My first awareness, even through closed eyelids, is of a warm sun beaming down on me. That, and a damned fly that is tickling my upper lip. Still mostly asleep, and without opening my eyes, I do a shooing motion with my hand and then try to settle back into sleep. The damned fly is persistent though and it's dancing across the bridge of my nose. I open my eyes, reluctantly, and see the seed head of a grass stem waving in front of my face — and it's attached to a hand.
A giggly voice says, “Are you going to sleep the new day away?” Then the grass stem does another dance across my lips.
I giggle back and pull the stem from the hand that just teased me to wakefulness. Using it as a miniature whip, I slash back at my antagonist. When my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I look over to see a smiling Minky sitting cross legged next to me.
“You evil boy,” I respond. “I was sleeping so peacefully. Ahhh... the sun feels so wonderful and warm. Maybe these damn clothes will dry out.”
I remember waking up a couple of times during the night due to a slight chill. I would have slipped out of my wet clothing, but I wanted to be prepared in case we had to make an immediate dash away from some monstrous creature in the night.
Minky reaches a hand over and rubs my hip.
“Your pants are such a heavy material, Nicky. You sure dress strangely on your world.”
Oh my God, that is so funny. This is coming from a boy wearing green, silk pajamas.
“Now, Minky. My Levi's 501s are the height of fashion on my world. Besides, they're real sturdy and they hardly wear out. But... sigh... they do take forever to dry out if you decide to go swimming in them. But it isn't the 501s that are uncomfortable so much as my damn wet underwear.” I wriggle around, trying to get my bunched up jockeys to straightened out.
“What is underwear, Nicky?”
“Ahh... you know. It's underclothes. It's stuff you wear under your clothes.”
Minky's eyebrows rise up. Then he gives me another giggle.
“Underclothes? You wear clothes under your clothes? Haa, haa, haa! Do you wear hair under your hair and shoes under your shoes, too?” he chortles. “Why do you have to wear so many clothes?”
I grin back at him. “Cos'... having a certain part of my body rub against my Levi's would make me kind of sore. And I wear socks under my shoes so my shoes don't rub blisters on my feet.”
“But, Nicky, if you wear soft clothing then they will not rub against your guy parts and be painful. And why do you need to wear shoes, anyway? I saw that everyone on your world had those things on their feet. Is there something wrong with your feet, Nicky? Don't you have any skin there or something?”
“Ha, ha... of course I have skin on my feet, silly. But walking on hot asphalt or stepping on stickers isn't very comfortable. It seems like I'm always stubbing my toes when I go barefoot anyway.”
Minky just smiles and gives me a little shake of his head. “I repeat, Nicky, your world is strange. You wear soft clothes to protect you from your harsh clothes and shoes to protect you from the environment that you create yourselves. And do you know.. we don't have any stickery weeds here! I stepped on some while I was in your park. I could not believe it when I found a growing thing that could actually hurt me. Your word certainly evolved very strangely, Nicky.”
“But what about winter,” I ask, sitting up. “You have to wear more than you do now in the winter and you don't go barefoot in the snow, do you?”
“We only get snow in the mountains. That is what Weathermen are for. They forecast good weather for us and make sure we have lots of warm rain to make things grow. You have Weathermen in your world too. I saw a big sign on one of your buildings that said 'Channel 6 News for the best weather forecast.' So why would you ever have need to walk in the snow, Nicky?”
My face spreads into a grin. “You have a point, bud. But remember, we don't have magic and so our weathermen can't do anything to change the weather. They just try to tell us ahead of time what the weather is going to be like. I guess your weathermen use magic, don't they? Or do you have some super science here that we don't have on my world?”
“It is magic, of course. Our science is nowhere near what yours is. I guess we have not had the need to advance as far as you. Our climate is comfortable, food grows everywhere so there is plenty to eat, we are not overpopulated and our lives are kind of slow compared to what you are used to. People are kind of content with their lives and I suppose the need for new inventions and research just is not there. If we need some added comfort or something, we just figure out a way to coax it out of nature using a bit of magic. We have trees or bushes that grow things that would amaze you, Nicky!”
“Speaking of food,” I tell him, “my stomach is sending hate messages to my brain. Do you suppose there is anything growing nearby?” And while I'm asking him I'm reaching a hand down my pants to try and get my wet jockeys out of my butt!
“Ahhh... Nicky. Take those dumb clothes off and set them up on that big rock to dry. Your wet shoes too. You can stretch out in the sun and I will go find us something to eat.”
Before I even have the opportunity to reply, he does his transformy thing again and there is a pile of green clothes on the ground with a small body wriggling around in them. A little fuzzy snout pokes itself out of the bundle, followed by a sleek little body. And then he's off like a shot, heading into the underbrush. And he's right about him being a cute little thing in his mink form. He's the one that said I'd probably want to cuddle him and I fully intend to take him up on it. I might not have the courage to cuddle him in his human form so I'll settle for second best. Who knows, maybe he'll like being held against me and want to give it a try it as a human... heheh.
I'm in the process of stripping and spreading my clothes on that rock when I realize that my fantasies aren't the best things to be having in an unclothed state. I'm causing a certain part of my anatomy to respond and I don't want to be in that state when the mink returns. Oh well, if I can't hide it with clothes then I'll do it with water. Tossing the last sock onto the rock I trot over to the pond's edge and start wading out. When I get waist deep into the water I just dive the rest of the way in and start paddling about, languidly.
Things just seem to be whirring through my brain. For one thing, Minky turns into a mink and I'm pretty sure minks are carnivorous. Yet Minky seemed shocked to think that people ate meat in my world. I definitely have to find out about that. And that Baron guy: why is he after some poor kid? And what will he do to him if he catches him? And what the crap is gonna happen to me if something happens to him and how the hell am I supposed to get back home? And how can a kid that has to weigh about a hundred pounds turn into a mink that can't weigh more than ten pounds? How, how, how... what, what, what? Arrrrgh!
Screw that — I'm just gonna have to take things one at a time. Minky's pretty good at explaining stuff and so, if this is a safe enough place to hide out, I'm gonna suggest we just hang around here for awhile while I drain his brain. I don't want to explore or wander around until I know what I might be walking into. I want to know what other kinds of magic are out there and everything that might be dangerous. I mean... come on!... there are dragons and wimples or whipples or something. And I'm sure I heard him say something about bog lizards.
That last thought has me looking around nervously. This is a pond, not a bog. But hell, maybe they have pond lizards too. Maybe I shoulda asked Minky if it was safe to go swimming. I have just about convinced myself to paddle back to shore when I hear a big splash behind me, near the shore. My eyes do their saucer thing again and I flip around to see what caused the splash. Thank God... it's a blond haired boy's face that's swimming and grinning in my direction.
“I found us some good stuff, Nicky. I brought some apples and cucumbers and hentles. We can play in the water for awhile and then go eat. Now... Nicky, if I want to swim as a mink, you won't throw me into the center of the pond again... will you?” he laughs.
“Ahhh... come on, Minky!” And I splash water on him, pretending to be indignant. “You know you just surprised me is all. I had no idea we'd switched worlds and the wet rat clinging to me was you.”
Now it's his turn to look indignant. “Rat? RAT? You truthfully cannot tell a mink from a rat? Humph... if you decide to milk a bovine, you better be careful you are not trying to milk a male by mistake, Nicky. Rat indeed!”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha...” and I'm splashing him with water. “Rat, rat, rat, rat! And I do know a cow from a bull... thank you.”
It's no longer a boy that I'm splashing now, however. A sleek, furry little shape is whipping its tail and darting below the water. Oops... I'm thinking, where did he go? Then I feel a pointy snout poke me in a butt cheek.
“Eeeek...you little...” and I'm whipping my head around, trying to follow his quick swimming antics. But I keep losing him when he darts this way and then that. I'm goosed two more times before a little furred head emerges from the water to squeak at me. But then it's a boy that's once again swimming in languid circles around me. I'm treading water, slowly turning so as to keep facing him, matching him smile for smile.
“Heeee, heeee! Be careful, Nicky,” he says. “I think I see an eel swimming between your legs. You know that minks like eels, do you not?”
“No, no, NO, Minky,” I say, instinctively cupping a hand around my eel and wagging my finger at him. “You don't eat meat, remember?”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha! But an eel is a fish, Nicky. And I can eat fish, and reptiles and crustaceans and insects. People can not change into those things and so they are fair game.”
Minky swims next to me and places a hand on each of my shoulders.
“Do you like fish, Nicky? I will catch us some for dinner tonight if you like. We have some hentles for breakfast though.”
I love the way his wet hair frames his face and the way the sunlight reflects from it. Talk about a golden boy. My heart is doing flip flops, looking at that smiling visage. His green, gold flecked eyes seem to be darting about my face too, as though he finds as much to see as I do.
“Hmmm... what?” I respond. “Fish? Oh, yeah... fish. I like fish okay. I don't know if I could eat 'em raw like a mink, though. Do you suppose we could cook them a bit over a fire?”
“Yes,” he says, with a sweet look in his eyes. “I will make us a really good dinner tonight, Nicky. I will pay you back for that wonderful fermented cabbage roll you gave me last night. And speaking of that, let us go eat some breakfast. I want your stomach to stop sending hate messages to your brain... giggle.”
Two naked and smiling guys wade from the pond onto the shore. Minky reaches over and clasps my hand once again. And that has my heart playing its solo drum beat again. The realization just strikes me... I'm home! I'm no longer on my world... but I'm home! And home hasn't anything to do with whether I'm on this world or that or any particular world. Home is anywhere... holding onto this boy's hand. I feel a rush of emotions so spontaneous and overwhelming that it stops me in my tracks. And I can feel the tears trickling down my cheeks. I love this boy! I want to always be near him and be the greatest friend he's ever had. But I'm not going to take the chance of spoiling his obvious affection for me by telling him my deepest, darkest feelings about him. I've seen how people react to gay attraction. Maybe he feels as I do but, then again, what if it fills him with revulsion to know the true depth of my feelings? I'm not going to take the chance of losing what I have over some desire to have everything or nothing.
The quickness of my emotional shift and the presence of my tears don't go unnoticed. Minky's smiling face takes on a shocked expression and he inhales audibly. He quickly takes a step into me until he's practically leaning against me. He's looking up into my face with such tender concern written all over his features.
“What is wrong, Nicky? What has happened? Did I do something wrong? Is it because I held your hand? I am sorry, Nicky.” He quickly releases my hand. “I did not see any boys in your world holding hands so I guess it is not a thing you do. But I do not mean anything by it, okay? Boys who are friends here can hold hands but we don't have to, Nicky. Please do not be angry with me, okay? I...”
“Shush, Minky. Just shush” I tell him. I reach down and grab the hand that just a second ago slipped out of my own.
“I'm not sad, Minky... and I'm not mad. I was just thinking that you're the first really true friend I've ever had. I've never been good at making friends and I've always been shy around other people my age. But you are so open that becoming friends with you just felt so natural. It's relief and happiness and... and... well, just a whole bunch of emotions I started feeling all at once.”
I reach down and grab his other hand, so that I'm clasping them both.
“And if friends on your world hold hands, Minky, then you better hold mine a lot. Okay?”
I know he can see by the smile on my face and the warmth in my eyes that what I'm telling him is true. His face slowly relaxes until, once again, his own smile is back in place.
“I am glad we are good friends, Nicky. But I sometimes do not know how to act and it gets me in trouble. I like to have fun and tease people and... well, my mother says it is just the mink in me. So sometimes I go too far and make people angry with me. Tell me if I tease you too much or make you angry, will you, Nicky?”
I just nod my head.
“And I will hold your hand then,” he responds. “I am glad you like that custom. It is nice to hold a friend's hand.”
Another nod from me and one huge ass grin.
“Yeah, Mink, it is. It's nice to hold a friend's hand. Now, let's eat your hentles and stuff — I'm starvin' here.”
He lets go of one hand and tugs me with the other. He leads me over to what looks like a green bolt of cloth with something gathered and tied in the center of it. Undoing the bundle, he shows me the contents. My gosh, those are about the shiniest yellow apples I've ever seen. And they're huge too! The cucumbers just look like cucumbers though and there is a strange looking, pear-shaped fruit as well.
“These must be the hentles, eh?” I ask, reaching down and lifting one pear-shaped fruit up to examine it more closely. “That's a strange name — hentle.”
“After you bite into it, I think you will know why it has that name.”
“Oh?” I respond, sinking my teeth into it.
“Putuu..” and I'm spitting my mouthful of hentle ground-wards. “Ewwww... Minky! That's... that's...”
“I know, Nicky, it tastes like chicken right? I have never eaten a chicken but we are told that it has the same flavor and texture. You do not like it?” He has obvious concern in his voice.
“Well... well, yeah I guess I could get used to it. I mean, now that I know what it is. I was just expecting it to taste like some kind of fruit, you know? I wasn't expecting to bite into a big-assed McNugget.”
“Hee, hee, hee... Nicky. You should have seen your expression. You would have thought you had bit into a turd... heheheh.”
“Yeah, right! Real funny, buddy. And you call my world strange? You've got chicken growing on trees for cripe-peat. And the scary thing is, I'm pretty sure that's real meat too. I mean... it looks and feels like flesh, tastes like chicken... ewwwww.”
Minky chortles, “No, Nicky, it is not flesh. But it is mostly protein just like animal flesh. I did not pick any hoppers though, because I thought that they might be a little foreign to your taste. After all, I never saw anyone in the park eating grasshoppers from their picnic baskets.”
“Oh, God no... Minky! You eat stuff that tastes like bugs for hell's sake? That's just plain disgusting!”
Minky's stomach is shaking in mirth. “Oh, Nicky, no! I am just playing with you. There are no hopper plants. If I feel like eating grasshoppers, I just go ahead and do it. But actually, I have to be a mink first. Somehow they do not seem to be very appetizing when I am in this form.”
I give a big sigh. “Well, Mr Joker, so much for my appetite. With the taste of imitation chicken in my mouth and thoughts of you eating grasshoppers, I don't think I'm going to eat again for a year, thank you.”
“Ah, Nicky. Here I am teasing you again. I am sorry. But here, try some cucumber. They get their cues from whatever food you are thinking about. If you wish them to taste like a strawberry or a melon or even a vegetable, they will do so.”
He waggles what looks like an ordinary cucumber under my nose. Jeeze, is there anything on this world that isn't magic in some way? I give it a sniff but it has no odor.
“Anything I'm thinking of, eh?” I ask. He justs nods his head and smiles.
“Okay, I'm thinking I'd like some strawberries for breakfast then.” And I bite off one end.
Holy crap! It tastes just like a strawberry! I've never eaten a crunchy strawberry before, but the crunchiness just seems to add some pizazz to it. I swallow that bite and then picture a ripe watermelon in my mind. Ye Gods and little giblets — this is great! I reach into his sack and grab two more cukes and then settle my butt down onto the grass.
“Say, Minky,” I ask, between bites. “Where did you get the green cloth to carry that stuff in?” Mmmm... I just thought about apple pie with currants in it... yumm.
Minky has settled down, cross-legged across from me, his knees touching mine. He's gobbling away on one of those hentles... yuck!
“Oh,” he replies, “I just picked a pod from a clothes tree so I could fashion a sack. See, Nicky — it is the same cloth that my pants and tunic are made from.”
I hack a huge gob of apple pie tasting cucumber onto the ground. I'm laughing so damn hard there's no way I can swallow.
“Har, har, har! A clothes tree?” God, the word-play strikes me as so funny. “Let's go find me a pants tree then, Minky, and I won't have to put those damn wet Levi's back on.”
Minky just shakes his head and grins at me. I guess he finds my response just as humorous as I find this strange world.
“And, while we're at it,” I continue, “lets find a shoetree so I can get a new pair of Nikes... har, har, har!”
“You are the silly one,” he responds. “Someone has to fashion the cloth into clothing for you. People would get way too lazy if we didn't have to work a little for the things we have. We could have my mother fashion some clothing for you, Nicky, only...”
He's gotten such a crestfallen look on his face. His expression has gone from beaming and happy to being sad and introspective.
“... only, I do not dare go anywhere near my Mother. It would put her in danger and us as well. I am almost certain the Baron is having my Mother watched, hoping that I will attempt to go see her.”
Oh, oh — that Baron guy again. It's time to get this story out into the open.
“Tell me about the Baron, Minky. Why is that guy after you? Did you do something wrong?”
He shakes his head, his face a caricature of unhappiness. “No, not really, Nicky. I just ran away is all. His hold over people does not affect myself or my Mother for some reason. We seem to be immune to his glances. And this angers him and makes him feel threatened, I suppose.”
“Sigh... why don't you start from the beginning? I haven't the slightest clue what you're talking about,” I reply.
He's silent for a few minutes, looking very introspective. I guess he's trying to figure out just where to start. Our worlds seem to be so foreign from one another, he probably feels he's facing a daunting task, explaining things to me. He tosses the stem from his hentle onto the ground and rolls onto his back. Sliding his hands behind his head to make a cushion, he starts with...
“I have already explained that people here have two forms. We call it dual entities. We have no individual animals here, like on your world. If you see an animal you know it has an alternate human form. Oh, cold blooded creatures do not count. I mean dragons, lizards, fish, crustaceans and insects have no human counterpart. But any warm blooded creature is a dual entity.”
“The Baron's animal form is a grizzly bear. He is big enough as a human, but as a bear he is gargantuan. And he is evil, Nicky. The man is well and truly evil. Most people try to get along and to live and let live — but not the Baron. To him, nothing is more important than to have power and control over others.”
He rolls onto his side and looks at me.
“Do you remember my saying that most people's hold over magic is rather minimal, other than being able to exist as human or as an animal counterpart? And I said that some people have the capacity to use magic but they need to spend a lifetime training?”
I nod my head yes. I do recall something to that effect.
“Well, it took the Baron many years, but he learned how to perfect the Midas stare. It was named after a king that learned how to change objects into gold by a mere touch.”
“Wow...” I respond, “do you mean that King Midas was a real person and he lived here on your world, Minky? You mean it isn't just some kind of a fairy tale... a story?”
“Oh, he was real enough, Nicky. He had visited your world and became enamored of all the things he saw there. He wanted to return there and be able to live in luxury. But to do that, he would need to perfect a magical ability that would work in your world as well as our own. He needed a way to create wealth while he was in your world, to buy his luxury. There is very little magic that can cross the barrier between our worlds, Nicky — and it takes a very powerful magician to make it happen. He perfected his ability for transmutation by his touch alone. But when he went to your world, he lost the ability to control the power. Absolutely everything he touched turned into gold — including his food. The man starved to death because there was no way he could eat gold. He could not come back home either, his gate key was changed to gold too, and became worthless. Today his name is synonymous with greed and avarice. We warn our children of having the Midas greed.”
“Okay,” I try to get him back on track, “what about this Baron guy and his Midas stare? What's that all about?”
“The Baron learned how to turn living people into wood with a stare. He can stare at any warm-blooded animal and will it to turn into a wooden statue, basically. And this gives him tremendous power, because he does not have to walk up to you and touch you. If he can see you at all, from any distance, he can change you. And he uses this power to control the people in his barony. In fact, he used the power to become a Baron and build his barony. It is his intention to become a king and control absolutely everyone and everything.
Minky sits back up, cross legged again. He's becoming very animated and he needs his hands free to make gestures while he's talking.
“But the man is sick, Nicky. His powers have affected his mind. He does something that is so outrageous and disgusting, I am not sure I can even describe it to you.”
And indeed, his complexion has grown sallow and he's looking like he might hurl at any minute. I'm kinda glancing around, trying to decide which direction I'm going to dodge to if he decides to paint me with his breakfast.
“I told you we do not eat meat, Nicky. And now you understand why, correct?”
“Yep!” I'm nodding my head yes while slowly edging myself backwards. Better safe than sorry, I'm thinking.
“There aren't any real, individual animals here,” I continue, “so to eat meat would mean you're eating a human.”
And then it dawns on me what Minky is about to say!
“Ohhh... God! Let me guess, Minky! This guy, this Baron dude, he... he eats animals... or... people?”
He's just nodding his head in response to my question. And suddenly I'm starting to feel a little urpy myself. We just may be having a breakfast hurling contest before long.
“And that is not the whole of it, either, Nicky. He is vicious and cruel. He wants you to be in human form before his jaws rip into your flesh. And he wants it to be as painful as possible to his victims. He holds a person down with a giant paw and then consumes them, starting with their limbs! He does his best to sustain the agony and terror. I believe he somehow feeds as much off their horror and agony as he does from the flesh. It may even be that he requires this in order to sustain his Midas powers.”
Holy crap! I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life. There's no way I can let myself get anywhere near that man. I mean, he can freeze me from a distance. Then he can take his time walking up to me, place a paw on me to hold me in place, turn me human again, and then rip into my arms and legs! I can literally watch myself being ripped limb from limb! I'm pretty much just a few seconds away from hurling. I get onto my hands and knees and scoot a few feet away from my buddy, just in case. I'm shivering like the temperature has just dropped thirty degrees.
“Oh crap, Minky. What kind of a world have you brought me into? I really, really want to go home. Can we please go find these Warlock guys and get me a key out of here?”
Minky gets up and walks over to me. He settles on one knee and puts an arm across my shoulders, hugging me to himself.
“Yes, Nicky. That would be for the best. This used to be a wonderful world. People were safe and happy. But now a terror lives here, unlike anything we have ever experienced. And because the Baron has no control over me, this puts you in extra danger, Nicky. He wants me badly and he will find me eventually. When he finds me he will have you as well. He is forcing people to look for me and to turn me over to him. It is not that these people want to, Nicky, but that they have no choice. He holds whole families captive, turned into wooden statues. If he thinks a man is not trying hard enough to locate me, he can change one of the man's family members back into human form and tear that person limb from limb. The poor man would have to watch as a son, daughter or wife died in horrible agony. He has not done it yet, but it is only a matter of time.”
I rise up on my knees and hug Minky back.
“I will help you get that key, Nicky. Then I will see you safely home.” he tells me. “Then I am going to turn myself over to the Baron, before any innocent people suffer because of me.”
“NO... Minky... NO! I can't let you do that!”
His statement had shocked me to my very roots! I stand up and pull Minky up with me. I have a death grip on his upper arms.
“That son of a bitch isn't going to rip you apart. And to hell with sending me back! I'm gonna stay right here and we're gonna get that bastard! You know, don't you, that once he gets you, that your Mother is next? She's only safe now because she's a means of capturing you.”
“But, Nicky... what can we do?” He's bawling now, full out. And I'm holding onto him like there's no tomorrow. I started bawling myself, just as soon as he said he was going to turn himself over to that sick monster.
“I don't know, Minky. I don't know,” I whimper in return. And I pull his face into the crook of my neck and rock him, like a small child, in my arms. “We'll think of something, Minky. We have to! We owe it to your Mother and everyone else on this world.”
I pull his head back so I can gaze into his face.
“And I owe it to you, Minky! I owe it to you! Because I love you! You're my boy... and that prick can't have you!”