October 25, 2021
Ebenezer Rotbody led the FOG parade into Burial Grounds precisely at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Tyreeq, Fark, and Dev scuffled in behind him, with dirt from their dirtbox beds still unclumping from the nooks and folds of their ancient bodies. They scraped their canes and walkers along the floor, moving with squeaks and creaks and wheezes before easing down at Geezerville.
Ebenezer unfolded his Chronicle. “Oh, ho!” he said
“Wait, wait!” said The Reek, snatching Ebenezer’s paper. “Papers down, old farts.”
“Sweet pusballs, what now?” grumbled Ebenezer.
“First, a first-date update,” said The Reek.
“Ah, yes,” said Fark, leaning back, “You went out with Emily Shank last night.”
“Emily the Leg,” Dev interjected.
“I bet that date was hoppin’,” added The Reek.
“Spill it,” said Fark, taking a swig of coffee.
“Did you go hiking?” asked Dev.
“Pedicure, maybe?” asked The Reek.
“Croquet?” asked Fark. “She’d make a lovely mallet.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Ebenezer. “Easy to make fun when you all have wives at home. … Though why they stick with you I’ll never know.”
“Must be our good looks,” said The Reek, pulling a set of brass teeth from his shirt pocket, dunking them in his coffee, and slipping them into his mouth with a sucking sound.
“Or your charm,” said Ebenezer. “Truth be told, Emily was very nice.”
“What did she wear?” asked Dev.
“Pant,” said Ebenezer.
As if on cue, the others leaned forward, stuck their tongues out, and started to pant.
“Ah, stuff it,” said Ebenezer.
The other FOGs laughed.
“What’s she gonna do,” asked Ebenezer, “wear a whole pair? That’s another thing I luh … I like about her. She’s frugal. A pair of pants to a regular zombie is two whole outfits to her.”
They laughed even harder.
The Reek studied him. “Why, Eb. You’re red in the face. You really luh … I mean like this woman, don’t you?”
Ebenezer blushed deeper. “Give me that!” He snatched his paper back from The Reek. “Actually, I do. And I’m seeing her again tonight.” He smiled at the thought.
When he read the front-page headline, his smile disappeared.
“Looks like we may still have a bear problem.”
Burial Grounds began to fill with the morning crowd.
Phileas left Mr. Goodness munching happily on a bag of oats and entered the shop. He reflected on how peaceful it was to be known so completely he could order and pay for his tea without ever saying a word — just a nod and a smile and a tip.
Phileas sat down next to the geezers just as Ebenezer was reading the headline on the Plainfield Chronicle.
“Listen to this everyone,” he raised his voice, “it’s a two-exclamation-pointer: ‘BEARS BREAK IN TO CONSTABLE’S HOUSE!!'”
“We can read! We can read!” the other FOGs grumbled.
Ebenezer ignored them. “You’re slowing me down. Listen: ‘Constable Issues Quarantine; Bears Under House Arrest.'”
Phileas turned in his chair and read the article over Fark’s shoulder.
In what is now beginning to look like a crime wave, the second bear burglary in as many nights took place at Constable Hieronymus Cruft’s last night. The renegade bears entered the house, stomped all over Cruft’s imported red-clay floor, and bearorrized most maliciously, before fleeing the scene.
Constable Cruft was out of bed in a flash, however, and spotted the perpetrators fleeing the premises. Cruft has issued an order placing the bears under house arrest pending a hearing.
Some are wondering if the measures go far enough. Some are insisting on immediate and severe action. Immediate bear deportation, in other words.
Those cries are sure to get louder as the question on the tip of every Plainfielder’s tongue is, “Are we safe?”
Phileas turned quietly back to his tea.
“Like that fellah said yesterday, you can’t trust a bear,” said Dev.
“You mean that fellah,'” asked The Reek, pointing at the Stranger waiting in line for his coffee.
“Yup,” said Dev.
Phileas noticed that the Stranger was relaxed, but seemed to be listening intently to the flow of conversation around him. Indeed, after getting his coffee, the Stranger walked over to Geezerville. “Morning, gentlemen,” he said in his smooth rumble. “Happened again, hmm?”
The geezers nodded.
“I’m not surprised.” The Stranger raised his voice slightly. “As I said, bears put on a good show. A very good show. I ought to know. They’re crafty, folks. It’s a pattern I’ve seen before. Many times. And just when they get you believing they want to be part of the community, their true nature comes out. They want to destroy you. They can’t help it. It’s just who they are.”
“What do we do?” asked a woman holding a baby zombie.
The Stranger strolled to her and gently pushed a lock of greasy hair off the infant’s forehead. “You do what keeps you safe.”
With that, he left.
The coffee shop erupted in conversation. Phileas found it hard to hear the details of anyone’s words but easy to summarize the theme: The bears were a threat.
Yet none of it made sense when Phileas reflected on what he’d seen the night before.
As usual, he’d been eating a supper of warm brain salad in his tiny cottage. As usual, he’d apologized to his sofa before sitting his great bulk down upon it. And as usual, he’d set his meal and his worn copy of the Book of Wisdom in front of him.
Phileas closed his eyes, flipped the book open to a random page. When he opened his eyes, he read: “Don’t let thy ears see for thy eyes.”
He chewed his salad slowly. He chewed the message, as well. What did it mean? Plainfielders were talking, saying bears were bad and had to go. Schoolkids were saying the bear child was dangerous, too. But no one seemed to have actually gotten to know the bears. Not even Phileas. Not really.
Then he understood. The story Plainfielders were hearing was telling them what they saw. Instead of the other way around.
Phileas closed the book. After he finished his salad, he walked into the evening to see if he could see with his eyes.
He stopped at the edge of the woods. There was a warm butter-pat of yellow light coming from the kitchen. Phileas could see the Bears inside, talking and laughing over a board game. He stepped toward the house, intending to knock and say hello. Maybe they’d let him join the game.
Then he thought the better of it. Let them have their peace. Besides, why would they want to be bothered by him?
He watched them finish the game, clean up, and head upstairs. Before long the lights went out, so Phileas went home. It must have been about 10 o’clock. According to the paper, the break-in had taken place about 10:30.
So while it didn’t seem likely that the bears had robbed the constable, it was possible. Just barely.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” said Brockster on Wednesday afternoon when Moldylocks walked up the path. “Now that we’re on a crime spree and everything.”
“Better for me,” she said. “The truer you are to your actual bear nature, the better my chances of beating Jeminy.”
Brockster looked at her, trying to figure out if she was joking. He decided she was. Moldylocks stopped just outside the white picket fence that bordered the yard. Brockster stood just inside the gate.
“So what do you think now? For real?” he asked.
Moldylocks avoided his eyes. “I think I want to win. To beat Jeminy. That’s what you want, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.” He opened the gate.
She shambled through, her mismatched feet crunching the gravel path. Crunch-KER-unch, crunch-KER-unch.
“First thing for today’s training,” he said “you need to wear the required wrestling uniform. I’ve got some gear for you on the kitchen table. You can change in the pantry.”
Moldylocks began to protest, but Brockster pointed to the door. “Go!”
But when Moldylocks turned away, Brockster pounced on her from behind, rolled her onto her back, and slapped the ground three times. “One, two, three … pin!”
“Hey,” grumbled Moldylocks. “What are you doing?! I wasn’t ready.”
“First rule of wrestling: Always be ready. Now go change.”
“Fungus and muckballs!” said Moldylocks. She got up and brushed off her T-shirt.
Once she looked down, Brockster tackled her again. Wham! It was a quick pin.
“Okay, Bear. Jeez. You made your point,” Moldylocks sputtered.
Brockster released her again. Moldylocks walked toward the house complaining. “Knucklehead bears. Can’t trust ’em. Giant furballs is all they are. Hairy stinkerpots. Hairy hairballs.”
She stopped to shake the dirt out of her hair, listening. Footsteps on the gravel behind her. Crunch crunch crunch! At the last moment she knelt down and Brockster went flying over her, sliding to a stop below the kitchen steps.
Moldylocks jumped on him, laughing. “One, two …” she said.
Whompf! Brockster twisted out of her grip, reversed, and pinned her. “Three!” he said.
She looked up into his grinning face. “Yeah, but I got you that time,” she smiled.
What did she think? Could Brockster and his family have been involved in the break-ins? She didn’t know what to believe. Just focus on the scholarship. See the Rotburg, be the Rotburg.
She squirmed out of Brockster’s grip and lurched to the kitchen to change.
A few minutes later she emerged from the house scowling. “I look ridiculous.”
“It’s the required uniform,” said Brockster.
“Tights?” Moldylocks shook her head. The green singlet she wore had a bright red B on the front. Her headgear had green ear protectors.
“You look ready,” said Brockster. “And kind of ridiculous, too.”
They began. “You don’t need to learn a lot of different things,” Brockster explained. “Just a few. The trick is to know them really well. First: How to stand.”
He taught her the essentials of a stance (“wide legs, low behind, straight back, head up”). Once she had more or less mastered the stance, he showed her the single-leg takedown, three kinds of headlock, the art of the pin, and a handful of critical moves.
All afternoon they scuffled through a series of mini-bouts in the yard, getting muddier and more grass-stained as they practiced. Mr. B. F. Doolittle watched from his seat on the front-yard picnic table.
When Brockster called “Time” after one of the sessions, Moldylocks asked, “Aren’t you gonna teach me how to get out of things?”
“Nope. No escaping. Just attacks.”
“Can you explain that to me a little more?”
“Look, if we had more time … ” Brockster began.
Moldylocks pounced and took him down with an ankle pick, maneuvered him onto his back with an arm bar, and tried to grapevine him. “One …” she yelled. Brockster bridged, twisted out of her hold, and reversed her. Just like that her back was on the dirt. “Two, three!” he finished. “Pin!”
He helped her up. “Nice work, for a zombie.”
The sun had dipped below the trees. Muffy called to them. “Almost curfew time, Brockster! Come on in.”
Moldylocks and the Bears gathered around the kitchen table a few minutes later. She was happy to be out of the wrestling tights, and would have been even happier if Brockster hadn’t insisted she take them home with her.
“Wear the uniform when you do your S.A.V.E. practice,” he said.
As if, she thought.
“So we were all a little curious about this audition,” said Skip, interrupting her thoughts.
“I told you about the four parts, right?” asked Moldylocks. “Honey-drinking, wrestling, roaring, and dramatic monologue. And there are three judges. And you can get a maximum of forty points.”
“Do you all wrestle each other?” asked Brockster.
Moldylocks shook her head. “Everyone wrestles the same person: Mr. Mondo.”
“The metal shop teacher,” Brockster explained.
“And wrestling coach,” added Moldylocks.
“And the point of all this is … what, exactly?” asked Skip.
“It’s supposed to help determine who’s the most realistic bear for the musical,” said Moldylocks. Grizzly Hair. People love that show.”
The three bears started laughing.
“What?” asked Moldylocks.
“Well, there’s what you do and there’s how you do it,” smiled Skip. Besides, they could just ask us.”
Moldylocks wasn’t sure what he meant, so she sipped her tea. Which wasn’t too bad.
“You’ll see,” said Muffy. She said it kindly, but Moldylocks felt like that was all the information she’d get for now. So she asked Muffy another question that had been on her mind.
“What did you mean by ‘curfew’?”
“Ah,” said Muffy, setting down her cup. “Well, you heard about the breaks-ins, I’m sure.”
“Such a shame,” said Muffy.
“Well,” said Skip, “the constable asked us to stay home again today.”
“And for the foreseeable future,” added Muffy.
“He said it was safer,” Skip continued. “He seems to think, or he thinks the town thinks, that we’re behind the recent troubles.”
“Everyone is blaming you,” said Moldylocks. “Grownups, kids, everybody.” She put her hands over her mouth. “Oh, sorry.”
“I can’t say I’d believe any different if I was in their place,” said Skip.
“What do you think?” asked Brockster.
Moldylocks squirmed. She didn’t know what to believe about anything. She looked around the kitchen. The shiny, sunny surfaces, the books, the zombie drawing on the cold-food cabinet. And all those bee decorations.
“I think you have really weird taste in insects.”
Skip laughed. “You don’t have to answer, Moldylocks. You’ll know the answer when you need to.”
All Moldylocks knew was that she wanted to win the contest and get out of Plainfield. She didn’t want to be involved in the Bears’ problems. She didn’t want any more of Jeminy. Most of all, she didn’t want to be a loser.
Brockster walked her to the gate. She kept her distance, and stayed in a crouch as she walked.
“What?” he asked.
“Always be ready,” she said. “First rule of wrestling.”
“Good. You’re learning.”
They reached the gate. “I have to stop here,” Brockster said. “Constable’s orders.”
“Okay,” said Moldylocks.
“This is weird, but I feel like we’re being watched.”
“That’s ’cause there are eyes everywhere,” said Moldylocks.
“Yeah, sure feels like it.”
“No, I mean literally. They’re all over the place. Plus arms, fingers, feet.” She looked at her own feet. “Heads sometimes.”
“Why is it nasty?”
“That stuff is supposed to be part of your body.”
“Yeah, but so are claws and fur. You trim your claws, right? Cut your fur?”
“I don’t trim my eyes.”
“Neither do we. But stuff just comes off sometimes. It’s not a big deal.”
“It is to me. I like my eyes.”
“There’s always extras.”
They were silent a moment.
“See you tomorrow?” asked Brockster.
“Get ready to roar,” he said.
Moldylocks walked home, not sure what to believe about the bears. They didn’t seem that bad. Weird, maybe, but not criminals. She felt her dedication to her goal weakening. The problem was that when you took away the goal, there was nothing. And Moldylocks hated the feeling of nothing. She had to be strong. To bear down. To go full bear.
“See the honey, bee the honey,” she said to Mr. B. F. Doolittle. “See the honey, bee the honey.”
All over Plainfield, however, most zombies had no doubts about how they felt: Bears were trouble.
And for anyone who still had a little bit of doubt, the events of Wednesday night would erase them completely.
Later, at home, Moldylocks was in a fretful state of mind.
Outside town. The clearing in the eastern woods. The kitchen of the ZITCO.
“You’re quiet tonight,” said Dorothy LaMort to her daughter. “You haven’t even touched your dinner.”
Moldylocks stared glumly at her chicken-fried brainsteak.
“Hey, what is it?” asked Dorothy. “Worried about the audition?”
Moldylocks sighed. “No. Well, yes, but that’s not it. Mom, what do you think about the Bears? I mean really? Do you think they did the break-ins?”
“Well, if we were talking about zombies, I’d say it’s best to make up your own mind before you go rushing to judge them. But bears, well, bears are different. Grizzly Hair is based on a true story, you know.”
“I know. It’s just … I feel like no one’s met them except me. They don’t seem bad.”
“That makes sense, dear. But you know the stories, how deceitful they can be.”
“What should I do? I have to finish my training.”
“I think you should train here now. Just to be safe.”
Moldylocks slumped on her stool. Without Brockster’s training, she would never learn how to be a convincing bear, never win the audition, never get away. Jeminy’s voice would be forever screeching in her ears until the day she decomposed. “There goes LaMort the Bear Girl, loser for all time. Ha ha ha.”
Across town, Phileas Batuta sat lost in thought for so long that an entire candle burned down to a waxy puddle. And still he kept right on thinking. One question tormented him.
Were the bears criminals?
Trying to answer the question gummed up his brainworks. So he peeled back the thought, like it was a patch of bark on a nurse log, and he examined the little thoughtlets wriggling underneath. It always took him a long time to come up with an answer, but by the time he did, it had the weight of something durable.
And after he found an answer, he’d ponder awhile on the best course of action. This was why other zombies thought him slow. But he seldom wasted his efforts.
He lit another candle and opened the Book of Wisdom. As always, he chose a passage at random, trusting the forces of the universe to provide him instruction. As always, the wisdom was indirect: “The thing to do is the thing most you.”
But what was most him?
The candle burned.
The best answer he could come up with was: I like to look at things and think about them.
“Guess that means I’ll just go watch the bear-folk. Only this time I’ll stay all night.”
Poof. He blew out the candle.
Jeminy readied herself for wrestling practice. Her senses alert to her surroundings: the hard-packed dirt; the heavy trapdoor; the bumping thumping coming from underneath it; the single lantern hanging from a rafter, throwing the zombies into shadow.
Conniption made notes on a clipboard as she circled her daughter.
Jeminy chanted to herself, “Be a bear. Be a bear. Be a bear.”
“Ready?” asked Conniption.
“Grr,” said Jeminy.
“Open the pit, Arnold.”
Giant headless Arnold lumbered out of the shadows and bent over, groping about for the trapdoor ring.
Jeminy kept loose. She shook out her arms and bounced her weight from one foot to the other. Watching. Ready.
Conniption made several notes on her clipboard. She pulled a stopwatch out of her frock pocket and stuck a whistle in her mouth. Watching. Ready.
Jeminy tilted her head to crack her neck. “Mom?” Jeminy pointed at Arnold.
Arnold had wandered off to the side of the room and was tugging at a horse’s bridle. Which was attached to a horse. Which was whinnying in protest.
“Oh, for the love of pustulence,” said Conniption. “You just can’t find good help these days. First chance I get I’m exchanging you, Arnold!” She led Arnold to the trapdoor handle. He heaved it open.
The pit was ten feet across, waist deep, and full of wriggling parts. Arms and legs, mostly, but also feet and hands and noses and ears and fingers. Conniption had been gathering strays for some time. Her plan was to drive Pick-A-Part out of business and set up a monopoly in its place. Which she would, of course, control.
The limbs wriggled all over and around each other. One size six right foot in particular seemed particularly desperate to escape.
“Their natural instinct is to cling to you and hold you down so you don’t abandon them,” Conniption explained. “This exercise will help you practice your escapes.”
Her mother saw Jeminy’s worried look.
“Don’t think. TBI!” commanded Conniption. She held up her stopwatch. “Ready … go!” Tick tick tick.
Jeminy dove in and started wrestling. The limbs had her pinned in seconds. “One, two, three … Pin!” yelled Conniption.
Jeminy swam out of the pit and flicked some clinging fingers from her shoulders. She barely had time to catch her breath before Conniption shouted “Again!” and blew her whistle.
Jeminy dove in. She fought even harder this time, but her legs were soon pinned down by legs and her arms held down by arms. One mischievous hand crawled up her neck and stuck its index finger up her nose. She frantically shook her head back and forth as Conniption yelled “Pin!”
The limbs released Jeminy and she crawled out of the pit, more slowly this time.
“That effort is going to score about a 1,” said Conniption. “If you’re lucky.”
“But I’ll be wrestling Coach Mondo. Not a bunch of strays.”
“If you can beat the strays, you’ll have no problem with Mondo.”
Conniption and Jeminy heard the tinkle of horse bells from the front of the house, followed by a gentle “Whoa.” Conniption stomped twice.
Arnold took one step forward to greet the new arrival, but he’d forgotten where he was and he plopped into the pit. He was so disoriented the limbs pinned him faster than they did Jeminy.
“One two three pin!” shouted Jeminy, smiling.
“Sorry,” mumbled Jeminy.
“That will be Phileas with my delivery. I’ll go. Jeminy, I need you to go to the market and pick me up a haggis for dinner.”
“Why can’t Arnold go,” Jeminy whined.
I need him here,” said Conniption.
“That’s not your concern,” hissed Conniption.
Jeminy sighed overloudly, but left the stable.
“Meet us upstairs when you get back,” Conniption called after.
Conniption’s stomp-vibrations had been muffled by the dirt of the stable floor, so Arnold missed part of her message.
As Jeminy rounded the corner of the house, she bumped into Phileas. Phileas didn’t move. Jeminy fell down. Phileas apologized and extended his free hand to her up. The other hand held a box about the size of a medium-sized pumpkin.
“Oaf,” muttered Jeminy. She narrowed her eyes. “What’s in the box?”
Phileas, who was incapable of lying, puzzled over what to say. Finally he settled on, “A project for your mom.”
“A project? For what?”
Phileas thought some more. And thought. At last he said, “For helping her get ahead.”
“So it’s like homework?”
“It is for home work,” said Phileas.
“Whatever,” grumbled Jeminy, and stormed off to the Plainfield Sanitary Market to fetch the haggis.
Arnold struggled out of the pit. He was covered with hands, including a fist sitting where his head should have been, giving a thumbs-up. Arnold lurched in circles, plucking the hands. Conniption shook her head and left the stable with Jeminy.
Arnold finally managed to unhand himself. When he felt the vibration of the stable door closing, he lay down and plunged his arms into the limb pit, groping around for his friend. The one who had lately been appearing and disappearing unexpectedly. The one who, although bossy, made him feel not so lost.
He gave up and decided to close the limb pit.
He couldn’t find the lid.
At least not right away. Arnold got down on all fours, patting the stable dirt. Sensing their opportunity, the stray arms and hands made a ladder out of themselves and helped pull the legs and feet and noses and ears and fingers to freedom. The last of the arms and hands pulled themselves up and over each other until the pit was empty.
The strays inched their way to freedom out a hole in the back wall of the stable. Once outside they headed for the woods. Except for the size six right foot. It followed a homing instinct and headed for the ZITCO.
When Arnold finally managed to locate the handle and slide the lid back in place, it was over an empty pit.
Twenty minutes later, Jeminy had returned with the haggis and joined her mother and the Stranger at the upstairs training room table to watch the eye spies blink their reports.
Jeminy looked around. “Where’s Arnold?”
“The fool is rounding up escaped limbs,” muttered Conniption. “Now shush.”
Conniption watched the eye spies intently and translated. “The LaMort girl wrestled well today,” she told them. “Jeminy, you need to keep your training going strong, but our anti-bear efforts are yielding results. The town is against them. One more attack should get them removed. However, hmm, Phileas could be a problem,” said Conniption.
“Nobody will believe him,” said the Stranger.
“I don’t want it left to chance,” said Conniption.
The Stranger nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Good,” said Conniption. “Now here’s the plan for tonight.” She spread the town map on the table.
“Where?” asked Jeminy.
Conniption jabbed a finger down. “Here.”
“Genius!” whispered the Stranger.
“But that’s …” said Jeminy.
” … where you’re hitting tonight,” finished Conniption. “Do your best work. And make sure the neighborhood hears you. Now, I’ll leave you to your business. I shall be out tending to mine. I have a loose end to tie up at the ZITCO.”
It was charades night at the LaMorts.
Moldylocks, Dorothy, Harry Halfleg, and Mr. B. F. Doolittle sat on the sofa watching Santiago Mano the stagehand take his turn in the middle of the coffee table. Harry lay on one end of the table, his toes feeling for vibrational clues.
Santiago walked around on two fingers.
“It’s a play,” said Moldylocks and Dorothy together.
Santiago held up all five fingers.
“Five words,” they said.
Santiago held up two fingers.
He positioned his thumb and index finger so they were almost touching.
Dorothy and Moldylocks began to fire possible answers at him. “As, was, is,” said Dorothy, leaning forward.
Harry flexed his toes excitedly.
“The, if, of … ” said Moldylocks.
Santiago pointed at her.
“Of!” said Moldylocks. “Blank of blank blank blank.”
She watched Santiago. “Third word … also a small word.”
“The,” said Dorothy.
Santiago snapped his fingers.
“Blank of the blank blank,” said Moldylocks and Dorothy together.
Santiago held up his index finger.
“First word,” said Moldylocks and Dorothy together.
He curved his four fingers, toward his thumb.
“Sounds like …”
Santiago crawled over to Harry, grabbed the big toe, and began to wrestle the foot. Harry flexed and twitched and twisted, trying to get upright so he could roll on top of the stagehand.
“Wrestle, deathmatch, toe lock,” yelled Moldylocks.
“Misbehave, sneak attack, fight,” said Dorothy.
Santiago stopped and pointed. At which point Harry gained the upper hand, so to speak, and started kneeing Santiago.
Dorothy separated the two and placed Harry on the sofa next to Mr. B. F. Doolittle.
“Sounds like ‘fight,’ ” said Dorothy.
“Right, height, plight … ” said Moldylocks.
“Blight, spite, night …” said Dorothy.
Santiago snapped his fingers again.
“Night of the blank blank,” said Moldylocks.
“Night of the Living Living!” she and her mother shouted together. They both started laughing.
Santiago collapsed on his palm, exhausted. His fingers drummed the table softly.
“Best play EVER,” said Moldylocks. “And novel. Astro Sputum told me about it.”
“It’s the showpiece play at Rotburg this summer,” said Dorothy.
“I know!” Moldylocks exclaimed. “Nice work, Santiago.”
The doorbell rang.
Dorothy clomped to the door and opened it, still laughing.
When she saw who it was, she stopped laughing.
“Conniption … ” Dorothy stammered.
“Lovely to see you, as well,” said Conniption, lurching past Dorothy and into the living room. She frowned, scanning at the vanity tables around the edge of the room, the hand on the coffee table, the leg on the sofa.
“Hello, Bear Girl. How is training coming along?”
“Fine,” said Moldylocks, scowling.
“Indeed. It is going quite well for Jeminy, too. Her work tonight in the limb pit was superlative.”
“Oh, just some specialized wrestling training I’ve devised. Well, best of luck Friday night.”
Dorothy cleared her throat. “Moldy, help Harry and Santiago tidy up the living room then head upstairs to bed.”
Moldylocks and Santiago began to put the room back together. Harry, still angry over Santiago’s sneak attack, hopped to the corner to pout.
“You’ll be wondering why I’m here,” said Conniption.
“Not that you ever need a reason to visit the house you own,” said Dorothy. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Yes, in a clean cup, please. Do you have green tea?”
“Spearmint? Peppermint? Dismembermint?”
“No, no, no.”
“Goodness, woman, what do you have?”
“Earl Gray Matter.”
“Hmpf. It’ll do.”
Dorothy set a pot to boil. Conniption pulled an official-looking document out of her handbag.
“Before you get started, Conniption, I want you to know that I did consider your earlier, most gracious offer and I was unable to arrive at an alternate accommodation.”
“I see,” said Conniption.
“I suspect you are a woman of more daring than I,” Dorothy hurried to add.
“Then you may set this in the stove to burn,” said Conniption. She handed the document to Dorothy, slowly so that Dorothy could see what she was about to destroy.
Dorothy couldn’t help but glance at the document. The letters were written large. The title hooked her, and after that she couldn’t help but begin reading.
Proposal for Immediate Forgiveness of All ZITCO Back Rent
Pursuant to matter of monies owed Conniption Stinkpit (the RENT-EE) by Dorothy J. LaMort (the RENT-ER), immediate forgiveness of debts is proposed upon fulfillment of the following and suchlike obligations entered hereunto by the RENT-ER, chiefly, namely, and to wit: that Jeminy Stinkpit be awarded role of Grizzly Hair in the eponymous play. ...
Moldylocks interrupted her. “Mom, I’m done.”
“Huh?” asked Dorothy.
“I’m going to bed. What’s that?”
“Just some trash, darling.”
“Okay. Thanks for charades. It helped me feel better.”
Dorothy hugged her daughter and kissed the top of her head. “I love you, Sweetie,” she whispered.
Once Moldylocks had left, Dorothy turned to Conniption. Her hands were shaking, but her resolve was firm. She tossed the paper into the stove.
Conniption eyed her coldly. “Water’s boiling,” she said.
Clank clank clank. They could hear Moldylocks climbing the outside fire escape up to the second floor. Dorothy prepared the tea and served Conniption.
“I’ll proceed to Plan B,” said Conniption. She pulled out a second paper, took a sip of tea, and continued.
“I believe you’ll want to sign this one,” Conniption said.
Dorothy folded her arms and stared, unblinking, at her landlord.
“We have some things in common, you and I,” Conniption said. “We both had husbands who decomposed at an early age.”
Dorothy snorted. “My husband may have been a fool who got caught in a hailstorm, but he was a loyal fool. He didn’t run off with a traveling esthetician. We have nothing in common.”
Conniption pursed her lips. “Indeed,” she hissed. “You run your undeath on emotion and I run mine on reason.” She took a sip of tea to calm herself. “And it now stands to reason that it is in both our interests that the play succeed. First, it will make money — that will allow you to pay your back rent. Second, it will tell the right kind of story about the wrong kind of … creatures, something we can all support. Third, it will launch the career of one of our daughters …”
“Or one of the three other contestants,” said Dorothy.
“If you say so,” shrugged Conniption. “Now, read the document!”
Dorothy looked over the document. It spelled out in very legal-sounding language that the role of Grizzly Hair was in no way to be altered from the original script and that Dorothy would do everything she could to ensure the financial success of the play.
“Why would I want to undermine a play?” asked Dorothy.
“Two reasons I can think of. First, because you always change plays. Second, sabotage. If your daughter is a loser …”
“Then she’ll have lost honestly,” said Dorothy.
“And she’ll have had the perfect role model.”
Dorothy tried to stay calm. “I am a professional. I will direct whoever wins the part.”
“Still, I require assurance,” Conniption replied. She pulled a fountain pen from her handbag and pushed the document across the counter toward Dorothy.
Conniption folded the paper and rose to leave. “Thank you for the,” she looked down at the full cup, “tea.”
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