Jonathan pushed open the door to the Duane Read, chanting his wife's last words to him inside his head and counting on his fingers. The good decongestant, not the useless one, Kleenex, the kind with lotion, unscented. He snagged a red basket out of the holder just inside the door. Fake Nyquil, not cherry-flavored.
Crap. There were four things he was supposed to get, not just three. Decongestant. Kleenex. Nyquil. And...oh crap. He headed towards the cold medication-aisle, hoping something would jar his memory when he got there. He stared down at the three fingers he still held up and wiggled the fourth, so focused that he didn't notice the huge guy leaving aisle five. Jonathan came to an abrupt stop when the top of his head met the guy's sternum.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking up. Man, was the guy ever huge! He had a red, puffy birthmark covering most of his face. "My fault! I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. I forgot one of the things on my wife's list and I was trying to remember what the hell it was."
"Don't worry about it." The big guy's hand moved back and forth as if to brush aside the incident. "You'd better figure out what you forgot or you're going to get it when you get home." He chuckled. "I bet she told you to write it all down, didn't she?"
Jonathan nodded. She always did.
"Good luck!" The man went on his way.
Jonathan continued down the aisle, grabbing a box of Kleenex off the shelf as he passed, until he reached the cold medications. He found the fake Nyquil easily, double-checked that it was the nighttime version, and put it into the basket.
He wasn't going to make the mistake of getting the daytime version again. If she couldn't sleep, he wasn't likely to either. Then he picked up one of the many versions of decongestants from the shelf. Phenylephrine. That was the useless kind--he needed pseudoephedrine. Funny that the "real" decongestant sounded fake.
A sign on the shelf reminded him that he had to ask at the pharmacy for pseudoephedrine and, after he showed picture ID and signed the log book, the decongestant joined the Nyquil in the basket.
Almost done with the shopping. Then he could grab something to eat.
Decongestant. Kleenex. Nyquil. And something else. He scanned the aisle. Decongestant. Kleenex. Nyquil. And? Aha! Fisherman's Friend! That was the fourth thing! He tossed a couple of different types into the basket and headed to the front of the store. He knew he hadn't needed to write that list down!
At the cashier there was a short line. Jonathan stared into the refrigerated display case while he waited. Ooooh, sushi! When did they start selling sushi at his drugstore? Excellent. He grabbed a variety pack and shuffled forward to the head of the line.
There was just one guy ahead of him now. He was wearing a doorman's uniform and flirting obnoxiously with the cashier. He probably thought the uniform helped him pick up chicks. The cashier could barely keep the look of revulsion off of her face as he made a joke about her helping him test drive his new Viagra prescription. Sleazy. Extremely sleazy and pathetic.
Finally the doorman grasped the bag of purchases the cashier held out to him, and one finger stroked the cashier's hand. She yanked her hand away. The doorman chuckled as he turned away and headed for the door. As Jonathan approached the counter, he made eye contact with the blonde cashier and rolled his eyes in a gesture of sympathy. He didn't want her thinking he approved of that asshole.
After paying, Jonathan left the store and moved clear of the door. He was starving. He pulled out the sushi and started eating it as he walked home. He saved a few pieces in case his wife wanted them.
At home he kissed his wife on the cheek, handed her the bag of cold medications, and offered her the remainder of the sushi. "Hungry? Want some sushi?"
She looked up from the bag. "Where did you get sushi? I thought you were just going to the drugstore."
"That's where I got the sushi--they sell takeout sushi in those refrigerated cases by the line where you wait to pay. Isn't that awesome?" He again offered her the container.
"Drugstore sushi? Ewwwww! Awesome if you're in the market for food poisoning, maybe." She reached for the container. "Throw it out!"
Spoilsport. "More for me then." Jonathan popped another piece of sushi into his mouth and chewed with even more gusto while his wife's face crumpled with disgust.
"That can't be safe." Her face looked concerned.
Jonathan swallowed. "It's fine! I've eaten the whole package and I'm totally fine." His wife sneezed. "You're the one who's sick."
Looking at her, he realized his wife really did look sick. Much sicker than when he'd left for the drugstore or even than when he'd gotten home. It looked sort of like, like her face was slowly melting off her skull. What the hell was wrong with her? What kind of a cold melted off a person's face?
An instant later his wife was gone. That was weird. Even if a cold could melt a person's face off, it seemed unlikely that it would make a person disappear right out of their own living room.
Although...this was not actually their living room. Or it was sort of their living room and sort of really not their living room at the same time. The built-in bookshelves his wife had been standing directly in front of pre-disappearing-into-thin-air were still there but he didn't recognize any of the books on the shelves. They all had titles like 101 Ways to Improve Your Lair, 7 Highly Effective Habits of Henchmen, and Evil Geniuses are from Mars, Victims are from Venus. On the top of the bookshelf sat a small, golden submarine, about the size that would comfortably fit a cat. Stuck to the side was an neon green Post-it note that read "Prototype".
Jonathan turned slowly. That was his couch, his beige, overstuffed couch with the coffee stain on the arm. But on the couch sat a strange woman. No! The woman. The cashier from the drugstore, still in her blue Duane Reade uniform jacket with her nametag on the right side of her chest. Mirabelle. Huh. Why was the drugstore cashier on his couch?
All of a sudden Mirabelle-the-cashier saw him. She stood up and her mouth opened wide. She looked like she was screaming but Jonathan couldn't hear any sound. That was freaky. She threw herself towards him but when her body met a glistening, circular distortion of air that surrounded the entire couch, she was bounced back onto the couch. Was that...a forcefield of some kind?
What. The. Hell?
Jonathan felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. Please let that be my wife. Please let that be my wife and please let her face not be melted off and please let me have fallen asleep on my couch--minus the forcefield--and please let her be waking me up.
The hand on his shoulder spun him around. This was not his wife. Not unless his wife's cold had turned her into a 6-and-a-half foot tall man with the shoulders of a linebacker and an enormous birthmark covering most of his face. Which seemed unlikely.
"I see you've met my assistant, Scarface." The nasal voice came from behind the birthmarked man. The man--Scarface, apparently--stepped aside and there, in the doorway to Jonathan's bedroom, stood a small man wearing silver wire-rimmed glasses and a doorman's uniform. "How did you get in here?" Jonathan wished he knew. "Nobody can penetrate into the core of Skullcrusher Mountain."
Jonathan had no idea what to say. He didn't even know what Skullcrusher Mountain was, except that the little doorman seemed to be referring to his-apartment-but-not-really-his-apartment. He looked around the room that was both completely familiar and absolutely terrifying and said the first thing that came into his head.
"That's my couch."
What a stupid thing to say.
"That stain is where I spilled my coffee balancing my cup on the arm of the couch," he continued. "Even though my wife hates it when I do that." Oh, yeah, that's going to make it alllll better. Idiot.
"Women!" said the little doorman. "Who can understand all their odd little whims?" The man brought his fingertips together in front of his mouth, squinting his left eye and tapping his index fingers against his lips. He must have practiced the gesture in front of the mirror.
"Speaking of women...can we talk? Genius to ordinary man?"
Jonathan assumed he was probably the ordinary man. He nodded. When faced with a potentially crazy doorman who seems to be holding a drugstore cashier prisoner in a forcefield around your couch, always humor the guy. It's a basic rule of survival.
The doorman raised a single index finger and beckoned Jonathan forward. He walked over to the bedroom. Before he could enter, the doorman stopped him by placing a hand on his chest. "I want your opinion of this gift. It's to make her feel more at home here. Tell me if someone who is not a genius can appreciate it. Be honest!"
Honest. Right. What if the gift sucked? How well would honesty actually go over?
The doorman stood aside to let Jonathan go into the room ahead of him, and Jonathan stepped into his bedroom. He was standing in the doorway of a combination workshop and lab. His bed was gone. So was his dresser. In their place were shiny pieces of equipment that he couldn't identify. The walls were covered with pegboard and tools, each of the tools outlined in paint. Some of the outlines were empty and he could see some tools on the counter. They appeared to be covered in dark red paint. Or blood. Hopefully paint.
Then he looked down and saw...well, he wasn't sure what he was seeing exactly but whatever it was, it was now clear that it wasn't paint on those tools. Did that part used to be a monkey?
"I knew it!" The little doorman was dancing with glee. "I knew the half-monkey, half-pony monster was perfect! You are speechless in the face of its perfection!"
Jonathan's stomach felt like it was trying to expel the drugstore sushi. He swallowed a hot rush of saliva and averted his eyes from...it. He stared straight ahead at the wall. His uncle had a cordless drill just like the one that hung on the pegboard. It sucked at holding a charge. He wondered if the little doorman had the same problem with his drill.
"It's perfect, right?" The little doorman demanded a response.
Oh, yeah, perfect. Perfectly horrifying. "I think that...maybe it's not quite...I mean, someone who is not..." Insane. "A genius..." Before Jonathan could find the words, the little doorman smacked himself in the forehead.
"Of course!" he exclaimed. "You're right! I can't give her a gift without a card. That's totally uncool." He turned away and headed for the door. When he got there, he whirled back around and pointed at Jonathan. "Do not touch the monster!"
That was not going to be a problem.
As soon as the doorman was gone, Jonathan left the bedroom. He had to get away from that monstrosity. Back in the living room, he noticed for the first time the whiteboard with a plan, labeled Doomsday Squad, written in multiple colors of dry-erase marker. He focused on the whiteboard, trying to decipher the details to take his mind off of what he'd just seen. Was that the sound of someone crying? But earlier he hadn't been able to hear Mirabelle-the-drugstore-cashier through the forcefield. He turned to look and realized that it was Scarface crying.
"He ruined my pony, didn't he?"
He looked at Jonathan and Jonathan nodded slowly. Please do not kill the messenger.
"Rupert! Poor Rupert!" Scarface moaned. Who names a pony Rupert? Jonathan walked over to the large man and patted his shoulder. Scarface wrapped his meaty arms around Jonathan, buried his head in Jonathan's shoulder and sobbed. "After the last time, Master said he would leave my ponies alone!"
Jonathan stood there feeling his shirt gradually getting wet and made vague reassuring noises. This was awkward.
Eventually the sobs stopped and Scarface let go of Jonathan and stepped back. Scarface pulled a small packages of Kleenexes out of his pocket, fumbled with the flap, and pulled out a tissue. He mopped his face and took a few jagged breaths.
Jonathan gestured in the direction of the bedroom. "So this isn't the first time he's..." He couldn't say it, couldn't be more specific about what happened to Rupert.
"It's the fourth time! First it was the crocodile-pony monster, then the cobra-pony monster, then the octopus-pony monster."
"Actually, an octopus-pony might be kind of..." Jonathan shook his head. Not the point.
"That was supposed to be the last time!" Scarface tossed a balled up tissue into a nearby garbage can. "But then he had the brilliant idea that it would get a better reaction if he used monkeys. 'Everybody loves monkeys,' he said. 'It can't fail to please her,' he said."
It was true that everyone loved monkeys.
"Did he buy his own pony? Of course not!" Scarface was almost yelling.
"If he keeps killing your ponies, why are you still working for him?" Jonathan would have run screaming out the door the minute the plan for a cobra-pony monster was mentioned. Even if it wasn't going to involve his pony.
"Are you kidding me?" Scarface looked at Jonathan. "I'm the most successful henchman in the history of my family! I'm the first one to work in an actual authentic lair." He made a sweeping gesture encompassing the room that was not actually Jonathan's living room. "My father worked at home doing contract work for whatever evil genius needed an extra pair of hands. The evil genius my brother works for uses a tool shed behind his house. In New Jersey!"
That was a pretty pathetic excuse for a lair.
Scarface held his head up proudly. "My Master may be crazy and he may, occasionally, kill my ponies, but at least I don't live in the suburbs!"
"Your mother must be proud of you," Jonathan said. This guy was terrific.
"Oh, I owe it all to her, really. She named me Scarface, for one thing. My dad wanted to call me Timmy. Which is about the worst henchman name ever!" Jonathan nodded his agreement. "She made me practice my henchman skills every day. And somehow she scraped up extra money for a tutor. Without her, I wouldn't be here at Skullcrusher Mountain, that's for sure."
All of a sudden Scarface looked at the ceiling. "Crap. The CD stopped. I better turn it on before Master comes back." Scarface went into the room that was the bathroom in Jonathan's apartment.
A moment later Jonathan could hear the sound of wolves howling. The strangeness of the noise startled him and when he looked up to see where it was coming from, he tripped over a stack of Henchmen's Digest and fell flat on his back. Stunned, he closed his eyes for a moment and the next thing he knew, he was being shaken.
"Scarface?" Jonathan's eyelids were heavy and he struggled to open his eyes.
"Who's Scarface?" It was his wife's voice. "Are you okay?
Jonathan opened his eyes. "I'm fine."
"You passed out!" There was a deep furrow between her eyebrows. "I was scared!"
Jonathan reached out and took her hand. "I was just dizzy. I'm fine, really. A bit queasy, but fine."
He looked up into his wife's eyes, glad to be back but somehow also missing Scarface. He started to sing, "Welcome to my secret lair on Skullcrusher Mountain…"
Thing-A-Week was driving Jonathan insane. Whose stupid idea was it to write a new song every single week for a year? He'd finally hit a wall. He wasn't going to be able to come up with anything this week.
Or could he? He grabbed his keys and headed out to the drugstore.
At the drugstore, he was relieved to see that they were still selling takeout sushi in the impulse purchase section of the store and he bought a large variety pack. On his way out of the store, he held the door open for a woman carrying a small child in overalls with short curly hair.
The kid dropped her doll and it landed face down on the ground. Jonathan bent down to pick it up. When he turned it over, he saw that its pastel pink mouth gaped wide and one of the eyes was staring fixedly at him from the middle of scarred and cracked plastic flesh. He flinched and dropped it again. Creepy doll.
He forced himself to pick it up again and handed it back to the kid. He wiped his hand off on his jeans and popped a piece of sushi in his mouth.
Eat the sushi, wait for inspiration, write a song. He hoped this worked.