|THE SMELCH BEAR by Mark Slade|
Caroline lived on the top floor of a three-storey apartment complex. Her front window overlooked the river Gower, which helped the city-state Kalen to split its border with its sister city-state, Kazan. At the end of World War One Kalen and Kazan were united under the name of Baltica, because it’s what the rest of the world called them. Baltica had once been the strong-arm of the continent for shipping and receiving goods. But in the last decade of the twentieth century, a civil war devastated not only the government, but the economy. Feuding factions murdered up to ten thousand of its citizens.
And you wouldn’t believe what the dispute was about. Colours. Yes, colours. In different societies, something so normal can mean different things. To the Baltica people, nationalism was pride. Pride was your family crest, which included your family colour. The Anjohoves were the royals before WWI and ruled the Baltica lands for almost fifty years. Many families spawned off the Anjohoves because King Hva simply loved to sire children. On their family crest was of course, courage, a lion in a snowy land, and the colour red. Red meant their family was tough and loyal.
After King Hva passed, his sons ruled jointly and were involved in a brutal devastation of the land. They ruled with an iron fist. They starved the people and nearly wiped out a small part of green-eyed folk known as Ghuluers. These lived in the southern part of Baltica and were mostly farmers. They practiced a ritualistic form of Christianity where sacrifices of animals were common. Considered ignorant and useless by the royals, the sons butchered several thousand to take land from them. King Hva’s sons were never popular and were always favourite targets of assassins. The oldest son was murdered, the younger son ran away, dying penniless in a villa in Spain.
The sons no longer in power, the country voted for a Prime Minister. Dhule Grayer was his name. He was wonderful to the country. Lifted most taxes, fixed the train system so transportation was not a headache anymore. Grayer also brought the car industry to Baltica, He even helped develop early radio and built movie houses in remote areas. The economy soared. His family crest consisted of a hand with two fingers crossed, meaning a united people. The background was the colour black.
During WWI, Grayer was assassinated. The country was in turmoil until the end of the Great War and Ghola Gahlla was appointed Prime Minister by the European powers. His family had no ties to anyone from the past, and future Prime Ministers were the same. No colours, no family crests... no political struggles. For the rest of the century, they became invisible to the world; often relying on help from the Soviet Union, sometimes Europe came to their rescue, and Baltica received a gift from the U.S. while Carter was in office.
The colours of black and red had always been the subject of terrible arguments in the street and even in households. Literally, riots would erupt just because of those two colours. God forbid you wore a red scarf walking down the street where a neighbourhood of Dhule Grayer supporters advertised black banners on their windows.
When it was proposed that a new flag be commissioned, it was also suggested that red be thrown into the colour scheme to show the history of the nation. Senators turned on senators, news reporters turned on reporters, even members of the Olympic basketball team turned on each other. That was the beginning of the conflict. Civil war broke out. Neighbours murdered neighbours, wives murdered husbands, lovers murdered lovers, and children murdered children.
Caroline was one of those victims of the civil war.
A homemade bomb mangled her legs when she was seven years old. All through the conflict, Caroline and her family lived underground, because her father refused to give up his loyalty to the colour black. When it was decided by the U.N. to split the country into two city-states, the river Gower dividing a warring people, Caroline was seventeen. With the war over, Caroline could attend university to study law. Then the rights of the afflicted were yanked. No longer seen as real citizens who could help the country, Caroline was institutionalized. Four years later, some of her rights were given back. Still, it was in law that the afflicted could be seen, but not heard. So they were trained not to speak at all, using pen and paper to communicate. If that law was broken, their voice heard, they could be eradicated.
Caroline’s will to study as a law or interest to venture the outside world, had waned. Her sister wrote a worldwide bestselling book about the civil war and became a spokesperson for her country. But no one knew of the laws suppressing the disabled. Her sister planned to write an article on that subject. She died suddenly in a car wreck. That was strange because Caroline’s sister never learned to drive. She was found behind the wheel of the car, wrapped around a tree. No evidence, no witnesses.
A trust fund was set up. Part of those funds supported Caroline. She was moved into the plush one bedroom apartment overlooking the river Gower. Her lawyer and head of the trust fund Masal Klon, visited once a week, bringing supplies. Mr. Klon was an unusual man, very pale, with powder white skin, very red hair and one eye larger than the other. At first, Caroline was afraid of him. She would not even reply to Mr. Klon with the pen and paper. After a few months, she became used to him. He would tell her stories of his family, what his children were up to, and even offered to bring her a puppy his dog had given birth to. She eventually would write on paper her questions, write him a list of supplies, needs and wants.
On the other side of the river was another three-storey apartment building. That apartment seemed to stay empty for most of the first-year Caroline lived in her cosy one bedroom apartment. Out of the blue, a man appeared at the window. He was short, balding, and had a hump on his back. He wore huge, wire rimmed glasses. He too seemed to have a disability that restricted his movements. Just like Caroline, he liked to watch the river and watch Caroline watch the river.
Just like Caroline, his government had taken away his right to speak. To be seen and not heard, it is law.
All day, they would watch either each other or the currents of the river carrying different objects from one side of the beach to the other. Caroline would watch this man eat his tuna cakes and he would watch her eat mackerel salad. In the evening, she would drink her tea, and he would skin his carrots, at least two, and use a long, jagged blade to slice them into small pieces before chewing each one fiercely like a bunny rabbit.
There are two things that the rest of the world do not know about the Baltics. One: no matter what is going on, war or no war; their mail system is very efficient. Nothing, by no means, nothing has ever shaken up that part of the government. Storms, cataclysmic—end of the world... nothing can come between a Baltic and his or her mail. Nothing. The efficient mail service is all due to an underground mail room several thousand feet under both cities, built in the early 1900s. Each building is marked with a number. Pneumatic tube transport uses cylindrical containers connecting both city-states and air compression chutes the package, the letter, even pet carriers with pets, are sent to the exact address. No mistakes have ever been recorded. Only a few hundred people operate this mail room, and their identities are kept secret just in case an enemy decides to disrupt the mail. Only problem with that is, Baltica has never been to war with anyone other than themselves. Two: They are so good at espionage, even a child would never know his or her mother was a secret policeman. Same principal as the mail service, except to reiterate, they have only been an enemy to themselves. What the rest of the world didn’t know either, was Kazan and Kalen governments had been waging a secret war on each other since supposed peace was installed. Each city-state government abducted each other’s citizens and brainwashing or interrogating through torture.
So when a package arrived at Caroline’s apartment with a return address from Kalen, she was not surprised.
A red box was presented to Caroline, about the size of a shoe box. Shot right out of the tubes in the walls of the apartment building and out of a small dumbwaiter. A bell rang, and a window opened. The package fell to the floor and rolled to her feet. At first, the colour red repelled her. She did not want to open it. She would look at it, and become offended, then give the man across the river dirty looks. He would smile and wave emphatically. After a few days, she became more curious than offended. The man would wave at her, smile, his face would light up every time Caroline looked at him.
Finally, when night crept in, Caroline opened the package.
She unfastened the ribbon that held the top over the box, reached inside and found a tiny brown teddy bear with wiry hair, small button eyes. He’d sent Caroline a Smelch bear. They were very popular stuffed animals when she was a little girl. The toy was so popular, a cartoon ran for a few years on television, until the civil war. A Smelch bear had a tiny transistor inside its midsection. When the right paw was pressed, he would tell you he loved you.
Apparently, this toy had been reworked by Caroline’s new friend to include just his voice and a way to re-record another voice. There were two notes attached to each paw. One read: Press the right paw to listen. The other note read: Press the left paw to record your voice. Caroline pressed the left paw and a voice came through muffled, but otherwise audible.
“Hello! I am Gerald! Please say hello back!”
The voice startled Caroline. She screamed and dropped the bear.
Caroline felt silly. Why should that cause alarm? A voice saying “hello”? Caroline played the message all night along. She took the bear to bed with her and squeezed the paw every now and again until she fell asleep. “Hello! I am Gerald! Please say hello back!” rocked her to gentle sleep.
The next morning, Caroline decided to say hello back. She pressed the other paw and recorded her voice. “Hello!” she exclaimed, giggled, and hid her face. She cleared her throat and continued. “I am Caroline! Please say hello back!” She giggled again before the recorder turned off. She put the bear back in the little red box, put the lid back on, started to tie the ribbon, and then stopped. She thought a second, hobbled over to a drawer, and found a black sash and a pair of scissors.
The scissors sliced the sash into three quarters. Caroline measured each one and inspected them to make sure no embarrassing shreds were visible. She chose the middle one, removed the ribbon and tied the new fashioned black ribbon around the lid. She extracted the old label, patted down a new one with the addresses switched. Caroline hobbled over to the mail chute, pressed a button and it slid open. Carefully, she placed the box on the tray, pressed the button again and off it went.
She hobbled over to her chair, ready to watch Gerald receive his package. He smiled hugely and waved to Caroline. She waved back, but not as energetically as Gerald. He left his chair, disappeared into another room. A few minutes later, Gerald returned to his chair holding the little red box. He quickly opened the box, disregarding the black ribbon and tossing the top over his back. He retrieved the little stuffed bear and pressed the right paw.
Caroline saw Gerald’s face light up. He hugged the bear close to him and gave it a gentle kiss on the cheek.
She didn’t know how to react. She was shocked. She hardly knew Gerald and he was already kissing her cheek... well, the bear’s cheek, but still!
Still... no one had dared to make such overtures to Caroline, real or imaginary. Once at the university, a boy named Jacek showed interest in her. He would open the doors for her, make sure she was safe going down the stairs using her crutches or walker. He even bought her a drink once. Of course, all of that was before a man in a black trench coat and a black bowler came and told Caroline’s mother that Caroline was not allowed back at the university or that she had to go into an institution for her kind.
The next day, the box came back to Caroline. She had a whole night to think about the kiss, and a whole night to wonder if Gerald would do it again. Should she send the box back? Say hello again? Or send another message?
She opened the box carefully, retrieved the stuffed bear. Again, there was a not on each paw. The one on the right said, “squeeze me,” the one on left said, “please leave a message.”
Caroline squeezed the right paw and Gerald’s voice came through, still a bit muffled, as if he were too close to the microphone, nonetheless, quite audible.
“Hello!” Gerald’s voice came from the bear’s midsection. “I like you, Caroline! You are very pretty!”
Caroline smiled. She rather liked being called pretty. She actually wanted to see Gerald kiss the bear’s paw again. She didn’t mind if he called her pretty every day.
Caroline heard the front door slam shut. She turned to find Mr. Klon behind her.
“Well, well, well,” he said with a wry grin on his face. His lopsided eye was fixed upon the bear in Caroline’s hands. “Would that be a Smelch bear in your hands?”
Caroline froze inside.
Mr. Klon could cause Gerald and her quite a bit of trouble. He could tell someone and they could both be ordered by the government to be destroyed. She looked out her window and saw Gerald watching.
Mr. Klon ambled over to Caroline, took the bear from her hands. Scrutinizing the stuffed bear, he turned it over in his hands. “I have not seen one of these in years.” Mr. Klon forced a bitter laugh from his diaphragm. “I’ve forgotten how ugly these things were. So glad my children are too old for them.” He read the note, squeezed the right paw.
“Hello!” Gerald’s voice came from the bear’s midsection. “I like you, Caroline! You are very pretty!”
Mr. Klon laughed again, shook his head. He saw past Caroline and saw Gerald watching from his window, a very worried look on his face. “Ahhh,” Mr. Klon said. “I see. We have made a friend from our neighbours across the river.” Mr. Klon sniffed. “A neighbour that happens to be an enemy.”
Gerald disappeared from his window. Caroline felt terrible. She’d gotten both of them in trouble. She didn’t so much mind if it was just her, but... she didn’t really know Gerald. He was somewhat... innocent.
“You realize what I must do,” Mr. Klon said. He sighed, snarled at the bear. “I’ll have to tell someone about all of this. Unless...” his lopsided eye transfixed on Caroline, who was by now weeping uncontrollably, “you sign over the rest of your trust fund to me. I’ll make sure you are taken care of.” The other eye focused on Caroline and he gave her a quick, reassuring smile. “Yes,’ he nodded. “I’ll make sure you are taken care of.”
A bell rang. Mail came down the tubes and the air boosted a package out of the mail chute. The box fell to the floor and tumbled toward Mr. Klon’s nicely polished shoes. He laughed, turned to Caroline.
“This ‘Gerald’ must be a simpleton! He’s sent you another present! While I’m still here... tsk, tsk, tsk.” He clucked his tongue to punctuate the horrible situation. He unravelled the red sash, removed the lid. “He’s sent you another Smelch bear! This man is a fool! A note... not two notes?” Mr. Klon shook his head and laughed. “The note says, press my right paw...” Mr. Klon pressed the right paw with his thumb and forefinger.
“Duck, Caroline!” Gerald’s muffled voice could be heard.
Mr. Klon and Caroline exchanged a curious glance. Caroline heard the ticking. It came to her what was inside that bear. She fell to the floor hard, covered her head and face.
The world went silent for a moment.
The explosion rocked the apartment, and the room was filled with smoke. The last two things Caroline remembered before she passed out, was Mr. Klon’s screams, and a pair of arms picking her up.
Caroline awoke inside a strange place. She lay in a bed with several red pillows and a patchwork quilt that showed the history of Baltica. Her eyes travelled around the room and saw multiple Smelch bears. Some of them were without the skin, just a plastic skeleton sitting on a work bench, and a few transistors by a chair. She focused her eyes a little more and found Gerald hovering over her, smiling. He kissed her hand and helped her to a sitting position.
Over by his crutch and walker, was a walkie talkie. A muffled man’s voice could be heard in between static noise. The man seemed to be speaking in riddles or code words. She smiled back at Gerald. Not exactly because he was at her side, but a realization crossed her mind.
A year later, Caroline and Gerald were still sharing his apartment and the view across the river. Her old apartment had undergone some renovations. In all that time, no one had occupied the place until one day, a man in a wheelchair showed up. This man had very pale, powder white skin, with very red hair and one eye larger than the other.
Caroline couldn’t be sure, but he looked a lot like Mr. Klon.