With Mini’s help, I roll onto the girder and lie on my back for a moment, catching my breath. Save for Ernie’s uneven snoring emanating from above, the night is still, eerily quiet. I wonder if this is a dream or reality. I mean, things like this don’t happen—middle-aged women do not just erect giant Donkey Kong tributes on their front lawns. Why in the world haven’t any of the neighbors called the police to report the noise? The multiple building code violations? The dozens of barrels hurled down the street?
“Mini?” I ask.
“Yeah?” he replies.
“Did you just kill Ernie’s grandma?”
“That woman died the day she entered menopause. I just put the nails in the coffin.”
“That’s it, then,” I murmur. “I’m going to prison.”
Mini waves his hand. “Play the perceptive flux card. Worst-case scenario, you do some time in a mental institution. But it won’t come to that.” He peers over the edge of the girder. “I don’t think I killed Mrs. Womack in the traditional sense. There’s no chunky splatter in the driveway. She’s just…gone.”
I glance over the edge. Indeed, there’s no grandma chunkage to speak of. At the end of the driveway, Jan is standing dutifully beside the mailbox. Momentarily he waves and makes a questioning gesture. “Okay, so you’ve made her disappear completely. That’s so much better.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“Dude. Remember when she turned into a griffin?”
I was hoping that had been a bad dream. “Yeah.”
“I’m betting,” Mini says, “she didn’t physically transform at all. Her perceived state did. Young kids pick up on this kind of thing all the time. Quick-witted preteens such as yourself, while generally more interested in makeup, cell phones, and genitalia, are receptive to perceptive flux as well.”
“Or I’m just losing my mind.”
Mini scowls. “That’s what the head doctors and pharmaceutical companies want you to believe so that you’ll line up dutifully to buy their next fancy pill. Yes, sometimes a case of the crazies is just a case of the crazies—but sometimes it’s you regaining the clarity you had as a child. Visualize: You’re six years old and you accidentally break your mom’s favorite coffee mug while playing Dinner Table Ninja in the dining room. Your mom scolds you in the standard hands-on-hips, how-many-times-have-I-told-you tradition passed down from generation to generation of moms the world over. But your six-year-old gray matter doesn’t process this at all. Instead, you see a ranting, raving lunatic with clawed hands and smoldering holes for eyes. Your mother’s the same as she’s always been—your perception of her has merely accommodated her agitated state.”
I sit up. “How do you know all this?”
“You know all those epic tomes cramming the bookshelves in Chandelier’s office? They’re not just for show. They’re full of all kinds of interesting tidbits. While you’re busy trying to fend off dubious questions about latent Oedipal tendencies, I’m learning how the universe works.”
That’s all fine and dandy for Mini, but I think I’m more confused now than I was a moment ago. “If claws and gross, disgusting fire eyes are symbolic of angry motherhood, what’s all this supposed to be?” I wave my hand in the air for effect.
“Easy peasy. It’s a visual metaphor for over-parenting that was triggered by a skewering of Womack’s perceptive state—a mental excursion, if you will, fabricated by your brain as a way of coping with pent-up feelings of guilt and loneliness since abandoning your best friend when he needed you most.”
“Ugh, not the best friend thing again—”
“Or maybe the world’s always been like this, and you’re only now becoming aware of it.”
“Maybe,” I say, getting to my feet (and trying not to look down in the process), “I’m just a terminal insomniac hallucinating due to lack of sleep.”
Mini looks annoyed. “Occam’s razor is so cliché in this day and age. But whatever floats your boat.” He holds up his arms. “Pocket me and let’s be on our way.”
I don’t know how Mini can be so…chill. Though I guess if you’re a talking doll, you kind of have to be cool with the extraordinary. Otherwise, you’d never come to terms with your own existence. Kind of like Miley Cyrus on realizing her wagging tongue is now more famous than she is.
Putting Mini in my pocket, I ascend the final ladder and climb onto the topmost platform, where Ernie lies wrecked.
(Before we go any further, I should point out that Ernie is by no means a polite or gentle snorer. He’s one of those people who sleeps with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open, the most horrendous gurgling, choking, and wheezing noises emanating from somewhere deep down inside his throat. There are literally Z’s rising above his head. How his body is getting enough oxygen is beyond me.)
I crawl over to where he is. His sleeping bag is bundled tight—like a cocoon—and his neatly-parted hair glistens with some kind of viscous pomade. His shirt collar is buttoned tight around his neck. “Ernie?” I whisper, poking him.
I poke him again. “Hey, Stay Puft. Wake up. I’m here to, uh, rescue you. Or whatever.”
I nudge Ernie’s shoulder a few more times. “Dude, wake up. It’s me, Theo.”
Finally, Ernie comes awake, cracks open one bloodshot eye. “Afglab…Hamster Eyes?”
“Dude, what’s with you? What’s going on?”
Ernie coughs, mumbles something that sounds like “corn poodle.”
“Impeccable bedside manner—end sarcasm,” Mini says, and climbs out of my pocket, crouches beside Ernie’s head. He feels for a pulse, checks behind Ernie’s ear, fingers a lock of his hair.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Not asking stupid questions,” Mini replies. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Ernie stirs again, fixing me with a dire stare. “Must…live on…suck up to Biclops…use his Chinese-Russian superpowers to maintain…B average via cheat-sheet osmosis. Must exploit…dirty Czech’s brawny Euro-body in…shameless Midnight Cowboy fashion. Live dream of…defeating Eva and Summer and Lily and all other jockettes…make fun of…sparkly leotards and lame, self-absorbed elite gymnasts with…lame prepubescent boys’ bodies and…fat soccer moms with multiple, layered chins…”
“He’s delirious,” Mini says.
“Yeah,” I agree. “We need to get him to a hospital.”
Ernie shakes his head insistently. “No hospitals!”
“Debt-inducing towers of death! They’ll just…bleh…call my grandparents!”
“Um, that’s kind of a good thing—”
“You don’t understand!” Ernie coughs again, wipes a smattering of blood on his sleeve. “They…took it all away. They…did this…to me.”
I’m about to ask what he means when Mini quiets me with a wave of his hand. “No, wait—I think I know what’s going on here.”
“Yeah—it’s so simple I can’t believe we didn’t think of it before. Your average, everyday witch doctor looks at symptoms and nothing else, tries pumping his patient full of drugs and painkillers—he tries to hide the effect without considering the cause.”
“The For Dummies version, please.”
Mini puts on an air of confidence. “Ernie’s got an acute case of withdrawal. Being nice and behaving is killing him.”
“Being nice and behaving is killing him,” I repeat, doubtful.
“No, really. It all makes sense. When did he start getting sick? When his grandparents put him on restriction. When the lock went back on the refrigerator. When his computer was taken away. No junk food, no gaming, no porn.”
“But…but that can’t make someone violently ill.” Can it?
“Think of it this way: a normal person relieves tension and stress through normal exercise, physical exertion, meditation. Ernie doesn’t exercise at all, and thinks meditation is only suitable for monks and Richard Gere. But over the years his body has developed a method of rerouting his various tensions, pressures, and, yes, excess gasses, through chronic misbehavior. By calling someone a “greasy whore,” he’s getting the same endorphin rush a normal person would get when they, say, win a spelling bee, or when they place first during a marathon.”
I shake my head. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Did you get nothing out of the perceptive flux conversation we just had?” Mini dismisses me with a wave of his hand, reaches into my pocket. “Never mind. You just sit there and look darling while I handle this.” He pulls out my cell phone.
“Hey!” I try to grab him, but he scurries out of reach. “What are you doing?”
“Calling an ambulance,” Mini replies.
“Oh.” I relax—but only for a moment, because it suddenly becomes obvious that Mini’s not calling for an ambulance, he’s instead loading a YouPorn video, and is holding the phone up for Ernie to see. I start to swipe at Mini, scrambling across Ernie’s soft bulk—and pausing, one arm buried in his fat, the other extended toward Mini and my moaning, gasping phone, on which a sweaty, well-built man and supermodel-cute woman are battering their genitals together like there’s no tomorrow. I look down at Ernie; he’s watching intently, his eyes wide open, his breathing more even, the color returning to his face.
“Holy crap,” I murmur. “It’s working.”
“Just like I knew it would,” Mini says, rolling his eyes.
I hang there for a moment, frozen, the blood rapidly draining from my brain and allocating itself elsewhere, my attention divided equally between the extramarital frolicking on my phone and the miraculous flooding of life back into Ernie. Down below, in the driveway, Jan is no doubt watching us and wondering why the heck we’ve taken five to watch porn in the middle of a rescue.
Momentarily, the YouPorn couple’s frolicking reaches a totally unrealistic, but nevertheless awe-inspiring crescendo.
I settle back on my haunches and clear my throat uncomfortably. “So…what now?”
Ernie shrugs, takes my phone and cues up another dirty video.
Mini peers over the edge of the girder. “Crap.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“It just occurred to me that the scariest part of getting down is getting down.”