Out of the dirt-covered trees came flying a hamburger.
This hamburger, who until recently had been a young human woman named Carla, had just spent the last several minutes going through her pockets, trying to find something, anything, that could help her in her current predicament. Although she only had two pockets, one on each side of her bottom bun, Carla the burger had managed to unload into the woods three anvils, a parasol, half a gallon of cold medicine, two decks of cards which were both missing the five of spades, twenty pounds or so of cat food, the empty metal frame of a hot pink station wagon, a broken viola, five golden rings, a toy bird, fifteen rubber duckies, a refrigerator containing nothing but spoiled milk, a foreign-looking bible, three hundred ball bearings and a hammer. The hammer, or maybe it was a mallet depending who you asked, was pretty big, at least bigger than Carla’s new body, with a large, black rubber head perfect for smacking around evil plunger beasts.
And so, after packing the rest of the detritus back into her pockets, Carla picked up her hammer and started on her newfound mission. It was very hard to move in this new body, especially as it lacked legs, but Carla found that by waggling her bottom bun around just right she could jump fairly high, at least as high as the lowest branch on a nearby tree. After only a few dozen bumps and bruises from falling or smacking into trees, the little burger was hopping and swinging forward like a tasty reconstituted beef monkey.
Carla was still pondering whether anybody had ever thought up the phrase “reconstituted beef monkey” when the rain came. Dirt, dust, clumps of mud, some roots and even a few rocks fell into the trees, only slightly hampered by the leafy cover. It was when she had cleared her eyes that Carla saw the likely culprit.
It was that stupid plunger.
Out of the dirt-covered trees came flying a hamburger. The burger swung the large mallet held in both of her hands nailed the demon right in the back of its gross little head. Even a deeply concentrating, exceptionally pissed off demon will break hold of whatever evil magic it is performing when hit with a hard object the size of its face, and this plunger was no exception. The plunger plunged into the ground like a meteor and the arrow of magic it had conjured vanished into thin air.
Mel reached into the air, wincing at the pain in his twisted ankle, and caught the burger like an errant baseball. Meanwhile, the four-armed guardian of the cathedral dug furiously through the hills of dirt near where the demon had descended.
“The monster has disappeared,” Pritha Prithvi muttered only just loud enough for Mel to hear. “No doubt it has gone away to nurse its wounds in peace. Do not assume its death.”
Mel groaned as he let himself fall back onto a soft pile of dirt. It couldn’t have been past noon, but the day had been so exhausting both emotionally and physically that the prison guard wanted to burrow into the loamy soil and sleep for a week.
“Yes, Melchizedek. Rest. I will continue to search the immediate area.”
Mel wanted to sleep, or, if he couldn’t manage that, die. His niece was dead and some demon had killed her and apparently some maniac with a gun was nearby and for all his failings Mel kind of wouldn’t mind being shot if it meant an end to his pounding headache.
Then, as if to add to his mounting frustration, the dumb little hammer-hat plopped itself on top of Mel’s head.
“Go away, little sandwich.” Mel picked up the hat and tossed it aside. It returned in a manner of seconds, trailing dirt onto Mel’s face.
“I said get out, dammit.”
The stupid hat was speaking nonsense. Mel burrowed his head further into the dirt, hoping to cover his ears.
“Uhnuh Mewl! Ah mih, Cahlna.”
Mel jolted up into a sitting position, catapulting the hamburger several feet away. The hat popped up out of the dirt, covered so thoroughly that it looked like a silhouette with eyes, then shook itself wildly. A dust cloud filled the air for a second, then the hat emerged, completely clean. It really was like a living cartoon, but-
“Yeath, Mewl. Ahm Cahla!” Now that Mel was paying attention, the hat was acting unusually clumsy. The one hundred percent all-American non-horse meat beef patty that functioned as the burger’s tongue seemed too big for it all of a sudden and it spit and bit with the grace of a fish on land as it talked.
It was. It had to be. It was Carla.
There was, of course, quite a bit of rejoicing upon this discovery, followed by catching up on what exactly had happened, hampered a bit by Carla’s speech problem. Every now and then the two would catch Pritha Prithvi listening in, perhaps looking for clues as to how to destroy the demon. Mel reassured his niece that the statue-come-to-life was a friend and the two watched for another ten minutes or so in silence as hills of dirt were overturned in the search for the badly injured plunger before the centaur spoke again.
“I am going now.”
Mel and Carla blinked at the surprise. “Wha?” Carla slurred, “Buh you juth god heel!”
“I think what my niece means,” explained Mel, “is that we kind of hoped you would stay with us. I mean, you want to kill this thing, and we’ve got to find a way to get her back to normal which probably has something to do with that, and altogether we’re pretty much lost in the worst way imaginable, and-“
“I have but one purpose, Melchizedek.” The statue turned its head and made eye contact, still looking a bit unused to interacting with others. “I must not let the demon continue its reign of destruction. You two may join me if you wish.”
The afternoon sun beat down on the three, human, centaur and newly displaced soul. Carla looked up at Mel and he back at her, and it would not have taken an expert in body language to tell what they were thinking. Both of them were tired, hungry and unwilling to go on the search for a creature who could just teleport away the moment it was found. Carla barely had a grasp of her new motor functions and Mel was crashing hard from his recent hours-long adrenaline rush. But beyond all of that, the two just wanted to go home, preferably each in their original, uninjured human bodies, instead of going on some crazy vengeance hunt.
But this was not to be. Pritha Prithvi nodded, her cold eyes betraying a hint of dejection. “I cannot rest with you as long as duty calls me. Hopefully, we will meet again. Goodbye, friend.”
And she was gone.
By the time the centaur was no longer visible in the trees, another voice alerted the Okabes to its presence.
“Well thank God that’s over. Who all wants to get out of this crazy place?”
Smith laid his gun, the same gun Hammerstein had threatened him with two nights before, on the ground in front of him before raising his hands in a sign of surrender. “Because, ah, I’m already sick of people trying to murder me or wipe my brain or throw me into creepy portals. Kinda rather be in jail. What do ya say, Mr. Mel?”
“Get lost, Smith.” Even Carla was shocked by the immediate dismissal Mel had given. She would have liked to join in the conversation, but it would be useless until she figured out how to control her new mouth. Her uncle continued, “We don’t know how to get out of here anymore than you do.”
“Well, that’s kind of a weird assumption. I know exactly where to go.”
“How?” Carla was at least able to handle monosyllabic questions without hard consonants.
“I’ve got a map. But it’s right here.” Smith tapped his finger on his temple. “Ain’t nobody got a better memory for these kinds of details like I do.”
Mel scratched his head in thought. “What do you even need us for, then, if you know the way out?”
Smith fiddled with something in the pocket of his prison jumpsuit and broke eye contact. “I’m out of bullets. Used the last few on that scary thing that was attacking you and the weird four-armed lady.”
Mel sighed, Carla poked at the unloaded gun in front of them and Smith kept his eyes on the ground. After a moment, Smith sat down across from the others, looking just as shocked at his confession as Carla and Mel were to hear it. The three sat mostly in silence for the rest of the day, surrounded by the upturned soil of what had once been a peaceful clearing, outside the partially destroyed church where they’d all more or less slept in peace the night before, in an alternate universe none of them understood, all of them unsure what the future was hiding.
End of Part One.
Getting It Together, Part Two of The Red and the Rest, will begin publishing on October 4th.