The crowd for Gladys Cobbridge’s estate sale was composed mainly of curious neighbors wanting an inside glimpse of the woman’s decrepit house and to peruse the daily items she touched with her, possibly, murderous hands. They would buy a relic if the price was right. With so low a turnout, a bargain was inevitable.
Pots and pans, household items, furniture, all went for a pittance. Her grand-nephew, and executor of her estate, had no big ticket items to warrant big money, other than her handcrafts: her simple homemade dresses, bundled together, sold for two hundred dollars to a self-described “serial killer devotee”. A local farmer bought the property with the plan to demolish the house and use the land for his cattle– no true crime enthusiasts were willing to shell out thousands to save the old place. Gladys had not owned any luxury items, no computers or smart televisions. She hadn’t even owned a car. All Gladys had when she died was a reputation and lingering mysteries.
Tours of the house were ripe with whispered speculations as to which room she killed her husband, which room saw her son die. The dark stain on the hardwood in the parlor, was it dried blood? Was the winning bid for the box of hammers and other tools a fire sale on murder weapons?
The community was familiar with how Gladys Cobbridge’s husband, Emmett, and Johnny, their young son, disappeared. Everyone knew the suspicions that ran contrary to Gladys’ story of her husband leaving in the night with their little boy. The Cobbridge marriage had always been a fractious one. No one could blame either for leaving the other, no one who had ever known them had anything good to say about them. Caught in the crossfire of their tempers was little Johnny Cobbridge, with whom no one had been closely acquainted since he vanished at the age of five.
Once Gladys reported them gone, the investigation began immediately. Suspicion fell just as quick on Gladys having committed foul play, if for nothing more than her ill demeanor. Gladys stood by her story. She even produced a postcard, postmarked Cleveland, as evidence of abandonment. Written in what appeared to be Emmett’s chicken scratch handwriting, the postcard (VISIT BEAUTIFUL OHIO) gave her specific instructions on where she could go and detailed directions to get there.
In the end, there was no evidence to support anything other than Emmett Cobbridge having taken his son to start a new life without Gladys. As estranged as they were from their families, not one of Gladys’ or Emmett’s kin pressed the matter. In those days, a person could vanish and not be found if that’s what they wanted.
Shawn and Kelly Ingalls had grown up hearing stories of Old Lady Cobbridge. Kelly’s grandfather had actually known Emmett and attested to his despicable nature. She and her husband had even told their young daughter, Shelly, to beware of her on Halloween night. “Gladys Cobbridge will take you and cook you,” Shawn had told her while Kelly cackled like a witch. Afterward, they each felt half bad for scaring a six year old and equally remorseful for perpetuating rumors, basically bald face lies, on what was by then a harmless elderly woman living alone in a house one torn shingle from being condemned.
When they attended the sale, Shawn came with a good-natured, albeit morbid, fascination and Kelly with a genuine hope for antiques. Shelly had no interest and stayed with her uncle and cousins.
Several boxes of miscellaneous items had been brought to the auction block. Most had been collections of trinkets such as glass jewelry, ceramic figurines, and tarnished utensils. Kelly let those pass. Her attention was drawn to the box with the picture frames that looked sturdy enough to prop up Gladys’ old house. She got the box for ten dollars.
Kelly emptied the box in the garage. She removed the picture frames with an adult glee she hadn’t experienced since finding Shelly’s school clothes on sale at sixty percent off the previous Fall. The woodwork of the frames was immaculate, although they would need a hardy cleaning, and a healthy dose of varnish, to bring forth their full luster. The photographs had been removed before the sale; Kelly only slightly wished she could have seen them.
Beneath the frames were a mound of old cleaning rags and quilt scraps. These she removed cautiously lest anything should come crawling, or slithering, from their folds. She tossed them in the garbage. When she removed the last pile of dusty fabrics, Kelly found the doll.
Under the light, the doll’s porcelain face showed small chips and scratches, but nothing deforming. It was a little farmer boy, dressed in overalls with a straw hat stitched to his flock of dingy brown locks. His red checkered shirt was faded, the petite red bandanna in his back pocket was crinkled. The doll, though old, was in remarkable condition.
Kelly inspected him further, turning the doll carefully one way then the other. The arms showed the same wear from play, one small finger missing from a hand. The legs were pristine, save for a blue crayon streak of “Johnny.”
When she cleaned it, she scrubbed the leg and removed any trace of lettering.
Kelly and Shawn gave it to Shelly, fully prepared to lie and gloss over any inquiries regarding the doll’s prior ownership, but she didn’t ask. If she wondered about it’s mildly battered and used condition, she didn’t voice it. Shelly loved the doll. He attended tea parties with Barbie, Ken, and Skipper. She lugged the skinny little farmer in an arm everywhere she went. He slept beside her at night, tucked under the covers. They piled on the couch to watched television and snuggled under a blanket to play games on Shelly’s tablet.
Shawn, first and foremost before giving her the doll, checked on-line if it was worth any money. It wasn’t, at least none that he could find. There were no manufacturing marks on the doll, and in all likelihood it was made by Gladys Cobbridge for her son.
“A Gladys Cobbridge original,” Shawn mused. “It could be worth something to the right collector. There were people at that sale that went nuts over her stuff.”
“It’s worth more to our daughter,” Kelly said.
“Well, you did remove the name, that was the real money,” he chided her.
Shelly and the doll became inseparable.
“What’s so funny?” Shawn asked Shelly at breakfast one morning. When he walked into the kitchen, his little girl was laughing so hard she snorted. The doll was sat propped against a pile of books.
“A joke,” she said. “Why did King Kong climb the Empire State Building?”
“I dunno,” Shawn smiled, “why?”
Shelly began giggling and could barely blurt out, “‘Cause he couldn’t fit in the elevator!”
Shawn laughed with her. “That’s pretty funny. Where’d you hear that?”
She was trotting from her empty bowl of cereal, the doll in her arms. “Johnny told me,” she skipped off, pigtails flouncing.
“I didn’t tell her,” Kelly said when Shawn mentioned it to her.
“Neither did I,” he said. “Maybe she overheard us talking.”
“Possibly,” Kelly said.
Shelly was having her daily tea party. She had her pink toy cell phone, chatting without stopping for breath, pouring imaginary tea, eating pretend cookies.
Kelly joined the exclusive group, curtsying to the stuffed animals, shaking the farmer’s porcelain hand. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced.”
“Oh, mommy, this is Johnny,” Shelly said. “Johnny,” she said to the doll, “this is mommy.”
“Please to meet you, Johnny,” Kelly raised her teacup. “Honey,” she said to Shelly, “why did you name him Johnny?”
Shelly looked at her mother with an expression of utter seriousness. “Because, that’s his name,” she said.
“Oh, okay,” Kelly said, amused. “I only wondered why you picked that name.”
“I didn’t,” Shelly said. Kelly recognized the tone in her daughter’s voice she herself sometimes used with Shawn, the tone that said, You idiot. “His mom did.”
Shelly held her lavender teacup, pinkie finger aloft. “Don’t mommies name their babies. You named me when I was a baby.”
“Yep, you’re right” Kelly said. The unnamed anxiety that had climbed the back of her mind slid down a slope of relief.
“His daddy calls him Johnny-On-The-Spot. He’s always where he shouldn’t be. That a nick’s name?”
“Yes, a nickname.” Kelly felt anxiety preparing for ascent.
When Kelly told Shawn about it later, he dismissed it with, “It’s just…well, I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think we should worry. Does she watch the History Channel or anything? Maybe she heard it on YouTube.”
The chili dogs Shawn had for dinner howled at midnight and forced him awake. He noticed Shelly’s bedroom light on. He looked in and found her fast asleep. Johnny was beside her, his head barely above the covers. Shawn saw only his black painted eyes sandwiched between the straw hat and the comforter.
Shawn switched the lights off. A yellow duck nightlight cast a low glow from the corner. Shawn went about his business, more urgent for the delay. Returning, exhausted, he saw Shelly’s bedroom light on again. Looking in a second time, she was asleep. Johnny rested on top of the covers.
Shawn flipped the lights off.
“Why did you have your lights on last night?” Shawn asked Shelly the next morning.
“Johnny did it,” she told her dad. “He said it was dark. He doesn’t like the dark.”
Shelly played in the backyard, running with a bubble wand and dancing in the armada of soapy spheres. Kelly tended to the flower bed, a project she had failed miserably at so far. Her thumb had never been green and this was proof. Everything she planted died. She knew it would happen, that’s why she put it in the backyard, out sight of the neighbors and their prizewinning roses and blue ribbon begonias.
Kelly dug at dead plants with her trowel to clear space for what she decided to kill next. The trowel hit the soil with a thunk. She dusted the dirt with her glove. Buried in a shallow grave was Johnny.
Popping a whopper of a bubble, she skipped to her mother. “Whatcha doin’?”
Kelly held up the dirt covered Johnny. “Why did you bury your doll in my flower bed?”
Kelly prayed for patience. “You put him here.”
“Why did you put him here?”
“He’s dead,” Shelly said. She waved her bubble wand through the air.
Kelly watched her little girl cavort across the lawn. With her preoccupied, Kelly dug the grave deeper.
Cleaned, free from soil, bubble residue, and sweat, mother and daughter had lunch. Shelly said they should order pizza for dinner to surprise daddy, and her mother agreed.
Shelly went to her room, singing and skipping. Kelly listened to her performing a concert for her dolls and stuffed menagerie. She finished the outline of a grocery list and joined her daughter’s party. They helped themselves to imaginary tea and cookies and laughed at a flatulent plush tortoise. Shelly chatted on her toy cell phone then handed it to her mom: “It’s for you.”
“Is it daddy?” Kelly accepted the plastic phone.
“It’s dark,” the small voice said in her ear. “It’s dark, mommy…”