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The Gift by Patricia Barber

16 Russell Terrace
London

8th February 1913.

My Dearest Alice,

I am truly grateful that I am able to write you this letter. If it were not for the scar on my hand that itches and vexes me so I would have thought that the last few days had been just a bad dream, or worse, a figment of my imagination. The events, which have unfolded here at Ivy House, have shaken me to the core and I hope never again to have to live through such a time.
It has been some months now since my husband’s brother William left England for his explorations of the African continent. His communications with home have been sporadic to say the least. We were then most surprised when, on my daughter Sara’s fifth birthday, a package arrived for her bearing William’s hand writing.
The tattered brown paper wrapping revealed an old shoebox. Sara was so excited – she carefully lifted the lid to find a rag doll packed in straw. It was a colourful thing and she was delighted. There was no note from William but his handwriting is easily recognisable and we all appreciated his thoughtfulness that the package arrived exactly on time.
Sara played happily with the doll all day long, talking and whispering to her new toy. When bedtime came she would not be parted from it so after tucking her in that night I carefully sat the toy on the end of her bed.
Dearest Alice, that night was really the beginning of our terrors. Sometime in the night I awoke with a start. It was still pitch dark. Somewhere in the house I could hear voices.
I lay still and quiet. I recognised Sara’s voice, soft and sweet, murmuring and grumbling to herself. I imagined she was talking in her sleep but she did not sound troubled. Then I was aware of another voice – higher and sharper than my Sara’s. It pierced the darkness, just for a moment – then all was quiet.
I went straight to the nursery. Sara was beginning to wake; I stood quietly at the door so as not to hasten her. I cast my gaze around the room, thinking back to the noises I had heard – perhaps it was only a dream after all. Everything looked as it should be – except that the rag doll was no longer at the end of the bed but was lying on my daughter’s pillow.
I know that I can write freely, you are my oldest friend and know that I am not easily given to flights of fancy. It was the very next day that strange things started to happen. First just small things, a hand mirror fell from my dressing table breaking into a hundred tiny razor sharp pieces, then a vase full of flowers fell into the fireplace and doused the fire. Sara and I were in the kitchen together, she clung tightly to her doll, and there was no one else in the house. I thought that perhaps it must be the wind but the rooms were still.
When bedtime finally came Sara sat up in her bed, she whispered something in the rag doll’s ear and then pressed her own ear to the dolls creamy brown face.
‘Mummy, dolly says goodnight, sleep tight.’
I smiled at my daughter and said, ‘Well tell her that I wish her a good night too.’
With a kiss and a hug I tucked her under the bedclothes, placed the rag doll at the foot of her bed and left the room.
I had not been in bed very long myself when the sound of Sara’s voice roused me. She was talking quietly and then I heard laughter – a strange brittle sound that made my scalp tingle. A moment later the voices rose to a higher pitch. Alarmed, I jumped quickly out of bed just as the hall clock struck two; sure that Sara was dreaming again.
I tiptoed into her room. The curtains were open a little and a beam of bright moonlight illuminated the room. Sara was sitting in bed and the rag doll stood upright on the counterpane. As I took a step into the room the doll seemed to turn around and stare right at me.
It is hard to confess how terrified I felt. The room felt suddenly cold and my breath seemed to freeze as it hit the air. There was my lovely daughter, her face calm and serene and seemingly still asleep and this creature stood not two foot from her. As I watched the rag doll moved slightly. Its coal black eyes seemed to stare, cold and
hard as ice, the painted on smile seemed to me at that moment to be more of a sneer. I hadn’t noticed the teeth before, they were sharp and white and seemed to shine in the moonlight.
Fear gripped me but the love of my daughter gave me strength. As I ran towards the bed the rag doll appeared to jump into the air and fell to the floor. I looked at Sara as she lay quietly sleeping – and at the doll. All I now saw was a colourful rag doll with black button eyes – a limp and lifeless thing.
As I turned to leave I swiftly picked up the doll and took her to the linen closet, I knew it was insane but I also knew that I would sleep all the more soundly knowing that the toy was locked away for the night.
Back in my own bed I turned to James for warmth, he snored softly beside me. And then it began. Quietly at first, a persistent knocking sound and then a rattle. The sounds came from somewhere outside my bedroom door. They grew louder and louder until it seemed as if the whole house shook. I was unable to move, my whole body seemed frozen.
As suddenly as they started the noises ceased. Slowly I climbed out of bed and crept along the landing to check on Sara. Just before reaching her bedroom door my bare foot struck something sharp. I jumped back in some pain to see a splinter of wood. Then I realised that something was wrong. The linen cupboard door hung open a little, loose from its hinges. The door was cracked around the lock. I pulled it open a little more to peep in and the rag doll was gone.
Fear gripped me and I ran to Sara’s room. There on the bed sat the evil thing. Without hesitation I grabbed the doll and ran down to the kitchen. I knew what I had to do. I flung the doll into the grate and then, God forgive me, I struck a match and watched the thing start to burn.
The flames licked their way slowly up its legs; the cream material shrunk and burned until all that was left was that awful face. As the flames rose it seemed to stare at me, somehow defiant. I took the poker and held the thing fast, fearing that it may yet escape. The battle was almost won but the rag doll had one more trick it seemed. Her head fell forward, sparks leaped from the pyre and in a split second the skin on the back of my hand bubbled and scorched. Through the searing pain I held fast to the poker.
I sat in front of the grate for a long time, waiting and watching until all that was left was ash.
At breakfast time my Sara was strangely quiet, I was afraid to tell her what I had done and was grateful when I heard a bang on the front door. I hurried off down the hall but when I opened the door there was no one.
Back in the kitchen I could hear Sara talking, my heart was gripped with fear as I entered the room and then gasped, there beside my daughter sat the rag doll, not charred and tattered as I had left it but whole once again. Sara slowly turned her head to look at me and I screamed. The evil thing that I had destroyed so completely was now somehow inside my Sara. Those precious eyes that used to be blue and innocent were now dark and black, shining with hate.
Dearest Alice, I feel the evil in this house growing stronger by the hour, I live in fear of my life. You must help me.

Your friend always,
Martha.

Alice Benson stared at the words before her, hardly understanding what her oldest and dearest friend had written. The paper began to grow warm in her hands and she watched in disbelief as the pages slowly blackened and then disintegrated. All that remained was the smallest heap of ash on the floor.


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