Nickelan felt cold. He could see nothing but the great dislocated eye of the crocodile that he continued to hold while drifting aimlessly in the vast blackness of the deep sea. The eye looked back at him not with anger but questioningly, as if curious what Nickelan was doing. What Nickelan was doing was drowning.
The surface, sealing the lovely air his lungs burned for, should have been above him. But it could also be below. His orientation was turned around and Nickelan didn’t know which way was up.
He remembered something about following the air bubbles, which would rise towards the surface to join the greater body of air. That would involve exhaling, releasing the trapped air in his lungs, but Nickelan had no air left in his lungs. He was more than breathless. Breathing was an impression that, no matter how hard he tried, remained an irretrievable memory.
Nickelan was dying. In a moment he would open his mouth and let the sea flood into his body. He was too exhausted to fight for life. All he could do was squeeze the floating white crocodile eye like a security blanket. It was all that kept Nickelan from sinking to the bottom of the sea.
There was no panic. Nickelan felt calm, cold but calm. He also remembered hearing that people often experience a euphoric sense of well-being just before they die. That didn’t make sense to Nickelan. How could a dead person explain what dying was like if that person was dead? Still, Nickelan did feel more at peace now than at any other moment in his short life.
“Nickelan!” a voice echoed through the thickness of the heavy water.
Nickelan was confused. He heard that death approaches like a white light calling its victim to oblivion. There was no light. Nothing was white, except the whites of the crocodile’s eye, but even that was more of a gray color.
“Nickelan!” the voice called urgently.
Would death call him by name? It might. Nickelan didn’t want to die, but then he wasn’t too happy about being underwater without any air to breathe.
“Nickelan!” the voice sounded as if it was coming from inside his head.
“What?” Nickelan finally answered. He was tired of having his death so rudely interrupted.
When Nickelan opened his mouth the cold water poured in. It was salty and not as refreshing as a mouthful of water should be.
“Nickelan,” The voice said again, but his time added, “don’t open your mouth.”
It was good advice and Nickelan took it, though perhaps too late.
“There isn’t much time,” the voice continued. “Baber Groan is coming.”
Nickelan didn’t understand. He wanted peace and quiet. Why couldn’t the voice just leave him alone?
“Hold on to the eye,” the voice demanded.
Nickelan hadn’t realized that he was losing his grip on the crocodile eye. His body was becoming numb and limp, his mind cloudy, but he listened and took as firm a hold of the eye as he could.
“It will take you to the surface,” the voice said, and indeed Nickelan felt himself moving. Whether he was rising or falling, though, was beyond his comprehension.
“You’ll be able to breathe soon,” the voice continued. “Hold on and listen. Baber Groan is coming.”
Nickelan wondered who or what was a Baber Groan. The voice answered, “Baber Groan is the Chief Maka.” That the voice could read Nickelan’s thoughts didn’t surprise him, as it did seem to originate from inside his head. How many other voices were in Nickelan’s head? Maybe they all sat around his brain and came up with silly names like Baber Groan and Chief Maka. The thought made Nickelan laugh and he swallowed another mouthful of seawater.
“Nickelan, you’re delirious!” the voice chastised him. “There’s no time. You must listen. You’re our last hope.”
Everyone thought Nickelan was so important. He was the Redeemer, whatever that was. The voice in his head was joined now by an image, the image of his parents. Nickelan felt sad, not that he was apparently going to die, but that he had no idea where his parents were.
“Your parents are safe,” the voice responded to Nickelan’s thought. “But they won’t be for long. They are captives in Kid City.”
The image of his parents in his head was now joined by one of Nickelan. He was strong and brave and rescuing his parents, though from what he couldn’t quite picture.
“There’s no time for fantasy.” The voice was beginning to sound annoyed with Nickelan. “This is real. You are in danger. Baber Groan is coming. Baber Groan is coming to get you!”
Nickelan could see light filtering through the water from above. The surface of the water shimmied in brightly distorted hues. The sight of air, even separated from him by a wall of cold water, was enough to snap Nickelan from his muddled musings. For the first time, with breath only inches away, Nickelan began to panic.
“It’s crucial you hear this,” the voice said. “Once you are on the surface, swim towards the sun. Swim towards the sun. Towards the sun. The sun. Sun.”
The voice was no longer in Nickelan’s head. His face broke the surface of the water. It hurt to breathe. The air filled Nickelan’s lungs like fire. He coughed up mouthfuls of salty seawater. His whole body felt as if it had been beaten up from the inside out. His head pounded like someone was using it for a drum.
Gelsomina saw Nickelan first. She was unable to express her happiness, however, as the sight of the crocodile’s dislodged eye, on which Nickelan was floating like a grotesque life raft, made even her gasp in shock. The sight of Nickelan vomiting seawater and hugging the dead eye of the crocodile equally unnerved the other kids.
When the group found their voice they spoke as one, “Redeemer!”
“He fought the croc,” said Hop Long.
“He fought the croc and beat it,” said Spike Vrusho.
“He fought the croc and beat it and made it run away,” said Shiny Buttons.
“He fought the croc and beat it and made it run away like a scared cat,” said Hooken Ladder.
“He fought the croc and beat it and made it run away like a scared cat and saved its eye for a trophy,” said Chairman Meow.
“He fought the croc and beat it and made it run away like a scared cat and saved its eye for a trophy…awesome!” said Count Blood.
Only Fischel Bocephus said nothing, but that he was saying nothing negative spoke just as loudly as the amazement of the others.
Nickelan’s labored breathing was approaching normal. He stared at the large crocodile eye he was hanging on, then at the floating buoys of kids staring back at him.
“Go to the eye,” Gelsomina ordered.
Clinging to the body part kept the group afloat, but there were no waves to take them anywhere. They were stranded at sea. The sun was beginning to set. A cold night waterlogged in colder water did not bode well for their health.
“The sun,” Nickelan remembered after he caught his breath.
“What?” Gelsomina asked.
“The sun,” Nickelan repeated weakly, finding it hard to gather his wits. Nickelan’s head felt as if filled with shards of glass.
“Whose son?” asked Hop, his cowboy hat so wet its brim flopped down around his face.
The sun was low on the horizon, causing a rich orange and red and yellow and pink display. An ominous purple outlined the vibrant colors like a bruise indicating the coming nightfall.
“The sun,” Nickelan repeated, “I was told to go to the sun.”
“Hearing voices again?” Fischel jeered.
“Yes,” Nickelan responded, unaware of his sarcasm. “It said to go towards the sun.”
“You’ve spent too much time underwater.” Fischel laughed. “You’re got brain damage. There’s no sun in Kid City. There’s no sun in Thunder World. There is no sun.”
“This is no time to argue,” Gelsomina interjected. She turned towards the burning orb in the sky. “Call it a sun, call it the Fire, call it anything you want, it’s setting for the day and we’re out of luck for the next twelve hours until it rises again.”
The sun that was setting was not a star in the sky. There was no sky underground. There was light, but the light of a fire, the Fire. The Fire had burned over the Pipes for as long as anyone could remember. The Fire was fed by fuel carried by the Pipes, drainage from the above world that seeped through the earth’s crust and was caught by the dense netting of piping. The Fire lit the lands and broke day into night and night back into day. The Fire warmed and comforted the inhabitants of Kid City, Thunder World and the Lands Between. The Fire burned each morning, catching in the east and blazing west. When there was nowhere else for it to go, the Fire went out and cast the underground in darkness until the new day, when the cycle repeated itself.
The Fire was fast disappearing and leaving the stranded kids alone in the dark, cold waters.
“We have to follow the sun,” Nickelan said with more force in his voice.
“To where?” Shiny said. “No one’s foolish enough to get too close to the Fire.”
“To there,” Nickelan said.
He pointed to the horizon line where the seawater glowingly reflected the dying Fire as it danced over the network of pipes above. Below the last embers of light and above the colorful ripples of the water was a tiny sliver of something that was neither Fire nor water. It was land.
The nine kids swam to one side of the eye and began to kick their legs, moving the floating orb slowly towards land.
It wasn’t long before their feet touched the sandy bottom of the seabed as they washed up on a desolate beach. The waves carried them and the eyeball crashing into the surf. Gelsomina, Spike, Fischel, Hop, Hooken, Shiny, Meow, Blood and Nickelan collapsed on dry land and didn’t move until it was dark.
It was cold and their wet clothes made them feel even colder.
“We have to find shelter or we’ll freeze to death,” Gelsomina said. She looked apprehensively into the thick woods surrounding the beachfront.
Nickelan stood and tried to shake the sand from his clothes. The sand remained stuck, but he inadvertently shook loose a name from his memory. “Baber Groan,” he said curiously, as if speaking it aloud would help resolve the mystery.
The rest of the kids were kicking the crocodile eye around the beach. When they heard Nickelan utter the dreaded name of Baber Groan, the Chief Maka, they stopped dead in their tracks.
“What did you say?” Gelsomina asked.
“Baber Groan,” Nickelan told her. “Someone named Baber Groan is coming after me.”
“That’s it!” Fischel exploded. “Redeemer or no Redeemer, I’m not going to mess with Baber Groan.” Turning to Gelsomina he added, “I told you this guy was trouble.”
“Who is Baber Groan?” Nickelan asked.
“Who is Baber Groan?” Fischel couldn’t control his temper. “Did you hear that? Who is Baber Groan? Baber Groan is death. Baber Groan is your worst nightmare. Baber Groan is punishment you can’t imagine. Baber Groan is pain from which there is no escape. Baber Groan is after you? Then I say good-bye and good luck!”
“Baber Groan is coming here, for you?” Gelsomina tried to remain calm by assessing the facts.
“That’s what the voice said,” Nickelan answered.
“Great,” Fischel jumped in, “not only does everyone think this nut is the Redeemer, this crazy person that hears voices in his head, but now he’s bringing down the wrath of Baber Groan, and no one finds that in the least bit disturbing?”
“This is bad, Gelsomina, very bad.” Spike was shaking his head as if to dislodge the troubling thoughts that were building there.
“Regardless,” Gelsomina said, “we still have to find shelter. It’s cold and we have a long night ahead of us.”
“What’s that?” Hooken put a hand to his ear.
The faint sound of drumming could be heard. A rhythmic beat ensnarled the group. There was no telling if it was coming from the water, down the beach or deep in the woods. But one thing was clear: it was getting louder.