Brandon Hartley is an American writer who lives in the Netherlands. He usually focuses on non-fiction but sometimes he cobbles together stories that take place outside of reality. Here is a photo of him feeding rabbits somewhere off the coast of Japan.
Stick to the Shadows
If you really want to know what happened, and why it happened, I'll have to go back to the beginning. Back to before the fire, before the fun park and before the dog showed up. Back when we were all still sitting in the museum. I hope that chair is comfortable.
Morty was the first of us to say anything.
"It must be noon by now," he said, rising from the wooden stool in his case. "Carol should have been down here three hours ago. This ain't like her."
"Knock it off," I spat at him from across the aisle.
"What if….you know?"
Carol was old, especially for a fleshball, but I didn't want to think for a second that something bad might have happened to her. Sure, her hearing had begun to fade in recent years but all that really meant was that she had to turn up the volume on her television. No big deal. She had plenty of life left in her. Enough to keep everything going for at least a few years more.
But I could hear the voice of some local weatherman drifting down through the floor and into the museum. Not a good sign. Carol never watched the news.
"Poor ol' gal," Morty muttered. "Probably keeled over in the middle of The Tonight Show."
I hated him for saying aloud what I already knew. Carol was gone. A dozen thoughts rushed into my itty bitty head. Who was going to take care of us? Who was going to make sure that Hopper didn't get loose again? Who was going to comb my hair and make sure my bloodsoaked veil stayed its bloodiest?
"Never did like that Fallon guy," Morty said, silencing the growing pile of worries in my soft skull. "One of his punchlines was probably so bad it stopped ol' Carol's heart. Now Jack Parr, there was a fella who knew how to tell a joke."
"Now's not the time for you start rambling on about old comedians," I told him.
"Good point, doll," Morty said.
He was always calling me "doll." Hilarious, huh? Just be glad you never had to sit through his act.
During his "showbiz years" as he called them, Morty had travelled all over America, Europe and Australia. Then his mouth, as it so often did, ruined everything for him. It was about to ruin everything for him all over again and the rest of us too.
"So which one of you's is gonna bust me out of this thing?" he asked.
Hopper started growling behind the thick glass in the display case that he'd been locked in ever since the time he escaped. That was back in, ohhhh, the '90s, I think. Maybe a little later. You might have heard about that. You don't look too young.
After he busted loose, Carol eventually found him creeping around outside of an elementary school a few blocks away and not before he'd been spotted by three kids (who no one believed) and a retired fireman (that everybody figured was senile). Hopper had managed to get his paws on a book of matches too. That's one bunny you don't want anywhere near anything flammable. If Carol hadn't found him creeping around the boiler room when she did, there's no telling what might have happened.
This "Great Escape" made headlines but you probably already know that. Well, okay, it made headlines on various blogs and conspiracy websites but you don't seem like the sort of guy who reads those things.
But we had some fleshballs come all the way from Egypt visit us. A documentary film crew even showed up from France. Nothing boosts museum attendance quite like a one-eared, pyromaniac rabbit doll. Of course, plenty of visitors assumed that Carol had staged the entire thing. After we're done with your interrogation, or whatever this is, go type "The Cheshire Museum of Oddities" and "rabbit" into the interwebs. You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the whole mess.
"How about you, gorgeous?" Morty said, glancing across the aisle. "Can you get me outta this thing? There's no lock on your case."
"Gorgeous? Well, aren't you just hilarious?" I asked.
"What can I say? I live to make pretty girls like you laugh."
Ventriloquist dummies. They're all the same. I lifted the veil off my face so Morty could get a good look at me. It'd been a while. I opened my eyes wide to give him a bit of a scare, the eyes that were drawn onto my cloth face with bile from a diseased goat. Then I gave him my best evil grin with my lips, the one I've been trying to get just right for centuries now.
In case you're wondering, these lips of mine were created with blood from a newborn calf. Oh, and my hair? Made out of real raven feathers. The fleshballs that made me were nothing if not imaginative. Carol used to charge visitors $5 to look under the veil. I'm sure my face has led to plenty of nightmares over the years. Probably best for me to keep it on. If you want a peek a little later, maybe we can work something out.
But don't rush me now. When you get to be my age, you take your time when you tell a story. You're getting paid by the hour and you've got half a pack of cigarettes sitting right there in your shirt pocket. What are you so worried about? Light one up, take a deep drag and I'll get to the meat of this tale soon enough.
Where I come from in Romania, I'm what's called a diavolul păpușă. I know, that's a real mouthful. It means "devil doll." I was created by some crazy cult leader who actually thought that I could help his followers live forever. How old am I? Hmmm….I'm pretty sure I celebrated my 400th birthday during the Reagan administration. I suppose it doesn't matter much.
So those crazy Romanians prayed to me, if you can believe it. They slept in coffins and really had a thing for Vlad the Impaler. Needless to say, I didn't get the job done and none of those nutjobs are still around these days. Far as I know, the cult fell apart after one of the most devout among them died after trying to, literally, live on a diet of just blood. No one ever figured out where she got it from but there was a wine bottle full of it beside her when her body was discovered. The founder? Oh, he was drawn and quartered. That sort of thing happened all the time back then.
Yeah, death really had a tendency to follow me around in those days. But I'm quite nice if you get to know me. I'd like to think I've come a long way since the 18th century.
"So how about it?" Morty asked me, undaunted by my grotesquery. "Whole big world waitin' out there for us."
"We wouldn't make it out of the neighborhood," I said, lowering the veil. "The fleshballs would catch us in no time."
"Only one way to find out."
Marty was always a charmer and, I must admit, I had little bit of a crush on him before….you know. That's what you fleshballs call it, right? A crush? When you go from craving them one second and wanting to crush their spine the next?
So, like some foolish milk maid, I bounced out of my case and released him. I remember Morty yawning and shaking the dust off his black suit. It'd been months since he was last up and about.
"Should we go upstairs and find out what happened?" I asked him. "Maybe we could make an anonymous phone call to that emergency number. 91….2?"
"Carol could die from a papercut by the time we get up those stairs and get the phone off the hook," Morty said. "The television's been going all night. My guess is that a heart attack got her during a commercial break. She's usually upstairs and in bed by the musical number."
I didn't know what to say and I couldn't have cried even if I had the tears.
"We all knew this was coming, doll" Morty said. "We should have made plans but none of us even wanted to think about it."
"And here we are," I said. "What now?"
We heard a tapping coming from the next aisle over.
"We can start by letting Pinky out."
"Are you sure?" I asked him.
"Why not?" he said. "Pinky's harmless."
We opened the back of Pinky's hatch and lifted the lid on the tin saraghoagus that served as its home. The tin was some promo thing that Carol got when she went to go see some mummy movie starring that guy….what's his name? Brendon Fraisers. Something like that.
We never did figure out if Pinky was a guy or a girl or how old it is. Mummified fingers can't communicate all that well so I never got to hear its life story. It could have been the finger of anybody from Ramesses to Janis Joplin. Energetic as ever, Pinky jumped right out of that tin and started rubbing right up against my leg like a kitty, albeit one covered in old bandages. I'm sure it would have started purring if it knew how.
Next up was Chiyo, the possessed KoboRobo. You probably remember those things. Little gremlin robots from Japan that were really popular with kids about ten, fifteen years ago. Most of them all bounce around and randomly repeat gibberish but not Chiyo. Real chatty, that one. She told me once that she was the spirit of a young woman who used to live in Kyoto. She went to college in San Diego and got pretty good at English. Not as good as me but pretty good. She even had a career going back home in Japan but the she really blew it. Dated the wrong guy, things got really nasty and he strangled her with a cord from something called a "Nun- tendo Gamecube." No clue what those things are. Some sort of electronic toy for nuns, I suppose.
Anyway, Chiyo once told me she still loved the bastard who killed her. Can you believe that? Real softie, that one. I knew telling her what had happened to Carol was going to be tough. I sent Morty around the corner as I let her out. This was no time for wisecracks. After a few minutes of mechanical sobs, she pulled herself together.
Now there's no way we could have taken the haunted harpsichord with us, especially once all hell broke loose but, let me tell you, it really, really wanted to go. It started playing a jaunty little song when it heard all of us running around. If I had heartstrings, it would have been tugging on them with all its might. I did my best to ignore the poor thing.
Almost all of the other objects in that museum were like that harpsichord. "Sentient," I think is the word, but they couldn't do much, not even the witch that's trapped in the mirror. Have you talked to her yet? If she starts trying to put a hex on you, just toss the bedsheet back over her. Shuts her right up. Sometimes all those objects would wiggle around but that's about it. I have no idea if they were the spirits of former fleshballs like Chiyo or something else. Can you imagine? One day you're up and walking around, ordering coffee in cafes and watching television and doing whatever it is that fleshballs do. The next, you've somehow had your soul crammed inside a harmonica or a Diet Coke can.
A curious noise drifted over from Hopper's case. His soft growls had stopped. He was whimpering softly.
"What should we do?" Chiyo asked. "About….him?"
"Not a chance," Morty snapped. "I'm made out of wood and bunny boy here has a thing for matches."
"Will you be nice if we let you out, Hopper?" Chiyo asked him, ignoring the clearly marked sign below his case that read "POSITIVELY DO NOT OPEN! WORlD'S MOST DANGEROUS STUFFED ANIMAL!"
The rabbit turned his head towards her.
"Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice?" he asked as if he'd never heard the word before.
"Let's come on over here, girly," Morty said, gently nudging her away from Hopper's case. "Don't you go letting that furry firebug guilt trip you."
We gathered in the corner and began plotting.
"So what we've got here is a mummified finger, a toy robot from the Land of the Rising Sun, my charming self and…..uhhhh…."
"A diavolul păpușă," I said. "I've only told you 100 times."
"Right. One of those. So, where shall we spend the rest of our lives, folks?"
"*Our* lives? Who said I was coming with you, Morty?" I asked.
"What, else are you gonna do? Stick around here? Get sent off to some thrift shop or worse? Maybe you've never been stuffed inside a garbage bag and sent off to the dump but I have."
"A 'dump'?" Chiyo asked. "But isn't that where garbage goes?"
"You got that right," Morty said. "Far as the fleshballs know, that's all we are. Just some dusty ol' knick knacks that some crazy broad was trying to pass off as something much more interesting."
"But….but I don't want to go where garbage goes!"
Chiyo began rocking back and forth on her plastic feet. She might have started hyperventilating if she could. I felt like doing the right thing so I decided to comfort her.
"There, there dear," I said, trying to convey what you fleshballs would call "empathy." "You're not garbage."
"But that's what my boyfriend used to call me," she said softly.
Morty had clearly touched a nerve.
"We're not going to talk about that right now," I said. "You're not, uh, garbage anymore."
Chiyo looked at me and then started bawling. If you couldn't tell, I'm really not very good at this sort of thing. Pinkie began rubbing up against her, trying to calm her down, but this only made her cry louder.
"Dammit," Morty said. "She keeps going like that and she'll attract some fleshball down here before we figure out what to do with ourselves. Tell her to knock it off."
"I tried and look what happened."
Chiyo's howls got the harpsichord all worked up. It started randomly banging its own keys. If I had ears, the sound would have been splitting them.
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" Morty howled. "YOU RUBES ARE GONNA…"
Then we all heard the barking. The neighbor's dog was losing its mind on the other side of a fence about ten feet from the cellar door that served as the museum's entrance. The harpsichord had enough sense to silence itself and Chiyo went quiet.
"We are so screwed," Morty mumbled.
The dog was still barking and rapidly digging itself a hole under the fence. It didn't seem like it was going to stop.
"Should we get back in our cases?" I whispered.
"Nobody move an inch," Morty said.
The dog stopped. After another few moments of quiet, we heard a huge bang from the other side of the museum. Then the barking and digging started again.
"Ralphie, what are doing? Calm down!"
It was a boy's voice.
"What's gotten into him?"
That was a woman's voice. Probably his mother.
Then we all heard the sound of cracking wood followed by the kid and the woman screaming at the dog. Its muzzle was snarling and spewing slobber all over the museum's lone window.
"Oh, for God's sake," the mother said. "Go get him. Your father is going to come unglued when he gets home."
The dog was going absolutely bonkers.
"That does it," Morty said. "You can come with me or you can stay here and get torn to pieces by Rin Tin Tin up there."
He stormed over to the stairs leading up to the house's main floor and began crawling up them like a determined toddler. Chiyo didn't need to be told twice. Pinky jumped onto one of her shoulders like a parrot and dashed over. Morty helped them and, slowly but surely, they made their way to the top.
I heard another clatter from one of the museum's corners and the dog was now completely hysterical. The boy was outside yelling at it but was too frightened to grab it by the collar and drag it back home.
Really, what choice did I have?
I followed the rest of them upstairs.
"We could hide in the attic," I suggested.
The mother was now out on the porch and peering through one of the living room windows. She confirmed what we hadn't seen but already knew.
"OH MY GOD, CAROL!" she yelled. "SOMEBODY CALL AN AMBULANCE!"
Morty turned towards the staircase that led to the second floor of the house. I don't know why he didn't start climbing them. I never asked him. Maybe he was afraid that the door to the attic would be closed or, even it was open, what would happen a day or a week later. Instead, he started scrambling towards the kitchen.
The rest happened so fast. Pushing our way through the old cat door while the harpsichord downstairs started playing the loudest Beethoven symphony in its repertoire in protest. Then all of us out in the backyard. Grass blades touching my feet for the first time in half a century. The snarling dog rounding the corner. Clambering through a hole in Carol's chain link fence and into the pumpkin patch on the other side. The sunlight, practically blinding. The dog so close I could feel it's filthy breath in my hair. Then a high pitched squeak and silence.
No more snarling, no more dog.
Before I went for the cat door though, I did look back, just for a second, while I was running. I saw Carol's arm on the floor in the living room and a broken tea cup. But you probably know all about that, don't you? Probably right there in that stack of papers in front of you.
It was cold and raining so there weren't any brats in the pumpkin patch. We made it through and into the woods without being spotted by anybody, I think.
We were quiet for a while after that, all of us huddled between a soggy fern and a tree trunk.
"I guess this is better than winding up in a dog's stomach," Morty said. "Not by much though."
"It should have gotten me," I said. "The dog was was so close but he just stopped. Why did he stop?"
"Probably never seen a bunch like us running around," he said. "Liable to make any pooch head for the hills."
We heard some rustling and a plush rabbit casually stomped over to us.
"Oh, hello Hopper," Chiyo said cheerfully.
"I was niiiiiiiiiiiiiice," he told us.
I wasn't about to ask Hopper what he did to that dog in order to say my life or whatever you want to call it. I gave him a nod as a "thank you" and that was that. Would you have hugged him? I didn't think so. Not that one. He's no Velveteen Rabbit.
Building a campfire and spending the night wasn't an option, especially with Hopper now joining our ranks. Morty wasn't happy about it and we argued about it for a while but what finally convinced him was Chiyo. With Hopper around, she calmed right down. I don't know why. Maybe she felt safer around him or, well, we'll get to that soon enough.
The moon was on our side that night. Just a thin sliver in the sky once the clouds cleared and plenty of darkness at our disposal. We got back down to business.
"Where are we going to fit in besides that museum?" Morty said. "One of a kind, that place. We had a good thing going back there."
"A toy shop?" I said. "We could hide in the shelves or in the stockroom. Plenty of nooks and crannies for Pinkie too, especially if we go to one of the big ones. There might even be a television in one of the break rooms. With HBO."
"No good. There'd probably be those, what do you call them, night cameras that watch everything."
"We'll scope them out and avoid them. Shouldn't be a problem."
"And if there's a security guard?"
"There were these movies that I watched," Chiyo said. "Back when I was still a fleshball. It was about toys that lived in a boy's bedroom. They would come alive and talk when he wasn't there. Then when he came home they would fall over and play dead."
"If it'll trick a kid in a movie, surely it'll trick a security guard makin' a buck fifty an hour," Morty said.
"All right, where's the nearest toy shop?" I asked. "And what if it goes out of business?"
"There were three or four of those movies," Chiyo said, ignoring my questions. "Made by the same company that owns Tokyo Disneyland. They have a ride there with those toys. You go through and you shoot laser guns at targets and the toy that's shaped like a potato tells you what to do and…"
"That's great, honey," Morty said, cutting her off. "Let's go find a phone booth and get an address in the Yellow Pages."
"They have Disneylands here in America too," Chiyo continued. "One in California and a very big one in Florida. I think they have those rides there too, with the toys."
"I don't think there are phone booths anymore, Morty," I said. "Or Yellow Pages. The fleshballs all have those pocket phones now."
"What, you wanna break into somebody's house and hop on the world wide web? Do one of those Yahoo searches or whatever you call them?"
"We should go to Florida Disneyland!" Chiyo chirped.
"We're in Connecticut and Florida's about 3,000 miles from here," Morty said. "Let's stick with the toy shop plan."
"But Florida Disneyland never goes out of business," she said. "And it's bigger than a toy shop."
"Chiyo's got a point," I said. "Huge fun park. Plenty of places to hide. I bet they even have a toy shop or two."
"Naw, Florida's no good," Morty said. "Played a couple of gigs down there back in the day. Nothing but yokels and alligators."
"We could vote," Chiyo said.
"Fine by me," I said.
"No, no voting," Morty said. "Everybody follow me."
"Vooooooooooooooooooote," Hopper said.
Pinkie started scooting around in circles. It seemed to agree.
"We vote or I leave," I said. "I don't care. I'll hop the next flight to back to the old country. Hide in the cargo hold and find some Romanians to worship me again."
"Fine," Morty spat. "I vote for 'no friggin' way.' How about the rest of you?"
"Florida Disneyland," Chiyo cheerfully chirped.
"Same," I said.
"Foooooorida niiiiiiiice," Bouncer said.
"Guess that's another 'yes," Morty said. "What about you, Pinkie?"
The finger lifted itself onto its base and began wiggling.
"Fine, let's all head on down to the Sunshine State," Morty said. "What's the worst that could happen? Now let's go find a bus depot. Do the fleshballs still have those or did they get rid of 'em too?"
By the way, nice shirt you've got there, with the hula girls. That's what they're called, right? They let you wear that around a police station? Whatever. What kind of cigarettes have you got in the pocket? Chesterfields? Oh, Camel Lights?
Well, Carol always kept a pack of Chesterfields close at hand. She usually lit one up after hiking down to the end of the driveway and putting out the "closed" sign every night at 6 o 'clock on the dot. When she'd take me out of my case to dust me and tend to my veil, she always had one in her mouth. I guess you could say that I developed a bit of a habit myself.
Can you smoke in here? In this investigation room? This is an investigation room, right? It's just you and me in here. I won't tell if you won't tell. Just light one up for me and let it burn in the ashtray. If you're feeling generous, you could blow a little smoke in my face. That's what Carol would do. She must have figured out that I liked it.
Oh and let me guess. There's a camera behind that mirror, right? Yes, I've seen a few police TV programs, believe it or not. I know how this works. Is your boss is back there too? I didn't know we had company. You could have told me that before got started.
This is probably as good a time as any to go over some of the basics. If you aren't going to ask me for them, I'm sure your boss and whoever else is behind that mirror will. Let's just get it over with right now.
As you can tell, we talk. We talk a lot. God only knows what sort of lies Chiyo is telling your pals next door right now. We don't eat or drink or anything like that but we can smell. I've got a thing for nicotine, as you can see. Morty did too before….you know. Cigars, he loved them. Stupid, stubborn old bastard…
Give me a second, OK?
Mulțumesc, as they say back in the old country.
So Chiyo. She's all about french fries. If you guys haven't already, send somebody over to the nearest Burger King. Plop a large bag of fries in front of her, let her huff them for a few minutes and she'll love you forever.
Do we sleep? Definitely. Hibernate, even. I spent the '40s locked in a trunk in some warehouse on the outskirts of Rotterdam. The only thing to do in there was sleep. I only woke up once the entire decade. You can probably guess when. That's right, when the keizer or whoever blasted the whole damn city to bits. The earth shook for three days straight.
Far as I know, we can live forever if we take care of ourselves. Who knows what would have happened if that dog had gotten ahold of me. Is there a heaven for Romanian devil dolls? I couldn't tell you.
How are we doing on time here? Should I get on with it? All right, then. I've got all the time in the world, being a probable immortal and everything, but I suppose you don't.
So I won't tell you about what happened at the bus station or the Taco Bell in Brooklyn. The Jersey Turnpike was a real hoot. It would take me an hour to go over the night we spent in the Lincoln Bedroom and how we got in there. You couldn't get me to tell you what happened in West Virginia if you stuck every one of those cigarettes in your mouth like a carnie, lit 'em up and filled the room with a fog of rich tobacco.
Do I feel bad about what went down in Columbus, Georgia? Sure, who wouldn't? Oh, you don't know about that? Probably for the best. Any other unexplained mysteries or weirdness that happened on the eastern seaboard in the weeks it took us to get to Orlando? You could probably pin about half of those on us. The rest of 'em? Probably Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster. Who knows? You're the investigator. You tell me.
So the fun park? Have you ever been? The place is huge. Bigger than Belgium or it at least seemed like it was. I can see why it's called a world. We weren't prepared for that but we figured it all out soon enough. The humidity down here in Florida isn't doing my hair any favors though and Hopper had a run in with a wild heron a while back. It wasn't anything he couldn't handle though.
Chiyo knew where to go. The Magical Kingdom. The science park was no place for us and the water lands with all the swimming pools and the hotels weren't going to do us any good. It took us forever to reach the gates. The five of us got through both of the Carolinas faster. We had to make most of the journey on foot.
But what a wonderland! We got to the front gates in the middle of the night on a Tuesday. I'm pretty sure it was in the middle of March. What is it now? August? Oh, October? We held out that long? Good to know. Should have been longer. Should have been years, really. Decades. A few centuries if Mr Disney and his ancestors could afford to keep the place going that long.
Oh, and the lights. They never turn them off. Did you know that? We were transfixed when we saw the train station out front, all lit up with a rat's face made out of flowers in front of it for some reason. There were rats all over the place inside too. Bushes made out of them and hidden in weird little ways on all of the rides or whatever you called them. They really creeped Morty out but he learned to live with them. I guess he had some bad experiences with rodents at some point. We never did see a real one though.
Chiyo was excited, like a child on Christmas morning. We were all pretty happy to finally be there, to tell you the truth. Getting through the bars in the front gates wasn't a problem but they were cleaning the main boulevard when we came through. Some of the workers had these giant water guns that made a terrible screeching noise. There was also one of them with a…..I think it's called a flame thrower. He was using it to get some awful gunk off the sidewalk.
I didn't look over at Hopper as we got ourselves into the shadows. I don't think any of us did. We were just so happy, after everything that had happened. None of us wanted to think about him running around with a flamethrower a few seconds after we had reached our Shangri-La.
The Magical Kingdom really was exactly that. For a while, at least. A Shangri-La, an oasis, a heaven, all of those in a great big box with a bow on top. I don't regret those years I spent in Carol's museum but had I known about the fun park I would have headed down here instead.
We played it safe the first few weeks. Morty swiped a notebook with a blonde girl and a snowman on the cover from a gift shop. It became our bible and a box in a forgotten storeroom became our first home in the park. Every night, we broke into teams, girls and boys. Well, boys and fingers. Me and Chiyo in one, Morty, Hopper and Pinky in the other. He wasn't about to let the bunny out of his sight. I'll never know now but I'm pretty sure Hopper was just as happy to be there as the rest of us.
We got to know every single corner of the park. Where the cameras were. The schedule of the workers and the maintenance men. The ones that stayed up all night fixing the robots and making sure the carousel wasn't going to spin out of control and kill somebody. Things like that. I remember a night when I got stuck in the jungle ride and watched two people in a little boat wash the head of a fake hippopotamus in the river. How does someone get a job like that? What do they call it? Hippo Scrubber?
Of course, we rode all of the rides, even the big ones and the rockets that go through outer space in the mountain. Chiyo didn't go but the rest of us did when it was being tested one night. Bounced right on. I couldn't see much. I had to stay on the floor but I remember the stars sliding by over my head. Letting Hopper join us wasn't the best of ideas. He was flung out of the rocket on the first slope. We found him at the bottom of the mountain, sitting in the darkness, just laughing and laughing. Getting thrown through the cosmos and hitting the floor, for him, was just about as a good as it gets.
That damn mountain. If it hadn't been for that thing we'd probably still be living in the park. We wouldn't be here right now. You wouldn't even know that we exist.
The other mountains in the park weren't a problem. Hopper loved the one with the train that goes through the Wild West town but he hated the one with the water and the logs. Chiyo agreed to go on that one once but she lost it after we all got wet at the end. She was terrified that getting splashed would mess up her mechanics.
That night, while Chiyo was all wet and losing her mind, terrified that she was dying while all of these robotic animals were singing "zippity ya ya" around us, Hopper started whimpering in the back of the log. After we got out and were in the exit area I actually asked him if he was okay.
"Happy bunnnnyyyyy…." he said.
"The bunny on the ride?" I asked him. "Brer Bunny?"
"Stupiddddd, happy bunnnnyyy."
On the ride, you follow this Brer Bunny character around as he fights with a fox and a bear that are trying to eat him. He gets away at the end and sings a cheerful song before it's all over. The rabbit really seemed to get under Hopper's fur. Morty and I rode through that mountain many times but the Brer Bunny at the end, the one that sings the song, never seemed to work quite right after that.
I don't know if Hopper kept breaking him but he wasn't the only one in our group that sometimes messed around with the rides. The one with all of the singing kiddie dolls? That's the one that got to me. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't go in there a few times and knock over a few of them just for fun. We created plenty of extra work for the maintenance people but I regret none of it.
You can't pin anything that's gone wrong with the ride with the witch and the dwarves on us. We all really liked that one. The ride with the puppet that becomes a fleshball? Morty never admitted it but that ride had a lot problems during our time in the park. You probably don't need me to tell you why.
But don't get me wrong. Sure, certain spots in the park definitely chapped our hides but, once we got settled and figured out the lay of the land, the place was a paradise. Chiyo never said so much as a single bad thing about the place either. She was always so well behaved during our time there.
We'd learned a lot on the way down to Florida. Stuff like how to better avoid the watchful eyes of cameras and fleshballs and dogs and, most importantly, how to avoid pushing each other's buttons. There's all these tunnels under the park too, which definitely helped us get around. Not too many fleshballs down there at two in the morning.
We even had a schedule going. During operating hours, we zoned out behind a toy chest in the ride with the flying children and the pirate ships. After the ships stopped whizzing past, we knew it was time for us to come out and live our little lives.
We just got so comfortable after a while and Morty stopped worrying about Hopper. It was like we were enchanted, transfixed by the place, and had checked our brains at the gates. Or whatever qualifies as brains in our little heads. The park had definitely softened our edges and chased our various demons away….at least for a little while.
Every night, we'd have a chat among ourselves and Chiyo would head off with Pinky or Hopper. Sometimes we'd all stick together and sometimes it would just be Morty and I. On those nights, we would first go to a restaurant nearby and just smell the smells still lingering in the air. I've never eaten food. My mouth doesn't open. No place to put it. But I can still smell it.
Morty would usually head back to the toy chest before me. In those hours leading up until morning, I just walked around and stared at everything. The shiny buildings, the mountains and all the robots. Sometimes they were up and running and sometimes they weren't. Sure, they were all fake. They weren't real like us. As weird as it might sound, I started getting jealous of them. The singing toys and the pirates and the roaring lions. They could be themselves. They could be alive and up and about in front of all of these fleshballs. They didn't have to hide, even the ghouls in the mansion.
If I had to pick a favorite of all those rides, it would have been the mansion. Big surprise, right? Me being a Romanian devil doll and everything. I had no reason to hide in all those dark hallways. I would just go and sit in the graveyard. Sometimes the robot spirits would be up and running and singing their song. Other nights, they'd all be turned off with the grim grinning grins frozen. On those nights I could actually hear myself think. Living in a fun park is many things but quiet isn't one of them, even in the dead of night. In that cemetery, with all the ghosts so still, I had silence. No fleshballs to avoid. No loud children in their pirate ships, hundreds an hour, chattering while I was trying to get some rest.
But nothing good ever lasts, not in this world or any other. We all knew it or should have. I think that's why Morty gave me and him "a go" as he would put it. There's a lot I'll never know about his life and he mine but, if there's others like us in the world, he probably met plenty during his travels.
We had our moments together and got as close as two….things like us could ever get. Peering down into the wishing well, pretending to fish in the moonlight off the edge of the steamboat's dock. Then we found out about the one hotel room in the park, at the top of the castle. One night, it didn't have any guests and, well, I'll leave the rest up to your imagination. On the other hand, tell your imagination that it's better off not going down that particular road.
Afterwards, as we laid there in that ridiculous bed all painted gold, for whatever reason, he started unloading about the past. So much for pillow talk.
"We were up in Washington, me and the fleshball who used me in his act," Morty told me. "Ralph was his name. It was the last night of a monthlong gig at the old Seattle Theater. God, we were so popular, we were really going places. We were real flush after all those shows and some of the backstage folks invited us….okay, him, out for drinks afterward. They put me at the center of the table and, for a little while, I felt like I was one of them. They even bought me a manhattan. Slapped it down right in front of me. What I wouldn't have given to down the whole thing, fire back at their barbs with my own, have some real laughs."
I wanted to ask him what was up with the sudden confessional but I kept my mouth shut.
"For whatever reason, ol' Ralph carried me back to the hotel instead of putting me in my case like usual," Morty continued. "He dropped me in front of the door after he got off the elevator. Maybe that's why I did what I did. He was so damn drunk and couldn't find the key. I knew that he had it sitting right there in his jacket pocket so I told him. Ol' Ralph was a big fella, had a bum ticker probably. I remember him looking down at me with this dumb expression on his face. Then it went blank and he fell over. That was that. No more act, no more manhattans and no more tours. I sat there for an hour or so. Nobody came and nothing I could do so I got up and I ran. Spent a month in a movie house across the street listening to The Wizard of Oz and 'Over the Rainbow' four times a day until I couldn't stand it anymore."
Morty went quiet after that. I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything. Like I said earlier, I'm not good at empathy. After a while, we got up and left. If he was angry at me, he didn't let on.
But, of course, that was the night when everything all went wrong. We found Pinky scooting around in circles at the bottom of the elevator. There was no way it could hit the button to get upstairs and warn us that something terrible was happening. Even when we found Pinky after the doors opened, the only thing it could convey was panic.
We followed the finger back to the toy chest where Chiyo was quickly losing her mind.
"Where have you been?!" she yelled. "While you guys have been off making out or whatever, Hopper has gone totally nuts!"
Pinky jumped on Morty's shoulder and we made our way as fast as we could to the future section of the park. Chiyo brought us up to speed as we darted through the tunnels.
"We went to the spaceship mountain," she said. "It is Hopper's favorite place and the fleshballs have been testing it all night. Usually, one or two trips and he's good but not now. I couldn't get him out of the rockets. The fleshballs will discover him any second!"
The mountain had been shut down for a week or two so Hopper was no doubt catching up for lost time. No big thing, or at least so I thought at the time.
We all went in and the rockets were still zipping around by the time we got to the loading area. We waited behind a tool chest until we heard giggling in one of them as it pulled into the station. Pinky stayed behind while the us climbed onboard.
As the rocket rolled once more into the cosmos, Morty, Chiyo and I climbed over to the seats until we found Hopper in the back. His eyes were wild or as wild as two pieces of glass in a stuffed animal's head can get.
"Moooooooore staaaaaars," he muttered as the rocket began its ascent. "More….."
"Damn rabbit's gone all loopy," Morty said. "We may have to toss his furry butt out of this thing when we get back to the station."
"If we make it," I told him. "Get down here and hang on."
Morty joined me on the floor of the rocket and we clung to the base of the mechanical bars that prevents people from flying out of it. Over all the noise, I could hear Hopper chuckling like a maniac and Chiyo pleading with him. I haven't heard laughter like that since the last time I watched a peasant get burned at the stake for witchcraft.
What, you've never had the pleasure? Don't you still do that? Oh, shows what I know. I do try to keep up on this things, believe it or not.
Morty kept his eyes on the floor. Have you ever seen a ventriloquist dummy turn green? Me neither but if Morty could have he would have. I kept mine locked on Chiyo and the bunny. He was standing on the seat with his arms wrapped around the bar. Halfway down the mountain, one of his paws when skyward.
"WAAAAAAAAAAAANT STAAAAAAAAAAAR!!!!!" the rabbit yelled.
"NO, HOPPER!" Chiyo yelled. "YOU CAN'T HAVE A STAR!"
"HOPPER, NO!" I screamed up at him. "BAD BUNNY!"
Of course, it was no use. His second paw went up towards the closest supernova. Chiyo should have known better but she grabbed on to him. Then they both went spinning off into outer space.
Morty and I didn't say anything when we got back to the station. Prying eyes be damned, we jumped out of the rocket and ran down the tracks.
By the time we found them, Hopper had found a welding torch and figured out how to turn it on. I guess one of the workers had left it behind. The flame on the tip lit up the bottom of the mountain. There was dust everywhere. A few boxes too but, most importantly, a can of kerosene.
I ran at him but was knocked aside. Morty did what he could. They traded a few jabs but the rabbit was on a mission. While they fought, they knocked over the can.
"MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE MY OWN STAR!" he yelled. "OWN STAAAAAAAAAAAARS! SO MAAAAAAANY!!!!
I told Morty to run. He didn't listen. His little cloth suit burst into flames. He was once a star of the stage and I guess he got to be one again. One last time, I suppose.
Sorry, bad joke.
Then I told Chiyo to run and she didn't listen either. She just stared at Morty all up in flames, totally calm. No more tears and no more screaming. Then she walked right over to that can of kerosene and turned the knob.
As I ran back to the tracks, I did look back one last time. Not at Morty and not at that stupid little fool Chiyo but the rabbit. He'd already set a dozen things on fire. I don't how but I could see them in the flickering flames. Maybe the fall had done it or maybe Morty managed to tear a hole in his back during their fight.
His stuffing was charred. It looked like charcoal and it just pouring out of him like a faucet. Someone, somewhere, some twisted kid had really done a number on him. Explains a lot, don't it?
But why did Chiyo turn that knob? That's the big mystery, isn't it? Now that you know what happened, why don't you go and ask her? I'd love to know myself. Once you squeeze the answer out of that little broscoi, let me at her, OK? Five minutes. Just the two of us in this room, that's all I ask. I know that you're not about to let that happen but I figured I'd ask anyway.
Oh, and what about Pinky? Have you found the finger yet? No? Hmmmm….probably halfway back to Egypt or wherever it came from by now, I'd bet. It's more clever than you might think.
Anyway, sorry about your fun park. Right before you came in here, I heard one of your colleagues say that Hopper and his torch managed to take down most of the place with him. Only thing left standing is the island and the mansion with the ghosts. This isn't the first time this has happened, right? I guess there was a bad fire at some movie park in California a while back. Sorry, I don't know anything about that one. Must have been some other gang of "enchanted objects."
Oh, cry me a river. I lost Morty, you lost a fun park. Eye for an eye. Now let's talk about something else. You've been hitting me with questions all morning and I've got one for you.
Now that you fleshballs know that there are things like us in this world, what are you going to do about it?