One Last Thing
Jack awoke with a full heart. He had so much to be grateful for: a loving family, amazing friends, and a comfortable bed in which to sleep off 48 straight hours of adventures. Though he hadn’t counted his blessings in some time, now he felt like a calculator was needed. The one thing he wasn’t grateful for, however, was the sticky layer of filth clinging to his skin after two shower-less days. The tarry coat consisted of unequal parts blood, sweat, tears, dirt, and sand--a reminder of his tumultuous path home. He would never forget the journey, but the mementos had to go.
With a twist of the steel handle labeled “H,” Jack stepped into the rising-steam shower. Hot water cleansed his body, melting away all fear and inhibitions. The once-timid boy shed the toxic skin that had weighed him down for years. He was free. He was happy. As he watched the black liquid swirl down the drain, Jack felt like a prisoner released from his shackles. And when the water finally ran crystal clear, he knew the metamorphosis was complete. He cut off the water and watched the last of the pollution disappear.
Out of nowhere came a familiar voice: “Jack.”
“Mind Melter?” Jack said.
“Yes, it’s me.”
Jack’s eyes lit up as he scanned the seemingly empty bathroom. Nothing. “Where are you?” he asked.
The fogged-up bathroom mirror responded, “Right here.”
Through a confused squint, Jack made out the fuzzied features of his friend hidden behind the mirror’s condensation. Forgetting he was completely naked, Jack wiped away the mirror fog and revealed the smiling face of the Mind Melter. Her smile melted when the two realized the situation. As the Mind Melter’s eyes wandered south, Jack’s cheeks flushed with blood. He quickly exhaled two bursts of breath onto the mirror, clouding the Mind Melter’s face once more.
Jack was too embarrassed to speak. The Mind Melter wasn’t. “Not bad,” she said.
“Shut up,” Jack replied with a laugh, though deep down he was more than thrilled with her approval. “I’ll get dressed, and then we can talk.” He exited with a spring in his step and quickly returned wearing a pair of jeans and a faded t-shirt, his step still noticeably springy. With a quick swipe, he revealed the Mind Melter once more. Ignoring the fact that an interdimensional being had just studied his fully nude body, Jack casually asked, “What’s up?”
“At least one thing,” another voice replied.
With a grin, Jack uncovered his skeletal friend. “Bob,” Jack said, “you always know just what to say.” His eyes darted from the beautiful girl to the smirking skeleton. “Anyone else in there I should know about?”
“See for yourself,” Bob said.
A frantically wiping hand towel erased the entirety of the fog from the bathroom mirror, revealing a great rectangular picture Jack had seen before. Only it was different now. Yes, it was the same cemetery he’d first observed in that costume shop changing room, but gone were the mountains of trash, the stalking guard dogs, and the doom and gloom. Replacing the somber scene was a green-grassed graveyard packed with Jack’s Toxic Town friends. A horde of zombies planted rows of roses, burly werewolves transported barrels of water, and the mob of mutants replaced the drab iron gates with shimmering silver bars. The Leadwood crew touched up headstones so no names would be forgotten while Frank lassoed the few remaining scraps of garbage. Tail-less cats and guard dogs dug fresh dirt plots together. The Yojimbo ran a largely avoided concession stand of healthy refreshments. When they noticed Jack, everyone stopped what they were doing and unleashed an uproarious cheer.
Jack took a tiny bow and muttered, “Please, not again.” Louder, addressing Bob: “I appreciate the love, but I do hope this isn’t a house call. Because, quite frankly, I don’t think I’m ready to go back into that world for, oh, six or seven hundred more years.”
Bob responded with a toothy grin. “You’re off the hook for now. We just want to thank you one last time. In fact, this is an observation mirror only. Though we can communicate, interdimensional travel is not possible via this particular point.”
“Good to know.” Jack admired the vibrancy of the refurbished cemetery. “Love what you’ve done with the place. That whole dystopian fad is dead anyway.”
The vestige of a smile was replaced by a very serious skeleton face. “Jack,” Bob began, “I can’t thank you enough. All the restless souls in this cemetery can finally sleep, myself included. What you did was nothing short of heroic. You saved us all.”
Jack fought off the frog in his throat. “I couldn’t have done it without you. All of you.”
Water leaked from Bob’s eye sockets, and there was nothing more he could say.
“You guys are adorable,” the Mind Melter said, half joking and half sincerely touched. “And I agree: You are a hero, but not for the reason you think.” She paused, trying to collect a whirlwind of thoughts. “When you first came to this world, you were not in a good place. You did a good job hiding it, like you have most of your life, but there was a darkness within you. Just as there was a darkness in our dimension. You were reluctant to face the darkness at first, which is understandable. But as your courage grew, so did your determination to defeat the darkness. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I’m not sure,” Jack said.
“Toxic Town isn’t just something you stumbled into; it’s something you created. It was your way of finally dealing with your father’s death, your way of confronting something you’d run from for 10 years. The pain, the sadness, the repression. You needed this world because you couldn’t confront these issues in your own world. And it has helped you tremendously. Look at the graveyard. Look at how much it’s healed. Look at how much you’ve healed. Yes, there is still growth ahead for you, just as there are renovations beyond the graveyard, but you have begun the process of healing. You are dealing with your darkest personal demons, and in my mind, that makes you a hero.”
Jack took a moment to absorb this information. “Thank you,” he said. “I really never would have gotten through this without you.”
“I know,” the Mind Melter said with a smile. “And it was fun, but now we have to go.”
The monsters in the mirror began to dissipate, starting in the back and crawling forward like some invisible wave. Only the Mind Melter, Bob, and the werewolves remained. Jack saw his mother’s benevolent gaze in Apollo’s blue eyes. The Mind Melter exhaled. “But there is one last thing you have to do…”
“What’s that?” Jack asked. Now it was just the Mind Melter.
“What’s what?” a voice answered. It was a voice from outside of the mirror.
But the Mind Melter was still in the mirror! Wait, it wasn’t the Mind Melter at all. It was Helen, an ever-welcome reflection. Jack spun around and there she was in the flesh, looking just as beautiful as ever in a bright yellow sundress.
A stupefied Jack managed a “Huh?”
“Talking to yourself?” Helen said. “Couldn’t find any better company?”
“You’re a close second,” Jack quipped. Helen’s smile melted him like ice cubes in an August lemonade. “Not that I’m complaining, but how’d you get in here?”
Helen shrugged her shoulders. “A couple of little werewolves let me in.” After Jack responded with gobstruck silence, she clarified: “Oh, right. You didn’t see. Alana and Bert dressed as werewolves for Halloween.” Behind Helen’s back and out of her sight, Jack’s younger siblings barraged big bro with exaggerated kissy faces.
Jack countered with a very-cute-please-die expression as he not-so-subtly shut the bathroom door. His eyes locked in on Helen’s, something they had never done before, and Jack spoke with an unwavering confidence: “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“Yes?” Helen urged, unable to disguise the longing in her voice.
“You’re one of my best friends, and I never want anything to change that.” Jack was slowly drifting in toward Helen. “But…”
“Yes?” He was so close now, she could feel his breath. She met him halfway, their lips introduced via a tender grazing kiss that culminated in a fiery spark, knocking them both back like punch-stunned boxers. But not for long. As if by instinct, they came together again with lion’s ferocity, lips busting and tongues exploring. That spark became an explosion of brilliant lights: red, yellow, blue, green, purple. Iridescent and free-flowing. They never wanted this moment to end.
The moment ended shortly thereafter when somebody knocked at the door. “Go away, you little pervs!” Jack screeched.
“Just one perv here,” a voice answered. It was Paul.
Jack planted one more peck on Helen and pulled open the door. “What are you doing waiting out there?” Jack asked with a chuckle.
“I didn’t think me slipping you the tongue would be quite as effective,” Paul said.
“Fair enough.” Jack noticed a multi-hued bouquet of flowers in Paul’s hand. “What’s with the flowers?”
“Don’t you remember what today is?”
Suddenly, it hit Jack. “Of course I do,” he said.
“I think you should come with us,” Paul said. He stepped forward and extended the bouquet toward Jack.
Jack retreated with a soft-spoken reply, “I haven’t been there in 10 years.”
Placing a hand on Jack’s back, Helen said, “Jack, you’re ready.” The uncertainty drained from his eyes, replaced with stone-faced resolution. Jack nodded, and the three friends filed out the front door.
Somewhere between the overcast sky and the grass of otherworldly green were hundreds of headstones, monuments to loved ones no longer with us. A lone figure stood at a grave bearing a familiar name. He had asked for a few moments alone. Placing flowers beside the granite, the lone figure spoke: “Hey, dad. It’s me, Jack.” Jack had expected an overwhelming chill in such a place, but the closeness of his father’s spirit infused him with a comforting warmth. Instead of the usual emptiness, Jack was filled with hundreds of memories. Memories he thought he’d forgotten. All the springtime memories of his father flashed simultaneously: building sandcastles at the beach, climbing that willow tree with a funny face hidden in its bark, playing video games with ice cream-swollen bellies, and infinitely more. With so many flashes of joy, Jack couldn’t imagine where to begin. “I guess I don’t know what to say,” he said.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Jack’s mother said, wrapping her arms around Jack’s chest from behind and kissing him on the back of the head. “He already knows.”
Jack’s brother and sister wrestled him with mighty bear hugs. His friends did the same. The light broke through the early-November clouds, warming their backs. For the first time in a long time, it was sunny in Jack’s world.
Title: A Shape-shifter in Toxic Town
Genre: Young adult fantasy/adventure
Age range: 12-18
Word count: 45,000
Hook/synopsis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland meets The Nightmare Before Christmas in this young adult fantasy novel entitled A SHAPE-SHIFTER IN TOXIC TOWN.
When a mysterious costume shop mirror transports Jack to a dystopian dimension where children become their Halloween costumes, he must use his newly acquired shape-shifting powers to unite a mob of feuding monsters, defeat the evil (and unseen) ruler of the land, and stop the girl of his dreams from hooking up with a muscle-bound doofus.
Initially convinced that he has merely wandered into the “weird part of town,” Jack soon realizes that he is in a new dimension whose only hope lies in his hands. Aided by a fiercely loyal skeleton and an acerbic super heroine with ESP, Jack’s quest to return home has him grappling with the toxic environment as well as toxic thoughts lingering from a traumatic childhood event.
An epic confrontation with The Corporation begs the questions: Can a determined tenth grader and his friends vanquish an evil empire? How will Jack overcome the monsters in this land and in his mind? And, most importantly, is saving another dimension enough to land Jack a date with Helen Offtroy?
Author bio: Adam Wohnoutka received his BA in English from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He has had work published in various literary magazines, including The Midwest Coast Review, The Aroostook Review, and Solecisms.