Morning came on strong in LazyTown with the sun rising as swift as a bouncing ball and filling Stephanie's bedroom with a cheerful glow. She fluttered her eyes and rose with a smile. Her bright pink hair swished around her cheeks as she twisted her torso and stretched out the nighttime stiffness in her arms.
"Good morning, Uncle," Stephanie sang as she skipped out of her room. Milford Meanswell greeted her from his usual station behind the kitchen counter where he already had an array of frying pans sizzling and several plates stacked high with toast and pancakes ready to be enjoyed.
"You're up early today," Milford said, "you must be hungry. There's plenty of toast, crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, some cereal..."
As her uncle recited the menu Stephanie picked up the nearest glass of orange juice and drained it in one long pull. She clinked the glass down on the table.
"I've gotta go, Uncle. See you later."
"Oh, but— buh-bye," Milford barely had time to say good bye as his niece flew out the door in a pink blur.
Stephanie skipped down the road with her purse swinging off one shoulder. A couple of blocks along she reached the park where Trixie and Ziggy were already waiting behind the brick wall together.
"Hey guys." Stephanie leaned against the wall. "So what are we doing today?"
"Let's ride our bikes," Trixie said.
"I thought we were going to the playground," Ziggy said.
"We went there yesterday. Let's ride around town."
"But I want to ride on the swing," Ziggy insisted. "I almost went all the way over the bar yesterday! You should have seen me. I was going up and down and up." Ziggy swayed in place to demonstrate. He rocked his arms up higher and higher over his head until he was pointing almost straight up. "And then I got up real high, until I couldn't see the playground anymore! I was practically upside down and I could see the top of the swingset, but then—"
"Hey, Ziggy," Stephanie said, "you've got a string loose in your shirt." A long string trailed out of Ziggy's sleeve as he gesticulated. Stephanie reached over and grabbed the tail end of it, giving a smart tug to pull it free.
It didn't pull free. In fact Stephanie found it was as coarse and tough as a wire, and when she yanked on it she jerked Ziggy's entire arm. The little boy gave a yelp as his arm flopped back and forth from Stephanie's interference. The girl jumped back and let go.
Ziggy shook his wrist out and laughed. "What are you doing, Stephanie?" he asked.
"If you want to shake Ziggy's hand you've gotta aim a bit higher than that, Pinkie," Trixie said, snickering. Stephanie stammered and forced a short laugh.
"I was only trying to—" She inched back over and glanced at Ziggy's arms. The wire was nowhere to be seen. She shook her head. "Never mind, it's nothing."
"Uncle, I'm home," Stephanie announced as she walked in.
"Hello, Stephanie," Milford answered from the kitchen. Stephanie paused at the table and watched her uncle puttering behind the counter.
"Have you been in here all day?" she asked.
"Oh my, yes," he said. "I'm making a special cake for Ms Busybody." He raised his hands to show Stephanie his oven mitts before turning around to check on the cake. "And have you been having a good day with the children?"
"Actually, something kind of strange happened this morning." Stephanie tapped her fingers on the table. She pushed a crumb around before brushing it away. "I thought I saw something sticking out of Ziggy's wrist. But when I tried to pull it out, it was like his whole arm was attached."
"Well, now, I'm pretty sure the arm is supposed to be attached to the wrist," Milford said. He hummed a pleasant tune as he opened the oven and slid out the cake pan.
"That's true," Stephanie chuckled, glancing up towards her uncle.
Something stood close beside Milford. Out of the corner of Stephanie's eye all she could make out was the shape of a person, clad head to toe in some kind of bright green material that made them otherwise featureless. And they were holding onto Milford, grasping at his arms and legs.
Stephanie's eyes popped wide open and she jerked her head all the way around to stare. "Uncle!" she sputtered.
But when she looked directly at her uncle the green apparition was gone. The portly man jumped on the spot and dropped his cake pan with a clatter.
"Oh my! Whatever is the matter?"
"There was a— It looked like—" Stephanie's jaw worked without any more words coming out. She rubbed at her eyes. "I think I'm starting to see things."
Milford stooped down to pick up the battered baked goods. As Stephanie peeked through the gaps between her fingers she could just see the hint of green shapes huddled down with her uncle. They guided his movements, manipulating his knees and elbows until he got the pan back in his mitts and then seemed to help stand him back up. She pressed her fingers tight together until she couldn't see anything. The warm aroma of fresh baked cake grew stronger as Milford approached his niece and set the confection down to cool.
"Are you feeling all right, my dear?" Milford asked.
"Maybe I didn't have enough breakfast," Stephanie said. She chanced to lower her hands and met Milford's look.
"Well now, if you're looking for a little pick-me-up, you could go out to the apple tree and have a healthy snack. After all, they don't call it the apple of your eye for nothing."
Stephanie managed a small giggle. "I think it's supposed to be carrots that are good for your eyes," she said. Milford chuckled and pulled off his oven mitts. Stephanie couldn't help a quick peek at his wrists. There wasn't a string or wire to be found. She put on a smile and backed towards the front door. "I'll get some sportscandy from the garden. See you later."
"Bring me back a tomato," Milford said. As Stephanie turned to leave she caught a glimpse of the green ghost hunched down at her uncle's side, moving his elbow to make him wave good bye.
Stephanie walked slowly through town. She looked around herself with a wrinkle in her brow, only just keeping a frown off her face.
The houses leaned and loomed on their foundations. Fences curved in gentle arcs. Even the papers posted on the brick wall were crookedly cut.
Stingy came putting down the road in his little yellow car. He soon came up beside Stephanie and cruised along, pacing her.
"Hi, Stephanie," he said. "What're you doing?"
"Nothing," Stephanie said, and worried her lip in her teeth. "Hey, Stingy, can I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
"Has everything around here always been so… bendy?"
Stephanie stopped walking and Stingy braked just ahead of her, turning in his seat.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"I mean, well, just look." Stephanie waved around. Ahead of them a street light hung over the sidewalk curled like a question mark. The big blue mailbox listed to one side in its bowlegged stance. Even the park bench sagged in the middle, the wood warped in a concave curve. Stingy twisted back and forth in his seat, inspecting the neighborhood. He shrugged.
"Everything looks fine to me."
Stephanie stared at the boy. Her eyes darted side to side at all of the twisted and distorted architecture in town. Stingy looked back at her with his steady low-lidded gaze.
"Why don't you ask Pixel? He's always measuring stuff."
Pixel's house stood on the corner of the block. Oversized satellite dishes and antennae bristling with prongs covered the roof. Of all the buildings in the neighborhood, it did stand the straightest. Stingy parked at the curb and together they went to the door.
The house was unlocked and they let themselves in. "Pixel, are you here?" Stephanie called. She and Stingy picked their way through the hallway narrowed by stacks of computer towers and blinking gadgets. They found the gizmo kid sitting in his usual place surrounded by his wall of monitors.
"Just a second," Pixel said, his eyes glued to the screen directly in front of him. "I'm only two hundred points away from level sixty-three, and then I get to upgrade my hyper blaster by a factor of five."
Stingy and Stephanie glanced at each other. "We just wanted to ask you to check something out," Stephanie said. "It'll only take a minute."
"Uh huh," Pixel grunted, his fingers flying across his keyboard. Odd shapes blinked on the screen without any apparent rhyme or reason. "What is it?"
"Can you tell if something is crooked or straight?"
"That's easy," Pixel said. "All you need is a ruler. Yes, level sixty-three!" The computer flashed and jingled a victory tune. The boy swiveled around in his chair and got up to poke around his room. "I've got one lying around here somewhere. We'll have your answer in no time."
"Thanks," Stephanie said, letting out a small sigh. "I just need to know for sure whether this is all in my head or not. It's been a weird day."
"Here it is," Pixel said, pulling the instrument out from under a pile of papers. He flourished the ruler for the others to see.
"All right," Stingy said with a nod, "let's get this over with."
The boys moved to leave but Stephanie stood still.
"Is something the matter?" Pixel asked. "You're looking pale all of a sudden."
Stephanie remained paralyzed a moment longer before she shook her head. "On second thought," she said, "there's no need to bother. Let's just forget it."
"You sure? You can borrow my ruler if you want," Pixel said. He offered the measuring stick to Stephanie. Her hand trembled as she took it. The ruler looked more like a squiggled line than a straight edge.
"I don't think this will help after all," Stephanie said. "I can't believe anything I'm seeing today."
"If that's what this is about, I might have something you could use," Pixel said.
"Really?" Stephanie set the ruler down on the nearest hard surface.
"Sure," Pixel said. "I look at screens all day so I know a thing or two about eye strain. I even made a machine that monitors my vision and it's got all sorts of ways to keep it sharp. You can try it on and see if it helps."
"That would be great," Stephanie gushed.
"I want to try it on," Stingy said.
"You can try it after Stephanie," Pixel said. "Come on, I keep it over here."
It looked like night vision goggles with a wraparound headband, sporting a wide assortment of blinking little lights, knobs, and switches that covered the whole thing. One big power chord connected it to Pixel's mainframe computer. Stephanie hefted the clunky gear in both hands.
"This isn't going to make me cross-eyed, is it?" she asked. Pixel planted one hand on his chest and held the other up in a solemn oath.
"It's totally harmless. Go on."
The device fit snugly around Stephanie's head. She patted at her hair and fumbled with the thick metal frames weighing down on her ears. "I can't see anything, it's all black."
"That's normal, I haven't switched it on yet. Okay, tell me what you see in three, two—"
Bzzzt. The goggles went online in an instant and Stephanie could see everything.
"How does it look?" Stingy asked.
"Readings are normal," Pixel said as he tapped on his keyboard and nodded at the data feeds coming in. "You've got perfect twenty-twenty vision, Stephanie."
"It's not possible," Stephanie said.
"Sure it is. After all, you eat plenty of carrots, don't you? What do you see?"
Stephanie could see Pixel's room clearly through the goggles. Everything was exactly where it had been a moment before. His monitors scrolled glowing white nonsense symbols that Stephanie couldn't read, the computer towers glinted silver and chrome under the bright overhanging lights, and the blanket lay half pulled off of Pixel's bed in a rumpled blue bundle.
Then there were the green people.
They surrounded Pixel and Stingy, holding onto their arms and legs. Two of them were deeply involved in moving Pixel's hands around on his keyboard to make him type. Another one had hold of some sort of strange black wire or rod connected to Stingy's wrist, and used it to make the boy rub under his nose.
Neither Pixel nor Stingy reacted to the ghostly interference at all. They looked at Stephanie, waiting for her to speak. For as long as Stephanie stared back at them, they never even blinked.
Stephanie yanked the goggles off, tussling her hair into a pink tangle. She tripped over the power chord and stumbled out the door.
"Where are you going?" Pixel asked.
"It's my turn now," Stingy said. "Give me those glasses."
Even with the goggles off Stephanie couldn't stop seeing the town for what it was. She ran down the street so that the twisty and tilting houses blurred together. Ms Busybody tried to call to Stephanie from her yard and the girl darted away down another avenue, but not before she could help noticing just how peculiar it was the way Bessie's hair was always put up the exact same way without a single hair out of place, as smooth and flawless as though it were molded from plastic.
Stephanie ran so fast she didn't even look where she was going and soon enough crashed into someone else on the path. She spun on her heels, barely keeping her footing. The other person wasn't so lucky.
Robbie groaned and rubbed his back, taking pains to sit up. Stephanie backed away from the stripy suited man as he picked himself off the sidewalk and loomed over her with a glare. "You kids never look where you're going! Couldn't you see me?"
Stephanie moved her mouth wordlessly. She balled her hands into fists and matched his glare with one of her own. "This is all your fault!"
Robbie's eyebrows shot up and he took a half step back from the girl. "What could you possibly have to accuse me of? You ran into me!"
"You've done something to LazyTown!" Stephanie's face reddened to clash with her pink hair. "The houses are all bendy and everything's twisty and— and my friends— you're controlling everybody with those weird green creatures. You have them on strings and you make them do what you want just like they're— they—"
Robbie's frown settled into a more gentle slant the longer Stephanie stammered out her accusation. He shifted his stance and let out a sigh.
"I hate to break it to you, Pink-girl, but they've always been that way."
"That's not true," Stephanie said, clenching her jaw. "This has to be one of your tricks."
"As much as I'd love to take credit, this is just how LazyTown is." The suggestion of a sneer played at the corner of Robbie's mouth. "It took you long enough to notice."
Stephanie shook her head and covered her eyes. "I don't believe you! I'm going to tell Sportacus, and he'll fix everything, and you'll be sorry." She turned away from him and ran.
"Old Sporta-swerve's not setting anything straight around here," Robbie shouted after her.
The scenery blurred again as Stephanie ran, this time due more to the tears stinging her eyes. She slapped her shoes hard off the pavement as she stormed through town and let out a small scream but nothing she did could relieve the pressure in her chest or relax the tightness in her throat. At the next opportunity she veered off the road and fled into the park, sinking down at the roots of the apple tree to bury her face against its trunk.
Rapid footsteps approached from behind. Stephanie already knew who it was without having to turn around.
"Stephanie, are you all right? My crystal beeped."
Sportacus crouched down at her side. Stephanie wiped her eyes and looked at him. He looked exactly the way he was supposed to.
"Sportacus, Robbie Rotten has done something awful."
"Really? Tell me."
It was difficult for her to get it all out. She had to keep stopping and starting to swallow around a big lump in her throat and her voice shook, but she managed to tell him everything.
"And now he's saying he has nothing to do with it," she finished, her voice cracking a little, "but he's lying! He knew about everything I've been seeing, he's got to be doing this."
"Stephanie, Robbie is telling the truth."
Stephanie quieted at the hero's testimony. "What?" she whispered.
"The things you've been noticing, they are real. But Robbie is not responsible for them." Sportacus rested a hand on Stephanie's shoulder to steady her. Her brow was knit tight together and her eyes shifted rapidly between his own, searching his face with a trembling urgency. He kept his gaze and his tone level. "I know it's confusing. Things are upside down here in LazyTown. But there's nothing to be afraid of."
"But my uncle," Stephanie said, "my friends. They're—"
"The mayor is still your uncle," Sportacus said, "and they are all still your friends. Aren't they?"
"Yes," Stephanie murmured. Sportacus gave her a gentle grin.
"Then nothing has changed. What you see, it's always been there. It doesn't change this town or the people in it. It doesn't have to change how you feel about any of them. What do you say?"
Stephanie held his eyes a moment longer before letting her gaze slide off of him. She stared off to the side, focusing on something neither here nor there. The trembling settled in her shoulders and her face relaxed. She nodded.
"I always thought there was something different about this town. Now I know why."
Sportacus helped Stephanie to her feet. Stephanie cocked her head to one side as she squinted up at the hero. He smiled.
"Is there something else?" he asked.
"I was just wondering," Stephanie said, "has your mustache always looked like that?"