When he awakened later on, Bradley Jennings felt refreshed, and not more than a little confused. How had he slept, after all, if this were all some sort of coma dream? Shouldn’t sleep have eluded him? He didn’t know enough about psychology to know the answer to that question (quire frankly, neither does the author of his tale), so he let the matter drop. He stretched like a cat, and stumbled out of the shack, taking his Q-tip bo-staff with him.
“The Land of Bag,” he muttered as he walked toward where Sam, the Commander and Abe stood in a triangle, talking softly among themselves. Lefty made an appearance as well, skittering along into the Commander’s campsite on all fives, a curious creature to be sure. As Brad approached, the glove scampered about the trio of other inanimate (under normal circumstances) objects like a dog begging for attention, finally stopping next to Brad. Never one to resist petting a pooch, Brad stroked the glove’s central finger, and was summarily satisfied by the rumbling, panting sound that loosed itself from the glove.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said Sam, seeing Brad close the gap with Lefty at his side. The glove towered next to the human, nearly as tall as his shoulder. “Well goodly sir, are you prepared then to move on from here? The Commander has suggested that we make our way west immediately.” Brad agreed, and the quintet started along a narrow pathway through the woods to the west with Commander Artemis in the lead, and Lefty bringing up the rear.
Something strange had apparently happened to the Land of Bag while Brad slept, he thought. The woods appeared more, well, woodsy was the best word he could think of in his muzzy, sleep-shrouded state. The stale scent of old paper and dust had been peppered with a hint of actual pine and spruce, an odor he remembered from childhood. But the reality of his surroundings didn’t take long to reaffirm itself. Imitation leather soil, zipper teeth visible in the sky above (though looking farther up than he remembered), hairs from various combs and brushes sticking up like blades of grass everywhere.
After a while, the Commander called the expedition to a halt. The group had come upon another clearing, smaller than the Commander’s camp, but not unpopulated. Brad moved forward to where the action figure had crouched behind a collection of bushes (bundled up tissues colored green), and peered into the clearing. On the south side, to their left, he saw a strange mound of crimson. From this mound something came wriggling and oozing out to join a collection of its brethren, which ambled about aimlessly in circles throughout the rest of the clearing. For a moment, Brad could not discern what they were.
When, a minute after watching this newest member of their brood come from the mound, he realized what these man-like creatures were, he felt the overwhelming urge to vomit. The mound itself was an old red handkerchief that Brad had given Cynthia while they’d been dating. It hadn’t been much more than a token gesture of affection, but still, here it sat, lost but perhaps not forgotten among the clutter of her life with him. The man-things were creatures apparently forged of the old snot that still clung to the hankie’s material.
“Slop-Men,” whispered the Commander, holding his mascara applicator on the ground. “Eight of them now. This isn’t good,” he muttered, laying flat on the ground. On Brad’s other side, Sam did the same, and Abe kept himself hidden behind a nearby tree. Brad raised an eyebrow and directed his unspoken question down at the space marine. “We can’t just beat them with our weapons. I’ve tried before, and it doesn’t work. Your staff will just get stuck on them.”
“What do you suggest then,” asked Sam in a hushed tone. Brad looked once again at the snot creatures, and gasped. They had each taken on the vague appearance of Cynthia, which made a sort of sense. After all, they were made from her own secretions.
“Can’t we just go around them,” asked Abe from hiding.
“Wouldn’t do us much good, and it would just waste more time,” said the Commander in reply. “If they heard us, they’d just give pursuit. We need to get rid of them. The only question is, how?” Brad did something then that none of these habitual residents of the Land of Bag would have thought to do. He uprooted one of the bushes, and whipped it open, revealing a lifeless tissue, as it would have been in his hands. This he handed to a startled Commander, and then one to Sam. Finally, he dropped open another bush for himself, and each of the three limbed and bipedal members of the company had a soft, absorbent sheet of tissue in their hands.
“Problem solved,” said Brad with a grin. He grabbed another for Lefty and draped it over his back, to protect him from the Slop-Men. With a war cry, he charged into the clearing, the snot creatures expressing clear shock at this rampant and unexpected charge. The first one that Brad got near to reached out for him, but he simply pushed forward, making contact with the tissue. The Slop-Man shrieked a banshee wail of horror and fell with Brad coming down atop it. There was a sickening splash, and then the tissue was drenched. But no more Slop-Man lay under Brad, and he looked about to see a similar phenomenon taking place with Sam and the Commander.
The remaining five Slop-Men, chittering in some unknown language, bolted back for the mound of hankie and disappeared into its crusty surface with a shlooping, smacking sound. Abe rolled out of cover, hooting and hollering along with Sam and the Commander. “That was brilliant, sir,” the space marine said to the human in his charge. “How did you do it?”
“Well, the bushes are just made out of tissues,” said Brad, rubbing the back of his head. “It just made sense.”
“But how did you make the bushes turn back into tissues,” asked Abe, awed by the human.
“I believe I may have a theory about that,” said Sam, rubbing his chin. “You see, all that is in the Land of Bag is different from our guest’s perspective. He sees all around us with human eyes. I believe that shall come in handy again before the day is done. Now, shall we move on?”
“Just a minute,” said Brad, holding up a hand. His eyes had fallen on something on the north side of the clearing, and he couldn’t look away. It was a simple thing, really, but it meant more to him than anything he had seen thus far in the Land of Bag. Mounted halfway up a tree stood a great clock, crusted with tiny gemstones. Brad started slowly approaching the clock, which was, in fact, a watch that Cynthia had bought him to commemorate their first anniversary.
Brad stood before the tree and reached up, running a hand along the cool, smooth surface of the watch face. “I remember,” he whispered. And indeed he did, because he’d been eyeballing that watch at a jewelry store in the Walden Galleria Mall for months beforehand. At the time, Cynthia had been finishing up her degree in nursing, and was working full time at a factory. Brad had been working at Upstate Milk at the time, and their income, combined with the weight of paying hefty rent at the time, hadn’t left much playing room.
Yet Cynthia must have been squirreling money away the first time he remarked upon the watch to her. She had scraped and saved for him. What happened to this thing, he wondered. Oh, right. It was Cole’s eighth birthday party, and Brad was doing a barbecue for his birthday dinner (as requested). While out in the back yard, Brad had attempted to climb a tree to retrieve Cole’s RC helicopter, his first of several presents that year. The watch’s wristband had gotten caught, and when Brad reached for the toy, it snapped.
And when they found the watch on the ground below, the face cover had been shattered. Yet here it was, his watch, perfectly restored. When had she gotten it fixed? Why hadn’t she given back to him yet? Had she simply forgotten? Given how busy their lives had been, that wouldn’t have surprised him in the least. But even if she forgot, it didn’t change the simple fact that here was proof that she still cared for her husband.
A hand clamped down firmly on his shoulder then, and Brad cried out in surprise, twisting and flailing at his unknown assailant with his Q-tip staff. Sam leaned back to avoid the blow with a “Whoop!” He teetered for a moment, and then regained himself with a grin. “Sorry to disturb you, Brad, but the Commander suggests we get moving. No telling when the Slop-Men might get bold enough to come back out of their Generator Mound.”
“Right,” said Brad, still lost in thought. He fell into step behind Sam, and the company once again was on its way west.
“Hmm. I must say, I’m not entirely impressed. Then again, I’m not so surprised either,” remarked the Commander about an hour later. The company had come to a stop when Brad had spotted a package of cheese crackers partially opened amid the trees. He was eating ravenously, and drinking water from a small canteen the space marine had filled before leaving his camp. Next to the crackers (which were enormous in scale to his current size), Brad had discovered a folded up sheet of paper. When he opened it with some help from Lefty (handy critter, him), Brad laughed aloud to discover Cole’s second grade report card from the end of the year.
Cole was presently in the sixth grade, and quite the smart kid. But second grade, for some reason, along with third grade, had given him a good deal of trouble. His Reading and Spelling grade had been a seventy-four. His Math grade had been a sixty-eight, which was barely scraping by since a sixty-five was the cut-off mark. His Social Studies grade was a sixty-nine, and his other marks were barely into the seventies.
“Still, he’s as good an Admiral as any there is, I’m sure,” said the Commander, folding up the huge sheet of paper with Lefty’s assistance. “I’ve got room in my bag for you to pack some of that away for later, sir,” he said to Brad. The human eagerly socked away some more for himself, and then broke off a large section of cracker and cheese, shoving it into the Commander’s open pack. Curious, he thought. I don’t recall that rucksack ever actually opening.
Yet inside there were a number of tools one might expect to find on a space marine, including a compass and a survival knife. In addition to these, the Commander had a utility belt around his waist that appeared much more accessible than it had when first Brad had met him. The man himself seemed less, well, plastic, as time drew on. With the bag zipped closed, the company moved off once again, the Commander in front, Sam right behind him, then Brad strolling and Abe rolling next to him, with Lefty bringing up the rear.
The woods around their pathway were starting to thin, when Abe came to a stop, catching the rest of the group’s attention. “What is it,” Brad asked the penny.
“Did you feel something,” the dead President asked, looking around by spinning himself slowly on edge. “In the ground, like a tremor.”
“Can’t say as I did,” Brad replied quietly. He kept perfectly still, and tried to listen for any foreign sounds around them. At first, he heard nothing but his own breathing, but after a minute, he heard the soft scratching of Lefty moving in a slow circle, wary of something Abe had probably picked up on. The glove started to tremble, and he could hear it growling low in its, well, throat if it could be called that.
But after Lefty’s growling began, he did feel something under his feet, a slight vibration. Sam and the Commander, he saw, were also suddenly curious, eyes squinted into the gloom of the woods, seeking out the source of the rumbling that was becoming slowly, steadily stronger. When the trees at the outer ring of their collective vision began to tremble, Sam’s eyes opened wide with fear and alarm. “Oh, Holy Maker of the Great Keepers,” the Pez dispenser rasped. “It’s the Spike Head!”
Before Brad could ask the obvious question, he spotted a glimpse of the Spike Head moving in a ring far out around them. It appeared, in that moment, to be a creature about eight relative feet in height, it’s head down, charging on stubby, metal-encased legs. Protruding from its head were four shiny spear points which glinted in the light coming through the Teeth in the Sky. Well, Brad thought, I’m never going to complain about Cynthia buying her lunch when she gets working again.
Cynthia, as much as she liked to spend money, had a long-standing tradition of packing her own lunch for work. As such, she usually kept an item like the Spike Head in her purse; in other words, a fork. Yet here in the Land of Bag, this simple household item was circling them like a maddened Minotaur loosed from its labyrinth. As the realization of how deadly such a beast was to him struck home, Brad felt his sphincter contract to roughly the size of a pinhead from fear. His stomach lurched and rolled, and he felt like he was in his first firefight again.
A harsh, guttural grunting came to his ears from the Spike Head as it brought its circular path ever closer to them, ringing them together. “Don’t bunch up,” the Commander shouted above the ever-increasing din of the monster’s rampaging run. “It’s trying to make us group together so it can take us all in one shot! Everybody spread out,” he said, stepping away from the group and standing with his legs apart, his knees bent, his mascara applicator braced in his hands.
Sam did much the same as Abe lay flat on his back. Brad envied the penny for a moment. Must be nice, he thought, not to be made out of flimsy old flesh and blood. Thanks a lot, Mr. President. But Abe didn’t have many options available, so Brad let it go and stepped forward. He held his staff much as the Commander did his, and Lefty scuttled a few paces away too, trembling visibly. What would happen to the dog-like glove if the fork pierced his wool?
Now standing about in a box-like formation around the penny, the group waited with baited breath as the Spike Head tightened its looping run yet again. It was clearly visible now, and Brad could just make out the crude markings of a sort of face on the beast, along with its legs and pumping arms. The head was bent low, the protruding spears atop it aimed squarely at his or the Commander’s chest height. As it tightened its loop one more time, Sam took the first action of the group.
The monkey-headed candy dispenser did what came natural to him, what he was designed for. He whipped his own head back, firing an arrow-speed shot of colored candy out at their aggressor. The shot missed, but Brad was both impressed and amused by Sam’s display. And when he had his eyes turned in Sam’s direction, he spotted a potential solution to the problem of the Spike Head. The only problem now would be getting the object in time.
With perhaps only three more adjustments to its run before it swooped in for an attack, the Spike Head was being careful to avoid a single square item lying on the ground near its current running course. Brad continued to admire his own imagination as he looked at the hotel bar of soap, still in its package. Not surprising, though, he thought. We’re rats when it comes to taking the soaps and shampoos from those places.
But how could he get it without risking life and limb? When next the Spike Head adjusted its run, it might just barrel straight at them. Or, pending that, it might just get closer, cutting him off from the object that could be the solution to their problem. How to get it? But he didn’t have to get it himself, did he? “Commander Artemis,” he bellowed, making sure to make himself heard over the stomping, grunting monster circling them.
“That box over there,” he said, pointing clearly to the bar of soap. “We need that and I mean now! Can you get it?”
“Yes, sir,” the space marine said with a grin, clearly pleased to take some action to improve their situation beyond just waiting and dodging the oncoming assault. The action figure moved quickly, dropping the mascara applicator and sprinting toward the bar of hotel soap. As the Spike Head came near, he deftly tucked and rolled forward out of its immediate path, coming up a few feet from the bar of soap.
But before he could return it to the human, the Spike Head made its move. Howling like the mythological beast after which it appeared to be modeled, it stopped its running around in a circle and made a straight bee-line for Brad. “Oh shit,” he managed to shout before being knocked aside roughly. Landing in a heap, he quickly sat up to find Lefty impaled on the Spike Head and being carried off toward a thick tree. Brad could see the poor glove thrashing and writhing, bucking to get itself untangled from the monster, but to no avail.
The Spike Head stood up then, shaking its head left and right, trying to dislodge his prey. Brad speed-crawled to the stunned Commander, snatching the soap and unwrapping it. At its current size scale, the tiny bar was enormous, easily the size of a deluxe flat screen television, the kind that hangs on the wall. “Sam, over here,” Brad called. The candy dispenser sprinted over, sweat beading his forehead. “Take my staff, and get ready. That thing’s going to probably charge us,” he said in a rush. “When it does, you move to one side and swing low. Trip it.”
“What about us, sir,” asked the Commander.
“Well, you take that end,” he said, shifting the soap in his hands. “Careful, it’s a little slippery. When it falls, we ram this thing on top of its head,” he said. “Then, we’ll all have to flip it over. We have to make sure, Commander, that we shove this thing on it so its head is in the middle.”
“Understood, sir,” replied the space marine.
“Oh, poor Lefty,” muttered Sam as he turned back to watch the Spike Head rattle the glove loose at last. The glove fell to the ground, limp. Brad’s heart sank; Lefty had shoved him out of the way, likely getting himself killed for his sake. The Spike Head grunted and stamped one of its stout legs, turning to face the three men. Sam picked up the Q-tip, and nodded at Brad.
The monster charged them without further preamble, and Sam ran out to meet it. With only scant yards to spare, the monkey-headed Pez dispenser dropped to the ground, swinging at the storming legs of the metal beast. A surprised shout escaped the Spike Head as it fell with a heavy crash that shook the entire area. “Now,” Brad shouted, and he and the Commander ran forward with the bar of soap between them.
A moment later, it was done. With a solid ‘thup’, the bar of soap slid over the deadly tines of the fork, and together, all three men flipped the creature on its back. With its short arms unable to reach the ground due to the lift from the soap, it couldn’t pick itself back up. It wheeled its arms and legs without success, and finally gave up trying after a short while.
Brad, meanwhile, was ecstatic to find that Lefty was up and hobbling toward them, battered but apparently not beaten. Sam got Abe on his edge, and the company smiled and congratulated one another. Brad patted the glove gently on the top of its middle finger (it’s head, from the way it moved), and was rewarded by a strange, cat-like purring.
“Well, we’re all alive at least, if not in one piece,” said Abe with a sigh.
“Why are you so relieved,” asked Sam of his companion. “There was never any real danger to you from the Spike Head.”
“Maybe so, but I have come to enjoy your company, friend,” he said, looking at Sam with his copper countenance. “And yours too, Commander. I would have hated to see either of you harmed. I feel bad about Lefty, but he seems all right all around,” he finally added. “As for you, Brad, well, I must admit that once again you’ve proven yourself quite handy around here. Are you sure you want to leave the Land of Bag?”
For just the slightest moment, Bradley Jennings found himself hesitating. The adrenaline rush wasn’t entirely gone from his body, and his thought processes were slightly skewed, he knew that much. Even if this place were naught but a dream, he experienced it as nothing else he ever had. There appeared to be danger around every turn, strange circumstances that could be met with a little problem solving. Most of all, the memories that the various residents and relics of the Land of Bag summoned evoked a sense of longing for the times that had passed, the good moments associated with them. Always he could just take a look around, and likely spot something that made him think of the best moments of his marriage.
But that was foolish thinking, he reasoned, and it was a selfish escapism. He could not live in the past, nor in the Land of Bag. If his latest theory about this realm he seemed trapped in were truth, then he was in a deep coma of some sort. He had read articles about people losing short term memory leading up to the trauma that induced comas, such as people remembering what they had for breakfast that day, but not how they got to the sight of their particular incident or what they were doing when it happened. The last thing he clearly remembered was looking in Cynthia’s purse.
What if they had gotten into a heated fight after that, and she’d managed to connect when throwing something heavier than a muffin? Plausible, certainly, given how quick the bitch was of late to hurl things at him. Or had he gone for a walk to clear his head and been struck by a vehicle? Also reasonable, and far more likely. Regardless of how he got into the Land of Bag, the point was to escape. If he remained willingly, or somehow died in this dream, might he then remain in an unconscious state for an even longer time? If so, how long? Permanently?
He looked down at Abe and gave the dead President a soft smile, shaking his head. “I can’t stay here, Abe. I don’t belong in the Land of Bag. Besides, like the Commander said, this place is more dangerous to me than to any of you. I have to get out, and so we have to move west. By the way, Commander, how far do we have to go?”
“Well, probably another couple of days,” the space marine admitted. “But we should take a breather for now. Rest up and make sure we’re on course,” he said, reaching into his rucksack and withdrawing his compass. Brad lay back on the soft leather ground, and quickly nodded off for another nap, all the while listening to the soft breeze as it blew over the grasses of the Land of Bag.
As before, his sleep had been entirely dreamless, and when he was roused, he didn’t feel as though much time had passed at all. However, it appeared that the Land of Bag had darkened somewhat, and as he looked skyward, he saw that someone had turned off the light in the entryway of his house. Brad stretched, rose, and thanked Sam for waking him up.
“I’ve scouted a little bit ahead,” Commander Artemis informed him as he took a swig of water from the canteen he now kept around his waist. “There’s nothing to worry about up there. Just some rabbits.”
“Rabbits,” Brad asked. The Commander handed him his binoculars and pointed westward. Brad put the tool up to his eyes, and found that, amazingly, they worked. And there, about a hundred yards away, hopped several bunny rabbits made out of lint. He handed the binoculars back. “Ah, rabbits. Nothing hostile, though?”
“Negative sir, no hostiles in the area. We patched up Lefty as best we could, too,” he said. Brad looked over at the glove, and saw a needle and thread half his size laying by Sam. “We’re ready to go when you are.”
“Lead the way, Commander,” Brad said, rolling his neck to get it to crack. When it did, it echoed like a gunshot, but he felt the better for it. Sleeping on the ground wasn’t doing him any favors.