Part 5: Advice from a Bitterpillar and the Vasquez Cat
“Who are YOU?” the raspy voice growled.
Dib immediately leaped up and standing on tiptoes, peeked over the rim of the mushroom only to see…
“Ms. Bitters!?” Dib’s eyes boggled at the sight of his teacher, or at least it looked like his teacher, only now she seemed to more or less resemble a caterpillar with sickly, bluish tinted skin.
“You’re name is ‘Ms. Bitters?” she hissed, eyeing him strangely.
“No, you’re Ms. Bitters,” Dib said quickly and this warranted another odd glare from the Bitters look-alike.
“Are you stupid or just crazy?” she grunted. “Any one with half a brain… no, make that a quarter of a brain… can clearly see that I’m a Caterpillar.”
“No, it’s just… for a second there I thought you were someone else. I mean you look exactly like my teacher,” Dib tried once again to explain.
“I thought you said I was ‘Ms. Bitters’. Make up your mind!” the Caterpillar barked.
“Ms. Bitters IS my teacher,” Dib flung out his arms in frustration.
“How is it you know who I am when you can’t even tell me who you are?” the Caterpillar took a puff from a hookah she was holding in one of her many hands, blowing a stream of thick, inky smoke in Dib’s face. He started coughing and hacking away to the blue-skinned insect’s indifference.
Dib gagged up another lungful of air. “Just forget it,” he sputtered angrily, already losing his patience with the disagreeable, old bug. He turned with a swish of his trench coat and stormed away.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” the Caterpillar called after him sharply, the light glinting off her glasses sinisterly. “Get back here and sit down!”
The Caterpillar may not have been the real Ms. Bitters, but then again maybe she was; everything was too perplexing and it didn’t much matter to Dib anyway as she was still scary as hell, so he whipped around and trotted back obediently. He sat down on a broken blade of grass and waited nervously for her to say something.
“Recite!” the Caterpillar ordered after a short pause.
“Recite,” she repeated in a short, clipped tone, “from your Wildlife Survival Manual, on How to Skin a Moose.”
Dib had no desire to sit there and spew memorized lines from some skool book, but he also had no desire to argue with a bug that looked like it could easily bite his head off, so he stood, cleared his throat and began.
“Ahem… The first thing to do when skinning a moose is trapping the moose prior to skinning it. First, dig a large pit and cover it with a tarp, then set out a piece of headcheese to lure the moose, or if this is not available, a handful of walnuts will suffice. Hide behind a bush and wait. Once a moose is in sight take a kazoo and a rubber hose and…”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Caterpillar Bitters cut him off and blew a spiral of purple smoke. “How do you feel?”
“Confused,” Dib replied.
“Good. That’s the result of the public education system,” she quipped and took another long drag from her hookah producing a smoke ring in the shape of a skull, while poor Dib just stared up at her more baffled than ever. The human gritted his teeth and grabbed a fistful of jet-black hair, trying not to break out in a frustrated sob.
“You seem upset about something. What’s your problem?” the Caterpillar asked in a tone that suggested it really couldn’t have cared less.
“Well,” Dib plunked down on a toadstool, “It’s a lot of things.”
“I’m starting to think I’ve fallen into a parallel dimension or something and I’m just really, really confused. Nothing seems to-…” Dib was interrupted by the Caterpillar’s snoring. “Hey, are you listening?” he snapped.
“What? Oh, oh yeah, sure,” it yawned, slurring its words sleepily.
“Anyway…” Dib eyed the Caterpillar in irritation and continued, “As I was saying, nothing around here makes any sense. And the worst thing is all this growing/shrinking junk. Do you have any idea how annoying it is changing sizes five times in one day?”
Caterpillar Bitters glared at Dib contemptibly. “Believe me, I’ve had plenty of experience dealing with things that are annoying.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about,” he went on, not picking up on the insult. “I’ve been running around this dumb place all morning trying to catch Zim, but anytime I eat or drink anything here something strange happens, and I either grow too big or too small to do it.”
“So stop eating and drinking things, dimwit,” the Caterpillar retorted bluntly.
Dib narrowed his eyes and swallowed his anger as best he could. “Well, yeah… I know that now. I’m just trying to point out how weird my day’s been.”
“Maybe no one cares,” the Caterpillar said noncommittally.
Dib was close to the boiling point now. “But you’re the one who asked me-…!”
“Silence!” the Caterpillar snipped and held up a hand, then it just sat there for several minutes puffing away like a smokestack.
“You know that’s really bad for your health,” Dib stated blankly after the awkward stillness became too much to bear. The snake-like insect ignored him and blew another smoke ring. After another long pause, she turned and glared down at him.
“Exactly what miserable size do you want to be?” she asked gruffly.
“I just want to get back to my normal height again,” the tiny human replied in a pitiful tone. “Being the same size as an insect is horrible.”
At this the Caterpillar scowled and reared up, looming like a cobra over Dib who filled with dread as he realized his mistake. “Oh, I suppose you’re too good to be like a disgusting, hideous, insignificant, slimy, miniscule little insect, huh?” she demanded in an ice cold voice, revealing a mouthful of dagger-like teeth. Dib inched back in terror as the deadly Caterpillar advanced on him.
He shut his eyes and waited for the attack, but when no attack came he popped one eye open to find the disgruntled bug had seemingly vanished. Dib didn’t exactly consider this a major loss. Still, out of curiosity he hoisted himself up onto the mushroom searching for a clue as to where she’d disappeared to, when he was knocked flat by a forceful blast of wind from a pair of beating wings.
Ms. Bitters hovered over him, still resembling a caterpillar and still sporting the same sour expression, except now she’d sprouted two new, large butterfly wings. “Although it will make no difference in the long run seeing as how your doomed little life will ultimately amount to nothing, I still have a bit of advice for you,” she spat icily. “One side will make you taller, and the other side will make you shorter.”
Dib raised his hand timidly. “Um, one side of wh-…”
“THE MUSHROOM OF COURSE!” Butterfly Bitters snarled before he could finish his question, then the crusty, former caterpillar curtly turned and flew away high into the air… Then a quick whiff of ozone and a bright BZZT of light flashed far above as she had the unfortunate luck of sailing straight into a bug zapper.
Back on the ground Dib heard a noise and thought he smelled something funny, but he was busy breaking two bits off either side of the fungus to really notice. He sat and studied the pieces of mushroom trying to decide which one to test first, silently cursing the grouchy Bitters-fly. “She could’ve been more specific, like telling me which side does which. Guess I’ll just have to experiment,” the chibi-Dib shrugged and took a bite of the right hand side. Instantly, a strong tingling sensation surged through his veins and Dib was elated to discover that he was getting bigger. He’d nearly grown back to normal and his eyes lit up briefly, then they filled with panic as he realized his growth wasn’t stopping, quite the opposite in fact; it was speeding up.
A succession of loud TWACKS followed by an equal amount of curse words were heard as Dib crashed through a number of tree branches, eventually emerging head and shoulders above a green sea of leaves. He grumbled and massaged his sore scalp, reflecting on what an awful amount of abuse his poor head had been through today. “I think my ears just popped,” he remarked apathetically, picking a branch out of his hair.
Dib slumped his shoulders and looked down at the ground, which seemed rather far off, shuffling his feet for lack of anything better to do. The altitude was making his head swim and Dib’s thoughts lazily wandered off to other parts of his conscious. “I wonder if I could get into the Guinness Book of Records for this,” he mused dreamily, “I mean it’s not every day a person breaks both height records. And there ought to be a ‘Mysterious Mysteries’ segment about this place, or a tell-all book written about it. Maybe when I get bi-… er, older I’ll write one. You know, it’s so strange; I’ve always heard stories about alternate dimensions, but I never thought I’d end up in one… well, except for that one time at Halloween. That was pretty bad. But still, it wasn’t as weird as this screwy place.”
Dib continued rambling, his head stuck in the clouds (Pun intended or pun not intended, take your pick) when a pigeon, disturbed by all the commotion, flew from its nest and up into his face. Dib swatted at it, but the pesty feathered one just circled back around a few times, and settled down tranquilly on top of his head. “Oh no you don’t,” Dib flicked the intruding bird out of his dark hair with a startled squawk, “the last thing I need now is head pigeons.”
“Well! Aren’t you a rude one!” the pigeon began to rant, much to Dib’s surprise, and flew up to his eye level, “You’re lucky I don’t peck your eyes out, you… you tree-shark!”
“Tree-shark?!” This was definitely the stupidest thing Dib had heard all day. “I’m not a tree-shark! I’m… I’m…” he paused, suddenly unsure what to say considering all the changes he’d been though recently.
“Well, what are you then?” the bird interrupted. “Come on, come on, I haven’t got all day to sit here while you think up a lie!”
“I… I’m a paranormal investigator,” Dib finally settled on, figuring this was the safest answer.
The pigeon perched itself on his nose and turned up its beak snootily. “Hmmph, a likely story. And I suppose you don’t eat eggs either.”
“Er, what’s an egg?” Dib flashed a lopsided smile, and this earned him a round of angry squawking and wings beating at his face. “All right! All right! Fine! I do eat eggs, but I don’t eat pigeon eggs if that’s what you’re worried about!” he yelled.
“Well then just what’re you doing up here?” the pigeon challenged.
“Tree-shark!” the bird thrust an accusing wing at Dib before he could even begin to answer and began flapping around his head. “Tree-shark, tree-shark, TREE-SHARK!!”
“Would you get lost already!” Dib snatched at the air.
“You just want me to leave so you can eat my eggs, you monster! Why don’t you just leave me alone and go pick on someone your own size?”
“Hey, I was just standing here minding my own business, you’re the one who came over and started bugging me!” Dib snapped, but the bird was already too busy flapping around squawking to hear him. “Go away!” he gave another swipe with his hand to no avail. Even worse, more nosy pigeons attracted by the ruckus were now circling ominously around him like little gray vultures, so Dib, knocked out of his stupor, decided it was time to try the left-hand bit of mushroom.
The shrinking process was even more efficient than the enlargement process had been. In the time it took to blink, Dib was suspended in the air at the same elevation he’d been at his altered size and he plummeted to the Earth with a cry of alarm. The ground was quickly approaching, so with some fast thinking Dib grabbed the corners of his trench coat and used it like a parachute to slow his fall. He landed with a crash on his back, stirring up a cloud of dust.
Dib sat up with a moan, popped his spine back into place, and brushed himself off discovering in frustration that he was back to his lilliputian stature. He frowned; All this yo-yoing between extremes was getting ridiculous. “This is the last time I’m trying this,” he vowed and took a tentative lick of the right-hand piece. The familiar tingling returned and Dib began to grow, albeit more slowly this time, till he was a little taller than the grass. Using this method, Dib managed to bring himself up bit by bit, inch by inch until he was his perfect, original height once again.
“Yes!” he thrust his fists triumphantly in the air, “I’m back to normal again!” he did a little victory dance, overjoyed at finally being back to his regular, Dib-ish size. However he still had a certain adversary to find, so he stuffed the two bits of mushroom into his coat pockets just in case he needed them again, and raced off in the direction he’d last seen Zim headed.
* * *
Dib ventured deep into the woods until he came upon a fork in the road that branched out in several different directions. “Perfect,” he grumbled and glanced down each path, “Now which way do I go?”
“That depends a lot on where you want to end up,” a voice answered.
“It doesn’t really matter, as long as I catch up to...” Dib trailed off. “Wait, who said that?” A wicked laugher filled the air in response and Dib followed the sound, spotting a crescent shaped smile hanging eerily above a tree limb. That’s right; no eyes, no nose, no ears, just a smile that widened gleefully at Dib’s surprise. He watched as a face began to come into focus around it, starting with a triangular shaped nose, then a pair of oval glasses. Soon he found himself staring up at a rail-thin, orange creature with purple stripes and a spiky tuft of purple hair situated between its pointy ears.
“Y-you’re a cat,” Dib stammered.
“My, aren’t you the bright one,” the feline grinned bemusedly. “But I’m not just a regular cat, I am a Cheshire Cat. There’s a difference.”
“What is it?” Dib asked.
The cat shrugged. “I dunno.”
Dib stared at it quizzically.
“I like Funyuns,” it said after a pause.
The bespectacled boy narrowed an eye and tried another question. “What do you want?”
“For people to pronounce my name properly would be nice,” it chuckled, then continued when it saw Dib’s puzzled expression. “Actually, I was just noticing that you seem a little lost,” the cat replied, that sinister grin still frozen on its face.
“I guess I sort of am,” Dib admitted. “I was wondering which way I should go.”
“Which way should you go,” the cat repeated, “isn’t that the crucial question in life? We wander aimlessly through our existence, always searching for the path that will lead us to some sort of delusion of fulfillment, but all too often we are misled into a deep pit of despair with no hope of redemption,” it finished dramatically, sucking in a breath of air through gritted teeth.
Dib stared at the cat blankly. “I just wanted to know which road I should take is all,” he said gesturing to the numerous paths.
The cat blinked. “Oh. Well, in that case...” it waved a paw toward a trail, “why don’t you go this way.”
“Why? What’s down that way?” Dib inquired.
“Who cares?” the cat slid off the branch and hung on upside down by its tail. “You said it didn’t matter which way you went.”
Dib felt himself losing his temper again. “I meant that I don’t care as long as I find Zim.”
“Zim?” the Cheshire Cat perked up an ear.
“Yeah, little green alien with bunny ears and a fluffy tail. You wouldn’t happen to have seen him, would you?”
The cat swung back up on its perch and scratched its head with a long claw. “No,” it said after a moment, “but perhaps the Mad Hatter has. You should go ask him.”
“Mad hatter?” Dib scrunched up his nose. “I don’t know if I like the sound of that.”
“Don’t worry,” the cat assured him, “Actually he’s not so much mad as he is mind-bogglingly stupid, but he’s still pretty insane.”
“But I don’t want to go around insane people,” Dib griped.
The Cheshire Cat grinned evilly. “Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all insane here. I’m insane. You’re insane. We’re all insane,” it chanted in a sing-song voice.
“I am NOT insane!” Dib snapped. Being called insane by someone in this place was REALLY an insult.
The purple striped cat pulled a cherry Ice Sucky out of thin air and slurped on it casually. “Yes you are, or you wouldn’t be here,” it said simply.
Dib didn’t think that proved it at all, however he went on. “And how do you know you’re insane?”
If it were possible, the wiry cat’s maniacal grin curled up even wider. “Three words: Happy Noodle Boy.”
Dib squinted up at the cat, not even wanting to ask. Seeing his expression caused the cat to break out in a fit of giggles and it started to vanish, beginning at the tip of the tail and ending at the neck where the head remained for a moment floating in mid-air. The remainder of the cat still snickered madly, the snicker rising to a devilish cackle, and finally crescendoing to a deafening howl before the Cheshire Cat’s smile faded away.
Dib blinked up at the spot where the cat had just been. “Okay, that was disturbing.” He gazed around at the trails, figuring he was no worse off going to see this ‘Mad Hatter’ than he was now. He started to walk, but realized that the cat hadn’t informed him which way to go. Dib looked around again, uncertainty tugging at his features.
“By the way...” a voice spoke up behind him, causing Dib to jump a mile. He whipped around to see the emaciated feline again sitting on a tree branch.
“Don’t DO that!” Dib held a hand over his pounding heart.
The cat just chuckled maliciously. “You’ll want to go that-a-way,” it continued pointing with its tail down a path. “And DO enjoy your stay here!” it laughed demonically and once more vanished from sight.
Dib narrowed his eyes for the hundredth time that day and marched off in the direction that the Cheshire Cat had pointed out, dreading who or what he’d find at the end of the road.