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Written by Tom Van Natta
Illustrated by Daniel Monroe

I know my son will ask me someday, so I had to write this down. No one will believe it —and that's okay. But he deserves to know the truth, as strange as it is. It had started out as a fairly normal Friday. . . .

* * *



"Sam, I don't think we can be together anymore. I just can't date a man who carries around a stuffed animal." Marie hit me with it after work, while we stood together beside my old van in the employee parking lot.

I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. We had plans together that evening.

"I'm going home alone tonight," she continued. "Here's your ring back."

Marie was dark haired, blue eyed, long and lean, and the best-looking girl at the company. We'd been dating since her first week there, almost a year ago. We got along pretty well; I helped loosen her up and she toned me down a little, a good fit. We weren't engaged exactly, but I'd given her a "steady ring" like we were high-schoolers. It made her happy, and me too.

I didn't know what to say. I knew calling her would do no good; she didn't answer me half the time when we were on good terms, and never when we'd had a little spat. I'd need to wait for her to cool down—she could be persuaded sometimes, but never pushed.

* * *

Marie's annoyance with me began about six months before, when I flipped a coin into a bottle at the company picnic and won a big white stuffed teddy bear. I mean BIG: we were the same height when seated, though it had short arms and legs. I couldn't carry it around with me, so I took it back to my van and put it in the passenger seat. Lots of people saw me carrying it, and many more saw it in my van, so I got razzed about it a bit. "Hey Sam, who was that big fat one I saw you with?" and stuff like that. It's a big company, and being in Marketing, I knew a lot of people there. Most of them had a comment, all in fun.

So I gave it back to them: "Oh, you mean Ted. No, don't call him Teddy. He's my pal. Ginny has cats, Dave has dogs. I've got Ted." Somehow over the next few weeks he never quite left the van; he was usually buckled into one seat or another as I drove around. One of the guys in the copy room made up a yellow, diamond-shaped "Bear On Board" sign, copying the then-popular "Baby On Board" signs, and stuck it in a back window.

It went on from there. I had the big van and didn't drink much, so I was the driver a lot. We'd go to a football game, get there early to cook hot dogs and drink beer in the parking lot, and Ted was always with us. Many fun pictures were taken with Ted drinking beer, feeling up the girls, suntanning in a lawn chair. His eyes could be rotated and his tongue had some side-to-side adjustment, so he could look happy, leering, or cross-eyed drunk. All the girls wanted their pictures taken with Ted.

My boss was a good-natured sort, and encouraged lighthearted personal notes at the bottom of the status reports we submitted each week. So after the work-related items, Ginny told about her cats, Frank told what new words his kid had learned, and I wrote about Ted:

• "Ted thought he was losing weight despite his beer intake. He's broadened his diet to include nylon dog bones and styrofoam peanuts."

• "Someone at the ball game gave Ted a hot dog on a plastic plate. He ate it, said it was delicious, but gave back the hot dog."

• (Scheduled for delivery when I was on vacation:) "sam wernt heree to do hte ststtus reprts so me ted is doin them. nothhing much happned this week except for tha chicago bears and cubs both winnin a lot but ucla bruins losst. go bear teams go. sorry for baad typin. is hard wif paws."

• "Ted saw a special on TV about polar bears hunting seals beneath the ice. He wants to go to the mall and hunt for stuffed seals at the toy store. I didn't have the heart to tell him . . ."

And so forth. Ted emerged through these snippets as a blue collar sports fan (especially a fan of teams with bear mascots), not too bright, well-meaning but prone to drink and mild debauchery, with a diet of plastics and beer. Everything was all fun and games, and everyone liked Ted—except for Marie.

Marie thought that a guy having a stuffed animal—even a macho one like Ted ("Don't call me Teddy")—was childish. Dumb even. So we quarreled about it a bit, nothing too serious. She insisted we take her car whenever possible, because she didn't want to be seen in Sam's Bear Van. And she had this way of rolling her eyes when my friends started talking about setting up Ted for some new pictures. But I didn't guess how strongly she felt until she gave the ring back.

That night, I had agreed to drive six folks from work to a club to see a touring band—I'd gone to college with the drummer and we had kept in touch. Since I was the one who had set it up weeks before, I had to go, even without Marie. So it ended up three couples in the back, and me and Ted up front. The band played sort of hippie jam music, not bad, but meandering. "Twenty minutes of great music squeezed into two hours," was how I described it, "but the twenty minutes are worth it."

I still didn't know what to think about Marie. Maybe she just wanted Ted to be gone, maybe we weren't as good a fit as I thought, maybe it was just a bad day at work. I listened to the music, nursed my beer, met the band and talked to the drummer between sets, and tried to enjoy myself. It almost worked.

The band and I all sat around a big table between sets, and I must have drunk someone else's beer, because I got dosed with some sort of psychedelic drug. I didn't really recognize it at first, but after a while I figured out what was starting to happen to my head. (I don't want to go into the details, but I will say that I went to a California beach college, so it wasn't a completely novel experience.) Oh, shit! I needed to get out of there. It was late and my riders looked tired, so they all agreed when I suggested we go; I was hoping to get everyone home before the dose fully kicked in. Our company had a strict drug-testing policy, so I didn't want to say anything to my co-workers, and the effect really wasn't so strong—at least not yet. I could cope.

The drive home was intense. I had to drive like a robot, because all my instincts were gone and I really didn't remember how to drive. Stay in lane. Check speed. Keep it straight. Check lane. Speed. Red light, stop carefully, don't jerk. Wait. Green light, go. Worse, I thought I saw a flying saucer hovering around the van as I drove down one long straight road. I almost pointed it out to my passengers but decided that was a bad idea, and tried to pay attention to my driving and not the weird things I was seeing.

Luckily I made it back to the company parking lot without hitting anything. Everyone piled out and I drove on home, out to the edge of town where my place was. I made it there okay too, but the world had turned pretty weird inside my head by that point. I went inside and lay down on the bed. The room started to spin, so I opened my eyes to steady things. I decided to get up again when the ceiling began to twist into strange shapes. Whatever psychedelic was in the beer I drank was pretty powerful; I tried to recall coping strategies. If I just kept busy I would be okay. I needed somebody to talk to, but it was late, my friends had all gone home, and my girlfriend had left me.

Luckily, I still had Ted. I gathered up my notebook filled with status report items about Ted and Ted pictures, and went back out to the van. I plopped down in the driver's seat next to my big friend, who was still sitting in the front passenger's spot. I looked at the Ted pictures, read about his exploits, and talked to him about Marie—I'm not sure he answered back, but I'm not sure he didn't, either. I suppose I eventually drifted off into some sort of fugue state approaching slumber.

It was exactly 3:42 a.m. when the crash came—I learned this later because I found the van's broken clock. Something sliced through the right front corner of the van, missing me by inches. The area where Ted sat was completely disintegrated. Missing. Gone.

Whatever had hit us bounced up into the air a bit, then settled back down near the van. From the driver's seat I could see it was, no lie, a saucer. A flying saucer. Not a UFO, because I could identify it, and it was definitely a flying saucer. Like from the movies. I was hallucinating, of course. But when I blinked my eyes again it was still there, and still unchanged. Wisps of smoke came off the saucer, and they twisted into strange shapes I knew only I could see, so the drug hadn't entirely worn off. But the saucer was there, big as life. And a ramp was slowly folding down from it.

I looked at my van, or what was left of it. A big crescent-shaped piece was missing from the middle of the front grill to the back of the side door. There was some twisted metal at the edge of the missing area, but the bulk of it was gone. The whole front passenger area, with Ted in it, was sheared away and just gone. I was scared. I was angry too, and the angry part won.

I got out of the van and waited for the ramp to finish coming down. There were two, uh, creatures at the top of the ramp. They were bipedal, had big eyes and weak chins, and looked sort of like the little green men from sci-fi movies, but their skin was pink and they wore overalls. They were about Ted's height, but not so fat.

Now I know that the first words spoken to an alien race should be something like "Welcome to Earth" or "We hope you come in peace" or even "Klaatu barada nikto" but . . . well, sorry. The first words I said were "You bastards! You killed Ted!" Maybe I should have thought about future intergalactic relations first, but I was mad.

One of the two said "What?" and the other said "We apologize," so I knew they understood me. The first one said, "Our instruments show we destroyed no life form with a weight over one gram." The other said, "We can repair your vehicle." The two spoke with exactly the same voice, and their mouths didn't move, so something else was generating the voice—but it was pretty clear.

I laid into them good. I yelled and screamed, told them they'd just killed my best friend. I swore at them, told them that Ted weighed much more than a gram and their instruments were bad. I called them demon murderers from another planet. At one point I forced them to look at the notebook full of Ted pictures. They tried to talk but I did almost all the talking—yelling, really. If those aliens hadn't learned swear words from our airwaves, they learned them from me that night.

Finally I forced the Ted notebook into their unwilling hands (they had three fingers and a thumb, I noted) and went back inside my house and slammed the door.

I lived in a converted outbuilding on part of an old farm, with trees close and the neighbors far, so probably no one heard the crash and my ranting in the middle of the night—or at least if they did, they didn't call the cops. I went down to the basement to look for my good camera, and sat on the edge of the guest bed I keep down there . . . and that's all I remember.

* * *

When I woke up, light was streaming through the tiny basement window and my tongue felt like a long-dead fish. I remembered the last night in flashes, like a montage of still frames. Marie, giving her ring back. The band, the dosing. Talking to Ted in the van. And, oh yes, the flying-fricking-saucer. My god, how messed up was I to hallucinate that? Did I crash the van?

I staggered upstairs to the kitchen. My head hurt, and my brain barely worked. I managed to find the door, opened it and looked outside. The van was missing, and there was a big circular dent in the lawn Oh my god. . . .

Numbly, I went outside and looked around. No van, but I did find its clock in the shrubs next to the house. So I went back inside, trying to get my fuzzy brain into gear. Should I report the van stolen or wait a bit? Should I call Marie? I grabbed a jar of orange juice from the fridge and stumbled into the living room to plop on the couch and have a think.

But the couch was taken. Ted was there. He was munching on styrofoam peanuts from the bag in the closet, and drinking a beer. He said, "Hi, Sam. How are you feeling? Tough night last night." He looked just the same as I remembered, though his fur was a little cleaner and the red ribbon around his neck (the only thing he wore) was less wilted.

I collapsed into the easy chair. Ted ate another peanut—he had fingerlike protrusions from his paws, kind of like a hand inside a sock—and turned to look at me. "How you doing? You all right?" His voice was an oddly resonant baritone.

"I'm okay, Ted. How are you?" Talking to a stuffed bear, me mostly sober (but hung over as hell). And him talking back. My befuddled brain somehow didn't think anything much was wrong with this picture.

"I'm okay. Say, Zharban and Plxring told me they'll probably have the van back this afternoon. They really feel bad about crunching it. They're going to try to fix it themselves so their parents don't find out about last night. I told them that if they fixed the van, you'd be cool about it."

"Okay. Yeah, right."

"Oh my god" wasn't a strong enough expression anymore, but I'd already maxed out my shock meter. Zharban and Plxring, joyriding alien teenagers. It was real. So was Ted. And my van would be back this afternoon?

"Um . . . I'm gonna call Marie and see if she'll come over, okay?"

Ted burped and drank more beer. "Good idea. You talked about her a lot last night."

I dialed her number, praying she would pick up the phone. After six rings, she did.

"Hmmyesssss . . ."

I could tell she was annoyed but playful. "Marie, honey, I know you think I'm not serious enough sometimes, but this time I'm dead, dead serious. You need to get over here right away. It's really, really important."

"Samuel, dear, my nails are not dry. And I have not had my breakfast. And I believe there was something about me breaking up with you? Hmmmm?"

Normally she was much more down-to-earth, but she was in "a mood" and could banter on like this for hours. Her banter was one of the things I liked about her, but this wasn't the time for it.

"Marie, please. It's important. A crisis."

"Proper toenails are important too; it's almost sandal weather. You wouldn't want my feet to look any less than r-r-ravishing to your r-r-replacement, would you?"

Her tone was a little more playful. My brain was about to explode. "Marie, I need you to talk to someone, okay? Hang on." I handed the phone to Ted.

He was chewing on another foam peanut, which made a slight squeaking noise as he swallowed it. His head was much bigger than a human head, but he managed to hold the phone near his ear and still speak.

"Hey Marie, how's it going? . . . Ted. . . . Really. Ted. . . . Hell, yes. I'm a bear; you ride with me in the van all the time. Now look, Sam's really sad about you. He talked about you until way late last night. I think you two should get back together." He burped, then listened a while.

"She wants to talk to you."

I grabbed the phone. "Hi, Honey," I said brightly.

After a long silence, she said, "I thought I knew all your friends."

I tried to make my voice even more desperate. "It's even stranger than that. Marie, you've got to come over here right now. Now. Life or death. I need you to come here right now. Please."

"Are you all right?"

For the first time I could hear a hint of concern in her voice. "No! I don't need the police or an ambulance, but I'm not all right. Something happened you need to see. Bring your camera. Come right now. Bye." I took a chance and hung up the phone. Either she'd come or she wouldn't.

I turned back to Ted. He was reaching for the TV remote.

"Do you think the Cubbies won last night? Lysander was pitching," he said.

I got up, found some aspirin and washed it down with orange juice. I started coffee brewing and sat down to watch sports highlights with Ted. Lysander had pitched a shutout, which Ted highly approved of. I didn't know how much Ted knew of what happened last night, and I wasn't ready to ask him until I had some coffee.

Marie lived exactly sixteen minutes away but was at my door in fifteen. She had a video camera in her hand.

"Where's your van?" she said.

I waited until she was inside, and guided her down the hallway to the living room. "Ask Ted," I said.

"Hi, Marie. You see Lysander pitched a shutout last night?" His tone was enthusiastic, cheerful.

Marie had the same reaction I did, and swooned into the same chair I had. She stared bug-eyed as Ted nonchalantly started chewing some plastic poker chips I had on the bookcase nearby. They crunched noisily.

Since she was obviously speechless, I said, "Ted, why don't you tell her what happened last night."

"Last night? Not much. We drove to the club, and I sat in the van like normal. Got back about midnight. Sam came out and talked to me for a while—mostly about you. Then Zharban and Plxring crashed their Tav'roin ship into Sam's van. Took out the whole front corner. They'd be in big trouble if their parents found out. So they repaired me first, but had to go scrounge around for van parts. They think they'll have it ready this afternoon."

Marie finally found her voice. "Zharban and Plxring? Who . . . what . . . are they?" She wasn't quite as pale as a ghost.

"Aw, they're just kids, you know. Zharban got a Tav'roin for his antenna ceremony, and they had to try it out, and they cut it just a little too fine. Nobody got hurt, and I told them Sam would be cool about it so long as they fixed the van."

"Repaired you?" she said weakly.

"Yeah, you know I'm a 'bot, right? Course you do. They had to guess on some parts, but Sam had the photo album, and they had a Zchazch—I guess you'd call it a manservant 'bot—they could scrounge some parts from. Plxring majored in cybweb, so he did the programming. Seems okay to me. 'Tain't no problem, anyhow; they can fine-tune my programming when they come back with the van."

The sports highlight show was ending, so Ted surfed around until he found another show he liked, fishing this time. He turned to me. "Say, you got another beer?"

Obviously I'd given up all semblance of critical thinking by that point. It had been a rough night, and the brain can only take so much. My buddy asks for a beer, he gets a beer. Even if he's a talking stuffed bear.

"Sure, Ted, but take it easy, okay? Long day, and beer this early . . ." I went to the kitchen and returned with one. I was fascinated to watch his hidden digits emerge to lift the tab on the can.

"Thanks," he said, and started drinking.

I had a hundred, a thousand questions for Ted, but he started talking first.

"Say, Marie, you're not really breaking up with Sam, are you? He really likes you, you know."

"No . . . I thought he had too much imagination, maybe even lived in a fantasy world. I guess I was wrong."

"Yeah, he's got his head on his shoulders. Don't worry about Sam, he'll take care of us."

Marie tried to ask Ted more about the crash and Zharban and Plxring, but he either didn't know much or was being evasive, hard to tell. "Ask 'em when they bring the van," he said, and turned to watch the TV. I told her about the saucer while she kept staring at him.

She did remember to get out the camera and shoot some video of Ted. She got some pictures of him walking across the room on his stumpy little legs and jumping up on the couch, then drinking beer, eating foam peanuts, and watching TV. He looked like a fat, contented, white stuffed bear, which I guess he was. She waved at him and said "Say hi, Ted" to which he dutifully replied "Hi, Ted," and waved back.

Just a couple of minutes after that, we heard a vehicle pull up the driveway. I went out to the kitchen to look; it was the van, looking better than it ever had, with all the dents removed and new paint. Inside were four people, two boys and a man and woman; they all looked almost exactly the same except for size. Sort of generic humans, a man, a woman, and two teenaged boys.

They got out of the van—they found the sliding door quite tricky—and came inside when I motioned them into the house. There wasn't room in the kitchen for the five of us so we went into the living room, where Ted was still watching a fishing show and Marie was staring at him. They looked at us when we came in.

I tried experimentally, "Zharban?" at which there was something like a sigh, and all four disguises dissolved, and I saw the same aliens I had the night before. Marie stopped breathing, I think, and her eyes grew even wider. Somehow you could tell that the two bigger ones were parents, and I just sort of figured that the big one was Poppa.

I tried to break the ice. "Zharban, sorry about yelling at you last night. I know you were trying to fix things." One of the boys nodded to me in a sort of twisting way.

The largest one spoke, without moving his mouth. "We regret that our offspring caused you distress last evening. We shall endeavor to make amends."

"Hey, no problem. Ted told me they'd fix the van, and I'm sure the grass will grow back okay."

The two parents looked at each other. Poppa said, "Your 'Ted' will accompany us. We have provided a more correct replacement in your van."

Ted spoke up. "Hey! I'm not going with you. I belong with Sam! He's got tickets for the game tonight!"

He looked and sounded as truculent as a four-foot-tall stuffed teddy bear could. I appreciated his loyalty to no end. I'd just met him, in this incarnation at least, but in other ways I'd known him for ages and loved the big lunk. Still, I could see where this was going to go.

The smaller adult—Momma, I figured—pointed something small at Ted and clicked a button. Ted climbed off the couch, stood up, and froze with his arms out straight to the side. She pointed to the two youngsters, who each meekly took one arm and carried him away. I heard them bump a bit in the kitchen, but they made it out the door without breaking anything.

Poppa said, "We trust that you will not be so imprudent as to discuss our visit with any of your authorities. We shall extirpate all evidence of this sojourn, and you would appear most foolish."

"Um, no, I'm cool. Boys will be boys, and all's well that ends well. Right, Marie?" I wanted to make sure she was still breathing, but all I got out of her was a nod.

Momma spoke for the first time. Same voice, but you could tell it was her. "The wheeled vehicle has been repaired. The literature you provided and your large stuffed animal are enclosed within. Is this to your satisfaction?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess. Sure. But can we say goodbye to Ted? We're going to miss him, right, Marie?"

Marie looked at me with a dazed expression and croaked something vaguely affirmative.

The two aliens looked fixedly at each other—I thought they were talking it over—and one of them said, "Acceptable. Follow."

We went outside, saw nothing, but followed Momma and Poppa across the lawn until we passed through an invisible curtain. Inside was a larger saucer than I had seen last night, with the two boys and Ted standing next to it. Momma used her clicker again and Ted came back to life.

"Hiya, Sam. Hi, Marie. What's happening?"

I went over and bent down to talk to him. "Hi, Ted. Buddy, we're gonna miss you, but you gotta go with these folks. They can take better care of you than I can. You aren't really built for life on Earth."

"Huh? What? That's not fair. Where will I get beer? And if I'm not here I'll miss the Bears' season. They've got a chance to go to the Super Bowl!"

I looked up at the parents. "Can you let him watch the games? He's a sports nut, you know."

The parents communicated silently again, then Momma said, "Acceptable." Zharban (or Plxring; I never learned which was which) made a noise, which I took to mean "But Momma!"

For my benefit, she responded in English. "Those who crash their Tav'roin and reprogram their Zchazch to attempt to suppress the fact do not deserve a Zchazch. Ted he is and Ted he shall stay."

I nodded gratefully, too moved to speak. I looked at Marie, and her eyes were a little watery too. Ted would live! I grabbed Marie's hand and pulled her over to Ted.

"See you, buddy. We'll miss you. Write if you get the chance."

"Okay. See you, Sam," was all he said. He grinned at me, ever the happy-go-lucky bear.

Marie surprised me by stroking the fur on his face with the back of her hand. In a shaky voice, she said, "Goodbye, Ted."

"See ya, Marie. Take care of Sam, okay?"

"I will."

Marie turned to the parents and said "Can I ask you a question?"


Momma said, "No. We must depart." She used her clicker on Ted again, and the two boys carried him up the ramp. Momma and Poppa followed them without a backward glance. In less than thirty seconds the saucer was gone as if it had never been there, not even leaving a depression in the grass.

Marie and I checked out the van. It had the Ted notebook and a new life-size copy of Ted in it. The engine ran perfectly for the first time ever, and even the little things like the burnt-out dash light were fixed.

"Want to go out for breakfast?" I said. I sure as hell didn't feel up to cooking.

"Yes. Let's take the van. And Ted."

* * *

I never heard from them again. I kept the van; it now gets about fifty miles to the gallon and I've never had to replace the tires. We still have the video Marie shot, but it's only about half a minute long and is pretty grainy —the light just wasn't that good. I've seen much better effects at the movies. We still watch it each year, on our anniversary.

I know my son will ask me someday. For now, Marie and I have decided to tell him it's for an old uncle on her side of the family. I'll just have to decide how old he is before I give him this, to let him know the real reason he's named Theodore Zharban Quinn.

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