Archie drove down an increasingly winding, increasingly bumpy road that eventually dwindled to a trail and then simply a series of car-sized gaps between the trees. This did not unsettle him as much as it had three days earlier, when he first made the trip to Manfred Mussholm's curio shop just outside of town.
Beside him, his little grorg Lola pressed her nose to the window and happily wagged her tails at the familiar landscape. Archie tried not to feel jealous. They'd gotten off to a rocky start on Friday; Archie had never been especially skilled with living things. He'd settled her in her quilt-lined cage in the living room corner, but the poor thing had turned sickly violet and keened like her heart was broken. After feeding her nearly all the special treats Mussholm had thrown in for free, Archie had finally given up on establishing boundaries and brought her into his bed. She'd turned a blissful butter-yellow, nestled all seven segments of her furry little body against his neck, and fallen into a deep and satisfied sleep. He'd been so grateful for the respite that he hadn't even minded waking on Saturday to find his face covered in a fine, sticky web of grorg saliva. Not much, anyway.
When he got up to relieve himself and commanded her not to follow, she'd turned a heartbreaking shade of bruised gray; he'd relented instantly, which afforded him the singular experience of urinating with a ball of fur wrapped around his head, twelve soft paws clamped to his cheeks and a forked purple tongue flicking past his eyes to gently wet both nostrils. Something inside him had melted then. From then on, he and Lola had been inseparable. He'd even bought one of those cloth baby slings to carry her in while he went about his chores, so he wouldn't step on her tails as she clung to his calves. By Monday morning there was no question: Lola would, quite obviously, be accompanying him to work.
Mussholm had told him grorgs were highly social animals, but Archie hadn't realized he meant quite this social. (Frankly, Mussholm's words had gone in one ear and out the other; Archie’s therapist had pronounced it time he move up to bonding with a pet, and Lola was the only creature in the shop that hadn't horrified him.) Thank goodness he hadn't. In their seventy-two hours together he'd grown hopelessly attached to the exuberant furball. Over lunch, as she eagerly sampled every item on his cafeteria tray only to find it wanting, he'd decided to return to Mussholm's shop after work and lay in a giant supply of her special treats. “Would you like that, Lola-bird?” he’d cooed at her as she lay sprawled on his desk and he scratched her furry belly. “Would that make my little girl happy?” She’d turned bright green in purring approval.
Now, inching through the forest, they passed several of Mussholm's inexplicable inventions: a six-foot circular clearing where it constantly rained; an eighty-foot henhouse on stilts, which dropped egg-shaped rocks at unpredictable intervals; a patch of light-emitting sunflowers. ("The future of solar power," Mussholm had told him last time.) Lola watched all these pass by in silence—perhaps as perplexed as Archie regarding their merits—but she barked excitedly as they passed an unoccupied Land Rover driving itself in lazy figure-eights. "Who's a fierce little grorg?" Archie cooed. "Who's protecting Papa from the big bad car?" He patted her head and she jumped onto his arm, then wrapped herself around his neck and began to purr. Archie sighed in a blissful content he'd never realized he was missing, before Lola. As always, his therapist had been right.
The shop lurched into view and Archie parked. Mussholm was sitting on the porch, a preposterously bearded man wedged among towering piles of wooden crates in apparent comfort, smoking a giant meerschaum pipe shaped like a Viking warrior astride a winged, fanged octopus. "Evenin', Wiggers," Mussholm boomed as he stood up. "I gotcha order ready'n waitin'." He strode inside. Archie tucked Lola into the baby sling and hurried after him. The meerschaum Viking waggled an alarmingly spiked club as Archie scurried past.
The shop quivered with a steady and pungent hum, punctuated at unnerving intervals by a screech from one of Mussholm's other creatures. Lola wriggled her head and front four paws out of the sling. Archie looked left and right, but Mussholm was nowhere to be seen. He picked his way to the register, taking special care to evade the writhing display labeled OMNIVOROUS GLOWWORMS. DO NOT UNDERFEED. A helpful arrow marked ESSENTIAL ACCESSORIES pointed to a rack of chainmail gloves.
Mussholm reared up like a hairy pearl expelled from the deep and thumped a wooden crate onto the counter. "There. That'll last ya a good while."
"How long, exactly?" Archie hoped to keep his trips here to a minimum.
Mussholm cocked his head, as if in deep calculation. "A good, long while," he finally said. "Hey, ya want summa this?" He pointed to two triangles of clammy dough on a tiny plate beside the register.
Archie squinted. "What is it?"
"Quantum-coupled dim sum."
"Here, watch." Mussholm popped one triangle into his mouth. "Don' wath me, wath IT," he lisped wetly, pointing at the second triangle. Archie turned his attention to the plate.
Before his eyes, the second piece of dim sum began to rip apart, as if it were being mauled by some unseen force. Archie turned a horrified look to Mussholm, who was just swallowing.
"Goes through the whole digestive process, right there on the plate. Ends up manure. Great as fertilizer. Ya gotta garden?"
"No!" Archie said hastily, repressing a furious urge to gag. The second dim sum began to bubble. Lola growled and wriggled another two paws free. She was turning ominously orange; Archie patted her soothingly. "It's all right, Lola-bird. It won't hurt you." He backed up a step, just to be sure.
"Well, take some anyway. I'm rarin' fer feedback." Mussholm reached beneath the counter.
"No, thank you, I—"
Mussholm straightened and dumped six cardboard containers into Archie's crate. "Tell ya what, I'll throw in a coupla these new forks for ya, too." He reached back under the counter.
A screeching voice drowned out Archie's protests. "How dare you put your hands on me, you pea-brained buffoon!" Mussholm snatched back his hand and winced.
"Damn fool arrogant cutlery," he growled. "I was goin' fer elegant, but I mispronounced it. I gotta remember not to eat while I work." He sucked on his injured finger.
Just then the second dim sum popped, spattering everything in a three-foot radius. Archie whimpered; Lola growled. Mussholm leaned forward to wipe Archie’s face. "Still workin' out the kinks,” he apologized. “Might need to tone down the garlic." To underscore his point, Mussholm belched extravagantly. Archie reeled back. Lola turned vermilion and let out a yawling caterwaul, then launched herself from the sling and sailed over Mussholm's counter.
"Lola!" Archie cried. All the shop's creatures—the voodoo crow's-head skeleton, the feathered boa constrictor, the porcupine blow-rat, and a dozen other impossible, awful things—erupted in a violent cacophony. Lola, now a pulsing fire-engine red, hit the floor and ran.
"Don't let her make it out that door!" Mussholm shouted.
Archie lunged for her, but he was too late. She bounded through the door and toward the woods. He leapt after her, but his shoe caught on one of the front porch crates and he fell. Mussholm jumped over him and thundered down the steps.
A car horn sounded. "Oh, no," Mussholm moaned. "We can't let her reach my Rover! I've just gotten him workin'!"
Archie was incensed. How could Mussholm think of his insufferable artwork at a time like this? "My Lola doesn't chase cars, I'll have you know," he shouted, though he had no idea whether she did or not. "She won't scratch your precious vehicle."
"That ain't the problem!" Mussholm shouted back.
Archie heard Lola's fevered barking, then the loud roar of an engine. An instant later little red Lola burst into view, the car in hot pursuit. Mussholm was close behind them. "Rover!" he bellowed. "That ain't even a dog! You're only supposed to chase dogs!"
As Archie watched Mussholm's infernal car gain on his beloved pet, some heretofore unfathomed ferocity reared up in him. He leapt up from the porch floor, oblivious to the pain in his ankle, and wrenched the spiked club from the meerschaum man’s hand. “Get away from her, you brute!” he screeched as he barreled toward the Rover. He swung the club as hard as he could at the driver-side window and it shattered with a gratifying crash. The Rover jerked to a stop. “Aha!” Archie crowed, out of breath and heaving. “That’ll teach you to pick on small, defenseless creatures!”
The car revved menacingly and circled around to face him. Archie suddenly remembered he was a mild-mannered archival clerk with little in the way of combat experience. His mouth fell open and he nearly dropped the club.
The car revved again, then sprang at him.
Suddenly there was Lola, sailing through the air, into the Rover’s broken window. She landed on the steering wheel, wrenching it with her momentum, and the Rover swerved, missing Archie by inches. Oh, how he loved that little grorg. Protecting Papa from the big bad car, indeed!
But now the Rover was lurching back and forth, whipping its unwelcome passenger through the cabin. His girl was still in danger! Archie raised the club and roared after them.
“Tender are the enemy’s feet!” the meerschaum Viking bellowed from the porch. Oh, yes, quite—Archie lunged and pop! There went the left rear tire. The car reeled and Lola yowled. Archie scrambled up from the mossy dirt and took out a second tire, then a third. The Rover revved voraciously, but went nowhere. Archie stomped around to its nose, grunting with a primal, parental rage so alien he no longer knew his own name, and raised the club with both hands. He brought it down, again and again, on the Rover’s hood. And then he fainted.
He came to on Mussholm’s porch. The spiked club was back in the meerschaum man’s hand. Lola lay pressed along Archie’s chest, gray as ash, her nose resting on his chin, her front four paws warm against his neck. When she saw he was awake, she flushed sunbeam yellow and licked his face with abandon.
An extraordinary thought struck Archie as he tenderly scratched his little grorg’s head. He’d done it, hadn’t he? Learned to love someone utterly, completely, and without reservation? His therapist would be so proud.
The door banged open and Mussholm came out with Archie’s crate of treats, plus two more. “Sorry ‘bout that, Wiggers,” he said as he strode toward Archie’s car. “I threw in some extra dim sum and a bunch more forks, to make it up to ya. Plus a dozen glowworms. They do love my dim sum.”
The meerschaum Viking reached out his free hand and helped Archie up. Archie limped to his car—his ankle hurt like the devil now—while Mussholm stacked the crates on the back seat, then came around and leaned in the driver-side window. “No charge today, Wiggers. On account of all the trouble.”
“Thank you,” Archie said stiffly as he turned the key in the ignition. Then, because he was himself again and hated seeming rude: “Sorry I ruined your artwork.”
“Don’t worry yerself about that.” Mussholm clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll have him fixed up in no time.” As Archie backed away, Mussholm waved. “Lemme know how ya like that dim sum!”
Archie turned the car roadward as quickly as the uneven ground would let him. As soon as the trees obscured the shop, he stopped and unloaded the two extra crates Mussholm had given him. Let the man’s appalling Rover deal with his omnivorous glowworms and obnoxious forks and horrid, horrid dim sum. “Lola, sweetheart,” he said as he climbed back in and fastened his seat belt, “what say we find you some other special treat to enjoy, after these are gone? Something one might buy at the corner store?”
The little grorg licked his hand and turned a heartfelt shade of green.
This story originally appeared in Curious Fictions.