The Berenstein Conspiracy
by Derek Ivan Webster
The lines looked the same, as did the colors. You could follow the certainty of the pen’s ink as it stained over the mess of pencil strokes beneath. The figures were friendly and inviting, their brown fur represented by warm, rounded tufts at the head and shaggy tips extending from their clawed hands. Yes, they had hands, not paws, and they wore overalls, button-up shirts, and sunny dresses that looked like they’d been dried outside in the wind. The words, confident in their folksy rhythm, never too long, and printed in sizable font beneath the pictures, were exactly as he remembered them. Like lyrics to a favorite song, most of them he could have read without ever looking at the page. In short, the book was, down to the applesauce stain on page six and his crayon scrawled name on the inside cover, almost exactly as he recalled it should be. Except for that singular oddity: the name of the authors on the spine, cover, and title page was wrong.
Mark had first, knowingly, engaged with the Berenstein conspiracy as a result of his only child’s fifth birthday party. It was the afternoon and much frosting had already been consumed. The children were going native in his backyard, ignoring the inflatable bounce-house he’d spent a week’s salary to rent in favor of a rousing game of follow the leader. He couldn’t find his indomitable wife, but he imagined her, natural pied piper that she was, at the head of the column of giggling enthusiasm. The pack of mothers were inside preparing the ingredients for a homemade pizza lunch. Mark just felt in the way. He chose to escape to the picnic table, under the shade of his covered patio. There he could commune with the only father that had actually stayed for cake, instead of advantaging the unspoken offer of free babysitting inherent in every drop-off party.
“How you holding up?” he asked, because it felt like the right thing to say to a fellow whose wife had recently passed, leaving him alone with his five-year-old daughter, Lacy.
The man nodded back. He held a red cup of bubbly juice in one hand and was poking at a third piece of butter-creamed red-velvet with a steak knife. Mark vaguely remembered having used it to cut the cake. At a glance the man didn’t look like he’d been sleeping well. Mark eased down next to him on the bench. The stretch of the man’s collar and the sharpness of his scent suggested he hadn’t changed his clothes in a few days.
“We’re really glad you could bring, Lacy,” Mark offered. “She’s a good girl.” The father set down his cup but didn’t respond. Mark had reached the natural extent of his small talk. They both watched as the rambunctious train of children sang and danced its way in a circle around the unused rubber castle. Mark was just about to get up to take his place at the head when the other man slammed his hand down on the wood.
“It’s not right!” he yelled out.
Mark jumped at the outburst. He glanced up but no one else had noticed. “Whoa, easy now.” His hands were up, his fingers splayed; a placating gesture.
“It’s all wrong,” the man continued. His head tilted back down and his shoulders slumped. “None of it makes sense. It’s a loose thread. Don’t tug or it all comes undone.”
Mark watched and listened. He was kicking himself for sitting down at the table. This was just the kind of situation he’d been trying to avoid. “It’s alright, I hear you.” In the back of his mind he was wondering what they would need to do with Lacy if her father ended up having a nervous breakdown.
The man raised his hand and slapped the table again, this time much lighter. Mark realized the hand had not landed on the table but on the cover of a flat book. He vaguely remembered it as one of the birthday gifts. You couldn’t expect a book to go over well at a five-year-old’s party, but Mark had appreciated the retro-boldness of the choice. The man was drumming his fingers atop the surface now. They came to rest and he tilted the book up to show the cover. “Do you remember this one? I loved this when I was a kid.”
Mark glanced at the cover and nodded. Sweat was beading on the man’s forehead and running tracks down his face. “Yeah, sure. Berenstein Bears. Who didn’t love those?”
The man’s eyes stretched wider and his face twitched. “Say that again. What did you call this?”
“It’s a book.” The man’s eyes were expectant; they wanted more. “A gift. She’s going to love it once the sugar wears off.” The eyes burrowed deeper. “We, uh, we’re definitely going to read it together, tonight. Promise.”
The man shook his head. “No, tell me what you called it before. What kind of bears?”
“Um… Berenstein Bears.”
“Yes!” He clutched the book to his chest, suddenly euphoric.
Mark glanced up and tried to catch someone’s attention. No-one was paying them any mind. The man could come at him with that steak knife right now and the birthday party would not notice. He was on his own. “Yep, Berenstein Bears. Totally my favorite growing up. Yours too, I take it. I loved the one when the boys sneak out into the spooky woods at night.”
The man only shrugged. He was smiling now but there was something flimsy in the look, like it was only a placeholder. “That’s not it. It’s not the book that’s important. It’s the name. Look here.” He pointed to the text at the top of the book’s cover. “Do you see it.”
Mark did remember this one; he’d owned it when he was a boy. The title was in big red letters, “The Bear Scouts”. There was the image of the Papa Bear, in his familiar overalls and brown felt hat, napping at the back of a canoe, while four cubs, in their ‘bear scout’ uniforms, were trying to navigate a rapids. The basic story came back to him, not least because it was a common model for the book series: well-meaning but bumbling Papa Bear starts out to teach his cubs a lesson but ends up, unbeknownst to him, relying on the youngster’s good sense and ingenuity.
“I see it,” Mark nodded with an extra dose of enthusiasm. “That’s a classic. Really good story-telling there.”
The man narrowed his eyes. Somehow he was the one losing patience. He stabbed his finger at the banner that ran across the very top. “Read this out loud. Read it slowly.”
“Yep,” Mark took a deep breath and read out as slowly and clearly as he could manage: “The Berenstein Bears.”
The man shook his head. “You’re not seeing it. Your thread hasn’t come undone yet.” He used the tip of the knife to trace the letters with great care, hovering between the ‘st’ and the ‘n’. “Read the letters.”
Mark was almost done humoring the man. Then he thought of the empty bedroom that he likely had waiting for him at home; the unending line of drop-offs, snack bags, and evening tea-parties that likely comprised his world. “S-T-A-I-N,” he read out loud.
“Now it’s happening.” The man set the book down in front of him with a look of relief.
“Wait, what?” Mark shook his head loose from his musings.
“You remember the Berenst-EE-n Bears, right?”
“But that book just called you a liar.” The man’s smile deepened and he took a healthy mouthful of cake off the edge of his knife. He continued while chewing velvet. “It’s Berenst-AY-n. Don’t you remember? That’s what it’s always been, right? This book can’t be wrong.”
Mark picked up the book. He weighed it in his hands as if to test its reality. He turned it over to see the standard Dr. Seuss Beginner Books blurb. He looked at the spine to make sure it was showing the same as the cover. “The Berenstain Bears,” he read again, his palate itching a little on the ‘ai’ in the name. “That’s not right,” he whispered. He looked up. The other man was chewing happily, all of his angst bled away. “Is this some kind of joke?”
The man shrugged. “You tell me.”
“So this isn’t a real copy. You had it printed up as a gag. Why would you do that? What’s the difference?”
The man set his plate down and swallowed the last of the cake. “You kept some of your books from when you were young, right? For your daughter.”
“Go check it out. Find the one about the spooky forest and see what it has to say.”
Mark placed the book carefully on the table. He couldn’t explain the anxiety that was suddenly spiking through his chest. “Listen, I have to go check on the kids. It was nice catching up with you.” He stood up from the bench and left the picnic table.
“You’ll see,” the voice followed him. “You can’t stop it now. The thread has come loose.” Mark didn’t look back. He couldn’t have said what he was afraid to see, or not see.
The rest of the party drudged by; ninety weekend minutes that felt too much like a Wednesday afternoon. Mark stayed on his feet, doing his best to shift between the kitchen, the yard, and the bathroom often enough to never find himself alone with that other fellow. By the time he’d taken on the play duty his adversary had caught the hint. Mark didn’t see him leave but he let out a relieved sigh when Lacy wasn’t lined up for musical chairs. Absent parents began to show up soon after that and things wrapped up well enough. Some of the moms asked if they could stay and help but he shooed them away. He fell down on the couch when the house was safely empty. He heard the sound of his wife starting on the dishes.
“Save that for later,” he called, an arm laid over his forehead. “I’ll do them tonight.”
“No worries,” came the reply. “You did enough. I was glad to see you connecting with that poor guy. Seems like he could use a friend.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Mark’s words had sunk under his breath.
Mark made himself sit up and look through to the kitchen. The image of his wife looking down, scrubbing with vigor at an aluminum platter. He couldn’t make out her face. He missed that face. “Really, I’ll help. Just give me a minute.”
“Take your time, honey. She really overdid it. She’s down for a nap.”
Mark nodded. He felt like he could use one of those. He stood up stiffly and headed for the stairs. “I’ll check in on her.”
Their daughter was on her twin mattress in the corner of the room. They’d used a crib that converted to a toddler bed she had just outgrown. Mark hadn’t yet had the chance to assemble the princess frame and canopy. Things had gotten in the way. The snores coming from the bundle of covers suggested she was comfortable enough. Mark hovered a few steps off. He didn’t want to wake her up.
He looked to the side. It was just a glance but one he had told himself he wouldn’t make. The bookshelf was right next to the window, its edge touching the curtains printed with pastel butterflies. The bottom two shelves were filled with the remains of chunky board-books that had been his daughter’s favorite teething toys, as well as the oversized picture books Mark had spent every night of the last five years reading aloud. The top shelf was better ordered. Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, Richard Scarry, Marc Brown: a mixture of gifts, new purchases, and classics Mark’s parents had handed down for the next generation. He was standing in front of the books before he’d decided anything. His hand reached out and immediately found what his mind had sought for the last two hours.
The cover of the book was badly worn and the corners frayed. The title, in yellow scratchy letters, read “Spooky Old Tree.” Three bear cubs, tangled in rope, stood atop a dark blue night, an unsteady flashlight held up to expose the alien face of an ancient tree, complete with knotted eyes and nose and clawed branches that reached for them. Mark clung to the book, his breath came up short. It wasn’t just that he could, as clearly as any memory he owned, recall exactly what it was to hold this book as a child, heart racing with excitement, flashlight held atop his own bed, as he scared himself silly stumbling over the first words he had ever read on his own. That was there, in his head. It was, however, the pink cursive letters at the very top that seized him now. As aged and authentic as every other inch of the book, the letters read, “The Berenstain Bears.”
He felt something snap in his head, as small and brittle as a twig. He lost his sight to an electric flash. He felt the book fall from his hands. The other memory was still there.
“S-T-E-I-N?” he’d asked his father the next morning. Was it like the monster of Frankenstein? Or like his friend from school, Joey Epstein? St-I-ne or St-EE-n? The same letters, two different sounds. It made his brain hurt even then.
“Berenst-EE-n,” his father said, buttering both of their toasts. “At least I think it is.”
Mark reopened his eyes and saw the book on the floor. Nothing had changed: “Berenstain” remained. He took a step back. There was something odd in the room. It was hard to place. Had the curtains been printed with butterflies before? Were they the same color? He lurched back to the bed. He didn’t want to wake his daughter, but he needed to see. The covers pulled away to reveal nothing. No-one was there. He made it out of the room and down the stairs without damaging anything.
No-one was in the kitchen. Stacks and stacks of dishes waited to be cleaned. The house was empty. He heard a sound outside. It might have been a laugh or a cry. On his way through the kitchen he paused at the sink and picked up a familiar steak knife, smeared with frosting. The sound came again from the back yard. If it was laughter it was violent, breathless. He slipped through the patio door and left it open behind him.
The picnic table was empty, half-finished plates still strewn about. There was no sign of movement in the yard. Then the sound again. Someone was hiding in the bounce castle. He clutched the knife to his side and slowly approached the velcro flap at the opening. He tried to think whether it was better to call out first or retain the advantage of surprise. He tried to think at all. There was an echo to his thoughts that made it hard to focus. “Steen… stine… stain,” the words played on a loop in his head, he could almost hear the sing-song of a little girl’s voice. He seized the flap and plunged forward into the rubber castle.
The girl screamed before he even saw her. He had caught her mid-bounce, feet flayed in the air; her look of floating triumph dissolved into terror. She tried to catch herself, to stop the sudden tilt that sent her flying directly at him. Everything was in motion and cast in red and grey, filtered through the stripes of the thin plastic walls. Instinct told him he needed to catch her. He held out both his arms. She screamed again, seeing what he had forgotten: the knife he still held.
He threw the blade away and it landed with a thunk and a hiss. The girl slammed into his chest and the two of them went flying back through the flap, falling atop each other and rolling apart onto the grass.
Mark stared up at the sky which was much bluer than he remembered from the morning.
“What happened? Why’d you do that?” the girl asked. She had sat up and he could feel her huge eyes on him.
He sat up and faced her. “Lacy, what are you doing here?”
“I was jumping.” Her eyes were brimming; tears were on their way. “Nobody would come with me before.”
Her voice hitched and her lip curled down toward despair. He held out his arms again. It might have been instinct, or newly formed memory. Or even a reality he’d been ignoring for what seemed like years but was no more than weeks. She crawled across the grass and fell into his arms.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she managed between sobs. “I didn’t meant to.”
“No, no,” he cooed. “You didn’t do anything sweetheart. It was Daddy. It wasn’t you. Daddy got it wrong.”
“Miss her,” she shuddered.
He lay her cheek to his shoulder and did his best to smooth the tremor out of her fragile spine. “Me too. It’s going to be okay. Promise.”
Mark held his daughter and he watched as the bounce castle slowly deflated in front of them. He would read to her again tonight, but this time from the top shelf. He knew just the book, whoever the author. It was her birthday, she was ready for that. He thought he might be too.
© Derek Ivan Webster, 2019
Raised in a tiny Alaskan fishing village, educated at Yale University, Derek Ivan Webster is a writer that appreciates a good contrast. When not shepherding students seeking creative careers, Derek is happily enrolled in the MFA creative writing program at Fairfield University. He is well aware that it is only his wife, and their precious/precocious co-conspirators, that keep him sane. More at ivanhope.com/blog, @ivanhope77.
The Berenstein Conspiracy was read by Max Woertendyke on March 27th, 2019 for Memories & Mementos.