Dolls have the power to make many people happy but they also have the power to terrorize a few. Read The Doll-Giver.
Amber Dawn Hollinger is a writer, yogi, dancer, nanny, living and dreaming in the steel city, happily utilizing her MA degree as cute wallpaper. She hopes to contribute something decent (or indecent) by sharing her work, which has appeared with PoetrySuperHighway.com, S/tick, Rose Red Review, Foliate Oak, The Voices Project, Eternal Haunted Summer, Dead Flowers; forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal, Embodied Effigies, and others. She is working on new short stories and non-fiction pieces.
By: Amber Dawn Hollinger
Once, when I was little, my cousin Dennis told me this crazy, scary story called The Devil Ragdoll.
This was about six years ago, and we were having a sleepover in his living room. I stayed over after Easter dinner because my mom had the next day off, and she said she needed some time by herself to run errands and go to the beauty shop with her best friend Sandra and whatnot. I didn’t care because I liked hanging out with Dennis and his older sister Danielle, even though Danielle was only my half-cousin. My aunt Michelle married Danielle’s dad a few years after his wife—Danielle’s mom—died of cancer and then later they had Dennis and moved back to Pittsburgh. I remember my mom being real excited about the fact that her sister and her family would be in the same city as us.
Anyway, we had just finished watching a movie. My aunt and uncle went to their bedroom, and me ‘n Dennis got into our little sleeping bags. Danielle had already fallen asleep on the couch; I think she had a bad cold or something. So when all the lights were out, except for the little blue nightlight in the hallway, Dennis turned and whispered to me, “Hey, you wanna hear a ghost story?”
Now, Dennis is only a few years older than me, but back then he was always acting like he was grown, and talking like he knew stuff I didn’t. What I did know was that Dennis had older friends, even some from the middle school, because he played in the twelve-and-under pick-up games down at the Y. And I knew sometimes he was hearing things that he probably shouldn’t have heard—like swears. One summer he ran around saying shit in place of crap, until his parents busted him and he got soap in his mouth in place of dinner.
I had never heard a ghost story before, because I was only like seven and I didn’t have older siblings and my mother didn’t allow me to watch scary movies or nothing like that. I remember hoping that no adults would find out about me listening to my very first scary story. I remember feeling nervous and excited at the same time. As usual, Dennis had my full attention.
I listened with wide eyes as he whispered the story to me, pausing sometimes for dramatic effect. Then, at the end, he told me the title; I guess he didn’t want to give away any of the surprise. Looking back, I don’t remember exactly how he told the tale, and at ten years old Dennis probably wasn’t the smoothest of storytellers. But I still know most of the details and I can fill in the blanks good enough. The story went something like this…
Once, there was a little girl who lived in a big old house with her grandmother. The little girl was as kind and sweet as pie, but she had no friends, because her grandmother was weird and super-protective and wouldn’t let her socialize or do anything with other kids outside of school. For her birthday, her grandmother asked her what she wanted. All I want is a friend, the little girl told her grandmother. The little girl blew out the candles on her cake but didn’t have much hope for her wish. She went to sleep feeling sad and lonely. When the little girl awoke, there was a package on the bed beside her, wrapped in sparkling pink paper. The little girl opened the package excitedly only to find a small handmade ragdoll. The doll was soft and lovely, with a patchwork body, a red and black checkered dress, big mismatched button eyes, and long hair made with bright green yarn. It had a broad, threaded smile. The little girl’s grandmother came in and gave her a big hug and said: You wanted a friend, so I went to the village to buy you one from my favorite antique shop. The little girl was happy to get the gift, and she hoped that having the ragdoll by her side would be almost as good as having a real friend. For days the little girl took the ragdoll with her everywhere she went, played with her whenever she could and even told it secrets, as if it was her best friend in the whole world. One night, when the sky was black and the moon was full, instead of tucking the ragdoll under the covers with her, the little girl left the ragdoll by her window, where it seemed to glow beneath the starlight. In the middle of the night, the little girl woke to hear strange sounds all around the house, like the thump-thump thump-thump of tiny footsteps and the whoosh whoosh swish of someone walking quickly. And, every now and then, the skreeeetch scraaaatch, as if the walker was dragging something along the floor. The little girl was scared but figured her grandmother must be wandering in her sleep or something. She slowly got out of bed and noticed her ragdoll was no longer near the window. She looked around her room, but the ragdoll was nowhere to be seen. The house was very dark and very quiet. The little girl crept down the hallway, on her tiptoes, careful to not make any sounds. She didn’t see anyone and she didn’t hear any more noises. She started to feel for-real frightened, like she just knew something was seriously wrong. The little girl finally arrived at her grandmother’s bedroom door. Everything felt cold and silent. She took a deep breath, slowly turned the doorknob, and pushed the door open. She couldn’t even hear her grandmother’s heavy breathing. Grandma? She whispered. You there? … No answer. The little girl poked her head into the doorway and stepped into the room. She felt for the lamp on her grandmother’s dresser and clicked on the light. There… on the bed…was her grandmother’s lifeless body. Her throat was cut and blood covered the small bed. On the floor was a bloody knife. Next to the knife lay the ragdoll, a smile stitched across her face.
And that was it: the tale of The Devil Ragdoll. Creepy for any age, but especially for a kid in elementary school! That creepy friggin’ story scared me so, so bad, when I heard it for the first time that I actually wet my pants! Hey, I ain’t ashamed to admit that. It scared the piss outta me. I. Was. Terrified. Dennis laughed at me that night, but when my mom and his mom found out about him telling me that scary story he sure did get in trouble. And I’m glad because that story messed with me, for real. That story stayed with me, stayed creeping me out, for like three whole years after that! I had trouble sleeping and got nightmares like every week and had to lock up all my dolls at night in a big plastic tub under my bed. It was awful.
Only now can I look at a doll, daytime or night time, without getting the shivers. It’s like their faces have changed, over time, even though they’re still the same. My mom said that came with growin’ up a bit, bein’ able to see things differently, after awhile. It’s funny how that goes; how something can change from normal to scary—or harmless to horrible. Then, sometimes, it can change back again. If you’re lucky.
Anyway, I hadn’t thought about that story in a long time. Not much. Not until recently, after I had to make ragdolls in my sewing class at school. And then some crazy stuff started happening.
I’ve always been good at sewing. My mom likes to sew and knit and quilt, my grandmother taught her how to do all that. She’s really good and can make all kinds of cool stuff, like blankets and clothes and gifts for people—and I’ve been learning from her for years. Just last summer we made these great skirts out of old T-shirts, and they looked so cute. We got a lot of compliments for them. So of course, I chose Home Economics as my elective instead of Woodshop. And the second semester was all about textiles and we got to learn all about dolls, which was actually really cool. Like the history of dolls and different ways people from different cultures have used dolls and different ways to make handmade dolls.
For my final class project, I had to write a report about a specific type of doll and then sew one. I chose to focus on ragdolls because I loved the idea of turning something old and tired into something totally new. Plus, my three best friends—Alana, Jasmine, and Cheyenne—all have birthdays in the Spring, so I thought hey, I’ll make three ragdolls to use for my project and then gift them to my friends—which my teacher said was a really good, really nice idea. I was determined to rock that assignment and to impress my friends with my skills.
I went to the fabric store with my mom to pick out some yarn and cloth to match the caramely, cinnamony, and chocolatey hair and skin tones of my friends, because I wanted my ragdolls to look as much like their owners as possible. We planned to use stuffing from old pillows to fill them and colorful scraps for their little outfits. As I began to assemble the ragdoll versions of my friends, I couldn’t help but remember the awful story that had scarred me and kept me terrified of dolls, for years. Well, I decided that my ragdolls’ stories would have better endings.
I pieced and sewed them together, thinking and hoping and willing them to help keep my friends safer and happier and healthier. It may sound strange, but I prayed to Jesus, I prayed out to the universe, and I prayed to my grandmother—rest her soul—that my ragdolls would hold powers of good, not evil. That night I dreamt of my grandmother, gentle and grinning from her rocking chair. “You’re a doll-maker,” she said. “Just like you’re grandma.”
I finished my ragdolls by mid-March, turned my project in early, and got 100% of course. It’s great to get rewarded for good work—even when the work feels more like fun. Since I got such a good grade, my mom took me to a jazz show down by the river.
I was so proud of my dolls, my little creations. I gave them to my friends the very next weekend. Alana and Cheyenne got theirs when I went to visit them, and Jasmine got hers when I saw her in church. They all really seemed to like them, but Alana seemed the most excited about it—probably because she still plays with dolls a lot, instead of just having them around as decorations. Alana, she was the first.
I’d been friends with Alana since our moms met at the neighborhood playground. We used to play tea party in her yard, with all of our baby dolls around a Disney table. Alana always had the best toys and she had a beautiful, big backyard—and a big house—before her father lost his job and her family had to move into a tiny apartment across town. My mom once told me that Alana’s parents had both been looking for decent jobs for years now, but all they could find was part-time work and that’s why we always took them extra food when we went to visit.
But here’s the thing, a few days after I gave Alana her doll, she texted me with news: her father had just been hired on with a new company, making more than he ever had before, and her mother, who is an amazing baker, had decided to start a cupcake business from their kitchen. “Best thing that could’ve happened for my family,” she wrote. “My bday wish came true x10!” It was a wonderful turnaround, and I didn’t think much more about it, at the time.
A week after that, Jasmine called me. Jasmine is my home-schooled friend, who became one of my best friends during fifth grade swim camp. Jasmine and I used to have these colorful waterproof mermaid dolls that we could take into the pool with us, pretending we all lived in a magical world beneath the sea. Jasmine is really smart and really shy and says she doesn’t have many friends. Over the summer, this girl Carmen who lives across the street from her started picking on her—calling her all kinds of cruel things and pushing her and whatnot. Jasmine told me all about it over Christmas break, how this bully made her cry sometimes. She said she told her mom about it, but her mom just kept telling her to stay away from the girl, because that girl’s family was wacky and capable of god-knows-what.
On the phone Jasmine said: “Seriously, the craziest thing happened yesterday morning. I was eating my breakfast, looking out my front window, and what do I see? Carmen climbing up into the tree outside her house, all awkward. I guess she was trying to grab hold of a cat or whatever. Next thing I hear is branches snapping, and right before my eyes Carmen falls from about eight feet. Smack right onto the sidewalk. I just like stood there, frozen. She could hardly move, and she was yelling for her mom, who ran out, screaming, and called an ambulance. She finally just came home and I saw her with casts on both, I repeat both, of her arms! She’s probably gonna be housebound for a few weeks. She’ll probably have to take summer school to make up for all the work she’ll miss!”
Jasmine didn’t sound happy as she explained what happened, just shocked and matter-of-fact. Still, we couldn’t help but giggle a little. That girl got what was coming to her… didn’t she?
Still, I started wondering about some things. When I was alone on the school bus, in the bathtub, in the quiet of my bed, my mind would wander. Were all these things that happened after I gave the ragdolls to my friends coincidences or were they something else? And if they were something else, what were they? And what did it all mean? It was confusing and a little frightening. I wanted to know, and I didn’t want to know. I figured if I ever learned the real answers to these questions I might have to take them to my grave.
I only knew Cheyenne for a few years, but she was one of my best friends. We kept seeing each other in the same elective clubs, so we started talking and found out we both loved reading and dancing and that we both were learning how to knit: me from my mom and Cheyenne from her grandmother who lives in Erie. About six months ago, Cheyenne’s mother left to go to rehab so she was living with just her stepdad and her little brother.
No one knew back then what they know now, about what happened in that house. About the threats and the secrets. About that grimy man drinking all the time and sneaking into bedrooms he didn’t belong in, doin’ terrible things to Cheyenne and her brother. I couldn’t even imagine such awful things when I heard the story. My grandmother used to say “The truth cannot be long hidden.”
Cheyenne came to my house a couple weeks ago. She was pretty quiet and seemed depressed. While we were watching a movie and painting our toenails, she turned to me and said, “I might have to go away for awhile.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I need a change of scene. I think I’m gonna call my grandmother and ask her if we can stay with her for the whole summer. I know she would let us.”
I asked her what was wrong and she just shook her head. I was worried, but I didn’t know what else to say. The next day Cheyenne wasn’t in school. She wasn’t in school the following day either.
That evening I called her house and her grandmother answered. She told me that Cheyenne couldn’t come to the phone.
“But,” she said, “Chey will call you in a few days, once we’re all settled in Erie.”
Cheyenne’s grandmother talked to my mom, and that’s how I learned about the crazy shit that had been happening to my friend, behind closed doors.
The wicked, evil stuff that was happening before the abuse was exposed. Before her grandmother had no choice but to come get her and her brother in the middle of the night. Before her step-father drank a bit too much and tried to drive home from the bar. Before he ran a stop sign and met a Mack truck in the least friendliest way, and pieces of his car and his body were scattered along route twenty-two.
Before I gave her the ragdoll.
All day I’ve been sitting and thinking about the dolls—my dolls—and everything. The thing is, I don’t feel bad about any of it. I don’t feel sorry. I feel… fine, somehow.
I am the doll-maker, the doll-giver. I feel perfectly alright. And now, I’m anxious to start my newest set of dolls.