Alex Reynard's Online Books
Dream II: Public Performance
We have no past. We won't reach back.
Keep with me forward all through the night.
-Cyndi Lauper, "All Through The Night"
Junella and Zinc were having their own quiet conversation up front, leaving Toby, Piffle and Doll by themselves in the quiet of the back seat (which oddly seemed much wider with three in it instead of one). Toby sat with his paws on the edge of the window, watching the stars. The night was clear as a summer pond, and he could see an endless field of tiny white Christmas lights whizzing by. George had settled down to merely freeway speed, mindful of the structural integrity of the passenger compartment. Still, it made the night sky look like a zoetrope spinning.
"Are they really moving around," he asked Piffle, "or am I just seeing things?"
Piffle set Doll down on the seat, lovingly patted her head, and squeezed beside Toby at the window. "You're not hallucinatin'. People have gone up there, y'know. In balloons! And it's not outer space at all. It's a great big hollow ball of water. They call it the Veil Of Tears. It stretches aaaaallll the way around the world."
"I thought the world was flat," Toby said, remembering Junella's map.
Piffle chuckled. "It is and it isn't, depending on where you're standing."
That was so impossible it was entirely expected, Toby thought.
Piffle pointed over his shoulder. "All those stars, have you noticed yet they're constellations?"
Toby squinted and stared as Piffle described them, her fluttery voice tickling his ears like a dandelion.
"They're all living critters too, just like you and me. They live up there in the sky ocean. See? There's a big wolf prowling around. That bright sun is his eye. Looks like he's seen some star-bunnies. Lookout, little guys!" She giggled. "He's probably caught them before a million times. It's like all those old myths where the gods relive their fate over 'n over again forever. Those star critters are eternal too, as far as anyone can tell. I wonder what it'd be like to be one?" She sighed wistfully.
Toby plopped back on the seat. "That reminds me... It still feels weird to me that you could take anything positive from that horrible sweatshop we escaped from."
Piffle plopped back too (making sure not to flatten Doll as she did). "I don't blame you for being confused about that. I wouldn't expect anyone else to understand unless they went through it themselves. And I'm not saying I was really keen on it. But... I guess I've just bounced around so much from peril to peril, I don't get much scared anymore. It's just, 'Gee whiz, what's happened to me this time?', and I try to give it a fair shake. If I don't like it, I don't stay. The Doctor's place was... fascinating. Intense." She tapped her fingers together. "I... think maybe I might like to go back and get caught by him again sometime."
Toby did not have to verbalize his 'WHAT!?', his expression said it perfectly.
Piffle folded her paws in her lap primly. "I told you about how all that sadness turned into a weird kind of peaceful, buzzy, splifficated-ness after a while. I've never felt anything like that before. It wasn't happiness, but it was so much the opposite, it almost was. It's hard to describe. I like to do stuff I've never done before."
Toby shook his head a little. "You're braver than me then. I don't think I could ever be like you," he said with mixed admiration and declination.
She grinned slyly and poked him. "Say... weren't you telling me before about all your miserable ol' days being sick and doing nothing, and every day being the same? And you're willing to go all the way to Anasarca to get that back?"
Toby's cheeks flushed hot. "That's... not even close to the same thing." He scowled, but the thought drilled deeper. "Um. Well." Toby felt his head spin a bit. "Geez, maybe it is..."
Piffle patted his leg. She resumed combing Doll's hair as she talked. "Some of us like variety, some of us like stability. If we go to the ice cream shop, Toby, I won't mind you getting plain vanilla if you don't mind me getting orange mint rocketberry fudge supreme."
He thought that metaphor was quite cute. And he was beginning to realize that maybe Piffle was a lot wiser than her bubbliness belied. "Is that a real flavor somewhere?"
"No, but wouldn't it be nifty if it was?"
"You might even get me to try a bite," Toby said bashfully.
She 'Ooooh'ed and giggled.
Things were starting to exceed Toby's flirtatiousness threshold (even though part of him liked it quite a bit), so he tried to find a release valve. "That, um, uh... Back at the campsite, you said something about running away from home? I'm interested in hearing about that."
It was Piffle's turn to blush. "Really? It's... nothin' exciting. I don't wanna be a wet blanket. I don't even know why I brought it up."
He was puzzled by this reaction. She was normally so boundlessly open about everything. "No, I want to hear it. I mean... if you're comfortable telling it."
She reached up to fuss with her antennae and was silent for a moment. "Okay," she decided quietly. "For starters, I don't remember how I ended up here. It's been so long ago, all my memories of my old life are gone. I don't know who I was before here. But I like how I've ended up, so que sera sera."
"Even with the fly eyes?" he gently teased.
"Doncha think I would've gotten rid of them by now if I didn't like 'em?" she parried with a chuckle. But then she sighed. "I have kind of an adopted mommy here. And she's very kind and she cares about other people a lot. But it's hard to tell when you first meet her. She's very gruff. And she's... Well, I don't wanna say she's like you, but she is concerned with safety all the time."
Toby fidgeted. What a polite way of calling him a wuss. Though her description was tugging at his memory for some reason.
"Plus it's hard for her to get around," Piffle continued. "She has kind of a... fungal problem."
Toby's eyes shot open so wide he looked like an owl. "YOU KNOW THE MUSHROOM WOMAN!?"
Both the fursons in the front seat jumped at his outburst.
"Does she live in Drury Lane?" Zinc quipped.
Toby didn't even hear it. He was too amazed by the coincidence of it all. "I saw her too!! When I first showed up here! There was this red monster, and then some kind of lizard ate a wolf, and I was terrified out of my mind! And then she showed up! She told me to run to the caves, I'd be safe there. She was so scary I was almost petrified of her, but looking back, she was actually the first furson who helped me out."
Piffle looked pleased. "That's her allright! Small world, huh? Her name's Billawhi, but I call her Mommy. She likes that. She really does try to help people, though she an' me argue a lot about how. She thinks she's helping more by telling them to hunker down and play it safe. I tell her it's better to teach them to just keep on the sunny side and not worry too much."
Toby was utterly fascinated by this, trying to imagine how two such opposite personalities could coexist under one roof.
The hamsterfly held Doll close and buried her nose in the artificial curls. "She's a good cook, and she tells great stories, and I know she loves me, but..." A tear came to her eye. "She's always telling me to stay put. And I wanna go out and play. She gets so worried about me. Worried I'll get kidnapped or eaten or transmogrified into something."
"But you do," Toby pointed out. "Frequently, it sounds like."
She nodded. "And that's the point! All that stuff happens, and I'm still fine! But she won't see it! She just keeps on nagging me to stay inside where it's safe, stay inside where it's safe... We've got a burrow under a big tree. It's a pretty little place and I love it. But I don't want to be cooped up there like a jailbird. So... I'm kinda teaching her a lesson. I left that day and I decided I wouldn't be back for a very long time. I left her a note. And then I ran into you, and you needed help, so it felt like maybe it was meant to be."
Toby patted her shoulder comfortingly. "I think she'll understand. You can't keep someone in a cage if you really love them."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he felt something deep in his mind creak open and start to whisper something about his own mother. The one who'd been poisoning him. But he shut his eyes tight and slammed that door shut. No. He was not having any of that. Not now, not ever.
To distract himself, he looked out the window. For a moment he thought the Fearsleigher had shrunk to the size of an ant. But a closer look showed that, no, the plants around them had just gotten much, MUCH bigger.
The flowers, the grass, and even the occasional mushroom had all grown to Wonderland proportions. Blades of grass loomed over the road like bowing monks. Flowerheads blotted out the stars, while their thin stems swayed with the wind. Petals the size of tablecloths lined the highway. It was a sight both whimsical and unsettlingly ominous. Possibly because of how much darker it had become: moonlight barely squeezing through the stalks in thin stripes. Or possibly because the massive posies leaned so nail-bitingly to and fro, it seemed like at any moment that one might crush their car.
The mood in the backseat had changed. Piffle seemed finished with her story and didn't know what else to add. She sniffled quietly as she tended to Doll's locks. Toby felt awkward in the silence. He looked out the window for as long as he could stand to, then let his hand crawl over the seat to find hers. He held it gently.
"Thanks, Toby," Piffle said almost inaudibly.
He turned around. "I hope you patch things up with her eventually."
Piffle nodded, leaving no doubt. "I'm sure I will. I know we're both a little crazy, but loving someone means you love what's wrong with them too." She considered her own words for a moment. "I thunk a long time about this. It was hard deciding I had to put my own heart first."
"Birds gotta leave the nest," Toby said. He winced at how cliché it sounded.
Piffle smiled though, and buzzed her wings a little. "Yup. We'll forgive each other in the end, I just know it. Plus, I'll have an ace in the hole from now on." She thumped her chest like Tarzan. "'Mommy, I have been to Anasarca and back! I think I'm tuff enough to handle what's in our own backyard!'"
They both chuckled about that. And since the matter seemed settled, Piffle asked Toby what he'd been doing all this time. So Toby told her everything about emerging in Quinsy, the peculiar man on the stoop, and finding George in the woods. He told her about his nightmare companion's past, his imprisonment, and his attempts to become a civilized equine. He told her about the night ride to Phlogiston, the Jenny-Mae, the deal he'd struck, and the altercation with Tinder Fingers. Toby skipped some of the parts relating to Trachea's Trading Post and their trip over the falls, but conveyed that tensions and bad decisions had run high. He told her about his entrapment and escape in the mirror-box, and finding Doll. Piffle was very impressed with how brave he'd been to overcome his fear and give their toy friend a chance.
Toby was just getting to the part where he defeated the moon, when he glanced outside and noticed softly falling swirls of white. He smiled. He hadn't actually seen this stuff except through his bedroom window for years. "Hey, it's snowing!"
Almost immediately, Junella growled from the front seat, "AW, PISS!"
"What, what!?" the mouse yelped. "Is the snow dangerous? Is it actually atomic fallout!?" He started frantically rolling up the windows.
"It's not the snow. It's what's bringing it," Junella snarled back. Her black vinyl teeth ground together in a scowl. "I thought maybe it was just a fluke storm. No such luck. Look on ahead." She pointed past the windshield, far down the road.
Toby leaned in as far as he could, and was barely able to discern several figures standing there. They looked like statues. They were dwarfed by the mammoth flowers, but still far larger than any normal furson. "What are they?"
Zinc squinted, then let out a whine of recognition. "THESE assholes!? Oh for pete's sakes! We're already running late!!"
"My sentiments exactly," Junella rumbled, pounding the dash with her fist.
Zinc sighed like a homeowner preparing to shovel last night's snowfall. He clanked his wrench-jaws. "You want me to take care of it?"
Then a sparkle came to Junella's eyes. "Actually, no." She turned around in her seat to face Toby. "Maybe we got off on the wrong foot, mouse. Nobody likes being ordered around by someone they don't respect, after all. You only know my reputation, Toby. Would you like to see a demonstration of why I have it?" Her grin glinted like a gun barrel.
Toby blinked. "You don't have to."
"No, I think I need to. You're gonna hesitate when I say 'jump' unless I show you why I'm the one giving the orders." She turned back to the windshield and the unmoving fursons that were fast approaching. "Besides, working off frustration can be fun."
"I have overheard some of the previous conversation, Madam Brox," George called out. "These unknown pests are blocking our way. Shall I come to a halt or go bowling?"
She chuckled at that mental image. "No, but great suggestion for next time! Let's slow down and see what they have to say!"
Zinc tapped a nonexistent watch on his wrist. "Time's tickin'. Don't get fancy."
"I'll be as fancy as I need to," Junella said, smirking.
A few moments later, they were close enough for Toby and Piffle to both make out the beings they were headed towards.
Giants. Ten or twelve feet tall. Angels. There were five standing in the road, arms linked, making a barrier of their bodies. They were all in robes, their feathery wings spread outward behind them. From out of the floral forest shuffled more of them. Many more.
Toby could not tell if they were ice sculptures, or if their bodies were so frozen solid it made no difference. Frost covered them head to toe to wingtip. It seemed they brought winter weather with them wherever they went, because the road and plantlife ahead were knee-deep in powder. Each angel walked with a pained, shuffling gait, thanks to the massive blocks of ice encasing their feet. Toby wondered if George attempting to ram through them would have ended disastrously. From their posture alone, they looked as unyielding as redwoods.
The one in the center of the road held up his arm, palm out: HALT. Chips of ice fell from his sleeve like dust from attic rafters. He was a lion, his features stern and his enormous mane as slick and stiff as stone.
Since the Fearsleigher was frictionless, George could only bring them to a stop by slowing his pace and letting the skatecar bump into his butt. He did so a few yards in front of the lion leader.
To Toby's dismay, the other ice angels closed in around the car, quicker than he would have thought possible. They soon formed an impenetrable circle. Their ice-shod feet clinked together, echoing.
Junella reached up through the side window and grabbed the roof rack. Using it as leverage, she pulled herself up top in a single flawless motion. Her scarf sailed through the air behind her like a comet's tail.
The skunk planted her small paws on her vehicle's silver roof. She put her hand on her cutlass' hilt. She looked dead center into the gaze of the lion. They were nearly eye-to-eye thanks to the height of the car's blades.
"WE'RE IN A HURRY!!! FUCK OFF!!!" she belted diplomatically.
There was a second's silence. Then, like a tape recorder switching on, the lion and all the other assembled angels began to chant in perfect unison: "WE ARE THE COLD COVEN. YOUR LIFE IS MEANINGLESS WITHOUT OUR TRUTH. JOIN US AND BE SAVED. WE ARE THE COLD COVEN. YOU ARE THE COLD COVEN. JOIN US AND BE SAVED. WE ARE THE COLD COVEN. YOUR LIFE IS-"
And so on.
Toby spun 360 in his seat, watching all those frozen, synchronized jaws moving up and down. It was eerie as heck. None of the angels moved a muscle otherwise, but Toby made an educated guess that they were perfectly capable of Doing Unpleasant Things if their offer was refused.
Zinc was slouched down in his seat, looking far more irritated than anything else. "Just nightmares," he said. "These nosebleeds show up and try to convert you to their religion, which mostly consists of turning into a popsicle and saying 'We are the Cold Coven! Bla bla bla!" all the time. They got me for a coupla days once. Juney tracked me down and killed me back to normal."
Back on the roof, Junella attempted politeness. "We don't want your truth! We wanna be ignant! You've got one chance to back off and let us through!!"
"JOIN US AND BE SAVED. WE ARE THE COLD COVEN."
"Suit yourself," she cooed with a smile. It would have been so anticlimactic if they'd obeyed.
"WATCH THIS, KID!!" she screeched to Toby.
The mouse poked his head out just in time to see Junella leap like a clockspring towards the Coven's leader. Her cutlass was raised above her head, both paws gripping its hilt like a zipline. She seemed suspended in flight for a moment, her body a curved bow, her scarf a sail.
Then with a crack as loud as a gunshot, she drove her blade directly into the lion's face. She plowed her steel through the bridge of his nose on into his brainstem. She landed with both feet on his shoulders, and immediately gave her sword a twist.
The lion's head became a chandelier explosion of glinting ice-blue and blood-red shards.
Toby's jaw was halfway to the ground.
He stared in tingling awe as Junella went to work. As the body of the lion began to topple backwards, the swift skunk hopped froglike to the next angel and dispatched him just as easily. Her blade flashed in the moonlight. Her tailful of record shards clawed open anything it touched. Her speed increased with every kill. Her eyes darted to each new target as she pinballed off the last one's remains, leaving orange streaks like taillights behind her.
It was an almost perfectly silent fight. The Cold Coven chanted no more, caring only about stopping this infidel. And Junella said nothing at all. Her hands were where they belonged; on her weapon. She made no pithy wisecracks. Not even a grunt of exertion. Her cutlass and tail did all the talking for her.
Zinc had produced a bucket of popcorn from out of thin air and was enjoying the show.
Toby didn't know whether he felt astonished or terrified. Junella fought with a ferocity his mind could barely witness. She moved from one opponent to the next, using their slow swings at her as walkways or gymnastic bars. She leapfrogged over heads and shinnied up arms. Her needle-claws sank in deep to let her make her own gravity. Their bodies were her battlefield. And she would not be taking prisoners or leaving survivors. She ended the ones who attacked her swiftly, with almost professional courtesy. But the ones who tried to run away, she made their deaths bad. She killed them with special care, as if to say, 'You stood with your comrades in opposing me. And now you won't stand with them in death? Don't insult me.'
An accusatory frozen finger came pointing towards her. Junella cartwheeled through the air, using her momentum to break it off like snapping a carrot in half. A heartbeat later, she was staking it into the angel's own throat with the butt of her sword.
Limbs fell against the road and shattered. George had to duck chunks of incoming torso. Severed faces, their features contorted in startled agony, flew through the air like frisbees. Junella left nothing to chance. Not one enemy remained in anything but a state of complete disassembly. Her blade was a blur, chopping and stabbing and shattering anything and everything still capable of movement.
Toby saw her eyes. The glee in them was obscene. It was not battle she lusted for, but the narcotic rush of control that came from watching each ensuing enemy become inanimate. Any who stood against her had to fall, no exceptions.
The angels died like tumbling dominoes. Until only one was left. She was running into the woods away from terror incarnate, but terror pursued her. The angel's mouth opened in a silent scream as Junella sliced through both her ankles in a single swing. The angel plunged forward, cracks splintering like lightning bolts across her icy body as she hit the ground. Then Junella was on her back, plunging her sword in again and again like an out-of-control oil derrick. She did not stop until there was nothing left but pieces too small to chop.
Now the floral forest was as silent as the stars.
The skunk stood hunched over in the moonlight, shoulders heaving. It took a moment for her mind to return and the white-hot blankness of combat to subside. Then she giggled. She straightened up, holstered her trusty sharp friend, shook the gore out of her tailspikes and headed back to the car.
George looked like he was in love. He spoke in hushed reverence, "That was a magnificent show, Madam Brox! I would have loved to join you, but it would have been as unspeakably rude as to have interrupted a virtuoso violinist's solo."
That got a grin out of her. "It ain't flattery if it's true," she said, and gave his side a pat. "Double time now! I got a little too fancy with that!" When she climbed up into the cab, the door was not shut for more than a millisecond before George put the pedal to the metal. They were soon traveling at freight train speeds again, leaving the field of frozen carnage far behind them.
Junella settled into her seat and gave her arms and legs a good stretch. She looked behind her.
The look on Toby's face was absolutely precious. He looked like he'd never be able to blink again. His mouth was as wide open as a milk pitcher.
"And THAT, is why people know my name," she said.
"You just... ALL of them...!" the mouse sputtered.
"Yes, all of them," she coolly confirmed. She wiped what seemed like sweat from her face, but it was actually the melted flesh of her foes. "I've got a certain notoriety to uphold, don't I? What people say about Junella Brox is this: if you make yourself her enemy, she will make sure there's nothing left of you after. Got a problem with that?"
"No, I..." Toby gulped. He shook his head, trying to shake himself out of shock after watching her perform such savagely efficient acts of butchery. "I can certainly understand, in a place like this, wanting to not take any chances ...But to see it!!"
She allowed a bit of empathy into her tone. "You're gonna have to get used to seein' it. If you can't take it, it's smart of you to want to get back home. Because that back there? That's a normal day at the office for me."
He nodded briskly, getting the message. "I will do my best to follow directions from now on, Miss Junella. You definitely showed me why you're in charge. It's just... it's gonna take me a little while for my stomach to settle. It feels weird knowing I'm riding in a car with someone who... kills people."
"Two people who kill people!" Zinc piped up, wanting to feel included.
"I ain't never kilt nobody who didn't need killin'," Junella drawled with a smirk.
Zinc had gotten to the bottom of his popcorn and was crunching the last kernels. He glanced in the rear-view mirror at Toby. "And don't feel too bad about those holy ice-holes back there. Half of 'em were forced converts who're now their normal selves again and probably delirious with relief. The other half'll just come back to life again to bother more suckers."
"That does help," Toby acknowledged. He looked out the window. The snow was already completely gone from the landscape.
Junella noticed Piffle had been awfully quiet this whole time. "And what about you, Miss Princess? Got anything to say about my area of expertise?"
Piffle's posture showed quite clearly that she was not the type to engage in violence except as an absolute last resort. "You were quite elegant out there," she complimented simply.
The skunk patted her on the head like a puppy. "Good to hear. I was worried maybe you'd be one of those compassionate types. 'Oh dear! Please don't hurt the poor things!'"
Piffle pouted a tad at being teased. "Just because I look like a sissy doesn't mean I are one. I know the difference between a nightmare and a furson. I just prefer a different type of problem solving, that's all."
"Yeah, letting them catch you," Junella poked.
"Sometimes," Piffle defended, as if that were a perfectly valid strategy.
Junella appraised the hamsterfly a moment longer. She didn't care for the chubby rodent's sunshine-and-gumdrops demeanor, but the girl could take a bit of ribbing and not back down. Commendable.
"That reminds me," Toby interjected timidly. He was incredibly reluctant to raise this question, but now seemed a good a time as any. "Zinc told me how he got his arms and, uh, facial configuration. I asked about you, Junella, and he said you'd be better at telling the story than him."
Thankfully, she did not seem irritated by the inquiry. "How I got my groove on, you mean?" She brushed her fingertips over her chest, sounding like a DJ scratching.
"Yes, if it's a story you don't mind telling." He was quite curious in particular about whether she'd chosen her vinyl form or been transformed into it against her will.
Her neck was getting stiff from craning it around so far. She wriggled back into her seat and looked up into the mirror at Toby. "Not many have the stones to come right out and ask me, puffball."
"I can't tell if you're seriously complimenting me or not."
She chuckled. "I don't know how I got here. All I know is, I showed up naked and alone one day, right in the middle of some seriously ugly motherfuckers. Would they have done anything bad to me? I don't know. All I do know is, I fluffed up like a cat when you step on its tail. I started clawing and spraying and kicking and bitching, and I didn't stop until I was alone in the street, as red all over as a firetruck."
Toby and Piffle winced in stereo.
"I went on what you might call a blood-wild frenzy of indiscriminate homicide," Junella continued. "My mind didn't react so good to being plucked out of my regular life and dropped down in the middle of a nightmare world, y'see. Anything that moved, I sunk my claws in. I was out of my skull for days. Weeks maybe. When I started to come back to some kinda sense, I had gained a bit of infamy. So I made use of it.
"Was I a bit of a prick for a while? Sure. I didn't get that this wasn't just a long dream and that these were real people. But I settled down 'ventually. Started trying to feed myself and find work. I didn't let anyone get the drop on me. Until that music store."
Her teeth clenched at the memory. "I like music. I always have. So I saw a record shop, and I went in. I didn't realize it was a trap until I was already in it. That mad musicmaker, she was a bit like that Doctor you described. 'Cept she was just after money. Drop a customer into molten vinyl, stamp 'em flat, sell 'em as record albums."
"That must have been very painful!" Piffle said with concern.
"Not as much as realizing I'd let my guard down. The heat was nothing compared to my anger. When I'd melted and she poured me in the press, I pushed back. I pushed until it broke. I went a little overboard after that. I smashed every record in that building and fed every last one of the pieces down her throat."
Toby gagged just imagining it.
Junella smiled a little. "Then I dragged her ass to the nearest nightmare limbo and threw her in. Sometimes I check to make sure she's still in there. I listen for the screams."
Toby mentally kicked his past self in the pants for ever being so stupid as to cross words with this skunk. Then he had a rather dreadful thought. "Wait, those records were people. You didn't..."
"Naw! I let 'em go first! You act like I'm coldhearted or somethin'," she sang with a guffaw. "Anyway, afterwards I found myself standing there bald and black as an 8-ball. I thought it looked good on me, so I kept it. Got some needles for my fingers and taught myself to play my skin. Got my Jennie-Mae later on, sailed her a while until she ran aground in Tinder's backyard. Ran into Zinc. Thought he looked good on me, so I kept him. He's been a loyal little lunkhead ever since." She reached across to scratch his ear, making his tail wag. "That's about it."
"Where'd you get your white scarf from?" Toby asked.
"Thrift shop. I wanted my stripe back."
"It looks really good on you," he said.
She looked at his face in the mirror, trying to gauge whether he was being sincere or just ingratiating. She considered a few caustic comebacks, but rejected them and said simply, "Thank you."