I grew up in Keeling, Missouri. No, you wouldn’t have heard of it. It was a small, rural, upper-middle class community where everyone owned at least an acre or two. My father was a writer and my mother wanted to keep horses so this was the perfect little “one-stoplight town” to settle in.
I grew up there until suddenly, in 1984, the government claimed eminent domain on all of Keeling and we were bought out. My dad moved us to sunny California.
I’m a writer, too, though I’m not as well known as my father. I write informational pieces for online magazines and blogs. As you can probably guess, I’m barely getting by. So when one of my editors asked me to write an article on eminent domain for a well known political website, I jumped at the chance. She told me I was chosen because I had first-hand experience with eminent domain and the buyer wanted a personal piece that included photos.
I packed my bags that night, excited for the project. I’d always been curious about what became of my hometown, anyway. Before he died, my dad told me he thought Keeling had been turned into an airport.
First – research. I was disappointed to find the internet all but mute on the old town – citing my sources was going to be difficult. I knew Keeling had been near Poplar Bluff, Missouri so I pulled up Google Earth and followed the 67 north to the turn off for Keeling.
Odd. The entire town was…blank. Not blank like there weren’t any buildings, blank like there was a gaping black hole where Keeling used to be – a hole in the satellite data. It could only mean one thing. I slammed my laptop shut and through the mouse against the wall. It was private – and likely secret – government land now.
I hemmed and hawed on it a few days before deciding to go anyway. This particular buyer had allotted me a per diem (funds) for travel and I might as well use them. Maybe there was still a story here.
Two days later I was driving through Poplar Bluff in a rented Ford Focus. I stopped at a gas station for some water and granola bars, deciding to check into the hotel after I got back from Keeling. I was looking forward to seeing it again.
I took the exit north on the 67 and drove until I realized I’d missed the turn off. I circled back, looking for anything familiar. I drove back and forth until I found it. Barely there, covered in plant life and completely unrecognizable, was a road. I’d seen this street a million times, but never unpaved which is why I’d missed it. Someone had pulled up the asphalt and the road was completely overgrown. Bizarre.
I drove the six miles into Keeling wishing I had rented something with bigger tires and a higher clearance. Suddenly, the pavement returned and I rolled into the abandoned business district of Keeling. It was small – a post office, a gas station and a bar. All the buildings were derelict and rotting – their decay far more consistent with something left sitting for 100 years – not 30.
I drove through the eerily quiet town with the burned out stoplight and continued down route 51 toward my old house.
As I passed the other houses on the street, I noticed they were in the same state of advanced decay as those in town. It was unsettling, pulling up to the house I’d lived in only 30 years before to find it crumbling and consumed by time.
I went through every room in my house for the nostalgia, but found nothing of interest. We had packed well – there was nothing left here but a mannequin covered by a beige sheet in my mom’s old sewing room. I was glad she left that, those things were creepy.
I left my old house and continued down the road, which by now had turned back to dirt. Just why had the government bought this place? Why spend all that money, buy up all this land and then abandon it? My stomach fell as I started to realize there may be no story here. I was going to return to LA empty handed. I swore audibly.
I counted house after house knowing I was reaching the end of the street. All were in varied states of decomposition, some had even collapsed in on themselves.
The house at the end of the drive began coming in to view. I slowed down to take it in as it filled my windshield. I never remembered this house being this big, but then, my parents hadn’t let me go this far down the street.
While every other building in Keeling was disintegrating rapidly, this house stood proud and palatial, untouched by the decades. It was almost as if this place was stealing the energy, life even, of every other building in town. And maybe even more than that…
A large, very clear and defined area of dead grass circled the house. Two dead trees stood skeletized within this radius. Toxic ground water, perhaps? The windows were all barred, save a small, circular port window on the third story. If the government had claimed this town for anything, it was clearly this house, it was so different from the others. But what was so special about it?
Smelling a story at last, I parked in the pristine white driveway and climbed out of my car, hauling my camera and laptop cases over my shoulder. I walked up the four steps to the door and was delighted to find it unlocked.
The foyer was large and the house smelled musty. A staircase to the second floor was set right in front of me, a floor to ceiling mirror on the wall to my left and a closed door and hallway beyond it on my right. I set my stuff down and took my phone out – no signal. Faaaaantastic. Looks like I wouldn’t be calling the hotel about my late arrival.
I toured the house, snapping a few pictures with my cell as I went. The first floor had a library, a living room, a kitchen and a dining room. All the furniture had been left, even the dining room table was set, and everything was orderly and oddly dust free. Was someone still cleaning this place?
The second floor had 4 bedrooms and another narrow staircase that led up to the attic. I tried the attic door first, but found it to be locked. The first room I went into was the master bedroom. It was simple yet cozy and had an adjoining bathroom. I eyed the bed with interest, a sudden idea coming to me. I may not have to leave Keeling tonight after all.
The next room from the master stood with door ajar. This room was bare except for nine mannequins, all covered in musty, yellowed sheets like the one at my house. I snapped a quick picture and shuddered, closing the door to the room.
The next door in the hallway was closed. I opened it and stumbled back in surprise. This room had a child’s bed and was filled wall to wall with dolls.
I circled the room, curiously picking up a few. Baby Alive dolls, Cabbage patch dolls, and tons of creepy, little, yellowing porcelain dolls. They all appeared to be looking at the bed. I snapped two pictures in this room vowing to come back with my Canon.
I closed this door too and entered the last room on the second floor. It was a simple office – green carpet and green wallpaper. It had a plain desk and tan typewriter with a new white – not yellowed – piece of paper loaded into it. Interesting.
I left this room and descended the stairs. It was time to bring out the big guns. I bent down to unsheathe my Canon when movement caught my eye to my right. I turned and looked into the mirror. I’d known it was there subconsciously so what had caught my attention? I reached for my camera again and realized what was wrong.
The mirror, more specifically my movements in it, were somehow how of sync. When I moved my arm, my reflection did so about a quarter second later. When I blinked, my eyes were still closed in the mirror when I opened them again. It was incredibly unsettling.
I continued to watch my delayed reflection when I suddenly heard a noise, like the creaking of a stair. But it didn’t come from the staircase on the right, it came from directly behind me, behind the basement door. Someone was coming up the stairs of the basement. So there was someone here! I eagerly gripped the basement door and tried to open it but – like the attic – it was locked. I banged on the door but heard only silence below. Ah – animals. Of course.
Still determined to find a story I opened the front door to unload my car and stopped short. What the…. My car, which I had definitely parked at the top of the driveway, was now parked at the bottom of the driveway, almost in the street. I had parked it at the top of the driveway, hadn’t I? I’d just been so excited…I couldn’t remember.
I unloaded the car and brought my stuff up to the master bedroom. As I walked by the sewing room I noticed the door stood open again – but I knew I had closed it. I went to peer in and this time, there were at least 14 sheeted mannequins in it. There had been 9 last time. Right? I had counted. This time there were 5 more. Something was definitely going on. Perhaps it was all in my head. Maybe the air was toxic somehow, and that’s why the government pushed everyone out of Keeling. Was I losing it? I took another photo.
By the time I had deposited everything in the master bedroom, I was winded. I felt so weak, I had to lay down on the bed. This was unusual for me – someone who had nothing better to do most days than go to the gym.
I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew I heard someone with a high, small voice say, “Say bye-bye!”
I bolted upright and looked around in a panic, eventually noticing one of the dolls from the little girl’s room sitting on the bedside table. It was small and porcelain. Since when did they make talking porcelain dolls?
I rubbed my eyes and glanced around the room. In the muted light of the setting sun I saw someone in the corner. Not someone…something. It was one of those stupid sheet-covered mannequins. I shuddered – that definitely wasn’t there before.
I walked over to it. Someone was fucking with me, I knew it. I started to raise the sheet to see underneath when I heard a loud bang from downstairs. I let the sheet drop and started toward the bedroom door when I suddenly felt very sick. I dashed into the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. What was wrong with me? I wasn’t going to have a lot of time here – whatever was going on in this place, it was making me ill.
I stood up from the toilet and splashed water on my face. This time when I looked into the bathroom mirror my reflection’s movements were at least a half second behind mine. I waved my hands in front of the mirror horrified by my reflection’s slow response. I watched the blood leave my face and gaped at my reflection in dismay. How was this even possible?
Of course, it wasn’t. What was going on in the house was, dare I say it, supernatural? Possibly. I mean, what scientific explanations were there? I’d wanted a story and I’d gotten one. I could be the first journalist to prove the existence of…what? Ghosts? Demons? Poltergeists? I guess it didn’t matter. It was my payday – and I was going to need evidence.
As I turned away from the mirror to find my camera, I could have sworn I saw my reflection wink at me. I grabbed the Canon off the floor and began photographing everything I saw. I went downstairs to re-shoot every room, starting with the library. I started pulling books out one by one and quickly realized that every single book in the library was a copy of the Bible. Many different versions in many different languages. I opened a few that were in English and found that the word ‘God’ was scratched out on every page, in every one.
It was getting dark and just as I thought about seeing if the lighting worked in this house, a light flicked on in the dining room pouring out into the hallway. What the…
I turned my camera to photograph the corridor when I suddenly heard heavy stomping. It was more than stomping, it was almost running – and it was coming down the hallway right towards me. I dropped the camera and stood frozen with fear.
Whatever it was entered the library and stomped right up in front of me. I couldn’t see anything, but there was definitely something there – I could feel it blocking me from leaving. I slowly pulled my phone out of my pocket and took a picture of whatever was right in front of my face. The flash momentarily blinded me and when I recovered my vision, all the books in the library were on the floor, as if they had been ripped from the shelves in a rage, and in only that few seconds of silence. But I felt that whatever had been standing in front of me was gone.
I picked up the Canon, took a few more pictures with shaking hands, and tiptoed my way out of the room. I realized I needed video – not pictures. I pulled my cell phone out again and opened it up to video then walked down the hallway toward the lit dining room. I passed a painting in the hallway and caught sight of my smirking reflection. But I wasn’t smiling.
As soon as I entered the dining room, I noticed something was different. A noose made of stained sheets was now tied to a beam above the table. It was swinging back and forth as if it were weighted, but nothing else in the room was moving. Even the beamed creaked as it swung, as if it, too, was straining from the weight of something. I filmed it for a minute and then raised the Canon for a picture. It suddenly stopped swinging as if someone had grabbed it midair. I heard giggling from upstairs.
I left the dining room and walked toward the staircase, warily. Did I really want to go up there? I didn’t hear the giggling anymore but I heard the typewriter clicking away. I happened to glance toward the large foyer mirror again to see it was now out of sync a full second behind me. I heard the giggling again and then something small run down the hallway and slam a bedroom door. On gut reaction alone, I threw the door open, intending to flee.
The car was now 50 yards down the street. I was about to bolt for it anyway when I heard another stair creek behind me – through the basement door. This time, it was closer, further up the stairs. Maybe only 5 steps below the main floor. I shook my head as if to shake it clear of fear. Every journalist dreams of a chance like this, of a story like this. I had to stay just long enough to get something on video.
I heard the typewriter start to click again and sprinted up the stairs, running full speed into the office. The typewriter had stopped typing by the time I got there and I ran over to see what it had written. I sat down at the desk when I reached it, suddenly feeling tired and weak again.
The paper read: “jamie ellis is condemned. jamie ellis is condemned. jamie ellis is condemned.” over and over again, all the way down the page. I took a photo with the Canon and waited to see if it would start typing. Just then, I heard the giggling echo down the hallway again. I rose from the chair and left the office, stepping out into the darkening hallway.
The child’s bedroom door was closed but I could hear scuffling and movement from behind it. I slowly opened the door hoping I would find animals. Cats, raccoons, mice, anything! But it wasn’t animals.
Every doll in the room was where I’d left it. Only now all their heads were turned toward the door. They were looking at me…
I heard another giggle on my right and noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I quickly slammed the door shut and fell back against the banister in terror. I couldn’t do this. I slowly got up, tired and shaky. I walked by the sewing room door, open again, and this time there were only 3 mannequins left in the room.
I didn’t stop to wonder where the others had gone. I bolted down the stairs as something else ran up, stomping the entire way.
I had been wrong. So wrong. It was time to leave, I needed to get out. I turned the front door handle and was sickened to feel it locked. I ran down the hall, through the living room, and into the kitchen, pulling on the backdoor and screaming in frustration when it wouldn’t open.
“Where ya goin? He he he.” I heard from the living room. The dolls. Jesus, the dolls. I stumbled into the living room which was now lit by a single tall, black lamp in the corner. There was a doll on the floor in the middle of the room that hadn’t been there before.
Knowing my fate was probably already sealed, I walked over and picked her up off the floor. Her head hung limp behind her as any dolls’ would.
“What did you say to me?” I breathed.
“What the fuck did you say to me?!” I demanded in a crazy panic.
The doll slowly picked it’s head up and smiled, breaking the stitching on it’s mouth.
“You’re never leaving, Jamie. You’re going to be just like me soon.”
I screamed and threw the doll against the wall. The lamp went out then and I heard the doll run off into the darkness.
I put my head between my knees breathing hard now. I couldn’t catch my breath. This house was draining me, it was sucking the life from me, just like the rest of the town. I was so tired.
I walked out into the hallway to make my way to the foyer again to try the door. I dropped to my knees in agonizing fear when I saw a sheeted mannequin standing in the middle of the hallway, 15 feet away.
Tears poured down my face as I noticed for the first time that this mannequin had legs – and feet. Another doll. It was another doll. A human sized doll. They were all dolls…
Not knowing what else to do, I got to my feet and slowly raised the shaking camera to my eye, peering through the viewfinder. I snapped the picture and when I lowered the camera I screamed. It was now right in front of me, and it mumbling something unintelligible from under the sheet.
I ran. I ran for my life, down the hall and this time, I had no reflection in the mirror. I didn’t even want to think about where my reflection had gone. As I took the stairs two at a time, I heard whatever was on the basement stairs take another step up – it had to be nearly at the top.
I ran into the master bedroom, not daring to look into the sewing room on the way. I fell down onto the bed and shook with tears. I had such sever muscle weakness at this point, I could barely move. How was I going to escape this place? I raised my head to look out the window for my car. I finally saw it – in the darkness – at the end of the street. I fell back to the bed, weak and sickly and slowly slipped into unconsciousness.
When I awoke again, it was with a start. Something was weighing me down on the bed. I shot up and noticed I had been tucked under the covers and the entire quilt was covered in little dolls. They were so many of them, all sitting on top of the covers, trapping me there, looking my direction. But the worst was at the end of the bed. There, leaning toward me over the footboard, was a mannequin. But I now knew it wasn’t a mannequin – it was a doll.
I gasped as the sheet slowly started to slip off the mannequin and I fell out of bed onto the floor. I heard the dolls giggling as I clawed my way out of the room. I didn’t know where else to go. With the windows barred, and the doors locked the only way out seemed to be the small port window in the attic. I dragged myself up the stairs, hoping I had enough energy to throw myself against the door to break it in.
I found it unlocked. I crawled into the attic and turned toward the window – my heart plummeting into my stomach. Oh, there was the port window, sure enough. But between it and I was a sea of dolls and mannequins. They all just stood there, facing each other. There were hundreds of them. I moaned in defeated anguish and in terrifying unison, every head slowly turned toward me. I recoiled in horror and fell down the attic stairs, hitting the second floor with a hard thud.
The typewriter was clicking away again, but I already knew what it was typing. I stood up, in utter pain, and shuffled down the stairs. There had to be another way out, I wouldn’t die here, I couldn’t. All I’d wanted was my big break, what had I done to deserve all this?!
When I got to the bottom of the staircase, I dubiously turned to face the mirror. It was half a second behind me, again. I studied it looking for some sign of weakness, something to tell me what was going on, I didn’t know what else to do. Suddenly, I heard a loud knocking on the basement door behind me and jumped. Oh God…whatever “it” was, it had reached the top of the stairs.
I spun toward the door in a panic and dropped to my knees in my weakened state. I happened to glance under my arm and saw that, unlike me, my reflection had remained standing and facing me. I spun back to the mirror but by the time I did, it was just a half second behind me again. I leaned forward toward the mirror watching it take a moment to follow. I even tried blinking, but this time when I opened my eyes, it’s eyes were still open. My reflection suddenly sneered at me and slammed the glass with it’s fist from the other side. The glass cracked like a spiderweb and I fell back in terror, through the basement door that suddenly stood open.
I felt every jolt and bump and crack as I tumbled down the stairs and when I finally came to rest at the bottom, I was in complete darkness. I tried to raise my head, but promptly passed out.
This time when I came to the room was well lit. I was lying on a concrete floor, on a dirty, tan sheet just like the dozen mannequins standing around me wore. Other than them, there was nothing else in the basement save a large portrait which hung on the wall. I got to my knees and stumbled over to it.
The portrait was actually a mirror, or rather, was painted to look like a mirror of the room – and it was convincing. In the middle of the mirror stood a tall, dark haired solemn woman in a maroon dress. She looked almost familiar to me… Maybe? Yes, it was her! Ms. Harmon, a widow I used to see in town as a kid. But why was she dressed like a 17th century noble?
I leaned closer to study her face. She had less wrinkles than I remembered as a kid, but had those same dark-brown, angry eyes. The portrait blinked. I fell backwards, into a mannequin which somehow managed not to fall. It had…regained it’s own balance, somehow. Feet. I looked around the room. They all had feet.
I turned back in horror to the painting to see the woman’s face slowly curl into a smile.
“Stay away from me!” I screamed at her and ran for the stairs. I pushed my way through the mannequins, feeling their hands grab at my shirt, trying to pull me back.
I took the stairs three at a time and when I reached the top, I slammed the door behind me. My reflection was standing in the middle of the mirror, unmoving, watching me quiet ire. I knew I couldn’t get out the front door – there was only one way out now.
I dragged myself into the library and grabbed the first chair I stumbled over. Running back, I raised the chair to throw into the mirror. In the second pause it hung over my head, I heard feet, little pitter-patters and loud thunderous steps running up the basement stairs and down the staircase to my right. I could see them all coming out of the corner of my eye but dared not look.
I threw the chair full force against the mirror as my reflection continued to sneer at me. It shattered and with my last ounce of strength I stumbled into the black abyss on the other side. I heard the dolls follow, but I ran and ran – for hours it seemed – until I finally tripped over something and fell.
I listened for footsteps. Silence.
Looking up, I saw I was in the woods next to the house. There was nothing behind me or around me, I had no idea where I’d just come from. I could see the house, it sat quiet and serene in front on me. But I knew better.
Gaining my feet, I ran. I kept falling, almost succumbing to darkness, but I pulled myself back up. I kept moving down the road, desperate to find my car. When I finally saw it on the moonlit horizon, I pulled the keys from my pocket and all but fell into the drivers-side door.
Not wasting a moment, I started the car and peeled off down the street. I drove as fast as I could out of Keeling, twice slamming on the brakes when I thought I saw a sheet-covered mannequin in my rear-view mirror.
I never returned to Keeling, or Missouri for that matter. At least, not physically… Even though my body escaped, I never did. I’m still there. Every time I sleep – or even close my eyes – I am back there, running from room to room. The dolls find new ways to surprise and terrify me every night. If I daydream, it is the same. I am only a hallow shell of who I was. My memories and my body is here but my mind, my soul is still in Keeling, trapped in that house.
In case you’re wondering, I had escaped with my Canon around my neck but the pictures were all empty, as black as the hole that was Keeling on Google Earth.
Sometimes even after I wake up in the night, I see a mannequin in the corner of my room. I know I’m in California, but I’m also in Keeling, in that house at the same time. I have been condemned to it and a part of me lives there. Whatever the house’s fate, it is my fate as well.
Every night in my dreams the dolls try to pull me back into that basement. So far, I have resisted, but I can’t hide forever. Someday, they will drag me back into the black abyss. And what awaits me there, I do not know.