“Y’all must be th’new guy.” I spat a wad of grits, placing my napkin gently on the tray next to a hot-dog wrapper and an empty soda can.
The shortest little hombre I’d ever seen just schlumped through the swinging doors of the galleria Nathan’s. The regulars stopped to stare, just as they’d stared at me. These Westchester folk probably aren’t used to out-of-towners. Still, it’s best not to mistake them for a bunch of rubes; not in a place like this.
He definitely fit the mark’s description: a burly lawn gnome in wrestler’s garb. Of course, it was likely — nay, unimpossible — the professor would send impostors…
“Name’s Puck.” Gruff. Short, and to the point. Brilliant.
“Nice pelt,” I analyzed his belt. Pure moose skin, near-Palin caliber.
He pulled out an egg-white flier with cigar burns near the fringes and an “O”-shaped coffee stain rendering a swathe of text unreadable. “Professor X sent me.”
I dipped a fat circular fry in my small ketchup cup. Took my time of it, too.
“How is the professor?” I smiled. “Still driving that… Prius?”
Now he smiled. “Why don’t we mount an expedition to find out?”
An impostor would have known about the Ford Expedition in the mall parking lot, true, but I wasn’t looking for answers. I was looking for subtle, subdued rage.
The rage of a dwarf in pain.
He was losing patience, and we were losing daylight.
“C’mon, buckaroo,” I stood up, keeping my back to the wall and my eyes on the townsfolk. “We’ve got us a challenge to win.”
As I opened the front door for Puck, an elderly gentleman strolled out of the restroom and stopped dead at my table, staring at it with a mixture of horror and anguish.
“That wasn’t really your—”
“Don’t look back, Puck. That’s the first thing you’ve got to learn about working with me — I never look back. Fries?”
The first leg of our journey to Saskatchewan was peaceful. We’d decided to hoof it — on horseback, naturally. Only motor vehicles get checked at the border, and neither of us had passports.
It was a beautiful day to be out on the open road, anyway. The horses were a little sluggish, though. You’d think the clear skies and fresh air would distract them from the Ford Expedition harnessed to their backs.
“Canada, eh? I’ve got some friends up north… ever heard of Captain Canuck?”
Puck grimaced, quietly rolling his eyes. “A lot of people confuse Captain Canuck with the guy who led Alpha Flight—”
“But you all use secret identities, so it might be the same guy.”
His horse broke stride with mine. “It’s not the same guy.”
“Their costumes are very similar.”
“I know they’re similar, that’s why people keep confusing them.”
Something still didn’t add up. “So then which one got into a fight with Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas?”
The rest of the ride was spent in more silence. I was still curious, but I didn’t want to push the guy.
Whatever he had against Dave Thomas, it was something he could keep to himself.
“It’s interesting how we got lost in Saskatchewan, because that’s where you just came from. Did you already think of that?”
Tensions were percolating. According to the GPS I’d found on that injured hiker a mile back, the town of Moose Jaw did not exist.
“The locals must call it something different,” he grunted, fighting off another grizzly bear. There sure a lot of them outside the town of…
“’D’élan mâchoire.’” I tapped the GPS. “Gibberish. We should ask for directions.”
“Help… me!” Grabbing the bear by his hind legs, Puck somersaulted the two of them onto the lowest hanging branch of a Lollipop Pine. There, he roundhouse kicked the beast humanely into an embankment, diving in after it. I could hear howling from down the hill, then a dull yelp. Then Puck climbed up wearing a new fur coat.
“I label you ‘not a team player.’”
Brushing a brier from his bushy brow, Puck plucked a wishbone from his hair. He looked at the GPS. “We’re here. Moose Jaw.”
“’Bout time!” I kissed the handheld device. “Yet another miracle made possible by John McCain!”
We made our way through the unkempt rural shrubbery. As far as Canadian towns go, this was exceptional! Barbecue pits lined the streets like lampposts, and the fireplugs were lickably ROY G BIV-acious. Strange imps in lavender busked by, accompanied by Beethoven.
“Now that we’re here, we can either…” he licked the shady flier to open it. “Go on a secret mission for Department H—”
“I’ve had enough of Department H. Don’t you know the blood I’ve shed for them?!”
He shook his head. So peaceful in his ignorance, it seemed a shame to shatter his world. But, Puck would have to be educated.
“When the Black Cheddarists threatened Canada with their ‘powers of hypnotic persuasion,’ who was on the front lines?” I jerked my thumbs (and eyebrows) upwards. “Who saved Ontario from the replicative madness? Moi! Countless years spent isolating the Proxi Formula in mice, only to have everything classified!”
“Okay, so the only other option is…”
“I’ve already decided on it! It’s the only option that makes sense! Tell me what it is, that I may confirm what every sane person knows intuitively as fact!”
“…going to a local shaman and having a vision quest.”
“Gosh! I mean, gee whiz! That sounds awful.”
And so it did.
He refolded the paper. “I speak a little Dene Suline. The town rec center is out back, that’s where the tribal leaders skateboard. The Athabaskan are Canada’s finest flatlanders — this side of Ontario.”
“Puck,” I whispered, “are you saying I have what it takes to out-skateboard a whole tribe?”
We looked at each other. He thought it over for a split-second. “Wh- no. What? We’re just asking to see their shaman. Skateboarding is just something they do.”
“I mean,” I continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “I’ve never believed I could shred with the best. Y’know? But… if Michael Phelps can win eight gold medals…”
The rec center doors opened, scattering the lavender imps to the wind. “Looks like they’re taking a lunch break. We should go talk to the elder before they reach their bicycles.”
“No, man!” I shook him. A tear rolled down the side of my face. “I have to much to live for — too many people depend on me — to gamble it all on the off-chance of winning this thing. You know I want to win, and you’re trying to push me. That’s what friends are for…”
“There he is. I’m going to go ask him.”
“…and I would feel terrible if I let y’all down. But dang it, Puck! I’m finally out of the game! And you’re trying to rope me into competing again. It isn’t fair; I’ve paid my dues. You hear me?! Paid in full!”
Ripping off my pantlegs to show off my wicked knee scrapes, my whole body trembled. Most of the injuries were sustained at Grizzle Pete’s karaoke night, but some of the fresher cuts opened old wounds.
I don’t want to…
Don’t be afraid…
The ramp is too high…
No, just start down. It’ll be fine…
I don’t want to…
Go! Go! GO!
“NOOOOOOO! Argh! Argh! Argh! HELP ME! HELP ME!”
Rage — not the rage of a dwarf in pain, but a stronger, flashback-fueled rampage — overtook my delicate sensibilities. Banshee screams burst from my flapping jaws as I clawed the illusory face mercilessly.
It was all happening again. The steep ramp… the rusty skate-wheels… the ground — getting closer…
“Why?! Why?! Are we playing to win now?! Is this part of the game?!” Wailing, my punches got lighter, finally stopping as I convulsed on the twig-strewn forest floor. “Why?!”
The world suddenly came into focus. My hands, still shaking, were covered with blood and tree bark. Looking up, I saw my self-portrait carved into the trunk of an evergreen pine. God, it was stunning.
Puck. There he was, peering through the bushes.
“Hey.” I coughed, wiping my face. There was mud all over my clothes and skin. “So, what’s going on?”
He stepped over a large twisty root. “I talked to the shaman.”
“Puck…” It was getting harder to talk. But this was important.
“He agreed to the vision quest. Apparently these woods foster a great spirit, bestowing enlightenment on those who need it.”
“Puck… I can’t.”
“So we’re going with the Department H mission?”
“Puck, I know you’re a good kid—” he frowned. “But there’s just more to life than winning. I see that now. Yarrr… I was a fool, putting myself through all that grief for a shot at the big time. But doggone it, I’m a different man now!” I swung my head high. “I can’t keep filling my life up with endless practice while my friendships whither like raisins on a grapevine.”
Clamping a hand down on my mutant companion’s shoulder, I felt a sudden bracing euphoria. Birds chirped harrowingly up in the trees and a cold wind blew across my face. This was what it was all about.
“It’s time to make some time.”
“Um.” We locked eyes. “Super. We’re done.”
We looked down at the GPS. It would be a long walk to the pit stop: time enough for bonding, pulpy/superficial conversation, and maybe a soliloquy or two.
“Puck?” I asked as my horse knelt before my greatness. “What does Captain Canuck have against Dave Thomas anyway?”
But I never got an answer; his ear-buds were already halfway in.