Itty bitty towns have a reputation for hiding the biggest secrets. I’d never believed that to be true of our little town; it was quiet and sleepy, and the worst skeletons hiding in anyone’s closets were whether or not Miss Bamfrey’s hair was that color naturally or if she went to the city and dyed it. There was nothing dark, nothing horrendous about it. At least, there wasn’t anything dark or horrendous until we found those tapes.
My father happened to be the sheriff of our town, and so I spent most of my summer days lounging around the police station, getting peeks at evidence that any other kid would be beat within an inch of their life for looking at, but which the other officers entrusted with me, partly because my father was kind of intimidating and felt I could do no wrong. So of course, I happened to be there when the deputy, Petey, walked in with an old cardboard box nearly overflowing with videotapes.
“What’s all this for, Petey?” my father asked, lumbering out of his office. I walked up behind him and got a better look at Petey. I jumped a little. He was visibly shaken, skin much too pale, lip quivering slightly, and his handlebar moustache dripping sweat.
“I… I think you ought to have a look at it yourself, Sheriff,” he said.
My father and I exchanged a glance before following Petey into the back room. There was an old TV in there with an even older VHS player. Petey took one of the tapes from the box and held it up. He glanced at me.
“I ain’t sure she ought to see this, Sheriff,” he said in warning. “It was enough to give me night terrors for the rest of my life. Maybe she should just wait outside…”
“My Sarah can handle anything this town or the next can throw at her,” my father said proudly, hand on my shoulder. I smiled encouragingly at Petey. He sighed.
“Fine,” he said. He slipped the tape into the player and paused it for a moment. “Just so you know,” he said to us. “I don’t think I can stomach watching this again. I’ll wait outside.”
“Go right ahead,” said my father. I could hear the curiosity edging his words and felt my own interest grow. Petey nodded, hit play, and hurried out of the room, shutting the door tight behind him. My father and I exchanged glances before settling down in a couple of rusty old folding chairs and turning our attention to the TV.
First, the screen was filled with static, harsh and loud, grating on the eardrums. This lasted about five seconds before it abruptly glitched to a very stylized title screen proclaiming: Welcome to Playtime with Babydoll! There was a girly little dollhouse in the corner, painted pink and purple and white, but old, cobwebs decorating the corners and the tiny windows cracked and dark. Some music box tune played in the background. This screen, too, lasted about five seconds before turning abruptly to black. Slowly, slowly, achingly slowly, forms began to fade onto the screen. I gasped as the image became clearer. It was a child, no older than thirteen, a girl strapped down to an old rocking chair. She was blindfolded and gagged. She appeared to be in a dimly lit room. I could see something on the wall behind her, but it was too dark to see exactly what it was.
The girl was limp, her chin resting on her chest, her black hair fluttering over her blindfold with each ragged breath through her nose. There was more music in the background; someone humming the same tune that had played on the title screen. When I looked for it, I could clearly see a shadow on the wall, just to the left of the girl, a woman’s silhouette. She was swaying back and forth, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, like someone who’d had too much sugar in her coffee that morning.
The girl in the chair lay prone for several long seconds while the humming continued. Suddenly, she twitched. Her head lifted slightly, and a low groan escaped her throat. The humming stopped.
“Look who’s finally woken up!” said the shadow, cheerfully. “Playtime at last!” The voice was completely devoid of the characteristic Southern drawl native to our little town.
The woman finally came into the shot; however, we couldn’t really see her, only her back. I watched as she bent down and undid the little girl’s blindfold. She stepped back, out of the camera’s view. The little girl lifted her head, a fog of sleep still hovering about her face. This quickly faded as she realized she was bound to the chair and still gagged. She began to tug on her bonds, whimpering in desperation through the cloth around her mouth.
“Now, now, no need for that,” said the woman’s voice in the background. The shadow was moving off to the side once more, doing what, I couldn’t tell. “You’ll be up and out of there soon enough, dolly. First though, it’s time to play.”
The girl stopped struggling when she heard the voice. Her head snapped up. She stared off screen while the shadow woman continued to chat as though discussing party plans with a darling friend.
“I must say, you are one of the prettier dollies I’ve had the pleasure to play with. I do so love your hair. If only mine could be like that. It used to be such a lovely blonde color, but it faded to this mess when I got older. Oh well. At least I’ve still got my looks!” The shadow shifted, as if turning around, and the girl’s eyes widened. She began to struggle at her bonds again, whining in fear. The woman giggled, a little hysterically.
“Oh, these? Some doctors did it to me a long time ago. They told me they were working on some fertility drug, but they actually wanted to see if they could make a living marionette-type deal. That’s why they call me Babydoll!” More giggling. “Now, how about we start off with a little tea party?”
The woman—Babydoll—came back into view once more. I still couldn’t see her front side, but her hands were clearly in view, one holding a plate with little cakes on it, the other holding a pot of steaming tea. There was something on her forearms—I couldn’t tell what it was, it was too dark, but it almost looked like the jagged lines some kids would scrawl on their skin with pens when they got bored in school. No matter where the woman moved, unless she stood directly in front of the camera, we could see the little girl as plain as day as well. Her face was now tear streaked, panic in her eyes.
“Which do you prefer?” Babydoll asked, gesturing with the plate of cakes. “Chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry?”
The little girl mumbled against her gag.
“Neapolitan it is, then.”
Babydoll selected a cake, one much too large to be consumed in less than three bites. She set both the tray and the pot down and delicately slipped a finger under the gag, pulling it down so it was wrapped loosely around the girl’s chin instead of her lips.
“Please,” the girl began immediately. “I—I don’t know what you want from me, but please, let me go, just let me—“ Her words were cut off as Babydoll stuffed the entirety of the cake into her mouth, fingers pushing until the knuckles were pressing against the girl’s front teeth. Babydoll removed her hand and the girl began choking and sputtering. The woman tsked.
“Now, that’s not very polite,” she cooed, waggling her pointer finger, coated in frosting and saliva. “Swallow your food, dolly. No talking with your mouth full.”
The girl made as if to spit the cake out, but Babydoll was too fast, snatching up another and stuffing it into the girl’s already full mouth. Babydoll crammed cake after cake past the poor child’s lips, until her cheeks were so swelled they looked as if they’d split apart, her mouth couldn’t close, and she was retching and straining against the strap that bound her torso to the chair, obviously trying to bend forward and cough up the hideous amount of pastry. Babydoll then took up the gag once more and tied it snug across the girl’s mouth.
“Now chew and swallow like a good girl, dolly,” she chirped. She stood and stepped backwards out of the frame.
It was a long time, but, with her eyes squeezed shut and tears dribbling down her face, the girl slowly and surely began to swallow chunks of cake, choking frequently and coughing through her nose. At last the final crumbs were down, and the gag, no longer wrapped tight around puffed out cheeks, was slackened enough that she could finally gasp for breath. I could see frosting coating her tongue in a sickly blanket.
“Good girl!” Babydoll cheered from her position off screen. She came back into view, now holding a long leather strap in her hands. “Very good girl! That was a nice big bite you took, dolly! And you finished it all! How’d you like to wash it all down with some nice tea?”
Babydoll took a handful of the girl’s hair and wrenched her head back, looping the leather strap around her forehead and the back of the chair, securing it. She then picked up the teapot, whose contents were still spouting a thick cloud of steam. She took the girl’s chin with one hand, forcing her mouth opened, and then casually poured the scalding contents of the pot down the girl’s throat.
The girl thrashed against her binding, stomach heaving. She tried to scream but only managed to gargle the tea a little, spilling some out and down the corners of her mouth. Some of it was stained red with blood. More choking and coughing. Babydoll didn’t stop until the teapot was empty, spilling the tea all over the girl’s face, throat, and shirt. I could see the angry red welts it left on the skin.
When the teapot was finally empty, Babydoll tossed it over her shoulder. I heard it shatter against the wall off-screen. She released her hold on the girl’s chin and unbound her head. The girl’s head fell forward again. She was still gagging and coughing, the blood-and-tea mixture now more red than brown.
“I always love a good tea party,” Babydoll said cheerfully, stepping off screen again. “But we’re running out of time. So, let’s play dress up!”
Babydoll stepped back into view with a bundle of cloth in her arms. The little girl, it seemed, had passed out from the pain. Babydoll used this to her advantage, untethering her, slipping a silk dress over her head, and strapping her back in with just a few fluid movements. She reached off camera and brought forth a syringe, sinking it into the girl’s neck. She shrieked and came to, jerking her head forward. The needle broke off and stuck in her neck.
“Sorry for the rude awakening, dolly,” Babydoll said, pulling a threaded sewing needle from her pocket. “But, like I said, we’re running out of time, and I’d like to spend the last few minutes of our play date with you while you’re awake.”
With that, Babydoll leaned forward and stuck the needle through the silk shoulder of the dress…and the flesh of the girl’s shoulder. The girl shrieked like an animal. Taking her time and humming that awful music box tune again, Babydoll stitched the dress all the way down both arms and up both sides of the rib cage, circling the wrists and connecting the halves across the collarbone. She cut the thread and pulled a spool of thin wire from her jeans pocket. “This is the fun part,” she said slyly. She bent down and, forcing the girl’s mouth up at the corners to create a grotesque grin… began to sew her mouth shut.
This was too much. I’d wanted to stop watching almost as soon as I’d started, but found I just couldn’t tear my eyes away. They remained glued to the screen as Babydoll stitched away, bringing forth rivulets of blood, cut the wire, and then promptly buried the needle in the girl’s throat. Muffled screaming through motionless lips. More blood pouring from where the needle had hit a vein, but hadn’t gone through straight. The girl struggled and screamed, thrashing against her bonds, tears pouring from her eyes and blood pouring from her grin and neck. Babydoll stood there, swaying back and forth again, humming. She finally stopped after letting the girl suffer for about fifteen seconds. Another syringe was produced, this one seemingly empty. Babydoll plunged it into the girl’s heart and, mercilessly, the girl was dead.
Babydoll stood there for several minutes, head tilted to the side. She stepped off screen. We were left staring at the stitched up, stabbed, choked, blood-and-tea stained body for several seconds. I shivered and had to suppress the urge to cry as I realized there was still some icing and blood oozing out from between the stitches in the mouth. Suddenly, a light came on, and I could clearly see what was stuck to the wall behind the girl’s body. I screamed.
Every inch of that wall was covered in pictures of children, boys in suits and girls in dresses, most in their preteens or younger, all with their mouths sewn shut.
And then Babydoll was back. She adjusted the girl a little, fluffed her hair, smoothed out her skirt. Then turned and knelt before the camera.
The sight made the scream stick in my throat. She was a lovely woman, pale with curly, dirty blonde hair parted on the side, pulled over one shoulder. But her skin. It was broken and cracked on her face, neck, and arms, as if she were an ancient porcelain doll. I could see no flesh through the chips in the surface. She grinned into the camera; her teeth looked like white glass.
“Thanks for stopping by to play, dollies!” she said brightly. Another small crack formed at the corner of her grin. “See you next time!”
She stood and stepped out of the shot. We were again faced with the corpse for fifteen seconds before the screen finally switched back to static.
My father and I sat there, immobile. The grotesque show I had just seen spun around and around in my head to the tune of that music box tune. Suddenly, my father was up and out of his chair, standing at the door, screaming for Petey to get in here and explain all this. I don’t think I’d ever seen him so enraged before.
Petey came in and told his story; he and the boys had been out patrolling when they’d seen someone go into that old foreclosed house on Washer Avenue. They’d figured it’d just be some teenager getting stoned, so they went in to rough ‘em up a bit. There hadn’t been anyone in the house, just the box of tapes and a TV. They’d watched a few of the tapes: every one of them was more or less the same, just with different kids. Petey couldn’t bear to watch more than three. His boys had fled halfway through the second.
“And there’s something else, Sheriff.” Petey pulled a VHS tape out of the box. It was empty. He handed it to my father. There was nothing written on it, but taped to the back was a picture. It was my best friend, Mabel, who I hadn’t seen for three days. I finally started to cry. My father wrapped his arms around me and attempted to comfort me for several moments. His tougher- than-nails girl had finally broken.
When I’d finally settled down, I was numb. I sat and watched from a chair, a glass of water untouched in my hands, as Petey and my father went through the box. They didn’t watch anymore tapes, but found that each one had a picture of a child on it, presumably the victim that was recorded on the corresponding tape. What seemed to worry my father the most was that there were several boxes with pictures, but no tapes.
“I want every man we have available out on patrol now,” he said to Petey. “We’re going to find this Babydoll woman and bring her in. No excuses.” Petey nodded and hurried out the door. My father knelt in front of me, a gentle hand on my face. “Sarah, honey, I’m going to take you home to your mom. This isn’t something I want you involved with. The oldest kid in that box was only your age…” He trailed off, obviously worried, then shook his head back into focus. “I want you to go wait out in the patrol car, okay? I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”
I nodded, mute. My father kissed my forehead. I abandoned the glass of water and stood, leaving the room.
That stupid music box tune was stuck in my head. As I walked out of the station and across the parking lot towards my father’s cruiser, I could have sworn it got louder. Clearer, too. Like someone was humming it. Like they were walking right behind—
A sharp pain in the back of my neck. My eyes rolled up in my head, and everything went black.
I couldn’t see anything when I came to. I could still hear that terrible humming. Something was wrapped tight around my wrists, ankles, and chest. I could taste thin cotton in my mouth. Groggy, I groaned a little and rolled my head back. The humming stopped.
“Look who’s finally woken up!” I froze. I recognized that voice, that awful, cheerful voice, devoid of the accent native to my home. “Playtime at last!”