Chapter Eighteen

Everybody was being entirely too cheerful about the whole thing. Very psycho. I mean, I'm thinking, we're probably going to die pretty soon (in fact there was a whole little section of weirdos in the crowd echoing my exact sentiments - the first people I'd seen who seemed to have any sort of grip on reality - but Aurora moved us by them disdainfully), yet most everyone had this kind of carnival vibe going on.

Fun, fun, fun! I couldn't believe for a second that all of them were buying it - I'd seen the line trying to get into Ozma's Gate - but here they were, gazing up to the palace, looking for Ozma to come out and make everything all better. Even considering all the magic and good will, these people had some serious issues going on.

We walked by this group of impossible walking cutlery, about six feet tall. I mean, what kind of people cause other people like this to come into being? What kind of warped sadist would doom another sentient being to life as a giant fork? Whimsical? Bullshit. It's cruel. I mean, maybe the giant butter knife didn't know any better, but I thought whatever wizard or witch had done that to it oughta be seriously considering some therapy. Really.

And Aurora's there in her skeleton suit, making lame devil horns behind my head, trying to make me laugh at a time like that. I was really starting to wonder about her, too.

Then there were the China people. Little miniature models of humans, all made of what looked to be glazed porcelain. Aurie and Ralph just shuffled by them without a second glance, but I had to linger and stare. My mind could not wrap around the reality of them. Impossible that they could exist, could move, but here I was, watching it happen. They shifted as they moved, some kind of liquid movement, like the individual molecules of their substance was sliding, rearranging as arms and legs reconfigured in a parody of walking. Graceful as all hell, but still - impossible.

Even after days of this shit, I still couldn't get used to impossible.

Just then Mikio pushed his way through the crowd, smiling, just as jolly as everybody else. I was starting to suspect maybe Ozma or Glinda had put some sort of whammy on everybody, some sort of astral Valium, or something in the water. Then I decided that couldn't be it; I sure didn't feel very jolly, and neither did that bunch of tall, droopy guys who were all moaning and groaning.

Neither did Ralph. As always, his expression was guarded, but you could tell he wasn't overly optimistic about our prospects. He definitely was seeing things going on that he'd never seen before, and that got me even more freaked out, because I figured he'd seen just about everything.

Mikio was rattling on about some kind of dream he had last night, just as if everything were just peachy, as if butchering hordes of barbarians weren't about to descend upon the city.

And then - and then the gong gonged again. And things started to get really stupid.

This woman came out onto Glinda's balcony - she was tall and thin, wearing a maid's outfit (green of course), and she started ceremonially sweeping out the place where Ozma was going to speak.

After the applause died down (applause! for what?) she went back inside and everybody went back to general cheerfulness.

We continued to push through to the palace gate, and I caught an eyeful of the guard contingent. They were robots. No, that's not right - they were mechanical men.

They were something out of a past that never happened - a place where robotics was perfected in the 19th century. There were several of them, all different - ornate, filagreed Babbage-men. One of them, Tik-Tok, a squat, copper-colored R2D2 with a mustache, rattled and clicked up to us and welcomed us.

In a moment we were through the gate, and walking down a huge corridor, our muffled footsteps swooshing over a deep emerald carpet. Soon enough we were outside again, in a smaller courtyard with high walls, just under the window where Ozma would give her address.

So, I'm minding my own business, strolling up into the VI.P. lounge, or whatever the hell that courtyard was, and the same lion I'd seen before, yes, That Lion, comes up out of nowhere and starts rubbing against my hip.

"Uh - hello.." I said, not wishing to offend.

"Helloooo," the Lion purred back, "pet meee..."

"Okay," I said. You know, at this point, I was pretty much up for anything. Figuring that he probably wasn't wired much differently than my cats back in L.A., I started petting his mane, and said, "By the way, my name's Gene."

"I knowwwww," he said, "of Los Angeles."

"That's right."

Just as I thought it couldn't get any weirder, here comes - The Scarecrow.

He's a scarecrow, just in case you've been locked in a closet for the last hundred years. And he walks. And talks.

I guess I was starting to lose it. Because while Aurora and Ralph mingled with the growing crowd of people (and others) there in the inner sanctum, I eased off petting Lion, who'd curled up on the ground for a short snooze anyway, and motioned Scarecrow over to a couple of seats that were cut into the solid wall of gemstone. He cheerfully complied with my wishes.

I sat there, staring at his head. He didn't say anything either, just sat there with his hat in his lap and stared back - I guess he figured it was part of a game.

I was looking at the painted grin - looking at the way the paint twitched, just like a human face that's trying to stay incredibly still.

"So," I asked, "what's the real deal?"

He stared back at me, still smiling, but the painted-on eyes kind of scrunched down quizzically at me. "The - real deal?"

I started checking out the way the canvas bag that made up his head was kind of just tucked into his shirt, and I was not convinced. I'd seen a lot of stuff that couldn't possibly be, but this just really offended my sense of reality. This had to be a guy in a scarecrow suit, and I was going to put an end to the charade then and there. The cheerful people of Oz would thank me for it later.

So in one quick movement, I reached out both hands, grabbed his canvas head and pulled. I could see Aurora glance over, like in slow-motion, her expression changing from a jovial mask to a look of mild horror, her mouth expanding into an "O."

And I then I was sitting there with a canvas head full of straw on my lap. Still smiling. "Why'd you do that?" it said, painted lips moving into a neutral straight line.

Aurora grabbed the head, and started stuffing it back into its place on the rest of the Scarecrow, alternately apologizing profusely and glaring at me, asking if I was out of my mind.

I looked over and saw Ralph giving me a thumbs up, laughing his ass off. Quite a few other people were yucking it up as well.

I apologised to the Scarecrow, and he graciously accepted.

"For some reason, this sort of thing happens to me frequently," he said, tucking in some stray tufts of straw. "I take no offense at other people's curiosity. In fact, I find it a rather admirable trait, one that I myself exercise with great frequency."

Aurora had no time to bitch me out, because Ozma chose that exact moment to come out onto her balcony and say some of the stupidest stuff I have ever heard. I couldn't believe it.

But what else is new?


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