N o v e m b e r   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

A few friendly faces
by Jess Gulbranson

Our scruffy yellow-haired space-traveling hero has been stringing us along through different dimensions and wearing the same red sweatshirt since early last year. Here’s episode 21 ...

el woke up with a splitting headache, his feet and noggin dangling from their respective ends of a tiny sofa.

"Damn," he croaked. "No matter where I crash, I always get the sofa."

He sat up a little too quickly and his feet knocked over an end table. Several glass bottles shattered, and from their wreckage came some oily smoke and the brief odor of a rotten-egg fart. Mel's aching brain made the connection between the bottles and his surroundings after a moment.

He counted himself lucky that Clay's potions hadn't dissolved his foot or blown the house to smithereens.

Mel stood up and looked around the room, feeling faint twinges in his legs as blood began circulating again. He was in a sitting room; that was the best term he could find for it. There was the sofa, a coffee table and a few chairs, all in an antiquated style. On the far wall were a plastic-sheeted jukebox and a cigar-store Indian. Then, of course, there were the omnipresent knickknack shelves with potion bottles on them.

One of the bottles, in the corner by the wooden Indian, caught Mel's eye. He ambled painfully over to it. The shelf contained only one bottle, whose contents were like cloudy mercury. The fluid swirled energetically and seethed at the stopper as if it were alive. He stretched a finger out to touch the bottle, and as his hand got closer, the goo seemed to shiver at the proximity. By the time his fingertip was a hair's breadth away, the bottle was practically jumping off the shelf.

Suddenly his inspection was cut short by the door handle rattling. Mel started to call for Clay, but stopped when the person on the other side did so before him.

"CLAY?" the deep voice asked. "CLAY? CLAY?"

Then the voice and rattling stopped. Mel let out a breath and was waiting for a key to be inserted in the lock, when the entire door crashed from its hinges in a wreckage of splinters.

Mel could hardly react when an impossibly enormous figure squeezed through the doorway. It was a giant, about nine feet tall, in a rough black coverall. Anger distorted an otherwise bland face, and the giant stooped even under the room's high ceiling.

"Where's Clay?" the giant asked, and before Mel could even shrug the newcomer had crossed the intervening space and grabbed Mel.

A hand that could have palmed two basketballs was throttling him by the neck and lifting his feet off the ground. Mel, who had endured strangling attempts before, was already seeing spots and would soon lose consciousness. He swam in darkness for a long second, then a momentary reprieve gave him sight again. The giant's face held a look of strange discomfort, and Mel took the opportunity to send a boot toward the easy target of the giant-sized crotch.

The bigger they are... thought Mel as the huge hand released him and they both crashed to the floor.

Mel lay panting, still dizzy, and made a startling discovery when he looked over the bulk of the prone giant. The wooden Indian now stood behind the giant.

"How the hell?" Mel began, then stopped. The Indian was cracking its knuckles.

On closer inspection, Mel could see that the figure only resembled the statuary he knew. There was no headdress or handful of cigars, and no coat of varnish.

"The words you're looking for are 'thank you,'" said the Indian, extending a hand to help.

"Yeah, thanks," Mel said as he stood. "What about ..."

"Ducumber, here? I gave him a haymaker to the ol' kidney. That and your sissy kick will keep him out for a while."

"Who is he?"

The Indian laughed. "He's a friend of Clay's, part of the same organization. He's also an assassin, so his first thought was you were probably a burglar. His mistake."

"Wow. My name's ..."

" ... Mel. I know. I'm Daniel, and I'll be your bodyguard tonight. I was watching you while you slept." His dark face bore a curious expression. "Or did you think I was ornamental?"

"You do bear a curious resemblance to a cigar-store Indian."

"I get that a lot. I'm Xibalban, one of the indigenous races from the Ordeal, what some people call the Wood Demons. Those statues in your world are, well, mummies." He frowned. "It creeps me out just thinking about it."

"Sorry. But look, where's Clay?" Mel massaged his aching neck

"He's rounding everyone up for a big meeting, to discuss you. You're the Great White Hope around here, you know. Clay wouldn't admit it though. I'm sure he made it sound like you were just another candidate."

"Well, I am."

"Whatever you say, Mel. Anyway, there's a big pow-wow down at the Coliseum tonight. All the Custodians will be there, as well as the assassins, a bunch of Tongs, the Mirror People, Xibalbans, some dogmen, a few random aliens ..."

Mel started as one of the weird names jumped out at him. "Did you say 'dogmen?'"

"Dogmen," agreed Daniel. "Some courier family that got stranded here a while back."

Mel grinned at the thought of Ramon and Diego and the rest of their pack being here in the Ordeal with him. A few friendly faces were what he needed right about now.

"They're old friends of mine," offered Mel. "Say, do you think Frank Burley will be there?"

Daniel smacked himself in the forehead, which clunked like someone slamming a desk drawer. "The Franks are for the DCB to worry about."

"Wait," Mel added, "both you and Clay said Franks with an 's,' plural-like. What's the deal?"

"Man, I do not even know how to begin explaining that. Let's go ... maybe you can find your answers at the big hoedown."

Daniel beckoned for Mel to follow, and headed toward the door.

"Oh – one more thing," Daniel added. "If we meet a really pale guy with blond hair and a black skullcap ... let me do the talking. He's Eriksen, best friend of our unconscious pal on the floor over there. They're inseparable, and he probably felt that kick in his manhood, too."

Mel considered the huge man on the floor, wondering whom he had just made an enemy of.

"Whatever you say, Daniel. Let's go."

Look for Mel's past adventures, check out an interview with our dimensionally challenged hero, and e-mail Jess at j_gulbranson@hotmail.com.

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