idol season 11 | week 23 | 4300 words
I'm the Usain Bolt of Running From My Problems
Note: This week's story is an Idol Intersection with rayaso. We decided to try a new approach this time, for fun. He sent me the opening paragraphs of his story, and then we wrote independently using the same overall characters and business. I expect our stories will be quite different! His entry is here, and they can be read in any order.
They called him The Toymaker, but they didn't know the half of it. If Otto was a toymaker, then Paganini was just a fiddler, which was absurd.
Otto was the last in a long line of legendary wizards of whimsy, who were known as the Drosselmeyers. The Drosselmeyers specialized in exquisite playthings that should not have been possible to make. No one had ever been able to determine how they did it. Whether it was talking marionettes or sword-fighting nutcracker princes, their custom-made toys were unparalleled.
They were also expensive, which made attracting new customers challenging.
Otto's shop, H. Drosselmeyer & Sons, was in the old part of "downtown" Brooklyn, where it had been since his great-grandfather came over from the old country back in the late 1800s. It sat side-by-side with Abe's Instrument repair, a front window full of dolls and trains and fantastical mechanized creatures in one shop, and trumpets, flutes, and violins in the other.
"Abe," Otto asked one day, "when was the last time someone asked you to restore a really special instrument that was worth your time and talent?"
"Are you kidding?" Abe said. "I'm still waiting…"
So, that was how it was for the two of them. Artisans in an age of instant gratification and planned obsolescence, masters of their craft abandoned to the cobwebs of their lonely—
"Hey, don't involve me in your dramas," Abe said. "I got my own problems."
"But don't you remember how it was," Otto said, "when we were sought after and respected?"
"Yeah, I remember. But it is what it is. And right now, I gotta go teach Mozart to some rich little rat-fink out in Queens."
So fine, maybe it wasn't quite the same for Abe. He gave piano lessons to cover the rent, whereas Otto would have been out on the street years ago if his great-grandfather hadn't paid off the mortgage on the store.
Business had been good back then, but it was hard to make a living crafting custom toys these days. Most children were so obsessed with video games that they'd forgotten what an actual toy could be like. They went straight from teddy bears to playing with phones and computers (Otto blamed the parents), and they wouldn't even dream of asking for something like a mechanical bird that could actually fly! They had no idea what was possible. Why, Otto's great-great-great-grandfather had once made a mechanical life-sized doll so beautiful, a young poet had fallen in love with her. She hadn't been able to love the poet back, of course, and he'd ruined himself over her, but still, wasn't that something?
Otto still made amazing toys, even if he didn't always find customers who wanted to buy them. His toys sat out on display tables and shelves, moving in turn through the front window and all hoping to catch the eye of some child or grandparent who would see what they had to offer.
At night, or when the shop was empty, they complained about their plight.
"I just want some nice little boy or girl to love me," the creepy wind-up jester doll would say (in retrospect, that particular toy had been poorly thought out). Or, "Perhaps a new coat of paint?" the little steam train might suggest. "I hear blue's all the rage these days."
Then one night, there was a knock on the door.
It was a very small knock. Otto wasn't quite sure he'd heard it at first. He had just turned out the lights before going upstairs to his apartment above the shop, and he thought he'd imagined it. But then it came again, the tiniest sound.
He went to the door and turned on the outside lights, but no one was there.
"Oh!" Otto said. He opened the door to a small elf-creature in tattered clothes, which darted inside the shop. "Wait, I remember you," Otto said. He closed the door. "I sold you to the Chiswicks last Christmas, along with your wife. What are you doing here?"
"Whadda ya think? Running away from Mrs. Elf!" The creature slapped some dirt out of his pants. "Did ya have to make her such a nag? Oh, hey, it's Chester-The-Jester. Wow, you're still here?"
"What else…" Chester said.
"So, I slipped away before they could stick me back in a box for another year with Mrs. Elf. It took a lot of sneaking around and hiding, but I finally made my way back here. I almost got eaten by a dog a couple of times!"
"Did you think Mrs. Elf would come after you?"
"Nah, she was in the box by then. But it's a dangerous world out there, and you're the one that made me. I figured this was the place to come if I wanted to start over."
"Very well, as long as you behave," Otto said. A runaway elf-doll is the last thing I need, but it's late.
"Sure thing," the elf said. He climbed up onto one of the tables. "Oh, this train is a beaut! Look at those shiny pistons, and that cute little smokestack!"
"Thank you!" the train said happily, as Otto walked up the stairs to his apartment and closed the door to his shop.
The elf was waiting when he came downstairs to open the shop the next morning.
"Hey, when you've got a spare moment, I could use some new clothes," the elf said. "It was a rough journey."
"I hope the Chiswicks don't blame me for your disappearance," Otto said.
The elf shot a glance at the door. "If they come here, you gotta hide me! I can't take any more of Mrs. Elf!"
"But if they still want to have a pair of elves, I'd have to make her a new husband."
"Then do that!" the elf said. "But make him stupid or deaf or something, so the complaining doesn't bother him. Also maybe handsome, for Mrs. Elf. That was a big thing with her."
"What? You were just supposed to be a cute set of Christmas dolls!" Otto said.
"Yeah, well, the Mrs. didn't get the message. She kept sayin' she was made for better things, and whatever that meant, it wasn't me."
"Hmm…" Otto unlocked the front door, and turned the Open/Closed sign around to the "Open" side. "That's unfortunate."
"You're tellin' me…"
Otto went into the back room to make coffee, while the elf followed behind. "Don'tcha think it'd be great to let Bluebell run around the front window today?" the elf asked.
"The train! We were talking last night, and he wanted a name. He liked that one."
"I don't see why not…"
Before long, the coffee was made, the toys were dusted, and everything was ready. Everything but the customers. All too typical, Otto thought. He cleared some space in the front window, and lay train tracks down in a looping pattern that curved in and around the other toys. Then he brought "Bluebell" over to join them.
"What does he run on?" the elf asked.
"Wishes," Otto said.
"Ooh! Well, then, Bluebell: I wish for a child to see you and love you and take you home for their very own!"
The steam engine started up and began chugging around the tracks.
"That isn't quite how it works…" Otto said.
"No?" the elf glared at him.
Otto looked at Bluebell, puffing away happily, and he relented. "But it's close enough."
The shop bell rang next door, and Otto looked out the window. "Oh, there's Abe. I'll be outside for a bit." He took his coffee, and went out to join Abe at the little table between their shops.
"So, how's business?" Abe greeted him.
"What business?" Otto said.
"Exactly!" Abe laughed. "It's another slow day for me too, except for a couple of piano lessons later. Hey, how about a little chess to take your mind off your finances?"
Otto grinned. "You mean, why fail at just one thing when I could fail at two?"
"Hahahaha! Yeah!" Abe said. "I mean, no. But seriously, do you wanta play?"
"Sure, why not. I can hear the phone from here if I need to…"
That afternoon, Otto put the finishing touches on a little yellow dancing giraffe, and prepared to sew the elf some new clothes. "Just the regular kind, though," the elf said. "None of that Christmassy stuff."
"You're awfully picky for someone who can't make these himself," Otto said.
"Why does he get new clothes?" Chester whined.
"You know," the elf whispered, "you might think about remaking him into something else. Like a ballet dancer, or a lion tamer, or really, anything."
"I heard that!" Chester said.
"Just tryin' ta help, buddy," the elf called out. He looked up at Otto again. "Hey, I notice the dolls on the front table don't talk so much anymore…"
"They don't talk at all now," Otto said. "I sold the last of that group just before Valentine's Day. These new ones aren't smart like the old ones were. They just reflect the owner's love back, as a feeling of contentment. The more they're loved, the happier the owner is."
"That's kind of sad, though," the elf said. "I liked the old ones."
"Yes," Otto said. "But I think it's less sad for the dolls…"
By the end of the day, Otto had sold the little blue train, two dolls, and a mechanical chipmunk. He'd also been commissioned to create a palace-style dollhouse that was the largest and most exciting thing he'd worked on in years.
He locked up the shop and went to bed late, his head filled with ideas for secret rooms, moveable parts, and stylistic details.
A noise woke him sometime later, a scrape or a bump followed by the muffled sound of things softly brushing against each other. Otto turned on the light.
The elf was standing next to his head, holding a paring knife, and there were stuffed animals of varying ages and vintages gathered around the bed. All of them were angry.
"Have you lost your minds?" Otto asked.
The elf looked at him coldly. "When I showed up the other night? I was just the advance man, for these guys. I met 'em at the Chiswicks." He waved his arm at a cluster of scruffy, moth-eaten creatures. "Y'see, we know about the rabbits, Drosselmeyer."
"The rabbits? What rabbits?"
The elf stomped on the mattress. "The ones whose hearts you stole to make your toys real."
Otto sat up. "I never did any such thing!"
"Yeah?" the elf said. "Then how do you explain these guys?"
Several of the shabbier-looking toys crowded forward. Otto's mind raced. There's something different about them, but what is it?
Then it came to him. "I'm sorry," he said, "I knew there was a reason I didn't recognize any of you. I'm afraid I didn't make you."
One of the new stuffed bunnies hopped forward. "You made me!"
"Yes," Otto said, "but not these older toys. They're before my time. And there's no need to use gruesome tricks to make them real. Just whisper a spell into their ears, and off they go!"
"Maybe you'd like to see for yourself!" one of the older toys screeched. It tore at its chest with its teeth, pulling fur and stuffing loose until something small and dark and terrible was revealed.
"Oh, no…" Otto said.
He thought back to his childhood, when he was learning the Drosselmeyer toy-making arts. He remembered his grandfather's lessons on the Enlivening spell, and being asked to perform it again and again, as if his grandfather had wanted to be sure Otto could do it.
His grandfather. Not his father, who had taught him so many other tricks and spells, but never that one.
Were these poor creatures the result of the methods Otto's father resorted to when he was unable to make the Enlivening spell work?
"I am so terribly, terribly sorry," Otto said. "I believe this was my father's doing…"
"Well, he ain't here now, and somebody's got to pay!" the elf said.
"But what is it that you all hope I can do? Remove the stolen hearts and return you to life with my own spell? Release you from living altogether?"
A shabby old brown bunny said, "All of this time, my rabbit heart has longed to run through meadows and eat leafy greens, but I was never able. I want you to take me to a wild place where rabbits live, and set me free to do that."
The other rabbits murmured in agreement.
"It can be dangerous in the wild," Otto said. "There are animals that eat rabbits. I can't promise you'd be safe."
"I'd rather die as a rabbit than live as a monster," the brown bunny said.
"All right, then," Otto said. "Tomorrow, I'll take you and any others who want to go, and let you do what your hearts tell you.
The animals and the elf shuffled out the door, much calmer than before. Otto checked under the bed and in the closet to make sure the last of them was gone, and then locked the door and slept with the light on the rest of the night.
In the morning, the elf and the older stuffed animals were waiting for him downstairs. Well, I can see where this day is headed, Otto thought. Oh, well.
"Has each of you decided what you want to do?" he asked.
The toys murmured and nodded.
"Then, let's separate you into groups, so I can see what I'm dealing with," Otto said. "Those who want to live out in the wild, please go stand by the table with the little red airplane."
He waited as most of the older toys moved over to the table.
"All right. Now, if there are any of you who truly want to stop being alive, please go over to the storybook section. Yes, I know it's a big decision, so choose carefully. And anyone who wants me to rework their dark magic into a new spell instead, please go over to my work table."
"Anyone?" Chester asked.
Otto sighed. "You were not made with dark magic, Chester…"
"You'd never know it," Chester sulked.
There were three tattered toy rabbits, a threadbare fox, and a ratty-looking squirrel waiting to begin a new life out in nature.
"Give me a moment to talk to Abe, and I'll be right back," Otto told them.
Abe was checking the pads on a saxophone when Otto entered his store.
"Everything okay?" Abe asked. "I thought I heard voices over at your place last night." He put the saxophone down and walked around to the front of the counter. "Of course, it could've been the TV, I suppose. Or not. Hey, you want to talk to yourself, go ahead. I won't judge..."
"Hello to you too, Abe," Otto said. "Are you going to be around this morning? I need to run some errands today, so I won't be able to open the store until later. Would you mind keeping an eye out in case anyone comes by?"
"Sure thing," Abe said. "You can even put up a note and send people over, if you want."
"Thanks, I'll do that. See you later," Otto said.
He went back to his own shop, and locked the door against the damp wind that was picking up outside. "Let me make something to eat. Then I'll gather up everyone who wants to live in the wild, and we'll go to the subway station."
"I'm sorry," the ratty squirrel said. "Did you mean today?"
"Yes, of course today," Otto said. "That's what you all said you wanted."
"Oh," the squirrel said. "It's just that it's not very nice out today. It looks as if it might rain."
Otto knelt down and said softly, "But that's what it means to live outdoors. When it rains, you'll get wet. You won't be able to come inside anymore. You won't belong to anyone."
"I still want that," one of the rabbits said. "Me, too," the others insisted.
"Yes," said the fox.
The squirrel sighed. "I guess I don't. The trip here from the Chiswick's was bad enough."
"All right," Otto said. "You can think about which of the other choices you'd prefer, then, while I deliver these little fellows out into the world."
He made sandwiches, and packed them into a large knapsack along with an apple, a thermos of hot coffee, and the four toys.
"And me," the elf said. "Not that I wanna take part in their shenanigans, but I wanna make sure they get where they're going."
Otto looked around at the other older toys. "I'll help the rest of you later today, so make yourselves comfortable. While I'm gone, remember—keep quiet, and stay away from the door and the windows."
The subway ride out to Van Cortlandt Park took more than an hour. Otto entered the park and consulted a map, then hiked into the forest in search of a good spot to leave the toys. He found a pretty area at the edge of the woods, with trees on one side and meadows on the other.
He set the knapsack down and opened it up. "How about this?" he asked.
One of the rabbits stuck its head out. "Oh, yes!" it said, and hopped out to explore. The other two followed.
"It's perfect!" the fox squeaked, slipping out onto the fresh earth to run in circles.
Otto's heart lifted. "Then, good luck to you all!" he said. "I hope it's everything you've ever dreamed of."
He stood there for a few minutes, watching the toys scamper around and disappear into the forest shadows and tall grass.
"Nice work," the elf admitted.
"Thank you." Otto picked up the knapsack and closed the elf inside it, then made his way back to the subway station.
It was after two o'clock by the time he returned to the store, but he felt the trip had been worth it. He stopped by Abe's.
"Did anyone come by?" he asked.
"Sadly, no," Abe said. "Could just be a slow day, though."
"Maybe it'll pick up later. Thanks for keeping an eye on the store."
"Any time. You want to come by for dinner tomorrow? The Nets are playing."
Otto unlocked his own store, and looked inside. Everything seems quiet… He turned the sign to "Open," and went to check on the remaining toys. The two in the storybook area seemed to be dozing, and the three by the work table were waiting patiently and trading stories with each other.
"I'll be with you in a moment," Otto said. He let the elf out of the knapsack, and checked the phone for messages. Rats, still nothing, and the electric bill is due Friday, he thought. Then he brought a glass of cold water in from the kitchen and set it on the work table.
"So," he said. "All of you want to be reborn without your stolen hearts, is that right?"
"Yes!" the animals chorused.
"It's a simple thing, but will take time to remove each of your hearts, and then stitch you up again and perform the new spell to wake you up again. You won't feel anything while I work, but it can be unsettling to watch others go through it. Why don't you go visit your friends over by the books, and I'll call you back one by one. Who wants to be remade first?"
An hour and half later, Otto was finished reworking all the toys—including the two who'd considered being retired, but had changed their minds. He'd run renewing magic on all of them, too, so they still looked old but were cleaner and less threadbare.
It had taken a little longer to fix up the chest of the toy kangaroo that had chewed through its own fur, but it looked fairly presentable now. Otto thought he might sew a handsome little vest for it later, to cover up any remaining damage.
Now he had a collection of nasty, shriveled-up, rabbit hearts to dispose of. I should probably burn them, he thought. But not right now.
"What about you?" he asked the elf, who'd been keeping an eye on his progress all day.
"We'll talk later," the elf said.
The shop bell rang as someone entered the store, so Otto hid the hearts in a box and went to greet what he hoped was a potential customer.
He sold a Marie Antoinette doll and a few books to a expensively-dressed woman in her forties that afternoon. Customers rarely bought books, but the woman said she'd been drawn to that corner by the "antique toys" posed as if they were reading them.
Hmm, Otto thought.
The elf came upstairs and hopped up onto the table while Otto was having dinner. "Ya did good today," he said. "All of those old toys from the Chiswicks are much happier."
"I'm glad I could set things right for them." And undo Father's terrible mistake.
"Yeah..." The elf sat down and leaned against the napkin holder. "So, it's been nice catchin' up and all, but what I want for myself is adventure."
"Well, you can leave anytime," Otto said. "It's your choice."
"Yeah, but I don't mean sneaking around the city and worrying about dogs. I'm thinkin' bigger."
"Well, there's this sweet little red airplane downstairs, looks like it's just about my size…"
The next morning, Otto put the elf and the plane in a box, and took the bus to Prospect Park. He walked until he found the kind of nice little green area the elf had mentioned, and then he put the elf and the plane down in the grass. The elf climbed into the cockpit.
"Good luck, and watch out for trees. And birds, and everything else," Otto said.
"I know already, I know!" said the little plane.
"He'll be doin' most of the work, but I'll keep an eye out too," the elf said. "Good luck with the toy biz, and don’t forget about Chester."
The plane rolled across the grass and took to the air, with the elf waving jauntily overhead.
"Those are marvelous! So clever!"
There was an older woman standing behind Otto, watching the whole process. "Wherever did you find them?" she asked.
"I made them," Otto said proudly. "My store is H. Drosselmeyer and Sons, in the old downtown area."
"Oh, I'd love to visit! Do you have a business card with you?"
Otto returned to his shop just after ten, and opened up for the day. He put a little green wind-up Model T in the front window, and gave it a wish to let it drive around for a while. Then he leaned the Chiswick's squirrel toy against an old-fashioned dollhouse, which seemed to suit them both.
The front door opened, and a man in his fifties came in.
"Hello," said Otto.
"Hello!" the man said. "Say, I was visiting my niece the other day, and she had the most amazing little steam train! And that car in the front window tells me I'm probably in the right place. Do you have another train like it that I could buy for myself? Possibly a red one?"
"Not yet," Otto smiled, "but if you'd like to commission one, I'll build it."
He repainted Chester's face that afternoon, and made him into a Victorian tightrope walker. It was quite an improvement. He also had time to sew a little vest for the old kangaroo toy, who was very grateful.
Shortly before four o'clock, the shop bell rang again, and Otto was surprised to see the woman from the park.
"I thought I'd come take a look around," she said. "I can't believe how many wonderful toys you have! Did you make them all?"
"Not all of them, but most. The really special ones are hand-crafted."
"Like that plane I saw earlier today? I didn't even see a remote control set for it. How does it work?"
Otto smiled. "It runs on wishes."
The woman blinked, but then smiled back. "A family secret, I'll bet. Like that lovely little Model-T in the front window?"
"Exactly like that," Otto said.
"You must sell lots and lots of those little planes, they're simply incredible," she said.
"I wish that were true," Otto said, "but they're also rather expensive. Finding customers who can afford them isn't easy."
"I suppose you advertise? Oh, look at this this dear little squirrel!" The woman picked it up and stroked it gently. "It reminds me of a toy I had as a child."
"Most of my customers come from newspaper ads, the Yellow Pages, and referrals. But it's never quite enough, and it's such a specialized business."
"Do you have a website?" she asked.
"No…" Otto said. "All of that's just beyond me. I supposed I'm more of an old-fashioned type of man."
"Well," the woman said, "I might be able to help with that. Would you consider a trade? Perhaps one of those airplanes for my granddaughter, and in return I'd build you a website and teach you how to use it to process customer orders?"
"Would you?" Otto said. "I mean, yes. I'd like that very much!"
"All right, then! Oh, this will be exciting. My name is Mary, by the way."
"Hello Mary, I'm Otto," he said, trying to hold back a ridiculously huge smile.
"Very pleased to meet you! Would you like to talk business now, or would you like to go out for a bite to eat and discuss it over dinner? I love this little squirrel by the way, is it for sale?"
"I would love to have dinner with you," Otto said. Wowie, she's really something. "And the squirrel—"
He looked at it, and the squirrel gave him a wink.
"—is a gift. I think he'll be very happy to have a home again."
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