ACT VII

Willy Wonka’s chocolate house of horrors

Franklin trudged across the polished wooden floor. The snap of his leather shoes sounded like a metronome, keeping time with his misery.

Despite his young age, Franklin had lived through quite a few traumatic episodes in his life—the time he’d dropped his phone in the toilet, his first experience at a public pool, or the time his aunt had saddled him with a puppy for his eleventh birthday—but this moment was by far the worst. A new personal low. He shuffled one leaden foot in front of the other, unable to focus on anything but the guilt that pooled in his stomach.

The crash of the music and the swell of the crowd overwhelmed Franklin. Without Kimberly, he felt completely alone. Like she was the only lifeguard on duty, and he was being swept out to sea on her lunch break.

Finally, he made it to the wall. He swung around and fell back against the white plaster, mercifully out of sight of the kids around him. He was relieved that no one had been watching. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, trying to block out the hostile room.

When he opened his eyes, he saw her. Kimberly. Standing in the same spot that he’d left her. She just stared at him. The crowd swayed around her, but kept an eerie distance. For an instant Franklin swore that one of the spotlights beamed down on her alone.

Her face wore an unusual expression, one that Franklin had never seen before. A strange mixture of surprise and confusion and frustration. Kimberly always blamed herself when things didn’t work. As if the whole world was her responsibility.

She couldn’t figure Franklin out. Why couldn’t he just have fun for one night? Why did he have to label it? Why did he have to think everything to death?

Franklin wished he could say something—anything to go back to before he’d opened his mouth, but he could only shrug a distant, I’m sorry.

To Kimberly, it looked like he was saying, whatever.

A telltale glisten formed at the edges of her eyes. She clenched her jaw tighter, fighting a losing battle for control. Her face would’ve broken every heart in the room, if they’d been paying attention. She wore the kind of look that made Franklin forget that he wasn’t supposed to care.

Suddenly, from the stage behind her, the band broke into a frenzied, thrashing guitar solo. Their screeching chords ripped across the room, channeling Kimberly’s feelings better than if she’d shouted at him. One hundred and forty decibels of electric fury.

Franklin looked away. He couldn’t hold her gaze any longer. Couldn’t deal with the disappointment in her eyes.

He’d wanted to be the one friend who didn’t let her down. When she wanted a party but didn’t want to admit it. When they’d lost Prince and Jann. Franklin had been the only one left. He’d never even considered leaving Kimberly—even though he’d hated this night every step of the way.

Franklin turned his focus to the buffet table, and pretended to watch some kids loading up their plates.

Oh, so there were Oreos after all, he noted glumly.

Franklin looked away, but kept his eyes pointed at the floor, aware of Kimberly at the edges of his vision.

He wasn’t ready for this. Whatever this was. And he still didn’t even know if it had been anything in the first place. A large part of him wanted to drown himself in the apple-bobbing bucket. The rest wanted to shrug and say: I told you so.

You didn’t need to remind a boy named Franklin that he was the wrong guy for the job. He’d known that since he was born.

He wasn’t the friend you took on a date, or to an amusement park, or to your mom’s coworker’s wedding—not if you actually wanted to have a good time. You couldn’t ask somebody named Franklin to rise to that kind of a challenge. He had no clue—and no desire to find one.

Kimberly was the first girl he’d ever known in his life, and all of his other friends were text on a web page.

It was her fault for choosing him, Franklin thought bitterly. For seeing something in him that just wasn’t there.

And maybe there was something wrong with him, he concluded. Something totally screwed up. Something that everyone else got, but he couldn’t grasp.

Kimberly’s voice in his ear jarred him out of his brooding. “I just wanted… one night…” she whispered, like she was standing behind him, “something real.”

The heavy metal music shrieked to a climax, then crashed into silence.

Franklin jolted in surprise. He turned his head toward the sound of her voice. He’d expected to see Kimberly there at his side. She’d sounded so close. He half-heartedly hoped that she’d come to bring him back. But there was no one beside him. Just moldering plaster and an iron floor candelabra.

He turned back to the crowd, searching for the spot where Kimberly had been standing. He couldn’t find her. Franklin blinked in surprise, wondering why it was suddenly so hard to see.

The spotlights had gone out, replaced with a dim candlelight that ghosted along the edges of the room and left everything else in darkness. In an instant, the atmosphere had switched from a trendy club to a church after mass.

Franklin scanned the crowd for any glint of purple. He crept forward into an empty break between the bodies until he was standing where she’d been only seconds before. But there was no one there.

Kimberly was gone.

Gone like she’d disappeared into thin air—but of course Franklin would never think that.

His first worry was that she might have decided to bug out and leave the party—in which case Franklin was definitely leaving too. He’d rather watch local news than stay behind.

He hurried out of the ballroom, through a rustic billiard room, and over to the front doors, hoping he could still catch her. All the while he kept his eyes peeled for any sign of a mad, dangerously-cute flapper.

Franklin couldn’t let her go back alone. That wasn’t a good idea for either of them. He didn’t like this part of town. It seemed wrong and confusing and threatening. Though for Franklin, anything outside of his living room fit that description.

What if she took the wrong bus back, or what if the bus doesn’t run this late? Franklin’s worry continued.

For reasons that he couldn’t exactly explain, he felt over-protective of Kimberly—or maybe just protective, since he didn’t really give a crap about people in general. He didn’t hate anybody; he just didn’t care. And it bothered him that Kimberly was different. He didn’t want to think about why that was the case.

It had all started around the time that he’d broken into a zoo to stop her from kidnapping a polar bear. He figured that probably had something to do with it.

So he’d go after her—even if she’d already decided that they weren’t going to be friends after tonight.

Franklin reached the entrance and stopped, vaguely wondering if this was the way they’d come in. He didn’t recognize this part of the house, but he had been running through at the time, and his mind had been on other things.

Without thinking, he yanked open the enormous oaken doors—he hadn’t remembered them being so large—and stepped out into the night.

He immediately regretted it.

The second his shoes creaked onto the old porch, a blast of weather buffeted Franklin’s clothes. He squinted straight into the blackness—a roaring beast of chilled rain, strobing lightning, and ripping winds, with a distant thunderous growl that dared him to take another step into the nightmare beyond. It looked like a sound stage for filming the apocalypse.

Franklin turned around and shut the doors.

“Huh,” he said to no one in particular. His hands and feet were wet, and his face felt pinched and numb—and that was from ten seconds of exposure. He brushed a spray of droplets from his jacket and squished his shoes nervously.

Was Kimberly really out in that?

He turned the handle again, and creaked open one door until he could barely see the world outside as a pitch-black splinter.

On cue, a purple band of lightning ruptured the sky, flashed down toward Franklin, and connected with the statue of the Grim Reaper. Its scythe lit up in a white-hot shower of sparks before the statue itself burst into flames. Like a rock concert finale—from hell.

Franklin shut the door again.

Okay, he thought. That’s not normal.

He decided that Kimberly hadn’t gone that way. Probably.

Now even more on edge, he turned back to the party, the shame and dread he’d been feeling slowly replaced by fear—and still dread.

“Kimberly,” he whispered. He didn’t know why he said it—it’s not like he expected her to hear him.

That gave Franklin an idea. He pulled out his cell phone, tapped to her number—saved as HRH Kimberly—and started to call her. But then he noticed that he still didn’t have a signal.

He did a quick mental recap: no Kimberly, no cell phones, and—he glanced back at the doors—no escape.

Franklin was beginning to have his doubts about this evening.

“Hello.” A croaking voice startled Franklin. “Can I help you sir?” it drawled.

Franklin looked over at a skeletal, hunched man in a sagging black suit. His eyes were sunken and the color of his face gave Franklin the impression that there might be yolk just beneath his skin.

He waited by the door, almost hidden in the shadows. Whether he was supposed to greet the guests or keep them from leaving, Franklin couldn’t tell. But he didn’t remember seeing him when they’d snuck inside.

Franklin tried to swallow, but his throat had gone dry. “No,” he sputtered. “I’m fine. Really. Thanks.”

The man tilted his bulbous head questioningly, causing long, lank strands of white hair to dance around the sides of his bald top. “Time is fleeting,” he said ominously. “And madness… takes its toll.” He cackled and waved a spindly hand in a wide arc, wordlessly directing Franklin back to the party.

Franklin stared at the old man like he was facing down a COPS film crew at his door: bizarre, upsetting—and the last thing he’d expected to run into on a Saturday night.

Maybe he’s Emma’s butler, Franklin reasoned. He didn’t care enough to ask. Something about the guy made Franklin feel like he needed to put some distance between them.

Franklin nodded and backed away slowly, not letting the weird little man out of his sight until he made it back to the ballroom.

The swell of pipe organ music greeted his return. Franklin hadn’t expected the sudden shift in music after a night of heavy metal. Confused, he scanned the darkness for the stage, and the rock band. But they were both gone.

Slowly, the idea sunk into Franklin’s mind that something about this party was different. He’d been so focused on Kimberly that he hadn’t stopped to notice before, but something in the room had definitely changed.

Actually, everything had changed.

Gone were the sparkly purple and silver streamers, the plastic skulls and the electric lights. In their place were shrunken heads with dripping skin, crackling torches, and weathered, peeling walls caked with grime. The food at the buffet table now reminded Franklin of something out of the Temple of Doom, and the punch fountain in the center now gushed a thick red broth.

Franklin felt his stomach churn, but not from the food. He’d just noticed the other party guests dancing around him. They’d all changed too. And that was the change that bothered Franklin the most.

Before, he’d been able to recognize half a dozen faces from his school, all made up in the usual party store paint and plastic. But not anymore. They’d all been replaced, and Franklin could only gape in silent terror as a Katy Perry and a Jack Sparrow danced alongside a giant, flesh-and-blood pikachu.

They all looked like the real thing.

Franklin spun around in horror, unable to convince himself of what his eyes were seeing. The most boring boy in the world stood surrounded by living incarnations of every horror movie monster, every fictional character—every Halloween costume.

By the fountain—which Franklin guessed was blood—a giant green M&M chatted away with a tough-looking Luigi. On the other side of the massive room, the Predator and the Terminator were leading a conga line, with Freddy Krueger picking up the rear. And a man-sized banana sulked in the corner, its peels crossed like arms, clearly upset that nobody wanted to dance with it.

A complete mental breakdown—that’s what Franklin knew it had to be. His rational soul couldn’t accept anything else. His psyche had shattered. He had gone out of his mind.

Franklin gasped, dragging in a slow shallow breath. He held it until he could feel his lungs straining, and his heart pounding in his ears. Then he let it go. Inside, he wanted to scream and scream and scream and scream and then scream one more time—and then run for the door. So, Franklin considered the fact that he wasn’t doing that to be a sign of self-control.

At least that’s something, he thought.

He’d heard that when people are about to faint, they put their heads between their knees. Should he be doing that? Would it help?

He tilted his head forward, then stopped. Suddenly, he was afraid to look down. If everybody else at this party had changed, what had happened to him?

Franklin spied a mirror not far from where he stood, but he didn’t budge. One long step and he’d be standing in front of it, but he didn’t know if he could take the shock. He still felt the same inside, but what did he look like now? Had he changed into Watson? From the books or the movies? Jude Law might not be so bad, but Martin Freeman? Franklin didn’t think he could deal with that.

With a dread-filled gulp, he forced himself to stand in front of the mirror…

And… he was still just Franklin—in a cheap, over-sized suit.

He frowned. He didn’t know if he should be relieved that he’d somehow dodged the transformation, or angry that he’d been singled out.

Franklin squeezed his eyes shut in pain. But there is no transformation, he reminded himself. You’re just insane.

Maybe crazy worked like radioactive fallout, he thought wryly. In that case Kimberly was definitely the atom bomb: she’d been dropped onto his life, and now he was sick from exposure.

He shook his head in desperation, trying to knock the weirdness loose, trying to set things back to normal.

How was this happening to him?

Had he been drugged? For the one and only time in his life, he hoped he was on drugs.

Franklin stumbled backward and lost his balance, but two purple plastic gloves caught him by the shoulders. “Whoa there! Watch where you’re going li’l boy,” a voice called behind him.

The hands released Franklin, and he turned around to face down a pair of bug-eyed purple goggles and unsettlingly white teeth.

Franklin recognized the two Wonka kids from before—only they weren’t kids anymore, they looked just like the genuine articles.

Franklin felt uncomfortable even staring in their direction. Like staring into the sun—if the sun was living, breathing, lunatic nightmare-fuel. “Right. Sorry,” Franklin mumbled, wanting to get away from this duo as quickly as possible.

“Um, you really shouldn’t mumble, because I can’t understand a word you’re saying!” chirped the Depp-Wonka.

Franklin narrowed his eyes in hatred. “Oh, right, because that’s your line from the thing—or whatever.” He shook his head and took a wide step away from the Wonkas. Franklin despised movies about whimsy. He also considered talking to his own delusions to be an unhealthy idea.

Wilder-Wonka cut off Franklin’s escape. He swung his cane in a quick semi-circle through the air, and brought it down with a snap in front of Franklin’s feet.

Franklin’s jaw clenched. He looked over at the frizzy-orange-haired nut-job on his right. “I really don’t have time for this,” he warned.

“I’m a trifle deaf in this ear, speak a little louder next time,” Wilder-Wonka said sarcastically, his glassy eyes shining.

“Mumbler!” shrieked Depp-Wonka.

Then they looked at each other and cackled dementedly. It was their joke.

Franklin felt like he was trapped in a wide-awake nightmare. Thoughts of Kimberly were a million miles away. He wondered if you could commit suicide by willing yourself to die.

“I’m going to go now,” Franklin said through clenched teeth. “So can you guys like never talk to me again? Thanks.”

“Wouldn’t you like to know about the purple girl?” Wilder-Wonka said with smarm.

“We saw you searching for her. Oh yes we did!” Depp-Wonka sang, removing his goggles and tossing them onto the floor.

“You saw Kimberly?” Franklin asked, before he could stop himself. “Where is she?”

“I’m sorry, but all questions must be submitted in writing,” quipped Wilder-Wonka.

Franklin’s face went hot. He balled his hands into angry fists. Franklin usually didn’t have much of a temper, and confrontation left him feeling tepid at worst. But this kind of goofy, child-like, possibly-drug-induced insanity sent him. He couldn’t take much more before he’d crack.

But I can’t lose it now, he reminded himself. These idiots were his only lead on Kimberly. And somehow Franklin knew that if he was going to make it out of this mess, he’d have to find her first.

So he decided to try again. To play their game. All the while he wondered what would happen if a person murdered his own hallucination.

“Yes, I would like to know,” Franklin hissed, careful not to phrase it as a question. “Please tell me where the purple girl went.”

Wilder-Wonka looked up and away from Franklin, carefully ignoring him. “Where is fancy bread—in the heart or in the head?” he asked.

Franklin gaped at him. If he ever made it out of this alive, he swore to destroy every copy of those movies he could get his hands on.

He looked desperately to the other Wonka, the one with the ghostly skin and the demented, thousand-yard stare, for some kind of help. “Do you know where she is?” he tried.

The Depp-Wonka shifted his spacey eyes over to Franklin like he was only just noticing him. “I’m sorry. I was having a flashback,” he murmured.

“Okay,” Franklin said, unfazed. “I don’t care.”

“Who’re you looking for?” Depp-Wonka said dreamily.

“Kimberly—uh—the purple girl!” Franklin snapped.

“Not nearly purple,” Depp-Wonka corrected. “More like violet.”

“But she wasn’t Violet,” the other Wonka chimed in. “Because she’s a blueberry.”

They both burst into wild laughter again.

Franklin had heard enough. They weren’t going to help him. Franklin shot them both hot glares, then turned to leave before he did something they would regret.

This time, the Depp-Wonka stopped him.

“I think she went upstairs,” he confided, “with a boy! Hehehe!” He giggled, an unhinged, rapid-fire kind of sound that made Franklin want to slap him.

“Really?” Franklin demanded. He couldn’t believe what the Wonka had said, but at the same time he was grateful for a straight answer. “Thanks,”—you stone-cold freak—“for the help.”

“Slide me some skin soul-brother,” Depp-Wonka sang, his rubber coated palm extended, but Franklin had already taken off for the stairs.

The last thing he heard from the nightmare below was the Wilder-Wonka calling after him: “Stop. Don’t. Come back.”

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