Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
2. …AND SMELL THE BABY
Two Rector Street is an old, stone-faced building on the West Side of Lower Manhattan. It stands over Broadway, towering above Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton was buried after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. I get off the subway at Wall Street and walk briskly down the small, narrow blocks to my office.
The offices of the Chemical Market Reporter, a family-owned business magazine launched when the closing price for a kilo of heroin was a reputable news item, occupy the entire twenty-sixth floor of Two Rector Street. I am hacking my way through a Flavors and Fragrance column for the trade. It is my first professional venture outside of the misleadingly named adult sophisticate market. I had worked at Screw magazine, which bills itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper,” editing a Consumer Reports-styled section on massage parlors, topless bars and houses of domination. Over three years, I worked my way up in the industry to a cushy position at Genesis, a glossy nudie book launched in the seventies by Rocky H. Aoki, founder of the Benihana chain of Japanese steakhouses. The biblical title of the magazine is a mystery to me, though Adam and Eve are naked in the first book of the Bible, which I guess is sexy. My career as a pornographer ended when shady businessmen from New Jersey bought the magazine. They offered the staff jobs as cogs in their publishing machine, but I felt unemployment a wiser career choice.
I have high hopes for my first straight job. Buying a tape recorder and two seersucker suits, I fashion myself the Karl Kolchak of the chemical world. Karl Kolchak being the bulldog reporter from the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which I watched religiously as a kid, though I watched everything on television religiously. Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin, worked for a daily tabloid where every hot lead inevitably lead to the supernatural. In the pilot, a Las Vegas vampire preyed on hookers. The climatic scene had the police busting in on Kolchak hammering a stake into the heart of the bloodsucker. He was asked to leave Nevada and relocated to Illinois. Naturally Kolshak’s instincts are proven correct, but his line of questioning meets with rolled eyes and throaty expletives from the police and his ulcer-suffering editor. Each weekly adventure concludes with Kolchak alone at his desk, with only a table lamp spotlighting his manual typewriter, as he bangs out a story no one will ever publish. Tearing the leaf from the roller, he reads the story and smiles knowingly to himself before crumbling the sheet up in a ball and tossing it into the wastebasket, shaking his head with an exasperated grin.
"Crude sulfite turpentine prices are being artificially inflated … by the undead!" I shout throwing my explosive story down on top of the cluttered desk of my editor — at least that is the fantasy. In reality, crude sulfite turpentine prices are controlled by a tug-of-war between paper companies, which produce the chemical as a byproduct of manufacturing pulp, and flavors and fragrances companies that stockpile the material to produce artificial aroma chemicals.
I guess I’m growing up. I am thirty-five years old. But Sundays still have me dreading Mondays as a child apprehensive at the start of another school week.
Walking the narrow hallway to my desk I pass on my left the windowed offices of upper management. The editor-in-chief is a German woman with a thick accent that accentuates her mature good looks and the office rumor that she writes sadomasochistic poetry after hours. The managing editor appears to have inorganically matured, as if inflated by a very large air pump into the awkward middle-aged man that now sits behind his desk making clicking sounds while jerking his head. He listens to bebop and lives with his parents. To my right is the editorial bullpen, broken into units of four desks separated by gray freestanding partitions that climb to the crown of a sitting person’s head. I smile at our production manager. He is short, has short black hair, short black eyebrows over short black eyes that mirror his short temper. He has a friendly demeanor that can turn suddenly to Napoleonic rage. Behind him is the Oils, Fats and Waxes market reporter. He’s young and tall and arrogant. He once challenged me to a White Castle hamburger-eating contest. I ate twenty hamburgers in twenty minutes, but he ate twenty-one and won. He also nearly threw up, while I went out to dinner afterwards, so I think I proved who was the superior gourmand. I slip into my cube in front of a thin Korean with a business degree and such low ambitions that he ended up here, as financial editor. We often share News Desk responsibilities, which means rewriting press releases into news briefs. To pass the tedious duty we play a hand of blackjack, with the press releases as our chips, only the winner gives the loser the pot to write that week’s column. These games of chance are only the prelude to his lost weekends in Atlantic City casinos, outings that have him calling in sick Monday mornings, feigning illness to the editor in chief, as slot machines rang, cashing out in the background.
Before I sit down, I crane my neck to peer over the wall and at Helena, seated at her desk. I smile. Her face is dark and tight.
There is little privacy in the office. Smokers cloud a storage room and the kitchen collects caffeine-crazed gamblers placing bets on when the coffee machine’ counter will run over. Helena pulls me over to a secluded corner where shelves sag under the weight of unused reference books.
"I’m pregnant," she whispers, and stares at me with quizzical eyes. It is less a statement than a question.
Helena’s face can be expressionless and misinterpreted as hard, distant and cold. Beneath the inky pool of her dark-brown eyes works an inexhaustible mind that is forever charged with negativity. Our mutual friend, Tony Millionaire, describe his roommate thusly, “No one hates like Helena.” Helena says she isn’t hateful but realistic. The proverbial glass isn’t half-full or half-empty; it’s shattered into a million sharp and dangerous shards that inevitably will settle as deep wounds.
Helena and I haven’t spoken in days. Now we stand quietly besides the window overlooking Broadway, the Canyon of Champions, where in the past heroes such as Charles Lindbergh paraded through a rain of ticker-tape awarding their exploits. In less than two years, this city plot surrounding the World Trade Center will be known as “Ground Zero,” but for now my semen replaced the torn paper falling from the office buildings in one last act of celebration before everything changed. I felt honored. Helena wasn’t even sure if we were a couple anymore.
"That’s great!" I exclaim. Then ask, "Are you sure?" Helena says she is. Her deep brown eyes almost black, narrowed, looking for a crack in my façade.
I am sincere. Why not have children? I am the last Landau, the final male specimen in a haggard line of Eastern European immigrants that poured out of boats from Poland, Hungary and Russia to settle Manhattan. Great men, such as my Uncle Normy, a gnome who shot half-chewed bits of herring from his damp mouth like shrapnel. Who empties a room just by entering it. No one wants to hear his pathetic sham about growing up in the Jewish mob. Not even his brother Larry, who lets Normy stay at his apartment when visiting from Florida. Normy likes prostitutes. They have the financial incentive to stay in the room, dodging the herring until his money runs out. My Uncle Larry tolerates Normy’s dalliances as long as the hookers aren’t black. There is a line between right and wrong, and it is colored. This is the proud legacy bestowed upon my family jewels that rests like a heavy weight on my groin to carry on the noble family line.
I want a family, why not now? I am tired of going out to bars, watching friends’ bands rock and roll while standing in front of the stage with a smile plastered on my face. I am tired of drinking until closing time, waking up hung-over, miserable and smelly, dreaming about peeing myself. I already hide out at home, seclude myself in solitary confinement rather than answer the phone when it rings with the potential invite to go out and party. Children are the bulletproof excuse, a never expiring “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. “I can’t go out tonight, no sorry, I’m breastfeeding,” or whatever parents do with their young. My younger sister already has two children. She seems happy, though divorced and on medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and agoraphobic. To the best of my knowledge these are preexisting conditions and not a result of motherhood. Yet her kids are happy and healthy, so far. I have a lot of catching up to do. The mechanics of producing children with Helena is certainly exciting. I feel myself getting excited standing there as we talk.
Helena is short, maybe five-feet tall, not quite a midget. Her hair is dark brown and wiry. It is beginning to gray prematurely in streaks, like a bolt of lighting struck across her forehead. She has a square jaw and a pinched, jutting chin. Her mouth is small, with little but full lips. Her cheekbones rise high and prominent on her face, her eyes hidden under hooded lids. They are deeply set, dusky, and can seem far-away, unfocused one moment then sparklingly alert the next. She frames those dynamic eyes with petite vintage eyewear giving her a librarian look. That studious style turns me on.
Helena’s family came to America from Eastern Europe, but unlike my family, which traveled the same immigrant route, hers are not Jewish. Helena is Catholic, a Christian, a follower of that last-minute addendum to the Bible, the Hebrew Bible. Our two noble faiths are now mixing, growing inside Helena to create a super-religion, a hybrid that cancels out the weaknesses of the two and emphasizes their strengths, or the other way around, or maybe the Antichrist. Either way, that life is Helena’s and mine, and I couldn’t wait to take possession.
"This is great!" I repeat.
Helena keeps looking at me with an impenetrable stare that squeezes her eyes nearly closed behind cat-eyed plastic glasses.
"What do we do next?" I ask.
Helena is practical. She sets up a gynecological visit and says we should wait three months to make sure we don’t lose the baby before telling our family and friends. I can hardly contain my excitement. Helena is extremely nervous.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
1. WAKE UP…
There was piss everywhere. Tears filled my eyes from the stench. The pee soaked my feet ankle-deep as I sloshed around the dark bathroom looking for the urinal. I found them lined up on a dirty far wall — great open troughs like stern porcelain mouths barking orders at me. I am yellow, a balloon of urine about to pop.
As I approached the fixtures I noticed they were coated in filth and mold and oozed a gelatinous slime as if from a living being. I was hesitant to use them, but my bladder was bloated: I had a piss erection. There must be release. Throttling my penis like a wild animal I forced it into the head and released a torrent of hot, yellow piss, and peed with such force the waste ricocheted off the back of the urinal and splattered my pants, shirt, even spotting my chin and cheeks.
I was vaguely aware of other people in the bathroom, watching me. When I finished and zipped up, I quickly got out of there. But the moment I left the restroom the heavy pressure in my groin returned: I had to urinate again.
My penis was grotesquely large. It towered out from my fly. I grappled with it as I walked the streets in search of another toilet, desperate to liberate the ocean of urine churning in my inflated bladder. People stared as I ducked into another men’s room, this one more disgusting than the last, and out came an unnatural gusher spraying from my engorged member with the force of a tsunami.
Again, I zipped up only to discover that I still had to go worse than before. From toilet to toilet I ran pissing like a burst dam in each, a flood of steamy fluid licking at my heels as I endlessly searched for relief, only there was no relief. Then I woke up.
The bed was dry. The sensation of pissing was so realistic, I could feel the wetness as I relaxed my bladder and let the urine pour out of me, but something held me back from actually wetting the bed.
I awoke from my piss dream with a piss erection, a real one pitching a tent in my bed sheets like an unhappy camper. It was dark. I was not in a squalid public restroom but in my bedroom, the light of a new day seeping in through the shaded window. I slipped out from beneath the warm covering and placed my feet on the cold, hardwood floor. When I turned on the light in the bathroom I was momentarily blinded, but the room was clean and dry, and it was time to get ready for work.
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid CIty — Chapter Twenty-Nine
Nickelan Wand was flat on his back, floating on an air mattress over the calm waters of the Presidential Toilet Basin. He held a cool glass of lemonade in one hand and with his other placed a candy cigar between his lips. The noonday Fire was overhead and reflected orange and yellow over the clear surface of the toilet water.
The tidal wave followed a sonic boom. It rose high above the inflatable raft and crested just above Nickelan, blotting out the Fire. Nickelan was in dark shadow and then underwater after the wave crashed over him.
He was still holding his glass, though now more filled with toilet water than lemonade. The cigar clenched tightly between his teeth slowly dissolved into a cloud of sugar.
“It’s all your fault,” Springo said.
Nickelan turned to orient himself towards the drain, where he saw his friend’s face reflected in the deep waters. Springo was in the school bathroom.
“You’re a hero,” Nickelan said. “They’re erecting a statue of you filling a toilet with soap here in the city square. It was my first act as President.”
“I’ve got a month’s detention for busting that toilet,” Springo said. “I don’t feel like much of a hero. Though the bullies that used to beat me up have taken a shine to me now that I’m a juvenile delinquent. They respect the unlawful destruction of public property.”
“See?” Nickelan said.
“Well,” Springo said sadly, “I better get back to work. I have to clean all the toilets in school, even the girls’ toilets. It’s humiliating.”
“It’s a good way to stay in touch,” Nickelan countered. He swam up to the surface and broke through the water, taking a big lungful of fresh air and coming face-to-face with the sharp-toothed smile of Baber Groan.
“This is great!” Baber Groan said. “Did you see my cannonball? I must have displaced half the water in the toilet.”
“And you displaced me from my raft,” Nickelan said.
“Sorry, Pres.,” Baber Groan said, emphasizing his apology with a friendly tap to Nickelan’s shoulder that sent him plunging underwater. When Nickelan returned to the surface, he sprayed a stream of water from his mouth into Baber Groan’s face. “Ha!” said the Chief Maka. “If I knew diplomacy was so much fun I would have set up diplomatic relations with Kid City long ago.”
Baber Groan was visiting from Thunder World to discuss the emancipation of the slave children and their safe return to Kid City. Nothing had been settled, but at least the two parties were talking. Well, the two parties were partying. That, however, was not a bad start.
Nickelan took hold of the tail whipping around him and held on for a wild water ride. The dragon lifted its tail high in the air, lowering it to its face. It blew smoke rings so big from its nostrils that they passed around Nickelan without touching him.
“That’s a pretty neat trick, huh?” Fischel Bocephus said. He was riding the dragon’s back seated next to Gelsomina Gillespie. “It can make fireworks with its breath. Want to see?”
“Another time,” Nickelan said.
“Burn him!” Gelsomina screamed. “Char that traitor to a crisp!”
“She still wants me dead,” Nickelan observed.
“So it would seem,” Fischel responded. “But don’t take it personally, Gelsomina hasn’t been the same since she took that blow to the head.”
“Sorry about that,” Baber Groan chimed in. “I do have a temper, but I never thought a soft dragon would cause such damage to a tough girl like Gelsomina.”
“It’s not all your fault,” Nickelan said to Baber Groan, adding in a whisper: “She wasn’t too happy with me before you hit her with that dragon. Fischel just can’t accept the fact that his former team leader was a spy.”
“I heard that,” Fischel said. “There’s nothing wrong with loyalty.”
“Yeah,” Gelsomina said, wrapping her arm around Fischel’s neck. “I know who my friends are.”
“Gelsomina,” Fischel squeaked, “lay off. You’re choking me.”
Nickelan dived off the dragon’s tail and swam underwater, trying to wash the unpleasantness with Gelsomina from his memory. He still cared for her and liked to keep her close, even if she was forever scheming to remove him from power or worse. One day he’d win her over. Until then Fischel and the rest of the Red Team, now members of the Presidential Guard, would ensure his safety.
“Nickelan,” said Mr. Wand, “you know I detest this form of communication. Nickelan, please answer me. I cannot keep my head in the toilet much longer. It goes against everything that I hold dear.”
“Hey, Dad,” Nickelan said, swimming down to the basin’s bottom. Mr. Wand’s hair was upswept and disheveled in the current of the toilet bowl. His tie floated across his face like a slash. “How’s Mom?”
Nickelan had sent his parents home down the very drain that he was now communicating with his father. They were reluctant to leave Kid City, as badly as they wanted to go, without their son. Nickelan refused to accompany them. Though it was not his intention, Nickelan had destroyed Kid City by saving it. The only proper thing was to remain behind and accept the responsibility for Kid City’s destruction and begin the long and arduous task of rebuilding. In a touching ceremony, Nickelan bid his parents an emotional farewell and, flushing the toilet handle, sent Mr. and Mrs. Wand back to the surface world.
“Your mother misses you,” Mr. Wand said, bubbles getting caught in his mustache. “When are you leaving that infernal land and coming back to your family?”
“There’s still a lot of unfinished work here,” Nickelan said. “Maybe I can come home for a visit once I get the waste management system operational. I’ve got a bask of crocodiles digging up sewers, and Scrap is leading a team of mechanical engineers designing everything from sewage treatment plants to bathrooms.”
“I must say,” Mr. Wand said, “that the prospect of bathtime in Kid City is quite appealing to me. I feel, in a sense, it’s my legacy.”
“Soap and water have enjoyed a revival here ever since they were responsible for turning back the invading Maka hordes,” Nickelan said. “Kids now take baths like you blow up firecrackers on the Fourth of July. It’s patriotic.”
Mr. Wand’s image was distorted by the churning of his toilet as he flushed his good-byes. Nickelan turned his head upwards and watched the Fire ripple over the surface of the toilet bowl. He kicked his feet and hands, making his way to the surface, when another voice called out to him.
“Nickelan Wand!” the voice said with authority. “There isn’t much time!”
Though Nickelan’s lungs were empty, and the air they craved was only feet above his head, he stopped swimming. Floating in the cool waters, the voice called out to him again.
“I need your help,” it said. “You must come at once. Terrible things are happening. Terrible…”
Nickelan looked down the drain, but whoever was trying to communicate with him was cloaked in shadow.
“Nickelan Wand,” the voice called out again, “You are our last hope. If you cannot save us all is lost. Lost…”
“You can’t fool me, Selwyn Harris,” Nickelan said, recognizing the voice, even as Selwyn tried to disguise it by covering his mouth with his hand and speaking in muted tones. “I’m no longer the novice I was when you first met me.”
“That’s true,” Selwyn said, reverting to his real voice. “I’m sorry, Mr. President, old habits die hard. But my message is not in jest. There is a problem in the Lands Between that needs your immediate attention.”
“I’m on it,” Nickelan said, swimming up for a much needed lungful of air. He gasped, breaking the surface of the water.
“What’s up?” Spike asked, treading water with his baseball cap wet on his head.
“Trouble,” Nickelan said, climbing up to the toilet lid where Shiny Buttons gave him a towel to dry off. “How fast can you assemble the team?” Nickelan asked Fischel.
“Faster than a Maka loses its temper,” Fischel answered.
“Hey,” Baber Groan barked, “I’m right here. I can hear you. I got feelings, you know.”
“I’m the leader of the Red Team!” Gelsomina yelled. “I say when we’re ready to go.”
“Are we ready, Gelsomina?” Nickelan asked.
“Born ready,” Gelsomina shot back with an eager look in her eye that pleased Nickelan.
This was Nickelan’s life, rushing off to adventure and maintaining peace and stability in the underworld. These were Nickelan’s friends, everyone from Baber Groan and Gelsomina Gillepsie to his subjects and the loyal Red Team at his command. Nickelan threw back his freshly washed hair and put on a clean tunic. He was ready to go.
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Eight
Nickelan hit the water with his eyes wide open. The water was cold, but Nickelan was colder, chilled to the bone, as he sank to the basin bottom towards the drain. His limbs were frozen. He couldn’t move. The toilet drain was like an agape mouth and Nickelan a piece of meat on a fork being fed into it.
The sight of the drain emptied Nickelan’s head of all thought. He forgot about his parents, about the Makas’ swift ransacking of Kid City, even about why he pushed himself into the belly of this personal beast. All Nickelan could do was watch the drain draw closer.
Then he heard something. It was Springo. The voice of his friend shook Nickelan from his stupor.
“Nickelan, can you hear me?” Springo asked. “I did as you asked. Where are you?”
“Springo,” Nickelan said. “Do you have the soap?”
“Do I have soap?” Springo said as if setting up a punch line. “I took every bar I could find at home, all the soap from my relatives’ bathrooms, I even emptied out the custodian’s closet.” Springo was in the school’s restroom. “Well, huh, what do you think?”
“Flush them down the toilet,” Nickelan ordered. “Flush them all!”
Nickelan felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Who’s your friend?” Baber Groan asked, a carpet of air bubbles rolling over the rows of sharp teeth as he spoke. “Why don’t you ask him to join us? He’d make a good slave. Or maybe I should go get him? What do you think, Nickelan?”
Nickelan reached back with his fist and, with all the speed that the resistance of the water would allow, hit Baber Groan in the mouth.
Baber Groan didn’t move, except his face, which broadened into a scornful smile. The water around his face swirled with ribbons of crimson, which made Baber Groan look even more fiendish. But Nickelan had hurt the Maka. He bleeds. Only Baber Groan wasn’t bleeding. Nickelan felt a sting on his knuckles and saw that the blood was his.
The red water turned lighter, pink, and Nickelan thought he was passing out. Yet, he wasn’t lightheaded. He wasn’t even scared. Nickelan was determined. He was going to wipe that disrespectful grin off of Baber Groan’s ugly face. So, if he wasn’t about to faint, why was everything getting so white and hazy?
It was the soap. Springo was feeding the bars of soap into the toilet as fast as he could and they were traveling the intricate pipeline underground and popping out in the giant toilet at the center of the ravaged Kid City.
Nickelan reached into the sudsy water and pulled out a slippery bar of soap. He held it in his hand like a weapon, for indeed to the Makas it was just that. Baber Groan, seeing the soap in Nickelan’s hand, was no longer smiling.
“Let’s be reasonable,” Baber Groan said, swimming away from Nickelan. “Maybe I was a little rash when I said I’d have to rough you up a bit. I said it to keep face. A Maka’s got to be tough, you know. They were just empty words!”
As Baber Groan retreated, the toilet water got soapier and swallowed him up in a wave of glistening bubbles.
Now it was Nickelan’s turn to drop his hand on Baber Groan’s shoulder. With his other hand he brandished the bar of soap, aiming it for the Maka’s toothy mouth.
“I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap,” Nickelan said. He had always wanted to say that.
“Don’t do that!” Baber Groan whined. “I didn’t say anything bad!”
Nickelan almost felt sorry for Baber Groan. Almost, but not quite, and he shoved the bar of soap into Baber Groan’s mouth and deep down his gagging throat. The Maka pushed Nickelan away with his powerful legs, but it was too late. Baber Groan had swallowed the soap.
Watching as he was swept away into a cloud of sudsy water, Nickelan saw Baber Groan clutching at his tense throat. His tongue looked fat and white, but it wasn’t his tongue. Rather it was the soap, pouring out from Baber Groan’s mouth like he was a broken washing machine. Behind the intensity of the white wash was Baber Groan’s equally intense face, though Nickelan could now only see his dark eyes. They were filled with terror as he disappeared into the bubbly brew.
The scrubbing bubbles from the soap wiped clean all but whiteout blindness obscuring the toilet. Nickelan floated in the foamy water, suspended in disbelief as much as soapy water. He had defeated Baber Groan, the most feared of the fearful Makas. Maybe there was some truth to all this Redeemer stuff, he thought.
Just as Nickelan was relishing his victory his head hit the hard bottom of the toilet basin. He was being sucked down into the toilet drain. There was nothing to grab hold of and what he could touch was slippery with soap.
“Springo!” Nickelan cried.
“I’m here, Nickelan,” Springo said, though Nickelan couldn’t see him anymore through the fog of lathering cleanser. “Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty of soap. I’m starting to pour some liquid dishwashing soap down the toilet. I got laundry detergent, too. Wow. The school bathroom never looked cleaner. What’s this?”
Springo felt something soft and organic as he shoved yet more soap down the toilet drain. It was a hand, Nickelan’s hand.
“I got you,” Springo said, pulling Nickelan through the toilet bowl and into the school’s restroom. Looking at Nickelan’s hand in his own, Springo commented: “Your fingernails look so clean. I can’t wait to see the rest of you.” Nickelan’s whole arm was now sticking out from the school’s toilet bowl.
“You look like one of those zombies I saw crawling out from its grave in that Creature Feature I was watching last night,” Springo observed. “But a lot cleaner. Imagine, Nickelan Wand clean. Wait until I show you off. The kids won’t believe it.”
“No!” Nickelan shouted. His voice gurgled in the toilet drain. “Let go of me! Stop pulling! I’m not ready to leave yet!”
“Your arm is slippery,” Springo said, not hearing Nickelan’s plea. “All that soap. The cure is worse than the disease, huh? I can’t get a grip on you.” Springo took Nickelan’s arm in both hands and braced himself with his feet firmly planted on the base of the toilet bowl. He then pulled with all his might.
The toilet broke, sending Springo and pieces of porcelain riding a flood of soapy toilet water over the floor of the school’s bathroom. When Springo finally came to a stop beneath one of the sinks mounted in a row on a wall across the room, he looked in his empty hands. Nickelan was gone.
Responding to being released from Springo’s grasp, Nickelan found himself being forced upwards, out from the drain and to the surface of the giant toilet bowl. He was back in Kid City, but Kid City wasn’t back to normal.
Nickelan gasped for air as he broke the surface, but instead of a lungful of oxygen he got a mouthful of soapy bubbles. The suds made the toilet a fluffy volcano. They rose high in the air and then rolled over the toilet lip like white lava, which spread over Kid City with ruinous effect. The suds incapacitated the Makas, but didn’t stop there.
Making his way carefully onto the slippery lip of the toilet, Nickelan wiped a section of the wall of sudsy bubbles away so he could see. The window in the lather gave him a panoramic view of the newly cleaned Kid City.
After laying waste to the Maka invaders the soap kept on going. It engulfed Kid City with its overpowering purity. The streets were washed clean of all candy toppings, the caramel pavement swept away, the sidewalks sparkling no longer with hard candy but cleanliness. The gingerbread houses grew soggy, the assault, collapsed under their wet weight and were washed away. Kid City had been cleansed of everything that made it Kid City, except the kids. They, however, were changed as well.
The kids of Kid City no longer looked like the kids of Kid City. They looked clean. The years of dirt and grime had washed off in mere minutes. The kids of Kid City had gone from nightmares to dreamboats that looked as if they were about to set sail for such exotic ports as family reunions, graduations, even weddings—they’d make their parents proud at any special occasion or gathering. In fact, the only parents present in Kid City, Mr. and Mrs. Wand, looked exceedingly proud. They also looked exceedingly presentable, the soapy wash having given their ratty attire a good laundering. Their clothing even appeared freshly pressed. They were staring up at the toilet on which their son was standing and they were smiling.
“I said you needed a bath,” Mr. Wand said. “Now, look at you, clean and smelling like a rose. At least you look as if you smell like a rose, of course I can’t smell you from down here.”
“What your father is trying to say,” Mrs. Wand interrupted, “is that you look wonderful. I’m glad to have my boy back. Come down here so I can give you a great big hug.”
“Don’t call me boy,” Nickelan said. “I’m not a boy. I’m the Redeemer.”
“Redeemer? More like the Destroyer!” Gelsomina said. She looked beautiful, scrubbed clean of all the dirt that stained her pretty face, her hair now silky and crashing off her head in shiny waves. “Look what you’ve done!”
Nickelan looked. It wasn’t so bad.
Fischel and his dragon flew up to the toilet lip where Nickelan stood. “Hop on,” Fischel said, miraculously unscathed. As the dragon began its slow descent, Nickelan looked over the newly cleaned Kid City that so disgusted Gelsomina.
It was true that most of the edible structures were inhabitable, that the city was wiped clean like a slate, but that slate was ripe with potential, as Nickelan saw it. There was a fresh smell that filled the air as Nickelan set foot back on the ground. It was pleasant, like the lemon scent that filled his classroom when he came to school after being away the weekend. Then Nickelan remembered Springo. He’d dumped the school’s custodial supplies down the toilet and busted that same toilet trying to pull Nickelan up from the drain. He hoped his friend wouldn’t get into much trouble, but then he had his own problems.
“You’ve ruined everything!” Gelsomina said, marching aggressively up to Nickelan. “I ought to punch you right on the nose.”
Nickelan hugged Gelsomina tightly. “It’s good to have you back,” he said, smiling.
“Don’t touch me,” Gelsomina replied icily.
“I can’t say I like what you did to the place,” said Selwyn Harris, his hands still tied behind his back, as he looked up at the giant toilet overflowing with suds where his Presidential Palace used to stand. “The place did need a bathroom, though I would have chosen one of more appropriate scale.”
“Selwyn!” Nickelan ran up to his friend. Despite the dubious motivation of Selwyn Harris, Nickelan considered him a friend. “Let me help you,” Nickelan said, untying Selwyn’s bonds.
“That’s my prisoner!” Gelsomina protested.
“Gelsomina,” Fischel said, coming up to his former leader and speaking in a voice that sounded too small for his large body. “Gelsomina, it’s over. There’s no more war, no more prisoners.” He placed a gentle arm around her slight shoulder and tried to make her see the facts in front of her angry eyes.
“Your companion is correct,” said Baber Groan. The Maka looked as clean and shiny as everyone and everything else in Kid City, but the soap seemed to have washed him from the inside out as well. His manner was polite and the threat of violence that used to cling to Baber Groan, and all the Makas, was gone. “Our partnership is officially dissolved as of this moment.”
“Your partnership?” Nickelan asked.
“Yes,” Gelsomina answered. “I’m a double-agent, a spy for the Makas. Really a triple-agent, as I never would completely betray my oath to protect Kid City. But then, what is Kid City if it’s run by a grown-up? A lie! So I had the Makas kidnap Nickelan’s parents and bring them here, to expose the lie. I knew that Selwyn was President and I knew that he was fabricating the lie of a Redeemer to keep the kids ignorant. He fed us cookies and malted shakes and we just did whatever he wanted. Candy is the opiate of the people! Now you see his lies, now that it’s too late. Kid City is no more.”
“That is not true,” Baber Groan said calmly. “The Makas will no longer threaten your borders. We have been defeated by the superior force of Nickelan Wand, the Redeemer—”
“Superior?” Maka Mickey said. “Nickelan? Boss, did you get your sense lost in the wash? What are you talking about? I can beat that scrawny brat any day of the week!”
“I said, Nickelan’s superior force.” Baber Groan turned to Maka Mickey, exposing a hint of his former rage. “Anyone who can defeat me and my army is obviously gifted with a supernatural strength and power beyond the scope of our capabilities. I respect the Redeemer of Kid City and order that diplomatic ties between our two cities commence immediately.”
“Ooh, ooh.” Baby Booba raised his hand and eagerly waited to get called on. “Please make me ambassador. Please! Please! Please!”
Selwyn Harris smiled. Gelsomina Gillespie frowned. Nickelan Wand looked confused. Enemies were now friends. Friends were now enemies. Nickelan just had to accept it as par for the crazy course of life underground.
“Nickelan,” Mr. Wand said, “I’m glad all your friends have made up and are getting along, but it’s late and time that we go.”
This was the moment Nickelan had been looking forward to. He had saved his family and was victorious in battle with the Makas who had wanted to enslave him. He had fought his way to Kid City and had built a giant toilet that with a simple flush could transport him and his parents back to the surface world. It was all over. He could go home, see Springo again and enjoy the simple pleasures such as fighting with his parents over bathtime.
“I’m not coming,” Nickelan told his father. “I’m staying here. This is where I belong. This is where I’m needed.”
“Nickelan,” his mother said, “you will listen to your father.”
“This isn’t home, Mother,” Nickelan said, “you can’t tell me what to do here. This is Kid City.”
“And you’re addressing the President of Kid City,” Selwyn Harris said. “Please show President Nickelan Wand the respect that he deserves.”
After Selwyn’s statement the assembled crowd was stilled in stunned silence. All eyes volleyed from Selwyn to Nickelan and back again. It was Selwyn who finally spoke.
“Gelsomina is right,” Selwyn said. “Kid City can’t be run by a grown-up. I think after today the person who must lead Kid City is obvious, even to you, Gelsomina. There is a lot of rebuilding to do. We need a kid with vision, a kid that can unite Thunder World, Kid City and the Lands Between. Who here among us was able to get the dinosaurs, the dragons, the pirates and the kids of Kid City united to fight a common enemy? Whether you believe it or not, Nickelan, you are the Redeemer.”
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Seven
Returning to the Fun House, Nickelan questioned Nit Wit as to his involvement in the abduction of his parents. Nit Wit answered and Nickelan took those answers, weighed them in his head and balanced them against the facts until the scale tipped towards the truth.
According to Mr. and Mrs. Wand, Baber Groan and his henchmen arrived at the Wand household with news of Nickelan’s whereabouts. The Makas then took the Wands on the back of the waiting crocodile transport, which carried them down the sewers and to the underground world. There they were handed off to Nit Wit just within the walls of the Kid City.
Nit Wit then took up the story, which Nickelan translated. It was when Mr. and Mrs. Wand were transferred into the care of Nit Wit that they discovered their son was nowhere to be found. They were prisoners. Nit Wit bound and gagged them. He had instructions to keep them imprisoned in a pit that had been dug for him by some mysterious collaborator. The identity of that collaborator Nit Wit couldn’t say, but Nickelan knew it was Gelsomina Gillespie. That knowledge hurt Nickelan in a place that all the trials and tribulations he had undergone in Kid City had yet to touch.
“What happened to the Fun House?” Nit Wit said.
The mechanical men had worked hard and fast. Where once had stood the stately palace of the President of Kid City was now an immense and shiny toilet. It was as big as the Presidential Palace had been, rising up to the Pipes above and spreading its enormous footprint over the ground below.
“That is our secret weapon,” Nickelan said cryptically.
Around the base of the colossal commode stood the mechanical men lined up orderly and at the command of Scrap flying over the troops. The Red Team had returned with reinforcements. There were platoons of kids, robots, dragons, dinosaurs and even pirates.
“It’s been a long time since the gang and I have been in Kid City.” Dollar Green smiled and stretched a dirty hand at Nickelan to shake. “Everything looks smaller than I remember it. But then, I’m pretty drunk. Want some?” He held out a small wooden barrel of rum, which Nickelan politely declined.
Nickelan was going to ask Dollar Green how he had managed to survive the sinking of the Happyland and the battle with the Makas, when something caught his eye and made his skin turn cold. He instinctively stepped backwards behind his parents for protection and spoke in a cracked voice that exposed his fear: “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to lend a hand, boy,” said Tobias McGleaner. He stood atop the crocodile that had unsuccessfully attempted to dine on Nickelan in their journey to the Septic. The crocodile had a patch over the empty socket when’re Nickelan had plucked out its eye. “I love a good scrap.”
“But you tried to kill me!” Nickelan said.
“Oh, everyone tries to kill someone sometime,” Tobias said. “But I didn’t kill you, did I? Sure, I held a grudge after you crippled my favorite croc. But now I think he looks rather sporty with the eye-patch. He’s even forgiven you. Go on, make up: give him a kiss and a hug.”
The crocodile strode towards Nickelan, who crouched down behind his parents and held on to his mother’s legs like a shield.
“I think a handshake will suffice,” said Mr. Wand. He grabbed Nickelan’s arm and pulled him to the crocodile.
“All right,” Nickelan said in a voice still unsteady. “Shake.” The crocodile lifted a single claw that Nickelan grabbed with both hands. They shook.
“I am happy to see so many of you here today,” Nickelan addressed the crowd. “Many of you will not survive the coming battle—”
“What!” interrupted Nit Wit. “Nobody said anything about dying.”
Beside Nit Wit, the crowd solemnly listened to Nickelan.
“The Makas will be here shortly. They will be here in force with the intention of laying waste to our precious Kid City. Are we going to allow that to happen?”
The crowd responded with a roaring no, or just a roar in the case of the crocodiles, dinosaurs and dragons.
“We must fight to preserve our way of life,” Nickelan said and then regretted it after remembering that the way of life in Kid City was actually quite unpleasant. The filth and rot and lawlessness of Kid City needed to be changed, though not by the hand of the Maka army. “The Makas want to destroy you and Kid City. They think that we’re just a bunch of useless kids, too busy filling our stomachs with candy and washing it down with soda pop to stand up and fight for what’s right.”
“That reminds me,” Nit Wit said. “I haven’t had any candy or soda in too long. Redeemer or not, I’m going. You can find me at the local saloon.”
“Are the rest of you with me?” Nickelan shouted, pleased at how naturally he could rally the troops.
The troops responded with a rousing yell that filled Nickelan with a combination of pride and fear. Could they really fight back the invading Maka army? Would his secret weapon work? These questions would be answered in short time, very short time.
A dark cloud settled over the assembled troops of Kid City. Nickelan looked up. The Fire in the sky was obliterated by hundreds of Makas. The Makas were flying in formation. Those that had wings held aloft those without wings. All the Makas looked big and strong and threatening.
Baber Groan was at the head of the formation and Maka Mickey, who carried him, dived towards the ground. “I only want Nickelan Wand,” Baber Groan said. “Hand him over and I’ll leave Kid City.”
“My good man,” Mr. Wand said, buttoning up his suit coat. “Nickelan will come with you, but I insist that his mother and I accompany him. We are all tired of this place and yearn to return home and draw a hot bath.”
“You want to draw a bath?” Baber Groan said. “Get this man a pen and a pad and keep him out of my face. I have business to conduct here.”
“Draw, sir, is a figure of speech.” Mr. Wand shoved his hands into his pants pockets, the action of which sent a cloud of dust billowing off his dirty clothes. “I think you know quite well what I’m talking about. I demand you return my family home.”
“Your hamily fome?” Baber Groan said. “What’s that, baby talk? You’ve been hanging out in Kid City too long, old man.” The Makas added uproarious laughter to the tense atmosphere, only making things more stressful. “Stop wasting my time. I will lay waste to the lot of you!” Baber Groan’s cruel humor was replaced with just cruelty.
“I’m not going with you.” Nickelan stood in front of his frustrated father. “But you’re going. Leave Kid City at once or I will boot you out myself.”
The Makas stopped laughing, but they were still smiling. Nothing pleases a Maka more than a fight. They love a good fight, a bad fight, a short fight and a long fight. Mostly they love a slaughter, and it was looking as if that was exactly what they were about to do: slaughter the ragtag defenders of Kid City.
“Oh, you’re going to boot me?” Baber Groan said. “Now how do you intend to do that, barefooted as you are?”
The Makas laughed heartily again and didn’t hear Nickelan order his troops into battle. The pirates stuck rum-drenched clothes into their liquor bottles, lit them and tossed the flaming cocktails into the sky. They exploded in fiery balls of red and orange. The dragons took flight with kids on their backs. The dragon riders threw garbage that was ignited in midair by the dragon’s fire breath, striking the Makas with burning projectiles. The dinosaurs and crocodiles and other ground-based troops taunted the Makas, who dropped from the sky like meteors in response.
The land war was intense. Makas lifted dinosaurs by one hand and tossed them into gingerbread houses. They tied crocodiles together by knotting their tails, swinging the reptile rope over their heads like lassos, sweeping up masses of kid soldiers. The fight in the air was not going much better. The Makas’ victory was all but complete.
Nickelan signaled Fischel Bocephus. He was piloting one of the few dragons still airborne. Seeing Nickelan, Fischel disengaged from combat and flew the dragon down to the ground where Nickelan stood.
There were bodies everywhere. Most of the Makas had stopped fighting and were now just playing with their prisoners. Some had set up ten kids in the shape of a triangle, using another kid as a bowling ball. “Strike!” shouted the Maka joyfully over the moans of the injured pins and ball. Others were playing catch with kids, some playing football with the kid as the pigskin. The mechanical men and other robots were crushed into a giant metal ball that the Makas were kicking back and forth. All the flying Makas had landed, having won the air battle. The Fire was burning bright above as if it were just another pleasant day in Kid City, except it was the last day of Kid City.
Nickelan was not finished yet. He jumped onto the back of Fischel’s dragon. “Take me to the toilet,” he said. Fischel gave him a look. He was going to crack wise about this not being the time, but was too devastated by the swift and total defeat of the Kid City troops to make fun. Fischel was so distraught he almost didn’t hear Nickelan say, “This isn’t over.”
“What are you going to do,” Fischel asked as they landed on the toilet lip, “flush the Makas down the drain?”
“No,” Nickelan said, getting off the dragon. He looked down into the still waters of the toilet bowl. “I’m going to flush them out.”
Fischel didn’t understand, but had no time to further question Nickelan. They were no longer alone on the toilet.
“Hand him over, boy,” Baber Groan said.
“Stand back,” Fischel told Nickelan and took flight on his dragon. Fischel and his fire-breathing dragon flew directly into Baber Groan. There was a great explosion of fire and smoke. When it cleared only Baber Groan was standing on the toilet lip.
“Now, where were we?” Baber Groan asked Nickelan. “Oh, yes! You’re coming with me back to Thunder World.”
“You’re going back to Thunder World alone,” Nickelan said. He looked at Baber Groan, then down into the toilet bowl. “This is your last chance to leave Kid City unharmed.”
“I’d like to say that I enjoy a challenge,” Baber Groan said. “I’d like to say that, but I can’t. Quit the grandstanding, boy. Let’s do this as painlessly as possible.”
Nickelan wasn’t looking at Baber Groan anymore. His attention was back on the calm surface of the toilet water. The ravaged war-torn Kid City was now far away as Nickelan retreated back into memory. He was naked and in his bathroom with his overdressed parents behind him, pushing him towards the steaming bathwater. Nickelan’s feet were sweaty with fear and slipped on the slick tile floor as his parents pushed him closer to the dreaded bathtub.
Nickelan was dirty. He smelled. The aroma wafting up from the bathwater was sweet and inviting. His parents had even filled the tub with bubble bath and plastic sea animals to play with. Nickelan placed his hands on the edge of the tub and locked himself in place. Looking into the soapy waters, Nickelan saw the black eye of the drain staring at him. He wasn’t going into that tub.
The toilet gurgled. Large air bubbled us from its dark bottom and exploded over the water’s surface, waking Nickelan from his daydream. Looking at the toilet drain distorted by the rippling surface of the basin, Nickelan thought: “I’m not going in there; I have to go in there.”
“This is nice.” Baber Groan eased into small talk. “I like what you’ve done to the place. I’ve always thought of Kid City as a toilet. It’s only fitting that you’ve built a monument to this dump. Maybe I’ll even let this stand, after destroying everything else, of course. You know, leave the big toilet as a tombstone and on it enscribe: ‘Here Lies Kid City. What A Waste’—something like that. Are you crying, Nickelan? Getting choked up?”
Nickelan looked up at Baber Groan. Though the Maka was on the other side of the toilet lip from where Nickelan stood, he still looked large and imposing. But it wasn’t Baber Groan that made Nickelan nervous. It was the toilet. It was like a giant bathtub, which scared him in a place so deep and fundamental that it was impossible to reason that fear away. He could only ride it and Nickelan knew where he had to ride it.
“Don’t cry.” Baber Groan sounded genuinely concerned. “I hate it when little ones cry. Can’t you be a man? I won’t hurt you too much. I mean, I’ve got to rough you up some. I have a reputation to uphold. But this is business, pure and simple. A few bruises—maybe a broken arm—nothing more. Who’d buy a busted-up boy? What good would that be?”
Baber Groan was inching towards Nickelan as he spoke, but Nickelan wasn’t paying attention. His focus remained on the toilet. He had had the mechanical men build it, now he had to use it. Nickelan took a step towards the edge of the toilet lip, looked down into the water and closed his eyes.
“Oh, no!” Baber Groan yelled. “Don’t go and kill yourself on me! If anyone’s going to die around here, it’ll be by my hand. Look, if you’re suicidal, just tell me. I’ll murder you!”
The toilet lid bounced up and down against the weight of Baber Groan’s heavy body as he ran to stop Nickelan from taking the dive. Nickelan lost his balance and looked up to see Baber Groan’s hands reach out and just miss him. Nickelan jumped into the toilet.
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Six
The various doorways in the Presidential Chamber of the Fun House led to specific sites throughout Kid City and even into the Lands Between and as far away as Thunder World. That explained how Selwyn Harris was able to transport himself speedily throughout the underground world and show up exactly where he was least expected.
The Red Team now used this secret mode of transportation for its own purpose. Some traveled to recruit forces to help battle the coming Maka army. Others went to alert the citizens of Kid City and rally them to the city’s defense. Nickelan went to the city square, the site of his parents’ imminent execution.
As he made his way through the dark tunnel, Nickelan heard the sounds of demolition behind him. The mechanical men were knocking down the imposing palace and erecting a giant toilet in its place.
There was a ladder that went up to a light and Nickelan climbed it. Removing the heavy manhole cover, Nickelan’s head popped up among the feet of a large crowd.
“Hey,” Nickelan said, as bare feet trod on his fingers. When he finally managed to stand, he immediately wanted to dive back down through the manhole.
The crowd was jeering and tossing rotten fruits and vegetables at a platform on which stood Nickelan’s parents. Hands tied behind their backs and black hoods covering their faces, Mr. and Mrs. Wand still looked dignified. Mr. Wand’s three-piece suit was frayed and muddy, yet it hung from his erect form expressing an unsullied confidence. Mrs. Wand, too, was standing proud beside her husband. She didn’t even flinch when a tomato hit her face, sending its juicy guts drooling over her black hood.
“Stop it!” Nickelan screamed, protective of his parents, his family, from this riotous group.
Pushing his way through the unruly crowd, Nickelan pulled himself up onto the platform. “Let my people go!” he shouted at the small executioner, whose face was partially obscured by a low-hanging black hood.
“People?” the executioner responded, puzzled. “These aren’t people, they’re grown-ups.”
“They’re my parents!” Nickelan shouted.
“Nickelan?” Mr. Wand said. His voice was muffled beneath the hood. “Young man, I insist you tell your friends to unhand your mother and I this instant. We have long grown tired of your games.”
Yes, Nickelan thought, these are my parents. Hearing his father’s voice again was anticlimatic. Nickelan’s parents were much more attractive missing than found. A rush of memories flooded Nickelan’s head and he felt dizzy. It didn’t help that the excited spectators were now throwing rotten fruits and vegetables at him.
“Let the execution begin!” said the executioner, rallying the crowd and raising his double-sided ax. That brought about an ovation that almost knocked Nickelan to the ground.
The small executioner kicked Mr. Wand behind the knee, sending him to the ground. Unable to stop his fall with his arms, Mr. Wand landed with his head on the cutting block, his neck exposed for the blade.
“Listen!” Nickelan addressed the frenzied crowd. “The Makas are coming! Kid City is under attack.”
No one listened. A rain of rotten fruits and vegetables landed on Nickelan. The crowd laughed, momentarily distracted from the execution, only to return their focus that much more intently on Mr. Wand’s head on the chopping block.
Nickelan stood with new resolve. He walked calmly over to the executioner, whose ax was raised high above Mr. Wand’s neck. As it made its swift descent, Nickelan yanked the handle from the hands of the tiny executioner. The crowd booed and hissed, responding with another rain of rotten fruits and vegetables.
“I am the Redeemer!” Nickelan announced in a voice deeper than usual. “I have come to save Kid City.”
The crowd listened. Everyone knew the legend of the Redeemer, and only the Redeemer would do something so dramatic as to disrupt an execution. The rotten fruits and vegetables no longer flew through the air. The shouts for blood were silenced. The crowd was rapt and waited on the Redeemer’s next statement.
Nickelan didn’t know what to say next. He didn’t have to say anything. The executioner spoke for him.
“Give me back my hammer,” said the executioner.
“It’s an ax,” Nickelan said, his voice carrying to the four corners of the now quiet public square.
“No,” disagreed the executioner. “I think I should know what method of execution I’m using.”
“It’s an ax,” Nickelan repeated himself. “A hammer is a hand tool, with a shaft and a metal head at right angles to it. It’s primarily used for driving nails and beating metal, not cutting off someone’s head.”
“No,” the executioner continued his wrongheaded argument. “An ax is something you use to grind. Haven’t you ever heard the expression: I’ve got an ax to grind? Well, I’m not grinding off this grown-up’s head, am I? No, I’m not, smart guy. I’m hitting his head, like a hammer on the head of a nail. Right?” He addressed the crowd, which look back and forth between the Redeemer and the executioner.
“Nit Wit?” Nickelan asked. “Is that you?”
“Nickelan?” The executioner, who indeed was little Nit Wit, removed his hood. “I didn’t recognize you underneath all those rotten fruits and vegetables.”
“You’re an executioner?” Nickelan was so surprised to see Nit Wit that he forgot about his father bent over the chopping block, still tied up and blindfolded by the black hood.
“You’re the Redeemer?” Nit Wit said, well aware of the stories of the savior of Kid City. “I thought the Redeemer was a girl.”
The crowd was getting restless. No execution was bad enough, now they were being teased about the coming of the Redeemer.
“How do we I know you’re the Redeemer?” asked someone, voicing the growing skepticism of the crowd.
“You all know Nit Wit,” Nickelan said, assuming they did. “Nit Wit, am I the Redeemer?”
“No,” Nit Wit said with confidence. “The Redeemer is a girl.”
“That’s proof enough for me,” said someone in the crowd.
“I’m convinced,” said another.
The crowd knew Nit Wit well enough that if he said Nickelan wasn’t the Redeemer, then Nickelan was in fact the Redeemer. The crowd dropped its rotten fruits and vegetables and headed out from the city square on the Redeemer’s command to fortify Kid City from the coming Maka attack.
Nickelan gave Nit Wit his ax back, though he still called it a hammer, and untied the rope around his father’s arms and pulled the black hood off his face.
“Hello, son,” Mr. Wand said. “You look like you need a bath.”
Nickelan ignored his father and went over to untie his mother from her bonds. Mr. Wand followed him. He looked uncomfortable. Nickelan had never seen his father in such disarray. Not only was his clothing a mess, his tie was untied, he was missing one glove and his mustache was fighting for dominance on his unshaven and stubbly face.
It was hard to see his father this way, but that wasn’t why Nickelan was avoiding his stare. Nickelan was avoiding his father because he feared what he might say to him.
“Son,” Mrs. Wand said as Nickelan pulled the black hood off her face. She spoke as if making a simple observational statement. Yes, this was her son. There was little emotion in her voice, certainly not what one would consider normal after being rescued from the executioner’s block. “Your father’s right,” she said in the same flat tone. “You need a bath.”
“Where can I find a bathroom?” Mr. Wand asked Nit Wit, the only person on the platform other than his wife who appeared to take notice of him.
“Inside or out?” Nit Wit asked.
“Excuse me?” Mr. Wand said.
“We got indoor ones,” Nit Wit said. “Then there are outdoor ones, but don’t worry they’re heated. Did you bring your trunks? Anyway, I think, considering that the Makas are on the warpath, that it’s not the time for a swim.”
“He’s talking about a swimming pool, Father,” Nickelan said, trying to resolve the confusion on Mr. Wand’s face. “Nit Wit…well, he’s no font of accuracy.”
“That’s right,” Nit Wit said proudly, misunderstanding as always.
Mr. Wand was still confused. Now addressing his son directly he asked again where he could find a bathroom so as to wash himself to a semblance of cleanliness and order.
“I don’t think kids bathe in Kid City,” Nickelan said. As if anticipating his father’s next question he added: “There is no haberdashery for you to replace your suit or tailor to mend it. There is no drugstore to buy hygienic products. You’ll only find candy and play of the messiest variety. If you’re hungry, let me recommend the fine dining to be had right beneath your feet, where the roads are paved with caramel. The houses are edible, too. Talk about your childhood wishes.”
“Childish wishes,” Mr. Wand corrected him. “Take my hand, young man, we are leaving this madhouse.”
“I’m not leaving,” Nickelan said. “The Makas are about to attack. I’m standing with the kids to defend Kid City.”
“Defend this, this, this…” Mr. Wand was looking around at the now empty city square. He was at a loss for words. How to describe this place, with its candy-coated streets and moldy gingerbread houses? It was a magnet for disease. “I’d like to wash it all away!”
“What are you, a Maka?” Nit Wit asked.
“Maka,” Mr. Wand repeated. “Yes, I’ve met some of these Makas. A bit rough around the edges, but good people, at least the ones that took your mother and me here.”
“Who took you underground?” Nickelan asked.
“There were three,” Mr. Wand explained. “One had wings, I remember, the other was scaly and there was one with very sharp teeth. A big fellow, what did he call himself? It was something queer…yes, that’s it: Baber Groan.”
“Baber Groan has been trying to kill me since I landed here!” Nickelan told his father. “He’s the Chief Maka. He’s the one leading the Maka troops to invade Kid City.”
“Well,” Mr. Wand said calmly, “I’m sure he’s got his reasons.”
“How can you side with Baber Groan?” Nickelan asked. “He’s trying to kill you, too. Didn’t he kidnap you and bring you here for execution?”
“Nickelan,” Mrs. Wand said, placing her hand in Mr. Wand’s gloved one to show her support. “Don’t speak to your father that way.”
“It’s fine, dear,” Mr. Wand said warmly to his wife. Then turning back to Nickelan and addressing him with an authoritative tone, he said, “Baber Groan showed up at our house and said he knew where we could find you, Nickelan. Your mother and I were worried sick. Do you know how many days you had gone missing, without a call or even posting a letter?”
“You saw me get sucked down the drain,” Nickelan said. “You forced me to take a bath. I told you I didn’t want to. I told you I was scared of being sucked down the drain. You didn’t listen to me. You don’t care about me!”
“That’s not true, Nickelan,” Mr. Wand said, remaining stoic. “I love you. You were—you are—dirty and you needed a wash. It’s the parents’ responsibility to keep their children well fed, in good health and certainly clean. I was only doing what was best for you.”
“Best for me,” Nickelan had to repeat his father’s last statement to believe he had heard it. “I could have drowned!”
“I will not argue with you,” Mr. Wand said. “We will wait here until Baber Groan returns and then he’ll show us how to get back home. You have a lot of explaining to do.”
“You have a lot of explaining to do!” Nickelan lost his temper. “Why do you want to wait for the Maka who imprisoned you and almost caused you to lose your head?”
“I told you,” Mr. Wand said. “Baber Groan had nothing to do with this unpleasantness. It is this little rogue that is to blame.” He was pointing at Nit Wit. “Baber Groan and his associates were kind enough to escort your mother and me down to this, this, this…” Again Mr. Wand could not mine his vocabulary for a word sufficient to sum up his disgust with Kid City. “But once no longer in the care of the compassionate Makas, we found ourselves incarcerated by this nasty roughneck and his gang of immature scoundrels. They were the ones responsible for the sorry sight you see us in presently.”
Nickelan was about to ask Nit Wit if this was true, but the chance of getting a straight answer was slim and there was no time for interrogation.
Nit Wit looked innocent and even smaller than he actually was on the nearly empty platform. He was trying to follow the fight between Nickelan and his parents, but was frankly unable to make heads or tails of it. In truth, Nit Wit wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. He was still flabbergasted by the fact that Nickelan was the Redeemer. And when he finally spoke, he asked, “Are you really the Redeemer?”
Nickelan, distracted by more important issues, such as saving Kid City from impending doom or at least getting his parents to believe him, answered peevishly, “No, I’m not the Redeemer.”
Nit Wit was disappointed and shaking his head said, “I can’t believe a word you say.”
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Five
“You’re dead,” Nickelan wrongly observed. “I saw you impaled on the horns of a Carnotaurus.”
“I was riding that dinosaur,” Selwyn said. “I wouldn’t recommend it, though. The beast threw me and broke all my bones. Every last one of them.”
“You look fine,” Nickelan rightly observed.
“I healed,” Selwyn said.
“I hate to break up this touching reunion,” Fischel interrupted, “but what is a grown-up doing in Kid City?”
“Why, I’m running it,” Selwyn said. “Someone has to. You kids can’t do it. All you do is play and eat candy. Who runs the roller coasters, paves the streets with caramel and stocks the saloons with soda pop? Oh, don’t look at me like that. Grown-ups run everything. If you read a comic book, a grown-up made it. That candy bar in your pocket, it comes from a grown-up. The toy guns and plastic knives you wear, produced and manufactured by grown-ups. Even you, little boys and girls, are the products of grown-ups. You’d be nothing without us. Don’t look so shocked. Kid City wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for grown-ups.”
“Lies!” Fischel protested.
“He knows,” Selwyn pointed to Nickelan. “Ask him.”
“Ask me what?” Nickelan said. “Don’t listen to a word he says. I’ve been deceived by Selwyn Harris ever since I landed in this crazy place. I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t responsible for the abduction of my parents.”
“Nickelan.” Selwyn was genuinely hurt. “You are our last hope. Terrible things are happening. If you cannot save us all is lost.”
“It was you,” Nickelan said. “The voice in the bathtub. You called me down the drain. You saved me from drowning. That mysterious voice was you! What do you want from me? Where are my parents?”
“I want you to save us, Nickelan,” Selwyn said, stepping down from his throne. “I need your help to save the worlds underground. The Makas are coming. They’ll lay ruin to Kid City and in so doing inadvertently destroy the Lands Between, even Thunder World. It’s all a delicate balance, a balance I’ve been trying to maintain. But I can’t do it alone. I need your help, Nickelan. That’s why I summoned you from the surface world.”
“Why’d you kidnap my parents?” Nickelan demanded.
“I didn’t.” Selwyn pleaded his innocence.
“No, he didn’t,” Gelsomina said. “I did.”
Gelsomina untied the rope that was around her waist and held it in her two hands. She walked towards Selwyn, saying, “I knew you were behind this. Keeping the teams distracted with pointless missions into Thunder World, while you tightened your grip on Kid City. Selwyn sells the babies.” Gelsomina turned to her team. “He controls the sugar that makes the candy and the soda. He runs the croc transports. He’s got his sticky fingers in everything and profits from the ongoing conflict between Kid City and Thunder World.”
“Then why did I bring Nickelan down here?” Selwyn asked, stepping up to Gelsomina and looking down at her. “How do I profit from that?”
“By creating the myth of a Redeemer to rally the saps of Kid City,” Gelsomina said, looking up at him with equal intensity. “To give them hope. What better way to convince Kid City that it’s right and Thunder World is wrong than to have a Redeemer on their side? I never bought that fairy tale, Selwyn. It reeks of your chicanery. It stinks, just like you!”
“Wait a minute!” Nickelan interrupted. “Gelsomina, you’re all right?”
“I got a bit of a headache,” Gelsomina admitted. “Overall, yes, I’m fine. I guess I got more than the wind knocked out of me when I was blindsided by that dragon.”
“You were a vegetable,” Nickelan said. “There was no light in your eyes. No one was home. Now you’re fine? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Gelsomina said. “Hearing Selwyn’s voice made me snap out of it, whatever it was. I heard his lying cackle and it got me so mad I just woke up, I guess.”
“That makes no medical sense,” Nickelan said. “Nothing is making sense. Gelsomina, you have my parents. Where are they?”
“They’re well,” Gelsomina said. “That is, they are now. In about an hour, well, no, they won’t be so good.”
“What are you talking about?” Nickelan asked.
“That’s when they’ll be executed,” Gelsomina said. “By my order.”
“That’s treason!” Selwyn shouted. “I’ll have you in chains and thrown into the dungeon. Only I have authority to execute someone in Kid City.”
Gelsomina grabbed Selwyn by his long velvet robe and twirled him around so his back was to her. Then, taking the rope in her hands, she threw it over Selwyn’s head and pulled it tight around his midsection, securing his arms to his side.
“You’re my prisoner,” Gelsomina announced to Selwyn. “You’re going to join Nickelan’s parents in a public execution. I will remove the stain of grown-ups from Kid City. This is a revolution!”
Nickelan was dumbstruck. He was literally struck dumb by too many outrageous revelations. Selwyn Harris was the President of Kid City, and was responsible for Nickelan being sucked down the drain. Nickelan wasn’t the Redeemer. There was no Redeemer. It was just a story to further Selwyn’s plans of underworld domination. Gelsomina had kidnapped Nickelan’s parents and was going to execute them, and now Selwyn. And there was more.
“The Makas,” Nickelan said to himself.
“What was that, boy?” Selwyn asked before Gelsomina shoved a gag in his mouth.
“The Makas are coming,” Nickelan added. “They’re on their way. Baber Groan and the Makas are coming to ransack Kid City!”
“I know all about that,” Gelsomina said. “I sent for them.”
After dropping that bombshell, Gelsomina pulled the bound Selwyn Harris across the vast expanse of the presidential chamber and exited without another word through one of the many doors outlining the Fun House.
Everyone was dumbstruck now. Fischel looked like he was going to cry. The rest of the Red Team appeared as if Gelsomina had run off not only with Selwyn, but their skeletons. They might fall formless to the ground at any moment. Only Nickelan could speak and his voice carried weight.
“Find me a toilet!” he said.
Nobody said anything. They looked at Nickelan. They would have looked at him as if he were A) mad, B) crazy, C) out of his head, D) cuckoo or E) all of the above, if they had the mental capacity to think beyond the betrayal of their beloved Gelsomina. Instead, they just looked at him, but their expressions registered nothing. They were blank. They were in shock.
“A toilet!” Nickelan repeated himself. “A toilet, a toilet—my kingdom for a toilet!”
“You don’t have a kingdom,” Fischel said.
“Neither will you,” Nickelan smiled, happy to have broken through to someone, “unless you find me a toilet.”
Fischel was about to revert to his old animosity towards Nickelan. His face tightened and his body took a threatening step towards Nickelan, only to stop and slacken, as if he didn’t have the strength.
“There are no toilets in Kid City,” Shiny Buttons said, sliding up next to Nickelan, placing her arm around his waist to comfort him. “Do you have to pee? Don’t be embarrassed. Why don’t you go behind the throne? I promise not to look.”
“But I used a toilet, an in-house—I mean, outhouse—when I first arrived in Kid City,” Nickelan said, confused. “Nit Wit had one.”
“Oh, Nit Wit has a toilet,” Fischel said, amused. “And you believed him? That kid’s not right.”
“I know, but this is the truth,” Nickelan said. “I used it. What about here? Are there no toilets in the Fun House?”
No one could answer him. Nobody had ever been in the Presidential Palace before.
At that very moment, as Nickelan’s question still resonated in the still air, came his answer, in the unintelligible beeps and burps of Scrap. The robot flew into the chamber from one of the many doorways, followed by a phalanx of mechanical men.
Fischel turned from Nickelan and lifted his fists towards the mechanical men as if his two small fleshy hands could stop the army of metal soldiers. From every door came scores of mechanical men marching in formation. The sounds of their mechanical feet on the metal floor of the Presidential Chamber echoed off the walls. It was deafening.
Then there was silence. The mechanical men had stopped marching and surrounded the Red Team menacingly.
“Oh, great!” Fischel shouted. “Now what?”
“We fight,” Spike said, lifting his bat, ready to start slugging.
The Red Team was well trained and, despite the emotional blow of losing their team leader, they were ready to reply with some physical blows of their own. It was a brave and stupid show. It was mass suicide.
Nickelan prepared himself for death. It was becoming a daily occurrence, but that didn’t mean he got used to it. The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. His whole body was hypersensitive, which was really no way to greet death. Far better, Nickelan thought, to dull the senses, and so he tried to do just that.
The idea of being crushed under the weight of the mechanical men, to feel his bones break and his blood spill where it never was intended to flow, was something Nickelan hoped would be less intense if he could only manage to shut down his body’s normal sensory impulses. Nickelan tried to lose himself in the dark, quiet corners of his brain. He was giving up. Nickelan accepted the fate that appeared inevitable, but that meant he was sentencing his parents twice: first to their coming execution and, secondly, by not fighting against the odds. No, this was unacceptable. Nickelan hadn’t come this far to go down without a fight. His body was all but turned off, when Nickelan turned on all the switches, lighting up his eyes, feeling the blood course through his no longer numb body and unplugging the canals of his ears only to hear…friendly conversation.
“He says he worked the kinks out,” Fischel said to the rest of the team. They were quite jovial for those about to die.
Scrap was floating above Fischel and speaking to him in whirling, artificial tones. As Nickelan slowly discovered, Scrap was a bit of an amateur mechanic and had rewired the Presidential Guard to do his bidding. Thanks to Scrap’s handiwork, the Red Team was no longer alone and outnumbered. They had an army of mechanical men.
“The toilet,” Nickelan said.
“Poor thing,” Shiny Buttons said. “You really have to go bad.”
“No,” Nickelan said, breaking away from her. She still clung to his side. “Scrap, can you get them to build a toilet?”
Scrap responded, but Fischel refused to translate it. “Get off the toilet, Nickelan,” he said. “We have a war to wage with the future of Kid City at stake.”
“I know,” Nickelan said, “which is why we need a toilet. Not just any toilet, but a toilet as big as a house. No, as big as the Fun House. We have to turn the Fun House into a giant toilet.”
“Ha,” Fischel couldn’t help but laugh at the image this conjured in his mind. “I like your sense of humor, Nickelan, but we have very serious matters to discuss—”
“None more serious than this,” Nickelan broke in. “If you can get these mechanical men to raze the Fun House and use the materials to build a giant toilet, then I can save Kid City.”
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Four
Fischel Bocephus kicked open the swinging doors of the candy saloon. A pianist was picking a bubbly tune from the keys, but upon seeing the intruders his hands crashed into a dissonant chord. Then there was only silence. The patrons were slumped over their malteds and rootbeer floats. Their eyes landed apprehensively on the two silhouettes with the small robot hovering between them like a fly. They were framed in the bright light coming from outside.
It was dark in the saloon, but not so dark that Fischel missed the barkeep. He was approaching from what he thought was Fischel’s blind side. He had a soda bottle in his hand, but not to drink. The bottle was still capped and the barkeep held it by its long glass neck.
Fischel snatched the bottle from the barkeep. He popped it open with his thumb and took a long slug of sweet pop before tossing it over his shoulder. “Ow!” came a voice from the street.
“I-I-I do-do-do-don’t want any t-t-t-trouble,” stammered the barkeep.
“Don’t be scared,” Fischel placated the barkeep. “I’m not here to cause trouble.”
“I’m no-no-not sc-sc-scared!” the barkeep protested. “I-I-I st-st-st-stutter. Do you have a-a-a problem w-w-w-with that?”
“No. No problem.” Fischel looked sideways at Nickelan, who shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just looking for somebody.”
“Well, c-c-c-come on i-i-i-in,” the barkeep said warmly and placed a candy cigarette in both of their mouths. “F-f-f-first drinks o-o-o-on me, fellows.”
Nickelan ordered a chocolate milkshake; Fischel had a vanilla. They both wiped the frosty mustaches off their upper lips and turned on their barstools to survey the dark bar. The pianist was tapping out a friendly song again and the sweet drinkers returned their attention to their fountain drinks.
“I never thought I’d see you in here again,” said Lucy Fur, as she bellied up to the bar besides Fischel. Lucy wore a frilly dress that was tailored to ride low in the front and spread out over her ankles, but it was cut several sizes too big. The lace at the top of her dress tickled her chin and her feet disappeared in the pool of loose fabric she dragged over the floor. “You told me you’d never set foot in here again. Never wanted to see me again. Never would drink another malted again.”
“It’s a shake,” Fischel said, taking another sip. “And never is a long time.”
“The backroom is still open,” Lucy said coyly. “Some of your pals are there now.”
Fischel jumped out of his seat, picked Lucy up with a strong bear hug around the waist and twirled her around the bar. “Come on, Nickelan!” he said, putting Lucy down. “We got to get the Red Team back together.”
“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” Lucy told Fischel as he headed to the backroom.
“Thanks, Lucy. You’re a good girl,” Fischel said.
“When I’m good I’m very good,” Lucy said, “but when I’m bad I’m better.”
Fischel marched into the backroom as if he were on parade. Inside it looked like a funeral. The Red Team was all there, but they looked less assembled than disassembled. Spike Vrusho was licking a spilled strawberry shake off his baseball bat. Hop Long had his feet on the table and his cowboy hat over his face. Hooken Ladder was picking his teeth with a fire ax. Shiny Buttons’ princess costume was covered in streaks of melted ice cream. Chairman Meow was whipping her nose with her tail. Count Blood was asleep on the floor, wrapped up in his cape.
“I thought I might find you guys here drowning your sorrows,” Fischel boomed in a voice ridiculously in contrast to the mood of the room.
That voice acted like water to a thirsty plant. The room stirred, bodies rose as if only able to stand tall under the nourishing call of Fischel Bocephus. The Red Team was enlivened and encircled Fischel in what can only be called a group hug.
Nickelan also was embraced in this mass affection, yet he was not truly noticed by the group. It was Spike who acknowledged Nickelan’s presence first. He did not extend the gush of goodwill that poured out to Fischel. In fact, the tap ran dry upon seeing Nickelan. Spike carried not a drop of kindness as he said, “What are you doing here?”
“He’s here to storm the palace gates,” Fischel answered, putting a strong arm around Nickelan’s neck and pulling him near. “And he brought a secret weapon.”
Spike and the others were willing to suspend their damnation of Nickelan, who they blamed for the cause of their woes, at least until they got a glance at this secret weapon. They all loved weapons and secrets—that the two could be combined perked their interests beyond the instinct to cause Nickelan pain and discomfort.
“Secret weapon?” Nickelan asked.
Fischel led the group out of the saloon. On the porch, tied to a post like a horse, was Gelsomina. Scrap orbited her empty head, keeping watch. When Spike and the rest saw Gelsomina, they rallied around her with an elation that eclipsed even the outburst of joy that greeted Fischel in the saloon. When they noticed that Gelsomina was indifferent to them, the team took on a more somber tone. Then they directed their disappointment and confusion to Nickelan. It quickly turned to anger.
“What did you do to her?” Spike demanded, his baseball bat cocked over his shoulder and his eye on Nickelan’s head as if it were a curveball.
“I found her like this,” Nickelan shouted back at the angry crowd enclosing in on him.
“Back up, team,” Fischel said with a wicked smile on his face. “Hold on to that anger because we’re going to need it when we visit the Fun House. Things are going to get ugly.”
Things were already ugly. Gelsomina was being led by a rope tied around her waist. Scrap flew above the Red Team as a lookout. Fischel had taken over as leader in Gelsomina’s mental if not physical absence. The rest of the team marched through the streets with one eye caringly on Gelsomina and the other judgmentally on Nickelan. He wanted to object to their unaired accusations, but was too busy formulating the speech he would make to the President of Kid City asking for leniency for his parents.
“What protocol does one follow to get an audience with the President?” Nickelan asked Fischel, the only member of the Red Team that didn’t hate him.
“Protocol?” Fischel laughed, as if in on some joke that Nickelan didn’t get. “Nobody speaks to the President. The President never leaves the Fun House. Why bother? Everything he needs is there, and the citizens of Kid City don’t require any legislative leadership. That would only get in the way of the fun, right? The only laws are that there are no laws. Eat candy all day long. Stay up as late as you want. No brushing your teeth after any meal, because there are no meals. Play ball inside. Play in traffic. Don’t wipe after you poop. Who needs a President?”
“Then why are we even going?” asked Nickelan.
“Because he’s the President of Kid City,” Fischel said. “He made Kid City. He imports the sugar on which our economy is built. He built the roads, the houses. All this,” Fischel opened up his arms to take in the mad majesty of Kid City’s street life, “is because of the President. And if he can provide, he can take away as well.”
“He can help my parents?” Nickelan asked, passing another poster advertising the coming execution.
“No doubt,” Fischel said.
“He can help Gelsomina?” Nickelan asked.
“He better,” answered Fischel, losing the smile for the first time. “Or he’ll build a hospital with doctors who can.”
“There are no hospitals in Kid City?” Nickelan asked.
“No hospitals,” Fischel said.
“But what if you get sick?” Nickelan asked.
“How can anyone get sick on a steady diet of candy and soda pop?” Fischel asked.
Before Nickelan could respond, he looked up to see an imposing structure. It was the biggest building in Kid City, yet it almost sneaked up on Nickelan. There were towers that pierced the sky and nearly scraped the Pipes. Unlike the other buildings, it was not made of edible material, but rather cold steel. The walls had no windows. The towers had windows, but they were so high it was impossible to see inside.
“Welcome to the Fun House,” Fischel said.
“It doesn’t look that fun,” Nickelan observed.
There wasn’t any door or obvious entrance to the Fun House. The team stopped and strained their necks to look up its steep, slick and strong walls.
“Who goes there!” called a voice from one of the towers. Still straining their necks, and now straining their eyes, the team was unable to discern the source of the voice, except that it came from high above.
“It’s Fischel Bocephus,” shouted Fischel with his hands cupped around his mouth to amplify the sound. “I’m leading the Red Team, who are here at my side, and we’ve come to lodge a complaint with the President.”
“Get lost!” shouted the voice from above.
“The President,” Fischel said, “is a baby!”
Even the members of the Red Team, battle-scarred vets of many an ugly campaign into the dark heart of Thunder World, were rendered speechless by this ultimate offense uttered by Fischel. Calling someone a baby was the worst thing any kid could say to another kid. It was a crime, the only crime in all of Kid City. To call another a baby meant harsh and immediate retribution.
“Baby, baby,” Fischel mocked, “stick your head in gravy!”
“You’ll be exiled for this!” the voice declared.
“You’ll have to catch me first,” Fischel said, but he didn’t run or hide.
The Red Team looked at one another. Though an officially sanctioned arm of government, they had never met the President, the executive officer of the federal government, leader of the executive branch and the commander in chief of the armed forces of Kid City. Their orders came from the Fun House, but never through any personnel channels, rather they were written on the wall like graffiti and followed as though divinely ordained. The leadership of Kid City was based on faith, faith in the President—faith that there was a President—who Fischel was now aggressively disrespecting. The Red Team was trained to obey the President, but they were also loyal to their leader, Gelsomina, and presently Fischel in her place. The Red Team stood firm behind Fischel.
“What stinks?” Fischel’s nose rolled up his face. “Did you poop your diaper, baby?”
“You won’t be exiled,” the shrill voice shouted. “I’ll have you executed!”
Hearing the word executed inspired Nickelan. “How will you execute us, baby, by making us smell your stinky poop diaper? Baby!” Nickelan added for emphasis. He understood what Fischel was doing. Fischel smiled conspiratorially at Nickelan. They were going to see Nickelan’s parents, even if it meant they’d land in the jail cell opposite them. What they’d do next Nickelan had no clue, but at least they were doing something.
“Ooh.” The voice was stymied by Nickelan’s put-down. “You stay right there. I’ll be right down. Don’t move. I’m going to give you such a pinch!”
“Good one.” Fischel slapped Nickelan a bit too hard on the back, but he was happy with him for the first time since they met.
“Now what do we do?” Nickelan asked.
“We wait,” Fischel said.
“And then what?” Spike asked.
“I don’t know,” Fischel was still smiling, though his expression seemed a bit forced.
The Red Team was nothing if not obedient. They waited. Nothing happened. The Fun House loomed over them, its shiny steel façade quiet and oppressive. They looked up at the spot where the voice had spoken to them from one of the high towers. Nothing.
Then something unexpected happened. The ground shook. The Red Team looked down at their feet. Their feet were gone—not exactly gone, but buried in the loose dirt. The ground continued to shake and throw up loose dirt as it swallowed the Red Team.
“Earthquake!” Hop Long screamed, pulling out his six-shooters and blasting noisy caps at the hungry ground that was pulling him under.
“Quicksand!” Shiny Buttons yelled. She beat the offending earth with her wand.
“No,” Fischel said. “This is an unnatural disaster.”
Mechanical hands popped out from the crumbling ground and grabbed hold of the team members’ ankles. The grips were as solid as the metal from which they were made and dragged the team underground with an unstoppable force. Before they could struggle or even curse their poor luck, the team was submerged in the churning dirt, only their fingers visible above, waving like blades of grass.
Then those fingers were pulled under and the ground returned to its stationary state. The only movement was just above the dirt. Scrap flew in frenzied circles hissing and crackling its discontent. Unable to dig its way through the now solid earth, Scrap flew up in the opposite direction, towards the high tower.
Nickelan saw nothing. He felt the rough earth against his face and body as he continued being yanked from the surface further underground. He began his journey having been sucked underground, down the drain of his tub and through a complex maze of pipes before he was deposited in this strange new land. Now he was being taken even further underground, if there could be an under-underground.
There was something, and it was hard. Nickelan hit it with his bottom and then fell onto his back. It was moving. No, Nickelan was moving. The mechanical hands still held his ankles and were now dragging him across a sleek floor. Nickelan could now see. The mechanical hands were attached to mechanical arms riveted into the mechanical bodies of mechanical men. There was one mechanical man for each team member, who, like Nickelan, was flat on his or her back being dragged somewhere.
“Where are you taking us?” Fischel demanded, though it was difficult to demand anything while being pulled along the floor like a sack of potatoes.
“You wanted to see the President, wise guy,” the mechanical man spoke in a natural voice most unlike its unnatural appearance. “Your wish is my command.”
“Are you the poopy diaper baby?” Fischel asked. The mechanical man answered by squeezing Fischel’s ankles firmer between its mechanical hands. “Ouch! Don’t be so sensitive, baby.”
The hallway opened up onto a large chamber. The room was vast, with a ceiling that rose up as high as the eye could see. The walls encircling the chamber were so far away that the many doors that lined them looked too small for even a mouse. In the center of the immense room was a raised platform on which was mounted a large but simple throne. Someone was seated on the throne, but his face was hidden behind his hand, which rubbed his forehead as if he were in pain. It was the President.
The President looked more like a king. He wore a long flowing robe and a crown of shiny gold on his head. In the hand that was not busy massaging his head, the President held a bejeweled scepter. He was slumped over in his throne and didn’t exude an air of one in power. Rather he looked as if broken under a great strain. He looked up as his imprisoned subjects were dragged to the foot of the platform. Standing, the President addressed the Red Team. “Good to see you again,” he said. “Sorry about the entrance. I’m still working the kinks out of my mechanical guards.”
The President of Kid City was none other than Selwyn Harris.
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Three
Gelsomina Gillespie was staring directly into Nickelan Wand’s eyes, but she didn’t see him. She stood still, static in the whirlwind of activity that blew over the busy streets in the center of Kid City. Her stillness made her stand out, and Nickelan smiled at the sight of a familiar face. Nickelan’s smile drooped to a frown. Gelsomina’s face was familiar, but the fire in her eyes had been extinguished. They looked watery and dull.
“Gelsomina!” Nickelan shouted across the din of traffic.
There was no response, no recognition, not even the angry look that Gelsomina last gave Nickelan, which had painfully printed itself into his memory like a tattoo.
Something was wrong. Gelsomina wasn’t mad. She wasn’t anything. She stood among the crowd no different than a signpost, but less easy to read.
“Gelsomina!” Nickelan was now directly in front of her. The closer he got to Gelsomina the less like Gelsomina she looked. Her mouth was slightly open and her lower lip was wet. Her eyes weren’t focused. Her posture wasn’t erect. She wilted like a hothouse flower removed from its greenhouse.
Nickelan hesitantly put his hand on her shoulder. It was soft. Gelsomina didn’t react to Nickelan’s touch. She just stood there.
“Gelsomina!” Nickelan said again. He didn’t know what else to do. The sight of her like this: vulnerable, empty—it made Nickelan want to cry.
Gelsomina was filthy. Her leather jumpsuit was soiled with mud and candy and less discernable stains. Her face was just as dirty, and her once neat hairdo was now knotted and teased into a frozen explosion of tangled and hard hair. She was bootless and her feet were black with grime.
Nickelan put his arm around Gelsomina’s waist and with his other arm took her hand in his. Carefully, he guided her out of the street and into a quiet alleyway. She offered no resistance.
“What happened to you?” Nickelan asked, but he knew. It was his fault.
The last time Nickelan had seen Gelsomina she’d been knocked unconscious by a dragon swung from Baber Groan’s fierce hand. Gelsomina and Nickelan had been arguing, fighting really, about what Nickelan couldn’t remember. She was mad at him. Nickelan was trying to defend himself. He had been trying to defend himself a lot since landing underground and confronting its strange inhabitants. Nickelan made alliances with many, but it was different with Gelsomina. He considered her a friend.
Nickelan was still Gelsomina’s friend even though he thought she was dead. Gelsomina wasn’t dead. She was something else, between living and dead. Despite her condition, Gelsomina was and would always be Nickelan’s friend, and a friend didn’t leave his friend stranded.
“I’m going to help you,” Nickelan said to Gelsomina, though she didn’t acknowledge him. “I’m going to clean you up. I’m going to make you better.”
Nickelan still had to find his parents. He still had to find the President of Kid City. He still had to stop the execution. He still had a lot of things to do, but first and foremost he had to help his friend.
It was difficult to find water, clean water. There was soda that ran free from the fountains in the city square. Not only was that sticky and unsuitable for washing purposes, but the fountains, made from spun sugar, were in a continuous state of disintegration, which sent rivers of dirty soda flooding the streets of Kid City.
Nickelan asked where the public toilets were and was met with confused looks. “Where do you go to the bathroom?” Nickelan demanded to know. “In our pants,” answered a boy as if it were the silliest question he had ever heard. “Where do you wash up?” Nickelan asked. To this the boy had no answer, only a quizzical look.
Never had Nickelan wanted a bathroom more badly. Once the most feared room in his house, he would now willingly wade through a warm tub to find one.
It was all a matter of perspective. From Nickelan’s perspective, carrying the dirty and stinking Gelsomina through the candy land of Kid City, bathrooms were no longer a terror in white tile, but a salvation. Only Nickelan was exiled from the paradise of bathrooms. How could he clean Gelsomina without one? Cleaning Gelsomina wasn’t merely a superficial act, but to Nickelan it was vital to his quest to save her and his parents, to return Gelsomina to her senses and remove his parents from the gallows or the guillotine or whatever method of capital punishment was used in Kid City.
The longer Nickelan was in Kid City the more he hated it. He should have loved this playground of unbridled fun. There was candy and toys in abundance, there for the taking, but it made him sick. Again, it was a matter of perspective.
He fell to his knees. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He was too angry. Yet he was too physically and emotionally spent to produce a tear or a fist.
Gelsomina was unaware of Nickelan’s breakdown, as she was unaware of everything. She stood staring blankly down the alley, where torn posters advertising long past concerts by Windshield Wipers Go hung from the walls.
Nickelan held on to Gelsomina’s leg just to feel her presence, but it was as if he were alone. He could hear the happy sounds of the playful kids coming from the street. They sounded a million miles away.
Nickelan needed to cry. It was all he could do and he couldn’t even do that. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force the tears out, but they wouldn’t come. Then something splashed on his cheek. Another teardrop exploded, followed by another, until Nickelan’s face was streaked with tears. Only Nickelan wasn’t crying.
Opening his dry eyes, and wiping his wet face, Nickelan looked up. He was hit by a large splash of water. It wasn’t tears. It wasn’t rain. It was a broken water pipe high above Kid City, serendipitously leaking over the alleyway.
Nickelan jumped for joy. He never jumped for anything, and certainly never for joy. Thinking about it, Nickelan never felt joy. He was unsure if what he was jumping for now could be called joy, as he had never experienced it before. Whatever was coursing through his veins, whatever blissful sense of power, one thing was certain: Nickelan was happy.
“Gelsomina!” he shouted again at his comatose friend. “Water!” Nickelan splashed his feet in the puddles, collected handfuls of the running water and tossed them at Gelsomina. She stood unmoving, though increasingly wet.
The dirt ran off Gelsomina’s face like the tears Nickelan tried to summon. Now he was crying, but they were tears of happiness.
“Gelsomina!” he continued, shouting and dancing in the muddy alleyway. Nickelan rubbed Gelsomina’s face until it was shiny. He soaked her stiff hair under the draining water pipe and rung it dry between his wet hands. If he had had scented oils, Nickelan would have anointed her with them. Gelsomina was like a precious item, a gift that Nickelan promised to care and provide for. “Gelsomina!” he shouted again. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
Everything was not all right. Gelsomina may have been cleaned and polished on the outside, but she was still cleaned and polished of her personality on the inside. Gelsomina couldn’t speak, she barely moved. She was like dead weight around Nickelan, who needed to find his parents—or some authority in Kid City that could help him prevent his parents’ execution. That was a problem. There was also the imminent attack of the Maka army, an assault that even the Gatekeeper would be unequipped to stop. That was a problem, too. If Nickelan put his mind to it, he could easily come up with a slew of problems. If he placed one on top of the other, he’d have a stack as tall as himself, a phantom Nickelan built of too many small problems amounting into everything being not all right.
Nickelan, however, was drunk on the newfound emotion of joy and nothing was going to sober him up.
Running into the street with the wet but sparklingly clean Gelsomina in tow, Nickelan collided with a girl licking a round, multicolored lollipop as big as her face.
“Hey!” said the girl.
“Hey,” Nickelan responded as if she made a salutation as opposed to an exclamation. “Where can I find the President of Kid City? Do you have a City Hall or Capitol Building?”
“You ask too many questions,” the girl said and smacked Nickelan on the forehead with her sticky lollipop.
The next kid Nickelan asked wasn’t even that helpful. Nobody seemed to know or care about a governing organ. Kid City was anarchy, chaos everywhere Nickelan looked. That fact didn’t stop him from looking. He was fueled by the joy that drove his body through such useless obstacles as the facts. Nickelan had reunited with Gelsomina. That was a sign. His luck was changing. Good things were coming.
Good things weren’t coming. What was coming were bad, very bad things: the execution of his parents, the siege on Kid City by a powerful army of Makas. Nickelan, as the expression goes, was wearing rose-colored glasses. His reunion with Gelsomina gave him hope, and hope is a powerful thing. Hope places imaginary rosy eyewear on a person and distorts the real world into a fantasyland better suited to a smiling face and joyful expression. Good things weren’t coming, but then maybe good things do come to those who are looking for them.
Nickelan was still smiling as he made his way through the crowded street. He hugged Gelsomina close to him and dragged her forward, ignoring her blank expression. “Scrap!” he yelled. He saw the little flying robot that had joined the Red Team on the far shore of the Septic. It was tied to a string like a balloon and hovered above the head of a boy holding it.
“Scrap!” Nickelan said again, marveling at his good fortune to discover two friends in the teeming masses of Kid City. “How are you?” The robot answered with a series of burps and tweets that still managed to relay a sense of recognition and pleasure.
“Gelsomina,” Nickelan said, “you remember Scrap. Scrap, Gelsomina.” He was making introductions, as the joy that filled Nickelan also made him a bit oblivious to his dire situation. That, considering the hopelessness of it all, might not have been such a bad thing. A little delusion can be useful.
“Stop talking to my balloon,” said the boy, who would have hit Nickelan if he weren’t holding on to the robot’s string with both his hands.
“You’re mistaken,” Nickelan said with a broad smile that made him look crazy. “It’s not a balloon. It’s Scrap.”
Was Nickelan losing his mind? He had come close to misplacing it over the course of his adventures underground. It was not beyond reason that Nickelan had turned a corner in his quest and now found himself literally beyond reason. Had Nickelan lost his senses? He could still touch, smell, taste, hear and see. Or could he see? What was he seeing now: a balloon as the obnoxious boy said or Scrap? For that matter, had Nickelan even discovered Gelsomina? Perhaps he was carrying a sack of garbage and, in a deteriorating mental state brought on by a mind-altering roller coaster ride, believed it was Gelsomina.
Joy can do such a thing to a person. It can turn a frown upside down into a smile. Despite what a joyful person observes, everyone else still sees a frown.
The boy with the balloon—or the robot, depending on your perspective—told Nickelan to scram.
“Not without Scrap!” Nickelan said.
“What’d you call my balloon?” the boy asked. He was smaller than Nickelan, not much higher than his waist, and wore a wide-rim, flattop hat from which a cascade of golden curls fell. He had navy-blue shorts with suspenders over a white shirt that matched his pale, skinny legs. He stomped his patent-leather shoes on the ground to summon a tantrum.
“Give me that balloon—I mean, robot,” Nickelan corrected himself. “Give it to me now!”
“No, no, no!” The boy was screaming, carried up in the emotional current kick-started by his stomping.
Nickelan wasn’t in the mood to argue. He didn’t have time to talk this toddler down from the ledge of his outburst. Gelsomina stood idle beside Nickelan and before him lay the coming troubles of his condemned parents and marauding Makas. Nickelan could peacefully conference with the crying child, discover the need that wasn’t being fulfilled, and find a mutually satisfying resolution, but that would require time and effort. It was easier to snatch the robot from the little boy’s hands, which is just what Nickelan did.
“He stole my balloon!” the boy screamed. “He stole my balloon!”
The boy was stomping his feet harder now. His hat was askew over his weeping face. With an outstretched arm he pointed his finger like a gun at Nickelan. “He stole my balloon!”
Nickelan’s first response was to run. He didn’t know where to run and, in fact, he couldn’t run carrying Gelsomina, so Nickelan walked. He walked as fast as he could, which was very slow.
Other kids in the street were wary of Nickelan. The little boy was crying and screaming and jumping up and down, pointing his accusing finger at Nickelan. He would have been embarrassed by the unwanted attention if all of his attention wasn’t focused on moving the unmovable Gelsomina.
There was a commotion that swallowed up the cries of the boy lamenting his stolen balloon. It was angry and it was directed at Nickelan.
Scrap sputtered over Nickelan’s head. It kept shooting forward, trying to lead Nickelan somewhere, but the immobile Gelsomina anchored Nickelan to the spot. Then Nickelan was on the ground. He couldn’t move. A heavy weight crushed him. It was a body, several bodies. Nickelan had been tackled and more and more kids piled on as if it were a game.
Nickelan would have protested the rude assault, but his face was deep in the caramel tar of the road. Voices shouted at him, told him not to steal balloons from babies, but they sounded miles away. His ears were stuffed with caramel goodness. Caramel was Nickelan’s favorite treat. He used to gobble up the small cubes until almost sick. Now he just felt sick: sick of caramel, sick of himself for failing Gelsomina and his parents.
The kids got bored of their game and rolled off Nickelan to find other ways of amusing themselves. Strong hands grabbed Nickelan’s shoulders and pulled him out from the caramel goop.
“You!” said the boy who pulled Nickelan from the muck.
Nickelan couldn’t see. He wiped the sticky sweets from his eyes. There, standing over him, was Fischel Bocephus, still in his spaceman getup, and still with a look of unconcealed disgust for Nickelan.
“I ought to—” Fischel pumped his hand into a fist and cocked it behind his face, which was staring at Nickelan with blind fury. His whole arm trembled. He couldn’t pull the trigger to fire the bony projectile of his hard fist into the soft target of Nickelan’s caramel-coated face. “You’re not worth it,” Fischel concluded.
“Give me that boy’s balloon and we’ll call it even,” Fischel said.
“What balloon?” Nickelan wanted to know. “I’ve taken no balloon. I found Scrap.”
Fischel looked over Nickelan’s head and saw the little robot. He saw the robot, not a balloon. Nickelan wasn’t crazy. He was battered and exhausted, terrified and anxious, but that was only a rational reaction to the situation he found himself in. His mind was sound.
“Scrap,” Fischel said and he allowed some happiness to lighten his features momentarily. “Why are you hanging around with this loser?”
Fischel was about to turn around and walk away from Nickelan and the bad memories he evoked, when he saw Gelsomina standing vacantly at Nickelan’s side. The remnants of his anger towards Nickelan dissolved into delight and he embraced his team leader.
“I thought you were dead,” Fischel said, staring into Gelsomina’s empty eyes. Now the anger was back in Fischel’s eyes, shooting daggers at Nickelan. “What did you do to her?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Nickelan was mad that Fischel would think he’d intentionally harm Gelsomina. “I found her like this, wandering the streets. I’m going to help her.”
“Help her?” Fischel couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “Haven’t you helped her enough? You helped her to a beating by Baber Groan. Left her head bashed in by a dragon. No thanks, Nickelan, I don’t think Gelsomina needs any more of your help.”
Fischel took Gelsomina by her limp hand and started to drag her away when Nickelan cracked. After days of being emotionally taut he finally broke and flung himself on Fischel, who was both taller and broader than Nickelan. Fischel swatted Nickelan off as he would a fly, but Nickelan leaped back up and tied his lanky limbs around the bulk of Fischel’s midsection. Together they fell into the road and rolled around as Gelsomina stood by dispassionately.
Nickelan wasn’t much of a fighter. He punched wildly, mostly in the air. Fischel peeled Nickelan off and tossed him away like a rag. Scrap flew over to Nickelan, who was scraped up, bruised, even bloody, though Fischel had hardly laid a hand on him. Nickelan got back on his wobbly feet and came at Fischel, saying, “You’re not going anywhere with Gelsomina.”
Fischel saw tears in Nickelan’s eyes when he slapped him back to the ground. “What is it with you?” he asked. “Just give up. Leave us alone. Go about redeeming, or whatever it is you’re supposed to do. Get out of my sight!”
“I’m not leaving without Gelsomina.” Nickelan’s voice was choked with feeling, feeling for Gelsomina that Fischel couldn’t deny.
“I’ll beat you until you can’t get up again,” Fischel warned. He could do it, too, but the rage was no longer in his voice. He noticed something about Nickelan. He noticed that Nickelan cared for Gelsomina as passionately as he did.
Nickelan staggered up to the sturdy bulk of Fischel and lifted an unsteady hand to pummel him with the force of a feather. Scrap was flying around the two agitated boys. Fischel took Nickelan’s fist in his hand and tenderly returned it to Nickelan’s side. Scrap relaxed.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“Who’s in charge?” Nickelan asked, ignoring Fischel’s question. “You got to tell me who’s in charge.” Nickelan saw the same dumb expression shadow Fischel’s features as his query had on all the previous faces he asked. “Take me to your leader,” Nickelan said slowly, aping a line from the scores of science-fiction movies he had watched with Springo.
Scrap buzzed and beeped to translate for Fischel.
“You want to see the President?” Fischel questioned. “You can’t just walk into the Fun House and meet with the President.”
“The Fun House,” Nickelan said. “The Fun House—is that where the President lives?”
“What other kind of house would be suitable for the President of Kid City?” Fischel was genuinely puzzled.
“You got to take me there.” Nickelan grabbed the shiny synthetic fabric of Fischel’s spacesuit.
“Lay off the threads,” Fischel said, pulling back from Nickelan’s weak grip. “You’re in no condition to see the President. But I’ll help you. Maybe the President can help Gelsomina, too. We’re going to need help, though, if we want to get into the Fun House and actually see the President before the secret service boots us out. Yes, we’re going to need help, and I know just where to get it.”
“Where?” Nickelan asked, the joy returning.
“Follow me,” Fischel said, smiling. “We’re going to call on some old friends.”
Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City — Chapter Twenty-Two
Nit Wit was dancing. He held a transistor radio against the side of his head and sang along to the tinny sound coming from its small speaker. Pirate radio was playing “Half-Man, Half-Kid,” the newest hit from Windshield Wipers Go. Nickelan couldn’t understand the lyrics. Nit Wit shouted over them. “Yeah!” he crooned, making sweeping air guitar motions with his free arm.
“You seem more like a Darkness Begins fan to me.” Nickelan was in good humor.
“The Darkness Begins?” Nit Wit dropped the radio from his ear. “They suck!”
“I think they rock.” Nickelan enjoyed teasing his new friend. He couldn’t care less about The Darkness Begins or Windshield Wipers Go. The music, however, put a kick in his step and added a triumphant soundtrack that Nickelan thought fitting, considering he was now determined to storm Kid City and reunite with his parents. He wasn’t only going to see his parents again, Nickelan was going to save them from execution. Mr. and Mrs. Wand were weird, but he was attached to his parents by the arbitrary lottery of birth. That had once seemed like a cruel joke played on him by an uncaring universe, but now felt more like destiny. Destiny was not a word Nickelan was used to saying. That was before he landed underground. That was before he faced insurmountable odds and beat them. That was before he was thrust into destiny by others’ claims that he was somehow fated to save a world that had only recently opened up to him. Nickelan wasn’t sure he was the Redeemer, wasn’t sure there was a Redeemer, but the idea appealed to him. In a sense everyone had an opportunity to become their own Redeemer, if they chose to. Nickelan chose something. Face-deep in toilet water, after days of moral, spiritual and physical abuse, he was ready to stand up for himself. He’d no longer hide behind Selwyn Harris or Gelsomina Gillespie. Nickelan Wand was facing the music, alone and unafraid.
“Turn it up,” Nickelan told Nit Wit.
“Why?” Nit Wit asked. “The song’s over. It’s just deejay patter.”
“Turn it up,” Nickelan said again. The deejay was a woman with a voice that dripped slow and syrupy like honey, yet her tone wasn’t sweet. It was imbued with significance, which may have gone over Nit Wit’s head, but didn’t pass without Nickelan’s attention.
“Hey, buccaneers and beat-loving seafarers,” began the deejay. “That was Windshield Wipers Go with their newest slab of hot wax. It’s number one with a torpedo. Simon and Ira from Windshield Wipers Go will be in the studio this afternoon to answer questions and take your requests. Speaking of requests, I’ve got one going out to the Big R. Hope you can hear me, baby boy, because this one is dedicated to you from an old friend. Calls himself B.G. and says he misses you. Missed you on the boat and in the woods, but plans to meet up real soon. Says when he does it’ll be a party to end all parties. So, put on your dancing shoes, here’s The Darkness Begins with ‘Jaws of Justice.’”
Nit Wit held the on/off knob of the radio between his forefinger and thumb. Looking over to Nickelan he said, “I know you like these guys, but would you mind if I turned it off? It gives me a headache.”
Nickelan didn’t answer. He wasn’t listening to the dirge coming from the radio, the guttural vocals, the rolling drums and slashing electric guitar. The voice of the deejay was still echoing through his head: the Big R. The Redeemer. Me, thought Nickelan. But who was B.G.? Baber Groan! The thought made Nickelan blanch. The jaws of Baber Groan’s justice were closing in on him. The Chief Maka and his henchmen were going to assault Kid City.
“Turn it off,” Nickelan said. He didn’t have to hear any more. He understood. The small ray of sunshine that cut through the clouds Nickelan had traveled under since landing underground dimmed. He tried to hold on to his newfound confidence, but his hands were slippery with nervous sweat. He had to speak, to talk to someone. He needed to share the horrible news of the coming attack by the Maka hordes.
“Nit,” Nickelan said.
“Call me Nit Wit for short,” Nit Wit said.
Nickelan ignored the incongruity. “Nit Wit, Makas are coming! They’re coming for me, and they’ll lay waste to all of Kid City to bring me back to Thunder World. We’ve got to tell somebody, anybody.”
“Don’t panic,” Nit Wit said. “No one has ever breached the walls of Kid City. I don’t care if a thousand Indians try, they’ll never get past the Gatekeeper.”
“Indians?” Nickelan asked.
“Indians, moccasins, whatever you call them,” Nit Wit said.
“Not moccasins, Nit Wit, Makas.” Nickelan took the radio, which was still on, from Nit Wit and switched it off.
“Oh, Makas,” Nit Wit said, nodding his head broadly as if Nickelan was crazy. “Sure, sure. We’ll be in Kid City soon and you can lie down and get some rest. You need it.”
Though difficult to contain all the wild thoughts that were circulating through Nickelan’s head, it was too frustrating trying to share them with Nit Wit. Walking was good. It provided a physical outlet for the pent-up energy charging through him. Nickelan picked up the pace and in short time they were walking on a crudely paved road made out of thousands of crushed candy bars. The sidewalks glimmered with hard candies, but were too sticky to walk on. Beyond the sidewalk were buildings of rotted gingerbread, shadowed by rattling roller coaster tracks.
“I’m hungry,” Nit Wit announced and bent down to pull a chewy bar from the pavement. His jaws were forcing the old candy around in his mouth when Nickelan looked up and said, “How can we get a ride on the roller coaster?”
“There’s a station a bit down the road,” Nit Wit said, lodging the ball of candy to the side of his cheek to speak. “But why’d you want to do that? The roller coaster will only take you to the center of the city.”
“That’s where I want to go, nitwit!” Nickelan shouted. He wasn’t referring to his friend by name. Nit Wit didn’t take offense. He just kept stuffing his face with trampled candy pounded into the pavement. He lifted a particularly gooey bar up to Nickelan and opened his eyes wide. He couldn’t speak. His mouth was bound by caramel. “No, thank you.” Nickelan shook his head. “Where’s the station?” Silently, Nit Wit jerked his head towards a spot down the road.
There was a kid loitering at the entrance of the roller coaster station. She leaned against the turnstile and looked bored. Nickelan stopped at the turnstile and rested his hand on one of the three metal prongs. “I don’t have any money,” Nickelan told the girl. “But I need to get on the next roller coaster.”
“Who’s stopping you?” she asked and let a thick stream of saliva drool slowly out from between her lips. It fell to her knees before she sucked it back up into her mouth.
“I don’t need a ticket?” Nickelan asked.
“A ticket?” the girl said in a voice far more animated than her inert body seemed capable of producing. “What do I look like, a traffic cop?”
“No,” Nickelan said. “Then I can just pass through this turnstile and wait on the platform for the next roller coaster?”
“Sure,” the girl said, her voice calming down. “If you can get by me.”
Nickelan considered the threat. He took a timid step forward, his waist pushing against one prong of the turnstile. The girl wasn’t even looking at him. She was building up another mouthful of spit to play with. He took another step and the prong jumped ahead while another sprang up behind him. Nickelan was now trapped in the turnstile, an easy target, but the girl did nothing. He took one more step and the turnstile made its final spin. Nickelan was on the other side, with only a steep staircase to climb to the roller coaster platform. He looked perplexed at the girl.
“I guess you got by me,” she said.
The sound of the girl clearing her throat and nasal cavity of phlegm and gurgling it in the back of her mouth filled the air with menace as Nickelan slowly walked up to the platform. He dared not look back. No gob was spat, though, and Nickelan reached the platform unscathed. He took one last look at the girl. She was still leaning lazily against the turnstile, practicing her spitting techniques.
Nickelan’s tunic began to flutter. He felt a warm breeze at his back. As he turned to look down the roller coaster track, the whole platform began to rumble and shake. Nickelan had to grab hold of one of the support beams to keep his balance. Screams came from down the line, happy screams. Then with a screech of metal the roller coaster arrived. The screams filled the station, as did a rain of sparks as the brakes were applied to the car. It stopped with a violent jerk.
A bar that had been resting on passengers’ laps lifted and with it some kids got off the roller coaster and Nickelan ran to get a seat. He barely got in before the bar fell down again, locked in place and the roller coaster began to creep up a formidable incline.
During the slow ascent, Nickelan remembered that he hated roller coasters. He had only gone on one prior to this, years ago, when he was just a boy and ignorant of the nature of thrill rides. Nickelan was at a seaside amusement park with his parents. It was decrepit, long past its glory days, but when Nickelan saw the sprawling wooden roller coaster he was drawn to it like a magnet. Mr. Wand refused to ride with his son. It was unbecoming to have one’s body abused by gravity in such a fashion, he said. That it might disrupt the fitted line of his suit, sending his lapels or tie in a disorderly way, was most distasteful to him. Mrs. Wand, seeing how frantically her son wanted to ride the roller coaster, against her better judgment bought a ticket. Mr. Wand held Mrs. Wand’s handbag and soon mother and son were riding up the first large hill of the ride. There was a metallic ticking sound beneath the car as the pulley carried them to the peak. Wind off the ocean filled their lungs with salty sea air. As they rose up, the entire coastline spread out before them like a delicacy. It filled both mother and son with a false sense of security. “This isn’t so bad,” Mrs. Wand said to Nickelan. The last word was pulled like taffy from her mouth as the car plummeted down the first drop. Mrs. Wand screamed louder than anyone else in the car, and unlike everyone else in the car her scream was not from joy but terror. That is, everyone but Nickelan. He was silent, staring at his mother. Her arms were up in the air, but not to pull her body up from the seat and experience even greater thrills. She was trying to get out, grabbing fruitlessly at the air as if it might provide a hidden avenue for her to escape. When the car pulled to the end of the ride Mrs. Wand was white as chalk. “Are you all right?” Nickelan asked. She turned to him with her mouth tightly clenched closed. She wanted to say something. Nickelan could see words punching at her cheeks to get out. Those weren’t words. Mrs. Wand opened her mouth and vomited into Nickelan’s lap.
Nickelan had a panoramic view of Kid City as the roller coaster car inched its way higher. He tried to take in the sights to distract himself from the uneasiness in his stomach anticipating the coming fall.
Everything became a blur. Nickelan’s head snapped back and his arms instinctively wrapped around the safety bar like a noose. The car erupted in happy screams. Nickelan could feel the entire car shaking right down to its wheels, which he expected to shoot off the track and send him and his deluded fellow passengers to a terrible end.
Nickelan had never ridden another roller coaster after that nauseating experience with his mother. She may have gotten sick to her stomach, but at least she emptied herself of the physical manifestation from her fear. Nickelan’s brain suffered a trauma it could not vomit away. That wound never healed, but Nickelan’s desire to get to the center of Kid City and save his parents overrode his fear of roller coasters and now he was rattling down the track and headed for a dangerous curve.
The roller coaster car took the curve at great speed, yet managed to hug the track and miraculously not derail. Nickelan was thrown into the side of the kid seated beside him. The kid shoved Nickelan back. Nickelan’s head was still attached to his neck, but it felt as if his skeleton had been left behind at the station. His head wobbled back and forth, further disorienting him as he tried to take in the passing scenery that smeared like wet paint before his tearful eyes.
Nickelan’s eyes were tearful because he was crying, but he wasn’t sad. His body was in revolt. It sought any and every exit through Nickelan’s skin in a vain attempt to jettison itself from the intensely unpleasant situation The eye ducts were one way out. The fluids that made up seventy-five percent of Nickelan’s body were flooding out there and other holes more embarrassing. His nose poured mucus like twin faucets. From his mouth spit overflowed. The pores of his skin opened up like sick mouths and puked hot sweat until Nickelan glistened like a glazed holiday ham.
There was a brief straightaway and for a moment Nickelan thought he had recovered his skeleton. He could almost feel something hard and secure deep within the jelly of his body and he reached for it to support himself. But it wasn’t there and with the next turn Nickelan’s body went spastic and attempted to move in two different directions at once. Then he flew up and out of his seat, tethered only by the safety bar that bit into his soft thighs. The car was rollicking down another steep hill. Nickelan’s arms were like streamers twirling decoratively behind him.
When the car began to climb again, Nickelan was forced down into his seat and took opportunity of the relative calm to wrap his arms again around the safety bar, which, at that moment, was all that was good and right in the world.
The laws of physics controlled the seemingly haphazard and life-threatening ride. Nickelan learned in school that inertial, gravitational and centripetal forces drive the roller coaster and keep the cars on the track. It was science, but only a mad scientist would create a roller coaster as a mode of inquiry to explore such theories. For the Theory of Gravity, for instance, was only a theory, an idea arrived at through speculation or conjecture. Maybe there was something faulty in the theory that remained undiscovered until Nickelan made the mistake of boarding the roller coaster. Maybe gravity, to continue with that example, would fail him now. A dropped ball might fall up rather than down. Or more literally, maybe Nickelan’s roller coaster car would not stick to the next abrupt turn and fly off the track and into the science books as the first example of a new and improved theory of gravity. It was only a theory.
Just as Nickelan’s mind was about to descend into madness and join his body in chaotic disarray, just as his bodily fluids were about to surge from the seven holes in his body, just then the roller coaster stopped. The safety bar popped up. He was at another station in the heart of Kid City. There were many kids on the platform waiting to board the roller coaster. Nickelan stood up, shocked that his legs could support him.
“Move it!” ordered an impatient kid, wanting Nickelan’s almost vacant seat. Nickelan moved it. He got out from the car a bit unsteady but happy to be on solid ground again. He had just arrived in Kid City and the place was already making him sick.
Nickelan held the rail as he slowly descended the stairs to the street. As he emerged from the shelter of the station, Kid City’s Main Street assaulted his vision with its vivid sights. Colorful balloons were everywhere, filling the air, refracting light into a vile prism. The candy-paved streets were muddy with melted chocolate and stained the hundreds of feet that marched through the muck, many barefoot. There were storefronts with their goods spilling out from open windows and doors. Candies and toys overflowed onto the streets and mixed up in the sweet gunk. Kids drove miniature, foot-propelled cars that further clogged the pedestrian traffic.
Kids were dressed in all manner of costumes. Nickelan saw a cowboy. “Hop Long!” Nickelan cried out, running to him. But when he pulled the ten-gallon hat off the cowboy’s head, an unfamiliar face stared crossly at him. There were baseball players all too big to confuse for Spike Vrusho, and firemen and princesses, kitty cats and doggies, monsters of every variety, but not one of them a member of the Red Team.
Nickelan had finally made it to Kid City. Kids surrounded him. There were no giant crocodiles or dinosaurs, Makas or pirates, just kids playing with toys and eating candy. Nickelan was miserable. They were all strangers. All but one: Gelsomina Gillespie.