As the gate to Kid City was closing behind him, Nickelan could hear the Gatekeeper reciting the riddle Nickelan had told him, repeating it over and over again until he memorized it. When the gate closed and locked with a thunderous boom, the Gatekeeper’s voice was no longer audible. Nickelan was alone and quietly took in the first wondrous sights of Kid City.
Kid City was not so wondrous. It was indeed coated in sugar and glistened like candy, as the stories told. The trees dripped with syrup, the bushes encrusted with jewels of hard candy and the grass sticky with caramel and fudge. Rather than causing Nickelan’s mouth to water, it turned his stomach. The sticky candy coating collected dirt and dead insects. Gumdrops melted off of the dead blooms of flowerbeds, candy bars were flattened into the muddy roads trodden by too many feet and chewed gum hung like sticky vines from the branches of the trees. The smell in the air was sickly sweet.
But where was the looping roller coaster public transportation system, the trampoline sidewalks and the fountains that sprayed free cola to the thirsty masses? Where were the bumper cars, piñatas street signs stuffed with treats and buildings constructed of gingerbread? Nickelan saw nothing but stale candy and a small child looking at him.
“What are you staring at?” asked the child.
“Who are you?” Nickelan asked.
“Nit Wit,” said the child.
“What did you call me?” Nickelan was taken aback.
“I didn’t call you anything,” the child said.
“You just called me a nitwit,” Nickelan said.
“You wish.” The child laughed. “Nit Wit, that’s me. Nit. Wit. It’s my name. You can call me Nit for long.”
“You mean for short,” Nickelan corrected Nit Wit.
“No, I mean for long,” Nit Wit said assuredly.
“I’m pretty sure it’s for short,” Nickelan said.
“No,” Nit Wit said, “I’m pretty sure it’s for long.”
“Anyway,” Nickelan sighed, “this is Kid City, right?”
“Where else would it be?” Nit Wit asked, perplexed.
“Where’s the city part?” Nickelan asked.
“That way.” Nit Wit hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m headed into town if you want to tag a-short.”
“Long,” Nickelan said. “You mean, tag along.”
“No,” Nit Wit said shortly, “I mean tag a-short. I’m certain of that. It’s not too far, see, it’s short. So, do you want to tag a-short or not?”
“I do,” Nickelan said, figuring it better not to argue.
The road ahead was sticky with marshmallows. Their feet crunched the thin candy shells of sweets and chocolate fillings spewed out from the insides of discarded treats. Wrappers littered the path.
“How’d you get a name like Nit Wit?” Nickelan asked to pass the time.
“As you can probably already tell, it describes me quite well,” Nit Wit said. “I’m small, right? So Nit is obvious.”
“Obvious,” Nickelan asked, “how so?”
“Nit mean small,” Nit Wit explained.
“No,” Nickelan said. “Nit is the egg of a parasitic insect. In slang, a nit is a fool, an idiot, a simpleton. It’s an acronym for the National Invitation Tournament—a college basketball tournament played each spring. A nit is also a unit for measuring luminance, but I’ve never heard it used to describe something small.”
“You need to brush up on your vocabulary,” Nit Wit said. “Now, for the Wit part, that’s equally obvious. I am a mental giant.”
“So,” Nickelan tried to sum up their confusing conversation, “you’re saying that you’re called Nit Wit because you have little intelligence?”
“No,” Nit Wit said. “That’s not it at all. Not little intelligence, great intelligence.”
“But,” Nickelan sought to clarify, “by your own etymology—”
“Etymology?” Nit Wit questioned. “I’m not talking about bugs!”
“You misunderstand,” Nickelan said. “Etymology is the study of the origins of words. Entomology is the study of insects.”
“Wrong again,” Nit Wit announced with authority. “You’re really none too bright, are you?”
Nickelan began to worry. Following Nit Wit to Kid City might in all likelihood lead to Thunder World. Nit Wit may have been sure of himself, but so far everything that came out of his mouth was wrong—not only wrong, but the complete opposite of what he intended. Therefore, following that logic, if Nit Wit was walking to Kid City his destination would be its opposite: Thunder World. Nickelan figured he’d fare better on his own.
Then he saw it.
Kid City looked like an amusement park. There was a Ferris wheel lit up with brightly colorful lights. The tracks for the roller coasters weaved in and out of the buildings that were all painted in primary colors. He almost had to shield his eyes against the vividness of the place.
Even at this distance Nickelan could hear the roar of young crowds having fun. For a moment Nickelan forgot why he was going to Kid City. Then he saw a poster crudely nailed to the trunk of a tree. The poster advertised the date of an execution and beneath that banner headline were mug shots of Nickelan’s parents.
“What is this?” Nickelan stopped, pulling the poster off the tree.
“It’s a wanted poster,” Nit Wit said.
“No,” Nickelan turned to him, irritated. “It’s a poster announcing an execution!”
“So it is,” Nit Wit had to admit as Nickelan shoved the poster in his face. “Yes, of course, the grown-up invaders. That’s the price they pay for trespassing into Kid City.”
“Grown-ups are executed?” Nickelan was shocked. “Why not just kick them out?”
“I guess you could.” Nit Wit thought over the possibility of exile before concluding, “But what’s the fun in that?”
“Fun?” Nickelan was getting upset. “You think killing is fun? Oh, who cares what you think! Those grown-ups are my parents. I’ve come to Kid City to rescue them. Is there a bathroom? Where’s a bathroom?”
“Wow,” Nit Wit said. “You really have to go. Can you hold it in? There’s an in-house a bit further on.”
“An in-house?” Nickelan asked. “You mean an outhouse.”
“No.” Nit Wit went on to explain that an in-house was a small shed with a toilet, really more of a hole, in it. You go into this shed to do your business, therefore, it’s called an in-house. But Nickelan wasn’t listening. He was lost in thought. He didn’t know what to do. He needed to speak with Springo.
They arrived at the outhouse a short time later. It was barely a shed, more a lean-to with a rotted slanted roof covering a couple of rotted wooden walls. Nickelan opened the door and asked for some privacy as Nit Wit tried to follow him into the small, musty toilet. Closing the door behind him, Nickelan peered into the black hole in the floor. It was rank and gave off a repulsive smell. Nickelan knelt down, placed his hands on either side of the opening and dunked his head into the filth.
“Springo!” Nickelan shouted under the murky waters. “Springo, I need you! I’m in over my head. I’m in trouble. My parents are going to die and there’s nothing I can do to save them.”
“Nickelan?” It was Springo. He was in the school restroom. Nickelan found himself missing the hallways and classrooms of school. The bullies and tests, the homework and the stern teachers filled his head with fond memories. It’s all a matter of perspective, his mother used to tell him. He never understood what she meant until this very moment, with his head submerged in a dirty toilet on the outskirts of Kid City where his parents were imprisoned and set for execution. From this perspective, school, once the worst of Nickelan’s worries, looked like a paradise. The streets may not have been paved with sweets, but the battleship-gray paint of the walls had never looked so beautiful.
“Nickelan, is that you?” Springo asked. “Gosh, don’t sneak up on me like that. I was just about to take a dump. You don’t want to see that, especially from your point of view.”
“Springo,” Nickelan said. “I need your help.”
“That’s for sure,” Springo continued. “The police are looking for you. They suspect foul play. I spoke to a detective, offered my theory about aliens and space abduction. Never heard back from him, but really I never expected to. The conspiracy goes all the way to the highest levels of our government.”
“Springo,” Nickelan interrupted. “I don’t have time for this. I’m in a jam.”
“You’re telling me,” Springo agreed. “You’re in a toilet bowl talking to me in the boy’s bathroom. If Al Mal finds me with my head in the can I’ll get a beating unlike any beating I’ve ever gotten before.”
“Bullies,” Nickelan said, “are the least of my worries.”
“Well, that’s awfully selfish of you,” Springo said. “You’re on Mars or some other planet, perhaps even beyond our solar system or dimension, but I’m still here, in school, and that’s a far harsher environment than any you’re currently dealing with. For instance—”
“Springo, please, listen!” Nickelan shouted, which sent a wave of bubbles from his mouth and tickled his cheeks as they rose to the water’s surface. “I’m in a bind.”
“That’s for sure.” Springo couldn’t stop talking, even with his face deep in a toilet bowl. “Your house is boarded up. Someone’s been throwing rocks through the windows. They’re all shattered. There’s even police tape around the place. You know, that cool yellow plastic tape that says, ‘Police Line Do Not Cross.’ I crossed it, of course, to check out the scene of the crime. Do a little junior sleuthing.”
“There was no crime,” Nickelan said. “But there will be. My parents are scheduled for execution.”
“How can you kill something that’s already dead?” Springo asked. “No, wait, they’re space aliens, not zombies. Though, maybe—”
“I have to save them,” Nickelan cried. “But I can’t even find them. The execution is in a couple days. Springo, I don’t know what to do. Everyone here thinks I’m some sort of savior, a Redeemer, but I can’t even save my parents.”
“That’s tough,” Springo said. “I’ve never liked your parents, but I don’t want them dead. Oh, maybe roughed up a little, sure. Who wouldn’t? I have a long list. Al Mal’s on the top of that list. Oh, yeah. Even you make an appearance, Nickelan. Way down at the bottom of the list, I mean, and only because you didn’t share that gum with me—remember that?”
Nickelan could see Springo’s face bloated and distorted by the toilet water. It was clear, however, that Springo would offer no help, no advice, no guidance. Nickelan would have to act on his own. He wished he had his sword. It would have made him feel more powerful. He wished Gelsomina were with him. She’d know what to do. That is, if she was alive.
There was a rap on the outhouse door. “Are you coming out soon?” Nit Wit asked. “In a minute!” Nickelan shouted before realizing his head was still underwater. Pulling his head out from the bowl Nickelan shouted again, “In a minute.” His face was covered in slime. Thinking about how much he’d love a bath right about now made him laugh. If the outhouse had a tub he’d bathe forever. Then it hit him.
“Springo,” Nickelan said. Springo was still talking, unaware that Nickelan had left momentarily. He was rambling on about werewolves and the full moon. “Springo, listen to me. I need soap. I need as much soap as you can carry, and I need you to flush it down the toilet the next time we talk.”
“Soap?” Springo asked. “You hate soap, Nickelan, if this is in fact Nickelan Wand I’m speaking to! The Nickelan Wand I know would never speak of soap, let alone ask for any. Who are you? I know, this is some kind of a trap! You’re an alien trying to lure me into your world, the fifth dimension!”
“Springo,” Nickelan said calmly, “the Fifth Dimension is a band. Remember, your father loves that song about the balloon.”
“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon,” Springo sang. “I love ‘Up, Up and Away.’ That’s classic sunshine pop. “Okay, I guess you really are Nickelan Wand.” Springo still sounded suspicious. “But what do you want with soap?”
“I just need it,” Nickelan said. “Bars or liquid, just get me soap and lots of it.” Nickelan yanked his head out from the toilet bowl and rubbed the dirty water from his eyes. He felt surprisingly refreshed, considering he had just pulled his head out of a toilet bowl. Nit Wit opened the door and looked at Nickelan kneeling down before the throne of the outhouse, his head dripping-wet. “I’m pretty sure it’s the other side of your body that’s supposed to sit on the toilet,” Nit Wit commented. “I know we’ve had our disagreements, but trust me on this one.”
“Nit Wit.” Nickelan jumped to his feet. “You’re absolutely right. Now, let’s get to Kid City. I have an execution to stop.”