My grandmother collected dolls. Flea markets, Garage Sales, Storage Units. Never new, Always old dolls. Oh, and porcelain to be specific. Not those Raggedy Ann or Andy dolls. Not the Cabbage Patch Kids. Porcelain. Some of their faces were cracked or washed away. They would stare at you with their lifeless eyes. Others had pieces missing like hands, feet, or parts of their faces. In fact, not many in her hoard were devoid of blemishes.
When I would ask why she kept the broken ones, she would just smile. “We are all a little broken, Gwen. That doesn’t make us any less beautiful.” But I was never satisfied with that answer because she would never fix them. Sure, she would brush their hair (if they had any), wipe their faces off with a paintbrush to dust. But the weirdest thing was when she talked to them.
If I remember correctly, I was seven at the time. My mother was working out of town in Minneapolis for the summer and my father was on vacation with some friends from work. My younger twin brothers – Jimmy and Cole – and I were forced to stay with our grandmother for a week. The worst part was that her home was just as old as some of the dolls. Hundreds of years old. “It’s got character,” she would tell us. We just rolled our eyes.
First night, of course, I’m laying in bed. My five-year-old brothers are in another spare room across the creaky hallway. I can’t sleep. It sucks. Right outside the door, I hear footsteps. At first, I think they’re my brothers, but I peek through the crack in the door and see them fast asleep. Not only that, the sound of footsteps stop when I got to the doorway.
By that time, my heart is racing. What’s worse? I hear giggling. Not just the voices of children, but adults too. I race down the hall to my grandmother’s room and I hear her for the first time.
“What life you had is no longer full of pain,” she cooed. “You are free of your body now your spirit may roam.”
I cried my eyes out and, when she saw me, she carefully placed the doll on her shelf and swept me up in her arms. She shushed me when I tried to speak.
“I will explain everything dear,” she promised. “In the morning.”
I didn’t sleep that night. The footsteps and laughter scared me to the core. My bones were shaking because I was so frightened. And my grandmother’s explanation did not make anything better.
My brothers were outside in the yard when she called me into the sunroom. There were three very specific dolls sitting on a wicker chair. My grandmother sat in her rocking chair and asked me to take a seat across from them.
“You’re old enough now,” she started. Her voice was high-pitched, like a tea kettle with boiling water screeching out the spout. “It’s time you know what I do here. Your father never understood this because he does not have the gift. But you, my dear, do.”
I looked at her in complete confusion. No one had ever made a mention that grandma had a gift, nor that I had the same one. What gift, anyway?
“Dolls have been used in many cultures over many time periods as a way to house a lost soul,” she explained, giddy with excitement. “When someone died, their spirit would enter a doll created for them and in their likeness. To look like them. These days, they are sold as toys. No one has respect for what they are truly meant for.”
She paused, took a sip of her Earl Grey tea, glanced at Cole and Jimmy, and continued.
“No respect from people these days. I have seen these mistreated things and I felt the pull to collect them. These people deserve the same respect in death as they did in life. Silly me, I take it upon myself to give them that respect.”
“But they’re creepy,” I said.
My grandmother frowned. “The shells are somewhat worn and weathered, but they house the beauty of a person’s life.”
“How do you know if they’re good or bad?” I couldn’t help but to keep staring at the three dolls she had picked out to present to me.
“I chose these for a reason,” she said. “Because out of my entire collection, these are the three that have given me the most trouble.”
The first doll had blonde hair and blue eyes. It was a girl, dressed in a pink lace dress, but something felt weird about it. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The middle one was a boy with a hat and old farmers clothing. He was missing his left hand and his face was cracked. One eye was green, but the other, someone had painted red. And the last doll was an old man that looked vaguely familiar.
“Not all spirits are good… Some are demonic in nature. I have made the mistake of obtaining these and I cannot seem to give them away. Well, one I have to keep due to specific events. Let me tell you their stories… as they have told me while you sleep…but….”
I felt cold even though it was the middle of winter. The room was freezing but there was no AC. “But what?”
“When I speak their story, they will come to life.”
I don’t know how far I ran before the cops brought me back. Why would my grandmother summon demons and force me to deal with it? As a seven-year-old, I had no clue. Either way, the second night was when I saw them for the first time.
It wasn’t the three that she had left in the sunroom that came to visit me that night. It was five medieval-dressed dolls, boys and girls, with swords and shields. I felt their little shoes hop onto my bed and walk over to my pillow.
“Gwen!” one whispered. “Please don’t be scared of us.”
When I opened my eyes, there they were. Moving dolls. Alive and filled with expression. I felt like I was in a cartoon. I even tried pinching myself.
“She’s awake!” they exclaimed. “Sorry to scare you before. We were protecting your brothers from the Evil Ones.”
“The dolls in the sunroom?” I asked. Even as I kid, I was really considering my sanity while speaking to these dolls.
They nodded. “Your grandma doesn’t understand. We just want to go to the light. She won’t let us go. But the Evil Ones need to be banished first. You are the only one powerful enough to help. Please.”
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. I’m only seven! But then I sighed and asked them, “How do I help?”
As they pulled me into my grandmother’s room, they explained the steps. “Let her tell you the stories, one at a time. When they come to life… you demand that they return to the fire.”
“What if they don’t?”
“Keep saying it until they do.”
This is traumatizing for a child to witness. Not only am I about to confront my grandmother because of some talking dolls, I have to exorcise demons out of a few of them. Apparently, my grandmother knows that these dolls move as she greeted them at the door.
“Where have you five been?” she scolded. “I was worried about you.” But then she saw me standing in my pajamas.
“They told me to come help them. Tell me the dolls stories.”
“The three in the sunroom?”
“The three in the sunroom.”
She quietly led me down the hall past my brother’s room and mine. We made our way down the stairs with the five medieval dolls following close behind. Through the dimly-lit living room kitchen. Finally, we were in the sunroom.
“Sit down Gwen and company,” she said and found her rocking chair. “I chose these three because the others have told me you can get rid of them. Trust me, I have always felt that you were a strong medium. It runs in the family, you know. Mainly through females… and since your father was my only child, I hoped that he would have a daughter. And here you are! Your abilities have exceeded anything I could ever do.”
I had no clue what she was talking about. How do you sense abilities in someone who has not even done anything with them? One of my favorite personality traits is my stubbornness. It has gotten me through a lot and this event was what started it all.
“Nellie Smith was a beautiful young woman,” she pointed to the only female doll on the chair. The moment my grandmother spoke her name, the porcelain head tilted ever so slightly. “Rich too. But she was born in a time where witchcraft was looked down upon. In such an affluent town, she would brew potions in secrecy… Until one day, her own father found her in the forest, performing a ritual. To keep the Smith name clear and pure, he had his own daughter burned at the stake for Witchcraft.”
I don’t remember gasping, but the dolls said that I did… very loudly. The moment Nellie’s cause of death was mentioned, a black cloud appeared around the doll. “But I did not die without a fight. Through the pain of the skin on my legs bubbling and charring, I yelled out a curse to my town. To all those who ever underestimated me and their families. I cursed them.”
My grandmother chimed in. “We are related to her father.”
But I did not have time to waste. “I demand you return to the fire!” I yelled as the doll jumped off the chair and started to run towards me.
“If she touches you,” one of the dolls screamed. “She’ll kill you!” The medieval doll with a red beard jumped in front of me as Nellie jumped towards me.
“I demand you return to the fire!” I screamed again, but it was too late. Both dolls lay on the floor, motionless as they should be. The knight had sacrificed himself to save me. Someone I did not even know from a time I never lived in… died… for me.
For the next doll, I stood up, ready to move if it tried to attack me. I would not let another life be taken. “He can’t go to the light now,” my grandmother said sadly, picking up the little armored doll. “But his sacrifice was not in vain. Are you ready?”
I nodded. The four remaining dolls watched in anticipation for the next story.
“Lawrence Callford… Farmhand in the Twenties. He never told me much about his life, but maybe he will tell you.”
The second doll twitched and it’s red eye blinked. “I don’t mean to brag, but I enjoy cutting animals open to see what’s on the inside.”
“So,” I whimpered. “You killed animals?”
The doll nodded and crossed his arms. “Yeah, and people. So what? I got what I deserved, didn’t I? Death?”
“But you aren’t entirely dead.” Perhaps my observation should not have been so cold. The frown that appeared on this demonic doll still terrifies me to this day.
“How did you die Lawrence?” my grandmother asked softly.
“Drawn-and-quartered, I was,” it said shortly. “All the families of the idiots I killed got to ride the horses that pulled me apart.” It pointed to it’s missing hand and cackled. It’s laugh sounded more like a cough, but still just as creepy. “Didn’t pull me completely apart though. Just lost me hand in the process.”
I took a deep breath. “I demand you go back to hell. Go to the fire!” I didn’t care how many people this evil soul had killed. I just wanted this to be over.
“Not until I finish what I started,” he growled. “I must cleanse the world of idiocy.”
I’m not sure how, but I ignored him. “Go back to the fire. I command it.” Just before the doll went limp mid-jump and crashed to the floor, I felt a hand on my throat.
As I tried to claw at it’s grasp, it only tightened. But I couldn’t fell the hand with my own body. There was nothing there. Until, the dark figure of a monster appeared in front of me. When it hissed at me, a long snake-like tongue licked my cheek. It burned like a hot iron.
“Ssssayyy that again,” it taunted. “I dare you. Ssssseee what happensssss.”
I was completely glued to the floor. Fear and the weight of the creature kept me firmly in place. Suddenly, my lungs filled with air. My grandmother used a special knife and plunged it into the scales of the Demon. It spun around, screeching like a banshee and shoved a claw into the old woman. I cried so loud that it woke my brothers up. Two of the dolls rushed upstairs to keep them in their room during the scuffle.
“Go back to the fire!” I screamed with tears running down my face. “Get out of here!”
Just as quickly as it came, the Demon was gone. My grandmother lay slumped on the floor. Her breathing was shallow, but she was alive. I started to help her up when the third doll lunged at me. I ducked in just enough time for it’s tiny body to soar over my head and roll on the floor.
“Chandler McGregory,” my grandmother sobbed under her breath. Her calm demeanor changed drastically to pure fear and I knew exactly why. Chandler McGregory was my Grandfather’s name. Her husband.
My grandfather was a horrible man. My father did not talk about him much… well, at least to me and my brothers. My mom told me that Grandpa Chandler was abusive to his wife and son, drunk or sober. She also mentioned that he had ties to the Mafia, but said nothing more than that. We never really found out how he died, either. That is, until he told me himself.
“Grandpa?” The doll stopped. “Why are you trying to hurt me?”
“Not you,” it croaked. “Your grandmother.”
“Because… she killed me and put me in this doll.”
I hope you enjoyed my short story! I have a good prompt for everyone who would like to give it a whirl!