(You can read the previous chapters here.)
THE STORY IN A NUTSHELL (Kind of Like the Universe*): Jonah is a boy whose parents were eaten by a demon. Now he and his friends Stuart the philosophizing salmon, Humphrey the bow tie-bedecked troll and Calisto the testy harpy have set out to get the demon to hack his parents back up. They have thus far been hopping between dimensions using puddles caused by an interdimensional storm, and that has brought them to the house of Ms. Finch – a kindly grandmother with an octopus for a head. The group enquired with Ms. Finch where they should travel next, and Ms. Finch answered them: Toy Land.
THROUGH THE DOOR
“Oh no,” Stuart groaned. “Really? Toy Land? Are you certain, Loretta?”
“Toy Land? Stuart, that sounds awesome!” Jonah said. “What’s wrong with Toy Land?”
Stuart sighed. “The inhabitants of Toy Land have a certain. . . distaste for my species.”
“Wait, isn’t that a good thing?” Jonah said. “It’s bad enough having Calisto wanting to eat you all the time.”
“He means they’re specist, dear,” Calisto said.
“Calisto may want to eat Stuart, but she doesn’t hate what he is,” Humphrey said. “Quite the contrary, in fact. But the people of Toy Land are apparently just the opposite. Which means they probably won’t like us, either.”
“I am loathe to punctuate this dour conversation, but Toy Land is most certainly the locale that I see, Stuart,” Ms. Finch said. “I do not know if it is for aid or for conflict. Perhaps both. But the path most certainly winds there.”
Stuart sighed. “Very well then. We will go to Toy Land, come what may.”
“How will we get there?” Jonah asked. “Through another puddle?”
“No, no, dear,” Ms. Finch said. “There are no puddles leading to Toy Land, thank heaven. You will take my front door.”
“Well,” said Calisto, stretching. “Shall we then?”
“I daresay not!” Ms. Finch cried. “None of you have so much as touched the cakes yet!”
. . .
Several minutes and cakes later, Jonah plopped Stuart back into his aquarium and the four travelers set out for Ms. Finch’s front door. Jonah wheeled Stuart through a warm, grandmotherly kitchen, an elegant, towering ball room, a hall lined with betentacled suits of armor, and through a cozy sitting room with a crackling fire.
“Wait,” said Calisto. “Didn’t we just come from here?”
“Here we are, dears,” Ms. Finch said as they entered a grand marble-encrusted foyer. She opened the door at the far end of the circular room, revealing a dark, bottomless void. “Hmm, where is that passageway?” she muttered. Then she touched a blue stone by the door and closed her eyes.
Jonah frowned, squinting into the distance. Did he. . .? Yes. He did.
In the distance, rapidly approaching, Jonah saw a tunnel slithering through the abyss. It was a light gray in color, which explained why it was difficult to see at first. But it grew closer, closer, closer with every passing second.
“Stuart?” Jonah said.
“It’s going to run right through us!” Calisto cried.
“Tut tut,” Ms. Finch said. The tunnel engulfed the door, sealing against the sill with a pop. And then it stopped.
Humphrey cleared his throat and doffed his bowler hat. “Thank you so much for your hospitality, Miss. It has been a time I shall not soon forget.”
“Oh, you flatterer,” Ms. Finch said with a giggle.
“Thank you for all of your help, Loretta,” Stuart said. “As Humphrey said, we will not soon forget it.”
“I should hope not, my friend,” she said. “I would go with you if I could, but someone must guard the ways.”
“Of course, and I would be scandalized if you did any less,” Stuart said. He bowed in a fishy way.
Calisto cleared her throat. “Thank you for the tea,” she said, nodding to Ms. Finch.
Ms. Finch chuckled. “Thank you for not eating me.”
Calisto’s cheeks burned. “Don’t mention it.”
Ms. Finch turned to Jonah and wrapped him in a warm, grandmotherly hug. “You be careful now, young human,” she said. “And God speed to you.”
“Thank you, Ms. Finch,” Jonah said.
Ms. Finch kneeled down in front of him, her tentacles tenderly brushing Jonah’s face. “Don’t lose hope, don’t lose heart, and don’t lose your imagination. With those three weapons at your side, you will see your parents again.”
Jonah nodded, his gaze dropping to the floor. “Thank you,” he whispered again.
Ms. Finch straightened and ruffled his hair. Then she turned to Humphrey. “And you can come back and visit me any time you like, you tall drink of water,” she said, giving him a big wink.
Humphrey cleared his throat and bowed, crumpling his hat in his hands. “It has been a true pleasure, Madame,” he said, a smile twitching his lips.
“Well then, let’s be off,” Stuart said.
“Call if you need me, dear,” she said. “And watch your step in the tunnel. That storm has been wreaking havoc everywhere, including my passageways.”
“We shall indeed, Loretta,” Stuart replied. “Forward ho, Jonah.”
The four travelers stepped out the door and into the swerving, swaying gray tunnel. Ms. Finch waved them off, crying out encouragements and bits of advice. Over time her voice faded. And then they heard the sound of a door swinging shut behind them. The world — or lack thereof — grew inconsolably silent. Suddenly Jonah and his friends realized just how confined and exposed they really were.
The passage undulated as they walked, particularly when Humphrey’s heavy footfalls sent ripples down its length. Water sloshed and splashed inside Stuart’s aquarium. Something like wind pressed and howled in the void beyond the tunnel’s thin, sticky walls.
“And this will certainly hold us?” Humphrey asked as another gust of turbulence shook the gelatinous structure.
“Ms. Finch’s tunnels have never failed me bef — ouch!” Stuart cried as his head thumped against the aquarium’s rim.
“Sorry, Stuart,” Jonah said.
“Not your fault, my young friend,” Stuart replied. “As I was saying –”
A great boom shook the corridor, knocking those who were walking to their knees. A few seconds later the tunnel made a horrible wet hissing sound.
Calisto looked back over their shoulders and her eyes grew wide. She gasped. “The tunnel’s collapsing!”
Jonah glanced behind them now, too. The tunnel was rolling up like a noisemaker party favor, coiling faster and faster as it picked up momentum.
“Oh dear oh dear oh dear,” Humphrey said, clamping one hand on his bowler hat. “Calisto, get Stuart!”
Calisto snatched up Stuart’s wagon in her talons and sped away down the tunnel, her wings brushing the wet, rippling walls. Humphrey, meanwhile, reached down and scooped Jonah up in his free arm, cradling the boy in his armpit like a football. Humphrey ran, and the world quaked around him.
Jonah peeked over Humphrey’s arm. “It’s closing on us, Humphrey!”
Humphrey clenched his teeth together, his tusks jutting and his eyes narrowed. “We will not swim the void today,” he said.
“A door!” Stuart cried. “I see a door!”
The door was shut. Calisto sailed directly up to it, set the wagon down and scrabbled at the door handle with her claws. “Gah! Foul human engineering!” she spat.
“Out of the way!” Humphrey roared.
Calisto flattened herself against the tunnel wall, pulling the aquarium over the wet, slippery surface with a talon. Humphrey didn’t miss a beat. He turned his shoulder towards the door, bent at the waste, and charged.
Jonah yelled out, throwing his arms over his face and closing his eyes. He heard a sharp cracking sound. He felt chunks of something pummel his skin. And then there was sunlight.
Jonah opened his eyes as he felt Humphrey pitch over on his side and the two came to rest on the strangely smooth ground. Calisto pressed her wings to her ribs and dove through the doorway, the aquarium, wagon and fish clutched tightly beneath her. She dropped all three with a clatter then met the ground herself, rolling past Jonah and Humphrey.
“Would you look at that,” Humphrey said. Jonah watched with him as the tunnel wound up tighter and tighter before finally imploding, popping right out of existence with a snap. In its place was left a house’s interior — at least of sorts.
“That woman tried to kill us!” Calisto shrieked. “Why, the next time I see her –”
“That’s quite enough,” Humphrey said. “Ms. Finch said herself the storm might have caused a few bumps along the way. This was not her fault.”
“Bumps?” Calisto cried. “Bumps?”
“My friends, not to interrupt, but I am in rather a state,” Stuart said.
Jonah looked over at the salmon. He frowned, his eyes widening in alarm. The ground was. . . sinking.
Jonah leapt up and dashed towards Stuart. “I’m coming!” he said.
“Wait, Jonah, wait!” Stuart said. Jonah screeched to a halt. “Now come slowly. Tenderly. Very, very softly.”
Jonah tiptoed forward now. He could feel the ground beneath him begin to give slightly the closer he got to Stuart. It grew darker and softer the nearer he drew to the aquarium.
“What happened, Stuart?” Jonah asked.
“We spilled,” Stuart replied.
Jonah reached the handle of the wagon and began to pull.
“Slowly now,” Stuart said. “Gently, Jonah. Gently.”
The wagon was leaving ruts in the ground. The ruts were growing deeper as they advanced. “Carefully, my boy,” Stuart said. “Carefully.”
Calisto regained her equilibrium and turned. Fluttering into the air, she hovered over Jonah and Stuart. “Shall I?” she said.
“No, no, we’re almost there now,” Stuart said, his voice calm. Soothing. “Can’t risk another splash. Almost there, Jonah.”
Jonah continued to pull the wagon gingerly across the moist ground. A soft rip sounded, and the aquarium listed to one side. Jonah gasped.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Stuart said. “Just keep pulling, Jonah. You’re doing wonderfully. Just a couple more feet.”
Jonah pulled again as the seconds drew into hours. One step, another step, another —
They reached dry land. Everyone exhaled at once.
“We’re safe,” Stuart said.
“What was that?” Calisto said, landing beside Jonah and Stuart. “How did that happen?”
“This ground,” Humphrey said, startled. “It’s. . . cardboard.”
“Quite right,” Stuart said. He leaned against the aquarium’s side as if gathering his strength for his next statement. “Welcome, my friends, to Toy Land.”
That’s it for this chapter! Please share this with someone who might enjoy it if you did, and subscribe to my email list so you don’t miss the next one! Also, my newest book, “The Complete Cancer Diaries”, is now available. If you’re in need of some hope, you can pick it up at Amazon right here.
God bless you and have a great week!
* If you got this kind of crummy joke, you must be a physics nerd who has read Stephen Hawking. =)