September 27, 2021
Phileas Batuta was the strongest zombie in Plainfield. He was, in fact, the strongest zombie anywhere. He was even stronger than Bo Stronk, the celebrated Circo Morto strongman. He was also far too shy to ever appear in front of an audience. Eight feet tall, Phileas had legs like tree trunks, a chest like a rain barrel, arms that burst shirtsleeves, doughy white skin, and a face like a warm summer moon. Phileas could fling a manhole cover like a discus, lift a stagecoach from a ditch, and carry 15 giggling zombie children on his back. Sixteen if they were on the small side.
It was a good thing for the people of Plainfield that he was as kindhearted as he was large. Otherwise they might have needed to pen him up. There was, in fact, such depth and silence to his kindness that people often thought him simple. For example, Phileas was famous around town for giving his horse Mr. Goodness a rest if Mr. Goodness had a particularly strenuous delivery to make. Phileas would pull the wagon over and switch places with Mr. Goodness for a few miles. To Phileas this just seemed fair.
Mighty as he was, however, Phileas was worn out by this Saturday’s unloading of furniture into what used to be called the Old Curmudgeon Place but would now likely have to be called something different. Some of the furniture he’d carried into the house was familiar to him — sofas and tables and chairs and such — though it was missing the familiar low-tide smell of zombie fixtures.
Other goods, however, were new to him. A tall white cabinet with long vertical handles. Bright white toilets that looked better for holding water than sand. Great cushioned rectangles with wood frames, soft pillowing, and stout legs on the underneath side.
Phileas was spent as much from the wondering as from the delivering.
Sweat soaked his broad brow and his skin was beginning to sag off his giant muscles. I’m gonna need a deep skinbeetle bath tonight to dry me out, he thought, lifting the final item from his delivery cart and setting it gently down on the front porch.
He tilted his straw hat back on his head and stuck his thumbs under the straps of his overalls. It felt good to stand like this for a moment on the porch. A pose that said “job well done.” He studied the object he’d just set down.
“That’s Edison,” said Mr. Skip Bear, coming out of the house.
Skip Bear was also an oddity to Phileas, dressed as he was in neatly creased khaki slacks, clean boat shoes, and a white polo shirt under a sleeveless pullover sweater.
“What’s an edison?” asked Phileas.
“Edison is its name,” chuckled Skip. “What it IS is a turntable.”
That set off a small thought-stream for Phileas. The thought-stream went like this:
So many wonders. These bears. This turntable. What could it be for? It looks so strange. Is it dangerous? The bears are so strange. Are they dangerous? What will Plainfield think? We’re not much for change. I wonder why though. And besides, what does “strange” mean, anyway? Maybe it only means “different.” Not bad or good. And ain’t I considered strange, too? But I don’t seem strange to me.
Skip was staring at him. “A turntable,” he repeated.
“I see,” said Phileas. “Are tables often in need of turning?”
Skip laughed again. “Sometimes a properly turned table can change the world.” His laugh was warm and buttery. A laugh that invited you in. Not the shut-you-out kind of laugh. Phileas knew the difference well.
“But this turntable,” Skip explained, “plays music.” Skip turned a crank on the side and pulled a black disc from a drawer in the turntable cabinet. “This is called a record.” He set it on the turntable. Skip flipped a switch and placed a metal arm with a needle on its underside just at the outer rim of the record.
Phileas heard a crackling sound, then … angels.
He spun around, astonished. He looked behind him, toward the woods, toward the sky. It wasn’t that he expected a church choir to come marching from the woods, but that would have at least made sense. He tugged at an ear, something he was prone to do when thinking. This required some hard thinking. He tugged harder. The ear came off.
“Hmm,” he said, staring at the ear in his hand. He shrugged and stuffed the ear in the front pocket of his overalls.
“The music comes from inside,” said Skip, snapping off the device.
“It is a wonder,” mused Phileas.
Skip adjusted his round wire-rimmed glasses. “Well, my new friend, we’re almost moved in. What say we get that ear patched up and take lunch before we bid you good day?”
Phileas agreed, but only if he could let Mr. Goodness forage freely in the clearing for his lunch as well.
Twenty minutes later, when he saw what the Bears called “food,” lunch wasn’t seeming like such a good idea at all. Still, never one to be impolite, Phileas squeezed down onto a picnic table with the whole Bear family — Skip, his wife, Muffy, and their son, Brockster.
Muffy had strategically placed the table under the shade of a deadwood tree and set it with bowls of porridge and honey, plates full of honey-sweetened bearclaw pastries, platters piled high with salmonberries, tureens of cream, ramekins of honey, and jars of honeyade to wash it down.
Phileas, forgetful, reached up to tug his ear and touched the bandage wrapped tightly around his head. The ear was secure, thanks to Muffy’s skill with a needle and baling wire. Phileas peeked into his porridge bowl. No brains anywhere. Yet he felt it would be an ingratitude to refuse the meal. He just hoped he could keep it down.
He did, with just a few hearty porridge belches.
While he ate, Skip and Muffy told him their story. How excited they were to be living among a group of new folks. How they’d always been a bit adventurous. How they’d wanted a plot of land where Skip could tinker on his inventions — “Big plans, big plans,” muttered Skip through a mouthful of porridge. How Muffy could develop their honey-export business — “The Plainfield climate is perfect for it.” How they’d probably return home again someday, but it would do Brockster good to meet kids from other cultures — “I’ve always dug zombies,” he said. “Get it?”
Phileas thought a moment. Dug. He smiled. His smile faded when he thought on how adventure can be a mixed blessing. He found himself hoping the Bear family would get less adventure than they wanted.
Instead, they would get more. A lot more.
As Phileas sipped a mug of Earl Gray Matter tea that evening at Burial Grounds Coffee and Tea Company, he contemplated marvels. He also found himself, as he sometimes did, wishing he had a close friend with whom he could share his thoughts. Well, he did have a friend in Mr. Goodness, but aside from the occasional whinny, the horse was more a listener than a talker.
Burial Grounds was center of Plainfield scuttlebutt. Zombies were lurching in to socialize after Saturday dinner or grabbing a quick cup of joe before heading out to a show.
Amid the swirl of motion and conversation, one figure in a shadowed corner was conspicuous for his stillness. With his trenchcoat, massive beard, mirrored sunglasses and fedora hat, it was hard to tell there even was a zombie presence within.
Phileas, however, was too absorbed in his thoughts to take much notice. Especially when the Stranger touched a gloved hand to the brim of his hat and gave a subtle nod toward the back of the shop. Where Conniption Stinkpit sat alone and sipped her tea.
May Clot whisked by Phileas’s table holding a tray with a fresh tea bag and a pot of hot water.
Phileas was drifting down a thought-stream again. He stared blankly out at Mr. Goodness, hitched outside and wearing Phileas’s straw hat, even though the sun was almost down.
“PHIL-e-as!” sang May.
He looked up, smiled absently, and nodded. “I was out at the Bears’ place.”
“For real, or in your mind just now?” May asked as she refilled his mug.
“Both, I suppose.”
“Were you now? Well, spill it, then. Are they as odd as folks are saying? Folks out Flea Knuckle way saw some strange contraptions in the cart as it passed earlier today. Can’t trust ’em is what I’m hearing.”
“No. Yes. They were odd, I mean. And amazing.”
“Amazing?!” said May, surprised. “You like ’em?”
The shop was suddenly quiet. Phileas flushed and stammered. “They were just … interesting.”
The Stranger rose, glided to an empty table behind Phileas, and sat down, quietly.
“How so?” asked May.
Phileas didn’t like the attention. He tugged at his ear and got bandage instead. “They were kind. Smart. I didn’t like the food. They had inventions. One that made beautiful music.” He drained his coffee.
Murmurs around the shop. “I’d like to hear this music,” someone said.
“Maybe these bears aren’t so bad,” said another person.
The Stranger laughed loudly. He turned around in his chair to face Phileas, tugging at his enormous beard. “And tell me, my fellow, are you well-acquainted with bears?”
Phileas looked into a face that was all beard and mirrored sunglasses. He shifted in his seat and shook his head.
“Well, I am,” said the Stranger. “I’ve traveled often to the Bear Country and let me tell you, let me tell all of you,” he swept a gloved hand across the room, “they’re every bit the barbarians you’ve been led to believe they are. Great pretenders, yes. Sly fakers, indeed. Amazing actors, yes. But always, always barbarians in the end. Bar-BEAR-i-ans. Mark my words. Those bears would just as soon spread your brain on a muffin as shake your hand.”
“But …” said Phileas.
“Oh, I’ll grant you they put on a good show,” said the Stranger, rising awkwardly to his feet. “A very good show. I bid you all good evening.” With that, he walked out of the shop, bumping several tables on his way out.
The coffee shop buzzed once more. “Knew it!” said someone. “Can’t trust a bear.”
A short while later, Conniption finished her tea and left the shop, smiling mysteriously.
May lurched to Phileas’s table. “Refill, Sweetie?”
She had to ask him three times. He was busy wondering if he could trust his own eyes and ear anymore.
Saturday night. Jeminy lay in her dirtbox, letting the worms tickle her flesh. Exhausted from training but unable to sleep, she stared at the broken spiderweb that adorned the small window high in her basement room. A spider danced along the thread, mending the tear. Making a broken thing beautiful.
Jeminy heard the back door open quietly upstairs followed by the familiar footfalls of the zombie only known as the Stranger. She rose from her dirtbox, brushing her skin carefully, and shuffled softly up the stairs. She didn’t want to leave a trail. Didn’t want her mother to suspect.
At the top of the stairs, Jeminy cracked the door and peered down the hallway. She strained to listen but the words were hard to hear. She crept closer. “Total Bear Immersion,” she told herself. She lurched into the powder room next to her mother’s office. Traced her fingers along the corpse-flower wallpaper. Felt for the thin spot. There. She pressed her ear to the wall and listened.
There was a muffled voice that became clearer after a moment. Jeminy next heard the spinning of the dial on the office safe and the ka-chunk of the safe door opening.
“200 bones. Your retainer,” said Conniption. “You showed me a lot today with your performance. Want me to count it?”
“No need. Just put it in the box,” said the Stranger.
“You’ll get the other part of the payment when the job is done. Regarding assignment number 1: Did you bring the honey?”
“In the box.”
“Smooth?” asked Conniption.
“The honey, yes. The theft, not quite.”
“Were you spotted?”
“No, a hive was tipped and we didn’t have time to reset it properly.”
“But it’s upright?”
“Fine. Assignment number 2: Did you tell the story per my instructions?”
“I did indeed. But what’s the point of it?”
“Story is everything,” said Conniption. “Story comes before reason, before thought, before sense. All of it. Story rules our emotions. Story tells us what we see and hear and feel and fear, and if what we see and feel and fear doesn’t fit the story, do we change our story? No. We disbelieve our senses. Unless you’ve trained yourself to rise above emotion. As I have.”
“You say you see, but do you understand? A story is a powerful thing. If you control the story, you control what people fear. Therefore, you control the town. Your job is to make sure that the story Plainfield tells itself about bears is the story that should be told … “
“The truth,” said the Stranger.
“Indeed,” said Conniption. “Mind you, the story is only part of our several dramas. The other is …”
“The drama itself?”
“Yes, the play. Grizzly Hair unites the community every spring.”
“Against the bears.”
“Even more, against the idea of bears. A common fear is what binds Plainfield together. Without that, we fall apart.”
“Well, the real Bears are a danger, are they not?” asked the Stranger.
“Yes, but not for the reason you think,” replied Conniption.
“As long as bears live among us, Plainfield is at risk.”
Jeminy strained to hear. Strained to understand.
“At risk from attacks?” asked the Stranger.
“No, you fool,” hissed Conniption. “Plainfield is at risk of liking them. Once people get to know them, they might accept them. Which will leave Plainfield with no one to hate.”
“I think I understand,” said the Stranger.
“We’re going to run them out of town. It will happen in a three-act drama unfolding this week. Act I: You and Jeminy provoke the bears, starting tomorrow.”
“Any special instructions?”
“Grab all the empty spleens and stomachs from the offal cabinet in the kitchen — anything that can hold goo. Fill them all with mucus from the compost vat out back. I want a good supply of mucus balloons for your raid tomorrow.”
“Act II: Once the bears are all stirred up, we frame them for … disturbances around town.”
“Which disturbances?” asked the Stranger.
“The ones you create!” snapped Conniption.
“I don’t know,” the Stranger hesitated.
Conniption didn’t speak for a moment. “You do want to be paid, right?”
The Stranger nodded.
“Good,” Conniption continued. “Then do the work! You do a full body of work, you get full payment. That’s the deal. Now, where was I?”
“Act II,” the Stranger muttered.
“Right, act II. Spread the rumors! You’ll have to put in a few appearances at the coffee shop to crank up the gossip engine. Then in act III, we arrange the biggest disturbance of all and the town is so outraged they deport the Bears. And we cap it all off with the grand finale — the audition Friday night.”
“And if Jeminy wins …” the Stranger began.
“When she wins,” interrupted Conniption. “We will take the town’s fear to an entire new level. I’ll control the story.”
“And the town,” added the Stranger.
“For its own good,” added Conniption.
“And you’ll deliver payment when?”
“After the audition.”
“After,” said Conniption. “I need my assurances. Now —time to go.”
Jeminy heard a soft thump, like an object being placed on a table, then another thump. The Stranger spoke, but his voice was muffled and Jeminy couldn’t hear what he said. She heard her mother stomp down the hall and out the back door.
Jeminy slipped back down to her bedroom and wiggled into her dirtbox, which was still warm. Excitement coursed through her. What did her mother mean “provoke the bears”? What would she be doing tomorrow? And what did the week hold? She wasn’t sure, but she felt she was at the beginning of an adventure. The desire to win the lead in the play burned stronger than ever in her. She would do anything, anything, to win. Moldylocks had to be stopped. The bears had to be stopped. Plainfield needed her.
In the window, the spider had perfected its web.
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