A strange man appears in Robin’s house one day and attempts to enlist him in the battle to save the Infinity Realm
Robin stared at the orange plaid subway seat across from him, thinking about his father. How he always liked listening to “Yellow Submarine.” How after all that Robin had been through, his dad’s favorite song was still played all across the world.
The subway seats went fuzzy as visions and voices swam into focus. It was as if he’d been transported somewhere else entirely without moving an inch, somewhere strange and unpleasant, yet oddly familiar. And as quickly as it came, it left, and he found himself staring at the empty seat cushion, where he saw only fabric and thread and heard only the grinding of the subway wheels.
Robin almost fell out of his seat. His head was spinning. He felt like he was going to be sick.
As the car took a long lurch, his trumpet case nearly slid away from the grasp of his feet. He lifted it to his lap and went over the notes to a C Major scale in his mind until the speaker called out the stop for Ms. Merry’s neighborhood.
Robin collected his things (and with them his thoughts) and readied himself. He had decided not to mention what had just happened to Mrs. Merry. He didn’t think she would believe him. He wasn’t sure he believed it himself.
He wobbled off the subway and into daylight. The sun against his skin felt like an electrical shock. How was it that he felt so weak and vulnerable?
Robin climbed Ms. Merry’s marble steps and passed the colorful flowers lining them. Birds chittered in the trees. He felt more at home here than anywhere else.
The front door was never locked, so Robin stepped into the foyer and listened as the boy before him finished his lesson in the study. He smirked; it was nice to hear someone who was worse at trumpet, even though that wasn’t the nicest thing to think.
Ms. Merry welcomed him into the study. Her kind eyes smiled warmly as she offered him a plate of freshly baked cookies.
“What did you think about your homework?” she asked. “Was it hard? Was it easy? Do you think you practiced enough?”
Robin’s voice felt higher than usual as he replied that he had done his homework and was quite satisfied with his efforts. Ms. Merry’s eyes peered, and her smile was just a little too tight. She always knew things, he thought.
“How’s life been lately, Robin?” she asked.
“Dim,” Robin answered, suddenly taking a profound interest in the patterned rug.
“Oh,” answered Ms. Merry, her tone flat. She tried to catch his eyes but found he couldn’t look at her.
“How was the subway today?” she asked.
Robin didn’t like lying, but he liked his trumpet lessons with Ms. Merry. So he lied.
The lesson was wonderful, as always: his favorite diversion (and perhaps the only one that worked) from all that had happened in the past year. If he concentrated on the flow of air through his tightened lips, the notes on the page in front of him, and Ms. Merry’s sweet, sturdy voice in his ear, the knot in his heart loosened. Only to return, of course, on his train ride home.
Home. It was a funny word, home. The place, the people who made up home were no longer all there. Home was no longer home without the missing piece of the puzzle.
Washed away by the aching in his heart, he nearly missed his stop. He brushed the gathering tears from his eyes and jumped over the gap between the train and the platform and ran to his front door in the bright daylight.
He let the front door swing shut behind him, and he listened to the silence of the house. His mother was still at work, he knew, but he listened, anyhow, just in case a footstep fell or a faucet ran. And then he did hear something; it was so striking and alien his body jerked backward and his heart pounded.
The upstairs shower was running, splashing down the drain. Horrifyingly, a booming voice rang out, singing slightly off-key to “Yellow Submarine.” There was something about the voice that made Robin not reach for the phone.
Robin felt his legs drift toward the stairs as if he weren’t really in control of them. As if his curiosity had shoved his fear out of the car door and taken hold of the wheel.
The shower was switched off, and the singing got louder. Holding a chair high above his head, Robin kicked open the door. The outline of a dark figure with a large stomach in a towel shone through the opaque curtain.
“Yellow Submarine” kicked into its chorus once more, and Robin wondered if it would be the last song he’d ever hear.
“Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?” Robin shouted and found his voice was steady.
The song came to an abrupt halt.
“Robin?” the man in the shower questioned.
Robin was confused. He couldn’t be here, could he?
“No. General X is my name. I am the leader of the Infinity Army.”
“If you’ll step outside for just a minute whilst I change, I’ll show you.”
Robin waited in the hallway as shivers passed through him.
“I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, in the shade!” echoed from within the bathroom. Somehow, having this strange guy in his house felt familiar.
A couple of verses later, General X emerged from the bathroom. He had a glistening round face and set into it were a pair of baby-blue watery eyes. He wore a navy blue uniform with numerous badges pinned to the front. This attire made him look very official.
“So, what is it?” Robin asked.
“Oh, yes, the Infinity Army.”
General X put his hands together and then spread them apart. With the most satisfying sucking noise, a video screen spread to fill the space between his hands. Robin’s eyes were fixed . . .
At the front of an enormous army stood a man he recognized from their brief meeting as General X.
“Let us be united and stand as one!” General X shouted. He raised his fist in the air and bellowed, “For the Infinity Realm!”
The entire army raised their fists and echoed, “For the Infinity Realm!”
He slapped his hands together just as before, and the video closed.
“Was that you who showed me that thing?”
“Mmm?” General X fidgeted with one of his badges.
“The transmission I had earlier on the train, did you give it to me? I was there—in that place that you just showed me.”
“The Infinity Realm?”
“Oh yes. Yes, I did.”
“Because, you, Robin, are special.”
Robin swelled with hope, though he couldn’t pinpoint why.
“Do you mean that I’ll matter? That my life matters?”
General X tugged at Robin’s cheek. He hated when grown-ups did this, but he didn’t really mind General X doing it.
“Very much so, my Robbie. You already do.”
Robin would never admit it, but at that moment, he practically glowed with pride.
“Let’s get ice-creams!”
This had been Robin’s way of expressing his overflowing joy whenever his father made him happy, and it just felt right to use it now.
General X agreed, saying, “I’ll explain more on the walk over.”
They put on their shoes, and General X collected his hat. It was navy. It looked very stiff and had a few more badges hanging officially from the front.
“Let us walk,” General X said briskly, and off they went.
People stared as they walked past. General X ignored them.
“Tell me more about the Infinity Realm!” Robin pleaded.
“Well, as you know, I am the General of the Infinity Army.”
“Yes! The Infinity Army.”
“The Infinity Army is fighting in the Withering War, against the Purple Witherers—”
“Who are the Purple Witherers?” Robin interrupted as they plodded along together in the glaring heat.
“The Purple Witherers are purple baby dragons. They are nicknamed ‘Witherers’ because once they are killed, three more spawn from their withering skin.”
“If we lose, Queen Elementa is going to lock all of the Infinity Realm’s citizens in a dungeon for all of eternity.”
“Wow,” said Robin, “So, you’re fighting them in the Withering War?”
“Yes, and they are incredibly difficult opponents, even with the Infinity Army at the height of its power. But the worst part is the possibility of losing.”
“What happens if you lose?” Robin asked, wrapped in the General’s words.
“If we lose, Queen Elementa, the leader of the Purple Witherers and a very powerful witch, is going to lock all of the Infinity Realm’s citizens in a dungeon for all of eternity.”
How horrible it would be to be locked away in a dungeon until your skin shriveled and your bones decayed, Robin thought. He tried to imagine his new friend General X in that dungeon, but the result was too upsetting.
They arrived at Moolicious and studied the flavors. At the top of the bulleted list was his dad’s all-time favorite flavor, mint chocolate chip.
“What can I help you with?” asked a smiling teenage girl behind the counter.
“May I please have a single scoop of salted caramel in a cup?” Robin asked.
“Sure thing,” she replied.
The girl handed him a see-through cup, packed to the brim with pale, toffee- colored ice cream.
“Anything else for you today?” she asked, still only looking directly at Robin. Robin turned to General X.
“Robin, can you order me a single scoop of mint chocolate chip in a cup, please,” he whispered.
“Good choice,” Robin said, approvingly.
“It’s my favorite and always has been,” General X said.
They sat outside, eating their ice creams in silence. Robin scraped his spoon across the wall of the cup, collecting every last drop.
General X turned to face him. “The Infinity Army needs you, Robin. We need you as a fighter and as a comrade.”
“I’ll help in any way I can,” replied Robin solemnly, thinking back to the awful dungeon. The pitch-black walls dripped with the stench of decay. Human bones crunched underfoot. It was not a place in which he would like to spend any amount of time.
“That a boy, Robbie!” General X delighted, plopping his hat on Robin’s head. It fell over his eyes.
That night, Robin sat in bed, re-reading one of his dad’s old letters:
I miss you and your mother dearly. I wish I could be there with you. I feel the war is almost at an end and I hope I will be back from deployment shortly. When I do get back, be ready for The Beatles, twenty-four seven. There is no decent radio here at camp and I am going crazy with the lack of good music! Make sure your mischievous mother doesn’t (and hasn’t) changed the color of our navy walls in the few weeks that I have been away—haha!
Please don’t have too much fun without me, save the fun until I get back—tell your mother not to plot anything!
I love you so much.
Forever and always yours,
P.S. continue practicing with your trumpet, you’re getting really good! I expect a high-level concert the minute I get home!
* * *
Robin waved goodbye to Ms. Merry as he exited her studio—half-heartedly, Ms. Merry established. She slipped into her silver Subaru, turned the key, and drove homeward.
Ms. Merry switched on the radio, hoping for some music.
“Excuse me, Ted, but who do you think is going to be this month’s winner of our hot-dog eating contest?” issued from the speaker in her door.
“Well Joe,” came the reply, “the odds are . . .”
Blah, blah, blah, Ms. Merry thought as she switched it off again.
She swung the car around and pulled it into a yellow-marked space in the parking lot and took the elevator up to her floor.
Ms. Merry let the front door of her apartment swing shut behind her before dropping her keys on the worn grey bench in the mudroom.
“I’m home!” she called, all of a sudden considerably tired.
Arthur came to greet her, his salt-and-pepper hair ruffled, a wide grin across his face. Rain or shine, he always greeted her with a smile.
They sat down to supper at their little table and ate microwave macand- cheese with a freshly cut salad.
“Oh, Arthur, Robin is an amazing student, but lately there’s been something wrong with him. It’s like something is controlling him from the inside.”
“Monica, dear, you have such a big heart. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Arthur squeezed her hand.
Ms. Merry lay in bed as wave after wave of worry hit her. What if Robin was sick? Or crazy? What if no one knew anything was wrong? She was drenched.
* * *
Robin’s dreams were filled with pictures of horrible monsters bearing down on General X and locking him in a musty dungeon as high-pitched cackles filled his ears.
Robin felt the sun through his closed eyelids as he was shoved back into the normal world. Though the normal world isn’t so normal at the moment, Robin thought. His thoughts were confirmed by a message scrawled across his mind:
Just letting you know how the war is going, we’re winning!
Robin was so surprised that he banged his head on his outer-space headboard. General X is very unusual, Robin thought to himself as he massaged his head through his carrot-colored hair.
His mum appeared in the doorway. She looked tired.
“Sorry I had to work so late last night, honey,” she said, sitting down on the end of his bed where his sheets were twisted into knots. His mum had been working extra lately, and when she was away, Robin felt like he was on a different planet, a not altogether pleasant one.
“Do you have to stay late at work again today?” he asked.
“You got your wish. It’s Friday.”
His mum never worked at all on Fridays. She gave him a big hug to start the morning. An image of a Purple Witherer, horrible and scaly, lingered in the center of his mind, and he hugged his mum tighter, his fingers against her silky hair, her wonderful flowery scent flooding around him.
* * *
At recess, Robin sat behind a bush, his back resting against the wall of the school. The bush’s leafy branches were less dense up close. Many small twigs, each with six or so leaves, grew out of a curvy central stick in intersections. His observation was interrupted by General X’s face, staring at him out of the bush.
“Hello Robbie!” the General’s head said.
Robin stifled a scream.
“You look down,” General X’s head spoke again. “In need of something sweet, I think.”
An arm protruded from the bush, quite a hairy one in fact. The arm handed Robin a chocolate bar.
“Just making sure you’re happy,” General X said as he faded back into the bush.
The bell rang and Robin walked inside eating his chocolate. Robin noticed people giving him funny looks as he walked down the hall. What did they think he was doing, eating an earwig?
* * *
Robin’s mum was waiting for him when he got home.
“I was thinking we could spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool. What do you say?”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Robin said, relieved to spend some time with his mum.
“Okay, then go and collect your swimming things, and I’ll get ready as well,” she said as the phone rang behind her. Robin walked to his bedroom, taking the short flight of stairs two at a time. From his bedroom, he could still hear his mum downstairs.
“Hello?” there was a short pause and then, “Oh, Ms. Merry, I’m about to go swimming with Robin, can we talk later?”
After that, his mum sounded worried as she said, “Urgent?” There was a long gap before his mum finally replied.
“Don’t be silly. There’s nothing wrong.”
His mum put the phone down.
The pool was busy, but they spotted a quiet corner where they were not in the chaos of the shouting teenagers and the little kids splashing in. The two of them slipped into the cool water. Robin had a bubble in his mouth as he sank down, down, down. He pushed off from the bottom lightly and surfaced, his face breaking the water slowly.
As he arose from the depth of the water, his mum was there, her comforting face pleased. She held an orange ball in her hands. They spread apart, and she tossed it to him.
The orange squishy ball felt good as it sank into his cupped hands. Robin jumped as he tossed it back. The ball arced in the air before reaching its mark with his smiling mother. She laughed, and her wet hair glimmered, as she again threw it to him.
The pool was extremely noisy, but Robin couldn’t hear any little bit of it. It was like he and his mum were in their own shared bubble, where everything was absolutely and completely perfect, and nothing would ever go wrong.
Their space was bombarded with toddlers in floaties, so they hopped out to dry. They both spread towels on the warm concrete and lay on their backs, absorbing the heat. Robin’s mum rested her hand on top of his and gently squeezed it three times: I - Love - You. It was a moment Robin wished would never end.
* * *
On the subway, Robin stared at the people across from him. There was an over-large woman, dressed in all pink, who looked fussy. She stared at her cell phone with her nose wrinkled.
Next to her sat a scruffy male teenager with thick-rimmed glasses; they circled his magnified hazel eyes, which stared at the ceiling, not focused.
In the middle of the row sat a tall, skinny Asian woman, with her hair cut to her chin. She conversed in rapid Mandarin with her small-looking son, who sat in the seat next to her and doodled with crayons in a sketchbook.
The man sitting next to the Asian boy caught his eye. He had a glistening round face with a set of baby-blue watery eyes, fixed steadily on Robin’s. Robin jumped in his seat and forced his eyes elsewhere, though he could feel the man’s steady gaze boring into him. It was as if the man knew Robin, and though Robin recognized him, he couldn’t think where from.
It was like he and his mum were in their own shared bubble, where everything was absolutely and completely perfect.
The direction Robin was looking was overcome by Purple Witherers, plodding in a charge down the subway.
Each Purple Witherer had two spectacular silver horns protruding from its purple scalp.
All of the people he had observed earlier, and others, got up to fight them. Some used backpacks, cameras, pencils, and cutlery. Others brandished swords, clubs, and other weapons to slay the beasts.
The lady in pink fell over on her enormous backside. One of the Purple Witherers snorted fire and singed her frizzy hair.
The Purple Witherers were reducing the numbers of the human army, and very quickly. More and more people were being thrown back, burnt, pushed to the ground, or skewered. One of the Witherers withdrew one of his horns from the Asian lady’s leg, his magnificent horn shimmering with blood.
Robin pressed his back against his seat. In the middle of the battle, Robin spotted General X. The General held one of the Purple Witherers at bay with a handsome sabre.
From somewhere over the din, Robin heard the announcement for Ms. Merry’s stop. He ran off the subway, away from the battle with his arms over his head. He uncovered his head when he reached the open streets but still ran to Ms. Merry’s studio, his trumpet case hitting against his knees.
Ms. Merry greeted him with a smile (a rather forced one, though Robin didn’t notice).
“Your homework was to practice the second part of the ‘Knitted Cap’ duet, did you do it?”
This was a lie, though Robin thought he knew it pretty well.
“Good then. I go first.”
She touched the trumpet to her lips and blew the melody. Robin joined in on the second verse and played the harmony.
A message twisted into life in familiar handwriting: We lost.
Robin stopped playing.
Something deep inside him snapped. He fell to the ground.
Robin could almost see it.
General X stood in his cage, his face pressed against the bars, pleading for release to a woman with a stony face in a long white dress. The woman laughed and General X screamed.
Robin screamed too.
He opened his eyes to see Queen Elementa standing over him.
“Get away from me, you beast!” Robin yelled, sliding backward. She laughed. Robin was trapped. His back hit a wall. Everything went black.
When he awakened, his mum was standing over him.
“Watch out for Queen Elementa!” he warned her, “She’s dangerous! She put General X in an Infinity Dungeon!”
His mum nodded at Queen Elementa.
Robin’s mum steered him out to her car. She placed him in the backseat. The sun shone through the front windscreen, making it hard to see.
It felt as though this were his own prison, hot and sticky. As though he was sharing the same fate as his beloved friend.
Robin’s mother typed “Bluebird Children’s Hospital” into the GPS system. Then she drove off.