Alex Reynard's Online Books
Thankfully, he did not have to dig his way up out of the ground this time.
Toby landed with a splash, having materialized five inches above a gargantuan pothole. The shock of cold water splashing up onto his knees was almost enough to distract him from the oncoming headlamps.
He flung himself out of the way on pure, mindless reflex. The car missed him, but it had meant a midair half-roll, resulting in one mouse jammed up against the wet, filthy curb. Toby heard the angry blats of the driver leaning on his horn and cursing out the window. And his own heart hammering. With a grimace, he grabbed onto a nearby mailbox and hauled himself to his feet. He grunted in a mixture of soreness and disgust. He'd landed pretty hard on his elbow, plus now he had to pick a candy bar wrapper and some cigarette butts off his back.
Toby got his soaked sandals out of the gutter. He felt a bit of embarrassment to be seen like this by so many people, yet that feeling blurred into confusion. There were dozens passing by him on the sidewalk. Yet none of them had seemed to notice him. He might as well have been invisible.
'Am I?' Toby considered. This was a wholly new dreamworld (he wasn't even sure whose yet), and undoubtedly it would come with new rules. 'I just have to figure them out.' He looked down at his paws. Opaque as ever. At least to him. The scattered, rushing strangers didn't spare so much as a glance.
'But that driver saw me.'
He puzzled over this for a few moments before a shiver interrupted him. 'I'll be able to think better if I stop standing out in the rain like a dummy.'
If the crowd hadn't cared about Toby's acrobatic car dodge, at least they also didn't give a shit about him weaving in and out of them, trying to get to the nearest shop with an awning. Toby squirmed past crammed wastebaskets and a knife sharpener's cart, finally putting his back against a cafe window and feeling the water torture on his fur let up. Now that he was out, he could fully appreciate how miserable it felt. He'd gone from baking desert heat to the kind of clammy April chill that doesn't seem so bad at first, but slowly robs the life out of your bones the longer you linger in it.
Toby blinked. 'I almost got hit by a car,' he realized. 'Back in my old life, that would have been a major event. Mom would have brought it up every day for a month. I'd have had nightmares. But now, I was so focused on what I'm here for, I nearly forgot it completely.' The contrast stunned him. He stared down at the stains and old gum on the sidewalk. 'I'm definitely not the same mouse anymore. I'm not sure it even makes sense to keep on calling myself Toby.'
He shook his head. 'You're on a timer, remember?' He could introspect later. How long had he been able to keep himself in Zinc's world? Fifteen minutes? Twenty? Hard to tell, but it sure as heck hadn't been hours. He had to get moving. It looked like he had a whole big city to search.
Toby had assumed without question that he'd gone back in time again. But now, taking a closer look at where he'd landed, he wasn't so sure. This city had once been alive. He was surrounded by small-fry skyscrapers. Tenement buildings mostly; no more than six stories. Lots of arched windows stitched to one another by zigzags of fire escapes. At ground level it was all small businesses. Pizza and laundry and clocks and shoe repair. The streetlamps were ornate. Lots of flowerpots in windows.
But the streetlamps had as many busted bulbs as functioning ones. The flowerpots held only wilted stalks. Far down the street Toby saw an elevated subway that had been left to the elements, now looking like some kind of jungle ivy that had grown to enormous, rusty proportions. All around him, there were as many boarded-up shops as ones still lit. Maybe even twice as many. The few surviving establishments weren't doing too well. Inside the cafe, Toby could see a few patrons sitting hunched over, like furniture. A greengrocer's awning, once a vibrant pine-tree-and-gold, had faded to barely more than gray. And, just from where he was standing, Toby counted four bars. They were open.
This was emphatically a drab city. And he noticed that another detail about it might have explained why. Beyond the buildings in front of him he could see the misty blue shapes of real skyscrapers. Modern glass-and-steel juggernauts, casting a shadow over this old, outdated burg. The cars were another clue. While some were old junkers, others were, to put it an odd way, new junkers. Not models he recognized, but ones that would've been sold when his Mom was a teenager, not his great-grandmother. So he was only a few decades in the past at most. This place wasn't as old as it seemed. Merely left behind by the passage of progress.
'And it's still just someone's memory,' Toby reminded himself. Experimentally, he poked a pedestrian. The bovine lady had been clutching her shopping bags to her chest to keep them dry. When Toby touched her, she wheeled around and spat a mean look at him. But then she rigidly turned and kept scowling away along the same path, as if nothing had happened to her.
'Model cars on a track,' Toby realized. 'None of them are real. They're as fake as Postcard Town.' This would be a big help. He still didn't know whether he was inside Piffle or Junella, but now he had something to go on. King and the Kickstands had been real, because they were fursons Zinc was close to. Toby needed to find someone who looked more 'alive' than these grey puppets.
Toby debated which side of the street to start off with. Right looked slightly denser, but then he stopped and ducked back under the cafe's awning. 'Wait. The last time, the choice between the city and the junkyard was an illusion. I popped in at the exact spot I needed to be. Maybe I just need to stay here and concentrate.' It was a bit of a risk, what with the sands trickling out of his hourglass, but he committed to it. 'Everything has rules, even things that seem random. Scaphis did the same thing to all three of them, so there's no reason not to assume that all three dreamworlds won't be, basically, different levels of the same game.'
'And maybe they went back to their past because her venom blocked off all their Phobiopolis memories. So where else could they go?' That was a simple answer, but felt right.
Toby looked closer, searching for signs of extra 'realness'. There was an indescribable run-down melancholy to almost everything here. It bled into people and buildings both. Toby focused on every window in every building. Junella or Piffle could be behind any of them. Maybe he'd see some decoration, or if he got really lucky, one of them would be leaning out and looking back at him. But no, the apartments were a dead end. Toby saw nothing but closed drapes and dead plants. There was an alley nearby. Just one furson there though: a sleeping hobo who looked about as alive as the heaped-up trash bags across from him. Even a nonev cat wandering through looked like a prop.
Toby was spending so much attention on his eyesight that he'd neglected his other senses. It wasn't until the lyrics began that Toby realized he was hearing music.
His ears perked up. A brassy croon, sung over a melody that was hopeful, yet heartbreakingly sad. The singer's voice fit right in with the cornet, piano, and acoustic guitar. It was coming from somewhere down the street, so Toby turned towards it.
The closest newspaper kiosk had been jimmied open. Toby fished a Sunday edition out for a makeshift umbrella. In search of the song, he ran past a baker's dozen of surly, overcoated pedestrians. Some snarled at him, others didn't even react to being bumped. He passed a hardware store whose smashed front window had been replaced with lines of police tape. He passed a bakery with food in the window, but no fresh smells coming from inside. He passed a parked coupe with all four wheels and the headlights stolen.
Finally Toby spotted the music. Across the street was a junk shop, where a big-bellied bear was sitting outside under an awning with a record player beside him. Not a crank-handle Victrola, but still pretty old. Toby gave a nod to his deductive skills. Not only were the bear's red checkered shirt and blue overalls more noticeably colorful than everything around him, his out-of-placeness was cemented by the simple fact that he was smiling.
Careful to look both ways first, Toby clutched the newspaper tight over his head and made his way across the street. It was like dodging a minefield of potholes, but he made it without tripping. Looking again at the man's contented smile, he shifted the odds to this being Piffle's world. 'If that's not her dad or grandpa, I'll bite my tail.'
The roly poly bruin was putting some strain on an equally-antique carved wooden chair. Beside him was a rickety folding table with a vinyl record spinning. Beside that was a second chair to match the first. The bear's eyes were closed behind his thin bifocals, blind to everything about him but the sweet, sorrowful music. He smiled and tapped his foot to the rhythm.
He looked so into it that Toby couldn't bring himself to bother him until the song had ended. He stood in the relative dryness of the awning's protection and waited. He balled up the newspaper and attempted a hook shot into a nearby rubbish bin. Close.
The singer ceased. The piano played its last few notes.
Then there was just the sound of the rain and the needle's cracks and pops. The bear opened his eyes, looking refreshed.
Toby took a step closer. "Excuse me, sir, I-"
"Bust my buttons, kid! You look like you've been through the wash and not the dryer!"
Toby shrugged. "Probably, yeah. I'm looking f-"
"Not a word more. I was about to head upstairs and bring me down some refreshments anyway." His wide paws pushed against the chair arms, trying to heave himself up. His first attempt failed, and he plopped back down with a protesting squeak from the seat. Toby was about to offer assistance, but the old-timer waved it away. "I do the heavy lifting around here." Grunting, he got himself to his feet on the second try. He gave Toby a smile that was as warm as sipping eggnog by the fireplace. "Now, you just park your bottom. I'll be back in two shakes of a kitten's tail." Toby instantly forgot being cold from the rain.
There was a smaller door beside the entrance to the store, and the bear opened it to reveal a narrow staircase. Toby could hear each step moan in worry as it was trod upon.
After he'd left, Toby craned his head around the awning, peering up the side of the building. Little Piffle might be up there playing in her room at that very moment. He wondered what species she'd originally been. 'Whatever it was, she'll be adorable. I wonder how much she'll remember?' Zinc had taken some heavy convincing, but Piffle was more used to being transformed. Though she also embraced her changes wholeheartedly. This time might be even more difficult.
With nothing else to do but wait, Toby sat. The hardwood chair was pretty comfy. A butt-divot had been worn smooth by many years' use. He kicked his feet. He checked himself for the tingle. There, but far from insistent. Plenty of time left.
He swiveled around to look through the window behind him. Lots of old windup tin toys on display. Colorfully-painted ducks and bees and caterpillars. Little cast iron cars. The rest of the shop could have been mistaken for a junkyard. Oodles of dusty knickknacks, appliances, instruments, and oddities were piled up on the shelves. They fixed up broken items too; apparent from the spread of clockwork on a deerskin mat underneath a bright light on the countertop. Across the window, GUSTAFSSONS' TOYLAND was hand-painted in beautiful cursive. An absolutely charming place. 'I wish this was real and I had time to go in and take a look around,' Toby thought.
Soon enough the stairs were weeping again. "I'll get there one of these days!" the bear called out.
Then he was squeezing his ample gut through the doorframe, emerging with a silver tray, two glass tumblers of milk, and a plate of windmill cookies. Toby's eyebrows went up. "Thank you, sir! I wasn't expecting this."
The bear nodded, conveying plainly that he enjoyed exceeding people's expectations of kindness. He set the tray down with gentle care in front of the record player. "Heads up!"
Toby reflexively flinched as something yellow came flying at him. He fought against it like an attacking construct for a second before realizing it was a soft and fluffy bath towel.
The bear chuckled good-naturedly. "You looked like you could use that even more than a snack, kiddo."
As Toby dried off, he decided firmly, 'Piffle's world.' Whether the elderly gent was a brown or a grizzly, Toby knew his true classification: teddy. It was difficult to imagine Junella turning out such a spitfire with someone so comforting raising her. Whereas, if a city this sullen was where you'd grown up, you'd definitely need a mentor in optimism.
The bear flipped the record over and set it to play, adjusting the volume to not impede conversation. He drank from the closer glass and smacked his lips. The milk gave him a brief mustache. "Got a little something extra in mine," he said with a wink. "Touch of brandy. Warms the belly. Though not the kind of thing I'd serve to a cub, hope you understand."
"No problem," Toby acknowledged. He arranged the towel around his shoulders, then took a sip from his own glass. 'Wow...' He'd never tasted milk so rich. It was almost cream. He dunked a windmill in it, crunched, and shivered blissfully at the combination.
The bear let Toby finish his cookie. "Righty then. Let's get to bumpin' gums. What's on your mind, friend? And by the way, the name's Arvid Gustafsson. I'm betting you could guess at least half of that from my sign." He reached over for a shake.
The paw that enveloped his was as big as a catcher's mitt and soft as deep pile carpeting. Toby was reminded of Lady Xenoiko (or at least, half of her). "Toby deLeon, sir."
A chuckle. "Oh I'm a 'mister', not a 'sir'!"
"Okay then, Mister Gustafsson. I'm looking for someone."
A puzzled blink. "And you came to me? My shop's full of thingamabobs, but not usually people."
Toby shrugged. "You're the first furson I've seen around here who looked friendly enough to ask."
Arvid took another drink, then cast his eyes solemnly across the way. "Can't disagree," he said sadly. "Been living here almost all my life. It's a nice neighborhood, but... it's seen happier times."
Toby nodded. "So, I'm looking for a-" His mind screeched to a halt. How the heck was he going to ask about Piffle? He couldn't just say, 'She's half-hamster, half-bug!' and not be stared at like he was crazy. He had no idea what she'd look like here, or even what her name was. "Uhh... My pen pal!" He mentally patted himself on the back for the ad-lib. "We got paired up in school. All I know is that she lives around here." He tried to figure out a way to describe her without physical traits. "She's cheerful. Endlessly optimistic. Likes to help. She's got a really big heart. And... she's definitely good with money."
Arvid 'hmmm'ed. "That could describe a fair amount of li'l monkeyshiners 'round here. I know quite a few. They come in the shop to nose around. I let 'em play with the toys so long as they don't break anything. Let me think." He began crunching on a cookie.
Toby nibbled his lip. Strikeout. If this guy knew Piffle, she should have instantly come to mind at that description. 'Unless she changed that much when she came to Phobiopolis?' His gut told him she hadn't. Maybe this wasn't her dream? "You might know her sister then? Quick-tempered. Loves to fight. Got a sharp mouth, but still really smart and loyal?"
An eyebrow raise and a swallow. "Those two sound like night and day."
Toby nodded. "That's a good comparison."
A two-open-palms shrug. "Sorry, no bells are ringing. It might fit some little ones that used to live in this neighborhood, but none that I know of now. Not many kids here in general anymore. Not many families," he said sadly.
This didn't make sense. There had to be a connection between this old fellow and one of his friends. "You don't have any daughters yourself?"
At that, the old man sighed and sank down further in his seat. He took a very long drink of his extra-strength milk. He stared off into the grey. "No. My dear wife and I tried a few times, but it wasn't meant to be. Unfortunate. I would've liked to be a father. And she would have been a splendid mother, I think." A small laugh. "She did a good enough job taking care of me and all my childish ways."
Toby had been about to ask about nieces or granddaughters, when his mind switched onto a different track. He looked back at the shop's name. 'It's not plural by mistake.' He also realized whose seat he was sitting in. Why it was so well-worn. And why there had been an empty chair beside this old man in the first place.
"Could you, um, tell me about your wife, Mr. Gustafsson? If I'm not being rude by asking?"
A shake of his paw. "No, no. All my memories of her are happy. We were never the most romantic couple in the world. More like lifelong best friends. We fit together well. We'd sit out here all day in the summertime together, only getting up to mind the store. I loved her very much." There was a brief storm of tangled emotion in his eyes before he focused his intentions on another cookie.
Toby was beginning to brew a theory. Nothing certain yet, but it was worth some further questions. "Do you mind if I tell you about this book I read the other day?"
The old bear was surprised by this change in subject matter, but he was used to dealing with kids and their fickle attention spans. "Go right ahead. I'm always on the lookout for a good read at bedtime."
Toby prepared himself to speak very carefully. "It's about a world all made of nightmares."
"A scary story!" Arvid said with relish.
"Not always," Toby replied. "There's a lot of scary things in it, but also a lot of good characters. One of my favorites is this little hamster girl. But she's also partly a fly."
"A fly?" the bear asked. He wiggled two fingers behind his head for antennae. "Buzzz?"
"Exactly. She does have antennae. And a green exoskeleton, but also soft golden fur. Her wings are gorgeous. She's got these beautiful ruby-colored eyes, and she likes to dress up real frilly and cute. And she loves hugs."
The longer Toby talked, the more Mr. Gustafsson's expression changed. It began as amused indulgence, listening to a kid prattle away about their favorite book. But then he seemed perplexed. And by the end, almost frightened. "I had a dream about a bug-girl once," he mumbled hollowly.
Toby sat up straighter. His heartbeat quickened. "She's a huge ray of sunshine that helps all the other characters not give up. She gets them in trouble sometimes too, but they need her. She makes the journey worth it."
The old man was staring hard at Toby now. His next words were barely above a breath. "How do you know my dream?"
Before Toby could answer, Mr. Gustafsson made a big, noisy show of sitting back upright in his chair. He cleared his throat and wiped the crumbs from his overalls. "I must have read this same book! That's that and that's all! Long ago. I must have read it and forgotten it!" he said loudly.
"It only came out recently," Toby lied. Sort of.
The old bear set his lip. "Then it must have been based on another story. Something I read when I was small. You didn't see inside my sleep, no sir." He crossed his arms over his chest.
Toby felt that Mr. Gustafsson was starting to clam up. He had to push a little harder. "What if I told you it wasn't a story at all?"
"A moving picture then?"
Toby shook his head.
"No. It was real."
A weak laugh. "You're not making much sense now, kiddo."
Toby rested his arms on the table, leaning closer to the old man. "Her name was Piffle," he said deliberately.
Arvid flinched like a bee had stung him. "No it wasn't," he said sourly.
Toby was sure now. 100% sure. The old bear was squirming in his seat. "She had a lot of friends. Me and Zinc and George and Junella. Her mom was called Billawhi, and she was all covered in mushrooms."
Arvid crossed his arms tighter around his chest. "You're wrong. My wife was a lovely woman. Lovely until the day she went to sleep."
That threw Toby for a loop. For a second he thought that Piffle might've been Mr. Gustafsson's spouse instead. But that theory crumbled almost instantly. If she was, then why wouldn't she be here alongside him? And he'd reacted to the mention of Piffle's mother. He thought his wife would have made a pretty good mother. Especially to an old man with childish ways.
There was incredible tension in the old man's posture now. His leg was crossed over his knee, foot tapping air at a furious pace. His face was a tight pucker. Fiercely avoiding eye contact, he wiped his glasses off on his shirt bottom, fingers trembling so much he nearly fumbled it. "I don't like to be rude, but I think your time's up, young mouse. Skedaddle on home. I'm feeling just a bit uncomfortable."
"I know," Toby said, "But I can't go."
Arvid's face darkened. His eyebrows descended into a scowl. He spoke through clenched teeth. "Young man, you need to leave. I said so."
"I can't leave without you," Toby persisted simply.
The bear laughed a single, humorless note. "Ha! I'm not going anywhere," he said stubbornly.
There was a crackle of thunder in the distance. The rain began to pour with more intensity.
Mr. Gustafsson began to rock back and forth, making the chair creak. "I can't leave here, don't be silly. I have a business and responsibilities. I live just above. I've always lived here. I've never been an insect. You're being foolish. Now scat!"
The rain was growing stronger with every word the old bear spoke. Cars turned their headlights on. Pedestrians ran to get indoors. "Piffle, you need to listen to me. I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable, but I'm not leaving without you either. I need you to remember. Even if it's hard to. She made you forget."
"Nothing of the sort," Mr. Gustafsson growled.
Another boom of thunder, this time with an accompanying flash. Much closer than the last one. The rain's pitter-pat became a throbbing hiss. The awning bulged from water weight. It came dribbling over the sides like a grey curtain.
Arvid took an angry glug of milk and spilled half of it on his shirt. "Now look what you've made me do! Please go away, young man! I do not have time for this!"
The man's face looked like he was close to either sobs or a stroke. Toby hated to make someone so kind and jolly feel such obvious pain. "I'm sorry, but I can't. I can't. You mean too much to me. I know you might be happy here, and these memories might be comforting, but you have to put them away. We need you back. Zinc especially."
Arvid wiped away the milk with his shirtsleeve, then crossed his arms again, looking like a toddler at full tantrum. "This chair is where I'm saying! I don't listen to crazytalk!"
The wind was howling. Rain-soaked garbage blew down the street like city tumbleweeds. Toby wasn't getting through.
Suddenly he knew what would. A gut feeling. "I know your full name."
"Arvid Magnus Gustafsson," the bear said petulantly. "Want my phone number too?"
Actually, Toby wasn't sure that he did know. This was a huge gamble. Even though he'd asked George to remember for him a few days ago, Piffle's name had so many words in it, so many of them with similar sounds, he had no idea if he could get them all in the right order. Toby closed his eyes, putting his mind back in time. "Shimmer Thistle..."
Rips appeared in the awning, letting droplets fall onto their fur and the milk.
"Pure silliness!" Arvid shouted.
The rain beat down like a hail of buckshot. Toby had to yell over its volume.
The old bear clutched handfuls of his shirt in his claws. "You're going to give an old man a heart attack!"
Toby made his own heart stony enough to keep on. "...Loribelle Dorabelle..."
Lightning struck the building across the street, blacking out windows and pelting the sidewalk with chunks of brick.
"STOP!!!" she roared.
"YOU'RE MURDERING ME!!"
The old bear pivoted, shaking his finger at Toby, trying to sound stern and angry but coming off heartbroken instead. "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'VE DONE TO ME! YOU TERRIBLE LITTLE BOY! HOW CAN YOU BE SO CRUEL!? MY HEART CAN'T TAKE THIS! I'M NOT GOING TO-" He stopped midsentence, suddenly terrified of his own glasses.
The lenses had turned ruby red.
Arvid swatted them off his face and threw them into the street. As he did, his arm split open with a sound like a pillowcase tearing. Like a costume busting a seam. Stricken, he tried to hold the wound closed with his other hand. Instead, his elbow burst. Cotton stuffing came vomiting out. "Stop... You stop that right now..." His voice was trembling, powerless.
His cheek tore. Moaning in unchecked fear, he slapped at it. This only made the rip wider. His face split straight up through his eyeball to the top of his scalp. The skin at the seam became hollow cloth. Nothing inside but dusty white fluff. Arvid began to gasp out a series of sudden, choked groans as more and more of his body fell apart.
He tried to hold himself together, but it was like trying to keep a balloon from bursting by squeezing it. The seams appeared across fur and clothing, as they were both the same material and always had been. A split appeared directly down the center of his gut. Toby could see the threads straining inside.
Mr. Gustafsson tried to keep his innards in, but his hands had collapsed into raggedy gloves. Stuffing spewed out of his fingertips.
A second later, his entire body burst.
Toby shielded his face, but it wasn't really necessary. Wads of cotton are among the least harmful forms of shrapnel. Fluff landed on the sidewalk, on the record player, on the cookies, and all over Toby's lap.
Sitting now in Mr. Gustafsson's chair was a huge heap of brown, red, and blue fabric strips. And one crying hamsterfly.
The rain gave up. Its volume fell quiet. Its torrent became a trickle.
Piffle was chest-deep in a heap of clouds. She didn't brush the stuffing away, but did wad up strips of her former self to wipe her eyes with. She was sniffling. Naked. Tiny in comparison to the wide wooden chair. She pulled her knees to her chest to make herself even smaller.
Toby had won, but he knew his work here wasn't complete yet. There was no telling how much of her mind was back. He soundlessly got up, walked over, and reached out to pat her arm comfortingly.
She immediately jerked away. She scowled and pouted, not meeting his eyes. "You're mean. I was happy."
"Were you?" he asked.
It seemed the hamsterfly had misremembered her previous self. When she began to vent at Toby, she put both sets of hands on her hips, fingers clenched in four angry fists. "Yes I was, you bully! I was home! I had my music and my cookies! I had my shop where I could fix things all day, and sell toys to make little kids happy! Everything was just like it was sposto be! And then YOU hadda come along and get me all mixed up!" She kicked him in the shin, but even at her maddest she couldn't manage more than a light tap.
Toby did not begrudge the kick. "I know you had all that. But you were alone."
A sharp sniff. Piffle buried her eyes in one arm while wrapping the other three around her middle. "At least I remembered her. I had her back. I had her photos on the walls. Our album."
"Did she..." This part was far outside his experience, but he had to try empathizing anyway. "You said you weren't exactly romantic together. And you never had children. So, did she know? That you were... like this inside?"
Piffle shook her head, then gathered up an armful of bear fur and blew her nose into it. "I don't think even I knew. Not in words. But she did. Of course she did. She married me knowing full well I wasn't really... Well... Certainly not a rip-snortin' rugged man's man. I was a disgrace in the army. 4F all the way. The only things I ever wanted was to fix toys and be a big kid. Of course she knew."
Toby knelt on the soaked concrete sidewalk. He leaned against the armrest. This time Piffle didn't flinch when he put his hand on hers. "She must've been very patient. And loving."
An emphatic nod. "I miss her so much, Toby. I wasn't really alive after she left. The big C ate her. I kept the shop running, and I kept smiling, but I fell into a daze. I don't think I was fully awake ever again."
"I guess I can understand. I'm glad to hear you know my name though."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah..." Piffle said, but it was dismissive in a way that tried to cover her own gladness at that fact.
"At least," Toby said, "even if she's gone, there'll be people waiting to see you where we're going. Like I said, it's not always a scary place there."
Piffle nodded, accepting. She sniffled again. Paw shaking, she turned and unburied the windmill cookies. She needed the comfort.
Toby gave her time to get over the shock. He held her paw and could feel her tense heartbeat. The tingle in his own limbs was there, but mild. He was glad he still had time left. In a way, Zinc had been easier on him. Easier to get angry than to deliberately make a sweet old man cry. She deserved some time to recuperate after that.
Piffle squeezed Toby's paw. Then tilted her head at his hand. "Toby... you ain't got no more fingers."
A wince. "If you don't remember how that happened, I'll tell you later. It's ugly."
She nodded. "That's fine. I don't need any more bad news now, thanks."
"How much do you remember?" he asked.
She shook her head. "It's awful. Everything's fuzzy. Barely there. Kaput! I feel like I need to open myself up and reset all the springs. Oil the gears. I can see faces 'n places 'n that's about it." She looked up and met Toby's eyes. "Do I really have to go back there?"
Toby nodded solemnly.
She turned away, fussy. "I know it was fun sometimes. I liked turning into all sorts of zany stuff. Even if I can't remember exactly what, I know I liked bein' different. But it's a bad place too. The dead trees, the spiders, the dying... Right here is so much nicer."
Toby looked around at the dilapidated buildings. The uncollected trash. The unsmiling pedestrians. "Is it?"
Piffle's head slumped towards her lap. "I don't know," she mumbled.
Toby thought a bit. "Would you rather be in a comforting place all by yourself? Or someplace that can be ugly and awful a hell of a lot of the time, but with people who love you?"
She lifted her head and gave him a lopsided smile. "Are you a lawyer? Cuz that's a pretty good argument."
"I'm not. I just know you. More than anything, you like to be friendly."
A chest-hitching chuckle. "Can't do that with an empty shop, now can I?" She looked past the hand holding hers, out towards her old beloved city. "This is all just... old photographs, isn't it?"
"How long have I been here?"
Toby calculated. "Based on what L'roon said, and assuming Dysphoria didn't mess with me too much, I'd say a little over a month. Probably not two."
She shivered in disbelief. "It felt like a lifetime."
It was subtle, but Toby noticed something happening to the colors of the city. All around him, hues were fading as if the rain had washed them out. The only things that stayed the same were the brown brick apartment buildings. 'No, not brown,' Toby realized, 'sepia.' That was the word for old faded photographs. Just like Piffle had said. Her will was reacting without her awareness again.
Or maybe not. Toby noticed she was facing towards the neighborhood as its colors drained out. Maybe she was putting her toys away before leaving.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"No," she said with a sigh. "But I guess I hafta, don't I? I can't stay here. It's all falling down."
Before it did though, she wanted to say goodbye to at least one piece of it. She stood up, still holding Toby's hand, and looked longingly through the window of her old emporium. "I spiffed up every single one of those toys, Toby," she said proudly.
"Mm-hmm!" She let her eyes drift over the display. "I remember every one. People would bring them in broken and sell them to me for a nickel or so. I'd find new parts and I'd paint them bright and cheerful. Y'know why? When I was a little girl- I mean, when I was a little boy," she corrected herself, "people used to throw away the niftiest stuff. I'd visit the junk man and he'd show me old busted-up stuffed animals and wind-ups he'd found. I'd take them home and wash them clean and sew them up. I loved that so much! I loved finding something worn out and brightening it up. So it could brighten up someone else."
He stood beside her and patted her back. "I didn't know any of that about you, and yet it totally fits. Now that you remember doing it, maybe you can fix things in Phobiopolis too."
A bit of excitement entered her voice. "I could," she realized.
"Hey. Do you remember Zinc and Junella's pirate ship?"
A disappointed expression. "No?"
Toby winced. "Wait, you never actually saw it. I'm sorry. But they have got a TON of stuff in it. Some of that junk's gotta be broken and needing repairs."
"Ooooh!" This got a smile out of her. A genuine, honest, no reservations smile.
Toby was incredibly glad to see it. It wasn't yet her full-intensity beam, but it was headed in that direction.
Around them the city had faded so much, details were starting to go too. There were no more people on the sidewalks. Buildings looked out-of-focus. Windows were just white squares. In either direction, the street was enveloped in fog. There was no sky anymore, just blank photo stock.
Piffle was well aware. Holding onto both of Toby's paws, she watched her old home blur. Everything except her shop. Even when the world around them melted completely into sepia haze, a tiny island of sidewalk remained. Upon it were two chairs, a record player, and the window with all her well-loved toys inside.
"We can't stay here," Toby whispered.
"I know..." she replied. "But can ya blame a girl for being sentimental?" One last look at the cozy little shop that had been her treasure chest of happiest memories. "I remember holding the ladder steady while she painted that sign. Now I look at it, and it doesn't even feel like it was ever my name."
"Maybe you've always been Piffle," Toby suggested. "Maybe, when Phobiopolis makes you forget your past, all that's left is who you are in your heart."
She turned back to him. "Ya mean I've always been this silly?" she said with a titter.
A nod. "I'm afraid so."
"Shucks." Piffle wiped her eyes one more time, then pressed her forehead against his shoulder. "I remember this material. Two funny minks made this for you. And we were in a city with a lot of wheels..."
Toby nodded. "That's right. And they made you the pinkest safari outfit in the whole world, but it got ruined."
"Aw rats. Maybe they can make me another one when I get back."
"Mm-hmm." Toby tried not to let his expression show that there was no guarantee any of them would ever make it back to the places they'd been before. Not with what they'd be facing soon. But that was the last thing Piffle needed to hear right then.
Behind her, Gustafssons' Toyland began to fade. "How do we go?" Piffle asked.
"Well, step one is- you'll like this part- hug me as tight as you can."
Her antennae perked up. "O-kay!" With all four arms, she squeezed him like toothpaste.
Toby thought he heard his spine snap.
"Whoops!" The hamsterfly eased off a bit. She looked down at her arms. "Guess I don't know my own strength! Wait... did I have these other arms before?"
Toby managed to squeeze in a breath. "No, but they look good on you."
"Allright, I'll keep 'em then. Maybe Zinc won't mind the...." Her expression suddenly turned to panicked dismay. "ZINC!! I'll have to tell him I used to be...! I won't be able to hide it from him! I just couldn't! But what if he can't handle it? What if he can't..." She could not bring herself to finish the possibility.
Toby gripped her shoulders firmly. "The thing I know most about Zinc is that he rolls with it. Whatever 'it' is. Just be honest with him. He's going to care about you no matter what."
"Are you sure?" she asked, but almost immediately had another thought. "Oh! Toby, you know now! And you don't seem to give a hoot."
A shrug. "Should I?"
She hugged him tight again, smiling gratefully. "Aw. Thanks. I know I wasn't always this, but I like being this. And if you 'n Zinc like it too, then I don't mind staying this way," she told him. "Usually," she corrected with a minxy smile.
Toby understood. Piffle would always be Piffle. Nothing in any world could change that.
They stood together on the lone remaining square of sidewalk. All the rest had returned to the past, where it belonged. The satisfied hamsterfly held herself tight to Toby. Not like he was one of her fixer-upper plush, or a parent, but as a friend she was deeply indebted to.
"Let's go home."
One brief inversion later, Piffle's paws touched carpet.
Before she could even take note of the camp among the rocks, or the starbright sky, she felt fabric between her and Toby. She looked down at herself and saw an ocean of pleats, ruffles, bows, and general explosive pinkness. She reached up excitedly to touch her pith helmet with attached ponytail dome. "Gee whiz!! Look what I did! That's aces!!"
Zinc sat up so fast he almost launched his chair backwards. "PIFF!?"
Her head swiveled. Her grin expanded to impossible proportions. "ZINKY!!!"
Toby got the heck out of the way, lest their impending hug create a black hole that would swallow the universe.
Zinc spread his wrenches. Piffle's wings buzzed into a blur. She took off like a heat-seeking missile. They collided like a meteor impact and she bulldozed him into the nearest rock pillar, nearly knocking them both out.
Zinc was dizzy, prone on his back, possibly with a sprained tail, and none of that mattered. Two buck teeth and two disco ball eyes were looking down at him. "You're here," he gurgled.
She nodded, and replied quietly, with a tremor in her voice. "It was hard to leave, but I already know it was worth it."
He felt like his eyes were magnetized to hers. Nothing in the world had ever made him happier than to see that dynamite smile. He wrapped his wrenches around for a hug, and heard the metal clink against her exoskeleton. "Oop! Geez, I didn't mean to crush ya."
She laughed as if that was the silliest thing he'd ever said. "Why would you think I'd mind? G'wan and crush me! Bust me like a nutcracker!"
He grinned loopily, tongue popping out. "And here I thought you wuz a refined lady!"
They both giggled like schoolpups.
From a few feet away came an "Um..."
The twitterpated pair looked over to see Toby and George standing there. Toby cradled the footstool beneath his arm.
"Hiya Georgie!!" Piffle squeaked.
A deep bow from the bonecuddy. "Madame McPerricone! A great pleasure to be addressed by you once again!"
Toby hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm gonna just... go do this. I figure you two can have some privacy."
Piffle's wings fluttered nervously. She looked between the mouse and the mutt. "I haven't even thanked ya, Toby."
He put up a hand. "It's okay. Thank me later. I want to get everything done while I'm still on a winning streak."
Zinc gestured at the stool. "That's who I think it is, ain't it?"
Toby nodded. "Process of elimination. And I'll admit, I'm a little worried. At least with you and Piffle, I knew you wouldn't try to cut my throat."
"Yeesh," Zinc said, but didn't deny the possibility. "Good luck then."
"I hope I don't need it." He turned to begin.
It was a little hard to talk with Piffle nuzzling his cheek, but Zinc couldn't resist his curiosity. "Wait... What was I then?"
Toby stopped and stammered. This was a bit embarrassing.
George helpfully stepped in. "You were a doormat."
Zinc grimaced. But then his expression became a strange bittersweet smirk. "Yeh. I was, wasn't I?"
The mouse and construct simply nodded in understanding.
"Well." Zinc turned his attention back to the four little paws that were exploring all over his fur. "I think we both got things to take care of."
"See you soon." Toby made an 'over there' neck-jerk to George and started walking away.
Piffle waved to him. "Bye bye! Good luck!"
Toby waved to her as well, then he and George crossed the carpet to find a quiet spot among the stalactites.
He stood with the infinite blackness of forevernight above him, staring down at a green-topped wooden-legged footstool. The last thing he heard was Piffle saying, "I gotta warn you, Zinc honey, I'm kinda scrambled eggs right now. I don't have everything back yet."
And his reply: "Same. But we're here now, ain't we? Does anything matter more than that?"