The human mind is like a honeycomb: dripping, taunting – that is how nightmare bears see it. If you’ve not heard of nightmare bears, well, lucky you.
This – my account, my story, my warning – isn’t about me. Not principally. The key mover in this sad, grisly (and grizzly-stuffed) tale is a little girl by the unlikely name of Auriferous Bangs. I promise to get to her in a moment. First though, a bit of data on nightmare bears:
Nightmare bears paw and scratch inside people’s skulls, wreaking havoc, rooting around with their hooked, obsidian claws, oftentimes compelling their hosts to commit horrendously deviant acts. They’re interdimensional. They lumber from universe to universe, trudging through both physical, metaphysical, and indescribable planes of unknowable makeup.
Auriferous, a rather morbid little girl, once told me that nightmare bears had been responsible for the “bodies-in-barrels” murders in Australia, the rape and killing of Tori Stafford, 9/11, the 1999 Hello Kitty murder in Hong Kong, the unimaginably brutal “Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs” killings in Ukraine, as well as a ghoulish bunch of others I’d rather forget.
I met Auriferous at Corkboard’s, a children’s-book store that sold handsome, colorful volumes as well as bookworm-friendly arts & crafts. I’d gone there to chat up the owners, whom I knew rather well, and to inspect the H section to insure that it had a healthy stock of my latest book. I write children’s books for a living, and my ex-wife Enid illustrates them. And before you jump to conclusions, I’ll tell you straight out: I’m not a senile, doddering storyteller so far as this account is concerned. I’m no dotty prevaricator. This is as true as the air you breathe, this short tale I’m going to unravel.
My name is Duncan Hounding. If you have children, perhaps you’ve heard of me. I wrote Cathead Manna, for which I won the Newbery, as well as Scarf’s Gigglefest, Goblin Loam, and the popular pop-up book Mimsy’s Farm & the Lollipop Enigma.
I first noticed the girl by the C’s. She was pensively scrutinizing a large annotated edition of Carroll’s Alice, her elfin face scrunched into a portrait of keen concentration. She dressed like that TV character Punky Brewster: red sneakers with yellow laces, pink-plastic reading glasses, multicolored barrettes in blondish-brown hair that had gnarled some time ago into dreadlocks – Auriferous had a phobia of shampoo. Her jean jacket was rackety with buttons and pins for cartoon beasts and silly computer music.
“Do you enjoy Carroll?” I asked, standing nearby with my cane poised, wearing my token gray trench coat.
“Dodgson,” she said, not looking up from the book of discussion. “Charles Lutwidge. I don’t acknowledge pen names.” Knowledgeable, I thought, for a girl of, at most, twelve or thirteen. A touch ironic too, considering the probable fictive nature of the name Auriferous Bangs. (“No relation to Lester,” Auriferous would often quip in a deadpan tone.) Much later, the newspaper would inform me that Auriferous’s birth name was Autumn Lowe.
She seemed to want solitude, so I quietly hobbled over to the shelf supporting my work to find, satisfyingly, a healthy stock of Hounding titles. I was a second away from heading to the front of the store to ask Vera, my favorite cashier, if Clay, the owner, would be interested in my doing a reading and signing in the near future, when the girl turned to me and said, “You’re Duncan Hounding. The author. You live in this neighborhood.”
Pleasantly surprised, I smiled and said, “Guilty as charged.” Among local moms, I was a minor celebrity. Auriferous, though, was not a mom and a little old for my books. She must’ve read about me in the paper or seen my photo on a dust jacket.
“Do you like books, young lady?” I asked, and found myself feeling oddly fearful of her response. She seemed to hum with a kind of cold intellect. I suspected criticism from her could be ugly.
“I’ve never read you. I’m a little old for pop-ups.”
I hemmed and hawed a bit. “Well,” I said. “I’d like to think my little tales can be appreciated by certain older readers as well as the tykes. They have some subtext, you know, a little meat stirred in…” I trailed off, sensing the girl no longer cared to hear my blather. She retrieved her powder-blue backpack from the floor. The pack had four stuffed animals sewn to its outside. Ratty, aged things with button-eyes dangling by string, brown fur torn and bleeding white cotton. Teddy bears.
“You sewed those bears on there yourself, did you? My ex-wife liked to sew. She made quilts.” I had no idea what I was trying to accomplish with this inane small talk.
“It’s not art,” the girl said, hiking the pack over one shoulder. It looked heavy. I didn’t know it then, but she’d filled the backpack with books from the shelves. Auriferous was a chronic, efficient shoplifter.
“Decoration then, not art. It’s very, um, cool. Boss, I mean,” I said, feeling deferential to this kid, and not mock deferential either. There was something otherworldly about her.
Auriferous stared at me with her honey-colored eyes. I imagined flies frozen in those eyes like amber. Her look bordered on hateful.
“The teddies aren’t decoration, Hounding. They’re charms. Apotropaic talismans.”
My chin must’ve bonked my loafers. I am a professional writer and had no clue as to what apotropaic meant. I supposed the girl was a child prodigy or spelling bee champ.
I should’ve left then. Unfortunately, I didn’t. And had I left, would things have gone differently? No way to know. I doubt it would’ve mattered.
“They’re after you, aren’t they?” the girl said in an urgent whisper. I was alarmed. Her neutral, apathetic demeanor abruptly turned into a kind of horrible compassion, as if she were a cancer patient detecting the disease in another. I felt frightened. Perhaps the child was mad? One of those death-worshipping tots you see on the nightly news, skipping into a school building with an AR-15 and blowing holes in their classmates.
“Who, my dear?” I smiled, hoping to calm her. “No one’s after anybody.”
The girl’s intensity dissipated then. She seemed to shrink by several inches, tension gone. “Oh,” she said. “It hasn’t happened yet. It will though, Hounding, it will. I can always tell.”
“The plagued know the about-to-be-plagued, Hounding. I was where you are once, you know. Before.”
The girl unzipped her pack and ferreted out an orange cube of Post-it-style notes emblazoned with Japanimated neon-green, black-sunglasses-wearing lizards. She scribbled down her name, address, and phone number with a glitter-enhanced marker/pen thingy. I reluctantly took the proffered note.
“Call me when it starts,” she said, turning to leave the store with her stolen goods. Then she stopped, remembering something, and, in a confessional tone said, “You’re the third. They mark you like you’re territory. Just like any other animal does. You’re marked. Like a tree. I can smell them on you.”
I looked at the noxiously colorful note: Auriferous Bangs.
“Is this a prank or something?” I said. “Something you kids do these days to befuddle grown-ups?”
Auriferous shot me a lithic glare that silenced me instantly. She strode over to the shelf that held my books, deposited one of each title into her pack, and said, “Call me, Hounding. You’re going to need my help.”
Of course she left Corkboard’s without paying a dime.
I should’ve wadded up the note and tossed it in the trash. I was going to. Though an author of children’s books, a lot is made these days of child predators. I’d never accepted a child’s information unless the info came from the mother. And yet something made me hesitate; I pocketed the note.
A week later it started.
The subconscious is the Black Forest. In the subliminal murk is where the bears shit, fuck, growl, hunt. This is not metaphor. Your brain, your spongy gray matter, is a woodland, and the neurons’ electrical impulses are its lightning storms. The bears like the dark and the moisture in there. They like it a great deal.
Over the years, I’ve discovered a few defenses against them. Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime tea – yes, the box with the pajama-clad, snoozing bear on it – dulls the bears’ nighttime activity. Do not consume honey or have porridge in your fridge. And of course, keep a lot of stuffed bears around your house. They act as decoys, somehow. Distractions. None of this is infallible, but it’s better than nothing.
One week after meeting Auriferous, I stood in my sunlit kitchen. It was 7 AM on a Tuesday. My coffeemaker burbled and gargled, its black oil rasping into the pot. I splayed the morning newspaper out on the counter and skim-read a poignant editorial about victims of bird flu. The tops of my hands on the paper were illuminated by the bright sunlight spilling through the alcove’s window. I thought about all the death in the world, the disease and famine, and that is when my hands dimmed to a shade of gray. Inexplicably, the kitchen had darkened. The sun still shone boldly through the glass, yet it no longer affected the inside of my house. This defied certain photonic laws. The sunlight seemed to stop dead at my windows as if by some invisible tint.
Beneath the aroma of fresh brew, I detected a hint of wet leaves, damp mulch, soil, earth. And, growing in strength, a foul wave of rot and filth.
I turned from the counter to the kitchen and the connected living room. The whole house was cobwebbed in a very strange, indefinable darkness. The light bulbs hadn’t dimmed. They, like the sun, seemed to have simply lost their effect. Some bits of darkness were more disturbing than others. The chairs around my kitchen table began to resemble eerily gnarled trees. I spotted adumbrations of branches blotting the ceiling. I believe I whimpered. My heart felt pinched.
There is not a thing cute or natural about nightmare bears. They’re resoundingly un-Pooh-like. Their hot breath reeks of moldered flesh and bluebottles buzz forever about their bloodshot eyes, wet-black snouts, and diseased heads, like halos of putrefaction. They are covered paw to head with a revolting layer of feces and spoiled blood.
That morning, when reality first showed itself to me to be disreputable, I didn’t, thankfully, actually see a nightmare bear. I’ve seen them since, at a distance, but not that morning. I did, that morning, smell them, however. I gagged at the rancid-honey-and-dead-blood stink caked to their hides. I heard the buzzing of the flies. They were horribly near.
I broke out in a fear-sodden funk, certain I was going to suffer a heart attack. Dizziness nearly toppled me. I braced myself by planting both hands on the countertop.
Then, quicker than it had come, the darkness and inklings of forest vanished, along with the reek of the bears. The kitchen was again glorious with light and the odor of fresh coffee. Or so I thought.
When I raised the cup of coffee to my lips to sip from it, I noticed the bottom of the mug was filthy with dirt and leaves.
I did not sleep well that night after the kitchen incident. I had a nightmare of being pursued through the woods by colossal, furred beasts. They cornered me in a small hole in a tree that I’d squeezed myself into. The hole became like a blender as the black claws frenzied in and began tearing me to bits. I woke in a state of absolute horror.
What’s worse, I had a signing to do the following morning at a bookstore called Springtime of Life, a forty-five-minute drive from my house. I felt drained and shaky, completely unenthused about meeting the public. I knocked back a few energy drinks (the coffeemaker gave me the creeps) and hit the road with a box of my books.
The bookstore was located next to a Ramada Inn. It was a horridly stressful signing. All I remember is sweating and shaking, my mind frantic, feeling as though this ordinariness was a distant memory, a shade of a former life that had been altered forever by the incident in the kitchen. I felt they were waiting for me to come home. To feed them.
I signed book after book, all mothers and their children. I don’t even recall what the bookstore looked like. When I glanced up to see a bear through the bookstore’s large front window, I nearly suffered a coronary. The bear lumbered through the parking lot toward the Ramada, followed by a human-sized squirrel and an equally large unicorn. It wasn’t until later that the owner of Springtime of Life, a woman named Acacia, informed me that the Ramada Inn was hosting what is called a Furry convention. Furries, as you may know, are a subculture of oddballs who dress as anthropomorphic animals and I suppose have sex with each other. The bear, squirrel, and unicorn were merely costumes. I felt like a fool.
I met with Auriferous a total of three times during the week after the frightful kitchen experience. We would meet in nearby Penny Park and she would school me about the nightmare bears, telling me what little she knew. I’d really rather not recount our meetings in detail. It’s simply too painful in light of what happened.
Sunday morning I woke to a neighbor’s lawnmower – I’d been dreaming and mistook the mower for a growl. A bear’s growl. I kicked off the sheets and went to the kitchen to look around for some tea. The kitchen and living room by this time were cluttered with protective teddy bears. I have a landline, and as I brought a pan of water to a boil I noticed the answering machine’s single red eye blinking silently. I had a message. From Auriferous.
Thinking about the message now makes me cringe. I took it for understandable paranoia and not the precursor to impending tragedy it turned out to be.
This is her message, verbatim, copied from the answering machine tape:
She spoke in a terrified whisper, which was unlike her, for she was a fearless little girl. She sounded as though she didn’t want anyone to hear her –
“Hounding, you need to come here. Don’t… no. Don’t come. Don’t come. They’re in my head, Hounding. They got in. My fucking mother bought something, some honey or something. I don’t know. I don’t know. It isn’t safe here, Hounding. I feel them behind my eyes. The flies that are on them all the time – I feel the flies buzzing behind my eyes. In my head. And I feel claws in my head. Claws and teeth, Hounding. They’re doing something to my brain. I won’t… wait. Wait. My father has – “
She hung up midsentence. I didn’t call because I didn’t want to aggravate the poor girl’s state – we rarely discussed anything other than the bears. I drank my tea, hoping she’d settle down and call back later.
But then I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something about Auriferous’s tone, its frayed perturbation, made me dress and rush out of the house to my Datsun. I fumbled the car keys and had to stoop to retrieve them. I drove recklessly for the first time since turning seventy.
The Lowe house was a blue ranch-style house with white trim. A bit rundown but welcoming and comfy. I’d never met Auriferous’s parents.
I parked across the street along the curb and walked to the driveway. The house felt unoccupied. I can’t explain why. Have you ever sensed emptiness in a structure prior to entering it? That is the feeling I had then.
I called hello through the front door’s screen. “Is anyone home?” I said, knowing the answer. I knocked several times before deciding to let myself in.
The house was dim. I passed through a laundry room, in which the washer was churning. I smelled burnt toast and, beneath it or mixed with it, rather, something sharp and smoky. I came to a living room strewn with leaves and rocks, as if someone had dumped shovelfuls of forest into the house. Flies droned and whizzed about the room. I hurried through the living room and into a hall, my heart hammering. “Auriferous?” I called. No answer.
In the first bedroom on the right I found their bodies. Auriferous’s parents, May and Bram. They’d been in bed when they were killed. From the neck up, Bram’s head had been obliterated into a ruined pulp. A sheet of blood highlighted the wall behind the headboard. May, beside the body of Bram, had two holes in her stomach the size of grapefruits. Two hoses of intestine protruded grotesquely from the lower of the two wounds. The sheets and mattress were splattered, soaked in blood. The room stank of cordite and shit. A 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun lay on the carpet at the foot of the bed. Three spent cartridges were visible beside it.
I stumbled backward into the hall, mumbling “no” repeatedly, like a mantra, unconsciously. “Auriferous!” I screamed, and shakily made my way into a smaller bedroom. Inside was a crib. The mobile above it was bloodied from arterial spray. I peered into the crib to find the butchered corpse of Auriferous’s one-year-old brother, Caleb. The baby looked like a psychopath’s idea of a pin cushion – every knife and fork and peeler from the house’s kitchen drawer had been stabbed into the baby and left there, the utensils projecting gruesomely upward at skewed angles.
I screamed again and pounded my shaking palms on the crib’s rods. As hyperbolic as it sounds, I felt my soul shatter.
Auriferous’s bedroom was littered with chunks of tree bark and the flies were heaviest there. The stuffed teddies had been shredded to fluff and scraps. There was no sign of the girl. There was a box of shotgun shells on the nightstand.
I phoned the police from the house’s landline. I waited for them on the porch, unable to stand being in that abattoir of a house for a moment longer. I was questioned at length down at the precinct and released four hours later. I went home, drained and queasy.
The homicide detectives determined that May, Bram, and baby Caleb had indeed been murdered by Auriferous. How that little girl managed to wield that ugly shotgun I’ll never know. What isn’t known is who (or what) killed Auriferous. The investigators found Auriferous’s body – what was left of it – in the woods behind the Lowe house, about a mile in. She’d been torn to pieces.
The murders at the Lowe’s have become the subject of much local speculation and macabre interest in the last year or so. Children point at the house on their way to school and tell ghastly tales about the mad little girl who shotgunned her parents and stabbed her baby brother to death in his crib.
As for me, I’m hanging on. I drink my Sleepytime tea every evening and buy new stuffed bears each week. These safety measures are starting to lose their effectiveness though, I’m afraid. I’ve begun seeing them in the corners of rooms, in the dark. They’re slavering and breathing their rank breath into my bedroom. They hunch over me while I sleep, eager to root around in my mind and compel me to do horrendous things to the children in town.
I don’t know how much longer I can resist them. They’re terribly hungry.
Will Bernardara Jr. is an artist and co-founder of the occult, criminal collective The Tender Wolves Society. His stories have appeared in places such as Broadswords and Blasters, The Society of Misfit Stories, Underbelly Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, and elsewhere. His debut novel, America, was published in 2018 by voidfront press.