|John Barnes is the author of many novels and short stories.
Written by Gene Wolfe
Illustrated by Paul Campbell
Sighing, Viola picked up the yellow schedule of shipboard activities and glanced at her watch. It was three thirty, still two and half hours till dinner.
"Bermuda and the Bermuda Triangle" 2 Explorers Lounge. She had gone to that one yesterday, and they were into it already. Nothing had happened.
"Line dancing for beginners" 10 Gym. She could line dance nicely already, thank you very much, and did not enjoy being laughed at. Surely there had to be something more interesting than looking at the Atlantic.
"Talent Aboard—passengers display their musical skills." 4 Seaview room. She shuddered.
"Make your pet." 9 Captain's Club. What in the world . . . ?
* * *
"I'm sorry I'm late," Viola told the smiling young woman with the laptop. "I didn't even know there was a Captain's Club, and the steward I got to help me find it only made things worse."
"No fret. I'm just glad somebody came. Bellatrix." Rising, Bellatrix held out her hand. "I'm in the show. Did you see me last night?"
"Oh, yes!" Viola lied womanfully. "That was you! I thought you were wonderful." She accepted the hand, larger and harder than her own.
"Thanks. But I do this, too, and I get paid by the head. I'll have to scan your keycard."
"You won't be charged. It's included in the cruise. It's just way I get paid." Bellatrix smiled again. "We show folks always need more money.
"Thank you." She glanced at the card. "Viola. Sit down, Viola. First we need to talk. Why did you come?"
Wondering when her card would be scanned but happy to sit, Viola said, "It sounded like fun, that's all. A friend of mine went to something like this called Build-a-Bear, where they made teddy bears. She made her own bear. It's always in the living room, and she tells everybody who'll listen all about it. Oh, God! I'm just terrible!"
"That's good, Viola." Bellatrix returned the key card. "I like terrible people. What's your specialty?"
"So I thought I might build a bigger bear than Marian. A prettier one. It'll kill her."
"Great." Bellatrix punched keys on her laptop. "It's got to be a bear? You don't want to build a cat or a horse or anything?"
Viola shook her head. "A bear. Marian's is brown, so I thought maybe pink."
"Got it. You said big. How big?"
"About like this." Viola held her hands apart. "This long. That should be twice the size of hers."
"Ninety centimeters." Bellatrix punched more keys. "You want it to talk, don't you?"
"With one of those strings in back you pull? Yes, I'd like that."
"That will take a bit of doing. Wait a minute."
"I thought I'd have to sew, and—oh, I don't know. Pick out the eyes. Make it."
Still punching keys, Bellatrix said, "You will pick out the eyes. We can do that next. What kind would you like?"
"What color, you mean?"
"Right. More pink?"
Viola shook her head. "You wouldn't be able to see them."
"Oh, you would if you looked closely. And she'd be able to see you, of course."
"A girl bear?"
Bellatrix nodded. "That's what I thought. Because of the pink."
"With a hair ribbon."
"If you want. That would be no trouble."
"I—I don't." Viola felt her cheeks grow hot. "I—I . . ."
"You don't have to explain," Bellatrix told her.
"I want to. I want to get it off my—my shoulders. I went on this cruise to meet someone."
"They have singles cruises, too. That might be better."
"I thought this was one." For a moment, Viola was puzzled. "Anyway, here I am with you instead of line dancing, and Beverly and Marian both say that's typical of me. I don't meet men because I'm too feminine. I hate singles bars."
"So do I."
"And I went with Lucas for almost three years, but he played golf. I couldn't learn, and to tell you the truth I didn't want to. I didn't think that would break us up, but it did. He met a girl with a three handicap and I was—was history. Am I going to cry?"
Bellatrix studied her. "I don't think so."
"That's good. I . . . I've cried too much about Lucas already."
"How about a pink boy bear?"
Mutely, Viola nodded.
"Nice dark eyes, with just at touch of fire in them?" Bellatrix punched more keys. "We can put a little vest on him."
"A black vest," Viola muttered, trying to get into the spirit of the thing.
"Right, to go with his eyes. Now we get into the hard part. Character, and all that. You want him to need you, don't you?"
"Absolutely." Viola almost smiled. "I want a warm bear who wants to be cuddled, not just one who sits in the living room and stares at people."
"Good. I'm with you on that. Brave?"
"Very. He's a bear after all."
"Right you are. Smart, too, I'll bet."
"Very smart. Quiet, too, and thoughtful. A bear of few words."
"Very strong, too." Viola was smiling now. "A regular grizzly."
More keys were punched. "Got it. If he's going to be strong, he shouldn't be too thin. But you want him cuddly, from what you said. We need a balance of characteristics. I'm good at that."
"His expression . . . ?"
"Exactly. Strong but vulnerable. Also you'll want him to be soft when you hold him, without being too soft. Suppose somebody broke in? You'd want a pet who could protect you."
"You know," Viola said, "you're deeper into this than I am."
"Of course. You should see some of mine." Bellatrix punched more keys. "There! That should do it. He's pretty close to standard, really. Some deviations, but we can use a lot of the regular subroutines. What's his name, by the way?"
Viola considered. "Theodore."
"Exactly. When will I get to see him?"
"He'll be delivered to your cabin just as soon as he's finished," Bellatrix promised. "I'm making him look just a touch old-fashioned, okay? You strike me as a conservative sort of person, a bit old-fashioned yourself."
"I am," Viola said, and knew it for the truth.
* * *
"Four-thirty," she said to herself, as she left the Captain's Club, "and the ship's rolling a little. I hope I'm not too seasick for dinner." It seemed odd that she had not noticed the roll while she was talking bears, but she left that unsaid.
A different and somewhat more Spartan elevator carried her from Deck Nine to Deck Five, where—eventually—she found her cabin. A large pink teddy bear in a black vest lay upon her bed, propped by two small pillows.
"Well, hello!" It did not seem possible. "Hello, Theodore!" Sitting on the bed, she picked up the pink bear. His expression, she decided, was indecipherable. From one angle he looked severe, from another he appeared to plead, from a third he smiled warmly; he was a bear of many moods.
His paws felt soft—yet hard at the ends. Looking more closely she found lifelike claws, not sharp but long and curved. Playing with his face did little to alter his expressions, but led to the discovering of actual bearlike teeth behind his furry lips. "I'm taking you to dinner, Theodore. I want to show you to whoever I'm seated with today."
Her questing fingers found a ring on the pink bear's back. She pulled it, but not too hard.
"I'd like that," the bear said distinctly; his voice was deepish with a squeaky "I," and gruff overall.
"Very apropos." Viola patted the bear's furry back below the ring. "Now then . . . You will have observed, Theodore my bear, that our cabin boasts a small porch, balcony, or outdoor viewing area, called by captain and crew a veranda. Besides a little table and a great big footstool, it includes two wicker chairs. The first is large, with a splayed back. Rather a peacock-tail back, actually. It's clearly intended for the gentleman. That's you."
The pink bear appeared to smile.
"You, that is to say, when you are not on my lap—I fear your fur may quickly prove over-warm in the salubrious air prevailing on our veranda. I shall occupy the other chair, a lesser seat of the wing-back persuasion. At times you may occupy it with me—not that I've a great deal of lap to offer. May I have your opinion of the arrangement I suggest?"
She pulled the string as before, and the bear said, "I'd like that."
Only one phrase. She felt a little disappointed. "Is that all you can say?"
"Two," the bear added equally distinctly. Or perhaps "too" or "to."
Violet sighed. "I hope that extra noise doesn't mean you're broken already."
The bear did not reply; and so, not knowing what else to do, she picked him up and carried him onto the veranda, plumping him down in the wide wicker chair before seating herself in the smaller wing-backed one.
Beyond the Plexiglas-faced railing, a sea impossibly blue spread small swells to the horizon. Over it arched a sky equally blue. Someone had told Viola once that the sky was blue only because it was reflecting the blue of all the world's oceans. Looking at that sea and that sky, she felt that it might almost be true. "Cities," she thought, "have scraped away the sky with their skyscrapers. I wonder why they wanted to?"
Five o'clock. The dining room would not open for dinner until six. She leaned back, and when her eyes chose to close themselves she let them.
* * *
She was awakened by a tickling nose. Dispatched to wipe the tickle away, her hand encountered something large and soft.
Her eyes opened. "Theodore my bear, please mind your fur. . . ."
It took three moments and two blinks to bring the pink bear into focus. "Did I put you in my lap? Never mind." She glanced at her watch—six thirty. Dinner would be in full swing. "What about it?" she asked. "I am going to get something to eat, Theodore. You may remain here if you prefer, or—"
He might blow away.
"Inside on my bed, I mean. Or you may escort me. Which will it be?"
She pulled the string.
"I'd like that," the pink bear said distinctly.
"I thought you would. Dinner it is."
The Grand Dining Salon (as the ship called it) was at the stern on Deck Two. It was, as its name implied, very grand indeed. Wide glass doors in a glass wall opened on a spacious chamber resembling an amphitheater, wherein white-coated gladiators wrestled valiantly with laden trays. Spotless white tablecloths were embraced by massive chairs of wood well-carved—chairs that should, as Viola reflected at each meal, make excellent life preservers.
Five persons were already seated at the table to which she was brought to fill the last chair. She glanced at the faces of the three men as she took her seat, expecting signs of disappointment. There were none, and she smiled.
A blonde smiled in return and offered her hand, "Lenore Doucette."
Viola accepted it and introduced herself.
"I love musical names," the other woman said. She was meager and almost swarthy, with the hard, secretive eyes of a professional gambler. "I have one, too. I'm Raga."
Bone and a hank of hair, Viola thought. Aloud she murmured, "Pleased to meet you, Raga."
Lenore was looking at the pink bear. "Do you always carry that with you?" Her somewhat attractive face had the tight-skinned look that bespeaks plastic surgery.
"Only on the ship. Theodore's my bodyguard."
"Since the men will not introduce themselves—"
"Perhaps he'll let me do it." Viola smiled again, more relaxed than she had been at any of her previous meals. "What about it, Theodore? May I introduce you?" She pulled the string.
"I am Viola's bear," the pink bear said distinctly. "You may call me Theodore."
"You've more vocabulary than I thought," Viola muttered from behind her menu.
The round-headed, round-shouldered man seated on the farther side of Lenore said, "Don Partlowe," as if he were a little ashamed of it, to which the big, heavily handsome man on his left added, "Blake Morrison."
The waiter arrived, and Viola told him, "Five oh five four, and I'll have the split pea and the roast beef."
The man to Viola's immediate right coughed. "T—Tim Tucker, Miss Neudorf." He was small and looked (Viola thought) like a spike buck caught in the headlights.
"You have to call her Viola," Lenore instructed him. "Rules of the ship."
Raga smirked. "Another rule of the ship is that no more than six may eat at one table. I'm afraid that means you're out of luck, Viola. What would your bear like?"
"Honey," Viola told her firmly. "As in mind your manners, honey."
There was a brief, pained silence before Don said, "That's not on the menu, Viola. I'm afraid you'll have to eat for him."
The big man, Blake, leaned toward her. "Can he say honey?"
"He doesn't have to. I know his tastes."
Lenore tapped her wineglass. "I believe the score is Viola three and Table nothing. Would anybody else like to try?"
"I would," Tim whispered. The whisper was so soft, and his lips were so near Viola's ear, that no one else could possibly have heard it.
When dinner was over and she returned to her cabin, Viola dropped the bear on the bed and kicked the door shut behind her. "I'm fed up," she told him, "and do you know who I'm fed up with?"
An accusatory forefinger stabbed at her considerable chest. "Me, that's who. "Baked Alaska! I ordered baked Alaska, and I ate it, too. When I had finished mine, I ate half of poor Tim's."
With a violence that threatened to tear it, she pulled her blouse over her head. "I should go to the show tonight and watch for Bellatrix, and what am I going to do instead? I'm going to sit right here, by myself, and hate myself."
A step took her to the mirror. "Look at that tummy! What's the use of paying a thousand dollars for a singles cruise with a tummy like that?" She was sitting on her bed trying to wipe away the tears when she felt a small, soft embrace. For the next two hundred rollings of the ship, she hugged her bear and, occasionally, sniffled.
When the hugging and sniffling were over, she sat the bear on her lap and addressed him in the tone those near to tears generally use. "I love you, Theodore. I do. You're a—a much nicer toy than anybody has a right to expect. I . . . Well, I didn't even know . . . You're the—the most wonderful bear in the whole darned world, and I certainly don't deserve you."
Quite distinctly, the pink bear's head moved from side to side.
"I don't! I—I want people to like me."
Soft pink paws touched the pink bear's own well rounded middle.
"Yes, you do. I know that. You've proved it. Can—will you tell me what I can do to make other people like me, too?"
Kindly, dark eyes opened, closed, and opened again, and the bear's large, pink head nodded.
"You can?" Viola pulled the string.
Distinctly, the bear said, "Smile."
"I do! I did! I was smiling all through dinner and nobody liked me."
Again the bear's head swung from side to side.
"All right, Tim did, and I imposed on him. Nobody else."
No signed the bear, and Viola pulled the string again.
"Lenore likes you."
"I don't believe it." Another pull of the string.
"Don liked you, too," the bear said distinctly. "She did not like that."
"He did not!" Viola insisted.
There was a knock at her door.
"Wait a minute!" Her robe was pink, too. As she knotted the sash she wondered vaguely whether the bear would approve.
"Miss . . . Viola?"
It was Tim. She nodded, groped her mind frantically for something to say, and settled for "Hi."
"I . . . You're—uh—getting ready for bed? I, um, there's a nice little—uh—cocktail lounge. The Seastar. It's—uh . . ."
"On this deck." Viola felt the need to speed things up.
"And I—uh—thought perhaps . . . But you're—"
She gave the smile her best try. "Why I'd love to have you buy me a drink, Tim. Could I meet you there in ten minutes or so?"
Tim gulped audibly.
"I won't bring Theodore. That's a promise."
"Oh, no!" Tim's eyes had flown wide. "I didn't mean that at all. Bring him, please. I—uh—I— uh . . ."
Smile again, Viola told herself firmly. Remember what Theodore said. "Then we'll both meet you there in ten or twelve minutes."
Tim's words rushed upon her like terrified birds. "It's-not-him-I'm-scared-of-it's-you." And Tim fled.
"Toward the bar," Viola, reflected. "I wonder how many he'll have before I get there."
It seemed wise to hurry and she did, resuming the blouse she had discarded and spending no more than five minutes touching up her hair and makeup.
Tim was at a table near the all-glass wall. He stood and waved the moment she came in, then pulled the table out for her. It was a very small table, bare save for an ashtray and an almost-empty glass that had probably held a Tom Collins. Smiling, she accepted the offered chair, arranged the pink bear on the chair next to her own, and smiled some more.
"You're such a nice person," Tim said without a single uh. "I wanted to tell you that, and at dinner I couldn't."
A soft paw tapped her thigh; and she nodded, although only very slightly. "I know how you feel," she told Tim. "It's hard say things like that to—to anybody. Hardest of all when you've just met the person. At dinner I had to try very hard to look at the others, and not just at you all the time."
What remained of the Tom Collins vanished in a single swallow that brought a bowing, foreign-looking waiter. Viola ordered Dry Sack up, while Tim handed over his glass and said (in a voice that squeaked a trifle), "Do it again."
He turned to Viola. "That was one thing I wanted to tell you. This is the other. I hated this cruise for the first two days. Hated it right up till dinner tonight. All these women shopping for men as if they were at a white sale. All these men hoping to get laid by a woman they can forget about as soon as the cruise is over. "I . . . I—uh—I came . . . I came looking for—uh . . ."
She whispered it. "Love."
"Yes. I knew you'd know. You—you're—you're not married?"
"No. Of course not." Viola held out her left hand.
Tim almost took it. "Neither am I. A lot of these men are. Did you know that?"
"Are they?" It was a new thought. "I thought they were divorced."
"There's a lot of that, too. A lot more, actually. And nearly all the women are divorced."
The question hung in the air until Viola said, "I'm not. I've never been married. Once I thought—but it didn't work out."
"I haven't been either." Tim's smile was small and brave. (Like Tim, Viola told herself.) "I write software, Viola, and I'm good at it—really, I am. I'm not good with people." He drew a deep breath. "Even if this doesn't work, I'll always, always remember you the way you are right now with the purple sea behind you and stars in your hair and the moon building a road across the water to you that only angels can follow."
As their drinks arrived, Viola murmured, "You're good with me."
On their way back to her cabin, the pink bear had to nudge her twice and point to keep her from getting lost. "I'm high, Theodore," she told him as she slipped her key card into the lock. "One little glass of wine, and I'm higher than—than any angel."
Her cabin was in the same, rather confused, state she had left it, her pink robe flung on the bed and makeup scattered across the top of the tiny dresser. She dropped the pink bear on the bed, too, sat there herself in utter disregard of her robe, and positioned him on one crowded knee. "He's never been married, Theodore, he's not dating anybody, and he has his own little software company. Did you see the way he looked when I told him I was a systems analyst? Did you?"
Distinctly, the pick bear nodded.
"We go together like ham and eggs, milk and cookies, roast pork and apple sauce." Viola paused to consider the final pairing. "I'm the pork, but I don't care."
There was a sound behind her, which she ignored. "I'm going to quit my job and move to New Orleans, Theodore. I didn't tell Tim that, but I am. This is not going to slip away. I won't let it. I'm—"
"Going to get hurt if you scream." The voice was deep and soft, carried on a gust of warm sea air. Half the lights in the cabin came on as the verandah door closed.
For a second she failed to recognize the big man in the aloha shirt, perhaps because so much of her attention was focused on the blue steel automatic he held.
"You're keeping quiet," Blake Morrison said. "That's good. That's smart. Now just relax and let me tell you how it's going to be between you and me."
Viola held up both hands. "If you think I've got a lot of jewelry, you're wrong. You can take what I've got. I'll tell you where everything is."
If the big man with the blue steel automatic had heard her, he gave no sign of it. "You're going to take off your clothes. All of them. You're going to do everything I tell you—and I mean everything—and you're going to act like you enjoy it. You're going to beg for more. Have you got that?"
"I guess I do, Blake." She nodded reluctantly.
"I'm leaving the gun here." He laid it on the seat of the chair nearest the window. "That will let me use both hands on you. If you try to edge over toward this side of the bed, you're going to get hurt a lot worse than you would otherwise. And no ventriloquism, understand? You're good. I'll give you that. But nothing you try is going to fool me."
Where was Theodore? As inconspicuously as she could, Viola felt for him with her feet. Nothing.
The big man was unbuttoning his aloha shirt. "You think you're going to report all this when it's over?"
Sensing the safe reply, she shook her head.
"I'll say it was consensual. How many couples do think are having consensual sex on this ship tonight?"
Still wondering desperately what had become of the pink bear, she raised her shoulders and let them drop.
"Half. Maybe more. You and me will be in that half, just for tonight. But let me tell you this, if you do report it, something very, very ugly is going to happen to you. And quick. So you'd better take it like a little soldier and try to forget it as fast as you can. Maybe you're wondering how I found out which cabin you're in."
"No, Blake." She was trying hard to keep her voice from shaking, trying hard to blink away the tears. "You learned it the same way Tim did. You have to—I had to—give my cabin number to the waiter when I ordered." It seemed worth a try. "Tim has already been here tonight, and he's coming back."
"Sure he is. Noises off, as the actors say."
A plump pink arm was reaching for the blue steel automatic on the chair seat.
A half step nearer than that blue steel automatic, the big man had dropped his jeans. "Take a look. You like it, right?"
Shuddering, she shook her head. "You want me scared, d—don't you? You want me t—terrified. Okay! Okay, I'm scared out of my wits. You did it. But—"
The big man edged nearer her, stepping out the jeans and blocking her view of the empty chair. "Take off that skirt!"
Slowly she stood, finding her knees so weak she nearly fell, and fumbled with the hook and the zipper. "I'm f—f—fat. You'll see. I'm v—very f—fat and—and ugly."
"Look lower," the big man told her, "and you'll see somebody who doesn't think so."
As though conjured by the big man's words, the pink bear rose beside Viola. Both plump pink forepaws were wrapped around the blue steel automatic.
The big man's jaw dropped.
So did Viola, sitting on the bed once more. When she had caught her breath, she turned so she could watch the big man and said, "Theodore will shoot if I tell him to." Her voice, she found, had somehow steadied itself. "Maybe even if I don't."
The big man's mouth worked soundlessly.
"Maybe you should lie down on the floor, or maybe just go without making any more trouble. I'm not sure which."
"Please!" the big man said. "Oh, please!"
"Please is nicer, Blake." Viola's smile was shaky, but it was a smile. "I like please. Wait a minute. Let's see what Theodore has to say to you." She found the ring on the pink bear's back and pulled the cord.
The pink bear lifted the blue steel automatic an inch or so, aiming it or appearing to aim it. Quite distinctly he said, "Want to close your eyes?"
* * *
Gene Wolfe is the author of many novels and short stories.