Fantasy Fiction

Looking back, I should’ve known.

I shouldn't have gotten involved. But my back was to the wall. It was either do something or be beaten, if not killed. And I warned him about the gift.

Let me back up and start at the beginning. I had finished working the carousel at a Christmas lights festival in Stuart, Florida. I’d seen better but it was some money to get me through winter until the start of fair season. I was in my camper hunting for the instant coffee when Tom Blanco banged on the door.

“Go away!” I called.

“Package for you,” he hollered back.

“I didn’t order anything. So if you’re trying to bum shit off me it won’t work. Get lost!”

A thud on my doorstep. “Well, it’s in your name. Stupid postman gave it to me by mistake. I’m amazed you even have friends, to be honest.”

You and me both. I opened the door in my ratty robe. Tom made a big show of being disgusted. “Good God, cover up,” he said. “No wonder you don’t ever get none. Can you even see it over your stomach?”

“Yeah, a fucking Merry Christmas to you too,” I muttered. I grabbed the box, stomped back up the stair, and banged the door shut. I found the coffee next to my saltshaker. By this time the kettle was shrieking worse than the girls on last night’s roller coaster.

All right, what the hell ever, I’m coming.” I grabbed the pot off the propane stove and poured water into my chipped mug that said Beer, now there’s a temporary solution on it. I added the coffee and drank. Decided against the whiskey for once. I sat at the table with the box. Not very big, not taped well. Probably Tom looked inside to see if it was valuable. I wouldn’t put nothing past that guy. The return address said Palatka, Florida on it. I thought I heard ticking and froze.

Now any normal person these days would run for their lives. A package that ticked? But that wasn’t what made me grab for the whiskey with a shaking hand. I poured it into my coffee, almost spilling some, and took a gulp. For I recognized that smell that came from the partly opened box. Sweet, like roses but mixed with cotton candy. It was a smell of flowers not from this earth. I also caught a whiff of-motor oil?

“Holy fuck goddamned fucking god,” I whispered, and cut the package open. Inside was neatly folded pink tissue paper. I knew what I’d find, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It was a stuffed red heart, like one might give away in a carny game. Some mechanism inside made it tick. There was a note with it. I took another gulp of Irish like coffee and contemplated throwing it away. Finally, I opened it up. It was printed in large letters, as if done by a carpenter who had never learned penmanship.

You can have this back, it said. And thanks for nothing.


 Palatka is a small town on the St. John’s River. I’d worked fairs there before. It’s what I do these days, ever since I got canned from Ringling Brother’s for drinking on the job. In my defense, there are only so many ways to silence the voices and dreams. And they never got quieter over the years.

Who sends a little girl out to kill-

She’d already killed one of them, remember? That’s what everyone was saying, I told myself. I assumed she was some powerful-

Sure. The fact she was with those three losers didn’t make you question anything, did it. And you didn’t even try to go back for her. Idiot.

I did go back.

After a year. Whoopie doo.

 At least that time I managed to help the girl. Sleight of hand, those people are gullible. Tried to learn magic but honestly didn’t work out so well. So, I came back, hoping to put this all behind me. Did the aforementioned circus, then some magician work. Finally ended up in Florida working a third-rate circus in a lousy flea market slash drive-in movie theater. I still remember the smell of popcorn mixed with knock-off perfume. A sad place, I always thought, full of the greedy so willing to believe they were getting a Gucci below market price. Couldn’t even tell you if the drive-in is there anymore. But given this pandemic I assume it does well. Ringling Brother’s is gone, and I’m amazed. Who would’ve thought circuses would just...disappear? That a whole generation wouldn’t see elephants living in sketchy conditions? Or be more afraid of the clowns that swept up spotlights than the tigers? An iconic American tradition that, yes, exploited the misfit and the deformed. But at least it kept them out of the hospitals, jails, and insane asylums, which is something. Not to mention many of these people were paid well. Don’t let the bleeding hearts fool you on that.

I wonder what happened to the Ringling animals. Probably in a zoo somewhere. I hope. Anyway, Florida’s a big place so I mostly stay around here. Pick the right neighborhoods, keep to yourself, and no one bothers you. Mostly because they don’t want to be bothered themselves. That suits me just fine. I’m old now and should’ve been dead long ago. But apparently some of the magic rubbed off on me. It took me sixty years to get to middle age, which is another reason I had to keep moving. Can’t arouse suspicion being in one place too long. I pick up work at fairgrounds with carnies that don’t ask too many questions. Especially when I’m willing to do any job save one.

Don’t ask me to get into another hot air balloon and we’re fine.

It wasn’t hard to find the house. It’s a two story that looks about as old as me, right on the river. Brown wood shingle on the outside, tin roof. Nicely kept front yard and a big, wrap-around porch. A rose bush grew next to the brick steps that led to a screen door. I stood outside, looking at the damned tin roof and thinking this over.

I should chuck the heart in the river and run. No good will come of this.

But I wanted to know. What had happened that made him send this back?

Three words, my friend. Curiosity and cats.

Before I could decide, the front door opened. A thin woman with white hair came onto the porch and peered at me through the screen door. “Well, come on in,” she said. “I was expecting you.” High pitched and quavered, an old woman’s voice. But it still held sweetness along with that old don’t fuck with me attitude. That was nothing new.

I climbed the steps while my bad knee complained, and she opened the door for me. A bun had replaced the pigtails and blue jeans had replaced the pinafore. Her face was like wrinkled pink paper, but she still looked much younger than her years. “Well,” I said, “been a while.”

She nodded, taking in my black suit that had seen better days. A dog barked from within the house. It sounded as yappy as ever. “It can’t be-” I said.

“It’s not,” she answered. "Just a descendent if you will. Toto lived a long time, but he’s gone, I don’t know. Thirty-forty years now? Anyway,” she smiled. “Close to kids as I ever got.”

 I felt I had to say something. “Well. Look, I’m sorry about the whole witch-”

“I told you, I bear you no ill will.”.

She had said that the second time I found her in Oz. Back then she’d had the pigtails and the original dog. As I had then, I wondered if she was sincere. “So,” I said, “Why did you send this to me?”

“I didn’t,” she answered. “He did. They set up a portal and for it to work, needed an earth address. So, they used mine. I still keep in touch, you know.” She stood with her arms crossed, as if cold, although the sun shone. I looked out the front door. In front of us was a road, and across was the river. Boats sped across it like it was a silver road leading to some magical place. I knew better. It would just flow north to Jacksonville and the ocean. I turned back to the woman.

“That’s great, Dorothy,” I said, “But why did he return this to me, after all these years?”

“Maybe,” she said. “You should ask Nick yourself.”


“That’s his birth name. You didn’t know?”

“It’s not like we had formal introductions,” I said. Once again, I contemplated tossing this package into the river. But I had to know. And to be honest, I was tired of running. “Okay,” I said. “How do I find Nick?”

“Come with me,” Dorothy said. She walked past me, down the steps and headed right into the neighbor’s yard. I thought it was nervy of her to use it as a diagonal shortcut to the sidewalk, but I followed. We walked a block until we came to an alley wide enough for two men to walk side by side. It cut between houses on one side and some old factory on the other. Dorothy said they used to make furniture there. Then she gestured to the alley. “Walk up that,” she said.


“It will take you to where you need to go.”

I looked up the alley. It was open, far as I could see. But what did I know? Maybe Dorothy did want revenge. Maybe there were goons hiding in people’s back yards. As if she suspected, the woman smiled again. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll come. Let’s go.”

I shrugged and started along the walk. She followed. Halfway in it began to get misty, the flower smell stronger. Then I couldn’t see anything, and Dorothy had to take my arm so I’d keep walking. Finally, the mist cleared, and I found myself in a garden, Dorothy next to me. The sun was as bright as I remembered it, the sky just as blue. Yellow flowers grew in an emerald grass. A yellow butterfly floated past us, a margarine like smell emanating from it. In front of us was a palace. It shone in the sunlight. Two men in sunshine yellow stood in front of the door. I stared up at the palace, unbelieving.

“Is that…tin?”

“Yes,” Dorothy said. “They built it for Nick. He rules over the Winkies now.”

“Where the witch of the west was.”


The men apparently knew Dorothy and let us in. We walked along a yellow hallway and up a flight of stairs to a silver door. Dorothy knocked and a man opened it. If one could call him that. He wore a blue suit now, but the straw still peeked out from his hands, neck, and the tops of his boots. “You!” he said to me. “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t think we were ever formally introduced,” I said. “Name’s Diggs. And I’m here,” I held out the package. “To find out why he gave this back to me.”

“I think-” began Scarecrow angrily when a creaky voice interrupted. It was slow, as if a doll with a rusty mechanism was trying to talk.

“It’s all right, Crow. Let him in.”

This room wasn’t yellow. It just had simple tin walls, and a wooden dresser. A bed was in one corner and a chair in the other. Nick was in the chair, looking as shiny as he ever did. There were tears in his eyes. Instead of a tissue he used WD-40. Dorothy sat on the bed and Crow remained by the door. He glared as if he’d like to toss me out the window. I suppose I couldn’t blame him. At least the Lion wasn’t here. He never was cowardly, and I didn’t want to tangle with him.

I got straight to the point. “Why did you send the heart back to me?”

“I don’t need it anymore.”

Well, that told me a hell of a lot. “Yeah, I got that impression from the note. Hoped you could elaborate.”

“What more is there to say?”

I rolled my eyes, “you’re as dramatic as ever.”

“You’d be angry too,” Crow said, “if your wife took ill and died. And your daughter might be next. Even if she’s not you’re raising her by yourself.”

“I’m sorry-wait,” I said to Nick. “You’re…able to have children?” Rather indelicate I know but I never was tactful.

“Not in the typical way,” Nick said. “Used a spell. She’s…a living person you might say. Just like her mother.”

I decided to let that go. “Okay. How old?”

“Six months.”

“And the illness?” I hoped it wasn’t what I thought it was.

“Cauldron Crux. Glinda’s with her in the next room.” Nick gestured to a door, from which I could hear faint crying.

“Shit,” I answered. That was difficult to cure, even for Glinda. All the same, it wasn’t always hopeless. If the child was strong she might pull through. I said as much, and so did Dorothy. She had brought over some leftover penicillin from a strep throat she’d once had and stupidly never finished. It helped, Nick said. Somewhat. But earth doctors weren’t so eager to give it out as they once did. Dorothy had pretended to have a cold but no go. She couldn’t get more.

“But at least it helped,” I began, but I was interrupted.

"Not enough."

"Oh hell," I said. "Give her some WD-40."

Nick strode up to me. "Why would you even suggest such a thing?"

I had no idea. "She's your biological daughter, right? So, I thought..."

"You didn't!" Crow said. "As usual."

"Bastard," Nick said, but with little anger. Anyone else would've decked me and I'd deserve it. He said, “I can’t even comfort her.”

“Why can’t you?”

Nick thumped his chest. “Don’t you get it? I’m hard.” He slammed his fist against the wall. It made a ringing sound and we all jumped. “No baby wants this. I might hurt her if I hug too tightly. She wants someone soft. Like her mother. If I hold her, she cries.”

“And I told you,” Dorothy said, “she’ll get used to you. My friend’s kid was the same way. She'd cry if the grandad held her. But eventually-”

“I thought I would stop crying,” Nick said. “But it’s not working out. That heart was bull. I should’ve listened. They’re not practical.”

“You realize,” I said, “I never gave you anything. Just a stuffed heart with a wind-up ticker inside.”

“Oh, no,” Dorothy muttered.

Nick had been staring at the wall. Now he spun and faced me. “What?”

I’d been thinking about this for years, how I had misjudged this guy. And it was coming out.

“I gave you nothing. You had it already. Something so strong even that witch that cut you into pieces couldn’t kill it. All I did was make you realize it. Nothing more than that.”

Nick just stared at me. I couldn’t read the expression on his metal face. Crow broke the silence. “Friend,” he said to me, “I figured that out shortly after you left. But I wouldn’t tell someone with an axe and nothing to lose.”

“I’ve less to lose than you,” I said. “You got a daughter who needs you. I’ve no family except a drunk who keeps trying to mooch off of me. Kill me. I don’t care.” I strode up to Nick. Had to look slightly up, but whatever. “Now, I’ve a question to ask you. Something I never realized until I saw your palace.”


“Why in God’s name do you rust?”


“Bloody tin! Tin doesn’t rust! Why do you?”

Nick smiled slightly. “Not sure. Think it was that stupid witch that cut me up. Probably a spell. Witches ain’t fond of water. But I’m tired of the rusting thing too.”

I started pacing, which was hard, given that small room. I wondered where Lion actually was. Doing lion things? Patrolling? Nature took its course? I took a deep breath and tried to focus. “Listen, you damned fool. You still love,” I said. “In fact, you wanted it. Even though it injures you. And not fucking mentally. It’s physical. But you didn't care. Do you have any idea how goddamned rare that is? In either of our worlds?”

“Don’t humbug us-” Crow started.

“No humbug. I was, that day. I was a bigger coward and had less heart than any of you. I admit it. But you all were willing to believe in it, weren’t you? And I used your pain and desperation. But listen and then you can kill me if you want.” Another breath. “If that girl has half the heart you do, she’s strong. I ain’t promising shit. But I better not hear you gave up. Because then,” I looked down at my clenched hands. “You’re no better than me,” I whispered. “And I always hoped somehow, I helped.” Tears came to my own eyes. I tossed Nick the WD-40 “Just rub it on her. What harm can it do?” I ran outside, and no one stopped me. I ran until the mist enveloped me and I was back in Palatka. I started driving and didn’t stop until I was almost to Georgia.


The postcard came nearly six months later, while I was working for a Renaissance fair as a wizard. Ironic, but it paid. On the front a silver-haired baby laughed on an emerald-green yard. On the back was written it worked.

Best sleep that night I’d had in a long time.

December 04, 2021 04:50

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Boutat Driss
13:27 Dec 09, 2021

I love it. Well done!


Michele Duess
13:51 Dec 09, 2021

Thank you!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Stevie B
11:51 Dec 08, 2021

Michele, extremely interesting characters, snappy dialogue, and original ideas; all the ingredients for a great story. Very well done.


Michele Duess
18:53 Dec 08, 2021

Thank you. I was working on another project in which a character is called the tin man. And it occurred to me the tin man shouldn't worry about crying, tin doesn't rust. Took me 50 years to realize that lol I had to look it up. Anyway, that's where this story came from. Glad you enjoyed it.


Stevie B
20:05 Dec 08, 2021

You're welcome and very astute observation.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.