Last Sunset Over Loopytown

By Heath Lambert

oly shit, a wolf!”

He hadn’t even known it was there. He had been aiming at a doe and saw the wolf’s movement out of the corner of his eye. Jack had fired hurriedly, almost more out of surprise than intention. He couldn’t believe he had hit it running, even broadside, without careful aiming.

He wondered about the legality of killing a wolf. Did they even give out wolf licenses? He supposed he could claim self-defense if he had to. He wasn’t even thinking about the deer that was escaping. Jack Blanchard shot up from the large clump of grass he had been kneeling in.

He felt a punch in his back and saw a gout of blood fire out from his chest. A rifle shot sounded in the near distance as he fell backwards limply. Son of a bitch, I just got shot. What asshole… He breathed painfully and could see, and feel, his lungs expel steamy hot air out through the bloody hole in his shirtfront. Jack’s eyes rolled back and he passed out.

An eighth of a mile away, the hunter whose errant bullet, fired wildly and hopelessly from too great a distance at Jack’s fleeing doe, ran into the woods trying to catch up to the deer, oblivious to Jack’s demise.

*  *  *

Jack could hear the lapping of a stream against rocks and the hoot of an owl. He felt warm, which he found odd. He had always figured bleeding to death would be cold, even when not lying in the snow. The inside of his eyelids were orange, which meant direct sunlight. He could smell something baking, muffins maybe. It smelled great.

He cracked his eyes open and found himself looking up into a wide-set pair of googly eyes. The simple black pupils rolled and meandered in funny little loops and circles, mere specks in huge, shiny white eyes as big as Jack’s palm.

Jack sat bolt upright with a surprised shout. The short, egg-shaped owner of the google eyes jerked backwards, narrowly avoiding a head-butt. Jack scooted clumsily forward on his ass until his feet splashed into the pleasantly lukewarm edge of the river.

The person, the…thing, behind Jack was speaking, most likely at him, in a squeaky, croaking voice. Jack tuned it out, and ran his fingers through the grass beneath him. Not snow, but grass, or close to it. It felt more like Astroturf or that shabby plastic stuff he used to see a lot on people’s doormats when he was a kid.

“Sir? Sir…is that you?”

It was the being behind him and he couldn’t shut out that crazy voice anymore. As he turned, he took in the landscape around him. It was discordant with reality, all bright colors, like a hyper-real painting. Yet it struck, somewhere deep and buried in him, feelings of recognition, of fondness, that he could neither shake nor place.

The trees flanking the river ran in an almost perfectly straight line, one next to another, well past the depth of the horizon. There must have been a few hundred thousand of them, dwindling smaller and smaller into the distance on either side.

Looking over and past the egg-man, which wasn’t difficult (he appeared to be not an inch over four feet tall), Jack could see a sprawling little town. Its architecture was insane. None of the buildings were similar, beyond having only one floor each. They looked like Dali, Picasso, and M.C. Escher had had a drunken orgy and produced a brain-damaged love-child who grew up to get high on mushrooms and hastily craft an entire town out of poorly-made Legos. It was all jutting angles and odd shapes. There was an impossibly tilted windmill rising above the nearest roofs and the probable center of town was a humongous green water tower painted up as a beaming smiley face.

“Sir? That is you, isn’t it? My, how you’ve grown. And your legs…”

Jack held up a silencing finger, studying the thing. No, not egg-shaped at all. He was pear-shaped; not the way curvy women are described as being, but literally shaped like a pear. He wore a brown suit with a sparkling purple bowtie. He had huge…googly eyes, like those old bubble stickers with little rattling black balls inside. They were big, dominating his face, which was chalk white. Yet the eyes somehow managed to convey emotion. Happy shock, at the moment. There was the tiniest nub of what should have been a nose squatting above huge red lips, not painted, but naturally crimson. It would have been scary perhaps if the thing had teeth, but it did not appear to.

Such an impossible creature, yet Jack liked him immediately, as if he already had, and that realization opened the floodgates of memory.

“Sir, do you know where you are?”

Jack smiled, and started towards the village.

“Yes, Mayor Plumbo. I believe I do.”

*  *  *

From the ages of five to twelve, Jack Blanchard had worn leg braces. They had been ugly, clanky things that weighed him down with aluminum shackles.

He had suffered from osteomyelitis in his knees, and while there were less cumbersome and embarrassing means to help his condition, his parents had told him they were too expensive. Jack had never understood why doctors wouldn’t help as best as they could for free. The childhood assumption that doctors were like policemen or firefighters or superheroes, coming to people’s aid without question or charge, ended swiftly for Jack. He was never angry with his folks for not being rich. He was angry with doctors for requiring them to be.

That first summer with the braces on was a model of disappointment. Everything that Jack had been looking forward to was snatched away by the prison around his legs. No swimming, no Slip-And-Slide, no games of tag. Attempts were made initially to have sleepovers, friends over to play Nintendo, birthday picnics. The never-ending silent glances of his schoolmates and neighbors, too polite to ask but not polite enough not to stare aghast, drove Jack to the solitude of his room. There he had created Loopytown and peopled it with friends even stranger than he felt he was.

Jack had tried reading, but that required patience. Loopytown, contained within his ready imagination, was instant fun. His videogames, once conquered, lost their excitement. In Loopytown, every day was a surprise. It never rained there, unless Jack and company wanted to have a mud fight. The lemon yellow sun always shone, but never got sweltering like the real one did.

His disability was such an omnipresent torture in his life that, even in the mind-fueled limits of Loopytown, he had always walked with a twisted limp. He tried and tried, concentrated and strained, but he could not change it, even in his own fantasy. However, no one there pointed or stared or giggled, and Jack always appeared in Loopytown free of his braces, so he came to accept that even that happy escape had strictures.

For nine years, Jack fled daily to Loopytown without ever leaving his house. Even for two years after the braces came off and went away forever, Jack hesitated to reclaim his pre-teen destiny of flesh and blood companionship. He still felt, for many months, like a pariah, more welcome and comfortable in a place that didn’t even exist. In Loopytown, his limp had persisted, as if he would never truly escape the time when he was crippled. There, however, after so long, it felt right. He almost welcomed its familiarity compared to the alien feeling of his perfect health.

Eventually, Jack reassimilated to his youthful energy and natural charm. The child put away childish things. Loopytown was packed away, out of sight, in some deep closet in his brain, and forgotten. Jack hadn’t had even a stray thought about his friends there in almost two decades. Yet now he stood there again, a grown man on the banks of a river stocked with pastel flying fish and an agreeable tiger shark named Bartholomew.

*  *  *

It was just as he remembered. Jogging towards Loopytown, Jack was blown away by his unmitigated joy at seeing this backwards, upside-down place again. Somewhere in the echoing back halls of his mind, a tiny voice urged him to calm down. His situation back in the real world was not all that it should be. Something was terribly wrong and needed his attention. Jack tamped that voice down and ran on.

Behind him, struggling to keep up on his short, broomstick thin legs, Mayor Plumbo spoke through panting hiccups of breath.

“Jack, sir, you really do look wonderful. What a handsome young man you’ve become.”

Good old Mayor Plumbo. A bit ditzy, his citizens seemed to always be more on the ball than he was, but he had perpetually kept the town running with no help from Jack. The little man was warm and giving, with an easy manner that always said just the right thing. Jack stopped, ten yards from the first bizarre building, and turned back. Mayor Plumbo nearly ran into him. Jack lifted the Mayor up and hugged him as best as he could, considering his wide girth.

Jack looked at his childhood friend’s face through eyes moist with a simple happiness that he hadn’t even known he was missing.

“It is good to see you again, Mayor. You haven’t changed an iota, God bless you.”

Taken aback, Plumbo smiled his unnaturally huge smile and returned the embrace.

“Quite right, sir. We have missed you.”

Jack set him down and stooped over, trying his best to keep a straight face while attempting to meet the Mayor’s wobbly pupils.

“Enough of that “sir” stuff, Plumbo. Jack’ll do, please.”

“Yes, sir…Jack. Yes, Jack. As you say.”

Jack slowed to walk side by side with the Mayor. It was so warm here he was sweating in his winter parka. He stripped it off and threw it behind him, not thinking to notice that it was flawless and completely without bullet holes.

“So how’s it been, Mayor? How are you? The town, everyone else?”

“Oh, well, it’s been considerably less fun in your absence, Jack, but we’ve gotten by.”

Jack took in the streets, turning this way and that, sniffing the air.

“I can smell that Ms. Baklava is still at it. Obviously keeping everyone well-fed.” He poked Plumbo gently in his expansive belly. “What are we having?”

“What day is it?”

“Tuesday.”

“Ah, yes. Flapjack feast.”

Jack smiled. “Wonderful.”

“Quite. She has invented three new syrups since your departure. The Chimeraberry is divine.”

“I will investigate that.”

The pair rounded a corner, and just as the Mayor began to say, “Jack, my boy, there’s something I should tell you…” Jack spied someone crouched in the middle of the street. The man was huge in stature and wore rather embarrassing tights. A cape hung down from his shoulders, its length piling in a clump on the ground behind his feet. As they approached, the man gave an almost imperceptible grunt and stood, hefting a sizeable rock, a boulder really, in his arms. There were dozens of similar stones littering the paved road.

Jack called out to the huge man. “Hail, Mr. Strong Guy, champion of Loopytown!”

At his name, Mr. Strong Guy turned his sinewy neck and gasped. “Jack!”

He dropped the boulder and it crashed to the asphalt after bouncing off the superhero’s booted foot, seemingly to no effect. It broke a small divot out of the street. The giant rushed over with a grace that belied his mass and swept Jack up in a bear hug.

Jack fought for air and tapped frantically on Mr. Strong Guy’s rippling shoulders. He muttered an apology and set Jack gently back down on his feet. Jack inhaled deeply and wobbled.

“Easy there. I think you cracked a rib.”

Somewhere in the recesses of Jack’s consciousness that little voice reminded Jack that a cracked rib was small potatoes compared to a sucking gunshot wound, but he tuned it out, or perhaps, was unable to tune it in.

“I can’t believe you’re back. I thought…we all thought we’d never see you again.”

Jack looked past his childhood ideal of a superhero. “What’s with the rocks, Strong Guy?”

Mr. Strong Guy shrugged. “I’m moving them out of the street.”

“Why?”

“Well, no one else is strong enough.”

“Yeah, no. But why are there rocks in the street to begin with? How’d they get there?”

Mr. Strong Guy turned to stare at the rocks with a confused expression. His perfectly square chiseled jaw twisted as he gritted his teeth.

“I…I don’t know. They were just there, in the way. I guess I didn’t think about it.”

Jack smiled and clapped the man on the back. “Oh, well. No one drives anyway. At least you have something to do, huh?”

“I guess so.” Mr. Strong Guy looked frazzled, as if being asked to contemplate a thing he never been asked to question before.

Jack turned to leave. “Well, we’ll catch up more later. I’ve got lots of others to say hi to. I’m sure I’ll see you in the square for lunch, yeah?”

Mr. Strong Guy was still eyeballing his task. “Yes. Flapjacks. I’ll just…finish this up.”

Jack was chuckling and continuing towards the center of Loopytown when the mailbox in front of the post office made a faint burp and followed it with a screech. Jack and the mayor spun towards the sound. The mailbox was twisting side-to-side and whispering.

“Oooo… that doesn’t feel so right…”

The post office tilted rapidly with a groan of masonry. One side of the building sank down into the ground, while the other reached up into the air, dropping chunks of earth and plaster. The structure righted itself momentarily. Then, with a final shriek from the mailbox, the post office and most of the surrounding sidewalk launched into the blue sky like a rocket.

Mr. Strong Guy ran up next to Jack and Plumbo, shielding his eyes from the sun and watching the building get smaller and smaller. The shadow it cast on them grew bigger and bigger.

“What the hell.” Jack exclaimed.

“I’ll get it, sir.” Mr. Strong Guy bent at the knees, his face a bust of determination.

Mayor Plumbo reached out a hand to stop the superhero. “No, Strong Guy, wait.”

Strong Guy gently brushed the Mayor’s hand away. “I’ve got to. It might come back down and land on someone.”

With that, Mr. Strong Guy leaped upward, speeding away, cape rippling behind him.

“I don’t think it is coming back down. Come back!”

The Mayor tried to shout over the quick but powerful wind left in the wake of Mr. Strong Guy’s takeoff. It ruffled Jack’s hair and shirt and carried Plumbo’s voice away.

Jack spoke to the Mayor, but didn’t take his eyes off the dwindling, brightly colored speck as it caught up to the larger speck and moved above it to try and stop its ascent.

“What do you mean you don’t think it’s coming down? What’s going on? You’ve seen this before?”

“I was about to tell you, Jack. This morning the same thing happened to Rudiger’s old shack. It just… took off. He wasn’t in it, thank goodness. And then the bridge out to the forest, then the trampoline shop. As if they were vacuumed up into the sky. Quite extraordinary. And worrisome, of course.”

Jack rubbed his eyes, which suddenly felt very dry and tired. The dots had disappeared from view. He knelt in front of Mayor Plumbo.

“When was this? Just this morning?”

“Why, yes. Just before I stumbled across you, in fact. That’s what I was doing by the stream. Watching the skyline for more…disappearances. Then there you were and I got distracted.”

“Oh god.” Jack was taken with an onrushing sense of dread, and the tuned out voice broke through the static.

“Oh my goodness, look at that.” The Mayor was pointing up.

Jack followed his direction, expecting, praying, to see Mr. Strong Guy triumphantly floating back to the surface, holding the post office effortlessly above his head.

He wasn’t there, and Jack deduced that he never would be. The Mayor was pointing at the sun itself. Swirls of black, like spilled ink, were creeping in along the edges of the sun’s brilliance. Movement was incredibly slow, yet visible, inexorable.

Jack suddenly felt very small and lonely. He surprised Mayor Plumbo with a shaking embrace.

“Call a town meeting, Mayor. Get everyone together. We need to talk, and time, I suspect, is of the essence.”

*  *  *

Within five minutes of the clanging dinner bell pealing across the town, what appeared to be the whole of the population was gathered in the town hall, smack in the middle of the town square park.

Jack counted eight beings, crafted lovingly and breathed into existence by his melancholic youth. Here was Admiral Wilkins, Jack’s notion of the gruff but good-hearted army man. There was Ms. Baklava, kindly grandmother figure dishing out pancakes to the assembled townsfolk. He had never noticed as a kid, but she greatly resembled a ladybug in shape and in her red and black-spotted housedress.

Rudiger McDoogle, the town’s handyman and folklorist, always ready with some time-honored tale of myths to enrapture the townspeople around the campfire.

Simone, a Siamese cat, cartoonishly stretched at the ears and neck.

Abu Dobby, an extravagantly dressed genie, who, in hindsight, Jack realized was the worst conglomeration of Arab stereotypes possible.

Franky, the town bad boy, who had never really done anything worse than skateboard where he wasn’t supposed to and use the swear words that Jack had rarely dared to use himself.

Constable Jenkins, Loopytown’s sole law officer, constantly undermined by Mr. Strong Guy’s super-heroics, but seemingly never bitter about living in the shadow of his cape.

And, of course, Mayor Plumbo.

The gathered spoke politely but cheerfully amongst themselves, mostly about Jack’s miraculous return. Jack leaned in close to Plumbo.

“Is this everyone? I can’t remember.”

“Well, there’s Bartholomew, but he can’t really leave the river, so…”

“Yeah. And Mr. Strong Guy is…” Jack saw Plumbo’s face and paused. “…still missing.”

“There’s What’s-Her-Face, but she’s been gone for some time.”

Jack was puzzled. “Who now? You didn’t know her name?”

“She never had a name, Jack. Or a face. Literally. We just took to calling her What’s-Her-Face.”

“Oh. Oh!” Jack remembered her now, embarrassed. Late in his Loopytown days, Jack had discovered girls. For the anti-social boy who spent the majority of his time alone in his room, girls were a supreme mystery, but a tantalizing one. So had been born a nameless, faceless, and clothesless “woman”, practically an animated mannequin, and about as anatomically correct. She had hung around the periphery of the townsfolk, and Jack had mostly been too shy to actually approach her.

“Jesus. What happened to her?”

“Well, she grew a face eventually. A few of them actually. Her body became more…detailed. And then one day, she assaulted us with some rather unladylike language and fled into the woods.”

Jack rubbed his eyes with his palms. “Sorry about that. That probably corresponds to some rough periods for me, women-wise.”

“Think nothing of it. She…oh. Speaking of the woods, we’re forgetting someone else.”

Jack patted Plumbo’s shoulder (if you could call it that). “I haven’t forgotten. I’ll go deal with him after I’ve talked to everyone else.”

The Mayor thought for a moment. “And Recondo Joe, but I wouldn’t expect him anyway.”

“Holy hell, yeah…Recondo Joe. Where is he?”

Plumbo had a sad and distant sheen to his eyes. “After you stopped visiting us, we were all worried for a time. Joe was…Joe became obsessed. He insisted that you must be lost somewhere and in need of rescue. He set out, following the stream, to find you. No one has ever ventured so far from town before. We tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant. He must still be looking, for he hasn’t been seen since.”

Jack felt humbled and unworthy. “Jesus, Joe…”

“I’ve sometimes worried that my own devotion to you is lacking when measured next to someone like Recondo Joe.”

Jack laughed, though he felt like sobbing himself to sleep.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mayor. I never asked for anyone’s devotion.”

“No, sir.” Plumbo looked out over the group of imaginary beings, family all. “You earned it instead.”

When Jack was silent, the Mayor cleared his throat and continued.

“Which leaves us with Professor Science and Doctor Atomos. The good professor is running late, some experiment or other, you know him. But he should be here momentarily. I don’t imagine his dastardly twin, Atomos, will grace us with his presence, but that’s villainous mad scientists for you. Say… you don’t suppose this is some evil scheme of his, do you? Electromagnets or some such? With Mr. Strong Guy… absent… I fear to think how we can stop that lunatic if it is his doing.”

Jack tried to stifle himself, but laughter burst out past his clenched lips. Professor Science was a small boy’s concept of an eccentric genius. He always arrived to introduce his newest wacky invention, or to explain the science behind some misadventure. Unfortunately, he had only ever possessed Jack’s own knowledge base, and so his speech consisted mostly of good sounding, but thoroughly inaccurate, rubbish. As for his evil brother, Atomos…

“Oh, man, Plumbo. You guys never figured it out, huh? I love it.” He chuckled again. “Let’s just start. I’m sure they’ll both be here soon.”

The Mayor, confused but smiling, nodded. “Very well, Jack.” He rang the large bell again and all assembled in the town hall hushed and turned toward the front of the room.

Jack Blanchard hesitated a moment to collect his runaway thoughts. How do I say what I need to? How do I make them understand?

“Hello, everyone.”

With a resounding fervor, the room called back: “Hello, Jack!”

“Whoa. Yeah, hi. It’s great to see everyone again. It’s been too long. I, uh…I will come and talk to everyone one-on-one, I hope, but there’s not a lot of time so I need to try to…try to explain something to you all.”

Jack swept his eyes around the room, soaking in their mystified, innocent faces.

“It’s going to be hard for you to get, to understand, I think. I thought about just letting you blissfully spend however long we have, not knowing. But that’s unfair… or… maybe, I don’t know, but…”

Sensing his troubled manner, Rudiger spoke up. “What is it, Jacky-boy?”

“Well, see… I always tried to explain to you guys that there’s a real world out there. That this isn’t, and when I leave you, I go back there. I don’t think you ever really got it. But this, the town, the woods, all of you, are my thoughts, my imagination. You’re not real. Not like I am, or my parents, or my car.”

Among the group, there were a few that looked as if they might be grasping what Jack was saying, but mostly they just looked confused.

“And… ummm… out there… I’m dying. Do you even know what that means, dying? I’m going to stop. I’m going to cease to be. And I’m talking any minute now. Time’s always worked funny here, so, hell, we may have days. But I doubt it. If I die, then…”

He had to stop. It was hard, harder still with all them staring at him with varying levels of dawning comprehension.

“When I die, you will all cease to be too. Loopytown, the stream, the sun, everyone here. Will just… not be anymore. And judging from the craziness… it won’t be pleasant. And I’m sorry… I’m… I’m so sorry, you have no idea. It’s not your fault. It’s not, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”

He expected a mass gasp, or anger, or even dumb-founded blank eyes, but all he saw was concern. Concern for him.

“Well, what can we do to help, Jack?” piped up Ms. Baklava.

“Nothing, dear. There’s nothing you can do but wait and spend the time the best you can.”

Simone, hopping up onto Admiral Wilkins shoulder, asked, “Why don’t we go out to this real world with you? We can help you not die.”

Jack shook his head. “No, it… god, it doesn’t work that way. There’s no…”

Rudiger straightened up. “Well, if this is all just your imagination, why don’t you just imagine everything being fine?”

“It doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t even work here. I’ve been imagining Mr. Strong Guy waltzing in here safe and sound for the last half hour straight, but it’s not happening. He’s gone.”

“Gone where, Jack?”

“Away, Mrs. Baklava. Away. Forever. Same as the post office, and the bridge, and Rudiger’s shack…”

“Yeah, I was wondering where I’d misplaced it,” Rudiger said, and reminded Jack so much of Goofy for some reason that it hurt his heart.

“Mr. Strong Guy is gone. Do you understand? He’s dead. I never got to apologize for saddling him with the lamest-ass super-hero name ever, or for making him exist solely to clean up stupid messes and fix stupid foul-ups, and for him dying doing the one truly super thing I ever let him do…”

The door at the back of the hall cracked open, and for one brief second Jack thought it was Mr. Strong Guy, back from the you-can’t-keep-a-good-man-down grave. He would stride in, puff out his chest, and explain exactly how to save the day. Of course, it was not him. It was Professor Science, in his familiar white lab coat, mouthing apologies for his tardiness.

Constable Jenkins stepped forward. “If Strong Guy is gone like you say, who’s gonna stop Doctor Atomos? Surely this all some crackpot scheme of his anyhow, right?”

Jack jumped down from the stage. “C’mon, you guys, are you kidding me? Dr. Atomos…”

Abu Dobby interposed himself between Jack and the crowd. “Wish for it, Jack Blanchard. You must be wishing for it. I will grant your wish, just as I did for ice cream party, and candy rain, and many of things in years past. Is why I am here, eh, to make you wishes true?”

Jack wanted so badly to collapse into a fetal ball and let them fend for themselves. Not out of anger at them, but out of helplessness and hopelessness. “It won’t work, Abu.”

Abu smiled. “You are must be believing within all you heart.”

“It won’t…just stop, please.”

“Come along, now, Jack. Wish for it. Close of your eye and wish…”

Jack shouted, screamed, in the genie’s face. Abu jerked back so hard that his ridiculous turban slanted askew on his head. “It won’t fucking work! It won’t! I’m not a kid who wants rocket rides to the fucking moon! I’m dying! You’re dying! You’re dead! Just shut up…”

Silence. The room fell silent with a near crash, and Jack, head bowed, could feel their eyes on him. He looked up, crying now, and too ashamed to care. He didn’t see blame in his friends’ faces, just a somber wall of sympathy. He clutched at Abu Dobby.

“I’m sorry… I’m… its not you. Sorry, I should not have yelled.”

Abu nodded in simple understanding.

“I’ll actually have some wishes that’ll need granting soon, if you’re still willing. I won’t waste them on things that can’t be helped.”

The genie smiled again. “I await you word, Jack.”

“Thank you, friend.”

Constable Jenkins raised his hand. “Anyways, like I said before, why don’t we go see what Atomos is up to and make him reverse it?”

Jack laughed, despite his grief. “Good Lord, you guys…okay, let’s go do that. But first, let’s ask Professor Science, shall we? Professor, what do think is causing buildings to fly up into the air? Why is the sun turning black? Enlighten us, won’t you?”

Everyone in the room turned to gaze at Professor Science, who was trying his best to blend into the wallpaper.

“Well, urm…of course, we must consider the barometric factors of the harmonium. This time of year the bombarded ions are particularly susceptible to solar flares. Or perhaps it might be linked to the corpuscles within the lunar… ummm… or rather, the gamma… quadrant of… the, um… the… oxidizer…”

“Right. And what about your vile brother? Do you think he has it in him to destroy Loopytown? Hmmmm?”

Professor Science blushed, began inching towards the door.

“Yes, what is that no-account twin of yours plotting now, Professor?” Mayor Plumbo interjected.

“Well, I’m sure I don’t… he’s probably…”

Jack closed the few steps between himself and the Professor, gripped the nervous man by the arms and locked eyes with him. “That’s enough, Professor. It’s okay now.”

Several voices in the group inquired, “What’s going on, Jack?”

Professor Science grasped Jack back. “Please, don’t, Jack. They won’t understand…”

Jack smiled. “They’ll be fine, trust me. You never really did anything that dangerous to the town, did you? Certainly nothing that Mr. Strong Guy couldn’t handle over his lunch break. It was silliness, Professor, a game. No one ever got hurt. It’s fine. Do you trust me, Professor?”

The timid man stood erect and smiled warily. “Indubitably, my boy.”

Jack reached into the Professor’s lab coat pocket and pulled out a pair of dark goggles. He placed them on the man’s face, and after mussing the Professor’s white hair into a mad slather, stepped back to give the room a good look.

A few gasped immediately, while a few didn’t get it until Professor Science turned his white lab coat inside out and put it back on, revealing the sickly green lining that was the trademark of Doctor Atomos, mad scientist and resident arch nemesis.

Constable Jenkins sized the man up, and then jogged his own head back and forth. “But if… then… hunh…”

Franky, from his corner, finally spoke. “That’s fucked up.”

Ms. Baklava swatted at him. “Young man!”

Jack threw one arm around the Constable and one around Atomos. “Christ, people, there’s a tunnel running under the Professors lab straight to Atomos’ lair. That’s how he got back and forth so fast. I mean, it’s just goggles and messy hair. I figured it out when I was ten.”

Mayor Plumbo approached Atomos slowly, still obviously unsure of his trustworthiness. “Why, Professor? Why the charade? All the times…”

Atomos removed his goggles and smoothed his hair back down. He spoke slowly as he removed his lab coat and dropped it on the floor.

“I was never good enough, you know? I mean, you all fell for my nonsense, my gibberish, but I knew. I knew that I should have the answers to things, but no matter how hard I tried, all that ever came out was hogwash. And, I don’t know, the disguise, the sneaking around. It somehow always made my head feel a little clearer. I was feared, and that will substitute for respect any day of the week. I’m sorry I lied to everyone. I’m not a doctor or a professor or anything worth being. I just want to be… some guy, you know? Just me.”

Jack addressed the Professor, but he spoke to the whole room. “No, I’m sorry. I made you this way. I did it for no better reason than to amuse myself when even a crazy, imaginary world got boring. You deserved better. A better existence, a better life, if that’s what you have. But I’m looking to fix all that before I go. Abu?”

The genie glided forward on his wispy tail.

“Professor, if you want it, I’ll wish right now to give you all that knowledge you always felt was just beyond your grasp. I mean, I’m no genius, but I know a lot more about science now than I did as a kid. You can have it all, everything I’ve ever seen or read or heard. If you want it, Abu will make it happen.”

The professor contemplated, but not for as long as one might expect.

“No thank you, Jack. I don’t want it. Especially if what you say is coming is coming, I’d honestly rather not know exactly the how and whys of it if no one else does. I’d wish for something else though, if I could.”

“Heh. It’s not a killer satellite, is it?”

“No, Jack. I want a name. Not a title, a real honest name. Like yours. If it’s not too much trouble, Abu.”

“Sure thing, pal. Abu, make it happen. I wish our friend here had a real name.”

Abu Dobby muttered some, to Jack’s ears, horribly racist attempt at an imitation of middle-eastern language, and snapped his fingers.

The man formerly known as, alternately, Professor Science and Doctor Atomos, smiled the most genuine smile Jack had ever seen in his life. “My name is Dean.”

With a booming of splintering wood, Dean smashed headfirst through the ceiling of the town hall as if he had been tugged on by God. Mrs. Baklava screeched first, in shock and terror at the sight. Then Rudiger bellowed inhumanely as well, as Simone, attempting to halt the sudden upward pull she felt, dug her claws into his arm. The irresistible force yanked the cat up and through the ceiling with a terrified snarl, and she was gone. Rudiger fell to the floor, blood pouring out of the gashes in his arm. He lay staring as his own blood and howling.

“Goddammit!” Jack battled his own desire to scream and cry, rushing to Rudiger’s side. He tore the intact sleeve off of the handyman’s shirt and tied it around the bleeding cuts. He held the old man’s oblong head in his lap.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I suppose when you’ve never felt any kind of pain before that the first time is a real bitch. You’ll be okay, I promise.”

Everyone was eyeing the roof and huddling together.

Jack stood Rudiger up. “Okay, everyone outside now. There’s things to be done before it’s too late, and it’s probably too late already.”

*  *  *

Standing by the river, the citizens of Loopytown couldn’t help but notice the landscape had changed. The water tower was gone. Two blades from the windmill were missing. Several of the squat buildings had left scattered craters and sinkholes along the streets.

With everyone looking toward town, Jack whispered into Abu Dobby’s ear. The genie did his thing, and Jack told everyone to turn around. When they did, they saw a new addition to their surroundings floating in the river. It was a close fit in the waterway, but it would suffice.

“What in the blue blazes is that thing, kid?” Admiral Wilkins shouted, his eyes wide with understandable greed.

“That, my friend, is a boat. Your boat. A Coast Guard Cutter, to be precise. It’s not the battleship you deserve, but it’s all the river can hold, so…”

“I don’t understand, Jack.”

“Admirals are in the Navy, Admiral. They command ships. I was a dumb kid who didn’t know any better. I called you Admiral and then left you on land to command nothing and no one. Unfair. So, here’s your ship. I’m sure that once you’re behind the wheel, you’ll figure it out with surprising speed. It’s what you were made to do, after all.”

“Where will I take it? I mean, thank you, Jack. Just lookin’ at it feels right. But where will I go?”

“Upstream, downstream. Where no imaginary friend has gone before. Wherever you please, Admiral.”

“Well, alright then.” Admiral Wilkins walked towards the new dock and whatever future the water brought him.

“If you come across Recondo Joe out there, tell him hello from me, will you?” Jack shouted up to the deck.

“Admiral! Can I come along?” Constable Jenkins ran up, huffing.

Without a second thought, the Admiral waved the lawman aboard. “I can always use an extra hand, Ensign Jenkins.”

With the increasingly black sun beginning its slide down toward the horizon for one last dusk, the remaining citizens of Loopytown waved goodbye to the ship as it sped away.

Jack turned. “Alright, Franky, my man. You’re next. Abu, I stuck this poor kid with being a kid forever. Please amend this.”

With a theatrical puff of smoke, the teenager that had been the embodiment of Jack’s own rebellious side for twenty-some years was replaced with an adult. He looked like Franky, only older. Bigger. Just as if the boy had grown up normally. He stood amazed and awkward for a bit, adjusting to his new body.

“Well, Franky…or is it Frank now? I suppose so…what are you going to do first?”

Frank was already running back toward town as fast as his gawky new legs would carry him. “I’m gonna break some shit I was never strong enough to break before. Then I’m gonna track down that naked bitch with no face and get my fuck on. Later, dicks!”

“Oh, my…” Ms. Baklava had a way of frowning that withered things.

Jack laughed. “Nothing really changes, I guess. Well, Ms. B, I guess your next.”

The old woman scratched her head and fussed and finally said, “Oh, Jack, I really don’t know. Let me go last please.”

“Alright, but think about it hard. Time is running out. Rudiger?”

The handyman just looked down at his injured arm with a sullen glance.

Abu shook his head. “Already tried that one, I am afraid. Could not make it happen. Just like I cannot be making the buildings or peoples come back from the sky.”

A tear rolled down Rudiger’s nose. “Well, then I reckon I’d rather just beat this thing to the punch and have you disappear me, painless like.”

Jack lurched toward the pair. “What? No. No, you don’t mean that, come on.”

Through gritted teeth, Rudiger replied, “Oh, Jack, it powerful hurts. I don’t want nothing as long as this hurt is here.”

Jack moaned and grabbed McDoogle, burying his face in the old man’s neck. He smelled as always, like apple cider and fall leaves. “Shit… I’m so sorry. I’m… are you sure? Sure you want this?”

Rudiger McDoogle said nothing. He merely patted Jack’s head and nodded his own.

A moment later, Jack was hugging no one, and Rudiger, teller of many fine tales, left his own tale without a word.

When he had recovered his composure, Jack wiped his cheeks with his sleeve and turned to the Mayor. “Plumbo?”

“Give Abu and Ms. Baklava theirs. I want for nothing.”

“Baloney. You’re just as much my victim as anyone else here. More probably, since you had to run this crazy place all by yourself. Now make a wish and…”

He was cut off by Plumbo’s open hand across the side of his face with shocking force.

“You shut your mouth, Jack Blanchard. All you left me to do was the one thing I love to do. I’m no victim. No victim ever felt the pride I feel every day looking at this town and the fine folks in it. Now, I know you’re going out to the woods to talk to The Dire, and I’m going with you. I’m here to the end, Jack, and I won’t hear another damnable word about it. Are we crystal clear on that point, sir?”

Jack rubbed his reddening cheek and took the Mayor’s hand. “That hurt, you bastard.” Somewhere in the distance, what was once a video arcade drifted lazily up into the clouds.

Ms. Baklava backed up a few steps and sat down next to the river. “Well, gentlemen, I’ll be waiting right here for you to come back. You’re both asinine for even thinking of going to see that thing, and I’m not moving until I’ve seen you back here safe. I’ll just sit and watch the sun set. It’s odd, but it’s also strangely lovely if you look at it proper.”

Jack nodded to her. “Alright. I’m all done arguing. Abu, I have one last wish before I release you…”

The genie looked stunned. “Release me, master Jack? What you mean, release?”

“I mean you won’t serve anyone anymore. You had a home before I conjured you up, right? A lamp or some other country or dimension or something. You’re a free man, serving no whim but your own. I wish I could do more, but what do you give the man who can give himself anything, right? If there’s a world beyond this one, I suggest you find it with the quickness. Find a genie hottie and brew up some genie kids. Whatever you want the most, go do it.”

“I do not know what can be said, Jack. I am without words.”

“How about “What is your last wish, ex-Master Jack?”

“Heh. What IS you last wishes, Jack?”

“Well, I need…the Mayor and I need to get into the forest. Now I know you can’t bring back the old bridge, but I’m betting you could conjure up a brand-spankin’ new one, couldn’t you, Abu?”

Jack saw that old sparkle in the genie’s eye, like when Jack was eleven and asked for a bumper car ride or a chocolate river or a unicorn. He heard a WHOOMP behind them, and sure as anything, when he turned around, there was a simple span leading into the woods, made of solid stone blocks.

“Like to see sky pick that up,” Abu laughed. He leaned down to kiss Jack on both cheeks in turn, hugged the Mayor and Ms. Baklava, and then vanished in a plume of blue fire.

*  *  *

By the time they reached the Maw of the Dire, the sun was very low. Jack felt certain that there would be no night; that this sundown was the last one ever for Loopytown, and he feared they might run out of time. He hated to think of Ms. Baklava being all alone when the blackness engulfed the last dot of the sun’s surface.

He was lost in this thought when he felt Plumbo stiffen next to him, heard him inhale sharply. Jack scanned the darkness in the mouth of the Maw cave, but saw nothing. “What is…”

“Here be some ripe piglets, I daresay. And I’ve been some great time since my last pork chop.” The voice was like chalkboard nails in the dead of winter during a plague. A pair of yellow eyes the shade of a hunter’s moon opened in the shadows of the cave entrance.

Jack stepped in front of Plumbo, who did not even bother to pretend at bravery and let Jack take the forefront.

“Dire. Or is it The Dire? I guess I never worked that out.”

“Gnashing. Chomping. Scraping. These are my names. The Dire. The Dirge. Fanged Coda, some call me. It matters not, for they all mean your death, little suckling.”

“Right on.” Jack stepped forward, listening closely for the creatures advance. He heard a shuffling sound, but the eyes got no closer, no head emerged from the Maw. If anything, they seemed to recede a fraction.

“Keep your distance, piggy. You won’t even hear the rumbling of my stomach until you are in it.”

“Uh-huh. Look, Dire, it goes like this. When I was ten, you were the perfect nightmare amalgamation of all my stupidest fears. Wolves and snakes and monsters and invaders from Mars and all that.”

“That’s right, pig-whelp. Yummy pig-whelp. I am all those things and more, baked to a tempered edge in hellfire.”

Jack burst out with an uncontrolled chuckle. “…baked to a…Jesus.” He walked right up to the Maw, within two arm lengths of The Dire. He could practically hear Plumbo jiggling in terror five yards behind him.

“You are foolish indeed, Jack Blanchard. Yes, I know your pitiable name, meat. I know all of you, within and without.”

Jack looked The Dire directly in his flaming eyes. “Then you know that I’m as good as dead already. And that even if I wasn’t, I still wouldn’t be afraid of you. And you’d know that I already killed one wolf today. ”

The Dire grunted, but the sound contained more than trace amounts of distress and anxiety. “You should be, Jack, my pretty pie. I can slurp you up in one bite. As I did with the faceless woman who dared approach my den. Perhaps you should have warned her about me.”

Jack could hear a rustling in the thing’s breathing, an unwell sound, like disease or ancient sickness. “Well, now you shouldn’t have said that. I was going to be nice about this. Now I have no such compunction.”

Jack reached out and grabbed below the floating eyes. He felt the thing’s lower jaw, clenched it hard, felt it try to bite down on his hand, felt the Dire’s teeth snap off at the gum without so much as scratching Jack.

“Because I’m not ten anymore. I’ve grown-up. And in the process, I’ve seen actual scary things. Concentration camps. Nuclear irradiation. Child suicide bombers. Rape. My best friend in the world… the real world anyway… went to war and got injured, and all I knew was that he was hurt, but not how badly, not if he would live or come home in a sack, and I spent three days wondering before word came that he would be alright. I watched cancer eat my father from the inside out to where he was an unrecognizable shell of the man who used to carry me around in one arm. So you…”

Jack pulled, and the Dire dug its feeble claws into the stone floor of the cave. They gave before Jack did, and the thing slid forward.

“…you are a fossil. A dried up old turd masquerading as a genuine terror. I’m not scared of you, not remotely. Which mean you no longer serve any purpose whatsoever.”

Jack yanked and the Dire collapsed out into the light. It landed hard on its side and fought feebly to stand, squinting and shivering. Its jet-black fur was patchy and worn off in spots. The skin beneath was the exact shade of blue as the vampire in ‘Salems Lot that sent Jack screaming out of the TV room when he was four. Out in the sun, the glowing yellow eyes turned out to be opaqued by cataracts.

“I just wanted you to know that, before the end. I’m not afraid of you. You are pitiful and ridiculous. But…”

Jack knelt next to The Dire, wretched and exhausted, and the thing snapped pointlessly at him. “Don’t touch me, meat. I hate you.”

“I know you do. You should. I made you this way. And for that, I’m sorry.”

“Take your pity. I know that secretly your heart shivers at the sight of me. Deny it all you like, I am terrifying. Damn you, I’m terrifying!” It broke off as a fit of harsh wracking coughs tore through its body.

Jack stood and walked over to the Mayor. He looked one last time at the pathetic creature writhing in pain and mute fury.

“I’d help you, but I’m afraid I just gave away my last genie.”

And with that, Jack and Plumbo left the woods.

*  *  *

Plumbo and Baklava sat with their creator, kicking their feet in the shallows of a river with no name, watching their world’s final sunset near its end. The sun was nearly coated completely by the inky blackness, yet it seemed to be getting brighter, a warmer, muted light that cast a sheen on everything it touched.

“What happens next, Jack?”

“I don’t know, Ms. Baklava.”

“You don’t think we’ll go on? After you’re… gone.”

Jack rubbed the queer grass absently. “I have to think that, as figments of my imagination, when my brain dies, your universe is kaput. Or… I don’t know… maybe it’s just easier for me that way because it seems less like I’ve inadvertently killed you all myself.”

Plumbo patted Jack’s back with one hand and held Ms. Baklava’s hand with the other. “Well, Jack, we did manage to survive when you forgot us. We thrived when your imagination was busy elsewhere. I can remember the time that passed while you were away.”

“Yeah, but maybe you only remember that because I’m imagining that you remember that. See? But I would I like to think that somehow just imagining you all so strongly made you real in a way. Or that you exist independent of me somewhere and I just tap into your world. Sure. That’d be cool.”

Ms. Baklava spoke in a solemn whisper as the very water of the river began trickling upward towards the darkening sky. “Perhaps it doesn’t even matter where we’re going or if we’re going anywhere. We most definitely existed and lived. What we’ve already done is probably more important than where we end up, don’t you think?”

The Mayor of Loopytown nodded sleepily. What a long day it had been.

“Maybe so, ma’am. Maybe so.”

“Thank you both. For everything.”

“No, thank you, Jack. Why, we may have never existed at all if not for you. So no more apologies, no more thanks. Let us just sit back and enjoy what is looking to be the most spectacularly lovely sunset in Loopytown ever.”

And so they did, with no more words. The sunset was quite lovely indeed.


One Response to “Last Sunset Over Loopytown”

  1. Terry says:

    This made me cry, the first time I read it!