November 7, 2021
Audition day and Moldylocks was one sour mope. And when she wasn’t moping she was sulking.
She wouldn’t talk to her mom at breakfast. She refused to help Harry and Santiago take out the trash. She stuffed Mr. B. F. Doolittle in her backpack upside down next to the gift the Bears had given her, which she’d been too ashamed to open but too curious to throw away.
She put her head down on her desk during Maura More-or-Less’s presentation on brainworms. Her curiosity was dead all day. Not even Maura going on about how the worms “get stuck in your brainfolds and can be hard to get out unless you have a special drill and a power extractor” could catch her interest.
At recess, Moldylocks retreated to Fort Smidgen. During PE, she let the dodgeballs bounce off her, and her team lost.
At lunch she sat at her usual table alone, clutching Mr. B. F. Doolittle’s paw in her hand, not ready to let go of that little bit of bearness. She uncrumpled the picture of Rotburg Theater, stared at it bleakly, and heard Brockster’s voice in her mind. Focus on that. Have that picture in your mind.
“Right,” she said to Mr. B. F. Doolittle. “Like that was ever gonna work. I was always going to be a loser.”
There was a laugh behind her. Like claws on a chalkboard.
The cafeteria got quiet.
“That’s right, Bear Girl. Loser now, loser forever,” said Jeminy. “Best just accept it.”
Moldylocks spun around.
When Jeminy saw the picture of Rotburg Theater, she grinned. “Enjoy it,” she said. “It’s the closest you’re going to get to Rotburg.”
It was too much for Moldylocks. She stood up, put her face in Jeminy’s, and roared.
Her roar was a weak squawk.
Jeminy laughed again. “That’s all you got? You do know the audition is tonight, right?”
Moldylocks felt all her mopey, sulky, losery feelings boil up. She flung herself at Jeminy, but was intercepted midair by Possum Skidmark, who pinned her in no time.
Moldylocks squirmed to get out of his grip. No use. Jeminy looked down on her. “Your voice is cracked, you can’t wrestle, and honey makes you puke. Give up now. Don’t embarrass yourself tonight.” Jeminy bent down and whispered in Moldylocks’s ear. “You’re no Bear Girl. You don’t even know what that means.”
Possum released Moldylocks. The Threadheads retreated. Conversation resumed across the cafeteria. Moldylocks scooted on her back until she was directly under the center of the table. She pulled Mr. B. F. Doolittle to her chest and shut her eyes hard, wanting Plainfield to just disappear. She fell deep inside herself. She could hear kids laughing at her, but they seemed far away. Jeminy’s words played over and over in her mind. You don’t even know what that means. You don’t even know what that means.
The lunch bell clanged.
Moldylocks didn’t move.
You don’t even know what that means.
Somewhere deep in her brain, a curiosity cell lit up.
Was that true? Do I REALLY not know what it meant to be a bear? IS Jeminy right? A crazy answer came to her. I DO know what it means to be the Bear Girl. But going full bear is not what I thought. Being a bear isn’t what anybody thinks it is. The story IS all wrong. EVERYBODY’S wrong.
She chewed on the thought all through Mr. Sever’s social studies lecture on the founding of Plainfield and the rise of the brain-based economy. Mr. Sever finally finished.
One more class to go. Geology.
Mr. Sever pulled down the window shades and set out the slide-lantern on its stand. Thank goodness for filmstrips. Gretel Farmer ran the projector. Her brother Hansel read aloud the captions about strata.
“Everyone know what strata are?” asked Mr. Sever. When the class was silent, he continued, “It means ‘layers.’ Everything has more layers than we can see with just our eyes.”
“What else is there to see with,” Jeminy sneered.
“Anyone have an answer for Jeminy?” Moldylocks raised her hand. “Ms. LaMort?”
“Our hearts,” said Moldylocks simply.
“Very good,” said Mr. Sever. “Maya and Calvin, please continue.
Moldylocks felt a surge of hope. She had strata, too, and some of it was good. Most of it.
She untied the bow and unwrapped the package. It was a small book, called The Real Story of the Three Bears.
In the dim light she read:
This is the story of the Great Bear Migration and how calamity is not always the misfortune we think it to be.
A long time ago, a once-in-a-generation snowstorm separated a band of bears from their family and forced them into the Zombielands. This is the story of how they encountered a zombie cub lost in the woods, and the decision they made to save the cub by taking a dangerous journey to find it a home and a mother. This is the story about the stories we tell, how important they are, and how they can change our lives for the better.
Moldylocks was stunned. Yes, I DO know what it means to be the Bear Girl, she thought. But Plainfield doesn’t.
Moldylocks realized there was only one person who could tell them.
She took out a piece of parchment and wrote a note. She was so engrossed in her writing that she didn’t hear Mr. Sever walk up.
“Eyes in the back of my head,” he said.
Her eyes widened.
“And one in a jar.”
He handed her a folded slip of paper. “Take this. I think you need to spend some time with Principal Botulus,” he said loudly.
Then Mr. Sever looked meaningfully at the note and winked.
Out in the hall, curiosity overtook her and she unfolded the paper.
“Go see Phileas,” it said. “Now.” Below that he’d written “Good luck” and an address.
There was one more line.
“This note excuses you from school early today. We’ll call it ‘field research.'”
There are times when the world seems to spin a little faster on its axis. A zombie can be lumbering along casually, taking time out to smell the corpse flowers or patch her skinholes, when wham! suddenly it feels like she and everyone around her are hurtling along like leaves in a windstorm. Driven by a force they cannot control or comprehend, they converge toward the same mad destiny, powerless to shape it, bumping and jostling, faster and faster and faster.
The Friday afternoon before the Grizzly Hair audition was one of those times.
Moldylocks LaMort …
… lurched out of school, across the bridge, and once more down Fleaknuckle Road. She paused only twice. Once when she had an idea for a gift and took a moment to wrap it. The second time to ask for directions. Before long she found her way to the path that led through the woods to Phileas Batuta’s cottage.
Jeminy Stinkpit …
… fidgeted at her desk in Mr. Sever’s class, waiting for the end-of-day school bell to ring. Where did Bear Girl go? What was she up to? Jeminy didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Total Bear Immersion, she told herself. She didn’t just want to win, she wanted to ruin Moldylocks. Tick-tick-tick. Waiting was a torment.
Dorothy LaMort …
… set up the judges’ table at the side of the ZITCO stage. She slid a folding chair under each end of the table for herself and Conniption — the farther apart the better — and set a small vase in the middle as a perch for the third judge, Tom Head.
Santiago Mano and Harry Halfleg …
… straightened the ZITCO’s rows of chairs, picked up trash, and plucked slugs off the grass to sell from the concession stand later.
Constable Hieronymous Cruft …
… fumed in his police station office. He was angry about the slip-up of the guards at the Bear place the day before. Angry at the delay in getting the lab results. Angry at loose ends. Angry at Conniption Stinkpit, who always seemed to be behind everything suspicious. Angriest of all at himself. He hadn’t yet figured out where the data led. He pounded his thick fist on his desk and shouted down the hall to Deputy Singlebuttock, “The results on that specimen from the Stinkpit place should have been done by now. Head over to the lab and hurry them up!” He remembered he’d sent Singlebuttock and 25 temporary deputies away to escort the Bears out of town. He got up grumbling. “Gotta do it myself.”
Conniption Stinkpit …
… sat in her office, making checkmarks next to a list of items. Bears gone? Check. Jeminy trained? Check. LaMort deal offered? Check. LaMort child neutralized? Check. Stranger in position? Check. Threadheads deployed for one last task? Check. She leaned back and allowed herself a rare smile. It had been a well-organized week.
Ebenezer Rotbody …
… sat on a blanket at a quiet spot along the Plainfield River, tickling the sole of Emily Shank’s foot. Emily squirmed happily. The ring on her second-to-littlest toe sparkled in the light. “And after we’re married,” said Ebenezer, “I’m going to give you a foot massage every night. And I’m going to carry you everywhere in a special backpack. And I’m going to build an elevator so you don’t have to take the stairs up from the basement.”
The Geezers …
… now known as the TOOGs — Three Other Old Geezers — hid in the riverside bushes opposite Ebenezer and Emily’s picnic spot. They took turns peering through a spyglass, and chuckling. But as much as they liked to poke fun, the truth was, they were bored without their friend. Fortunately for them, things were about to get a lot more unboring.
Tom Head …
… relaxed and let his wife, Mary, dip him in the beetle box. The beetles flittered all across his face and hair, munching bits of leftover food, dandruff, and boogers. They tickled. Which made him smile. Which made the beetles squiggle into his mouth. He blew them out. He smiled again, this time with his mouth closed. Mary pulled him out by his left ear and brushed the beetles off with a soft beetle-off brush. The last of the clingers fell. Mary held him in her hands and gave him a kiss. They’d been married 30 years and he didn’t think he had ever loved her more than at this moment. She deserved so much. He hoped she liked the surprise he was bringing her tonight.
A size-6 right foot …
… inched ever closer to the ZITCO.
Skip, Muffy, and Brockster Bear …
… sat on the side stoop of the house they’d only just started to know. They were surrounded by crates, suitcases, 25 temporary deputies, and a very twitchy Permanent Deputy Tug Singlebuttock. He and Kay Hamhock stood back to back, turning in place, watching for anything mysterious, suspicious, or sleep-inducing.
The Threadheads …
… huddled with Jeminy on the playground the moment the school bell rang to end the day. She gave the instructions her mother had given her. “Find her, detain her. Do not let her make it to the audition. This is real. Bear down!”
Phileas Batuta …
… checked the harness straps and scratched Mr. Goodness behind the ears. “Tough job, today, my friend.” Mr. Goodness whinnied. Not the whinny that said, “Yeah, I understand” but the surprised one that asked, “Were you expecting company?” Phileas looked up and and saw the girl with green hair and mismatched feet hurrying toward him.
“Mr. Batuta?” Moldylocks panted, “I’m Moldylocks LaMort. And I like bears.”
Phileas held out a massive hand, which Moldylocks shook. His grip was gentle. His smile was kind.
“Me, too,” he said.
“You’re helping the Bears move, right?”
“Can you give them something for me?” she asked.
He nodded again.
Moldylocks reached into her pack and handed him a lumpy gift wrapped in the Bears repurposed gift wrap. Moldylocks had tucked a note under the string that bound the present.
Phileas set the note and package carefully on the wagon’s bench seat. “You want to come with me to say goodbye?”
She shook her head. “He doesn’t like me anymore.”
Phileas looked at her with tenderness.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “But I wanted to tell him sorry.”
They walked back down the path together. When they got to Fleaknuckle Road, Moldylocks told him thanks. She went left and he went right.
The audition was two hours away.
Moldylocks felt as much an outsider as ever, but she regarded the feeling with curiosity now instead of anger. Despite all her selfishness and her imperfections, for the first time she could ever remember, she felt comfortable in her own greenish skin. The boundary between her inside and her outside was disappearing. She was on the right path.
She lurched around a bend in the road not far from the Stubbs Factory and the Plainfield Bridge. The clump of saplings on the river side of the road rustled. Hoarse laughter leaked out and the Threadheads stepped out from their hiding place and surrounded her.
“Hello, Loser,” said Possum Skidmark.
“Bear lover,” said Fantabulous Ooze.
“Don’t hurl on us,” said Sparkle Hallows while her twin sister Spangle made retching sounds.
“Yeah,” said Possum. “We just want to hang out with you for a while. Like a few hours. Just till the audition is over.”
Moldylocks looked at each of them calmly. “If I’m such a loser, why are you so worried I might win?”
While the Threadheads paused to think about this, Moldylocks seized the moment.
She brought her inside outside. She unleashed a howl from her core. She roared an “I am” roar from the depths of herself, from the very center of her undead center.
The pure force of it shocked and staggered the Threadheads. Moldylocks pushed past Possum and out into the safety of Plainfield Bridge before any of them could regain their wits. Truth be told, Moldylocks had frightened them.
She lurched home. It had been a pretty good roar. Almost the one Moldylocks had been looking for. But not quite.
“I don’t want anything from her,” said Brockster.
“Give her a chance, son,” said Muffy, securing the pile in Phileas’s cart.
“Mom, I did. We did. Lots of chances.” He handed the last of his toys, a sack of zombie action figures, to Phileas.
Tug and the 25 deputies watched Phileas and the Bears finish loading. There was space on the wagon floor for one more item.
Skip and Phileas muscled a massive metal spool onto the cart. Skip explained, “It’s something I was working on this week. It’s the rotating base for a wagon turntable. You sink it in the ground, see, almost to ground level. Then you park a cart over it, unhitch your horse, raise the turntable, and spin the cart right around. Slick as a whistle. With this, you can turn a wagon in a small space, like in a barn or in front of a shop downtown. Wish I could have put it to use. I think you folks would have liked it. Ah, well.”
Brockster and Muffy set the last of the bee hives carefully on the cart.
The Bears climbed onto the wagon. The cart was heavy, so Phileas helped Mr. Goodness pull the cart out of the yard. Skip and Muffy held paws. Brockster sat between them, scowling. Head down. Arms crossed. Skip and Muffy looked over their shoulders and watched the house till the trees closed around them.
“Just give the note a look, Brockster,” said Skip. “You never know.”
“She’s such a jerk. She only wanted to win that stupid scholarship. She took advantage of us, Dad. Of me. You know how zombies are,” Brockster grumbled.
Phileas stopped Mr. Goodness and turned to face Brockster. For the second time in two days, he spoke up.
“She does like you,” he said. “All three of you. I do, too.”
He turned and resumed pulling. The deputies filed past them, out to Fleaknuckle Road to stand guard. Muffy picked up the present and held it out to Brockster.
“All right, all right.” Brockster read the note aloud.
Dear Bear Family,
I’m sorry. I’m really really really sorry.
I can’t TELL you in a letter how sorry I am. Please come to the audition so I can SHOW you. I know you don’t have any reason to, and I know I don’t deserve it, but … maybe you could trust me?
PS. Brockster — I found my roar.
Brockster handed the note to his parents and opened the package. He saw the familiar face of Mr. B. F. Doolittle.
“Phileas,” said Skip, calling the giant zombie quietly over and whispering so the deputies wouldn’t hear. “How do you feel about a detour?”
No one had ever stood up to the Threadheads before. Suddenly they weren’t quite sure who they were, so they spent a while blaming each other for letting Moldylocks escape.
Every mob, even a small one, needs a unifying purpose. For the Threadheads, that purpose was about to come lurching down the road on cart wheels.
Temporary Deputy Kay Hamhock shambled ahead of Permanent Deputy Tug Singlebuttock and the 24 other temporary deputies to wait at the junction where the cartpath to the Bears place — soon to be called the Old Curmudgeon Place again — met Fleaknuckle Road. Kay had been furious with herself after falling asleep during her first attempt at guard duty and had begged Constable Cruft for a second chance. Cruft rewarded her enthusiasm by promoting her to lead temporary deputy under Deputy Singlebuttock. She’d even taken a vacation day from her job as Plainfield Quarry’s senior rock hammerer in order to fulfill her civic duty.
Kay waited, tightening her grip around Large Marge — her 15-pound rock hammer. She stood clear of the underbrush, the better to avoid sneak attacks from sleep-making alien hooligans.
She watched the path.
The other deputies lined up next to her.
Phileas considered Skip’s question about a detour. Best keep things peaceful. Too much commotion could cause confusion. What could he do? And yet …
“Whoa, there,” he called to Mr. Goodness.
Phileas fished the Book of Wisdom out of his back pocket. He closed his eyes and let the book fall open. His thick finger found a page. He opened his eyes, read.
“You are the book. You have opened to the answer you seek.”
Phileas returned the book to his pocket, then kissed Mr. Goodness on the forehead. “I know what that means,” he said. He led the Bears to Fleaknuckle Road. Kay Hamhock waited. Tug stood on her right. The 24 deputies stood to his right, in the out-of-town direction. Kay held out her arm, pointed west. Away. She swung the hammer slowly at her side. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Phileas whoa-ed Mr. Goodness to a halt.
Skip slid closer to Brockster and Muffy.
Brockster squeezed Mr. B. F. Doolittle. A growl low in his throat.
“Afternoon, Tug, Kay,” said Phileas softly.
“It’ll be a better one when they’re gone,” Kay said.
Phileas said nothing.
“We’re just keeping the peace, Big Phil,” said Tug. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“You know how bears are,” said Kay.
Phileas sighed. He patted Mr. Goodness softly.
“I do, Kay. But the town doesn’t.”
Kay lurched into the middle of the road so that she stood between the cart and Plainfield, blocking the way to town. She lifted Large Marge and slapped the hammer head into her open palm. Tug hesitated, then shambled up beside her. “Can’t let you turn toward town,” she said. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
“Kay,” said Phileas, “I’d like you to meet my friends, the Bears. Skip, Muffy, and the Brockster.”
“Phileas … ” warned Tug.
“I guess it’s the hard way,” said Kay.
Kay had expected to just scare Phileas and the Bears. She expected Phileas would back down. She expected she’d lead the Bears out of town herself, trailed by Tug and the deputies. She’d expected to be a hero. And she expected that Constable Cruft would bring her on full-time in the police department.
What she didn’t expect was that Phileas would snatch the hammer from her grip. She didn’t expect him to twist and bend the hammer’s long metal handle into a knot and hand it back to her. She didn’t expect him to gather her and Tug up in his arms — firmly, gently — and set them to the side of the road, clearing a path toward town. She didn’t expect herself, Tug, the 24 other deputies to just stand there as Phileas squeezed into the wagon, and Mr. Goodness went trotting off toward town.
But that’s what happened.
Phileas turned toward town. Toward destiny.
As soon as Moldylocks arrived home, she began to rummage through the racks of costumes that clogged the stairway. If the Bears did show up, she had an idea about how to keep them safe. She found the three costumes she was looking for at the top of the stairs. More inspiration: She found a fourth, for Mr. B. F. Doolittle.
Moldylocks looked up from her costume-gathering. Dorothy was watching her, a sweet-sad smile on her face. “You look so grown-up.”
Moldylocks dropped the costumes. She lurched to her mother and gave her a big hug. A bear hug.
“They might be coming, Mom.” Moldylocks held out the costumes. “We have to be ready just in case. What do you think? Can we hide the bears in plain sight?”
Dorothy beamed, and nodded.
“Do we still have those foaming flakes in the prop closet?”
“Yes, we sure do.”
“Okay. I’ll get them.”
Dorothy collected herself. “Moldylocks, no matter what happens tonight, you’ve already won.”
The TOOGs heard the commotion coming along Fleaknuckle Road. They left their Ebenezer-gawking to chase down the fuss. Tyreeq paused long enough to shout across the river to Ebenezer. “Break it up, you old goat! There’s trouble brewing!”
Ebenezer roused himself out of his love-daze. When he saw the puffs of dust on the far riverbank, he kissed Emily on the knee and slowly began to pack up the picnic.
The puffs of dust were being kicked up by Phileas and Mr. Goodness, hauling the cart as fast as he could through town. Past the smokestacks of the Stubbs Factory. Clattering across the Plainfield Bridge. Veering right onto Plainfield Avenue. Past the offices of North Tendon, the boutiques of the Steaming Heaps, and the houses of the well-to-do at the Festerings.
Speeding toward the ZITCO.
Rising gusts of to-do and ado and hullabaloo followed in his wake. A whirlwind gathering force and volume as it spun forward. Shouts and cries, and grunts and sighs. Moans and groans. Yipping and yapping. Yowling and howling. And one dreamy voice humming a love song. Ebenezer’s voice. A zombie mob roused itself out of every corner of Plainfield, growing and lurching relentlessly forward.
Constable Cruft paced the lobby of Plainfield Labs. He’d had to twist the arm of the director, Dr. Hadley Ganglion, to hurry along results of the soil-sample Cruft had secreted from the Stinkpits.
Cruft twisted too hard. The arm had come off. Which caused more delay while Ganglion left to get it reattached. Cruft huffed a gruff apology and Dr. Ganglion assured him the results would be ready “at any moment.”
The constable pulled out his pocketwatch and snapped it quickly shut.
The ZITCO was ready.
Moldylocks and Dorothy sat on the front porch swing beside Santiago and Harry. Harry nuzzled Moldylocks with his femur stub. Santiago gave her the thumb up. All Moldylocks could do, she’d done.
The porch deck began to vibrate faintly. Moldy could feel it through the sole of her size nine foot. Were they coming? This could be them. Best be ready. She acted fast, barking directions. “Harry, Santiago — get ready with the makeup and the foaming flakes. Mom — grab that leftover brain casserole. Phileas will be hungry.”
Dorothy and the stagehands disappeared.
Phileas and Mr. Goodness came stomping around the bend toward the house.
Phileas grinning like a madman. Mr. Goodness panting. The Bears all smiling, their fur swirled and whorled by the mad dash through town. The cart skidded to a stop at the front steps and Phileas helped the Bears down.
“The whole town’s coming,” said Phileas. “Got a plan, Moldy?”
“Bears — inside. Put on the costumes. Quick! Phileas, take Mr. Goodness and hide out at O’Putrid’s Pond. There are reeds and cattails to munch. For him, I mean. I’ll come with you and show you the way.”
The Bears tumbled out of the wagon and rushed into the house.
Brockster paused. He held Mr. B. F. Doolittle out to her. “Thanks.”
“He’s for you to keep,” said Moldylocks.
“I never asked you,” said Brockster. “What’s the ‘B. F.’ stand for?”
She gave his paw a squeeze. “Best Friend. Now go!”
Dorothy reappeared with the picnic basket. Moments later, Mr. Goodness was pulling Phileas and Moldylocks back down the drive.
Minutes later the town mob came down the ZITCO drive, its whirlwind of sound rebounding around them. Conniption led, flanked by Jeminy and Arnold, who carried Tom Head cupped in his hands.
Behind them lurched Tug, Kay, and the other 24 temporary deputies, along with the Threadheads, the TOOGs, a blissed-out-looking Ebenezer, the Stranger, and most of the town.
They marched up the path to the ZITCO.
Conniption held up her right fist. The mob halted.
Dorothy came out the front door onto the porch, followed by three zombies no one had ever seen before.
“Where are they?” Conniption asked.
“Where are who?” asked Dorothy.
“You know who,” said Conniption.
“Don’t play games, LaMort,” said Kay. “I’ve got 24 deputies.” She held up the knotted remains of Large Marge. “And this lump of metal.”
“And me,” said Tug.
“Where’s the constable?” asked Dorothy.
“He’s on important police business,” said Tug.
“We want to know where the bears are,” said Conniption.
“Weren’t they deported?” asked Dorothy.
The mob fidgeted behind Conniption.
“The deliveryman led them right through the middle of town,” said Conniption. “They were headed this way. And who is that behind you!” She gestured to the three zombies behind Dorothy, in the shadows of the porch.
“Ah, how rude of me,” said Dorothy. “My cousins. In town for medical treatment. Beulah, Bernice, and little Betty. The baby is Bupkis.”
Conniption squinted and took a few steps forward.
The Bear family squirmed in their zombie costumes.
Dorothy came down the porch steps to block her way. “I should tell you, they’re still contagious.”
Conniption made to step around her.
“Tongue rot,” said Dorothy. “I’d hate for you to lose the power of speech, Conniption.”
The zombies stepped forward and opened their mouths. Foam poured out. They closed their mouths, and stepped back in the shadows.
“Whoa, that’s a bad case,” said Tug from the yard. “Even the baby has it.”
Moldylocks arrived quietly at the back of the crowd. Though the situation was deadly serious, she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the sight of Mr. B. F. Doolittle dressed as a zombie and smeared with foaming flakes.
Conniption backed up. “Hmpf. I don’t believe you. Prove they’re zombies.”
“Want to show them, Beulah?” asked Dorothy.
Muffy stepped forward, holding Santiago Mano in her concealed right hand. Santiago wiggled his fingers at the mob. Then Muffy grabbed Santiago with her left hand, yanked him off her arm, and flung him to the crowd.
“Perhaps,” said Conniption, “but … “
Before she could finish, Harry Halfleg came flying out of the shadows of the porch.
Tug collected Santiago and Harry, then stepped forward. “Yep, they’re legit.” He handed the limbs back to Dorothy. “I still need to search the premises,” he told her. “Just a formality.”
“As you wish,” said Dorothy. She turned to the mob. “Welcome, everybody! While the deputy conducts his search, please meet me around back at the theater. The show must go on, and we’ve got a great group of kids auditioning tonight. The theater box is reserved for my sick cousins, but if you hurry you can get some great seats. Oh, and grab a snackin’ slug. They’re just one bone each.”
Kay stepped forward to speak, but Tug motioned her silent.
“Good advice,” he shouted. “Deputy Hamhock, lead the other deputies back to the road. We’ll find ’em folks! Meantime, go enjoy the show. Nothing has changed in Plainfield!”
Kay led the deputies back toward the town road. The rest of Plainfield hurriedly lurched to the theater behind the house. Everyone wanted great seats.
Moldylocks shambled up last, climbing the steps to the porch.
“Everything good?” whispered Dorothy.
“Yes, Phileas loved the casserole.”
The ZITCO living room made no pretense this night of being anything but a theater dressing room. Three fifth-graders sat in front of three vanity tables making final audition preparations, while their parents assisted them.
Flemma Ball’s mother was dirt-brushing Flemma’s feet. Velveeta Lardbelly quietly visualized chugging mugs of honey while her father, Retch, rubbed her temples. Conniption starched Jeminy’s pigtails. Jeminy gasped when she saw Moldylocks, but soon recovered her customary scowl.
The fourth vanity table was empty. Moldylocks looked around for Hondo Mondo, the only boy in the competition. There he was. On the floor practicing his wrestling escapes.
Moldylocks knew he was almost guaranteed of winning the wrestling part of the competition. Not because he was Mr. Mondo’s son or because she thought Mr. Mondo would favor him, but because he was Mr. Mondo’s son and had been wrestling almost from the day he was unearthed.
The fifth vanity table was empty, too, waiting for Moldylocks to claim her space.
Instead, she chose to stay apart a while longer. She sat down on the stairs and cleared her mind. She was ready.
Dorothy shushed the room, welcoming the contestants and wishing them good luck. Hondo took a seat at his vanity table.
Dorothy announced the order of competition and reviewed the rules.
“First up, Velveeta. Followed by Hondo, Flemma, Jeminy, and last, Moldylocks.”
Dorothy’s words floated in and out of Moldylocks’s awareness. Moldylocks had her eyes closed and was thinking. About what it meant to be a loser.
Maybe Plainfield has it all wrong about that, too.
“You’ll have 2.5 minutes per event. No breaks between. 10 minutes total.”
Being a loser doesn’t mean “not winning.”
“Honey. Wrestle. Roar. Monologue.”
Being a loser means not being yourself.
“Ten possible points per event. Forty points total.”
The bears had taught her that. She understood now.
“Scores will be announced after the last participant.”
The only way to to go full bear …
“Good luck everyone.”
… was to go full Moldylocks.
Each performer had their strengths.
Velveeta downed the honey in a single long mug chug. She had an advantage, since she had no tongue and the honey dropped in viscous glops from gullet to gut. But it was impressive nevertheless.
Velveeta eased through the wrestle and the roar segments with moderate success, but was of course marked down on the monologue, which came out as a long mishmash of guttural utterances and interpretive-dance gestures. “Myunh, un-humminah humminah rowr.”
The crowd applauded politely when she finished.
The four country cousins watched from their elevated theater box. Bears being zombies watching zombies being bears.
The second candidate, Hondo Mondo, was squat and thick like his dad. He stomped to the honey table, screamed at the mug, and gulped the honey down. He screamed again, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and ripped a mighty honeyfart. Dorothy, Conniption, and Tom Head wrinkled their noses as the fart cloud drifted toward them. “Reminder: That’s not a penalty,” Dorothy announced to the crowd.
Hondo moved immediately into his wrestling stance. He glared at his dad and said, “Bring it on.” Scooter wrestled his son hard. Harder, in fact, than he wrestled the others. Hondo would have to earn this. Hondo feinted and backed up, jab-stepped and lunged. He caught his dad off-guard once or twice, but each time his dad regained the upper limb and tossed his son to the floor, only to have his son escape again. Hondo surprised his dad with a late attack. He had Scooter on his back! Dorothy counting. “One, two …” Ding-ding. Santiago Mano rang the bell ending the bout. It was a tie. The father and son shook hands, smiling.
Hondo’s roar was terrific.
But then came his downfall. The dramatic monologue. Hondo stood scowling at the audience, as if he was trying to intimidate them into applauding.
The ZITCO waited silently.
Hondo had forgotten his lines.
He waited patiently, painfully for the words to appear in his brain.
Finally, his eyes lit up.
The audience leaned forward. Had he found the words?
“Bears are bad,” said Hondo. “Very very bad. Thank you.”
He bowed deeply to confused applause.
Next up, Flemma. She held the honey in her cheeks — swallowing it in tiny thimble-size gulps. Indeed, she was still swallowing it as her wrestling match began. It was difficult to do both at the same time and she was quickly pinned.
She was still swallowing the honey by the time she had to roar, so the roar came out as a gargle.
She finally finished just before the start of the monologue. It was worth the wait. Her strong clear voice rang out.
I’m the terror of the woods and plains.
Night and day one thought remains:
I’ll find the zombies in their homes,
steal their cubs and eat their bones.
I dare! I scare! I bear!
I’m the rot inside your hopes and dreams.
I’m the source of fears and screams.
When you wake up don’t open your eyes
’cause I’ll be there to bearrorize.
I snare! I tear! I bear!
Many in the crowd were moved to tears. The applause was thunderous.
Meanwhile, Kay and the deputies returned from their failed search for Phileas and the Bears. Tug had them fan out around the perimeter of the ZITCO crowd for security. They soon forgot their duties, however, and got caught up in the last two performances. Even Kay Hamhock.
Three contestants had auditioned. They were good, but none of them had put together a complete performance.
Total Bear Immersion. She downed her honey gracefully moments after Santiago and Harry had filled her mug. Knotting her scarf with a flourish, she readied herself to wrestle.
Total Bear Immersion. Her practice in the limb pit served her well. Twice Coach Mondo threw her to the floor and twice she wriggled free from his grip. Reversing momentum quickly, she caught him off guard with a leg lock and threw him onto his back. “One!” called Conniption as Santiago slapped the mat. Scooter twisted out of Jeminy’s grip, and he finally pinned her just before the bell rang.
The crowd held its breath. This was some performance.
Total Bear Immersion. Jeminy was motionless at the center of the stage. She gathered her rage. Deep breath …
Her roar blew the hair off babies and the false teeth from the mouths of the elderly. Eyes rolled up in their heads. Noses smushed into faces and ears slid backward on skulls. It was a roar like a hurricane and when it was done, it left zombies gasping for air.
Total Bear Immersion. Jeminy didn’t miss a beat. She moved right into her dramatic monologue, delivering the same words as the other “bears,” but with a quiet fury that had zombies on the edges of their seats. She finished with a devastating whisper.
I snare! I tear! I bear!
Total. Bear. Immersion.
She bowed to a standing ovation.
That left one more performer.
Moldylocks appeared onstage. Wearing her bear suit. Calm.
Dorothy said, “Go.”
The honey was downed in a moment. Moldylocks licked her lips.
She unzipped the suit in a flash. The crowd oohed. She was wearing a bright green wrestling uniform with a red B on the front. For “Bear.”
Ding-ding. Within 10 seconds, Moldylocks had pinned Scooter Mondo.
She stood up. Focused.
The crowd leaned forward. The country zombies leaned forward.
It was time to bring her inside outside. Time to be a winner. It was time to punch her ticket to Rotburg.
It was time to roar.
Instead, asked a question. “If it’s okay with the judges, I’d like to combine the monologue and the roar.”
The judges huddled, consulting. They came to an agreement.
“This is unusual, but there’s no rule specifically prohibiting it,” Dorothy said to the audience.
A delicious, malicious smile had replaced the worried frown on Conniption’s face. This would make it all too easy to mark the girl down. “Please do as you wish, Moldylocks.” She made a note on her score sheet.
Tom Head chewed his pencil, looked at Conniption, and nodded agreement.
“Are you sure?” asked Dorothy.
“I am, Mom.”
Moldylocks spoke to the audience with a calm confidence. “You don’t know bears,” she said.
She waited for her words to sink in. She scanned the faces of the crowd, seeing disbelief, and shock, and anger.
“I trained with Brockster Bear all week. And I learned that roaring isn’t about how loud you can be, but how honest. It comes from trusting your own eyes. And your own ears. And your own feelings. And your heart. I don’t know who did the break-ins, but it wasn’t the Bears. The Bears are good. They like honey, but they live peacefully with bees. They are expert wrestlers, but only for self-defense. And they are magnificent roarers, but it’s not a battle cry. It’s expressing themselves. Anyway, here’s my roar.”
The audience braced themselves.
Instead of a roar, Moldylocks said simply, “The best friend I’ve ever had is a bear.”
No one moved. No one said anything.
“Now I have a question.”
Before she could ask it, she was interrupted by a commotion off to the side of the first row. A voice growled out, “The kid’s right! It wasn’t the Bears!”
Constable Cruft held the lab report over his head. He climbed onto the stage, breathing hard.
A look of alarm crossed Conniption’s face.
The constable addressed the crowd. “New evidence.” Cruft held up the report that contained the lab results. “It links the bear costumes found at Stinkpit Manor to the crimes committed this past week. The dirt found in the Stinkpit residence matched the dust from my house.”
Conniption strode to the front of the stage to confront him. “Hardly enough to go hurling accusations, I say,” she spat. Then she lowered her voice. “Mind yourself, Constable. There’s an election coming up.”
“Not enough evidence to convict anyone of anything,” Cruft told the crowd, “but enough to clear the Bears’ names. All charges dropped.”
Conniption Stinkpit had just lost control of the story.
Down in the front row, Arnold hadn’t understood everything, but the rumblings of the crowd had finally made him understand what he’d been doing all week. He’d been taken advantage of and it hurt his heart.
“And another thing,” said Cruft. “All eye spies now have to be registered with the police department.”
Moldylocks tugged at the constable’s sleeve.
“Ah yes. I believe I interrupted Moldylocks just now. Take it away. ”
Moldylocks glanced at the theater box, and back to the audience. “Hi. So, like I was saying — we can trust the Bears. But what I want to ask you is … Can they trust us?”
Whispers and murmurs rippled across the theater. The Bears leaned forward in the theater box. Arguments blossomed. “No way!” and “Why not?” and “You know how bears are” and “They didn’t do it.”
Ebenezer Rotbody cut through all the noise. He stood up, clutching Emily Shank. “Quit yapping everybody!” he shouted. The whispers and murmurs faded to quiet.
In the stillness he said, “Never thought I’d love a leg. But I did. I figured out that time’s short. You gotta love what you love and think with your own brain. All that bear-scare stuff is just stories. The bears can trust me.”
Mr. Sever stood up. “The Bears can trust me.”
“Us, too!” said the TOOGS. They rose, creakily.
“Yep, yep, same here,” said Scooter Mondo from the back of the stage. Dorothy stood up at the judge’s table. Yes. Santiago propped up Harry and climbed him. Thumb up.
“Me, too!” said a voice from the woods behind the theater seats. Phileas! Moldylocks beckoned him to the stage.
Velveeta, Flemma, and Hondo stepped to the front of the stage. Yes. Yes. Yes.
“Us, too!” shouted a girl who’d just entered the theater. She pulled back the hood of her cloak. It was Moldylocks’s friend, Scarlet Bone.
Moldy clutched her hands to her heart and mouthed the words. You came.
“Yes!” shouted Scarlet’s mother, Daisy.
“Nyunhh!” said Scarlet’s father, Dr. Sigmund, fumbling for his portable brass jawbone.
Entire rows of Plainfielders began to stand up across the ZITCO. “Yes!”
Almost everyone was standing now. Conniption and Jeminy were silent, of course. Arnold stayed seated, but that was because he was lost in thought. And the Threadheads stayed seated, along with a number of others. Tom Head couldn’t stand up, but wouldn’t have anyway. But almost everyone was on their feet, or foot, or stumps.
Moldylocks was beaming. She motioned for silence and looked to the theater box. “Well, Bears, what do you think?”
The Bears took off their zombie headpieces. All three of them (and Mr. B. F. Doolittle) nodded. Yes.
“I knew there was something suspicious about them,” said Conniption. But nobody was listening to her anymore.
Constable Cruft apologized to the Bears and instructed the remaining deputies to make sure no one harmed them.
Because while stories do change, change can be slow.
Most of the zombies in the audience were talking and shaking their heads at how quickly their world had been spun around.
Finally, Maura More-Or-Less remembered why they were all there and called out, “Who won the contest?”
Scooter Mondo collected the judges’ cards and huddled with Constable Cruft, who double-checked his tabulations. Flemma, Hondo, Velveeta, Jeminy, and Moldylocks stood stage right.
Scooter walked to the front of the stage. The lead role in the play and the scholarship to Rotburg State Summer Theater Camp hung in the balance.
The audience hushed.
Scooter cleared his throat.
His announcement came out as a choked whisper.
“Congratulations Jeminy Stinkpit.”
Conniption and the Threadheads clapped wildly. No one else made a sound.
Moldylocks lurched to Jeminy and held out her hand. “You were great.”
“I know,” said Jeminy, ignoring Moldylocks’s hand.
Conniption nudged Dorothy, and Dorothy stood to address the crowd. Her voice faltered. “Remember, Grizzly Hair opens one month from tonight. See you then. Thank you for coming, and thanks to all of our talented actors.”
She sat down heavily in her chair.
A cloud of confusion descended upon the ZITCO. Most zombies weren’t sure how to feel about the results of the contest, or about the new ideas in their heads. Eventually, though, the Plainfielders gathered themselves to leave. Keeping with tradition, they filed past the stage on their way out, reaching up to shake hands with the actors, who were standing at the front of the stage in the order they’d performed.
The Bears came down from their box, carrying the zombie-costume headpieces in their arms. Conniption had lurched over behind her daughter, to bask in the congratulations of well-wishers.
Skip, Muffy, and Brockster reached out to shake hands with Jeminy at the same time. A peace offering. Conniption pushed Jeminy behind her and leaned over so only the Bears could hear her. “You may have fooled them, but not us. Not us.”
The Bears ignored her.
When the bears reached Moldylocks, she took their paws, one-by-one, in both of her hands. “Stay for tea?”
“We have honey,” said Dorothy, who had composed herself and now stood beside her daughter.
“Okay!” laughed Skip. “We’ll get changed and meet you inside.”
Dorothy took Moldylocks’s hands in her own. “I’m so proud of you. You did win. You’re the bravest girl I’ve ever known.”
Tom Head and his wife, Mary, were next-to-last in line. Mary couldn’t stop squeezing the right bicep of Tom’s new body. Indeed, Tom was now perched happily atop Arnold’s body. Without the fedora, sunglasses, fake beard and trench coat, this new zombie looked nothing like the Stranger that had so recently been lurking around town. No, nothing at all like the Stranger.
Tom congratulated Jeminy and winked at Conniption. “I have to confess, I do love the view from up here. By the way, you can call me Tom Head-and-Body, now.”
Jeminy stared. Tom Head-and-Body’s eyes were as blue as the sky on a sunny day. She opened her mouth to speak but in the end said nothing. Everything we did was for the good of the town, she told herself, ignoring the feeling in her body that maybe she was wrong.
“Well, I hate to lose good help,” said Conniption, “but I’m glad it was for a good cause.” While she and Tom were talking, Arnold reached out and gave Jeminy’s hand an affectionate squeeze.
Last of all came the Bone family. Scarlet climbed up onto the stage and hugged Moldylocks.
“I’m so sorry we were late!” said Scarlet, beaming at her friend.
“Scar, you’re not going to believe what a week I had.”
Dorothy exclaimed over Scarlet and gave her a hug. “You and your folks have to join us for tea. Come meet the Bears. We’ll be right in.”
Moments later, there were just four left onstage: Conniption, Jeminy, Dorothy, and Moldylocks.
“What happened tonight is best for the town,” said Conniption.
“Or best for you?” asked Dorothy.
“The Stinkpits are the town,” said Conniption, putting an arm around her daughter’s shoulder. “Now, remember our agreement. You can’t change Grizzly Hair. You’ll never change Grizzly Hair. The story will be back to normal in a month. If zombies don’t know what to fear, they don’t know what they are. Your production will help them see that.”
Santiago and Harry served the tea. Phileas, the Bears, the Bone family, Dorothy, and Moldylocks sat around the living room, perched on ottomans, the sofa, and, for Phileas, the floor. The kitchen table was arrayed with teacups, sugar, honey, and Mr. B. F. Doolittle, whose face had been scrubbed clean of foaming-flakes residue.
Santiago poured the tea, missed, and drenched the fugly. Dorothy redirected his pour. She passed the tea around and shook her head. “I can’t figure out what happened. Did we win or did we lose?”
Skip patted her hand. “You were both true to yourselves. That’s always a win.”
“You’re right,” said Dorothy. “Moldylocks, you were amazing.”
“That was some honey drinking,” said Muffy. “Good as any bear.”
“And the wrestling,” laughed Skip.
“Best roar ever,” said the Brockster.
“Oh, my gosh,” said Scarlet. “I missed so much. I can’t wait to hear the story!”
“It’s a great story,” said Moldylocks. She picked up Mr. B. F. Doolittle and ran her fingers through his wet fur. “So’s the real story of Grizzly Hair. I wish we could tell that one.”
“We can’t,” said Dorothy. “And it’s my fault.” The others gave her questioning looks.
She explained how she was behind in rent. The deal she’d made with Conniption. No choice if she wanted to save the theater. How she hadn’t known the real story then, anyway or things might have been different. Now, she was forced to go through with the play as is.
“Is that what Conniption meant when she said you can’t change Grizzly Hair?” asked Skip.
“I was listening by the door.” He looked at Moldylocks, smiling. “I guess I was curious.”
“It’s true,” said Dorothy. “I’m sorry. It’s a hateful story to me now. Just hateful. But the contract says I have to give a good faith effort to make the play a success or I’ll lose the ZITCO.”
“Mom,” said Moldylocks, “we can move.”
“No no no,” murmured the others.
“There has to be a way,” said Muffy.
Phileas, that questioner of obvious things, cleared his throat. “Um, Dorothy,” he asked, “I’m confused. When you said you can’t change Grizzly Hair, did you mean you can’t change Grizzly Hair the character, or Grizzly Hair the play?”
“What diff——” Dorothy began.
“What was it Mom?” interrupted Moldylocks breathlessly.
Dorothy reached into her jacket pocket and spread the contract on the table and the bears and zombies read aloud, in a sound cloud of legal words like “whereas” “adjudication” “twitterpated,” “conflabulation” and “fusticated.”
“There’s nothing about changing the play,” said Skip. “It’s only the lead role you can’t change.” The zombies, the bears, and the stagehands fell silent. Pondering.
Conniption had neglected to change the rest of the contract language. To her, the story of the lead character was the only story that mattered.
“Interesting, but I still don’t see a way around this,” said Dorothy. “That woman! Just once I’d like to turn the tables on her.”
Moldylocks and the Brockster both sat up. They looked at each other with massive grins.
“Are you thinking …” asked Moldylocks.
“… what I’m thinking?” finished Brockster.
They laughed. They high-fived. They told the others their plan.
They’d need to hurry. They only had a month.
© 2021 320 Sycamore Studios