It used to be that a girl child of eleven or twelve could slip into the Garden of Sweet Tea and Crisps on any errant sunbeam, just as long as the sunbeam entered her window at a forty-five degree angle to the wooden cracks in her bedroom floor. Naturally. When she felt so inclined, she could swim through her kitchen cupboards and into a wide body of stardust and dandelion fluff in which no one ever drowned. The Pajama King of Picture Books extended royal invitations, spoken in color, to any child attuned to the peculiar language of mice. Those days are gone now. Blame it on hormones in the milk.
“This is the detainee?”
“Margaret Anne Gotsch, born June 21, 1979. Age: 35. Parents: Annabelle and Bertram Gotsch. Reported missing December 21, 1987. Known aliases: Queen of the Snickets, Lord Protector of the Quarks, and Madame President.”
“How long has she been in your custody, Inspector?”
“Seventy-two hours, Herr Schrödinger.”
“We’ve kept her secure. All the precautions you requested are in place.”
“All the precautions?”
“We had trouble locating a lamb born during a total lunar eclipse.”
“A partial eclipse would have sufficed.”
“Has she said anything?”
“Quite a few things, actually. Nothing pertinent. She’s been requesting a pot of tea since our extraction team brought her here.”
“Give her nothing.”
“Send the transcripts of your interrogations of Ms. Gotsch to my quarters. I’m going to speak with her myself now.”
“She hasn’t eaten or slept since arriving, sir. Maybe we should give her some time. Start fresh tomorrow.”
“The orchid mages from the Pajama King’s court won’t wait for tomorrow.”
“Something funny captain?”
“You won’t be smirking when you’re face to face with a legion of teddy bear dragoons mounted on unicorn destriers.”
“Yes, sir—I mean, no, sir.”
“Do I amuse you, Inspector?”
“If I may speak freely, Herr Schrödinger?”
“I’ve read your field reports thoroughly, and there’s no one closer to the Escape Phenomenon than you, sir, no one on God’s green earth. But teddy bear dragoons? Pajama mages? It all sounds a bit too silly.”
“You think there’s something silly about the Jolly Gopher of Grindlehook’s plot to distribute tambourines on the Isle of Wight? You think it’s silly to be concerned about unionized Lumpkins diverting the Dandelion River into New York City discotheques and Parisian wine bars?”
“No, Inspector. It’s no coincidence that the Pajama King of Picture Books started growing coffee beans in his Quark fields mere days after the gibbering gibbons unlocked the secret to brewing candy corn into beer. The interrogation must resume. Immediately.”
“She’s just a girl, sir.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, inspector. That right there is a woman.”
One cool winter’s morning after a dusting of snow, young Maggie went outside in search of polite conversation. She was tired of gossiping with her bedroom mice, who were pleasant enough but rather intellectually slight. Even nine-year-old ladies crave substance on occasion. During one of her governess’s frequent cigarette breaks, Maggie tottered off into a nearby glade to seek out the company of a vole. Strictly speaking, Maggie had never spoken with a vole, but she’d heard good things from the mice. She found the vole seated on an Adirondack chair casually reading the morning’s paper.
“What are you reading?” asked Maggie.
“Would you believe it?” said the vole. “In a fortnight that old bulldog will become the longest serving prime minister in this century. The whole world is going to hell in a hand basket, I tell you.”
“That doesn’t sound very nice,” said Maggie.
“It’s not supposed to be nice. It’s politics.”
“That’s not what I mean. What would you say if she was a man?”
“The same things I say about the illiterate thespian our American cousins seem so enamored with, I expect.”
“I’m not enjoying this very much,” said Maggie. “I think I prefer the company of mice.”
The vole set down his paper and cleared his throat with a pronounced ah-hmm. “Pliant little things, mice. Always darting about carrying messages from the Pajama King of Picture Books, trying to outrun the Boneless Emperor and his Band of Belligerent Boys. Thankless work, but they have the disposition for it, I’ll give them that.”
Maggie lifted one eyebrow at the vole. “The Pajama King of Picture Books?”
“Oh, my.” The vole daubed his brow with a handkerchief. “You don’t know.”
“I know a great many things.”
“I’m sure you do. Have a seat, Miss Maggie. I find this topic is best discussed over a spot of tea.”
A tiny teapot appeared on the table opposite a second seat proportioned for Maggie’s bum.
“Have you ever awakened from a dream in the night, so certain that it had been real? And even though you wanted nothing more than to return or, at least, hold on just a second longer, the dream escaped through your fingers like so much sand in a sieve?”
“Yes,” said Maggie. “All the time.”
The vole filled Maggie’s cup with steaming tea and bent over the table conspiratorially. “What if I told you there was a place where you never had to let go? Where you could pull your dreams into reality just because you wanted to inspect them in the light?”
“I think that would be a peculiar place, indeed.”
“Finish your tea.”
Maggie did as she was told and placed her teacup down in front of the vole. “May I have some more?”
“Just wait for it, Miss Maggie.”
The sun inched over the tops of the trees and cast a soft but determined beam down upon the teacups below. The vole nudged Maggie’s cup into the center of the light with his claw and bid her lean over it to have a look.
Where there should have been droplets and dregs, a bucolic picture resolved: tiny wrinkled men with drooping ears like gym socks laboring harmoniously in a bluegrass field beneath a smiling sun. The little creatures picked suckers off vines while dancing in time to the merry playing of a walrus with a baritone sax. Since the acoustics of the teacup were less than ideal, Maggie leaned closer to better appreciate the complexities of the walrus’ loping tune. It was a melody she’d heard before. In a dream.
The vole crept up behind Maggie and gave her a gentle push.
“Ms. Gotsch, or should I call you Madame President?”
“Either will do. I’m not a stickler for formality.”
“Margaret, then. Do you know who I am?”
“That depends, Herr Schrödinger. Who do you want to be?”
“I’d like to be your friend, Margaret. But the tenor of our discussion turns primarily on your willingness to cooperate.”
“My life is quite literally an open book.”
“I’m so glad to hear you say that. Really, I am. Let’s get one thing out in the open, then, shall we? I know you’re behind the Escape Phenomenon.”
“Is that what you’re calling it?”
“12,178 young women, ages eighteen to thirty-three, missing in the last year under the same mysterious set of circumstances. None of the cases present with any obvious signs of foul play. If you have a better name, I’d hear it.”
“You don’t like coincidences, do you, Herr Schrödinger? You’re a man who likes to be in control.”
“I’m asking the questions here, Margaret.”
“There are some things you just can’t dictate.”
“I’ve found several of your little portals, Margaret. My soldiers destroyed the old icebox sitting in that flat in Notting Hill. Filthy thing was riddled with Lumpkins. We dredged a pond outside Aalen that reflected children’s dreams after it rained. I’m on to you. Stop laughing.”
“I’m sorry, Herr Schrödinger. Do go on.”
“I know you’re the President of The Worldish. I also know that your term, for lack of a better word, is up. You can’t ever return.”
“You seem to know a great many things.”
“Look at yourself, Margaret. The Worldish will never have you—why do you keep laughing?”
“I’m sorry, Herr Schrödinger—it’s just, so much has changed since the last time you slept in the Boneless Emperor’s Barracks for Belligerent Boys.”
Maggie fell through the teacup and fell and fell, cushioned only by the dormant parachute properties of her skirt. When she landed she found herself surrounded by the little wrinkled men who she was beginning to doubt were men at all. She dusted a few blades of bluegrass from her skirt and looked around hoping someone might notice that it had started raining little girls.
“That’s the last time I share a pot of tea with a vole.”
One of the creatures waddled over to her, and presented a sucker from his bundle.
“Thank you,” said Maggie.
The creature nodded and doddered back to his task.
“Excuse me,” Maggie called after the little man. “Might I ask your name?”
“This one is Rumple Lumpkin,” he answered, reaching for a yellow sucker at the top of a spindly vine.
“If it’s not too much trouble, could you tell me where I’ve landed?”
Rumple sighed and stopped picking. “Much closer to the Dandelion Stream than you had probably hoped, but well beyond the prying eyes of the Boneless Emperor and his Band of Belligerent Boys.”
More confused than illuminated by Rumple Lumpkin’s explanation, Maggie shrugged and began to unfold the foil from the sucker’s stem.
“What are you doing?” snapped Rumple, nearly dropping his bundle of crop.
“I was going to eat it, of course. I’ve never had an orange sucker fresh off the vine.”
“The Pajama King’s suckers are not for eating!”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. All suckers are for eating.” Maggie was cranky and feeling a bit peckish. Falling through teacups, as it turns out, is a rather draining affair.
“Not these,” said Rumple Lumpkin. “You must carry this sucker over the Harrowdown Hills and through the Garden of Sweet Tea and Crisps. The sweet tea is there for your enjoyment, but whatever you do, keep your hands off the crisps. Beyond the garden, find the Porter of the Pollywog Prince and ask him for passage to the Dandelion Stream. If the Viscount of Clouds is of a mind to be helpful, you should have no problem navigating by swan. If not, you can always take the low road to Grindlehook and call on the Jolly Gopher at home. One way or another you should find your way to the Pajama King’s court. Do you like picture books? I’m sure you do.”
“That sounds awfully complicated and just a bit insane.”
Rumple Lumpkin looked down at her with a star in his eye. “Would you really want The Worldish to be any other way?”
And so Maggie set out with the sweet in her hand, following the Lumpkin’s instructions to a tee. She reached the Pajama King of Picture Books in record time and lived happily, temporarily after.
“Do I look like an amateur, Margaret? Do I seem like a man so easily thrown by wild conjecture?”
“I try not to judge on appearance, Herr Schrödinger.”
“I had hoped you were going to cooperate, Margaret. I truly did. We aren’t so different, you and I.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“We were both forced by reality to let go of something dear.”
“I’m sorry you felt forced.”
“I don’t need your sympathy. Do you know what this is?”
“It looks like a very merry scene.”
“This photo was taken through a pinecone in Glastonbury, Somerset. Those figures right there are teddy bear dragoons and over there are their unicorn steeds. Pretty damning evidence, wouldn’t you say?”
“Evidence of what, precisely?”
“You’re raising an army in The Worldish for invasion.”
“Sounds like a better theme for a tea party than an invasion.”
“Don’t be cute with me, Margaret. Act your damn age.”
“What is it that you’re trying to ask me, Herr Schrödinger?”
“I want to know where you’re planning to strike. I want the names of the women that you’re plotting to abduct. And I want to know why.”
“I’m not sure I can answer that, at least not the first two questions.”
“So you admit you have a plot.”
“There is a convergence afoot, I admit, but I’d never be so arrogant as to claim credit.”
“This is growing tiresome, Margaret.”
“Perhaps you need a nap.”
“Why are you taking the women, dammit?”
“Have you ever awakened from a dream in the night, so certain that it had been real… “
A stupid person once said: all good things must come to an end. For Maggie, it started with the Quarks. Then it spread to the Snickets and the gibbering gibbons, as The Worldish awkwardly suggested it needed space. The Lumpkins ejected her from their hopscotch league and the Jolly Gopher of Grindlehook actually looked at her and groused. No longer welcome at the picture book court, Maggie set out to find some answers. She swam against the steady current of the Dandelion Stream without the aid of the viscount or his swans. She sprinted past the Garden of Sweet Tea and Crisps without stopping for a cup of the former. Alone, and on foot, she crested the Harrowdown Hills and arrived at the vineyard of suckers.
Rumple Lumpkin regarded Maggie coolly. He must’ve gotten the memo.
“Look at me, Rumple.”
“This one is looking, Ms. Maggie.”
“I want you to tell me what’s going on.”
“This one hasn’t a clue what it is you might mean.”
“Why is everyone acting so oddly around me?”
Twittering nervously, Rumple went back about his work. “This one really shouldn’t say… “
“Rumple.” Maggie grabbed the little Lumpkin by his tube sock ears and forced him to stop working and face her. “Why was I banished from the Pajama King’s court?”
“Maybe it’s time for you to go home.”
“Maybe it’s time for me to what?” Maggie bared her teeth.
Rumple’s eyes flitted from side to side. “The Worldish has rules, Ms. Maggie. The Boneless Emperor enforces them with his Band of Belligerent Boys.”
“Of all the ridiculous—” Maggie anchored her hands on her hips. “I haven’t broken any rules.”
“Oh yes you have,” said Rumple, his eyes drifting down to her chest.
At first Maggie felt bashful, then she got pissed. “This will not stand, Rumple Lumpkin.”
“Lot of good you can do about it, Ms. Maggie.”
“How long has this been going on?”
Rumple Lumpkin shrugged. “At least a generation of generations.”
“Heavens, think of all the poor young women. There must be thousands of them!”
“Yes, Ms. Maggie. Even more than you know.”
“Herr Schrödinger. The women are coming of their own accord.”
“But they’re far too old. You’re far too old.”
“Too old to dream?”
“There’s no place for you in The Worldish. It’s obscene. These young women you’re stealing need to find their way in our world.”
“You mean your world.”
“I mean the real world.”
“That lie lost its power after the collapse. What’s left for us here? Even the boxes you tried to keep us in have crumbled from lack of upkeep.”
“But you have no choice. There’s a way that things are done—a way that is proper.”
“We will not willingly participate in a rigged game just because it’s the only one in the house.”
“You have to grow up, Margaret.”
“That right there is the mother of all false equivalencies, pun intended. Dreams don’t die of old age, Herr Schrödinger. If you don’t give us the means to realize them here, then we’re going to manufacture an alternative.”
“So you admit it. You’re doing this.”
“I will not sit here and be blamed, Herr Schrödinger. We inherited this one-way world. We didn’t make it.”
“The Worldish didn’t use to tolerate these wild flights of fancy. When the Boneless Emperor was in charge—”
“The Boneless Emperor is dead and gone. I turned his throne room into a composting latrine.”
“But we all did it this way. You aren’t special.”
“Yes, we are.”
“But I’m not!”
“What makes you say that?”
“When I jump into a pothole at 3:13 on a Sunday in autumn, all I get are muddy boots. I want to sail swans on the Dandelion Stream and pick suckers with Lumpkins and Quarks.”
“It’s never too late, Herr Schrödinger.”
“For me it is. I stood with the Boneless Emperor and his Band of Belligerent Boys. I helped enforce his Worldish order. I can’t ever return.”
“Oh my, what nonsense. Haven’t you heard? Or have you forgotten the peculiar language of mice? I issued a blanket amnesty to the Band of Belligerent Boys with the unanimous support of the Parliament of Rooks. You really are quite a silly man.”
“Are you all right? You’re looking a bit pale.”
“I’m fine. Just a little bit parched, maybe.”
“Let me summon you a spot of tea.”
“Yes. Yes, I think that a bit of tea would be quite nice right now. Earl Grey, if you can manage it.”
“I can manage just about anything you can dream.”
United under Maggie’s banner, the Lumpkins, Snickets, and Quarks set aside their mutual mistrust (which any historian will tell you began with the Untimely Citrus Feud and was only exacerbated by the kerfuffle over waffles and winks, but there are two rational schools of thought).
After an epic battle (which has already been approximated in several oral traditions) Maggie defeated the Boneless Emperor and his Band of Belligerent Boys (most of them turned out to be more misguided than belligerent, but such is the fickle nature of alliterative names). The Snickets and Quarks carried her from the Emperor’s castle on a palanquin of daffodil stems and gilt. They named her Magnanimous Ruler, a title she, at first, accepted, and then, politely declined. Instead, she dubbed herself the first President of The Land, and with the blessing of her newly appointed Parliament of Rooks, she went about enacting a series of controversial executive orders. After plenty of moaning from the curmudgeonly Lumpkins, and one particularly pointed letter writing campaign, the Snickets, Quarks, and gibbering gibbons all adjusted to the new status quo.
Herr Schrödinger fell through the bottom of his cup and landed upside down on top of one of the Pajama King’s most well connected picture books.
“Excuse you,” the book squawked as it flapped its cover and dropped the ruffled Schrödinger at the foot of the Pajama King’s throne.
“Hermann!” the Pajama King greeted him wearing his finest banana cream onesie. “President Maggie told me you might be joining us. She also suggested I waive the sucker protocol as a show of good faith.”
“Am I really here?”
The Pajama King chuckled. “That’s a peculiar question.”
“Is that a gaggle of Quarks massaging the walrus’s back?”
“Ah, yes!” The Pajama King put an arm around Hermann and led him over to the window of his keep. “Poor fellow’s been suffering from sciatica of late. I suspect lugging around that baritone sax takes its toll.”
Hermann Schrödinger gazed out the Pajama King’s window at the veritable menagerie gathering around the Garden of Sweet Tea and Crisps. He saw Snickets and Lumpkins engaged in casual conversation, while the orchid mages made loan statements disappear. The gibbering gibbons rolled out untapped kegs of candy corn beer with a little push from the viscount’s gusty guards. Young men and young women gathered in all directions, flirting in color and cogitating on a range of sensible things.
“There have been a few changes since your day, Hermann.”
Hermann Schrödinger rubbed his eyes, and though he half expected that the dream would disappear, it came back brighter and more real than before.
“It takes a little getting used to, I know. Believe me, I had my reservations. But look how happy they are. Every day is more exciting than the last and no one ever wants to sleep in. Even the weedy wizards from the Dandelion Sea come up for air just to join the revelry.”
“But—but they’re women. The Boneless Emperor said their tits and tampons would spoil The Worldish.”
“Come now, Hermann, you don’t really believe that nonsense.”
“It worked for so long.”
“No, Hermann. It really didn’t.”
“The Boneless Emperor’s law kept The Worldish intact for a generation of generations.”
“Ho ho, can you believe we listened to him as long as we did? Your lot can all be forgiven. You were only boys at the time. But you really shouldn’t make a habit of listening to people without any bones.”
“I think I need to sit down.”
“You can’t. It’s starting. Look!”
“Those are teddy bears and unicorns! I was right. The world is under siege.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Hermann. Who ever heard of a unicorn siege? The teddy bear dragoons volunteered to spearhead the president’s welcoming committee. Come watch with me, Hermann! The reception’s about to begin.”
And all the young women left their cubicles and university desks to find the spaces in between. They rode unicorns on swan ships, buoyed by the Viscount of Clouds with the aid of his gusty guards. President Maggie greeted each and every one of her constituents with a participation trophy and a flexible career. Together they ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and access to contraception.
“You don’t have to stay,” she told them. “But you’ll never have to leave.”
Her constituents cheered and toasted with the Pajama King:
“To us and to the land we’ve built, where our dreams all live in the light, where the pop-up books are rent controlled and every internship is paid.”
© 2015 by Zach Lisabeth
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