Alex Reynard's Online Books
The ground trembled.
There was a shifting of sand.
Then ten furless fingers broke through the surface like a family of moles.
They scrambled frantically, moving with the jerkiness of panic. Sprays of pebbles skittered in different directions. The hole slightly expanded, but as much dirt fell in as flew out. Whenever the fingers found a patch solid enough to push against, it quickly crumbled under the effort. The fingers moved with increasing desperation.
Finally a nose emerged. It took a breath. Meager. Barely a sip. Not enough. The two hands scraped and shoved to make the hole wider, yet it only allowed more sand to pour in. Grains trickled down into his nostrils. A violent sneeze cast them back out.
The heat was permeating. Buried alive in hot charcoal embers.
'Leverage,' was the clear thought that suddenly shoved its way through the feral typhoon of emotions in his mind.
The hands stopped moving. Ten fingertips, five pink and five silver, held themselves still. There was a momentary calm. Then they shoved back down again, hard, this time pressing against the two long slats of hardwood that had been willed into existence just beneath them. This made a difference. Jittering strain showed on the veins and knuckles of two small, bony hands. The nose was followed by a dirt-streaked muzzle. Whiskers sprung outward and twanged individual pebbles away. Lips were retracted in a snarl of effort as the two hands stopped their chaotic scrabble and worked instead to methodically unscrew the body, back-and-forth.
Sunlight seared two sets of eyelids. Two white ears twitched the dust away. When the shoulders finally emerged, the mouse named Toby opened his mouth and took in a much-needed lungful of air.
He nearly choked on it. Wherever this place was, its air was scorching. Like opening a car door in a hot August parking lot. He tried to remind himself that he did not technically need to breathe at all. But the body is sometimes bad at following direct instructions. Toby hung his head and took in slow, steadying breaths through his nostrils. The muscles in his thin arms quivered like cello strings.
After a moment to collect his senses, he continued exhuming himself. His chest rose and fell in a careful rhythm. It was too bright here. Even through his still-closed eyelids, he knew. The sun was a red, bullying pulse against them. He wondered if he'd managed to actually burrow up into Hell. Not exactly implausible.
"It's like being in an oven inside another oven..."
Finally he was able to haul his keister out of the hole to sit beside it. He thought that was worth a reward. He patted the ground beside him blindly until his fingers came in content with the jolting chill of ice cold metal. He popped the top of an Anisocoria Rain and killed the can in one long swallow. Before even finishing it, he'd dumbfounded another, this one purely to douse his scalp with. Ohhhh, that felt marvelous. Little chilly rivers made their way through his overheated fur, soothing his skin and bringing his mind back to a temperature he could think at.
Toby hauled himself to his feet, tossing the empties aside where they vanished. Cracking one eye, he noticed without surprise that his whole lower body looked like he'd been bathing in an outhouse. The dirt here was a sickly dark yellow. Not actually sand, just dirt so parched it had almost no substance. Like cheap, crumbly cornbread. Toby also noticed that the boards he'd created had come from his own bedroom floor. Naturally. What else could he have remembered the touch of so well, even in a state of panic?
Toby began the process of producing the same can of Rain over and over, like a magician plucking coins from a volunteer's ear. He popped each top and let it drain down his torso, not caring about drenching his shorts and sandals. He knew he did not have long here, but he also knew that looking like a miniature mud golem would distract him from clear thinking. 'This stuff feels like cake mix,' he thought. Doubly so when it got wet.
He wasn't completely rinsed, but it was good enough. The clock was ticking.
Finally he shaded his eyes to properly scan his location. "Where am I this time?"
For starters, on a plateau. Or a mesa. Whichever one was smaller. He wasn't up among the clouds, but definitely high enough to behold miles upon miles of rust-colored country surrounding him. A desert, but not barren. The parched ground was polka-dotted by gray-green tufts of grass, plump tumbleweeds, and occasional cacti. The latter resembled stranded green hitchhikers. The sun was a death ray, and the sky was so blue it almost hurt as well. But on the edge of the horizon, Toby could see a row of mountaintops. Giant's armchairs. They were rather majestic. And for as much as the heat was unbearable, at least there was no afternoon wind to rake its hot claws along his body. The still air was suffocating enough. Each breath felt like being clenched in an electric blanket straitjacket.
Nearby his position, dripping lazily down the side of the mesa, was a road. More like a pale line discernible against the sand by wheel ruts and lack of vegetation. It led to a small town. Maybe a mile away. Probably not two. Toby could see the whole breadth from where he was standing. Pretty as a postcard. He was surprised how nice it looked. Friendly.
He shook that assumption away though, as he'd been stung too many times already by Phobiopolis' deceptions.
In fact, some small part of him couldn't be convinced that he was even here right now. Dysphoria had done things to his brain. Even with his brilliant plan, some of the malevolent realm's influence had leaked in anyway. Not enough to entrap his senses, but plenty enough to screw with them. Toby was trying very, very hard at the moment to remain stable. Keep his mind clear of thoughts and his senses in the moment. Outwardly he might have appeared calm. Even bored. Inwardly, he felt like a house so unstable, only the wallpaper was keeping the boards held together.
He knew it had spoke to him, but he couldn't remember what. Maybe it was like the words on the wall in the maze: not really language at all, but the inflection and cadence of speaking. The implications of whispered taunts, letting his brain fill in the meaning. If so, Dysphoria had to be given credit for shrewdness. No one can think of more cutting insults than one's own inner self.
Toby knew his head was not entirely functional at the moment. Looking back, he should have given himself time to rest. But he couldn't justify it. There were things that needed to be done, and people were suffering for every moment he delayed.
That was another reason for his impatience. Dysphoria's talons had played with the inner toggles of his sense of time. He was certain he'd spent months screaming back at it. A year. At least a year. But he knew it couldn't have been. The distance across the asteroid field wouldn't have taken more than a few hours for George to fly across. 'It definitely didn't take a year for us to cross the first time.'
'Oh really? How can you be sure?' something inside him whispered.
'You shut the hell up right now,' he told it. Yes, it was possible that he'd never actually escaped from Dysphoria and everything afterwards had just been one massive, painful hallucination. To an extent, that even made sense. Some of the things Doll... Scaphis... had done were right in line with Dysphoria's sense of humor.
But Toby shook his head firmly and touched the tattered yellow ribbon pierced to his arm. Under his breath he muttered, "No. It had to be real, because Dysphoria could never come up with a place like Scarlatina. Never."
Or make anyone as nice as Poubelle and After. Or recreate Luxy so well. Or even make such a pretty little desert town like this. 'Which you've been staring at while letting your mind wander. Cut it out.' That was right. He had a mission here.
Sun mirages rippled along the concrete surface of a silver river, the interstate, as it stretched to infinity in either direction. The city was like a decorative bow wrapped around it. Everything in town was laid out in tidy rectangular rows. Lots of storefronts along main street, tapering off into houses and empty lots. Nothing was taller than one storey, except of course the water tower. Criss-crossing telephone wires connected the citizens by threads to civilization. The whole place was dusted with a sunbaked brown, though the colors tried to be vibrant otherwise. Toby could see deco signs for diners and a grocery store. There was a gas station with lots of neon, and chrome pumps stood outside like robot penguins. A rainbow of cars doodled to and fro, unhurriedly. Plump as beetles, or Christmas ornaments. Fat fenders, round headlights, laughably-extended tailfins. It felt like he'd gone back in time.
He turned around, expecting a flat expanse of ocher rock. Not quite. He actually jumped when confronted with the sight. This whole time he'd been standing on the edge of the largest graveyard he'd ever seen. But not for people. For war machines.
Rows and rows and rows and rows and rows of dead airplanes. Corpses of fuselages. Hulking husks of bombers and cargo planes. Jets as sleek as darts. Thousands. So many it felt like it had to be a trick of mirrors. Squinting, Toby could even make out patches of tanks and jeeps. And in some places, far in the distance, smaller planes were actually stacked up in mammoth mounds; so many it was mind-boggling. Everything had been parked out here with military precision, then left to rot. The sun and wind were slowly turning all of it to rust. Glass was long-gone from windows. Tires were blown out. There were orange, corroded holes in wings and doors and cockpits, bringing to mind images of giant metal-munching caterpillars. From the aircraft close enough to see into, the interiors had been picked scrupulously clean. Seats, engines, control panels: all yanked out. Obviously to render them inoperable, lest local hooligans decide to try a few Friday night barrel rolls over their girlfriends' houses.
And speaking of local rowdies, Toby didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to detect a few signs of juvenile delinquency. Graffiti on undercarriages. Brown glass bottles lined up on a wing for target practice. And some of those pockmarks he'd assumed were from windstorms... Nope. Definitely bullet holes.
'Well... So what? Even if I've still got a Dysphoria headache, I'm not going to be afraid of a few teenagers. I've faced convorines.' He ran his left hand along his right arm just to reassure himself that his hammer was still there. He nodded. It formed fingers when he needed them, then retracted like an animal seeking its burrow.
This situation now posed a dilemma. Toby knew exactly what he was looking for, but he was standing between two vast opposing areas. Go down the road into Postcard Town? Or start hunting through the haunted husks of aircraft? Either was a likely spot. And either could take him hours to search through. Toby chewed his lip. He definitely did not have time enough to play hide and seek in both. He could already feel a slight tingle in his muscles.
He'd have to make a decision soon. The Rain had dried out already, leading to hot, sticky sweat. Toby looked out over the cozy roadside municipality below him. A cigarette billboard. Little American flags rustling on street corners. There was even a car dealership with a big plywood King Kong installed on its roof. Toby turned back to the military junkyard. Spooky but cool. A million places to hide, or stash secret booze or girly mags. Plenty of parts to scavenge.
That last thought sealed it for him. Toby took a step towards the rusting plane of planes, then stopped.
He glanced over his shoulder. There'd be people in town who could help him search. Surely someone would know an outgoing-
Toby ran a few steps towards the edge of the mesa, sandals sending pebbles skittering. He blocked the sun with both hands and focused hard. He looked carefully at every building in town. The hardware store, the local church, the soda shop... There were no people. Whatever day of the week this was, there should have been at least a few folks enjoying the afternoon. Nada. No one was walking their pets. No kids were out playing. At the very limits of his vision, Toby scanned a green pickup trundling towards the mechanic's lot on the outskirts. "No driver."
Bingo. The only place he'd seen signs of actual habitation was here at the graveyard. Someone's paw had held the can that'd sprayed 'COPS ARE SLUGS' on the side of the nearest bomber. Toby jogged a few paces towards it (and in this heat, that was enough to make him start panting). The artist had also added a boxy hot rod with speed lines coming out of it, outrunning a large snail with a police siren on its shell.
Toby turned back towards the town and shook his finger at it. At first glance it had looked like a model railroad setup, and that's all it really was. "Figured you out."
What had seemed like two choices was just another illusion. If he'd gone down the road, it'd be like wandering through a huge, deserted movie set. He wondered if the buildings were even finished, or if they were just propped-up empty walls.
A bullet nicked his ear.
Toby instantly spun around to face whatever had shot him. He didn't deploy his hammer yet- element of surprise, after all- but his eyes peeled wide despite the sun's glare. He scanned all around the rusted jets. Nothing moved.
Toby reached up and felt a drop of blood. He twitched. Exploring the wound further, it wasn't bad. Tiny, actually. A bullet wouldn't have done so little damage. 'And I didn't hear anyone fire a gun.'
While he was looking left for snipers, a 'pfft' from his right made his head twist around. He spotted a tiny crater where a marble-sized rock had hit the ground nearby. Toby's ears caught the barest trace of a chortle from somewhere out in the scrap. Someone was out here with a slingshot.
Sighing in irritation, Toby glared across the rows. "I know that wasn't the wind!!" he called out.
From behind a jet fighter with collapsed landing gear, a head poked up.
"Chee, I'm really sorry!" its owner said insincerely.
Another voice joined in, "Yeah! Sorry we missed!"
A cackle of heckling laughter followed, and the gang swaggered out into view. Toby could almost hear an imaginary jukebox start playing a rockabilly chord.
There were five of them, and it didn't take more than a second to tell who was in charge. All were dogs. A salt-and-pepper mutt, a chihuahua, a beagle, a skinny terrier, and a barrel-chested husky. The husky's fur was so silver it almost looked chrome. His yellow eyes and good-time grin were shaded by an enormous pompadour. A few other members had also greased their hair up into hood ornaments. The chihuahua was streaked with a bad impression of Indian war paint, plus a feather stuck in his derby.
They jingled as they walked towards the mouse. Combs, coins, and weaponry rattled loudly enough to be heard over their hooting and guffawing. Without exception they were all wearing blue jeans and black leather jackets. Their boots and hi-tops sent sand pluming.
Toby watched them approach. He held his stance and kept his face neutral. 'I'm sure they're trying to be intimidating. But all I can think is, how the hell can they wear leather in this heat and not die!?'
The husky had on a grease-stained, cigarette-burned white t-shirt, with a bike chain dangling down the front like a necklace. While the others laughed, the leader only smiled. He was sizing Toby up with his gaze. Stopping about ten feet away, he held up a paw for company halt.
Their noise ceased. The other four dogs flanked their leader, two on each side.
Not breaking eye contact with Toby, the leader signaled to the terrier. "Flame on."
The wire-thin, baggy-eyed teen took only a second to fish a Zippo from his jacket pocket. It was positioned just in time for the husky to pop a cigarette in his muzzle. He grabbed the terrier's wrist like a shackle, holding the lighter in place. The terrier flinched but didn't complain. His eyes were locked on his boss, eager for approval.
The husky drew a long breath, then let it out through the side of his jaw. Smoke rose up when he said, "Thanks," and jerked his head to command the terrier back in line. The flunky jumped to his place, grinning at having pleased his master.
The pompadour'd husky turned his attention back to Toby. He drew in an appraising breath, then let it out as a grey billow. "Look what it is, men! The breeze blew in a little mouse. He looks scared, don't he?" His voice had a resonant boom, befitting a chest that looked big enough to eat chin-ups for lunch.
The chihuahua nodded enthusiastically. "Yeh, yeh!"
The husky glanced at the grey mutt. "Your slingshot sure made him jump!"
A proud gurgling giggle from the canine marksman.
Toby didn't react. He didn't think he looked particularly scared. Neither did he feel that way.
"I'll bet we skeered him so bad we turned his fur white. I'll bet he started out pink with purple polka dots." The husky leaned in. "Izzat right, mouse?"
Toby narrowed his eyes. He was not in the mood for this. "No," he said, calmly and clearly.
The gang made mock-impressed "Ooooohh!"s.
"Well jeepers, my mistake!" the husky said with sardonic politeness. "So you're always this pale? Chee, that don't seem healthy. You spendin' too much time up in your room? Maybe beatin' your meat?" He made a jerking-off gesture.
Toby winced. Mostly at the volume of the dogs' laughter. "Stop. Please. I'll split my sides," he deadpanned.
"And lookit his hand!" the beagle pointed out in a grating voice. "He ain't got no fingas!"
"Jeeziss, yeah!" said the terrier.
The beagle squawked a laugh. "I think you was right, King! He's been jerkin' it so much he sanded 'em down to nubs!!"
This got an even more raucous explosion from the crew. Toby had to admit, that was at least mildly clever.
The husky, however, did not join in laughing. His grin slowly became an ugly, bared-teeth snarl. Then, striking fast as a cobra, he snatched up a handful of the beagle's shirt and dragged him in, snout-to-snout.
"W-what'd I do!?" he yelped.
"I didn't ask for no color commentary, numbnuts!!" he roared. With a shove that nearly planted his tail in the dirt, he put the beagle back in line.
Toby caught exactly what had happened. 'His joke got a bigger laugh than yours, so you punished him.' Petty jerk. "Excuse me," he spoke up. "I'm looking for someone."
Hot-headed now, the husky jerked back towards Toby. "Well ya picked a pretty stupid place for it! Look around, egghead! You see anything but planes out here!?" Realizing he was losing his cool, he stepped back, took a drag off his cigarette, and lowered his voice. "I mean... you ain't gonna have much luck is all I'm saying. Plus, you oughtn't not put your paws wheres there's No Trespassing signs. Am I correct?"
Toby looked to his left. Miles of nothing. He looked to his right. The same. "I didn't see any."
The husky put on a face like he was explaining a very simple concept to a toddler. "Then what does that look like?" He pointed with an open palm at the nearest graffiti.
Toby was getting impatient. "It looks like you guys've been doodling on airplanes," he said flatly.
The chihuahua looked like he was about to riff on that, but a glance at the beagle made him button his lip.
The husky took a step closer and smiled with all his yellowed fangs. "I begin to get the picture you're not from around this area. Maybe even, you're not familiar with us."
"I'm not," Toby admitted. "But if this is your turf, I'm sorry I'm intruding." He decided it might be a good idea to change his tune to some politeness. After all, these were the only living beings he'd seen so far. Even if they did remind him of the punk lawnmowers in Dysphoria, there wasn't anyone else to ask for help.
The husky put up his hands. "Eyyyy, all's forgiven! You didn't know better! Lemme educate you." A sweeping bow introduced the gang. "I present to you, The Kickstands. You can guess for yourself why we's called that. And no, it don't involve motorcycles."
Some chuckles at this. The chihuahua grabbed his crotch lewdly.
"These here are the enforcers of my will." He gestured to the beagle. "Dougie."
The pup was still reeling a bit. He rubbed his chest.
The gaunt terrier tossed a smile at Toby. It attempted to be charming and came off creepy. The guy looked sick.
The chihuahua made a tomahawk motion and jumped in place, letting out a war whoop.
The speckly grey mutt put his slingshot in his jacket. Then, giving Toby a 'Shhh! Our little secret!' wink, he drew out just enough silver from his jeans to show he was also carrying a humongous Bowie knife.
Toby grimaced. What nice boys these were.
The husky fixed his gaze on their guest again, propping his hands on his hips. "And me? Anyone with any smarts in their head just calls me King."
Toby nodded. "Okay then, King. Like I said, I'm looking for someone. And I don't have much time."
"Well, well, well. Don't wet your pants, little man. We can help. We're very helpful guys, ain't we?"
His boys all nodded and agreed. "Sure, sure!"
Toby didn't exactly trust their helpfulness, but what other choice did he have? "His name is Zinc. He's a dog like you guys. I think. About your age too. Maybe you go to school with him?"
Crowbar snickered. "He thinks we go to school.".
The husky made a 'cut it out' gesture. "Shut it. We's havin' a discussion."
Toby tried to remain polite. He could feel his legs beginning to cramp up. "So... have you seen him anywhere?"
"'Zinc' don't ring a bell," King said. "B'lieve me, it's hard not to know every name in town. Maybe he's from down the road a ways?"
Toby shook his head. 'No. I wound up here for a reason.' Maybe they'd know him by his real name? He took a moment to remember it. Luxy'd said it once. "You might know him as Anthony Galvan?"
Toby was unprepared for the response this got.
King became a charging bull. Within seconds he was in punching distance, eyes crazed and nostrils flaring. He shoved a clawed pointer finger in the mouse's face. "WHERE'D YOU HEAR THAT NAME!? NO ONE CALLS ME THAT! EVEN MY OLD MAN KNOWS BETTER THAN TO CALL ME ANYTHING BUT TONY!!"
Toby could see the other dogs cringing, letting him know with their body language that he'd crossed a very bad line. His mind boggled. "Wait, that's your name!? But that doesn't make any sense!"
Toby felt the blood drain out of his face. His jaw fell slack. He stared at the husky, examining his facial structure. The eyes, the jaw, the ears. There was zero resemblance. But... he knew he was back in Zinc's past. Of that he was sure. 'And did you really think you'd find him looking just the same as when you last met? That he'd wave his wrench and say hi?'
Probably not. But this!? Zinc had never been this much of a bully. And for all his clownishness, he wasn't this dumb either. Or this egotistical.
'Well, you changed a lot since you've been here,' Toby reminded himself.
Was it possible?
"The fuck are you staring at me for?" King demanded. He was getting antsy. This kid was not reacting properly. He wouldn't be intimidated. Maybe he was tougher than he looked. But King was also starting to think the pink-eyed rat might have bats in his belfry.
Toby tried to picture this musclebound thug with a pair of wrenches. It didn't feel right. About the only thing they seemed to have in common was the time period and (he inferred from the guy's clothes) a love of machines. "You don't have a brother, maybe?"
"Not last time I checked," King snorted. He licked his lips, then realized something. "WHEEZE!!!" he bellowed over his shoulder. "My smoke blew out!! What the fuck are you gonna do to rectify this situation!?"
The terrier skedaddled over, lighter in hand. "Shit, shit, shit! Sorry! I wasn't paying attention."
King snatched the lighter, blazed up his coffin nail, and tossed it back without a word.
Wheeze cringed at speaking out of turn. "Um, King?"
A grunted, "Yeah?"
"I think I got an idea about our new pal here. I ain't never heard of no Zinc, but maybe I know what he's really lookin' for." He gave his boss a 'you know what I'm talking about' look.
It took a moment for the clue to dig its way through the husky's temper. "Shit, yeah... That'd explain why he's actin' so oddball. Show 'im." He patted his flunky on the back and took a few steps away to give them privacy.
It was uncomfortable having those rheumy eyes pointed at him. "You know who I'm looking for? Does he have a different name here?" Toby asked.
Wheeze put a paw on Toby's shoulder. The mouse tried to flinch away from it, but the terrier pulled him in close for a conspiratorial whisper. His breath smelled like a sickbed. "I know exactly, don't you worry. Doc's got your cure. Lemme guess, someone from another town told you 'bout us? Gave you the wrong name to ask for?"
Toby was confused and uneasy. "Excuse me?" His voice shook a little.
The terrier's gaze drilled into his. "I got it, I got it, no problem." He started rooting through his inside pockets. "Shit, where'd..." He fumbled around in his jacket, knocking out spare change and a pair of clear red dice. "The fuck did I...!" He took off his jacket and shook it, spilling random crap all over the sand.
When Wheeze's jacket came off, Toby spotted something that made a lot of things click. In his old life, he had endured more than enough injections to know what track marks looked like.
Wheeze tossed the jacket down in the sand in frustration. The other gang members were giggling at him. "Look, I don't have anything on me!! But I can get it, okay!? What do you want? Grass? Uppers? Maybe ride the white rail? What? Real cheap for a new customer."
"No," Toby said, taking a step back and shaking his head. He felt sick. "I'm fine, thanks."
Wheeze smiled disarmingly, batting his eyelashes at the mouse and coming closer. "You don't gotta be ashamed. Or did I make a mistake? You running some 'medicine' back to a friend, is that it?" He guffawed. "Hell of a friendship!"
Toby felt his stomach turn over as he saw something in Wheeze's smile that he did not want to see. Even in the blazing heat, he felt his blood turn cold. "Oh god."
"Whassamatta? Heat stroke? I'm not the boogeyman. You're actin' brainfried, kid."
Toby put his paws over his mouth. His voice was a gasp. "You... oh hell... You forgot your own name, but you remembered his, didn't you? Because you looked up to him."
Wheeze cocked his head. "The fuck're you talking about?"
Toby could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears. The full weight of the ugly truth was oozing down like road tar. He stumbled back, never taking his eyes away from that sick, dying grin that he couldn't deny he knew. "Zinc..."
Wheeze chuckled nervously, looking side to side. "Heh. You've got the wrong guy, chief. Are you freaking out or what? You're scarin' me."
Toby didn't even see the chrome paw coming. Suddenly there was a crushing vise on his shoulder, claws digging in, and a plume of cigarette smoke was exhaled in his face.
"I'm starting to get the feeling our time's being wasted here, runt!" King barked at Wheeze, "Is this little fag a customer or ain't he!?"
The terrier shrugged. "I dunno what the hell he is, t'be honest!"
Another paw gripped Toby's other shoulder, lifting him off the ground, nose-to-nose. "Do you know what happens when some little rat turd wastes our time? We're important people. Businessmen. We got shit to do. And we DON'T-" he let Toby drop, "take babysitting jobs!!"
Toby did not even acknowledge King was there. He was still looking past, at Zinc. The fur color was all wrong. But the facial proportions... the way he stood... Even as frail as he was, there was no denying it now.
"LOOK AT ME!!" King shouted, spittle hitting Toby's muzzle. "WORDS ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH AND INTO YOUR EARS! OR ARE YOU TOO FUCKED IN THE HEAD TO RECKANIZE THAT!?"
Everything felt unstable. Toby was too wracked with disbelief to acknowledge the husky's bellowing.
King spread his fingers and grabbed the mouse's scalp like a basketball. He cocked his arm back to pound him like a nail. "You are heading for a dirtnap, nosebleed! When I talk, you better goddamn answer me!"
Toby let his eyes drift vaguely towards the raised fist. Deep inside, he felt sorrow, bitterness and disappointment compress into something else. "I don't want to fight you."
King's lips peeled back. Saliva glistened, trickling down his teeth. "Then you'd better get ready to run your scrawny ass home like a jackrabbit."
"I can't run either."
With mock jolliness he burst out, "Eyyyy, then you can fight instead! Choice is simple!" His arm was trembling from its need to impact meat.
Toby looked away, down at the sand. He thought about Zinc. About the friend he'd shared peril and joy with, and then looked to the twitching trainwreck standing a few feet away. Gawking at him with zero recognition. He should have expected this.
To King, he whispered, "Yes, please. Make this easy for me."
King didn't know what the hell the little snotrag meant by that, but he wasn't about to pass up an open invitation. His chest muscles tensed like steel cables. His knuckles cracked. He brought his arm down like a judge's gavel, meaning to split this mouse's skull in half.
Toby tilted his eyes just barely enough to sense it coming.
Then King was choking back a scream of agonized shock as five steel fingers ground into his wrist. Their grip was unbreakable. The rest of the gang started shouting and pointing at the sheer impossibility.
"He caught the boss' punch! Like it was nothing!" the chihuahua shrieked.
Shaking with pain and disbelief, King saw the mouse's gleaming steel hand clutching him so tight it made the skin wrinkle like terry cloth.
Toby squeezed harder.
King shut his eyes and howled. A childlike whine of helpless, sobbing surrender. When he could force his eyes open again, the mouse was looking back. And what King saw there terrified him. Oh fuck. Oh Mary mother of Jesus. This kid was a maniac. There wasn't anything in that glare but dead-hearted infinite murder.
"I told you," Toby said.
King blubbered in panic for a second, then realized he had an audience. The whole gang was watching. Goddammit, he wouldn't normally be caught dead showing weakness to a kid half his size. Even if the asshole had a fucking magic hand. He was Tony "King" Galvan. He had a reputation. He'd taken cigarette burns without flinching. For fun! He'd run off a sheriff's deputy with a baseball bat. He'd beaten half the town at arm-wrestling. This was bullshit. His free hand darted to his back jeans pocket. He tried to keep his voice from shaking. "You just messed up big time, kiddo. I'm gonna skin you alive and hang your balls from my rear view mirror."
Toby saw King pull out a switchblade. The husky's thumb glanced the button, swinging the thin blade into view.
"That's right. Y-"
Toby let go. In the instant after his fingers loosened, they vanished like liquid into the slit in his palm.
Before King could topple over or even change expression, Toby's hammer emerged.
It gave the husky a one-two punch. The first sent him to the ground. The second made sure he didn't get lost along the way.
King's dead body slumped to the sand at Toby's feet. The rest of the gang recoiled in screeching horror at the sight of their leader's head caved in like a rotted jack-o-lantern. The stink of blood hit all their noses.
Toby looked at what he'd done. He thought of Zinc. He thought of Scaphis. He thought of Dysphoria. "I told you," he repeated quietly.
He looked up at the four cowering canines. Without King to give them orders they were frozen to the spot. Zinc still showed no trace of recall. Not even at the sight of Toby's hammer. Well, fine. That could be fixed. 'Scaphis didn't erase my memory. She just blocked everything off. And if hearing his name wasn't enough, I'll give him something he can't help but remember.'
He concentrated. 'This is all a dreamworld. It's even less real than Dysphoria. I can do anything in here. So there's no reason I can't do this.'
Toby's eyes clenched tight as an unearthly pain gouged his shoulders.
If the remaining gang members were scared shitless before, they were petrified now. Reality was unraveling in front of their eyes. They'd never seen anything like this, not in the worst monster flicks they'd ever watched. The mouse was growling in rage and pain, and his arms were expanding. Ballooning. Stretching thin and red with an overflow of blood. And then the skin began to rip like the wolfman's clothes. Toby bellowed as his shoulders gave birth to a pair of unthinkably huge blood-drenched metal wrenches.
His eyes burned directly at Zinc. "REMEMBER THESE!?"
Toby lunged at Hot Time. The chihuahua was closest, so he was the unlucky one. The skinny canine shrieked in mortal horror, but was cut off when Toby clenched his left 'hand' around the poor dog's midsection. He crimped it nearly in half. These wrenches were heavy and unwieldy, but his sheer outrage made using them effortless. Toby did not want to do this. He did not enjoy this. But he was tired of people, and nightmares, and shit-gods, giving him a hard time. He just wanted his friend back.
The mouse spun and let the dog's remains fly off the ends of his wrenches. They landed like wet sacks of trash. "ZINC!!!" he screamed.
The terrier had been staring at his second corpse of the day when his head snapped up.
Toby saw the barest flicker in his expression. 'He knows his name. Even if he doesn't realize it yet, he responded to it by reflex.'
"You're fucking crazy!" the terrier whined, backing away.
"None of this is real! I need you to snap out of it and wake up!"
"Get the hell away from me!!"
Toby growled. It seemed they'd have to speak in private.
Crowbar tried to make a run for it. Toby caught the motion in his peripheral vision. The salt-and-pepper mutt had abandoned his weaponry and was just trying to get out alive.
"I'm sorry," Toby said, and meant it. He ran and lunged for Crowbar's leg like sliding into home base.
Crowbar squawked as his ankle turned paper-thin.
Toby clamped the other wrench down to get a solid grip. The mutt screamed louder. Toby got to his feet again, planted himself solidly, then grunted in effort. With the sheer centrifugal heft of the wrenches, it was not too difficult to heave Crowbar up and over, slamming him neck-first into the dirt. Toby heard calcium break. He whipped Crowbar back to be sure. What was left of him looked like it had gotten sucked through a laundry mangle. Toby tossed it away and heard it 'thunk' hollowly against the side of the nearest airplane.
Dougie the beagle had his hands up in surrender as Toby turned around and locked eyes with him.
"No no no oh please no please Jesus please Mary I'll be a good boy please no no no no..."
"I'm sorry," Toby said, and meant it. "I'll make this quick." He began walking towards him.
"No no no no no no no NO NO NONONONONON-!!!"
The beagle's whimpering ended sharply. Toby simply strode to within striking distance, brought his right wrench down, and drove Dougie into the earth like a tent peg. The point was to generate a response, not to cause suffering. He did not even look at what he had done to the beagle, but continued on towards Zinc.
Wheeze had fallen on his ass and was now crab-walking away from the metal-armed demon. Tears cascaded down his face. His jeans had a round dark stain in front. "Holy flying Hell!! Get away from me! You killed them! You killed ALL of them!!"
Toby did not deny this. His expression had barely changed throughout the fight: a face not full of malice, but weariness.
The terrier was too weak and too shaken to have any hope of escape, much less backwards on all fours. "Please, for the luvva god! Stay back! Don't kill me too! I'm sorry for whatever I did! You killed all my friends!!"
"They've been dead for decades, Zinc," Toby said firmly. At a brisk walking pace he was easily able to overtake the emaciated canine."We're inside your memories right now."
Zinc held his bony arms up to shield himself, knowing the killing blow was imminent. "I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT!!!PLEASE JUST STOP AND LEAVE ME ALONE!!" he sobbed.
"I can't," Toby said, and felt a crack in his heart. He looked down at the cringing, shivering wretch at his feet. He concentrated again, and let the wrenches drop off his shoulders to CLANG in a heap at his sides.
"These are yours. Put them back on and we'll get out of here, okay?"
Zinc trembled for a few moments more, expecting his life to end at any second. But when nothing happened, he risked a glance. The mouse was still standing there, expression dead as ice. But he'd disarmed himself. Literally. The pun made a panicky laugh come bubbling out of him.
He looked at the wrenches. The pockmarked steel, awash in blood. The zigzag grooves of the jaws. The sawn-then-soldered elbow joints.
He looked past the mouse at the four dead bodies. His lifelong friends. His gang. His brothers. The guys who put up with him when no one else would. They were dead now. All dead. Yet... something felt wrong about that.
He looked at his wrenches again.
Zinc reached up to wipe the tears off his cheeks and screamed at the realization that he didn't have any arms.
Toby watched his friend shriek and garble. The terrier's shoulders now ended in two metal mounts bolted deep to the bone. His arms and hands had vanished. They'd never really been there to begin with.
Floundering, Zinc tried to get to his feet with only his legs. His eyes were wide. He was gibbering. Something was pounding at the back door of his skull, wanting in.
Toby had by now regrown his own arms. He put out a paw to steady his friend. "Hey, don't fall over. You'll be fine. Let your mind calm down." The canine was gulping breaths with his tail tucked between his legs. His fur was starting to shift colors. He was losing his sense of appearance. Toby hefted up a wrench. "Here. Lemme help screw this on."
"No..." Zinc said absently. He flinched at the feel of metal grinding against bone, and yet something about it felt familiar. Cozy. Like homecoming. He turned to stare at the mouse who was now lifting the second wrench to jam it back on. Did he know this furson from somewhere? "You're... you're..."
He looked deep into his friend's eyes. "Toby. You already know me, you just forgot. I'm Toby and you're Zinc. Zinc."
The mutt reached up a wrench to feel his own face. "I'm... Zinc? I'm who you were lookin' for? Jeez, this is makin' me seasick.."
Toby ran his paws along Zinc's shoulder's in a slow massage. His metal fingers clinked like silverware against the wrench mount. "You had your memory stolen from you. But it's okay. I did too. She took everything from us, and I only got it back when someone said my name. Toby. And you're Zinc. We're... well, I guess it's right to say we're best friends."
Zinc's head lolled bonelessly on his neck. He looked again at the four corpses. How could he be best friends with someone who'd just killed his best friends? He found himself trying to get pissed off, or mortified, or even sad about it. Yet he couldn't. Looking at King and Dougie and all the rest, didn't they all kinda look like movie props? Didn't they really? Didn't the bodies look like old burlap sacks full of ketchup? Didn't the airplanes he used to run through and play hide and seek in as a pup really just look like cardboard?
Toby hugged him. "Zinc. Zinc. I'm going to keep saying it until you remember, Zinc. Because I've come a hell of a long way for you and you're coming back with me and that's that."
The canine let his scruffy muzzle rest on the weird, crazy mouse's shoulder. "You did? All the way across, um, the place? With the bad dreams 'n shit?"
"Phobiopolis," Toby supplied.
Zinc stiffened. That name. Just hearing it cracked the door open a little wider. Things were starting to shove their way back in.
"I think that's how it works," Toby said. "Her poison takes away all the names so you don't have any reference to remember things. Zinc. Toby. Junella."
Zinc's eyes started to widen. "Yeah, yeah... I can see them..." He suddenly gasped and slapped his own face. "Oh god! How did I ever forget you, Juney!?"
Toby ended the hug to look back at his friend and tell him, "It's not your fault. Don't blame yourself. Junella, Luxy. Dorster and Alfonzo. Lady Xenoiko. Rippingbean and Woofingbutter. The Fearsleigher! Um, Millie was her name, I think?"
Zinc's eyes glazed. "Millie..." A salacious grin oozed across his muzzle. "Hoo mama. I could wreck a train on that ass."
Toby knew every inch of that grin. Zinc was coming back. He was going to be okay. "And don't forget Piffle."
There was a moment of confusion as the name rolled around inside his skull, then his eyes widened as it plunked into place. All thoughts of Millie vanished. "Piff..." he whispered.
"Hey, before you revert completely, I did wanna say that it's kinda cool seeing you with hair."
"Eh?" He combed through his pomp with his wrenches. "Don't tell me I don't have my 'do in this Phobiopolis place!"
"You can grow it back if you want to," Toby said patiently. "But for now..." He reached up and grabbed a handful of headfur.
Just like pulling off a Halloween mask, Toby gave a yank and off it came, taking half of Zinc's face with it. The hair and skin devolved into rubber scraps as soon as he let them drop. They soon curdled to nothing after hitting the sand.
"Th' fuck?" Zinc touched his noggin and jumped at feeling so much empty space. "What did you DO to me?"
"I just got you back to normal. Go look for yourself." Toby pointed to the closest plane. Even with so much rust, one could still see one's reflection in the chrome.
Zinc made a beeline. He was feeling his head all over, accidentally poking himself in the eye a few times, and grimacing when his upper features flopped around on their wire stalks. When he reached his mirror image, he stopped dead in his tracks.
Toby hustled to follow him.
By now there was nothing of Wheeze left. Zinc had his real fur back, his real arms, his real face. Odd as they were, they were his. And whatever his birth name had been, it was probably lost to time now. That was simply that.
Zinc stared back at floating eyes encircled by little tin lids. "Fuck me sideways..." he breathed in disbelief. "I look like ol' Doc Frankenstein's been havin' some games with me." He turned around. "This was seriously me before?"
Toby just nodded.
"And you could stand lookin' at me!?"
A shrug. "Absolutely."
Zinc stared back at himself. "Huh." He scratched his chin. He watched his ears bob to and fro. He admired his wrenches. "I think this is actually feeling familiar now. I might even like it."
"Good." Toby bit his lip. Jittery pains were scaling up and down his shins. "Because I really can't spend much more time here."
Zinc cocked an ear. "Oh? Is it because-" He stopped mid-sentence. His features froze. He stared off into the sky like he was watching the world end. "Toby..."
The mouse looked too, but didn't see anything. Just clouds and the damn blistering sun.
"What was her name?" Zinc asked.
The mutt sounded shaken to the core. Balanced on the edge of horror and rage. "...Who?"
His voice was quiet. "You know damn well who. I can see her. The bitch who did this to me. No face and all plastic."
Toby wasn't sure whether his friend was ready to recall those awful final moments. From Zinc's perspective, the last things he'd seen were their ascent to Aldridge, Toby's meeting with the oblivion door, and her betrayal.
"Tell me, dammit."
Toby couldn't hold this back. Zinc's fuse was already lit. But he wouldn't know her as Scaphis. "Her name was Doll."
He slowly nodded.
The canine's jaw trembled. His breath quickened. His fur bristled. "Toby, amigo, I know you just said we gotta blow this joint, but couldja gimme a minute or two? Five, tops?"
Toby stepped back cautiously. He nodded.
The control slowly drained out of Zinc's face.
He bared his teeth and snarled.
He sucked in a deep breath, let it out in a howl of hurricane-force fury, then damn near tore the airplane in half.
As the memories came flooding back, Zinc let himself go full barbarian. His wrenches spun up to twin circular blurs. They cleaved through the old bolts and plating like it was Play Doh. He screamed the entire time. An unending siren of heartbreak, loss, disbelief, and rage most of all.
Toby backed up even faster, wanting to put some space between himself and the flight path of shrapnel.
Zinc howled out every ounce of pain that had been denied him by Scaphis' paralyzing touch. Each recovered detail connected him to more, blossoming outwards in a web. And having the good times back made those final bad ones so much worse. He remembered the feeling of her memory-venom snaking its way into his brain to do its evil duty. Just before sinking into the dream, he'd felt his face turn to porcelain and separate from his skull to fall off and break. He remembered the taunting words appearing in Scaphis' empty maw: I WANT YOU TO SEE FIRST. It wasn't enough that she'd done such a thing to him. She'd done it to torture Junella and Piffle by making them watch.
Zinc screamed louder. He churned cockpits into butter.
Toby watched for as long as he could. Aching for his friend, but physically aching too. His cold fury had made it easy to ignore during his slaughter, but now the tingle was excruciating. He was losing his grip on this place. A few moments longer and he'd be heading home with or without his friend.
The canine hurricaned his way through a total of four bombers and ten fighter jets. Toby made his way through the debris field towards him, shielding his face and ducking sporadically. He had no idea how to calm his friend down from this berserk rampage. 'I might just have to jump in front of him and bleed a bit before he'll notice me.' He cupped his hands to his muzzle: "Zinc!!"
To Toby's surprise, the destructive whirlwind stopped the moment Zinc's ear flicked towards the sound of his name. His wrenches squealed to a halt. Glowing red. Steam rose from them. Zinc's face and torso were peppered with bleeding wounds caused by flying hot droplets of slag.
Toby ran closer, avoiding chunks of fuselage crinkled up like Christmas wrapping. He was about to tug Zinc's arm but didn't want to burn his fingers off. A fistful of shirt instead. "I know how bad she hurt you. Us! I know you need to let it out. But I can't hold myself here any longer! It's not a choice! We have to go. Now!"
Zinc stared mutely for a few seconds until his awareness swam back to the present. "Oh. Okay, yeh. That's fine. I'm done now. Sorry I let myself get a little outta hand."
"Perfectly understandable," Toby said.
Zinc raised a wrench to comb through his hair, then remembered he didn't have any. He looked out across the expanse of the junkyard and the miles of open country surrounding him. "We can leave, sure, but where? You got a car we could hop in? I ain't lookin' forward to hotfootin' it to the next town over. We'd end up buzzard chow."
Toby shook his head. He looked like he desperately had to pee. "We won't need to travel at all. We're just going to go. Hold on to me! Tight!"
He looked at his wrenches, still hot as stove burners. "Dunno if I can do that without cooking you."
"No time!" Grimacing at the pain pinballing around in his nerves, Toby solved the dilemma by clutching himself tightly around Zinc's waist like an albino belt. 'I am not letting go. He's coming out with me. He's my friend. Mine. You cannot keep him here any longer, Scaphis.'
Zinc opened his mouth to ask what was happening, but then the power of speech failed him. Toby imploded. The mouse's head and limbs shrank suddenly towards a point near his bellybutton. A second later, Zinc was folded in half backwards and sucked through as well.
They tumbled together through non-space for an instant, and then they were back on solid ground.
Toby stumbled and had to grab onto a stalactite to keep from landing on his tail. Zinc's wrenches automatically propped him up from faceplanting, which was good because all he could do at the moment was suck in an immense breath of air. Toby had nearly squeezed the life out of him.
He inhaled and exhaled powerfully until the sparkles stopped dancing in front of his eyes. Then he could finally lift his spinning head and see where Toby had brought him.
He blinked, quite sure at first he was hallucinating.
"Jesus Christmas, we're on the moon."
Zinc was standing on a wide round carpet. Above him, stars as bright as fireflies encircled him in an endless panoramic blanket. This was not an ordinary night sky. This was an outerspace sky. That meant only one explanation for the pale grey landscape all around them, so devoid of life and landmarks that Zinc could actually see the horizon curve. Although, wasn't the moon supposed to have craters? Not all these pointy rock things? Looked like an infinite field of termite mounds.
"Sir Zinc! My goodness it-"
Toby's disorientation made him too slow to run over and stop Zinc from clapping poor George to death. The unfortunate construct's skull was now dust between two wrenches.
Fur standing on end, Zinc yelped at Toby, "It ain't the moon! The moon wouldn't have those-" He couldn't remember the word. "Those, those, those... light-up dead horse things!"
"The word you're looking for is bonecuddy," Toby explained. "And that's George. I thought your memory came back?"
Zinc cocked his head. "George?" After saying the name, Toby could almost see a cartoon exclamation point pop up over his head. "Oh CRIPES!" He yanked his wrenches away. "Jeeze, pal, I'm sorry!"
"No hard fee-" George ducked as Zinc swung reflexively at the voice that had suddenly appeared behind him.
"Fer cryin' out-!!"
George shook his head. "I should not have startled you. That was my fault. Nevertheless, you are forgiven, and I am exceptionally glad to see you again, Sir Zinc. I will admit, I had my doubts about Sire Toby's plan. Brilliant as he may be, a curse wrought by Madame Tarrare's own tongue is not a simple unlocking."
Zinc took a few moments to pant and quiver and get used to this soot-colored equine speaking actual full sentences at him in a radio announcer's voice. The memories were slipping back in, but the sudden shock had delayed them a bit.
"No, it's my fault," Toby said, stepping between them. "I forgot to tell him your name. I'm sorry. Both of you."
George nodded. "Appreciated. But this is a happy moment. So small an error could hardly stain it."
"Yeh," Zinc said, a little smile forming on his muzzle. He reached up and gave George's forehead a pat. He noticed the bonecuddy didn't flinch in the least at the sight of a wrench approaching. "Good to see you again, Silver."
"Your memory is incorrect, Sir Zinc. I am called George Charles Atkinson."
"No, no. I meant..." He winced. "Y'never heard of the Lone Ranger?"
"A friend of yours?"
Zinc guffawed. "Never mind." He looked side to side. "By the way, looks like you been busy, Toby." Within the ring of pillars' protective watch, there was a perfectly round area upholstered in plush maroon carpet. Upon this stood several chairs, several beds, a footstool, a curtained-off area, three lamps, and, weirdly enough, a toilet seat. "So, now that I'm out, where's the rest of us? Where's Juney? Where's Piff? And now that I think about it, where's th' car?"
Toby opened his mouth, then closed it. He sighed. He walked over to the toilet seat and picked it up.
Zinc was surprised by the sadness in the mouse's gaze as he looked at it. "Are the others... gone?" he asked, ears and tail drooping.
"No. They're..." Toby felt the lifeless plastic in his hands. "It'll be easier to show you than explain. Besides, I don't want to waste any more time than I have to."
"Awright." Zinc swiveled himself into a chair, looking down at the carpet. "Go 'head then."
Hearing the tone in his friend's voice, Toby came back over to cup Zinc's shoulder. "I don't want to run off and leave you right after we reunited. I don't. But people are counting on me. I'll stop and celebrate once you're all here, I promise."
Zinc nodded. "Okay."
"For now, George can fill you in. He's got the best memory of any of us, remember?"
The bonecuddy trotted closer to hold his head proudly. "Indeed. If your condition is similar to Sire Toby's, I will be happy to supply you with as many names of people and places as I can recall."
"That'd be swell, honestly," Zinc told him.
Toby nodded, satisfied that he wouldn't be leaving on a sour note. He stepped a few feet away, to give himself room. "Just out of curiosity, George, what did it look like when I was inside?"
"Like a wiggling pair of feet. That was all."
Toby raised his eyebrows slightly. He figured he would have vanished completely. "Zinc, I'll be back soon. See you then, and hopefully I'll bring good news. It shouldn't take long." He gave farewell nods to both his friends.
"Where're you going?" Zinc asked.
Toby silently laid the toilet seat down in front of him. The gesture was oddly reverent, like laying a wreath on a grave. "Hell if I know," he answered in a whisper. He gave himself a few moments to concentrate. He took a deep breath. And then he jumped straight in the air, flipped forward, and disappeared through the hole of the seat like an Olympic diver.
Zinc grabbed the sides of his chair to keep himself from falling off. "WHAT THE-!?"
The mouse had 95% vanished. All that was left, as George had described, were two furless pink paws.
"I would be happy to explain our plan in great detail," George offered.
Zinc leaned back, stunned. "Sure. Great." The befuddled mutt had remembered by now about mindfucking, so he reached out and grabbed himself a beer. He took a cold swig. "Today's sure been a day, ain't it? One moment I'm hittin' bullseyes in the junkyard with my crew, the next, everything I know falls apart and it was never real in the first place. I'm back here with this kooky mouse who's been my real pal the whole time. Now he's gone again." He took another drink. "Up and down. Up and down."
George did his best approximation of a smile. "I am eager to listen if you'd choose to share more."
A half-smile. "Why not?" Zinc leaned over to pull the stool closer so he could put up his feet.
George whinnied. "Sir Zinc! You might not want to put your feet upon that particular footstool!"