October 11, 2021
Monday was the day of the “Talk About Your Passion” presentation for Mr. Sever’s 5th-grade class, and Moldylocks was presenting first.
She walked to the front of the classroom, already sweating under the thick fur of her bear costume. A small stack of notecards shook in her paw.
“You may begin,” he said.
Moldylocks cleared her throat. “My presentation today is about …”
“Bears?” interrupted Jeminy.
Moldylocks paused. “Uh, y-yes,” she stammered.
“Gee, how could I have guessed?” laughed Jeminy. “Bear Girl loves bears.” Several members of the class laughed with her. Moldylocks noticed they were all Threadheads. The Threadheads had started as a sewing club, but since Scarlet Bone had resigned her membership, Jeminy had turned it into a gang — although a really well-dressed one — with herself as the gang leader. She’d even managed to recruit one boy member, Possum Skidmark.
Moldylocks wished Scarlet was here, instead of accompanying her dad on a work trip. She swallowed, and looked at Mr. Sever.
“Enough,” said Mr. Sever to Jeminy. “No more interruptions. Proceed, Moldylocks.”
Moldylocks stared down at her speech. Sweat dripped into her eyes. She blinked, trying to see through the mesh of the costume bear head. The paw mittens made it hard for her to hold her notes. Her real foot — the size 6 one, not the size 9 one — itched inside the paw foot.
Moldylocks began her speech, but her words were muffled by the bear head. The class leaned forward to listen.
“What bears love most in the world is going to terrify you and scare-ify you it’s a fact so grossome it’s going to bore its way into your brain like a brainworm pause here for effect.”
“Oh,” said Moldylocks. I wasn’t supposed to say that last part out loud. Sorry.”
“That’s okay, Moldylocks, said Mr. Sever. Suddenly he lobbed an eraser at Calvin Gutbucket, who was sticking a slobbery finger into Maya Knabstrupper’s ear. The eraser bounced off Calvin’s head and he dropped the finger. Maya quickly placed it in her pocket and stuck her tongue out at Calvin.
Mr. Sever walked back to retrieve his eraser, pointing to the eye in a jar of clear liquid on a bookshelf near Calvin’s desk. “Please remember, class, that I have eyes everywhere.”
The eye in the jar blinked twice.
“Please continue, Moldylocks.”
Moldylocks swallowed and read on. “Okay hey let’s get on with the grossome bears eat what’s called honey but does anyone know what honey is no well I’ll tell you what honey is honey is poop that’s been puked and repuked.”
There was a knock at the classroom door.
A grownup head poked in.
“Principal Botulus, welcome,” said Mr. Sever. “Moldylocks, hold on for a moment. Do you have our new student?”
“I do indeed.” The portly principal stood aside so the figure next to her could enter the classroom. “I’m sorry about the delay, Geraldo,” she said. “The transfer paperwork took all morning.”
Dr. Botulus gave a cheery wave and departed.
Mr. Sever beckoned the new student to the front of the class. He would have felt out of place no matter what, but his clothes didn’t help. Clean white golf shirt. Neatly ironed peach-colored shorts. Argyle socks up to his knees. Beige boat shoes.
Oh, and the new student was also a bear.
“Welcome,” said Mr. Sever. “Why don’t you tell the class your name?”
“Say hello, class.”
No one said a word. Except Moldylocks, who offered an ecstatic “Hi.”
Brockster noticed her for the first time.
The real bear and the zombie girl in the bear suit stared at each other.
Mr. Sever cleared his throat. “Right, then. Brockster and his family just moved in to the old Curmudgeon Place, isn’t that right, Brockster?”
“We’re glad to have you,” said Mr. Sever. “We’ll be starting our bear unit in social studies soon. This girl beside you is our resident bear expert, Moldylocks. She’ll be your lunch buddy.”
Moldylocks held out a paw, dropping her notecards as she did. The class snickered. She tried to blink the sweat out of her eyes as She got down on her knees and pawed the dirt of the classroom floor. It was hard to see through the bearhead. The laughing got louder. Finally Brockster picked up and restacked the notecards for her.
Mr. Sever guided Brockster to the back corner of the classroom, where there was a desk set by the science shelf. Jeminy sat at the desk nearest to him, but even at that there was a generous buffer of space all around him. When Mr. Sever had returned to the front of the class, Jeminy hissed at him, “Eat any babies lately?”
Moldylocks at last began her speech again. Her notes were out of order. She was itchy. The bear suit was soggy with sweat.
She fumbled with the notecards, found the last one, and read it aloud.
“To summarize. Nectar is flower poop bees eat it then puke it then other bees eat that then puke that which makes honey which bears love. And bears kill bees with bee blasters like this one.” She held up the prop her mother had rescued from the prop closet.
The class was silent.
“The end,” Moldylocks mumbled, shuffling to her desk.
Brockster raised a paw.
Mr. Sever called on him. “Yes, Brockster?”
“We don’t kill bees.”
“Then you’re both losers,” said Jeminy loud enough for everyone to hear. “The Bear Girl is a loser because she can’t even get her bear facts right. The bear’s a loser because bees are nasty and why would you let them live?”
“Jeminy, I’m warning you,” hissed Mr. Sever.
She laughed, and her laughter sounded like claws scraping down a chalkboard.
Brockster looked down at his paws.
“You gonna attack me?” Jeminy taunted. “Are ya?”
“Quiet, Jeminy,” said Mr. Sever. “Anything else we should know, Brockster?”
Brockster took a slow breath and stood up. “We don’t kill them. We just put them to sleep,” he said. “And it’s called a smoker, not a blaster.”
Moldylocks slunk to her desk, thoroughly humiliated, a Bear Girl, who, it turned out, didn’t know very much about bears.
“And it doesn’t look like that,” Brockster finished. “There’s a party at my house after school if you want to see. We live off Fleaknuckle Road and you’re all invited. I could show you our bees.”
He sat down.
Jeminy raised her hand. When Mr. Sever nodded in her direction, she asked, “You do eat double bee barf, though, don’t ya?”
“Jeminy — enough! One more comment from you and I’m sending you to Principal Botulus.”
Brockster clenched his jaw. “We. Eat. Honey.”
Jeminy kept silent. But the gears of her scheming mind were already in motion.
Moldylocks and Brockster sat side by side and silent in the middle of the lunchroom hubbub, like quiet castaways who’d washed up at a remote table that felt a million miles from cool.
Moldylocks twirled her fork in a puddle of brainloaf gravy grease. She still wore her bearsuit, although the headpiece was pulled back and hung from her collar like a hood. The eyes lolled toward Brockster, which Brockster found unnerving. He pulled out his lunchpail and unscrewed the lid on a jar of honey he’d brought from home.
Across the lunchroom, Jeminy climbed on top of her table. She adjusted her blood-red silk scarf and held out her arms. The room grew quiet.
“Greetings Guts,” she shouted. “You’ve all been working hard, so I thought you could use a little show today.”
Cheers erupted around the cafeteria. Moldy got a sinking feeling in her stomach.
“Plus,” Jeminy added, “we’ve got a new student we need to welcome.” She pointed in Brockster’s direction. “He’s the one dressed like a banker. You can’t miss him.”
Brockster looked surprised and hurt.
“What’s the show, Jeminy?” someone yelled.
“A little contest between me and Hugga Bear.”
All eyes turned toward Moldylocks, even the spares and extras that were just sitting on tables. Moldylocks seethed.
Jeminy continued. “I challenge Moldylocks LaMort to a mini-bear-off. Practice for the real thing on Friday night.”
Moldylocks’s anger came to a boil. She stood up and faced Jeminy.
“Excellent,” shouted Jeminy. “Who’s got honey?”
Moldylocks was in turmoil. She always barfed her honey. Jeminy strode to her table, with a cluster of zombies in tow. Jeminy sat down across from Moldylocks. The table was soon surrounded.
Brockster thought about the story his father had told him, about the zombie baby rescue. Then he remembered his house getting mucus ballooned. He didn’t trust the Bear Girl, but he hated to see anyone get picked on. He leaned over and said something only Moldylocks could hear. “I have a suggestion …”
“Wanna tell me what I’m doing wrong again? No thanks!” hissed Moldylocks.
“Fine,” said Brockster.
Jeminy and Moldylocks faced each other across the table. Before each was a mug of honey, involuntarily donated from Brockster’s jar.
Jeminy knotted her scarf. Moldylocks stared glumly at the honey. Double bee barf. Flower poop. Jeez, why did I call it that? Kids shoved and jostled around them. Noise crested and broke over the room in a wave. Spangle Hallows, one of the Threadheads, held up her hand. “Ready …” she called.
Jeminy gripped her mug.
“Set … ”
Moldy took a deep breath.
The combatants threw back their heads and chugged the honey to shouts and cheers. Moldylocks finished hers a split second before Jeminy. She slammed her mug down. Jeminy slammed her mug down.
“Now we count,” yelled Spangle. “It’s got to stay down for 10 seconds.”
Jeminy fidgeted. She burped and tugged at her scarf.
“Ten … nine …”
Moldylocks felt a rumbling in her belly.
“Eight … seven … “
Uh oh. Moldylocks tried to think of something calming. Like Scar. Or the ZITCO. Or bears. It only upset her more. Scar wasn’t there. Thinking of the ZITCO reminded her she hadn’t found her roar. And bears, apparently, didn’t like her.
“Six … five … “
Jeminy grinned at Moldylocks. “Mmm. I loooove double bee barf. How about you?”
“Four … three … “
Moldlocks’s stomach flipped.
She was sweating now. Don’t think about double bee barf. Don’t think about double bee barf.
All she could think about was double bee barf.
Moldylocks puked all over the front of her bear suit.
There was a moment of silence before the cataclysm of laughter. In that moment of silence, Moldylocks had a curious thought. That must be triple bee barf.
Moldylocks didn’t consider herself the bravest or the nicest or the smartest zombie in Plainfield. She wasn’t the best singer. Or dancer. She wasn’t the funniest. And she certainly wasn’t very good at bringing her inside outside — unless “bringing your inside outside” meant puking.
But she did have one characteristic about her that was maybe better than any of those things, even though she didn’t really know it and she wouldn’t have even called it a characteristic if she had. She would have said, “It’s just how I am.”
It was curiosity.
So as she sat in Fort Smidgen — her happy place inside a chokeberry thicket at the edge of the school playground — it wasn’t long before she stopped sobbing and started to wonder about why she had puked. That set off a chain of wondering. Did her thoughts cause it? Was it something about her digestion? Why didn’t bears puke? Could she become bearlike? What did it actually mean to be a bear? How could she be a bear by Friday so she could win the scholarship that would take her away from Plainfield for the summer theater camp in Rotburg?
Moldylocks’s tears dried. The barf dried. She stared out at the busy playground from the safety of her hiding place. She peeled her bear costume off. She pulled Mr. B. F. Doolittle out of her backpack. She sang a little tune to herself as she stuffed the costume in, making up the words as she went along.
“What do you do when your day goes bad?
When you feel lost, embarrassed, and sad?
When other kids are driving you mad,
What brings back the good feeling you had?
Hiding yourself down under the dirt?
Having a bowl of brains for dessert?
We all have something to ease the hurt
Even if we throw up on our shirt.”
Moldylocks stared at Mr. B. F. Doolittle. “What would Scarlet say?”
“She’d say, ‘Find your undead center,'” Moldylocks said to herself.
“What would Mom say?”
“She’d say, ‘Go full bear.'”
“What do you say, Mr. B.?”
Mr. B. F. Doolittle said nothing. But when a thought popped into Moldylocks’s head a few minutes later, it was easy to convince herself that Mr. B. had somehow put it there.
Go where the bears are.
Every Monday after lunch, Mr. Sever’s class took metal shop.
Mr. Sever’s class loved metal shop, because in metal shop they could talk and make noise and move around and work with their hands.
They could work in teams with their friends.
Best of all they could build things.
The class was livelier than usual when they came in after lunch, buzzing over the events of the Mini Bear-Off.
Brockster trailed in behind the others, already comfortable in the buffer of solitude the other kids were giving him. He walked to an empty worktable at the back of the class, put on a thick canvas apron, and waited there alone. No one joined him at the table. Not even Moldylocks, who hadn’t come in yet.
Brockster was already thinking of himself as the back-of-the-room bear.
Mr. Scooter Mondo, the town blacksmith, junior high wrestling coach, and part-time shop teacher for more than 40 years, lurched to the front of the class and scowled. He rubbed a meaty hand across his cheekstubble and waited for the bell to ring.
When it rang, the class kept talking. Mr. Mondo expected this. Mr. Mondo loved it when the class kept talking, because that meant Hammer Time.
Quick as a gunslinger, he plucked two 16-pound hammers from loops on either side of his overalls and began banging them on the iron table in front of him.
Bang-BANG. Bang-BANG. Bang bang bang bang. Banga-banga-banga-banga. Banga-banga-banga-banga. Bangbangbangbangbangbangbangbangbang!
The sound reverberated off the scuffed steel of the worktables and the polished metal of the walls and the corrugated tin of the ceiling. In fact, every surface of the classroom seemed to be designed especially for bouncing noise off it.
The students covered their ears until the metal-hammer echoes died out.
“Hah! Hah-HAH!” said Mr. Mondo. “Well now we’re focused, aren’t we? Gotta hammer the message in, sometimes. Eh? Eh? You kids’ skulls get thicker every year. Hah-HAH!” He re-slung his hammers in his tool belt. “Gather up your partners ’cause we got two projects and we only got one class to complete ’em in. First one’s a bear trap.”
Everyone’s head snapped around to look at Brockster, who stared at Mr. Mondo open-mouthed.
“Gotcha!” cackled Mr. Mondo. He scratched his gray flattop haircut and pointed a finger stump at Brockster.
“Wrong hand!” called Maya Knabstrupper.
Mr. Mondo looked at his hand, as if surprised to see it there. He wasn’t of course, he just wanted to encourage his students to focus, so he’d occasionally point with his stub-fingered hand to see if they were paying attention.
“So it is. Extra credit for Maya — good attention-paying, kid! Here’s a treat.” He reached into his vest pocket and tossed her a grimy braindrop.
“And here’s one for you,” yelled Maya, grinning. She pulled Calvin Gutbucket’s wet-willy finger out of her pocket and tossed it to him.
Calvin glared at her from across the worktable they shared.
Mr. Mondo caught the finger easily and held it up for inspection. “Eh? Eh? That’s a fine one. I think it’d look pretty good on my hand. Nah, not a fit. I got manly fingers. This little whippersnapper’s not good for much. Booger-picking, maybe.” He tucked the finger in his shirt pocket. “Good on ya, anyway, Knabstrupper! Ya get another braindrop. Catch!”
Maya caught the candy and slid it across the table to Calvin. He harrumphed and frowned, then popped the candy in his mouth.
Mr. Mondo pointed his left hand at Brockster, the hand with an index finger. “Thought I didn’t see ya, right right? I did. I know all. I see all. Everyone is welcome in this class. Don’t care who ya are. And if ya come out for the wrestling team, you get an automatic A in this class. Just kidding. Maybe. Okay, first project: pencil sharpener. Second project: surprise. Finish your pencil sharpeners first. Instructions in your drawers. Worktable drawers, not your underwear drawers — Stinkpit, I’m talking to you! Pair up. Bear, you with LaMort. She’s into bears. Everybody has their issues. Hah-HAH. Just kidding, Bear. Maybe. Everybody ready, go.”
Drawers opening … instruction sheets unfolding … tools clinking … conversations bubbling …
Brockster raised his paw, but Mr. Mondo was already moving around the room, inspecting, looking over shoulders, barking encouragement, making suggestions, and offering up good-natured jibes.
Since there was no LaMort to partner with, Brockster decided to just get to work by himself. He pulled out the instruction sheet from the top drawer, a set of tools from the drawer below that, and a set of supplies below that. Everything was neat and in its place. He thought his dad would like Mr. Mondo.
Given his long experience in the workshop at home, the pencil sharpener was easy work for Brockster’s nimble paws. He bent and shaped the metal, fitted the gears, screwed in the handle, and filed the edges smooth. In a few minutes, he’d transformed the stack of metal parts into a working pencil sharpener.
He was polishing the housing when Mr. Mondo arrived at his table.
“Where’s LaMort?” he barked.
“I don’t know, sir.”
Mr. Mondo saw the sharpener and whistled in appreciation. He tried to pick it up, but Brockster had bolted it to the table, something that had not been on the instruction sheet.
“What’d ya do that for?” barked Mr. Mondo.
The rest of the class went silent.
“I’m sorry. I can take it out.”
“Not what I asked.”
“Well,” said Brockster, “I thought it would work better that way. It’s hard to hold the sharpener down, keep the pencil in, and turn the handle all at the same time. If you don’t have an extra paw or something.”
“I see,” growled Mr. Mondo. “But — will it sharpen? Class, what do you think? Give me the up or down.”
Thumbs-down all around, except Maya and Calvin, who gave a thumbs-halfway.
Mr. Mondo pulled a thick dull pencil from behind his ear, inserted it in the sharpener, and turned the crank. He whirred it around faster, faster, faster, leaning his full weight on it. The whole class watched.
He stopped. He pulled the pencil out and touched the tip to his tongue.
“Hah! Now that’s some good sharp. Sharp as my wife’s tongue!”
“Thanks,” said Brockster.
“Easy for you to say, you don’t live with her,” said Mr. Mondo.
“Hah-HAH! I’m just kidding. The woman’s an angel. Ain’t that right, class?”
Thumbs-up all around.
“You’re right she is. Brings us braincake sometimes. New instruction, class: Bolt the thing down. Now back to work.” He regarded Brockster. “Nice work bear. Can you wrestle?”
“You’re supposed to say ‘yes.’ I thought all bears could wrestle.”
“Good,” said Mr. Mondo. “Join the team.” Mr. Mondo addressed the class. “Time’s wasting. Start Project 2 …”
“But we aren’t done,” said Jeminy.
“Finish at home!” barked Mr. Mondo.
“What do we bolt it to?” whined Jeminy.
“Something thick. Like your noggins! Figure it out. The future’s not waiting. We got worlds to build! Let’s go go go!” He lurched back to the front of the class amid much complaining.
“Thanks Bear,” hissed Jeminy.
Mr. Mondo pulled his hammers out and flexed his biceps. Left-right-left-right. The class quieted down.
“Now,” he growled, “who here knows what a turntable is? Right, I didn’t think so. A turntable …” He stopped.
Brockster had raised his paw. Mr. Mondo saw him this time.
“Do you mean mechanical — like a transportation turntable, or electrical — like a record player?”
“What do you mean, ‘electrical’?” asked Mr. Mondo. “Never heard of it.”
The class stared at Brockster.
“Whatever it is,” said Jeminy loudly, “it sounds really dangerous.”
Moldylocks had never done anything as against the rules as leaving school early before, and she was about to do something even more against the rules.
She hustled through the woods behind Plainfield Elementary, talking to her fugly, gripped tight in her hand.
“What am I doing? What am I doing, Mr. B.? Do I even know? Yes. I do know. Right? This is what Mom meant by going full bear. I think. It’s ruthless, remorseless, relentless. Grr. I’m a bear. No, I’m no bear at all. My hair is green, I smell like barf, and my feet are different sizes. Some bear. I’m no bear. Am I?”
She stopped, holding her fugly in front of her face. She took his right paw in her left hand and slapped her cheek with it.
“I gotta snap out of this. Gotta show some spinebone! Focus! Bear down! What is it I want?”
“To win the audition.”
“And how are you gonna do that?” Moldylocks asked herself.
“Go. Full. Bear,” she replied.
For Moldylocks, to go full bear this fateful Monday meant to sneak into the Bears’ house.
“Not to harm anything,” she told herself, “only to explore. To see how bears live. To learn how to be a bear. Hostile, mobile, and agile.”
“When people say I’m nice, that will only confirm how dangerous I am. Cause you know what they say about bears, Mr. B. F. D. — the nicer they seem …”
“… the more dangerous they are,” she answered.
“And come Friday, I’m going to chew up Jeminy and the others. They’re all going down. Going down like chugged honey.”
Moldylocks pushed on through the woods, heading west to skirt the retail shops of the Ptonk neighborhood. She made a hectic lurch across Plainfield Avenue toward the Plainfield River, then turned back east, hugging the shore, until she drew within sight of Town Bridge.
She knelt in the bushes and set down her pack.
“We have a problem.” Moldylocks stood on tiptoe peering over the bushtops and tilting slightly to the left because of her longer right foot. She set down her pack, perched Mr. B. F. Doolittle upon it, and sat down to think.
In her thinking silence, she could hear the sounds of traffic passing by on the road. Hellos and snippets of conversations. The lipflapping exhalations of horses and the weary squeak of cart axles. There were fleagulls chatting in the sky overhead and the puff of a breeze in the leaves. Plus the continuous shuffling footfalls of zombies going about their business.
She drew a diagram in the dirt and talked to herself. “We’re close to the river, which is a good thing. But we’ve got to get across Town Bridge. It’s totally open, and we can’t hide behind anything. Once we get across, it’s better, but still not safe. We’ve got to make our way around the Stubbs Factory to the forest behind. That’ll be safe. We’ll head west on Fleaknuckle Road till we get to the old Curmudgeon place. We’ll stick close to the woods so we can duck into safety if we see anyone coming. But how do we get across the river? Think!”
Could she borrow a boat? No. None nearby.
Could she hide in a horse cart? No. Too risky.
“Think like a bear!”
Bears were, if anything, deceptive.
Go full bear.
She dug the reeking bear suit out of her backpack. She shouldered her backpack again and gave the costume a shake. Schwapp! She draped it across her back and tied the forepaws like a scarf under her chin. The rest of the costume hung over her like a ratty old shawl. And when Moldylocks hunched over, she appeared to be a stinky shaggy beggarzombie.
Moldylocks shambled slowly out of the trees. She took a right onto Plainfield Avenue, took another right onto First Street, and shuffled across the bridge. No one gave her a second look.
Just past the massive smokestacks of the Stubbs factory on the far side of the river, she turned right once more onto Fleaknuckle Road. Traffic thinned. Drivers of the carts that passed ignored her, except for one who shouted at her to get out of the way.
Phileas Batuta was headed into town in the opposite direction. When he passed the old woman, he brought his cart to a halt — “Whoa, Goodness” — and offered the woman a lift to wherever she was going.
Moldylocks shook her head and hurried on. After a minute, she glanced back, peeking through folds in the bear fur. Phileas was still there, a curious look on his wide, gentle face.
Before long, Moldylocks saw the ramshackle huts that marked the border of the Fleaknuckle District. She didn’t come out this way much. The kids here grew up hard and tough, and didn’t stay in school that long. She’d met a few over the years, and even almost started to form a friendship or two. All too soon, however, their parents would take them out of school to work the fungus fields.
The mailbox was easy to spot. Bright yellow, stenciled with pink and blue flowers. One word on the side: “Bear.” Moldylocks headed down the dirt cartpath until she came to the Old Curmudgeon Place. When she saw it, she stopped in shock.
“They’ve been busy.”
What Moldylocks noticed most about the place was its nots. The walls were not covered with moss or rotblooms. The windows were not cracked. The roof did not sag. The yard did not smell of fish heads, slugs or any good things. There was nothing dark, dank, or rank about it.
It was hideous.
There was no sign of bears about, so she shambled as quietly as she could up to the side door. A note was tacked to it:
Welcome neighbors! Thanks for stopping by. We’ll be out at the bee yards all afternoon, but feel free to come by for a visit. Or, you can come back around 3:30, when our Brockster arrives home from his first day of school. We’re planning a big welcome. Please join us for some honey yummies!
Skip and Muffy Bear
Moldylocks tested the doorknob. The door opened silently on its well-oiled hinges.
She stepped into a strange new world.
The door opened on a gleaming honey-scented nightmare.
Moldylocks choked on the smell as she stepped across the threshold, clutching Mr. B. F. Doolittle by the paw. Off came her puke-stinky costume. Off came her pack. Just inside the doorway Moldylocks noticed that set in the wall was a strange contraption whose tiny lever was nested in a slot and pointed toward the floor. Moldylocks reached to touch it, hesitated. She touched the switch quickly and pulled her hand back.
She examined the switch closely. Pulled at it. Pressed it. Pushed it downward. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Until she flicked it upward.
And there was light.
She dropped her fugly as a buttery glow filled the room, illuminating the alien landscape. She flicked the lever downward and the light was gone. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light.
Moldylocks picked up Mr. B and held him close. She looked at the source of the light — strange smooth lanterns set in the ceiling. But not lanterns, exactly. “Freaky. There’s no flame.” She wanted to lurch the heck out of there — to leave this strange place. She resisted. Go full bear.
The room looked like a kitchen on a rocket ship in one of her mother’s science fiction plays. There was no mold. Well, she thought with a giggle, there is now that I’M here. The room was full of shining surfaces — from the sheen of the faucet to the glistening formica countertop to the gleaming linoleum floor.
There were so many ways she could see herself reflected.
Moldylocks took it all in, holding Mr. B. F. Doolittle so he could see what she saw …
A dish towel hanging from a rack with a bright embroidered sun shining down on three embroidered bears. A ceramic canister holding one-two-three … fifteen different kinds of honeydippers. Two-thirds of a fat loaf of bread dribbling crumbs onto a cutting board. A serrated knife beside it. And the bees! Happy bees dancing across the window curtains. Bees stenciled across the walls. Bee-shaped drawer pulls. Happy bees at the end of clock hands chasing happy flowers around a happy clock face. Bee magnets on the fridge. A framed drawing of a giant bee and a message below it: “To do is to bee. To bee is to do. Do bee do bee do.”
If you were a bear, this was heaven. Paradise. Bearidise.
Moldylocks noticed a small pile of books on the kitchen table. The Bear Ambassador Handbook, Pine Forest Beekeeping, Today’s Honey Entrepreneur, Harnessed Lightning, and one simply titled, Zombiepedia.
Moldylocks flipped open Zombiepedia. The inscription read: “Property of Brockster Bear.” She flipped to a random page, titled “Culture and Customs,” and read, “Zombies are private creatures, slow to change, and distrustful of outsiders, even other zombies. It takes time and patience to win their trust. If you encounter one, try not to appear threatening. You may never recover from a bad first impression.”
The last sentence was underlined three times in red.
“Know-it-all,” muttered Moldylocks.
She looked around some more. There was a charcoal drawing taped to a large white cabinet, in which a girl zombie and a bear headed into the woods, dressed in adventure gear that looked like it had come directly from the catalog that day — bermuda shorts, lemon-yellow dress shirts, khaki vests. The picture was signed in a child’s block letters: “Brockster.”
Moldylocks pulled open the door of the cabinet. A cold breeze rolled out, but that wasn’t the reason she slammed the door so hard a bee magnet clattered to the linoleum.
“You’re not going to believe this, Mr. B.F.D.” she said. “It’s cold. And it’s full of zombies.”
Moldylocks opened the cabinet door again. Just a crack. She peeked in. Felt the rush of cold air again. She opened the door wide and stared in at row upon row of zombie-shaped jars with screw-on nozzle-hats. Each zombie was the same — wild eyes, lips pulled back to show a mouth full of broken teeth, left shoulder angled forward — and each jar had a golden glow shining through it from a light source at the back of the cabinet.
“That’s honey inside,” she said. “Honey zombies. Huh.”
Each honey zombie had a label written in tidy cursive script. “Classic Honey.” “Cinnamon Honey.” “Apple Honey.” “Balsamic Strawberry Honey.” “Pistachio Honey.” “Lavender Honey.” “Salmon Honey.” “Wasabi Honey.” The varieties went on and on.
“Go full bear,” Moldylocks told herself.
She grabbed three honey zombies at random and set them, and Mr. B. F. Doolittle, on the kitchen counter. The loaf on the breadboard was dense and studded with seeds. She sliced a hunk and drizzled a thread of honey on a corner.
Big breath. Small bite.
Moldylocks gagged and spat it out. “That honey was too nasty!” She clawed at her tongue, trying to scrape off the taste. She examined the label closely. “Honey Concentrate. (Dilute to Taste).”
How many bees had to barf to make this? she wondered.
Her belly complained, then quieted. “Shush,” she told it. “I didn’t even swallow any yet.”
“Next one. ‘Wasabi Honey.’ I wonder what’s a ‘wasabi.’ Mr. B.” Moldylocks squeezed a dollop onto the bread, bit, chewed, swallowed. After a beat, there was a a detonation in her mouth. The detonation caused an explosion. The explosion became a fireball that flared up into her nasal passage and through her skull cavity before speeding down her esophagus, into her belly, and through her lower intestine, laying waste to everything in its path — taste buds, brain cells, nose hairs, and stomach lining — before bursting out of her in a zombie fire fart.
She would have thrown up then if the wasabi hadn’t vaporized any remaining food bits in her system.
“That honey was too hot,” she gasped when she was at last able to speak. The fire finally died down to embers, then flickered out. Go full bear. Go full bear, she told herself.
“Okay,” she panted. “One more.” Moldylocks thought of Jeminy. She thought of theater camp. She visualized escaping from Plainfield.
She tore a hunk of crust from the loaf and poured a trickle from the skull of the last honey zombie. She took a bite.
Moldylocks didn’t choke. She didn’t burn. She didn’t retch. She waited ten seconds. No kvetching from her belly. No reports from the interior. She had done it. In fact, the honey wasn’t that bad.
“Phlegmballs,” she said to her fugly. “That’s actually … good.”
She took another honeyed bite. It, too, stayed down. “Oh, my,” she said. “I may have a chance.” She took a third bite and another, drenching the breadhunk in ever-greater globs of honey until the bread was gone.
Moldylocks pushed herself back on the chair, dribbling mouthfuls of honey and bread goo down her chin. “Ah, that honey was just right,” she said to Mr. B. F. Doolittle.
Moldylocks turned the honey zombie around and read the label. “Brain Honey.”
“No wonder,” she smiled.
With her belly full, Moldylocks turned her attention to the rest of the house.
She and Mr. B. lurched out of the kitchen, leaving a smattering of breadcrumbs and honey drippings on the counter.
More wonders awaited.
The living room was dominated by three padded chairs. Each was covered in shiny black leather, each was a different size, and each had a large silver button on its right side. There were no holes, tears, tatters, frays, or rips. The chairs faced a small table. On top of the table was what looked to Moldylocks like a tiny suitcase.
“Sweet mucus, Mr. B. The weirdness never ends.”
Curiosity pulled Moldylocks forward. She studied the little suitcase a few moments, tested the latch in the front, flipped it open. A shiny flat disc lay in the middle, pierced through a hole in the center by a metal post. She bent close. The disc was lined with tiny grooves. No … it was just one groove spiraling inward.
The little suitcase had a metal arm on its right side, which was hinged at the back. A tiny needle poked out the underneath side of the front end of the arm. Like a bee stinger. The suitcase had an on-off switch similar to the kitchen light, so Moldylocks flicked it on. The disc began to spin, but nothing else happened. Moldylocks tapped and poked at the suitcase. “The stinger,” she said. She raised the lever arm and set it down on the spinning disc. A wall of sound blasted her.
“This sound is too loud!” she shouted to Mr. B. F. Doolittle.
She fumbled at a knob marked “VOL.” It was dialed all the way to the right, to the number 10. She turned it to 1.
She could barely hear a thing.
“This sound is too quiet,” she said.
She set the VOL to 5.
Moldylocks heard drums, a guitar, a tambourine, a piano. Four instruments grooving together. Sound percolated all the molecules of her body and set them dancing. Next came the voices. “Honey … ah Sugar, Sugar.”
“This sound is just right,” she said.
It was the greatest thing Moldylocks had ever heard. It made her knees weak. She lurched back, as if in a dream, and fell into the first chair. She let the music wash over her. At first she was too hypnotized to move.
“You are my candy bear,” the voices sang, “and you got me wanting you.”
Her body suddenly gave into the music and she started to twitch in the recliner, twisting, kicking and drumming the sides of the chair. Bap, twist, bap-bap-bap.
When the chorus started, she chimed in:
“And you got me wanting you!”
She gave a big bap on the chair and smacked the button on the side. A footrest sprang out as the chair slammed into the fully reclined position. Moldylocks was shocked out of her reverie and instinctively smacked at the button again. The chair flexed back to normal.
“Pour a little honey on me sugar. Pour a little sugar on me honey.”
She got up, still shaking her hips and bobbing her head. Muddy footprints marked her progress across the polished oak floor and the braided oval rug.
When the song was over, she played it again.
Then she played it again.
She played it 10 times in a row. Dancing all the way.
Finally, worn out and panting, she remembered her errand. “Hey, Mr. B. Do I look more bearish now?”
The fugly was silent.
“Yeah,” said Moldylocks. “I didn’t think so. I can’t leave yet.”
She switched the suitcase sound machine off.
“That was sooooo cool.”
Moldylocks wobbled up the stairs on her mismatched feet. Her backpack banged against the wall, leaving a trail of Bear-family portraits hanging askew. At the top of the stairs, three doors led off from a small landing. When Moldylocks opened the first door, she couldn’t help but laugh.
“I thought bears pooped in the woods!”
The bathroom had three toilets, each with its lid up. To Moldylocks’s astonishment, they were filled with water, not with sand. And where were the poop scoops? She sat on the first and almost fell in.
“This toilet is too big!”
The second had a padded seat. She tried it.
“This toilet is too soft!”
She sat on the last one.
“Ahhhh. This one is just right.” She sat there a long time, kicking her feet and looking around at the copies of Good Beekeeping stacked neatly in a little magazine rack, the bee wallpaper, and the wooden boxes above each toilet. Each box had a handle hanging from a chain. Ever curious, Moldylocks stood up and turned around to look.
She held Mr. B. F. Doolittle in front of her so he could see better. “What do you think this handle does?” she asked.
She pulled it. There was a whoosh that so surprised her she dropped the fugly in the toilet. Around and around swirled Mr. B. F. Doolittle, going down, down, down. Just as he was about to disappear, Moldylocks reached in and rescued him. “I’m sorry, Mr. B!” She pulled a bee-decorated hand towel off the rack and swaddled him.
Moldylocks didn’t have to wonder which of the other two upstairs rooms was Brockster’s. His door had his name stenciled on it. She pushed it open and walked in.
There was a small neatly made bed by the window covered in a zombie-patterned comforter.
“Huh. No dirtbox,” said Moldylocks. She set Mr. B. F. Doolittle down on the bed and kissed his forehead. It was damp. Toilet water.
“Yuck.” She looked at her wet fugly. “Sorry! Not your fault!”
She took a few steps back, wiping her mouth on her T-shirt and studying Mr. B. F.
Doolittle. She tried to imagine a real bear sleeping this way — in artificial softness instead of layers of warm earth. Moldylocks wondered if she could sleep that way.
Moldylocks shambled across the room, past the pictures of zombies on the wall and the books about zombies on Brockster’s bookshelf. She stepped over the zombie action figures on the floor and opened the closet door.
The bee blaster — a real one! — sat right in front of her on a shelf, shining like a treasure. Moldylocks reached out, ran her fingers along the metal skin.
That’s when she heard the voices.
Moldylocks grabbed the blaster. Was it a reflex? Was it for luck? Maybe it was for protection? She wasn’t sure. She tiptoed to the window and peeked out through the bee-patterned curtains. Three bears — Brockster, and two grown-up bears — were walking up the path to the kitchen.
No. No! thought Moldylocks. Her heart began to pound. How long have I been here?
The grown-ups had their arms around Brockster. Moldylocks watched as Brockster shrugged them off and crossed his arms. He scowled down at the gravel path. Moldylocks remembered the note she’d seen on the door. That must be Skip and Muffy. Skip was wearing khakis and boat shoes, like Brockster. He also wore a cloth necktie over a stiff button-down shirt. Muffy wore a blouse, slacks, and open-toed sandals.
No zombies had come to welcome Brockster home from his first day of school.
As they neared the house, Moldylocks heard him say, “No, they hated me. They think I’m a loser. A dork. A freak. What did you expect? I tried to make a friend and she just pushed me away.”
“They just need to get to know you,” said Skip.
“You’re an amazing bear,” said Muffy.
“Remember what the Zombiepedia says. It takes time to build trust.”
The Bears arrived at the kitchen door. “I’d rather bite somebody,” said Brockster.
Moldylocks almost felt bad for Brockster. Almost. Then she remembered, He’s just a bear. He doesn’t feel things the way I do. The bears went inside. Moldylocks held her breath.
Skip: “Holy honeybees!”
Muffy: “Oh, dear!”
“Uh-oh,” said Moldylocks. “We better go, Mr. B.” Mr. B. F. Doolittle! He was still on the bed. She took a step toward him. The floor squeaked.
She listened and heard the voices say, “Shh-shh-shh,” then nothing.
The little green hairs at the back of her neck stood on end. Her breathing quickened. Her thoughts bounced around in confusion. Should she hide? Beg for mercy? Attack? Flee? “Go full bear,” she told herself. A bear would never beg for mercy. A bear would attack. But not if they were outnumbered three to one. Flee? That would require a jump from a second-story window. No thanks. Fine, then. She’d hide.
“Sorry, Mr. B.,” she whispered.
Moldylocks tiptoed into the closet and pulled the door most of the way closed.
Sounds of shuffling, snorting, and scuffling from downstairs. Moldylocks listened. Claws click-clicking on linoleum. Paws pounding on the stairs. Bathroom door banging open. The grownups rushing into their bedroom.
With her guts all a tumble, Moldylocks peered out from the closet. She saw Brockster holding Mr. B. F. Doolittle and he looking directly at the closet.
“I see you, Moldylocks” he said. “I see your footprints anyway. I know it’s you. The prints are different sizes.”
Moldylocks gripped the bee blaster tight, but she didn’t move.
“You’re trapped,” said Brockster. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Moldylocks put her hand on the door, gently, and started to push it open.
Skip and Muffy barged into the room, huffing and massive. The image of them standing there activated every story Moldy had ever heard about bears. They’re violent. They’re dumb. They’re stupid. They’re not like us. They will eat you the moment they have the chance. You can never ever trust a bear.
Terror flooded her body.
Brockster walked to the closet and opened it.
Moldylocks crouched and held the blaster in front of her. She pulled the trigger. The smoker made a feeble pfft-pfft sound.
“Give me that!” said Brockster.
Fight or flight? Moldylocks asked herself. Flight.
Jolted into action daze, Moldylocks roared.
It wasn’t much of a roar, but it made the bears pause, at which point Moldylocks took one jab-step toward them then turned to her right, leaped out the window, ripping through the curtain and screen as she fell.
Moldylocks somersaulted head-over-feet and hit the ground, much to her surprise, softly. She’d landed on her back, which had landed on her backpack, which was still stuffed with the bear suit. She got to her feet, and looked back up at the window. Three bears stared back at her in astonishment, plus Mr. B. F. Doolittle, who was nestled in the crook of Brockster’s arm.
Maybe the Bears would have mercy on him. He was, after all, a bear, too.
Moldylocks hurried across the open space of the yard and into the cover of the woods, still gripping the bee blaster. Would she be in trouble for stealing? No. No one would believe the bears’ story against hers. She pushed aside branches and brambles. Did she know enough to go full bear now? She didn’t know for sure, but she felt mean and lowdown. Pretty bearish, in other words.
Jeminy’s words replayed themselves in Moldylocks’s mind. I’ll do anything to win. Would Moldylocks? Jeminy had all the advantages — time, coaching, money.
What advantage did Moldylocks have?
She was an actor.
That was it! Moldylocks decided that the best way to go full bear was to put on a performance. She could act like Brockster’s friend and learn enough about the bears to win the audition.
It’s perfect! she thought.
Her day was finally looking up. Only, something about her plan didn’t feel right.
She forced the thought aside, turned around, and lurched back toward the Bears’ house.
“Hellooo?” she called from the edge of the lawn. “I’m, I’m sorry …”
The kitchen door opened. Brockster stood silhouetted in the yellow light coming from within.
“Don’t bite me. I just want my bear back,” she said. “I’ll clean up the mess I made.”
Brockster was on the steps outside the kitchen door. Skip and Muffy’s heads appeared in the doorway.
“Why don’t you tell us about it?” asked Skip.
“Yes, come inside,” said Muffy.
Brockster rolled his eyes. “Did you seriously just say, ‘Don’t bite me?'”
Moldylocks smiled ever so slightly. Her plan just might work.
Moldylocks looked up from the counter, which she was wiping clean of bread crumbs and honey goo under Brockster’s supervision. Thirty minutes had passed since the Bears asked her in, and the cleaning up was almost done.
“You actually ate the honey and you didn’t barf?” asked Brockster.
“I don’t know,” she said, starting to scrub the counter again. “The brain honey wasn’t horrible.”
Brockster handed her Mr. B. F. Doolittle. “Here. Dad says we don’t need to keep the hostage anymore.”
“That’s a joke,” said Brockster. “Is he always so soggy?”
Moldylocks didn’t say anything.
Skip and Muffy came in.
“Good job on the floor and the rug,” said Muffy. “And the pictures are all straight.”
“The curtain is another story, though,” said Skip. “And the screen.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll fix them,” said Moldylocks.
“Come join us at the table,” Skip said.
“I’ll put a pot on,” said Muffy.
Moldylocks gave the counter one last wipe, set her rag in the sink, and lurched to the table.
A few minutes later, Moldylocks and the three Bears were drinking hot honey tea from matching yellow mugs. Each one had the same slogan on it: “Don’t worry, happy bee.”
“It takes time, you know,” said Skip.
“Huh?” asked Moldylocks, eyeing her tea doubtfully. Brockster slid a honey zombie toward her. She read the label: Surprise Honey.
“Getting to know a stranger,” Skip said. “It’s always easier over tea.”
The Bears waited for her to pour some honey into her tea. Moldylocks grimaced, squeezed out two drops.
“First we have a question for you,” said Muffy. “You’re not in trouble, but it’s important that we know.”
“Did you mucus-balloon the house?”
“Did you attack the house?” asked Brockster. “Were you one of the balloon chuckers? You better not lie.”
“No, I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I’m sorry. Look.” She wiped some of the crusted barf off her shirt, revealing the bear paw underneath.
“She was wearing a bear costume at school today,” said Brockster.
Muffy whispered in Skip’s ear. Skip nodded.
“We did debate it, you know,” said Skip.
“Debate what?” asked Moldylocks.
“Keeping the little bear as a hostage. We even had a note drafted out. Dear Moldylocks of Plainfield. If you ever want to see your bear alive again, you must bring us a ransom of 100 jars of honey. But we couldn’t decide if he was worth 100 or 50, and ransom exchanges are so tricky, we figured it wasn’t worth the trouble.”
“Plus,” said Muffy, “he was howling so much and he kept asking for brains — I didn’t think I could bear it.”
Moldylocks smiled. A real smile. Just for a second.
“Yeah, if he stayed I was going to have to give him training on how to be a real bear,” said Brockster.
Moldylocks saw her opening. “You can do that?”
“Uh, I am a bear.”
Moldylocks stared at her tea. “Maybe you could, um, train me, instead.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Brockster.
“I need to be a bear by this Friday night. It’s part of an audition. And I need to practice all the time. That’s why I was doing the presentation in my bear suit. But I’m not doing very great. You saw me.”
“She threw up,” Brockster explained to his parents. “From honey. In front of the whole school.”
“Yeah. Anyway, the audition is why I left school early today and came here. To see if I could learn something about being a bear. Really, I’m sorry. It’s just that if I’m not a bear I’ll be the biggest loser ever and I’ll never hear the end of it from Jeminy —”
” — the one with the laugh,” said Brockster. “I think she’s one of the mucus-ballooners.”
“Yeah, and I won’t win the summer scholarship and I’ll be stuck in Plainfield all summer.”
“What’s so bad about that?” asked Skip.
“I don’t have any … umm … nobody here understands … I just don’t … ” Embarrassment kept her from finishing.
The table fell silent a moment.
“So what happens at this audition?” asked Muffy gently.
Moldylocks was glad to change the subject. “I need to be able to drink a mug of honey like a bear, wrestle like a bear, and roar like a bear. And I have to do a speech — a dramatic monologue. There are judges, three of them, and they give us a score. Forty points total. Highest score wins the lead role in the play. Jeminy is really good.”
Skip and Muffy looked at each other. Each nodded at the same time.
“Brockster can help,” said Muffy.
“Really? Why?” Moldylocks asked him. She tried not to smile. It’s working, she thought. They’re trusting me!
“Because Bears and zombies need to get to know each other,” said Skip.
“Because we need to get Jeminy,” said Brockster.
Muffy frowned at him. “Because bears and zombies need to get to know each other.”
Moldylocks looked at Brockster. “That okay with you?”
“Here’s what you do,” said Muffy. “Tuesday: honey practice. Wednesday: wrestling. Thursday: roaring. Friday afternoon before the audition you do the speech.”
“You’ll be full bear in four days,” said Skip.
Moldylocks nodded, excited. Go full bear. “Can I ask you one more thing?”
Moldylocks asked about the sound suitcase that had captivated her earlier.
Moldylocks and the three real bears and the one stuffed bear piled into the family room.
“It’s called a record player,” Brockster said. “The part in the middle is called a turntable. This,” said Brockster, lifting the black disk from the turntable, “is a record. It’s music.”
He centered the disc on the turntable, flipped the switch to ON, lifted the record arm and placed the needle on the record. “And music makes you groove.”
On her way back home, Moldylocks told herself what great actors bears were. “Nice on the outside, treacherous on the inside.”
She had to say it over and over again to make herself believe it.
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