“What are we going to do?” Stevie sounded genuinely panicked, with none of his usual confidence.
“Wait a moment,” said Mr. Gunderson. “This is the key!” He picked up something from the workbench, a glass cylinder topped by a device with some lights and buttons on it.
“That was in my house!” said Stacia.
“It’s how the space ninjas got here in the first place,” said Mr. Gunderson musingly. “No time to explain. We need to get out of here!”
The cellar doors were shuddering with the impact of whatever was on the other side, and the space ninjas from upstairs were creeping into view. One sprang, Stacia shrieked, Tom pulled her to the floor and Stevie two. As it swung around and came back, Tom stood up with the Dutch oven in his hands. Deftly he aimed it and caught the space ninja in it.
The residue of the chicken soup had an instantaneous effect. The space ninjas melted into a black, inky sludge. “Space ninja soup!” said Stevie. Without waiting, Tom charged up the stairs, flinging the sludge ahead of him. The ninjas on the stairs were caught in the splash, and disintegrated immediately.
“Unbelievable,” panted Mr. Gunderson as they sprinted up the stairs. “The chicken soup must alter their DNA makeup faster than they can adapt. It might not work long term, but we have our solution here.” He patted the canister for emphasis.
They didn’t waste any time looking around the house, instead charging straight to and out the front door. They all piled up together as they stopped short on the doorstep.
Zombies everywhere. Space Ninjas slinking around among them. Robots buzzing around in the air above.
“I don’t think the Dutch oven will be enough,” said Tom.
“Minions!” shouted Mr. Gunderson, eliciting a dismayed groan from Stevie, an angry word from Tom, and a sob from Stacia. “Stop the chollomorphs!”
“Wait, what?” Tom looked at Mr. Gunderson in confusion.
“They’ll still listen to me, even if I’m no longer on their side. I told you, their minds are captive.”
“Way to go, Mr. Gunderson!!” shouted Stevie.
True to his word, the zombies turned on the space ninjas. Not that they seemed able to do much, but the ninjas were distracted enough to allow the four to escape. They ran, bolting for the woods. A robot came spinning in their direction, and Tom swung the Dutch oven and bashed it, sending it careening away. A ninja zipped out in front of them, but then a zombie charged from the pack and grabbed it, flinging it back into the fray.
“Daddy!” cried Stacia. The zombie paused, looked at them, then went back into the fight.
“I think he’ll be okay,” said Tom.
Another space ninja came rolling out at them and latched a tentacle on Stevie. He was pulled to the ground and started screaming and scrabbling at the turf as he was being pulled into the mass of bodies.
“Stevie!” Mr. Gunderson yelled, and he whipped off the button-down shirt he was wearing over a loose v-neck t. He dashed to Stevie, rolling the shirt up, and swung it like a whip at the tentacle holding Stevie. The shirt apparently had enough chicken soup residue on it yet that when it struck the tentacle it dissolved and Stevie was safe. He pulled Stevie to his feet and urged him on.
They ran the rest of the way into the woods, to their makeshift camp where they had stashed supplies, weapons, and other tools.
“Alright, how is that canister going to fix all this,” asked Tom, breathing hard.
“The canister is really just a focal point for the rift between universes. A bridge, if you will. It’s lived in the basement of my hardware store for years. I don’t know how it ended up out of the store, but,” he shrugged, “I’ll confess I might have been careless. If I had it in a box somewhere, brought the box out… Someone got their hands on it. Maybe your dad, Stacia. He must have activated it – no idea how he figured it out – but now I need to close it.”
“How will you do that, Mr. Grunderson?”
“Only one easy way, Stevie. I will need to go through the rift with the canister. It will seal it up and suck the rest of the chollomorphs with me. Has to do with quantum physics, but that would take weeks to explain. However, tit might even put the zombies back to normal, but I would look for chicken soup, just in case.”
“And what happens to you?” asked Tom.
“I’m going home, whatever that means for me. Maybe nothing good. Maybe not so bad.”
“No!” cried Stevie.
“You really are from that other world?” asked Stacia.
“Indeed I am. And my presence in this world is probably exactly what allowed the creatures through in the first place.”
“I thought you said it was because that thing was activated,” said Tom.
“That’s true,” said Mr. Gunderson. “But just because there is a bridge doesn’t mean something can cross over. Many years ago I crossed over – broke through, really – but that is a story I simply do not have time to tell right now, I’m sorry to say. However, because I stayed here, it created a weakness. We see the results of that.” He pursed his lips, shook his head. “I know I did not tell you about this before, and Tom I realize you are suspicious. I know this must not help to learn this way. But I am going to make this right.”
“And that’s it then? The breach will be sealed? This can’t happen again?” asked Tom.
Mr. Gunderson looked sad. “I can make you no promises about the future, Thomas. But I want to give you something.” He fished out of his pocket a set of keys. “These are the keys to the hardware store. I had a feeling this was how it was going to end, so I arranged things just so. There is a package in the management office with all the paperwork taken care of. I’ve had it ready for years, I just needed the name of who to hand it off to. I put your name in a week ago. Your father will have to hold the trust, legally, until you are 18, and Joshua will help you run the place. He knows everything there is to know about it and then some. But it is yours. And Stevie’s, of course.”
“I don’t know if I want to run a hardware store…”
“It’s more than that, son,” said Mr. Gunderson quietly. He plucked one key from the bunch, held it up. “This will let you into a part of the basement that it set aside for my personal use. There is a lot in there that will explain some thing to you. And it will give you a job to do that goes far beyond running a hardware store.”
“Why us? Why me?”
Mr. Gunderson smiled. “I knew it had to be you when you went back for the girl.” He winked over at Stacia, who blushed. “You are going to be a great man, Thomas. Take it from someone who has seen a lot of great men, and a lot of terrible ones.”
“I think I understand,” said Tom slowly.
“I don’t!” said Stevie. “Mr. Grunderson, you can’t go! You can’t!” Tears were running down his cheeks.
“Oh, Stevie.” Mr. Gunderson went down on a knee and swept him into a hug. “You are the bravest eight year old I know. There are gonig to be some times your brother will need that bravery. Do you understand that?” Stevie nodded. “Good. Now be brave now.”
Mr. Gunderson went to his tools, chose a few things, worked at the top of the canister.
Tom looked at Stacia, who was looking up at his with an odd expression. “What?” he asked quietly.
“You called me your girlfriend,” she said. Tom smiled.
Stevie gripped his brother’s hand, sniffled. Tom put an arm around him, held him close. For several breathless moments they watched Mr. Gunderson work, with no apparent result. Suddenly, the air shimmered and rippled in front of them. Mr. Gunderson stood, holding onto the canister, and lifted a hand in farewell. There was a rushing, sucking noise, and the shimmering, rippling air condensed into a spot no larger than a baseball. Rainbow colors swirled around its surface, like a soap bubble floating in the sunlight.
Mr. Gunderson’s body lengthened, stretching like taffy, toward the spot, and was pulled into it. For a brief moment there was silence, then with a keening wail and violent wind that shook the trees, black shapes came rushing into the forest from beyond the tree line. They were all pulled and stretched and sucked into the shimmering hole.
Tom, Stacia, and Stevie covered their ears and ducked, watching the parade of black shapes. Finally a giant blob sailed over their heads. It struck the hole in the air and stuck for a moment, quivering, then all at once collapsed inward. With that, the hole swirled one last time with color, and like a soap bubble it popped and was gone.