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Bear-bear Speaks"

Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She's the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and The Clockwork Crown from Harper Voyager. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
Bear-bear is silent, and stays silent, no matter how hard the woman squeezes his paw. She feels the weight of him in her backpack purse now, heavy as the world. His muteness bothers her more than the hollowness she once knew in her gut, or the billowing ash that burns her eyes.
"I'll find you new batteries, Bear-bear. We won't let Pariyat down." Her voice rasps.
Skeletal cars clog the street, their shadows imprinted on the asphalt. Colors smear into grey and black, reality blurred.
The woman staggers to a stop. Something clicks in her mind as she recognizes chimneys. The bricks are scorched, the spires strange and low. A house. A house would have batteries. She stumbles into the wreckage and coughs against her arm. Water. Water would be nice. She vaguely remembers the people who walked by ages ago. They said something about food, water, shelter, but knew nothing about batteries. Onward she walked.
She had been at work in the library basement when... something happened. That was in the morning. Heavy clouds smother the sun now, but it must be afternoon.
She kicks aside charcoal and bricks. Glass crunches beneath her greyed running shoes. A rubber ball lurches away, one side melted. Her breath seizes in her throat.
"Bear-bear!" she wails, and tugs him from her purse.
Pariyat's brown bear embraces her chest. He's soft. He smells of the cocoa butter lotion Pariyat wears every bedtime. The woman squeezes the bear's paw. He is still silent.
The past few days, his recording had slowed to a drunken slur. That's why she had promised Pariyat she'd grab some new batteries during lunch at work. "When I pick you up from preschool, Bear-bear will talk just like normal!"
The bear absorbs the woman's hyperventilated sobs. Slowly, eventually, she uncurls herself from Bear-bear's grip and tucks him between her elbow and breast. She will not press the bear's paw again. She shouldn't. She can't. It won't do any good.
There is an upright blackened hulk before her, like a tomb. By the handles, she recognizes it's a fridge. The screen of a small TV is punched in, as if by an angry fist. A wall clock of Felix the Cat peers from beneath a broken table board. His pupils are frozen. He looks left, as if he sees something no one else can see.
The clock has no wires.
The woman drops to her knees and turns over the clock. The battery hatch springs away beneath her shaking fingers. Two double-A batteries. Just what she needs. She releases a rattling sigh and sets down her purse.
"We've done this before, Bear-bear. It won't hurt. See? I brought along my sewing kit. I can patch you up afterward, good as new."
Bold marker lettering on the scissors denotes them as property of the library. The woman parts the blades and slices along the stitched scar line of Bear-bear's spine. Brown threads frazzle away. Hidden beneath his fatty fluff is the battery box. She drops the old batteries to the floor and presses the new ones into place.
She squeezes his paw.
Silence, but for her heavy breaths.
"Come on, Bear-bear. What's wrong? Why won't you talk to me?" She squeezes again, harder. Again. Again.
His black button eyes blankly stare to one side.
The woman glances up in a silent plea. The gray sky carries no answers. The airport is close by, but there aren't even helicopters or planes overhead. Her heart beat pounds loudly in the silence.
"Talk to me, Bear-bear. Were those batteries already dead? Is that it?" She looks for something else that has batteries but everything is buried or covered with dust. Her two discarded batteries are the brightest objects around.
She sucks in a breath and flips over the bear again. When she sees the batteries, her sudden laughter is giddy.
"I always put in batteries wrong on the first try, don't I?" She flips them around to get the positives and negatives positioned correctly. She presses the paw.
The bear farts. The flatulent sound emerges in a burst, followed by high giggles that abruptly cut off. The recording is a mere ten seconds. Pariyat is supposed to attend preschool to practice her ABCs and numbers. Instead, she recently--proudly--learned how to pass gas with her lips.
"Oh, Bear-bear." The woman hugs him, taking care to keep a hand over his incision.
Now, to fix him up. She pulls out her compact sewing kit. Her hands are steadier as she works the needle. Bear-bear can talk. Everything will be fine.
"I promise I won't keep pressing your paw like I did before, okay?" Again. Again. Again. In the darkness of the library basement. As she staggered through rubble to the street, to a new world. Again, again, the recording slowing with each repetition, until no sound emerged at all.
She tucks the patched bear against her chest. As she walks through the wreckage, she kicks something hard. A small silver can the size of a hockey puck bounces away. A tuna can--but no, she doesn't want tuna, it makes her breath awful. Besides, she's not hungry anymore.
"It's afternoon, Bear-bear. Let's go pick up Pariyat at school. She'll laugh when she hears you speak again!"
The woman and the bear continue through the ruins. Every so often, there is the sound of gas, and a little girl's giggle.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 19th, 2016


I write a lot of stories and poems set against an apocalypse. Many of them lean toward a hopeful outcome... sometimes, not so much. I didn't plan out what the bear's recording would be--that totally surprised me as I wrote the rough draft.

- Beth Cato

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