Nina saw the overturned boat first, caught up in the weeds near the side of the lake, and then the dozen dead bodies sprawled naked on the shore. Dad had brought her to the park to feed the ducks, but he’d forgotten the bread, and now he sat on the bench glued to his phone. Not his normal phone, which he let her play games on, but the other phone he took out when Mum wasn’t around, and he shouted at her if she touched it.
“Daddy, look. What’s that?”
She tugged on his sleeve until he looked up and his gaze followed her pointing finger.
She stabbed the air more assertively.
“That right there.”
He shrugged and looked back at his screen.
“A don’t know. A piece of plastic.”
“What about the bodies?”
His eyes flicked up and then back down again. “The dolls? It’s just trash, pet.”
Nina sighed, raising her shoulders and letting her hands slap against her sides like Mum did when Dad wasn’t listening. She stomped over to the edge of the lake, even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to go so close to the water. The bodies littered the shore in a staggered formation, as if they’d swum from the sinking boat and succumbed to drowning or cold at different stages, some near the water, some upon the silty bank. Nina wondered where they’d come from, what their names were, and what had happened to their clothes. Somewhere they had been loved, and were now mourned. Who had done this to them? Their hair choked with algae, their bodies covered in gross muck. She picked one up, wiping her face gently on her sleeve so that the painted smile showed through, faded, but still there. Dark smudges under her eyes made it look like she’d been crying.
“Don’t touch that. It’s disgusting.”
Dad slapped the body out of her hand, then grabbed her wrist and pulled her towards the car park.
Nina found her bedroom window open when she got home, and a bad smell of rotten garbage twined it’s way around her things. She wrinkled her nose and went to close the window. Mum must have opened it when she’d been at the park. She didn’t like opening her window because the smell from the bins outside made it stink. The carpet under the window was spongey with water. She didn’t remember it raining. When she looked down, she saw tiny grey green sludge footsteps leading in a trail away from the window.
Something moved under her bed. She heard joints creaking and muffled laughter.
Stiff legged, her breath in ragged gasps, she approached her bed. A face of greying plastic, with weed tangled hair and smudged eyes and lips, stared out at her. Another joined it.
Mum broke the spell. Nina ran from the room.
Neither parent spoke during the meal, and Nina didn’t want to fill the silence. She listened for the patter of plastic feet, frozen in a perpetual high arch, tripping towards the table. The lasagne tasted sour in her mouth. She set down her fork.
“I don’t want to eat anymore.”
“You feeling ok, love?”
Mum reached across the table and pressed her hand to Nina’s forehead.
“Was the park too much for you?”
“Stop babying her. She’s fine. She’s just saving room for dessert, aren’t you pet.”
Dad winked at her, but Nina thought she heard laughter coming from the kitchen, and something shapely and lithe ran towards the cooker.
“She looks peaky. Is your throat scratchy? Have you been sneezing?”
“She’s not sick.”
Dad hit the table, making the glasses shake and the cutlery rattle against the plates. He wiped his hand over his eyes. Multiple heads popped up around the kitchen, like meerkats, from behind the kettle and under the saucepan stand. When Nina turned her head, they’d disappeared again.
“I think dinner’s over.”
Mum got up and started clearing the plates. Nina asked to be excused. Her parents threw words at each other, too low for her to make out, but their tone sharp with meaning.
She went into the living room and climbed onto the couch. Something moved under her blanket. Stiff arms held out, searching, plainly visible through the fluffy fabric. She kicked it off the seat and drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees.
Mum came into the room and picked up the blanket. Something grey green and naked, her hair slick down her back, scuttled under the couch. Mum held the blanket out, but Nina shook her head.
Mum frowned and pursed her lips together. “An early night for you, kiddo.”
Dad came in with two ice cream sandwiches, but Nina didn’t want one. The thought of something slimy in her throat made her gag. Concern flitted over his face.
“All the more for me.”
They watched tv, and Dad ate both the ice cream sandwiches, holding them in either hand and putting on silly voices as he took a bite from each, making Nina laugh and almost forget the tiny women who watched from behind the curtains and under the tv table.
Eventually Mum stood up and patted Nina on the head. “Time for bed, missy. Go brush your teeth and I’ll be in in a minute.”
“I’m going to my office to write.”
It wasn’t really an office, just the boxy third bedroom that Dad had squeezed a desk into beside the futon. Mum said he wasn’t a real writer either, that publishing his books on Amazon didn’t make him an author, but Nina thought it strange, because both his office and his books looked real to her.
Mum went into the kitchen to rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwater.
Nina couldn’t feel the eyes watching her anymore. She wondered where the tiny women had gone. She walked slowly down the hall to her bedroom. She peered inside, but was afraid to cross the threshold. She didn’t think she’d be able to sleep, not with all the tiny naked women under her bed. She couldn’t tell Mum about it, she wouldn’t believe her, but Dad had been in the park with her. He had to understand.
She shuffled down to his office. She knew she wasn’t supposed to go in. Not even Mum was allowed in when he was writing, but she was afraid. Shadows clung to the corridor, outside the ambit of the light. What hid in those shadows?
She could hear Dad breathing funny in his office. Sometimes she’d hear him making weird sounds when he worked on his novel late at night. Like he was lifting something heavy, or running hard. Writing must be very difficult. She waited until the loud breathing fell silent before she knocked and went in.
“Daddy, there’s tiny naked ladies hiding under my bed. They followed us home from the park. They’re probably just sad they all drowned and want someone to love them, but they’re smelly and I’m scared. Will you get rid of them for me?”
He sat at his desk from Ikea, leaning back gazing up at the ceiling. He had his other phone in his hand. Nina thought she heard him gurgle and was sure she saw a pair of perfectly pointed feet disappear into his mouth. She looked around the small room. The tiny naked ladies were there, under his chair, on the desk, crawling over the futon. They were everywhere.
Nina stumbled out of the office, screaming, afraid that the tiny naked ladies were going to swarm over her, climb up her body and press their bleached plastic hands into her mouth, wriggle inside, tickling her throat with their nylon hair as they crawled down and down, their sharp fingers cutting jagged holes in her flesh as they journeyed towards her stomach.
Mum ran to her, her body all tense and alert, her head craning as she looked for danger.
“What is it? Nina, what’s wrong?”
She tried to tell Mum about the tiny naked ladies, but the words got jumbled through her tears. She pointed into the office. Mum walked towards the door, but Nina didn’t want her to leave her, so she clung to her leg.
“Stay here, Nina.”
Mum sounded strangely calm. Nina hovered in the doorway, ready to run if she saw movement. Mum walked over to Dad and touched his shoulder.
“Paddy. Pat. Patrick.”
The calm leeched out of her voice with each word until she stifled a scream by clamping her hands over her mouth. She stood like a statue, and then became a spinning top. She ran her fingers over Dad’s neck, and Nina wondered if she could feel the hard plastic inside his throat, or had the adventurous explorer delved deeper.
Mum reached for the other phone still clasped in Dad’s hand, her fingers scrolling through the screen, her eyes unfocused until suddenly she started to really look. She pressed something and Nina heard Dad’s heavy breathing.
“What am I looking at? What is this? You sick, twisted bastard.”
Mum threw the phone away from her and it slid across the carpet under the futon. She started screaming, and this time she didn’t stop for a long time.
Nina never saw the tiny naked ladies again. For years she had nightmares about them. She heard Mum talking with Auntie Sara about the scratches and internal bleeding that the doctors found when they cut Dad open. It wasn’t just his breath that was stolen from him. Something, or things, had crawled through him, stretching and slashing in ways that the human body wasn’t supposed to be used. The doctors couldn’t explain it. There was nothing in his body that would cause so much damage.
When she grew older and learned of what Dad had done, what he’d truly been like, Nina’s nightmares changed to increasingly graphic pictures and videos sliding into her DMs, stealing her shine, tangling weeds into her hair and coating her skin with grime she didn’t deserve, but could never completely wash off.