Nine Strangels: Through the Gate
Meeting On The Mountain
It was dusk when Mr. Doppelganger slipped from the fissure of a smooth stone-faced cliff. Being a fader had its fun sides. He just came out from under Bodach Mountain; what was it, five days he’d been inside the earth? Seeping in and out of both roomy crags and the skinniest of holes and cracks, he’d not even covered half the western face of the mountain.
With all the ground shifts of erosion and the mountain’s own way of opening and running tunnels at will, Mr. Doppelganger found it a delightful challenge to sift through the rock without being suffocated or crushed.
The game would last up until his final years of presence in this world—the cracks were so numerous and the mountain so vast. It was a wonderful pastime for this fading Strangel.
The sunset was giving up its final ray of light as gray clouds filled the sky from mountain peak to yonder horizon, beyond which the day star had dropped from sight. A gentle rainfall started and Mr. Doppelganger began his descent off the mountain. He didn’t mind being wet and took his time winding down the hay-covered slopes and mossy boulders.
The dark of night wasn’t a bother to him at all ever since the fading had begun. His every sense had heightened, become more perceptive, and he moved easily over the rocky and plunging terrain.
Coming off a knoll, Mr. Doppelganger took a moment to rest, leaning his tall frame against an ancient lightning-split silk floss tree. His fading form eased and spread between and around the hundreds of thorns poking off the bark.
As one fades, their body begins to lose its density, and thus makes faders able to contort themselves into any shape and seep into any crevice they take a fancy to. They can retain their form, but more than likely they will be found in much disorder, for they are very fond of exploring crags and grykes where no solid form of man has gone before.
Having passed the age of youth in his generation, Mr. Doppelganger had accepted the fact that he was old, even though the rugas on his leathery, gray skin belied his true age of years. If not for his fading, you’d never have guessed him to be older than two hundred and sixty or so; he was still lively.
It was this part of a venture where Mr. Doppelganger would normally return to the small town at the foot of the mountain, Jack’s Brawlin,’ but that night something had occurred to him. Being so far gone in this fading phenomenon, only the Strangels could see him, and Strangers could not.
So there couldn’t be any possible harm if he— no, no, what if someone were to witness him from afar? A silly argument, since no one but he and his eight friends ever dared trek the breathing Bodach Mountain and beyond.
Enough thinking! If he was to go through the Gate, he must go now.
* * * *
In the forest on Bodach Mountain sat a house made from birch wood. It was rather old and weathered, the railing to the wrap-around deck had fallen off, and moss and ivy were growing on the walls. Its looks were deceptive; — the building was firmly founded and as sturdy as if it was built yesterday.
Inside was a cozy living room with a bright rug-of-many-colors spread over the center floor. A green feather-stuffed armchair sat before a table of Chinese Checkers and eight other stools. Faded red curtains hung in the glass-paned windows all around the house. In the dining room two birch-white tables were set for a number of nine, and small earthen bowls were at every place, as were tiny wine glasses and stone mugs.
Upstairs were sleeping quarters for eight, and in back of the house a large stone-floored kitchen. In the kitchen a chocolaty brew was keeping warm and steaming on a stone-carved stove. The owner of the house was expecting company in an hour, or a few minutes, or just whenever they got there.
A soft snoring could be heard coming from the chimney of a wide open fireplace across the room from the stove. A bit of soot trickled down caused by a slight shift and turn of Mr. Bodach, who had snuck away up there to catch one wink before his guests arrived.
This stone chimney is the home of Mr. Bodach. Many wonder how one could find a way to stay comfortably aloft in there, and his solution to this is simple. The fireplace starts out as two separate chimneys, then a junction joins them, and on this intersection Mr. Bodach perches.
Rarely does he leave the comfort of his dark flue, unless he should wake from his hibernation or meditations with a sudden craving for a snack of chocolate cake and Worcestershire sauce, a walk, or a visit from his eight friends.
There was never a call or announcement, there was just that feeling that they should see each other and meet up. And it was always here outside Mr. Bodach’s home, or in the house, where they would meet. One after the other they would arrive.
If you don’t understand, think of it as three o’clock in the afternoon in a neighborhood house. At that hour a natural mood of silence hushes everybody. Everyone feels they must whisper. If you have never known the hour of silence, you will have no idea what Mr. Bodach felt or what I am talking about, but that’s your loss, and, not all that important. Don’t take a notion that Mr. Bodach is psychic, for he isn’t.
Mr. Bodach was a man of undetermined character. This has been concluded by his friends who only see him two or three times a year. No Stranger could give an honest opinion, for no Stranger has honestly seen Mr. Bodach. He’s a small man, only 5.1, his skin is blacker than the soot in his chimney, he has black curly hair, and bright green eyes. He is a great walker when he wakes and feels adventurous, taking a route down and round the mountain. If anyone took notice of him he certainly took none of them. He was not a rude man, mind you, just the sort that is completely unaware of anything going on outside of his own head.
This may bring you to say Mr. Bodach had a great deal on his mind. Well, he did.
After the first step out of his house, he begins counting the steps he will take before he gets back home again. And it’s different each time ’cause he never takes notice of where he’s gone or how many times round the mountain his feet have taken him before he finds himself back at his doorstep, happily stretched and hungry, but above all, tired. So, after a quick bite of whatever was left from the last meet, back into his chimney he goes and into beautiful sleep he falls.
But this day he dozed lightly, for his friends were coming! It was an exciting, short-lived anticipation, but while it lasted, Mr. Bodach would sleep and dream of the time when they would be gone and he would be back in his chimney asleep…
* * * *
Mrs. Wampus was known for bringing catastrophe on everyone and dragging them on ventures with her. But everyone forgave Mrs. Wampus of that fault because she was nearing her hundred and seventy-fourth birthday. A sweet, dear woman whom everyone took a fancy to, for she would look up into their eyes and smile, showing fine white teeth (of which she was very proud), and would say, “That’s a lovely head atop your shoulders. How on earth do you keep it up there?”
You see, Mrs. Wampus was under a vexation. She believed that her head had fallen off way back when she was just sixty years old.
Yes. Fallen off.
Actually, Mrs. Wampus had been born with a lump on her back. It was not bad at first, but one day after time aged her a good many years, she woke up to find she could no longer straighten her back or look up unless she turned her head to the side. In her words, “I first realized the absence of my head from my shoulders when I stood up and all I could see were my feet.”
Mrs. Wampus loves word games. She loves to tongue twist, rhyme, and put people to confusion, and she does it well.
She’s a funny woman, and very energetic, hunched though she is. And right now, Mrs. Wampus’ nimble, spindly legs were carrying her up the mountain’s base. Her lips moved as she mumbled about, only being able to see roots and dirt and— Oh! There went a porcupine! That cheered her up suddenly and her legs and knobby cane moved with an extra skip until she bumped into someone else’s pair of legs.
“Watch where you’re running to, Mrs. Wampus!” snapped Miss Nebbuck.
“I was watching exactly where I was running.” responded Mrs. Wampus, cocking her head. “I just didn’t see the thorny bush ahead of me.”
“That’s a fine way to talk.” said Miss Nebbuck, taking offence at the slighting remark, though most of her vocabulary was filled with such rude comments, and worse. “I was waiting here for you so we could walk up together.”
“That was nice.”
“No it wasn’t. I don’t like being run into by you, and I don’t like waiting.”
Mrs. Wampus shook her head. Her friend was a nasty and crabby piece of work, but Mrs. Wampus knew that Miss Nebbuck would do anything for her or any of the eight; as it was with them all. Miss Nebbuck just always had to make things unpleasant, for everyone else as well as herself.
Mrs. Wampus hurried on. “Don’t stand there in a huff all day, Miss Nebbuck. We can’t keep Mr. Bodach waiting.”
“He’s not the only one. Let them all wait.” But Miss Nebbuck also began to hurry, tetchy as she felt, with much reluctance. To herself alone did she admit that maybe she might be looking forward to seeing them again.
An ever-young woman was Miss Nebbuck:
She always seemed new, but had been always around,
So they tried to call her old, but no age could be found.
She was quite unhappy with what she was and wasn’t,
But fate would have her neither, so old and new she’d covet.
(Rhyming, courtesy of Mrs. Wampus)
Miss Nebbuck was very pretty, with shortish brown hair lying on her shoulders, and soft brown eyes—well, they could have been soft—no, her eyes were snappy. Her attitude was an insistent right and wrong or whichever caused gloom for the moment. She couldn’t say one good thing without letting everyone know that she was unhappy doing it, even if she really wasn’t.
Miss Nebbuck had a complimenting height, about five-ten, and she was very much in perfect physical condition. She was constantly running up and down the mountain and sometimes from one town to the next, and always back to the mountain again. But she never turned to the house of Mr. Bodach unless the others came. And today they were coming.
* * * *
Coming up on another side of the mountain were two young men, both at the age of forty-one. A Mr. Whigmaleery and a Mr. Bifarious carried between them a hamper, upon which sat their friend Miss Dandypratt.
The two men bickered – and had been doing so since their journey had begun – over what was the best way to cast a net in stormy weather. Their strident words came to blows and Miss Dandypratt found herself suddenly dropped on the ground between two men slugging each other. She was quick to hasten out of the way and tug the hamper from the struggling pair. Then a very loud voice belonging to the very small, Miss Dandypratt shouted, “Shut up the both of you and stop this squabbling! Or else!”
The two men stopped immediately. Miss Dandypratt was a very much respected woman, even if her height stopped just an inch below four feet. She was a very beautiful little person with a pale-white pixie face; small, very deep blue eyes; and a very loud, loud voice that commanded those it was yelling at to pay attention. Or else.
Or else what?
What could she possibly do to them, her, the size of a child? Nobody knew or ever found out because she was a very forgiving and jolly person once she stopped you from whatever it was you were fighting about.
Everything about Miss Dandypratt is “very”. She told me so herself and if you get in conversation with her she’ll tell you too.
“It’s a very stupid argument in the first place. There’s only one way to cast a net in a storm and that is to do it very carefully. Leery, look what you’ve done to Far’s face.”
“It looks better,” Mr. Whigmaleery scowled.
“Far, was that very silly disagreement worth the beating?”
“It would be if I could return the favor.” Mr. Bifarious stepped toward Mr.
Whigmaleery, but was held back by Miss Dandypratt who completely overlooked the two remarks and said: “Now that we have the air cleared between us, the both of you cheer up and carry me the rest of the way to Bo’s.”
Now, Mr. Whigmaleery is quite the foolhardy sort of man, with strong, impulsive character that always gets him into scrapes. Every idea that emerged from the dark corners of his nearly hollow mind (that’s what his friends imagined it to be) was carried out, and usually he paid the consequences dearly. The small finger on his right hand had been bit off by a handsaw; harpooning a shark and then swimming with it brought about the scars around his torso; riding an anchor to the bottom of the channel almost got him drowned; and while trying to pole-vault over a neighbor’s pigpen, he skewered himself through the chest.
He had been warned in all events that he was going about doing things the wrong way, but once in motion, Mr. Whigmaleery follows through with his plans. If you want a mental picture of Mr. Whigmaleery, take a nice six feet of human form, throw a mess of dark brown hair on the head — a bit choppy looking — and toss up some brown eyes just the right distance from each other, making room for a long-bridged nose. Girls wish he had perfect lips, but he doesn’t. There’s a full upper lip, but half of the lower lip got cut off when Mr. Whigmaleery had engaged in a knife fight. There he is, a bright lad in need for someone to push him the right way before he overuses his apparently recyclable nine lives.
Mr. Bifarious is complex. He likes to object and deny everything just because he can. He tries to turn everything about himself into a lie so no man may ever say they know such-and-such about Mr. Bifarious. No one knows anything of the sort about Mr. Bifarious except his obvious features: Ruffled black hair, blue eyes, sometimes thick bristle on his jaw line, sometimes without; today it’s with. He is a tall and solid figure from working in the shipyards and with lumber crews.
Yes, Mr. Bifarious’ own reputation is significant, but he was undoubtedly changing (to himself at least) and was uncomfortable about it. That is why he so readily set upon his friend with fists over a difference of opinions.
This change on Mr. Bifarious’ character was probably not noticed by anyone, as he was working so hard to cover it up, but he could feel it within himself and felt very self-conscious about it. He was turning into an honest person! And he blamed it all on love and Miss Fernticle.
* * * *
Mr. Ramfeezle was a handsome, elderly man. A magnificent, thick shock of snow-white hair crowned his head. A single white lock rested on his shiny forehead, his cheeks were rosy, and not just from the cold. Mr. Ramfeezle was very agile for a man his age and he was extremely pleased with the marvelous health he’d been blessed with.
Always he was a high-spirited man. Unless he heard of someone’s death, then Mr. Ramfeezle was the most sorrowful man to be seen. Folks felt so bad when he grieved dearly for their loss that they tried to cheer him up. He would show them how by teaching them songs and rhymes:
Blue eyes that sparkle with laughter and tears,
Light feet that dance away sorrows and fears,
Memory for loss, memory for gain,
A voice for cheer, a voice for pain.
Or one of his favorite lines about himself:
Happy feet love to dance,
Love to run, love to prance.
I’ve got happy feet, stop I can’t.
Me drop dead? Oh, not a chance.
He makes the verses up himself, but cannot begin to compare with Mrs. Wampus’ fine way of word twists and rhymes. Try hard as he might, Mr. Ramfeezle loses the battle of tongues every time.
Swinging a wicker basket while he skipped up the mountain, Mr. Ramfeezle pictured his friends standing at Mr. Bodach’s doorstep waiting for him, and promptly picked up his heels and raced up the trail.
* * * *
She was in much hurry, yes she was. Her brown eyes, almost lost amid the hundreds of freckles on her face, paid more attention to where her feet were going rather than to the beautiful landscape that was falling back and around her.
If she did give it a thought in some corner of her mind, she was sure to say the landscape would still be there when she looked at it with Far – Mr. Bifarious, that is. Oh, no one was reading her thoughts! She could call him by his nickname all she liked.
Miss Fernticle was climbing the mountain. With a flat crowned black Stetson hanging down her back, her suede jeans and jacket brushing sticker bushes by, her freckled hands pulled her over the rough, rocky path that cut straight up the mountain’s ridge to Mr. Bodach’s cabin.
All together again! She couldn’t wait! And Far would be there! She smiled as an image of his sharp, chiseled face came to mind.
Miss Fernticle brushed some red bangs out of her eyes and behind her ear. She had been seeing Mr. Bifarious for three months come tomorrow.
And what did she see in him? Why, he was temptingly handsome, he was thoughtful, careful, he loved her, his ear twitched when he tried to lie to her, he wrote her love notes that, in the end, insisted there was nothing between them. But his actions belied his words. They were together almost every day and night, going out to favorite places, telling of past lives and future ambitions, and when they couldn’t think of anything to talk about, they were content to lay back and listen to each other breathe.
Their love was very real. For all of Mr. Bifarious’ reputation and character, he could not lie to her and mean it, and to her alone did he admit this.
Miss Fernticle laughed aloud when her fingers missed a handhold and her foot slipped from the crevice in which it’d been lodged, but luckily — and the reason for her laughter – her hand caught a root and broke her fall.
Getting hold of the ledge again, she pulled herself up the cliff face and ran on through the forest towards Mr. Bodach’s house.
* * * *
They all came together on the deck and Mr. Bodach rolled out of his chimney, answering the door just as Mr. Bifarious was about to knock.
“You’re almost all here. Where’s Mr. Doppelganger?”
They looked around themselves, but Mr. Doppelganger was not to be found!
“Where is the old man?” Mr. Whigmaleery asked.
“He’s usually the first one here.” Miss Fernticle said, looking at Mr. Bifarious with startled eyes. His arm slipped over her shoulder in comfort.
“He is not always here first, Mr. Bodach is.” contradicted Miss Nebbuck.
Most everyone was alarmed for never had any one of them been late. Always on the dime was their way. Huddled on the deck they waited together looking this way and that for their friend.
“Something must have happened to him.” Mr. Ramfeezle suggested, and rubbed his knuckles. “He’s never missed a meet before.”
What was agitating the others went completely over Mrs. Wampus’ head and she now pushed her way through the group of friends. “Why are we here on the doorstep? Mr. Bodach, invite us in so we may greet each other properly.”
Mr. Bodach hesitated, holding the door tight in front of him, only letting his head show. “But, Mr. Doppelganger; he’s not here.”
“So what? He will be.”
“But I’ve never let any of you in without all of you being present. Mr. Doppelganger is missing.”
“And we are to stand out here all day waiting for him?” inquired Miss Nebbuck.
“Really, Mr. Bodach, I thought Mrs. Wampus was the only one here without a brain in her head.”
Mrs. Wampus smiled. “Thank you my dear, you are quite right. Mr. Bodach, you shouldn’t be keeping us here on the doorstep like this.”
Miss Nebbuck scowled at the compliment on her rude remark, but said nothing.
To Mrs. Wampus, Mr. Bodach replied, “I’m not keeping you out. If only Mr. Doppelganger were I’d surely let you all in at once.”
“Oh, sure.” Mr. Whigmaleery nodded. “Blame the one guy who isn’t here.”
“Well if he was I’d let you all in. But he isn’t so I … well I just can’t. It doesn’t seem right and I don’t do things that don’t seem right.”
“Let us look for him then,” suggested Miss Dandypratt. Together they turned toward the wood and called, “Mr. Doppelganger!!”
“Ganger!” (Miss Dandypratt was the only one of the eight who did not address her friends as Mr., Miss, or Mrs.)
They waited a minute expecting him to appear from the woods or around the cabin.
“Shouldn’t he have heard us?” asked Miss Fernticle.
“Indeed, he must have,” said Mr. Ramfeezle. “The old buzzard’s got better hearing than all of us put together.”
Miss Nebbuck shot a glare at Mr. Bodach. “Perhaps Mr. Bodach let him in the cabin already and the two are laughing behind their faces at their idea of a practical joke.”
Mr. Bodach’s eyes widened at the accusation. “I would never! Never! I would never let anyone in here unless it’s you eight and only if it’s all of you together!”
Miss Dandypratt was shocked. “Neb, how could you say that?”
“That is downright insulting, to question his faithfulness,” added Mr. Bifarious.
Miss Nebbuck waved him off. “Oh, go back to charming Miss Fernticle. She keeps you out of trouble.”
Mr. Bifarious’ face turned dark. “I’ll have you know, Miss Nebbuck, that there is nothing between Miss Fernticle and I!” But he did not let go his arm that had slipped around her waist.
“How can you let him say that, Fern? The whole thing with you two is so very obvious.” Miss Dandypratt was entirely baffled by the relationship that had developed between her two friends. She had asked Fern to explain the situation before, but hadn’t made heads nor tails of it then either.
“But we know he doesn’t mean it.” Miss Fernticle smiled and pulled Mr. Bifarious away from Mr. Ramfeezle and Mr. Whigmaleery before they could start poking their fun. And in all the hubbub of arguing why they shouldn’t be standing on the deck, nobody noticed that Mrs. Wampus had wandered off.
She was going in search of Mr. Doppelganger. She may have been a simpleton, but she wasn’t stupid. (So she told herself.) If she could find their friend,wherever he was, she could stop the arguments and they’d all be able to go in and sit down to Mr. Bodach’s white birch table and his chocolate brew.
She hurried along up a path. The others would be so happy when she brought their friend back!
If Mr. Doppelganger couldn’t make it to the meet, then something was wrong with him. For the life of her, Mrs. Wampus could think of no reason that would keep Mr. Doppelganger from turning up at their meet. He knew it was important to all that he show up, yet he hadn’t. Mumbling to herself about nobody being able to stand in Mr. Doppelganger’s way, she ran into a pair of legs.
Mr. Bifarious looked down at her, an eyebrow cocked. “Just where do you think you’re going?”
“Isn’t it plainly obvious?” Mrs. Wampus stamped her foot, much confounded that she had been discovered missing as well. “I’m looking for Mr. Doppelganger of course. Out of my way now, or my cane may find a piece of your hide.”
She didn’t mean to sound so grumpy, but Mrs. Wampus dearly wanted to settle the disputes between her friends. She couldn’t accomplish that if they always stopped their quarrel long enough to come and interfere with her plans! She made as if to go around Mr. Bifarious, but was suddenly whisked up into his arms.
“Found!” Mr. Bifarious shouted into the winds. Not long after he had carried Mrs. Wampus a ways off did everyone come running over to see that Mrs. Wampus was all right. Even Mr. Bodach had left his house (while counting steps) in search of Mrs. Wampus.
At the moment she was thrashing around demanding to be put down and that everyone would leave her alone. So of course she was all right!
So set down she was, and her fussing stopped. Mrs. Wampus could see down the hill, on the path where she had been walking; a gaping gorge split the wood’s floor.
A few more feet and her cane would have felt no ground and she would have fallen over the edge. After catching her breath, Mrs. Wampus turned to Mr. Bifarious’ feet and cocked her head to look up at him. “Thank you, Mr. Bifarious. No matter what else you are, you’re every bit a good friend.”
Contradictory to his reputation and self-portrayed character, Mr. Bifarious actually seemed to glow with the compliment. This was the change he had been noticing, but so pleased was he with what Mrs. Wampus said to him, that he turned around, caught Miss Fernticle in his arms, and pecked her on the lips.
This caused Miss Nebbuck to look up from scolding Mrs. Wampus and exclaim. “Enough of that! Mr. Doppelganger’s still missing.”
She was kicked by Miss Dandypratt, who encouraged her friends, “Go on, do it some more!”
But, suddenly aware they were the center of attention, Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle let go of each other, both blushing a deep red. The secret was now quite out.
Mr. Whigmaleery couldn’t help but goad Mr. Bifarious some. “Would you care to deny any of that, sir?”
To which Mr. Bifarious replied with his chin tilted high, “There is nothing between us.” So saying he pulled Miss Fernticle off a ways where they whispered by themselves.
“Poor Mr. Doppelganger is missing out on this happiness.” Mr. Ramfeezle sighed, watching Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle. “Mrs. Wampus had the right idea. We really must go looking for him.”
“He always liked to explore a good fissure rather than the Running Tunnels. Anyone know of any on this mountain that would have caught his eye?” Mr. Whigmaleery looked around at the people.
Miss Nebbuck spoke up. “I saw quite a few he might take a fancy to on the north side of the mountain. Though, I dare say, he probably didn’t think of them twice when he saw past the North Wall.”
Miss Dandypratt gaped at her. “You saw past the very North Wall?”
Mr. Bodach looked at her with a new respect. “In all my wanderings I’ve never seen past that wall. And me being here longer than you have!”
“Probably ’cause your head’s in the ground or in your chimney all the time.”
He let the comment slide and murmured, “Could be.”
“What’s it look like past the North Wall?” asked Mrs. Wampus and Mr. Whigmaleery together.
Mr. Ramfeezle was the only one who took the hint given by Miss Nebbuck. “Are you insinuating that Mr. Doppelganger has gone beyond?”
It finally dawned on everyone. Their quiet talk was silenced as this registered. Mr. Doppelganger had gone on a great venture and left them behind? It was a great shock to hear of their friend going over the North Wall. Strangels never went past the North Wall at the base of Bodach Mountain.
Over The North Wall
To leave your friends in such a way
Was not right to start their day
Dismay and shock you left on them
To follow soon they’ll come and end.
The little poem was hastily put together and did not all the way make sense, but spoke their thoughts nonetheless.
“So we’re off to follow him are we?” asked Mr. Ramfeezle.
Mr. Bodach clasped his hands and whispered to himself. “And leave the mountain? My chimney?”
“Save it Mr. Bodach. You’re coming.” Miss Nebbuck made the older man jump, she had been so close to his ear.
“Come on fellows before we leave without you,” Mr. Whigmaleery called to Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle.
“But Neb, what’s on the other side of the very North Wall?” pursued Miss Dandypratt. That question broke the long locked gaze between Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle.
“The North Wall?”
“Who’s seen past the North Wall?”
“Miss Nebbuck has,” Mrs. Wampus hit Mr. Bifarious in the shin with her cane. “Weren’t you listening?”
Mr. Bifarious shook his head, took a step back from Mrs. Wampus. “No, say it all again.” He addressed Miss Nebbuck, who refused.
She turned away saying, “I won’t. You should have been paying attention and not getting lost in Miss Fernticle’s milky-brown eyes.”
Mr. Bifarious took offense at the tone she used. “Don’t speak as though it was a bad thing, though, I wasn’t. But if I had a mind to, the view of those milky eyes is lovely enough so any man would give a life to be lost in them. But I wasn’t.”
“Why the long faces, chaps?” inquired Miss Fernticle.
“Have you cotton in your ears?” Miss Dandypratt came up to them. “Ganger has gone over the very North Wall. We are going to fetch him back, so come along.”
“We are?” asked Miss Fernticle, seeming a bit doubtful about the idea of leaving the mountain. “Shouldn’t we prepare for the trip first?”
“We’ve got everything we need right here.” Miss Nebbuck gestured at the forest and then as a second thought, also to Mr. Ramfeezle’s basket and Miss Dandypratt’s hamper. She alone was cheerful about going past the North Wall, but likely only because everyone else was shocked and upset with the idea.
* * * *
By the time they reached it …
“It’s too dark to see anything.” Mr. Whigmaleery complained. “Now we shall have to wait until morning to see the other side of the North Wall.”
“Don’t be a child. Come on.” Miss Nebbuck climbed to the very top of the wall and stood looking down the other side. “It is better to see it in the dark. Come up here.” The other seven came to the ridge behind her.
Miss Dandypratt gasped. “Look at that!”
“Unbelievable.” Mr. Ramfeezle’s jaw dropped.
“The … the stories. They’re true!” Mr. Bifarious pointed.
Miss Fernticle turned to her friend. “Miss Nebbuck, do you think Mr. Doppelganger has gone through there?”
“Why didn’t he tell us? Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you go in?” Mr. Whigmaleery wielded questions at Miss Nebbuck, to which she responded, “I was scared of course! That is the Gate. And I wasn’t ready to go through it on my own.”
Miss Fernticle clutched Mr. Bifarious’ hand. “Are we going to go over there after him? After Mr. Doppelganger I mean?”
She felt a squeeze back from him. “Of course we are, Fern. Can’t let Mr. Doppelganger go and get himself killed. You know we’ll all die too if he does. We’ve got to bring him back here. After all these years together we at least should have some say on how we die. Besides, why should a Stranger in a strange world get to kill Mr. Doppelganger when his friends here at home would gladly do the work if he just asked?”
Mrs. Wampus had been quiet and was looking on the sight, speechless. Not one of them had ever seen the Gate to the alternate world, or seen such a city so vastly spread out and lit all over by thousands of colored lights. Why hadn’t she thought to come exploring the North Wall on her own? She shook her head and agreed with Mr. Bifarious. “It was not right for him to leave without inviting us to come along.”
Turning from the dazzling vista, Mr. Ramfeezle observed the only way to the city. “We’ll have to stop for the night. That path down the mountain is too treacherous to make in the dark.”
“What’s the matter Mr. Ramfeezle? ’Fraid of a few stubbed toes?” taunted Miss Nebbuck, “I could take this hill on a dark night and blindfolded.”
“Miss Nebbuck, the night is dark.”
“Make it a wet one. I could still do it, but I won’t ’cause I’m nice and I’m gonna wait for you slowpokes to get your beauty sleep.”
At the mention of sleep Miss Dandypratt looked around for Mr. Bodach. “Where is Bo? Should he not be … ” she stopped short. Behind them Mr. Bodach had never climbed the crest, but paced in a circle, in a deep sleep. “What’s he doing?”
“He’s sleepwalking. Watch this!” Mr. Whigmaleery crept toward his friend, was about to spring upon the man when Mr. Ramfeezle pulled the move on him. They rolled together in the deep grass in a silent tussle and finally Mr. Ramfeezle landed on top and sat on Mr. Whigmaleery’s chest.
“Would you hurt your friend? What are you thinking? Or do you?”
“I was just going to scare him awake,” Mr. Whigmaleery protested.
“Scare him out of his wits and make him lose count of his steps, that’s what you would do.”
“And counting each step while he does. If you will insist on jumping on someone, Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle snuck off over that ways some time ago. Go have your fun there, but don’t expect to come back with all nine lives.”
When let up, Mr. Whigmaleery watched the others retire, then stole away to the nook where Mr. Bifarious sat with Miss Fernticle in his arms.
They were all deep sleepers. No one heard the shout, a cry of astonishment and scolding, and much more shouting, and rock ricocheting off the North Wall. No one likes to be rudely disturbed, especially Mr. Bifarious and especially if it’s by Mr. Whigmaleery.
While the others slept and rested, the two tumbled over each other on that face of the mountain until dawn. At least, that’s their boast. It may have lasted only an hour or so before they were both too sore to raise another fist.
Miss Fernticle had slipped off to bed somewhere in the middle of the slugfest, not worried in the least that one might get seriously injured. The worst that could happen was they’d have the stuffing beat out of them by morning.
* * * *
It was earlyish in the morning when their eyes opened from sleep. Clouds still hung low over the mountain. Somewhere skyward and on the east horizon the sun sent a penetrating glow through the dense fog, putting a black shine on the North Wall.
Handmade it was, some centuries back. A steady wind curled around the mountain, blowing back the shroud of mist, unveiling four tall, proud towers that stood guard on the wall giving it an ambiance of regality and importance. The wall didn’t necessarily cut off the Gate from the Strangels’ world—more like it half surrounded Bodach Mountain to ward off Strangers from climbing it. A very thoughtful fellow, whoever it was that built it. No Stranger should climb Bodach Mountain on their first visit to this world.
But it’s just like a strange world to have its Gate right next to one of its most perilous features. None of this, however, bothered these Strangels in the least.
Mr. Bodach had not stopped moving since he locked up his house, and Mr. Whigmaleery sat eating a fish sandwich for breakfast while watching his friend pace.
It was a slow process as his jaw was swollen and the entire right side of his face was a deep purple. One might think he was enduring great soreness from last night’s bruising, but it did not so much as tickle him. Instead, much of his pain came from watching Mr. Bodach. “Is he ever going to stop?”
“When he smells a chimney nearby he may, and then after that, sleep for eternity,” said Miss Nebbuck, sitting down beside Mr. Whigmaleery to eat her sandwich.
Mr. Ramfeezle threw out a rhyme for them:
Mr. Bodach is precise
But to his friends this isn’t nice
In steps alone is this rule for
While the outside world is left ignored
Miss Dandypratt was some concerned for her friend and stood by watching Mr. Bodach also. “But he’s never acted this way in front of us. When we go over the very North Wall, will he have a very present mind to follow us?”
“It’s unexplainable, but yes,” said Mr. Ramfeezle. “And you’ve never seen him this way before because you’ve never seen him after a meet.”
“It’s like I never knew him at all,” announced Mrs. Wampus. “My head is stuck, fallen from my shoulders, and I’m regretting every minute of it. Mr. Bodach voluntarily hangs his there with no qualms about it. He should be upset. He has no right to be peaceable about it!” Mrs. Wampus moved to trip her friend up, but was grabbed by Mr. Bifarious. Recognizing his feet, Mrs. Wampus yelled, “Would you stop doing that?”
“You must stop getting carried away with your temper, Mrs. Wampus. Otherwise I will continue to be obliged to sweep you off your feet.”
“Put me down and sweep Miss Fernticle off her feet, she’s sure to be more appreciative!”
And Mr. Bifarious did just that. “Hello, love.” He kissed her on the cheek and she returned the favor causing him to flinch ever so slightly. As bad a beating as he had given Mr. Whigmaleery, Mr. Bifarious—unlike his friend—had come out of the fight with a great hangover of pain.
A long cut was stitched up nicely across his right cheekbone (needlework courtesy of Miss Fernticle). He could barely see out of his left eye, and there was a limp to his walk.
Miss Dandypratt stood. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
There was nothing stopping them. Stowing their baskets in a small hedge of underbrush, obscuring all evidence that they’d been there, over the wall they went into unknown territory. But now, in the daylight, the skyscrapers and hundreds of buildings didn’t look so magnificent and enchanting as they had last night.
While the sun rose steadily and the Strangels approached closer to the towering pieces of construction, they could see shadows growing inside the city. The hundreds of cracks and holes where Mr. Doppelganger could be hiding were too many to count. The whole new atmosphere was intimidating to the Strangels.
No one said a word until they were walking down the middle of the road, slowing traffic and staring in awe around them. Horns were blaring and drivers and pedestrians were yelling at them to get out of the street. It was Mr. Bifarious who finally got the hint and hollered for his friends to come out of the way and onto the sidewalk. All but Mr. Bodach stopped in their tracks staring speechless through a revolving glass door into the luxurious lobby of a posh hotel.
“Why have we stopped? Have we found Mr. Doppelganger?” asked Mrs. Wampus.
“No,” answered Miss Dandypratt.
“I thought the hotels in Gatlin were extravagant.” Miss Fernticle turned to Mr. Bifarious. “Do you think they’ll let us look inside?”
“Everyone else is going in and out,” he said reasonably.
They all started to step to the door.
“Wait! Mr. Bodach has gone!” Mr. Whigmaleery had made the discovery and was spinning in circles trying to look at all the faces that were passing him by.
“Just like him to wander off. Which way would he have gone?” Miss Nebbuck said with a tinge of distress in her voice.
“There! He just went ’round the corner!” Mr. Ramfeezle pointed down a street and they were all racing through the steady lull and moving crowd. Around the bend Mr. Whigmaleery was in the lead and saw Mr. Bodach stepping into a road of faster traffic and a dump truck was bearing down on him. Brakes were squealing, horns blaring again, and Mr. Bodach was completely unaware. He was keeping track of a lot of numbers in his head at the moment.
Mr. Whigmaleery jumped in front of Mr. Bodach and the truck hit him!
The blow sent Mr. Whigmaleery into Mr. Bodach, catching him up in his arms as he flew several feet down the street, tumbled, rolled, and lay very still on the pavement while a shaken Mr. Bodach stood up and over his friend. The sudden knock into reality was shocking, but not so that Mr. Bodach couldn’t see his friend had just saved his life.
With his step counting quite forgotten, Mr. Bodach shook his friend. “Mr. Whigmaleery! Come now, it could have been no worse than Mr. Bifarious throwing a punch into you. Mr. Whigmaleery?”
A crowd had gathered already. “Has anyone called an ambulance?” people were asking. The other Strangels broke through the ring.
“He’s not dead is he?” Miss Dandypratt worried, “He’s not allowed to die here. We came to stop Ganger from doing so. Is he all right?”
Mr. Bifarious laughed. “Come, old man. You mean that contraption got the best of you?”
“Mr. Whigmaleery, get up right now,” scolded Mrs. Wampus, “You’re making a scene.”
Mr. Whigmaleery opened his eyes. “It hurt. Give me a moment.”
“Time’s up.” said Miss Nebbuck.
“It’s all I needed.” Mr. Whigmaleery jumped up before the astonished spectators.
“You had me worried for a second.” Mr. Bodach shook his head with a smile and then suddenly he grew sad. “I’ve lost my count.”
Miss Dandypratt scolded him. “You should be thanking Leery. Not even Far could have taken a blow like that.”
“Oh, no? We’ll just see about that.”
Miss Fernticle grabbed his arm preventing Mr. Bifarious from going into the street. “No, don’t!”
Mr. Bifarious smiled. “Just joking, Fern.”
She glared at him. “Don’t joke like that.”
“I’m sorry, don’t be angry long.” Mr. Bifarious’ light mood was suddenly filled with distress. Miss Fernticle was upset with him. It was nothing he liked to feel or see.
But, she was quick to forgive Mr. Bifarious and showed it by slipping her arm around his waist and laying her head on his shoulder.
He returned the embrace, but the moment was interrupted by Miss Nebbuck. “We don’t have time for that. We have to find Mr. Doppelganger.” An ambulance came whining up the street, but already the eight Strangels had moved away from the scene.
Miss Dandypratt was riding atop Mr. Ramfeezle’s shoulders and pointed out an alley. “There’s a very likely spot.”
They all took a look inside. Two boys played a game of checkers. Their “board” was drawn out with chalk on the asphalt. Bottle tops were their playing pieces.
“No. Maybe not,” disagreed Mr. Ramfeezle. “It’s occupied.”
And so were the next three alleys.
Mr. Bodach gave a sudden cry of joy. “A chimney!”He ran down a block and into a bakery, right over the front counter and into the back room. He jumped so fast and was gone so sudden the bakers had no idea of what had slid into their stove’s chimney, but whatever it was had caused the place to fill with smoke. A fire alarm went off and water sprayed from the sprinklers.
Employees and customers poured out of the bakery, followed by rolling tendrils of black smoke. Fire engines rolled to a stop in front of the building. Their wailing sirens were cut short and firemen went running to and fro doing their job, keeping people back, hooking up hoses, and looking for fire in the building. Even the other Strangels could get nowhere near the site, and they knew exactly what the problem was.
Miss Dandypratt, a perfect size to go unnoticed, slipped by the yellow-coated men and into the smoking building. “Bo!” she bumped into a glass showcase, felt her way around the counter and wove in and out of the firemen’s rushing boots. She found the chimney sooner than she thought it would take her. Opening up the flue, she peered in. “Bo, come out! This isn’t your chimney and you’re causing a whole very lot of trouble for the people who work here.”
But Mr. Bodach was in a deep sleep. All of the Strangels slept soundly, but if it was at all deep, then it took a while before the sleeper could be awakened. Miss Dandypratt crawled up into the chimney and took hold of her friend. “Wake up! You can’t sleep here. You’ll get us into very much trouble! Come out!”
While trying to haul her friend down, soot filled Miss Dandypratt’s nose and she had to slip out of the chimney to clear it. She was about ready to make a second attempt when suddenly a pair of hands grabbed her around the waist and an oxygen mask was put over her face. Her cry of alarm went nowhere. The fireman brought her outside to a paramedic who took her pulse and asked her to breathe deeply.
“Little girl, what’s your name?”
“Little girl?” Miss Dandypratt repeated indignantly and yanked off the mask. “I’ll have you know I’m a very good thirty-eight years old! Put me down! Ram! Neb!”
Miss Nebbuck ran over and pulled the blackened Miss Dandypratt away from the bewildered medics. “She is in no need of your assistance as you can see for yourself, thank you.”
Mr. Ramfeezle made it into the bakery and succeeded in pulling a drowsy Mr. Bodach from the chimney. In all the hoopla, the eight snuck away from the second disaster they’d created.
* * * *
“Two hundred and seventy-four thousand, three hundred and thirty-one steps.” Mr. Bodach announced from his place in Mr. Ramfeezle’s arms.
Miss Fernticle looked over at him. “You can’t count them when you’re being carried.”
Mr. Bodach shrugged. “It’s where I left off at. Now I have no idea how many steps I’ve taken since. Bother, now my journal shall have a blank page.”
“You have a journal?” asked Mr. Whigmaleery.
“Yes. I’ve recorded every walk I’ve made, and every meet.”
“Even the one when Mr. Whigmaleery and Mr. Bifarious went swimming during a thunderstorm?” laughed Mrs. Wampus.
“Oh, no,” groaned Mr. Bifarious. “Tell me where you keep that book, Mr. Bodach, so that I may go and tear it up.”
“Down to the last detail, Mrs. Wampus.” Mr. Bodach joined in her mirth with a chuckle.
Miss Fernticle laughed at the memory as well. “Why should you tear it up, Far? It makes such a good story.”
“It’s embarrassing,” rejoined Mr. Whigmaleery and Mr. Bifarious in unison.
“It’s nineteen thousand and seventy-six steps every mile, about fifteen miles from my place to this one, that makes around two hundred and eighty-six thousand, one hundred and forty-nine steps, plus the few I did here, which made it a total of two seventy-four, three thirty-one, but even that is no longer the exact number,” Mr. Bodach moaned. “I don’t remember how many I took in my sleep.”
“That is too bad old chap,” said Mr. Whigmaleery, though there was little remorse in his voice. He was actually glad his friend had awakened to the goings on outside his own head.
“You may put me down now, Mr. Ramfeezle. I’ll just continue my count from two hundred and seventy-four thousand, three hundred and thirty-one.”
“That’s not right.”
Mr. Bodach shook his head. “I didn’t hear that.” He was about to take a step. “Or did I?” The eight Strangels stopped in their tracks.
“That’s Mr. Doppelganger!” exclaimed Mrs. Wampus. “I knew he’d find us.”
Miss Nebbuck turned this way and that looking for where Mr. Doppelganger could be hidden. “Come out where we can see you, you old sneak.”
“Sneak? I did nothing of the sort. I wandered, and got stuck here. I felt the meet approaching, but, well, look down here and see for yourselves. I’ve counted two weeks being stuck in this dreary and raucous place.”
The eight knelt by a storm sewer and could see Mr. Doppelganger looking out at them.
“Crikey!” let loose Mr. Whigmaleery. “That’s one sullied niche you’ve put yourself into, Mr. Doppelganger.”
“Why don’t you come out, Mr. Doppelganger?”
Mr. Doppelganger bent his head to Mrs. Wampus. “There’s been a bit of a cave-in and I’m pinned down by my right arm. Otherwise I would have slid out of here long ago and made it to the meet.”
“After all the trouble he’s put us through, we ought to just leave him there,” said Mr. Bifarious.
Mr. Doppelganger countered, “For all the trouble you’ve been through, shouldn’t you make it worth your while and get me out of here?”
“Stop being logical when I’m trying to be angry. You left without us!”
“I swear I didn’t know it was happening until it was all over.”
Mr. Bifarious bent even closer. “Obliviousness is Mr. Bodach’s excuse, and besides, it is an unacceptable one in this case.”
“No matter, Mr. Doppelganger, we’ll get you out in a jiffy!” said Mr. Ramfeezle, and he began prying at the lid. All of them tried but were unsuccessful.
Mr. Whigmaleery knew better but threw a suggestion to his friends. “I could smash the hole open, real quick like before anyone saw—”
“You will not!” Mr. Bifarious laid a hand on his friend’s arm. “It’s bad enough that we’re on this side of the Gate, and that Mr. Bodach has already made a spectacle of himself. We certainly don’t need you drawing attention to us. We’ll get Mr. Doppelganger out with tools.”
The Strangels had absolutely no idea what an odd sight they already made. The eight of them talking into a storm sewer to no one (that the spectators could see) —let alone their very appearance—was worth gawking over. Mr. Bifarious and Mr. Whigmaleery with their battle scars and disheveled hair; the freckled Miss Fernticle; Mr. Ramfeezle and Mrs. Wampus, looking like the oldest man and woman in the world galloping down the streets; the beautiful Miss Nebbuck standing with blackened Mr. Bodach; and the sooty Miss Dandypratt.
They looked quite out of this world.
“You idiot, how’d you get stuck in there in the first place?” called Miss Nebbuck.
“Don’t worry, Ganger,” Miss Dandypratt smiled cheerfully. “We’ll go find something to get you out.”
Miss Fernticle put her hands on her hips. “There’s got be a chain and horse around here so we can just pull the hatch off.”
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” stepped in Mr. Bifarious. “We’ll split up into pairs, and each will bring back something that might break the thing open.”
Mr. Bodach frowned. “Usually when we split up we never see each other until the next meet.”
“We’re going to have to break that routine,” said Mr. Bifarious. “We’ll meet back up before the day is out. Now all of you make a promise of that so you’re sure not to forget.”
“Someone ought to stay and guard Mr. Doppelganger, just in case we lose his location,” piped up Miss Dandypratt.
“And I think it should be Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus who do the watching,” said Miss Nebbuck. “Their heads are always facing the ground and they won’t be much help to us if they go and get lost.”
Mr. Whigmaleery nodded. “That’s true.”
“I refuse.” Mrs. Wampus stamped her foot.
“Sit,” ordered Mr. Bifarious. “Play cards. We’ll be back shortly.”
“And,” continued Miss Nebbuck, “I think Mr. Bifarious should pair off with Mr. Whigmaleery, and Miss Fernticle with one of us women so neither of them will get distracted.”
Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle were very red with embarrassment and clutching each other’s hands.
Mr. Ramfeezle shook his head. “Much as I enjoy seeing you two in such happiness, I have to agree with Miss Nebbuck. You two tend to distract each other.”
“So it’s decided?” asked Miss Nebbuck.
Mr. Bifarious stepped toward her. “I object.”
“Don’t have time for that, old boy.” Mr. Whigmaleery grabbed his friend and marched him off in one direction while Miss Nebbuck took Miss Fernticle in the other.
That left Mr. Ramfeezle and Miss Dandypratt paired together, and they walked away from Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus as well.
Trouble on The Hunt
It was thirty minutes since the others had left them. Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus sat in the middle of the walkway playing gin, not taking any notice of the people walking by and around them.
Then along came a police officer.
He watched them for some time waiting to be acknowledged, and finally realizing he wasn’t to get any, he ‘ahemed’ loudly.
“Don’t you two have somewhere to be?”
Mr. Bodach looked up (because he was the only one who could). “No.” he placed down a dog-eared five of diamonds.
“You can’t just sit here in the middle of the walkway all day. Come on, move it.”
“If we’re tired and waiting for someone, why can’t we wait here?” asked Mrs. Wampus, all the while thinking their trollmen (the police in their world) weren’t half so bothersome.
“There’s a bench just up the block. That’s where you can wait. You’re an obstruction on the sidewalk; now pick yourselves up and get out of here before I run you out.”
Mrs. Wampus cocked her head to the side and laughed. “Hardly.”
“What’s that?” asked the cop. He had been in a bad mood when he arrived and was feeling no better that these two bums were showing him no respect.
Mrs. Wampus laughed some more. “Oh, it was a funny thing you said. About running us out, when your girth loudly proclaims you’re in no condition to do so. But it’s not your fault; your mother must care for you a lot. I assume it’s your mother who feeds you, as you’ve no ring on your wedding finger. But if I’m wrong about that, then I’m wrong about it not being your fault, which means it was your fault and brings about the question: Why did you do it to yourself?”
“Gin,” announced Mr. Bodach.
The officer was now pale with anger. Never had he been publicly spoken to in such a way! The comment really shouldn’t have bothered him, but his day had not started out well and he planned to stay in this track of mind until the new morning came with a change of temper. “On your feet the both of you! You’re under arrest.”
Mr. Bodach challenged that order, “On what charge?”
* * * *
Miss Nebbuck and Miss Fernticle were walking down Baltimore Street. They could not stop wandering from window to window, their eyes wide at the things they saw.
At the moment they were rooted in place before a science display. A lava lamp boiled slowly, magnetic marbles spun round and round a middle sphere with no sticks or strings to hold them in place. There were dazzling lights and color-shifting waters; it was all so wonderful that they almost forgot their mission. It was Miss Fernticle who spotted it across the highway in another store.
A large iron crowbar stood leaning in the corner window of an antique shop. The keeper smiled at his customers and especially at Miss Nebbuck. “You’ve come in with quite a rush. Did you see something you wished to buy in the window?”
Miss Nebbuck didn’t skip a beat. “How much do you want for that crowbar?” She pointed to the one Miss Fernticle was picking up.
“Well, now,” the shopkeeper laughed nervously. “I’ll give it to you for fifty bucks.”
“Tag here says ten.” Miss Fernticle turned the iron piece to show Miss Nebbuck and the keeper.
The man just kept smiling. “My price is fifty bucks.”
“The price on this crowbar says ten.” Miss Nebbuck repeated what her friend had said, only with a very flat tone in her voice.
“It must be an old tag.”
“Then you should have changed it.” Miss Nebbuck slapped a ten dollar gold piece onto the counter and she and Miss Fernticle walked out.
The shopkeeper shouted after them, “The price on that crowbar is fifty dollars, I tell you! Thieves!” He stopped his yelling long enough to take a look at the chunk of gold, which called for further attention, and his two odd customers were soon forgotten.
* * * *
Mr. Ramfeezle and Miss Dandypratt walked back up Baymont Avenue. They went past the smoking bakery shop, past where Mr. Bodach almost got killed, and again they stopped to stare at the revolving glass door.
Mr. Ramfeezle was tempted just as much as his little partner. “Let’s try it, just for a little while. We won’t forget Mr. Doppelganger.”
Giving in to the suggestion they both walked through the magical doors and then out. And then in again. And then once more; stopping inside. Where should they go now?
“Let’s not forget Mr. Doppelganger,” said Miss Dandypratt quickly.
“Quite right.” agreed Mr. Ramfeezle, and out they went again.They stepped into a cafe next, bought two doughnuts each and a mug of coffee. Both were enjoying themselves immensely!
Mr. Ramfeezle wiped his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve. “We still have to find a device to get Mr. Doppelganger out of that hole.”
“And we’re looking,” Miss Dandypratt said as they left the cafe. “The search would go a whole lot faster if we weren’t on foot.”
A taxi driver heard her comment and called, “Need a lift?”
Miss Dandypratt shook her head. “No, we need to get somewhere fast.”
“I’m the guy for the job. Jump in and I’ll take ya anywhere ya wanna go.”
They climbed into the cab and Mr. Ramfeezle asked the driver, “Where’s the closest place that sells tools?”
“Up this street and that. I’d say about a twenty minute drive with traffic and ten minutes without.”
Miss Dandypratt pressed her face to the glass dividing the cab. “Can you go without?”
The driver nodded. “You got it, Missy.” He stepped on the gas, the car leapt from the curb, and Miss Dandypratt flew backwards into Mr. Ramfeezle’s lap.
* * * *
They were arguing. When weren’t they? Mr. Bifarious was threatening Mr. Whigmaleery. “If anything happens to Fern while I’m away I’m going to kill you.”
Mr. Whigmaleery nodded. “Good. I hope you enjoy it and die trying.”
“Don’t make light of my words, Mr. Whigmaleery.”
“I’m not. Just wishing myself a bit of luck. How’re we going to get that hatch open? It’s practically sealed.” The Strangel popped all of his knuckles and muttered, “Doesn’t have to be. A simple punch in the ground … “
“Have to find a crowbar or something.” Mr. Bifarious ignored his friend and was looking around on the ground his feet walked upon and left behind, hoping to find the tool he sought. To say one thing for the Strangels, they all had a similar line of thinking.
Mr. Whigmaleery and Mr. Bifarious turned around to see a couple of young men had come up behind them. One of them stepped forward and addressed Mr. Bifarious. “You and your friend lookin’ for a way to break open a sealed hatch?”
“If you heard us say so then we are,” replied Mr. Bifarious. The luck of the situation did not suprise him. Things sometimes just fell into place for him and his friends.
“Must be something important on the other side if somebody had to go and seal it.”
Mr. Bifarious gave a nod. “It’s rather important to us. Dear, you might say. Can you help?”
“Depends on what you’re willing to pay,” said one of the others.
Mr. Whigmaleery countered, “Depends on what you’ve got, son.”
The dealer sized up Mr. Whigmaleery and Mr. Bifarious. Both were semi-built, and both looked like they had just come out of brawl and knew how to take care of themselves.
“I got a case of dynamite that needs gettin’ rid of.”
Mr. Bifarious stepped forward taking control of the negotiating. “You guarantee this dynamite will do the job?” He had no idea what they were talking of, but concealed his ignorance.
“No, which is why I’m willing to give it to you for such a low purchase.”
“Five hundred dollars.”
Mr. Whigmaleery looked at Mr. Bifarious. “We could get at least thirty crowbars for half that sum.”
“Show us the merchandise and we’ll offer you a price,” said Mr. Bifarious.
The man went into the side of a building and came out with a metal box. He opened it and pulled out a stick.
Mr. Bifarious raised his brow. “That? How’s it work?”
This time the dealer was taken aback. “You serious, man?”
“I hope I look serious. Are you going to tell me how it works so we can both walk away happy or what?”
“You place the stick on what you want open, light this fuse with a lighter, and step back ‘cause it’ll blast you good.”
“And the hatch will be open?”
The dealer nodded. “That and some.”
“We’ll take it all for three hundred. Take it or get caught with dynamite on your hands.” Mr. Bifarious smiled at him. He was good at reading a man’s face, this guy really wanted to get rid of the goods.
“Done.” Box and gold swapped hands and Mr. Bifarious gave the guy an extra dollar for a lighter.
“Now let’s go free Mr. Doppelganger.”
* * * *
They got back to Mr. Doppelganger and found Miss Nebbuck and Miss Fernticle sitting by the manhole with their crowbar. Mr. Bifarious ran straight to Miss Fernticle and kissed her forehead.
“Where are Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus?” asked Mr. Whigmaleery of Miss Nebbuck.
“They weren’t here when we arrived. Mr. Doppelganger says he thinks one of their officers, a trollman, took them away. Miss Fernticle and I have already tried using the crowbar.”
Mr. Whigmaleery hefted the iron tool in his hands. “You mean this fine piece of work couldn’t do the job?”
“No. And I didn’t expect it to,” replied Miss Nebbuck dryly.
“Don’t worry, this should get him out.” Mr. Bifarious held up a stick of dynamite. It caught the many bystanders’ attention and got a laugh out of Miss Nebbuck.
“That little stick is going to get Mr. Doppelganger out?” Even Miss Fernticle was looking skeptical at her man’s solution to their problem.
“Let’s find out.” Mr. Bifarious placed a stick on the manhole. “Our dealer said to place it down, light it—” (it took a bit before Mr. Bifarious got a flame going) “—and now it should blast away the lid.” The four crouched around the dynamite watching the sizzling fuse seem to burn out.
Around them the people had scattered, and a few called the police to report some terrorists. Another call said they were lunatics talking to storm sewers and playing with dynamite. The Strangels were completely unaware of anything wrong with the situation, so intent were they in watching the dynamite go out. There was a moment of disappointment, and then, BOOM!!!
To Free One & All
Mr. Ramfeezle and Miss Dandypratt hopped out of the taxi, paid the driver, and were ready to march into Goldstein’s Metals, when a voice across the street caught their ears. It was Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus! What were they doing away from their post?
The two apprehended Strangels had refused to move from the manhole. This was, to the officer, resisting arrest and when another cop on the beat had showed on the scene the Strangels were literally picked up, cuffed, and placed in the car.
Now Mr. Ramfeezle and Miss Dandypratt watched their protesting friends get carried into the station.
“They can’t do that, they’ve done nothing wrong!” exclaimed Miss Dandypratt angrily, as she and Mr. Ramfeezle ran across the road. They entered the station in time to hear Mr. Bodach shout, “You put Mrs. Wampus down! You oughtn’t to be treatin’ a lady like that! Mr. Ramfeezle!” he called to his friend. “Put a stop to this!”
Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus were taken to a backroom and the officer in charge turned to Mr. Ramfeezle.
“You know them?”
Mr. Ramfeezle, outraged with the handling of his friends, turned almost black in the face trying to contain his anger, but he succeeded and in a calm tone said, “Indeed I do. What are they in for? They were merely waiting for my friends and me to return.”
“They were disrupting the public peace and resisted arrest.”
Miss Dandypratt couldn’t keep quiet and cut in. “I’m sure they’re very sorry that they met you, as we all are. How do we go about taking them out of your custody?”
The officer had had one insult too many that morning and he growled down at her, “There’s a one thousand dollar fine and some legal papers you’ll need to fill out.”
* * * *
It was the third time that day that the police and ambulances were called, but on this occurrence there was someone at the scene. Four unconscious persons. They were taken to the holding sector of the hospital as they had been called in as terrorists and, after all, had lit the dynamite.
A pacing guard shook his head. By all rights they should have been scattered in many pieces all over the road, but instead the doctors summed up the injuries to severe concussions, bruises, minor burns, and several broken ribs.
The cop was totally baffled by the case. Who could kneel over an exploding piece of dynamite and walk away with their life? Another shocker was one of the victims coming awake while the doctor had been fixing his ribs, and demanded to be unhanded and babbled about a Mr. Doppelganger. As a matter of fact he was still awake, cuffed to the hospital bed, and demanding to be set free so he could thrash the person who locked him up in the first place. The man acted nothing like someone who had just suffered from severe brain trauma.
Due to a sedative dripping rapidly into his arm (courtesy of the frightened medics) Mr. Whigmaleery was finally settling down, wondering how a small bit of metal such as the cuffs could be restraining him, when he noticed Mr. Bifarious lying in a bed across the room from him. His friend was very pale and frighteningly still. “Mr. Bifarious? Far?”
Mr. Bifarious opened his eyes and his face flooded with color as he exploded, “Don’t call me that! Only Fern gets to use that name! Where’s Fern?” He sat up straight. “Mr. Whigmaleery, stop moving the room! Mr. Doppelganger, what happened to him? Who’s cuffed us Mr. Whigmaleery? Tell me so I may thrash him good!” Nobody was answering any of his questions and an idea hit him.
“Where’s my wife?!” he shouted. “Where’s Fern? Where’s my wife?!”
“You can’t claim Miss. Fernticle as your wife!” hissed Mr. Whigmaleery, his words coming slow and slurred as his body continued to fight the drug trying to put him to sleep.
“Why not? She’s going to be. And, look, here comes somebody.”
At Mr. Bifarious’ final shout, the guard had jumped, fumbled with the keys, and unlocked their room. He had decided that no harm could come of telling the man that the two women who had been in the explosion were just fine. Which was his wife?
“The one with freckles on her face,” said Mr. Bifarious. “Can I see her?”
“I’m afraid not, sir. She’s being questioned by Officer Bagheri at the moment. He’ll—”
“If he so much as touches her … ” He blinked. “Questioning her? About what? What happened to—”
“I’ve said as much as I’m permitted. You’ll have to wait until Officer Bagheri comes to hear anything else about the explosion.”
But the guard had left.
“Bloody trollman.” Mr. Bifarious looked at Mr. Whigmaleery. “What the heck’s an explosion?”
With a lazy shrug of his shoulders, Mr. Whigmaleery muttered, “He may mean that burst of light and ringing bells right after the fuse burned out.” He sat up with a jolt and yanked at the silver cuffs. He noticed the needle in the crook of his arm and pulled it out. “I’m not feeling good. I feel as Samson did when his strength was gone. This is a bad place to be trapped. We need to leave as soon as possible.”
“This time I readily agree with you and no lie to it. I’m still hearing those bells.” Mr. Bifarious groaned and gave jerk to his cuffs as well.
* * * *
After the explosion, Mr. Doppelganger had slipped out of the storm sewer. His friends lay on the ground unmoving, people scurried here and there talking into their phones. No one took notice of Mr. Doppelganger, but, well, how could they? He was a fader. Only a Strangel could see him and, at the moment, they were all unconscious.
When the ambulance arrived and shipped away his friends, Mr. Doppelganger followed it. That was how he happened to be able to slip in through unlocked doors behind the guard’s back.
As soon as the guard left Mr. Bifarious’ and Mr. Whigmaleery’s room, Mr. Doppelganger stole in. Never had his friends been so happy to see him.
“Quick, unlock these metal ropes. There’s a good chap!” cheered Mr. Bifarious.
“They’ve found a way to restrain Mr. Whigmaleery?” asked the fader in dismay, and Mr. Bifarious shook his head.
“Mr. Whigmaleery’s strength seems to have betrayed him.”
Mr. Doppelganger inserted a finger in each lock and, with a twist, off came the cuffs. Both Strangels attempted to leap out of their beds and ended up grabbing the metal frames for support and frightening Mr. Doppelganger with their weakened condition. “This won’t be permanent will it?”
“Certainly not.” said Mr. Bifarious. “We’ve only just survived a … oh, Mr. Whigmaleery what was it that troll said?”
“Exactly. Only a little explosion’s got us rattled.” Mr. Bifarious and Mr. Whigmaleery both straightened up and prepared to exit the room.
They opened the door and were pushed back by several men dressed in fine cop uniform. “Leaving us so soon are we?” asked Officer Bagheri.
Mr. Bifarious was undaunted. “We hadn’t intended on bringing you, but if you insist.” He and Mr. Whigmaleery tried to walk through them, but they were still somewhat disoriented and not fit to resist the trolls of this world.
“I’ll talk to him.” The head investigator pointed to Mr. Bifarious, and the Strangel was escorted between two trollmen out of the room. Mr. Doppelganger walked out unnoticed behind them and went in search for Miss Nebbuck and Miss Fernticle.
* * * *
One thousand dollars! Mr. Ramfeezle and Miss Dandypratt had no intention of paying such an outrageous price for the freedom of their friends. They would have to be broken out.
They walked out of the station and sat on the doorsteps. Mr. Ramfeezle took out his pipe and gnawed on the stem. “This is not good, Miss Dandypratt. We should never have passed the North Wall.”
“A very statement of the obvious, Ram. How are we going to get them out of that troll post?”
“Let’s go look for a back door.” Mr. Ramfeezle stood, Miss Dandypratt with him, and the two walked down the side alley, turned left, and left again. They had found a door, but it was locked. “What we need is Ganger,” said Miss Dandypratt.
“Maybe not.” Mr. Ramfeezle stared thoughtfully at an air duct.
Miss Dandypratt read his thoughts. “It’s very too high up.”
“Nonsense,” returned Mr. Ramfeezle as he put away his pipe. “We’ll get a ladder, up you’ll go, pull away that door, and you’ll be in.”
“And what will I do in there? Get locked up as well?”
“You make a distraction and I’ll come in through the front door, free Mr. Bodach and Mrs. Wampus, and we’ll head back to Mr. Doppelganger.”
“How do I get back out?” Miss Dandypratt wanted to know.
“The same way you got in. Really, Mrs. Wampus is the one who is supposed to be dense.”
“It doesn’t look like they use this door very much.”
“All the better. I’ll get a ladder.”
“Wait!” Miss Dandypratt ran after Mr. Ramfeezle. “What’s the distraction?”
“Go find one.”
Miss Dandypratt stopped and fumed. Men!
“Fine.” She turned down the street looking for something distracting.
* * * *
Miss Dandypratt had no idea what she should do. A distraction. The whole city was distracting! Well it had to be small. Small people had small things. With this logic in mind, Miss Dandypratt went in search of children. A few blocks down she came upon a group of them playing marbles. Nothing there.
Hands behind her back, Miss Dandypratt looked this way and that and spotted something. Smoke! She remembered how there had been such a tumult over at the bakery. These people made a big deal over little things; would they more than likely do it again? Of course!
The smoke was turning shades of blue, red, yellow, and white. Entering an alley she saw a group of boys playing with smoke bombs.
She promptly announced herself. “Hello, I’m Dandy. Have you got any more of those? I pay a good price.”
The boys jumped and turned around trying to cover up their mischief, but failing miserably. How could one hide smoke? “Go along, girl. We don’t want you here.”
“I want to buy your smoke.” Miss. Dandypratt held out a few gold coins in her hand.
“Gee willikers!” One of the boys exclaimed, reaching for the money. “Is that real?”
Miss. Dandypratt held it out of his reach. “Of course it is. What’s the use of fake money? I want all your smoke. Deal?”
A box of round balls was thrust into her hands and the gold snatched away. They started to run off.
“Hey! How do you make them work?” They just laughed and ran on. With a stamp of her foot, Miss Dandypratt turned around and went to the kids down the street. “I need help very quick,” she announced.
A girl looked up from the marble game. “Help with what?”
“Do you know how to make the smoke work?” Miss Dandypratt tilted the box to show them the bombs.
“Where’d you get the lot?” she exclaimed. “Want to trade? Two marbles a bomb?”
“No, I need them for a friend, but I don’t know how to work them.”
The girl looked so disappointed that Miss Dandypratt changed her mind. “All right, one trade. I want the very big, very shiny, very blue marble.”
Happy with the trade the girl held up her bomb. “Take a match and light this white string. Throw the bomb away from you, and then the smoke will come billowing out in all sorts of colors!”
Miss Dandypratt nodded. “Got a match?”
“No, but I have a friend who will give us some. Follow me.”
Miss Dandypratt ran after her new friend. They climbed on a trolley and the small Strangel soon found herself completely lost in a labyrinth of buildings. At an apartment the girl told her to wait. Impatiently, Miss Dandypratt did so.
A minute later the girl reappeared. “He’ll give you a box of matches for two bombs.”
Miss Dandypratt looked in her box. There were a great many bombs left and she needed the matches to make them work. Reluctantly she handed over two of the colored balls. Matches in hand, Miss Dandypratt said a hurried “thank you” and ran off.
Yes, Miss Dandypratt was quite lost, but not the least bit concerned. She would do as Mr. Bodach did: count her steps and eventually arrive at the wanted destination. With head bent to look at her feet, Miss Dandypratt walked quickly in no particular direction. Despite the apparent lack of intention, in fifteen minutes she was back at the police station and Mr. Ramfeezle was waiting for her.
“Where have you been? And what took you so long?”
“Never you mind. I got the distraction. You better be very ready to run in there and then straight out with Bo and Wam.”
Miss Dandypratt clambered up Mr. Ramfeezle’s ladder, box in hand, pulled the metal grate off, and dropped it to Mr. Ramfeezle below. With her box of distraction, Miss Dandypratt crawled into the air duct.
It was warm inside the metal passageway. Miss Dandypratt thought of discarding her wool-lined jean coat, but there wasn’t enough room. She was very quiet as she slid her way forward. From time to time she could see into another room, but none held her friends. A normal person would have given up after all the time she spent crawling and sliding through the vents (forty-five minutes at least) but Miss Dandypratt was a positive thinker and was sure she would find them eventually.
And she did.
There were guards with them.
Miss Dandypratt opened the grate very slightly, struck a match, lit a smoke bomb, and dropped it down into the room. She lit all of them one after the other. Below her the guards were choking on the smoke. An alarm went off and water began spraying throughout the room from a place Miss Dandypratt couldn’t quite make out, and there was a loud rush of feet and shouting amongst the police.
The colorful swirls of smoke were so thick Miss Dandypratt couldn’t see her friends, but there was the sound of a key in the lock and someone telling them to move out. There was a groan and a guard keeled over. Miss Dandypratt heard Mr. Ramfeezle call to his friends and that was her cue to turn around (which, despite her diminutive frame, she did with some difficulty) and get out of there.
By good sense of direction or her very good streak of running luck (more likely Providence than either of the two mentioned), Miss Dandypratt made it out of the air duct, slid down the ladder, and joined her friends in a dead run for a sitting taxi.
In five minutes they were where they had left Mr. Doppelganger and were baffled by the mess that had been left behind from the explosion. Mr. Bodach leaned over the now very open storm sewer. “Mr. Doppelganger’s gone!” He turned in circles. “Or dead?”
Mrs. Wampus ran over. “He can’t be dead because we’re still here, Mr. Bodach. Mr. Doppelganger has just gone off without us again.”
“More likely he’s with the others, Mrs. Wampus,” replied Mr. Ramfeezle.
“You mean him and the others went off without us?”
Miss. Dandypratt shook her head. “No, Wam. They’re missing. Together.”
“Well, that’s not good!” announced Mrs. Wampus.
A man from a shoe stand saw their distress and heard their talk. “You wondering ‘bout the crazy folks who was gathered ’round this storm sewer and blew themselves up?”
“Yes,” answered all four Strangels.
“They got taken to the hospital under police escort.”
“Which way to the hospital?” asked Mr. Bodach.
“Well,” said the shoe man, “You take Kelso Ave. up six blocks, take the first left … no, the second … you know what, just get a cab and he’ll take you there.”
* * * *
In a darkened room of the hospital, Mr. Bifarious was cuffed again and sat staring at Officer Jim Bagheri. Mr. Bifarious sized up the trollman. Younger than the Strangel was, but a face aged with experience. A Stranger. He couldn’t recall a single good story about their kind. Strangers who had chosen to live in the other world had done so subtly and so there were no stories of them either. They were just there and accepted by Strangels.
“What’d I do?” he asked. “My friends and I were helping another friend and the next thing you know, we’re shackled in a medical center.”
Bagheri sat back, a pen played at his fingertips. “How’d you get out of those cuffs?”
“Picked the lock.”
Bagheri waited. “With what?”
“My friend’s finger.”
“Sarcasm won’t hurry this up.”
“It’s not my specialty, but I’m being honest here.”
“You should be dead, you know. The four of you were on top of the blast when it happened. Want to try and explain that?”
Mr. Bifarious’ exasperation turned into a scowl. “No, thank you. Too troublesome.”
Feeling like anything but twenty questions, Bagheri leaned across the table, his voice expressing irritation. “Why don’t you take the trouble, and enlighten me?” The man’s manner bothered him. He seemed unconcerned of what had taken place or that he was in police custody.
Mr. Bifarious just shook his head. He didn’t want to discuss it.
Thinking he’d have better luck getting his daughter to confess to sneaking out at night with her boyfriends, Bagheri continued with the interrogation. “None of you have any ID and you’re lighting dynamite in the streets. Anything to say on your behalf?”
Mr. Bifarious took it they had done a bad thing, so he apologized. “I’m sorry about that, but my friend was stuck in that fissure.”
“That hole in the ground. I was just getting him out.” A bit of impatience escaped his tone, but Bagheri took little notice of it. The both of them had little tolerance for the other and he was okay with that. He wasn’t the one in cuffs.
“Nobody saw anybody come out of the manhole after you blasted the lid off.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t.”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your first name?”
Mr. Bifarious frowned in puzzlement. “I don’t have a second name.”
“I asked what your first name is.”
“To say I have a first is to assume I have a second, which I don’t. I am Mr. Bifarious, ask my friends.” Mr. Bifarious looked up in relief as the door swung open. “Took you long enough.”
Five guards, a doctor and nurse were tumbled into the room like sacks of flour.
Bagheri jumped from his chair only to sink to the floor from a blow Mr. Whigmaleery sent to the side of his head.
Mr. Doppelganger unlocked Mr. Bifarious’ cuffs for the second time while informing him the others were outside waiting for them.
“That’s great. How’s Fern and Miss Nebbuck?”
“Get out! Get out!” Mr. Bifarious pushed past the fader. “I do wish you didn’t move and talk so slow.”
* * * *
Outside Mr. Whigmaleery and Mr. Doppelganger had to pick up Mr. Bifarious and Miss Fernticle (who’d got lost in a kiss as soon as they saw each other) and move them down the hall.
When they parted for a breath (by reason of Miss Nebbuck cutting between them) they ran on their own. All nine of them piled into Mr. Ramfeezle’s and Miss Dandypratt’s taxi and they hightailed it out of the city.
Once beyond the last building, they left their cabby and ran across a bit of pampas grass, through the Gate, and from there back over the North Wall and up their mountain. They did not stop once until they were safe inside Mr. Bodach’s house.
* * * *
The moon sat high in the blackened sky declaring the hour of midnight. They sat quietly around the white birch table drinking Mr. Bodach’s chocolate brew and a bit of wine.
A fire glowed from the dining room fireplace. Mr. Bodach sat with his head in his journal jotting down the past two days’ events, Mrs. Wampus mumbled in her cup to herself about the wonderful trip, Mr. Ramfeezle and Miss Dandypratt had their heads bent over a rhyme, Mr. Whigmaleery and Mr. Doppelganger warred against each other in a game of Backgammon, and Mr. Bifarious had Miss Fernticle sitting in his lap with his arms wrapped around her when he opened a little box and produced a silver ring with a jade stone on it.
“Miss Fernticle, after this meet, I don’t want you and I to ever separate again. Will you marry me?”
Miss Fernticle slipped the ring on with an excited and childish “Yes!” and they kissed again.
Miss Nebbuck had never witnessed a proposal before and was much too happy for the moment to ruin it.
And so, with this very life-changing meet, they lived on.
Peculiar people with weird sort of names
Anomalous lives and ways so strange
Featuring their oddity
And a bit of bizarritry
This curious tale was told on their behalf.
End of Story.