, and then repeated, gesturing with a dirty hand, “Apotheek.”
Kelly knew enough Dutch to recognize the word for pharmacy. She nodded her head that she understood.
Pamela and Cynthia came to join her. With her friends at her side, Kelly’s heart calmed. Sunlight replaced the shadows and Kelly doubted the strange sensations she had felt only moments before. The sisters knelt on the sidewalk next to her, opening and closing the box. Pamela said, “Oh, yeah, look, you could put test tubes in these holes. Cool.” She put a finger down through one and wiggled it.
The man must have understood more English than he could speak, because he nodded energetically and smiled with his nasty teeth and a whiff of even nastier breath.
“Hoe feel?” Kelly asked, “Hoe feel kost dit?” using her elementary school Dutch.
The man shook his head. He made a gesture toward them with both hands, like he was handing them something. “For you.” He said that much. “For you kinder.”
Pamela spoke up, “You want us to have it?”
“Ja. For you.”
Kelly closed all the parts and fastened the little hooks that held them in place. The man’s gift of the box should have been a kind gesture, but it felt suspicious, more like he was ridding himself of it than giving it to them. In spite of that feeling and against her better judgment, Kelly wanted the box. She stood up, cradling it like a doll. “Dank u wel.” She smiled tentatively.
Cynthia and Pamela chimed in, “Dank u.”
They were about to leave when the whiskery old man held up a finger. “Moment,” he said. He bent to rummage in one of the boxes, its contents rattling. He handed the girls what he found, three glass test tubes scratched with time and coated with dust. Cynthia stepped forward and took them, then stepped quickly back. The three girls looked at each other in triumph. They had found their something special.
“Let’s go sit on my steps while we look at it,” Kelly said, grateful that the surreal feelings had passed.
Cynthia whined, “What? I thought we were going to get ice cream.”
This is what Kelly meant about Cynthia being a pain.
Pamela placated her. “We’ll get it a little later, Cynthia.” That satisfied the younger girl and she followed along without complaint. Kelly wondered how Pamela could always be so patient.
The three sat in front of Kelly’s house, hunched over the box, fitting the test tubes in the different holes. Cynthia took a tube and pretended to drink from it, making sipping sounds.
That gave Kelly an idea. “Why don’t we go up to my room? We could make potions out of water and stuff.”
They spent the afternoon on the floor of Kelly’s room, the box and the test tubes between them. Each girl announced what they wanted their personal potion to do.
Cynthia, the hungry sister, said she wanted to be able to summon any food anytime she wanted it.
Pamela, the studious one, said, “I want to be able to speak any language.”
Kelly couldn’t make up her mind.
“You could wish for instant tickets to rock concerts,” suggested Cynthia.
Kelly didn’t know many rock groups. She shook her head.
“You could wish for a potion to cure diseases,” offered Pamela.
“That would be nice, but no. No. I think I want to be able to see things that have happened in the past. I’ll just hold something up and know all about it.”
Once these important decisions were made, the girls mixed the potions: part water, part Coke, part Juicy Juice. The girls held their test tubes in front of them like guests waiting for a toast at a cocktail party.
Cynthia drank first. A few drops dribbled down her chin, which she wiped away with the back of her hand. Then she closed her eyes in ecstasy and gushed, “Banana cream pie with real whipped cream. Great big pieces.”
They all pretended to eat pie and chimed a simultaneous “Mmmmmmm.” They giggled at themselves.
“Okay, Pammie, you go,” said Cynthia.
Pamela looked down at her test tube, then tilted her head back and gulped down its contents. She closed her eyes, and like the ancient Christians speaking in tongues, she babbled, “Hagana dei solo das gleikemon.” Then she opened her eyes and said seriously, “Hindustani.”
Kelly and Cynthia’s mouths dropped open.
Pamela’s straight face broke into a smile. “I wish.”
Kelly and Cynthia laughed.
“You had me fooled,” said Kelly.
Now the other girls turned to Kelly, who squeezed her eyes shut. “I want to see who owned this box and what potions they mixed and what they were used for.” Then she opened her eyes and waited for the answer to come to her.
Cynthia suggested, “Maybe potions to cure disease, like Pam said.”
That idea was nice, but too tame for Kelly. “Maybe poisons to kill people with.”
“Yeah!” The lurid idea hit home. They liked it.
“So who killed who?”
Pamela, who wrote stories, started. “Maybe the chemist who used this was in love with a beautiful young girl . . .”
“Like me,” chimed in Cynthia. Pamela gave her a little slap on the arm.
Kelly picked up the thread. “But her father wouldn’t let her marry him because he was just a poor chemist. . .”
“So the next time the chemist mixed up the father’s medicine, he put in some poison.”
“The father died and the chemist and the girl got married and lived happily ever after.”
“No, no, wait,” Kelly stopped, then started again very slowly, “their life together was tainted because of the murder and haunted by. . .” she searched for a finish and found it, “by the box.” And she pointed to it.
Pamela sang the Twilight Zone song and waggled her fingers like a witch. “Nunu nunu nunu.”
Cynthia’s eyes had grown wider and wider until her face crumpled and she stood up straight and stamped her foot. “You’re scaring me. Stop it.”
Kelly expected her to run home crying. That’s what Cynthia always did. Usually, Kelly was happy to see her go, but today, she agreed with Cynthia. She had managed to scare herself, too. Not only that, but the weird feeling from the street was in the room. The corner shadows throbbed. Her fingers tingled. She didn’t want whatever it was to possess her again. She stood up, too. “Let’s go get some ice cream.”
Cynthia’s whole demeanor changed, “Yes, let’s,” she said, sounding very British.
* * *
Out on the street, Cynthia skipped ahead of Pamela and Kelly. They retraced their path from the morning, which took them by the old man’s house. Left alone with Pamela, Kelly was tempted to confide in her, but then she caught a glimpse of the dirty old man standing behind all his junk. He was looking straight at her with those blue eyes. She fought looking at him. When they passed his house, Kelly stared straight ahead. Despite her efforts, her head turned to meet his gaze. When she did, he gave her a fiendish smile, his yellow teeth ghoulish in the sun.
Cynthia’s voice pulled her away from the old man’s gaze, “I want strawberry,” she sang out in a girlish sing-song that grated on Kelly’s nerves.
They bought their cones and carried them to the plein. From there they could watch the carnival being assembled on Stevinstraat, the one their parents promised to take them to tonight after dinner. Kelly tried to concentrate on the carnival and not on the look the man gave her. She didn’t like these strange things that were happening to her. They confused her. They made her stomach churn. Was that box haunted? Had it cast a spell on her? How could a simple wooden box, no matter how old, have power. Unless . . . She didn’t want to think about unless.
* * *
After they finished their ice cream, Pamela and Cynthia went back to their house and Kelly to hers. Up in her room, she packed up the box and the test tubes and tucked them clear at the back of her closet, behind her boots, behind her winter coat, behind all her Cabbage Patch dolls. She didn’t want to look at it or think about it or have anything more to do with it until she figured out what was going on.
Kelly’s room was more comfortable with the stupid box out of sight. Relieved, she plunked down on her bed and saw a slip of paper on the floor. She picked it up. It was old and yellowed and contained a list like a recipe. Where had it come from? Maybe it fell out of the box. Maybe it had been tucked between its boards.
When Kelly held it, her fingers started to tingle again. Before the feeling could advance any further, she crumpled the paper and threw it in the back of the closet with the box.
Her mother called her for dinner and she was happy to do something familiar that would make her feel safe.
* * *
During dinner with her parents, Kelly told them about the carnival rides she saw being assembled that afternoon. “The Tilt-A-Whirl is the biggest one I’ve ever seen.” She didn’t say a word about the box or the old man or any of her scary feelings.
Her dad asked if there was anything as tame as a Ferris Wheel at the carnival, and Kelly said she thought she’d seen one. She did her best to make dinner feel normal.
When it was over, they joined Pamela and Cynthia and their parents out on the street. The girls walked ahead in a cluster. Kelly could hear the grown-ups laughing and sharing stories about their summer vacation plans. A shiver of dread shot through her as they approached the old man’s house; but to her relief, he was nowhere to be seen. As they turned the corner onto Stevinstraat, the noise of the amusement rides, the smell of hot dogs and popcorn, and the sight of the street full of people having fun took Kelly’s mind away from strange old men and haunted boxes.
Of course, the first thing Cynthia wanted was food. Even though she’d just finished eating at home, Cynthia begged her mother for a hot dog and cotton candy, which she got. While Cynthia ate from both hands, Pamela and Kelly played miniature bowling. Then their fathers challenged each other to a basketball shooting contest. Finally, Pamela and Kelly could wait no longer. “Can we go on the Tilt-A-Whirl now?”
After some brief discussion between their mothers, the older girls were allowed to get in the ticket line.
Cynthia started to whine, “Why can’t I go?” Her mother explained that she was too young, but Cynthia persisted and her mother caved under the harangue.
Soon a beaming Cynthia joined Kelly and Pamela. “Mom said I could go, too.” She used her most bratty little sister voice and Kelly nearly told her to shut up. Pamela just smiled a stiff smile.
When at last they had their tickets, the ride’s attendant fastened them into a saucer and the thrills began. The jerking and twirling and whipping about made Kelly laugh and scream and wish for more. The ride bent the three girls first one way and then, with a sudden shift, twirled them in the opposite direction. Trying to fight the momentum of the ride was as useless as it had been to fight her hands’ motions this morning; but unlike this morning and her struggle to gain control, she let herself be joyfully flung about by the whim of the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Pamela squealed right along with Kelly, her eyes wide, her smile thrilled and surprised. Cynthia did not smile. Terror locked her eyes wide open. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. The white of her knuckles gleamed against the bar that held her in. When the Tilt A Whirl changed direction in one of its whip-like moves, a spray of pink vomit gushed from Cynthia’s mouth, and ended up landing back on her, covering her in pastel slime.
Kelly watched in disgust. Her dislike of the girl increased to all-out loathing. Pamela’s face registered disbelief. It seemed even she, the long suffering older sister, had her limits.
The attendant must have noticed the unsavory activity in their saucer, because he brought the ride to a halt and hurried to help them down from their seats. Close behind him another attendant bore a canister with a hose, ready to spray away any evidence of Cynthia’s upset.
Once down, Cynthia ran to the exit into the arms of her mother, who appeared worried and had likely witnessed the whole sorry scene. Pamela followed a few steps behind Cynthia and ahead of Kelly. Kelly, for her part, wanted to be as far as possible from the foolish Cynthia. If she wasn’t constantly eating, stuff like this wouldn’t happen.
Kelly joined the huddle of her parents and Pamela and Pamela’s father. Cynthia stood apart with her distraught mother, who dabbed ineffectually at the splotched girl, who wailed, red-faced.
Kelly stared at her feet, trying to hide her utter contempt for the younger girl. She looked up in alarm when the sisters’ parents called good night and hustled their girls on home.
That was it? The night was over before it had begun? Their heavenly Tilt A Whirl ride cut short? Kelly looked at her parents, incredulous. “Couldn’t Pamela stay?” she implored, too late.
Her mom put her arm around her, “I guess not, sweetie.” She looked at her husband and they both chuckled shame-facedly, shaking their heads.
Not believing the evening could get any worse, Kelly discovered it could when she spied the dirty old man lurking in the shadows behind the Tilt A Whirl and smiling that hideous smile at her, his ice blue eyes aglow.
* * *
Kelly stomped up the stairs to her room, fuming. That little twerp! The whole evening ruined because of her. Stupid Cynthia didn’t need any magic potion to supply her with food, her indulgent parents did that, anyway.
Queen’s Day had held too many nasty surprises and Kelly was glad it was over. She flung off her clothes, left them lying on the floor, and pulled on her pajamas. She slammed shut the window to keep out the smelly breeze.
Lying in bed, she imagined all sorts of retribution for the spoiled Cynthia. As sleep beckoned, the eyes of the old man summoned her. Kelly tried to resist, but resistance was useless. She got out of bed as if pulled by a magnet to see a disturbing re-enactment of this afternoon.
There on the floor were three Cabbage Patch dolls arranged in a circle, hovering over the carved box. The dolls were alive. As they mixed liquids into the test tubes, they cackled in the language Pamela had spoken and called Hindustani. The liquids smelled like strawberry ice cream and cotton candy, only too much so, sickly sweet. On the other side of the circle the old man hovered, grinning maniacally and watching the dolls with his ice blue eyes shining like rogue stars. His cigarette glowed yellow from the corner of his mouth.
Kelly tried to wake up, but she wasn’t asleep.
When Kelly caught the look on the face of one of the dolls, it was as demonic as the old man’s. Their yarn hair was matted and greasy, long and disheveled. The same Cabbage Patch dolls that had brought her so much pleasure, that she had cuddled like babies and talked to, and who had joined her in imaginary pleasures, now looked like some perverse toy store’s idea of Macbeth’s three witches, The dolls were embarked on some adventure of their own, something mad and irrational and independent of Kelly.
She shivered and tried to withdraw, to crawl back under her covers into the safety of sleep, but she was frozen on the spot. The dolls called each other Pamela, Cynthia, and Kelly. They were some dark version of herself and the British sisters. A powerful need to understand urged Kelly forward. The Kelly-doll’s gaze was locked on the Cynthia-doll in such a way that Kelly feared her intent. Behind the Kelly-doll lay the yellowed recipe she had crumpled and thrown in the closet. Was it a recipe for poison? Was the history the girls had invented for the box, in fact its real history? Had the box and the test tubes been used to mix poisons to get rid of annoying and troublesome people?
The look on the Kelly-doll’s face showed the same antipathy that she, Kelly, felt for the girl Cynthia. While the Kelly-doll measured pink liquids in a test tube, she made surreptitious glances at the paper hidden behind her. With a diabolical smirk on her puffy Cabbage Patch face, she hung the filled tube inside the box.
The Pamela-doll watched the other two with unblinking eyes, her face a mask of attention. And then, in the most unexpected of motions, the Pamela-doll grabbed the test tube from inside the box with one hand, while grabbing her sister with the other. She forced the sweet mixture down her sister-doll’s throat. The Cynthia-doll coughed and spluttered, writhed and kicked. From the shadows, the old man clapped his hands in approval. The Kelly-doll stared speechless at the sisters in the grip of extreme sibling rivalry. The Cynthia-doll kicked one last feeble kick and then lay motionless.
From the sidelines, Kelly blinked and there was no one in her room but three motionless Cabbage Patch dolls sitting doll-like in a circle on the floor. In their midst, the carved box sat innocently, like a table set for tea. No invisible force held Kelly now. She crawled back in her bed, undone by what she had just observed or dreamed or took part in.
In the morning, Kelly woke to see that somebody was asleep in the spare bed on the other side of her night table. The somebody rolled over and Kelly recognized Pamela.
“What are you doing here?”
Pamela stretched and groaned. “Cynthia got sick in the middle of the night and my parents took her to the hospital. They asked your mom if I could stay here. So here I am.”
“So you’ve been here all night?”
“Well, most of it.”
“Did you see or hear anything funny?”
“What do you mean?”
Though Pamela had not admitted any knowledge of the strange happenings, neither had she denied it. Kelly had to think this through. So Pamela had been in the room when the dolls were mixing potions. Kelly hadn’t seen her, but then she wasn’t sure what she had seen. Had she and Pamela, through the dolls, been responsible for whatever ailed Cynthia? Had they, too, fallen under the spell of an old box used for a sinister purpose? Had the dolls acted upon Kelly’s dislike and Pamela’s hidden resentment of Cynthia, and fulfilled some dark and hidden wish?
There were too many questions and not enough answers. “You know, I don’t really like the box as much as I thought I did.”
Pamela agreed immediately. “Neither do I.”
After breakfast, the girls tidied Kelly’s room and put her dolls back in the closet. They got an old shopping bag and gathered up the carved box and the test tubes and put them in it. They were about to take the bag outside when Pamela picked something up. “What’s this?”
Kelly snatched the poison recipe from her. “Oh, nothing important.” She crumpled it and put it in the bag. Outside on the street, they found the nearest trash can and lifted the lid. As Kelly put the bag inside, the old man watched from across the street.
Now that the box was no longer in her possession, the old man’s power over her drifted away like a leaf borne on the breeze. Maybe the curse on Cynthia would go away, too. She stared defiantly back at the man thinking, Take your nasty old box and bother somebody else with it.
As she and Pamela walked boldly by his house, Kelly caught a whiff of “Eau de Holland.” She pinched her nose with her fingers and so did Pamela. Together they said, “Ewwww,” looking at the old man and including him in the insult. His eyes no longer glowed and he didn’t look threatening anymore, just old and scruffy, like something in a flea market.
Bernie Brown asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work