Well it certainly looked promising.
Dib, having stepped through the door, now found himself in a sun-filled court yard graced with a number of well kempt hedges and rose bushes scattered amongst colorful spans of flower beds.
It was nice. It was bright. But best of all it looked halfway normal, and Dib decided to take a look around. He made his way down the rows, smiling as his mind jotted down the much welcome commonness of his surroundings:
Cards painting rosebush.
Dib rewound that last one. He said it over more slowly. Cards. Painting. Rosebush? He scratched his head in bewilderment at the scene before him.
Standing around one of the bushes were three, living, breathing playing cards. This would have been peculiar enough in itself, except the cards all looked like kids in his class; Zita, who was the five of hearts, and Melvin, who was the six of clubs, stood on the ground while the seven of spades resembling The Letter M stood on a ladder. And just to make things even weirder, all three were busy painting the roses purple.
Well, it was nice while it lasted Dib thought, mentally waving goodbye to his last lingering thread of sanity.
“Hey! Watch it Six, you almost got paint in my eye!” Zita yelled and smacked Melvin with her paintbrush.
“Ow!” Melvin yapped and retaliated with a shove.
The Letter M glared at them from his perch. “Hey! Knock it off you two! We have to get these things painted before she comes back!”
“Um…’Scuse me,” Dib said coming up next to the small group. “What’re you doing?”
“We’re ironing our underwear. Jeez, what’s it look like we’re doing?” The Letter M snapped and dipped his brush in a paint bucket. “We’re painting these roses.”
“Because someone (he shot a look at Melvin as he said this) ordered white rose trees, but the Queen wanted purple ones, so now we have to fix them before she finds out.”
“Yeah, the Queen of Hearts. Sheesh, don’t you know anything?” The Letter M replied, slopping another glop of paint onto a flower.
Why exactly did I come over and start talking to these people again? Dib wondered irritably. And wouldn’t spray paint be faster?
The Letter M went on, “If she ever found out about this,” he paused and made a slicing motion with his finger, “It’d be off with our heads.”
“Oh…” Dib’s hand reflexively went to his neck and he rubbed it tensely. He was about to say something else, when all the sudden the sky grew dark, and angry looking clouds swirled overhead as if all hell were about to break loose. Lightning flashed, the grass seemed to dry up and turn a sickly brown color, the flowers wilted in a matter of seconds, the fountains suddenly ceased their spewing of water. The courtyard, which was bright and inviting a moment ago, was now desolate and gray, and a bitter chill tainted the formerly calm breeze. Dib observed all this with a vacant expression.
“Let me guess,” he said dryly, “… the Queen, right?” Considering the way his classmates were now running around screaming, he considered his question answered.
The sound of trumpets filled the air causing Zita, The Letter M, and Melvin to dive to the ground; actually, Melvin just fainted, however he still ended up on the ground. Dib stayed where he was, anxious to see the Queen, his natural, paranormalist curiosity once again overriding that pesky little voice in his head called ‘common sense’.
The first ones to enter the courtyard were more cards looking like the kids in his class; there was Sarah, Brian, Mary, Spoo, Mathew P. Mathers III, and Rob to name a few. Also amongst them was the one kid in his class Dib had been looking for ever since this morning when he’d followed him down the rabbit hole to this loony bin.
“Zim!” he gasped as the green one hopped by, still looking like some sort of deranged Easter Bunny with his fluffy, cottontail and floppy rabbit ears. Zim wiggled his widdle, pink bunny nose and glanced around forebodingly, getting the feeling that somehow, somewhere, some fanfiction author was making fun of his outfit.
The next one to come was Keef trailing behind Zim, then the Knave of Hearts, Iggins, who was carrying a pillow upon which sat a game console. After that came Tak, the Duchess, with her kitten Mimi, and finally two more card children, Torque Smacky and Chunk, came carrying a throne on two poles, and Dib’s jaw dropped as he got his first glimpse of the Queen of Hearts.
Dib knew he shouldn’t have been surprised, but even after all he’d been through he still couldn’t help being shocked at finding his own sister here. Well that explains the game on the pillow he thought with a touch of amusement.
Gaz looked the same as she usually did, but like all the other’s he’d encountered she had some notable differences. Instead of her usual black dress, she had on a purple floor-length gown with a poofy skirt and red hearts all over it. Her skull pendant held a velvet cape in place, and her berry colored locks stuck out from under a huge gold crown with a big red heart placed at the tip. She scanned the courtyard like a wolf hunting for prey, and her eyes happened upon the dripping roses.
“HALT!” she ordered and climbed off the chair, sauntering over to the paint splattered rose tree. She touched one of the blossoms and pulled back a purple stained finger, her charcoal lined eyes narrowing dangerously. “Who’s been painting my ROSES!” she growled, glancing down at the three groveling servants.
“It was Seven, your Majesty!”
“No, it was the Six! He did it!”
“I didn’t do it, it was Five!”
“Was not, Smellyhead!”
“Was too, Dookyface!”
The cards kept on flinging accusations back and forth between each other and the Queen turned red with fury. “ENOUGH OF THIS!! WHO WAS IT?!”
Suddenly, all three of them simultaneously pointed at Dib. “It was him!”
“Hey!” the young paranormalist stumbled back as all eyes darted in his direction.
“And just who is this?” demanded the Queen, strolling up to Dib.
“Gaz, it’s ME, Dib! Don’t you know me?” he asked in a pitiful tone. True, no one else seemed to have any idea who he was, but surely his own flesh and blood would recognize him.
The Queen glowered at the stranger critically. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Well I have,” Zim suddenly appeared at her side. “This NUISCENCE,” he spat the word, “has been stalking me all day long! And he keeps insisting I’m this ‘Zim’ creature!”
“That’s because you are, you bloodthirsty alien parasite! And I don’t know why you led me here, but I’m gonna find out what you’re up to.”
“Tch, I doubt it, psycho-stalker boy” Zim stuck out his tongue.
“QUIET!” Gaz shot a burning look at Dib. “Off with his head!”
“What!? But I didn’t do anything!” Dib objected and his words caused a stir amongst the crowd. The Queen glared fiercely at him through squinted eyes.
“You dare to question MY orders?”
“Well if I’m gonna get my head cut off anyway, what difference does it make?”
The Queen put a hand to her chin thoughtfully. “Hmm, fair enough. Well if it wasn’t you who painted my roses, it must have been you,” she pointed to the three gardeners. “Off with their heads!” she bellowed and they were immediately apprehended by the guards.
“Nice going, six,” Zita fumed.
“Me!? This is all your fault!”
“Cram it you morons!” The Letter M snapped, and the three were dragged away squabbling.
“…And make it quick, we’ve got a game to start” the Queen added turning to Zim who smiled wolfishly and produced a large axe out of nowhere, with a blade at least his own height.
“Jeez Zim! What’s with the axe?” Dib gasped.
“Duh,” the Queen answered, as if it were painfully obvious to the most brain dead of individuals, “He’s the Executioner.”
Dib gulped, “H-he’s... what?”
“FOOL!” Zim snapped. “Why else would I have been in such a hurry to get here?” and with that he scampered off in the direction of the three condemned, leaving Dib to wonder what kind of complete idiot would give Zim control of a deadly weapon.
“And as for you,” the Queen said turning back to him, “Can you play croquet?”
“I don’t think so, I’ve never played before. B-but I think I can learn,” he added hastily when the Queen shot him a deadly glance.
“Then let the game start,” she announced leading the way towards the playing field. Dib lagged behind, getting the distinct feeling things were about to get weird again. I didn’t even know Gaz liked to play croquet he thought to himself.
The guards promptly began handing round the equipment, and Dib rolled his eyes when he saw that the mallets were actually live flamingos and the balls were hedgehogs. “The sad thing is I’m actually getting used to this,” he muttered under his breath. Dib was the next one in line, and Spoo, the guard handing out the balls and mallets, came up to him empty handed.
“Sorry,” he shrugged, “we’re all out of flamingos. You’ll have to use the auxiliary mallet.” He snapped his fingers, and a huge shadow fell over Dib who slowly turned to face the owner.
“Ulp! I-I have to use this?” he choked at the sight of the enormous ostrich standing over him.
“Oh, and we’re out of hedgehogs too. Here,” said Spoo, handing Dib a weasel, which was at the moment foaming at the mouth.
“Can’t I just use those?” he asked pointing towards a stack of wooden mallets and croquet balls off to one side. He quickly withdrew his question when everyone in the crowd gave him a funny look. The ostrich chose this awkward moment to peck Dib in the shoulder, causing him to drop the weasel, which latched its teeth onto his sleeve, and he began flailing his arms wildly trying to dislodge it.
The Queen’s cardboard minions all took their positions on the field and bent over to form the wickets, and the game began with Gaz going first. She easily sent her hedgehog sailing under all the cards and smoothed her dress smugly as the crowd cheered. “Your turn,” she said to Dib, jerking her thumb towards the playing field.
Dib had managed to pry the rabid weasel off his jacket and he set it on the grass. He got some more funny looks and a few snickers from the crowd as he tried to figure out just how he was supposed to hold his ostrich. As ridiculous as it sounded, Dib was envying the players who’d gotten flamingos right about now.
Not knowing what else to do he grabbed the ostrich’s leg, and it responded by biting his nose. Dib hollered in pain and grabbed the bird’s neck, trying to wrestle it to the dirt, but it twisted violently and flung him to the ground. Unfortunately the place he landed just happened to be the same place his weasel was sitting, and the disgruntled creature leaped up and clamped itself onto Dib’s face. And just to make Dib’s life even more complicated, the ostrich started pecking at him again.
By the time Dib pried the weasel off and escaped from his peck-happy ostrich, the game had continued without him. Having had enough unpleasantness for one day, he plunked down on a nearby bench and leaned on his elbows. “Of all the stupid things…” he muttered, scanning the grounds. By now, no one was even bothering to take turns, and every player was shooting at once. Gaz naturally seemed to be the only one good at the game, Keef was fleeing in terror from his flamingo and his hedgehog, Tak was pouring barbeque sauce on the wickets for some inexplicable reason, and Zim was busy brandishing his axe around like a lunatic, threatening his uncooperative flamingo.
“I care not for your honks of protest, pink feather-beast. You will succumb to your master! The sweet, chickeny taste of victory will be MINE!!” He let out his best battle cry and leaped for the bird which flapped its wings and ran around frantically, spewing cotton-candy colored feathers everywhere. One of these feathers landed at Dib’s feet, and he regarded it miserably. Even seeing Zim acting like an idiot wasn’t enough to cheer him up.
“I just want to go home,” he sulked.
“Aw, you’re not enjoying the game?” a familiar voice came from above. Dib looked up and saw without surprise the Cheshire Cat’s head floating just over his.
“Not really,” he answered, leaning back on his elbows.
“That’s too bad. And I came here to cheer you on, but it’s kinda hard to root for someone who’s not playing.”
“You try playing croquet with a two-hundred pound ostrich for a mallet.”
“I really rather prefer playing with penguins,” the cat said, his grin ever frozen. “You get a much better follow through with them.”
Dib smacked his forehead; he really couldn’t take much more of this nonsense.
“Say,” the cat went on, “did you ever find that ‘Zim’ thingie you were looking for?”
“Yeah,” Dib sighed unenthusiastically.
The cat narrowed a bespectacled eye. “ But you don’t seem too happy about it. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I did, but now I just want to go home. I’ve had it up to here with this nuthouse. I want to get back home where things are normal. Well, maybe not exactly normal… semi-normal I guess, at least in their own right.”
There was a short pause. “I can tell you how to get home,” the cat smiled impishly.
“What! Really? You can?” Dib nearly jumped off his seat.
“Of course. All you have to do is click your heels together three times and say ‘there’s no place like home.’”
“Nothing happened,” Dib said after following the cat’s instructions. “Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?”
The cat scratched his purple hair with a paw that had appeared. “Hmm, well I… uh, no. No, I guess not. Never mind. I must be thinking of the wrong story. Sorry. But I really do know how you can get home again.”
“Well, how?” Dib pleaded.
“Uh… Give me a sec,” the cat said, twisting its features in thought and Dib rolled his eyes. Was he forever doomed to spend the rest of his life in this house of diseased head meat!?
“Oh, okay I got it!” the cat switched back to its usual toothy grin. “I can’t believe I forgot! Heh heh, where is my head today! I swear I’d lose it if it wasn’t screwed on,” he giggled madly and his disembodied head did a barrel roll as he spoke, “although in my case I don’t think that’s a very good metaphor. My head never gets lost, it’s my body that always seems to be missing, so I guess you could say-…”
“Will you just tell me already!” Dib broke in.
“Tell you what? What you could say?”
“No! Tell me how to get home!”
“Oh! Oh yeah, of course. It’s very simple, really. You just have to-…”
Just then, they were interrupted by an enraged shriek, and Dib’s attention was immediately drawn over to where Gaz was in the process of shaking Iggins by the collar, screaming in his face.
“RRRAAARRGHHH!! WHERE IS IT!? WHERE’S MY GAME SLAVE! YOU STOLE IT DIDN’T YOU! YOU WERE THE LAST ONE WHO HAD IT! GIVE IT BACK TO ME NOW OR SUFFER MY WRATH!!”
“I-I… d-didn’t t-take… take i-it!” the Knave insisted between shakes.
Gaz bared her teeth like a wild animal and let Iggins drop to the ground. “OFF WITH HIS HEEEEEAAAAD!!” she bellowed, hyperventilating with rage, and Zim was instantaneously at the Queen’s side, his claw-like fingers curling eagerly around the axe handle.
“Wait!” Dib interjected sprinting over, having absolutely zero desire to see someone decapitated. “Shouldn’t you have a trial first?”
“Why would I want to do that?” Gaz seethed.
“Well… Because you don’t know for sure if the Knave stole the game, and it’s only fair that there be a trial,” he explained helpfully.
Gaz didn’t look convinced.
“And if he did take it, and you execute him now, you’ll never find out where it’s at.”
Gaz still didn’t look convinced.
“Aaaaannnnd… You get to bang around a really big hammer.”
This seemed to perk Gaz’s interest and she smiled fiendishly. “Alright then, let the trial begin! Come on,” she beckoned to Dib.
“What? No, I don’t… I mean, I didn’t mean right now,” he tried in vein to protest, but the Queen was already leading away the procession.
Dib, remembering the Cheshire Cat had been about to offer him some crucial advice, quickly glanced back at the spot where it had been, but the feline’s floating noggin had disappeared.
“Darn it!” he snapped his fingers, then, slumping his shoulders in defeat slunk after the Queen and her henchmen. “Something tells me I should’ve just stayed in bed this morning.”