George's mattress bucked up like a wild bronco, waking him with a rude start. Then his head crashed against the wooden headboard as the bed jolted back down to earth. He winced in pain.
He sat up carefully and rubbed his hand over his thick mane of hair. A large goose egg would soon be appearing on the back of his skull, he knew. He eased himself off the mattress, took a step away from the bed, and immediately stubbed his toe against a chest of drawers. He lifted his foot off the ground and massaged himself through the soft cloth of his tennis shoe.
That dresser wasn't here when I lay down for my nap! he thought with a wave of irritation.
Or was it?
He surveyed the room, looking for familiar features, then started rubbing his aching head once more.
Bullocks, I can't even remember what this room is supposed to look like, he cursed in his head. How long have I been here anyway? One day? Or has it been two already?
George's manager Brian had bragged effusively about the trouble he'd gone to renting this house with a pool and game room in a remote corner of Beverly Hills, and carving out a few blank days in the group's tour schedule so the band members could relax for a bit and soak up some California sunshine. But George wasn't particularly impressed by the digs. Hotel, house, it didn't matter to him. He just wanted to go home to his bungalow in Esher, just outside of London, and relax with his beautiful bride Pattie.
He opened his bedroom door and called down the hall to Ringo, but was met with silence. Puzzled, he walked down the hallway and entered a large foyer, which he also didn't recognize.
I must have hit my head harder than I thought, he decided. My mind's playing tricks on me.
He found the house's front entrance, put his hand on the doorknob, and flung the door open, expecting to see his band's limousine parked in the curved driveway, beside a pair of neatly trimmed Palmetto Palms. Instead he saw a large expanse of green lawn, strewn with garden gnome statues and surrounded by a thick forest of Jacaranda and Ficus trees.
"What the hell?" he cursed.
One of the garden gnomes jumped into the air and shouted, "It's him!" in a high-pitched squeak. "Our hero!"
The other gnomes started bouncing up and down beside him. George watched the strange spectacle with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. Then a small soap bubble blew in from the woods behind the field, growing rapidly larger as it approached the house. A shimmering pattern of rainbows danced along its wet surface. It landed on the grass a few feet in front of George and popped, spraying him with a small shower of soapy water.
George threw his hands in front of his face to stop the soap from getting in his eyes. Then he lowered his arms and saw a beautiful blonde woman standing in front of him. Her hair was swept into an elaborate up-do, and her face was covered in heavy pancake makeup. She wore a puffy ball gown, covered in sequins, and carried a glistening wand in her right hand. She stared squarely at George until he met her eye, then spoke.
"Explain yourself," she said.
George laughed. "I could say the same thing to you," he replied.
She scowled at him briefly. A small clump of face powder mixed with greasepaint dripped down her forehead and lodged itself in the space between her perfectly plucked eyebrows. Then she recovered her composure and smiled at him, revealing a gleaming set of flawlessly straight, white teeth. "I'll ask you again," she said, very nearly masking the irritation in her brittle voice. "Please explain yourself. From whence did you come, and why did you land your house on my twin brother?"
George scowled back at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Step into the lawn and see for yourself," she commanded him, waving her wand.
George felt himself being drawn to the strange woman's side. She motioned for him to turn around, and he complied without making any effort to move. Then he opened his mouth and gasped. A pair of legs, clad in pleated, black woolen trousers, poked out from beneath the frame of the house.
"Shite," George mumbled under his breath. "Poor, unfortunate bloke."
"Fortune has nothing to do with this," the woman corrected him. "Fortune is in Studio City at the moment, meeting with the Wizard to discuss some much needed alterations in the Basin's legal code. You, and you alone, good sir, have done my brother in."
"Well I didn't mean to," George protested. "It's not as if I was flying this house like an aeroplane, and made a conscious decision to land it on top of your sibling. I was just taking a nap, and all of a sudden, the house began to shake, and here I am now, standing in a field of giggling garden gnomes and talking to a bird who looks like she stepped out of an MGM musical from the golden era of Hollywood."
"Hollywood," sighed one of the gnomes. The other gnomes started repeating after him in a chorus of high-pitched twitters.
"Silence," commanded the woman. She waved her wand over the gnomes. Half of them collapsed onto their backs. The others froze in place, standing still like statues once more, but they continued to contort their faces into grotesque expressions. A few of the smaller gnomes started to cry.
The woman rolled her eyes. "I apologize for their behavior. The gnomes are not usually so irritating. And I apologize to you, sir, as well. I did not mean to accuse you of murder. In fact, if truth be told, I am quite delighted to be so unexpectedly freed from the burden of my brother's noxious presence. How you managed to knock him off remains a mystery to me, as it apparently does to you. But I must warn you: you are now in grave danger. My late brother's minions will soon discover that he has been bumped off, and will come looking for the person or persons responsible for his untimely death."
"Perhaps I should go back in my house and try to find my manager, Brian," George proposed. "He's very good at handling unanticipated crises. Or I could fetch my friend, Mal. He's quite a large bloke. Doubles as my roadie and my bodyguard. I'm sure he could protect me if your brother's…"
A large, winged monkey flew out of the forest, brandishing a camera with a telephoto lens. It flew to within a few feet of George and snapped his picture, blinding him with the camera's flash, then zoomed away, flapping its wings furiously as it took off towards the sky.
"What the hell was that?" George asked, rubbing his eyes and trying to blink away the spots of bright light that were now dancing in front of him.
"Perhaps I should explain a few things to you," the woman said, her voice growing softer. "My name is Fame. I rule over the northern provinces of this Basin. My twin brother's name was Infamy. He ruled over the southern parts. The Eastern and Western regions are the domains of our cousins, Fortune and Dearth. I mentioned Fortune earlier, if you remember."
George thought for a long moment. "Yeah, that's right. You said something about Fortune being in Studio City, talking to some wizard."
"Not just any wizard," Fame protested. "Fortune is speaking to the great and powerful, wonderful Wizard of the entire Los Angeles Basin!"
"Ah," George said, struggling to hide his indifference. "Well, that's nice, though I'm not generally very impressed by powerful people. The Queen's alright, I suppose. She gave me a medal last year, you know? But my bandmates and I were just in the Philippines, and their dictator Ferdinand Marcos threw a colossal fit when we turned town his invitation to a party, and we ended up having to flee the country in a frenzied riot."
"Bandmates?" called a voice from behind a nearby Jacaranda tree. A slender man dressed in a floppy straw hat and rags stepped into the edge of the field. "Did you say you were in a band?" he shouted to George.
"Not were, am!" George shouted back. "I'm actually in a pretty big band, I'll have you know. The biggest band in the world, I'd even say."
The stranger approached George. "What's your band's name?"
"The Silver…" George hesitated. "No, wait, we dropped the word 'silver' years ago. We're called the…the…Christ, I can't remember!" He rubbed his hand over the bump that was beginning to rise on the back of his head. "Bloody hell, how could I forget a thing like that?"
A second man poked his head out from behind a Ficus tree. "Short term memory loss!" he called over the lawn. Then he crossed the yard and joined George in front of the house. "Don't let it worry you too much. It happens to the best of us. You were probably just smoking a few too many funny cigarettes."
George stared at the two strangers in astonishment. The first man's hair was long and lanky. Bits of straw poked out of the seams of his patchwork clothes. A pair of wire-rimmed glasses with thick lenses rested on the bridge of his aquiline nose. The second man wore a suit of rusty, dented armor that seemed to have been shaped out of a cheap metal alloy. He was very handsome, with large brown eyes and a boyish face, but his skin shimmered with a silver sheen that matched his metalic outfit.
"I'm Scarecrow," said the first man. He held out his right hand in greeting.
George shook it warily. "I'm George," he added. "George Ha…Ha…hell, what's my last name? I can't bloody remember!"
"I'm Tinman," said the second man, snapping George out of his momentary panic. He held out his left hand, then flinched, withdrew it, and held out his right hand instead. "Sorry about that. I'm cack-handed, you see. I always favor my left side."
George nodded and shook his hand. "You look very familiar, Tinman. Actually, the both of you look very familiar."
"Funny," said Scarecrow. "I've never met anyone who looks like you, Mr. Ha-ha-hell."
"Me neither," agreed Tinman. He turned away from George and smiled seductively at Fame. "You're looking particularly enchanting today, love. That frock really becomes you. Unless my eyes are deceiving me, I'd say you are growing more and more beautiful every day."
Fame blushed and looked away from him. "You always leave me at a loss for words, Tinman," she whispered.
Scarecrow coughed loudly, hacking up several hayseeds and completely shattering Tinman's charm offensive. Fame drew in a deep breath and prepared to speak, but another flying monkey emerged from the woods. It flew in a circle around the foursome gathered in front of the house, capturing footage of their bewildered faces on a hand-held movie camera, then flapped away back into the forest.
Fame released a sad sigh. "My brother's minions appear to be gathering en masse. I really must recommend that you leave this place immediately, Mr. Ha-ha-hell. I don't think you're safe here."
"Nobody is safe – not anywhere!" called another voice from the forest's edge. A bearded face peeked through the leaves of a large Juniper bush, looked warily from side-to-side, then glanced up at the sky to make certain the monkeys had left. Then the newest stranger stepped into the lawn. He fell to his hands and knees briefly and started crawling like an animal, then stopped, licked his front paw and stood up. Throwing back his shoulders and attempting a brave face, he sauntered up to the front of the house.
George examined this last stranger carefully. He couldn't tell it was a man or a beast. The creature was covered in fur from head to toe, and sported a long, swishing tail. But its face looked human. Its eyes were blue and sad-looking. And its nose was enormous, even bigger than Scarecrow's.
Fame smiled at the beast. "Welcome, my dear, brave, cowardly Lion."
"How can this creature be brave and cowardly at the same time?" George asked.
"It's an oxymoron," answered Tinman.
"I'm not a moron!" the beast countered. "I'm a Lion!" He opened his mouth wide and let loose a loud roar of protest, then immediately covered his face with his paws and started shaking. "Sorry. I hope I didn't scare you all just then. I really didn't mean to frighten anyone."
Scarecrow lifted his nose into the air, cocked his head, and noted that the lion had peed on the grass when he roared. "I think you scared yourself more than you did us," he remarked dryly.
Fame scowled at Scarecrow, then turned to George. "You must go to the wizard to see if he can help you return to the place from whence you came, before my late brother's pack of paparazzi make your life a living hell." She stepped backwards and pointed her wand at the ground. A cluster of golden bricks magically appeared on the grass, then grew into a twisting road that snaked a serpentine path into the woods.
"Follow this road, Mr. Ha-ha-hell," she instructed George. "It will lead you to Studio City. But beware. My brother's henchmen are not the only forces you must reckon with. My cousin Dearth and his loyal thugs will try to rob you blind as you proceed. They are as relentless as they are cruel."
"They're scary too," whispered Lion.
Fame turned to the beast. "Lion, I hereby appoint you as my escort-by-proxy to our guest. And you," she added, turning towards Scarecrow and Tinman. "You two shall lead the way, using your renowned powers of wisdom and charm."
George eyed his new partners warily. "Which one of you is supposed to be wise? And which is charming?"
"I'm both," answered Scarecrow.
"Ha," laughed Tinman. "In a pig's eye."
Fame tapped her wand on George's shoulder. "And I shall bestow upon you a special gift to help you on your journey." She waved her wand over George's feet and released a stream of sparks. It quickly fizzled into a cloud of shimmering lights, then dissolved into thin air.
When the cloud disappeared, George saw that he was wearing a pair of slightly scuffed, tooled leather shoes, etched along the sides with an elaborate pattern of swirls. They fit his feet perfectly.
"Those belonged to my brother," Fame informed him. "They will make you fleet of foot, so that you might better evade his army of Fleet Street reporters.
George threw another glance at the lifeless legs jutting out from beneath his house. They had been stripped of their shoes and were now clad only in a pair of worn socks with holes at the toes. He looked back at Fame.
"Thanks," he said.
"They look good on you," she pointed out.
"I could use some new shoes too," said Scarecrow. "I'd gladly take Mr. Ha-ha-hell's trainers."
Fame aimed her wand at Scarecrow's feet and released another stream of sparks. His ripped, black jackboots disappeared and were instantly replaced by a pair of bright white tennis shoes. He jumped for joy, then started running down the path of yellow bricks. Tinman took off after him at a clip, followed by Lion and George at a noticeably slower pace.
"Off you go then," she called after the men. "And mind my words. Be careful!"
"I always am!" shouted Lion over his shoulder.
"I sometimes am!" exclaimed Tinman.
"I never am!" screamed Scarecrow.
"Bloody hell," mumbled George. "What have I gotten myself into?"
Tinman and Scarecrow locked arms with each other and exchanged knowing looks.
"You know what this means?" asked Tinman with a smile.
"I do," Scarecrow answered with a cackling laugh. "We're hitting the road again!"
"We're a band on the run!" Tinman laughed.
Scarecrow looked over his shoulder at George. "Hurry now, Mr. Ha-ha-hell. You've got to keep on keeping on."
"Why don't we do it in the road!?" Tinman exclaimed with a joyful whoop.
George wriggled his stubbed toe inside his new shoes, then took off sprinting.
"This looks like a good place to rest," Lion said, eyeing a large field covered in orange flowers.
"We can't rest now," insisted Tinman. "Look, just beyond this meadow. That's Studio City!"
"But I'm tired," Lion whined. "Running from that herd of Taxmen took the wind out of me. I never knew Dearth had so many minions."
"There must have been nineteen of them for every one of us," George agreed.
Scarecrow bent down and plucked one of the blossoms growing on the edge of the field. "These look like poppies."
"I think you're right," George replied. "But I've never seen so many of them in one place before. This meadow is practically bursting with flowers."
"It was an El Niño winter," Lion explained. "Hence the Super Bloom in the spring."
"They make opium from poppies, don't they?" Scarecrow asked, scratching his ear.
Tinman frowned at him. "Don't be getting any ideas in that empty head of yours."
"Who are you calling 'empty-headed'?" Scarecrow lashed back. "I might be a junkie, but you're nothing but a pot-head!"
"Why I oughta…" Tinman replied. He made a fist with his left hand and started swinging at Scarecrow.
Scarecrow crouched down and dodged the blow. Tinman lost his balance and fell into a pile of mud at the edge of the meadow. Scarecrow grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it at Tinman, then flicked the poppy he had just plucked on top of his adversary's tin breastplate for good measure. Tinman sat up with an angry scowl and clenched his hands into fists. But then an expression of wonder crossed his face. He held out his index finger and signaled for Scarecrow to stop fighting.
"Hold on, a lyric just came to me," Tinman said. "What do you think of this rhyme:
'She sprinkles flowers in the dirt; that's when a thrill becomes a hurt'?"
Scarecrow contorted his face while he considered the line, then shrugged. "Not bad, but where are you going with that train of thought?"
"I don't know," Tinman said. "I'm picking up a sad vibe from the lines. Maybe it's a song about death."
"Too depressing," Scarecrow replied. "Make it a song about your regret, or maybe even your shame, that you didn't keep a promise, and now it's too late to…to…"
"Too late to do what?" Tinman asked.
"Hell, I don't know," Scarecrow cursed. "Damn. Where is my guitar when I need it?"
Lion shrugged, put his arm around George's shoulder and led him away from the meadow's edge. "It's best we leave them alone just now. Once the two of them start writing songs, they get lost in their own little world and there's no joining in."
George smirked. "Sounds like the blokes in my band. The two lead singers, I mean. I can never get a word in edgewise around them."
"Scarecrow and Tinman used to be genius songwriters, you know," Lion added. "Had a huge string of hits, they did. Billed themselves as The Nerk Twins. They looked a lot different then, of course. More like regular blokes. I played drums for them sometimes, when their usual drummer didn't show up for a gig."
George noted Scarecrow's raggedy clothes and Tinman's rusty armor. "What happened to them?"
"Fame and Fortune," Lion replied. "Or should I say, their brothers, Infamy and Dearth. Scarecrow had a hard time balancing the attentions of Fame with the scandals that Infamy's troop of reporters kept dredging up, so he turned to drugs for support. He fried his brain. Kept passing out in the cornfield outside his dealer's house. Infamy's top muckraker found him there one morning and snapped his picture with an enchanted camera, and he's been donning that funky straw-studded look ever since.
"Now Tinman, on the other hand," Lion continued. "He was the heart-throb of the band. Cute as a button, he was. All the ladies loved him, and all the blokes envied him. Everyone said he was the luckiest man alive. But he was too busy collecting conquests to ever actually fall in love. He grew heartless. Then one night, he donned a knight-in-shining-armor costume for a fancy dress party to impress some chick, and it turned out the bird was one of Dearth's minions. She was wearing poisoned lipstick, and when Tinman stole a kiss, well…let's just say he's been looking like the front-man for metal band ever since."
George nodded thoughtfully. "Shame. Seems like those two paid an awfully heavy price for their mistakes."
Lion shrugged. "That's life in the L.A. Basin. You're up one day, then down the next. And you're only ever as popular as your last hit record."
"So what happened to you?" George asked.
Lion furrowed his brow and glowered at George. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know," George said hesitantly. "The fur. The mane. The tail."
"You've got a problem with my tail?" Lion replied. He raised his front paws and bared his claws.
George backed off. "No, no, it's a lovely tail. I just…I mean…Have you always…?"
"I was born this way," Lion admitted. "Mum told me I was her 'special boy'."
"Ah," George said, nodding his head. "Indeed. I'm sure you were."
"I just wish I were braver," Lion added. "You know? Someday I'd like to really scare the hell out of someone, instead of always being the little one that people pick on."
"Perhaps this wizard could help you with your confidence?" George suggested.
"Wizard? Did someone say 'Wizard'?" said a posh voice with a clipped British accent.
George turned towards the voice and saw a man walking toward him. He had a round nose, high forehead and full lips, and wore a crisp white shirt and silk tie beneath a beautifully tailored suit jacket.
Lion smiled at the man. "Well, speak of the devil. It's you, Wiz!"
A fashionably dressed and balding younger man ran up from the middle of the field to join the first man. He wore platform shoes and enormous glasses studded with rhinestones.
"It's me indeed," agreed the wizard. "And I want you to meet someone who's very special to me. Lion, this is Reggie. Reggie, Lion."
The young man extended his hand in greeting, then withdrew it when he noticed Lion's claws were still extended.
Lion laughed and retracted his talons back into his paws. "Sorry about that. Don't worry, I'm just a pussycat."
Reggie coughed to mask his fear. "But you frightened me," he confessed.
Lion smiled broadly and stood up a little taller. "Well, that's nice to know. Now, let me introduce you to my new friend, Mr. George Ha-ha-hell. He wants to get back to his bandmates in a rented house somewhere, but he doesn't know how. He was hoping you might be able to help him, Wiz."
"I'd be delighted to," the wizard replied. He wrapped his right arm around Reggie's shoulder and kissed his cheek. "But first things first. Fortune saw you lot standing out here in this field while she was divining with her crystal ball, so I came out to greet you, and personally invite you all to my wedding. I was rather that hoping Tinman and Scarecrow might be willing to sing one of their lovely little love songs for my beloved."
Tinman and Scarecrow approached the wizard.
"Sure, we'd be happy to. I'm always up for a gig," said Tinman.
"Right, me too," Scarecrow agreed. "To whom will you be plighting your troth?"
The Wizard turned towards Reggie and kissed him full on the lips. "Him," he announced proudly.
Lion gasped. "But how…?"
"Can you really…?" Tinman stammered.
"Is it legal?" Scarecrow challenged.
"It is now!" the wizard shouted. "I decided that since I'm in charge of this whole L.A. Basin, I might as well draft a new set of rules that is fair to everyone. Oh look, the Decorations Committee has outdone themselves!"
George looked up to where the wizard was pointing, and saw an enormous double rainbow stretched across the city skyline on the far edge of the poppy field.
"That's amazing," said Lion.
"I love it," agreed Tinman.
"Looks trippy as all get-out," Scarecrow chimed in. "But instead of watching rainbows, I'm gonna make me some. Tell me, Mr. Wizard, has your Refreshments Committee started setting up for the party yet?"
The wizard raised one eyebrow, then laughed. "You're welcome to indulge in their offerings, Scarecrow, after you sing a lovely ballad or two for Reggie and me."
"And have you invited all of the fair maidens of the Basin to the reception?" asked Tinman.
"All are welcome," the wizard laughed.
"Let's go!" shouted Scarecrow and Tinman together. They locked arms once more and started running through the poppy field to the city beyond.
"I'll make sure the guards let them in," offered Reggie. He turned away from his fiancé, left the path of golden bricks behind him, and sang, "I've finally decided my future lies, beyond the yellow brick road!"
"Are you coming too?" asked the wizard. He placed his hand on George's left shoulder.
"I'm not sure," George answered. "I'm a stranger here. I really just want to go home."
"But the wizard said all are welcome here," Lion reminded him.
"Yes," said the wizard. He started tugging at George's shoulder. "Come on, lad. It's time."
George opened his eyes and saw his manager Brian Epstein looking down at him with a worried expression. Brian's hand held George's left shoulder in a tight grip. He was shaking him fiercely.
"Come on, lad, it's time to wake up," Brian stated in a rough, firm voice.
George lifted his right hand to his left shoulder and pushed Brian away. "What are you doing here?"
Brian furrowed his brow. "What do you mean, what am I doing here? I'm staying here with you lads. Now get up and change your clothes. We have to leave for Dodger Stadium within the hour if we want to beat the traffic."
"But, you were…I was…" George stammered.
John, Paul and Ringo slipped into the room and surrounded George's bed.
"Hey, it's about time you woke up, sleepyhead!" Ringo laughed.
"You slept right through the earthquake!" Paul exclaimed. "You should have felt it! The entire house was shaking!"
"The house lifted off the ground," George agreed. "And then it landed on that poor bloke with the black wool trousers and crushed him dead on the spot."
John frowned, though his eyes were sparkling with laughter. "Ritchie, quick, go check the pool deck. See if our gardener has come to a bad end."
"You were dreaming," Brian stated gently. "But now it's time to…"
"But it wasn't a dream!" George insisted. He sat up straight and knocked his head against the headboard once more. He winced, then pointed to Brian and his bandmates. "You were there, Brian. And you were too, John. You had granny glasses! And Paul, you were wearing a rusty suit of armor. And Ritchie, hell, Ritchie, you had a tail!"
John looked away from the bed, opened the drawer of George's nightstand and started rummaging through its contents. "Whatever did you take before you drifted off to slumberland, my dear Mr. Harrisong? I think I might need to pop one of those pills myself after the concert and enjoy a little tail-wagging trip of my own."
Paul clucked his tongue and slapped John's back. "Best not pop any until after our post-concert party, Johnny. Mal's rounded up a lovely bunch of California girls for us to shag."
Brian cast an admonishing look at John and Paul, then turned back towards George once more. "C'mon, Sleepy Beauty," he teased. "Enough of this gobbledygook. You need to put on your suit for the show. Let's leave him alone now, lads. Give your guitarist a bit of privacy while he changes his clothes."
John and Paul followed Brian out of the room. Ringo walked to the doorway, then turned, leaned against the doorframe and threw George a curious look.
"A tail, you said?" he asked.
"A tail," George replied. "And talons too. You were right fierce."
Ringo hunched his shoulders, held out his hands, curled his fingers into claws, and opened his mouth as if he would roar, then softly whispered, "Meow."
Ringo's eyes fell upon George's feet. "I love your new old brown shoes. Where'd you get 'em? You were wearing trainers the last time I saw you."
Inspired by the novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," by Frank Baum (1900), and the MGM film "The Wizard of Oz," directed by Victor Fleming (1939).