The Kavalarys almost never locked their windows. The one exception was Halloween. Tonight wasn't the eve of any hallow, but Michael was positive he felt a draft. In truth, his room was on the bottom floor, and every so often he'd feel movement that wasn't really coming from the outside - parents making trips to the bathroom, sisters indulging in midnight sweets, cats being cats - and after a few moments of paranoia he'd roll over and go back to sleep. The thing was, this wasn't movement. No one was awake or creeping around; the closet door was shut. This actually was coming from the outside, Michael was sure. And there was something else, something that made it utterly impossible for him to go back to sleep. He knew, without a doubt except a few regarding his sanity, that the draft wasn't just coming from outside. It was coming from something outside. Someone. The draft had been sent.
Oddly enough - oddly to Michael, at any rate - the air wasn't exactly flowing. No, it felt more like it was entering in shifts, as if new bits of air were snapshots slowly developing in succession, one after the other, with the stale sections ending up . . . where? Michael could feel them overlapping, pushed into the room, but not moving, not going away. It was clear, somehow, that the air was not a messenger. The air was the message.
Not any kind of message I can read, Michael thought with a sigh. Not any kind of message the Egyptians could have read! But he lay still. He couldn't watch whatever it was. After all, it wasn't even winter, and his own breath, even as it shortened and started sounding raspy, wasn't visible. He couldn't hear this gust, this gale, this slideshow from an opera devoted to some sort of poltergeist, either, though he kept trying to convince himself that he was crazy just for listening.
But he didn't move.
Which didn't make a whole lot of sense even to the part of him that had given up its claim to sanity. If this . . . thing wasn't moving at all, then what was he lying so still for? It wasn't like he could disrupt it, somehow ruin its quiet interruption. Still, the Thing had entered Michael's room, or had somehow been injected by another, and that meant. . . . What did it mean? I'm going to let it take over my room just because I've lost all hope of a good night's sleep?
Michael knew he was being irrational. Heck, he knew the only way he could remain rational was by saying that he wasn't being so. It was the only thing to say that made any sense, and it didn't make any sense at all. What was being rational, if facing up to your own lunacy meant giving in to it at the same time? He wasn't a hero, and he knew that. He also knew that there was nothing to lose. Not if he kept being rational, kept trying to be. As long as he was asking if he was being rational, well, he was better off than if he simply let himself drown in something below rational thought, right?
Michael had no idea. All he really knew that he was wasting a whole lot of time trying to decide whether or not to listen to himself. Or something else. He felt pretty useless, knowing that his only piece of knowledge wasn't worth his time.
It was only after the Thing moved that Michael started feeling useful. And he started understanding a little something about rational thought: once you lose it, it doesn't matter at all.
There weren't any creatures in the Land of the Creatures. Everyone who lived there knew that. Titles meant nothing. Take, for example, Old Hopper. The poor young fellow was neither old nor a rabbit. He was human, he knew, but stuffed, like the others. Sure, he was worn out, and his navy corduroys better resembled washed-out denim nowadays, but since when were looks the point? It didn't matter that all he had to protect his head was one shriveled wisp of silver hair. It looked more like wool from a scrap pile, but that didn't mean it wasn't hair, and the fact that he didn't have any other hair didn't make any difference. So what if he'd lost his purple sombrero in the Shift? It wasn't as if it had been sewn on, and that was years ago already. He was much too distinguished now to wear a purple sombrero. His sole bit of hair was good enough. Anyway, it could be sculpted into a tiara on any given day. All it took was imagination.
As it was, the Land didn't have any cold, so one didn't need a hat there. An ice pack might have helped some, but Old Hopper was perfectly fine without it. His hair was matted to his head, where it belonged, where he could think of it and know that he was still young.
The Hopper didn't have any friends in the Land of the Creatures. So far, he'd only formulated two possible reasons. One was that the Land really only had one other citizen - Bea Bopper, some lady who dressed like a nun despite constantly rattling off silly rhymes about politics and Satan the Dragon, who Old Hopper knew perfectly well was just a children's myth. The other possible reason that Old Hopper was all alone was that he lived on the top bunk and it was very easy for him to tune out Bea and simply live out each and every day alone. Once upon a time, the Mad Straw Cow had been his best friend, but he, along with the Hopper's precious purple sombrero, had disappeared into the Shift on that fateful day a couple of years back.
In reality, Old Hopper knew that his home wasn't a bunk. He knew that he lived in a closet. He knew that someone had put him there. He even knew that he used to mean something. Unfortunately, that was all he knew. He did remember seeing a rather odd-looking - and, for that matter, gigantic - arm reach into the Land mere seconds before the Shift, but that was it. Though he didn't like to talk about the Shift, and he knew he'd like to even less with that annoying Bea, it was always the focus of his thoughts. What Old Hopper knew quite clearly was that the Shift had taken away a lot of things. One of those things was his memory, which he'd learned to be quite content to believe had been sewn into the larger portion of hair that he was pretty sure had been ripped off his scalp.
He was pretty sure primarily because part of his scalp wasn't even there anymore. That he'd overheard the day he'd woken up to some odd squeaking noise, peeked down, and noticed Bea on the ground. Or the floor; that was what he'd heard Bea call it. But none of it made sense to the Hopper. Since when were the various areas in the Land given such technical names? Floors? Shelves? The Land was a closet? What was a closet? What did it mean to have been chewed apart?
Old Hopper wished every once in a while that he could have his memory back, since without it his knowledge and awareness were unquestionably limited. He used to play some important role and have some significant function in the Land. That much he was sure of, if only because Bea Bopper had known his name automatically and addressed him a lot less crudely than she had the Land itself. Old Hopper valued his home much more than its newest citizen, but more than that he missed it. He missed feeling secure. The Shift had taken away so many things, but all the Hopper really wanted was some sort of answer, some sort of return. He wanted to slip away and return to the Land of the Creatures as it used to be, when it used to be his home, when he wasn't just passing time and feeling like a guest. It used to be his home. Wherever it had gone, he'd gone with it. So he spent his days thinking of ways to find it. To find what he'd lost. To find that purple sombrero he'd so valiantly, so pompously, so purposely outgrown.
Old Hopper hadn't planned to slaughter the arm. The task had simply been necessary. Something had been suspended in the air by the arm; according to Bea, it was "a flying baseball bad oh my plants no pollution no trees are dead and I just see a baseball baaaaaat!" Old Hopper was certain that he hadn't gotten rid of the arm in order to protect the crazy woman who seemed to know so much more than he about the names of things. He'd done it just because he'd had to. He'd done it to protect the Land.
The whole plan had been to protect the Land. It wasn't so much about the Creatures of the Land as the Land itself, especially considering that Old Hopper was the only classic Creature still living there. Bea Bopper, despite obviously having taken up permanent residence in the Land, was merely a citizen. She was not a Creature. Creatures had lived in the Land before the Shift, and Creatures had never spoken except to the Master of the Land. Still, Old Hopper wasn't sorry that he'd saved Bea along with himself. She was amusing, at times.
The Hopper had devised the plan mere hours before the New Shift had begun. At first, he'd taken the noise as an indication that his plan was working. But when a large crack of light began to appear and Bea began screaming and that same odd-looking, gigantic arm began to infiltrate the Land. . . . Well, Old Hopper had stopped caring about the plan at that point. All he knew was the arm meant another Shift was coming, and the arm had to be destroyed.
And so he'd driven Bea into the arm, her own appendages flailing about at the same rate as the words pouring mechanically out of her. He would have thought that Bea's teeth would pierce the arm if he pushed her, but it seemed the force he'd exerted onto Bea by falling off of his bunk had actually caused her to enter that area of light and somehow make it disappear with a large, off-putting noise. The only reason he knew the arm had been destroyed was because bits of it hung where the light had been, where smaller bits of light now illuminated the darkness of the Land. Bits of it were stuck inside, yellow and red, with hairs similar to the Hopper's own dripping off of it.
The sounds that had followed the noise of the Hopper's Bea attack had been another indication. They were screams of pain, much like those the Hopper remembered hearing come out of the Mad Straw Cow when he'd fallen victim to that same arm during the original Shift. Somehow, a Shift caused by Old Hopper himself had elicited the same response.
Old Hopper shivered, but there was no cold, so his small wisp of hair stayed matted to the area of his scalp that was no longer there. Somehow, his plan had gone very wrong.
Words never came easily for the Hopper. There were a lot of things involved in that process - things the Hopper did not care to know about and did not care to discuss. Of course words didn't come easily. He'd always suspected that it had something to do with the string that fell down his back from the point where he'd been supplied with a permanent crick in his neck. Not that anybody knew about that. For one thing, it would have taken a whole lot of effort for him to let anyone know. For another, the sore spot had been designed quite fashionably, with a special covering that he'd heard referred to as a button.
Old Hopper didn't want to talk about it. It hurt too much, it wasn't an easy procedure, and in point of fact only the Master could do it. That much was common knowledge to him. He'd always assumed that the same could be said for all of the other citizens in the Land of the Creatures.
He'd always had a lot of assumptions. He had never cared to share them.
"Words don't come too easily for you, do they?" she'd said in her usual drawl, that familiar, grating, jumbled flow. He didn't want to answer her or even to tell her to knock it off. He didn't even know what "it" was or how it could be as easy as it apparently was for her to let off steam. Actually, the Hopper had realized long ago, speaking was not just easy for her; speaking was what made her what she was. It was her special function. Old Hopper wasn't sure what his function used to be. Whatever it had once been, it seemed clear that it was gone now, lost in the Shift, lost with the part of him that must once have known.
The Hopper wasn't sure why he knew anything about the Shift at all. He wasn't sure why he knew about the old Creatures, the old way, the old customs, those past interactions with the Master. At this point, he didn't care. And he didn't want to talk about it.
Suddenly, a sharp pain just below his head caused him to let out a loud, desperate "No-it-is-not-no-it-no-no!" without even thinking about it. That's how he spoke - or, better yet, whined? That's what his words sounded like? That's what the sore spot was for? Someone was pulling the string? Was it the Master? Had some old Creature saved them all, saved the Land, somehow called him back into his own reality?
No. Not yet. "Wow, are you rusty!" he heard, followed by some sort of cackle. "It's as if acid rain has fallen on you. Once we get out of this closet and get to the boy, we'll have to get that top shelf taken care of."
Another jerk. More pain for a few instants before he felt his head snap back and the string slip back onto his neck. He felt like some sort of puppet others could move around. He couldn't control his own words. He couldn't even make them escape. He was some sort of bystander in all this drama. Manipulated. Used. "Out? I-I-know!" he heard, and winced involuntarily as a "We must-form plan-an!" slipped out, followed by a quick intake of air, and his arms were extended and then let go, slapping his sides in exasperation that certainly wasn't coming from inside of him.
This was all beyond his control. That was clear enough. It didn't make much sense to Old Hopper. Why, just last night he'd had motor control, hadn't he? When he'd driven his form off of his bunk and onto Bea? The attack had been of his own volition, he knew, for it must have been, no matter how impulsive it had seemed at the time. It had been his behavior, not his body's. It hadn't been part of the plan, not the plan that he'd been thinking over, but that didn't mean it wasn't something he himself had done. And now? Now he was moving again, only he wasn't moving.
Old Hopper thought of shaking his head. He never actually considered shaking his head. That just wasn't something he ever did - at least not since the Shift, at least not in his remaining memory. But now he almost considered it, just for a second. He'd taken for granted that he could and now that he'd been shown so cruelly that he couldn't. . . . It just wasn't fair. Maybe motor control had been a part of the purple sombrero. Maybe weaved into the rest of his hair. He didn't know, but he knew that it had been lost, just like everything else, for that was all he could really know. He had to take something for granted.
So the Hopper moved and spoke and socialized with that dreadful Bea Bopper. He wasn't yelling at her, not even sighing, not even asking her what she knew or finding out what she was or why she had become a citizen here, since it was obvious enough, he thought, that she was not a Creature. Why did she want to get out of the Land? Why did the effects of the New Shift and the fact that the Hopper had caused it - was dangerous, couldn't be trusted, had thrust himself upon her and caused all manner of insanity - not show on her face?
He thought, but he didn't ask. He just listened, just waited, as the mechanisms he'd never had the chance to explore churned and worked and produced things he'd never been witness to before. He and Bea planned and organized, plotted, possibly sinned, and inside he simply waited. It was all he could do, just to wait, to lose what else there was.
It was late by the time Old Hopper heard his voice next. He was saying something about midnight, something about darkness.
There was a plan. There was finally a plan. And he wasn't in on it, even though he'd obviously devised it.
"And we have to mention pesticides and their effect on public health!" Bea added. Old Hopper noticed that he was scratching himself, some area he couldn't reach, couldn't feel. The ripped-off area, the patch of scalp that wasn't there anymore. He had an itch and he wasn't the one to scratch it. Again, he thought of breathing deeply, or crying, or running. The knowledge that such actions weren't possible anymore only made the thoughts more painful. His head was going to explode and he wasn't going to be able to pick up the pieces.
"Ready, now!" his voice was saying. He sounded more confident now, less rusty. More useful. "Hut-hut, two!" His hands had formed fists, his elbows bent and held back in anticipation, his back straight and stiff. He was prepared.
There was a powerful noise, only this time it wasn't Old Hopper's voice or even Bea's. Something squeaked. Something moved. But there was no light. Old Hopper didn't understand. This was another Shift, only there wasn't any light? Something came to mind, suddenly, something previously lost in Bea's conversations with nobody from her first few days in the Land of the Creatures. "It'll have to be at night," she'd said at some point. "In the dark . . . door open . . . nighttime . . . can't be too obvious about . . . boy will have to listen. . . ." She'd said other things, dozens of them, most of them about political refuge, trees, current affairs. None of it had mattered to the Hopper before, but now he was using it. Or some part of him was. His plan, her advice. Something was happening during the night, in the dark. But not the darkness of the Land. Some other thing. Some other place. Outside of the Land.
Something clicked, but it wasn't his parts. It was the idea of it all, the concept. He understood. The Shift involved something outside of the Land. Whatever was lost had escaped the Land entirely. The Land hadn't gone away, exactly. But it wasn't all there was.
There was no light, but there was something else. And he was in it.
He realized, now, that there was no conversation going on. No movement. And now he wanted it, craved it . . . had it. He was screaming inside, wanting to scream, begging to gain control, and it was seconds before he realized that things were surrounding him, choking him, actually there. He could feel it. He could change it. He moved his legs, he found the air, he bit, he felt the string bounce around, and it didn't hurt. He was in control.
A shrill noise was coming from far off. It was Bea, but he didn't care. He cared more about the squeaks that were escaping his own mouth. He was conscious of them, aware of what he was doing, able to do it.
There had been fingers around him. Closing in. Now he was on some other type of ground, something furry, woven, and somehow familiar. He was banging the ground with the fists he'd noticed forming just seconds before. He felt the pain. The movement. He wasn't being used. He was using something else. And he knew exactly what he was doing, even as he came to that realization. It was exquisite. It was real. He was a Creature.
And the Master had been choking him.
"Stop, stop!" a deep voice said. A voice he recognized. "Are you happy now?"
Old Hopper blinked, intentionally. He didn't care where Bea Bopper was. He didn't care about the blinding pain, the brilliant cold, the sensation in the area where something had been taken away. He cared about the plan - his plan. Something was going right.
"You're out! What more do you want?" the Master asked. Old Hopper recognized the sound but not the desperation in it. He knelt on the foreign ground, hidden in the darkness. And then he took action again.
He was tired of losing things.
Michael Kavalary wasn't sure of many things. What he was sure of was that he was going to get a lot of sleep on Halloween this year, if this was what Halloween wasn't.
He'd given up on maintaining control of his life. He'd stopped trying to tell himself to think rationally. What was the point? He doubted he'd ever be able to again.
The Thing had come from that darned closet. At first Michael had thought he couldn't believe it. Then he'd stopped thinking that, since he knew that it wasn't true. And if he couldn't even admit to himself that he'd gone bonkers, then what kind of crazy person was he? Anyway, if he was going to spend the rest of his life fighting it off, he was entitled to one night of insanity. So he'd let down his guard, let it take over him, partly because otherwise he didn't see the point of being awake but mostly because it didn't give him a choice.
The closet door had flung open. Or had it been open, just a bit, earlier? Michael wasn't sure, but he was kicking himself for being so unwilling to let himself look before. To be attentive. To be ready. He'd practically let it happen. He might as well have left it open, in any case, while he'd been looking elsewhere. He'd convinced himself it couldn't be, made something else true. And for what? So he'd have a perfectly illogical reason to avoid entering a state of dreams that would have made a whole lot more sense than all of this?
For an instant, Michael looked away and stopped listening. Maybe I am asleep. Maybe it doesn't have to be true. It's all some weird air phenomenon. Nothing moved. It's not those stupid dolls driving me mad again. His jaw was set for a second there. He was sure his eyes would crystallize if they could. He was cold. He was going to pay this Thing no justice, because that's what it was: a Thing. Nothing was moving - nothing but nerve cells in his brain. No. I'm done with it. Go away.
But that was only for an instant. Michael couldn't really lie there and refuse to see what was happening before him. That little guy with the overalls, the one whose head the Kavalarys' dog had ripped apart, the one that had lost its silly purple hat one day years ago when Michael had shut the closet door a bit too violently after deeming it too childish to play with anymore. . . . That pathetic toy was lying on Michael's rug in the middle of the night and throwing a temper tantrum. And apparently Michael was just young enough to let it happen. Oh, yes, he could drink alcohol legally and engage in risky behavior with lingerie-clad members of the opposite sex whenever he wanted to, but he could still sit there and believe that one of the little dolls - no, action figures - from his childhood was screaming at him. Things were really looking up for Michael.
His little sister's twenty-first century voice-equipped Environmentalist Barbie doll was sprawled across the top of his trash bin. Its Talk button must be stuck because it just kept rattling off incessant phrases about the ozone layer and endangered species. He'd throw it out of his room later, but for now he'd just let it stay there. A headache would be almost welcome at this point.
Old Hopper. . . . No, he doesn't have a name! He is a freaking toy I freaking threw away. The Thing did have a message, and Michael just stood there, readying himself for a trip to the mental zoo, and listened. It was upset that its "master" had done something to neglect it. It had lost its friends, its hat, control over its life, and it wanted to know why Michael had abandoned its precious "land" and allowed all of this to happen. It seemed just as confused as Michael, and just as angry. Once it had finished screaming and pounding its raggedy little fists, it just turned its head and looked up at Michael, wide-eyed, waiting. Michael screamed something back unconsciously, impulsively, and when the room was quiet again the Thing, face crumpled, stared back at him and said, "I want-want to kno-ow what I've lost. I want it back, Master. I want to bring back the Land of the Creatures."
Michael wanted to say something sarcastic about the doll's inexplicable ability to talk on its own, but he decided against it. He'd given up on that, he reminded himself. He knew what was happening. There was an explanation for it; he just had to admit it, even if he didn't like it. He knew what he had to do to help the Thing. And, possibly, himself.
His body softened and Michael crouched on the ground by the forgotten toy. "I'm sorry, Hop," he said to it. When he picked it up, the broken little doll relaxed a bit in the palm of his hand. Michael bit his lip and breathed deeply. I have to end it, he told himself. "A lot has changed. That's just how it goes. I know I used to be the Master of the Creatures, but . . . I'm not anymore."
"And the . . . the other Creatures?" the Thing asked weakly. "What about them?"
Michael remembered, then, that the Mad Straw Cow had been sent away years ago. "They're gone, pal. They've been given away. The Land's all yours now." The doll was visibly hurt by this, wounded, but Michael knew the pain etched into its forehead wasn't new. "I'm sorry," he said slowly, and stood. Holding the small figure that had once been his favorite stuffed friend carefully in his hand, he walked to the closet door that still hung open a crack. With his free hand, he reached for the switch to the right of the door and, with some effort, flipped it.
Suddenly the room was illuminated, and Michael knew Old Hopper was touched by the gesture. The doll smiled a bit, if that was possible, and wrapped one flimsy arm around Michael's thumb, clutching it tightly, affectionately. "Oh, Master!" it said, but the enthusiasm was forced. Michael almost thought it was because the string that had to be pulled in order to let air escape from the doll's mouth and produce a sound was tangled around his forefinger. But then he thought better.
"It's still here, see?" he asked gently.
"I see," said the smaller man. Then, after a brief moment of hesitation, it started again. "I see, but I . . . I don't know why. . . . If it is here, Master, if the Land is still here, and you know how to bring it back. . . ." Then the doll stopped. The arm that clung to Michael's thumb relaxed, drooping slightly, and the pitiful little head sunk back into the area under Michael's knuckles.
Michael let his mouth stay open for a few seconds before any words came out. "It's still here," he told the doll, "but it isn't the Land now." He could see the doll struggling to keep tears away from its marble eyes, squinting to keep what was coming away. "Things have to change, Old Hop. I have to let the Land go.
"But that doesn't mean you can't still live in it."
"Without its Master the Land is empty!" the doll blurted out. It recoiled, then continued, "The Land is meaningless without Master. Without Creatures."
Michael replied instantly and forcefully, more for his own sake than the doll's. "You have to go on," he said. "Maybe someday you'll find a new Master, or new Creatures to live there. But for now . . . you have to go back into the dark. You have to live there. Not here. That has to be the Land," he told his old friend.
He touched his fingertips to the doll's head and carefully stroked its remaining strand of hair. Then, for both of them, he added, "For now."
He smiled, just slightly, and looked away from Old Hopper. Then he pushed the closet door open a bit more - not so much that the gap was wide enough to see into - and slowly, gently, placed the doll on the top shelf. As he pressed the door closed, he thought he heard something exhale, but he knew that wasn't possible. Not unless you pulled a string.
Michael turned his bedroom light off and slipped under the covers. Though a pair of plastic legs stuck out of the trash bin, the room was silent. Silent and dark.
His eyes had only been shut for a few seconds when they snapped open again. And they stayed that way until he was positive that the tiny purple sombrero had landed successfully on the top shelf in his closet. Rational thought could wait, just for a little while. Just until he was sure that everything was secure. And that no Thing was moving. He was feeling pretty useful right now, and pretty tired. After all, fitful sleep was only meant for October.
(Written in 2003)