“Get off of him!” ordered Gelsomina. The pileup quickly piled off of Nickelan, though they were unhappy about it.
“Aw, what’s wrong with a little fun,” said the spaceman, whose name was Fischel Bocephus.
“Bring him to me,” Gelsomina said.
“Nuts,” Fischel said, rubbing a sleeve over his constantly runny nose.
Fischel dragged Nickelan back to the toilet. He kept his hands on Nickelan’s shoulders as if waiting for the sign from Gelsomina to have some more rough fun with him.
“What sort of trickery is this?” Gelsomina asked, pointing a finger at the toilet bowl. Over the surface of the water rippled an image of Nickelan’s friend Springo. He was crying.
“That’s Springo,” said Nickelan. “He’s my best friend.”
“A toilet is your best friend?” Fischel laughed. He pushed Nickelan’s face down to the bowl. “You better stop playing with us, spy!”
“Cut it out.” Gelsomina pushed Fischel to the ground. He looked up at her with anger, but did nothing, only stood and readjusted his astronaut helmet. “What is a Springo?” Gelsomina asked Nickelan.
“He’s just a kid that lives next door to me,” Nickelan said, still looking down at the toilet bowl. “He’s crying. I heard him call my name when I was underwater. It’s weird, but I think the toilet is linked to my world.”
“Your world?” Gelsomina asked.
“I’m not from Kid City, though I was going there before I got captured by the Makas,” Nickelan explained. “I’m not from Thunder World either,” he added, turning to Fischel, who snorted a nose full of snot in response. “I’m from up there.” He pointed to the ceiling of the cell again. “Up on the surface, you know, where there’s sky and sun.”
The faces of Gelsomina, Fischel and the others were blank without recognition. “What kind of rubbish are you selling, spy,” Fischel said. “You believe that myth of a world above the Pipes? Ha! You must have drunk too much toilet water.”
“Shut up, Fischel!” Gelsomina snapped. “There’s no other world than the world of kids and grown-ups, Nickelan.” Gelsomina was speaking with a tone usually reserved for children or someone who just got hit on the head with a large rock. “There’s the wonderful Kid City, that we’re going to get back to someday.” A chorus of cheers followed. “And there’s the awful Thunder World. Separating that heaven and hell are Dragon Land and Dinosaur Park, The Septic and, of course, the Pipes—”
“That’s where I came from,” Nickelan interrupted, excited to finally latch on to something he understood. “I got sucked down the drain of my bathtub and traveled down the Pipes for I don’t know how long. Then I spilled out somewhere beyond the border of Thunder World. That’s when…”
The group of kids stopped mocking and mimicking Nickelan. Their jaws hung open and their eyes grew wide. “No way!” Fischel finally broke the silence. “No way you’re telling me that you’re the Redeemer. I was just funning with you before. Now I’m going to break your jaw!”
Gelsomina caught Fischel’s fist in her hand. She was much smaller and skinnier than Fischel, but her hand stopped the missile of Fischel’s punch with a meaty slap like a hardball in a leather glove. Fischel struggled to hit his target, but Gelsomina wouldn’t let go. She twisted his hand, turning his arm the wrong way sending Fischel to his knees.
“All right, all right,” Fischel cried. “Uncle.”
Turning her attention to Nickelan, who was awestruck by the power of this pint-sized princess, Gelsomina rubbed her hands together and said, “No more funny stuff. I want the truth.”
“But I told you the truth,” Nickelan pleaded respectfully. He was somewhat scared of Gelsomina. “I went down the bathtub drain and ended up here.”
Conversation murmured through the jail cell. Gelsomina lifted her hand and the room quieted. “Maybe you don’t know, maybe you don’t care, but a lot of kids believe in a Redeemer that will come from the Pipes and bring peace to Kid City,” she said. “The Redeemer will end the war between the grown-ups and the kids. Kids will no longer be enslaved. Thunder City will sink to the bottom of the earth. Kids will rule the land. The dinosaurs will lie down with the dragons and all that mush.”
Gelsomina rolled her eyes, but the other kids listened wholeheartedly. They no longer looked like prisoners, but babes rocking gently in their mama’s arms. Their trance was broken by the metallic clank of the iron door leading to the cell. The jailer was back.
He moved his great mass to the door of the cell. Instinctively all the kids hugged the opposite wall, all except Gelsomina, who defiantly held her ground, and Nickelan, who was in a state of shock.
The jailer put his key into the lock and turned the tumbler with a click that echoed menacingly in the quiet room. He swung the door open slowly and took a step into the cell, leaving the door open behind him. Gelsomina looked greedily at the passage to freedom, only the jailer standing between her and escape.
“Nickelan,” said the jailer in a surprisingly warm voice. “Come with me.”
Nickelan didn’t move. He was terrified. Hadn’t he been through enough? Already he’d fallen through a drainpipe into this strange new land, got hogtied by Makas and now jailed. Nickelan didn’t want to know what could be next.
“There isn’t much time,” the jailer said, looking suspiciously behind his back. “I’ve got to get you out of here.”
“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Gelsomina said. She made a slight gesture with her head to the group of kids huddled behind her. They stood at attention and marched behind Gelsomina, making a human wall between the jailer and Nickelan.
“I’m not interested in you, girl!” A sharp tone returned to the jailer’s voice. “Nickelan,” he was speaking softly again, “I’ve got to get you to Kid City.”
“Kid City?” Gelsomina snapped her head back, stunned. “What do you want in Kid City, old man?”
The kids became more aggressive and drew nearer to the jailer, who showed no sign of concern. His attention was solely on Nickelan.
“The jailer will awake soon,” the jailer said, looking back nervously towards the outer room. “The potion I put in his drink knocks him out only for an hour. We have to move. Now!”
“Who are you?” Gelsomina asked.
The jailer pulled the beard off his chin and took off his sunglasses.
“Selwyn Harris!” Nickelan shouted.
“None other, boy.” He smiled. Stepping out from the gray jailer’s uniform, Selwyn stood before the kids in his Technicolor suit. On his head he placed his hat and taking Nickelan’s arm again pulled him out of the cell.
“But how?” Nickelan jerked his arm free. He was not so sure he wanted to leave with this mysterious stranger in the colorful outfit. The last time Nickelan saw Selwyn Harris he abandoned him to the Makas. “What happened to you?” Nickelan demanded.
“Sorry about that, boy,” Selwyn said sheepishly. “I’m allergic to Makas. I’d be no help to you against a well-armed crew. No, I’m better with my head,” and he poked his skull for emphasis. “Figured they’d take you here, so I scampered ahead to set the trap, so to speak. Pretty impressive, huh?”
Just then a moan came from the outer room. The jailer was waking up. “I’ve tied him up,” Selwyn said proudly. “He’s not going anywhere. But we still have to make a hasty exit.” Selwyn’s tight grip was back on Nickelan’s arm, dragging him against his will. Nickelan didn’t like it, not one bit.
“No!” Nickelan dug his heels into the ground and stopped Selwyn. “I’m not leaving, not until I talk to Springo.”
Selwyn looked hurt. He turned his head in the direction of the bound and moaning jailer. He then looked back at the group of newly freed kids. They were ready to make a run for it. For a moment Selwyn thought of joining them. But Nickelan was his responsibility. He had to talk sense into him.
“Nickelan,” Selwyn spoke as if his lips were coated in oil. His words came out slick and tacky. “You have no idea what will happen to you if you stay here. These kids know. Tomorrow is the auction, and a young, clean boy like you is likely to go for a pretty penny. You’ll be sold to Makas for target practice, perhaps. Maybe some old lady wants a pet. How would you like a leash and collar? There’s always a need in waste management. Or perhaps they’ll just put you to work out in the fields, twelve hours hard labor with a delicious meal of rotten meat and stale bread awaiting you in your cage each night. Does that sound good, Nickelan? Now, stop being foolish and come with me. Quickly!”
“He’s right,” Fischel added. “If we don’t get back to Kid City by daybreak it’s all over for us.”
“I’m tired of listening to you,” Nickelan said to Selwyn. “You dragged me through slimy pipes and then abandoned me to the Makas. I’ve no idea what’s going on, who you are, what all of this is,” he was losing his temper, “but I know that my friend Springo is upset and I’m going to that toilet to see what’s the matter.”
Speaking the words aloud didn’t sound as decisive to Nickelan as they had in his head. Was he actually going to speak with Springo through the medium of a toilet? It sounded crazy, but what was sane and normal in this upside-down place he found himself in?
Nickelan stood in front of the toilet, looked back at the anxious faces of Selwyn Harris, Gelsomina Gillespie, Fischel Bocephus and the ragtag group of Trick-or-Treaters, then back to the toilet. The water held the reflection of Springo over its still face, but Nickelan couldn’t hear anything. He knew what he had to do.
“Are you mad, boy?” shouted Selwyn, running to Nickelan’s side, but not in time to prevent him from shoving his face into the toilet bowl down to his neck.
Gelsomina gave the word and the kids restrained Selwyn. “Let him do what he has to do,” she said.
“Long live the Redeemer,” came a pip-squeak voice, which made Gelsomina look like she had just drunk toilet water.
Underneath the calm waters of the toilet Nickelan could hear the sounds of Springo’s cries washing over him like waves. He could see Springo in his bathroom as if he was looking through a window, a window that was underwater. The water distorted Springo’s features and made his voice sound deeper. “Springo,” Nickelan said, less to Springo than to himself, so moved was he by his friend’s show of emotion.
Springo looked up, startled. He was still crying, but less sobs than short sniffles. “Springo!” Nickelan said, again realizing that he could communicate with his friend. “It’s me, Nickelan!”
“Oh, no,” said Springo. “Oh, no.” He looked around, now frightened. “It’s the aliens!” he gasped. “First they came for Nickelan and now they’ve come for me.”
“Stop talking nonsense,” Nickelan said. “There’s no such thing as aliens. It’s me, Nickelan. I’m talking to you from the toilet.”
Looking into his toilet bowl, Springo gasped. “You see me!” Nickelan was joyous. It was the only connection he had to his world and possibly a way to return to it.
“You’re in big trouble,” Springo said.
“Put your head into the water,” Nickelan told his friend. “I can barely hear you.”
Reluctantly, Springo submerged his face into the toilet bowl and said again, “You’re in big trouble.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nickelan said. Just speaking to his friend left him feeling relaxed in a way he hadn’t since being sucked down the bathtub drain.
“Where are you?” Springo asked. “Your parents have been looking all over for you. They’re worried sick. Your dad looks green. His tie is undone and his pants have lost their crease. He’s been looking for you everywhere.”
“My father scruffy?” Nickelan couldn’t hold a mental picture of such a startling image.
“Don’t worry,” Springo said. “I said nothing. I figured you finally came to your senses, realized that your parents are space aliens and ran away. At least they didn’t find you before they escaped back to their planet.”
“What are you talking about?” Nickelan asked.
“They’re gone,” Spingo said happily. “Your house is boarded up, the grass is overgrown, the car’s parked in the driveway and covered with bird poop. It’s like a haunted house abandoned all but by spooks. So, come out of hiding, Nickelan. You’re safe.”
“Safe?” Nickelan asked no one in particularly. He pulled his head out from the toilet and look over the anxious faces of Selwyn Harris and the kids. They wanted to leave, fast, and the sounds from the outer room indicated that the bound jailer, the real jailer, was gaining consciousness. But Nickelan wasn’t ready to go just yet. He plunged his head back into the toilet. Springo was still talking.
“I thought you were dead, gone with your parents to who knows where. Where are you hiding, Nickelan, in the toilet?”
“I don’t know exactly where I am,” Nickelan admitted. “But I’m not safe, and my parents are not aliens! They’re a little weird, sure, but whose parents aren’t? Look, I don’t have time for this, Springo. I have to go, but I wanted to tell you I’m all right—at least for the time being.”
“Wake up, Nickelan,” Springo protested. “I saw them riding a giant crocodile. Is that normal? And they were with a bunch of space creeps, all armed to the teeth with knives and swords and whips and other nasty weapons.”
“Makas!” Nickelan said.
“They looked like bad guys,” Springo said.
“You’re right about that,” Nickelan agreed. “But if the Makas have my parents, then my parents must be in Thunder World. I’ve got to find them.”
“Forget your parents,” Springo said.
Before Nickelan could respond, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder and pulled him out of the toilet. Nickelan wiped the foul water from his face. He heard screaming. It was the jailer, still tied up, but now fully awake and calling for help.
“We got to go,” Gelsomina said, “now!”
Nickelan looked down over the choppy waters of the toilet bowl where Springo’s face was sailing in abstract patterns. Selwyn Harris grabbed the toilet handle and flushed. The water in the bowl gurgled and spun before flooding down the drain, taking Springo’s image with it.