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An Existential Crisis in the Toy Room by Dave Cline

The room smelled of granite dust and pigeon shit, that and the subtle scent of rotten eggs. “Brimstone,” said the old man who’d been hired to help them move in. A month ago he’d plodded up the stone steps, his suspenders draped over his shoulders dangling a pair of dungarees that engulfed his waist. Upon entering the room he gave a great sniff. “...And ancient saltpeter, from the days of Charlemagne.” Methodically, with plenty of ruminations upon the legacy of the region, he helped them clear the clutter from the high turret room in the minor castle Rippin’s father had purchased from Société Générale, the French bank that had possessed the deed.

This morning, along with the dust, the high room smelled faintly of bleach Rippin’s mother had used to clean it.

“The dust is likely to give me consumption,” said Scarecrow as he and Rippin and a host of toys sat in a circle on a multi-colored rug in the center of the room. “It’s already choked up Jimmy. Haven’t heard him speak since that raven tried to steal Miss Croquette.”

Rippin, eight, belly down on the rug, his bare feet and legs chopsticks behind him, thumbed through a yellowed manuscript entitled “The Golden Age of Alchemy.” He mouthed the words, struggling with the French inscriptions. He paused his reading at Scarecrow’s words and told him, “The raven wasn’t trying to kidnap Miss Croquette. It came to steal the biscuits left after our party.” He turned the page. “You just don’t like corvids.”

“Ooh, corvids, eh? Fancy,” said Scarecrow, crossing his tiny grass-filled arms. “And no, I don’t,” he finished with a huff. “Nothing good comes from crows and ravens.”

“Where is Jimmy?” asked the diminutive doll, Miss Croquette, dressed as a Geisha. She’d belonged to Miriam, Rippin’s sister, and had been Miriam’s only toy that Rippin had found intriguing. The rest of his sister’s things had been boxed or donated away.

“Jimmy doesn’t engage these days,” Maurice, a ragtag capuchin monkey Rippin had received as a gift on his first birthday, said, sitting cross-legged, attempting to munch on a shortcake. He went on around the crumbs, “When he does talk,” munch, munch, “it’s all about the Void.”

“The Void?” Rippin asked, turning his head to see Jimmy sitting behind the wheel of a sleek black-plastic Audi sports car. Jimmy and the car had been purchased as a set two years ago for Christmas. “Jimmy,” said the boy, waving a slice of apple. “What’s this about the Void?”

Through the playing card-sized driver’s window they watched as Jimmy lifted a hand to his ear and shake his head. He mimed can’t hear you.

“Then come out and join us.”

“Grown reclusive.” Maurice reached for another cake, “All those glances into the jaws of death did somethin’ to him.”

“Jimmy never once looked into…”

Strawman interrupted, “Maybe it’s all this,” he waved his gloved hands about. “All of us, you know. It’s unnatural.”

“Speak for yourself, you overstuffed muddle,” Guignol said, his stiff wires angling away from his arms. “I’m more than thrilled reveling in our current condition.” With that, his Muppet mouth gaped open, trying, though he might, to keep it closed.

At first, the current “condition” had terrified Rippin. Weeks after clearing and cleaning the room, Rippin had braved the strange odors and unpacked his cast of characters. Yearning for a semblance of normalcy, and missing his sister terribly, he arranged his cadre of toys as a conclave around the rug.

The great tower room, with its ancient history and lore etched in its floorboards, its gray stone and wavering glass windows, proved a ripe environment for just such a conjuring.

When Maurice the monkey, animated by some alchemic remnant embedded within the essence of the place, began to chatter about how hungry he was, Rippin sat back in horror, unable to move. When the bedraggled toy spoke of Miriam, “I truly miss her, don’t you?” Rippin was lured into conversation. As the enchantment expanded, the others came to life until the boy’s hesitancy melted away and the room filled with chatter. They’d entertained the boy with healing discussions ever since. That is, until now.

The troupe turned as one at the sound of the Audi’s door clicking open. Jimmy rose, closed the door and sauntered to the rug, his dark tuxedo and bowtie smooth and straight.

“Where is Miriam?” he asked.

A disquieting hush fell upon the room

Jimmy pulled up a toy train’s boxcar and sat. “I’ll tell you where she is. She’s in the void.”

His accent had that crisp British snap, and his eyes, as blue as his namesake. He mimicked retrieving his Walther PPK and played at firing it at each of the others, skipping Rippin, ending with his plastic finger pointing at his own temple.

“It’s where we’re all headed. Even you, son.” Jimmy aimed and fired his fake gun at the boy.

Maurice made to dramatically present the agent. “You see. I told you he’s gone all dreadful and morose.” The monkey looked around. “Are there more cookies?”

“Biscuits,” corrected Scarecrow. “Only the Americans call them cookies. What a silly word: cookie.”

Guignol, his jaw working again, said, “This is serious, you two.” He stood from squatting and as his wires caught behind him, he motioned for Rippin to assist. The boy, still on his belly, reached over and lifted the wires that controlled the puppet’s hands. Rippin nodded, go ahead.

“When you do take us from here, m’boy, from this charmed place, where will we go?” Guignol pointed his blue-felt hands this way and that. “Wither our spirits, then?” He spread his arms, Rippin assisted. “We’ve come into this unexpected life, teased from the Void Jimmy speaks of, and soon, inevitably, will return to it.”

“Oh, let’s not speak of such a time, Guignol,” said Miss Croquette. “We’ve had such a marvelous experience here, living, as it were, in this wonderful castle.”

“But it’s bound to end.” Jimmy approached the Geisha, grasped her porcelain hands and began to dance. Miss Croquette’s smile lit the room. They spun around and around to an unseen orchestra. Jimmy continued, “But, the music stops, the party ends.” The pair’s dancing ceased. “And nothing can be done to avoid it.”

“It?” Scarecrow had begun to prance about, wobbly, ungainly as a giraffe, to the silent music.

“The Void.” Jimmy answered.

“You don’t know that,” said Rippin, whose lips had remained tight since Jimmy had mentioned his sister.

“Not one hundred percent, no.”

“Then, why keep talking and thinking about the bad stuff. About dying and all that. I don’t like it.” Jimmy flung Guignol’s wires forcing the puppet to flop into a heap on the rug.

They all regarded the boy. Each knew they owed an immense gratitude to the lad, not only for this strange opportunity, whatever it might be, but for the simple, pure insights he brought to the group. When all was said and done, Rippin’s contributions nearly always brought clarity to their discussions.

Rippin went on, “Why can’t we talk about the good stuff. The fun, the singing and laughing and playing?” He looked from face to face.

Maurice broke the silence. “And cookies, I mean, biscuits.”

“And the dancing,” said Miss Croquette.

Guignol, from his pile, grudgingly, “I suppose.”

Scarecrow came to sit upon Rippin’s alchemy book. “As long as there are no crows.”

“No crows, check.” Rippin scissored his legs and looked expectantly at the British spy. “Jimmy?”

Jimmy considered the boy. He seemed to ponder the implications of further debate. “Hmm, alright.” He pocketed his invisible pistol and nodded. “So, who’s up for a ride in my car? It’s bulletproof, you know.”

“Does it fly?” Maurice asked. “Flying cars are the best.”

“I don’t know. Boy? Does it fly?”

Rippin pushed the Strawman off the book, cracked it open and feigned reading an incantation. “Cars can be made to fly…” He stood, bent and lifted the car above his head. “Of course it can fly.”

“Excellent,” Jimmy said with a touch of his Scottish accent, “Just keep us out of the Voi…”

“Jimmy…” Miss Croquette threatened.

“The river. I was going to say the river.”

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