Snerk was sad. The mold was definitely getting worse. If it kept up, in a few weeks he'd have no choice but to shower. And what if it didn't wash off? It would be back to the car wash. He hated going through the car wash. It was even worse than showering.
He strolled down the path into the garden. Anything to take his mind off the need for a shower -- even the garden was better than that.
He paused by the pool of smerfle. It was shiny, as always. He could just see, a few inches below the surface, several disoriented fish swimming around upside down.
He tossed a pebble into the pool. It bounced, and landed on the other bank with a small clattering noise. He picked up a stick and idly swished it in the pool. It made bubbles, which immediately sank, and joined the shiny mass of air at the bottom of the pool.
It had been a warm spring. Already the trees were beginning to melt, their leaves running in green snakey rivulets down the soft blueness of their trunks. Snerk missed the old days, when the robot gardeners massaged the trees with ice cream every night to keep their leaves firm during the hot weather. But falling human wages had put the robots out of work, and no human could be bothered to take that kind of care of the plants. Whatever good qualities they might have, humans just didn't care about mulberry trees the same way the old robots had.
Snerk tossed the stick aside and continued down the path. The stick landed with a soft thud on the surface of the pond. The path squeaked softly as Snerk stepped on it, and then continued on into a green-roofed tunnel which opened among the trees. As Snerk entered it, the tunnel turned dark and uninviting, filled with sticky dark brown air that soon coated everything, and turned the mold from lively spring green to a sickly purple. The tunnel mouth closed with a grunt behind Snerk.
Snerk considered lighting a match so he could see where he was going, but everyone knew what had happened to Johannson when he did that. It didn't matter much, anyway. The walls were nearly as close as the air here, and there was hardly any room for error, or even room to walk.
A few dozen yards farther along, Snerk tripped over a knee-high aluminum bush and fell heavily into a dark shadow. The shadow squealed in protest, while the aluminum bush keened in annoyance. He apologized profusely to both of them as he picked himself up -- or, rather, as he tried to pick himself up. The path had finally relented, and opened up into a clearing of sorts, roofed over with a dirty yellow dome through which dirty yellow light from an indeterminate source was attempting to filter. By the more-or-less light, Snerk could see that he'd blundered into a glue trap. He hoped it wasn't a mouse trap; the mice tended to be very upset with anyone who messed up their carefully placed traps.
He was still struggling with the glue when the gorilla strode into the clearing. It roared at Snerk, threw a handful of walnuts at him, and then lifted him out of the glue by his hair. "How odd," thought Snerk. "I don't recall having hair -- how did that happen?"
With a sound like a nerf ball falling into a bowl of cheese doodles, Simon arrived.
He looked remarkably like a toothpick sculpture that was made by someone who ran out of glue partway through.
Snerk always hated these meetings. He never quite knew what to say to Simon, and never knew what to do with the bits and pieces that fell off. Simon never seemed to want them back, and Snerk was accumulating quite a lot of them. He kept them in a steamer trunk in the cellar.
"Snerkimer Johnson, you come down from there this very second!"
Regretfully Snerk released his hold on the ceiling tiles and dropped clumsily to the floor. He landed on his back, on a soft cushion of some sort, which grunted.
"Snerkimer, get off of Sammy and stop clowning around, this very second!"
Snerk tried to get up, but on his back, with his legs in the air, the best he could do was wave them around uselessly. The cushion, which was apparently named Sammy, groaned.
"Snerkimer, you stop clowning around and get up and act your age this very second or I shall call the principal again, and this time, he'll --"
Snerk awoke with a start, with the voice of Miss Snaggles still ringing in his ears. It had been so long since kindergarten, yet still he had nightmares of it nearly every night. He was soaked with sweat and shivering. He looked around the room, but there was little enough to see -- it was almost entirely dark. The only light came from the dimly glowing eyeball which floated a foot or so above the bed.
The squeaking. It was bothering Snerk tonight -- bothering him a lot. He was trying to read that nice new pink book he'd found under the rose bush, and he'd finally cleaned enough of the old dirt off the pages to make out some of the letters, but with that squeaking he just couldn't focus.
He gave up. Picking up a candle, he opened the cellar door and started down the stairs.
The squeaking turned into cheers, as the rats made room for him at the card table. He looked at the pot in the middle of the table. It was cast iron, about a foot across, and stuffed with what looked like money. It was apparently a high stakes game tonight.
In honor of Snerk's arrival they changed the game to five hand pinochle -- or anyway Snerk supposed they did; nobody actually said. But his first hand had three copies of the Jack of Spades in it, so he figured it couldn't be poker.
It seemed like just a few minutes before the rats finished winning the last of Snerk's allowance for the week. They also won his candle, which would have left him in the dark had the lights not been on. And so he went back up the stairs.
Sadly, the book he had so wanted to read seemed to have acquired a book worm in his absence. It hissed at him when he picked it up.
Snerk had been sitting in front of the mirror for the last eight hours.
Doctor Snoodelfit, whom Snerk visited twice every week, had told him his nightmares came from his "mirror behaviors" and if he could break that bad habit, his nightmares would go away.
So Snerk was watching himself in the mirror. Every time Mirror-Snerk did something, Real-Snerk would do the opposite, just to assure he wasn't behaving mirror-ly. It was slow going, though, as Mirror-Snerk was very imitative, and every time Real-Snerk did something different from what Mirror-Snerk was doing, Mirror-Snerk would copy Real-Snerk. It was frustrating.
Real-Snerk could see the door of the room behind Mirror-Snerk. It was just about lunch time when the door opened, and someone walked in. They looked like a cross between a purple rhinoceros and a bowl of fruit salad.
Mirror-Snerk noticed Real-Snerk staring past him at the whatsit, and turned around to look at it, too.
The whatsit said something which sounded much like the sound you might expect a giraffe to make if it were trying to read the Gettysburg Address aloud to an audience of wiener dogs, and then climbed out the window.
Mirror-Snerk continued to stare at the window through which the whatsit had left. Real-Snerk looked at the back of Mirror-Snerk's head. "Oh no," he thought. "I can't see my eyebrows when he sits like that. If he doesn't turn around, how am I ever going to know if they're properly combed?"
"How does that make you feel, Snerk?" Doctor Snoodelfit's voice sounded remarkably like a stone knife being pounded through a cast iron pot lid with a rubber mallet. Snerk never had a clue how to answer his questions.
He was having even more trouble than usual today, because the good Doctor wasn't facing him. He hadn't faced Snerk at all today. It wasn't that he wasn't turned toward Snerk -- it's just that his head was on backwards. It wasn't the Doctor's fault, though -- everyone had their heads on backwards. It had been this way ever since the mirror incident.
Snerk had hoped the Doctor might help him with it, but so far that didn't seem to have happened. Furthermore the tentacle protruding from the Doctor's left ear had started glowing. Doctor Snoodelfit reached up and gave it a tug, and another foot or so slid out of his ear. The end of the tentacle waved around vaguely, as though searching for something. A second tentacle appeared, protruding from his right ear. It was orange, unlike the left hand one.
"Do you find this disturbing, Snerk?" asked the doctor. "Why do you think that might be?" Snerk wasn't sure whether the doctor was talking about the tentacles, the fact that everyone's head was on backwards, or the lack of rain in the area during the preceding three years. He didn't answer.
The doctor sighed. "We all want the same thing here, Snerk," he said, in a jovial tone, not unlike the sound a recapped truck tire makes when the tread peels off just as the driver downshifts to pass a Winnebago camper while careening through a steep switchback with no guardrail. He reached under his desk and pulled out a heavy automobile battery. "We just want to help you, Snerk -- all of us here want to help you." He pulled a set of jumper cables out of a drawer in his desk.
Doctor Snoodelfit clamped one end of the jumpers to the battery, and brushed the other ends together briefly. A fat spark flashed between them, with a sound like a barn swallow hitting a mosquito zapper. Snerk shuddered.
"Mandy, would you give Snerk a bit of help here? He needs to stay in his chair."
Mandy, who was dressed in a black robe, with a black leotard and black mask under it, appeared from behind Snerk. She was spinning what looked like a pair of nunchucks.
The tentacles from the Doctor's two ears chose that moment to find each other, and then wrap around the Doctor's neck. He made a noise like a clogged drain. Mandy dropped her nunchucks and started yanking on the Doctor's tentacles.
Since neither of them was paying attention to Snerk, he decided the appointment must have ended, and left the office.
Snerk offered his passport to the customs agent. Or at any rate, Snerk assumed she was a customs agent -- she was sitting on one of those high stool-like things that they sit on, and she was behind the desk at the customs checkpoint, and she had a solemn, slightly bored look on her face the way they usually do. Snerk wasn't sure about the orange fright wig, though -- he didn't recall customs agents wearing those. But maybe the rules had changed. They usually did.
"Oh!" she said, looking less bored. "A diplomatic passport! We don't see too many of those, sir! This will just be a moment!" She opened the cover, and then looked at Snerk again. She was frowning. "Sir, it says here that you died in 1893."
Snerk was surprised. He hadn't heard anything about having died. On the other hand, he wondered if that might explain some of his trouble sleeping. He resolved to ask his doctor about it at his next appointment.
"Sir," the agent said, in a formal tone, "I'm going to have to ask you to step across the way to building 93." She pointed to a large mass of masonry behind Snerk. "It'll just take a few minutes, I'm sure, but we have some questions. I'm sure you understand."
Snerk didn't really understand, but he took his passport back and walked dutifully toward building 93. On the way he opened his passport. He couldn't remember ever really looking at it before. The red cover seemed strange -- didn't they always have blue covers? Or maybe that was some other country? He forgot about the cover and flipped through it to find his picture. He was disappointed when he found it. All he could see was the back of its head. Snerk sighed. Ever since the mirror incident, he almost never saw a face.
He looked at building 93 as he approached it. It appeared to be made of some dull black stone, with no windows visible on the first floor. On the second floor there were a couple of very small ones, placed high up under the eaves, with what looked like thick bars in front of them. The door Snerk was walking toward looked a lot like a black iron door he'd seen in a movie, with thick bands across it held in place with rivets. There was a sign over it: "Entrance Only -- No Exit". Snerk started to get a nervous feeling somewhere around the edges of his eyes.
At that moment, the diplodocus which was grazing in the vacant lot behind the building stepped in an unexpected gopher hole. It bellowed its outrage as it tripped and fell over, rolling heavily into the back side of the building, which collapsed like a stage set made of painted Styrofoam blocks. Chunks of the slate roof flew in all directions, and blocks of Styrofoam rained down all around Snerk. The customs agents all left their posts and rushed toward the pile of rubble. Some of them, who happened to have brought along some kitchen implements, started banging on large pots with heavy wooden spoons, apparently in the hope that it would induce the diplodocus to get off the wreckage and go somewhere else.
Snerk found himself at a loose end. There was no longer a building 93 to go to, and all the agents were busy so he couldn't ask for further instructions. There weren't any tourists around -- they seemed to have run off when the building collapsed -- so he couldn't join them in line.
He walked on down the road and across the border.
The Long Arm of the Law
The sound of sirens filtered in through the closed windows of the room. There was the sound of orders being given, of marching jackboots on pavement, and then a muffled but heavy thudding on the door.
"Open in the name of Mordor!"
Before Snerk could move, there was yelling, there was cursing, there was the screech of tires, there was the sound of people frantically jumping out of the way of a careening vehicle, and the front wall of the room morphed into a pile of broken drywall and splintered 2x4s as an armored Humvee entered the house. It skidded across the room and stopped on the television. Somewhere Snerk heard a flat computer voice repeating endlessly "Structural integrity has been compromised. Abandon ship. Structural integrity has been..."
Through the new opening, Snerk could see a line of military vehicles stretching down the street, with lights flashing and sirens singing. The sirens were sitting on the roofs of the cars, and studiously ignoring the lights, which were flashing everyone who walked past.
At least half a dozen heavily armored men (or women -- Snerk couldn't tell) leaped out of the Humvee and pointed their multishot automatic Gatling Tasers at him. One of them yelled something Snerk couldn't understand, and the air was filled with needles on wires flying in all directions. With a nasty hollow sound, most of them thudded into the wall behind Snerk. All of them had missed him.
Snerk slid off his chair and scuttled under the couch. Perhaps because the Taser wires were all tangled together, there was no further shooting; just lots of angry yelling.
As Snerk was wondering what to do next, he heard a sticky, basso profundo gurgle, followed by a gloopy crunching noise, like the sound the Jolly Green Giant would make eating a barrel of Jolly Green Gigantic Cornchips. And then the sound of a belch the size of an earthquake, followed by a smell like a fire in a stench factory. And then silence.
When Snerk emerged from under the couch, there was less to the room than he remembered. The roof and most of the walls seemed to have been taken elsewhere. The Humvee had been replaced with a pile of spare parts. There was some military body armor scattered around, looking like it would if someone had peeled it off of whoever was wearing it because they didn't want to get armor stuck in their teeth. The line of police cars was nowhere to be seen.
At times like these, there's only one thing to be done, and Snerk did it. He left the house and went in search of a Starbucks for a donut and a cup of espresso.
Too Much Tuesday
Before he even opened his eyes, Snerk knew it was Tuesday. He felt so totally spidery, it couldn't possibly be any other day.
As he untangled his long, googly Tuesday legs from the bedding, he heard shouts from outside. Through the window, he saw a line of ominous black vehicles, all emblazoned with the INS logo. The border patrol -- they were relentless. Ever since Snerk walked across the border without getting his visa stamped, they were after him like the tail of a snake comes after its head.
He slid under the bed and hoped they'd go away.
The shouting got louder, and someone started pounding on the front door. It didn't sound like they were going away. Snerk decided he needed to do something else, so he tried panicking.
After running frantically around the floors, walls, and ceilings for a few aimless moments, he found himself by a back window. It was open. Snerk went out, and ran down the outside of the house.
As he reached the ground, there was an exceptionally loud shout, an extremely loud sort of impactful noise, and the ground shook. The wall behind him apparently decided it had had enough, and exited in the direction of the neighbor's back yard, followed by the rest of the house, in various stages of disassembly. Snerk took one quick glance back at the smoking crater which had replaced his house, and headed toward the back of the yard as fast as his eight legs would carry him.
Tuesdays were always bad. He slid under a rock. He hoped the INS people would leave once they finished searching the rubble for him. Even more than that, he hoped tomorrow wasn't also going to be Tuesday.
On the Lamb
"Baaa!" said Benny.
Benny wasn't happy with this arrangement. He seemed to feel that Snerk had ridden long enough, and it was his turn. Or perhaps he just wanted lunch.
Snerk slid down from Benny's back and looked around for something to build a fire with. All he had along for food was a package of Pop Tarts, and they're really not very good unless they're cooked.
After a careful search for anything that might be used for a fire, he found a small patch of woods, a bucket of gasoline, and a package of firecrackers. None of these seemed ideal for heating up Pop Tarts.
But a little more searching revealed a field of dry grass and a lightning bolt. This was more promising.
The lightning bolt proved adequate for igniting the dry grass. Unfortunately it was not very precise (or Snerk just wasn't very skillful with lightning bolts) and consequently the bucket of gasoline, the patch of woods, and the package of firecrackers also joined in the fun. Benny found this disturbing, so Snerk got back on the lamb and they hurried away at Benny's best pace, which was a sort of attentive amble.
At least it wasn't Tuesday. In fact, it had been a very long time since Tuesday, and Snerk was starting to relax. He didn't like Tuesdays; he really hoped that would turn out to have been the last of them.
Benny sat down. He seemed disturbed by something.
After careful consideration of the new, far steeper angle of Benny's back, Snerk fell off.
Snerk supposed that what was disturbing Benny might be the sound the ground had made when it opened in front of them. Or it might have been the glowing lava in the newly formed chasm which cut across the path in front of them. Snerk wondered if Benny could swim.
Snerk looked around for some planks to lay across the chasm. He found several sticks and a rotted tree trunk. The trunk looked to be seven or eight feet long. Snerk eyed the chasm. He tried to see the other side; the heat haze over the lava made it difficult. He supposed the other shore might be a few hundred yards away, but he was a little fuzzy on just how long a yard was so it might not have been, after all. He might need a longer tree trunk. He tried tossing a pebble across it. It went a few feet out from the edge and landed in the lava, with a hissing pop.
Snerk was very sad. If there was no way forward, then the only way must be back. And the way back led back to where they started, and what would the point be in that? And there were those INS people. And the gorilla. And back at his house, it was Tuesday, or at least it had been Tuesday the last time Snerk was there.
With a grunt, another patch of ground a few feet from Snerk's feet receded into the abyss and, with a snickering hiss, the new hole filled with lava.
Benny started heading back up the path. With a sad sigh, Snerk turned to follow. He looked into the chasm one last time before leaving. A large bubble rose to the surface of the lava, and with a basso profundo "Glooomph!", it burst. A flock of birds flew out, circled around and flew off across the chasm toward the other bank.
"How strange!" Snerk thought to himself. "Those were surely bluebirds, and bluebirds never travel in flocks."
- Totally true -- that's a cause of nightmares. I read it in Nature. Or maybe it wasn't Nature but it's true anyway -- it was one of those magazines that's stuffed full of facts.