“Henry, really, y-y-y-y-you don’t have to d-d-d-d-do this!”
The IW rattled violently as it whisked us in directions incomprehensible to the human mind.
“I kn-n-n-n-now I don’t,” I said back. “I wa-a-a-a-a-ant to.”
This wasn’t the IW we normally took. This one was cheaper, but most people avoided it because of how bad a condition it was in — hence the impromptu yodeling sessions whenever we hit a bumpy part of the track. Any other day I wouldn’t have touched this train with a ten foot Splatsy, but today was Friday, and Friday is a holiday celebrated across almost every dimension. That meant that our usual IW would be packed with all manner of freaky things getting a headstart on the weekend, and I didn’t think Ethan’s poor little heart could take that.
“I hav-v-v-v-v-n’t been very nice to you,” I admitted to him. “Consider this my w-w-w-w-w-ay of making it up to y-y-y-y-ou.”
“You don’t have to make—”
“I told you-u-u-u-u, I want to! So stop compla-a-a-a-aining and let me do something nice for you.”
That seemed to placate him. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we passed onto a slightly less bumpy section of track. Every time he so much as breathed, I could smell the laughter pent up in him. It never failed to make my stomach growl, even after I’d just eaten. It was stuck in there, but it wanted to come out. True to his word, though, even after living together for two weeks, Ethan had yet to so much as giggle.
What does it take? I thought. What does Ethan Griggs find funny?
I turned to him and, almost without realizing it, found myself straining. Don’t ask me what I was straining, because I couldn’t even explain it to myself. It was like trying to flex a muscle you knew you should have, but couldn’t find. My head began to pound, my eyes watered, and I tore my gaze away from him. He raised an eyebrow, confused.
“Uh, you okay?”
“Peachy!” I snapped, a little more McGusishly than I meant to.
“Are you sure? Because you were just glaring at me like you wanted to eat me.”
I didn’t respond, waiting sourly for the headache to pass. Stupid! Even after fifteen years, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. Despite it never having worked, not a single time, I couldn’t bring myself to accept that I was…you know…
Looks like I’ll have to do this the old fashioned way, I thought.
“Hey, Ethan! What’s red, smells bad, and is really crunchy?”
“I don’t know.”
I grinned at him. “A brick!”
He raised an eyebrow. “Bricks don’t smell bad.”
“They do if you just pooped on it,” I insisted.
“Henry, that’s gross!” He scooted away from me.
“Oh, come on!” I said, shaking him by the shoulder. “It was funny!”
“If that’s what you need to think, then fine.”
I scowled at him, but made myself shrug it off. I’d known this wasn’t going to be easy the minute I’d taken this solemn duty upon myself. It looked like I would have to bring out the big guns.
“If that’s what your mom needs to think, then fine,” I said with a sly smile.
He groaned softly. “Please don’t.”
“That’s what your mom said last night!”
“Your mom was seriously—”
“My mom is dead, Henry!”
“Your mom is…” I froze, mouth hanging open. “Right. Sorry.”
“I know what you’re trying to do,” he grumped, arms folded, “and I don’t appreciate it. I don’t want to laugh, okay?”
“What kind of person doesn’t—”
“The kind of person who had to watch his parents die!” he yelled, finally losing his patience. He stood up. “The kind of person who knows that the world is dark, cold, and doesn’t give a damn about you! It’ll do everything it can to destroy you, and it doesn’t even need a reason for it!”
I held out a hand toward him. “Ethan, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
But he wasn’t done yet.
“People who go around laughing and smiling all the time — people like you — just don’t get it. You don’t get that nothing out there is funny. That to laugh, you have to ignore everything that’s wrong with the world. You lie to yourself,” he turned and glared at me, “and trying to make other people laugh with you is lying to them, too!”
I stared at him, wide eyed and stunned.
“That’s not true,” I whispered.
Ethan blinked, like he hadn’t realized what he was saying, then sat back down and refused to look at me. We rode in silence for the next few minutes. Suddenly, I was glad we were the only two people on the train.
By trying to make people laugh, I was…lying to them? No, that couldn’t be true. Yeah, the world sucked, but laugher was one of the few things it hadn’t managed to turn bad. Laughter was what fought the suckiness, pushed it back and made everything look a little bit better.
“So, where are we going, anyway?” Ethan finally asked.
I perked up. “To Uncle Junk’s dimension.”
“His dimension?” Ethan looked at me.
“Yep. It’s a pocket dimension. Real small.” I pinched my thumb and finger together. “People like to open up shops in them.”
He nodded slowly. “And what shop is this?”
The crappy IW came to a screeching halt, nearly throwing us both out of our seats. I sprang to my feet and dragged Ethan to the doors, which slid open with a loud squeal to reveal…
“Ethan Griggs,” I said, thrusting my hand outside, “welcome to Uncle Junk’s Trash Emporium!”
It…was…beautiful! A rectangular palace made of old wood, big rocks, bits of brick, and anything else that had been lying around. The walls were splattered with every color imaginable, like someone had loaded a hundred cans of paint into a cannon and fired them into a giant fan. A shiny hedge of metal trash cans surrounded the store and, unlike my last visit, this time only one part of the building was on fire.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think it smells like a sewer threw up in a litter box,” Ethan said, putting a hand over his nose.
“You know what that smell is?” I asked, grinning.
“I don’t think I want—”
“It’s the smell of a shopping trip!” Grabbing him by the hand, I pulled him inside. “Whoohoo!”
The wooden doors swung open to let us in, and I giggled with girlish excitement. Some girls like shopping for clothes, others for shoes, but not me. Usually. No, what I loved was digging through the hallowed halls of Uncle Junk’s Trash Emporium like an archaeologist who’d just been given her allowance, searching for ancient relics and cursed artifacts long since forgotten by the world of men. Or maybe just a cool knickknack or two.
“Welcome, welcome!” a loud, boisterous voice greeted us. A cloud of smoke hung in the air, but was swept dramatically away to reveal a man in a ratty old suit. Tall had never felt like the right word to describe him, so he was seven and a half feet long, with gangly arms that almost reached his knees. He wore a top hat, but it was pulled down over his face so that only his manic, toothy grin was showing. Holes had been cut out for his eyes, which always seemed to be pointing different directions.
“Uncle Junk!” I screamed.
“Henry Rider!” he screamed back. “Look at you! You’ve grown so much in the three weeks since I last saw you!”
“Uncle Junk,” I said, pulling Ethan to stand beside me, “I brought a friend today. This is Ethan.”
“Ethan, my boy, my friend, my papagei tauchte in ahornsirup!” He took one of Ethan’s hands in his long fingered grip. “It is an honor to meet you! A pleasure! I’ve heard so much about you!”
Ethan’s eyes widened a little. “You have?”
Ethan looked at me and whispered, “Is this guy really your uncle?”
“No,” I admitted. “He just likes people to call him that.”
“I,” declared Uncle Junk, “am everyone’s uncle! I went to college for it!”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
He dug in his pocket for a second, then produced a folded up piece of notebook paper with Uncle Junk written on it. “See?”
Ethan held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, sure.”
I laughed behind my hand. Poor Ethan. I felt sorry for him, being in over his head so often. But sometimes his…you know, human-ness…was just too much not to laugh at.
Uncle Junk stuffed his diploma in his mouth, chewed it, and swallowed. “Now, how can I help you today?”
“We’re just here to browse,” I said. “Got anything new?”
“Always! Fresh deliveries from dumps, landfills, and trash cans from all over the world!” He waved his hand, inviting us into his wonderland of garbage. “Take your time, and don’t hesitate to…” One of his eyes swiveled to look at something I couldn’t see. “Ooh, a butterfly!”
He dashed away, leaving us alone. Ethan gave me a look of utter flabbergastment — I’m still going to turn that into a word — but I just grinned at him.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing his hand. “It’s time to shop!”