With Ethan’s hand in mine, we ventured deeper into Uncle Junk’s beautiful domain of detritus.
This place was a maze of winding, dimly lit hallways. There were no lightbulbs to be found here, only dusty chandeliers and candelabras that burned with teddy bears, discarded boxer shorts, old book reports, and whatever else Uncle Junk had been able to stuff inside them.
Every square inch of space, from floor to ceiling, was covered in shelves of merchandise that would have put Aesop’s store to shame. Anything and everything you could think of was piled up in crooked, haphazard towers — and I mean everything. There were the kinds of things you’d expect to see at a flea market, like books, old toys, antiques, dinner plates, and used electronics. But there were also moldy banana peels, candy bar wrappers, broken toilet seats, and half eaten sandwiches.
And I loved every bit of it.
“When he said he got his stuff from dumps and trash cans,” Ethan spoke up after a few minutes of browsing, “I thought he was joking.”
I looked up from the chewed up dog toy I’d noticed. “The sign outside says Trash Emporium. What did you expect?”
“I didn’t think it was a store that literally sold trash!” He poked at what was either the sole of a worn out shoe, or a dehydrated cow’s tongue. “Seriously, who buys this stuff?”
“You’d be surprised what people throw away,” said Uncle Junk, his head popping out of a nearby shoebox like some kind of Junk-in-the-Box. Ethan screamed and ducked behind me. “And you’d be even more surprised what other people will buy!”
“He’s right,” I said. “I come here whenever I can. You can find some awesome stuff here if you look hard enough!”
“Okay, granted,” Ethan admitted, and held up a moldy tube sock with a massive hole in it. “But this?”
Uncle Junk’s eyes twinkled. “You’d be surprised!”
Ethan looked at me, like he expected me to make sense of all this wonderful madness for him, and I just shrugged. Then the door at the front jingled, and Uncle Junk sank down into his shoebox, carefully placing the lid back on top. After a second, Ethan lifted the lid up again, but there was nothing inside but a single muddy cowboy boot.
“That man,” said Ethan, “is clearly insane.”
“Well, of course he is,” I replied. “How do you think he got here?”
Ethan raised an eyebrow. “The train?”
“If by that you mean his train of thought, then yes.” I turned to head further into the store. “And that train has derailed, fallen into a cliff, exploded into a billion tiny pieces, and then a crazy hobo named Angus the Ostrich Slayer used those pieces to make a hundred foot tall statue to honor his favorite butt cheek.”
Judging by the look Ethan gave me, I may as well have been talking backwards for all the sense I was making.
“Look,” I said with a sigh, “interdimensional Corners are really hard to explain, and even harder to understand. Most humans can’t do it. When they try, their brains tend to, you know, melt.”
“I think I’ve been doing just fine,” Ethan shot back.
I laughed. “No offense, but you haven’t been doing anything. You humans are stuck in your normal three dimensions. That’s why I make you close your eyes whenever we cut a Corner.”
“I’m not human,” I reminded him, pointing at my blue hair. “Klaons like me exist in more than three dimensions. There’s length, width, and depth, but there’s also the emotional dimension, where feelings are real things that you can see and touch. We’re part emotion, just like a human can be part French or Canadian or something. And since part of us exists on a different plane, we can see and travel to other dimensions.”
“Then how does Uncle Junk do it?”
“I told you, he’s insane.” I twirled my finger around my ear. “Cuckoo for Cocobutts, you know?”
Ethan narrowed his eyes. “And that makes him…magic?”
I sighed. I told him that these things were hard to understand, but did he listen? Noooo.
“He can cut Corners because he sees the world differently than most humans,” I explained as best I could. “I guess you could call it thinking sideways. Or inside out, I dunno. Look, can you bend your elbow backwards?”
“What? No!” he said, putting a protective hand over his arm.
“Not right now, but if you broke your elbow,” I mimed snapping it over my knee, “then you could.”
“DON’T TOUCH ME!”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s the same idea here. Uncle Junk got his brain all busted up, and now he can travel between dimensions like I do because of it. Make sense?”
“So…like the guy in the mask?”
The smile fell from my face, and a chill ran down my spine. “Yeah. Like him.”
“What do you think—”
“I try not to. Now help me find something!”
We went back to browsing, and gradually my good mood crept back. I scanned every shelf, heart pounding harder with each awesome thing I saw. An empty peanut butter jar. A metal spoon that had been bent in half. A big wad of slimy, green tissues. Ethan barely glanced at anything. I guess I couldn’t blame him. Being a human, he clearly couldn’t appreciate the delicate magic that was other people’s garbage.
“What are we even looking for?” he asked half an hour later.
“Something to trade for Aesop’s book,” I reminded him.
“Okay, but what?”
I stood up straight and folded my arms. “Well, we’ve got two options. One is to find something he can sell in his shop for at least five hundred dollars. The other is to appeal to his, uh, leprechaun-y side.”
Ethan looked at me. “You mean gold?”
“Bingo! Leprechauns pull magic out of gold just like klaons draw it from laughter.”
“They eat it?”
“No, they just have to be holding it. The more gold they have, the more energy they can convert it into. So if we can…ooh, yum!”
I’d opened an empty pizza box and found a bit of dried cheese clinging to the cardboard. I picked it off with a fingernail.
“Henry,” Ethan yelled, “do not—”
I popped it into my mouth. “Mmm! Anyway, so if we can find something big and shiny, he might be willing to trade the book for it.” I paused. “What book was it, anyway?”
He immediately looked away. “Nothing. Just something I’ve been looking for for a while.”
I leaned in closer, grinning. “Is it a girly romance book?”
“No, it is not a girly romance book.” He put his hand on my face and pushed me away. “Why would a romance novel cost five hundred dollars?”
“Oh, come on! You can tell me! We’re friends now…aren’t…we…”
My voice trailed off, and my eyes opened wide.
“Uh, Henry?” Ethan asked. “You okay?”
“Look,” I whispered, pointing to the end of the hallway. “It’s…It’s beautiful!”
He turned. “What is?”
“That!” I ran over and stopped in front of it, wondering if I was worthy of touching such a precious thing. “Ethan, isn’t it the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen?”
He came to join me, and even grouchy, grumpy Ethan couldn’t help but stare at what I’d found.
A solid gold bowling ball.
“That can’t be real,” he said almost reverently.
“Oh, but it is!” Uncle Junk said, appearing behind us. Ethan screamed again.
“Stop that!” he complained.
Uncle Junk reached out and rapped his knuckles against the ball with a sharp clang. “There, see? As real as the giant bunny rabbit behind me.”
Ethan looked back, but the hallway was empty. I shook my head at him. Don’t ask.
“But is it really solid gold?” Ethan asked.
“See for yourself.” Uncle Junk jammed his fingers into the holes and held it out to Ethan — who nearly collapsed under the weight.
“Yeah, I’d say it’s real,” I said, helping him lift it back onto the shelf.
“But why would someone throw that…” Ethan eyed Uncle Junk. “Let me guess, I’d be surprised?”
“This is perfect!” I exclaimed, looking at my warped reflection in it. “Aesop will definitely trade you the book for this! Uncle Junk, how much is it?”
He bent over to get a better look. “Well, this is one of my finer items, but since I’m your uncle I’ll cut you a deal. What do you say to…seven thousand dollars?”
Both Ethan and I deflated like a pair of flatulent balloons.
“Do you have seven thousand dollars?” Ethan asked.
“If I did, we wouldn’t need to trade Aesop for the book.” I sighed. “Sorry, Uncle Junk, we can’t—”
“Or,” he cut me off, tapping his whiskery chin, “perhaps you could do something for me in exchange for it!”
I perked up. “Sure! Anything! What do you need?”
“Uh, Henry?” Ethan said. “Maybe you should ask what he wants before—”
“Excellent!” Uncle Junk grabbed us both by the shoulders. “It’s right around the Corner here.”
He began to push us down the hall.
“Ethan, close your eyes!” I yelled.
One second we were in the shop, and the next we were in a dump. Like, a literal dump. The smell of garbage instantly attacked my nose, and not in the good way like in the store. Flies buzzed, vultures squawked, and Ethan gagged.
“There’s a certain treasure here that I’ve been trying to get my hands on for months,” said Uncle Junk, leading us between the massive piles of garbage. “If you bring it to me, I’ll give you the bowling ball for free.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. Where is it?”
“Right up there!” He pointed at the top of a mountain of trash, where I could just barely make out a bright purple shape. I started for it, but stopped when Ethan grabbed my hand.
“Hold on a minute,” he said. “There has to be a catch.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what’s stopping him from getting it himself?”
I paused. He had a point.
“Uncle Junk?” I asked, turning to him.
“Well, there is one thing,” he admitted.
Picking up a rusty tin can, he hurled it at the garbage pile. It bounced off an old bicycle and clattered noisily back to the bottom. For a few seconds, nothing happened — but then the ground began to shake. The mountain of trash rose into the sky like it was standing up.
Because that’s exactly what it was doing.
A deafening roar came from it, and Ethan took shelter behind me. Higher and higher the trash rose until it blocked out the sun, raining bits of discarded odds and ends all around us.
“Henry?” Ethan asked. “What in God’s name is that?”
It looked down on us the way I imagined an anteater would look at an ant. It was massive. Nearly thirty feet tall, and three times that long. Garbage clung to every inch of its body, making an impenetrable smelly armor. Worst of all, the treasure Uncle Junk had sent us to get was right on its freaking head!
“That,” I answered, “is a dragon.”