Barnaby Willacre lay sprawled on the muddy ground. He had been shot out of the sky and landed in a remote swampy area on the outskirts of Bayou City. Barnaby knew this was likely to happen when he agreed to give Davy the Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow, but that didn’t make him feel any better about what was coming. As the smell of cherries permeated the air around him, Barnaby quivered on the ground, because he knew the Grumblegator had found him.
“So, what’s his deal anyway?” said the twelve-foot alligator in a suit. He was standing upright on his hind legs, but slouched in such a way that conveyed how little he wanted to be in the middle of some wretched swamp. “He’s some kind of circus ringmaster, but he also flies through the air like a rocket? What’s that about?”
“I wish I could tell you, sir,” replied his assistant, who was a cherry in a dress. Rather, she looked like a short, young woman, but her head was a single cherry. A stem came out of the top of her head and connected to another cherry, but there was nothing unusual about the second cherry. Her eyes were focused on the tablet computer that she was holding.
The Grumblegator leaned over Barnaby and looked down at him with a look of aggressive indifference. “So Mr. Circus Man,” he began. “A little birdie told me what you did. Him and his stupid lizard friends saw everything.”
The Grumblegator began circling Barnaby. “You took the artifact and you gave it to the kid. Now who did that artifact belong to?” He turned to the cherry. “Ms. Pamola Cherry?” he asked.
“It belonged to you, sir,” she flatly stated, her eyes remaining dispationately focused on the tablet.
The Grumblegator nodded. “That’s right.” He looked back down at Barnaby, who still struggled to move. “So you take my artifact and align yourself with the possum to save this world. What does that make him, Ms. Pamola Cherry?”
“A traitor to his people,” she answered as she began taking notes on her tablet.
“And what do we do to traitors?” The Grumblegator picked at his teeth as he asked this.
Ms. Pamola Cherry continued writing on the tablet. “We dispose of them,” she said with mild irritation, as if this was far from the first time she had gone through this song and dance.
“That’s right,” the Grumblegator said. “Get the transmutator for me.” He looked back down at Barnaby “You. Get up.”
Barnaby struggled to get to his feet. Ms. Pamola Cherry pressed a button on her tablet, and a small electronic device ejected from the side of it. The Grumblegator took it and held it in front of Barnaby’s face.
Jean frantically floated towards the group from between some trees. You could say that the blood drained from her face when she saw who her husband was with, but ghosts don’t have blood, so this wouldn’t make sense. Anyway, Jean got scared when she saw the Grumblegator.
“Hey, you’re just in time,” the Grumblegator said when he saw Jean. “We were just about to use the transmutator.”
Jean looked even more terrified than before. “Please,” she shouted. You don’t have to do this!”
“Well, no,” the Grumblegator conceded. “But work is just more fulfilling when you allow yourself to enjoy the little things.”
He placed the device on Barnaby’s forehead. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said to Ms. Pamola Cherry.
Ms. Pamola Cherry made a gesture on her tablet. A light on the device turned on and the skin around Barnaby’s forehead started to turn a dull grey. The grayness started spreading.
“No! Don’t!” Jean shouted.
Barnaby finally gained the composure to speak. “You won’t stop the Endocrine or the Steward!” He shouted. “They will overcome! They will–”
Barnaby stopped speaking, because he had turned into a statue.
“And now you won’t be overcoming anything,” the Grumblegator half-sang to himself. He turned to his assistant. “Anything to add?”
“His wife was right next to him, but his last words didn’t even acknowledge her,” Ms. Pamola Cherry answered, continuing to look only at her tablet.
Jean was heartbroken. “Do you have to be so cold?” she asked the cherry.
Ms. Pamola Cherry’s eyes remained on the tablet. “It’s my job to be cold, ma’am.” Jean began to sob over the statue that used to be her husband.
“Look lady, I get it. You’re upset,” the Grumblegator began. “But this is what happens to people who oppose us. They get turned to stone.”
“Tungsten, actually,” interjected Ms. Pamola Cherry.
The Grumblegator was taken aback. “Wait, what?” he exclaimed. “Tungsten? What happened to stone?”
Ms. Pamola Cherry answered without skipping a beat. “Stone is a broad term used to describe a wide range of different minerals that exist in nature in a multitude of combinations. R&D isn’t at the point where they can convert matter into a range of different elements at once. So far they’ve just completed tungsten.”
“Well, sure, I get that,” the Grumblegator responded. “But why tungsten? Out of all the elements they could have gone with, why not iron or gold or something?”
“Maybe someone in R&D just really likes tungsten, sir,” Ms. Pamola Cherry stated.
The Grumblegator sighed. “Thank you for your explanation, Ms. Pamola Cherry,” he said sarcastically. He turned to Jean. “Our Ms. Cherry is quite the professional,” he told her.
As the Grumblegator was mocking his assistant, the faint outline of a face emerged on the cherry next to Ms. Pamola’s head. It began wheezing as if part of a strained but futile desire to speak. Ms. Pamola Cherry heard the wheezing and looked up from her tablet in alarm. She began to stroke the other cherry in a reassuring manner.
“Shh, calm down, Wyatt,” she said. “Everything’s okay.”
The Grumblegator recoiled in disgust. “Man, your brother still gives me the creeps,” he said.
Ms. Pamola Cherry ignored him and continued talking to the other cherry. Eventually, the face calmed down and receded. Seeing that the face was gone, she clumsily went back to her tablet. “I apologize for the inconvenience, sir,” she stated, trying to act as if nothing had happened.
The Grumblegator barely registered his assistant’s apology. “Sure, fine. Now can you tell me where the kid is going next?”
Ms. Pamola Cherry swiped across the screen of her tablet. “Our scouts say that the Steward and his friend have boarded a bus. They’re going to Heaven’s Head.”
The Grumblegator stroked his chin. “Heaven’s Head, huh?” He pointed towards his assistant. “Go send orders to the Mother,” he said. “She should be able to stop them.” He laughed to himself. “She won’t be happy to hear this though. Lord knows she’s got enough on her plate as it is.” He turned towards the still-crying Jean and whispered with a mock seriousness, “She’s currently dealing with a vigilante problem.”
Jean did not hear this, because she was still sobbing.
“So, Ms. Pamola Cherry, what’s next on the itinerary,” the Grumblegator asked.
His assistant swiped through her tablet. “Well, you’ve finished what you insisted I call, ‘Righteous Retribution’ on your calendar.” She pointed to the tungsten Barnaby. “Up next, I see you have, and I quote, “Evening Power Luge.”
The Grumblegator smiled at the thought of Evening Power Luge. “Thank you, Ms. Pamola Cherry,” he said. “You’re like a smartphone, but slightly more useful.”
Ms. Pamola Cherry’s face was back on the tablet. “And you’re like an old ugly sofa, but somehow you get paid more than me.”
This made the Grumblegator chuckle. “See. I like this,” he said. “We got a good rapport.” The two of them turned away from Jean, who had managed to regain her composure.
“What… what about my husband?” she asked.
The Grumblegator turned around. “Oh, you can keep him, I guess. I get the feeling he won’t be causing us any more trouble.” The Grumblegator and Ms. Pamola Cherry began to walk away as Jean tried to hold her husband’s tungsten hand. Her hand simply passed through his, which alarmed Jean; it looked like this wasn’t something that had happened before.
As the ghost woman began to sob again, the Grumblegator laughed to himself. “That kid probably doesn’t even know what he’s gotten himself into.”
Ms. Pamola Cherry scoffed. “You’re still going to completely annihilate him, though, aren’t you?”
“Well, obviously,” he answered. “No one messes with Grumble Industries Incorporated and lives to tell about it.”