Nolan knew he must be dreaming when he found his algebra teacher at a tattoo parlor. Math teachers with tattoos are probably less rare than you would think, but Mr. Shupert had recently come out of retirement and was easily pushing eighty years old, so it surprised Nolan to see him getting ink done. Nolan supported the right to decorate one’s body with some skin art, but he had a hard time believing the needle bouncing off his teacher’s exposed wrinkly left butt cheek was the best life decision for the former retiree.
“Whoa. Frostee, what’s going on?” He always referred to his teacher by his first name when not in class. Frostee had been his neighbor for far longer than he had been his math teacher. Some of Nolan’s earliest memories were of the kind gentleman living next door.
Frostee raised his head from a pillow, his jowls forming into a wide grin. His bright blue eyes gleamed, and a tuft of wild gray hair stood at attention in the middle of his otherwise bald dome.
“Nolan! You getting ink too?” His wisp of hair seemed to point at an open chair next to him.
Nolan shook his head. “Nah, I’ll pass. I’m a little too young. And you . . . you’re a little too old, aren’t you?”
“Since when do I act my age? Sure you won’t join me?” Frostee stared at him for a moment, eyes pleading. “No? How about your friend there?”
Nolan glanced around the tattoo parlor, looking for this so-called friend. He didn’t even know how he had ended up here. Dim lighting revealed several pages of artwork hanging on a nearby wall. A myriad of flowers, skulls, fearsome animals, and tribal designs displayed the artist’s prowess. The tattooist continued with the job at hand, hunched over Frostee’s behind with the needle, unperturbed by Nolan’s arrival. In a nearby chair sat Johnny Brunsen, an overdeveloped freshman from his school, who looked like he should be playing division one football somewhere.
“Don’t drag me into this,” the boy said. “If that old coot’s getting a tattoo, count me out. I don’t even know why you brought me here.”
“I brought you here?” Nolan remembered doing no such thing.
“Yeah, I was teaching Wheezy McHackerson a lesson when you grabbed me, and next thing I know, we’re sitting here watching this old geezer get his butt tatted.”
“His name is Wesley,” Nolan said. Wesley Gunderson was a tiny asthmatic kid in his class, ideal prey for the likes of Johnny.
“Whatever.” Johnny turned his attention to the tattoo in progress. “So why the butt cheek, Frostee?”
Nolan glared at Johnny. When he used his neighbor’s first name it was highly disrespectful.
“Best place to hide a tattoo.” Frostee grinned. “Didn’t want to risk it being seen by anyone.”
“Too late.” Nolan rubbed his eyes, but the unsightly image continued to dance on the back of his eyelids.
Frostee laughed a cheery laugh, like the entire situation was the most comical thing that had ever happened to him. Nolan usually found his cheerfulness quite endearing—that is, until he wrote some complicated algebraic equations with manic glee on the outdated chalkboard in his classroom for his students to solve. Then it was just downright annoying.
“Tell me it’s something cool, at least.” Against his better judgment, Nolan inched closer to the table to get a look at Frostee’s tattoo. The elderly man’s wrinkly rear end was already burned into his retinas, so he might as well take a peek at what meant enough to Frostee that he would want to permanently enshrine it on his backside.
So far, the artist had only traced a faint outline. Nolan squinted sideways to gain a different perspective.
“Is that a dog?” Johnny asked, staring down at him too.
“Not just any dog. That’s Scranton, isn’t it?” Nolan asked incredulously.
Scranton was Frostee’s pug, and the dog was probably the old man’s best friend, next to Nolan. He adored that goofy chub of a dog. Apparently, the tattoo-my-butt level of adoration. Nolan loved the dog too, although Scranton lacked a certain intelligence. He would eat rocks, refused to do his business if the grass was wet, and would occasionally run into walls and tables after excitedly spinning in circles for a while. On the flip side, his loyalty to his owner and Nolan never wavered.
“Well, that’s . . . uh, cool,” Nolan tried to say enthusiastically.
Frostee continued to grin, whether he believed Nolan or not.
“The old coot’s getting a dog tattoo. He’s crazier than I thought.” A smug smirk crossed Johnny’s face.
Nolan stomped the older kid’s foot, not caring if Johnny wanted to teach him a lesson too in response. No one should talk like that to the elderly.
“Come on, Johnny, let’s go. Let Frostee have some privacy.” Nolan backed away from Frostee’s backside, looking around for an exit.
If there was one, he didn’t see it. Behind him, an expanse of darkness spread out where the other walls should have been. The single hanging light bulb failed to illuminate anything beyond them. If Nolan wasn’t certain before, now he knew he was dreaming. What sort of tattoo shop exists in the void of space?
“Uh, Frostee? Where are we?”
“Looks like a tattoo parlor to me?”
Nolan wasn’t sure if Frostee was stating the obvious to be deliberately difficult. Probably, since he had said it with a wide grin.
A breeze blew through the room, rustling some of the artwork on the one visible wall. Where the wind had come from, Nolan had no idea. A drawing of a peace sign fluttered a bit, and the bars began to rotate along the page, swirling toward the center in a spiral. Nolan stared at it, both mesmerized and weirded out at the same time.
“Are you seeing this?” he asked of his neighbor, but the man stayed silent.
“Yeah, it’s a peace sign, you idiot,” Johnny said.
Then the most incredible thing of the night happened: a pair of hands emerged from the swirling ink stain, followed by the owner of those hands. A behemoth of a man squeezed through the tiny hole. How he had fit through it, Nolan had no clue, but the man somersaulted out and landed on his feet with a grace that belied his giant size.
Nolan instinctively backed up farther as the man spread his arms in a nonthreatening manner and said, “I come in peace.”
“Ha, get it? Peace sign. No?” The newcomer laughed at his joke, despite the awfulness of it, and he grinned a broad smile, his emerald eyes shining like marbles buried under a vast, sloping forehead and a military-style haircut. With skin the color of coffee beans, the man’s watermelon-sized biceps stretched the limits of his tight black shirt. He easily towered over both Nolan and his larger companion.
The stranger could have been a linebacker in the NFL. Or a professional wrestler.
“Nothing? Not even a chuckle?” The man frowned and cleared his throat. “Well, then, the name’s Penchant Downing, and before you get all scared and run off again, just let me talk for more than ten seconds tonight.”
Just let me talk—Nolan’s mother used that tactic from time to time when she wanted to lecture him about something. Getting lectured in his dreams tonight sounded like torture.
“You see an exit, Johnny? We really should go.”
Penchant took a step toward them. “I need you both to hold on for a moment, please. Poor Johnny’s brain can’t handle another switch with you.”
“I don’t think poor Johnny has a brain.”
“Hey!” the boy shouted.
“Nolan, you need to stop interrupting people’s dreams.” The large man pointed at Johnny, then back in the general direction of Frostee.
But Frostee had vanished, leaving the tattoo artist to needle away at the air in front of him.
“There are consequences to dream sharing, and if you continue to do so, you may end up hurting your friends.”
Nolan wasn’t sure Johnny fell into the friend category.
Another breeze blew through the parlor, and the drawing of the peace sign fluttered to the floor by Nolan’s feet. The black vortex continued to swirl at its center. Much like the picture, thoughts swirled in Nolan’s head. If that was an entrance, maybe it was an exit too.
“Good talk. Gotta go,” Nolan said, and he hopped onto—no, into—the drawing, pulling Johnny Brunsen with him.
The stranger moved more quickly than what should have been possible, lunging at the boys sinking into the drawing. Penchant grabbed a collar in each hand, but they were already waist-deep in the vortex. Despite his brute size, he could not yank them free. Instead, a violent tug pulled all three of them under. The world went black for a moment, and next thing he knew, Nolan was tumbling across a dirt patch in someone’s garden.
“You’re back!” a scratchy voice called from Nolan’s right.
He looked over to find Wesley Gunderson buried up to his neck in the dirt, grime streaked across his thick-framed glasses, hair sticking straight in the air like a carrot top. So, buried alive is what Johnny meant when he said he was teaching the kid a lesson.
Penchant emerged from a nearby tomato plant, careful to step over Johnny, who was spitting up dirt. “Holy hopscotching honeybees! I told you to sit still. I can’t let you torment this poor boy again.”
“I’m not the one who buried him in the ground!”
“I really hate to have to do this, Nolan, but these boys need their rest without you messing up their dreams.” The big guy reached for a holster on his belt.
Instinctively, Nolan scrambled backward in the dirt. “But I didn’t do anything!”
“Sorry, Nolan. Promise we’ll speed up the timetable soon. Your powers are getting out of control.”
Powers? If Nolan was dreaming of being a superhero, it sure didn’t show. Before he could blink, Penchant towered over him, a sleek handheld device with an arcing electrical current held in one hand.
“Dude, you’re getting tased!” Johnny laughed.
But when the device hit him, Nolan didn’t feel a shock. Instead, the world constricted around him, squeezing his body so hard he couldn’t even move his eyes. His thoughts slowed, and then everything went black.