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PRASAD PATEL AND THE QUEST FOR THE SUGARY BOOGERY, Aatman Panday - Middle Grade Fantasy


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Chapter 1

 

“Prasad!”

“One minute, mom!”

Prasad Patel flopped over on his bedroom floor with a warm grin. This golden Sunday had rolled out a trim carpet of shimmering light to deliver him to his moment in the sun. Tomorrow, he’d cross the threshold of adolescence and graduate to the big One-Oh. Double digits. Ten. Freaking. Years. Old! At long last, he’d cast off the baby bib of ‘Little Boy’ and claim his shiny, hard earned badge of ‘Preteen’.

“Prasad!”

“Gib be one mirrute!”

Tip-toeing over the bathroom sink, he generously brushed his teeth, choosing to floss for once. The youngest in his family, albeit with the largest mouth, his opinion would finally be taken into consideration by the council of grown-ups hovering above him. Though the fates had rudely parked this monumental occasion on a Monday, Prasad sensed a big party awaited him today. A surprise party, hopefully.

“Prasad!”

“One more minute!”

A comb ran through his thick black hair, which badly needed a cut and padded the sides of his head like a helmet. A thin strand of tinsel from the previous night nestled onto his soft hook nose. He’d known his family hadn’t celebrated him yesterday because of the festivity for Hinal’s wedding.

“Prasad!! Wake up and come downstairs!”

“Coming!”

            He puffed at the tinsel, but it clung on. Hinal, his eldest sister, was set to be married next Saturday. In typical Indian family fashion, everyone stirred up a huge hullabaloo about it. Ancient boxes of decorations and suitcases spilling with clothes cluttered Prasad’s house. Relatives from India and outside of New York came to sleep under his roof. His home even more cramped than usual, Prasad’s parents forced him to surrender his bed to an aunt and uncle he’d never met before. He’d graciously slumbered on the wooden floor, however, given how closely his own special day crept.

Plucking off the tinsel, he blew it like a wish. Last night had been the garba, an evening of traditional dance at a fancy hall the week before the wedding. Prasad acknowledged his family couldn’t schedule his shindig on the same night. Certainly, today stretched wide open for everyone to fuss over him. He bounded down the stairs as his mother hollered again. He’d be lying if he didn’t expect her to be holding a lit cake for him, everyone coiled behind the furniture, ready to leap out and yell, “Surprise!”

Instead, she handed him a vacuum. The rest of the family crowded the living room, eating breakfast and watching television. And bickering. Always bickering.

“There you are. Beta, please give the back room a good vacuuming, will you? We have to do puja tonight and everything must be clean.”

            Though miffed, Prasad smirked. Nice try! There’s no puja tonight. You’ll have to do better than that to fool me! He glided the vacuum to the back, through a boisterous quarrel between two aunts. One of them flapped her arms, squawking the word ‘fraudulent’ over and over. Prasad pocketed the term for himself and cleaned around the sofa. Raju Uncle swung his empty plate over without looking at him, yellow crumbs in his mustache.

            “Get me some more fafda.”

            “Yes, your royal magistrate.”

            “Oye! Watch it, big mouth. Don’t speak to your elders that way.”

            Prasad finished vacuuming and fetching fafda and his mother assigned him to clear the table. Then she put him on dish duty. Then garbage hauling.

            Itching to retreat to his room to read or complete one of the crossword puzzles stacked on his desk, he groused to his father, “Fraudulent! This whole operation is fraudulent! How come me, you and mom are doing all the work? Why doesn’t anybody else pitch in?”

            “Prasad, they’re our guests. We’re trying to be cordial hosts, remember? Now let’s see if the caterers have our food.”

             On the day went. Prasad helped as instructed, grumbling out of habit, but buoyed by the prospect of his dawning birthday celebration. He wondered what his parents had gotten him. He wondered what all these noisy people shacked up in his house had gotten him.

            Night came, and to his astonishment, so did the puja. A priest recited prayers and dingled a miniature silver bell over Hinal, the center of the room’s attention. No eyes on him, Prasad frowned like he’d whiffed a skunk when the priest concluded the ceremony. As everyone headed home and off to bed, Prasad chose to give his family the benefit of the doubt.

            Technically, it isn’t my birthday yet…Yeah! They’ve obviously got something big planned for me! They’re probably having a laugh about it, winding me up today, just to blow me away tomorrow…even though tomorrow’s a Monday…and a school day…

            He woke up bright eyed the next morning. Ten! I’m finally ten! Beaming, he prepared for school, positive his family would come through for him on his way out. When he landed downstairs, he caught his parents in a rush feeding the family and getting ready for work. His relatives filled the sofa and dining chairs, munching their fafda, still in their pajamas. Anxious to soak up attention, Prasad paraded all throughout his living room. However, amongst the munching, blaring television, chattering and quibbling, he strutted around like the invisible man.

            Only Raju Uncle acknowledged him. He stuck out his tea cup, eyes glued to the cricket match on television.

“More chai. And add some sugar, huh?”

            That does it! Prasad stormed away, a scowl sunken into his facial features. These rotten, selfish donkeys forgot about me on my most special day!

            Bushy eyebrows slamming together to craft a steep valley, he reached for the last Eggo waffle on the table. As he picked it up, his other sister Gauri swooped in and snatched it from his hand.

            “Hey! Give that back!”

            “Sorry, Prasad. Exam in 30 minutes. Gotta eat something.”

            He jumped on her and clawed at the waffle. “I said give it back!”

            “Ow! What’s wrong with you, you little freak? Get off me!”

            “You plundering parasite! Let it go! Let! It! Go!”

Gauri tried peeling him off, but Prasad fought with all his tiny might. Finally, she shoved him off hard and left cursing at him. His mother flew over and scolded him.

“What’s gotten into you, Prasad? Why are you acting this way?”

“That was MY waffle!”

“Don’t be so selfish, Prasad! Have some fafda.”

“I don’t want any fafda! I want MY waffle. MINE! It was supposed to be for ME!”

His mother grabbed his arm. “Prasad! I’m disappointed in you! I didn’t raise you to behave like this! I’d better not see you throwing a temper tantrum tonight at Varsha Auntie’s. You will not spoil her special dinner for Hinal!”

Prasad’s jaw dropped, then clamped tightly. Nostrils billowing, he glowered at his mother like a cornered cobra and ripped free. He snatched his backpack and flashed out the front door, but not before sticking his head inside and bellowing, “I hope you’re happy, you parliament of jerks! This is the worst birthday ever! I hate you!”

He slammed the door as hard as he could and fled to school before anyone could chase him down. He didn’t want to be cheered up. So what if they were sorry? These people had ruined his tenth birthday. Nothing would ever change that.

Some family! How could they betray me like this? Nobody cares about me! Not even my own mother!

He stomped to school, sweeping through the doors like a charged thundercloud. Anthony DeSalvo, the school goon, approached him at his locker.

“Look! Down on the ground! It’s a turd, it’s a stain, it’s Pooperman!”

Prasad worked on the combination of his lock, trying to ignore him. Every day, Anthony ragged him about a recent field trip their class had taken. The park guide had been giving them a tour when Prasad’s tummy rumbled. He’d wanted to excuse himself, but the guide kept talking. Prasad didn’t want to get in trouble for interrupting, so he held it in. By the time he’d made it to the bathroom, he found it closed for repair. Antsy and uncomfortable, he rejoined the class as it moved on, clenching for as long as he could. However, as the guide droned on and on, Prasad’s valiant muscles weakened and finally gave. He’d pooped his pants, in front of everyone. Anthony had been the first to notice and gleefully pointed it out.

“What? Not fancy enough? How about Detective Doodoodenim?”

Prasad cracked the locker open, turning around with a deadly glare.

“Leave me alone, you repulsive, brain-dead gorilla. I’m not in the mood.”

Anthony’s face screwed up and he shoved the littler Prasad into his locker. Prasad resisted, but Anthony overpowered him. He stuffed Prasad inside, slamming the locker and clicking the lock. Prasad banged the door.

 Anthony said, “Pipe down! If I find out you ratted on me, I’m gonna knock all your teeth out. So shut your yap!”

Prasad relented, hot stinging tears racing down his face. Shaking and burning in the dark, he tasted molten snot bubbling from his nose. After a painful moment, a grim pleasure swelled in him. Fine! I’d rather be stuck inside a locker forever than see everyone’s hideous, cretinous faces!

He crossed his arms and slumped back into the locker, thumping flat. Huh?! Confused, he scooched back. Still, no wall panel. Further and further he scooched, backing deeper into the black depths of the locker. Suddenly, something gooey and pulsey clung to his body. He shouted and clawed at the locker, but the gooey walls swallowed his hands. The gooiness spread over him and sucked him up with one powerful throb. A flash of white light blinded him. The solid floor beneath him vanished. With a yelp, he fell and fell and fell…

 

 

Chapter 2

 

“WAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHH--OOOF!!!”

Prasad struck the ground face first, which by some miracle didn’t obliterate him. Instead, it absorbed him, spongy and scratchy and hot. Like a bouncy house of shredded Christmas sweaters, but coarser. He wriggled around, his cheeks and nose brushing against musty particles.

Sand??

He wrested himself out, ambushed by a merciless sun. Blindly swiping his face, trespassing grains dissolved on his taste buds. His expressive brows shapeshifted like symphony conductor hands. Crumbs…CRUMBS! Crumbs?? Crumbs?! Cru-

A sucker punch of putrid saltiness flung him into a choking and spitting fit.

“Ack! Thoo, thoo! ACK!! THOO!! WHAT IS THAT?!”

The vile flavor subsiding, he dared to answer, reckoning some combination of illegal blue cheese, cracked chalk, spoiled chicken, ear medicine, summertime garbage juice and fermented gym socks.  

He scraped off his tongue with his shirt as he hard as he could. When his eyes caught up to the rest of him, he found himself kneeling up a staggering dune of toasted tan crumbs. Mind in a whirl, he clambered up to the crest. Crumby sand stretched as far as he could see, heaped in every which way like great waves.

Though the sun glared down at him, Prasad broke into a cold sweat. A pinch to the belly didn’t help. Slaps to the face did nothing. Wiping off the contradicting beads accumulating on his forehead, he threw up his hands.

            “WHERE THE HECK AM I!” 

His straining voice echoed through the sprawling emptiness. Bitterness seeped in through the fear and swelled as the echo faded.

Why am I even surprised? Of course this would happen to me! These things always happen to me! I have the most horrible, horrendous, horrific luck! If only those jerks had remembered…those stupid jerks…those stupid jerks…

Knees knocking, he dropped into the crumbs and gulped back tears. He’d just turned ten, damn it. Only a baby cried twice in a day. Yet, when he thought about the family that’d overlooked his big moment, his eyes streamed like warm bath water.

He’d shrivel like a raisin, never to see those jerks again, if he remained here. He drew the length of his arm across his eyes with a sniff and stood. Picking a direction furthest from the sun, he gingerly scaled down the incline and trekked

 

and trekked

 

and trekked

 

and finally heard a distant noise behind a fantastic dune. Struggling up, he gasped for breath and peeped over the top. Some humble heaps away, a pack of wild dogs squabbled over something small and brown. Black birds circled above.

Edging down the dune’s shaded face, Prasad saluted over his squinting eyes. What the…? No ordinary dogs looked like this. For that matter, neither did anything else. These creatures in the distance flaunted canine heads and front paws, yet their bodies looped in O shapes, most with a gaping hole in the center. Some sported heavy coats flecked with color, others gleamed with glaze, two boasted powdery exteriors and a plain solid one dripped red jelly from its backside! Prasad rubbed his eyes. You’ve gotta be kidding me...They can’t be…they are! DONUTS!!

The birds above the donut dogs squawked, drawing Prasad’s focus up. Though puffier than the dogs, they too inhabited looped bodies, with beaks and wings and talons attached. Fixated, Prasad fumbled a step and tumbled down the dune.

“Oof! Ah! Ouch! Ow!”

The commotion snagged the birds’ attention. They shrieked and launched towards Prasad like gothic Olympic rings. This signaled the donut dogs, who howled and sped his way.

Prasad yelped and bolted as these preposterous creatures chased from land and sky. Though he pumped his small legs, the distant shrieks in the air grew louder and shriller. The hollows of ringed bodies screamed like fighter jets as the birds swooped from behind! Prasad dove away, barely dodging the nips of their nasty little beaks! The dark loops regrouped up high and hurtled back down. This time, Prasad scratched together a hard fistful of crumbs and whipped it at their faces. They screeched and scattered, leaving him for the donut dogs spraying back crumbs.

Prasad scrambled to his feet and hurried across a lopsided dune, ahead by only a few dozen paces. He sledded down the dune, but when he hopped up, his thigh suddenly cramped. He limped with desperation as the donut dogs closed the gap. Snarls and snaps mere inches behind him, Prasad turtled up and clamped his eyes. I’m a goner!!

However, after a few agonizing seconds, he peeked around. The donut dogs pawed anxiously at the ground in front of them, refusing to approach. Prasad thumbed his ears and wiggled his fingers, blowing a triumphant raspberry.

“Suck it, you mangy mongrels!”

Then he noticed them drifting away and himself growing shorter. Glancing down, he discovered his knees disappearing into the crumbs! He high stepped to free himself, churning up countless black and white sprinkles. Shorter than before, he pedaled up furiously, yet the more he struggled, the deeper he sank. Oh no! Chest deep, his mind jumped from one bad conclusion to another. I don’t believe this! I’m being buried alive! I’m gonna be stuck here forever! I’ll never make it back home! Everyone’s gonna be worried sick! Or upset at me! Or worse! They’ll be relieved I’m gone! They won’t even bother looking for me! What if they’re having a great time? They’re probably celebrating my disappearance! I bet they’re finding a replacement boy for me right n-

A sharp tug on the neck snapped him out of his spiral. One of the donut dogs had fastened its teeth into the collar of his shirt. It churned its pink frosting in reverse, dousing Prasad in a torrent of crumbs. It churned harder and dragged Prasad out, onto stable sand. Prasad lunged, coughing and clinging to the dog’s curve like a vine. It happily lapped up his crumby face.

The other donut dogs gone, Prasad let go to study his inexplicable savior. It clearly bore the head of a dog, with its big panting tongue and dumb, friendly face. However, it was also unquestionably, irrefutably, inconceivably a donut. The dark chocolate loop of its body sported a thick coat of pink frosting literally crawling with sprinkles. Somehow, though completely ludicrous, Prasad sensed not to fear this creature. He dared to stroke its frosting, which stretched across his fingers like sticky silly putty.

Kneeling at eye level, and said, “Thanks for pulling me out, boy! I was doomed if it wasn’t for you. Do you have a name?”

It didn’t respond. Instead, it collapsed on its side like a spare tire and panted lazily. Prasad scratched its chin.

“A stray, huh? Me too. How about I name you…Choc!”

It wagged its pointy little tail and barked.

“Great! Nice to meet you, Choc. Or, I should say, salutations! I’m Prasad.”

He shook Choc’s limp paw. Choc licked his hand.

“So Choc, got any idea where we are? This place is mind boggling! I mean, no offense, but you’re the absurdest thing I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen Raju Uncle dance!”

Choc maintained his silence. Prasad rubbed the inside of his donut (what he assumed to be the pooch’s tummy).

“Seems like you’re not much of a talker. That’s okay. I can do the talking for both of us. I’m just happy to have some company here.” He rose to his feet. “C’mon, let’s blow this crummy place. Get it, boy? Crummy? Crumb-y?”

Choc smiled stupidly and panted.

“Psh. Trust me, if you could understand, you’d know that was a good one.”

His stride slightly more relaxed, Prasad set off in the direction opposite of the sprinkle pit, dogs and birds. Choc followed behind, frosting churning as his head and paws stayed put. Prasad shook his own head. One thing’s for sure-I’m definitely not in New York anymore!

The pair carried on as the sun bore down on them like a broiler. The dunes eventually evened out. Hot desert winds slashed in rugged sheets, forcing Prasad to spew out foul, salty crumbs. Having a friend next to him, however, steadied his nerves. With no idea what lay ahead, he and Choc roamed

 

and roamed

 

and roamed

 

until Prasad detected a faint voice far away. He and Choc sped to the source–an upright sugar-pretzel with hands and feet!

Sweating profusely in spectacles and an archeologist’s hat, the pretzel consulted a shred of paper in its hand. It ran frantically in one direction, checked the paper again and ran frantically in another direction, all the while crying in a panic-stricken voice, “Oh Dear, oh my! Oh Dear, oh my!”

As it checked again, Prasad cupped his hands around his mouth.

“Salutations!”

The pretzel jumped with a yelp. It screamed when it spotted Choc, collapsing onto its back like a beetle. Its body tightened into a knot.

Prasad raced over. “It’s fine, it’s fine! Choc is harmless!”

“Oh Dear! A Domutt!”

“Listen to me, he’s perfectly-A what?”

“A Domutt! There are roving packs of them here! They’re wild, savage beasts!”

“Not this one! He saved me! From quicksand…made of sprinkles…beneath breadcrumbs…”

The pretzel’s knotted body relaxed. “Oh my! How fortunate! Are you alright?”

“I think so, but those sprinkles were awful, just awful! I kept jumping to the worst conclusions! Things I know aren’t true…But it was so convincing...”

The pretzel got up, nearly reaching Prasad’s height. “That’s what Sprinkholes do! They drag you down and make you feel utterly overwhelmed! The harder you fight the deeper you sink and the more hopeless everything feels. You must pay closer attention to where you’re going. There are many dangers lurking in the Dessert!”

Prasad cocked an eye. “Er, desert?”

“No, Dessert! You must not be from around here.”

“I’m not! I just sort of fell into this place. I’m Prasad Patel.”

“Oh Dear! What a peculiar name! I’m Fritz, the Cinnamon Fretzel.”

“I think you mean pretzel?”

“Fretzel!”

“Are you sure? Not pretzel?”

Fretzel! Fretzel, Fretzel, Fretzel!!”

“Alright, you miserable misanthrope! I was just asking!”

“Oh my! Please forgive me, I’m simply a bit frazzled!” Trembling, Fritz the frazzled Fretzel displayed the paper shred in his hand. “You see, the realm is in great distress! I’ve undertaken a mission to locate a treasure that will help restore it, but it’s solely on me and all is lost if I fail and it’s an enormously unjust amount of pressure and I can’t think clearly and, and, and-Oh Dear! I’m sorry, I can’t do it!” He burst into tears and thrust the shred into Prasad’s hand. He ran off, crying, “Oh Dear! Oh my! Oh Dear! Oh my!”

            Prasad and Choc chased after him.

“Please! Stop crying!” said Prasad, catching up. He put a hand on what he assumed to be Fritz’s shoulder, but could’ve also been a part of his head (he was a pretzel after all). “I’m completely discombobulated about what to do here! At least I can help you find that treasure.”

He claimed and inspected the shred. Big wavy lines imprinted the north. Those must be the dunes I first landed in. But how am I supposed to know where to go next? Fortunately, he’d acquainted a Domutt. Choc slid up to his hand and sniffed the shred. He woofed and slugged along smartly, nosing the ground like a truffle hound.

“Outstanding! Choc knows where to go!”

“Oh Dear,” said Fritz, wiping his brow. “What a tremendous relief!”

So the boy, the donut dog and the talking pretzel headed to the south of the desert, ahem, the Dessert. Along the way, Fritz shared the story of his troubled world.

“In the time before, the realm of Confectioneria was a place of great beauty and peace. Everyone lived in harmony and joy. Life was sweet and fresh. What a blissful paradise it was! That all vanished the moment King Crumb stole the Sugary Boogery and transformed into that monstrous Worst Day Cake!”

“The Sugary Boogery?” said Prasad, with a pout. “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course, I’m serious! The Sugary Boogery has existed since the dawn of creation! It possesses unspeakable power. The Worst Day Cake misused that power, turning this beautiful realm into the wasteland you see now!”

“He turned this whole realm into a desert?”

“The Dessert is only one of the regions of Confectioneria, but they’ve all been changed for the worse!”

“So where are you from? You don’t seem to know your way around here.”

“Oh my! I journeyed here from Kingdom Crumb to unearth the treasure! Unfortunately, I’ve spent this entire time lost. You see, it’s terribly simple to enter the Dessert. Finding the way about is a different matter completely. Oh Dear! Look out!”

Fritz clung to Prasad as something shot out in front of them, stopping in their path. A coil of glossy brown bread with rabbit ears stared at them curiously. Choc barked and went to chase, but it quickly scampered out of sight.

“Oh my,” sighed Fritz, breathing heavily. “Only a Honey Bunny.”

Prasad arched his eyebrow into a question mark. “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me everything here is some kind of sweet?”

“Precisely! Except they’re no longer sweet. In fact, quite the opposite! We’ve been flipped and reversed and turned inside out. My fellow sweets, pastries and desserts are all living utterly, utterly backwards!”

“Backwards…?” Prasad’s brows jumped. “‘Desserts’ spelled backwards is ‘stressed’!”

 “Oh Dear!!” cried Fritz, hyperventilating.

“Sorry, sorry!” To distract Fritz, Prasad oriented him to a family of prickly beige plants growing to the side. “Quick, what are those?”

“Oh my! I believe those are Graham Cracktuses. Pardon! Improper Grahammar. The correct term is Graham Crackti!”

Prasad jogged over for a closer inspection. He leaned in to take a bite.

            “Don’t touch that! The needles are toxic! I told you, everything is spoiled here. You mustn’t eat anything!”

Prasad huffed and came back, audibly grumbling the words ‘sweltering stinkhole’.

They pressed on

 

and on

 

and on

 

and after some time, the three hit upon a plot of crumbs tightly fenced in by Graham Cracktuses. Er, Graham Cracti. Choc perked up and bounded inside.

“Eureka!” cried Prasad, running after him.

Choc dove into a hard mound, pawing vigorously. Crumbs flew as he disappeared, a bark ringing from the bottom of the hole. Prasad rubbed his hands and peered in, a white fabric peeking out. Fritz delicately stepped into the hole and teased out a white cloth bag.

“A bag??” said Prasad. “That’s it? What a rip off!”

“This is no ordinary bag,” replied Fritz, examining it. He dusted it off, revealing a silky, shimmering quality. “There’s something special about this. Something is inside!”

He climbed out of the hole and undid the bag’s pearly drawstrings. Reaching inside, he pulled out a rumbling purple bottle. Something within it shot around feistily. Fritz squeezed his trembling fingers around the cork, then abruptly thrust it to Prasad.

“Oh Dear! Please, you do it!”

Prasad relieved him of the duty. He pinched the cork tight, twisting and pulling until it went ‘POP!’ A smoggy pink cloud escaped and flashed a bright light. Prasad shielded his eyes and when they refocused, and old lady stood before him. An old lady with a lacy pair of wings sticking out of her back.

“Holy Shla-moly!” she cried, in a hoarse smoker’s voice. “I must’ve been in that thing for ages!”

A dingy pink dress with puffy shoulders and a frilly bottom hung from her tall, lanky frame. Ratty tennis shoes housed mismatched socks. Streaked gray and white hair hung in a loose bun over her droopy elf ears. A terrifically wrinkled mouth curled above her pointy chin.

Pressing her palm into it, she wrenched her head with several buckling cracks. “Oof. Got a cigarette on you, kid? I could use a smoke.”

Prasad winced. “A cigarette?”

“I’ll take that as a no,” she huffed. Her back clicked and cracked as she touched her toes. Head bowed, she stretched a mottled hand out to Prasad.

“Sweet Tooth Fairy.”

He squeezed her pulpy palm. “Prasad Patel.”

She glanced up with a scowl. “Kind of a name is that?”

Prasad glared at her. “A perfectly normal one. These are my friends, Choc, the Domutt and Fritz, the Cinnamon Fretzel.”

Choc barked enthusiastically. Fritz, hiding behind Choc, came out nervously and waved.

“Sweet Tooth Fairy, what an honor it is to see you! You’ve been missing for frightfully long, but I’m thrilled to have finally found you!”

            “Is that so?” she said, sitting down cross-legged. She removed her shoes and socks.

“Oh Dear! I don’t know if you realize Sweet Tooth Fairy, but all has gone absolutely topsy-turvy in Confectioneria! The Worst Day Cake has left everything in ruins! Now that you’ve been freed you can put things back in order!”

Ooo yeah, that’s the good stuff,” she groaned, massaging her bare feet. “Either of you got any bunion cream?”

Prasad and Fritz glanced at each other, unsure what to say.

“Fantastic,” she grumbled, sliding her socks back on. “The heck’s a Worst Day Cake?”

Fritz said, “It’s who King Crumb became when he took hold of the Sugary Boogery. He’s responsible for all the suffering that’s taken place! You must defeat him for the sake of the realm!”

“Realm shmelm. I’ve been trapped in that tiny bottle for God knows how long. I’m taking a vacation.”

“Oh my! I’m afraid there’s no time for that! The Worst Day Cake is plotting something positively catastrophic!”

“Whoop-de-do. What’s he got in mind?”

“He aims to make Confectioneria a colossal booger, once and for all!”

The Sweet Tooth Fairy pinched her face in disgust. “How do you know?”

“Oh Dear! I was forced to partake in a top-secret excavation project around Castle Crumb. We were never told what all that digging was for, but I put the pieces together and realized the sinister scheme being hatched!”

“And? You didn’t tell somebody?”

“Oh my! I couldn’t risk that! I dare not even think what would happen if the Worst Day Cake found out! I tried my hardest to ignore my discovery, but I became so twisted up with guilt I fled to the Dessert to find you! You must do something!”

“Sorry, Knotty by Nature. Not my problem anymore. Adios!”

And with that, she stood up and beat her wings. However, they failed to lift her off the ground.

“Must be rusty,” she mumbled to herself. From the front of her dress, she pulled out a long red and white swirled wand. Pointing it at her wings from over her shoulder, she flicked her wrist. Again, nothing happened. She smacked the butt of the wand like a bottle of ketchup. A few pathetic gray sparks coughed out. She booted a pile of crumbs.

“Great, just freaking great! I can’t fly, my dang Pixie Stick’s busted and I’m stuck here with you three jabronis!”

Prasad frowned at her. “For someone called the Sweet Tooth Fairy, you’re awfully grouchy.”

“Take that up with your ol’ buddy the Worst Day Cake! That little stunt of his must’ve sapped all the sugar out of me.”

“He’s not my buddy! I don’t know anything about this place, okay? I just randomly wound up in this ugly dump! I want to go home!”

 “Tough break, shrimp. If this sugar pretzel is right, the only way back is through the Worst Day Cake. Good luck, but I’m no babysitter.”

Fritz piped up. “Surely, you don’t mean that! You’re the guardian of all the confections of Confectioneria. It is your duty to make things right again!”

“Oh, is it?!” she shot back. “How am I supposed to do that? All my mojo’s gone!”

“Sweet Tooth Fairy, please!” said Prasad. “I have to find a way out of here! Don’t bail on us!”

Before she could reply, an angry squawk rang from behind. Dark winged loops flapped furiously from the north.

“Oh my! Crow Nuts!” cried Fritz.

“Not them again!” cried Prasad.

Choc whimpered.

Cornered inside the pen of Graham Crackti, the three of them dove into the hole. They covered their heads as the whistling rings tightened their formation to strike. The Sweet Tooth Fairy remained the sole figure standing. She gripped her wand with both hands and spat on the ground, wiggled her hips for the right moment and swung like a baseball player. ‘THWACK!’ The direct contact sent the first Crow Nut colliding into the rest, the flock bursting apart like a down pillow! Raining pastry flakes, the Crow Nuts screeched and flew off into the horizon.

“Whoa, baby!” cried the Sweet Tooth Fairy. She shielded her eyes and followed the black loops with her wand. “Looks like there’s still some juice left in this bag of bones!”

“Wow!” said Prasad, climbing out of the hole. “That was incredible!”

“It was, wasn’t it?” She turned serious and faced Prasad squarely. “Look, pint-size. Whatever crap the Worst Day Cake pulled has really done a number on me. I’m tired and irritated and my corns are aching like you wouldn’t believe. Last thing I want to do is to get tangled up in some yappy rugrat’s mess. But dang it I couldn’t help protecting you and your friends just now. Like it or not, I guess it’s still my responsibility.”

“Does that mean you’ll join us?”

She shrugged. “Doesn’t look like I have other plans.”

He hooted and hugged her. She immediately ripped him off.

“Hands off the merchandise, brat! This is a quest, not a traveling group hug! Keep your sap to yourself! Now, make yourself useful and pick up my bag and bottle.”

“Emaciated old hag,” mumbled Prasad. He collected the bottle, cork and bag. “Where’s the recycling bin, Madame President?”

“That ain’t garbage, wise-guy. That’s the Goodie Bag. Its magic material can store all sorts of goodies. Show some stinking respect and stick the bottle in there.”

Prasad begrudgingly obeyed. Before he could choose the way forward on his map shred, however, the Sweet Tooth Fairy snatched it with a snarl.

“This is a piece of the map I created! What’d you do to it?”

“Don’t blame me, you grump! I didn’t do anything!”

Fritz jumped in. “Oh Dear! It’s my fault, Sweet Tooth Fairy! I stole the map from Castle Crumb, but I was so nervous I couldn’t stop wringing my hands and tore it all to shreds!”

“Where are the other pieces?”

“Oh my! I thought I spotted a Gorpion by my foot and flung them in the air! The wind must have carried them off. But at least now the Worst Day Cake can’t use them!”

“And neither can we, genius! Thanks a million!” Her scowling eyes burned a hole through the map shred. “We’ve gotta head east. Let’s get this godforsaken production on the road.”

So the ragtag band of four, led by the grumbling Sweet Tooth Fairy, trooped across the crumby sands of the Dessert. They trooped

 

and trooped

 

and trooped

 

and at some point, Prasad dared to ask, “So why are you called the Sweet Tooth Fairy?”

“That’s my name. Always has been. Since the beginning.”

“Beginning of what?”

“Beginning of Confectioneria.”

“So how old are you? A hundred? Two hundred? A thousand?”

“Ha! Who knows? Important thing is I’ve been around for a long, long time.” Her voice faltered, and she said to herself, “Both he and I…”

“He?”

“I had a partner once. He was around since the beginning too.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Forget it, kid. Let’s just keep moving.”

“C’mon, where is he?”

“I said forget it. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“How come?”

“Kid, I’m serious. Just mind your business, alright?”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“But why?”

“Because!”

“Because why?”

“Because!!”

“But because why?”

She snapped around. “Because he DIED, alright?!”

The group stiffened. The Sweet Tooth Fairy stomped away wordlessly. After a dozen tense paces, she turned and said, “King Crumb, the Worst Day Cake, whatever the hell he is, killed him, okay? He and I were the advisors to the royal family for ages. Crumb was wise and kind, but when the queen and their unborn daughter died of complications during childbirth, he went off the deep end. He demanded we give him the Sugary Boogery, thinking it could restore his family. As the other guardian of Confectioneria, my partner refused. He told Crumb that wasn’t what the holy relic was for. Crumb couldn’t handle that! He flew into a desperate rage and grabbed me, sticking a royal knife to my neck. I begged my partner not to, but he handed the Sugary Boogery over. My partner warned Crumb about the danger he was about to unleash upon the realm, but Crumb was blinded by his anger. He used the Sugary Boogery’s power to strike my partner dead.” She sighed and hung her head. “And that’s the last thing I remember before getting stuffed into that daggone bottle. You happy now?”

Prasad didn’t know how to answer. He and the group marched on silently. They marched

 

and marched

 

and marched

 

until the sullen Sweet Tooth Fairy jerked her thumb to a nub sticking out of the ground.

“Come on, nimrods. Almost there.”

The nub grew into a colossal crumb structure emitting a faintly pink, sunburnt hue. Much of its surface had lost to erosion, though its rough crouching body remained recognizable as of a lion’s. Its enormous head, however, bore a person’s face. A headdress composed of three grand lemon wedges fanned out from the top and sides.

The face shared a curdled expression as it sucked on a tube that reached way down into the ground. However, nothing traveled up to its puckered mouth.

It noticed the party approaching and unravelled its lips to boom, “BEHOLDDDD…YOU STAND BEFORE THE EMINENT SPHINK LEMONADEEEEEE!” Then, in a nasally, decidedly less masculine voice, it sniveled, “Oh geez! Was that too loud?”

Fritz trembling behind Prasad and Choc, the Sweet Tooth Fairy stepped forward and shouted up to the face. “Sphink! It’s me, the Sweet Tooth Fairy! Long time, no see!”

“AHHHH! GREETINGSSS, SWEET TOOTH FAIRYYYYYYY! I DID NOT RECOGNIZE YOUUUU!”

“You’re not looking so hot either, big fella! As I recall, you were a healthy, neon pink!”

“NONSENSEEEE! I AM THE LAST GREAT RELIC OF CONFECTIONERIAAAAA!” Its wimpy tone replaced the commanding one. “Since you mentioned it, things have been pretty stressful lately! All the lakes have dried so there’s barely any lemonade left to suck up and pass through. And I think I’m developing bed sores. Oh gosh, am I boring you?”

“It’s fine! Listen, my powers are gone. Can you give me a refill?”

“OF COURSE I CANNNNN…I AM THE SPHINK LEMONADEEEEE!” Its voice went limp again. “Please don’t be mad, but I can’t! I only have a speck of magic left and it’s not enough to do much of anything. I’m a giant failure!”

 “What can you do? We need to get beyond the Dessert, but it looks endless!”

“I WILL PRESENT YOU WITH A PUZZLEEEE…ANSWER CORRECTLY AND I SHALL ILLUMINATE THE PATH FORWARDDDD…HOWEVERRR, IF YOU FAILLL, YOU WILL BE DOOMED TO ROAM THE DESSERT FOR ALL ETERNITYYYY!” It reverted to a wet noodle. “Don’t hate me, Sweet Tooth Fairy! After the Worst Day Cake had you buried, he cursed the edges of the Dessert with illusions and mirages so that the way out would be impossible to find. I know it’s not good enough, but it’s the best a disappointment like me can do!”

“Doesn’t look like we have a choice,” the Sweet Tooth Fairy muttered to the group.

Interest piqued at the challenge, Prasad shouted to the Sphink Lemonade. “What’s the puzzle?”

“JUST AS I ABSORB, PURIFY AND RETURN MY LIFE LIQUID TO THE GROUNDDD, SO TOO MUST YOU CONVERT THESE LETTERS I GIVE YOUUUUU...TAKE THEMM, REARRANGE THEMM, GIVE THEM LIFE WITH NEW MEANING AND DESCRIBE WHAT BRINGS YOU TO ME, YOUNG BOYYY…IF I DEEM YOUR ANSWER UNWORTHYYY, YOU SHALL BE PUNISHEDDDD!” Wussiness took over yet again. “I’m sorry! Those were horrible instructions! You have to make anagrams with the letters I give you to come up with your answer. You have to use all the letters, but you can only use each letter once! Oh! I’m such a spineless worm!”

“It’s fine!” yelled Prasad. “What are the letters?”

“THE LETTERS AREEE…O…P…D...L…E…N…I…H…S…M…A…E…K…N!”

“One more time?”

As the Sphink Lemonade repeated the letters, Prasad wrote them in the crumb sand in front of him with his finger. On his knees, he got to work figuring out what words he could make from the jumble of letters he’d received.

“Sweet Tooth Fairy,” he said, after some time. “Can I borrow your Pixie Stick?”

“What for? Your finger works just fine.”

“It’s starting to hurt. Can I just borrow it?”

“Absolutely not! This isn’t a toy. It’s a delicate magical instrument that only-“

“Hey! Do you want to solve this?”

She silenced.

“Then relinquish it!”

She huffed and handed it over, its heft intriguing Prasad. He returned to work, lost in concentration. The rest of the party sat around and napped and twiddled their thumbs for what seemed like hours until a carpet of scrawled letters stretched across the crumb sand. At last, Prasad stood up, sweaty faced and crumby elbowed. He returned the Pixie Stick to the Sweet Tooth Fairy, who wiped it off thoroughly.

“Sure you know what you’re doing, pipsqueak?”

“I hope so.” Prasad took a deep breath and exhaled. “Sphink! I’m ready!”

“WHAT IS YOUR ANSWERRRR?”

Prasad held up the shred of map and pointed to the top. Speaking slowly and carefully, he said, “Map end? Sinkhole…Hole kidnaps me n...” He pointed to Choc. “A kind omen helps…No plans, me hiked…” He dragged his finger down the map, then pointed to Fritz and the Sweet Tooth Fairy. “N old keen imp has…me nd pals hike on…” He dragged his finger across the south of the map. “Map ends like, ‘Oh!’…” He lifted his finger to point at the humongous structure in front of him. “Sphink Lemonade!”

Fritz and Choc burst into cheers and barks.

Bravo, Prasad! Well done!” exclaimed Fritz.

The Sweet Tooth Fairy cut in. “Don’t start celebrating just yet! Sphinky! How was that?”

“…GRAMMATICAL ISSUESSSS…TAKING LIBERTIES WITH SPELLINGGG…TECHNICALLY, THE SWEET TOOTH FAIRY IS NOT AN IMPPP…”

Prasad felt a frozen shock of fear. Oh, no…

“OVERALLLLL…I DEEM YOUR ANSWERRR…”

Prasad’s gut clenched, Choc whined and Fritz bit his nails, murmuring, “Oh Dear. Oh my…” Even the Sweet Tooth Fairy clutched her elbow and nervously tapped her foot.

“…WORTHYYY!!!”

The Sweet Tooth Fairy whooped and Prasad released a deep sigh of relief. He received slaps on the back and a lick from Choc.

“CONGRATULATIONSSS!…AS PROMISEDDD, THE PATH OUT OF THE DESSERT SHALL BE PROVIDEDDD!” It wheezed in nasally relief. “Oh, thank goodness! I would’ve blamed myself if the answer wasn’t good enough! I’m such a loser!”

Both Prasad and the Sweet Tooth Fairy cried, “IT’S FINE!!!”

The Sweet Tooth Fairy added, “You letting us out or what?”

“Sorry! Here goes! nyehhhhhhh!”

Off to the side, sharp winds swept. Crumbs brewed into a thick shadowy sand storm that crackled and flashed as it grew. With one deafening ‘KABOOM!’ it suddenly died. The Sphink lost the last trace of its pink tinge and stiffened. The crumbs settled and a path appeared, a sign posted by its foot. Prasad ran over.

“‘To Rocky Rd’. Come on you guys, let’s go!”

Choc and the Sweet Tooth Fairy joined. Fritz stayed put, wringing his hands.

“What’s the matter, Fritz?” Prasad asked.

“Oh Dear! I wish you luck, but I’m afraid I can’t join you.”

“Why not?”

“Oh my! This whole journey has been most dreadfully worrisome. Dreadfully, dreadfully worrisome! I can’t hold it together any longer! It’s much too fretful. Much too fretfully fretful!” He burst into tears and ran away, crying, “Oh Dear, oh my! Oh Dear, oh my!”

Prasad deflated watching his new friend disappear.

“That wacko pretzel is right, kid,” said the Sweet Tooth Fairy. She tucked her wings inside her dress. “It won’t be sunshine and rainbows. Strange times are a-coming. We’d better keep low profiles in case things get hairy.”

He and his remaining companions stepping foot onto Rocky Rd., Prasad wondered How much stranger can things get?

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