First off, I’d like to make it clear that I’ve never even been to Kansas. When you find yourself in a situation as batshit crazy as I did, you kind of roll with it, which I guess is why I brought Kansas up to begin with. For me, every time I said “Kansas,” or someone repeated it back to me, it just kind of meant “reality in general.” Or, specifically, Calabasas, California, where I lived in a perfectly normal apartment with my Mom.
My Mom is the coolest, smartest, and honest-to-God most beautiful human being I’ve ever known. She was born in Peru, looks like a straight-up runway model, and will absolutely punch you in the face if you piss her off. She’s usually working some kind of boring office job, but what she really is, deep down in her soul, is an entrepreneur. She just hasn’t quite gotten any of her business ideas up and running yet. I inherited some of her smarts, all of her ADD, and, despite what she’ll tell you, exactly none of her good looks. In terms of hotness (or lack thereof) I take after my Dad, who is your standard-issue generic pan-European white guy mutt. The truth is, I don’t really know that much about him.
And before you start speculating that my Dad is a Secret Fairy Prince from a Faraway Magical Land, he’s not. He’s just some schmo. He used to sell cars, and now he sells syndicated television shows to local affiliate stations. Which I guess is a decent living, because to whatever extent broadcast TV still exists, they still need to fill interminable hours with reruns of The Ghost Whisperer or whatever. He lives, like, barely half an hour away in Studio City, but I never see him.
Anyway, this book isn’t about them. It’s about lions and scarecrows and that fucking asshole wizard, and it begins, of all places, at the mall.
The reason I even went to the stupid mall that day was because Madeline needed moral support. There are exactly three lesbians in our entire high school, and my friend Madeline and her hopeless crush, Amber Maldonado, are two of them. When Amber Maldonado snaps, Madeline comes running. It’s not that their whole deal threatens our friendship or anything like that—I have my crushes, too. It’s just that I acknowledge that Peter Zamora is a sneering, petulant twit who just happens to look amazing in a black peacoat. Madeline, on the other hand, keeps insisting that Amber Maldonado actually has a single redeeming quality.
Amber asked Madeline to join her at the mall with her equally-horrible group of friends, and Madeline asked me to come along, because the prospect thrilled and terrified her in equal measure. Only she didn’t want me with her with her—as I said, Amber and her crowd are the literal spawn of Satan, and I’m happy to say that to their faces—so we agreed to meet at the vibrating massage chairs by the food court when she texted me in tears that the whole thing had fallen apart in whatever spectacular way it inevitably would.
So there I was, limbs splayed across a currently-motionless vibrating chair, scrolling through what I didn’t even know were probably the LAST TUMBLR POSTS I WOULD EVER SEE, when I noticed the sign. I’m about 90 percent sure the place used to be a Build-A-Bear Workshop, but it apparently went out of business (possibly because why, in all of recorded history, would anybody want to build a bear). Now it was something called Voyages Through Literature, which looked like the type of wholesome, educational crap that would be boarded up and replaced with a Hot Dog on a Stick inside of three months.
Oh my god—junk food. It’s been so long. I could tear through a hot dog on a stick like a school of piranha skeletonizing a cow right now. You don’t even know.
The place didn’t even seem to have any actual books in it, just various screens displaying videos… about books? I’m certain that I would have never set foot inside it, except some beleaguered dad plopped his screaming toddler down on the chair next to me in an attempt to reattach a shoe or something, and my peaceful, non-vibrating solitude was shattered. At least the abandoned video book store looked quiet.
Alas, the woman behind the counter pounced on me the moment I entered. She was maybe forty-ish, with 1950s cat-eye glasses, curves bursting out all over the place, and a red dye job in some kind of weirdly complicated up-do. Her smile was wide, but felt pretty mandatory. “Welcome to Voyages Through Literature!” she said with more than a hint of desperation. “Where can we transport you to today? 19th century England? The frozen wilds of the Canadian wilderness? A pirate frigate adventuring on the high seas?”
“How about the 74th annual Hunger Games,” I said noncommittally, tapping on one of the touch screen kiosks. “I could do some fucking damage with a composite bow.”
“Um, I don’t think we have that one,” she said. “But if it’s action you’re looking for, perhaps Alexandre Dumas’s timeless classic, The Three Musketeers?”
Swiping through the selections, it quickly became clear that the shop didn’t carry a single book that had been published within the past eighty years. Robinson Crusoe? Ivanhoe? Whatever the hell a Scarlet Pimpernel was? A better name for the place would have been Voyages Through Public Domain Books That Are So Old Nobody Owns the Copyright Anymore So We Don’t Have to Pay a Licensing Fee.
“You know what? I’m good.”
“Are you sure?” the woman said. “It’s a total immersion experience. You’ll swear that you were actually there!”
Actually where? Some sweaty old playwright’s creepy imagination? “Yeah, I’m supposed to meet my friend…”
“Listen, we’re still in the market research phase,” she said. And this is the part where I should have realized that she was way too desperate. “If you’re willing to fill out a brief survey about your voyage, we can offer you $20 for your trouble.”
I looked at my phone—Madeline hadn’t texted. For all I knew, it could be hours before she did. And you know, twenty bucks is twenty bucks. At the very least, filling out the form would probably be good for a few laughs. What the hell, I figured.
What the hell.
I continued browsing through their selection—there was a lot of stuff I’d never heard of, and most of what I had didn’t sound particularly appealing. The thought of being totally immersed in a Charles Dickens novel sounded like actual punishment, and ugh, definitely nothing by Jane Austen. I almost settled on something called A Princess of Mars, because that sounded like a pretty messed-up fairy tale. But then I saw it. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. I had seen the movie a bunch of times—my Mom and I used to watch it together about once a year, like a special occasion. When I was really little it genuinely scared me, and even as I got older, the over-the-top campiness and weird sincerity of the whole thing still held a secret, special place in my heart.
So I figured I could kill some time on the Yellow Brick Road. At the very least, I’d know the songs. I made my selection on the screen, then scrolled down through eight or ten pages of miniscule text and clicked “accept” on the terms and conditions (I can’t even imagine what was actually in there).
“So, is there a headset or something?” I asked the sales lady. “Is this like an Oculus Rift kind of thing?”
“Just step inside the booth, sweetie,” she said. “We’ll take care of everything.” Her expression had changed subtly, with eyes slightly wider, smile just a tad more forced. I suppose this should have been another warning sign, but whatever. Old people are weird. The booth itself was built into the back wall of the shop, and plastered with brightly-lit exclamations. WONDER! ADVENTURE! I swear to god, one of them said EDUTAINMENT! It looked exactly like the kind of door you’d build if you were trying to lure children inside to harvest their organs (in retrospect, I wish).
Inside, it was so dark I couldn’t even tell how big it was. I reached out my hands for the back wall, but found nothing. “Safe travels,” the sales lady said softly as she closed the door behind me.
And, just like that, I was engulfed in darkness.
We didn’t have cyclones in Southern California, but we did have earthquakes, so when the floor suddenly lurched beneath my feet, that’s what I assumed was happening. Oh my god, I thought, this is how I’m going to die. Trapped under a collapsed ceiling in the back room of a mall shop that I’d be embarrassed to be found dead in, before they can even harvest my organs. Then the room was spinning, and I lost my balance. Somewhere, a little yappy dog barked.
To this day, I maintain that I did not faint. I hit my fucking head or something.
Either way, though, I was out like a light.