(Originally written: April 1, 2020)
Cold are the floors of the museum that Robby’s mom works in. However, due to her insistence that he wear shoes whenever they leave home, Robby’s feet remain blissfully ignorant of the freezing tiles. But his knees and hands are very aware as he was currently running a toy car over the tiles whilst making “vroom vroom” noises. Ideally the car on his iPad would be making those noises as he raced the computers, but Robby’s mom was loath to take the tablet out of their home if Robby was to be the one to take care of it. He was a good kid and wouldn’t lose anything on purpose. But he was a kid. They lose things.
Unlike adults, though, kids tend to lose things that can be replaced. An iPad can be replaced with a warranty. A loss of faith in humanity cannot be bought once lost. There are no warranties on kindness. Once an adult loses that… Well. Take a look at the world. You can see for yourself what happens when an adult loses kindness. A child can be selfish and not yet understand the merits of sharing. They are young and must learn. But if you ever meet a child that has fully lost their humanity, you likely have an adult you can blame for that atrocity.
So Robby played with his toy car that was easier to replace than an iPad while his mother worked. She was a curator and that meant she… curated? He wasn’t entirely sure what she did. What he did know is that she picked out pretty paintings and put them in the museum. He asked her if any of her paintings would be in the museum. She had laughed and said that she only got to pick other people’s paintings. Then Robby had asked her if any of his art could be in the museum. To that, she had smiled and said perhaps when he was older. An adult would understand that to mean that his art wasn’t very good (it really wasn’t). A child, which is what Robby is, would understand that as a promise. Content that his paintings would eventually be in the museum he had stopped asking his mom questions about what she did for a living.
He pushed his car a little too hard causing it to zoom away and crash against the pedestal of a statue. He looked over to his mom to see if she had noticed. As she was talking to her boss, she had not. Robby walked to his toy car, occasionally looking over his shoulder to see if he was being watched. When he got to it, he sat down and resumed playing with the car.
“Mmm.” He said, not paying attention. He cared more about the smiling demon in the painting next to the statue. It was tall, broad shouldered, had two arms, two legs, and grey skin. Upon its forehead were two curved horns and on its back were two tattered, leathery wings. In its right hand was a yellow flower.
Its other hand was waving at Robby.
“I’m stepping into Mr. Dunning’s office. Stay here, okay?” She said. As the museum was closed for the day, she wasn’t worried about someone taking her son. As far as she knew, she and Mr. Dunning were the only ones around.
“Mmm.” He said, still not paying attention. He was waving back at the demon. Happy to receive attention, the demon waved harder. Then the demon reached out of the painting, beckoning to Robby to come closer.
Had the museum been occupied by guests, Robby’s mom would have brought her son into the meeting. There, Robby would have been forced to sit still as Mr. Dunning did not have patience for children going “vroom, vroom” in the background. He had lost his patience somewhere between age 30 and 32 and hadn’t been able to find it again. No warranty. Since the museum was empty, Robby was allowed to behave like a child and play with his toy.
Since the museum was empty, Robby’s mom was able to lose her only son.
Robby had stepped closer to the demon. And since Robby had not lost his innocence to things like ‘distrust’ and ‘being careful’, Robby had taken the demon’s hand. Into the painting he went, a small, fleshy hand clasped tightly by a large, clawed one. His car fell to the floor and since no one was there to hear it, it made no noise.
“Hello, there.” The demon said. “How do you do?”
“Good.” Robby looked around and saw that he was in a vast expanse of dirt. Strange. The painting had shown a field of flowers. It had shown fruit laden trees with swings attached to their boughs (two of those trees to be exact). Those trees were now barren and the swings were broken. It had shown a bubbling stream. The stream was now dry. It had shown little children playing. The children were nowhere to be seen. The only thing that was in the painting that actually showed up, was the demon himself. Or herself. Itself? “How are you?”
“Not very well. As you can see.” The demon gestured at their surroundings.
“Yeah.” Robby nodded. Did demons count as strangers? He had been told not to talk to strangers. “Can you take me back?”
“I could.” The demon nodded. “But I would like some help first. If you don’t wish to help me, I will take you back immediately.”
“What do you need help with?”
“The stream has gone dry, and with it my flowers are gone.” The demon sighed. “This one in my hand is the last one. I would like for you to bring the stream back.”
“I’m not sure.” The demon shrugged. “But you can find the answer up the stream.”
“Okay.” Robby nodded and began walking. This seemed like it’d be more fun than playing with his toy car so he had agreed. He decided that if he got bored he’d just ask to be taken back to the museum. “What’s your name?”
The demon made strange noises from its mouth, a few of which sounded like a sneeze.
“I don’t know how to make those sounds.” Robby giggled. “I’ll call you Achoo.”
“I am not fond of that.”
“Sneeze.” The demon pondered for a moment, scratching its chin with a claw. The leathery skin did not get cut. “Yes I like that. You may call me Sneeze.”
“My name’s Robby.”
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“Oh.” Robby said. He didn’t get how you could be neither a boy or a girl. He also didn’t care enough to find out. He began walking in the direction that Sneeze had pointed. Robby wasn’t sure why Sneeze thought he could help since he was just a kid. As far as Robby knew, kids weren’t that useful in helping adults. But maybe Sneeze wasn’t an adult and that’s why they had asked for help. “Are you a kid?”
“I am 200 years old.” Sneeze said. They seemed to be smiling, though it looked very threatening due to the numerous sharp teeth. Robby wasn’t looking.
That was the oldest age Robby had ever been told so he took that to mean that Sneeze was an adult. Strange adult, asking a kid for help. Maybe it was like when Robby’s dad asked him to help fix the sink but all Robby had to do was hold the flashlight. His dad had insisted it was necessary. Robby had wondered later, when the plumber arrived to do the job properly, why his dad hadn’t held the flashlight in his mouth like the plumber had. “I don’t get why I have to help you. My mom could help more than I can.”
“You have certain things that adults do not.”
“You believe in strange things.” Sneeze said. “An adult in your world would be so convinced that demons like me do not exist, that they would not have seen me waving at them. Would have called it a trick of the light and forgotten me a second later.”
“Okay.” Robby nodded. That made sense. But it didn’t explain why Sneeze couldn’t fix the stream. “Why can’t you fix the stream?”
“Because I do not know what is wrong with it.” Sneeze said. “I asked Gwendolyn and she ignored me. She lives up the stream.”
“What if she ignores me too?”
“Then I would send you home and wait for another child to ask for help.” Sneeze said. “But I do not think I will need to. Gwendolyn likes children.”
Even though he was wearing shoes, Robby could tell that the dirt they were walking on did not feel very nice. Dirt made a noise when you stepped on it. But it was a gentler sound than the crunchy noise this dirt made. It was as though he was breaking the dirt into even tinier pieces with each step. Hopefully if Robby managed to get the flowers to come back, the dirt would feel nicer to walk on. If it didn’t feel nice even then, he wondered how the children were able to play in the field. They looked like they had been barefoot in the painting. Barefoot on crunchy dirt? Robby shuddered. His shudder was interrupted by the loud sound of crashing water. It had been slowly building and Robby had finally crossed the invisible border for the sound to be extremely audible. He looked up at Sneeze. “What is that?”
“We are near Gwendolyn’s home.” Sneeze said. “Come.”
Robby followed Sneeze to a small cabin. Its walls were covered in vines and those vines were covered in a variety of flowers, with red being the most common color. The dirt around the house felt nice to walk on and was even covered in grass. “Is she inside?”
“Likely not. She only goes into her cabin to eat or to sleep.” Sneeze walked to the left of the cabin. Robby went right behind them and was completely shocked by what he saw behind the cabin. A waterfall was flowing out of thin air and crashing down onto a massive pile of dirty plates. “There she is.” Sneeze raised their hand and waved at a pale, brunette woman sitting in front of the dishes. She appeared to be washing them. “Gwendolyn.”
The woman did not look up.
“Ah. See?” Sneeze sighed, their wings sagging until they dragged against the ground. “Ignored once again.”
“I don’t think she can hear you.”
“Are you sure?” Sneeze frowned. That looked scarier than their earlier smile. “I can hear her just fine. She’s humming.”
Robby looked at Gwendolyn and saw that she was in fact making the face people make when humming. But he couldn’t hear anything. “I can’t hear her humming.”
“You’re silly, Sneeze.” Robby laughed and walked towards Gwendolyn. He did so fearlessly because Sneeze had said that Gwendolyn likes children. She looked up when Robby got close and raised her eyebrows in shock.
“Oh hello there!” Gwendolyn abandoned her task and approached the two companions. “Who are you?”
“Nice to meet you, Robby.” Gwendolyn smiled then looked at Sneeze, still smiling. She asked them what they were doing here. It shocked Robby to hear Gwendolyn say Sneeze’s actual name.
“I came to ask why the stream has stopped flowing.” Sneeze held up their flower. “All my flowers are gone. This one is all that remains.”
“And you recruited help just for that?” Gwendolyn laughed. “You could have just asked me!”
“I did this morning.” Sneeze said. “You ignored me.”
“I did no such thing.” Gwendolyn shook her head. “I did not even know you came here.”
“You didn’t hear Sneeze.” Robby said. “Sneeze said your name and you didn’t hear.”
“Sneeze?” Gwendolyn raised an eyebrow. Then smiled in recognition. “Ah Sneeze! Clever. Well…” She looked at Sneeze. “I didn’t hear you, Sneeze! Why would I ignore you?”
Sneeze shrugged. “Perhaps you were mad at me. I ate your share of the dessert yesterday.”
“No need to be so insecure with me, Sneeze. I’m not that petty!” Gwendolyn giggled. “You were enjoying yourself. I didn’t mind at all.”
“I see.” Sneeze said, then sighed at Robby. “Seems as though I brought you here for no reason.”
“It was cool.” Robby shrugged. “Where are Sneeze’s flowers, Gwendolyn?”
“I borrowed the stream to do the dishes. There are a lot after yesterday’s festival.” Gwendolyn pointed at the comically large pile. “I asked the Miller boy to tell you, Sneeze, that I would be doing so and that the flowers and trees would disappear until I gave the stream back.”
“The Miller boy did not tell me anything.”
“You took a whole stream to do dishes?” Robby asked. “Don’t you have a sink?”
“We don’t have those here.” Gwendolyn said. “Besides. I like doing dishes this way.”
“Are you a witch?”
“No that’s my sister.” Gwendolyn shook her head. “I’m an enchantress.”
“Oh.” Robby didn’t know the difference but he believed her confidence in there being one.
“I enchanted the stream so I could do the dishes.”
“Do you need help?” Robby asked. “So Sneeze’s flowers and trees come back faster? The dirt feels weird too.”
“I’ll have Sneeze help me.” Gwendolyn said. “After you are sent home!”
Robby frowned. Well that was anticlimactic. Robby didn’t know that word. But that is what he was feeling in his heart. He’d realize it after he got older and thought back to this first moment he had with the world of magic. “Can’t I stay longer?”
“Not while your parents may be missing you.” Gwendolyn shook her head. “But you can come back whenever you want in the future. Just paint me or Sneeze.”
“Many of your world’s paintings are doorways to other worlds.” Gwendolyn explained. “Artists think they’re imagining them but it’s really just a world melting into their mind and creating a portal.”
Robby didn’t get it. Again, he just took her word for it. “So if I paint you or Sneeze, I can come back.”
“Yes.” Sneeze said. “I will bring you in. Or she will.”
“Yes!” Gwendolyn smiled. “And perhaps I can teach you to be an enchanter! Then you wouldn’t always need someone’s help to visit other worlds.”
He looked at the waterfall flowing out of the air. It would be cool if he could do something like that. “That would be cool!”
“Yeah?” Gwendolyn held a hand out. “It’s a deal then, Robby! I’ll be your teacher!”
Robby took her hand and shook it. Red and white flower petals burst from their clasped hands, circled around and around as if caught in a tornado, then burst away. The blast of wind caused their hair to blow up for a second before settling down. “Cool!”
“I will take you to your world now, Robby.” Sneeze said. “Sorry for wasting your time.”
“It’s okay!” Robby smiled. “I had fun!” He waved to Gwendolyn. “Bye, Gwendolyn! See you soon!”
“See you.” Gwendolyn smiled back before returning to her dishes. “Hurry up, Sneeze.”
Sneeze picked Robby up by lifting him by his armpits, then stretched their arms outwards. Robby looked down and saw the tiles of the museum. In front of him, Sneeze’s hands were sticking out of the painting. “Bye, Sneeze!”
Sneeze set Robby down, waved, and pulled their arms back. The painting looked just as it had before. Robby wished he could have seen the flowers come back but knew he’d see them in full bloom in the future. He picked up his car that was lying right where he had dropped it and resumed playing with it, making “vroom, vroom” noises. In his mind, he was dreaming of going home and painting Sneeze and Gwendolyn. What would Gwendolyn teach him first? Would she show him how she had enchanted the stream?
“Robby!” He looked up. His mom was running towards him, her panicked expression slowly fading into relief. “Where were you?! I told you to stay right there!”
“I went to the bathroom.”
“Mr. Dunning looked in the bathroom!” She said, standing over him with her hands on her waist. “Did you go to a different one?”
Robby noticed that there was a bathroom nearby. “Yeah. It smelled bad.”
“You should have told me. I was going crazy thinking something had happened.” She was done being angry now so she hugged him. “Ready to go home?”
Robby nodded, taking her hand as they walked. “I want to paint!”
“You still want to be in my museum?” She laughed.
Robby looked over his shoulder at the painting of Sneeze. “Yep!”