When the crocodile had swam down the river and the smoky skyline of Thunder World was only a dim shadow on the horizon, Gelsomina gave the signal. The back of the crocodile erupted as if it was filthy with fleas. The kids leaped from their seats on the bumpy animal’s back and bounced around in loud play. Hooken Ladder, the boy dressed as the fireman, chased Shiny Buttons, the girl in the princess outfit. Chairman Meow, the cat girl, leaped on the back of Count Blood, the vampire, and they tumbled into a giggling pile at Nickelan’s feet. “Want to play?” asked Hop Long, the cowboy, still seated beside Nickelan.
“How can you play?” Nickelan almost spat the last word. “We’ve broken out of jail and now we’re riding on the back of a crocodile. Behind us is Thunder World and before us, I don’t know, maybe something even worse.”
“What did I tell you,” Fischel interjected while jumping on Hop’s stomach. “He’s no kid. What kid wouldn’t play, given the opportunity?”
“You leave the Redeemer alone,” shot back Spike, his bat above his shoulder and ready for a powerful swing.
“The Redeemer,” Fischel said the word as if it pained him, “is a kid. Our savior. This,” he pointed at Nickelan as if he wasn’t there, “is no kid. He’s too clean, he doesn’t want to play and I don’t like him.”
“I’m no Redeemer,” Nickelan admitted, “but I am here for some purpose. I heard a voice, before I was sucked down the drain. It called me by name and said it needed my help.” Nickelan wasn’t sure he should have shared this information, but there it was out in the open. He felt better having set it free from the cage of his mind.
“Hearing voices.” Fischel laughed. “I thought you were a Maka spy, but it’s obvious you’re just out of your mind.”
“Shut up, Fischel,” Gelsomina said. Then turning to Nickelan she asked, “What about this voice?”
Spike was looking up at Nickelan. He had already accepted Nickelan as the Redeemer. All the other kids, including the skeptical Gelsomina, were attentive, waiting on Nickelan’s answer.
“It called me from underwater when I was in my bathtub,” Nickelan said, looking over to Fischel, who turned his back on him. “It knew my name, my full name, and told me terrible things were happening. There wasn’t much time, it said. I was the last hope.”
An audible gasp rose from the collected group, even Fischel turned to stare at Nickelan without his usual rancor. “It’s true. He’s the one. Redeemer,” said awed voices.
“I don’t get you,” Gelsomina said, approaching Nickelan. “You claim to come from a world above, a stranger in our land, yet you’re well versed in our mythology. For as long as there has been a Kid City and a Thunder World, there has been a war between the grown-ups and us kids. And for just as long there’s been tale of a Redeemer, a kid, who would come from above, dropped down to us from the Pipes, and bring peace to our war-ravaged land. Grown-ups and kids living together in harmony—sounds like baloney to me—but it keeps the kids hopeful. How can I argue with that? Then you come around and start stirring things up. I won’t stand for insubordination, not on my team.”
“Red team!” the group shouted in loyalty to their leader.
“Damn right.” Gelsomina smiled at her team. “So maybe you need to shut your mouth, Nickelan, at least until we get to Kid City. My first priority is getting the team safely home, not engaging in a religious debate.”
Nickelan kept his mouth shut, but Tobias didn’t. He pulled the reins on the crocodile, which came to an abrupt halt in the middle of calm waters far from any visible land. Turning to the kids huddled together behind him on the crocodile’s back, he said, “End of the line.”
“This isn’t The Septic,” said Fischel, taking in a deep breath of sea air.
“No,” Tobias smiled, “it’s not. You’re very observant. Too bad I’ve got to kill you.”
Gelsomina was making a run towards the crocodile’s head to overpower Tobias, but he pulled the creature’s rein to the right and sent the animal into a twirl. The crocodile’s back was now underwater, and the kids swam wildly for the surface. Gelsomina counted the heads as they popped out of the water and gasped for air. They were all present and accounted for, except Spike.
The crocodile had made a full rotation and was again lying on its belly with the kids treading water around it. “Spike!” Gelsomina called out. “
Yalp!” Spike cried in response. His mouth sounded full of water because it was.
Spike was trying to swim away from the crocodile, but was in fact inching closer to the creature’s sharp teeth. Gelsomina swam over to Spike and saw that a rope tied his feet together, a rope that trialed to the crocodile. Tobias was holding the other end of the rope and slowly pulling it and Spike in towards the crocodile.
“This one’s mine!” Tobais shouted. His face was old and the flesh loose. When he yelled, spit dribbled off his bottom lip and the features of his face washed over his skull like foam on a crashing wave. His arms were strong and covered in gray hairs that emphasized his muscles as he mightily pulled Spike closer.
“Spike!” Gelsomina yelled. “Your bat.”
“You boys and girls didn’t think a croc ride comes without a price?” Tobias asked, still pulling at the rope and yanking Spike further away from the other kids. “Selwyn told me this little tyke,” he stuck his chin, fuzzy with a sparse white beard, towards Spike, “is my payment. Now, admittedly, I have not taken you to your promised destination. But you’re all young and strong, a little swim will do you good.”
Spike held his bat in both hands and pointed it at Gelsomina. She was swimming towards him, but Spike and his bat lifeline were still out of reach.
“Don’t bother with this one,” Tobias said to Gelsomina as he reeled Spike onto the crocodile as if a large fish on a line. “He’s mine. He’s the ticket punched for the journey. If you have any complaints about today’s service, please direct them towards our corporate headquarters in Thunder World. Your letters will be answered in a timely fashion, within the next six to eight years.”
Tobias was laughing at his bad joke, but was not unaware of Gelsomina swimming hard towards the scaly side of the crocodile. With one hand on the rope pulling Spike up onto the crocodile feetfirst, Tobias’ other hand whipped the beast’s rein. The crocodile responded by opening its huge mouth, exposing its pink gums and the rows of sharp teeth, each one as large as Gelsomina. The crocodile’s jaws snapped at Gelsomina and turned the water white as both the creature’s head and Gelsomina disappeared in the churning sea.
There was a frightening silence broken only by Spike’s struggle against Tobias as he threw him onto the back of the crocodile. Tobias made one crucial mistake: he neglected to remove Spike from his baseball bat. Spike’s legs may have been bound, but his hands were free. He managed to stand on his bound legs and balancing himself raised the bat high above his shoulder and swung for the outfield. There was no outfield, of course, there wasn’t even a ball, but there was Tobias’ head and Spike connected with it at full force.
A sickening crack filled the air and was followed by the explosion of the crocodile’s head as it broke free of the water’s surface. The beast was chewing something in its ferocious jaws.
Spike dropped his bat and watched the crocodile flailing as it tried to dislodge whatever it was that stuck in its teeth. After the creature choked up a waterfall of seawater from its throat, its mouth closed on the bit attached to the rein. It had only been chewing at the bit. Spike quietly loosened the rope around his feet and dived into the water. He emerged beside Gelsomina, whose face was dark and tightly pulled back in a vicious grimace that could scare off even the largest crocodile.
“Ooh,” Tobias moaned. He stood up uneasy on his wobbly legs and rubbed the baseball-sized swelling that was rapidly growing on the back of his head.
Gelsomina and Spike swam back to the kids, who bobbed in the water like jetsam.
“Ow!” Tobias screamed as he fully regained consciousness and took hold of the rein. “I was going to have me a fine galley slave, you’d have sailed the seas and seen wonderful things, like my laundry and the barnacles on the belly of my beloved croc transport. But now you’re chum!”
Tobias turned the creature towards the floating kids. The crocodile submerged until only its reptilian eyes and the figure of a mad Tobias above it were visible. Then it moved swiftly towards its prey.
Behind the rampaging crocodile was a terrible wake, before it, the waters were calm except for the emotions of the kids in the deadly creature’s path.
“Swim!” Gelsomina ordered. She had to say something, but there was no chance her little legs or those of her team could escape the torpedo with teeth that was cutting through the water at an alarming speed towards them.
The kids swam; Nickelan froze. Maybe the others were used to being thrown into uncharted waters and left to drown. Maybe the others were used to being hunted down in those uncharted waters by crocodiles the size of jet planes. Maybe this was routine for the others, but it was a frighteningly new experience for Nickelan.
Tobias saw Nickelan as an easy target and set the crocodile on a collision course with him. Tobias was laughing like a madman, half underwater, with the waves almost covering him in a translucent wall of water.
“An appetizer, my dear,” Tobias addressed his crocodile, “before the main course.”
The beast rose up from the surface as if standing. Its head, the size of truck, bent downwards. The creature’s snout was aimed directly at Nickelan, leading the charge as the crocodile dived back into the water directly on top of Nickelan.
Nickelan felt as if a mountain had fallen on him. The force of the crocodile’s weight pushed him deep under the water. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but green, the green of the deep sea, but mostly the green of the scaly crocodile. What he didn’t see were his legs.
Nickelan’s hands grappled with what his mind couldn’t comprehend. His hands ran in a panic over his body, feeling what was once so familiar and now seemed unreal and alien. The water made this process slow, as he felt his face, which was still there, and his chest. They were all where they should be, down to his belly and waist. But when Nickelan got to his legs he felt nothing.
“The crocodile has eaten my legs,” he thought. Nickelan felt as if he was going to pass out, which, considering the situation, was likely the best thing he could do. He was doomed, a morsel destined for digestion in the stomach of a giant crocodile. It was not the end he saw for himself, but if he had to go that way then he’d rather go that way unconscious.
Where his legs should have been instead was sticky warm goo. That was almost enough to knock him out, but instead Nickelan’s eyes adjusted to the dark waters and saw the glowing orbs of the crocodile’s eyes staring down at him over the large expanse of its coarse snout. He followed the beast’s impersonal stare to its focus, which was Nickelan. Instinctively, Nickelan tried to kick himself free from the crocodile’s gooey grip.
Oddly Nickelan was able to kick, a feat unlikely accomplished without legs. Now able to see more clearly underwater, he observed his legs were thigh-deep in the crocodile’s nostrils. The gunk was not his masticated legs, but mucus from the crocodile’s nose. Having stepped into a crocodile’s nose-snot should have made him sick to his stomach, but he was ecstatic. It was perhaps the one sensitive spot on the creature’s body that Nickelan had access to and he took full advantage of this unique position.
The more Nickelan kicked, the more the crocodile jumped and squirmed and tried to dislodge the unpleasant booger clogging its breathing passage. Not that anyone was breathing much air deep under the water.
If a crocodile can sneeze it did just that, and on a sticky film of mucus Nickelan was sent flying out from the creature’s nostrils. Nickelan was reaching out for something to hold on to, fearing he might sink deeper into the dark unknown of the water. His hands grazed something smooth and solid amidst the foundationless sea. He tried to take hold of it, but his hand fell into a warm and soft crevasse that went down to his elbow. He kept losing limbs.
With his other hand he found another handle to hold on to, and again his arm was swallowed up in a pocket of warmth. Nickelan’s hands met on the other side of whatever he was hugging. He interlocked his fingers and tried to get a foothold with his feet to balance himself.
Nickelan couldn’t believe his good fortune. His feet landed on something hard. Whatever it was, though, it wasn’t solid. The ground beneath his feet jerked and dropped and shuttered. “An earthquake,” Nickelan thought. “Just my luck.”
There was no earthquake. Nickelan couldn’t see because of a rain of bubbles around him, all the air escaping from the open mouth of the crocodile as it screamed in pain. There was no earthquake; it was more a crocodile-quake. Nickelan had his arms wrapped around the left eye of the creature, and squirm and fight as it might it could not remove the pesky speck that was Nickelan from its eyeball.
Then with a pop and another whirl of air bubbles, the crocodile’s eye came out of its socket. Nickelan floated gently away as the crocodile swam frantically to the surface.
The crocodile’s exit was not simply motivated by fear and pain, though that would have been understandable. The battle between Nickelan and the beast had emptied its lungs of air and the burning hurt where its left eye once had rested was matched by the pounding desire in its chest for air.
It crashed through the surface of the water with such force that Tobias McGleaner would have been knocked into the sea to fend for himself if he hadn’t tied the crocodile’s rein to his forearms. As it was, the power with which the creature broke free of its watery pen sent Tobias into the air and bouncing several times over the head and neck of the injured beast.
Tobias tried to steer the crocodile back to scoop up the rest of the kids. Gelsomina and her team had stopped their evasive swimming when the crocodile went under with Nickelan. Now they watched as the creature splashed wildly. Tobias couldn’t control it.
“It’s lost an eye,” Gelsomina noticed.
“Did it eat Nickelan?” Spike asked.
“I’ll kill you all!” cried Tobias, still bounding over the crocodile. “Look what you’ve done to my beautiful croc!”
They couldn’t see. The crocodile had turned tail and was swimming madly towards the distant shore. Tobias had fallen off the crocodile and was being dragged in its wake. His curses were swallowed up in a gargle of seawater.