The Muse walked purposefully through the low scrub, carrying the sleeping red-haired child in one arm and sounding out the ground in front of him with his walking stick. Behind him trailed the Rescue Rangers and the recently freed prisoners from the Citadel, a trail of people that reached all the way back to that crumbling edifice. The path was rocky and the going difficult, especially with only the gray pre-dawn light to guide them. Chip drew his leather bomber jacket tighter against the chill in the wind, and even envied Dale for a moment, as Foxglove had lent him her uninjured wing to keep warm, which was as good an excuse as any for her to hold on to him like that.
A brisk zephyr bore the pungent scent of seashore, and presently they saw the ocean ahead. Another rise in the rocky path brought them at last to an open grassy knoll that ended at a seaside cliff above the roaring surf. The clouds above were beginning to dissipate now; some of them splashed with red and orange from the sun, not yet over the horizon.
At the far end of the knoll near the cliff was a low round structure, an open atrium of weathered marble and granite that resembled the Jefferson Memorial in miniature, except that it looked like a tortoise with its high, domed shell made of stained glass, and elevated by elegant fluted columns. It seemed incongruous with the cliffs and the sea for a backdrop, but there it stood all the same. Chip recognized it; he’d seen similar structures in the city, the valley, the Belfry, and even outside the mine. The very same structure he realized, upon closer inspection.
The Muse headed towards the structure, as the line of people began to spread out on the grass, glad of the less treacherous surface. “I don’t doubt that you’ve seen one of these before,” he explained. “This is a gateway back to the waking world. Sometimes when dreamers have trouble making it back, they need to come to one of these portals to wake up. They’re not working because the Nightmare King here,” he indicated the sleeping child with a wry smile, “shut them down. They can be restarted of course, but it takes a substantial infusion of energy to do so.”
“Golly,” Gadget responded. “What kind of energy?”
“A wish.” They had reached the atrium, and the Muse halted. Others began to gather around.
“Is that all?” Chip asked. “Well in that case, I wish we could all go home!” he declared, and waited. Nothing happened. After nothing continued to happen for a bit, Chip began to feel slightly foolish.
“It’s not quite that easy,” the Muse explained.
“Of course not,” Chip replied resignedly.
“It can’t be just a wish you make with your mind. It has to be a wish you make with your heart, a wish you wish for more than anything else; it has to be a powerful wish, not just something you desire, but something you need more than anything else.”
“Like love?” Chip asked, with a meaningful glance in Gadget’s direction. She wasn’t there, and she didn’t notice, she was too busy examining the structure, trying to figure out how to get it started. Chip couldn’t help fuming a bit.
“Shouldn’t try to make decisions like that by yourself, Chip,” Monty said, patting him on the shoulder with enough force to dislodge his hat. Chip glumly re-settled his hat on his head.
“Yes, like true love’s first kiss, I knew there was a reason that theme keeps cropping up in fairytales,” the Muse explained. “True, unconditional love.”
For some reason, everyone looked at Foxglove and Dale at this point. It didn’t take long for them to notice the scrutiny, drawing a self-conscious “What?” from Dale.
The Muse rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that’ll do the trick.”
“What trick?” asked Dale.
Foxglove had been paying slightly more attention, and became somewhat flustered. “Oh, well um . . . er, that is . . . he . . . I, I mean we . . . I mean it wouldn’t even be our first . . .” this statement, inarticulate and confused as it was, caused Dale to blush bright red and fidget.
“First, fiftieth, doesn’t matter,” the Muse explained, matter-of-factly, “as long as it’s true, unconditional love.” People began to move now, clearing a path between Foxglove and Dale, and the atrium.
Foxglove smiled shyly, and now it was Dale’s turn to be flustered. “Wait a minute, I mean . . . I mean you mean . . . you want us . . . Foxy and me . . . in front of all these people?”
“Well, I suppose we could find someone else, but it might take a while,” the Muse said. “The question is, are you totally confident in your love?”
“I am,” Foxglove said without hesitation. “Aren’t you darling?” She looked at Dale. No matter what his personal feelings on the matter might be, Dale knew in his heart that he could not refuse Foxglove anything, no matter what she asked. Truth be told, he couldn’t understand why he was hesitating, other than that, well, he didn’t know. So he steeled himself, and decided to go through with it, for Foxglove and, he realized with surprise, for himself. This was something he needed as well. It actually took less time for Dale to make up his mind than it took to describe the act. Dale saw that the sun was about to rise, and was reminded of the times that he’d watched the sunrise with Foxglove. There had been magic there. The gentle if chilly sea breeze, the rumbling surf, and the ruddy colors of the newborn dawn splashed across the eastern sky and the rolling ocean combined to create an atmosphere that was even more magical.
Dale offered his arm to Foxglove, who slipped her wing through it with a smile, and together they walked up to the atrium, and ascended the worn stone steps. Dale felt a bit like he was being led down the aisle to the altar.
“I reckon if anyone’s got what it takes to get this pile o’ rocks started, it’s you two,” Monty said encouragingly, and Zipper gave the couple a thumbs-up.
Dale and Foxglove walked arm-in-arm to the center of the atrium and stopped, uncertain how to proceed. “Um, now what do we do?” Dale asked turning to the Muse.
The Muse smiled in return. “Make your wish.”
“Dale?” Foxglove began, Dale turned back to her, and their eyes met.
“Luci . . .” Dale began, but Foxglove laid a wingtip across his lips, stopping him. It was an old joke between them, and she had the sense that now was not the time for joking around, even if Dale couldn’t help himself.
“Do you know what I wish for?” Foxglove asked.
“Yeah, I know.” Dale had picked up her sense of the moment, and found himself fidgeting.
“Well, do you wish for that too?”
To always be together with Foxglove? Dale thought. “Abso-tively posi-lutely,” he said smiling. Foxglove leaned towards him, but this time it was his turn to stop her, with a finger laid across her lips. “Foxglove, I just want you to know,” he said, cupping her face gently in his paw, “that if I ever lost you, I’d look for you too. I’d keep looking forever and ever, until I found you.”
Foxglove practically melted. “Oh Dale . . .” There was no stopping anything now. Foxglove wrapped her wings around Dale and planted a passionate kiss right on his lips, which Dale returned with equal passion. As soon as their lips touched, heretofore-unseen runes around the stone foundation of the tortoise atrium lit up in every color of the rainbow. The colored light ascended the columns, and more runes illuminated under the eaves of the atrium’s domed shell-like roof. From the ground beneath them there arose a growing hum of power, as of some mystical dynamo coming to life.
“Oh yeah, that did the trick,” the Muse observed.
The runes grew brighter and brighter, flashing faster and faster, until they achieved a scintillating white brilliance. As the hum reached a crescendo, a shaft of pure white light burst from the floor of the atrium and through the stained-glass dome, ascending into the sky with such force that even the clouds stood aside to make way for it. The gateway was open.
Dale and Foxglove were transformed into two white points of light that ascended the shaft in a slow swirling motion. Those nearest the atrium were also transformed into shining points that drifted towards the shaft of light and began their spiraling ascent. The phenomenon spread quickly, and soon there were hundreds of points of light ascending the shaft in the same swirling dance.
Gadget watched in awe. She still didn’t really believe in magic, per se, but this was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her entire life. Monterey was also dumbstruck, but then he too transformed and ascended, as did Zipper. Gadget felt a force around them she couldn’t identify, and decided she wanted to go home. With that, she too was on her way.
Norton Nimnul, the child, was becoming restive. He opened his eyes and looked around him. “Where’s everybody going?” he asked.
“They’re going home,” the Muse told him.
“Will I go home too?”
“Some day,” the muse promised with a smile. “Wave bye-bye.” Norton smiled and waved goodbye to the ascending points of light.
Chip watched the ascending points of light, also awestruck. There was no denying the beauty of the sight, but his investigator’s mind had a harder time accepting the evidence of his eyes. He started towards the shaft for a closer look, watching the swirling points of light, when he felt a tug at his jacket. He turned around and came face to face with Tammy, much to his surprise.
“Hi Chipper!” she said.
“Tammy? You’re still here?” Chip asked.
“Uh-huh!” she said with a smile.
“Why?” Chip asked.
Tammy put her arms around Chip’s neck and looked him straight in the eye. “Because this is a dream world,” she said, “and this is my dream.” With that, despite the nervousness she felt, she leaned forward and kissed Chip, trying to remember how she’d seen Foxglove kiss Dale, and hoping she didn’t fluff it up too badly.
Chip started to object, but was distracted by the fireworks display someone had set off in his head. As both he and Tammy transformed into points of light and began to ascend, his last impressions of the nexus were of the kiss, and of Norton Nimnul waving goodbye to him as the sun rose over the ocean.
Dale woke up in the hospital ward. Almost immediately he opened his eyes, and after fumbling with the bed rails for a bit, he just hopped over them, upsetting a metal tray as he did so. This was extremely unusual for Dale, who normally woke up at a very leisurely pace. He stood for a moment before attempting to walk, because his legs felt unsteady beneath him.
Nurse Redmond heard a noise in the far end of the ward and went to investigate. Watching a ward full of eerily silent patients was creepy work that would have given anyone the jitters, especially near the end of a long shift. Therefore he nearly jumped out of his skin when Dale practically bowled him over on his way out of the ward. “Hey!” he yelled, “Where do you think you’re going?”
The chipmunk didn’t stop or even look back as he answered cryptically, “Foxglove!”
“Foxglove?” Nurse Redmond wondered aloud. Just then, he chanced to look around the ward, where to his amazement, everyone was waking up. It was almost as though someone somewhere had thrown a switch, turning everyone on at once. Everywhere he looked, people were sitting up and looking around. “Dr. Chen? Dr. Grey!” Nurse Redmond went to get a doctor, any doctor.
Dale burst out of the ward and paused to get his bearings. A sign on the wall with arrows told him which way the other wards were. Dale headed in the direction of the female wards. Nurse Redmond burst through the doors a moment later and headed for the small office space the on-duty physicians used.
“Dr. Chen!” Nurse Redmond said, bursting into the office.
Dr. Chen looked up tiredly from the coffee she had been drinking. “What is it?” she asked.
“They’re waking up!”
Dr. Chen was instantly awake. “What? Who’s waking up?”
“All of them, everyone!” Nurse Redmond explained hurriedly.
Dr. Chen tossed the report she’d been trying to read onto a stack of paper that promptly fell over and rushed out of the office with Nurse Redmond right behind her. “Wake up Dr. Grey!” she instructed him. Nurse Redmond nodded and went to do so.
Dale meanwhile had gotten as far as the desk in front of the female wards. “I told you, visiting hours don’t start for another half-hour,” the matronly female nurse said. Apparently she hadn’t found out what was going on yet.
“Fine,” Dale replied, “can you just tell me if there’s a bat in one of the wards?”
The nurse knew the wards pretty well. “There’s a few in ward six . . .”
“Thanks!” Dale said, and was through the ward door before she could get another word out.
“Hey! You can’t go in there until visiting hours,” the nurse protested, getting up and following after him, but she came to a stop when she saw that the patients were awake, and that a few had even gotten out of bed.
Dale was also momentarily confused, but cupped his forepaws around his mouth and called out, “Foxglove!” He listened carefully.
“Dale!” came the faint reply from the other end of the ward. Immediately Dale was in motion again, almost running the length of the ward, dodging here and there so he wouldn’t knock anyone over until he reached the end of the ward and looked around. There was Foxglove, just getting down from her bed. She was still a little groggy, since she had been exhausted when she opened Pandora’s box.
“Foxglove!” said Dale, and ran to her. Groggy or not, Foxglove lit up when she saw him.
“Dale!” The two embraced as though they had been apart for months. A few visitors, attracted by the commotion, came into the ward seeking their loved ones, and soon joyous reunions were the order of the day. An incredulous Dr. Chen also entered the ward. “Oh Dale, I love you!” Foxglove exclaimed.
“I love you too Foxglove.”
The female nurse looked at Dr. Chen. “What’s going on here doc?” she asked quietly.
Dr. Chen removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “A miracle. There’s no other word for it.”
The noise above their heads was testimony to a similar tableau in the human hospital above.
At Rescue Ranger Headquarters, Gadget woke up just ahead of Monty, perhaps because of her relative youth. She was still seated on the couch, holding Monty and Chip’s paws, right where she had been when the old rat, the Muse, had told them those strange things, so long ago it seemed. She had to admit her skepticism of those things was gone. So, it seemed, was the old rat.
Monterey Jack woke with a huge yawn and a stretch. He looked around, happy to be among familiar surroundings. “Now that was a right bonzer adventure Gadget-luv.”
Chip started to come to as well now. Oddly, he still had a somewhat dreamy look on his face. He looked around, confused, and seemed suddenly surprised to see that he was still holding Gadget’s paw. For some reason he blushed before releasing her, and stood up, somewhat wobbly. Gadget and Monty exchanged a look, wondering if they’d missed something.
“Chip, are you all right?” Gadget asked.
Chip was not quite himself, or at least he wasn’t thinking like himself. At least he thought so, or not, he wasn’t sure which. “Um . . . yeah. Well . . . yeah. Um, Dale and Foxglove and Zipper are still at the hospital,” He started to back towards the hallway. He felt he must look a perfect idiot and was anxious to leave, or at least go somewhere he could think. “Maybe I’d better go warm up the Ranger Wing so we can go there. And pick them up.” With that he turned and went into his and Dale’s room, shutting the door behind him. Monty and Gadget both stood up.
Gadget was very perplexed. “What was that all about?” Monty shrugged in return, more in disbelief than lack of knowledge. He had his suspicions.
The door to Chip and Dale’s room opened back up and Chip came back through, again shutting the door behind him. He pointed at the door and explained, rather unnecessarily, “That’s my room. And Dale’s. Um, so I’ll just go and warm up the Ranger Wing, okay?” Not knowing how else she should respond, Gadget just nodded. Chip turned and walked down the hall to the stairs with as much dignity as he could muster.
“Huh,” observed Monty. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that boy was twitterpated.”
Gadget had never heard the word before, but caught onto its meaning immediately. “Oh,” was all she could say.
The park was full of people again. Parents watched their children indulgently as they raced across the verdant lawn chasing balls, butterflies, and each other, laughing with happiness. Bicyclists and joggers made their way through the park, and many were just there to smell the flowers and feel the sunshine and warm breeze. It was an absolutely beautiful Saturday morning, and nearly everyone in the city, it seemed, had set forth from their homes to enjoy it.
“The Department of Public Health today lifted travel restrictions,” Stan Blather said on the radio, “still unable to explain the epidemic that ended as mysteriously as it began. Public health sources have confirmed that all known victims of the strange epidemic have regained consciousness, and seem to suffer no lingering effects. The Surgeon General has officially declared the crisis to be over, and a grateful nation now breathes a sigh of relief. This is Stan Blather, reporting for--”
Dale grabbed a hold of the tuner knob and gave it a twist. “That’s enough of that guy,” he complained. He continued fiddling with the tuner on the radio Gadget had made, producing appalling noises from the speakers that made Foxglove wince, until he found a station that was playing some music that he liked. Dale listened to it for a bit, then went over to Foxglove and helped her up from the blanket he’d spread under the tree. The two had been enjoying a picnic breakfast following the sunrise. “C’mon Foxglove, let’s dance!”
Foxglove became quite flustered. “But Dale, I don’t know how . . .”
“It’s easy!” Dale said, leading her to a clear patch of grass. “Just listen to the beat and do what I do!” Dale broke into a dance step that was entirely his own invention, somewhere between a Lindy hop and the Charleston. Dale was no Fred Astaire, but what he lacked in talent he more than made up for in enthusiasm. Foxglove watched him for a bit, trying to listen to the beat, then awkwardly at first she tried a few steps, discovering to her delight that fluidity of motion came very easily to her. As she caught on, she improvised a few steps of her own, twirling and showing off her wings, and drawing Dale’s attention just before he tripped over a root and sprawled gracelessly onto the grass. In dutiful obedience to Dale’s earlier instructions, Foxglove tripped over the same root and landed on top of him. Dale seemed embarrassed at first, and then broke into laughter, which Foxglove joyously returned. The two embraced, enjoying the day and each other’s company.
Chip swallowed hard, watching the door cautiously from his hiding place. He was sure his quarry was within, all that remained for him to do now was . . . what? Chip withdrew into his hiding place in frustration, and tried to think. Thinking had always served him well on other occasions, but this time . . . He’d expected this to be easy, but now that he was here . . . Maybe if he’d had Dale with him . . .
No, Chip thought to himself, Dale has things to do. And I also have things to do. Chip fidgeted uncomfortably for a minute, then decided to take action. He rose, and walked away from the door, making it only a few paces before he stopped himself. This is silly! He reproached himself, telling himself to just do it already. Taking a deep breath, Chip turned and marched up to the door, and was about to knock when the door was opened from within. Mrs. Squirrel stood in the partially open door, drying her paws on her apron.
“Are you going to knock already, or are you going to just lurk in front of our house all day?” Mrs. Squirrel quipped with the barest hint of a smile.
Chip felt the flush rise in his face, but made a monumental effort to keep from stammering as he removed his hat and said, “Actually ma’am, I’ve come to call on Tammy.” He hoped he didn’t sound too nervous.
“Oh, is that all?” Chip nodded. Mrs. Squirrel smiled and stepped aside, opening the door the rest of the way. “Well, here she is.”
Chip could plainly see that this visit had been anticipated. Perhaps as Mrs. Squirrel had implied, he’d been noticed there in his hiding place. Tammy stood demurely in the kitchen, wearing a pretty yellow sundress and carrying a straw hat with a yellow flower in the brim. She smiled at the sight of Chip, who was momentarily left speechless.
“Hi Chip,” she said
“Uh, hi Tammy. Um, listen . . . I was just wondering, would you like to . . .” Chip fought to keep the stammer out of his voice, “go for a walk in the park?”
“I would love to,” Tammy replied with a brilliant smile.
Chip nearly collapsed from relief. Placing his hat back on his head, he offered Tammy an arm. She took it eagerly, and together they walked down the path to the ground, where Tammy stopped to put on her hat. Mrs. Squirrel watched them go with a smile, then waved and closed the door.
Gadget watched until they were out of sight, hoping she wasn’t observed. Chip would be furious. She put down the binoculars and rolled over onto her back, putting her forepaws behind her head as a pillow. In all fairness to her, she hadn’t spent the entire morning spying on Chip. On the blanket next to her was a copy of “The Little Prince”, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which she had just finished reading. She didn’t know why she chose that book, except that she had a distant memory of her father reading it to her when she was little, probably because the central character had been a pilot. As she watched the leaves in the tree above her, she reflected on a passage she had read over and over in the book.
That will be my present to you! On one of those stars, I will be living. On one of those stars, I will be laughing! And so when you look at the sky at night, it will seem to you as though all of the stars are laughing! You’ll have stars that can laugh!
Gadget closed her eyes, and listened to the leaves in the trees as the wind fiddled around with them. The sound of the leaves rustling mingled with the laughter of children playing in the park, and Gadget discovered that if she didn’t think about it, it seemed as if the leaves were all laughing, with joy at being alive or delight at being a leaf, she couldn’t tell. And if she listened closely, she imagined she could hear her father laughing there too. Gadget smiled at the thought, and with pleasure at the warm feeling the sun gave her as it occasionally shone through the leaves. Then a shadow fell across her.
Gadget frowned and opened one eye. Monterey Jack was there, with Zipper perched on his shoulder, leaning over her. It gave her a little bit of a start, because she hadn’t even heard them coming. For someone his size, Monterey Jack could move very quietly when he wanted to.
“Monterey, where’d you come from?” she asked.
“Blame my parents, Gadget-luv,” Monty quipped, chuckling. “Actually I just got through making that delivery of ours.” It had been a tough job, getting in and out without being noticed.
“Oh good,” Gadget answered.
“And what have you been up to then?” Monty asked, noticing the binoculars. Gadget blushed and picked them up, but Monterey was already shading his eyes and looking in the direction the binoculars had been pointed in. Monty had very keen eyesight, and the sight of Tammy’s house told him as much as he needed to know. Monty put his hands on his hips and gave Gadget a reproachful gaze. “Gadget,” he began, but then was overcome by his own curiosity, “did Chip . . .”
“Where are they now?”
“Out for a walk, I think.”
“I see. And where are Dale and Foxglove?”
“They left early to watch the sunrise. Dale took his radio and a picnic basket with him.”
“Ah,” Monty replied, crossing his arms and nodding. “You’re going to miss being the center of attention you know,” he said sagely.
Gadget blushed again. “Maybe. But not yet.” Gadget stood and regarded Monterey for a bit. Monty was her favorite “uncle”, and a surrogate father to her once he’d unexpectedly re-entered her life, along with Chip and Dale, following her father’s death. She elbowed him sharply in the ribs, eliciting a short “oof” from him, and remarked, “So when’s it going to be your turn Monterey Jack?”
Monterey Jack raised his eyebrows. “Not likely. When you’ve been burned as many times as I have, you quit playing with fire.”
“Right,” Gadget replied in a tone that suggested that whatever Monterey was peddling, she wasn’t buying any. Zipper laughed, Gadget seemed to know his old friend too well.
Monterey tried to scowl at both of them, but he couldn’t pull it off, so he joined them in their laughter. “Did I ever tell you about this gorgeous jerboa I met in . . .”
“Oh no you don’t,” Gadget interrupted him, “You don’t get out of it that easily. No changing the subject.” Gadget smiled, because she was enjoying watching Monty squirm.
Monterey closed his eyes and let out a breath in a big sigh, and then turned to Gadget and fixed his gaze on her eyes and said, “All right then, on the same subject when’s your turn coming?”
Touché, Gadget thought. She hadn’t actually expected him to turn the tables on her. She was half tempted to respond with “I asked you first”, but she knew that Monty would call her bluff eventually. There was only one graceful way out of this. She sat down on the blanket. “Okay, tell me about the jerboa.”
Monty laughed heartily and sat down too, taking his time to get comfortable before he began to spin the tale. “This happened back when I was a real young lad, just beginning my travels.”
“And that would be nineteen-sixty-what?” Gadget asked jokingly.
“Don’t provoke me,” Monterrey replied good-naturedly, and picked up his tale where he’d left off.
At the State Psychiatric Hospital, the only remaining victim of the recent epidemic lay quietly in his hospital bed. Although Professor Norton Nimnul had not regained consciousness, the staff physician thought he detected a slight change in his patient’s demeanor. It appeared almost as though he were smiling a little bit. He dutifully noted the observation on his chart, and then continued on his rounds, pausing only long enough to take in the other strange sight that had appeared so suddenly this morning.
On the small stand beside the bed, much to the surprise of the staff, was a rather elaborate floral arrangement composed entirely of wildflowers. No one could remember signing for such a delivery, and no one could remember bringing it in. The flowers were a mystery, and even the small card attached to the arrangement only served to deepen the mystery further.
The front of the card bore a half red and half blue circle, bisected vertically by a yellow lightning bolt with a yellow capital “R” on either side of it.
Inside the card were the words, “To Professor Nimnul, get well soon!” written in flowing script, but in lieu of a signature, the wish for recovery was followed by a series of small paw-prints.
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