Chapter Thirty-Three

All I could think of, again, was "what the fuck am I doing here?"

A couple of weeks ago I was in Aron's, drinking a cup of coffee and sorting through used DVD's, and now I'm in a wicked warlock's fortress, attempting to actually locate and go to the dungeon of the fortress, so I can free the actual Tinman, King of the Winkies.

The hallway we found ourselves in was dank, cold - the walls sweated and stinky torches hung along the corridor, providing what dim light there was.

Since I pulled my little magic trick, Ledelei had been looking at me suspiciously, as if she wasn't sure what side I was on anymore. I could tell that this whole excursion into the heart of darkness was starting to mess with her mind.

"What?" I whispered at her, finally, exasperated. "What do you want me to say? I don't know how I knew that. It freaks me out, too. There's something going on that I don't understand..."

She was giving me that look that people give you when they think you're absolutely lying, and I had that look that you give people when they think you're lying and they've almost got you convinced that you really are lying. Which makes them even more convinced that you're lying.

"Come on," I said, "this is ridiculous. If I was with them, why would I have gone through all of this? Really. This is pointless. Let's just get Nick. It's around this corner - right, two lefts, and down a staircase."

I did a double take worthy of Larry Fine, and she smirked and shook her head. "Whatever." She said. "Gene, I am not an idiot. Be careful. I don't know if you are the enemy or what, but I am ready to kick your ass when the time comes."

That was a fine how-do-you-do. A few hours ago, we were rolling around naked, and now she was going to kick my ass. And I didn't doubt for a minute that she could.

"Jeez. Let's just find the guy and get out of here."

I looked down the corridor, and I knew that around the next bend there was a stairwell that spiraled up, with a door to a balcony about halfway up.

This was getting spooky. I was about to attribute it, once again, to normal Oz high weirdness, and just use it, when I flashed on where I had seen all this before. I slapped my forehead, and would have laughed out loud if not for the dire circumstances:

The whole set-up of the fortress was straight out of one of my favorite games: Dread III. I mean, I hadn't played it for a long time. Actually, it was my favorite when I was about twelve or thirteen. But I was starting to remember, bigtime. This was LEVEL THREE: THE CRUCIBLE, where you go up the stairway and have to shoot about three dozen zombies-with-chainsaws. I couldn't believe it: Bjhennigh a computer game junkie. I guess it went along with everything else, though.

When I told Ledelei, she eased up a little bit. I could tell she wanted to believe me, and was trying really hard.

"I've heard of these games. Little worlds seen though the glass window of the computing machine. Shooting and clicking. Sounds very stupid."

"No, they're fun. Really. I'll let you play one when we get back to Emerald. If we get back to Emerald. If it's still there."

I warned her to watch out, and we hefted our weapons, because I wasn't sure how much authenticity Bjhennigh was going for. I was certainly glad when we passed the first stairway without hearing any groans or chainsaws revving up. But after we'd padded down the hallway a few dozen steps, there were footsteps and metal rattlings from further down the corridor, and we spent a few terrifying minutes pressed against the wall, waiting for whoever it was to either come our way or move on. The sounds diminished, and we moved on towards the dungeon staircase.

We made it there without incident, and moved cautiously down it, like a couple of cats stalking a pigeon, winding down and down along it into the growing darkness. Slowly, slowly, peeking with excruciating care around each bend.

I imagined every few seconds that something hideous was just below, waiting to grab and devour us.

You couldn't blame me. That's what happens in Dread III. I must have reloaded this part of PART THREE: THE CRUCIBLE about forty thousand times due to getting devoured by brain-vampires in the dark on that very staircase.

But the brain-vampires weren't haunting this version of the game, fortunately. I thought maybe the low turn-out of evil monsters was due to their being in front of the Emerald City, preparing to rape and pillage and set up little tea-cup rides and T-shirt booths.

Our luck didn't last, though. The ambient light began to increase, and we could see a torch hanging next to a huge door at the bottom of the stairs. The dungeon door had one big old smelly green ogre standing in front of it. His finger was stuck up his nose, and he was concentrating deeply on whatever obstruction was eluding his probing digit.

I started to turn towards Ledelei, I guess to somehow gauge how she felt about these new circumstances and how we might deal with them, but while I was in mid turn, she sprinted down the rest of the staircase, and whacked the ogre's elbow up and into his head, hard.

His finger went up into his sinus cavity and stuck there, and while he moaned in pain like something out of Eraserhead meets the Three Stooges, struggling to pull his wedged finger out, she slit his throat neatly, with a quick swipe of her monster sword. After a minute or so the ogre stopped running and flopping around, and I came the rest of the way down the stairs.

"Very creative," I said quietly, as she removed the keys to the door from the giant's carcass. "Where do you people learn this stuff?" I asked, grabbing the torch out of its holder on the wall. "I thought this was a peaced-out utopia most of the time."

"Gene, you have a lot to learn." she said, working the key in the lock. "This place has much magic, true. Much freedom. Much goodness. But with it there is wildness, chaos. Bad things happen here as well. Terrible things. We choose, much of the time, to not talk about them. Or to couch their existence in cheerful words.

"Many of us hope the bad things will never happen. But we are ready. Always vigilant. The people of your world seem never to recall the horrors of the past. Never to learn. But here, we do. Maybe it's because we live so much longer here, I don't know. I've said enough, now. Let's get Nick Chopper."

And with a click, the great door opened, and we walked through it, into the gloom of the dungeon.

And the stench.

Along the walls, down a long, narrow corridor, hanging in chains, were dozens of corpses, in various states of decay. Some of them were normal size, though most of them were clearly Munchkins. They all wore Aushwitz-style black and white striped uniforms. We hurried by them, mostly because we were trying to get clear of the stink. But maybe also because we were afraid some of them might still be alive.

Finally, we came to the end of the passageway. There was a door there, with another lock to undo. Ledelei found the right key after the third or fourth try, and the hinges groaned as we pushed the door open.

It was hard to see in there, even with the torch. It was a big room, and the sound of dripping water reverberated off the stone.

I heard a muffled screaming from the shadows, like someone struggling in their sleep. My eyes took a little while to adjust to the gloom - and then I saw him in a far corner, under a dripping pipe, a slow trickle of black liquid falling down onto the once-shiny crown of his head. His arms and legs were chained to the wall, and he was covered with a patina of deep red rust wherever the water had been hitting him on his metal parts. Before him, just out of his reach, was his axe, and an old-fashioned oil can. And just beyond that, staring up vacantly at Nick, was the battered, putrid head of Alphonse Guttierrez.

Nick noticed us, and tried to turn, but only his one lunatic eye moved, and was filled with a sorrowful rage, a certainty that he would die trying to murder the cocksucker that did this to him. For a moment I was more afraid of him than I was of Bjhennigh.

But Ledelei was nonplussed. She bent down to pick up the oil can, grimacing a little at Guittierez' head. She turned around and started oiling Nick, starting with the rusty iron part of his lower jaw, careful to keep the oil out of bone and tissue.

By the time he could talk, he was scary-calm.

"Thank you, young lady. Now my knees, please."

She obliged, and followed his subsequent oiling instructions. Soon Nick was sprinting around the room, swinging his ax menacingly.

I couldn't stop looking at the head. The second-last time I'd seen it seemed a million years back somewhere. It had been attached to a smiling, live person in an Armani suit then. Now it stared at me like something from behind the window at the meat department at Ralph's. Alas poor Yorick and all that shit.

It was time to go, and I was starting to feel a little inadequate. I had a gun, and a fighting chance, but I was no warrior like those two. I fumbled in my ogre-pockets, just making sure the weapon was handy, and felt the cylindrical curve of the gold jar that contained "The Powder of Life" in my other pocket. This time I was determined to say something. This was the time. If anybody knew what to do with the stuff, Nick would.

I was about to walk (carefully) over to him and show him what I had, ask him if we could use it somehow, hoping I would save the day with this marvelous substance. But Ledelei grabbed the jar of powder out of my hand.

"Hey!" I yelled. "What are you doing? Gimme that!" I lunged for it while she played keep away.

She grinned at me slyly, untwisting the cap. "Don't try to fool me again, Gene. I am not stupid. I know all about the Earth drugs. This will certainly make me faster and stronger."

And before I could do anything, she tipped some white powder out onto the back of her gloved hand, and snorted it. And immediately sneezed, blowing the remainder... onto the head of Alphonse Guttierrez.

Now Nick had stopped his calisthenics, and was slowly walking back toward us, taking in the situation at the same time.

As Ledelei read the label, finally comprehending what she'd just done, I grabbed the bottle back and screwed the cap back on.

"That was the stupidest thing I have ever seen," I seethed. "Do you know what this is? I don't I was about to show Nick, but - "

Nick was glaring at me, with his hand outstretched. I looked at the bottle, and back at him, then I handed it to him. No problem. The bottle disappeared into a metal drawer in his chest, and then I guess into history, because I never saw or heard of it again.

Right about that time, two things happened. A groaning came

from the direction of the head. And Ledelei began to act... strange.

I was afraid to look at the head, but I forced myself to.

"UUuuhh... " the battered, decaying thing hissed, sounding like a latino Miles Davis. "Chingado, I don't feel so good." The reumy eyes stared up at me. "What happened, man? Last thing I remember, I was heading for the Brick, and now I'm here feeling like shit. Who are you? And what smells?"

The other two looked at me, like I was the spokesman for the group. Thanks, I thought.

"Well," I stammered out, "my name's Gene, and - "

"I've seen you before, somewhere...," the head interrupted. "You from L.A.?"

"Uh, yeah," I said. "Uh, look - you had kind of an - accident? And you might have some trouble getting around for a little while. I think we're gonna leave and do some stuff for a bit, then we'll come back and get you. But - "

"Fuck that. I'm going with you. This place stinks, and it's dark."

Nick looked down at the head. "Mr. Guittierrez, things are a little different here now. Things have changed since you came through the gate." He paused. I think the head was even getting to him. "Bjhen-nigh has begun his war," he continued.

Ledelei had a distracted look, and was starting to vibrate. I mean, serious vibrating, starting small and building, until her whole body moved back and forth in periodic bursts like the wing of a giant hummingbird.

Nick glanced at her disgustedly, and went on. "When I heard about your - mishap - I knew that the aggressors would soon begin their move. Bjhennigh would never have been so bold as to kill a citizen of Emerald unless he were ready to proceed with his plans of conquest."

"Kill? Whataya mean kill?"

Nick got a strange look on his face, then glanced at me. "Did I say 'kill'? I meant 'molest'. Yes, I believe I meant it in that sense of the word."

The head looked at me. "What's he been smoking, ese? You aren't makin sense, Mr. Nick. There's no sense of the word 'kill' that means 'molest'. I mean, English is my second language, and I guess Pawt'kween is my third, but I'm pretty sure 'kill' means 'kill' in both of them."

Nick wouldn't let it go. "An archaic usage."

The head wasn't buying.

"Very well. Mr. Guittierrez, you are a head."

"Ahead of what?"

"You are a head."

"I'm a head?"

Ledelei was vibrating so fast now that you could hardly see her. She was whirling around the room, rather quickly. I guess if you were already alive, the Powder of Life made you really alive. I hoped that we could still communicate with her. It was getting hard to see where she was: she looked kind of like The Flash when he does laps around the world.

"Look," I said, exasperated, "do we really have time for this?"

The Tinman was staring at the doorway. "No," he said, raising his ax.

I followed his glance, and saw the first of the zombie munchkins shamble through the door. They looked the same as the stationary models we'd seen on the way in, dressed in the same striped P.J.'s. Except that they were shambling.

I never thought I'd get to see an actual shambling zombie, but there they were. Only one of them had a chainsaw, and it wasn't even on. That seemed kind of a ripoff, on a purely aesthetic level. On a practical level, it was great.

I wasn't sure what to do about the head, but I didn't think it was right to leave Guitierrez (or what was left of him) to the tender mercies of the munchkin zombies. So I leaned the torch against the wall, removed my ogre vest and, over loud complaints, stuck the disgusting talking head into the middle of it and wrapped it up. I had to gamble that it wouldn't suffocate, already being dead and everything. Guitierrez continued to complain in a muffled kind of way, jiggling around feebly under my arm. I felt bad, but there didn't seem to be a choice.

Nick was just planted there, watching the zombies stumble up. He held his ax out in front of him, waiting for them to come to him.

"Listen," I whispered, "I have some experience with this. I think the best all around thing to do is aim for the head. If you chop the - "

Nick ran forward, ax held high, screaming at the top of his lungs (as if he was going to scare a zombie) and lopped off the first of several zombie heads. As I fumbled for Ralph's gun in the balled up vest, I noticed that several of the other revenants were falling apart as if spontaneously. I heard a buzzing noise accompanying this phenomenon, as if the animated corpses were falling into a wood chipper. Suddenly I came to the realization that this was Ledelei's doing: she was whipping around these creatures so quickly that I could only see the results of her handiwork.

By the time I had the Magic Magnum cocked and ready to go, it was over. Corpse parts lay strewn all around the front part of the chamber. I wasn't sure that Ledelei was even in the room anymore; I couldn't see or hear anything to indicate her presence either way.

One of the munchkin heads stared up at me, insensate, bitterly mouthing something, some secret from the other side that I wasn't destined to ever comprehend.

Nick sprinted over to me, a little out of breath but otherwise not too ruffled. "Your assumption was correct, Gene of Los Angeles." He reached out and, honest to God, ruffled the hair on my head. "I hadn't realized that these creatures roamed the surface of Earth."

"Oh yeah," I said, following him out of the inner dungeon, "tons of them. All over the place."

We were halfway up the dungeon staircase when we heard the next thunderous explosion, and felt the earth shake under us.

"Yesss," I said quietly, "Excellent. Ralph's still at it."

Nick gave me a questioning look, and I explained Ralph's situation to him as we climbed.

Nick chuckled. "I knew he would come around in the end."

"What," I said, surprised, "you knew about Ralph?"

Now he was laughing silently, resting his ax against the stone stair. He looked like he might be a bit tired, but he'd never let on.

I looked at him, waiting, grinning uncomfortably, wanting to be let in on the joke.

When he calmed down, he said, "You people from Earth seem to think of me as a jolly simpleton for some reason. I don't know why. Maybe it has something to do with the books that that Baum fellow wrote, or the moving picture with all the dancing and singing. I would venture to guess that you think of our entire world in the same light: some sort of savage playground populated by ageless children. But it's not so, Gene."

He smiled at me kindly; now there was no sign of the scary maniac. "Ralph is - a good man in a rather peculiar situation. He-there are many things going on here that you don't understand. One is that, while I am loyal to Ozma, and a friend and ally of Glinda, I am still a pragmatist. I have to gather my own intelligence, protect my own rather special interests. You see, Gene, I'm been the ruler of the Winkies for quite a long time now. When I'm not hiking around the countryside or rotting in a dungeon."

I stared down at the floor, thinking, trying to absorb what this very important guy was letting me in on, and the import of it struck me suddenly, and I looked up again. "Yeah, I've heard about this." I was being allowed into the good-old-boys club! Gabba gabba, one of us!

"Hmmm. So.. what you're telling me is... Ralph feeds you tidbits every once in a while and you turn a blind eye (sorry), and you don't let Ozma and Company in on everything you happen to find out." I chewed on that for a second. "Yeah. I don't think I would either, come to think of it."

He gave me a fleeting smile, then his face resumed its fearsome seriousness. "Let's get moving," he said.

Maybe he wasn't so bad after all. Maybe.

We climbed the rest of the way to the ground floor without much incident, except for once, when a strange sound came from the inside of the ogre vest. I was alarmed for a moment until I realized that it was Guittierrez's head snoring. I still don't know what it was using for air.

We started down the hallway. I was looking for the way out, which I was pretty sure was a little way down and to the left.

"Piece of cake," I said to Nick, "we'll be out of here in no time."

He gave me one of those supremely scary looks, one of his I-may-just-chop-your-head-off-for-fun looks.

"Out?" he said, "why would we want to go out? We're going in, Gene. We're going to find that - what is the colorful phrase that you use on Earth?" He searched the memory banks for a second. He found it, and savored the sound of it. "Motherfucker." This was a very tricky situation for me. On one hand, I'd done my bit, I'd gotten Nick Chopper out of the dungeon, and now I wanted to get the hell out of the fortress. On the other hand, Nick wasn't going to take no for an answer. Not so tricky of a situation after all.

The corridor widened out into a large oval. This bothered me, because for the first time since entering the fortress, the layout didn't look familiar.

We walked into the middle of it. I had about three seconds to look around and scratch my chin, and was about to mention something to the effect that I wasn't sure where we were any more, when I heard noise coming from the other side of the oval chamber.

Suddenly we were surrounded by big smelly ogre guys. Six of them had the large axes I'd seen before, and two had amazingly huge maces, which they were swinging around their heads.

Suddenly, one of them yelped, like he'd been bitten by a snake. In seconds, blood started to squirt out from various places on his body, and he collapsed into a pile of muck, like one of those buildings imploded with strategically placed blasts of dynamite. Only this building was made out of meat.

Ledelei was still with us.

Nick made his move. He leaped forward to join battle with the first of the remaining ogres. Suprisingly, it didn't go down like a Kung Fu movie. They did not all wait in line for him to kick the first one's ass before the next one joined in. Three of the remaining ogres started towards Nick, while a fourth started to bloodily implode.

Where were the other three? Looking longingly at, and moving cautiously towards me. Evidently, they were a little spooked by the sudden demise of their two buddies, but not enough to dissuade them from trying to turn me into a rump roast. I got my fingers wrapped around the trigger of the Magnum, which was stupidly back in the pocket of the vest, which was still wrapped around Guittierrez' head (which was still snoring).

I dropped the torch, and managed to get the gun out this time. I aimed it at one of them, as they backed me into the corridor opposite the one we'd entered the chamber from. They let out a collective noise, a "hweeerrrugghhh" noise worthy of the Flatheads.

I'm not proud to say it, but I completely lost my nerve, and tore ass down the corridor, hoping that the layout of the fortress was enough like what I knew to get me to the exit.

But this didn't stop the ogres from following. I heard them stomping the floor behind me. They couldn't match my speed, but it was just a matter of time before I either got winded, or ran into another bunch of these guys, or something worse. I kept on running all the same, following twists and turns, trying to lose them.

But they weren't getting lost.

So I planted myself in the middle of the hallway, turned, and aimed.

The first bullet blew most of the lead ogre's head off, much like it had done the last time I'd fired it. The second ogre was hit in the chest, and was merely slowed down. The third ogre started to implode. Thank you, Ledelei.

I fired again, and took off most of the guy's left arm this time. He just grinned at me. Relentless. Stupid. Just did not give a shit.

My aim was better the fourth time, and he followed his buddies to the big cesspool in the sky, or wherever it is that dead ogres go.

"Ledelei?" I said, between breaths, trying to make contact with my invisible benefactor. But there was no response. I though she must have gone back to help the Tinman.

I wanted more than anything to get the hell out of there. But where was I going to go? I didn't know if there was anything left of Emerald, or if it was there who controlled it, and I wouldn't get back to Earth without a Gate. But hell, I was a U.S. citizen, and they'd have to let me try to go back, wouldn't they? Wouldn't they? The thought of it started to make me sick.

And Nick was back there somewhere, maybe dead, maybe alive.

And I'd come here to get him out. Fuck it.

I went back down the corridor the way I'd come, attempting to retrace my steps, to try to find the Tinman, and then - what? I guess help him nail Bjhennigh.

Nothing looked familiar this time, and it felt like the floor was angling down. The corridor snaked left and right, defying any kind of reason.

I started to notice trailers of black vegetation along the walls, black like what had been growing away from the black vines.

It was getting harder to see. Everything was taking on a gray cast. The torches that only moments before had been hanging at regular intervals in the corridors were becoming few and far between.

I thought maybe I could use this as a way of finding my way back to Nick. I tried to backtrack, looking for a passageway with

more light, but this only got me more lost.

The section of the fortress I now found myself in was growing tighter, claustrophobic, increasingly maze-like. Every few feet, the walkway turned in a different direction.

The black kudzu was getting thicker, and before long the light started coming back, and I was dumped out into a cavernous chamber.

So much for Dread III. This was definitely not part of the game.

High stone walls arched overhead, and the kudzu blossomed over it and rolled out across the floor. I had to walk over it occasionally, and when I did I felt a dull aching in the soles of my feet.

From two holes in opposite walls, the thick black vines emerged, the ones we'd seen outside. They met in the middle, entering - a trailer. It was an ordinary, wide-load type trailer-park home. Definitely not a product of Oz. This was the Trailer Home That Got Through.

But what the hell was it doing in the middle of the Hollow Man's Fortress? Why was it -

-and then it dawned on me, as I remembered my last conversation with Ralph in Topeka.

Bjhennigh never moved his base of operations - why would he? He simply built around it. This, then, was where Bennie Birnbaum had become Bjhennigh. This was Ground Zero.

Just then, on cue, the ground shook again, and a dull rumble rolled though me. Ralph was still at it, God bless him. I was amazed.

I gripped the Magnum tightly, and headed for the door to the trailer. The place looked deserted, but I couldn't be sure.

I'm not sure what I was thinking, reflecting on it now. I had another hair-brained idea that maybe I could go in there and fuck things around. Do something like Ralph was doing, though I didn't know what. Something. Save the day. Fix everything.

I went in.

Just inside the doorway was an office with tacky fake-wood paneling, a couple of ancient 386's on a card-table type desk, and some scientific test equipment: oscilliscopes, what looked like a seismograph. This was the best the United States Government could come up with? No wonder they wanted my laptop, I thought.

The black vines snaked into a toolshed kind of room, growing out wildly, almost filling it. In the center of the floor was a cylindrical tank, completely overgrown with the kudzu, looking like some giant ebony cocoon. I figured this must be the containment tank. What the hell did it contain now? I wondered.

I went over to it and crouched down. Setting the vest (and the snoring head) gently on the floor, I put my hands up close to it, attracted to something in there, listening, watching, I didn't know for what. I felt something. I couldn't hear anything but a mild slow hissing, like a slowed down teakettle. But the impression I got was of some nearly frozen thing inside there, screaming.

"Hi. Whatcha doin?"

I almost shit. I wheeled around, and saw a little guy in overalls, standing near the door.

You know how sometimes you're just speechless for a second? I stood there looking at him.

He was short, maybe five-four, maybe a little taller. He looked at me, but it was hard to actually tell that he was looking at me, since his eyeballs were completely black.

Jesus, I thought, even the janitor has to go over to the Dark Side.

"Hey. You're not supposed to be here, are you?" He looked me up and down again. "You're a little scrawny for an Illdhthrazshu, aren't you?"

I tried grunting at him, but he wouldn't buy it. He let out this nervous little laugh and shook his head.

"All right," I shouted, pulling out the Magnum and aiming it at his head, "get back against that wall and shut up."

It looked for a second like he was going to comply. But no.

"That's not very nice, is it?" he asked, and the gun flew out of my hand and skittered across the floor, way out of my reach. He grinned at me.

He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of a pocket in his overalls and lit up a cigarette. Smoke curled around his head, and stopped, then hovered, and sucked inward, back toward his eye sockets, nostrils and mouth.

"You any good at games? Check this out."

And my feet started moving, and I found myself in the last room of the trailer, and my butt slammed down into a hard plastic chair. I couldn't move. At least any way that I wanted to.

On a table, directly across from us, was another lame computer, with black vines running all over it, up into the back of it, and it was running a game, complete with jokey music and cheap sound effects. The janitor sat down in front of it, and gleefully began to play it.

The game looked really stupid: I mean, it wasn't even 3D or anything. It was totally nineties looking.

There were a bunch of pixel guys that looked like they might be ogres, standing around a green castle. They weren't even drawn to the correct scale or anything. Most of the "sky" was covered with a big puffy stylized rain cloud, except for one side of the castle, and little black blobs rushed out of it, and rained down on the castle.

He would tap some keys, and the little pixle-ogres would run up against some other guys - little white guys with pointed hats, that came out of the castle. The castle would also sporadically glow green, and the ogres would back off for a few moments.

We heard another muffled explosion outside, and the screen dimmed. It seemed a little soon for another tower to go up, but hey, I wasn't complaining.

A few of the pixle-ogres disappeared with a really cheap "poof' sound, and a few more of the little white pointy-head guys appeared.

"Shit!" he said, "I hate that. Haven't they stopped him yet? How many towers are there left, anyway?"

"Um, one, I think."

"ONE. Great. What am I supposed to do then? I suppose my friend will think of something. It hasn't let me down so far, I doubt something like that will stop it. It's got enough power now to get through another way, I'm sure. If it even needs too. Don't you think?"

I opened my mouth, closed it again.

"Fucking Ralph. I'd had such great hopes for the guy. I never thought I'd see him do something stupid like this."

"YOU had great hopes for the guy?"

He looked at me, cocked his head to one side. "Well, yeah."

Uh oh.

This guy wasn't the janitor. And that wasn't a stupid game. The castle was Emerald City. It was real.

"Not that it matters much now anyway. Everything's gonna be... transformed... in a little while. I don't really even know how it's gonna be. It keeps upping the ante. Very exciting. I do know that there will be no theme park."

And he started to cackle.

The was black kudzu around my feet, under it, and the dull ache was starting again in my soles. The stuff was starting to migrate up the side of my boots, trying to get at the space between the shoe leather and the soles.

This was freaking me out, to say the least. And something larger was freaking me out. I couldn't help it anymore - I had to ask him.

"Why? Why are you doing this?"

He didn't turn around, he just talked as he played his deadly game. "Why?" He said in his nasal, whiney voice, "Let me ask you a question. How long have you been knocking around Oz?"

"About a week."

"About a week. Okay. Give it a month. It's nice for a while -  it's - what's that word? - idyllic. But jeez, you can only take so much, right? Am I right? Pretty soon you're thinking, this fairyland shit is really starting to get to me. I want a hamburger. I wanna watch T.V.

"And the people.

"The happy, shiny people start to really piss you off. Nothing bothers them. Well, almost nothing. And they're smug! Americans used to be that way not too long ago, before they realized there were other countries in the world - I've heard the Brits were that way too, once. Anyway, pretty soon you're fantasizing about rounding up their plump little asses and using them for target practice. But you can't do that, can you? And you can't grind up Elsie to make a cheeseburger either, can you? No. It just wouldn't be right. But you're still thinking about it.

"And all the while this is going on, you've still got your job to do. You're being treated like a flunky, chastised by thick-necked idiots for not getting results, when all the time - you can see what they gave me to work with, for Chrissake - "

The kudzu had an actual grip on my boots now, trying to work into the crevices. Behind my growing terror, I'm thinking, strangely, that I can kind of relate to what he's saying. Like nothing he'd said so far seemed that unreasonable. I actually nodded my head and raised my eyebrows a few times. And the dull ache from the kudzu was starting to feel - how can I say it? This is embarrassing. The pain was getting less painful, and more - stimulating. It was almost giving me a boner.

"And the thing is," he continued, "I never did have too many friends, so, I was getting... kinda lonely I guess. I started doing some weird stuff, ya know?"

"Yeah," I said, "I know."

"I imagine you and Ralph have had some conversations about me, huh? You probably heard about the tank. Yes?"


"Anyway, I started spending alot of time in there. I felt - something, y'know?"

"I know."

"It came to me there, and I never - I have never felt that I was -  alright before. It let me know that - those feeling I had - they were -  okay. They were okay!"

"Uh, Bennie? They weren't okay."

"Bullshit!" He wheeled around out of his chair, and stuck his face in my face. I felt a chill coming out of him, and a smell like a musty attic. "It's all all right. And that's about the only difference between you and me, pal. Because you see me do these things and ask me 'why'? But see, deep down inside, you already know why. My friend made me see it. It's all all right." He looked down at the kudzu making its way into my shoes. "You'll be there soon. With me. And my friend."

He turned back to his game, and it looked like he was doing pretty well. A few different monster type guys (one looked alot like that Power Rangers monster from the Burrito that ate with his crotch) were now inside the walls of the little green city, and more of the cloud blobs were dropping down inside.

He tapped, and the screen flashed green.


I thought it was part of his trip, some kind of warning or something. He continued to tap furiously, and wreak more havoc on the tiny city. Then the flash happened again, and he swore again, and I could tell that this was not his doing.

Whose then?

He kept at it, and over several second the green flashes grew more frequent. They seemed like the green on certain old-type computer monitor displays, but more intense, brighter and more high

powered than any cathode ray tube could produce.

A voice bellowed out of the walls, out of the floor, but emanated from the Hollow Man: "WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?" Low, ominous, dopplered trails rang on after it.

Then I thought I saw - I couldn't be sure at the time if I wasn't imagining it - strobing in between the green magnesium flashes, now so frequent that Bhennigh couldn't see the game, couldn't tap keys - I thought I saw a familiar Happy-Face-In-A-Computer-Screen.

Winking at me.


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