I still have a couple of hours until it's technically my birthday, but I figured there would be no harm in publishing this now. By the time most of you read this, it'll be Monday. I thought this year I'd give everyone a gift of a short story--or I hope you enjoy it enough to consider it a gift. Personally, I like this story, and I'm guessing most of you will, as well. This isn't flash fiction, but a longer story (just over 3200 words), so be prepared for the length. I'd love to read your comments, and I hope you dig this one. I had a good time writing it. That's enough chatter from me--on with the story.
by Eric J. Krause
Eli Walters looked at everything without seeing anything real. A minute ago he'd been walking along a nature trail in Sunny Valley Park, and now he was a cartoon. An actual cartoon in a cartoony meadow. The birds swooped and sang in words rather than chirps, bugs crawled out of the ground and preformed little dances for him, trees waved as if their branches were hands, and even the sun gave him a big smile and wink when he looked up. This wasn't happening; it couldn't be.
"Hi, Eli," something said. "How's it going?"
A large rabbit standing on two legs looked up at him. It held a carrot like a cigar and nibbled on the pointy tip.
"What's the matter, Eli?" the rabbit said between bites of the carrot. "Cat got your tongue?"
Eli couldn't think of anything to say except, "No, I can talk."
"Good. I hate cats. Filthy animals. I don't care what anyone says. Just last week I had one jam a mound of TNT down into my hole. Luckily it didn't know about the backdoor, so I stuffed all those explosives down its trousers right before it pushed the plunger. Blew it straight into another cartoon. Taught it to mess with ol' Hoppity-Hop."
Eli stared at the cartoon bunny. It finished its carrot, threw the green stem over its shoulder, and pulled another one out of thin air.
"Don't worry, Eli," the rabbit said. "You never remember when you first get here. It'd probably drive me nuts if I cared."
"Wait, what?" Eli said, but the rabbit had bounded on down a trail he hadn't noticed before.
He looked around and saw a little cottage off in the distance. Maybe whoever lived there could shine some light on what was going on.
As he walked, Eli found he had a bounce in his step, literally, as if his feet were made of rubber. If he pushed off just right, he could move faster without even trying. After a bit of practice, the cottage advanced at a rapid pace.
Once he arrived, he couldn't believe how tiny the cottage was. It looked to be about the size of a single bedroom, and a small one at that. The grounds made up for it, though. A white picket fence framed a lush lawn in the front and back, a vegetable garden to the right, complete with bumpy rows marked with small paper signs on little wooden stakes, just as he'd seen in countless cartoon shorts, and an apple tree to the left.
The tree smiled and waved its branches at him. "Eli! Welcome back!"
"Um, thanks." He wasn't sure what kind of conversation to make with a tree.
"Go on in," the tree said. "He's waiting for you."
"The professor, of course."
Eli nodded, opened the door, and gasped. It was as big as a gymnasium. He glanced at the outside walls, found them still the same puny size, and then stared back inside the massive cavern of a room. It wasn't physically possible; the corners of the shack ended mere feet from the doorway outside on either side, but inside they went for yards and yards. The distance to the backdoor was further still.
"Eli, my boy, you made it. I'm so glad to see you."
Eli followed the voice and saw a man--a cartoon man with wild white hair, a bushy white mustache, and a lab coat sitting in a plush red chair about halfway across the room. He stood up, took one step--his leg stretched all the way across the room until it planted itself in front of Eli and was followed by the rest of his body--and was right in front of Eli.
"It seems like forever since you've been here," the man, this professor, said. "I wish it was just a social call, but I summoned you back for a very important task.
"What are you talking about?" Eli said. "Summoned me? Who are you? What is this place?"
The professor laughed. "Here come the questions. Sometimes you walk through that door, chomping at the bit, ready to take on the world. Those times are my favorite. That's when I get the real you. Not that I mind seeing you on days like this. I know you'll come around sooner or later."
"I'm not following any of this," Eli said. What could he say to wring an explanation out of anyone or anything in this screwy place?
The professor shrugged. "I can't tell you. You have to get it on your own. If we don't let time run its course, you might over-think everything and not get your powers."
The professor wagged his finger. "Ah-ah-ah, no hints. Now, are you hungry?"
Eli didn't have time to answer before the professor's arm stretched all the way to a door in the back of the huge room. He dragged out a long dining table piled high with various foods: roast turkeys, baked hams, slabs of steaks, mashed potatoes, barbequed beans, and a ton of other items Eli couldn't place at first glance.
The professor licked his lips and sat at one of the chairs. "Don't know about you, but I'm famished." He didn't put anything on a plate, nor use utensils, but started shoving food in. He took the whole turkey and dangled it into his mouth, which opened wider than physically possible. When he pulled it out in a swift jerk, all the meat was stripped from the bones. He tossed the skeleton over his shoulder. Another whole turkey reappeared on the serving platter, and the bones on the ground disappeared.
"Eat up, boy. You need the energy," the professor said as he emptied the entire dish of mashed potatoes down his throat. He set the bowl back down, and it refilled.
Eli shrugged and sat down. He reached for one of the steaks and before he could locate a plate, something took over his mind. He gulped it down in one bite. Delicious! He let his instincts take over and dived headfirst into the meal.
Eli and the professor lounged on a couch, both their stomachs puffed out like they'd stuffed basketballs under their shirts. Eli thought he should be in massive pain, but he merely felt satisfied.
"Did you cook all that?" Eli asked.
The professor looked over at him. "By the way you ate, I thought you were back. Not all the way, I guess." He leaped up, his bloated belly back to its normal size, and pulled the couch out from under Eli, who flew ten feet in the air, hung for two or three beats, then plummeted down as if an anvil were tucked into his pants. He crashed through the floor, leaving a crater in the hardwood, and climbed out. It hadn't hurt, though pale blue moons and little yellow birds circled his head. He closed his eyes and shook his head, chasing the moons and birds away. His stomach had shrunk to its normal size, too. If only he could market that diet.
The professor chuckled. "Everything but your mind. Good enough, I think. Now get out there and save the day."
Eli didn't move. "What am I supposed to do?"
The professor hustled him to the door, picked him up, and drop-kicked him. He launched hundreds of feet into the air until the land below was just splotches of greens, blues, browns, and yellows. When he hit the apex of his ascent, he hung there for a few seconds, and then plunged down.
A crow swooped down next to him and kept pace with his descent. "You gonna start flyin'?" the crow asked.
Eli, who was doing his best to remain calm, said, "I don't know how."
The crow scoffed. "The great Eli Walters don't know how to fly? How many times we fly together?"
Eli didn't know the answer. The ground rushed up at him at an alarming pace. He could make out the professor's house below. He'd crash right through the front porch.
"Oh, I get it," the crow said. "You ain't know who you are yet, and the ol' professor's usin' tough love to get you to learn. Always worked before, but I guess we see this time. If it don't work, I'm guessing you end up in another cartoon. You ever make it back from that, you let ol' Caw know how it went, right? Good luck, Eli."
The crow flew away, leaving Eli only seconds from impact. "Fly, dammit!" he yelled at himself. "Come on, fly!" His drop continued.
People didn't die from drops in cartoons, even insanely long ones like this. How many times had the impact caused the cartoon character to be in a full body cast, but once something made him happy or mad, he'd jump up and be fine? With that thought, he closed his eyes and let himself relax and wait for the impact.
Everything stopped. He hadn't realized how loud the roar of air had been around him until the silence hit. Had he crashed? Was this what high-altitude impact was like in a cartoon? Had he, like the crow suggested, fallen into another cartoon? He slowly opened his eyes, afraid of what he might find, be it one of those options or something entirely different.
He hovered just a few feet from the ground, right in front of the professor's house. The professor stood in the doorway, smiling at Eli. The crow sat perched on the roof, smiling at Eli. Even the trees, flowers, and sun smiled at Eli.
"Welcome home," the crow said.
"Yes," the professor said. "Now go get 'em!"
Eli burst up in the air with a hoot and a holler. He leveled off and spun a few loop-de-loops. He still didn't know who he was after, but he knew where to go: the giant's castle in the sky.
He crashed through the bottom of the cloud and settled down. Even though he'd flown right through, his feet settled on what might have been solid ground. He looked up at the castle, it's drawbridge down, and started towards it. The giant wasn't the target, but he'd make a formidable foe if he'd already been recruited.
As he walked towards the shimmering white castle, he felt a strange presence. This was why he was here, why the professor had called him back. From inside the castle, a voice spoke. "Eli, Eli, Eli. You made it back." It sounded familiar, and not just because he'd met this enemy before.
Once he passed the drawbridge, it rose and the portcullis slammed shut. A few more steps and he could see all around the courtyard. Nothing moved or made a sound. He could fly around for a better view, but before he took off, a figure stepped out of the shadows not ten feet from him.
Eli gasped. Other than an eye patch over the right eye, this adversary was his mirror image. "My brother," his image said. "It's been too long. We need to get together more often."
"Why are you back, Ile?" Eli didn't know where he'd pulled the name from, but it was correct.
Ile shrugged. "Is it a crime to want to come home? To kill my brother? To see my dear old daddy? To pull his illustrated guts out and feed them to my friend?"
Ile stepped aside and the Big Bad Wolf took its place at his side. Eli had bested the wolf before, as he was one of his brother's main goons, but he'd never seen it look like this. It had always been shaped like a slightly overweight man wearing a fur suit. It had a wolf's face and sharp teeth, but otherwise didn't look scary. The perfect cartoony villain. This wolf, though, scared even Eli. Its body shared more properties with animals than humans. It had always had hands in white gloves, but now had claws that looked sharp enough to harm even a cartoon. It was too realistic to belong in this particular cartoon world.
Ile sneered. "Every time you banish me, I learn things. Other places aren't always silly, neat, and happy. Some cartoons have dark undertones of death. Characters don't shake off fatal blows with a goofy grin. They realize death for what it is: final. Thanks to you, Eli, I bring that here."
Eli launched himself at Ile. He knew the charge wouldn't hurt Ile, but it'd at least stun him for a few seconds, leaving Eli enough time to deal with the Big Bad Wolf.
Ile didn't brace himself. A split second before impact, Eli grunted as the wolf tackled him, knocking them both to the ground. It bit at his neck. "You won't survive this time." Even its voice had deepened to horrific.
Eli flung the wolf off, but one of its claws stuck in his shoulder. His skin stretched out after his flying foe.
"Now, Eli," Ile said. "You shall experience my plan first hand. Too bad you won't know what hit you." Ile lifted his eye patch, showing he wasn't missing an eye, but instead had a ruby red crystal in the socket. "Goodbye, my brother. You've been an excellent foil, but I'm ready to move on."
Just as Ile's crystal eye lit up, Eli's shoulder skin snapped back, bringing the Big Bad Wolf with it. The wolf slammed into Eli at the same instant a red beam shot out of the glowing crystal. Instead of hitting Eli, it struck the Big Bad Wolf, who let out a howl and disintegrated.
"No!" Ile shouted. Before he could focus his eye beam on Eli again, Eli leapt and pulled the eye patch back over Ile's eye. He gave a mighty uppercut under Ile's chin, knocking him thirty feet into the air. Before Ile plummeted down, a huge hand shot out and grabbed him.
"Where Wolfie go?" the giant said. "You kill him!"
"It was Eli," Ile said. "He pulled Wolf in the way."
"No, you make Wolfie go away," the giant said. He started to squeeze, but Ile managed to get an arm free and whipped off the eye patch.
Eli flew up there, not wanting another iconic character gone, enemy or not. Power flowed through him, tickling up and down his arms. He pointed his hands at Ile and let fly with an energy bolt. It struck the back of the giant's hand, and the huge cartoon monstrosity let out a howl and dropped Ile. The eye beam missed.
The giant swatted at Eli, who dodged while keeping an eye on Ile, who hit the ground with a bang and cloud of dust. Both Eli and the giant stared down, waiting to see his fate. When the dust cleared, Ile stood grinning, his ruby eye glowing red, his eye patch in his hand.
Eli swooped down, maneuvering as he went to make himself a harder target to hit. The giant lifted his foot and stomped. The beam shot and hit the descending foot. The giant disappeared almost at once. Eli didn't stop his charge at Ile, who laughed as they collided.
"You can't beat me, Eli." They slammed through the wall of the castle's courtyard and tumbled over the moat and into the clouds that held it all up.
"I've beaten you before," Eli said, "and I'll do it again."
Ile laughed again, this time with the maniacal chortle of a mad scientist. "No, every time you send me to a different cartoon, I grow stronger. I made you too powerful, but you've returned the favor."
Eli's power built in his arms, and he released it at Ile. Before it hit, Ile's eye beam struck the energy and both dissipated into the nether. Eli then reached into his cartoon roots and pulled a bazooka out of thin air. That too was destroyed by the eye beam.
"I created you, Eli. I can destroy whatever you try. Shall we continue?"
"The Maker created me," Eli said, more to buy time than engage in a debate. He needed a weapon, but Ile was right. He wouldn't be able to get anything past that eye beam.
Ile laughed. "He created us, me. We were one until I chose the separation."
Eli nodded, both because he knew it was true and because he had a plan. He just needed Ile to attack him. "Fine, I'm finished," he said. "What is it you want?"
Ile motioned Eli to follow him and dropped through the clouds. They both landed softly in the field underneath. The castle faded away.
"What did you do?" Eli said. "I didn't see you shoot at it."
Ile shrugged. "I did nothing. No giant, no castle. Just like with this world. No Eli, no Walters Valley. Though I must commend you. You've done much better here than I ever could, and you did it without even trying. The goody two-shoes cartoons in this valley never could see through to your real purpose. You couldn't even see it, though that's why you always left. With all of the power I transferred to you, my one flaw was not putting enough of my ambition, my willingness to destroy, into you."
"You didn't create me, Ile, and you certainly never controlled me. We were different sides to the same coin. That's why you split us up. Now pray for a good cartoon because I'm sending you to one so far away you won't be able to make it back here for a long, long time." Eli used his power to puff out his arms as if energy flowed through them. He pointed both arms at Ile and waited for the burst from the ruby eye.
"I'm going nowhere," Ile said. "I'll enjoy remaking this valley in your honor. Maybe I'll even bring you back as my evil minion and let you kill all your friends." With that he shot the red beam at Eli, who instead of shooting energy, pulled out a huge mirror, which reflected the beam back at Ile. Ile didn't have time to move, scream, or anything. He just vanished. The ruby eye dropped to the ground. Eli picked it up, had the sudden urge to jam it into his own eye socket, but then turned his hands into huge millstones and ground it into red dust.
A leg stretched from the distance and set down in front of Eli. The rest of the professor then sprung into view.
Eli nodded. "He'll never be back, but he took the Big Bad Wolf and the giant with him."
The professor shrugged. "If the Maker wills it, they'll be back."
"What about Ile?" Eli asked.
"An arch-enemy, especially one as evil and dangerous as him, makes a cartoon more exciting. But if not him, someone else. Now what do you say we head back to my house? I'm starving. But my real question to you is: Will this be another farewell meal?"
Eli thought about it for a second. Ile had been right; he had always left to protect Walters Valley. But with Ile gone, the threat inside him had left, too.
"No," Eli said. "I'm home for good."