Most ideas fade away when we’re done with them. Some we love enough to become Real. But what about the ones we love, and walk away from?
Tippy the triceratops was once a little girl’s imaginary friend, a dinosaur detective who could help her make sense of the world. But when her father died, Tippy fell into the Stillreal, the underbelly of the Imagination, where discarded ideas go when they’re too Real to disappear. Now, he passes time doing detective work for other unwanted ideas – until Tippy runs into The Man in the Coat, a nightmare monster who can do the impossible: kill an idea permanently. Now Tippy must overcome his own trauma and solve the case, before there’s nothing left but imaginary corpses.
File Unders: Fantasy [ Fuzzy Fiends | Death to Imagination | Hardboiled but Sweet | Not Barney ]
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|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
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That case? That one starts with the screaming corn.
Every time I talk about this case, I wish it started differently: some mysterious person walking into my office, or my best friend in the whole world asking for help fleeing to Mexico, or even me trying to help my person learn her ABCs. You know, a real detective story, something that speaks to my soul. Not one where I get hired out of Mr Float's Rootbeerium by the living incarnation of someone's half-baked TV pitch. Of course, if I always got what I wanted, I wouldn't be where I am, so - bigger picture - I guess this is for the best.
The corn in question is growing on the premises of Nightshire Farms, the 'evil' farm down the road from the 'good' Sundrop Farms. The farms are two halves of a children's television series; their person crawled into a bottle and dropped the whole place off in this lovely communal garbage heap of ours before the show got a chance to air. I'm here because Nightshire's proprietor, arch-villain Farmer Nick Nefarious, is worried about the behavior of the crop of singing corn he's stolen from Sundrop's proprietor, his protagonist/sometimes friend Farmer Fran. More specifically, he's worried about the way the 'singing' corn won't stop screaming. He's offered to clear my Rootbeerium tab as payment, but more importantly he's given me a mystery to keep my brain occupied instead of letting it sink into the mud of my memories. (The clear tab is nice though, not going to lie.) So here I am, about to step right into a whole swimming pool of trouble.
Nightshire Farms really tries to drive the whole 'evil' point home, as much as something with the aesthetic of a kid's cartoon can. The buildings are various shades of black and purple, and so lopsided they look like their architects hated the concept of symmetry. Both the farmhouse and the barn have their windows and doors positioned perfectly to look like snarling faces. There's no detail to the horizon, just flat in every direction, and a haze of red dust that makes the sun look like it's dying. The soil is volcanic ash, thick and gray, and all the plants have faces: poison-red berries with wrathful little scowls, street gangs of fat green gourds sneering and looking for a challenge. And between the barn and the house, standing in military-precise rows, is the corn.
Farmer Nick sold the situation short. When he said 'screaming,' I pictured hungry babies wailing, or maybe someone getting surprised in the dark. This is straight-from-the-heart, pants-wetting terror, like the world's biggest predator is one toothy lunge away from devouring the corn and everything it loves. I understand why Farmer Nick was waiting at the Rootbeerium - I don't want to be anywhere near this noise either - but I wish he'd told me that cotton balls in my ears weren't quite going to cut it. I'm tempted to scream just to let out the pressure.
I start my clue-mining on the edges of the cornrows, taking measurements, getting a summary established in my head. The corn's yellow, but more old butter than noonday sun, and the stalks are varying shades of green, none of them healthy. There are sixty-six rows, with six stalks on each row. (If that metaphor seems heavy-handed, congratulations, you now know why this Idea never got past a storyboard.) I do a full circuit for missing or broken stalks, but nothing doing. It's a perfect little phalanx of corn cobs, all of them screaming their darn heads off.
Next, I check the dirt. The ground gets colder the closer to the corn I get. The color shifts, too, turning deep purple instead of choking gray. That could just be a quirk of Nightshire's soil, but my detective stuff says it's a clue.
(The detective stuff is magic. Just trust me; the longer explanation for it doesn't help much.)
I pick up a handful of the gray dirt, let it sift through the cotton stubs I call toes. Other than the temperature, it feels like dirt, moves like dirt, smells like dirt. I pick up some of the purple stuff, and right away it's different - it's thinner and lighter, pouring between my toes in viscous wisps, like I've grabbed onto night-time mist. I have a theory fermenting.
I look at the corn again, and I let my detective stuff speak to me. It says to check their faces, so I take a gander at one up close and personal. It's not pleasant - this close, the screaming's a drill pushed right up against my skull - but that doesn't stop two thoughts from colliding so hard they burst.
I look again at Nick's other crops, and I look back to the corn, and I see exactly what I expect to see. I'm so excited my toes start to vibrate.
"It's the details," I say, to the partner I like to pretend I still have.
The faces aren't like the faces on Farmer Nick's other crops. The others are cartoonish, abstract and simple, just like every other kid-show Idea I've ever come across. The corn, though, has definition. There are veins in the eyeballs, contours and deformities in the teeth, and an all-around stink of compost coming off them.
"This didn't come from Sundrop Farms," I mutter.
See, the one advantage to your creator dropping you in the Stillreal: you can travel to Ideas other than the one you were dropped in. The catch is that when Friends travel to an Idea they aren't originally from, they bring a little of their home with them. If you're just passing through like I am, it's pretty minor and pretty brief; the colors around here might be brighter after I leave, or a few ears of corn might look like they're made of fabric, at least until Nightshire Farms reverts back to its version of 'normal.' But if something from another Idea sticks around too long, things start to go really sideways - like, say, horrifying faces on your ill-gotten crops.
I follow the purple dirt, watching the way it blends into the gray. It was easy to miss at first, but on second glance there's a clear streak of purple extending into the shadow of the barn. It's more a general smearing of color than a simple trail, but still, my theory is putting on muscle.
Conclusion: The corn was absolutely stolen from Farmer Fran, but something else made it change - and that something appears to have hidden in the barn, recently enough that the crops haven't had a chance to reassert themselves.
The doors to the barn are wide open, although given the kind of place Nightshire is, they're probably always wide open, waiting, beckoning, hungry, et cetera. The diseased sunlight does less than nothing to light up the barn's insides.
The safest place in this Idea right now is anywhere but inside that barn, but inside that barn is where the puzzle is. I swallow a little knot of fear, and walk inside.
The sunlight cuts out the second I step through the open doors. The inside of the barn is in perpetual twilight, just enough light to see the odd spooky detail you're sure is just your mind playing tricks on you. The floor is made of pungent, past-prime straw. To my left is a wall of hay bales. To my right is a long row of stables, stretching into the endless shadows. Right in front of me is a wall full of farm implements designed to scare the poop out of people. I tear my attention away from the most barb-laden one, and remind myself to breathe.
Clues will help. Clues will always help. The stables are the place to start. I walk along the row, my head as low to the ground as I can get, checking under every stall door for evidence of inhabitants. Nothing; my detective stuff isn't even kicking up. There's no sign of anything alive in here except me and a couple of oily-shelled beetles. And that shuffling noise ...
It's coming from behind me, from one of the stalls I already checked. It's just on the edge of normal hearing, like socks on a shag carpet as heard through a thick oak door. As an experiment I turn around, and sure enough, the shuffling has moved with me, sounding out from behind again, except this time it's closer. I turn around once more, and the sound whickers out. My sense of calm clocks out early.
This creature has to be a nightmare. Only nightmares move that fast, that particularly, calibrated to maximize your fear. Nightmares also tend to be the most dangerous Friends; the threat of harm is vital to their sense of purpose, and it's not like they can help backing it up if they're pressed. On the bright side, screaming corn doesn't seem as worrying anymore?
The shuffle comes again, close enough to set my nerves on fire, waiting for a hand or tentacle or claw to come down on my waiting shoulder. The worst thing I could do right now would be to run. The second-worst thing would be to call out to whatever is making the noise.
If I do the unexpected, I usually catch the bad guys off-guard.
More shuffling. Ordinary senses wouldn't be able to place it, but detective stuff says it's two stalls from the end, behind another nondescript wooden door. I creep toward it, stop one stall shy, and take a long, theatrical look around, like I can't figure out where the sound is coming from. Then I duck as a blur of shadows and drill bits comes whooshing by, gleaming talons raking the air just shy of where my head used to be.
I blink, and the blur is gone. A silk-onsilk hiss echoes through the barn, coming from every stall at once. I hear sharp bits grating against each other, and huge, heavy things skulking around in the darkness above me. It must have gone up into the rafters, which is basically the last place I want it to be. If I'd known this thing could fly, I might have charged Nick extra.
Some nightmares will stop and talk to you as soon as they know you won't get scared. Some nightmares double down when you get courageous, start getting truly violent. And some are animals, knowing nothing except the chase and the pounce and the fear. And this one chose the spookiest barn in the Stillreal to camp out in, so practicality demands I assume it's type three.
I pivot in place, trying to bait the nightmare back out, trusting my detective stuff to keep me on the ball. There's another rustle off to my left, and a growl of admonishment that I'm sure soaked many a bedsheet in its day. I need to get it down near the floor again, where the tighter quarters created by the stalls will limit its movement.
"Are you a bed monster?" I ask the darkness. "Or maybe a window-scratcher?" I slather the mocking tone on thick, which as a bonus helps cover up my shivers. "What kind of half-scary nonsense were you before you came here?"
The barn stays quiet, that aggravating silence you can tell is going to be filled with noise any second. This Friend has definitely been here for a while if it's got the acoustics down like that. There's more movement, but nothing dramatic enough to suggest it's coming down my way. It won't come down without an opening. This thing is good at its job. I shrug, and start trotting off toward the barn doors, looking as casual as I can manage when my head feels like an alarm clock.
"If you're just going to hide in the dark, I guess I'll go tell Farmer Nick there's nothing to be scared of."
That gets a response. Unfortunately, that response is a whirring, buzzing, impossibly fast blackness diving down at me. Well, I can't say this case is boring.
The nightmare tries two dive-bys first, shooting past one way then the other, glowing dinner-plate eyes flashing as it crosses my path. A stall door creaks open behind me, and the shadows on the wall grow long and hungry. This nightmare knows its stuff. By which I mean 'Help me.'
Focus. I need to ground this thing, and I need to do it fast. The blur sails past me again, close enough to blow icy wind across the fabric of my back, and my hindlegs tighten up, ready to use my last resort. I'm a detective first, but I'm also a triceratops ...
There's a skittering noise behind me. I pretend to take the bait, craning my neck in a desperate attempt to see around my crown. A single nail pings across the floor right behind me, and I have to stifle my chuckle. The distracting surprise. This nightmare's younger than I gave it credit for. A dropped nail, a creaking floorboard - those are tricks you use on kids to get their attention diverted.
Another nail drops somewhere in front of me, a sound that would leave a typical victim spinning in place - so, of course, the nightmare comes at me from the side, a ragged wingspan of buzzing power tools that fills my peripheral vision. I hunker down, let it sail over me, and spring up into the air for a short-range charge. All three of my horns connect with a stumpy, buckle-laden back leg, and the nightmare bowls head over heels and crash-lands in front of me.
"Ow!" it says, like a toddler with a skinned knee.
All my fear, anger, and curiosity pops like a soap bubble. "You alright?" I ask, not bothering to mask my concern.
"No!" it cries, in a tinny, air-duct wail. It curls in on itself, rubbing at its leg where I connected. I'm pretty sure it's actually smaller now. I feel awful.
Now that it's not moving, it's easier to get a bead on what it looks like: black, some hints of purple and red, like the night sky just outside a city. It's about six times my size, four limbs, the hunched stance of a dog or a cat, but its head is roughly human shaped. Given the fluid way it moves, I think it's always shaped like whatever it thinks will terrify its target the most. And then there's the machinery, the eyes like welder's goggles, the whirring drills in place of claws, the saw blades spinning along the ridge of its back, all anchored in place by a spaghetti dinner of leather straps and big chrome buckles.
This is a nightmare, which by the logic that made me means it's a bad guy. I can feel in my stuffing that I'm supposed to mock it, insult it, play it cool. But that's not what it needs, and that's probably not what I need, either. I swallow my first instincts and go with the second wave.
"Anything I can do?"
The nightmare sniffles, still curled away from me, continually rubbing its leg. "No." It doesn't sound sure.
"I'm so sorry," I say. "You scared me, and I reacted. Doesn't mean you aren't hurt, but ..."
It sniffles again. "I was trying to scare you," it says. "I understand. It just ... it really hurt!"
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
It rubs at the affected area for another second. "I'm okay. I'll be okay." It doesn't sound okay, at all.
The good news is, I have a job to do here, and it might actually make things better. First things first. "What's your name?"
The nightmare tenses up in confusion. "What?"
"Your name. If you're willing to give it to me?"
When it blinks, there's a sound like a garage door opening and closing. "I'm ... Spindleman."
"Hi, Spindleman." I extend a cloth paw. "I'm Tippy."
Spindleman looks at my paw, trying to decide what to do, then brightens before enveloping it with a hand that's mostly screwdrivers. Shaking it makes me glad I'm kind of hard to hurt.
"Can I ask you for your pronouns?"
It's very young, then. "When I don't call you by name, do you prefer he, she, ze, it ..."
"It," Spindleman says. "Matthew always called me it."
"All right then, it." I smile, and log the name Matthew for later. "I'm really sorry."
Despite itself, Spindleman brightens. I take the opportunity.
"Can I ask you a few questions? No is fine, if you're too upset."
Spindleman sniffles again. "Okay."
"Thank you." I sit down on my haunches, removing what threat I can, and get ready to memorize. "So ... judging by appearances, you're a long way from home, aren't you?"
I nod, trying to act as casual as possible. "Okay. Can you tell me where you came from?"
"The bushes around the house," it says. It sucks in air like a drowning man. "The, the night-time house with the big orange moon. The one that Matthew sleeps in."
Okay, this I can work with. My stuffing is starting to unclench. "What can you tell me about Matthew?"
"Small," Spindleman says, almost awestruck. "Small, and defenseless, and ... vulnerable." There's a glaze of saliva over its words, but it's hard to hold that against it; we're all what our people made us. "Every night, he has to sleep in his huge room all by himself, and the light in there is bright, so much brighter than the sky I live in during the day ..."
"So Matthew is your person?" I ask.
So it's a very young nightmare, then. "The one who created you," I explain. "The one who made you Real."
Spindleman sniffs, nods. "He was my ... person. But he's not anymore." Its head sags on its long industrial accident of a neck. "He didn't need me anymore."
This sounds familiar. I never stop hating it, though. "Are you here because you got separated from Matthew?"
"He stopped caring about me." Spindleman's goggle eyes widen, and in their glass I see a towering silhouette offering a big, thick hand to me. "He said I wasn't scary anymore, and then he kicked me out, and I had to leave the house and come out here and I ... I ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Imaginary Corpse"
Copyright © 2019 Tyler Hayes.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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