When I was a young kid, there was nothing bigger than Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza.
I grew up in the Cleveland area during the ‘80s. While some of the larger television markets were featuring national children’s programming in the afternoons, we didn’t have more than one or two of those types of shows during the weekdays. The weekends had Saturday morning cartoons, and that was where we got our regular dose of commercials masquerading as entertainment, but the weekday afternoons were still filled with local programming.
Only a few of those shows were distinct enough that I still remember them. I can recall sitting in my father’s recliner watching Barnaby, a show hosted by an older gentleman that would perform skits and introduce short cartoons featuring Casper and Popeye. There was another show that I can’t remember the name of, but it consisted of a group of alien puppets that explored the galaxy and learned lessons while they did so. That one I found a bit boring.
Every weekday at 4:30pm, though, there might as well have been nothing else on television because that was when Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza aired. I can’t overstate how popular the show was. It was headlined by a dog puppet named Bingo who acted as the circus’ ringmaster, and it featured a wide variety of recurring characters like Bango the Clown, Poe the Fortune Teller, and Leo Lion.
In the area that it was broadcast in, Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza was huge. All of the kids watched it, including myself.
Whenever a new character was introduced, it was treated as a big deal. Teasers would be shown for at least a week before the reveal, and us children would have long and intense conversations about who or what the new character would be.
One of these teasers aired the first week of December when I was six. That was already enough to get me excited, but when it was announced that there would be two new characters, well, that absolutely blew my mind. I waited in anticipation as the days slowly ticked by. It wasn’t until the middle of the next week that the reveal would take place. To a child, having to wait nine days is roughly equivalent to wanting something to happen for nine years in adult time.
Finally the big day came, and at Bingo’s command a large purple curtain was opened. Standing on a stage were two bear puppets, one a boy and the other a girl. Bingo introduced them as Billy and Betty Bear, and he informed everyone that they were world-famous gymnasts. They started to perform a number of rolls and tumbles and flips. I was instantly a fan.
The reveal of Billy and Betty wasn’t the only surprise that the show had in store for us, though. At the end of the episode, an advertisement for stuffed bears based on the pair was shown. These weren’t just any old stuffed bears, though. They were able to talk and say a number of phrases, including their catchphrase, “Oopsie doopsie!” Their eyes moved, and their heads could turn from side to side. Best of all, they could even perform forward rolls just like on the show.
The advertisement ended by stating that Billy and Betty would be available in select areas starting that weekend. I moved closer to the television as a short list of stores and the towns they were located in came up on the screen. To my delight, there was my little suburb’s name at the bottom of the list.
The begging began instantly.
I started with my mother, mostly because she was the one in the house at the time. After I had sufficiently annoyed her enough with my asking for the toys for Christmas, my father arrived home from work and I started in on him. I went a bit easier on the begging in his case. While my mother had the patience of Job, my father was more prone to becoming annoyed if I kept saying the same thing over and over again.
I knew that I had been successful when I saw my parents share a particular look. I was too young to understand the look at the time, but now I know that it was a combination of amusement and defeat. Even though I didn’t know its exact meaning, I did know that it usually meant that my efforts had been successful. Now all there was to do was wait until Christmas.
That was easier said than done. Two weeks was even longer than nine days, after all. I had to keep reminding myself that it was going to be worth the wait when I got to open up the present containing those bears.
I learned later that finding Billy and Betty Bear, especially with such a limited availability at only select stores, was very difficult for my parents. Those of you that are old enough to remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crazy will understand how difficult it can be to get your hands on whatever the big Christmas toy is. With the popularity of Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza in the area and the newness of these particular characters, it took until almost Christmas for my parents to find them, and when they did they were only able to get one of them.
The year before there had been an incident in school that ended up dispelling my illusions about the existence of Santa Claus. Because of this, my parents decided to take a different approach for this year. Instead of waiting to put out the gifts after I went to bed, they stacked the boxes under the tree early in the evening on Christmas Eve. It was a lot less stressful for them, and if anything it built even more anticipation for me.
Maybe a bit too much anticipation. I found myself unable to sleep that night even though I absolutely wanted to. Falling asleep was the fastest way to get to the morning, after all, or at least that’s how my six-year-old mind reasoned it. No matter how hard I tried, though, I just couldn’t drift off.
Deciding that a change of scenery was in order, I got out of bed, grabbed my pillow and blanket, and went down to the living room. I had heard my parents go into their bedroom over an hour earlier, so I had the room to myself. The Christmas tree lights were still plugged in. They cast red, blue, green, and yellow spheres onto the walls and ceiling. I smiled as I climbed up onto the couch and settled in. Everything seemed so warm and pleasant.
I eventually drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke sometime later, it took me a few seconds to remember where I was. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and turned my head to try to see the time on the clock that sat on the fireplace mantle, but the room was too dark for me to be able to make out where the hands were pointing. I frowned. Something about that didn’t seem right.
A moment later I recalled that the Christmas tree lights had been plugged in when I had come downstairs. They were off now, and the tree itself was just a large black shape in the corner. I wondered if one of my parents had come downstairs and unplugged the cord. That didn’t seem right, though. If one of them had come downstairs, they would have taken me back up to bed. The couch was plainly visible from the stairs.
I sat up and slid off the couch. I expected my feet to touch soft carpet, but instead they pressed down on something dry that crunched under my weight. Looking down, I found that I was standing on torn and discarded wrapping paper. Nearby was a large present that had been ripped open right down the middle of the box.
Curious, I went over to the present and picked it up. Even in the dim light I could make out the circus-themed pattern on the inside of the box and the picture of the fuzzy-faced bear. I felt a smile spread across my face. My parents had gotten me a Billy Bear for Christmas. I had suspected that they would, of course, but here was the actual proof.
The smile slipped from my lips. This was the packaging for it, but where was the bear itself? It wasn’t inside the box.
I’m not sure if I heard a sound or caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, but something drew my attention to the stairs. By the time that I turned my head there was nothing to see. Nothing that I could make out in the darkness, anyway. I felt a growing sense of unease. I wasn’t wholly comfortable with the dark at the age of six to begin with, and the unnatural situation that I had woken up to was compounding that discomfort.
I didn’t consciously start walking towards the stairs. One moment I was standing still in front of the couch, and the next my legs were moving. I reached the bottom and went up the two steps that led to the bottom landing. I turned and looked up.
Something was moving on the steps. It was small, maybe half my height, and it was moving awkwardly as it ascended. When it reached the middle landing, the light that penetrated the gloom from outside through the thin curtains of the nearby window gave me a better look at the figure. Standing on the carpeted landing, its head tilted to stare up at the second floor, was Billy Bear.
Before I could fully process what I was seeing, he disappeared behind the wall as it made the turn and continued up the stairs. Just before he went out of view, however, I saw how unnatural his movements were. Instead of being smooth and fluid, they were stilted and twitchy. My young mind went back to an old black-and-white movie that my father had watched with me during the summer. There had been a robot that had attacked a group of astronauts, and the robot had moved with those same jerky motions. The movie had scared me; my mother had scolded my father when she had found out that he had allowed me to watch it.
Not knowing what else to do, I slowly went up the stairs after the bear. I should have yelled out for my parents, or scrambled back down into the living room and buried myself under my blanket, but for some reason I didn’t. I don’t know why. Again, I was only six, and I had just woken up.
I could hear Billy Bear above me now. He made an odd sound as he moved, like a combination of clicking and the tinkling of small bells. It was very quiet, but I could still make it out in the stillness of the house.
I stopped on the middle landing and listened intently. The jingling of Billy Bear’s movements was getting further away now that he was moving across the second floor. Staying as low as possible, I crawled up the steps and halted just before my head would have peeked out over the top step. I waited for a pair of heartbeats before I lifted my head and looked around.
There was nothing there. My parents left a nightlight on in the hallway at night for me just in case I needed to use the bathroom, and the glow it gave off was enough for me to determine that Billy Bear was gone. I had no idea where he had gone, but he wasn’t in the hallway.
The door to my bedroom was open. I was certain that I had closed it before I had gone downstairs; I hadn’t wanted my parents to wake up in the middle of the night and notice that I wasn’t in bed. The only explanation was that Billy Bear had gone inside.
I hurried over to the door and closed it. I didn’t know what was going on, but something was and at least this way Billy Bear would be trapped while I got my parents.
Going over to their door, I slowly turned the doorknob but only opened it a few inches before stopping. Even though I knew that I needed to get them, I was still oddly hesitant to wake them up.
I had just started to go into the bedroom when something grabbed me and pulled me backwards. I tried to scream, but a soft object was shoved into my mouth to prevent me from doing so. Losing my footing, I fell to the floor with a thud. Almost as soon as I had landed, Billy Bear emerged into view and hopped up onto my chest, his left paw still pushed down into my mouth. He hadn’t been in my bedroom after all, but had been hiding inside the hallway closet instead.
The bear’s normally pleasant expression was twisted back in a vicious grin. The mechanical eyes were vibrating in their sockets, and his teeth kept clacking together as it raised its free arm. There was a quiet hissing sound as a long thin needle extended out from the center of its paw.
I tried to struggle, but the bear moved too quickly. Before I could react, Billy Bear pushed the needle down into my neck. I felt a burning sensation as something was injected into my body. Tears began to stream down my cheeks. Billy Bear removed his paw from my mouth and stood up straight, the needle retracting back out of sight.
My first instinct was to throw the bear off of me and scream as loud as I could. No matter how hard I tried to do just that, though, I couldn’t move. Every muscle in my body was locked in place. While I could still breathe, it took real effort to do so. I know now that he had injected me with a strong paralytic, but at the time I had no idea what was happening to me and the panic threatened to overtake me.
Billy Bear leaned in closer until his face was mere inches from mine. The insane look that it was contorted into was more than enough to frighten me, but there was something else that I couldn’t immediately point to that added to it. He tilted his head back and forth, and as he did so that odd jingling sound filled my ears.
The bear’s eyes moved slightly to one side. They shifted just enough for me to see that there was something behind them. I couldn’t make out what that something was. Whatever it was, though, it was also moving around at the back of the mouth. Before I could get a better look at it, he slid off of my stomach.
I felt like I wasn’t connected to the rest of my body. The paralytic Billy Bear had used on me had not only shut off my muscle control, but it had made it so that I couldn’t even feel anything. I had randomly fallen into a position where I was sitting up against the wall. Looking back on it now, this was extremely fortunate. With the state I was in, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have swallowed my own tongue if I had landed differently.
Billy Bear considered me for a long moment before turning towards my parents’ bedroom door. He walked over and pressed on it. The door swung open slowly as the bear applied pressure to it. He opened it all the way and stared into the room.
From the angle I was sitting at, I could just make out my father’s body on top of the bed. He was laying on his side with his back to the now-open door. I tried to call out to him, but I couldn’t move my mouth or force out any noise.
The bear turned and took one last glance at me before going into the bedroom. He walked to the edge of the bed and examined it for a moment before grabbing onto the side with his paws and trying to pull himself up. He slipped off of the sheets and fell back down to the floor. He tried again, but it was met with the same result.
I felt a momentary relief. No matter how hard he tried, Billy Bear just could not get up the side of the bed. Eventually his efforts would wake my father up, and once that happened he would surely be able to help me.
Billy Bear took a step back and considered things. Seeming to come to a conclusion, he sat down on the carpet and reached up to grip his ears with his paws.
There was a ripping sound as he pulled on the ears. His head began to split down the middle as the cloth tore, exposing the white fluff inside. He continued pulling until half of his body was ruined. The stuffing shifted and fell to the floor as the creature inside emerged.
I would have screamed in horror if I had been able to. From the remains of the stuffed bear came something pulled straight from a nightmare. Its head resembled a human skull, but instead of white or gray it was a dark crimson. The jaw worked up and down slowly as it came into view.
The head was attached to a spine-like appendage, and from that appendage sprouted two arms that were jointed the opposite of human arms. Each of the hands’ four fingers were thin almost to the point of being delicate, and each of them ended in curved points that resembled scalpels. The creature pulled itself all the way free from the bear’s remains, revealing that the spine terminated in a long fine spike. It was the needle that had paralyzed me. A series of ribs were also attached to the spine, but they were able to bend and flex in ways that weren’t possible for a human. It operated them like a human moves their fingers.
It raised its head slightly, and it started to float upward off the floor. The spine curled under the head and gave it the appearance of being in an odd sitting position. Its movements were slow and deliberate, each accompanied by the same jingling sound that I had been hearing. When it reached the level of the top of the bed it stopped its ascent and extended its spike towards my father.
It lashed out so quickly that I almost didn’t see it move. The spike pushed into the back of my father’s neck with seemingly no effort. He yelped and tried to sit up as he woke up, but he was unable to do so before the paralytic took effect.
His sudden activity woke my mother, and she quickly sat up as she tried to simultaneously figure out what was happening and regain full consciousness. The creature’s spike whipped forward again and struck her in the chest just above her left breast. She almost immediately froze and fell back onto the mattress.
It was at that moment that I knew that I was going to die. Can you even imagine what type of realization is like to a six-year-old child? I barely understood what death was, and yet I knew that it was a certainty for my family. I didn’t have the mental capacity or the world experience at that age to come to terms with that knowledge. There was only a great fear that completely consumed me.
The creature reached out with its short arms and gently pulled down the sheets to uncover my parents. It then floated into position above my father and used its razor-sharp fingertips to slash the buttons off of his pajama shirt so that his chest was laid bare. The jingling grew louder as it bobbed its head up and down.
With the steadiness and precision of a surgeon, it reached down with one finger and slowly sliced open my father’s chest.
It was a minor mercy that I couldn’t see the operation that was performed on my father. I wasn’t sitting at quite the right angle for that. I could hear it, though, and in some ways that was worse. I’ve never been able to forget the sounds of blood spurting out of the open cavity, or the noise of the creature jingling as it continued cutting.
When it was finally finished, the fountain of gore had stopped, and I knew that my father was gone.
The creature reached into the opening and removed a misshapen object. It was my father’s heart. Being careful not to damage the organ with its claws, it wrapped its flexible ribs around it and held it firmly between them. Its jaw opening and closing in excitement, it floated over to my mother and began to perform the same procedure on her.
I was going to be next. There was no doubt about that in my mind. As the creature went about its work, I did everything that I could to regain control of my body. I was starting to feel it again, but I still wasn’t able to move anything.
I found that wasn’t exactly correct. While most of my body remained immobile, I was able to flex my big toes. It wasn’t much. It meant that I wasn’t permanently paralyzed, though, and if the creature ignored me for long enough I might be able to run away or fight it off by the time it returned its attention to me. All that I could do was hope.
My hopes were shattered when it finished with my mother, removing her heart and gently placing it next to my father’s inside of its ribs. It was poetic, in a way, but that was lost on the young boy that was now orphaned and alone in the world.
The creature rotated towards me and floated over to hover above me. It considered me for a long moment, the eyeless sockets of the skull staring down at me as its fingers flexed and jingled. I was helpless and at its mercy, and there was no mercy in its empty gaze.
Without warning, it turned away and moved out of my sight. For a long while I laid there knowing that it would be back at any moment to cut me open the way that it had my parents, but that moment never came. Eventually the fear gave way to confusion. What had just happened?
I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the creature didn’t spare me out of pity or kindness. I’m sure that it was simply because it wouldn’t have been able to carry my heart alongside the two that it had already collected. I was saved by sheer luck.
I don’t feel lucky. Quite the opposite, actually.
Over the next few minutes I regained the ability to move my body. It started with the lower extremities and worked its way up. I had never been so grateful to be able to blink in my life.
As I got to my feet, I noticed how warm I was. There was also an odd smell in the air, one that smelled a lot like when my father would accidentally burn bacon when he attempted to make breakfast on the weekends.
It didn’t matter, though. All that mattered was that I needed to get help. While I knew logically that my parents were dead, I still had some crazy notion in my head that if I got them help fast enough, they would be able to be saved. I rushed into my room and put on my shoes and coat before hurrying downstairs.
The entire living room was on fire. A wall of heat struck me as I reached the bottom landing, and I held a hand up over my face to shield my eyes from the bright light. I watched the flames dance between the floor and walls for what seemed like an eternity before I roused myself and ran into the kitchen. There was a door leading into the backyard there, and I flung it open before hurrying out into the cold night.
I went around the side of the house to the front lawn and stopped. Other houses in my neighborhood were burning as well, and there were screams coming from inside some of them. It wasn’t the fires that held my attention, however. It was the procession moving down the street in front of me.
There were dozens of the creatures heading south on the road. Some of them were still disguised inside of Billy Bears and Betty Bears, while others floated above the concrete. All of them carried freshly harvested hearts. The air was filled with the sound of jingling bells as they moved towards some unknown destination. They ignored me and the few neighbors that were also standing in their lawns staring at them. They had gotten everything that they had wanted, and they no longer had use for us.
Reaching the end of the road, the macabre parade disappeared into the shadows.
As I said earlier, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened. In all that time, though, I haven’t been able to piece much together. I have some guesses, but nothing that is rooted in fact.
I think the fires were started to hide what the creatures did. They were set in such a way that the wind quickly spread the flames to other nearby homes, and by the time the sun was coming up the entire neighborhood had burned. It happened in other nearby towns as well, all of which just happened to have been listed as towns receiving Billy and Betty Bear toys on Bingo’s Circus Extravaganza.
The fires were all officially listed as having been caused by faulty wiring or started by dangerous Christmas light hookups. The deaths were attributed to smoke inhalation and being burned to death. There was no mention of missing organs or mutilated bodies.
The survivors were informed by law enforcement that the official story about the fires was what had really happened. It was implied that anyone that spoke out against that story would be promptly dealt with. No one came right out and said it, but everyone understood what that implication meant. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, and I didn’t even tell my grandmother about what had happened when she arrived to pick me up from the hospital I was taken to. It’s not like she would have believed me anyway.
I don’t know why there was a cover-up. Maybe there was money involved, or maybe the people in power had something to do with the creatures. Maybe it’s due to reasons that I’ll never know or understand. It’s been so many years now that most people that would know the truth are dead and buried.
I’ve tried to forget about it. I really have. I’ve paid a lot of shrinks a lot of money to help me with doing just that, but so far nothing has worked. The memories are always rattling around in the back of my mind, ready to surface again when I least suspect it.
Two nights ago, in the early morning of Christmas, there were a series of fires in three nearby towns. All of them occurred in neighborhoods, and all of them were a part of a test market for a new collection of lifelike robotic stuffed animals. The news reported that the fires were due to faulty wiring in old homes and from outlets overloaded with Christmas lights.
That’s not what happened. I know that if someone was able to examine the bodies they would find each of them was missing a very specific internal organ. The harvest had come back to Ohio this year.
I’m just going to try to pretend that I don’t know any of this and that I believe the news reports. Doing anything else would be dangerous, and I’ve been through enough to last a lifetime. I’ve lost enough to the harvest already.
Like I said, I’ve had a lot of time to think over things.
Credit: Tim Sprague
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