This was Jessica’s last client of the day. She had been looking forward to this one. Ed Miller was one of the clients who had been the subject of much debate in the office. He had asked to speak to his solicitor, who had no interest in seeing him now that Miller was behind bars, so she volunteered which bought her a small degree of respect from the other juniors. It was a drive out from the city, and once she finished, it was closer to Gorleston than the office, so she could be home at a decent time for a change.
The gauntlet of procedures to get signed in took a while, but Miller had nothing but time to waste, and so when she sat down with him, he looked almost relieved to see her.
He wanted to tell someone what happened, he said. He looked bleached by the harsh light of his existence, exhausted yet relieved to talk through all this with anyone. She slipped on her practiced smile and gestured for him to speak.
It had been during the summer.
It looked up at me with polished button eyes and a lopsided grin, head tilted to one side as it laid there amongst an assortment of bric a brac. A moment’s curiosity led me through the open gate, onto the neat, manicured lawn to look at all the items displayed on picnic blankets. The bear would cheer his daughter up.
People without children believe bullies are strangers to their victims. It is a lesson which continued throughout life, but it wasn’t true. Billie was being bullied by her best friends, Nia and Charlie. One day, they had been inseparable and then the next day, after Brownies, she had come home with scuffed shoes and a red handprint on her cheek. Their parents had apologised, like diplomats defending snack sized dictators, but Billie had been inconsolable.
I paid a pound for it, thanks to a distracted, well dressed woman trying to hide how appalled she was by having strangers go through her things.
‘That was Mother’s’ she said.
My smile was bland and didn’t commit me to anything. She kept the change but there was no point in reminding her. My thoughts were with Billie’s face when she saw her gift.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and she was outside in the back garden. She sat on the trampoline, picked the petals from a daisy as she sat cross legged, focused on it with the depth of concentration which only children summoned at will. She saw the bear in my hands and ran over to me. It was a wonderful moment and it provided me with reassurance I had done the right thing. A small gesture can change the world.
It wasn’t long until I wondered if such a sentiment was a blessing or a curse.
Billie named it Special Bear. It was said in one breath, and she didn’t go anywhere without it. She stayed away from Nia and Charlie, an armistice agreed between us parents. Although the two girls still played together, which irritated me. Billie was fine with her own company. Even more so, because she had the bear to absorb her continuous monologue.
It wasn’t until Friday evening, long after Billie had gone to bed, Special Bear held closer than a secret when my phone rang. Nia’s mum, Louise, who had been defensive about her precious girl until I showed her where her daughter had inflicted chinese burns and left bruises on her forearms.
Had Nia come over?
Her words irritated me. I told her no, she hadn’t. Reminding her of our agreement wasn’t necessary and I was about to end the call when she sobbed.
Nia had not come home. Charli had gone with her, and no one had seen them since they left the house together. It was dark and my instincts twisted inside me. My voice softened as I sunk back into the sofa and put my hand over my eyes. It would be fine, they’re high spirited kids, after all. Louise missed the barbed nature of the remark, and said she needed to keep ringing around to see if they had gone to someone’s house.
Billie was asleep in bed, little more than a lump beneath a duvet, snoring away, soft and content. I knew she had Special Bear held to her chest.
Well, I assumed, anyway.
She answered the door, her soft, wrinkled face peering through the gap in the front door.
‘ I’m Ed, I bought something from the jumble sale you had out here,’
She frowned as she kept one hand on the door, ready to close it in my face at a moment’s notice.
‘My daughter handles all that nonsense,’ she said.
She met my gaze then frowned before we stood there, looking at one another in a moment of polite discomfort.
‘There was something which caught my daughter’s attention. A bear,’
She gasped and shook her head, pushing the door closed before I could continue.
‘She says it talks to her. She says it has a name,’
She opened the door, asked me to open my mouth in a matter-of-fact voice, which I did. She peered into my mouth and winced.
‘Horseradish. You’d better come in.’ she said.
The interior was rich and old wooden floors tattooed with dust, a flock of picture frames cluttering the walls. She was a little over five feet tall, swamped in an olive cardigan and a long skirt. Her white hair was a series of thinning white snarls and knots against her pale scalp. She looked at me over her shoulder, high cheekbones and full lips speaking to the beauty time had not erased from her.
‘She told me he’d put in on the fire. Silly boy,’
She offered me tea as we went into the living room.
It had been hers, a present from her father, brought back from a business trip to New England. A place outside Miskatonic, where a late meeting had him wandering around a store, the spark of his impulse landing on the kindling of what sat there, homemade and on display.
‘A local artist had made it. Years later, it turned out she’d killed herself. Quite the lunatic, but that’s par for the course with artists,’
Still, he had returned with it and she had loved it.
‘Is she having trouble sleeping?’
Insomnia would have been the least of my worries, but I nodded. It was one thing to share a childhood memory, quite another to link it to a pair of dead girls.
‘She’s possessive of it?’
‘When she’s at school, you know she hasn’t taken it with her and you can’t find it?’
My mouth tasted of tannins and plaque. The tea added to the film over my teeth and tongue so I set it back onto the saucer.
‘How do you know all this?’
Her smile was beautiful but cold, a forced nostalgia which made her eyes damp and hands shake.
‘It was my special bear. You should talk to your daughter, not me’ she said.
Billie’s feral scowl returned to my memory. I folded into the high-backed chair, rubbed my tired, burning eyes and wished none of this was happening.
‘But she won’t tell you anything.’
Her voice had the stinging tone of experience and I said nothing in response. She got up from the chair with a grunt and shuffled out of the room, told me to wait there.
It had been a notebook, collapsed into curled sheets of paper, bound with string where the spine had cracked and decayed into smears of glue against the edges of the paper. She held it in her trembling hands as she set it on the table.
‘One night, when it came out to play, I drew pictures, from underneath the covers. That was the night Keith Underwood drowned in the Vinegar Pond on the heath. Eight years old, they said he sneaked out of his bedroom and drowned.
No one connected his death and when he pushed me over in the playground that day. But I did.’
She untied the string and brushed the papers with her palm before her arthritic fingers plucked a sheaf from the pile and slid them across the table.
‘It loves her. As much as you, but it uses the love to get its own needs met.’
There had been Keith Underwood, but he wasn’t the first. Special Bear sat in her playroom, listened to her cry and talk about the bullies, the false friends and the wounds they left on her spirit.
Denise Gottering had been her best friend until an argument turned into a short, vicious campaign conducted at school where Denise used every confidence invested to spread rumours about her. Denise went missing.
‘You’ve seen it move, haven’t you?’
I swallowed and stared at the papers on the coffee table.
‘I think so. It was late, and I was in a state. There’s been two of her friends -‘
Mrs Channing gave a sunken, sad smile which made me shudder with anxious revulsion.
‘I saw on the news. Pretty girls. Did they hurt your daughter before they went missing?’
It was never easy to gauge a woman’s pain with any accuracy. It had been comments, ostracism and controlled bursts of sadism – pinches, Chinese burns before the group leader at Brownie’s had taken me to one side and told me about it. My expression confirmed her intuition.
‘It’s grown more vicious over the years. I’ve been trying to get rid of the thing for more than half my life. It’s been tossed into furnaces, the sea but it came back each time.’
I picked up one page, turned it over and looked at the drawing.
Her fragile, yellowing fingers trembled without her attention but there had been a genuine talent in her artwork. What appalled me is how she applied this onto the pages of the sketchbook.
It was the same creature, different parts of its anatomy drawn in details, with small handwritten notes next to each one.
A length of tentacle, studded with black horned barbs. Here, she had even drawn in small, fibrous hairs along the shaft.
A three lobed eye. Kidney shaped organs with lipless mouths opening to reveal rows of wet, sharp teeth. The individual sketches were beautiful and appalling, but with each page, her confidence in her recollections had grown to where she could put its bizarre anatomy into order.
‘What is this?’
She wheezed and her upper lip trembled, eyes brimming with tears.
‘It’s what lives inside the bear.’ she said.
The sketchbook drew my eye again.
‘It’s a toy. How does something live inside it?’
She shook her head.
‘Please don’t do this. It’s how it works. Your disbelief, it’s what my father said before he saw it. We were alerted to the people looking for it, so we sought to get rid of it but your disbelief keeps it attached to you. To your daughter.’
Her emphasis on the last two words made me clench with a paternal, territorial aggression.
‘People looking for a stuffed bear? You saying this is what’s inside it? Come on, this is gross.’
Despite my experiences, reason made me articulate how ridiculous this all was. A cosmic joke, lurid and antiquated, but one made at the expense of my family’s well being. Hers too, with her delusions which were gaining all the weight of truth with each moment.
She wiped the tears from her wizened cheeks, her white hair nestled in curls against her thin, veined scalp.
‘Gross is a good word. These people, they believe in its power. We’ve tried to get free, but it kept turning up.’ she said.
They had turned up to offer her father money for the bear, then her and more, as her faculties wavered, her adult children. Private collectors who claimed the bear was a valuable piece of folk art and wanted to return the bear to New England for a heritage piece. They offered ridiculous sums of money and appeared to be men and women of high standing. A noted businessman. A barrister. Some of them English, others American but all seeking to take the bear from her possession.
‘I’d have given it to them, if it would let me.’
She sighed and knotted her fingers together.
‘Now it’s your guest, Ed, and all that remains is to get rid of it before it hurts anyone else.’
The memories of Nia and Charlie rose from the shallow graves of my memories and turned my stomach. It was too late to do that, but the insane possibility existed of minimising the impact of the punch line.
When I tried to give her the sketchbook, she shook her head.
‘Show your daughter, Ed. Billie will have seen it, but you need to get the bear away from her.’
Numb and overwhelmed, I left her at home. The sketchbook mocked my insistence on this being explained in my hands. A plan formed in my mind, a simple direct action to protect us from what had come into our home. By the time I had pulled up, it held a happy clarity and once indoors, it was easy to rest beneath the certainty I would solve this problem once and for all.
I waited until Billie was asleep, plucked Special Bear from her grasp and took it out with me, tucking it inside an old rucksack of mine.
It went into the rucksack, along with two bricks to weigh it down. A padlock holding the zip in place. The bag shifted like something woke up and was moving around inside. All the way to Yarmouth, thirty quid for a single taxi fare. I went to the river Yare, at the memorial to the suspension bridge disaster.
It was deserted and quiet apart from the muted rush of passing cars on the road. My rucksack was rippling and seething as I took it off my shoulders and held it in front of me. The currents would sweep it out to sea, away from Billie and me.
Whatever was inside did not move like a child’s toy. It smacked and whipped against the inside the rucksack, gaining weight with each moment. In three strides, I heaved the rucksack into the water. It landed with a dull splash and a look over the edge showed the surface of the water was black and smooth as glass. Water had no memory.
‘Where’s Special Bear?’
Her voice chimed over from the kitchen doorway, eyes red and puffed from tiredness with her hair springing from her head in bent corkscrews. I wiped my eyes and swore under my breath.
‘I don’t know, babes, but it was a nasty old thing,’
She wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
‘No, it wasn’t,’
There was a second, fragile as a moth’s flight to a flame, where everything looked like it would be okay. I imagined a different version of events.
She lifted her chin as her throat ballooned. Her lips parted as thin, barbed tentacles whipped out, closing the distance in a second as they wrapped around my throat. They tightened and dug into the pale skin of my throat, choking off my scream with a wet, grisly crunch. Before I could react, Billie’s jaw distended until her chin touched her collarbone, accommodating more of what had grown inside her. Reaching out, guided by blind instinct and revulsion, I grabbed her head between my hands as I fought the urge to pass out. Her hair, like spun gold brushed against the back of my daughter’s neck before wrenching her head on her shoulders.
It didn’t take much. She was a small child. My solicitor argued the brutality of my actions were proof of my insanity. The jury disagreed, and here we are now.
The solicitor was silent for a long time. Ed finished speaking and asked for a glass of water. When it came, he drank it in one long draught and set the plastic cup onto the table.
‘They didn’t find anything like you described in the autopsy, Mr Dean,’ she said.
His shoulders sagged forwards, the harsh fluorescent lighting showed his pale scalp through his thinning hair as he folded his hands like a supplicant beginning prayer.
‘It doesn’t like dead hosts, I imagine,’ he said.
She hid an involuntary shudder as she collected her paperwork. Ed looked up at her, his expression one of a detachment so complete as to be serene.
‘All I wanted was to make my girl happy,’ he said.
She gave a hasty nod, motivated by a desire to get out of the room.
‘Will you see Mrs Channing’s family? They still have her sketchbooks,’ he said.
Her nod was tight and slow as she closed her briefcase and gave a thin, shallow smile.
‘I’ll see you soon, I promise,’ she said.
He gave a look of hopelessness which made him part of a fraternal order. Paul thanked her in a voice little more than a whisper before returning to his cell.
She got caught up in traffic and was in Gorleston as the sun was setting. On the corner of her road, a folding table was set up outside a semi-detached house, with a few pairs of scuffed, fat trainers and a selection of soft toys and action figures, propped up against one another. As she drove past, she saw a dull brown muzzle, a pair of black, shining button eyes and a lopsided grin where the stitching had come away.
It cost her a pound as the father wanted rid of the toys. When he glanced at the bear in her hands, he grimaced and shook his head.
‘Ugly bloody thing. I’d give it a turn in the washing machine, if I were you,’ he said.
She stroked the piebald patches on its stomach.
‘It won’t do anything to hurt me,’ she said.
When she looked up, the man saw a look of reverence in her eyes which enhanced her fine boned features and caramel brown eyes. Her lips were drawn back over her teeth as she grinned at him.
‘It’s perfect.’ she said.
(Special Bear is another one where I was working through my influences. This one, you may guess, is a little Stephen King-esque, but as influences go, not a bad one to have and there’s a bit of Raymond Carver in trying to be minimal without losing out on the esoteric influences which add to the horror.)