November 1, 2021
When he tottered into Burial Grounds on Thursday morning, two things were different about Ebenezer Rotbody. First, he was not carrying a copy of the Plainfield Chronicle folded under his arm. Second, he had a big smile on his face. So big, in fact, that May Clot could see all the teeth that he didn’t have up front and the ones he did have in the back — the green, the gray, the black, the tilters, and the fizzers.
“Good morning, May, you glorious embodiment of zombiekind!” he said.
“Well, I’ll be decomposed,” she said. “You’re in a fine state this morning. What’s wrong?”
Ebenezer merely chuckled and said nothing. The three other FOGs creaked to the table. Dev put his palm on Ebenezer’s forehead. “You seem hot.”
“You eat some bad brains?” asked Fark.
“You’re never this happy. It’s messing with our world,” said The Reek.
Ebenezer motioned the others to sit down. He poured their coffees. Which made them even more suspicious. He beamed at them like a child.
“What!” asked The Reek.
“I’ve got news.
“No thanks,” said Dev, reaching for his newspaper.
“Boys, trust me on this one,” said Ebenezer. My news will top anything in the Plainfield Chronic-Fail this morning.”
“That’s it,” said Fark. “I’m calling Dr. Bone. You need a head exam.”
“We had another date last night,” announced Ebenezer. “Me and Emily Shank.”
“Another?” said The Reek.
“She’s half your age!” said Fark.
“And a quarter of your limbs,” said Dev.
“None of that matters. She’s greater than the sum of her … part. Last night I had a realization. She’s all I ever wanted in a woman,” said Ebenezer. “And less.”
He slapped a tiny velvet box down on the table.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked The Reek.
“Yep,” said Ebenezer. He opened the box to show them. “It’s a toe ring. A wedding band. My sweetie’s already wearing the engagement ring on her second-to-littlest toe. You should see it sparkle.”
That set off an explosion of back slaps, handshakes, and good-natured teasing, plus more coffees and a round of breakfast braincake from May, “On the house.”
Fark, Dev, and Tyreeq were truly happy for their friend, though each one was asking himself similar questions, like, Can she cook? What would they talk about? And What if the rest of her body comes back one day and wants her back?
May delivered the braincake to the table. “So who’s your best man?” she asked.
Ebenezer stuffed a wad of braincake in his mouth and leaned back in his chair. He grinned around the table at his friends, each of whom tried not to look at him. He swallowed his mouthful of cake and took a sip of coffee.
“Well, I’m planning on having three of them. Now, what else is news?”
The bears had broken into Stinkpit Manor.
The picture on the front page showed a picture of Conniption Stinkpit, whose face was buried in her hands. “DESTRUCTION AND HEARTBREAK” read the headline of the main story. There were four other stories on the front page. Each one about the break-in. “Bears’ Manor Attack Proves Bears Manners Unbearable!” “Bears: Too Hot! Too Cold! Too Dangerous!” “Public Hearing at 10 a.m. Today!” “Bears Under Guard; Cruft Says Town Safe.”
Still too happy to let something like a crime wave ruin his mood, Ebenezer sat back and watched his friends talk about the latest break-in. He listened to the Plainfielders arriving for their morning cup talking among themselves. And he saw the Stranger arrive, listen in for a few minutes, and depart without saying a word.
The Stranger was smiling as he left. That’s because a single story had emerged from all the individual chatterings, like a rope woven tight from smaller strands. It was a story that embodied what everyone had always thought about bears. A confirmation that you can’t trust them. How it had been a mistake for Cruft to open the city border to outsiders. How the bears were a threat to traditional zombie values. How the bears must go.
Bears, in other words, were the enemy.
Ebenezer’s bliss, however, was untouchable. He was in love, and love is not bound by the things of this world. He found he wanted to share his good mood with anyone and everyone. The more the merrier. The bigger the better. That’s when he noticed there was a massive hole in Burial Grounds. It was the size of Phileas Batuta, the biggest zombie in town.
“Hey,” he asked nobody in particular. “Where’s the big fellah?”
There are many fine alarm clocks in the world, but a horse’s tongue is not one of them. Not even for Phileas Batuta, who loved his horse very much.
Mr. Goodness was hungry, however. For some reason, his owner had been gone most of the night, and by the time Phileas did stumble sleepily home, he was too preoccupied to give Mr. Goodness anything more than an absent-minded chin-scratching. Phileas had then gone off to his dirtbox and slept past the dawn.
Well, enough was enough. Mr. Goodness’s repeated nickerings had gone unanswered, so he nudged his way through the unlatched door of Phileas’s cottage and began to lick the dirt off the Big Guy’s face. The dirtbox had never quite fit Phileas. Sometimes it was his feet poking out the feet end; sometimes it was his head poking out the head end. If he’d had a bad dream, it might be his feet out the head end or his face out the the foot end. Like today, which was unlucky for Phileas, because it’s a lot better to have a horse lick your toes than your nose.
“Okay, okay, buddy,” he mumbled. “How about some hay for you and some joe for me.” He fetched the feedbag and let Mr. Goodness munch his breakfast as the two ambled into town.
The door to Burial Grounds was locked when he arrived. A sign hung from the worn brass handle.
Off to the police station for the 10 a.m. hearing. Back after.
Below that, there was a drawing of a bear. There was a red circle around the drawing. And a red line across the bear.
Written underneath: Keep Plainfield Bear-Free.
“Oh, no.” Phileas looked down Plainfield Avenue in one direction and back up it on the other. The town was empty. He backed into the middle of the street. The door of every store was closed. And there were a lot of “Bear-Free Plainfield” posters nailed to the walls.
He pulled out his pocketwatch. 9:55. Not much time.
Phileas lurched quickly to his horse and spoke into his ear. “Sorry, my friend. But it’s an emergency.” He got on his horse and rode.
“Quiet, everyone. Quiet please.” Constable Cruft banged a gavel on the podium. The hearing room was jammed with angry Plainfielders.
Phileas had arrived on time. Just. But he couldn’t force his way into the hearing room. Actually, he could have. He could have forced his way through a brick wall if he had chosen, but he didn’t want to trample anybody. So he chose to stand outside and peer in through a window.
Conniption sat in the first row of chairs, her arm in a sling. The Stranger sat next to her. The FOGs were in the front row. Ebenezer still looked deliriously happy, perhaps because Emily Shank was on the seat beside him and he was holding her pinky toe. The room was stuffed with Plainfield’s high-and-mighty and low-and-questionable. The prosperous, the down-at-heel, the pieces and parts, the somebodies, the nobodies, the sums, and the wholes. And although Plainfield Elementary was technically in session, Mr. Sever had brought his entire 5th-grade class to the hearing for “an important civics lesson,” as he put it. The whole class except Brockster, that is.
Moldylocks stood in a back corner, frowning. This was going to mess up her training.
Constable Hieronymous Cruft scratched his head at a spot just above his right ear whenever he was amused, confused, or simply bemused by the goings on in Plainfield. Which was often. Especially this week. In fact, he’d done so much thinking the past few days that he’d scratched down to the skull bone. Another week like this and he’d wear right through to his brain.
All the signs pointed to the Bears having committed the crimes they were accused of, but neither he nor his deputy, Tug Singlebuttock, could connect the bears conclusively to the crimes. All the evidence was hearsay and circumstantial. Cruft liked his crimes neat and tidy. Find the evidence. Try the accused. Send them to jail. Move on to the next one.
Cruft looked out at the crowd of angry Plainfielders.
“Alright” he grumbled. “First thing: The bears are under house arrest for suspicion of bearrorism. Plainfield is safe. The accused are being guarded by a squad of deputies, led by Deputy Singlebuttock and temporary subdeputy Kay Hamhock.”
Conniption stood up, shakily. “House arrest! Why aren’t they in jail?”
“Lack of evidence,” said the constable.
Hoots and catcalls erupted around the room. Conniption waved her good arm for silence and held her wounded arm in front of her. “Constable, have you seen my arm this morning? This should be all the evidence you need!”
Cheers. More shouting. Chants of “Jail the bears! Jail the bears!”
The constable folded his arms and waited for the room to quiet down. “Circumstantial evidence is not enough to put anybody in jail.” Boos and hisses. “However, it is enough to activate the town’s deportation policy. Which I have done.” Hoorays and hurrahs. “The bears have been given one day to pack their belongings. They have until tomorrow at sundown to vacate Plainfield forever. Case closed,” said Cruft.
Jeminy and the Threadheads smirked at Moldylocks.
“Freakin’ fungus,” muttered Moldylocks. She reached into her pocket and crumpled the illustration of Rotburg State Theater. It’s not like I had that great of a chance before. Now I have NO chance.
Moldylocks smoldered, angry at everybody. Conniption, who had to be behind all this. Jeminy, for being Jeminy. The constable, for kicking the bears out. Brockster, for getting her hopes up. Everybody in Plainfield, for being such stupidheads. The keeper of the Welcome Field, for pulling her out of the earth in the first place. Her mom, for having to rewrite every play. Mr. B. F. Doolittle, for not helping her. And herself, for being such a gigantic loser. An ugly angry fiery feeling swelled in her belly. The feeling began to rage. The rage blazed.
Go full bear. How would she finish her training now? There had to be something she could do.
Mr. Sever tapped her shoulder as he shepherded the class out of the hearing room.
“Take your time and catch up to us when you’re ready,” he said. There was a kindness in his eyes.
Phileas had observed the meeting in silence. Now, with all but a few stragglers cleared out of the room, he leaned in through the window, his big body blotting out all the light. “Constable?”
Cruft turned. “Yep.”
Phileas cleared his throat. “It wasn’t them.”
Moldylocks heard this. She scrunched up her face. What?
Conniption heard him, too, and paused at the door.
“What?” asked the Stranger, edging closer to Phileas.
“It wasn’t them,” Phileas repeated.
“What wasn’t who?” asked Constable Cruft.
“The Bears didn’t attack Mrs. Stinkpit’s home.”
“Then who did?” growled the constable.
The constable gave his skull a good long scratch. He stared at Phileas. Stared hard. Phileas didn’t flinch.
“How do you know?”
“I was there. Watching.”
“You were watching the Bear house?”
The Stranger spoke up. “If I may … “
“You may not,” the constable growled at him. “How long were you there, Phileas?”
Conniption interrupted, “Constable? Constable?”
Constable Cruft waved her off. “Not. Now!” He was still staring at Phileas. “Why were you there all night?”
“I was … ” he felt the eyes of the others on him. “I was just curious,” he stammered. “About bears.”
The rage in Moldylocks eased a little when she heard this. Someone else was curious. Like her.
The Stranger and Conniption crowded the constable and began speaking quickly, peppering their conversation with phrases like “unreliable witness” and “overwhelming evidence” and “general untrustworthiness” and “it’s just the way they are.”
“Tell you what,” the constable said. “I’ll meet you halfway.” He turned to his deputy. “Deportation order still stands. But — I’m reopening the case. Sound good to you, Phileas?”
Phileas looked from Cruft to Conniption and back to Cruft. He didn’t know what to say. He nod-shrugged and departed without a further word.
Moldylocks’s mood lifted. Maybe Brockster would be freed and could help her find her roar — before he got deported. But how do I get past the guards?
During the hearing, Moldylocks had thought only about herself and winning the audition. But now, for the first time, she thought about things from the Bears’ perspective. Being deported would feel awful.
But what could she do? It would take a miracle to write a different ending to this story.
After the hearing, Constable Cruft left the police station and shambled to Stinkpit Manor. Arnold showed him.
The entry was high. Feels like a museum, he thought. The place let in too much light for his tastes, even if the light was Plainfield’s usual gray. He ran his fingers along the smooth woodwork of the entry doorframe. Eyed the unstained walls. Studied the floor. Polished oak. Too polished. Something was off.
He got the feeling it was going to be a long day and thought for a moment of home — the red clay of the floor between his toes, the smell of comfortable rot in his nose, settling into his easy chair with a glass of braindy at the long day’s close.
Tough it up, Cruft, he said to himself.
He shoved his fists deeper into his overcoat pockets and leaned against the wall, waiting.
A voice from the second-floor landing sang down to him. “Hieronymous. What a … pleasant surprise.”
Conniption descended the entry stairs slowly. In the light, Cruft could see the layers of skin spackle on her masklike face. She stopped on the bottom stair, just above him.
“Conniption,” he grunted.
“To what do I owe the … ” she paused.
“Pleasure? Just tying up loose ends. Mind if I look around a little?” He climbed up to her stair, his eyes met hers.
“I don’t understand. Your deputy already conducted an investigation.”
“I must say,” said Conniption, folding her arms. “I’m astonished at your department’s incompetence.”
Cruft chuckled once and squeezed past her. “Well, I guess you just don’t know the police department like I do.” He brushed past her and began to climb the stairs. “Incompetence is our motto.”
When he reached the top of the stairs, she called up. “I know this is difficult for you, but try not to make a mess.”
The constable looked at the ceiling. “Speaking of … doesn’t seem to be much of one in the entry.” He pulled out a notebook and flipped through the pages. “Wasn’t that where the damage was?”
“Arnold cleaned it up, you fool.”
She’s defensive, he thought. “And rebuilt it? Amazing, for a headless fellow. Anyway, I’m glad your arm is feeling better.”
Conniption glared at him, unfolding her arms. “Thank you,” she said through clenched teeth. “It is. Much. I heal quickly.”
Cruft scribbled in his notepad. “‘Heals quickly.’ Got it, thanks.”
“But I don’t forget quickly,” she added. “Not at all.” She marched off to her office.
Cruft wandered down the hall, opening every door. Here was a music room. There was an art studio. There a library. He ambled into the training room.
The room was mostly bare. Just a wardrobe off in a corner, a dressing screen, an empty work table on the other side of the room, and the faint smell of honey in the air. He blew out his cheeks, looking. Cruft lurched to the worktable, pulled open drawers. He made scribbles in his notebook. Empty flasks. Honey jars. A bandana. The script of Grizzly Hair.
The bears are trouble, he thought. Best to just be rid of them. Pause. But only if they did it.
He shuffled over to the wardrobe and studied it on the outside. He opened it and studied it on the inside.
There were two bear costumes — one big and one small — hanging from a rack. Suspicious, but not proof of anything. The Stinkpit kid, after all, was in the audition. The constable got down on his knees, grunting. I could lose a bit of weight, he thought. He took out a nightstick from deep inside his overcoat and poked it to the back of the closet. Just exploring. Sometimes you just had to follow your gut, he told himself. He snorted a quick laugh at the thought. Maybe I should GAIN weight. More gut to follow. There was a sifting of red dust on the wardrobe floor. He reached into another inside pocket, fishing around for a specimen jar.
“They’re for training,” said Conniption behind him.
The constable stood up quickly.
“The costumes. My daughter is in the audition tomorrow night. We’ve been rehearsing.”
The constable shambled toward her. “Ah, right right. Well. Good luck with it. I’m done here.”
“I’ll show you out, then,” said Conniption.
At the bottom of the stairs, Constable Cruft fumbled about, patting his pockets and frowning. “Forgot my nightstick. I won’t be a moment.”
He returned to the training room, retrieved the nightstick from the wardrobe, and was soon shambling back to the station with his nightstick dangling from a belt loop.
As he walked, he stuck his left hand into his overcoat pocket and patted the specimen jar, now full of the red dust.
After school, Moldylocks went directly to the Bears’ house, toting the Grizzly Hair script and Mr. B. F. Doolittle in her pack. The script for practice. The fugly for luck.
The trip took twice as long as usual. She took the back paths through the woods once she crossed the river. She veered off Fleaknuckle Road early, approaching the Bears’ house from the southeast, via the bee yard path.
Moldylocks heard the buzzing from the clearing as she passed.
She was getting close to the house. Careful, now. She lurched off the path. Peered through a patch of nettles. Observed.
Lights off in the kitchen. Not that unusual. It was only late afternoon. But — unusual for the bears, who loved them some yellow. She scanned the perimeter of the yard. Deputy Singlebuttock patrolled the front gate, pacing and looking bored. Down the fence line, Spasm Jenkins sat on a fence rail reading a magazine. Off on the other side of the yard, Tom Femur picked his nose. The other Tom, Tom Head, had been set on a fencepost and was blinking slowly. Last, around the back, paced Kay Hamhock. She was the only one who seemed to be taking her job seriously.
Moldylocks looked again at Tom Head, wondering what use he would be. Right, she realized. Another pair of eyes. Eyes! She looked in the near tree branches and spotted three eye spies. They were blinking madly, trying to get the guards’ attention. She’d been spotted.
She looked back at Tom Head. He had fallen asleep, thankfully. The others didn’t notice the blinking eyes. Not yet. Kay Hamhock, still some distance away, was drawing closer. She’d be the first to notice.
What to do?
She took another look at Tom Head, lips fluttering in a snore. “I wish they would all fall asleep.”
That gave her an idea.
She quickly snatched the three eye spies out of the trees and tucked them safely in an outside pocket of her pack.
Moldylocks hurried back to the bee yard.
The clearing felt holy. Columns of sunlight ran up to the sky and disappeared in broken clouds. Dew on the pine needles prismed the light into tiny stained-glass ornaments. The hives were aligned in rows, and the grass across the clearing had been trimmed to a uniform height, perfect for lying on your back and contemplating infinite things. Planter boxes full of flowers were spaced at intervals around the clearing. For the bees? For beauty? Yes and yes.
Moldylocks peered into the first hive cabinet. The bees were busy building. They tended to the honeycomb, each other, or the baby bees. She peeked into several other hives. Each was the same. Clean. Peaceful. Purposeful. A different way to live. There was a chest of drawers at the end of one row of hives. Moldylocks lurched to it, and pulled the brass bee-shaped knob on the top drawer. Beekeeping supplies, precisely laid out. Gloves, a mask with a respirator, bee blasters (smokers, she corrected herself), dried moss and other tinder, and a flint for sparking a fire.
Brockster’s voice came back to her from his first day of class. “We just put them to sleep,” he had said.
Was that only three days ago? So much had happened. So much was happening. She had to hurry.
Kay Hamhock had seen many strange sights in her undeath. One of her fondest memories, in fact, was of the Circo Morto, the fantastic traveling circus full of strange zombies and wonderful creatures, wrangled into a delirious dance by Ringmaster Quintillion Slick. But now, right here in Plainfield, was a sight to top them all.
Kay’s eyes widened when she saw the puff of smoke from the strange device. It’s a ray gun, she thought. And the ray gun was held by a small alien being, wearing a full-body suit that shielded its alien eyes, protected its alien body, and regulated its alien breathing, which emerged harsh and raspy. The only unprotected part were its alien feet, which were different sizes. Looks like a 6 and a 9, thought Kay. This is rather strange. I must think … more … about … alien … feet … But already she was growing woozy. Her eyelids fluttered. Her knees wobbled and she fell. Alien hands caught her and set her gently on the forest floor.
In the end, Moldylocks smoked them all to gentle sleep. Spasm. Tom Femur. Tug Singlebuttock. She double-puffed Tom Head, even though he was still sleeping, and set him in Tug’s lap. She collected all the eye spies she could find, including the ones she’d stuck in her pocket, and set them in a nest of moss near Tug. Smoke-smoke. Blink-blink … zzzz. All eyes closed.
She hurried to the kitchen door and knocked.
Brockster opened it. A baffled expression came over him. Moldylocks pulled back her goggles. Brockster’s face lit up. They hugged.
“How did you … ” he began.
“Let me explain,” she said. “No, there is no time. Let me sum up: I need to roar and practice my monologue. We don’t have much time.”
“But the guards?”
“I smoked ’em,” said Moldylocks.
“Let’s do it,” said Brockster. “I can take a break from packing.”
Roar training went terribly.
The house was dark because Skip had powered down the generator and the lamps had been packed away. The once-cozy living room was sad and bare now. The chairs, the rug, the pictures on the wall — all had been tied, wrapped, or stored in boxes. Tufts of packing sawdust drifted across the floor, where only the turntable remained.
“We wanted to have music while we worked,” explained Skip, coming down the stairs with Muffy.
Brockster explained how Moldylocks had gained access to the house. Skip and Muffy looked impressed. Muffy put her arms on Moldylocks’s shoulders. “We’re gonna miss you.”
Moldylocks looked at this family, unlike any she’d ever known. “Same here,” she said.
Skip put a paw on Brockster’s neck and gave it a squeeze. “But Brockster will write, won’t you son?”
Brockster swallowed and nodded his head.
“Maybe you can come visit Bear Country,” said Muffy.
“Mom, Dad, we have to hurry,” said Brockster. “Moldy needs to roar.”
“Right, right,” said Muffy.
“We’ll be upstairs packing if you need anything,” said Skip.
“One more thing,” said Muffy. She handed Moldylocks a small package tied with a ribbon. “A story to read when you get home.”
Skip and Muffy hugged her.
“Kids, remember,” said Skip, “you both still need to keep your voices down just to be safe. Moldylocks, the guards will be asleep for about 20 minutes. You need to get out of here before that. We’ll say we have no idea what happened. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.” He gave her a wink.
Brockster faced Moldylocks in the middle of the living room. “Okay, roaring. There’s the technique — which I can teach you, and then there’s the passion — which I can’t. So we’re just gonna focus on the technique.”
“You can practice loud tomorrow. Before the audition.”
“You’ll be gone then. …”
“Yeah.” Brockster looked away and cleared his throat. He was silent a moment. “All right,” he said, “Let’s get started.”
He put “Honey Honey” on the turntable with the volume low and ran Moldylocks through a series of roar-warmup exercises in time with the music. Quick inhalations and exhalations. Monosyllables and plosives. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Little puffed expulsions. “Pah! Pah! Pah!” They shook out their shoulders and rolled their heads. “Yee! Yee! Yee!” Brockster had Moldylocks ascend a vocal scale. “La la la la la.” Each note higher than the one before. Then back down, lower and lower, until the sound was a deep-well rumble that vibrated her ribs. Then a deep breath. Another one. A third.
“I know we can’t go full roar,” said Brockster. But try to put your whole self into it.”
Moldylocks tried again.
“That was a bit better. One more.”
She roared one more time. “How was that?” she asked. But she knew the answer. Something was missing. Her inside was still stuck inside.
“We’ll stop there,” said Brockster. “You know the basics. Now just put some passion into it. Go out to that pond by your house and roar like crazy. Don’t hold back. And remember, each roar is a little bit different. Mom and Dad always say your roar is your way of shouting ‘I am’ to the universe. Which is kind of cool.”
“My mom says I need to bring my inside outside.”
“Yeah, that’s good,” said Brockster. He walked to the window and peeked out at the sleeping deputies. “We’re okay. Let’s get in character with a few lines — then you kick into the monologue.”
Moldylocks suddenly didn’t want to show him the script.
“Shouldn’t we try to roar some more?”
“There’s no point, really,” he said. “The rest is up to you. Inside outside.”
Moldylocks reluctantly pulled the script out of the back pocket of her overalls. She handed it to Brockster. He looked at the cast of characters.
“You’re Grizzly Hair, obviously. I’ll be the zombie woman.” He read aloud. “The play begins at night. Interior. House. A bear bursts through the door, frothing and snarling. Ha! This is so over-the-top. Okay, let’s see it.”
Moldylocks gave a half-hearted snarl as she broke open an imaginary door.
“Fiercer!” Brockster commanded.
Moldylocks snarled a little louder.
“It’ll do,” said Brockster. He flipped the page. “Okay, here comes the zombie woman. She’s terrified.” He made a frightened face. “That’s your cue,” he said, looking at Moldylocks.
“I’ve come to eat your baby,” she mumbled.
Brockster laughed. “No, seriously!”
“That’s what it says,” said Moldylocks miserably.
He read. “Yeah, I guess it does. Huh.” He read the rest of the page. Then he flipped through the rest of Act 1, where the snarling bears fled the house. Act II, where the town banded together to fight off the bear menace. Act III, where the bear army was wiped out.
When he finished he had a devastated look on his face. “This story is all wrong.”
Moldylocks couldn’t look at him. “It’s just a story,” she muttered.
Brockster shook his head. “No, not just a story. Stories are everything. This makes us sound so mean.” He bit his lip and thought a moment. “Do you believe all this?”
Moldylocks stared at the floor. “No,” she whispered. “Not anymore.”
“But you did?”
She looked at him, her face full of sorrow. “Yes.”
“Then why come around if you thought I was so mean?” asked Brockster, puzzled.
Then he understood.
“Because you wanted to win the contest,” he said. “You used me.”
He sounded more bewildered than angry. That somehow made Moldylocks feel worse.
Go full bear, she told herself. “Well, what about you, huh? You just used me to get back at Jeminy for throwing mucus balloons.”
“Yeah, I wanted to get back at her,” he flashed. “But that’s not all I wanted. I thought we were friends! I actually like you! Shows what an idiot bear I am. You really are an amazing actor.”
Moldylocks looked around the room. At the floor, the turntable, out the window, anywhere but at Brockster. Her throat was tight. Her eyes welled up. “I actually … I … I … should go.”
Brockster had tears in his eyes, too, as he flung the script at her.
Moldylocks fled out the front gate past the sleeping deputies.
Jeminy stood in the middle of the Stinkpit Manor training room, still as a corpse. Shoulders back. Head up. Eyes fixed. Arnold was absent, away on an errand. But no matter, he wasn’t needed for this night’s training. Conniption circled her daughter slowly. Inspecting. The only sound was the soft complaint of floorboards underfoot. Jeminy smelled poached brains on Conniption’s breath each time her mother exhaled.
“A true roar is rage,” said Conniption. “You eat the pain of the world and you spit fire back. You scream, ‘I will not be defeated! I am power! I will win!’ Now let’s hear it. Bring it forth!”
As if released from a spell, Jeminy took five breaths. In through the nose and out through the mouth. Each progressively deeper. Breathing in every cheat, every insult, every act of disrespect she had ever felt, staring at her mother all the while. After the fifth breath, she unleashed a howling wailing blood-freezing roar.
When the sound at last died down and Jeminy stood doubled over, hands on her knees, out of breath. Conniption said simply, “That’s a 10. Now practice your monologue.”
Conniption lurched to the door.
“Will there be a raid tonight?”
“No. We’ve accomplished our mission. The bears are leaving tomorrow. You’ve achieved Total Bear Immersion. Congratulations, Dear.”
Downstairs, Conniption received the Stranger in private. “Give me the report.”
He dumped the eye spies on her desk. Conniption was incredulous at their blinked message. “They fell asleep? All of them? No one saw a thing?”
“Is the story under control?” asked the Stranger.
“It’s unlikely anything momentous could have happened while they were asleep, but be on your toes. You have a job to finish tomorrow.”
“And once I do,” the Stranger hugged himself. “I get my reward.”
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