Thursday, December 17, 2015

Free Fiction: The Teddy Bear Riot

I am so grateful to everyone who has taken a chance on one of my books. Here's a little Christmas gift to you, a never-seen short story from the depths of my files, one of the only Christmas stories I've ever written. I hope it brightens your day a bit.

The Teddy Bear Riot
copyright S. A. Bolich 2006

      If you talk to the cops they'll deny it. If you talk to the regulars down at the local watering hole you'll get a lot of snickers and sly grins but no confirmation. If you search the newspaper's morgue you won't find one word about THAT NIGHT. It never made the papers because, well . . . let's just say the local star reporter wants to keep his job. That, uh, would be me.
      It all started innocently enough. An orphanage full of needy kids, a Christmas toy drive, the local women's club decking the halls with the usual Christmas flummery. When I showed up to do the obligatory human interest piece, the kids were off on a mass shopping trip and the place was bustling with adults rushing around: the wives inside, the men outside unloading vans. What the wives didn't know was that their hubbies were generating a little Christmas cheer of their own while they carted the boxes and bags and bins of donated toys into the basement. I suppose I could blame what happened on the booze, but when you get down to it, the booze couldn't possibly have accounted for everybody seeing the same thing. Or for what they saw.
      The trouble started when Big Jim Shelby, who runs the sports bar on Main Avenue, started grousing about the lack of imagination displayed by the toy donors. "Teddy bears! Goddamned teddy bears everywhere!" says he, lugging in still another box with Paddington Bear staring solemnly up at him from under a cutesy little red hat. That got him a chorus of "Ah, stuff it!" from his fellow laborers, most of whom had contributed to the glut of bears by their hurried dashes into the local Toys n'Stuff in answer to their wives' command.
      "What d'ya expect with a twenty-dollar limit?" Mike Simms growled, which started Shelby off on a rant about the cost of keeping kids and how all the expensive, electronic, politically correct, child-safe, educational crap he put under his tree every year ended up sitting there neglected while the kids played with the blankety-blank boxes.
      "No imagination," Shelby opined. "That's what wrong with you guys."
      "Oh, yeah?" Charlie Dahl, who owned the local electronics store, was just lubricated enough to be belligerent. "And what did you buy the little brats?"
      "They're not brats!" Glen McGinnis, the local shrink, jumped right in trying to smooth things over. "These are good kids, and you know it."
      "Oh, yeah?" Mike Simms put in. "That's not what you called 'em when those three punks spiced up your punch at the picnic last year."
      A lot of snorts and chuckles greeted that. McGinnis turned red. "They apologized," he muttered. "And even they deserve better than somebody's hand-me-downs. If they didn't have us it would be a pretty grim Christmas for all of them."
      "Santa should show some imagination, then." Big Jim deposited Paddington Bear with the rest and helped himself to another beer.
      "You want imagination? Take 'em to see The Nutcracker." Charley gave him a not-so-nice grin. Everybody in town knew he thought anybody who went to the local rendition of the Nutcracker was nuts themselves. Ballet, you know.
      Joel Carstairs had ensconced himself early on at the top of the basement stairs to "supervise," which put him closest to the beer and farthest from the work. Now he got himself a brilliant idea.

      "I know! Let's stage it for 'em! Hell, we don't need wooden soldiers. We got all these bears."
      Seven faces turned to him. Everybody just sort of stared for a second or two, and then McGinnis, seeing Charley Dahl about to erupt, said, "Sure! We can line them up and--" He rummaged in a box. "Here's a doll we can use for Clara."

      He held up a three-foot doll in a velvet dress and hat that had seen better days. One of the other men jumped right in, smirking at Charley. "Great idea, Doc. Give 'em a little culture along with their presents."
      The rest of the gang went along, more to get in a dig at Charley than because they thought Carstairs was so brilliant. They carted the rest of the boxes in and then rummaged around until they had all the bears gathered up and lugged the whole works upstairs. Quietly I tagged along, interested now in seeing what sort of production this inebriated crew might come up with. Naturally, the wives busy hanging snowflakes and fake greenery and decorating the donated tree wanted to know what in creation they thought they were doing. The bears were supposed to be downstairs awaiting gift-wrapping with the rest of the stuff.
      Joel Carstairs swept them a grandiose bow. (He was really drunk). "Ladies, we are the entertainment committee and we have deshi--decided to, uh--"
      "Bring a little cultural enlightenment into the darkness of this establishment," Charley Dahl finished for him with a sly grin.
      Gina Dahl gave him a sharp glance that dripped suspicion. Joan Shelby climbed down off the ladder where she'd been hanging snowflakes from the ceiling and marched up to her husband, who had a double armful of teddy bears and a silly smile on his face.
      "Just what did you have in mind?"
      "Well, we had all these bears--"
      "And Clara!" Carstairs snatched the battered doll from McGinnis. "Don't forget Clara!"
      "Clara." Joan looked at them both, tapping her foot on the linoleum floor. "You're going to perform The Nutcracker? This I've gotta see."
      "Oh, yeah." Gina Dahl marched up and peered at her husband out of narrowed eyes. "I can just see Charley galumphing around in tights. What are you guys talking about?"
      "The bears!" Big Jim Shelby held up his collection. "They can stand in for the wooden soldiers, and that doll can be Clara, and, um--" He cast around for inspiration. "And that paper angel over there can be the Sugarplum Fairy, and--"
      Joan went up on her tiptoes and sniffed at his breath. "You're drunk!" She rounded on the rest of them. "You all are! We can't turn our backs for five seconds! Honestly, Jim, what are you thinking? This is a kids' party!"
      "Well. . . what can it hurt just to make a sort of Nutcracker stage over there, huh?"
      "You're missing a nutcracker, for one thing."
      "But not the nuts," Gina muttered.
      "There's a G.I. Joe doll down there." Carstairs staggered away and came back with a high-tech edition with desert camouflage fatigues and body armor and web gear with little fake grenades clipped to it. Joan looked from it to him and sort of snorted.
      "Whatever." She went back to decorating the tree.
      Five minutes later the men were tripping over each other and arguing about stage dressing as though they were mounting a Broadway production. None of them had seen The Nutcracker in years and what with the booze, none of them had a particularly clear idea of the plot. Occasional snickers from the ladies' side of the room didn't help all that much, and Charley Dahl kept making lewd remarks about Clara and G.I. Joe getting it on under the Christmas tree. Finally Big Jim got nasty and told him to shut up before he made him catch up his bar tab, which pricked up Gina’s ears in a big way. While Charley was stuttering through an explanation to his wife the other guys managed to get Clara and Joe in place center-stage and started dividing up the bears into "armies".
      "Too bad we can't make 'em move around," Carstairs said wistfully, looking around at stiff little teddy faces staring blankly back at him.
      "So make a wish," Big Jim cracked.
      Carstairs raised himself up with the elaborate dignity of drunks and raised his hand. "I wish, uh, I wish . . . you know," he finished helplessly. "We could make it real for the kids."
      "They'll have a great Christmas anyway," Doc McGinnis soothed.
      Carstairs got maudlin. "It's Christmas Eve and they're off shopping on, what? Five bucks apiece or something? Life ain't fair."
      "No, it isn't, but that's why people need to be charitable at times like this."
      Carstairs blinked at him stupidly. "Like what?"
      "Never mind, Joel," three or four guys chorused.
      About then Joan Shelby decided she needed a big tall guy to help hang the star on the tree. "Jim! I need a hand here."
      Jim had an armful of bears. He turned to see what she wanted and tripped over a box of decorations. He crashed onto his back, the teddy bears flew in every direction, and Glen McGinnis rushed over to see if he was all right. When he knelt down, his knee landed in the middle of a pint-sized bear with a pirate hat and a plastic sword left over from Halloween.
      "Avast there!" the bear cried in a tinny voice. McGinnis was so surprised he jumped right up again, while Joan rushed over and Charley Dahl cracked up laughing and Gina Dahl scowled and told him to shut up, Jim might be really hurt. Big Jim himself was thrashing around on the floor trying to get up, scattering bears everywhere and ignoring McGinnis trying to pull him up by one wrist.
      "Leave me alone, you quack," he snarled, beet red with embarrassment.
      McGinnis straightened up in a huff. "Well! Fine." And then his eyes got wide and he took a step back, and everybody turned to look at what he was staring at.
      The pirate bear was on its feet, waving its little sword at the rest of its scattered brethren. Paddington got up and bowed politely to Joan Shelby and marched over to stand behind the pirate. Joel Carstairs gave a strangled little scream and threw his armful of bears violently to the floor as one of them started to squirm under his elbow. He backed up and knocked into Charley, who had quit laughing to stare with his face screwed up in a suspicious squint.
      "How are you doing that, Jim?" he demanded, but Jim Shelby was backing away on his hands and knees, staring sort of sickly at the bears forming ranks behind the pirate.
      "Charge!" the pirate bear cried, and stuck its plastic sword into Jim's arm.
      "Ow!" Big Jim leaped up, or tried to. He tripped over the same box of decorations again and windmilled into McGinnis, who crashed into Mike Simms, who knocked Charley Dahl flat. One of the women screeched and Joan Shelby just stood there and stared until the doll Clara tugged politely at her sleeve and said, "Have you seen my nutcracker?"
      Joan turned white, her mouth opening and closing weakly with no sound coming out. The rest of the room was in bedlam, with the men trying to pick themselves up from the floor and mostly kicking and knocking each other flat again in the scramble. The women looked from the bears to their men, clearly torn between mother instinct and survival instinct. Gina Dahl gave Charley a narrow-eyed glare and leaned down to pick up the staple gun they'd been using to anchor the evergreen boughs.
      "Whatever you did to those bears, Mr. Electronics Whiz, you quit it, and right now." She brandished the gun toward a particularly sensitive area of his anatomy.
      "Gina!" Charley stared at her from the floor with the bewildered innocence of the unjustly accused. "What are you talking about? I didn't do anything to the goddamned bears!"
      "Gina, be reasonable." Joan had recovered a little, as well she might, since she wasn't in the direct line of the charging bears, who had taken to chasing Jim around the floor, their little arms waving. "It would have taken him a year to wire those bears to walk around, and I don't see a remote." She eyed Charley suspiciously.
      "Hey!" Jim yelped. "Get these damned things off me!"
      Everybody looked over at him. Mike Simms, who had managed to crawl out of the dog pile and get up, fell down laughing again. The bears had cornered Jim down by the door into the kitchen, but he couldn't reach it because the pirate was determinedly jabbing his ankle with his little sword and the biggest bear, a three-footer with shiny black boots and a fireman's hat, was waving his fireman's axe dangerously close to Big Jim's family jewels.
      "Just kick 'em out of the way!" Charley yelled. "You're bigger than they are."
      Jim kicked. A bear flew and hit the wall, crashed to the floor and lay still. Encouraged, he took aim at another, only to get the fireman's axe in the thigh. "Ow!" he yelled, clutching his leg and hopping on the other foot. "Would you guys do something!"
      Gina Dahl got a strange smile on her face. "I don't suppose there were any stuffed mice in those boxes, were there?"
      Joan gave her a brooding look. "Let's go see." Without a qualm she abandoned her husband and started for the basement stairs.
      "Hey!" Jim bellowed. "Where are you going?"
      "You guys wanted to stage The Nutcracker," Gina said serenely. "Let's do it right."
     Jim had to dodge a combined attack by the pirate and the fireman about then so he couldn't answer, but Charley picked up an evergreen branch that hadn't made it up onto the wall yet and started toward the bears with murder in his eye. The dog pile sorted itself out and everybody stood up. Joel Carstairs got upset when he saw Charley take a swipe at a defenseless-looking teddy and knock it halfway to the fireplace, fanning the double row of skinny striped stockings thumb-tacked to the mantle.
      "Stop it!" he called to Charley. "Geez, they're teddy bears!"
      "They're friggin' possessed, is what they are," Charley shot back. "And it's your damned fault."
      "Yours," everybody chorused, even the women.
      Jim was still retreating from the fireman, limping. Just about then Gina and Joan came back with their arms full of stuffed animals of every kind from giraffes to one oversized Mickey Mouse. The second she set that one down it charged off to take on the fireman, shouting, "Follow me, boys! At 'em, Pluto!"

      Pluto was missing in action but a stuffed dog sprang to life and went yapping off to snarl at three bears advancing on Jim from behind. Charley took another swipe at a draggled-looking Paddington and then abruptly sat down hard, his knees buckling from a jab from the pirate's sword. His tailbone smacked the linoleum and he turned loose a flood of words not normally allowed in orphanages. Clara clapped her hands over her ears and ran toward G.I. Joe, who was still standing stiffly beside the little bed the men had concocted out of boxes and wrapping paper for her. She shook him, shouting "Oh, save me!"
      Joe turned his head and saw Charley and a sea of bears surrounding his beloved Clara. At once he ripped a grenade off his web harness, pulled the pin, and tossed the thing at Charley. Dahl stared, absolutely flabbergasted, until the miniature pineapple was a foot from his face, when he finally threw himself to one side. The grenade went off where he'd been sitting, making a tiny crater well rimmed with scorch marks in the linoleum.       "Hey, this ain't funny anymore," Mike Simms declared, his eyes bulging half out of his head. "I'm outa here."
      "Coward!" Charley Dahl howled, on his hands and knees dodging bears advancing on him from every direction. "Get 'em off me!"
      "You're the one wanted to stage The Nutcracker! Be happy!"
      Mike took off for the front door, but a flood of stuffed tigers and donkeys and kitties and one bright pink bunny rolled between him and the door. A tiger hissed and made a swipe with all claws extended; the bunny leaped and attached itself to his leg, puffball tail quivering. Mike yelled and tried to shake it off, stumbling backward.
      "Mike!" three women shrieked, but Mrs. Simms' voice boomed loudest. "I paid twenty bucks for that rabbit! Leave it alone!"

      "Wanda!" Mike turned a betrayed look on his wife, and then he lost his balance and went down under a flood of charging stuffed animals.

      Macho instinct kicked in among the other men. One and all set their jaws and charged grimly into the melee, kicking and stamping. War whoops shook the room, underscored by Mickey yelling, "At 'em, at 'em!" and the pirate shrilling, "Avast, you blackguards! Stand and fight!" A tiny stuffed kitten apparently too dim to grasp the seriousness of the situation gamboled around the fringes, pouncing on friend and foe alike until someone accidently stepped on it. The women then started yelling at the men to not damage the toys while the men were yelling target information at each other.
      "That one! That one. No, stupid, the blue dog!"
      "Get the one in the cowboy hat!"
      "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you guys to just get out of the way," Joan Shelby remarked conversationally.
      "This is stupid," Gina said. "I'm calling the cops."
      "Why?" Wanda Simms asked. "The bears are winning."
      Gina snorted. "I want some toys left to give the kids, that's why." She disappeared into the office.
      Big Jim had found refuge behind the Christmas tree and was beating at the fireman bear with a light saber liberated from a Wookie doll. Where the Wookie came by it, no one ever figured out. G.I. Joe flung another grenade at Charley, who dodged and upset the ladder, which landed in the Christmas tree, sweeping a lot of cheap but fragile ornaments to glittering ruin. That earned a collective screech from all the women that was pretty much lost in the sound of an approaching siren. By now all that could be heard in the orphanage was a lot of swearing and battle cries from the combatants and barking and snarling and mooing and hissing from the Mouse King's army. Mickey was dueling with Paddington, who had found himself a roll of wrapping paper and was swinging it awkwardly at the mouse, hampered by the fact that he didn't have much in the way of opposable thumbs to grip it with. He had it tucked under one arm and was going at it with spirit if not much finesse. Charley was backed up against the wall, cut off from his rescuers, who found themselves besieged by soft-looking creatures with teeth that hurt and claws that drew blood when they raked at unprotected ankles and hands. Joel Carstairs staggered away with his head in his hands, moaning, "I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it!" and collapsed in a corner out of the action. Everybody ignored him.
      Gina and Joan exchanged glances, seeing the kids' Christmas presents fixing to rip themselves to shreds. Neither of them had a clue how to call it off. About then two cops made it through the front door, thinking they'd walked into the burglary reported by Gina. Instead they saw six grown men attacking a swarm of stuffed toys with all the grim ferocity of Marines advancing up Mount Suribachi. Their mouths dropped open and one reached for his night stick before the other one struck his hand up.
      The first one turned red and glared at his partner, who took another look and faded out the door to call for reinforcements. Two more cop cars screeched up about the time Charley Dahl linked up with his compatriots, still dodging G.I. Joe, who had now leveled his M-16 and was blazing away. Charley winced and swore and dodged tiny bullets peppering his face and the backs of his hands as he tried to protect his eyes. Mike Simms tried to rescue him and went down when a stuffed gorilla swarmed up his back and thumped him hard on the back of the head with a plastic coconut. Joe stopped to reload and Charley broke free to drag Mike's limp body out of the way of an angry tiger looking to turn his out-flung arm into mincemeat.
      The cops had no idea what to do. The one who had called for reinforcements came back in full riot gear with visored helmet and all. They looked at him and thought that was a pretty good idea, and departed to armor up. Then they all came back in and started a cautious advance, shield to shield like Roman legionnaires advancing on the Gauls. They attracted some attention from a few bears, but a couple of good blows with night sticks cleared a path. Encouraged, they started toward Charley, who was slowly losing to G.I. Joe.
      Big Jim finally felled the fireman and charged out from behind the Christmas tree. "Look out!" he bellowed to no one in particular, which naturally turned every head in the room. Wanda Simms shrieked a warning at Doc McGinnis, too late. Focused on Big Jim, he did not see a crafty little Geronimo bear sneak up and bury its little hatchet in his calf.
      He went down, howling, which set the cops off. They charged, swinging indiscriminately at everything in sight. That earned them the attention of both the bears and the Mouse King's motley army, which turned and launched itself in a multi-colored flood. The cops hesitated.
      G.I. Joe picked that moment to fling his last grenade. It missed its target--Charley--and unfortunately landed on the yapping Pluto stand-in. Black and white synthetic fur flew everywhere and the dog dropped in a pathetic heap. Mickey Mouse wheeled with fire in his big plastic eyes and made a beeline for Joe. Sheer ferocity and grief powered right over Clara's beau; Joe fired off the last rounds in his M-16, missing by a mile, and went over backward, hit the floor hard, and lay still.
      Clara screamed. Every human in the room froze, arrested by that child's shriek of grief. Clara, until now safely tucked up behind the bed out of the action, rushed into the thick, snatching off her shoe. "You monster!" she yelled, and flung it at Mickey.
      It hit the Mouse King squarely between the eyes, dropping him flat. Clara rushed by the motionless body and thumped to her knees beside Joe, sobbing. Everybody watched, stricken. Even the combatant toys broke off the fight. The Mouse King's army retreated in confusion toward the kitchen; the bears all lined up in a ring around Clara, watching sadly as she raised poor Joe against her shoulder.
      "Oh, my brave nutcracker!" she mourned.
      Joe feebly lifted one camouflage-clad arm. Everybody in the place cheered, even Charley Dahl. Instantly he slunk behind Big Jim, red as a fire engine. Everybody else ignored him, watching as Clara helped Joe to his feet and took his hand. He bowed to her, a little stiffly, true, but for a doll, it wasn't bad. Then Clara took his hand, gazing soulfully into his eyes.
      The lights blinked, dimmed, came back up again. Everybody looked up, groaning. Power outages on Christmas Eve? But the lights stayed on. When they looked back, Clara and Joe were lying stiffly side by side on the little bed, and all the bears were scattered lifeless on the floor.
      "Act Two," Joan whispered.
      But the Sugarplum Fairy did not alight from her perch atop the mantel. She remained a paper angel with stiffly spread skirts and gilded wings, looking down on the mess in the orphanage dining hall.
      Six embarrassed cops looked at each other and lowered their riot shields. "What the hell was that?" one of them asked the room at large.
      "Uh . . ."
      Even the women couldn't come up with an answer.
      "We'll have to report this," one of the other cops finally said. The oldest one, a sergeant, turned his head and looked at him.
      "Report what?"
      "Yeah," Charley said slyly, picking tiny rubber bullets out of the back of one hand. "I bet your watch commander will just lo-ove to hear about the teddy bear riot."
      "Get back on patrol," the sergeant said stiffly, and led the retreat out the door.
      Well, the women cleaned up the mess and exiled the men to wrap the boxes. They buried poor Pluto in the garbage can and propped all the rest of the stuffed animals around the room because it was too late to wrap them. All I could think of was what a waste it all was. A real wish come true, and it had degenerated into the usual dreary mess mankind seems to make of everything, of misunderstanding and hostility and outright war.
      But then the kids came trooping back from their shopping expedition, ruddy with Christmas snow and fizzing with excitement. And that room, that barren room with its cracked linoleum and peeling paint and blocked-up fireplace, suddenly sparkled. The wide eyes and open mouths and instant smiles poured magic—a much better magic—all over that place.  In two seconds they proved that it doesn’t take a miracle to make a kid happy, just an adult or two who cares.Every one of that mismatched army of fake fur and staring plastic eyes ended up in the fierce grip of a child with nothing else to cherish; even the older kids quietly sidled up and stroked a furry ear or two before smilingly handing them on to a younger child. Not one of those kids seemed to notice that some of the toys were a bit battered and scruffy. The littlest girl got "Clara"; wide-eyed and speechless with joy, she started to dance with her, circling and dipping in solemn imitation of some remembered TV version of the ballet as Tchaikovsky's timeless music poured from the tinny speakers set up in the corners. G.I. Joe looked on over a towheaded boy's shoulder. Was he smiling? I couldn't tell, because something got in my eye and I spent the next five minutes wiping it out.
      So maybe Joel Carstairs's wish wasn't wasted after all.
      I wrote up that moment, not the rest, but my editor got wind of it from a guy who heard the burglary call over the police scanner, followed by an urgent call for backup. Naturally he wanted to know where I was during all the excitement.
      I think he believed my story about having a flat tire and arriving late. I can put up with a little damage to my reputation for always being where the action is. But I have no intention of ever 'fessing up to how I got the bite mark on my right hand.
      That Pluto really had sharp teeth.