Time ceased to have much meaning to Brad as he trailed along behind Commander Artemis of the Fifth Fleet, whatever that really meant. His muscles ached, his feet were sore, and he had become rather bored with the faux-nature settings they traversed. He never would have imagined the inside of a simple handbag could be so large, but they didn’t seem to be putting much of a dent in the total distance they needed to cover.
Rolling along, Abe suddenly upended and crashed on his back with a “Hooph!” Brad and Sam scrambled to help him up onto his edge, and the image of the dead President brushed himself off with arms that came up out of sight from beyond the coin’s visual perimeter. “I believe I may have tripped up on something there.” Brad retraced Abe’s path a few yards, and found something just barely poking out from under a swatch of cloth. It glittered with a metallic shine, and as he grabbed hold of the offending object, he thought he might have an idea what it was.
Brad suspected at first that the metal object might be the key to the Focus that Cynthia had lost earlier in the year, but he was wrong. It was indeed a key, but not the one he had expected. The key he pulled out had a square head with a yellow piece of tape on it. Written on this tape in letters now large enough to qualify as poster-sized to Brad, was a simple, single word; ‘HOME’.
“It’s the key to our first apartment,” Brad said wistfully.
“What’s a thing like that doing in the Land of Bag,” asked Sam. But Brad barely heard him. He was lost in memories of early morning love making, followed by breakfast, followed by more bedroom activity, followed by each of them going to their respective jobs. And when they got home to one another at night? Well, one needn’t be a genius or analyst of patterns to figure it out. They had been blissful days.
But his pleasure in the moment, though it brought a smile to his face, was quickly offset by the next discovery shortly down the path. Leaning up against a sturdy tree was Cynthia’s bank card, the one tied to his bank account. Pinned beneath the credit card which stood easily as tall as Brad in the Land of Bag was the receipt for the new leather jacket. The new fucking jacket, thought Brad vehemently, which cost us money we can’t afford to blow!
“Are you growling,” asked Abe as the company passed these objects. Brad realized that he had indeed been making a noise low in his throat, and lamely apologized. He said he’d explain some other time, though he had no intention of doing so. At one point what felt like an hour later, the company all took cover beneath a large collection of bushes and undergrowth when Lefty alerted them to the presence of something coming up behind the company. Brad watched as several Slop-Men stalked the path in search of the beings that had felled their brethren.
The mucus-made creatures didn’t stick around for long, but the group’s progress was hampered twice more that day by search parties. Brad, tired and feeling beaten, laid down inside an old matchbox, and slept his dreamless sleep as the others kept watch.
Upon waking, Brad didn’t feel much better physically, but he felt much more limber in the brains department. The Commander and Abe were stretched out on their backs, their eyes shut. It seemed the residents of the Land of Bag needed their rest too. Even Lefty was laid out flat. But Sam, the monkey-headed Pez dispenser, stood in the middle of the clustered group, searching his surroundings visually.
“Ah, Brad. Good to see you up, lad,” said Sam.
“Thanks. Hey, did you get any rest?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Sam, poking at the ground with a stick (toothpick). “What’s good for the goose is not, in point of fact, always good for the gander.”
“Oh, nothing,” Sam said with a mild grin. He paused, rubbed his chin pensively, and then strode away a short distance, returning with a large sheet of paper in his hand. He turned it around to reveal a wallet-sized photo of a young blond gentleman, someone Brad didn’t recognize in the least. “Brad, is this you as a younger man?”
“No,” said Brad, taking a step forward and taking the poster (photo). He looked hard at the face in the picture, trying to recall if he knew the young man there. But nobody from his past came to mind, either before or after having met Cynthia. Where did she get this picture? Who was this guy? It almost looked like a professional photo, but something seemed off about it. “I’ve never been a blond,” he said off-handedly.
“The name on the back just says ‘Harold’,” Sam observed. “You don’t know any Harold or Harry, do you?” Brad just shook his head and tossed the picture aside. Another man? A much younger one, by the look of the photo? He didn’t think Cynthia would ever be unfaithful, but might that not be another reason she wasn’t looking for a job? Did she have some other man taking care of her? He shook his head, trying to banish his suspicion, but it wouldn’t go so easily. Regrettably, he had allowed the thought to come into existence and begin slowly festering.
Wait a minute, he thought, suddenly clutching the sides of his head. That photo isn’t real! None of this is real! I have to remember that, or I’m going to come out of this looking and sounding like a psychotic! But what if he had seen that picture while awake, and dismissed it? Might it not then resurface in his subconscious for further analysis? Possible, he thought. Yes, that’s it! A simple enough explanation, sort of. It’d work for him, for the time being. He’d work out the meaning of it later.
The others came to not long after he discarded the picture, and the Commander seemed to be in a mood most foul. He grumbled and cursed, rubbing his eyes and rolling his head on his plastic neck. When they prepared to depart, he said simply, “Let’s go, human.” He seemed to use the word ‘human’ almost like an insult, or as if the word tasted bitter in his mouth.
Brad tried to think over what other sort of dangerous things his wife might have in her purse as they stalked along. An answer came to him inadvertently about half an hour into their march, when the Commander loosed a horrible cry of agony. Rushing up to his position, the others gathered around as he fell to the ground, clutching at his foot. The action figure had impaled his booted left foot on what looked like an earring without a backing on it. “Ah, for the love of God that fucking hurts,” shouted the Commander.
“What should we do,” asked Sam in a bit of a panic. No blood issued from the wound, but Brad agreed that it looked rather painful, having an earring jutting through Artemis’ foot. He moved around until he was at the Commander’s feet, and grabbed the ruby-encased earring. Hadn’t he bought this for Cynthia for their fifth anniversary? He recalled having done so, and she’d only worn the damned things all of twice. What were they doing here? That’s a real ruby I’m going to be yanking on, he thought.
But he then thought, as he heaved back on the jewelry with Sam’s help and the Commander hurled curses at them like a sailor on shore leave, that perhaps she just didn’t want them stolen. After all, anything worth money could attract the unwanted attentions of certain people. That explanation seemed not only likely, but very practical. He commended Cynthia mentally on her decision.
With a loud thud he fell back with Sam in a tangle of arms and feet, the earring pulled free of the Commander’s foot. He stood up, and Sam used his rock-em-sock-em arm to hurl the damaging object off into the thicket. Well, Brad thought, forgotten again. Oh well. “Hey, can you stand,” he asked, offering a hand to the Commander. The space marine got to his feet with the human’s help, but gingerly. He limped a few paces, and then knelt down to look at the extent of his injury.
“It’s nothing much, but it’ll slow me down some. Still, sir, all things considered, it could have been much worse.” Thankful that the marine would be able to keep up with them, Brad took up the lead and listened to the Commander’s directions as they picked their way down the trail. Much of what he came across in terms of the loose detritus brought back memories of better times in his marriage, but some items made a small ball of burning fury burn bright in the pit of his stomach.
For starters, there were more than a few discarded keys here, many of them car keys. These he regarded with a blend of curiosity and concentration, trying to recall the vehicle attached to each key. Some of the apartment keys he recognized, too, but of these, only two had been attached to good places. One key in fact was a key to Cynthia’s parents’ house. She had gone there after a particularly heated argument a couple of years back, forcing Brad to take his paid vacation so he could look after Cole.
And then it struck him, the meaning behind the picture he’d seen earlier. Harold was Cynthia’s cousin, and he’d lived with Cynthia and her folks during his high school years because his own father had kicked him out of the house. Harold had gotten a girl pregnant, and Cynthia’s uncle Norbert wouldn’t have a ‘good-for-nothing living under my roof with some floozy!’ They had been very close, she and Harold, and Brad hadn’t thought about him in a long time. For that matter, Cynthia hadn’t mentioned him in some time, either.
But he was an important part of her past, and thus, a part of his. For the better part of the morning’s march, he tried to decipher the importance of all the things he was seeing and feeling in the Land of Bag. Uncertain of his immediate future and his present circumstances for that matter, Brad wondered if there was something more important going on here than his attempt to escape the world he found himself in.
At what felt like midday to Brad, he asked the others for a break so that he could take a bite of something to eat. While eating, he thought over the many objects he had come across in the last day or so. Some had been obscure, random things he could attach no significance to. Others had enabled him to think of happier times. Yet others had made him angry, bitter, but these were far outweighed by those things that made him think of Cynthia fondly.
And a few of these things had proven deadly. The Noise Blaster, which had remained silent for too long by his estimation, had been the first danger to avoid. Had it fallen on him, he would have been crushed flat. The Mirror Clam had been strange and a bit exotic, but the danger had been clear. It could have snapped him in half, had he gotten too close.
The Slop-Men, well, he wasn’t sure why he was afraid of them, but Lord only knew what they might do if they got their slimy hands on him. The Spike Head could have impaled or trampled him to death. Poor Lefty’s stitched up wound had been all the evidence he needed of the dangers in the Land of Bag. And most recently, the Commander had put an earring through his foot. What other dangers lay in wait?
Well, he thought, there’s Bic. Sam and Abe had agreed that the living lighter was a bully and a potential menace, and Brad had no desire to test that information. What else might bring them harm? And when he thought of all the little things he’d seen her stuffing in her purse lately, one item in particular made him nearly leap to his feet in stark horror.
“The Swiss Army Knife,” he gasped, looking around the woodland with eyes wide and ears on highest alert.
“The what,” asked Abe, spinning on edge to search the area.
“Sam, do you know what a Swiss Army Knife is,” he asked the candy dispenser as he picked at his simian beard.
“Um, I’m afraid not old chap. Could you describe it for us,” Sam asked.
“Well, I don’t know how big it would be here, but the damned thing was a pretty hefty little tool. It’s big and red, and has a bunch of little mini tools in it,” he said, trying to articulate with his hands as much as his words. “It’s got two or three different knives in it, a Philips head screwdriver, a common slot, a little hacksaw,” he said, trying to think of all the deadly devices attached to the object.
“You speak of the Omni-Reaver,” said the Commander in a hushed tone. He spoke with a measure of awe and fear both, and that didn’t sit well with Brad at all. “It is indeed a fearful creature to spy, but it seems pretty territorial, and we’re not yet in its danger zone.”
“How far away is it at this point,” asked Sam. “Abe and I aren’t in these parts of the Land of Bag often, so we’ve no clue.”
“Maybe another couple of hours,” the Commander informed them. “This part of the area belongs mostly to Bic.”
“The lighter,” said Brad. He shook his head, and put his hands on his hips. “Just great. Sam, you were telling me earlier about him,” Brad said, unsure as to when ‘earlier’ might have been. It truly felt to Brad that he might have been in the Land of Bag for days now. “Is there anything we can do to maybe make this guy leave us alone?”
“Not much, really,” reported the simian candy dispenser. “He’ll at the very least harass us verbally, if not physically. He’s not the largest danger we’ll come across, but he can be rather unpredictable.”
“I remember,” Abe interjected, “when we first came across him. He was out in our neck of the woods, back east. Not on purpose, mind you,” Abe said. “The Great Keeper had reached into our lands to retrieve the Noise Blaster, and knocked him through the forest. He wasn’t the least bit pleased about it.”
“I seem to recall offering to help him up, and he almost started me on fire,” said Sam thoughtfully. He rubbed his chin once more, humming low in his throat. “He then apologized, and went on about his way. A bit erratic, but always with a bad temperament, that one.” The company waited a few minutes more for Brad to get himself situated, and then they were once again on their way west.
It didn’t take long at all for the Commander to bring them to a halt on the edge of yet another clearing by putting one fist up in the air. “He’s there, and so are some of the things we’ll need to make the ladder for you,” he said to Brad. Brad, however, wasn’t paying too much attention. His eyes were tightly focused on a small box of dental floss some ten yards off the trail, in the woods. He motioned for the others to stay where they were a minute, and dashed over as quietly as he could, pulling on the lime green line until he had a nice length of rope from the dispenser. He then motioned Artemis over. “Knife,” he said.
The Commander handed him the accessory, which Brad was pleased to find acted just as a knife should; it actually cut the line. He doubted he would have had the strength to use the clipper attached to the box. The Commander raised an eyebrow at him. “You never know. This stuff might come in handy.”
“Agreed,” replied the space marine. “How do you want to approach Bic? If we try to sneak past him, and he spots us, he might just get riled up enough to come after us hard. It’s your call, sir.” Brad considered this a moment as he walked back to the others, and then sauntered into the clearing in plain view of the lighter.
Bic turned out to not be some ordinary see-through lighter, but one of the variety that came with a graphic print adhered to its surface. It appeared to be tiger striping, which didn’t surprise him much at all; tigers were Cynthia’s favorite animal. Like the Spike Head, Bic appeared to have short, basic arms and legs to work with, likely an effect brought on from his residence in the Land of Bag. A tiger’s face was set on the head of the lighter, and it slowly turned and blinked at him, seeming to momentarily consider its options.
“I know you three,” Bic said in a harsh, raspy old-man’s voice. To Brad, it sounded like the voice of a lifelong smoker. That, he figured, also made sense, considering Bic’s natural function. Bic pointed at Sam, Abe, and Lefty as they spread out behind Brad. “But I don’t recognize you,” he said, pointing to the Commander. “Or you,” he added, pointing out Brad in the front of the company. The lighter approached slowly, cautiously, and Brad was pleased to see that this particular resident stood no taller than he. Bic stopped when there were only a few yards between them. He blinked his feral, feline eyes rapidly at Brad, and the striker wheel on his head whirred menacingly. “Who are you two?”
“Commander Artemis, Fifth Fleet,” said the marine. He put a hand on Brad’s shoulder then. “And this is Bradley Jennings, human.” Bic didn’t gasp or show any sort of surprise. Instead, he seemed only to consider Brad with further scrutiny. “He is the husband of the Great Keeper.” At this announcement, Bic made a low, growling noise, but Brad didn’t think it was disbelief. He suspected instead that Bic didn’t think too highly of the Great Keeper.
“Some Keeper,” Bic rumbled, confirming Brad’s suspicion. He turned and stalked a few feet away, swooping back in toward Brad, their faces almost touching. “She hasn’t been very good about keeping much of anything, has she? I’ve been down here for eons now, and she has all but forgotten me! Probably replaced me with some other denizen of the Kingdom of Wilson’s Farms,” he shouted, his striker wheel buzzing yet again.
“Take it easy,” Brad said, putting his hands up defensively but not stepping back one inch. “She forgets a lot of things. And sometimes she doesn’t exercise the greatest judgement,” he added a bit lower. “But she’s my wife, and I’m not going to just sit back and have an inanimate object poking fun of her.” Bic raised himself up, thus backing away a few crucial feet, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“How did you wind up in the Land of Bag, if you are human,” asked the lighter with a tone of sarcasm. “Did you just fall in like the rest of us?”
“We’re not entirely sure how it happened, but we did see him fall almost on top of us,” Abe said. “We’re trying to help him get out of here.”
“Get out,” asked Bic, incredulous. “Why should we help him get out? Too long has his kind ignored us, tossing us into purses and jacket pockets and bureau drawers! I say we let him try to survive just like the rest of us!”
“But he can’t,” said the Commander. “He’s human, and has human needs! He needs water,” which caused Bic to wince a little. “He needs shelter from everything, and he needs to eat. Most of all, he needs to rest more often than us. He’s a human, after all.”
“All very touching, but none of my concern,” spat Bic, looking around the clearing’s perimeter. “As for getting him out of here, if that’s even possible, how are you going to do it? A rubber band slingshot, I suppose?”
“Too hazardous,” said Sam. “If he landed wrong out of the Land of Bag, he might be killed.”
“You could strap him to the Noise Blaster,” said the lighter.
“Cynthia has a hell of a grip,” said Brad.
“Then what,” asked Bic, curious.
“A ladder of some kind,” said the Commander. “There’s materials we can use around here to make him a ladder. That way he can climb up past the Great Teeth in the Sky.” Bic seemed to contemplate this for a short while, walking away from the company. When he finally returned, he had a grin on his tiger face that Brad didn’t care for one iota.
“Materials from my realm, you mean, Commander? Oh, I should think not. And should you try stealing from my domain, I would be forced to punish you all rather severely. A little fire can do a lot of damage,” he said meaningfully.
“He is a human, Bic,” said Sam sternly, stepping forward. “And therefor, we are obligated to assist him in doing what he must! We are just trinkets, things, for the humans to use when they require! It is not our place to stop him!”
“And there is precisely why I can’t allow him to leave,” said Bic with a snarl. “Too long have we let ourselves be used by the Great Keeper, only to be cast aside and forgotten! Now we have something that belongs to her, and can ensure that he, too, is forgotten. We have the chance,” he said, but didn’t get the chance to finish. Before anyone could react, Sam lunged out with one of his powerful rock-em-sock-em arms, punching Bic hard and sending him crashing to the ground.
But Bic was swift, his movements befitting of his graphical overlay. He rolled over twice, and the striker wheel struck, igniting a burst of flame that quickly engulfed the intellectual Pez dispenser. Flames roared all over Sam’s body as he wailed and thrashed away from his companions, who stood thunderstruck by this sudden burst of violence. Sam dropped and tried to roll himself out, but his plastic body was already starting to fail him.
It was the Commander’s quick action which saved the rest of the group from a similar fate. Without a second’s consideration, he took his combat knife from its sheath on his hip (where he had placed it after Brad gave it back), and lunged on top of Bic. With a holler, he plunged the tip of the knife home, driving it deep into Bic’s torso before rolling back off of the damaged lighter. Bic staggered to his feet, and dove at the Commander, his wheel spinning but to no avail.
Brad rushed over to Sam, pulling his canteen off of his hip and pouring it over him. Though the flames died out easily enough, it was plain to Brad that the Pez dispenser was done for. A pit opened in his stomach, yawning wide. “Oh, Sam,” he whispered, dropping to his knees beside his fallen companion. Cynthia had loved her sweets, especially Pez. It looked to Brad that now she would never get the chance to enjoy it from the simian dispenser again.
When he turned his head to check on the others, they were gathered around the fallen Bic, whose fluid had completely bled out onto the soft soil of the Land of Bag. The Commander removed his knife when Lefty kicked Bic over onto his back, and the three objects approached Brad and Sam slowly. Abe had a single copper tear rolling down his face as he came.
Sam’s remains had been tastefully covered with various Tic Tacs in a sort of stone burial mound, and Brad finally stepped away from it to rejoin the others. “I really liked him,” Brad said, hitching a sigh. “Cynthia did too, when she first got him. I’m sorry about all of this. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t come here.”
“Don’t say that,” objected Abe somewhat waspishly. “When a man’s time comes, it comes. Be that man human or otherwise.” Brad looked over at the slain lighter, left where he’d fallen, and nodded. After that, the company split up and started searching the surrounding woods for materials to use in the construction of a ladder. Lefty hit the jackpot in only a minute or so, bringing a roll of Scotch tape to the clearing on his back.
After a while, they had a nice collection of toothpicks, pens, pencils, and as Brad stared and laughed, the Commander dragged a wrapped tampon into the clearing as the last piece. “What’s so funny,” the Commander asked.
“Do you know what that is you’ve got there,” he asked, pointing at the four-yard long applicator.
“Haven’t the foggiest, but I found it over that way,” the Commander said, pointing back the way he’d come. He added it to the jumbled pile they had collected, and then sat down on the ground next to Brad. “I think all of this might just be enough. Putting the ladder up is going to be the next thing to figure out.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” said Abe, rolling over. “I came across the Northern Wall not far from here. We must have been straying a little along the way, but a lucky thing we did.”
“Agreed,” said the Commander. “Come on,” he said, patting Brad on the shoulder. “Let’s make this ladder, and get you out of here.”