While I was growing up, my mother worked part time. That way, when I wasn’t at school, I wouldn’t be alone at home. This unfortunately wouldn’t work for my wife and I and our kid. We both worked full-time and really couldn’t afford to leave our jobs. We sent out some applications to places that could accommodate us better, but only got back rejections. We just didn’t have anything to put ourselves above the masses, neither were we good at upselling ourselves. So, we resigned ourselves to leaving our daughter at a daycare while we were at work. It was certainly different from how we were raised but it was a normal thing nowadays, really. It was just hard to shake the feeling we were failing as parents.

During a week of vacation, I planned to check out the local daycares. I wanted to get a proper idea of the people that would be taking care of our kid. There were five I considered to be worth a look. I wanted to get a first impression on my own at first, but Emily insisted on coming with me, since she’d be the one actually staying wherever I decided. Ever since we moved here, she had been alone at home for most of the afternoon and certainly enjoyed that period of no adult oversight. I made sure she was acquainted enough with the neighbors to not hesitate to ask for help if needed. She certainly hadn’t got close to getting herself killed yet, but she was still too young to put that burden on her long-term. I would just feel much better knowing there was an adult not far from her.

The first place we checked out was the one closest to her school. I thought I’d have time to check out one or two more before going home, but that didn’t end up happening.

As soon as I entered, I was greeted by a young woman who had already awaited me.
“You wanted to take a look around right?” she spoke with a slight french accent, then squatted down to meet Emily on eye level. “I promise, we’re all nice here. The monsters too.”
“Monsters aren’t real.” Emily responded, insulted at the suggestion she still believed in those.
“Oh, well, I won’t change your mind about that.” A bit of an odd thing to say. She rose back up to me. “You needn’t worry about your daughter here. This is a safe place for children.”
“I would hope so.” I said, a bit confused. Was she mad at me because I wanted to check the place out first? I checked for a nametag, but she didn’t wear any. I didn’t know why I expected one, maybe because she didn’t bother introducing herself.
“Sorry, your name is…?”

We followed her down the hallway. A row of windows let us look into a big play room.
“See, children always come to us worried that it’s gonna be like detention, but it’s not. You’ll have fun here.” Claudia said. Emily was just tall enough to be able to look through the window. About a dozen kids were playing, some sitting at a table, drawing quietly, others playing something more rough. A woman my age sat with some kids at the edge of a ball pit.

I was quite surprised that I didn’t pick it out right away. I pointed towards the back of the room and asked. “What’s up with the-”
Claudia shook her head at me with a serious look. It perplexed me enough to make me fall silent. I looked back at the thing I spotted crawling around the child-sized castle structure. It appeared to be an adult crawling on all fours wearing a bear costume. The head of the bear was deflated, one side of the face caved in. It resembled a dog or a pony as much as it did a bear in the poor state it was in. The costume was missing patches of fur, revealing the smooth leather beneath. It attempted a quirky exaggerated gait, with its hollow snout wobbling around in the motion. Still, it appeared stiff, like whoever wore this suit was nearing retirement. It turned its head, the ears flopping over, looking more like pigs’ ears. It’s eyebrows were overly thick and pitch black. I had to ask again.
Claudia got close enough to whisper to me. “Don’t acknowledge it. It won’t harm the kids.”
That really did not put me at ease. I watched the scene some more and noticed none of the children were looking at the bear. Even those right next to it wouldn’t even throw a quick glance to check what just entered their field of vision. Likewise, the bear just crawled around the room taking no note of the children or playthings, aside from avoiding bumping into them. Emily completely ignored it as well, just following a pair of kids playing tag. I know her to point out just about anything she found odd to me, and even if it was just a bug she didn’t know.

I wasn’t sure what was going on. Part of me wanted to get in there and rip the head off that thing and ask the guy inside what the hell his problem was. Another part told me that would be a very bad idea.

In any case, I would not let Emily stay with this creepy thing. I took her by the hand and made my way outside. As soon as I was back in the entry hall though, I stopped. That damn bear crawled around in front of the exit. Well, it was probably a second one. What the fuck?

“What’s wrong, mommy?” Emily asked.
“Can’t you see the bear?”
“Huh?” she looked around. The bear’s head perked up at the mention. It began trotting towards us, with the same stiff movement. I took Emily up into my arms. I wanted to run but it was like I forgot how to. The bear stopped before me, lifted its head like a dog begging for treats and said:

“Peek-a-boo. It’s me! The Bear!”
It lowered its head again and began to shuffle off but I grabbed the bear mask and tore it off. It was a decision my brain made without letting me think about it. The bear stopped moving. Inside the suit was an assortment of two-by-fours, like you would get from the hardware store. Not even screwed together, just glued to the inner sides of the costume. There was no person inside. A beige piece of wood stood out of the neck where the head was perched on. The contraption swayed, as if looking around for its head. I hung the mask back onto the protruding wooden spine. The bear carried on, crawling away from me.

“I told you not to acknowledge it.” Claudia said with a defeated tone.
“What the hell is it?”
“It’s the Bear.”
“It’s some possessed costume!”
“It’s not. You’ll see, it’s not a costume. It’s not anything. It’s only the Bear.”
“I’m leaving.”
“Good luck.” she made no efforts to stop me.

In the car, Emily found the moment to ask: “What was that all about? What bear?”
Emily always came with questions and I was usually able to answer them all. Some with the help of the internet, but I always found an answer for her. I just loved to see her reaction to learning things for the first time.
“I… really have no clue.” I said.
“Like, a real bear? Or a teddy bear?”
“Neither. I’ll have to look it up.” I stalled. Look it up where though? This had to be in my head, right?

I drove straight home. At bedtime, Emily asked me again about the bear. I said I’d tell her tomorrow. At least, I’d tell her what exactly I saw there. All that I knew.

In the morning, I was alone in bed. Eve was preparing breakfast downstairs and let me wake up naturally. I sat down at the table, still shaken by yesterday’s events.
“Good morning, idiot.” She always said stuff like that to get my attention when I seem lost in thoughts. It didn’t work this time. She placed the tea kettle on the table and sat down with me. I looked up.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I saw a bear yesterday.”
“What, like, a real one?”
“No… it… wasn’t real, it was a costume. But I wasn’t the only one who saw it. The caretaker warned me not to look at it.”
“What are you talking about, are you still dreaming?” Eve lifted my head up. “You really needed some days off, huh?”
“I’m serious, it was like some demon. The children couldn’t see it. I touched it and there was no one inside.”
“That’s… weird.”
“I don’t know what the fuck that means… If the caretaker saw it too, I can’t be crazy, right?”
“We’ll figure it out. Maybe I could come with you next time, see if I can see it too. At least we’d share the horror then. Let’s have breakfast first. I’ll go get Emily.”
Eve went up the stairs. I poured me some tea, but it hadn’t brewed long enough yet. Too pale. My girls came back down the stairs. Then stopped.
“Umm…” Eve said. I sensed something was off and got up.

In our living room stood a gas tank. Just placed in front of the couch. It was painted brown, with a yellow knob on top.
“You did not put that there, right?” Eve asked.
“What? What is there?” Emily rubbed her eyes. I instantly recognized the color scheme.
“Peek-a-boo! It’s me! The Bear!”
“Okay, what the fuck?”
“What is up with you two?” Emily threw us accusatory glances.
“Let’s just… ignore it.” I suggested. We had breakfast and we tried to explain the situation to Emily. She didn’t buy it, thinking we were pulling some prank. After breakfast, the gas tank was gone. Eve went to work and brought Emily to school. I sat at home. I had no idea what to do. I felt I needed to sort out the bear thing before I should worry about anything else. Of course the internet had nothing useful on being haunted by a shapeshifting bear.

Eve convinced her boss to let her go early so she could sort this out with me. We waited for Emily to come back from school and took her along. She was pretty annoyed at sitting in a car and watching us talk to adults again instead of watching cartoons.

I held my wife by the hand and walked in like I owned the place. I went straight for the play room. Of course there he was again. This time in the shape of a toy truck, brown with yellow windows. It rolled around by its own accord. There were no kids playing this time.

Emily joined us at the window. “Is the bear in there?”
“Yeah.” Eve confirmed.
“Cool. Can we go home?”

I heard a door open. Claudia just came back from the toilet and sighed when she saw us.
“Let me guess, you pulled your wife into it too?”
“What do you know about this bear? What is it doing?”
“The Bear keeps children safe. Even helps them heal if they’ve been hurt. All while not being seen. I don’t know where it came from. Someone must’ve brought it here. So we kept it. As long as an adult took note of it, it would benefit all the children under their care. In return, that adult would see it pop up everywhere in all sort of shapes. It’s very annoying. I’m sorry. But hey, your daughter will be fine. She’s even doubly protected now.”
“If that’s all it does, why did you warn me about it?”
“Because the Bear is super annoying. As long as you gave your daughter into my care, you wouldn’t have to deal with it. I was trying to save you the hassle. Now you’ll just have to get used to it. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” she pushed past us and Emily used the opportunity to try and pull us back to the car. We technically did get our answers.
Outside, we saw our car had a new paint job.
“Peek-a-boo! It’s me! The Bear!”
By the time we got home, the car returned back to normal. At dinner, I put a toast in the toaster and out popped two, one with a bear snout burned onto it. It vanished as soon as I looked away.

Later, me and Eve sat in the kitchen, still sharing puzzled looks. Emily came down the stairs, but missed a step and rolled down the entirety of it. She began crying from the scare but soon was more confused as to why nothing hurt. To her, she definitely hit the steps with her head and limbs. What we saw was the bear catching her and safely carrying her down the stairs. I hugged her until the shock wore off. Emily understood that she shouldn’t have been unscathed.
“Did the Bear protect me?” she asked.
“It’ll keep you safe until you’re grown up.” I said.
“You’re so silly.”

At night, I checked on her again. She slept with her face half-buried in the pillow. A little brown teddy bear rested next to her.
“Peek-a-boo! It’s me! The Bear!”