This story originally appeared in issue #32 of Chiaroscuro
FLUFF AND BUTTONS ON THE TEDDY BEAR RANGE
by Matthew Sanborn Smith
Death comes swiftly on the teddy bear range when the night devils' silhouettes mar the purpling sky. I shiver in the chill nightfall. Muffin turns his back to me, lights a cigarette as if to ward off the darkness.
"Get the little ones inside," I say. "We're burning the fires bright tonight."
At our feet, the wind blew in a piece of red yarn tangled in a few strands of yellow fur. After a quiet couple of weeks the bastards are feeding again.
I do the perimeter, spreading the word among the fire keepers, then go around to the quartermaster's and tell the boys they'll be hauling out three extra cords of wood tonight. Night's coming on and I can see my breath on the air on the way back. The husk of a long dead grasshopper clings to my fur. I scrape him off on a nearby bale of hay. There's only room for the living here.
Light from within leads me back to the mess tent. By long habit, my eyes zero in on Froo Froo standing in line before I even get inside. She doesn't look a day older, breathtaking in her combat gear.
"Froo," I say, cutting alongside. "Hey, Froo."
She looks up from the pale, dried beans that Cookie dumps on her tray. "Oh. Hi, Jack," is all I get before she starts eying the beer. She showed the beans more love.
"Been a while," I say. "You back in Kojo to stay?"
"I'm passing through on border patrol." She grabs a glass of Kojo's Own Brew and I motion to Lefty behind the table to hand me one of my own. The little grunt behind Froo gives me the stinkeye but he's not about to start up. I turn my attention back to her.
"I was thinking about you the other day."
"Mm," she says.
"How long you going to be here?" I imagine the blue ribbon hidden beneath the red plaid hunting cap she wears. I know it's there; it's sewn into her head.
"A couple hours. We're heading to Redstone."
"Really? Why don't you hang back a day? I've got a bottle of Mr. Rumple's tonic that I could use some help putting down. I could fix it for you. Muffin's got some pull." Froo Froo shakes her head.
"You'll never change. You gonna protect me from all the monsters out there?"
"Yeah, actually. Sure as hell try. They'll be feeding tonight, Froo. We found someone a little while ago."
"Muffin already told me. So what about the one who takes my turn? You're okay if they get killed out there?" She says it loudly, trying to embarrass me. I guess she forgot that she can't.
"As long as it's not you, Froo." I'm behind her now and the line pushes into me. I growl until it squeezes around us.
"You're such an asshole, Jack. Let everyone die, long as you get what you want."
"What are you talking about? You're the one I'm worried about. I'll go out there in your place."
"That's what I'm saying. You want me to live. You should want everyone to live!"
"I do want everyone to live!" Muffin's heavy paw grips my shoulder.
"Whoa, whoa! Let's relax, there buddy. Give her some room, Jack."
"Give her some room? She's already had two years of room!"
"Everybody's looking, Jack. Let's take it easy, okay?"
Froo Froo gets into my face. Her voice sounds low, her breath smells sweet.
"Make it twenty years next time, Jack. No, make it longer." She throws her beer in my face, grabs my beer from my paws and walks out with the applause of the mess tent behind her.
"Forget her," Muffin says. "Grab another beer. Sit down with us and take a load off."
"Get off!" I wrench my shoulder away. "I'm going to bed. I'll be hunting tomorrow."
I could have stayed in the mess tent all night and gotten as much sleep. Instead, I spend the night staring up into the darkness from my weather-beaten cot. The leather strap which holds on the claws that Pinny made for me bites into my forearm. Sooner or later the night devils will get bold or stupid and at least one of them will regret it for the rest of its very short life. My mind wanders as I stroke the back of the steel claws with my other paw.
We'd been lovers once, Froo Froo and I, three summers ago. Through sultry nights of sweating lust in the mildewed confines of this very hut, her exotic buttons, one brown, one blue, gazed into mine with incendiary passion.
You'd think two years would have mellowed her a little. But she always was hellfire. That's what I loved about her. That, and the chink in her armor, the one soft spot I ever saw.
"I had a dream once, when I was little," Froo Froo told me one night after a day of uncommon destruction. We lay in the cooling wet afterglow of desperate love. "I was in a huge warm bed, decorated with pink flowers. There were fairy-lights up above and everything smelled like rose-petals."
"Oh yeah?" I forced myself to say. I fought to stay awake, talking more for her sake than mine.
"I was wrapped in the arms of a little girl."
"What do you mean, a real one? A live one?"
"Yeah, but that's not the strange part."
"It gets stranger?"
"It was safe there. I lay in the bed the whole time. It felt like it lasted a minute, but I knew." She stroked my chest fur with one delicate paw, bringing me back from my half-sleep. It took me a minute to recall what she'd said.
"Knew what?" I asked.
"I knew it would always be safe there. That nothing in the world could hurt us. Not ever."
"Huh." What could I say? A story like that, I would have laughed if it came from anyone else. But I couldn't even bring myself to smile. "What a dream."
I held her tighter. If I could make it true for her, I would. She said something else, I don't know what. I slipped out of that world and into the other for a few hours. Dreams came, I'm sure, but there were no little girls there, living or otherwise.
Clouds, heavy and black, loom overhead; so dark I'm almost not sure that morning has come. When Muffin sees the sky he insists on coming along.
"You'll need someone to watch your back," he says. "Dark as it is, those hell-spawn might not know they're supposed to be sleeping."
"That's a bunch of crap, Muff, but if you want to come along, that's fine by me."
"Good. Willoughby's coming too."
"He's old enough now. Time he felt what a hunt's really like."
After breakfast we crunch through the tall grass. The tips whip our faces. They have their coats, Muffin and Willoughby, the cold autumn made worse by the lack of sunlight. I've got nothing but the denim jumper I came into the world with and my backpack, counting on the cold to keep me awake.
"Who was it that you found last night?" Willoughby asks, a little ways out. "Anyone we know?"
"There wasn't much left to identify," I say, "But you knew him. He had yellow fur, always wore that red sweater no matter what the weather was like. Never wore any pants."
"Not even when we begged him!" Muffin says.
"Oh, yeah! How could I forget that? What was his name again?"
"I don't remember. He must have been a wanderer from another village. I didn't see him enough for it to click."
"Poor bastard," Muffin says. He spits like he's cursing the ground.
"Aren't we all."
Halfway into the day we find them. The eggs lie hidden away among the rocks. They're long, rubbery, mottled grey things. Ugly as their mommas. Willoughby raises his stick, ready to stab.
"No, no, no. Wait," I say, batting him aside. I reach back and pull a can of spray glue out of my pack.
"What . . . ?" he asks.
"What did you guys do, steal that from the infirmary?" Willoughby asks Muffin. Muffin ignores him, too busy kicking rocks around, looking for more eggs. Not that I blame him, but these three in front of me are the mother lode. If Muffin finds any more than that, our little villages might be in more trouble than we thought. I work the little pump on the back of the can until the eggs shine in the feeble light. A little vial from my jumper pocket gets tossed into the middle of the whole thing.
"What's that now?" Willoughby asks.
"Patience," I say. "Anymore, before I start, Muff?"
"No, that's it."
I drop a rock on the glass vial and the eggs go up in a roar of flame. Willoughby yelps, falls back on his ass. I love tenderfoots.
"What are you worried about?" I ask. "You're young. I thought all you kids nowadays were fire-retardant!"
"That ain't the same as fire-proof! What's that squealing sound?"
I sit back, out of the way of the hissing black smoke.
"Muffin'll tell you it's gas escaping from inside the eggshells. I like to think it's the little mothers screaming. Don't bother opening your pack, Willoughby. We've got dinner right here."
He gives Muffin a look.
"Relax," Muffin says. "They're pure poison. I wouldn't even recommend breathing in that stink."
Willoughby scoots back on his butt. I get up and enjoy the fire from upwind. In a few minutes they're cooked black.
"As good a day as we could hope for," I say. "Saved some kids today, three less night devil mouths to feed. We should be heading back."
"Not that way," Muffin says. "This way."
"You're getting old, Muff. We came from this way."
"And you were never any good with directions. We've been taking a wide arc all day. We keep on, we can have an early supper in Redstone."
To be honest, I can't tell if he's right. Out on the plains, a square mile of grassland looks like any other. Above, thick clouds still block the sun, teasing us with the promise of much needed rain, but never coming through. I feel like I should be angry, but why? My cot's as uncomfortable as any other. Besides, I'll see Froo Froo in Redstone. I'm not planning on talking to her, not after last night. But being able to see her again in tomorrow morning's light makes it worth the long walk home.
"What are we waiting for, then?" I say. "Their food's got to be better than ours."
I've got a sense for night-devil eggs. Not smell really. I can't explain it and the young ones laugh it off. But Muffin knows. He keeps his eyes open, he's not capable of doing otherwise, but he trusts me to dowse out anything in the fields through which we pass. It's quiet. Save for the tentative chirps of the meadowlarks to one another in the long darkness, we move across the land in silence for the next few hours.
In the late afternoon the clouds part for the first time and harsh light burns clean the brown prairie. The sun hangs in the wrong part of the sky. We haven't made an arc and we're nowhere near Redstone. Before I can open my mouth to scream at Muffin I catch him staring at me. He knows. He expected this.
"What have you done?" I ask.
"I've saved us."
"You haven't saved us! You've killed us all! What the hell were you thinking, bringing us out this far?"
"It's freedom, Jack. We've been running around on that little piece of dirt for years while those bastards have been whittling us down to . . . What? A couple thousand of us now?"
"If that," Willoughby says.
"We're lucky if we got two years left in us, Jack. Three tops, until there's so few of us that they move in and wipe us out in a gastronomical orgy. We gotta do something!"
"We are doing something," I say. "We're burning the nests. We're squeezing them like they squeeze us."
"That's revenge, you dope. That's not victory. By the time we drive them to extinction, there won't be enough of us left to propagate! Listen to me. There's not a lot of us, and we've been hemmed in to our five little villages by fear for as long as anyone can remember. But think about it. There can't be a lot of them either, otherwise they would have overrun us a long time ago. We're moving past their nests, Jack. We're gonna come out on the other side of this goddamned nightmare and we're gonna run until nobody around knows what a night devil is and then we're gonna win, Jack." He stabbed his cigarette in my direction, emphasizing each point.
"We're gonna win because we're gonna be alive and safe. We're gonna be able to raise our grandkids without underground shelters. We're gonna be able to walk outside at night without weapons and just smell the apple blossoms on the breeze. Can you understand that, Jack? Can you even conceive of a life like that?"
He hunches a little bit in his passion, slouching under the weight of all the lost souls that he's carried throughout his life. Muffin shudders, and I think he might cry, but he gulps for air, racked by his own ranting. Willoughby looks sad. He's heard this bit before and he's bought into it, deciding Muffin is the bear that can save our sorry excuse for a race. They both stare at me, waiting for my answer like it matters one damn bit.
"No," I say, watching their bubble rip and rend in slow-time. "No, I can't."
Muffin heaves a humid sigh. "I shouldn't be surprised. Anyway, there's nothing for it tonight but to keep north. We're the scouting party, Jack. Once we find the way, three big migrations are all we'll need. Then you'll see. Someday all of this will be a bad dream."
"It's a bad dream now, Muff. Take a look." I stretch one paw to the east. I've been at this too long. I can spot carnage fifty yards away. A piece of stuffing blows our way and hits Willoughby right in the face.
"Phaw!" He shakes his head and flails his paws, horrified by the gore. We make our way to the site, Muffin cursing all the way. There are remains of maybe six bears here. We destroyed half that many eggs.
Combing through the aftermath, it's rare we find enough of a corpse to merit a burial. Identification is the best we hope for. These bits and pieces, they mean nothing to me: longish black fur, a piece of green corduroy with a buttonhole, I don't know these -
And there it is. The lone blue button I spent so many warm nights looking into sits by itself in a patch of dirt, staring back up at me now.
"No," someone beside me whispers. "I'm sorry, Jack."
The bitter winds buffet my suddenly frail body, keep me from falling to my knees. So did Froo Froo's stuffing feed the fires of the night devil bellies while I still took breath. Her cold dead button accuses me of failing to protect her, accuses me of surviving. Again, Muffin's familiar paw on my shoulder. Always on my shoulder.
I swing to kill. Even powered by rage, my soft paw only knocks him to the ground.
"You sent Froo Froo out here last night to die, didn't you Muffin?"
"You idiot!" Muffin flicks his cigarette butt at me, singeing my fur. Leaping at me with a roar born from the pits of Hell, his calico paws thrash like the scythes of a harvester. The old-timer beats my snout threadbare before my leg comes up and plows into his bottom seam. Muffin's roar turns to a howl. He's off me like a shot, rubbing that big round rump beneath his coat.
"After all these years we've known each other, you actually think I'd do something like that?" he yells. "I'm trying to save lives, not send more lambs to the slaughter! They were brought here, you moron. I would never send anyone out this far in the night! Not even a group of them!"
He's done, wandering off to nurse his wounds. I lie there, catching my breath, unable to scream for the tightness in my gut. I search the grey-blue vastness up above for something. Anything. Mere feet beyond me, the land is strewn with bits of faux fur and polyester stuffing, the shredded, half-devoured flesh of a soft little she-bear who asked no quarter. Burying my head in my arms, I shake, not caring if Willoughby sees.
A light rain falls, lost to the parched earth in minutes.
It's night. The full moon hasn't yet risen and a hundred-thousand stars sparkle silver in the now clear sky. Froo Froo's remains are hours to the south and there've been no signs of the night devils since. Maybe Muffin's right. Even so, we decide against a fire. They've got their coats, anyway and I've got my tonic.
"Take it easy on that whiskey," Willoughby says. "Mr. Rumples makes about twenty gallons a week and the rest of us might want some."
"Don't piss me off, Willoughby," I growl. "Didn't they tell you I'm a mean drunk?"
"They told me to stay away when you started drinking. But mostly cuz an old bastard like you predates synthetic materials. You're flammable as hell right now."
I dive at the little shit. Lucky for him I fall over my bottle. By the time I figure out which way is down, all I can hear are Willoughby's fat beanbag feet padding through the dry alfalfa. I'm too tired to waste my time with him. As comfortable as these dirt clods are, I've found a place to bed down for the night. Willoughby will get his tomorrow.
"Thumbs," I say, waking myself from an aching sleep.
"Excuse me?" Muffin says.
"Huh?" It's still night, Muffin and Willoughby are both up, so I haven't slept long. I shake my head, wipe the cold drool from my cheek. "No, I was thinking. Dreaming I was thinking, I don't know. We could win this fight if we had opposable thumbs. Hell, I'd settle for unopposed fingers! We've got nothing but stubs! No wonder we can't build a civilization."
"You want thumbs?" Muffin asks. He's still angry and sounds like he picked up my bottle before it emptied. "Monkeys got thumbs, Jack. Where's their civilization?"
"Look, I was . . . It was a dream, is all!"
"You know what they do with their almighty thumbs? They just beat their goddamned cymbals together all day long! Do you want that, Jack? Do you want that for a life?"
The distant shrieks cut through our little bickerings like the shock of ice water.
"No!" Willoughby says.
We leap to our feet. Far to the south, two demonic shadows rush through the air against the light of the huge blood moon.
"They're not supposed to be this far North," Muffin says.
"How could they -" I start. A wisp of white cotton trails from Muffin's coat. It stands out in the moonlight against his green and yellow speckled flesh. "Raise your coat, Muffin."
He does, exposing a rip in his backside where I kicked him.
"We led them out here!" Willoughby says. "They smelled their way right to us!"
Muffin muttered: "We had it in our hands. Everything."
"Run," I say.
"Run?" Willoughby screeches. "We can't outrun them!"
"Hold your ass together, old man," I tell Muffin, fumbling for my spray can.
He does like he's told, overlapping his big flat cheeks without urgency. He must figure we're as good as dead anyway. I spray him well with the glue, but not too well. I'm going to need as much glue as I can get.
"Tell your grandkids about me," I say. Revelation creeps across his face. Muffin blazes with energy once more.
"Yeah," he says, with a shocked smile. "Yeah, I will. I'll tell them about the craziest son-of-a-bitch there ever was."
He turns and runs as fast as he can with both paws holding his coat to his backside.
Willoughby still looks stupid. For a half second I consider giving him the claws in my backpack, but he'd hurt himself worse than the devils ever could.
"I told you to run," I say.
"What's going on? What are we doing?"
I take a swipe at his face. "We're running, dummy! Now get moving!"
He runs off into the black in Muffin's direction.
I rip the seam at my throat, exposing the fluff within. A tuft of batting catches on the wind. They're almost on me; I listen to their stiff wings beating the air. I'm shaking, but I force my body to keep pumping the can, soaking myself, front and back. I touch one paw to my sticky jumper pocket, feel the two glass vials of liquid fire there. For all the wetness, they seem warm. My paw sticks. It'll take a hell of a lot to remove it.
The first devil rips me from the land, the only home I've ever known. Its teeth seek out my open wound, my neck enveloped in its crushing jaws. Before I can think to scream, the claws of the second tear into my overstuffed belly. High above the dry earth they grapple over my half-sundered body, unable to renew their grips as pieces of my gluey fabric and stuffing stick to their teeth and claws. I embrace the searing agony. It's shocking, exhilarating, the exclamation point at the end of a long, dead life.
I struggle to keep my last thoughts on Froo Froo. Is this a selfless death, a life for Muffin's future grandchildren? Or is it selfish? A quick end to a hellish existence, now empty without the only one I ever really cared for? I'll never know. Unless there's something on the other side of all this. In case there is, I'll make it a point to ask her when we're safe in bed together in the arms of a real little girl, and nothing in the entire world can hurt us.
I press down hard and crack the vials.