Alex Reynard

The Library

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Despite trying several more times during the course of that night, Toby was unable to produce any more cards. Even when he tried focusing on the willwatch again. He couldn't banish his conscious expectations. Still, nine cards! Not bad at all! At least it proved it was possible. And if he could do it once, he could learn how to do it again. The others all congratulated him for his feat, though Junella teased it was just beginner's luck. She reached out to grab an ace herself, and failed. The look on her face was priceless.

Time passed. The customers around them rotated in and out, the desserts dwindled, and everyone sampled everyone else's treats at least once. By the time they'd gotten down to scraping the plates, they were all slightly zozzled just from the pleasant sleepiness of being so full. Toby had licked all around the edge of his soup bowl, seeking out every last drop of the green ambrosia. Piffle's glass display now showcased nothing but crumbs. Zinc's area was a massacre of melted ice cream and chocolate. Junella had actually been quite dainty about finishing her meal while keeping everything tidy (though she still had the little pink smear on her forehead). George was lying on his side in the middle of the table, ribs noticeably wider apart, happily passed out and snoring tiny snores. Doll was back to still-needing-a-bath-but-not-as-much-as-before thanks to Piffle and an army of wet naps.

Toby took a moment just to quietly appreciate the comradely feeling of the moment. He hadn't known any of these people longer than a day, and they'd only been introduced to one another mere hours ago. Yet somehow, he could feel them all clicking together. Their banter was becoming breezier. They tolerated one another's personality peccadilloes more easily.

'I barely remember having friends,' Toby realized. 'I mean, I remember having them. I remember Eric and Erica next door. Justin, Nick and Brandon at school. But all I know are their faces, their names. I'm aware that we were friends but not what it felt like. And I don't think this is that memory-fading thing happening again. I think those memories were already gone. How many years did I spend in that bedroom, away from everyone else?'

He looked around the table at these strange companions that had fallen into his orbit. And he realized there was a part of him, even now, that wouldn't mind so much if he got to Anasarca and found out he couldn't go home. Even with all the gut-wrenching fear he'd been through so far, being with people he could trust made it... bearable. Almost.

'Still, this isn't really a friendship. I'm paying Junella and Zinc to be my taxi service. I can't expect them to just protect me forever after that. Piffle might not mind me hanging around though...'

After laughing at Zinc's joke about the hot rodder befuddling a traffic cop, Piffle looked to the side and noticed Toby's thoughtful expression. "Hey. You've been quiet for a while, Toby."

"I'm just sleepy, I guess," he lied.

Junella patted her round belly with a bongo sound. "We all are. Time to head to bed, agreed?"

Zinc shifted in his seat. His stomach groaned and he did too. "Yeah, it's been fun just shooting the shit, but if we don't leave at this point, they'll probably have to roll us to our rooms."

Toby chuckled at the mental image. "So what time are we getting up tomorrow?"

Junella and Zinc shared a quick 'Let's let him find that out for himself' grin. "Oh don't you worry about that," she sang. By now the thoughtstaraunt's crowd had thinned out a fair amount. Junella was able to spot Sue fairly easily and hail her. "Check please!"

To the skunk's surprise, the ratfemme nodded in acknowledgment to her, but then turned away towards the lobby.

Toby made an educated guess that Junella was asking for Sue to tell the willwell on the table how much they owed. The mouse was somewhat eager to try paying for his share. Eager but nervous. He'd gotten only marginally better with the willwatch so far, and he also guessed that moving the red line on a real willwell would be proportionally difficult to how much you owed.

A moment later, Lady Xenoiko herself sauntered into view. Toby was re-amazed by her sharp colors and contrasts. "Good evening to all. From the look of your plates I gather you imagined yourself up a fine repast?"

Zinc opened his mouth to reply, and a burp came out.

The housecatiger smiled sweetly. "The truest and most efficient response."

The mutt grinned and suppressed a second one. And a third.

Xenoiko looked around the table. "Do any of you know a small green fellow named Spiretto Bronze?"

"Yeah! We helped him get inside the city before the big box closed up," Piffle said. "Well, mostly Zinc did. I just watched."

The canine flexed his wrenches at her, making her titter.

Xenoiko nodded. "He and his sons came in earlier to ask about you. He said he was in a hurry, but that he wanted to extend his thanks to you all. As such, when I mentioned you were attending to foodstuffs, he offered to take care of your bill."

Everyone perked up at that. "That was nice of him!" Toby said.

"He wanted to pay off your room as well," the feline added. "And would have if I hadn't stopped him for his own good! The poor, determined dear, grunting and snorting, straining himself to bursting just to fill up the willwell for your food. Such loyalty is a commendable virtue."

Zinc agreed. "Too bad he didn't stick around. I woulda thanked him proper."

"So, you may retire to your room whenever you like. Everything's finished up and ready." She paused, then pouted, turning her kitty side towards them for emphasis. "...Though I must admit disappointment. I'd been hoping I could convince you to pay for your meal in our more direct manner. I've been feeling lightheaded all day."

Toby aimed a 'What's she talking about?' look at Junella.

Lady Xenoiko caught it first. "I hope this does not put a sour taste in your mouth, innocent traveler, but some of us in Phobiopolis have certain... dietary requirements."

"Ohhh. Like Mr. Trachea," Toby acknowledged.

Her whiskers bounced. "Good! You know of him! This will be so much easier to explain. You see, he needs breath. I," she touched her lips, "need blood." Toby was just about to open his mouth and say that silly V-word when she hushed him with a fingertip. "None of that. I need a specific type. My condition is unique to only two people: myself."

Zinc was already pulling his shirt up, revealing his sandy chestfur and sending crumbs flying. "Welp, Mrs. X, you've been good to us before, so I don't see any reason not to do you a favor now. C'mon. Take yourself another piece of me."

Lady Xenoiko lit up. "Dear Zinc! Many, many thanks! Once again you prove to me that your rough exterior hides an honorable heart."

His tail wagged a bit.

She leaned in closer, seeming to stretch herself across the table like taffy. Her eyes bored into his. "...Which, since you have given permission, I shall help myself to."

Her teeth reflected in his eyes. She salivated.

In a flash of orange, her tiger paw shot out to cover his face. This was a reflexive movement to steady her aim and muffle any screams. Her housecat paw shaped itself into a dart and, with little effort, plunged through the skin and ribs of Zinc's right pectoral. In less than a second, his gushing red heart was in her paw.

Toby's eyes were very, very big. He immediately reached out to grab Piffle. He held on tight as he watched. He bit his lip to keep himself silent, while inwardly reminding himself, repeatedly, that Zinc obviously knew what was coming and that this was survivable.

It didn't look like it though. The canine's eyes were rolled back and the weight of his wrenches slid him down the seat in a slump. The wound in his chest was big around as a softball.

Lady Xenoiko held her dazzling red prize up to the light. Zinc's blood dripped in tiny rivers down her milk-white fur. Her smile was one of overjoyed satisfaction, which doubled in size when she brought the strawberry-shaped organ to her mouth and sucked it dry in a single gulp. The heart turned from deep crimson to clear cartilage in seconds.

Toby was paralyzed, watching in tingling horror as Lady Xenoiko set the little deflated bag on Zinc's plate. The tableau was almost artistic.

Junella had observed her partner's temporary death with bemusement. "Still hungry, hon?" she asked the innkeeper.

Xenoiko licked her lips and fingers. Her arm was cleaning itself; absorbing every last precious red cell. "Always and forever, dear. Are you offering too?"

"Sure. Just watch out for my scarf." She tucked the ends of it behind her just in case.

'Is this an everyday thing?!', Toby wondered. 'Letting people EAT you? Geez, maybe this is why no one was bothered much by Piffle being a luau roast.' His revulsion was ebbing a bit, aided by Junella's nonchalance (and not looking over at Zinc's- oh lord, he'd looked again). If the skunk considered this normal, Toby was willing to trust her and keep his discomfort unspoken.

He cringed and hid his eyes as he heard the hollow crack of Xenoiko punching through Junella's outer shell. But curiosity overwhelmed him. Was she vinyl on the inside too? He peeked through his fingers.

With all the gentle care of removing a baby from its cradle, Lady Xenoiko plucked her friend's heart from her chest. It was a little difficult with Junella, since one could never tell where exactly the heart might be.

Toby's disgust turned to fascination. Junella had a hole in her chest like a cracked window. No, actually it looked exactly like smashing a hole in a hollow chocolate Easter bunny. Inside, the skunk was almost completely liquid. Black ichor, the consistency of candle wax, poured out of the hole and oozed from the midnight heart Xenoiko was holding.

The feline touched the onyx organ to her lips and drew in its essence. As before with Zinc, she drained it swiftly, leaving a transparent shell the color of smoky glass. "Mmmmm! Always such an unexpected flavor. Nourishing, yet with the slightest trace of poison. I know you're not alive to hear it, dear, but I always look forward to your heart."

Piffle's interest was wholly captivated. "Would you like to try mine too?" she asked, her voice trembling a little in excitement.

Toby was surprised and yet not surprised by this. He held the hamster's paw a little tighter.

The black blood vanished from Lady Xenoiko's mouth as she turned to give Piffle a bright, grateful smile. "What have I done to deserve such good fortune! I am feasting tonight! Thank you so kindly, Miss McPerricone. I haven't even gotten to know you yet."

Piffle blushed. "Well, I like to try new things. And I'm curious how you'll think I taste." She started to undo the buttons on her blouse. "Sorry if my exoskeleton gives you any trouble."

"I've fed on rock monsters before," Xenoiko assured.

Piffle fiddled with her buttons. "D'you mind if I ask why you need hearts?"

The feline nodded, but her smile was melancholy. "You have every right to ask." She sighed. "I have been here many years, and was not always an honest businesswoman. My earlier self was jealous of power, petrified by the fear of someone mightier taking advantage. In many ways I was like your friend Junella. But she came to her senses sooner, whereas I went further down the path into darkness. Aldridge is only a legend to most people now, but long ago there were many like him who were capable of weaving and twisting the fabric of this land to their will. I asked Miss Tarrare, a particularly powerful sorceress, for greater strength, so my enemies could never threaten me again. She gave me exactly what I wanted. And then the cravings came, for the kind of prize you've seen me take already. Suffice to say, for a time I was a monster as cruel as those in any fairytale. If my husband hadn't tamed me, I'd be that still."

"Tamed you?" Piffle asked, having finally gotten her abdomen exposed.

Lady Xenoiko's smile changed to pure fondness. "Yes, at the time he considered himself a demonslayer. I certainly fit the bill. He outwitted me, defeated me utterly, and in doing so forced me to confront what I had become. In gratitude, I begged him for forgiveness. He gave it. We soon became happy together."

Piffle swooned. "Aww! That's so romantic!"

"That is why I chose the form you see." Xenoiko gestured with both hands along her halves. "To represent the civilized woman I aspire to be, and the beast I must never forget I still hold at bay."

She reached forward with her housecat paw. She could hear Piffle's heartbeat. Could smell it inside of her. "And now... It is a special treat for me to drink from a heart I have never tasted before."

Piffle blushed and trembled as that gentle, snowy paw rested on her forehead. "Go ahead," she whispered.

A gurgle escaped Zinc's mouth. His eyes blinked out of sync as he came to, just in time to see Lady Xenoiko take a mighty swipe with her tiger paw into the hamsterfly's chest. The verdant exoskeleton shattered like a lightbulb. Zinc flinched as a fleck of shrapnel pinged off his nose.

Piffle exhaled softly.

Toby suddenly found the wall directly opposite from him very, very interesting. He kept his gaze nailed to it as he listened to the wet sounds happening just beside him. He squeezed Piffle's paw and felt the pulse inside it slow to a stop.

A slurp. The sound of something empty and moist being placed on a plate. Lady Xenoiko chuckled warmly at the stricken expression on the mouse's face. She wiped her mouth with two fingers. "This is a bit much for you to take in, isn't it?"

Toby was still super-duper interested in staring at that wall. "You could say that."

A purr. "You're handling it well though. And you have my assurance, they'll be fine. Wouldn't I be out of business in a week if I couldn't stop killing my customers?"

Toby weakly laughed. It sounded like an accordion being poked. "I don't doubt that. It's just... hard to sit through. But I figure, I'll probably be dealing with worse later on. Better to just tough it out now, right?"

"Intelligent," she commended. "Do I dare have the faintest hope that maybe you'll be bold enough to offer your heart to me too?" She intruded her face into Toby's view. Those yellow eyes were nearly irresistible.

Toby put on a hideously fake polite smile. "I... hate to be rude, but..."

Lady Xenoiko tipped back her head and laughed. "I didn't honestly expect you to! It's allright, dear mouse! Maybe I can convince you someday. After all, why do you think so many of us with special requirements go into business? Trachea, Velvet, Ballad, myself? It's hard on the legs and the conscience to constantly chase down victims and take from them. It's a much more stable and enjoyable life to settle down and receive what you need in trade. And besides, persuasion..." she traced a clawed finger down his cheek, " so much better than force. Don't you think?"

Toby was surprised to find that part of him felt compelled to agree to whatever this beguiling furson requested. But then simple primal instinct slapped him across the face and reminded him that in no way shape or form was he mentally ready to allow anyone, no matter their skill in salesmanship, to rip any bodily organs out of him. "Maybe next time?" he said with a quiver in his voice.

Lady Xenoiko nodded and did not push further. The matter was settled. She knew exactly what buttons to press and also when to stop pressing them. "I understand. Though please, do me a favor and tell Piffle when she wakes up that she was as sweet as a summer peach."

"I think she'll appreciate that," Toby said. And felt strong relief when their hostess nodded goodnight to everyone (including the groggy-but-again-alive Junella) and headed back to the lobby. Her tail swayed like a poem behind her.

Zinc watched her departure too. "Man, she does that good!"

Toby still felt a bit dizzy. "Which part? Killing you!?"

The canine nodded. He had his wrench-arm around Junella, helping her to sit up. "Exactamundo! In our line of work, dyin's just a part of the job. You get to recognize certain... flavors of it. Some are a lot worse than others. Some ain't half bad." His grin was unambiguously randy.

Junella traced her fingers around the hole in her chest that was rapidly sealing up. Her waxy filling flowed back up inside her. She nodded to Toby in agreement with her partner, still too out of it to find the right words on her body.

Piffle, by contrast, suddenly came fully awake with a loud, "WOWEE!!"

Toby was so startled he accidentally looked at what Lady Xenoiko had done to Piffle's chest. His face greened.

"That was neat!!" the hamsterfly said, wobbling in punch-drunk cheerfulness."And boy did she make a mess of me! I look like a cracked egg!"

"Could you fix that up please!?" Toby wailed with his head under the table.


Despite the mixture of quease, drowsiness and tummy-fullness Toby was feeling, he did indeed remember to pass along Lady Xenoiko's compliment to Piffle. As expected, the hamsterfly was ecstatic.

Zinc and Toby both stood up to stretch and to allow the ladies to skootch out of the booth. Piffle quickly buttoned her blouse back up and pulled Doll to her side in another hug. Junella roused George, who came out of his deep dream so suddenly he snorted a pea-sized fireball.

Junella led the group past the thoughtstaurant's mostly-empty tables to the big staircase in the lobby. Lady Xenoiko was busy trying to find a room for an owl and gazelle couple, but found time to send them a goodnight wave. Toby waved back. He let his mind wonder for a moment what it would feel like to allow her to harvest his heart. The others hadn't seemed to feel any significant pain from it.

The staircase creaked quietly in time with their footsteps. Toby liked the feel of the smooth railing. He noticed that all the posts were carved into various mythical creatures, posed like they were flying or swimming. He also noticed Zinc burping every few seconds. Junella did too, but hers were perfectly soundless.

When they reached the second floor landing, Toby's gaze was drawn to a massive portrait hanging there. The heavy gold frame was a work of art by itself, but the painting within it was a clear labor of love. In it, Mr. and Mrs. Xenoiko were posed sitting together, smiling towards the artist and holding each other's hands. Their gold bands were prominently visible. The feline femme looked as if she were still in disbelief at the happiness she was feeling. To Toby's surprise, her husband was about half her height and looked twice her age. He was a wizened little monkey, a marmoset perhaps, with big eyes, bigger eyeglasses, and a beard that nearly drowned his face. He was grinning explosively. Like he could barely restrain himself from shouting to all the world how lucky he was.

As Toby drew closer, he saw an engraved message beneath the pair:



'Wow...' Toby thought. They'd been married for that long? He remembered how people aged in Phobiopolis. Their appearance only indicated the minimum amount of time since their arrival. So Mr. Xenoiko had lived a whole lifetime here. Who knew how long he'd lived on Earth before that? Lady Xenoiko seemed at least forty. Sue the waitress too. And there was no telling Junella and Zinc's real ages. They were both clearly experienced in the ways of this world, but might have chosen to stay as teenagers for the advantages of a young, agile body.

Toby tried to imagine himself if he never made it home. Greying fur. Wrinkles. Maybe walking with a cane...

"Yo, mouse! You forgot how to move your feet!?" Junella shouted.

Toby squeaked. His friends were all the way at the end of the hall. He hustled to catch up.

Junella checked the number on the door against the key in her hand. She waited for Toby to rejoin them, then turned the knob.

Toby peeked cautiously inside. He wasn't exactly afraid, considering how nice the rest of the hotel was, but he nevertheless prepared himself for weirdness. Thankfully, there was very little of it. The room was quite cozy. Rather small for four though.

There were two beds in the main room, facing each other at opposite walls. They looked comfy enough. Dreamcatchers hung over both of them: natch. The walls were wood (and still moving, Toby noticed with a wince), the curtains were maroon, and the lanterns gave off soft, golden gaslight.

Piffle headed straightaway to the bathroom. "I'm gonna give Doll a good scrubbing! Does anyone need to do their business first?" When no one objected, she smiled and turned on the sink. Soon she was happily humming while shampooing Doll top to bottom.

Toby sat down on one of the beds and bounced a bit to test its firmness. A shiver went through him at how cushy it felt. He looked over at the other one. "Um, are we doubling up?" As much as he trusted his companions, the thought of sleeping in the same bed as any one of them was uncomfortable.

Junella swatted his arm and pointed to the ceiling.

"Oh!" said Toby.

The room was its own horizontal reflection. Attached to the ceiling were two more identical beds, with identical lanterns and bedside drawers beside them.

"I call one of the batbeds!" Zinc shouted.

Junella rapped him on the nose like a stern schoolteacher. "No way. I'm not taking any chance you'll get startled and Pinchies One and Two'll fall down and kill whoever's sleeping underneath."

Zinc folded his arms. "Yes, dear," he snarked

"'Sides, I'm better at getting up to 'em." The skunk walked over to the wall and put her palms against it. Carefully, she raised one foot and touched it to the wall too. Then, like a gymnastic trick, she shoved off against the floor and managed to land four-footed on the vertical surface. Toby gawped as he watched her crawl up towards the second set of beds, then gravity seemed to pull her around so her feet connected to the ceiling.

Before the mouse could say anything, Junella called down, "And you're staying on the ground too, Toby! Same reason. I don't want you to get spooked and fall up onto someone tomorrow morning." She took off her scarf and piled it carefully on the floor beside the dresser. The hotel staff had indeed prepared a dollhouse bed for George. He trotted in circles around it for a few moments in sheer glee.

Toby's attention was pulled away by a large CLANK. Zinc, yawning, had unbolted one of his wrench-arms and let it fall to the floor. "Do you need any help with the other one?" the mouse offered.

"No, but thanks. I got it." He gave his shoulder a twitch and his remaining arm detached, clattering onto its brother. Zinc then padded over to the bathroom, made Piffle giggle, and returned with a glass of water in his mouth. He set it on the table beside his bed and leaned over it. With two little 'plop' sounds, his eyeballs did a high dive into the glass.

He grinned at Toby. "Gotta keep 'em moist."

Seeing the canine sans eyes made Toby's stomach roll over. "Ugh. Do you do that every night? And why don't they dry out during the day then?"

Zinc paused. "...Shit. I hadn't thought about that. You broke my suspension of disbelief, chief! I have no idea if I'm gonna have to start squeegeeing 'em now!"

Toby's ears drooped regretfully. "I'm sorry, I had no idea. I didn't mean to inconvenience you..."

That grin again. "You'll believe anything I say, won't you?" He snorted a laugh.

Toby tried to look unamused.

Unable to pat him on the shoulder, Zinc came over to sort of bump into Toby in a friendly way. "The real answer is, this is my bod and it does what I want it to. I just put away my eyes submarine-style when I sleep 'cuz it's comfier that way." He leaned over the dresser to disengage the metal lid over his half-dome. It rattled for a second like a spinning quarter. Zinc was now perfectly nude from the bridge of the nose up. He stood on one foot briefly to scratch at his headwound with a toeclaw.

Toby wished he could look away but his brain wasn't obeying.

"In case you're wondering how I wipe my ass, that's covered too," Zinc added. "I just don't! Got a big ol' phillips head screw up my tailpipe."

Toby narrowed his eyes. "I'm pretty sure you're messing with me now."

The canine cackled. "Home run, ace! You're startin' to catch on!" Also with his foot, Zinc pulled off his jacket, shirt and shorts. He then pulled the covers back and sat down.

Toby was impressed at how adroit he was with his toes, but was surprised when the canine slipped into a pair of slippers provided by the hotel staff.

Despite his lack of eyes, Zinc was not blind. After all, they could still see from within the glass, though the room now appeared to be underwater. "Classy joint like this probably doesn't have 'em, but most folks in Phobiopolis wear some kinda footwear to bed to keep out the footweevils."

Toby winced at what the name implied. "You're not trying to fool me a third time?"

Zinc chuckled and shook his head. "Scout's honor. They're nasty little bugs that drill into the soles of your feet while you sleep. Breed like crazy. Like I said, I'm sure Mrs. X can keep 'em out, but most people put on protection automatically. Just in case."

Toby looked around the sides of his bed and was very glad to see his own pair of slippers there. They were on his feet in less time than it takes to tell it. "Is that where the holes in your feet came from?" he asked, remembering seeing them earlier.

"Ha! Nope. Those're part of my original design. You'll see why later if you're lucky."

"Allright then." Toby was about to settle under the covers himself when he had an idea. He realized his earlier sleepiness had been chased away by the alarming sight of his friends losing their hearts, and he thought he might take a little time to practice reading. "Do either of you mind if I leave the light on for a while? I'll dim it."

Zinc said he didn't. Junella was already asleep.

Toby went to the bathroom. Piffle had Doll covered head to toe in bubbles.

"I'm kinda glad you can't taste anything," she told the toy. "I don't hafta worry about getting soap in your mouth. My teacher used to punish me with that. Blechh!"

"You're looking a lot better, Doll," Toby complimented.

Piffle beamed. "I'm real happy with how much of the dirt's come out! I'd thought we might have to take her to a toy restoration place, but I think I can get her looking good as new myself with just a bit more scrubbing. Plus a needle and thread." She noticed Doll's lack of a face. "Oh. Well, I'll fix that somehow too."

"Piffle," Toby asked, "I saw you pick up a bunch of pamphlets in the lobby earlier. Do you mind if I borrow them?"

"Sure! Go right ahead!" She was about to reach for them, then realized she was sudsy up to the elbows. "They're in my left pocket. I trust you to fish for 'em." She bumped her hips in Toby's direction with a flirty wink.

Toby gulped. He reached towards the paper with the careful touch of defusing a bomb. He certainly didn't want to do anything improper.

"Just grab 'em, silly!" she urged.

His cheeks were coral pink. He managed to slip the pamphlets out without actually touching any part of Piffle's outfit or anatomy. She looked disappointed.

"Goodnight kiss?" she asked.

Toby's whole body flinched.

She snickered. "Just on the cheek. I don't expect us to go steady yet."

Quivering a bit, Toby leaned in, touched his lips to her fur for a microsecond, then sped out of the bathroom and under his covers.

Piffle giggled so hard she got a soap bubble up her nose.

His cheeks felt like two little stove burners, but he was smiling despite that. Toby had at least some small knowledge of social interaction, but his mom had yanked him out of school long before his interest in girls manifested. His only interactions with the opposite sex had been nurses, doctors and the actresses on TV. He was mortified of doing or saying the wrong thing when it came to romance. But kissing Piffle had felt nice...

He opened a pamphlet and let it divert his attention.

As it turned out, he'd picked a good one to start with. It was about Coryza's town history. Just from the pictures, Toby learned that there was a gigantic protective pentagram painted across all the city's rooftops, visible only from a bird's eye view. There were other photos showing workers willing huge chunks of imaginite into becoming the city's metal walls. Once again, the words on the page were jumping around and not behaving themselves, but Toby concentrated hard and whipped them into shape.

Several minutes later, the sound of running water stopped. Piffle emerged soon after, drying Doll off with a fluffy towel. "Goodnight, everyone!" she sing-songed.

Zinc mumbled something with his face smershed into his pillow. Junella said nothing. "Sleep well, Madam McPerricone," George called down.

Piffle blew him a kiss, then gave one to Toby too.

He pulled his pamphlet closer to his face. Then risked a smiling glance over the edge.

She winked at him. Her shimmering wings spread out and she flew up to her bed, somersaulting in midair and landing gracefully. Soon she was changed into a pink onesie with lacy hems and had Doll tucked under the covers beside her. She reached up to turn down her lamp, leaving Toby's small flame the only light in the room.

Aside from Zinc's breathing, the room was now as silent as it was dark.

Toby had another reason for staying awake. He hadn't slept since exhaustion had driven him to it the day before, but now he remembered his awful nights in the cave. He didn't think his sleep would be so fitful and troubled now, but he worried nonetheless.

The little flame flickered, dancing to and fro inside the lantern beside Toby's head. His ears perked up at every sound. Every creak of settling wood and every car horn toot outside. He didn't think anything would bother him here. This room felt safer than any other place he'd been so far. And his braver companions were mere feet away.


There were those foot-bugs Zinc had mentioned. And what if he dreamed? He didn't think he had before, but on George's back he was simply too tired to, and in the caves he hadn't slept deeply enough. This was a land made of nightmares. So what could the nightmares here possibly be like? Would they be as bad as they were when he was alive, but constant? Would there be nothing but good dreams, since all the bad ones were out roaming the countryside? Or would the bad dreams be even badder? Nerve-rattling inescapable terror that would last the whole night long?

He was glad he had the brochures as an excuse. He did want to re-learn how to read. But what he really wanted, and was too embarrassed to say, was a nite-lite.

Toby went through as many brochures as he could, reading about museums and festivals and swap meets, until his vision grew too blurry to focus anymore. His eyelids weighed about a pound apiece. He could feel them scrape against his irises with every blink.

The little mouse fell asleep exactly like that: halfway sat up, paper spilling from his hands, with lamplight flickering across his whiskers.


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