When I was eight years old, I received a gift that would haunt me the rest of my life. It was a present from an estranged member of our family, my Aunt Diane, and it would lead me to uncover a dark secret my parents had tried to hide.
My parents had always been over-protective of me, and they went to great lengths to keep me safe. When I was a toddler, every outlet was fitted with safety plugs, and every drawer was locked. I wasn’t allowed to cross a street by myself until I was nearly in my teens. And perhaps worst of all, I discovered that the cell phone they gave me for my fifteenth birthday acted as a GPS system so they could track me. But despite how much they tried to protect me, the greatest danger would come from our own family, and it all started with the gift from Aunt Diane.
It was the first year after my grandfather had passed. I was only eight at the time, and our family had been in turmoil since his death. My parents made the difficult decision of putting my grandmother into a senior center since she couldn’t care for herself anymore following a severe stroke. This strained our relationship with my mother’s sister, who had been living with her parents.
Aunt Diane wasn’t mentally sound, and my parents refused to give her custody of my grandmother. They sold the house out from under her and hadn’t had any contact with her since. That is until my gift arrived.
Even the box the gift came in was disturbing. It was wrapped in plain, grey tissue paper, and taped manically, as if my aunt had been trying to cover seams that weren’t there. My name was on the tag, but there was nothing explaining who’d sent it. My mother assured me it was from Aunt Diane, and the slight quiver in her voice unnerved me.
My father grimaced at the sight of the bizarrely wrapped gift. He told me, “You don’t have to open it if you don’t want to.”
Mom said, “Yes she does.” She turned to me, the slightest hint of apprehension in her tone, “Go ahead, Ashley, open it up. See what Auntie sent.”
I looked back and forth between them, uncertain who to listen to. Eventually my father grudgingly nodded his approval. I opened the gift cautiously, as if I already knew I didn’t want to see what was inside.
Once the paper was off, I saw a black shoebox. It was made of a heftier material than cardboard, but not as strong as wood. I’m not certain what type of box it was, but it looked like a miniature coffin. Its silver hinges creaked as I lifted the lid to reveal the present inside.
Cotton bloomed from the slowly opening lid, puffing forth like a freed cloud, and then I saw brown fur deeper in. Once the lid was open, I saw the creation that would sear its visage in my subconscious from that day forward.
It was a teddy bear with ragged, brown fur. The fur had singed tips and was matted, as if it’d been washed with grease. Whatever fire had burned the demonic toy had devoured the bear’s hands, feet, and ears. But if all Aunt Diane had sent me was a tattered, burned bear, I would’ve forgotten about it by now. The truly unsettling thing about this gift was the bear’s face. It wasn’t a bear’s face at all, but the visage of a plastic doll glued to the animal. The doll’s lidless eyes stared ahead with pinprick pupils. There were freckles on her porcelain-white cheeks, painted on haphazardly in a pattern mimicking whiskers. The doll’s lips were slightly opened, as if she was frozen in mid-sentence.
I sat transfixed, staring at the demonic creation. I wasn’t merely lost for words, I was lost entirely, as if the sight of the doll-faced bear had ripped away my ability to speak, or move, or do anything but stare into those pinprick pupils in orbs of grey.
“What is it?” asked my mother with tentative curiosity.
I didn’t answer.
“Amy, let me see what she sent.” Mother reached for the box, and when she took the bear away its spell on me faded. I regained my ability to move and speak.
I stood, backed away, and whispered, “I don’t like it.”
My mother took it from its coffin, and a note fell to the floor. My father retrieved the folded paper, and with the Christmas lights twinkling behind him, he muttered a silent curse. “Look at this,” he said as he handed it to my mother.
She set the bear and the box on her knees as she sat on the edge of the loveseat and read the note from her sister. Her eyes glassed as tears threatened to streak down her cheeks. She covered her mouth, but couldn’t stifle a whimper of sorrow.
“Give me that,” said my father as he snatched the gift from her.
“What’re you going to do with it?” she asked. I stood gawking at them.
“I’m going to throw it in the garbage. What do you think I’m going to do?”
“No, no,” said my mother as she got up to chase him. She grabbed the crook of his arm and held him back. “You can’t throw it away.”
“Because…” she didn’t want to say the reason in front of me. She held up the note as if that was all the explanation he should need.
My father glared at her, and for a second I thought they would start fighting, but he relented and gave her the box. “Fine, but we’re not letting Ashley near it.”
“No, of course not,” said my mother as she cradled the box as if it were a baby. “I’ll put it away. I’ll put it somewhere safe.” She hurried upstairs, leaving me with my father.
“What did the note say?” I asked.
He looked to me, his countenance a mix of anger and fear that he tried to mask with a half-hearted smile. “Nothing, kiddo,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you… why don’t you pick out another present?”
There weren’t many left, and I’d lost interest in them. I listened to the sound of my mother opening the stairs to the attic, and I knew the doll-faced bear and the note it came with were forever out of my reach, though the mere fact it was still in the house unsettled me.
I tried to forget about the bear, but it came back to me in my dreams for seven years, until I was fifteen. Sometimes it’d be sitting in a chair in our house, a silent interloper trying to turn mundane dreams into nightmares. Other times the bear would climb over the edge of my bed, freezing me into silence with its devilish stare. It would crawl over to me, pull aside the covers, and slide in bed beside me.
A distant woman sung, ‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word.’
The singed tips of its matted fur would scrape at my skin, and there was always the hint of whispers coming from between its lips, like wind from beneath a door.
Those were the worst nightmares, where I was frozen by the bear, unable to move or scream for help. It would move closer to my face until I could feel its cold, plastic skin on my cheek, and the whispering wind began to sound like words. Almost as if it needed to tell me something.
One night, the nightmare lasted longer than it ever had before. The bear’s whispers began to form words as the creature pressed itself closer to my ear. For the first time since the doll-faced bear began to invade my dreams, I actually heard what it was trying to say.
“She burned me. And she’ll burn you too.”
I sat up in a panic, my heart thundering and my brow soaked with sweat. I threw off the covers and fell out of bed, grasping my throat as if someone had been choking me. I coughed and sputtered as I scurried to the corner of the room. I pressed by back to the corner and stared at the bed. The faint moonlight streaming in through the window provided a haunting glow, but it was bright enough for me to see the covers move.
Something was in the bed.
I leapt for the door, and the handle was warm to the touch, as if someone had been holding it moments ago. I dared a glance back at the bed, and the doll-faced bear was staring back at me with its pinprick eyes.
There was a faint scent of smoke.
I opened the door and discovered the source of the smell. Smoke wafted through the hall, thick and grey, like storm clouds gathering inside the house. The smoke alarm in the hallway was missing, leaving a torn wire dangling from its base.
The fire had started in the kitchen, but it was quickly moving through the house, following a trail of wetness on the carpet at my feet. I ran to my parents’ room, and the fire chased me, compelled forward by the oily substance on the floor.
The door was locked. I felt the fire at my back as I screamed for help.
And then, mercifully, I woke up. I lifted the covers, and this time the bear was nowhere to be seen.
That night, I was determined to put an end to the mystery of the doll-faced bear. I found a flashlight and snuck to the attic to search for the creature my parents had hidden from me so many years earlier.
I found the creature’s box tucked away in the corner of the attic, with twine tying it shut as if my parents had been afraid the thing inside might break free. I unwound the twine, and lifted the creaky lid, uncertain what I’d find.
The bear was every bit as terrifying as I remembered. Its fur was still slick with oil, and those pinprick eyes gazed soulessly up. As we grow up, we discover the things that scared us as children no longer hold the same power they once did. The doll-faced bear wasn’t an example of this. Terror streaked through me, rattling me to my core as I stared into those lidless, grey orbs and slightly parted lips.
Aunt Diane’s note was tucked in beside the bear, and I took it out. My heart raced as I opened the folded parchment and read what’d upset my parents so many years ago.
‘I made this from two of Jessica’s favorite toys. It’s all that’s left of her. Maybe a part of her is still in here. Keep her safe from me.’
I took the bear, its coffin, and the note back to my room. My fear of the creature had been replaced by curiosity, and an unexplainable sense of empathy. I needed to know more about who Jessica was, and what happened to her. I didn’t tell my parents about my dreams, or that I’d taken the bear from the attic, but I began to pester them with questions about Aunt Diane. They said we shouldn’t concern ourselves with her anymore. They said she was living in a home upstate, though they refused to go into more detail about it than that.
When I asked about Jessica, my mother turned as pale as a ghost.
“Why are you asking about her?” my mother asked.
“Who was she?”
My parents looked across the dinner table at each other, panic in their eyes.
“Don’t worry about Jessica,” said my father with finality.
“But who was she?”
“What makes you ask about her?” asked my mother.
“It doesn’t matter,” said my father, incensed. He stood from the table with purpose, and his chair screeched on the wood floor as it flew back. “We’re not talking about this.” He stormed off, and before I could ask what was wrong, I heard the attic’s hatch open.
My mother went after him, leaving me to listen as they searched the attic. I raced to my room, found the bear and its coffin, and dropped it out my window just before my father came in.
“Where is it?” he asked, angrier than I’d ever seen him.
“Where’s what?” I feigned ignorance.
“You know what!” He began searching the room, tearing through my things in an attempt to find the doll-faced bear.
“No, I don’t,” I screamed. “What’re you doing? Stop!”
He looked beneath my bed, through my drawers, and in my closet, but he never guessed that the bear was laying in the bushes outside my window.
My mother finally calmed him down, and when he left she asked me in a whisper, “Do you have the bear?”
“Jessica’s bear,” she said, her eyes tearing up. “The one with the doll’s face.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She knew I was lying, but didn’t pursue the topic any further. I grabbed my backpack and told them I was headed to a friend’s house to study. Once out of the house, I picked up the bear and its coffin, and ran to the only place I thought I might get an answer. I went to see my grandmother at the senior center.
After the standard pleasantries that go with a visit from a granddaughter, I told her why I was really there. “I want to know about Jessica.”
The half-smile my on my grandmother’s partially paralyzed face subsided. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said while reaching for my hand.
I pulled away. “No, I want to know about Jessica. Was she Aunt Diane’s daughter?”
My grandmother looked down at her hands and whispered the answer, “Yes. She died in a terrible fire not long after you were born.”
My cell phone rang, and I saw that it was my parents. I declined the call, and continued my visit with the only person who seemed willing to tell the truth about my family’s past.
“I want to show you something,” I said.
I opened my backpack and took out the doll-faced bear’s coffin. I opened the gift, and showed the creature to my grandmother. Her eyes widened upon seeing it.
“Where did you get that?” she said as she took the bear from its cotton-stuffed coffin.
“Aunt Diane sent it to me for Christmas seven years ago. Mom and Dad hid it from me. It came with this.” I read the note to her, “I made this from two of Jessica’s favorite toys. It’s all that’s left of her. Maybe a part of her is still in here. Keep her safe from me.”
I gave her the note so that she could read it for herself. A tear fell down her wrinkled cheek.
“Why did she say to keep her safe from her? Did Aunt Diane…” The question was harder to ask than I expected. I choked, but forced myself to ask, “Did Aunt Diane hurt her daughter?”
My grandmother dabbed her eye with a handkerchief. It took her a long time to answer, but I sat patiently, determined to wait for an answer no matter how long it took.
“It’s not my place to say.”
“Please, Grandma. I need to know the truth.”
My grandmother closed the lid on the doll-faced bear’s coffin, and handed it back to me. “If Diane wants you to know, then let her tell you. Give me your phone. I’ll call her for you. You can ask her yourself about what happened to Jessica.”
My determination to uncover the truth was challenged by what my grandmother proposed. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to ask such an accusatory question of a woman I’d only met a few times in my life. Nevertheless, I gave my grandmother my phone. My heart raced as I watched her dial my aunt’s number.
It took a while for Diane to answer. My grandmother and I locked eyes as we waited, and then she said, “Diane, it’s me. I’m here with Ashley. She’s asking about Jessica. Do you want to talk to her?”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk to her or not. My curiosity had been tempered by fear.
My grandmother reached out her hand to offer me the phone, but before I could take it someone else snatched it away. It was my father. He’d used the GPS on my phone to track me, and now both he and my mother had come to put an end to my detective work.
I was shuttled away angrily, despite my pleas to know the truth. We fought, but I couldn’t do much more than yell at them. Once we were in the car, my father finally relented. Before we left to go home, he told me the truth about what happened to Jessica.
“Have you ever heard of Munchausen by proxy?” he asked.
“It’s a disease, or a mental disorder I guess. It’s where a parent hurts their own child to get attention. We always suspected that your Aunt Diane did that to her daughter. She used to act like Jessica was sick to get attention from us.”
My mother quietly wept as my father continued.
“It started with her telling us that Jessica had a weak immune system, and then she started getting bruises, which led to her saying that Jessica had cancer. At first we all believed her, but then one day we took Jessica to a doctor ourselves, and all the test came back negative. Jessica was fine.”
“We confronted Diane, but she denied everything, and we didn’t have any proof. For all we knew, Diane had never gotten a second opinion from a doctor, and had just been misled. It wasn’t long after that…” My father was overcome with emotion, and he lapsed into silence for what felt like forever. My mother reached over to squeeze his hand.
He soldiered on, “That’s when the fire happened.”
“Did Aunt Diane start the fire?” I asked.
Neither of them wanted to answer. My mother finally said, “We don’t know. No one knows what really happened. After the fire, Diane went to stay with our parents. She was never the same after that. We never wanted you to find out about any of this. It’s all too horrible.”
The doll-faced bear was in my backpack, and I felt its presence more intensely than ever before. I was certain that Jessica was there with us, and she was determined to have her story told. As we drove home, I had a lingering sense that there was still something left uncovered – some secret I had yet to learn.
We weren’t home for more than half an hour when there came a knock at the door. It wasn’t a normal knock, but a pounding as if the visitor was determined to get in whether we let them in or they had to break down the door.
My mother and I watched from the hallway as my father went to door. He opened the door to reveal a spindly woman in black, wearing a pillbox hat with white netting shielding her wide eyes. Lightning illuminated the night behind her, and my mother uttered her name as if it was a curse.
“Mommy called me,” said Diane to my mother. “She said Ashley was asking about Jessica.”
Thundered roared, shuddering the walls.
“Ashley, go to your room,” said my father.
I hesitated, but began to do as I was told. I felt an overwhelming sense of danger as the tense situation evolved.
Diane screamed out, halting me in my tracks. “Don’t you want to know the truth about your sister?”
I turned and asked, “My sister?”
“Diane, no,” said my mother.
Diane was staring straight at me, “They never told you the truth.”
My father tried to force her out the door, but she pressed her hand to his face and began to scream, “They never told you how he cheated on your mom with me. They never told you how he got me pregnant, and tried to make me lie about it. They never told you how they pretended like it never happened, or how after you came along they just wanted to forget Jessica was even alive!”
“I’m calling the police,” said my mother.
“Why didn’t you love me?” asked Diane of my father as she pounded on his chest. “Why did you make me do this?”
My father released her and backed away as he said, “She’s got a gun.”
My mother screamed out, and then stood frozen in fear with her phone in her hand, an operator asking desperately what was wrong.
Diane stood in the threshold of our home with a pistol, and aimed it at my father as she said, “Why didn’t you love us?”
“Wait,” I said as I pulled the doll-faced bear’s coffin from my bag. I hurriedly got the creature out, and held it aloft for Aunt Diane to see. “Jessica’s here.”
“Jessica,” said Aunt Diane. “Oh my baby girl.”
Once the bear was out, it felt like someone had taken over me. I was being compelled to say things I wouldn’t normally say, and I knew this is what the bear had been hoping for all along. Jessica’s spirit, or a remnant of it, was tied to this creature, and it had possessed me. It was the reason I’d been so determined to learn the truth about what Diane did.
“She wants you to admit what you did.”
“My baby girl,” said Diane mournfully.
I looked through the corner of my eye at the phone in my mother’s hand with the operator still on the line. “Tell the truth about how she died. Tell us about how you broke the smoke detectors, and poured cooking oil outside her door. Tell us how you locked the door to your bedroom so she’d be trapped in the hallway.”
“How do you know about that?” she asked.
“Admit the truth!” I screamed.
“It’s true. All of it. I killed her because it was the only way I could hurt your father the way he hurt me.”
There was a flash of blue light outside, and at first I assumed it was more lightning, but then it was quickly followed by a flash of red. The police had arrived, and the operator on the line had heard everything Aunt Diane said.
She saw the approaching squad car, and began to panic. She looked at me with pin-prick eyes, and then turned the gun on herself. I closed my eyes, unwilling to watch the scene unfold.
I heard my father scream, “Diane, no.”
There was a gunshot, but then I heard my aunt say, “Let me do it. Let me kill myself. I don’t want to live anymore.”
My father wrestled the gun away from her, and within seconds the police were screaming commands for all of us to get on the ground. I dropped the doll-faced bear, and did as I was told.
The police arrested my Aunt Diane, and spoke to us for several hours about what transpired. I didn’t tell them about my suspicions about how my sister’s spirit was inside of the doll-faced bear, because I was afraid no one would believe me.
When I went back to look for the doll-faced bear, it’d vanished. I searched for it, convinced it must’ve rolled under the couch or something like that, but it was nowhere to be found. I opened its coffin, as if perhaps I’d put it back without realizing it, but the bear was gone. In its place, hidden in the cotton, was a silver bracelet with the name ‘Jessica’ on it.
It was medical alert bracelet that listed the various illnesses my sister never truly had. I still have that bracelet today, though I took it in to a jeweler to have the ailments erased. I’m wearing the bracelet now, which makes me feel like my sister’s still with me, even though the doll-faced bear disappeared.
Sometimes, at night, the doll-faced bear shows up in my dreams. They’re no longer nightmares. Instead, now they feel like reunions with a lost sister I never knew I had.