October 18, 2021
The Plainfield Chronicle was the official source of news for Plainfield, but everyone knew that news wasn’t really news until it had been tested, digested, debated, and regurgitated by the regulars at Burial Grounds Coffee Company.
The coffee shop opened its doors at 6 a.m. each morning and each morning at 6 a.m. the Four Old Geezers were the first Plainfielders to totter in. The FOGs were so old that they were not so much zombies as much as they were assemblies of secondhand replacement parts — ancient ears that didn’t hear, noses that didn’t smell, and eyes that may as well have been stuck in sideways. Between the four of them, they had about a single zombie’s worth of working parts. No matter. In they came every morning, leaning on canes, walkers, and each other. Each one carrying a copy of the Chronicle folded under an arm. Each one toting a full tank of cranky.
Each morning May Clot had their coffee mugs filled and waiting for them at Geezerville, as they called their table in the back. The brain muffins were always warm. The Wakeful Dead coffee was bitter as always, just the way they liked it.
“Morning, boys,” she greeted them this Tuesday. “You all look miserable!”
“Ah, lose a limb,” said Ebenezer Rotbody, who led the short old-timers parade through the cafe to Geezerville. “You’ll see how it is when you’re my age.” He was barely in his seat before he’d unfolded his paper and begun reading. His bushy eyebrows shot skyward, “Oh, ho!” he shouted. His three compadres protested.
“Give us a minute, you news hog,” said Tyreeq “The Reek” Ibrahim, shambling up to the table.
“Every morning, the same blasted thing,” said Fark Farkus. “You see the news first and you think you were the center of it.”
“Remember what we said,” said Dev Carbuncle, tottering to his seat. “No racing for news. Makes us argue too much.”
Ebenezer scowled, “Aw, it doesn’t either.” He put down his paper anyway. “Fine.” He waited, and after a few minutes, he grinned at his companions and said, “I’ve just reached a decision.”
“You’re going to ask Emily Shank out on a date?” said Fark.
“Nice lady …” said The Reek.
“For a leg,” said Dev.
“Hey, you think she likes long romantic hops on the beach?” asked Fark.
“Ha, ha,” said Ebenezer. “To answer your question: Yes. But that’s not the decision I want to announce to you. No. I have decided that once you boys decompose — which will likely be any day now at the rate things are falling off your body — I am going to have you stuffed. Then I’m gonna wheel you in on a cart and set you up right here each morning. Yessir. You’ll be better company then than you are now.”
“Oh, rot off!” grumbled the others, more or less at the same time.
Ebenezer cleared his throat. He looked at each of the FOGs in turn, then looked down at the Chronicle.
They all opened their papers at the same time and saw the headline that had surprised Ebenezer. “BREAK-IN AT JEPPERSON RESIDENCE; BEARS SUSPECTED”.
“It was them bears,” said Ebenezer.
“We can read for ourselves,” said The Reek.
Here’s what they read:
Terror has come to Plainfield in the form of a most disturbing development, a ramshackling ransacking crime of heinous hooligan-ness.
Late last night, while snug in his dirtbox, Josef Jepperson, 59, was awakened by a crashing, a clanging, and a banging in the nether parts of his domicile. He arose with a shout and a cry at the hubbub and clomped down the stairs to investigate the hullabaloo.
The perpetrators were already on their way out the door, which was now hanging from a single snaggled hinge. Jepperson stood in his doorway, watching the figures disappear into the evening, his glimpses confirming what he suspected. It was bears most probably.
“I didn’t have me glasses,” Jepperson said, “but their silhouettes was most unmistakably bearish.”
Constable Cruft and his men are investigating.
When asked what was stolen, Jepperson said, “A good many things.”
When pressed to specify what exactly had been pilfered, he replied, “Well, look around ya. Everything ya don’t see is what they took.”
Jepperson was correct. There was very much in the home that was not seen.
This reporter, for one, calls it like he sees it. This was an act of bearrorism.
Burial Grounds now began to hum with the morning rush.
Phileas Batuta arrived for his morning tea. The Stranger was back as well, once again bearded, gloved, and cloaked. Town shopkeepers filed in to fuel up before opening their stores and boutiques.
Conversation percolated at Geezerville.
“Never did like Jepperson much,” said Ebenezer.
“Never did like bears much,” said Fark.
“Yup yup,” the others agreed.
“How many you know?” asked The Reek.
“About none, like you,” admitted Fark.
“But you hear the stories,” said Dev.
“Well I do. Not that you would, with those replacement ears of yours,” said The Reek. “I don’t know how you hear yourself think.”
“Well I know you don’t have that problem,” said Dev.
“Too right I don’t,” said The Reek.
“‘No thoughts to hear,” cracked Dev, smacking the table so hard he jostled the coffee mugs. Fark chuckled.
The Reek opened his mouth to reply. But he couldn’t think of anything to say so he just held out his fist. “Well played sir,” he said to Dev.
They bumped fists and resumed reading their papers.
“Well I think I’ll keep thinking for myself,” said Ebenezer.
Moments later, they heard a voice over their shoulders. “I couldn’t help overhear you gentlemen.” It was the Stranger, as mysterious as always with his fedora, glasses, great beard and trenchcoat.
The Reek eyed him. “Well, that ain’t much accomplishment since we got the loudest voices in Plainfield.”
“Be that as it may, I feel compelled to tell you that I’ve spent much time in my travels amongst bears.” He paused and looked around the coffee shop. When he spoke again, it was with a raised voice. “Can’t trust ’em. They are every bit the bearrorists the good writer indicates. I daresay more so.”
Now that he had the coffee shop’s attention, he continued.
“They had similar trouble in East Rotburg, you know. Peaceful town. Bears moved in. Series of break-ins. Fortunately, they had a strong constable. Took care of the problem straight away. I’m sure you’ll all be safe. If your constable’s strong. If you act fast. I just thought you should know.”
With that, the Stranger bid the patrons of the coffee shop good morning.
The buzz of conversation resumed.
Ebenezer tugged his bristly chin-hairs, lost in thought.
Fark noticed him. “What?”
“Cruft,” said Dev. “Not the sharpest nail in the coffin, as far as constables go.”
“And the man’s brain works slow as Rotbody moves,” said The Reek.
“Persistent bugger, though,” said Ebenezer.
From Burial Grounds, the story spread and took on an energy of its own. How the bears had broken into Josef Jepperson’s. How everything had been stolen. How Jepperson barely escaped with his undeath.
It didn’t matter that none of it had been proven. When facts didn’t fit the story, most Plainfielders ignored the facts.
Not all Plainfielders, though.
Phileas lingered at Burial Grounds awhile, staring at the leaves in the bottom of his tea mug. He’d seen Anka Mastiff telling fortunes from her Beyond Be-Leaf shop at the Plainfield Sanitary Market. There were supposed to be signs in the leaf patterns, if you knew how to read them, which Phileas didn’t.
Something just felt off to him, frustratingly beyond his comprehension. The whole town seemed to believe along one way and here he was believing some other way. It made reasonable sense that he must be the one who was wrong, but as far as he could tell, he was the only one who had gotten to know the Bears, if even a little bit. What could he do? He was big in muscles, but small of brain.
Mr. Goodness snorted outside. Time to get to the day’s work. Lots of packages to deliver. Phileas would do what he always did: Keep a watch on things.
That afternoon, Constable Cruft held a public meeting and told a crowd of agitated citizens that he would increase evening safety patrols. He reminded Plainfielders, however, that there wasn’t enough evidence yet to convict anybody of anything.
Conniption Stinkpit listened to him, and the longer she listened, the angrier she got. When the constable was done speaking, she offered her opinion to the crowd “as a concerned citizen.”
“I feel the soul of our town is at stake,” she said. “However, I’m sure we’ve seen the last of the break-ins. I’m sure our constable is up to the task. Aren’t you, Constable?”
Hieronymous Cruft said nothing. He simply walked out of the hearing room scratching his skull bone and thinking he’d really like to be home in his easy chair sipping a braindy.
Moldylocks didn’t care about any break-in, she cared about winning the audition. The fact that the bears might be criminals only improved her chances of reaching full bear.
Today was Tuesday. That meant Honey Training.
She arrived at the Bear’s house a few minutes late.
“You’re late,” said Brockster.
“I had detention for cutting school. Sorry, I … “
“No time,” Brockster interrupted. “We gotta start.” He led her to the picnic table in the front yard. It was set with 20 mugs of honey. She reached out for the closest one. He stopped her.
“See the honey, bee the honey,” he said. “Now you say it.”
“See the honey, bee the honey,” said Moldylocks.
“You need to say it five times in a row,” said Brockster.
Moldylocks did as he instructed.
“Now kiss the bear for luck.”
“What!” said Moldylocks. “No. Gross.”
“Not me,” said Brockster, growing irritated. “Mr. Do-Nothing, your teddy bear.” He pointed to the bear, sitting beside the row of honey-filled mugs.
“Doolittle,” she corrected. “Mr. B. F. Doolittle. And he’s not a teddy bear, he’s a fugly.”
Moldylocks kissed her fugly on the forehead.
“Sit down,” said Brockster.
She sat down.
He slid the first mug toward her. “See the honey, bee the honey,” he said. “Drink.”
Moldylocks downed the mug of honey.
And promptly puked it into the grass.
“Gack! This isn’t brain honey!”
Brockster sniffed the mug. “No, it’s balsamic strawberry. You need to be ready for anything. You want to beat Jeminy, right?”
“Then focus! Bee the honey.”
Moldylocks stood up so fast the bench beneath her tumbled backward into the grass. “I can’t focus. I can’t! How am I supposed to drink all these?” She gestured at the other 19 mugs.
Brockster gave her a handkerchief. She noticed it was monogrammed. BB. “You do look a little green,” he said.
Moldylocks snatched the handkerchief and wiped her mouth. “I am a little green, you doofus. I’m a zombie.”
Moldylocks rolled her eyes. “Attention, everyone: The bear has a sense of humor.”
Brockster returned to his normal facial setting: Serious. “Remember the goal. What’s your goal?”
“Beat Jeminy. You know that.”
“Why?” asked Brockster.
“Win the audition. Win the part!”
“To stop being a loser!” she shouted.
Moldylocks pulled the sketch of the Rotburg Theater out of her pocket. “This is what I want.”
“Focus on that,” said Brockster. “Have that picture in your mind.”
“That’s all I need to do?”
“Our course not. What you need to do is S.A.V.E. training. Sloganize. Appetize. Visualize. Exercise.”
Moldylocks gave him a blank look. Brockster explained.
“‘Sloganize’ means to say the saying five times in a row, five times each day. One set when you wake up, one set with each meal, and one set right before you go to sleep. ‘See the honey, bee the honey.’ Got it?”
“Got it. What’s ‘appetize’?” Moldylocks asked.
“You know how when you’re hungry, anything tastes good?”
“So, don’t eat lunch the day of the contest. Makes honey go down easier.”
“How will I have any energy?” asked Moldylocks.
“Honey gives you energy. Third, visualize. You need to take time each day to imagine every detail of drinking honey. How it smells. How it feels going down. How it coats your stomach. Imagine it resting quietly in your gut. Yum.”
Moldylocks looked doubtful.
“The visualizing will help you get used to it.”
“And the last thing?”
“Exercise,” said Brockster. “You have to get your stomach muscles strong enough to digest anything. That means lots of situps. And some pushups and jogging for all around fitness.”
“Zombies don’t jog.”
“What do you do?”
“Then lurch fast. Get it?”
“Good. Now we gotta stop talking. You need to jog … lurch … to the bee yard and back. Sloganize the whole time. Think about how much you love honey. Fifty situps and fifty pushups when you get back. I’ll have a mug waiting. Now go!”
Moldylocks was panting when she got back from her beeyard lurch, and what little breath she had was almost completely gone after her pushups and situps. Brockster ignored her pleading look and handed her the honey mug. She kissed Mr. B. F. Doolittle and chugged the mug.
The honey stayed down.
“Very g— ” said Brockster.
Moldylocks grabbed another mug and downed it.
That honey stayed down, too.
She slammed the second mug down on the table. She threw her head back and howled, “Honey, honey, honey! Buzz, buzz, buzz!”
“I have no idea what that means,” said Brockster. “But it’s a good start.”
Skip and Muffy, who had been watching from the front porch, applauded.
At that moment, the three of them didn’t seem like criminals at all to Moldylocks.
“What?” asked Brockster.
“What what?” replied Moldylocks.
“You have a funny look on your face.”
She looked directly at him and asked in a whisper. “Did you guys do it? The break-in?”
“No,” said Brockster.
“Cool,” said Moldy. “Are you coming back to school tomorrow or are you gonna skip again, Skipper Bear?”
“I didn’t skip! The constable asked me to stay home for safety.”
“Yours or ours?”
“Yours,” said Brockster. “I eat zombies, remember?”
“Sure you do, Skipper.”
“Oh, get out of here,” said Brockster with a grin. “Remember: Only you can SAVE yourself!”
Conniption held a stopwatch. Arnold the headless house zombie stood next to her holding a tray of ten crystal goblets brimming with honey. Jeminy focused on the tray, motionless. Right fist shoved into left palm. Elbows out. Legs bent slightly. Back straight. Skull scarf knotted loosely around her neck.
This was the pose of a warrior.
A honey warrior.
“What are you?” shouted Conniption.
“What’s on the tray?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Devour the prey!”
“Who’s your prey?”
“Everyone!” shouted Jeminy.
“Do you show mercy?”
“I show no mercy!”
Conniption started the countdown. “5 seconds … 4, 3, 2, 1, go!”
Jeminy drank the first goblet of honey and slammed it on the tray. She downed the second.
“Be a bear. Eight to go,” said Conniption, eyes on the stopwatch.
By glass number 5 Jeminy was tugging at her scarf. She gagged after glass number 6 and gasped, “I’m done.”
“Keep going!” snarled Conniption, checking her watch.
“I can’t Mom. The pouch is full.”
“Oh, for phlegm’s sake!” said Conniption. “You were on a pace. Undo your scarf, let me see.”
Jeminy unwound her scarf and revealed a leather pouch dangling from a nozzle in her neck. Conniption unscrewed the pouch then quickly capped the end of the tube protruding from Jeminy’s neck. The pouch-and-tube contraption had been Conniption’s idea. It allowed Jeminy to divert food away from her stomach — nasty things like honey or brussels sprouts could be collected in the pouch and disposed of later. So unlike Moldylocks, Jeminy didn’t have to worry about honey upsetting her stomach. Honey would never get to her stomach.
“Did I do enough?” asked Jeminy, “For the audition?”
“Don’t think ‘enough’,” said Conniption. “Think ‘annihilate’.” She examined the pouch. “Hmm. We can’t use a bigger pouch or we run the risk of detection. You may just have to digest some.”
“Yes. You can,” said Conniption. “And you will.”
There was a pounding downstairs at the front door.
“That will be the delivery driver with my package,” said Conniption.
“I’ll get it,” said Jeminy.
“No!” shrieked Conniption. Her daughter threw her a confused look. “No,” said Conniption in a calmer voice. Propriety, dear. Arnold will see to it.” Conniption stomped the floor. Stomp-stomp. Stomp. Stomp-stomp.
Arnold bumped out of the room. Conniption touched her daughter on the shoulder.
“I’m tough on you.”
“I know it’s for my own good.”
“Because the world is a tough place. Most Plainfielders don’t understand that.”
“I understand it.”
“They need someone to lead them. Someone strong. The constable, Mayor Stubbs, they’re weak. You can’t be.”
“That’s what this is all about. We need to unite the town. The bears threaten our way of undeath, but the town doesn’t know that. But we’ll show them. For their own good. That’s what last night was about. That’s what tonight is about.”
Jeminy nodded. She would be strong.
The door to the room swung open and the Stranger entered.
Jeminy by now was used to his attire, but found it odd that he was wearing his sunglasses at night.
“You have the eye spies?” asked Conniption.
The Stranger reached into his satchel and pulled out a bulging flask. He uncorked it and poured the contents onto Arnold’s serving tray. Out gushed several dozen eyelidded eyeballs, For a moment, Jeminy wondered where Arnold had got to, but she was soon preoccupied by all the blinking.
“One at a time!” said Conniption. “Which one of you was out by the Bear place?”
An eyeball in front blinked twice.
“Tell me,” commanded Conniption. She translated as the eyeball blinked its message. Blink-blink. Blink. Blinnnnnnk. Blinnnnnnk. Blink.
“Yes. … Bears house. I know. Who was there? … Moldylocks … Moldylocks?! … What was she doing? … Training … with … the … little … bear. What kind of training?”
Conniption was silent while the eyeball finished. When it was done blinking its report, Conniption returned the eyes to their flask, which she handed to the Stranger.
“Tomorrow,” she told the Stranger, “I want you to place all of them at the Old Curmudgeon Place.” (Conniption refused to call it the Bear Place.) “Around the yard, and along the cart path. Understood?”
“Understood,” said the Stranger.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
“That LaMort girl is drinking honey.”
“Did she keep it down?”
“Yes. Two mugs. We can’t take her lightly.”
“She can’t roar, Mom, and she can’t talk in front of people.”
“Well, up until a moment ago, we thought she couldn’t drink honey. Remember, I don’t want her beaten, Jeminy. I want her … ” she waited for her daughter to finish the sentence.
“…annihilated,” said Jeminy.
“Indeed. Now, let’s review the plans.”
The three zombies lurched to a table in the corner of the training room. Conniption lit a candle and unrolled a map of Plainfield.
“What’s the target tonight?” asked the Stranger.
Conniption’s long bony finger descended slowly on a house in the Ptonk neighborhood. The Stranger had to lean close to read the map, and as did, his glasses fell off. Before his hands a moment to find them on the table, Jeminy caught a glimpse of his eyes, which were like no zombie’s she’d ever seen. They were as blue as the sky on a sunny day. The Stranger gave her a smile, but his eyes were cold. He found his glasses and looked to where Conniption was pointing.
The name on the map read “Cruft.”
“We’re raiding the constable’s house?” whispered Jeminy.
The Stranger grinned. “De-lightful.”
“Like last night,” said Conniption. “Wake the house. Let them see you. Then get out. No showing off. You don’t need to. The story will grow by itself. Now get into costume.”
Conniption held Jeminy back while the Stranger strolled to the far corner of the training room and ducked behind the tri-fold screen by the wardrobe. He began pulling on his bear costume.
“Mom, who is he?” asked Jeminy.
“You’ll know soon enough,” said Conniption.
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