Holding an Umbrella but the Sun's Still Shining

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I rang Percy Pinwheel's buzzer again. I'd budgeted time in case they were asleep, but 3T barely slept. Even on Snoozedays. It just wouldn't happen. Either 3T was here with Percy, or 3T was out doing things. But then again, nobody went out and did things on Snoozedays. Even Thomas Timothy Thompson. He had a great name. There were many great things about 3T. He was the most honest person I knew, first of all. And he was — well he was supposed to be punctual!

We really didn't have time for this.

"Anybody there, Pepper?"

She was peeping out of the door of the apartment complex, checking down the street for those mystery pursuers.

"No! The streets are basically empty. Is Wonder World always like this?"

"Tee emm, and no, it's just that it's a Snoozeday."

"A what?"

"A Snoozeday! You can tell because the sun's a pillow. Nobody works on Snoozeday, most people rest, so that's why nobody's out, 'cause it has snooze in the name. People are supposed to sleep in. Come on!" I mashed the buzzer button.

"That's unbelievably silly. People live here?"

"What's so wrong with silly?"

"I dunno. This is my first time being here, and it's all… empty looking. So huge and vibrant, and yet it's all hollow. It's crazy eerie."


"This is 3T, but it's still Percy Pinwheel's apartment, who is this?"

I could barely wait for 3T to finish his sentence. "Tom! 3T! It's me! It's Brainy!"

No response. Come on! This is the best chance we had. It wasn't like we could go to the Hall Monitors, they'd know me, they'd… oh I don't even know what they'd do. The streets were dangerous because of Wondertron… were they on 9000? I'd never kept up on the Wondertron models. I just knew they kept us safe. 9000 felt right. But they were scary.

The company wouldn't take me back. I knew that. Not like they were open on these days anyways, but they just wouldn't. My old home was inside Wonder Tower, and that wasn't going to be possible to get to. The only accessible Ways out of Wonder World!™ were through the The Subterreror, and to get there we would have had to have gone through security, and they'd recognize me. And then we quickly ran out of options when we started getting followed!

It was right after we popped out of a Way, into Main Street™. Within an hour of strolling around, we spotted three people in black began strolling in our direction, looked like a leader and two mooks. And that was bad news. Had the Circus sent in someone after us? Had someone recognized us, and this was some super secret police force that I didn't know about?! Whatever it was, it was bad news, and so we started running. We had to go to the first place I could think of, and this was it.

I think we lost them somewhere in the Bumblebee Business Plaza™, we hadn't seen them since. Pepper was watching our back though. Who knows how far behind they were? Who knows how much time we had left?

"Okay, 3T, I know that this is surprising, and I'm not an idiot — it's in my name — I know that there are a lot of emotions probably happening right now, not all of them positive, but I need to let you know that it wasn't me! Well, it was me, but it wasn't me, because I… I missed a dose of risperdal. And then another. And then more and more until… it wasn't me! And that's besides the point, I'm being followed, and I have a new friend with me, and we really need you to let us up, please?"

No response. Pepper looked nervously at me, mouth half open.

"Please! Please, we have no clue how much time we have!"

I pounded on the elevator, hoping that I could will it open.

3T came through the tiny speaker.

"I can't do that."

It felt like a needle stabbed through my heart. "Tom! Tom, oh my gosh, we need this, I — I've been through a lot, and I'm different. Well, I'm not different, 3T, I'm the person who hugged you and walked onto the Subterreror a month ago. I'm the person who overreacted to Polly's theft and had to be sent away! I'm the guy… I'm the guy who designed Jelly Whale Emperor, I'm the guy who collected Jack's Jacks Packs with you, who played Goofy Golf with you on your birthday, Tom, I'm so sorry that I…"

I swallowed.

"I can't let you up, Brian."

I heard someone other than 3T choke out a squeak in the background. And, I can't say how, I can't say how I knew, but I knew who it was. I could recognize that apprehension, that little crack in the voice. I'd spent nights lying awake, hoping I'd be the one to draw that sound from them. That they might make that sound as I approached them, hands brandished, ready to do a countless number of unspeakable deeds to them. Just their voice made me reel back and slap myself, feeling the same things come to mind that used to. I could have sworn I was past this.

And I was. Gosh darn it, I freaking was.

"Is that Polly?"

"That's nobody, Brainy. You need to leave."

"Brainy, this isn't going to work, we need to leave —"

"Pepper, I can't leave, there's…" I stared at her and breathed through my teeth.

"3T, please, if you won't let me up, at least let me talk to Polly. Please, I need to. I won't yell. I'm not angry." I'm not angry. "I swear I'm not angry anymore."

"Brian, there's no place here for you! You did horrible things, made me think things I never thought I would have had to think — whether to give you the benefit of the doubt. You. A murderer. A family destroyer. A disgrace to the Dr. Wondertainment brand. The dirtiest, grimiest person who ever stepped a foot in Wonder World, tee emm. You made me care about you, and you betrayed my, and everyone's trust —"

I heard Polly cry out.

"— and you've left a mark. Your mark, Brainy. Your mark could have been a beautiful portrait in the hall of fame. You could have had Judy's seat. Heck, Brainy, if you had just done your job, you could have been the next Eric Herring. And I would have been proud of you. We would have been proud of you."

3T paused to take a shuddering breath, barely containing his anger. Pepper just stared at me as I slumped more into the wall next to the speaker and buzzer buttons, unclear on how to proceed. Motioning me to get up, to just leave. But I couldn't. My ears were glued to the speaker. And my beaten body was melting into the wall.

"But you don't deserve it anymore. Whoever is following you is likely to give you what you deserve. And whoever's your friend… if they're any type of good person, they shouldn't be. But you should never have come back here. And now you have to leave."

I had been hurt in the way that doesn't make you cry. That cuts so deep, you can't process it. Deary me, I… my head was blank as paper. But then again, it could have been black paper scribbled with gel pens so thick that you couldn't see the page. My heart felt like everything and nothing at once.

"I… loved you like a brother, Tom. I thought you loved me."

Pepper peered anxiously out the doorway, and scanned the street up and down. The next words I could have done without.

"I did."

My mouth was crammed cheek to cheek with words I didn't know, for nameless feelings that I never thought I could feel. More painful than having my idea stolen and applauded by everyone. More painful than putting lead through my head. More painful than regaining my sanity and realizing what I had done. More painful than getting choked out by Icky. I couldn't say it. I could barely think it.

I truly couldn't come back.

I'd lost my friends.

I'd lost my home.

And it was all my fault.

And I truly, fully deserved it.

My vision had gone fuzzy. My eyes had glossed over, and the tiny lobby-type room had almost completely lost meaning.

I was cognizant of Pepper pulling on my arm.

I could tell she was yelling something, but my torso felt like steel and my legs were pool noodles. She had to use all of her might to get me on my feet.

But it wasn't me.

She was only pulling my shell.

I was somewhere behind my eyes, looking out of them like windows.

Windows into a world I wasn't supposed to be in.

Windows into a world I didn't want to come back to.

Just as Pepper pulled me through the doorway, something made me come to.



Polly's hoarse voice shoved my consciousness back into place like a hammer to a nail.

Adrenaline shot through my veins, and sweat poured like a flood. I jerked my arm away from Pepper's grasp, and whipped my head around to see Polly in the elevator. Her cheeks were wet with tears, her eyes pink and shiny. She was wearing grey sweatpants and a shirt so big it hung down to the middle of her thigh. I bolted towards her, against the urging grasp of Pepper's hand on my wrist, and met her in an embrace.

"Brainy, I — I didn't mean, to, I didn't want…" Polly could barely get out words, and much less thoughts, through her shaking and sobbing.

"It's okay. Polly, it's okay. I forgive you. I didn't mean to, either. I didn't give you a chance. I —"

"Brainy! We don't have time for this! Brainy, they're almost here!" Pepper yelled at me, but I didn't stop to hear her.

Polly tried again to speak, but I interrupted her. "You're fine. You're beautiful. You're going to make it. I'm so sorry I ever yelled at you. I'm so sorry I never let you explain yourself. But I don't need an explanation, anymore. Because I don't deserve one."

"Brainy, that's sweet, but Jesus fucking Christ, we have to go!!"

Polly was so overtaken with emotion that not even the cuss word was enough to pull her out of it. I stepped back, held both her wrists together, and knelt. "Be a better Toy Tinker than I was. Please."

Polly nodded frantically.

"I… I just couldn't… I didn't mean to steal your product, I, I meant to modify something, it was supposed to be derivative, not, not…" She just began to sob again.

"That's okay, Polly, every —"

"Brainy!! Are you not listening to me? They're coming up the street!"

"— body makes mistakes. I should know." I started sniffling too. "I really, really should. I'm…" I coughed. "I'm barely even human anymore. I'm barely me."

"I haven't been me my whole life."

"Oh my god, you two."


3T and Percy Pinwheel stepped out of the elevator. Percy rushed to pull Polly away from me, and as she did Polly waved her arms at me like a child. 3T walked straight towards me.

"Tom, we —"

"Don't call me that!"

He began to force me towards the door. Pepper noticed the trend, and walked out the door on her own accord.

"You've got no right going around and hurting people all the time! Ashley hasn't functioned! For weeks!"

I saw Percy take Polly Gary Ashley into the elevator behind 3T.

"Wonder World, tee emm, hasn't been the same! We haven't been the same! You could do everyone a favor and leave."

He gave the final shove by practically punching me in the chest, and then stood in the doorway. With an expression I could only approximate as a combination of disgust, pity, and rage, 3T spoke his final words to me.

"Goodbye, Brian."

And then he slammed the door shut.

Pepper and I shared a look in the silence. Something cracked inside me. Something so fundamental, I went back to infancy.

Instinctively, I collapsed onto the pink and red hexagonally-tiled road, curled into my ball, and tried to access my happy place. My happy place used to be Wonder World!™, so it wasn't really working. But that was okay. I'd just make a new one. Something with clear boundaries. Somewhere inescapable. Somewhere from which I couldn't hurt anyone, not ever again.

Pepper made her way over to me, and shook me. She was saying something, but it wasn't coming through. She gave up on me. As well she should have. I was to be given up on. I wasn't worth it. Not ever. Not really.

But I was in my happy place now. Mom was there… and Dad, and they were both happy together. And I was playing with my toys. I hadn't designed any yet. Because I was small. In fact, maybe I never made toys. Maybe this world didn't need a toy maker Brian.

Maybe this world didn't need Brian at all.

Maybe I could just lay here… for a good, long while.

A kick to my side alerted me. Was that Pepper? Ow! And again. I shuddered as someone stuck their foot under my side and rolled me onto my back. I stared up at the dim Snoozeday sky, the pillow sun guest starring in the right corner of my eye. Pepper leaned over me, and pursed her lips in a pitying, deploring glare. Joining her on my left, one of those pursuers in black stepped towards me. From my angle, all I could tell was that she was wearing a black turtleneck and had short hair. I was trying not to look at her. Whatever the pursuers wanted… I was sure I was done for.

This had to be it. I have been so close to dying so often recently. This was karma. This was a whole ton of karma falling on me like a sack of bricks. I wished they'd just get it over with. I wanted the pain to be over.

"This is pathetic," the mystery woman said.

"Yeah," Pepper sighed. "He does this a lot."

"Wonder World local, should have expected him to be so emotional."

Pepper smirked. "It's sort of endearing, though."

The mystery woman knelt down beside me and attempted to make eye contact with me. "Brian? Brian Harding? Are you in there? We're not here to hurt you."

It took as much effort as Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill, but I somehow willed my lips to move. "You're… not?"

She turned my head towards her with her hand, forcing me to make eye contact. "No, we're here to hire you. But the longer you lay in your little puddle of tears, the more likely I am to rethink this decision, so get up, if you please."

I shot into a sitting position. "A job? Who are you with?"

"Marshall, Carter, & Dark."

"What? What do you want with me? What am I good for?"

She motioned to Pepper. "I think she speaks for herself."

"I do."

"Plus, you're ex-Wondertainment. Your credentials are impressive, to say the least."

I just sat there, sniffling and wiping my watering eyes.

"We need a yes or a no, here, Brian."


"Sorry, Brainy."

"Yes, but —"

"Good! I'll get us a car." The woman walked away, towards two other businessy looking people who I recognized as our mystery followers from earlier. I just sat in the middle of the road, teary and battered, looking anything but my best today and I knew it. Pepper sat down next to me.

"So why were they chasing us…?"

"They weren't chasing us, Brainy, we were just running."

She started playing with my hair.

"I don't deserve this job."

"You know what," Pepper said, clearly exasperated, "maybe you don't. Whatever. Sure. You've done some not-so-kosher things. So your pity party's in full swing, and I agree, you're very pitiable. But why feel bad about this? So what if you don't deserve this job? Right now you've got basically no friends but me, and you've got nowhere to go unless you take this job. So take it!"

She looked intensely at me. "If you take this job, you'll probably lead a successful enough life to have the opportunity to become a person good enough to deserve it. Does that ring true for you?"

I rubbed my right eye with my fist. "Yeah," I croaked. "Yeah, I'd like that."

"Good!" Pepper slapped me on the back. "Now get up and get in the car. We have places to be."

She pulled me onto my feet, like she was so good at doing, and led me to the slick black car parked on the side of the road. Somewhere in the distance, sirens of the Hall Monitors were closing in. Undoubtedly they had been called on me, probably by 3T.

As we climbed into the back seats of the car, I got the often misplaced feeling of safety. Maybe this would work. It might actually work. I held Pepper's hand, and she squeezed me back. Life had been unbelievable recently.

We drove off to who knows where.

They'd heard of a way to have a shared dream.

It was just a rumor. Something going around that Cindy picked up on, out of the many little occult oriented circles she was a part of. Some small ritual that you could do before you go to sleep, that could make you and your friends hallucinate in unison. Terry was sure it wasn't going to work, because Cindy's rituals never worked, but they were fun to buy into. At the very least, all this stuff seemed pretty harmless.

This one was special, though, because Cindy said that it was overly specific. It had been circulating that for it to work you needed a very specific piece of scrap, and that she had acquired it. It felt like the torn off corner of a credit card, but its surface was glittery and felt like a glimpse of outer space. Terry had admitted it; he had no idea what it could be. No material he knew of looked or felt like that, so he let Cindy have that one. And that made her very excited.

Up at Jake's house, in his attic, everyone followed Cindy's directions to a T. First, you had to place the piece of scrap down on the floor. Step two was to get a dream catcher and somehow hang it over the scrap. In a circle around the scrap, you had to lay down pillow stuffing, and then you had to sprinkle the stuffing with sage. After all this was done, you placed a candle on top of the scrap, and lit it. Cindy told everyone that the candle had to burn all the way down to its base for it to work, so they picked a very small candle. She also told them they had to get a big whiff of the candle smell, so they made sure it was scented, too.

After the light went out, and they had all properly smelled the candle, the last step was to fall asleep. It took a long time for everyone to do it, because that's how it worked with early teenagers, but eventually it occurred. And in their sleep, magic happened…

It was Peter who first opened his eyes.

He saw a starry sky impossibly full, with shooting stars happening every couple of seconds. The stars refused to remain one gleaming color, and instead were pink and blue and green and orange and yellow and purple and everything in between. Sitting up, he saw the sleeping bodies of all of his friends, laying in a dark blue mist. They looked to be on an island made of cotton, in the middle of a glass ocean that reflected the sky perfectly. It was possibly the most beautiful thing Peter had ever seen, even in his dreams.

And in the middle of the island, there was a peculiar sight. A large pillar jutted out at an unstable looking angle, adorned with depictions of constellations, comets, and mirrors. Across its top, Peter was able to make out the words "Marshall, Carter &…" but it disappeared around the curvature of the pillar.

Peter, not wanting to wake his friends, decided to stand and make his way towards the pillar. He quickly found a marble path through the cottony substance, and followed it towards the peak of the island. Once he got there, he was struck with another odd sight… A desk that appeared to be an aquarium, full of sparkling cosmic fish. The rolling chair on the other side was draped with glittering silks, and faced away from him.

"Welcome…" said a voice that echoed like it was the God of this universe, "to the office of Dr. Neurosis!! Your trustworthy supplier of all things soul-binding and vessel-making!"

As the chair turned around, it revealed a man, tall and scrawny, sitting with an expression of uncontainable enthusiasm. His suit was midnight blue, top to bottom, a shade so deep it became more of a black that looked highlighted with a brilliant open-sky feeling from certain angles. His hands, while human, had nails like refined claws, polished black and artfully sharpened. His face was painted to look like a puma, with galactic flourishes of starlight around the eyes. He had a velvety top hat, the same midnight blue as his suit but spattered with moving stars and meteors and every type of astronomical body.

He grinned from ear to ear.

"Would you like to place an order?" He said, with a voice soft and purring, yet targeted, sharp, and accentuated.

But Peter just stood, awestruck, staring at the spectacle of the scene. He could not speak, not if it meant his life.

Dr. Neurosis's smile faded. "Hello?" But Peter's jaw was literally agape.

"Oh, gosh, darn, don't tell me —!" He got up suddenly from his seat, and made his way over to look down the path. There he could make out Peter's friends, all still motionless. "No, no! Not again, golly gee whillikers, that's the second one tonight!" He shook Peter by the shoulders. "Eighth one this week!"

Dr. Neurosis frantically made his way back to his desk, sat down in his chair, held down an ocean blue button on his side of the desk, and then spoke into it.

"It's another group of tweens. Not customers. Gee monetley, chrizzity, just, ah flibberdeegibbit, please tell Pepper to change the ritual! Again!"

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