Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


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Chapter 1975

The wind nearly tore off his skin.

His face was pressed against glass so cold it felt like a freezer door. The air here was frigid, sandpaper-rough, and lacking in oxygen. He forced himself to breathe slow and deep. 'You don't even need to if it comes to that,' he reminded himself for the second time that day. But running out of breath might mean passing out, and he sure as hell didn't want to do that up here.

The ledge he was standing on was so narrow his heels were hanging off. But for the time being he was parked solid. When Toby thought he was ready to bear whatever fun surprises this location had in store for him, he opened his eyes.

He was looking down a long hallway. Well-lit. Gold trimmed doors. Maroon carpet. 'So I'm clinging to the side of a high-rise apartment building. Or a hotel.' Whichever the case, it was a pretty fancy one. And he was locked outside by inch-thick glass.

Gathering his courage, he turned his gaze downward. Of course, there couldn't happen to be a window washer's cart right below him, nooooo, that would be too convenient. His panic started shrieking, but he visualized himself shoving it into a box and locking the lid. Panic would get him killed up here. All the way down, the view was a seemingly endless carpet of austere concrete and identical windows. He was standing in birdshit a million miles up.

The worst part was, at the bottom, there was no bottom. This dreamworld was unfinished. Where there should have been a busy metropolitan avenue and stampedes of pedestrians, instead there was a nothing. A uniform featureless grey. Toby had a feeling it was substanceless too. That if he fell, he'd just keep on falling forever. Eternally circling until he starved to a corpse.

'Okay, brain, there are a lot of reasons why that's stupid,' he said pensively to himself. Though he didn't want to find out what fate would befall him if he lost his grip.

And that was going to happen soon. These were blizzard winds up here. He could feel the warmth leaching out of his fingers and toes. Though his neck was surprisingly cozy. A glance down showed that his vest had puffed up into a huge blue Angora sweater. 'Oh right. Genuine terrorbunny wool. I forgot it did that.' So okay, maybe his core would retain heat. But he still had to somehow get inside before his digits went numb.

Toby pushed his forehead against the glass. Junella was somewhere inside this building. She had to be. Maybe even in the room directly across from him (although he doubted it could be that simple). He had to get inside. He gave the glass a tap. 'This stuff is thick.'

He had a hammer though.

It would mean giving up half his grip. But what was the alternative? He checked for a fire exit first. There was none. 'Of course not. Not this high up.'

The wind was comparable to a freight train rumbling past. Its howl felt like fists driven into his ears. Toby flattened his palm. When it was as close to a suction cup as he could make it, he let his silver fingers retract. He was glad to see them obeying his conscious command now, not just in emergencies.

He braced himself. 'The glass is going to shatter, and you are going to fall on top of it. You're going to get cut up pretty bad. But that's better than falling into that weird grey out there. And you can bash your skull into mush afterwards if it's that bad, okay?'

Toby previewed an inner simulation of his plan a few times to make sure his body was ready for it. He felt his inner steel retract back into its usual shape. He slid his hand down the pane until his elbow was cocked at the best pistoning angle.


The recoil almost launched him straight off the side of the building. The glass resonated like a huge bass bell, hard enough to ripple Toby's skin. His tail whipped back and forth as a counterweight to keep him from falling. He desperately willed his fingers back. Five metal claws scraped the glass with an ear-piercing screech, but they did the job.

Toby stayed motionless for three solid minutes. His heartbeat was like a tympani pressed to his ribs.

Okay, so the glass didn't shatter. But how much had he damaged it? Toby pried his eyes open to check. At least he'd created a lovely spiderweb. At the center was a divot just big enough to fit two pennies into. Other than that, the window was as solid as a mountain. 'Of course. This is safety glass. The extra high density super-duper professional grade stuff. What else could withstand the weather and air pressure this high up?'

Closing his eyes again, he resigned himself to another try. He was already feeling lightheaded, a condition that was likely to keep getting worse. He flattened his palm against the crumbly, cracked center of his previous impact and pulled his fingers in.

'I don't know if I can handle that much recoil a second time.' Toby stared at his fingerless hand. He could see the veins and tendons tensing underneath his pale skin. 'I have to hit it harder somehow. Twice as hard. How?' There had to be a way. But if there was, wouldn't he have discovered it already? Wouldn't the immediacy of lunging hungry constructs have birthed the answer from sheer necessity? 'I'm going to have to get creative.'

The wind was a giant mosquito drinking his heat. His toes quivered from the strain of holding his weight, slight as it was. His tail had gone numb to the root.

'I have to hit twice as hard. Twice as hard.' He blinked. 'What if I had two hammers? I know I can dumbfound mine again if I lose it.' In fact, to cement that idea, he took his paw from the glass and ejected it straight down into the nothingness. By the time he was touching the window again, he could feel it back home in his arm.

An insane thought came to him. Stupid as hell. But he knew by now when a crazy idea felt right. 'I can dumbfound my hammer any time I want to. Any. Time. I. Want. To.' Toby's memory traveled back to his first trip through Dysphoria. George in the subway car. George needing a mercy kill. The spine-piercing collar holding his dying body within the same molecules as his renewed body. In Phobiopolis, two copies of the same thing could exist within the same space. At least, until they were forced to merge or diverge.

"Two copies of the same thing can exist within the same space," Toby said out loud. It was an order.

His forearm leapt into a bubbling frenzy. His eyes went wide at the sight of the jittering flesh and the stomach-churning feeling of something unbearably vigorous having a grand mal seizure inside.

There was no time to stand here admiring it. He'd just made a bomb inside his arm. It was either going to take this window or his life when it went off.

Toby fired the cloned hammers at the glass.


Toby careened forward and the floor punched the breath right out of him. The roar of the wind was cut by half, likewise the chill. Despite lying on a blanket of broken glass, an uncontrollable gasp of mad laughter bubbled out of him.

'That was completely impossible!' Toby thought. 'Thanks, hammer!'

He wanted to pop it into his palm and kiss it, but he was also aware that the instant he moved, the pain would hit him like a hail of spears. The smallest wiggle of his belly came with a worrying crinkle of pulverized glass. 'I'm probably cut up all over. When I stand up, it'll be like when cartoon characters get shot and then they drink a glass of water and it all comes pouring out. Except it'll be blood instead.' He cackled in a way that worried him. 'I'll need to dumbfound up a bunch of corks!'

The wind was still lapping at his hindquarters from the abscess he'd created in the building's wall. Best to just treat this like a bandaid and get it over with. Gingerly, he popped his hammer out and used it like a cane to push himself up to his feet.

He was pleasantly surprised. Now that he could see around him, most of the glass had been flung far away from his landing spot, ending up lodged in the wall across from him. He winced at the jagged mural, hoping it wasn't Junella's apartment. She might've gotten a faceful. As for himself, he was bleeding from a couple places, but his trusty vest had kept him mostly unharmed. Mostly. He did need to pull a few splinters out of his knees, and a long nasty one from just above his eyebrow. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow."

He took a cleansing breath. 'Allright. I'm in.' He shivered. 'And I can move away from the wind now!' He hustled away until he felt comfortable. He rubbed his arms to get the blood flowing again, and found a few more crumbles of glass in the fur.

Now he could focus on where he was and how to accomplish his purpose here. The hallway was even more posh than his first impression had hinted at. Or at least, what this time period considered posh. The mahogany doors, tangerine wallpaper, burgundy carpet, and chocolate marble ceiling was a color scheme that made him feel oddly nauseous. Light came from solid white spheres in the ceiling, cleverly designed to look like a magician was making them float. Upon each solid-looking door was a decorative plate engraved with a number. Toby suspected they might be made of real gold. 5116 was directly across from him. He was surprised this was only the fiftieth floor. It felt a lot higher.

At each corner of the hallway was a gathering of perfectly round bushes in trapezoidal planters. Each was accompanied by a tall ashtray shaped like a shell casing. Toby wondered if the gold trim on them was real too. And on the walls every few feet were real paintings. Not prints: he could tell by the texture of the brushstrokes. Maybe by no one famous, but still pretty classy stuff. Lots of bold, abstract colorspasms.

First deduction: Junella was not in any of these rooms across from him. Evidence? The sound of the glass shattering would have woken up anyone. But just to be sure, he went up to 5116, checked for a 'Do Not Disturb', then knocked. "Anybody in there? Um, housekeeping?"

No answer. Toby began getting another hunch. He knocked harder, pounding with the side of his fist. "Anyone!?"

Nothing. That much noise should have annoyed whoever was in the rooms to the left and right too.

'Unless there's nobody in them.'

Toby jiggled the doorknob. Then, assuring himself he'd apologize sincerely if he was wrong, he grabbed it tight in his right hand and let his hammer annihilate it. The knob shattered just fine, but the door didn't budge. Toby then used his hammer on the hinges. They also broke easily, also without results. 'Because it's not even a door. It's a wall. And the only thing behind it is more of that grey stuff outside.'

Feeling a lump in his throat, Toby looked to the far end of the hallway. Maybe twelve doors total. He sprinted to the corner. When he turned, his heart sank. He had broken in on the shorter side of the building. There had to be forty doors lining the next hallway. 'Which means another forty on the opposite side.'

He shut his eyes tight. Fine. The tingle hadn't begun yet, but he knew it would start by the time he knocked on all these doors.

Just around the corner, he noticed an elevator. Knowing damn well what the result would be, he pushed the button. It didn't even light up.

"Nothing's ever easy."

Out of sheer, petty frustration he K.O.ed the button into a sparking crater.

Toby sighed and began the thankless chore of knocking on every damn door in the hallway. He figured, between the glass and his doorknob-demolishing, the other hall was already covered. And if it wasn't, then he'd just loop around and hit everything again. Around and around he'd go, until either he found her, or the tingle wrenched him out and he'd have to dive back in and try again.

He lost patience with hitting each door individually. He figured if he just hit every other one hard enough, that'd work. Thankfully the mahogany made a nice 'boom' when he hammer-cannoned it. And the hallway had a good echo too. Toby ran along at a half-jog, bellowing out Junella's name with one hand cupped to his mouth, the other leaving dents in doors. When he got a third of the way down, there was another of those big cylindrical ashtrays. Toby figured that'd make a good noise too, so he diverted course to kick it's ass. CLANG-A-LANG!!! That was great! Like someone tossing a pair of cymbals down a laundry chute!

If he hadn't been so irritated, he might have been enjoying himself. He kept the ashtray rolling with a solid punt every few feet, while hollering, "JUNELLA!" over and over and leaving a trail of slowly-disappearing post-launch hammers in his wake.

If it wasn't for the numbers on the doors changing, Toby might have thought this hallway was just the same section repeating on an infinite loop. The other corner didn't seem to be getting any closer. 'I swear, if she's on a different floor, I'll lose my mind.' He tried to convince himself that wasn't true. 'There are no other floors. The town and the airplanes was an imaginary choice. The two sides of the street was an imaginary choice. Both times I popped in close enough to where I needed to be. She's here. Somewhere.' But his doubt nagged him nonetheless.

Toby kicked the ashtray again. It really did roll beautifully. Like the center drum of a steamroller loosed from its bearings.

Before he knew it, his worrying had dulled his senses. He arrived at the corner before he expected to. He dashed around, glad to have half his task completed.

And to his surprise, unlike the opposite half of the building, this one had something outside it. Toby ran to the window. He flattened his palms and forehead against it, not out of self-preservation this time, but amazement.

From up here he could see the curve of the world. A vast sea of blue with clouds dozing within it like herds of white cattle. Beneath was the city. The BIG city. There was no mistaking this place. Skyscrapers reached up their windowed arms. Some of them were even taller than the one he was in. A few were so gargantuan he had to crane his neck to see their tops! Unbelievable!

Below was a riot of advertising. Uncountable billboards in every aggressively-eye-catching color possible. Toby almost wished it was night instead of midday, because the bulbs and neon would have been dazzling. Though the streets were dazzling enough. Even from up here Toby could make out theaters and restaurants and department stores. A million billion people crowded the sidewalks, indistinguishable as a living carpet. If Toby squinted he could make out tiny umbrellas atop food vendor's carts. Cars as small as termites crawled along the clogged roads. Taxis and garbage trucks were discernible. This was the place all the movies were shot. He'd always halfway wanted to take a trip here, if not for the fear of grimy streets and germy people. Even if this was all just the hallucination version, it was still a sight worth remembering. Toby hated to tear himself away. More doors to pound.

Thankfully, he remembered that this was the shorter, easier side. A half-dozen knocks, tops. Just as he raised his arm to start, he looked around to see where his ashtray had gone and noticed, at the far end of the hallway, one of the doors was standing open.

Toby forgot everything else and ran for it.

And when he got close, from inside the open door he heard the best sound in the entire world. The bestest best BEST sound that had ever existed. Her voice.

"Zinc? Is that you raising all that hell out there? Getcher ass in here, it's unlocked!"

Toby put a hand to his mouth to hold back a yelp of shocked relief. It was her voice! Exactly the same as he remembered it! And she'd said a name!! The ramifications were mind-boggling! Toby nearly tripped over his feet trying to double his speed. His running footsteps echoed as loud as his hammer-knocks.

Finally he collapsed against the gold knob and leaned on the mahogany, panting. Sparkles danced in front of his eyes. 'Don't get too excited and pass out now,' he warned himself. He gulped air until his throat stopped burning.

He pulled the door open and stepped inside.

His plan had been to call her name and run to her. But the interior of the apartment stopped him in his tracks. It was nearly as impressive as the view outside.

Toby never would have guessed she'd grown up this rich. He'd always pictured Li'l Junella growing up on the bad side of town, fighting over leftovers with a pack of siblings, or beating up the bullies on a patchy, rundown playground. This was not that. He was in a compact but heavily-decorated living room, walking on pristine white shag so deep it felt like it was trying to eat him. There was a leather loveseat against the wall, facing a massive home entertainment system. The stuff inside might have been state of the art for its time, but the faux wood trim looked laughably anachronistic. And the stereo was about as big as a washing machine. Toby's eye was also drawn to a diamond-shaped shelving unit featuring all sorts of expensive-looking doodads. A miniature cactus, a religious statue, a cobalt glass bird, etc..

All around the room were portraits. A very hip male skunk sporting a snazzy blue suit with an orange cravat. A plump ladyskunk with long eyelashes; her white dress looked like flowing milk. Most numerous of all were dozens of professional shots of a precocious baby skunkette who could not have looked more greedy for the camera's attention.

Passing through the rest of the place, Toby saw a kitchen with a colossal crystal chandelier suspended over an uncomfortable-looking art-shaped dining table. There was a bathroom all done up in swirled rose tile. A bedroom for two with a circular love-pit and a vanity shaped like a waterfall. At the far end of the apartment was another cracked-open room, and Toby felt certain that was his destination. An easy prediction, considering the massive portrait of that same baby skunk hanging just outside.

Toby steeled himself to see her again. He tried not to let his emotions overwhelm him. This wasn't success yet. There was time to let happiness crash into him when this was all over. But with matters Phobiopolan, he knew he had to stave off celebration until he was sure. This realm had a way of finding inventive new ways to smash poison pies in his face whenever he let his guard down.

Hand quivering a little, Toby pushed the door open.

At the sound of the hinge, a voice called out in playful snark, "You're late, asshole. Didja at least bring some booze?"

Toby couldn't laugh or reply to that. He was too dumbstruck.

This was the pinkest room in existence. Piffle would've had an aneurysm. It was also the biggest room in the apartment by far, stocked floor to ceiling with everything a little princess could possibly wish for. The canopy bed was as big as a boxcar, featuring lavender silk curtains decorated in tiny silver stars. There were toys covering almost every square inch of the carpet. Dolls and stuffed animals of every species, nonev and anthro alike. In one corner was a humongous plush elephant with a howdah on its back and a tea party setup inside. There was a walk-in closet and a full-length mirror, with a tangle of dress-up accessories piled between them. There were makeup kits and posters and a record player and her own TV set, almost as big as the one in the living room. Pink clouds and pink hearts and pink angel skunks frolicked around on the wallpaper. The combined sight was enough to explode one's eyeballs.

And sitting on the floor on a pink spiral rug, almost knee-deep in Lego, was a little black and white furball no older than five. She had on a matching blouse and skirt that were just un-pink enough to be plausibly denied as red. Her lightning-white hair dwarfed her head in two cheerleader-pompon ponytails. She was building what looked like the Taj Mahal.

Junella put another turret on her tower with a grin that was badly trying to hide its joy. Despite her diminutive age, her voice was exactly as grown-up and no-bullshit as always, which added even more surreality to the scene. She looked up, feigning nonchalance, and her words died in her throat. "I admit I'm gl-" The plastic brick fell out of her hand.

The pair of them stared at each other.

"TOBY!?" she finally squawked.

"You're cute!" Toby blurted.

Ignoring his response, she crawled a few feet closer to him on all fours, eyes wide and mouth agape. She hadn't even noticed she'd mashed several Legos into her palms and knees.

The mouse took another step inside and rubbed the back of his neck. "You weren't expecting me," he understated.

The tiniest shake of her head was all she could manage. She looked him over from top to bottom. Suddenly she backed up, mule-kicked her fabulous creation across the room, and started sweeping all the other bricks away with her tail. When that didn't do the job fast enough, she stood up, snarled, and gave the entire rug a snap like a whip. Toby jumped back and bumped into the wall.

Junella got the rug smoothed out again and sat down on it, cross-legged. Still looking like she was seeing a barrelful of ghosts, she turned to face Toby and gave the space beside her two 'sit down' pats.

Toby crossed the room to her and sat.

She leaned closer to study his face. Her nostrils flared, checking to make sure his scent was true; that this wasn't some new mirage to torment her. "Toby," she said again.

There wasn't much he could do but nod.

Junella let herself fall backwards, caught by her mega-poof tail. "I thought it'd be Zinc. I was so sure I'd see him come scootin' in with that adorable dumbass grin of his."

Toby shrugged. "Sorry to disappoint."

She popped up instantly. "Toby, no! Disappointed is the last thing I'm feeling! STUNNED, more like it! Sweetass GOBSMACKED! I can't believe... I don't know how you found me in here, but I am amazed that you did!"

He turned away shyly from the compliment. "I'm amazed you seem to have all your memories."

She tilted her head. "The others didn't?"

'Holy shit, she's sharp.' "How'd you figure that?'"

She held up her stubby little fingers and counted off on them. "One, I heard my name hollered all up and down the hall. I thought Zinc sounded a little different, but figgered it was just the echo. Regardless, that meant you knew I was in here. Suggests prior experience."

Toby nodded.

"What confirms prior experience is the way you asked me what you just asked. How'd you know I've been having Etch-A-Sketch brain unless you'd seen it in someone else? Maybe yourself. I obviously don't know what she did to you after I got porcelainized. But just from your tone, it felt like I was breaking a pattern. Ergo, Zinc, Piffle, maybe even George too?"

Toby's eyes were bulging. He tried to think of some clever reply, but just stuttered a bit and started applauding.

She grinned at that. But then her petite muzzle drew into a sour pout. "You called me cute," she accused.

"Well..." he made a gesture indicating her much-reduced height. "You are."

She put her adorable hands on her hips and squinted. "Suck a dead dog's dick on a pile of rancid ol' dildos. Still cute now?"

Toby wrinkled his nose. "Okay, okay. Definitely not."

She nodded. Matter settled.

"That said, your eyes are... remarkable."

She recoiled in embarrassment. "They what? Oh... right. I guess you've never seen 'em this color before." She begrudgingly let him see.

Toby leaned in a little. Despite her cringing embarrassment, she was a lovely little cub. Her eyes were her centerpiece. An arresting milky blue that made him think of sapphires encased in ice.

Not waiting for him to get the hint that she didn't like being seen like this, she swiftly turned aside and changed the subject. "We've both got questions. That's obvious. So to keep us both from stumbling all over our tongues trying to get 'em out, I'll just go first with mine, then you can ask yours. Sound alright?"

"Sure," Toby agreed. "I don't have infinite time here, but I've got an okay amount."

"Alright." She arched an eyebrow. "You have a way out, I hope? You didn't just barge in here without a plan tryin' to rescue me on pure hero-faith?"

Toby shook his head. It was odd having to look down at her when he spoke. "Actually, you could say I'm on a timer. This dream doesn't want me in it. I can feel it as a tingle in my legs. It's trying to squirt me back out. You just have to hang onto me when that happens."

Junella nodded her head emphatically. "Good!" A wave of relief passed through her. "I guessed as much. You're not stupid, Toby. I figured you'd look before you leapt. I just needed to hear it to feel right, canya diggit?"

"Oh sure. Sometimes I've gotta tell myself things too."

She picked up a flat Lego brick and idly tried to bend it in half. "You got the others too? D'they know who they are?"

More nodding. "George took the most work, but he's 100% recovered by now. I just collected Piffle and Zinc a moment ago. They're still disoriented."

She leaned a little closer. "And how are you?"

Toby pulled back. He folded his hands in his lap. "I'm fine. I guess."

She 'hmm'ed with a sidelong look. He wasn't. She could see that plain as day. But if he didn't want to talk about it, she'd be the last one to pry. It was enough to see that he'd gained a few belts in competence since their parting. Though he also looked like he hadn't slept since then either.

Toby could feel her deducing things about him. "Um, I was planning on giving the whole details to everyone together, once we were all out," he said. "Unless there's anything you need to know right this second, I'll probably cover it later."

She let him change the subject. "I can't think of anything else of great importance." She looked around her room with a grimace of pure bile. "The most important thing is that you can get me the fuck away from this shit."

Toby looked around too. He shrugged. "I'm not a girl, but it seems like a pretty cool room to me. Like, a place I wouldn't mind having a sleepover in. You really hate it that much?"

She glared at him. "Does it suit me?"

Easy question. "No."

"Uh huh," she sneered. She clenched her arms around herself, like she'd suddenly gotten cold. "You wanna know how I got my memories back," she stated; not asked. "I don't hate this place just because I've been cooped up in here for God knows how long. It's not just because it's a prison cell. It's because... Toby, you know what's the one good thing about a scar?"

He thought a bit. "Supposedly they're good for attracting chicks."

She chortled, trying to imagine Toby in a bar doing that. "Okay, fine, that too. But what I mean is, a scar always reminds you of where you got it from."

That seemed quite wise. "This place gave you scars when you were a kid?"

She tapped her cranium. "In here. You don't feel rage for that long, and at those depths, without it building a permanent home in your guts. But you bet your ass, whatever this place is, it tried to make me think this was home." She pointed to her bed. "Every single morning, I still wake up feeling like it's the weekend, and Mom 'n Pops have already gone to work so I can play all day till they get home at suppertime. I was fooled for weeks, Toby. Days and days of dressing up my dolls in here, or sipping juice out in the livingroom, watching cartoons. It was real nice for a while. But you can't fool a scar. Eventually I started feeling like, 'Wait a minute... Goddammit, I was never this happy here'."

"Geez," Toby said sadly. "I'm sorry to hear that. But I'm glad you found a way to make use of it. And actually, I kinda know what you mean. Dysphoria tried to take me back to my old room and it couldn't fool me either."

Junella was amused again by the many parallels she kept finding between them. "Once that idea broke through, the mind control was over. Powerless." Her tone took on a manic quiver. "I started doing experiments. Breaking my toys. Setting fires. I'd go to sleep, then everything was brand spankin' new the next day. The more sure I got that this place was fake, the more I started feeling like my old self again. I just had to build myself back up, brick by brick." She glanced at the Legos. "Y'know, these were one thing I never hated back then. They're still good for passing the time. Plus I've read every book in the apartment. Or at least I tried to. I never did as a kid, so I had no memory of 'em. This place just copied out pages and pages of nonsense. But within 'em I kept finding words from my deep subconscious. Little things that'd open my eyes a bit more. I started reading the phone book in chunks, hours at a time."

He arched an eyebrow. "Why...?" A lightbulb clicked on. "For the names!!"

A huge, grinning nod. "Eggs-ACKT-ly! Toby, let me thank you right now for having a normal, sensible name. George too. The rest of Phobiopolis gotsta have all sorts of fancy-ass bullshit nicknames. I got Zinc from a plumbing ad, and Piffle from someone talkin' old-timey talk on a soap opera on TV. By the way, what's mine?"

Toby was confused. "I was shouting it all down the hall."

"No, no! My last name!"

"Oh!" He put on his best George voice, "I have the pleasure of introducing Madam Brox."

"HOT DAMMIT, I THOUGHT SO!!" she exploded, nearly knocking Toby across the room. "I saw an ad in that phonebook for jukebox repair and that word felt kinda right, but it kept itching at me that it wasn't all the way right!"

"Glad I could give it back to you," Toby said, recovering after her sonic blast.

Junella grunted in relief. "I owe you big time, Toby. That was the last jigsaw piece I needed to be me again."

Toby was about to tell her there was no repayment necessary, but she startled him by tossing her head back and bellowing at the ceiling like a volcano.


"It's not an 'it'. It's just your own memories," Toby meekly pointed out.

Junella didn't hear him, instead fixing a maniacal Cheshire grin in his direction. "You saw outside, right? How it's only half a city? Once I figured out this place was fake, I started noticing aaaalllll kindsa other mistakes. Once I got outside the apartment, they were everywhere! There's no other rooms in this building, Toby. There's no elevators. There's no stairs. But I got out anyway."

He blinked. "How?"

She turned around to the canopy bed. "Parachute. One good thing about this skimpy body: I don't weigh jack."

Toby tried to imagine braving those Arctic winds on nothing but lavender bed curtains. "How'd you break a window?"

Without looking, she whipped her hand to the side and filled it with gleaming metal.

"Your revolver!"

She gave him an 'ain't it cool?' grin. "My hands are so small now I gotta use both of 'em. And the recoil knocks me into the next county! But you put enough shots in the same bullseye and anything'll shatter eventually." She twirled the sixgun on her thumb, then vanished it with a mystic pass.

Toby's curiosity was aroused. "What's it like down below? I saw a town in Zinc's dream but I didn't have time to go walking around in it."

"It only knows what I used to know. So, places I used to go to a lot are sharp, while everything else is..." She searched for a metaphor. "You ever look real hard at a comic book, Toby? It's all little dots when you lean in close. Same thing down there. Buildings flat as shoeboxes. The words on the signs are all throw-up. There's no people. Cars are shells. Like a set in some shitty school play."

Toby nodded. "I thought it might be."

Junella smirked wistfully. "Speaking of school, I'll admit it was a hoot seeing my old elementary again. And trashing the place! Puttin' bullet holes in the blackboards and driving down the halls screaming my head off."

"Driving?" Toby asked. "You said the cars were just props too."

Her blue eyes gleamed. She held up a 'wait a sec' finger, then stuck it down her throat and retched.

Toby backed up, thinking she was about to puke on him.

Instead, she reached into the back of her throat and extracted an inky little pill. "Remember this?"

Toby stared at it. He was sure it felt familiar... Then his eyes went wide. "That's right! You kept it with you!"

She beamed. "One gen-u-wine Fearsleigher, ready for resizing. I even bigged it up it in here a few times to give the place a machine gun makeover."

"Zinc's gonna be super happy!"

"I'll bet. Doubly so when he sees all the gear we still got left in her." She swallowed it again for safekeeping, then hopped to her feet. "Why keep him waiting? I dunno if you'll be up for it or not, but I plan to take him with me and go hunt down that faceless superbitch who backstabbed us."

Toby stood as well. He nodded solemnly. "That's exactly what I was planning. I didn't come all this way to get you back just because I care about you. I do, of course. That was always the first reason. But I also need you. You've got your cutlass too, I hope?"

She looked dumbstruck to hear those words come out of her mild, timid Toby. And then she clapped her paws to his shoulders, so savagely proud of him her gums nearly bled from grinning. "Right on."

He nodded. "I thought you'd be happy to hear that."

"You thought right, mouse." She suddenly swept past him. "Let's hit the road. I don't want this place's stink on me anymore."

He nodded. "When we've got time later, you've gotta tell me what you were like as a kid and why this room pisses you off so much. It can't be just because it's so pink."

At that she immediately flinched. Her nonchalant chuckle sounded pathetically phony. "Aw, you don't wanna hear about all that old crap. It's so unimportant it's got dust on it. We've got the future to look forward to. Friends to see. Butts to kick." She turned and headed for the hall, tail bobbing behind her like a pet cloud.

Toby was surprised. That was some blatantly transparent dishonesty. He was curious, but she was right that they had better things to concern themselves with. He followed her out past the dining room.

She abruptly stopped and Toby bumped into her (thankfully her tail was a perfect cushion). Junella didn't even apologize. Instead she looked back to the open door with her baby portrait hanging beside it. She gnawed her lip. She stepped around Toby and headed back, reluctantly, but as if she couldn't stop herself.

"Did you forget something?" he asked.

She glanced over her shoulder. She was trying to smile like this was merely a trifling afterthought, but her eyes showed a storm inside her. "Heh. Could you, um, give me just a moment, Toby? One last thing I wanna do before I never see this place again."

He leaned against the wall, not sure if this should worry him. He checked his inner countdown: the tingle was no worse than his foot falling asleep. "Okay, I suppose. How long you'll be?"

Junella looked down at her tiny hand and saw a six-chambered friend appear in it. "Not long."

Toby shrugged and gave her a 'go ahead' nod.

Junella acknowledged him politely. Then she turned her attention to the room. Her room. Her jail. Her hell. She soaked in every detail, and all the memories those pretty playthings brought to mind. She knew every inch of this place. She knew everything in its shadows.

A searing rictus of anger came over her muzzle. Spreading her feet to brace herself, she wrapped both hands around the grip of her gun. A feral scream rose from her throat like an approaching police siren. And then she was pumping bullets into absolutely everything.

Toby reflexively ducked, even though none of the bullets were headed his direction. He fled around the corner into the bathroom and peeked just his head out. It was a sight as surreal as anything Phobiopolis had shown him. A three-foot skunk cub, just past toddler age, screaming with the voice and volume of an adult, firing round after round into nothing more dangerous than playthings. Toby saw chunks of wall and carpet ricochet. He saw teddy bear stuffing fly for the second time that day. And he could have sworn he saw tears in Junella's eyes.

The young skunk screamed her throat hoarse. Her mind was white-hot turmoil. Whenever her gun went empty, she mindfucked another into her grip and, without a pause, kept pulling the trigger. She exterminated her bed and her clothes. Her mirror and her dolls. She put a hole straight through her stuffed elephant's stuffed brain.

She had done all this before. Many times. But this was the best of them, because this time she was getting out. This time she wouldn't be waking up again to find everything back the way it was, tidy and clean, taunting her with its indestructibility, trapping her here in this nightmare cage til she lost all sense of self and sanity.

Toby watched as Junella's pile of smoking revolvers ascended past her ankles. He debated whether to dash in behind her and pull her away, when she abruptly stopped on her own. The apartment went silent, except for the whining tinnitus in his ears.

Junella stood like an iron statue. Chest heaving, eyesight blurred, cheeks soaked. The bedroom was a shambles. Nothing bigger than a Lego had survived. Plushies littered the floor like a gangland hit. The walls were swiss cheese. Junella tossed her last revolver as hard as she could and it thumped satisfyingly against the carpet.

She gave her final words to the room. "I'm done with you now. You're dead. You're dead now."

She turned and stormed past Toby towards the front door. "Stop dawdling, mouse. Pick up your feet and let's go. How do we get out? You got a secret hole we gotta crawl through or somethin'?"

Toby caught up and grabbed her shoulder. "What the hell was that!?"

She whirled around, scowling furiously. "You need to ask!? I was trapped here, against my will, for YEARS!! I had my age stolen! Everything I've built myself to be! Is that not enough!?"

Toby remembered Zinc going apeshit on the airplanes. But that hadn't felt like this. Mere captivity didn't seem plausible as a motive for that much retaliation. "Junella, I don't know that I've ever seen you that angry. Or at least, I've never seen you cry when you were angry like that."

She wrenched her shoulder out of his grip. "You didn't see anything," she spat. She headed into the livingroom.

He frowned. Defiantly, he stood stock still and made his voice firm. "What happened here when you were little?" he asked.

Junella didn't even respond. She went straight to the door.

"I'm not trying to make you upset. I care about you," he said, trying to call her back. He threw out a guess. "Did your parents abuse you?"

The result was immediate. She'd been one foot into the hall, and in an instant she was standing in front of him, shaking with outrage. "FUCK YOU," she snarled.

Toby was less stunned by her insult than by her raised, stiff-fingered palm.

He gaped at it. "You were about to slap me."

She seemed as surprised by this as him. Trying to cover it up, she pointed in his face instead. "You don't talk about my parents that way. They never hurt me. You don't fucking say shit like that about them."

What first leapt to mind was that she was covering for them. Maybe Mommy and Daddy had smacked her around, and now Junella was trying to hold onto her illusions of them as a happy family. But that idea immediately felt sour. Toby looked up at the portraits on the wall. Junella's mother and father looked so proud. Happy and eager to be their best for her. And in Baby Junella's eyes, could he see something more than just little kid self-centeredness?

Still staring, the words fell out of Toby's mouth. "No... If it was them you hated, you could have shot up these photos. You could have blasted their TV or something. Instead..." He turned around to the bedroom full of bullet holes.

When Toby looked back at Junella, her eyes were wet at the edges. She very clearly wanted him to shut his damn mouth and let this go.

'But I can't.' Truth could be packed down tightly in a forgotten box, but once it was out, nothing could force it back in. "Zinc and Piffle were back to their old bodies by this point. Once they got their memories."

"Toby, stop," Junella whispered.

He ignored her. "...But you've had your memories this whole time. And yet you're still like this. Nothing's trapping you like this but you."

Lip trembling, she stared at the mouse, one of her closest friends she'd ever known. She made another gun appear in her hand and pointed it directly at him. Her eyes were pleading.

Toby looked down the barrel. It surprised him, but instead of showing fear, his expression changed to disgust. "Junella, you've already shot me half a dozen times. It's not going to do anything. It's not going to shut me up."

She knew that already, of course, but hearing him say it drove home how ridiculous she was acting. The gun clunked on the carpet as she dropped it and ran to Toby, wrapping her arms tight around his ribcage and laying her head on his vest.

Toby put his own arms around her. He slowly knelt. He let her cry and held her. He felt suddenly guilty for prying when she'd begged him to stop. He didn't ask her anything else.

Junella felt like a lifetime's emotions were pushing against her face. Pressed to the blue wool, she mumbled between sobs, "You're right. Goddamn you, you're right about all of it. When'd you get so fucking smart, you piece of shit?"

Toby ran a paw across her hair. "You swear a lot when you're upset, you ever notice that?"

She gasped a pained laugh and squeezed him tighter. "Shut up," she said lovingly.

Toby did as asked, and just kept petting her hair. Junella reached up and yanked the barrettes out, letting her headfur fall down along her shoulders.

After a few moments to get herself under control, she abruptly let go of Toby and walked across the room to the loveseat. She sat down and let her head hang down almost to her lap.

It took a few seconds for Toby to get the message that he was meant to join her. He did. The leather cushions squeaked when he sat.

Junella had her fingers interlocked in her lap. She did not look at him.

He was quiet and let her take her time. The tingle was definitely bothering him by now, but his will was strong enough to demand a few more minutes from it.

"I was a mean little kid, Toby," Junella finally said.

He leaned closer, listening.

"A brat. I mean, if there'd been an Olympics for spoiled rotten manipulative miniature witches, I would've brought home every gold. I was... There was something wrong with me. I am not talking about normal kid tantrums. You ever seen that old black and white movie, The Bad Seed?"

"It was on TV once, yeah," Toby said.

Junella propped her elbows on her knees and rested her face in her hands, covering her eyes. "That was me. We watched it once and my mom had to turn it off, it was freaking her out so bad. She didn't want to face it. I was that. I was the kid who used my big blue eyes to get out of paying the price for all the evil shit I did. I was the kid who kicked my friend's pets. I was the kid who didn't really have friends, just people who were too scared to not do what I told them. I was the kid who the principal kept calling home about how I'd been pulling hair, or scratching faces, or stealing things, or getting the other kids to fight over me, or..." She'd actually forgotten it until just then, but now the memory appeared fresh under her nose, so she could get a good long smell of it. "I put a dead cat in a teacher's desk once," she admitted. "She confiscated the new bracelet I was showing off to everyone. So the next few days, I walked to school looking for roadkill. When I found a little pussycat, I waited till recess and squished it right in where I knew she'd find it. When she did, I smiled. 'Bout gave her a heart attack." She chuckled lifelessly. "They didn't even pin it on me. I was smart; they couldn't prove it. But who else in the whole school could've thought of something that sick?"

"Jesus..." Toby whispered.

Junella let her hands droop. Her eyes seemed frozen open now, staring at the carpet without seeing. "That's why I got so mad at what you said about my parents, Toby. They weren't the problem. They loved me. They tried so hard. They gave me everything I wanted, and all it taught me was that I could beg for more. Those people were saints for putting up with me the way they did. They should have drowned me. Stuffed me down the trash compactor. I don't even think there's a God, because how could he have given me to two nice people like them?

"This one time..." Her voice cracked. She gulped and tried to force the words to out. "This one time, we were at the dinner table. We'd just finished eating, and I'd been complaining the whole time, like usual. Daddy went in the other room and came back with a shopping bag. He said that was why he'd been a little late getting home from work. He brought it out and it was a new doll. The exact one I'd seen in a TV commercial and whined about for an hour. He'd bought it for me, just to see me happy." Her chest hitched. "I looked at it. And I looked at him. And then I kicked him as hard as I could. WHACK. Right in the shin. Then I grabbed the doll and ran away to my room, laughing." She wrapped her arms around her stomach. "I did it because I knew he'd never see it coming. It'd hurt him more that way. I did it because it was funny."

At that she broke down into sobs. Toby watched her curl up on the loveseat cushion, a shuddering ball.

Staggered, almost breathless from her confession, he reached an arm toward her shoulders for a hug.

Even with her face covered up, she somehow saw the movement. Like a striking snake she smacked his arm away. "HOW THE FUCK CAN YOU STAND TO TOUCH ME!?"

He had never seen her so fragile. She had always been the epitome of confidence. Fearlessness. He rehearsed a hundred things or more he could say to comfort her, all of them sounding more phony and useless than the last.

She was staring at him. Looking ready to claw his eyes out if he came near, yet begging him with her body language to somehow make her feel better.

Finally, Toby just shook his head and let himself fall backwards into the cushions. In a calm, even tone he said, "I don't know for sure, but it's pretty likely that I got my dad sent to prison on a false charge of child molestation."

Her expression switched in an instant. "You what?"

Toby stared up at the gaudy light fixture and the avocado ceiling. "My dad was starting to figure out that Mom was out of her mind and keeping me sick so she could take care of me forever. One day he took me to a new doctor without telling her. They did some tests, and they told him the truth. When we came home he confronted her. A few days later she coached me to say that he'd been fondling my penis every night before bed and making me suck him off. I told all of this to some guy she hired to record it. She said I was a good boy and made me butterscotch pudding that night as a reward. I never saw Dad again after that. Either he ran like hell, or they got him. I don't know. I might not ever know."

Junella looked like someone had just scooped her voice box out. She stammered for a bit before managing, "B-but that's not the same! I did what I did out of pure heartless malice! Sadism! You were just being used!"

He turned his head to her. He looked tired. "I knew in the back of my mind exactly what was going on. Everything. The whole time. But I never let myself face it because it was easier that way. My cowardice destroyed my father's life. The furson who cared about me the most in the entire world."

Junella shut her eyes tight and turned away, leaning on the opposite arm of the loveseat. "Why did you tell me that?" she asked, but plainly she already knew.

Toby risked reaching across the space between them to pull her around to face him. He held her gaze with his. "Because you were a brat and I was a coward. End of story."

Junella put a paw up to her forehead. "Toby... it can't be that simple. I catch myself being her all the time. Every time I'm selfish with Zinc. Every time I was cruel to you, just to see you flinch. All the times I gave Piffle static for being girly..."

He wasn't having her pity act. "Yeah, and I was a complete wuss when we first met. I messed up a lot of things but I learned from them. You helped me with that."

She gritted her teeth. Wanting to be helped but unable to let go of her self-hatred. She smiled sadly. "Toby... do you know what I've always admired about you and never told you?"

He shifted in his seat. "What?"

She slowly opened her eyes to him. "You could admit you were a coward. And I couldn't."

Toby shook his head in rejection. "You have faults, yes, but I've never thought of you as a coward."

She snorted derisively. "I'm afraid of a five year old!" she shouted. "The bitch haunts me! I'm always comparing myself to her. Do you wanna know how I died? We were up on the top floor observation deck together. Dad, Mom, and me. I climbed up on the railing and said I'd let go if they didn't get me a swimming pool. I fucking knew they couldn't! It's an apartment building, for shit's sakes! But I was doing it just to see their horrified eyes. For a giggle. And serves me right, my grip slipped. If I hadn't hit those awnings I would've been liquid. Instead I bought myself a broken skeleton and a rest-of-my-life coma. Last thing I remember is the ambulance crew saying there was barely enough left of me to hold breath in. Then my eyes closed on my old life, for good. Looking back, that was the kindest thing I ever did for my parents. They didn't have to be tortured by me anymore."

Toby remembered her telling him about her arrival in Phobiopolis. How she'd gone on a rampage against anyone and everything that tried to get near her. Toby tried to imagine a five-year-old so limitlessly furious she could hold her own against a realm of nightmares.

She smashed her fist into the side of her head like she was knocking on a door. "I'm a bully to my best friend. I'm a bully to you. I'm a bully to everyone I know."

Toby looked at her with sympathy for a moment longer, and then something snapped in him. "Oh stop it."

She turned. He was scowling at her.

"Look, I understand everything you're saying and why you feel like this. But when I told you about my Dad, I was trying to let you know that you're not alone. You're not the only one with pain in your past. We could sit here all day, me trying to tell you you've changed for the better, you moaning about how you're the worst furson alive. But we don't have time. My whole body's itching with the tingle. The dreamworld's gonna catapult me out at any moment. I am not leaving you in here. But I'm also not going to bring a blubbering mess out with me. If I can stop being a coward, then you can too. And you NEED to stop, Junella." He poked her, hard, in the breastbone. His voice rose to top volume and fever pitch. "Because we need you! I'm sorry to be heartless about this, but we're going to be facing Scaphis Tarrare. With Aldridge's wand! She's going to be impossible to beat. But we have to somehow, because... BECAUSE! Because we have to!! And we need you to be there with us! So if nothing else, tell yourself that you're not the worst, because SHE is!!"

By the end of it, Junella was smushed in the far corner of the loveseat like a cannonball had hit her. She stared, unblinking. "Jesus Christ, Toby... Look at you. Giving orders and not taking shit."

He sighed and, hands shaking, rotated to look away from her. Feeling suddenly like he'd just screwed everything up and ruined their friendship. "I apologize. I got impatient. I-"

She yanked him back to face her. To his surprise, she looked like the rain had finally ended and the sun was coming out. "No, you amazing idiot! I'm proud of you!"

His ears drooped. "Seriously?"

An exasperated laugh, then she smiled at him with immense gratitude. "I needed to hear that, Toby. Every single word. I needed to be reminded that the world ain't just me."

He squeezed her paw. "It's more than that. I wasn't calling you selfish. I meant that I know you're stronger than this. I know it took a lot of bravery to tell me that about your old self. And yes, it's horrifying! I'm glad we were never friends as kids!"

Junella couldn't stop a laugh at that. "Yeah. I woulda beat the snot outta you, and your mom would've tried to feed me pills."

Toby almost laughed too. "Point is, I don't think there's anyone in Phobiopolis who didn't come from something terrible when they were alive. Why else would we have ended up here? It sucks up bad dreams, doesn't it? If it was just about comas, wouldn't everyone who's in one wind up here? Wouldn't no one ever wake up? Maybe the people who do, have a life worth waking up to."

She gawked at him. "You just come up with that right now? Off the top of your head?"

Toby nodded. "Yeah. It might be garbage, I dunno."

"Feels like you might be spot-on, actually."

He shrugged. "Maybe? I'm just trying to say that, if there's anything good about Phobiopolis, it's an escape. Not to a very nice place, but it's still a second chance to be something else. And me and Zinc and Piffle and George have ALL done a lot with that second chance. You have too. So you're not going to convince me otherwise."

Junella looked up at him with a tenderness he was unprepared for. She reached out a paw to touch his cheek, as if she couldn't make herself believe he was really there.

"Are you-" he started.

She lifted herself up enough to reach his lips and kiss him.

Toby's eyes popped open.

Junella held her mouth to his gently. Just for a few moments. They were good moments. And then she sat back down beside him.

Toby looked a bit like he'd been electrocuted. He touched his fingers to his mouth, then stared at them. Then stared at her. "What was that?"

"Aw hell, I don't know," she said with a smile and a chuckle.

All sorts of unforeseen possibilities swirled around in Toby's head. "Do you mean you... feel like...?"

She put her hand over his mouth. "Shut up, Toby," she said in her warmest tone. "I was just thanking you for being sweet. You were very sweet. Thank you. It doesn't have to be anything more than that. I know you have more important things on your mind right now."

He felt slightly guilty. "You're important," he said.

She nodded. "I know. That's not what I meant." She got up from the couch and combed out her tail with her fingers. "I meant that we've got some things to fix first before we can think about us."

Toby got up too. "You want there to be an 'us'?"

"I just said I don't know. Ya deaf?" She smirked. "I'm all swirlin' 'round with emotions in here. Gimme a break."

"Allright." He shrugged. "To be honest, I'm not even sure I'm built for that sort of thing. Like, mentally."

"I think maybe I already knew that about you. And that's okay. I just wanted to show my gratitude. We can have that memory together, and if that's all we have, it's okay. Like a song that's just one, pretty, little note."

That was a very nice thought. And as much as he had enjoyed it too, a relief. Toby took her small paw in his. "I assume that means you're ready to go."

Junella nodded. "No more firing guns this time. This place is just a memory. It happened. It's over."

Toby pulled her close. "Good to hear."

He let the tingle overwhelm him, and they were both taken somewhere else.


They emerged behind stone pillars, into the tail-end of a conversation. George was keeping a respectful distance and not eavesdropping in the slightest (maybe a little) as Piffle and Zinc sat curled up together on the carpet, various arms around one another.

Piffle was sniffling. But it was the hopeful, lighthearted end of a happy cry. "So you really, truly, really don't mind that I used to be a fella?"

Zinc looked her over, head to toe. "Y'ain't now, are ya?"

She giggled. "No, silly."

He made a 'then that's that' gesture. "I'm not gonna go through life with one hand tied behind my back."

She sighed in immense relief and snuggled him, nuzzling her nose against his scruffy neck.

He scooped the pith helmet off her head and sailed it away like a Frisbee. He skritched between her little oval ears. "B'sides, havin' a hotdog is a far more respectable past than bein' a fuckin' dope fiend. And a pusher to boot," he added disgustedly.

"'Well you ain't now, are ya?'" she parroted.

He playfully nibbled her ear. "That's my line."

She melted a little in his embrace, smiling serenely and caressing his chest ruff. "My Zincberry pie..."

"The past is gone, this is now, and that's fine." He smooched her forehead. "Plus, it ain't like you suddenly grew another pair o' arms, right? Now THAT'D be too whacky to handle!"

She burst out laughing and tickled him.

"Hey, hey!" He protested, but didn't do much to stop her.

The tickling was an effective distraction from the two fursons approaching. A face hovered into Zinc's view, standing just behind and looming over him.

He blinked in disbelief. "JUNEBUG!!" He scrambled to his feet, telling Piffle, "Sorry, darling, but I gotta take this call."

She fluttered up too. "As if you're the only one who wants to hug her!"

Junella rolled her eyes. "Aw dammit." She spread her arms. This fate was inevitable. Two furry lunkheads came crashing into her. She was swallowed up in an embrace of total joy and acceptance.

Piffle squeezed like she was trying to pop a balloon. "We're all together again!" she cried out.

Zinc was in tears. "I missed you, Junella. Sweet Jesus, I missed you."

Junella considered something snarky, but didn't have it in her to keep up the old act. "I missed you too," she said gently.

Zinc turned to the mouse standing beside her. "Thank you for bringing her back."

Toby nodded to him.

Junella nuzzled the silly mutt and sillier hamsterfly. "Both of you. You mean more to me than I can say." She lifted her head. "That goes for you too, George!!"

The construct came trotting over. "My feelings are the same, Madam Brox! This is wonderful! I didn't let myself hope for an outcome this good. I had feared there would be weeks of recuperation while your memories returned."

Junella shook her head. "Naw, I'm me. I'm pretty sure of it."

Zinc noticed Junella was able to speak even though her arms were busy hugging. Also, she was speaking. Not singing. "So d'ya not need your needles no more or-" His fur stood on end when she looked at him. "Holy cats, Juney! Yer EYES!"

She smiled at his reaction and laughed very softly. "Like 'em? I might keep them this way. A friend of mine convinced me I didn't need to hate them anymore."

Piffle gasped. "They're gorgeous!"

Junella grinned, showing off the milky blue color of her irises. Like sapphires under ice. The skunkess turned her head to make sure Toby could see too.

The mouse stood to the side with his hands in his pockets. Looking very tired, but happy.


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