GRUMPJAW MAKES A FRIEND…
The dwarf hoists a steel barrel half his size overhead and the chains shackled to Grumpjaw’s massive horns and neck clank as his jaw drops.
Grumpjaw is hungry. This is not new. Grumpjaw is always hungry. He wakes up hungry and at night, his belly growls. It’s his job to swallow whatever leftovers and waste are given to him, a living trash truck. He likes cabbages and corn-with-the-cob, and rabbit stew and boar bacon, which sometimes the guards throw out. He likes things that aren’t food, like shoes, which have chewy bits and laces that floss between his teeth. He loves a well-aged blue cheese, and strawberry cake, which he tasted once after the warden’s birthday.
Out of the barrel pours a green, glowy goo that Grumpjaw gulps until it’s gone. “BLEH,” says Grumpjaw.
“Putrid,” says the dwarf.
“POOTED,” agrees Grumpjaw.
“Shame this correctional facility treats you like a trash disposal. Even prisoners have rights, you know. You ever had pie? You look like a pie man.”
“CAKE,” says Grumpjaw.
“When we get out of here, I’ll make you a cake every year on your birthday.”
“Try not to breathe,” says the dwarf, and lifts up another barrel.
Grumpjaw opens his maw wide and squinches his nostrils shut. The toxic goo spills down his gullet, making his big belly hang.
The dwarf kicks the empty barrel aside. His arrogance makes him resplendent in his blinding orange prison uniform. He’s the biggest small man Grumpjaw has ever seen, always bragging about his genius genes, his many inventions and working for some queen or another, which landed him in prison when things went wrong. Most of all, the dwarf isn’t afraid, not of the guards, or the goo, not even of Grumpjaw. Then again, Grumpjaw is a docile guy, despite his size and his tusks, as long as he isn’t hungry for too long.
“I made the mistake at first of moving within the dimension of time, backward and forward,” continues the dwarf. “I put my cousin in the apparatus and sent him forward two minutes. He disappeared, then showed up two minutes later, freeze-dried. Took some math to figure out that the planet’s moving, and fast, so he’d been floating out in space until the planet caught up to the present time.” The dwarf leans up against Grumpjaw’s haunch. “Are you understanding any of this?”
“SOME,” says Grumpjaw.
“Good, because this involves you.”
At this, Grumpjaw’s little ears perk up. Nothing has ever involved him before.
“Time is about speed and gravity. Control those two things and you control time. And space. And whatever you want. You can go wherever you want. Or whenever.”
“OUT?” asks Grumpjaw.
From the loudspeaker comes the booming voice of a guard: “Keep it moving, dwarf.”
“I have a name!” yells the dwarf, shaking his fist.
“FRANKIE,” says Grumpjaw.
“That’s right, buddy.” The dwarf gives Grumpjaw a scratch behind his ear, which feels nice. Grumpjaw bites into one of the barrels and slurps up the goo. It’s gross, but it’s something. “I’ve always wondered – is your name Grumpjaw, or is that what your species is called?”
“YES,” says Grumpjaw.
“Alright. Anyway, it’s about speed, and trapping light inside gravity. It should be called time dilation. And I made it. I call it: The Cube.”
“COOB,” says Grumpjaw.
“But my prototype squashes everyone I try it on.” Frankie’s meaty hands slap down on one another, bam. “And that’s why I need you to swallow me.”
“Not forever,” says Frankie with clipped irritation. “Just until we’re out. All we need to do is get my cube from the warden, then you’ll swallow me down, and The Cube will take us through time and space, and you will cough me up again, and I shall make you a cake.”
“I thought you said you wanted cake.”
“That’s patently ridiculous,” scoffs Frankie, stepping up onto Grumpjaw’s back to avoid the toxic goo spilling out from Grumpjaw’s barrel. “Whoever heard of a cake made of cheese?”
Grumpjaw whips his horns around and roars, clattering the chains, knocking Frankie off and into the toxic waste spill. Frankie scrambles to his feet and combs his beard with his fingers.
“Okay okay,” he grumbles. “I’m an engineer. I can engineer a cake of cheese.”
“CHEESECAKE,” sighs Grumpjaw.
“CAN’T.” Grumpjaw shakes his head, jingling the chains that hold his collar to the walls.
“Oh, that.” Frankie grips one of the chains, inspecting it. “Looks like carbon grade 30 – they never waste an opportunity to be cheap at this facility, do they? – and I’d guesstimate your weight at about 5000 pounds, so if you exert force at a rate of…” He draws the equation in the air with one finger, his lips moving without sound. “…per millimeter squared… carry the one and… yes. Snap them.”
With a shrug of Grumpjaw’s mighty shoulders and a swing of his thick neck, the chains snap apart and the broken links clink on the concrete floor.
“Right then,” repeats Frankie, motioning toward the heavy steel door. “After you.”
Grumpjaw backs up, dragging the broken chains along, then charges forward with a rumbly roar, crashing straight into the door and through it, bonking into the wall on the other side of the hall. Frankie strolls out of the room and jabs a thumb toward the guards standing frozen, mouths agape.
They don’t have time to scream. Grumpjaw swallows one whole, then another; their keys tickle his belly from the inside as he lumbers off after the dwarf, who whistles as he makes his way toward the warden’s office. Alarms wail and warnings blare from the loudspeakers:
ALL PRISONERS RETURN TO THEIR CELLS. A GRUMPJAW IS ON THE LOOSE. ALL PRISONERS RETURN TO THEIR CELLS.
Grumpjaw charges the door marked WARDEN. The door becomes stuck on Grumpjaw’s horns and must be wiggled off while the warden, a sharp-nosed man in a too-big suit, cowers under his desk.
“Hand over The Cube,” croons Frankie.
“COOB,” repeats Grumpjaw.
“Fine!” cries the warden as he unlocks a safe in the corner. “We couldn’t get the thing to work anyway – it’s a dud. And you’ll never get out alive. The prison is surrounded by armed guards.” He pulls out a steel box. ”I’ve given them the order to shoot this animal first!”
“He has a name,” says Frankie, snatching The Cube away from the warden.
“GRUMPJAW,” says Grumpjaw, peering at The Cube.
“That’s right, buddy. Okay, cough them up.”
With a disgusting retching sound, Grumpjaw hurks up the swallowed guards into a gasping, gooey pile. His growl discourages any heroism while Frankie pokes at The Cube, muttering under his breath until it hums. The six sides of The Cube pull apart and shoot across the room six ways, filling in between with light. Inside, a cube made of light spins, slow at first and then with increasing speed.
“OUT,” says Grumpjaw, and the guards and the warden comply, screaming as they slip and slide out of the room.
Frankie pokes at the glowing cube, directing the spin one way then the other. “6837.33 kilometers, north by northeast!” he yells as the humming grows louder. “Fifteen degrees, 182.6 days ago, the earth’s orbit was… carry the one…”
The light brightens. It hurts Grumpjaw’s eyes. He turns in nervous circles, knocking over the warden’s desk.
“Don’t worry, my friend! I’ve done the math in my head! This should take us right to the place and time when everything went wrong!”
“RONG?” whimpers Grumpjaw.
“All set!” Frankie jumps up and hangs off of Grumpjaw’s lower lip. “Gulp me down!”
Grumpjaw gulps Frankie down, careful not to chew, and the room fills with light, and the humming gets so loud that Grumpjaw’s little ears fold down, and the room spins…
…and then it is dark. The humming is gone. The warden’s office is gone too. It feels squeezy, like a very tight hug. The walls of The Cube are mirrors. There are Grumpjaws everywhere. Some of the Grumpjaws are newborn Grumpjaws, and some are young calf Grumpjaws, and some are like him but upside down, and some are very old and handsome Grumpjaws.
“GRUMPJAW?” asks all of the Grumpjaws.
And then The Cube is just a steel box again, sitting on the floor nearby. Grumpjaw is in a dark room, all alone.
A pair of elevator doors open in the center of the dark room. Calm music trills out through the speakers. Then there’s a fast rush of air and an empty elevator car crashes to the ground floor.
Something feels funny in Grumpjaw’s belly. Something wiggly.
“OH,” he says, and coughs up Frankie.
“Took your time!” coughs the dwarf, wiping a greenish splatter from his cheek.
Frankie combs the stomach goo out of his beard as he peers up through the elevator shaft at blue sparks falling down from high above. A bird screech echoes down. “I suppose I could have come a few minutes sooner.”
“CAKE?” asks Grumpjaw.
“Yes, my friend,” he says. “After I tend to a matter upstairs, there will be cake.”