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Authors: Robert T. Jeschonek

The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater

BOOK: The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater
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The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater

 

*****

 

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by Robert T. Jeschonek

 

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The Genie's Secret

The Return of Alice

The Sword That Spoke

 

*****

 

The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater

I stand in the center of the coliseum, the pink sun blazing on my flesh, and raise the fairies I clutch in both fists. Their tiny bodies squirm between my fat fingers as they struggle to break free, but they're not going anywhere.

I turn in a circle with the fairies held overhead, and the army of bears that surround me on the dirt floor of the coliseum stop snarling. They stand on hind legs with red or pink tutus fluttering in the breeze, some balancing on beach balls, some perched on unicycles. They stare with wide eyes, claws twitching in the Faerie world heat.

And I wait for their answer to my question. "Who deserves the
crush?
" My throat hurts as I howl it at the top of my lungs. "
Me
or
them?
Me or them?
"

I feel the bears' eyes upon me, bulging with wonder and hunger and fear. The moment is upon them, a moment they never imagined.

This is for you, Stan,
I think, and then I
roar
, demanding their answer.

 

*****

 

I was roaring last night, too, in a very different place--my favorite bar in downtown Pittsburgh, called Boilermaker's. I was surrounded by bears then, too, of the
human
variety. My people, my
family
, not by blood but by
love.
The only family who'd ever truly
cared
about me.

I let loose with a roar in the midst of them, right after I blew out the candles on my birthday nachos. They cheered me with roars of their own, all of them
strapping
as
lumberjacks.
Ten big
boyfriends
clapping and kissing and throwing back beers and whiskey shots with bold abandon. Saluting our flag with the bear's paw in the top left corner and the stripes of brown, tan, white, gray, and black. All of us card-carrying members of the local chapter of the International Bear Brotherhood.

My people.

"Welcome to your
thirties,
Angus!" My partner, Stan, slung an arm around my shoulders and shook me hard. "How's it feel to be
over the hill
?"

I punched him in the stomach. "
You
tell
me,
Sluggo!" That was my nickname for Stan. A real term of endearment for the man I loved and still love more than anyone or anything in any world.

Stan looked like Ernest Hemingway with his bushy gray hair and beard, his barrel chest. "
Screw you,
Angus!" Laughing, he scrubbed the thick brown hair on my head in a brutal noogie.

"
You wish!
" said one of the guys--Horst or Louie or Al--and everyone cracked up.

"Another round!" said Stan. "For Angus' birthday!"

"Last man standing gets to kick his
ass!
" Big-bellied Horst shook his half-empty beer mug at me, jet black mutton-chop sideburns curling away from his ice cream grin.

Stan cracked his shot glass down on the table and stomped in front of Horst with shoulders squared under his red flannel shirt. "You'll have to go through
me
first!"

Suddenly, a crash like a thunderclap exploded in the room. We all looked toward it, though we already knew the source.

Sure enough, Pete the bartender/owner had brought the ol' baseball bat down on the bar again. "
No fighting,
jagoffs!"

Who could
blame
him? Last time the bears had gone ballistic in there, Pete had ended up with a shattered front window.

Not that we didn't love Pete or Boilermaker's. Not that we didn't pay to fix that busted window. It's just that that's the way we were. Rough and tumble. Loud and proud. A real band of brothers.

With
benefits
.

Pushing past Stan and Horst, I did what I used to do best--deflect with humor. "Who you calling
jagoffs,
pal?" Rolling up the sleeves of my heavy white sweater, I charged the bar, smacking my hands down hard on either side of the baseball bat...glaring up at Pete,
way
up at Pete, from my four-foot-five-inch height. "Take it back,
Pete!
Don't
make
me climb
up
there!"

Pete's eyes twinkled with mirth. He shook his head and looked away.

"Somebody get me a stepladder!" I said, and everyone laughed.

Crisis averted.

The guys chanted "Next round, next round," and Pete stomped off to fill glasses. Left me staring at myself in the mirror behind the bar.

What a
hairy
S.O.B. I might have been the
shortest
of the local bear brotherhood, but I was by
far
the
hairiest.

Shaggy brown fur covered my head and my whole face except my eyes, lips, and the tip of my nose. More of the same covered almost every inch under my clothes...even covered my hands except for my fingertips.

How'd you like to go through life looking like a
werewolf
, right down to the hair on your palms? All thanks to the miracle of hypertrichosis, the disease that blasts hair growth into perpetual overdrive.

Welcome to
my
world.

Imagine the constant ridicule and abuse I put up with from day one. Imagine being abandoned by my parents at age
three
, then juggled like a hot potato from one foster family to the next. Always the freak, always the outcast, always the dog-faced boy. Growing up to scrape by as a home-based telemarketer. Hardly ever leaving my apartment, and then only with everything under wraps. Always just hanging on to life and sanity by the skin of my teeth.

Imagine living like that, and maybe you'll get it. Maybe you'll understand just how
happy
I was with Stan and the bears.

And why it hurt so unbelievably
bad
when I lost them. Why that birthday party turned out to be my last happy night on Earth.

 

*****

 

Pete had just brought out the next round when
he
showed up.
Yuri.

The bears and I were grabbing our mugs, and the front door flew open and slammed into the wall. Yuri blew in like a gale or a mad dog, demanding immediate attention without saying a word.

He must've been seven-foot-six or seven, at least three hundred pounds. A wild Hawaiian shirt was draped over his massive gut, bursting with flowers in pink and gold.

Yuri's face was broad and ruddy and moist as a side of beef. His blazing red hair frizzed out in all directions like flames, like his head was on fire.

My mouth fell open as I gaped at him. I felt Stan make a sudden movement beside me.

"
Magnifico
!" When Yuri spoke, his voice boomed like a backfiring car with a Russian accent. "You knew I was
coming,
didn't you?
Spaceba
for the
party
, you big
lug!
"

Just as I wondered who he was talking to, one of us spoke up. My breath caught in my throat in surprise.

It was Stan. "Party's not for you, Yuri."

Yuri waggled his eyebrows, which were thick as squirrels. "
Stush!
What's the matter? No
kiss
for your
old lady?
" Yuri puckered his liver slab lips, pooching them out from under the giant walrus mustache he wore like a fox stole across his face.

"What do you want, Yuri?" Stan's voice was cold. His hand clamped around my shoulder and tightened.

Yuri's brows and walrus 'stache jumped high as his face lit up with an alligator smile. "So
this
is your
new
girl!" Lurching forward, Yuri reached out with one sausage link finger and tickled my chin. "Why, he's just a little
cub!
"

Suddenly, Stan lunged at Yuri, hooking his wrist and yanking his hand away from my chin. "Get out of here, Yuri.
Now."

Horst, Al, and the others closed ranks around us, glowering. Yuri went on talking, never breaking eye contact with me. "Daddy bear
Stush
go bye-bye, little cubby." Then, he slid his gaze from me to Stan. "Unless, of course, he cares to send this
cubby
in his place."

"
Never
." Stan ground the word between clenched teeth. "
Get out.
"

"The man said
leave,
gashole!" This time, it was Pete the bartender doing the talking. He pushed between Louie and Horst with ball bat in hand, looking stone cold deadly.

Yuri raised his squirrely brows and took one last long look into my eyes. "Sweeeet dreeeams, leetle cuubbyy." He sang the words with sickening false sweetness. "Uncle Yuri loooves you." Reaching into the breast pocket of his wild shirt, he tugged out a bright red business card and held it toward me.

Stan snatched the card away and shoved him back. Yuri stumbled one step before catching himself.

Then, laughing, he swung around and stormed out, nearly knocking over Horst and Pete on his way past.

 

*****

 

Later that night, I lay in Stan's arms and gazed at his face in the moonlight streaming through our bedroom window. He just kept staring at the ceiling, lost in thought.

"So who was Yuri?" I said. "An old boyfriend?"

Stan sighed. "Don't worry about it."

"But what did he mean?" I said. "Where did he want you to go?"

"Forget about him," said Stan. "He's just a big mouth looking to cause trouble."

"What did he mean when he said you could send
me
in your place?"

Stan grunted and let go of me. He rolled over and got out of bed. "I don't want to
talk
about it, okay? Just go to
sleep.
"

I sat up and listened as he started down the hall. "Where are you going, Sluggo?" I called after him.

"I left something in the truck," said Stan. "I'll be right back."

That was the last time I heard his voice in this world.

Lying back, I listened as he put on his shoes and went downstairs and out the front door. I waited a little while for him to come back, and then I fell asleep.

When I woke in the morning, he was still gone. But his pickup was still parked on the street in front of our townhouse.

 

*****

 

I was worried right away. It wasn't like Stan to disappear without warning. Where could he even
go
without the
pickup?

I started making phone calls. There was no answer at Boilermaker's at that hour, of course. Horst had no idea where he was, and neither did any of the other bears who answered their phones.

It was a Saturday, but I tried Stan's workplace anyway. He worked for a company that installed conveyor equipment in factories, and sometimes they did weekend installs.

But not this weekend.

So I got in the pickup--cherry red, extended cab, extended everything--and drove around town. I drove everywhere I thought Stan might be and looked hard and asked questions.

But Stan was nowhere. Just gone.

So now I knew, without a doubt. Something had happened to him.

 

*****

 

Sitting in the pickup in the hardware store parking lot, I leaned my furry forehead against the steering wheel and closed my eyes. I thought about the first time we'd met, which had been at Boilermaker's.

I'd seen a story online about the bears and had known instantly they were for me. Boilermaker's had been mentioned in the story as a bear meeting place, so I'd gone one Friday--still under wraps, of course, still covered head to toe in ball cap, trench coat, and gloves.

Stan had come right up and shaken my hand. He'd slapped me on the back, called me "buddy," and bought me a beer. I'd fallen in love with him right then and there.

We'd kissed for the first time two weeks later, in the cab of that very pickup.

And now he was gone.

Opening my eyes, I looked down...and I spotted something red on the floor, tucked under the edge of the mat. Leaning down, I snagged it, instantly realizing what it was.

Yuri's red business card. The one Stan had snatched from Yuri's fingers.

BOOK: The Bear in the Cable-Knit Sweater
4.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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