Afternoon light had overtaken the whole dining room, putting the fireplace to shame. Alice, the supersoldier frightened into a closet by a dashing squirrel several minutes prior, now opened the closet door with a monumental sigh of relief. The squirrel was long gone, taking with him the chance of an unwanted ticket to Wonderland. But he would be back.
Dracula and Adam yammered about rice, which is a delicious dinnertime accompaniment to yams. It is also fun to count. Drac’s arched back barely moved, and stayed well within Alice’s gun sight.
“The others—the fish, the cat, the squirrel—are all still in this bat building,” Alice gathered from a sniff. “Still much to do around here. But first, a stake.” For with a silver nail was this gun loaded.
The nail launched harpoony into Dracula’s back; so it appeared, but many strips of Adam’s papyrus interceded at master speed, and the stake was stalled by them as by a phone book. Adam did not seem to feel any pain. He and his strips did not appear weakened one bit, either, by the sun.
“Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two,” whispered Adam, counting.
“Well well well,” said Alice, keeping her cool. “The silver bullets, then?”
And these she shot wildly about the room, toward chair backs, table legs, hanging paintings, and the bodies of her enemies…and none hit their targets. They were swallowed by the best of all Yellow Pages, which spread from Adam in likeness of the limbs of an octopus—the rays of the sun.
“Oh, bother,” she cursed. “If only I had giant shears.”
She paused dramatically for eight seconds.
“I’m sorry?” lilted her Brown House connection. “What was that? Were you talking to someone?”
Alice raised wrist to muzzle. “I said, IF ONLY SOMEONE WOULD FIND MY COORDINATES AND AIRDROP ME GIANT SHEARS.”
“What’s the magic word?”
“Chop chop? Please, Helen, time is of the ess—”
“Submitting request for giant shears,” interrupted Helen, “and thank you for the magic word. The other magic word is ‘respect!’ Respect your coworkers!” Her metallic voice was buoyant, barely fazed by Alice’s rudosity.
Alice ignored her comments; she refused to admit defeat. “Make that silver shears. Timeframe?”
“Too long. Drop them in, but I’ll pick off the small fry first.”
Helen growled a “rrroger.” Again, she was not perturbed; she was merely a werewolf. Alice ripped a second bag of rice apart, then carefully sprinkled a trail of it toward, and then into, the fireplace. No trick on these simpletons was a bridge too far.
But Dracula had watched her, and he spat into the fire! “And you think that will work on us,” he sneered. “On Adam, who rules the sun, and on I, who have run across hot coals on many an island vacation.”
“Worth a shot,” Alice tossed back as she left.
“Fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four,” whispered Adam, counting.
When telling visitors of his haunt, Dracula is fond of saying, “You may go anywhere you wish in this castle, except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not wish to go. My ways are strange ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”
Trials, of course, had no thumbs. When confronting a door she could use the Thumb-Lumb-Tumb spell, but as she did not yet know Finger-Singer-Kinger, in practice this was useless. (To say nothing of her ignorance of Hand-Bland-Zand.) This problem became major when the squirrel slipped under a doorway. She halt-skidded before one door and rattled off the spell, but the lonely thumb only rolled from the brass.
Did the journey end here? She dared not burn down Dracula’s door.
Did the journey end here? …Ruminant thoughts were circling her mind, regrets, for she had plunged herself into great danger with creature-men whose weaknesses, in the end, were garlic and rice. Her aim was not pure malice and mischief, yet neither was she heroine. It was freedom she wanted! Freedom from a body that people burned; freedom from a journey that now seemed doomed to destruction.
However, if she made herself scarce while Robert toe-to-toe’d with Alice…wandered about for a while, waiting for the Geezer Squad to win or lose…then Bistritz might land, and she might then escape unscathed.
Or perhaps the squirrel would emerge again, show her to Wonderland, and there the rigmarole would end.
A stomp issued from close behind. A soggy stomp from a marine foot: that of Robert.
Trials kept her eyes on the thumb revolving gently on velvet rug.
“Look, at, me.”
She turned, her body and face betraying nothing; no mood, no sympathy. Unlike her mouth, those saucer eyes told no tales.
“Enemy, come, you, do, nothing. Putting, squirrel, chase, before, allies. We, not, friends. But, we, people.” He crossed his arms. “Right?”
Trials appeared to give his words some thought. “I don’t have to stay any longer to know I teamed up with the losers.”
“That, not, have, to, happen! Help, us!”
She looked away, her tail waving like a wisp of smoke. She looked back up at Robert. Then she said, in a voice as small and unassuming as any meow, “Okay.”
“No, good,” grumbled Robert. “Have, to, mean, it. Have, to, care.”
“I said ‘okay,’ fish-head! What am I, chopped litter?” Trials came forward a step. “That’s the thing: I don’t really care anymore! I don’t have a reason to care! I like the moon, I like pretty lights! I’m just a wisecracking cat who’s lived for hundreds of years!”
Robert jabbed his own chest. “I, fish, lived, forever! I, care! It, hard! That, life!”
Trials chuckled. “Oh, that’s rich!”
Then he went and did it—threw his arms out like pincers, snaring Trials! As she struggled, twisted and yowled, Robert hissed, “Maybe, lock, you, up, keep, you, safe. That, what, you, want?”
The one thought on Robert’s mind was triumph, ideological as well as physical; the one on Trials’, a line that Alice had said. “Fire for fish” …her chance at escape.
“F-F-F-Fire Pyre Multiplier!” she shouted, and a merciless fireball consumed Robert’s head! Oh, no! Oh, Trials! Oh, what a ghastly development! And then she, the freed cat, she—Trials, don’t run down the hall! Not while Robert is collapsing in his own sea of fire!
In Robert’s scrunching, he rolled himself up in a carpet, creating a tube or taco of terror that I pray Trials could not ignore! “My gills!” he was wailing! “My…gills…!”
The cat turned back.
“Water Daughter Otter!” she cast, dousing Robert’s gills and rest of body with a soothing splash. Though the ravaging heat was off, he yet panted in agony.
He turned to her and managed words of reconciliation: “Meow…meow.”
Trials had not left fight-or-flight mode; her every breath could be seen coursing through her body. She approached slowly. “Did you just…thank me in catspeak?”
“Meow,” Robert agreed weakly. “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow,” he added, which translated roughly to, “I forgive you, as I hope you will forgive me. There have been misdeeds on both sides.”
“Hey, that’s water and fire under the bridge. How did you ever learn to speak cat?”
“Meow, meow,” he exposited, which meant, “I have had many years to devote to language in my eternal fishman life. Such a language is very useful, and much easier to speak when I’m this injured.”
“I guess you’re not as stupid as you look,” accepted the cat with real respect. “Hold on. Heal Wheel Congeal!” And from friendship’s ashes a miracle bloomed: the restoration of Robert’s gills (and rest of body) to the fullest vitality they had ever known! All his scars disappeared… even the old burns from the 1950s. The scars from precisely one thousand and fifty years ago, from the time he first met mankind, were finally a thing of the past. He filled his lungs and grew strong, stronger, strongest…ejected himself from the rolly carpet and stood proud on his feet.
He screamed rapturously, “I feel like a brand new tuna!”
“You can talk without sounding like a winded caveman?”
Joyous, Robert whisked Trials into his arms and spun down the hallway!
“I haven’t felt this good in a thousand years or more! Every day my old gills ached so much from old injuries that I could barely breathe! Why, it’s as if I had a large spiked ball up my nostril and just now got it removed! You darned cat, you’ve made me such a happy man—I haven’t been this glad since before the Ice Age!”
“Woah woah woah, settle down, oldster! Where we goin’?”
He stopped in a hallway that looked just like the one previous. With one exception: all carpets, as far to either side as the eye could see, were in place. No burnt-up roll-ups here.
Robert set Trials down with a sigh, but he was smiling. “Sorry, Trials. Got worked up and carried away, didn’t I?”
“Me too, apparently,” she snarked, but without malice and with very little mischief. “I have an idea, though. Can you speak bat?”
“Sure. Eek, eek eek! Eek?” he replied, which meant something like, “Hello! Nice weather?”
Bistritz responded far faster than anticipated. Straightaway his vocal cords produced a slight rumble that resounded through the entire back-bound castle. His words reached everyone within! “Eek eek eek! Yeek! Eek eek eek eek, eek eek eek eek eek!” said he. In other words, “No, it’s too sunny! Yecch! But I’m so happy to chat with my friend Robert!”
“Sakes alive! He can hear that!” Robert coughed and began anew. He said “eek eek, eek eek eek,” that is, “Bistritz, we’re in trouble! Can you turn back into the darkness?”
“Eek eek eek, eek, eek eek eek eek! Eek eek eek eek eek eek eek eek eek eek eek eek eek!” boomed the reply: “Sorry, Rob, I can’t move my wings! You’ll have to get my steering wheel back in order to drive me outta this gross sunlight!”
Robert translated for Trials: “He says he can’t budge unless we return to the bridge and unseal the wheel.”
“Well, if we go past the dining room again, that dog’ll know exactly where we are with that nose of hers!”
“Um, Trials,” Robert said with a throat-clearing cough, “that’s the idea. We can’t run away, remember?”
“That’s not what I meant. I’m talkin’ stealthy hijinx, Bob.”
“Oho! Outsmarting her?” Robert quirked a scaly eyebrow.
Trials quirked the ridge of her skull where an eyebrow would be for humans. “Now you’re speakin’ my language…the other one!”
Shortly Robert revealed that they were not quite lost; he had toured Castle Dracula more than a few times. If memory served, he would, at the very least, spare them a visit to the dungeons infested with what Dracula referred to as “children of the night” (meaning not bats but wolves, counterintuitively). If that news were not inspiring enough, the fresh oxygen, which rushed into his body and brain with such vigor now, rarefied him, enkeenened his senses. This danger was nothing.
As they went, Robert even began to puff bubbles from his pipe. Observing the follower cat, he mused silently, “It appears as if this time I am the scientist and she is the Amazonian fishoid…”
He threw open a door. It creaked ajar, and inside was a yellowed, dingy dustbin of a hospital room, with flickering fluorescents and old equipment dropped among shattered glass.
Far away, in a chamber very distant, Dracula’s skin prickled. “Oh,” he said to no one, “I feel as if my old sick bay for taking care of sick guests has been opened. It really has been a long time since I cleaned that up. It must look like a horror movie in there.”
“One-hundred eight, one-hundred nine,” Adam counted.
The flightive fish and cat threw open another door. It creaked ajar, and inside was a musty garage with various dark stains spattered ‘cross the floor, chains rattling from the ceiling, and tall steel shelves housing rusty power tools and cutters.
“Oh, I feel as if my old auto garage has been opened,” said Dracula. “It really has been a long time since I used those power tools or even owned a functional automobile. It must look like a horror movie in there.”
“Three-hundred, three-hundred one,” Adam counted.
The weapon-like tools were all rusty and bacteria-laden, so once again Robert and Trials threw open a door. It creaked ajar, and inside was a spooky old graveyard on a grassy knoll littered with gravestones and old skeleton bones. There may also have been a ghost inside.
“Oh, I feel as if my spare room for spare coffins and dirt has been opened,” said Dracula. “I should definitely go about retrieving those old toy skeleton decorations. Halloween is approaching, after all. They would make this castle look more like a horror movie for certain.”
“Eleven, twelve,” Adam counted. “Wait, what is a movie?”
Finally Robert and Trials found a massive closet, which looked not only useful, but also not blatantly horrifying. Close to infinity outfits hung on twin forever-rows extending into nether, but the old shoeboxes, hatboxes, and opened Christmas presents under the clothes racks gave that touch of home. “Just the room I was hoping for. Come in!” hollered Robert.
And Trials did, but she was not thrilled about it. Dust and must danced before her whiskers. “A bunch of old suits? We aren’t getting ready for some fashion show here, bucko,” she mewed. Robert was sifting through hangings; he revealed a collection of evening gowns. Trials’ eyes bugged. “What’s this guy doing collecting dresses? He couldn’t pull those looks off with that figure.”
Robert explained the sorrowful story with his classic patience and grandpoppy grin. “Long ago, before he was temporarily turned to ashes, Dracula lived with his three vampire sisters in Transylvania. When he came back to life, he learned that all three were killed by the son of Abraham Van Helsing, Graham Van Helsing. He hasn’t properly recovered from the loss, and so when he sees a dress one of them would have looked lovely in, he feels compelled to purchase and hold onto it, for sentimental reasons. He doesn’t like to talk about it, though, so don’t talk about it, please.”
“Wow,” meowed Trials. “I guess all you monster guys are a little deeper than I gave you credit for. I’m just a witch who got burned and put herself into a cat that she also enchanted so that it-slash-me would live for millennia. And I make jokes. Startin’ to feel a little shallow here.”
“I spent millions of years eating fish all by myself in a dark lagoon,” Robert sympathied. “I think your story is more exciting than the vast majority of my life.”
Trials glowed, metaphorically.
“Now, let’s make haste to the end of this closet. There are no weapons in here—just a bunch of clothes, and some costumes that sort of look like they belong in horror movies—but at the end is a secret passage into another room, a shortcut. That’s where we’ll make surprise our weapon, ambushing that Alice the best way a monster knows how.”
And then Trials said, “Hey, look, a knife.”
“Where did you—”
“I’ve been nudging the boxes open this whole time, with my nudging whiskers.” So it was: just under the clothing was a line of knocked-off lids and exposed E-Z Ovens. Before her was cardboardage containing a bent and blunted kukri knife. “Don’t call me a cat thief! You had the same idea.”
Robert knelt to examine. He was showered in boyish thrill! “Gee whiz! This is the knife that cut Dracula’s head off in the 1800s!” He rubbed his soggy chin saying, “I gave this to him as a gift a long time ago…but I wonder why he left it in the package…”
“Oh,” said Dracula, “I feel as if my camping door has been opened. I sent photographs of that room anonymously to Camp Life Magazine, photographs which were featured in their Spring 1992 issue. Ah, I was so proud,” he cooed to rice grains. “Camp Life is my favorite outdoors-oriented publication. I really should redecorate and send another entry—that is, if the magazine has not ceased after ten centuries! Ha, ha, ha!”
Alice had long since left the dining room. Dracula’s skin gently sizzled in the daylight. The eyes of both he and Adam gently sizzled in the rice. Incidentally, the fire they crawled closer and closer to was pretty hot. The closest rice grains snapped and cooked before their eyes
“Why, what a delight!” cheered Adam. “They pop like holiday firecrackers!”
“Don’t eat that. That is for counting,” Dracula said.
Elsewhere, Alice followed her nose…and it took her to the dampest spot in the castle. Not the cellar (for Dracula’s blood casks were well-sealed), but the two-acre imitation campsite whose sign introduced it as Lake Nice.
At a glance, one would presume this place a horror movie set, for it definitely looked like one. Its blue-tarp sky and plasticky trees would appear welcoming to none but a motley group of witless camping teenagers. All around were sitting and standing mannequins in fake-lakeside chairs, at the “barby queue,” and—horror of horrors!—establishing tents for a night-long stay! Worse, conspicuous red spots dotted the grass and dirt! These were merely grape juice, however.
Alice bent down and found, almost suspiciously right next to each other, one toenail each from Robert and Trials. “Mhm,” she said. “Stupider and stupider.”
She knew this was an ambush. The ample trees suggested ample cover, and so did the lake, the tents, and the log cabin…and she also wondered if Trials could not hide in the “queue” and leap out shouting one of her trademark quips like, “I am a cat-burger.”
A lump of mud suggested yet more opportunities, this time for nose thwartage rather than eye thwartage. Alice followed the trail (her prey moved together) into that self-same spot, but the mud tracks disappeared not two feet from the lump, as if, perhaps, maybe, washed away in post by one of Trials’ trademark spells.
Well, nothing for it but to flush them out. Alice raised a pistol by her head, with the manner and pose of an action movie terminating robot, and it clicked with a Hollywood gun-clicking sound. This click meant, unfortunately, that the gun was in a state of dire disrepair and could misfire.
She hurled the gun at a cabin door. No response from inside. She kicked the door in and dove, with another gun, actually sliding in gun-first. Then she performed a full investigation—or killvestigation, rather, or laceravestigation, for, in a minute-long laserfest which would have looked brilliant if filmed in slow-motion, Alice riddled the cabin and all its contents in burning holes. Everybody was spared, however, for nobody was inside.
She left in disappointment as the cabin wobbled in wooden tatters, all holey like Swiss cheese. The three tents were also little help; all she found in there were oil lamps and unsmiling mannequins.
Alice walked to the bank of Lake Nice, which was absurdly huge and realistic for a never-used artificial lake in a lonely rich vampire’s castle. Then again, maybe it was exactly the superfluous poppycock that one would expect in a lonely rich vampire’s castle. She kept her guard and gun up, and coolly sniffed. It did not seem as if her targets had left the room; if they had, she might have heard, or received distant wafts of their mud trails. So she waited…and she was no stranger to wasting time.
Elsewhere, Dracula narrated, for he was a lover of good stories anytime, anywhere. “Alice Liddell is, technically, among the longest-lived of all werewolves,” he told his rice as he compiled ten piles of ten grains in a single hundred-piece bunch. “Though she is not immortal and her biological age approaches forty, she was born in the nineteenth century!”
“Indeed,” Adam agreed, not listening in the slightest.
“One summer’s day in her youth, Alice traveled to an uncanny ‘wonderland’ by falling into a rabbit hole. On another occasion, she stepped through a mirror into the same and, upon waking in her bed again, debated whether or not she had suffered a second excursion. She compiled her memoirs and sold them under a pseudonym, Lewis Carroll. However, this ‘wonderland’ was not done with her. As we witnessed, it follows her to this day!
“’But why is Wonderland so awful,’ you ask?”
Adam did not ask that.
“The answer lies in the unpublished sequel manuscripts, which chronicle her later Wonderlandian stumblings—all three-hundred and seventy-two of them. Wonderland, as all well-traveled creatures of the night know, is cute for a day or two. But across a lifetime? That many word games? How obnoxious! Do not believe for a moment that vampires are subject to a loathsome curse, for more pitiful by far is Alice, who is stalked, day in and day out, by these portals…portals to Hell.
“She did not age in Wonderland, and whenever she emerged from it—as if gasping while treading water—the world moved on without her. The first trip consumed a minute. The second: an hour. Each trip took longer and longer, as if Wonderland were hungry for her life! Everything she knew and cherished changed, and then dissipated like dust. She was forgotten, forlorn, in a hard world of technology and werewolves. And the root of it all was that first innocent trip to Wonderland.
“Then came the year 2996. Already for centuries she had steeled her heart, swallowed her tears, and pledged herself to the pursuit of rationality. But she was not yet a werewolf, and whenever she returned to Earth, she ran from the oppressor wolves…that is, until she added to her rational creed the motto, ‘If you cannot beat them, join them.’ She also improved her combat moves! Swiftly moving through the ranks as a patriotic defender of the peace, she re-entered society and today all but rules this new wolf world.
“Rationality, however, is her only love. Her many years of loathing and fears have turned her into a lone wolf who truly trusts no one.
“But that may be her weakness,” speculated Dracula as he rubbed his chin. The hand rubbing his chin was also holding rice, which he counted at the same time, for unlike Adam he was able to count silently. “She excels at one-on-one combat, but makes a lousy commander, as we have seen. If she were fought by a team of determined individuals, people who truly trusted one another, perhaps she could be overtaken…”
“One, two, three,” Adam counted.
Alice, concurrently, decided to wait matters out in a prop canoe which drifted toward the center of the one-acre-in-diameter Lake Nice. She stared, eyes glazy, into still waters, where the end of her fishing line had been plunked.
How comfortable it was, to have a space alone…to be simply bored, nearly able to pretend that there was no job to do.
Out here she was bait…if this was what her enemies had wanted to see, let them have it. Besides, she was not unarmed, and she even had another little trick in store, for at the end of her fishing line was something dastardly: a gun.
So much for that! Breaking out of the water with arms spread wide like a prisoner freed from chains, amphibious Robert erupted from behind Alice, armed with a kukri knife and, for protection, a hockey mask. So affrighted was Alice that as she turned to grab an eyeful of her assailant, she screamed, “EEGAH!” He kerclonked her on the head with the knife, and she fell into the lake-no-longer-placid.
Robert stepped onto the canoe with a shaking head. “I thought fishers were sharper than that.”
“And doggers,” said muddy Trials loudly from the shore.
Underneath Lake Nice’s surface, wild tentacles had grown and writhed unchecked for a thousand years. Into their grip did Alice sink like a stone. Her moon sank too, but yet revolved around her. Actually, all told, she sank like a hairy stone with an unhairy stone near it, and with some clothes on. She became tangled in vicious kelp! And she thrashed and picked at the grass submarinous, but it was far tougher to untangle than shoelaces. And then she bit the grass—to no avail—and wondered how much more breath she had.
Alice watched as Robert and Trials descended. Not only was Trials in her Double-Gubble Bubble, but she had also swiped off the dirt and guzzied herself up in one baby mannequin’s striped red sweater and jaunty brown hat!
Alice laughed because pets in people clothes were funny, and also because this was her chance to escape.
Those two were idiots! Why not leave her in the kelp to drown completely? That would have solved their problems without a hitch. Or they might have zapped the lake with some technology (for everyone knows that electricity is strong against water). Instead, they were unwittingly giving her a chance to brainstorm, to try and make wiggle room for her arms in the kelp, to grab a laser gun and shoot them dead.
A rational woman forsaken by love, she could no longer fathom why strangers might want her alive.
Then the whirlpool started.
Not far away, not long ago, a squirrel had scampered into the lake. Now he spontaneously became a creature with the body of a walrus, the tail of a leech, the head of two dogs, one ear, five eyes, and arms full of teeth. That beast was the heart of a swiftly starting maelstrom, and he shouted, voice gurgling through the lake entire, “THIS PLACE IS SO BORING! GOOD THING THIS VORTEX IS OUR HOT TICKET STRAIGHT TO WONDERLAND, RIGHT, GUYS?”
Alice screamed “EEGAH” again, ejecting half of the air remaining in her superior wolf-lungs in one curdled burst.
Instantly Robert swam, and Trials in her bubble bobbed, out of sight. Were they leaving Alice to a fifty-year Wonderlandinavian traipse? No! Robert had come behind Alice to break, untie, and cut (with his old kukri knife and the help of Trials’ Scissor-Dither-Lizard spell) all that tenacious kelp!
Which freed Alice—to dual-wield laser guns!
With her air dwindling and the beast of the vortex gaining power, time was truly of the essence. She spun around like a Dracula, rapid-firing in every direction. Lake Nice became Lake Lightshow, deadly pink. Trials’ bubble burst, and she yiped in the lake’s indomitable wetness; Robert was seared in three places, his gills spared narrowly.
The Wonderlantarctic foe was hit too, but he had strength beyond this mortal realm, so nothing could stop him from ramping up the vortex and advertising his homeland as a great travel spot. Alice, already feeling the whirlpool winds, used her claws to cling to the plastic prop-rocks leading up and out to shore. Robert and Trials were not so lucky, and the twister devoured them.
Alice climbed, climbed, endured that sucking like a bathtub drain at the base of Lake Nice…and made it. She emerged on the shore, and when she looked back, the vortex, satisfied, made itself scarce. The water settled. Wonderland had its fill, as sometimes happened to werewolf soldiers in her employ.
The unfortunate thing about this was, their return to Earth could take as long as fifty years (if they were accepted as substitutes for Alice) or as little as five minutes (if they were not). Perhaps it would be wisest not to wait and shoot the small fry dead, but instead to finish off the titans in the dining room…