October 4, 2021
Judging by the buzzing, the bees had traveled easily from the Bear’s old home.
Skip put his arm around Brockster and steered him around the bee yard while Muffy spread a picnic blanket on the lawn at the edge of the clearing.
“Listen close. Do you hear it?” asked Skip.
Brockster listened. “Seven?”
“Yep, sounds like we have a problem. Let’s take a look.”
They wove among the hive cabinets toward the far end of the clearing, toward Hive Number 7.
Bees make many buzzes. High frantic whines of worry. Low halting hiccups when they’re harried. Murmuring hums of contentedness. Sonorous sleep songs. And, occasionally, the fitful whir of fretfulness. That was the sound coming from Hive 7.
Skip quickly pulled open the under-cabinet drawers and grabbed a beekeeping mask for Brockster and himself. When they lifted the hive lid, a squadron of bee soldiers immediately burst forth and swarmed their faces. Brockster flinched, despite the mask.
“I’ve never seen them this agitated!”
“Breathe and be calm,” said Skip. “They’re just protecting their own.”
Once the soldiers had finished their reconnaissance of the bears’ heads, they dropped off and returned to the hive to keep watch. Skip pointed toward a strangely thick cluster of bees. He told Brockster to reach in and gently clear them away.
Brockster moved slowly, but with intent. The whine-buzz got louder. He focused on his breathing — in through the snout, out through the mouth. He extended a foreclaw and carefully flicked a mass of bees out of the way. Doing so revealed the problem. The jouncing cart ride into Plainfield had jostled loose Hive 7’s honeycomb. It had toppled, spilling honey over a group of bees, including a magnificent large female.
“The queen!” whispered Brockster.
“Gently,” whispered Skip.
Brockster pressed his claw into the glob of honey — crusted on top, soft underneath. He pressed through the crust, reached beneath the queen, and lifted her free. Once set gently on the floor of the hive cabinet, she was instantly swarmed by attendants who began to clean the honey from her. Brockster and Skip next worked patiently to free the 15 other trapped bees. Each freed bee was attended to by members of the hive.
When the last bee was released, Brockster pushed his headgear back on his head and held a honey-dripping paw to his mouth. Skip stopped him. “Let them have it.”
Both bears stood with their paws in the hive cabinet while bees cleaned their claws. Brockster scanned the area above the hive to make sure none of the bees who’d flown free were trying to return. He double-checked the inside of the cabinet. “All clear.” Once he’d closed the cabinet and latched the lid, Skip lifted the hive while Brockster put a shim under one of the legs to keep it level. Inside, the worker bees were already stabilizing the honeycomb.
“Supper’s ready,” called Muffy from across the clearing.
Skip waved to her.
Brockster took one last look inside. The queen seemed fully restored. A happy hum filled the hive.
“Do you know why I didn’t want you to eat the honey?” asked Skip as they walked back.
“Spoil my appetite?”
Skip shook his head. “It’s not that. I want the bees to know how we respect them.”
“But why respect them if they don’t respect us? I mean, they attacked us.”
“Ah, but they didn’t sting. They were just protecting the hive. It’s a reminder that we need to move gently in this world. It’s easy for others to misread our intentions.”
They arrived at the blanket, spread with loaves of bread and jars of liquid gold.
Skip’s belly rumbled. “Now we can enjoy our honey.”
“After we give thanks,” said Muffy.
“Indeed,” Skip nodded.
They took their Sunday supper in the honey-colored dusk.
“Dad,” said Brockster, “do you think it’s going to work? Us and zombies, I mean?”
Skip nodded as he chewed a mouthful of honey-slathered bread.
“You’re dripping, dear,” said Muffy. She reached over to wipe a dollop off Skip’s chin.
“Thanks, Sweetie,” said Skip. He swallowed. “I think it’ll work. Maybe not with us, but eventually. We’ve always had a connection, since way back. They may have forgotten, but we can remind them. It’s a story that needs telling.”
“Can you tell me again?” asked Brockster.
Skip took a gulp of cool honeyade. “Yes. Now, you have to remember, this was a long time ago, before you were born. …”
There was a mixup on the child’s unearthday.
The keeper of the Welcome Field was on vacation, and her backup was down with a case of the screaming festers, and her backup’s backup was backpacking. That’s why the Field was empty when the earth began to stir.
Zombies come into the world from under a thick skin of soil. The keeper keeps watch on the field, a patchwork of rectangular plots, each marked by a headstone. Often a low wispy mist wreaths the site. The Welcome Field is itself a great rectangle, rimmed on three sides by banks of trees, and on the fourth by a stern granite cliff, looming like the biggest headstone of all.
Now, a typical unearthing goes like this: There’s a scritching-scratching in the soil, which the keeper senses. They mutter a quick blessing, lurch over to the plot in question, and pluck the newborn free. The keeper swaddles the infant in burlap and gives them a bottle of warm brain formula. With the baby safe and warm, the keeper double-checks the registry to see which family is next in line to welcome home a zombie baby. The parents-to-be are notified and they come claim their cub.
But this particular night all those years ago was not so typical. Not at all. With no one there to receive it, the newborn’s cries echoed off the cliff and were swallowed by the sky. Until a family of travelers heard them.
The family listened from the edge of the Welcome Field woods.
They spoke quietly, urgently to each other.
“Why don’t they do something?”
“What kind of people would just let an innocent cub suffer?”
“They’re not like us. They’re savages.”
“Let’s wait and see.”
So the travelers waited and saw. The evening hours passed. Around midnight, the child’s cries began to weaken.
Around 2 a.m. the cries stopped.
“I can’t take this,” said one.
“We should NOT get involved,” cautioned another.
“Best let nature take its course,” said a third.
“No! I wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” said the first one. “Come on.”
The travelers stole into the clearing.
The child would remember only one thing of that fateful night. She had exhausted herself in her wailing and unburying, and now lay too tired to do anything but stare at the sky and trust in the moon. But suddenly, the moonlight disappeared, blotted out by a furry figure reaching down to pull her from the earth. Then she was swept away.
The leader carefully cradled the cub as the travelers dashed through the forest. They were frantic to get this detour over with as soon as possible and be on their way. They kept to the shadows, fens, and side paths. The forest was quiet except for the hoot-owl calls. At last came a light in the distance, a house. The travelers murmuring, conferring, deciding. “Yes, this will do.”
“Just leave the zombie cub on the doorstep,” said one.
“No. Too dangerous. The wolves are about. Stand guard. I’ll go,” said the leader.
He padded softly to the front door, claws click-clicking on the front porch. Sniffed. Sniff-sniff. He turned the handle of the front door. Locked. He tried again. Turned it harder. The handle came off and the door swung open.
Down the hall the traveler tiptoed. The hall ended in a kitchen. He entered. Peered about. He bumped a cookpot from an overhead rack. Padded over to a stove releasing the last warmth from the evening meal. The leader set the cub down behind it. Snug.
A light flicked on upstairs. The travelers heard footsteps.
“Go go go!” came the shouts from outside. The leader lingered, staring at the zombie cub. He pulled a small soft object from his satchel and placed it beside the child, before racing down the hall, knocking pictures off the walls, gouging the wallpaper, and ripping the front door from its frame as he shot out the front. He didn’t realize he’d nearly knocked down the zombie woman at the bottom of the stairs. He took cover in the woods, his companions urging him to flee.
He held up a paw. “Wait.” He raced through the woods, to the back of the house. Peeked through the kitchen window.
A zombie woman entered cautiously, brandishing a skinbrush like a weapon.
The woman heard a small scuffling sound by the stove. She lurched toward it, afraid, but curious. She beheld the cub …
“Oh! Oh!” she said. “Who left you here? Did the bears try to harm you? You sweet precious thing. You must be starving. …”
The infant felt herself being lifted again. And this time, finally, gloriously, she was fed.
The woman sat up all night with the zombie cub. As the infant fell asleep, the woman gently brushed the dirt from her skin, her face, and last, her hair.
Even as she slept, the child clutched the gift from the leader of the travelers — a small stuffed bear.
Brockster Bear surveyed the battlefield on his bedroom floor that Sunday afternoon. A zombie action figure lurked behind a tented geography book, watching a group of unsuspecting bears picnicking beside his baseball mitt. The zombie gave the hand signal — thumb across the throat — to a zombie mob clustered behind the jar of paintbrushes and yelled, “Garrr-ga-rarrrr,” which meant “Attack!”
Brockster narrated the action.
“The zombies were merciless that day. Silent, swift, and salivating. The bears never knew what bit them. One minute, there’s a nice little wedding picnic by the river. La la la la la. Next minute the bears ARE the picnic. Dah-dah DA! Reduced to a pile of guts being munched by … by …” he started to laugh. “By bloodthirsty undead …” He dropped the action figures and rolled over laughing. “That is SO over-the-top,” he said. “As if zombies would attack bears.”
He muffled his laughter when he heard a splat on the roof.
Then two more.
Brockster scrambled to his feet. He rushed to the window, stuck his head out, and squinted through his glasses. He couldn’t see anything. At first. Nothing in the yard, the woodpile, or the surrounding woods. It all looked normal. He peered down at the flower bed. Nothing there. When he looked up again, he saw a squishy missile whizzing toward his face. His mouth fell open in astonishment.
That was his big mistake.
The mucus-filled spleen balloon hit his face and disgorged a torrent of mucus into his mouth.
Brockster staggered backward and crashed against his bookshelf, knocking books E and F from his encyclopedia set off the shelf.
Laughter rang out from the near edge of the woods.
Brockster raced out of his room and dashed down the stairs.
Skip and Muffy had been listening to a Leonard Bearnstein record and hadn’t heard the commotion.
“Mom, Dad, we’re being attacked. We have to check the hives!” shouted Brockster, sprinting out of the room.
The Bear family raced outside and looked frantically around.
The hooligans were gone.
Skip raised up on his hind legs, sniffed the breeze.
“Let’s go after them, Dad!” said Brockster.
“No,” Skip sighed.
“Why not?” shouted Brockster. “We have to defend the hives!”
“We did defend them,” said Muffy.
“Think about it, Son,” said Skip. ” We reacted appropriately. But if we chase them down, if we catch them, if someone gets hurt, who do you think will get the blame?”
“Us,” growled Brockster.
“Yep,” said Skip. He sniffed, caught a faint trace of zombie. “Best we get to the cleanup.”
After the Bear family had collected the empty offal bags and scrubbed the mucus blotches off the house, they gathered in the kitchen to restore themselves with honey tea.
“Did you see who they were?” Skip asked Brockster.
“No. I just heard them. Laughing.”
“What did the laughing sound like?”
“It sounded like … like claws on a chalkboard.”
Far down Fleaknuckle Road, Jeminy Stinkpit huffed along after the Stranger. She couldn’t get over how familiar he looked, but it was hard to get a good look at him beneath his massive trench coat.
Jeminy huffed along after. “Are they following us?” Jeminy gasped.
The Stranger looked over his shoulder. His great beard flapped in the breeze. “No, but hurry anyway.”
“Did you see how fast they moved?” asked Jeminy.
“Indeed. They would have ripped us apart,” said the Stranger. “It’s what they do.” He adjusted his fedora. “We can slow down now, the town bridge is up ahead. And I don’t think those monsters are going to follow us.”
They crossed the bridge into central Plainfield. The Stranger huddled with Jeminy a moment before parting. “Remember, we were just having fun. You saw how they reacted. You cannot trust them. Ever,” he said. “Spread the word.”
Jeminy nodded. “I will.”
“Welcome to Total Bear Immersion.”
© 2021 320 Sycamore Studios