PLEASE DON’T FEED THE BEARS — “Mom! Can't we stop at Monster Mansion? Please?” I whined. I usually don't whine, but this was an emergency. I was stuck in the car with my family, on my way to having the worst weekend any twelve-year-old ever had. I had to try something to change things. Even whining. “Sarah!” my mother snapped. “Stop complaining. We've been through this a thousand time Monster Mansion is too scary for your little sister. We're going to Cuddle Bear Land —and that’s final!” Cuddle Bear Land! Can you believe it? I could just hear the kids at school shriek and howl when I told them where I went this Halloween weekend. No dressing up for Halloween. No trick-or-treating. No great candy to eat with my best friend, Lindsey. None of that. Because we were going to Cuddle Bear Land —a place for babies. Of course, that's why we were going there. You see, I have a really bratty five-year-old sister named Katie. Well, most people call her Katie. My parents call her Princess — because she’s so precious, they say. I say it’s enough to make you puke. Katie has a way of getting everyone to do whatever she wants. And it’s usually something I don't want to do. Princess doesn't like seary places. She wanted to go to Cuddle Bear Land. ‘So — that's where we were going. Cuddle Bear Land. Yech. My mother handed me a Cuddle Bear Land brochure. “Here. Read this,” she suggested. “Cuddle Bear Land has rides for kids of all ages.” I grabbed the flyer from her hand. It was filled mostly with pictures of giant, furry bears. Bears shaking hands with grown-ups. Bears hugging little kids. Bears serving lunches on bear-shaped trays. Bears waving as they rode on a roller coaster. Then I noticed a picture of the Forest Shopping Village. Store after store filled with stuffed bears in all sizes, I didn’t want to like anything about Cuddle Bear Park. But those bears looked pretty cool. I hated to admit it — but I really wanted one. I handed the brochure back to my mother. “Hey, Mom, check out those great stuffed Cuddle Bears. Can I get one?” I asked. My mother sighed. “Sarah, I've told you be- fore. Cuddle Bear Land is very expensive. There will be no souvenirs on this trip.” Great. Now I had nothing to look forward to. “Will that be cash or charge, sir?” a huge brown bear dressed in jeans and a Cuddle Bear Land T-shirt asked my father. My father handed him a wad of cash. The bear smiled at me and my sister. “Have a bear-y good time, girls,” he joked. “And don’t forget to try a bag of our yummy Honey Crackers before you leave.” Ugh! This place was too cute for words. “Mommy! I can't wait to meet more Cuddle Bears!" Katie cried. “Our Princess is so excited,” my mother whispered to my dad. “Isn't that adorable?” I studied my map of Cuddle Bear Land. The roller coaster was on the other side of the park. “Let's start at the Roarin’ Roller Coaster,” I suggested. Prineess batted her big blue eyes. “Roller coasters are so scary,” she whispered to my parents, with just the right amount of phony fear in her voice. “I want to meet the bears and have them sign my autograph book.” I was prepared for that. “Hey, Dad, can I go on the roller coaster by myself?” I pleaded. “I can meet up with you guys later.” My parents gave each other the “it’s-okay- with-me-if-it's-okay-with-you” look. Finally, my mother nodded. “But be sure you meet us for lunch at the Hibernation Rest Center at one-thirty,” my father told me. I checked my watch. Twelve o'clock. An hour and a half on my own! An hour and a half without the Princess! Yes! I slipped the park map into my backpack and raced off to the Roarin’ Roller Coaster. As I walked through the park, the sun beat down on my head. It was really *** here. I rolled up my shirtsleeves and tied the bottom of my shirt in a knot above my stomach. Then I pulled out the map to make sure I was walking the right way. A tall, skinny Cuddle Bear in a rhinestone-covered sweatsuit strolled over and swung her arm around me. “Need some help?” she asked. “Um, yeah. Can you tell me which way to go to the Roarin’ Roller Coaster?” “T'll walk you there,” the tall bear said. A personal tour of Cuddle Bear Land? Not what I had in mind. “Uh, no thanks. Why don’t you go somewhere and take a break? Maybe have some lemonade or something?” I suggested. “Bears don’t drink lemonade,” the bear said. “But we eat Honey Crackers.” She held out a bag of cookies. “Want some?” ‘They looked like graham crackers. I shook my head. “Okay, but they're yummy!” the bear said. Then she turned and pointed to my left. “The roller coaster is over there, just past the Un- bear-able Flying Bear ride.” I followed the Cuddle Bear's directions to the Roarin’ Roller Coaster. The ride was great! It had three intense loop-the-loops, and I rode on it five times! ‘The fifth time I got stuck sitting next to a really chubby Cuddle Bear in a jean jacket. He took up more than half the car. “Aren't you supposed to be working?” I asked him. “Lunch break,” he replied. Lunch break, Oh, no! I forgot to watch the time. I checked my watch. One o'clock. I could still make it to the Hibernation Rest Center by one-thirty. No problem. I pulled the map from my backpack and found the quickest route back — Honey Comb Lane. I walked and walked on Honey Comb Lane. It went on forever. I checked my wateh. Ten minutes past one. Only twenty more minutes before I was supposed to meet my family. If I showed up late, my mother would be furious! I started running and reached a fork in the road. I glanced at the map to see which path led to the Hibernation Rest Center. Funny. The map didn't show any fork in the road. ‘What do I do now? I wondered. I chose the path to the right. It was lined with the most beautiful fall flowers I had ever seen, I walked along the path for a while, admiring all the bright colors. But before I realized it, the flower path ended. I was standing in the middle of a thick forest. No signs posted anywhere. I had no idea where to go. I studied the map again. No forest on it. I’ll walk a little farther, I decided. There has to be a path here somewhere, I was going to be late. I started to run. The tree limbs swiped at my arms and legs. They beat against my face. But I didn't stop. I just kept running. I yalled out for help. No one answered. I bet there are lots of kids who disappeared in this forest, I thought with dread. A forest where no one can hear you scream, Then I heard something. A shrill wail. Kids shrieking. Crying out for help! I had to see who it was. I had to help them. I crashed my way through the trees, following the cries. I charged up a hill. When I reached the top, there it was — the Roarin’ Roller Coaster! With lots of kids on it, screaming. Screaming and shrieking with laughter! I felt like such a jerk. I had gone all the way back to where I had started. Well, at least I found Honey Comb Lane again. This time, I thought, I'l be sure to take the path to the left. ‘That's when I saw the sign: ‘The Cave: CAUTION. EMPLOYEES ONLY. I wish I had noticed that sign before. I could have stopped in and asked for directions, Well, that’s what I'll do now, I decided, because I'm really late. I stepped into The Cave. It was definitely the wrong thing to do. The Cave was sort of a workers’ lounge. There were Cuddle Bears and more Cuddle Bears everywhere you looked. Cuddle Bears playing cards. Cuddle Bears reading newspapers. Cuddle Bears listening to radios. “Excuse me,” I called out. “Can anyone show me the way to the Hibernation Rest Center? I'm a little lost.” A teenage Cuddle Bear in a black Lycra miniskirt made her way across the room. “Hi! I'm Kira,” she said. “Maybe I can help.” “I was following Honey Comb Lane,” I ex- plained. “And somehow I wound up here.” A grumpy old Cuddle Bear raised his eyes from his newspaper. “Sooner or later all roads lead to The Cave,” he mumbled. “Don't listen to Charlie,” Kira said. “He never makes any sense.” Then she asked me my name, “Sarah,” I replied. “With or without an h?” she asked. She opened a closet full of hats. “With.” Kira pulled out a brown hat with two fuzzy ears on top. It matched the ears Kira wore, except across the front of hers it said Kira. She lowered the hat with Saran on it over my hair, “Thanks,” I muttered. “Can you help me get to the Hibernation Rest Center? I’m supposed to meet my family there for lunch at one-thirty. I'm already twenty minutes late. And I'm starving.” “Well, then, have a cookie!” Kira held out a bag of Honey Crackers. “Okay,” I said. “I'll have just one. Then I really have to find my way back.” I took a cookie from the bag. It was really good. I gulped it down. “Want another?” Kira asked. “No. No thank you,” I said. “I have to get going.” “Come on,” Kira urged with a big smile. “I'm sorry. But I really have to find my parents — or I'll be in big trouble.” I started toward the door. “Can you tell me which way to the Hibernation Rest Center?” “Sure,” Kira replied. “But first, you have to have another cookie.’ I sat down next to Kira and gulped down an- other Honey Cracker. “Okay.” I jumped up. “Which way do I go?” “Come on.” Kira laughed. “You have to eat the whole bag.” I'm never going to find my way back, I thought — unless I eat all these stupid cookies. ‘The other Cuddle Bears smiled at me and nod- ded as I popped two more into my mouth. ‘The room suddenly felt ***. I slipped off my backpack. I glanced around for a soda machine, but didn't see one. I took another swallow of a Honey Cracker. A bead of sweat trickled down my nose. I lifted my arm to wipe it away. And screamed. A patch of thick, brown hair covered my elbow. No. Not hair. Fur! Bear fur! The same bear fur that covered everyone else in the room. I touched my hand to my face. My nose felt cold, and a little wet. Just like an animal's nose. “I-I'm turning into a bear!” I stammered. The Cuddle Bears all grinned. “Have another cracker,” one suggested. “Yeah! Go ahead. Grab a handful,” Kira urged. “Everyone in Cuddle Bear Land lives on Honey Crackers.” The Honey Crackers! With every bite of the cracker I was becoming a Cuddle Bear! No wonder the bears never took their cos- tumes off. They weren't wearing costumes! I bolted for the exit. “Hey! Wait!” Kira raced after me. “You forgot this.” She was holding my backpack. I snatched it from her and ran. I ran until my lungs felt about to burst. I have to stop, I thought. I have to catch my breath. I ducked into the doorway of a souvenir shop and slumped against the door. Did I look like a bear? I wondered. I felt my face and neck. No. They didn't feel furry. I didn’t eat enough crackers to change into a bear, I told myself. They wanted me to eat the whole bag. I reached into my backpack to find the map — and screamed. . ‘A bag of Honey Crackers! In my backpack! “I bet Kira stuffed them in there.” I started to hurl them away. Then I changed my mind. As soon as I get home, I'll take them to my doctor, I thought. Maybe she'll be able to find a cure. Something to make me completely human again! I rolled my shirt sleeves down to cover my furry elbows. Then I took off. I heard Princess as soon as I reached the Hibernation Rest Center. Her voice isn't hard to miss. “But I want a Chocolate Poppa Cuddle Bear Pop, Mommy!” she whined. “You know I love Poppa Cuddle Bear, He's my fa-a-a-vorite!" My mother glanced at her watch. “Sarah! Do you know what time it is? You're an hour late. And our little Princess is very hungry.” I hadn't exactly expected a happy weleome, but this was ridiculous. I thought about telling Mom about The Cave. But she would never be lieve me. “I'm sorry. I got a little lost,” I explained quietly. I dropped my backpack on the pienic table. “I want furry ears like Sarah,” Katie whined, pointing to my head. Oh, no! I'm turning into a bear! My hands flew up to my head. I touched my ears —my furry ears. The ears on the cap with my name on it. The cap Kira had given me. I let out a long sigh. It was just a furry cap. I wasn’t a bear. I wasn’t a bear. As soon as we got home on Sunday night, Iran up to the bathroom and checked my reflection in the mirror. No fur. What a relief. I couldn't believe Cuddle Bear Land turned out to be scarier than Midnight Mansion. I shuddered. A lot scarier, I checked myself in the mirror one more time before heading for my bedroom. I found Katie sitting on my bed, grinning. “What are you doing in here?” I snapped. “Go sit in your own room.” “I found this bag of crackers in your backpack,” she replied, “And I didn’t save you any. I ate the whole bag. Ha!” I stared at her. And then it was my turn to laugh. Thad my souvenir Cuddle Bear after all. She's so precious —I think I’ll call her Princess. END