CHAPTER 13: TWO REUNIONS 

<<Read the Second Intermission

“You want to buy a bottle of grog?” the ancient monster asked. He looked down from the bar with a quizzical grimace, his lion-like mane showering his face. “I’m not sure I can sell a bottle to you,” he said.

      Nugget bit his lip. “It’s not for me,” he said, “it’s for a friend.”

      “You havefriends here?” the old monster asked.

      Nugget crawled up onto the rickety stool, nearly knocking it over as he squared hit butt over the seat. He leaned over and raised an eyebrow. He jerked his head over, as if to say “come here, I got a secret to tell you.” Instinctively, the monster came closer. Nugget spoke in low tones, narrowing his eyes and slowing his pace. “Look,” he said, “if I told you I was in disguise right now would that be difficult for you to believe?”

     The bleary-eyed monster squinted and Nugget, studying him close. “Noo . . . ,” he said at last. “We get all kinds here.”

     “I bet you do,” Nugget said, “I bet you do. So it wouldn’t surprise you to know that there’s been some shady dealings going on in the neighborhood . . . ? Some monsters doing the sorts of things that other monsters would rather not know about . . . you know?” Nugget said, lowering his voice further. “I don’t have to make it any clearer than that, do I?”

      The barmonster nodded slowly, his feline mouth hanging open a little. Nugget imagined that this old beast had thrown back a few bottles of grog himself, this evening. But whatever the cause, the monster seemed to believe everything Nugget said.

     “Monsters may be all-powerful and all, but we have to . . . well, we have to look out for . . . for certain things, right?”

      “Boy, do I,” the monster said. A tiny bell tinkled above the door, and a short, slug-like beast trundled up to the other end of the bar. It gestured with is gelatinous paw. The barmonster nodded, and produced a bottle of grog. He severed the top inch from the stem using his talon, and then sent it sliding down to the other end. The slug-thing caught it in its paw with a squish, nodded his thanks, grunted something inaudible, and took to nursing his the bottle. This time, the barmonster jerked his head, indicating that he and Nugget should move further away to the other end. “And there have been some shady things going on . . . I heard there were kids here,” he confided to the kid, “like . . . like human kids . . . you know what I mean?”

     Nugget gulped back a wad of saliva, feeling little trickles of sweat on the back of his neck. He knew coming into the bar would be a risk, but he didn’t know where he might overhear potential details about the whereabouts of Abbey and Wendell—and he knew that if he could get his hands on a bottle of grog, he might be able to lure any beasts that might accost him into a deep sleep. But to do that, he needed to take his chances with beasts and hope they were more like Mrs. Prune-Applebutter than like Clementine. So far, this old monster seemed decent—but now, with his reference to children, Nugget wondered if he was caught. He gripped the bar rail and poised himself to fly off the stool in case of danger.

     “I do,” he gulped.

     “You ever seen a kid?” the old beast asked.

     Nugget looked up into the beast’s eyes, looking for clues. Was he toying with Nugget? He couldn’t be sure, but in the amber-colored cat’s eyes, Nugget swore he read actual curiosity over danger. The beast looked unknowing, not sly—so Nugget leaned in close and took a gamble.

     “Where you think I got this outfit?” he asked.

     “You mean . . . ?” the monster trailed away, without finishing his question.

     “I mean . . . this get up? Used to be a little boy.”

     The monster’s eyes grew wider and his mouth opened further. “Noooo waaaaay,” he drawled. “So that’s what they look like?”

      “Yeah,” Nugget whispered. “Just like this.”

      “Crikey,” the barmonster said. “Betcha can’t wait to get that outfit off—you look terrible.

      “Yeah,” Nugget said. “I can’t wait . . . so: howsabout that bottle of grog?”

      The monster turned to his well of bottles, but stopped suddenly, and turned back—worry written on his face. “What’s gonna happen . . . to us. Ya know. If there are kids here?”

      “It’s not good,” Nugget confessed. “You know how those humans are. If there are kids here, it means that their parents aren’t far behind—and if that happens, it’s not long before they’re hooking us up to wires and draining us of our energy so they can power their electronics.”

      The monster stood silent for a long moment.

      “And . . . and grog is gonna help you catch them??”

      “Yup,” Nugget said. “Makes ‘em sleepy. Get ‘em drowsy like that, we can erase their memories, and send ‘em back where they belong.”

      The monster nodded as if this were common knowledge, and catching kids in his universe were a common pursuit. Without a word he turned and produced a six-pack of bottles of grog and plunked them on the counter.

      “Then you’ll need all this,” he said.

      Nugget smiled and clicked his tongue. “I’m a little short on funds,” he said. He reached into his pocket, careful not to produce the skeleton key, and pulled out the few coins he’d stolen from Clementine’s desk. “This’s all I got until . . uh. Ya know.”

      “It’s on the house,” the barmonster said. “I don’t wanna become no kinda powerplant for humans. If this’s gonna help you get those kids outta here, then it’s the least I can do.”

     “That’s generous,” Nugget said, planting the coin on the bar. “Take this as a tip.”

     “A tip?” the beast said. “What’s that?”

      “Um . . . it’s . . . it’s a human thing. When they go to a bar or dinner, or something, they give whoever waited on them a, ya know, a little bit extra—for their service.”

      The beast looked down at the coin in wonderment. “A tip,” he repeated slowly. “Wow. Thanks! I guess not everything humans do is terrible,” the monster said.

      “No,” Nugget said. “Not everything.” With that, he took hold of the clanking amber bottles of grog, and hopped down from the stool. “You have a good night,” he told the old beast.

     “You too,” returned the monster.

     Nugget bounded for the door, then stopped and turned back to the old beast, who’d slinked to the side of the bar to share what he’d learned with the slug-looking thing.

      “Uh, hey,” Nugget called at them. “You . . . you haven’t heard anythin’ about where these kids are running around here have you?”

      The barmonster’s face went white and he grabbed the bar. “You think they’re here? You mean . . . like nearby?

      “I dunno,” Nugget said, “I just wondered if you’d heard rumors.”

      “I haven’t,” the beast said. “And I’m glad!”

      “OK, well . . .” Nugget was about to thank the old beast and walk away, when the slug like creature stopped him.

     “I’ve heard somethin’ about kids,” it said. “From a friend’a mine. Old loon’s been out sayin’ he caught two of’em down by the old Fingerson mansion.”

     “Really?” Nugget said.

     “Yeah,” the slug thing said. “Though I wouldn’t believe a word the guy says—if you can understand a word the guy says. Old Tomatillo is a little soft in the old noggin, ya know? Says he’s made some deal with Clementine—you’ve heard’a Clementine, right?—says he made some kinda deal with’im about keeping the kids locked up over at Clementine’s, and Clem says if’e does it, he’s gonna get some kinda reward.”

       Nugget stepped forward and looked at the slug. “And he says’e locked ‘em up at Clementine’s place?”

      “That’s what’e says, dude,” the slug said.

     Nugget tried to hold back his excitement. “Interesting,” he said. “I’ll hafta check this Tomatillo fellow out.”

     “Good luck, brother,” the slug said. Then he turned back to the bar and asked for another grog. As the old beast went to work opening the bottle, Nugget left the bar. He stood out on the street, his heart racing in his chest, and looked up and down. Then, grog tucked under his arm, he bolted back toward Clementine’s.

     Back inside the slug-thing looked over at the barmonster. “Think that kid’s got a chance getting’ outta here?” he asked.

      “I dunno,” the barmonster said, wiping down his counter. “But I kinda hope for all our sake’s he does.”

     The slug-monster nodded slowly, and enjoyed his grog as the barmonster tidied his station.

                                                                           * * *

The monk stood by Clementine’s side, and he could feel the irate energy sizzling inside the monster’s body. The beast looked at the pile of junk outside his house and the open window above. Clementine didn’t have to say anything for the old man to know it meant that Nugget had escaped.

     “I’ll hand it to him,” Clementine grunted, “he’s full of surprises.” Then he barked at the monk to follow, and the old man did—quite literally. For though the monk was spry and hale, he could not keep up with Clementine’s angry strides. As they stalked down the road, the monk tried to take in his surroundings—and as they passed it, he instantly recognized the old bank. The site of the familiar old building relieved him somewhat, as familiarity can do; but without knowing what to make of that detail, if anything could be made from that detail, he didn’t celebrate. He didn’t even have time to consider its implications. He had time only to follow along until Clementine stopped in front of a small row house at the end of the main road.

     Clementine paused outside, as though going to knock—but with a sudden and swift kick of his hoof, he knocked in the door and stalked inside. The monk, stunned, stood still for a moment, and then approached to find Clementine staring at another monster, a very different one who resembled a worm and a cat. She sat knitting by the fire.

     “Good evening, Mrs. Prune-Applebutter,” Clementine growled.

      She looked up at him with acid in her eyes.

     “Clementine,” she said. “Don’t ye know about knockin’? Are ye gonna be fixin’ my door, now you’ve knocked it down?”

     “I’ll do more than knock it down, you foolish old beast,” Clementine said. He stepped further into the room, closer to Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. The monk marveled at her lack of fear, even with Clementine towering above her, his head hunched below the ceiling, his threatening, angry gaze fixed on her. “Where is he?”

     “I don’t know what yet talkin’ about, you crank,” she said, returning to her knitting. “Now fix my door and get out.”

      Clementine stood for a moment watching her. The monk saw the anger gather in the beast’s hooves—a quivering, shaking anger that quickly rose through his body and erupted from the beast in a monstrous bellow that shook the very walls of the old monster lady’s modest cottage. The hot air from Clementine’s lungs caused the small fire to gutter and shoot up the chimney, and the windows rattled in their casings.

     But the old woman didn’t respond.

     “Ye know, Clementine, that even for a monster, ye’ve got terrible breath.”

     The monk wanted to ask who this woman was, this monster who feared Clementine so little. He thought perhaps a relative—but aside from them both being monsters, the monk could detect no similarities between them. Who was this beast that clearly cared nothing about Clementine’s actions or his anger? The question nearly formed itself in his mouth, when he realized that even if the old monster wasn’t afraid of Clementine, he, the old monk, was. He shut his mouth and watched in awe as Clementine stood raging but silent.

      Mrs. Prune-Applebutter looked up at Clementine again. “Can I assume then that ye lost yer little friend, then?”

     “He escaped,” Clementine said.

     “Ahhh,” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter crooned. She returned to her knitting. “That’s too bad. But ye’ve never been good at holdin’ onto things, have ye—I’m constantly havin to find things for ye. An’ now ye’ve lost a little boy. But it looks like ye’ve found another human to play with, so why not forget about the little one?”

      Clementine sat down at the bench of her table. The monk heard a slight cracking sound as the boards sank beneath the beast.

     “You had nothing to do with his escape?”

     “Ye know I’ve got no love fer humans. They’re worse than ye.”

     “You seemed to like Nugget.”

     “Oh?” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said. “An’ what make ye say that?”

     “You fed him.”

     “Ye asked me to.”

     “You fed him well.”

     “I do everythin’ well.”

     Suddenly Clementine brought his fist down on the table, sending a thunderous tremor throughout the room. “Don’t faff around with me, you old beast! If you helped him and you know where he is, it’s going to be better for all of us if you tell me now.”

     “Clementine,” she said, “it’s my sad lot in life to clean up after ye, an’ put up with yer tempers, an’ sweep up after yer grog-fueled blackouts. That’s the deal we made all them years ago, but it ain’t my job to watch yer food for ye, an’ it ain’t my job to run around helpin’ human boys traipse around this sorry land. Now is there anything else ye need, or can ye leave me in peace?”

     Clementine looked at her, but—without any proof that she’d seen or helped Nugget, he seemed to lack any reason for recourse against her. The monk watched the beast’s wheels spin, he watched Clementine try to come up with a retort for Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. He listened to the click-click-click of the old monster’s knitting.

      And finally Clementine stood.

      “I’ll send old Cantaloupe over to fix your door tonight,” he said.

      “That old thing?” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said, looking up at him. “That poor old fart can barely lift a door handle, let alone a door. I’ll fix it, as I always do—just begone with ye, ye terrible old idiot.”

      And without a word Clementine moped toward the door. As he got to the doorframe, he turned and looked at Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. “I’m warning you, if you know anything about where that little kid is, then—” But suddenly he stopped.

      The sudden pause surprised Mrs. Prune-Applebutter, and she ceased her knitting and looked up at him. Clementine stood frozen, staring over at a table in the corner behind her. She followed his gaze, over to the table and when her eyes fell on it, her entire being seized.

      “Been doing a little reading?” Clementine asked.

      “That?” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said, “that’s just an old diary a’ mine from before, that’s just a—that’s nothing, that’s not—”

     But before she could finish, Clementine advanced toward the table. Mrs. Prune-Applebutter bolted from the chair and stood in his way, attempting to prevent him reaching the table and the book that sat atop, but Clementine gripped her by the shoulders and tossed her off to the side. When his hands touched her arms, the monk heard a distinct, electrical buzzing—and he felt a sort of electrical jolt as she hit the floor by the fire. The air smelled like lightning in a thunderstorm.

     Clementine reached the table and picked up the book, opening it at random.

     “This looks awfully familiar,” Clementine said. “I have one just like this in the room I locked Nugget in.” He held up the scrapbook of his career that Nugget had smothered away from the house and into Mrs. Prune-Applebutter’s rooms.

     “I stole that,” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said, trying to get to her feet. “I took it from ye to get ye back for bein’ such a beast to me last week about floors. I took it to—”

      “GRRAAAAAAHHH!” Clementine said, picking the table up on which the book had been laid. He hurled it at her—missing her by a fraction, and sending the the table into the fire. “YOU’RE LYING TO ME! YOU HELPED THE BOY ESCAPE!”

      Mrs. Prune-Applebutter couldn’t answer. All she could do is watch as Clementine erupted in a fit of rage—slamming about her cottage, throwing everything he could, kicking, screaming and hurling things.

     The monk raced to the door, and out to the street—and stood stock still as he watched Clementine begin to glow in the darkness, and to grow in size. As before, the monk watched as quivering anger gathered at the base of Clementine’s hooves, and rose through his body. As it reached the tip of his horns, an enormous explosion erupted around them. The monk cowered to the sidewalk, covering his head with his hands as shrapnel rained down on them. The sound of wood and metal and glass falling engulfed him, and several times he felt something heavy and sharp hit him in the back. Only once the sound ceased did he look up to discover the old monster lady’s house in rubble. Dust settled around Clementine and the prone shape of the old monster.

     “Fix that as you always do,” Clementine said, stepping over the broken everything out into the street. “And think twice about meddling in my affairs again.” He hoisted his book in one hand and reached down to pull the monk up by his robe with the other. He jolted the old man in the air so quickly, the monk’s sandals remained on the ground—and though he tried to protest, Clementine couldn’t have cared less. Down the street he wandered, looking for signs of Nugget.

     Mrs. Prune-Applebutter, covered in dust and rubble, said not a word as she surveyed the remains of her humble little home.

                                                                               * * *

Standing outside Clementine’s house, Nugget felt a shiver up his spine. He almost raced in the other direction.

     He stood staring at the door for long moments, before he built the courage to approach the window. He peered in through the bubbly glass. There, in the chair in which he’d found Clementine upon his arrival, sat a dragon-like beast staring at the well-like hole that led to the dungeon. Nugget knew immediately he’d found the kids, but realized too that he’d almost rather face Clementine—who looked at least slightly human—to this lizard-like beast with the crazy eyes and the scaly skin and the lolling tongue.

     Nugget knew he had one try. If he beast didn’t want the grog, if that didn’t interest him enough and if he didn’t fall asleep, Nugget would have no way of fighting it and getting to Wendell and Abbey. And, though he’d had a spate of good luck with the monsters at the bar, that made him feel worse now. After all, how much luck could he possibly win in one day?

     Nugget stood, mulling all this over as he peered into the window—and then suddenly found himself seized with fear, realizing that if he could see the monster inside, the monster could see him. Nugget backed away and returned to the safety and invisibility of the door. He’d draped Mrs. Prune-Abblebutter’s blanket around his neck, and it started to make him sweat. He pulled it off as he stood considering all the things that could possibly go wrong—all the ways this beast, who had no stock in eating his hope or his fear, could rip him to shreds with his razor-like fingers. And the more he thought about everything that could go wrong, the more he thought about high-tailing it back to Mrs. Prune-Applebutter’s house.

     Then he looked down at the blanket in his hand. The old monster called it a herenow, and said if he put it on, it would make him stay in the present moment—he wouldn’t worry about the future. And, given that all he could think about was the future, staying in the present moment would go a long way. He had once chance, and he had to make it work. There were no other options, and delaying it was just delaying it. So Nugget unfurled the moon-colored blanked and slung it over his shoulders like a cape. Instantly all thought ceased. Nugget forget about all the scenarios of impending doom, he forgot, even, that he’d been anywhere else that day and he’d had a lot of good luck. All Nugget thought about was standing outside the door.

He took a step forward and reached for the door. And then he opened and stood face-to-face with the lizard like beast.

     A shot of terror bolted through his stomach as the beast’s eyes met his, and even more terror bolted through him as the it lurched up from its chair. But Nugget stood his ground. He took the bottles of grog from under his arm and he placed them on the floor in front of the beast—and though it looked intent on ripping Nugget’s guts out through his nostrils one minute, the second its eyes fell on the grog, it froze in its tracks.

     The beast studied the bottles, stepping around it somewhat, the way a dog might when exploring something new. It kicked the cardboard case slightly, and backed away quickly at the clanking of the bottles.

     Then the beast looked at Nugget, who pulled the herenow blanket tighter around him.

     Nugget nodded at the bottles.

     The beast furrowed its brow and studied Nugget, obviously confused by this strange offering and unusual turn of events. And then, it bolted—Nugget dodged toward the door, but the beast didn’t lunge at Nugget, it lunged instead at the big six pack of bottles. In took three up in its hands, severed the tops, and threw its head back as it dumped the yellow liquid into its mouth.

      Finished within moments, it tossed the bottles at the fireplace. Shards of glass sprayed the room. The lizard-beast looked down at Nugget and grunted, advancing at him. Nugget gestured toward the remaining three bottles, and the beast looked down. It grunted again—somewhat delighted—and picked up them up, severed the tops, and dumped the liquid back into its mouth. As Nugget watched, he feared that this might not be enough. He hadn’t thought about how much Clementine might have had before he dozed off Nugget’s first night there, and this lizard-beast looked a bigger and stupider than Clementine. There might not be enough grog in six bottles to knock him about. And, indeed, Nugget’s fears seemed founded when the big green monster tossed the bottles at the fireplace, sending glass everywhere. It looked at Nugget again, seeming to want more.

     Nugget could do nothing but shrug.

     The beast narrowed its eyes, confused—and then it’s face melted from confusion into anger, and it advanced at Nugget. It snarled and growled and once within striking distance, it wound up to make a strike at Nugget. Nugget, unable to move from the corner he’d gotten stuck in as he backed away, closed his eyes and waited for impact—but after a moment, nothing came.

      Nugget opened his eyes. He looked up.

      Standing there before him, drool already slathering from the side of it’s disgusting mouth, the beast stood frozen in sleep—eyes closed, gentle snoring sawing from its nostrils, stuck in mid-swing.

      Nugget raised an eyebrow in surprise.

      He waited a moment to be sure this wasn’t a trick—and, indeed, a moment later the monster began tipping toward him. Nugget bolted out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed by the beast, who now lay across the dining table with his slobbery mouth pressed up against the window.

      “Wow,” Nugget said, considering this new lucky break, “that almost never happens.”

      A moment later, he advanced at the well and tried the skeleton key in the lock. Despite the rustiness of the old iron chains, Nugget got the lock off and began the difficult process of pushing back the huge stone cap that covered the well. It took nearly everything in his might to budge it even an inch—and after a minute or two, having zapped what felt like his entire life’s worth of strength he grunted and pulled back.

      He looked at the stone and then back at the monster.

      He was about to give the stone cap another push, when an enormous explosion rattled the windows. Nugget turned and looked but saw nothing. He raced over to the free window—the one without a slobbering lizard-beast snoring in it—and peered up and down the road. But he could see nothing other than ochre blackness.

      He looked back at the well. He sighed, knowing that it’s weight would be too much of a match for him—feeling defeated after so much good luck. But he tightened the herenow around his shoulders again and ran at the well as fast as he could, and with the momentum he’d gathered he pushed at the stone and managed to move it about three or four inches. The amount astonished him. It also let enough light in to the well below that it caught the attention of the kids inside.

     “Hey,” Nugget whispered down into the hole. “Is that you guys?”

     “Nugget?” came a familiar voice. “Is that you?”

      “Of course it is,” came a reprimand from another familiar voice. “How many kids you think are out here in this stupid place looking for us.”

      “Abbey, just because you’re in love with me doesn’t mean to have to be so sweet to me all the time. You can just be normal with me, ya know?”

     “Seriously,” Abbey hissed—the S’s in the word skittering up the sides of the well like a pinball.

      Nugget laughed against—somehow their familiar bickering cheered him.

     “I’ll have you out in a minute!” And without another word he dashed back to the window and ran to the well, managing to move the stone a few more inches. And so he went, until the space was wide enough for Abbey and Wendell to crawl from.

      Back in the light, the three kids stood in Clementine’s kitchen, delighted to be reunited, but weary and ready to be home.

      After a moment staring at the drunk beast pressed against the window, Wendell ventured the next logical question: “What now?”

      “Home,” Nugget said.

      “Yes,” Abbey said. “But we have to figure out how to get there.”

      “Well, however that is we shouldn’t do it here,” Nugget said, jerking his head in the direction of the sleeping lizard. “I dunno how long Princess Morning Dew, over there, is gonna stay under, and I’m pretty sure I don’t wanna find out.”

     “Right,” Wendell said. “But where to?”

     Nugget scrunched up his face, considering the options—they were few indeed. At first he considered the bar, the two beasts there had been decent. But then he’d indicated he was spy out to reign in some terrifying humans, and bringing those humans back there might not be the wisest idea. “Wait,” he said suddenly, “Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. We’ll go there! She’ll let us stay until we can figure out the best way outta here.”

     “Who’s that?” Abbey asked.

      “I’m not really sure,” Nugget said. “She sorta works here for my monster—but she’s not terrible . . . she saved me. And she made me this thing.”

       “What’s that?” Abbey asked.

      “It’s a . . . well it’s this thing, that—it doesn’t sound all that impressive when I explain it, but I promise you it’s cool . . . just come with me, and I’ll tell you on the way.”

      And with that, Nugget made for the door.

      Abbey glanced at Wendell, a little suspicious about this monster who might work for Nugget’s monster and who made this thing that was impressive but didn’t sound like it, and, to top it off, was a monster herself—but Wendell, with no better ideas and liking Nugget’s sudden surety, shrugged and followed. Abbey lingered behind a little, not as willing to trust any monster—but when the one pressed up against the window emitted a huge and terrible snore, Abbey bolted from the room and out the door to Nugget’s side.

      And off the headed to the safety of a house that no longer existed, while Clementine were on the prowl for Nugget. 

Read Chapter 14>>

 
 
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SECOND INTERMISSION: A MONK AND A MONSTER

<<Read Chapter 12

Eyes burnt red with fatigue, the monk hunched over his books and manuscripts searching for an answer. The muscles in his back constricted and seized as though pinched by a powerful vice. Anxiety coursed through his body. Four days he sat that way, crooked and tense, flipping through texts that held all the wisdom of the ancient and modern world—all the wisdom, it seemed, except how to save the kids. So concerned was he for Nugget’s safety that two days passed before he realized Abbey had disappeared—but even once he knew she’d gone, all he could do was double down on his research. But with each passing hour, with each book tossed off to the piles surrounding him, he grew more hopeless. 

     On the fourth day, he finally looked up. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. Pain screamed though the muscles in his back and shoulders. He stretched his limbs, arching backward over the chair back, attempting work out the kinks. He stayed still that way for long moment, then: “GRRRAAAAAHHH!” he shouted. 

    He shot up from his chair and swatted a stack of books off the table, sending them hurling to the ground. He kicked the pile. Then he turned back to the table and swung his arm, sending the rest of the books to the ground. He kicked a bookcase—then he shoved it hard, toppling it and sending its valuable contents cascading to the floor.

     He stood, looking at the mess—and then he collapsed in tears, joining the books on the carpet. His body convulsed with each sob. His whole being heaved as he gasped in air. Tears rained into his hands and snot flowed from his nose. 

     That’s when he first heard the noise.

     Initially he blubbered so loudly he wasn’t sure he heard it at all. He thought the air conditioner had turned on. But after a moment or two more the sound grew louder and the monk looked up from his hands. 

     His sobbing ceased. He listened. 

     A distant whooshing, rushing of air surrounded him. He thought a plane was flying low above the library—but that would have passed in a minute or two, and this didn’t pass. This grew louder still. And, listening closer, he realized that if the noise resembled any mode of transportation, it sounded more like a train. Under the whooshing he heard a low rumbling underscore—not unlike the angry rumble of wheels on tracks.

     The monk’s hands leapt to his ears, but that couldn’t possibly dull the volume. It grew louder and louder and crescnedoed as a huge explosion burst from the little stage. All around him the library crumbled into dim blackness.

      Rising from the rubble, the monk saw a terrible shape—and for the first time, the he laid eyes on Clementine. A slow, raspy grasp emitted from his throat and he gaped up in astonishment, his jaw hanging open and his eyes glassy and large. 

     “Well, well, well,” Clementine said. “Look who we have here.”

     The monk sat, motionless—unable to speak, unable to think.

     “You know who I am?” Clementine asked.

     “I-I-I think I do,” the monk stammered. “Y-y-your N-nugget’s monster. Aren’t you?”

     “Yeah,” Clementine said. “But you can think of me as your monster, too, if you want to, cuz what I’m gonna say to you is gonna terrify you.”

     The monk scrambled backwards on his hands and feet until he backed into a bookcase. 

     “Are you here to kill me?” the monk asked.

     “You wish I were here to kill you,” Clementine said.

     “You can if you want,” the monk said. “You can kill me if you want, just . . . just bring the kids back first. Bring the kids back safe and you can do whatever you want with me.”

     Clementine stepped out of the pit from which he’d erupted. He did so delicately, lifting his goat-like hoof over a pile shrapnel and setting it gently on the ground. “This is quite a collection you have here,” he said, setting the other hoof on the ground. “I don’t read much, but not because I have a problem with reading . . . I get these terrible headaches, you see.” He wandered over to one of the many book-laden tables in the monk’s room. He swept all the tomes off and sat atop. “Since that little dimwit you’re so fond of blinded me in one eye, I can’t read for long periods of time without my head going all wonky. I could always have someone read to me, but I don’t have anyone . . .”

     “Is—is that what you want from me?” the monk said, getting to his feet, and backing away further. “You want me to read to you? That’s what will make you bring the kids back?”

     Clementine snorted. “No,” he said. “I don’t want you to read to me—what is this? Story time with the supernatural? I’m just sharing with you. I’m just chatting with you. I figured you’d want to get to know me a little bit. Because you probably don’t know this yet—maybe you do—I’m a really fascinating monster.”

     “I bet,” the monk said, allowing his eyes to drift toward one of the worktables. A gooseneck lamp with a green glass shade caught his eye. It occurred to him that if he could lunge for it quickly enough, he could hurl it at the beast—maybe blinding his remaining eye.

     “Don’t bother,” Clementine said. “Nobody’s ever conquered me that way. Nugget may have wounded me, but no other mortal has. And Nugget is--was—special. He caught me off guard; I wasn’t prepared. I am now. And if you don’t listen and do exactly what I tell you to, then my friend Tomatillo is going to eat your granddaughter and her little boyfriend for lunch.”

     The monk’s face went white. He grabbed a table for support.

      “They thought they were so clever,” Clementine said, leaning forward. “Your granddaughter in particular. They decided to rescue Nugget by scaring up Wendell’s monster and getting it to take them to Nugget. It never occurred to them that monsters are smarter than humans, and that Tomatillo would know what they were up to. But of course he did. And he told me everything. And if things worked out as they should have, than Nugget is locked up in my study, and your granddaughter and Wendell are locked up in my dungeon—and Tomatillo is keeping watch over them all.”

     “Don’t hurt them,” the monk demanded. “Don’t, or I’ll—I’ll—”

     “Or you’ll what?” Throw a lamp at me?” Clementine laughed and jumped up from his perch. “Old man, you’ve got no bargaining power here. I’m in charge.” He strode over to the monk and stood before him, towering above—dreadful and deadly. “I’ve got no intention of hurting those kids . . . providing you help me. You like helping folks, don’t you? That’s your thing?” 

     The monk wished to demonstrate his lack of fear—despite his visible quivering—and so attempted to stand his ground. He looked up at the monster and dared to meet his eye. He steeled himself against the desire to turn an run—or vomit all over them both.

     “I came here for your help,” Clementine said again.

     “Help?” the monk asked.

     “Yeah,” the beast said. He stalked past the monk and approached a tall pile of discarded books. He bent over and picked one up, thumbing through it as he talked. “It’s a strange thing,” he said. “Maybe it’s age, I don’t know. After a while the millennia really catch up with you. Or maybe it’s my diet—really good quality fear isn’t as easy to get hold of anymore. Fear has become so . . . so common. It’s not the delicacy it used to be. But whatever the reason, I’ve been so low lately. Just depressed. You know what I mean? You ever feel that way?”

     The monk tried to stammer an answer, but Clementine obviously didn’t want one. He swung right into his the story of his depression, and the fabulous and fascinating lifetime of ingesting the near-great, great, and terrible—and how none of that made him happy anymore. Then he posited his theory about how Nugget’s willful optimism and potential for greatness were just the things he needed to revive his weary soul. “And that’s where you come in,” Clementine finished.

     “Me?”

     “Being a monster who lives on fear, and not a genius monk who loves meddling in other people’s affairs, I’m not sure how to ingest Nugget’s hope.” Clementine tossed the book aside and picked up another—a history of the funeral rites of ancient civilizations. He flipped through the pages “I’m sure I can, hope is energy, after all, just like fear. But I don’t know how it’s done. Fear just happens . . . it just magically becomes part of my energy, part of my nourishment. Fear flies off humans and I absorb it. It’s quite magical, really. And given how much I eat, I look good, right? But . . . how does a monster eat hope? How do I ingest all that yummy, chocolaty goodness that will revive my spirit and make me feel like a young, ugly monster again? I do not know. You’re going to help me find out.”

     “No,” the monk said, “I’m not going to help you do anything like that.”

     “That’s not very neighborly of you, old man.”

     “We’re not neighbors,” the monk said, approaching Clementine. “You can keep eating Nugget’s fear . . . in fact, maybe it’s good that you do—maybe it’s good for him that you do, since he’s got so much of it that if you didn’t, he’d probably explode. But if I help you ingest his hope, there will be nothing left of him but fear. He’ll be a shell. And what’ll happen to him then?”

     Clementine looked up from the book. “What do you do with a shell when you peat a nut?” He dropped the book to the floor and advanced at the monk, who quickly cowered away. “What do you do with a banana peel after you eat the fruit? You compost it. You throw it away. Who cares what happens to the shell of Nugget Silverfish? Who cares about Nugget Silverfish? He’s nothing. None of you are. You exist for us, for me, and that’s what I care about right now.”

     The monk took a step closer. “Well, you may not care about what happens to Nugget, but I do.”

     Clementine smiled and bent low—close to the monk’s face. The monk shrunk under the terrible, acrid, electric smell of the beast’s breath. “More than Abbey?”

      Clementine watched a look of confusion pass over the monk’s face. 

     “Old man, here’s what’s going to happen.” Clementine stood erect and peered down at the small old man. “You’re going to find a way for me to eat Nugget’s hope, and I’m going to sit here while you do. And if you don’t—or won’t—then I’m going to kill Nugget, and I’m going to let Tomatillo kill Wendell, and then I’m going to make you watch while I kill Abbey. Then, once you’re done mopping all the blood and guts off my floor, I’m going to slowly torture you . . . until I get bored. Then I’ll kill you, too. Am I making myself clear?”

     The monk tried to take a step away, but his legs turned to rubber and he fell to the ground. He clung to the leg of a table and tried to hoist himself up, but his arms turned rubber, too. “You-you-you-you can’t do that,” he said, trying to find strength to get up, “you can’t do that.”

      “I can do all of that, and I will do all of that, unless you do as I say.”

      “I can’t let you do that to Nugget!”

      “So instead you’ll me do it to Nugget and Abbey and Wendell and you?” Clementine stepped over the prone body of the monk, and returned to his perch on the table. “Life is full of tough decisions, old man. That’s the sad thing about being human. You have to make decisions, and then you have to deal with the stinky consequences of those decisions. You fear monsters and you hate us, but if you could, you’d become like us because it’s easier. We live forever, and there are no consequences for anything we do.”

     “If I do what you want me to, I will be a monster.”

     “Maybe,” Clementine said. “But you’ll have saved three lives.” Clementine looked the monk dead in the eyes. “Life is full of sacrifices. The kids can’t get free without me. So . . . sacrifice Nugget and save them, or sacrifice everyone. Obviously I’d like to see you decide the first option, but at the end of the day I’m not sure I care all that much.” He pulled another book into his lap—a book of ancient history. “Oh, hey,” Clementine said, holding it up. “That’s Charles the Great, right? I totally ate him, too!” He paged through the book some more, studying the pictures. “So what’ll it be?”

      The monk sat silent and stuck. His mind raced as he tried to solve the dilemma, but no action came. No bargain appeared, no good ideas—no bad ideas—nothing. He monk took a deep breath and he looked up at the monster. 

     “It looks like I have no choice.”

     “Great,” Clementine said, tossing the book aside and shaking off the start of a wonky headache. “Now get to work.”

      And so the monk did.


Read Chapter 13>>

 
 
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CHAPTER 12: TRAPPED

<<Read Chapter 11

“I’LL be fine, though,” Nugget whined at Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. “Really,” he said, “you don’t understand. They can rescue me—they got here on their own. No humans ever do that. If they’re powerful enough to do that, obviously they’re powerful enough to protect me from the monster. Right?”

     Mrs. Prune-Applebutter refused to utter a response. She hunched on her chair by the fire, knitting away, ignoring Nugget’s pleas. She remained unfazed by the increasingly high timber of his voice. She ignored the slight stomping of the foot and the red-faced desperation Nugget exhibited more fully with each request. She knit her blanket, deftly, calmly, and confidently maintained silence.

      “I can’t stay here forever,” Nugget said, anxiety gathering at the back of his legs. “Right? I mean, I can’t. And you said yourself you don’t know how to get me out of here. So . . . I mean, if people are here who know how to get me out of, don’t you think that it’s best that you let me go to them? I think that’s best. I do,” Nugget said, edging slightly closer. “And I’m pretty smart, you know. You should see my report cards. I’m really smart.” His attempt to prove his wits was fruitless. He shut his mouth for a moment and glanced back toward the window. The brown gravy-colored day had long since faded into black coffee-colored night. Hours passed since he watched Abbey and Wendell race past Mrs. Prune-Applebutter’s window, chased by that giant lizard-like beast.

      At first, the sighting left him buoyant with hope. Even though Mrs. Prune-Applebutter refused to let him chase after them, Nugget could have floated up to the ceiling—farther even, given how low those old colonial ceilings were. He could have floated up to the sun. He waited patiently in that way that one does when one is confident that the worst is over and the best is yet to come. But forty-five minutes passed, than an hour; than two; than three, and darkness settled in. And suddenly Nugget’s stomach wrenched with fear. What if the beast GOT them? he wondered. Why didn’t I think of that sooner—they’re not as used to fighting monsters as I am. What if the beast GOT them and they’re dead? Why did I listen to her? Why didn’t I just chase them anyway?

     And as the minutes ticked away, Nugget became more and more terrorized; he realized that it was more and more likely that Abbey and Wendell had made it all the way to this bizarre universe, or time, or whatever, only to wind up in the gut of a monster. And once that realization settled in, Nugget began his wheedling. And Mrs. Prune-Applebutter began ignoring all his different tactics—reasoning, begging, bribery, threats, and the one that generally worked with his parents: high-pitched, unbearable whining. Nothing moved her. Despite his desperation to get away, Nugget found himself impressed with her resilience and resistance to his most annoying qualities—qualities that no mortal could put up with. He had one last idea. It was a big gamble. If it didn’t pay off, he’d be stuck.

     He took a few minutes to sort out the best course of action—a misstep could be fatal, in this case—and he didn’t speak until he knew that his choices were perfect and his methods ideal. Certain now, he sidled up to the side of her chair.

      “You know, you’re really impressive with that. It’s hypnotic,” he said.

      “I do know, in fact,” she said, her eyes never leaving the knitting.

      “It’s almost magical.”

      “No,” she said, “it’s not almost magical.”

      “It’s not?”

      “No,” she said. “It’s not almost magical—it is magical.”

      “Oh—Oh! Ahahahahahahaha. Mrs. Prune-Applebutter, you got me there! It is magical,” Nugget said, slapping his knee. Even as he did it, he knew that his acting lacked a certain naturalness necessary for this kind of job. “Seriously, that’s really funny—and it is magical. It really is magical.”

      “Thank ye,” she said with a sidelong glance at the boy.

       Nugget watched for a moment and adjusted his performance a little to better suit his audience. “You must be really smart to do something like that.”

      “To weave string together with sticks? Yes, Nugget, I’m a regular genius.”

      “No, but I mean you are,” Nugget said, sitting beside her. “I mean you are: you knew I’d be coming out of the window like that when I did. You knew all my favorite foods. People don’t just know things like that, people have to be really smart about that—and then to do such beautiful work. I mean, you never miss a loop; you never have to undo what you’ve done. There’s real smarts at work there.”

      He winced at the use of the word “smarts.” It didn’t sound like him. It sounded like an old cartoon, or something; it was too old fashioned for him. He squinted and watched her face—no hint that she noticed the weird word choice. He went on:

     “People with minds like us . . . we’re a rare commodity in the world,” he said.

      “Ye aren’t lyin’ there, Nugget,” she said, still knitting, still looking away from him.

      “And we understand things that others don’t. We know deep down that we have different responsibilities. That’s why you risked your job to save me—because you had a different responsibility.”

      She slowed her knitting and looked at him—but she didn’t stop completely, and she only let her eyes linger on him for a moment or two.

      “I guess I mean that . . . well, I appreciate that you want to protect me from the monster and all, and I appreciate that, I mean I really appreciate that, because . . . these guys are somethin’ else. But . . . I think you know deep down that my friends went by a long time ago and they’re in danger, and that I have to go in search of them because they’re even less prepared for dealing with this realm than I am. And because you’re smart you know that I’m going to have to go at some point.”

      Mrs. Prune-Applebutter lowered her needles and swiveled in her chair to face him. A warm, gentle look spread across her face. She smiled at him. She leaned forward and narrowed her eyes.

      “Nugget Silverfish,” she said. “If ye think I risked my health savin’ ye only to let ye out into the wild again three hours later, yer even dimmer than Clementine. Now quiet down, because all yer chatterin’ is sendin’ me into the first phases of dementia!”

      She swiveled her chair back to the fire, picked up her needles, and instantly went back to work. Nugget flopped down on the floor by the fire, defeated.

                                                                                 * * *

They’d spend at least two hours cramped under the broken staircase outside the dilapidated old mansion, but every time they put a foot out into view, another terrifying monster to strolled by. Doubled over and C-shaped, both felt twinges of pain up and down their spines, both could feel their heads throbbing, and neither could feel his or her feet. Neither had spoken in about forty-five minutes. At long last, Abbey could hold it no longer.

      “It’s been a while since one went by,” she said, her voice cracked and dry from unusual lack of use.

     “Yeah,” Wendell said after a pause.

     “We can’t stay here forever,” she said, “I’ve got pins and needles in my butt.”

     “Me, too,” Wendell said.

     “So we should probably . . . probably get up and head on our way, then.”

     “Yeah, probably.”

      “OK,” Abbey said. “Let’s do it.”

     Neither of them moved.

     “Go,” Abbey commanded.

     “I don’t think I can,” Wendell groaned.

     “Come on, we can’t sit around here terrified forever.”

     “No,” Wendell said, “it’s not fear—I mean it’s not all fear—I literally don’t think I can move. I’m all cramped up!”

      Abbey scrunched up her face and considered the problem. She wiggled her toes a little, and the sharp sting of pins-and-needles shot up and down her leg. She laughed in pain, and Wendell tilted his head at her, as if to say “what’s so funny?”

     “Aaaaaaaaaaaahahahahaha that hurts!” Abbey’s laughing rang out like a trumpet call across landscape. She tried to force her foot out into the yard—again, pins and needles filled the entire length of her leg. “AAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA THAT HURTS! AH-AHHAHAHAHAHA! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA MY GOD THAT HURTS.”

      “OK, well can you be in quieter pain, please?”

      “I’m sorry,” she laughed.

     “Seriously.”

      “I’m trying!” she said, suddenly annoyed. “At least I’m trying.”

     “I’m trying, too.”

      “No,” she said, “you’re whining.” And with that she shoved herself out from under the staircase and forced herself to her feet—dancing back and forth, trying to work the pins and needles out of her feet and butt, and the twinges of pain in her spine. Wendell watched, dreading having to do the same.

     As Abbey danced she looked in the landscape. “It’s kind of cool here, now that I’m looking at it,” she said. “I mean I wouldn’t want to live here, I can’t do anything without my books and my stuff, but . . . I mean it’s kinda neat being in a place where not everything is made out of plastic, ya know?”

      “I guess,” Wendell said, tentatively and slowly stretching his leg out into the space vacated by Abbey. He felt the electrical tickle in his feet and gritted his teeth. “I’d probably think it was cooler if we could find Nugget, and, you know, go five minutes without being chased by something.”

     “Yeah,” she said, stepping out further into the dry grass. She turned and looked up at the rotting shell of what had once been a beautiful, large home. “Still, though, how often do you get to see a world where everything looks like it’s out of a history book.”

       But Wendell wasn’t listening anymore. He was deep breathing, trying to convince himself to rip off the band-aid and get out of his fetal position. Abbey drank in the site of the old building, but once the novelty of the age wore off, she realized that it was a creepy old place and she’d just as soon be as far from it as possible. She looked back over at the rotten staircase, and the tiny piece of Wendell’s leg that she could see. “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she said. She marched over to the staircase and reached under.

      “Wait, what’re you—what are you doing??” Wendell said, panicking, as she reached for his arm. But instead of answering, she grabbed him and dragged him out from under the stairs—his whole body exploding in pins and needles.

     “The more you put it off, the longer they’re going to take to wear off. Get up and get over it.” Wendell looked up at her from the ground, anxious in his discomfort, and, with little else to do, he obeyed and jumped to his feet—hopping from foot to foot, trying to regenerate the blood flow that had been constricted for however long they’d been trapped there.

      Abbey wandered through the broken wooden gate and back out into the cobblestone street. She looked up and down the road.

     “The thing that I didn’t factor into the puzzle,” she said, “was that the monster wouldn’t be able to say anything. Nugget’s monster spoke to him, and I guess I just assumed that yours would, too. But, judging by your monster, it’s probably less developed in the verbal department than Nugget’s is. He’s sort of a monster Neanderthal, if you will, which doesn’t help us at all. So now we’re faced with the problem of being wherever Nugget is, without any conceiveable idea of where in this place he could possibly be.”

      “Once again, Abbey,” Wendell grunted, finally starting to feel a tiny bit of relief from the crushed position, “you’ve done an excellent job of summarizing what I already know.”

      She looked at him. “You know I regret apologizing for being to rude to you, don’t you?”

     “I’m sorry,” Wendell said, approaching, “but I’m frustrated. We’re here, and we’re stuck again. It’s insanity. It mean, it’s not like we can just walk up to one of these freaks and ask him if he’s seen Nugget.”

      “No,” Abbey said, “that’s true. We’re just gonna hafta do it the old fashioned way: we’re going to have to sally forth into the universe, here, and search. As people do, when faced with no other option.”

     Wendell cocked his head to the side. “Why you talkin’ like that?”

     “Like what?” Abbey asked.

     “Like . . . ‘sally forth’? What’s that even mean?”

     “It means ‘go forth’.”

     “So why not just say ‘go forth’?”

     “Because dramatic situations call for dramatic language, Wendell—gah, don’t you have any sense of occasion?”

     “Obviously not,” he said, joining her on the street. “So . . . which way?”

      Abbey looked up and down the street again. “Well,” she said, “the monster chased us down that way, and he went further down the road there . . . so, I say, we go back where we came from.” Wendell didn’t have any reason not to agree with her, so he didn’t. He took a step forward, ready to follow Abbey’s instincts, and just as he did, there was a huge thunderous rumbling in the not-too-distant distance.

     Abbey and Wendell turned to it.

     “Oh, no,” Wendell said.

     “How does this keep HAPPENING??” Abbey demanded of no one in particular. But before no one could answer, the thundering grew louder, and from a side street just about a block from where they stood, Wendell’s monster appeared running at them with incredible speed. Both of them bolted in the other direction, but within a few steps, Wendell’s foot got wedged in the space where a cobblestone should have been, and he fell flat on his face. Abbey turned to see it happen. He lay there for a moment, motionless as the monster approached. Abbey ran back to him. She pulled his arm, and he looked up at her—blood running down from his nose, and a bruise already forming under his eye.

     “Come on,” she said, pulling him. “I know it hurts, but we gotta run.” She looked up at him.

     She pulled his arm again, and he screamed.

     “Get up!” She said. She let go of him. “Wendell get up!”

     Wendell tried to push himself up again, but when he put pressure on his arm he screamed again.

     “I can’t,” he said, “I think it’s broken, or something. I think it’s—”

      This time Abbey screamed, and before Wendell could ask why, the monster scooped him up into the air.

      “Wendell!” Abbey screamed. “Wendell!”

      “Abbey!”

      The monster studied Wendell, and then let out a beastly laugh. With that, it started away back from where it came.

     “LET HIM GO!” Abbey called after it, but it barely registered her voice. “YOU LET HIM GO!” No response, and off it went down the street.

     “Abbey!!!” Wendell called.

     Abbey stood for a moment, dumbstruck, and looked around. Off to the side of the road she saw a large chunk of broken cobblestone—the very one that should have filled the spot that tripped Wendell. She darted for it and hoisted it above her head and flung it at the monster with all her might. It arched threw the air, and in a flash, it hit the beast square in the back of the head.

      It turned to her and looked down.

      It considered her for a long time, and she couldn’t read what—if anything—was surging through it’s mind. The suddenly something that resembled a smile spread across its face and another bizarre and monstrous laugh erupted from the monster’s guts. It started for her.

      “Run, Abbey,” Wendell called. “Run and find Nugget—don’t worry about me.”

      “I can’t find him without you!”

      “Yes you can, you know you can, and no one’s gonna find him if this ugly creep eats us both alive!”

      But Abbey wasn’t listening. Instead of running away, she turned back to the house and the staircase they’d been hiding under—back toward the monster. She raced over to the house and began rooting around the ground for more stones or something to throw at the beast. She found it difficult—for some reason, despite the age of everything in this world, there was a surprising lack of things to throw.

      “Abbey! Abbey stop it! Abbey!” Wendell called at her. “Abbey! ABBEY, YOU IDIOT, GO FIND NUGGET!”

      She ignored him still, as the monster slowly made its way toward her.

      She rooted under the stairs, in the remnants of the garden, all over the yard for anything she could that might serve as something heavy enough to throw. In a few minutes she’d gathered a tiny armload of smallish rocks, stones, paving bricks, etc. She turned in time to see the monster about ten feet from her.

      “FORGET ABOUT THAT STUFF, ABBEY! GO! FIND! NUGGET!”

     Abbey pitched the first of the stones at the monster. Prepared now, it swatted the projectile away—and it flew in another direction. Nothing daunted, Abbey continued to bombard the beast, like David did Goliath. Stone after stone thrown, stone after stone batted away, and now Abbey stood, stuck between the house and the monster.

     “RUN!” Wendell called.

      And this time Abbey considered it—but before she could take even a step, the monster scooped her up into its free hand, and bounded along down the road.

      “Way to be a hero, Abbey,” Wendell said. “Now we’re both trapped.”

      Abbey said nothing for a long moment, and then she drawled: “Maybe.” But she didn’t say another word—not the whole time the monster bounded down the road, not when he smashed into his house, and not when he uncovered a well-like pit in the floor and tossed Abbey and Wendell down into the darkness of a slimy, grimy dungeon.

                                                                               * * *

“Trapped” Nugget muttered, as he sat with his face pressed against the class.

     He’d finally given up attempting to outwit or convince Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. Monsters, whether friend or foe, clearly have a stronger will than little boys do, and Nugget knew there was no winning. For the briefest of moments he considered attempting to just trounce out the door, but he knew she would be on him like a flash. Nobody—monster or no—takes such a strong stance if they are not entirely sure they will be able to defend it.

      Now, free of concocting methods of winning his battle with Mrs. Prune-Applebutter, Nugget could concoct horrible scenarios in which Abbey and Wendell were maimed or eaten by a buffet line of hungry, greedy monsters. He imagined them being electrocuted by monster energy. He imagined them doing forced labor, cleaning out monsters’ houses—and he even imagined the reality: that they’d been caught and imprisoned in a dank dungeon with no hope of escape. But mostly he imagined that he’d imagined them to begin with, and that he’d never get out.

     His mind wandered so deeply that he didn’t notice when the gentle “tick-tick-tick” of Mrs. Prune-Applebutter’s knitting needles ceased as she dozed by the fire. But he did notice when he heard a thunderous noise down the road—and he noticed when he heard the faintest sounds of distinctly human screaming and shouting. Despite the distance, upon the first indication of the sound, Nugget perked up straight like a dog. He stood and looked out the window for a moment, utterly silent and focused. Then, he moved over to the edge of the window, attempting to peer down the road. No matter how he positioned himself he could not see—but he could hear.

      Until the sound stopped altogether.

      Then he reached for the door handle—but remembered Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. And only then did he notice the absence of the clicking of her knitting needles. He turned, slowly, and discovered her head drooped onto her chin, and the knitting folded neatly beside her. The faintest, faintest sound—part snore, part purr—escaped her nostrils.

      A little bolt of joy leapt in Nugget’s stomach—then that got washed over by guilt. She’d helped him so much, he felt bad disobeying her. But he couldn’t wait around and do nothing—that simply wouldn’t do. So he vowed to come back and thank her before he went home. He reached for the doorknob and pulled it—and realized it was locked. He looked up and saw a little padlock he hadn’t noticed before.

     “Marvelous,” he said aloud.

      He stood looking at it for a while, trying to will it to unlock—and when that didn’t work, he turned back to the room and looked for possible places a key could be stored. As he considered his surroundings, he stuck his hands in his pockets. Without thinking much about it, he began playing with a small metal object that he’d shoved there before jumping from Clementine’s window.

     Where would I find I key, he thought, taking in each object, each nook and cranny in the room, as he turned the small metal doodad in his pocket over and over. With my luck, she’s probably got it there in her knitting. As a matter of fact, I have no doubt that she wouldn’t have let herself fall asleep if she thought I’d find the key. So how am I going to--

      And he stopped.

      And he realized that he happened to be holding something strangely key-like in his pocket. He withdrew his hand from the pocket and held it up, and low and behold: a key. One he’d ripped off from Clementine’s desk before escaping.

     There’s no chance this will work . . . unless it’s a skeleton key . . . but what’s the chance Clementine had a key that would work on any lock locked up in his desk . . .

     Nugget slowly approached the door, and held the key up to the lock.

     He slipped it into the opening—it took a little effort, both the key and the lock there a little rusty. But with a little gentle effort it slipped in. And, to his surprise, it turned. Another bolt of joy shot through his gut. He withdrew the key from the lock and put it back in his pocket. He gingerly took the lock off the doorknob and placed it on the windowsill, and he quietly, quietly opened the door.

      He put one foot out on the sidewalk.

      “Ye really are a smart one, eh?”

      Nugget turned to Mrs. Prune-Applebutter, fully awake, watching him form her chair.

      “It’s just—,” Nugget stammered, “I know they’re here, and I have a feeling they’re in danger, like you said, and-and-and I—”

     She held up a hand to stop him, and she rose from the chair and waddled over to him.

     “If yer smart enough to get past me,” she said, “then I’ve no doubt yer smart enough to find ‘em an’ get’m outta whatever danger they’re in. An’ yer right, sittin’ around here doin’ nothin’ isn’t gonna solve anyhin’. So . . . yes, ye should go—an’ ye clearly will.”

     “I really do appreciate what you’ve done—I know it was a risk.”

     “Nonsense. What’s the worse Clementine can do, eh? Not much. Monsters can’t die, so it’s not like he can kill me—an’, what? He’ll deny me the privilege of tidying after him? I’m sure I’ll survive. But, here,” she said. She held out the large, voluminous, moon-colored blanket that he’d watched her knit since their first encounter. “It’s not much,” she said, “but it could help.”

      Nugget reached out and took the blanket.

      “How?” He asked. “It can’t . . . it can’t make me invisible, can it?”

      A yelp of laughter erupted from Mrs. Prune-Applebutter’s mouth. “Invisible? What do ye think is some kind of fairy story? No, Nugget, nothin’ can make normal human’s invisible, sadly, but, like I said, it will keep ye thinkin’ about the here an’ now, an’ when yet faced with the kinda terror yer always faced with, stayin’ in the present moment can go a long way in keepin’ ye level headed an’ keepin’ yer wits intact, sure. So take it, an’ go.”

      “Thanks,” Nugget said.

      Mrs. Prune-Applebutter winked—and nodded out the door. Nugget obeyed and stepped out to the curb. They smiled at each other once more, and she closed the door behind him.

      Nugget looked off toward the sound of the screaming he’d heard, with the herenow blanket tucked under his arm—but with no idea of where to begin the search.


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CHAPTER 11: IT'S GOOD AND IT'S BAD

<<Read Chapter 10

“OOOF!” Nugget ejected as he hit the pile of mattress and rags. He’d gotten out of the monster’s house in one piece; now all he had to do was get off the two-story pile of junk without crashing into the broken glass below.

     He flipped onto his stomach, and slowly crawled backwards off the mattress. He dangled his foot off the edge of the pile, looking for something sturdy to settle it on—something rung-like he could climb down. Soon, he felt something. He slid down and off the mattress onto what he realized was the broken arm of a rocking chair. Next, Nugget lowered his other foot, searching for the next rung. And on and on.

     Feeling more confident now, he began to move with more speed—and less care. And this proved a mistake. Halfway down the pile, he stepped without testing the strength the next rung, and what felt secure and sturdy turned out to be nothing more than the lip of a cardboard box. Nugget put his full weight on it, only to feel it give way immediately. He fell. In terror, he grabbed for something—and, for once, he caught something.

     Celebration!

     Except that whatever he grabbed gave way, too, and the whole pile of junk collapsed on itself—and him with it. He fell face down, watching the glass-strewn cobblestone street fly up to meet him. He gritted his teeth; he clenched his eyes; he waited for impact. And he felt enormous relief when a strange pair of arms caught him.

     “Ye really need to be more careful, Nugget,” came the familiar voice.

     Nugget looked up and discovered the face of Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. He gasped in relief, as the tower of junk fell around them. She set him down on the ground as he started to stammer his thanks. But she interrupted him.

     “Best not stand around like this, here, when lord knows what Clementine’ll be back. If he’s gone to the pub, he could be there for days or hours. There’s no tellin’. But my little shack is right around the corner, now, an’ we’ll be there quick.” With that, she waddled in the other direction.

     Nugget looked up at her, relived she’d come when she had, and—moved that she’d saved him—he ran toward her and tried to embrace her. She turned in time to see his arms reaching up to her, and she put out her hand to stop him. “No,” she said, “ye can’t. I appreciate it, Nugget, I do—but ye remember the fryin’ pan? We’re made out of energy, Nugget. If ye touch any part of us but our hands, we’ll give ye a shock now. We’ve got this . . . leatheriness on our hands, but touch any other part of me, an’ it’s a good zzzzzap for ye. Listen close. Can ye hear it?”

     Nugget listened close. And, after a moment, he could hear it—just the faintest buzzing, that sounded not unlike a generator or transformer on the streets at home.

     “Weird,” Nugget said.

     “Not weird,” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said. “Magical. Now, walk.”

     And they walked—but Nugget turned back, suddenly, and raced toward the pile. He jumped into the rubbish and dug through it.

     “What are ye doin’, Nugget?” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter called. “Come away from there, it’s not safe.”

     But Nugget had crawled so deep into the collapsed pile that she couldn’t see him anymore. She waddled back over to him, just in time to see him emerge from the pile holding a huge book over his head.

      “What’s that, now?” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter asked.

     “Just a memento,” Nugget said, joining her.

     They trekked down the cobblestone streets, and Nugget noticed that the whole monster world looked a lot like the colonial world—with all its gas lamps and slatted houses and bubbly, wavy windowpanes. Everything looked the way it did in his history books. He pointed that out to Mrs. Prune-Applebutter just as they arrived at the front door of her little cottage.

     “Ye’ve got a good eye, sure,” she said. “Yes, well, Nugget: the reason it looks like the eighteenth century, here, is because it is.”

     Nugget’s eyes widened.

      “Get yerself in there,” she said, “there’s soup warmin’ on the fire. Have at it. I imagine ye haven’t had lunch yet.”

      As he ate, Mrs. Prune-Applebutter settled herself in and went about regurgitating the moon-colored string, as she had the previous night at dinner. Nugget turned so he could eat without watching her vomit thread.

      “It’s the 1700s here,” she said, “because nobody’s usin’ this time anymore. But it’s all real. When ye walked down the street with me, did ye see anythin’ familiar?”

      “No,” Nugget said, “all the houses looked just like the other houses.”

      “Run over to the window, there, an’ look at the big building down the street.”

     Nugget obeyed. He pushed his face up against the glass and peered down the road. Sure enough, there was a large granite and brick building that Nugget recognized as the True Enough Savings and Loan. Nugget passed it every day on the way to school—and, as long as he’d known it, it stood empty, abandoned. It didn’t look any more active now, but he recognized everything about it. He turned back to Mrs. Prune-Applebutter, wide-eyed.

     “That looks familiar now, eh?”

      Nugget nodded as he returned to the table.

      “Built back in 1771. Most of the places around there were knocked down over the years, but not that one. This, Nugget, is the very place where ye were born and raised—except that ye live in 2012, an’ we live in the past. Monster’s can’t live in the world with people—partly because there’s monster’s like Clementine, who feed on the human race. But partly because we don’t fit well with humans.”

     “But if not every monster is cruel, like Clementine,” Nugget said. “Why can’t you live with humans.”

     Mrs. Prune-Applebutter stopped knitting, and looked down at Nugget with a sharply raised eyebrow. “Nugget, ye don’t know much about yer own kind, do ye? If ye humans found out there’s a race a’ creatures made from energy, they’d hook us all up to wires an’ use us to charge yer phones an’ whatnot, eh?”

     “I’m not sure we’d do that,” Nugget said.

     “I am,” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said. “We may be called monsters, but ye look at the world ye live in, an’ tell me if there aren’t humans as cruel as Clementine out there in your world, eh? And humans are wasteful. Once they’re done with a time period, like this, they just throw it away—stuffing pieces of it in history books, and moving on. Monster’s reuse things. We’ve got no other choice. Good or bad, we reuse things. An’ we’re not picky. Nobody’s using thing time? We’re happy to take it—an’ nobody’ll want it back, because there’s not much attractive about it. The houses are a little small for us, but we’ve grown used to stopping.”

     Nugget finished his soup, and sat listening to Mrs. Prune-Applebutter. Again, he found himself lulled by the motion of her hands as she deftly hooked and looped the strange thread into her large, and luminous blanket.

     “Time is . . . well, it’s not unlike a highway, Nugget. Ye drive along, an’ just because ye pass a place, doesn’t mean ye can’t go back there. It just means you may or may not. It’s not as easy as drivin’, an’ probably for humans it’s a good thing it’s not, because if they could go back, they’d probably make a mess outta things. But . . . it’s possible. Just because a time passes doesn’t mean it’s gone.”

      “The world is a strange place,” Nugget said.

      “Aye, it is.”

     “So I guess the question is, how do I get back to the time I should be in—and away from Clementine.”

     Mrs. Prune-Applebutter  stopped knitting and looked at him. She clicked her tongue, and reached over to collect Nugget soup things.

     “I’m sorry, Nugget,” she said. “I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I did. I may know a lot about things, but there’s a lot about things I don’t know. But I can tell ye, that as long as yer stuck here, I’ll do my best to keep ye out of Clementine’s claws. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to do much good, but I’ll do my best—and that, Nugget, is the best any of us can do.”

     With that, she disappeared into the kitchen.

     Nugget returned to the window and looked out and across at the True Enough Savings and Loan. He peered through the bubbly glass and worked out the numbers on the base of the top step: 1771. Seeing that building, something he’d passed nearly every day of his life, knowing that he somehow wasn’t as far from home as he thought, he felt a little better.

                                                                               * * *

Just as Wendell’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, an impossibly bright spray of gray-brown light exploded around him. And just a moment later, he smashed to the ground.

     Somehow, he bounded off the ground, and got to his feet—Just as Abbey crashed to the ground beside him.

    “That was crazy,” Abbey said, standing.

     “No doubt,” Wendell said, helping her up. “You OK?”

      “Yeah,” she said, patting herself just to make sure. “Actually, I feel pretty good. You?”

     “Yeah. Sorta.”

     “Where’s the monster?” She followed Wendell’s eyes to the sky, and watched the monster fall toward them with a terrible velocity.

      “We should probably, ya know, run away,” Wendell said.

      “Mmm,” Abbey said—and just a moment later, the monster crashed to the ground.

      Wendell grabbed Abbey by the hand and bolted down a cobblestone road.

      “Listen,” Abbey said as they ran, checking behind her to see how far away the monster was, “about before.”

      “Don’t worry about it,” Wendell said. “Now’s not the time.”

      “But,” she said, gasping for breath, “the thing is—I need you to know why I couldn’t be more help to you out there.”

      “Don’t worry,” Wendell said, also feeling winded—something entirely unusual for him.

      “But I don’t want you to think—”

      But she got cut off by the monstrous roar of the beast. They could feel the ground shaking with its steps, and she turned to discover it racing toward them. He was about fifty yards away, but was gaining speed quickly. They kicked it into high gear and doubled their speed.

      GONG-GONG! GONG-GONG! The monster stomped along, roaring at them. They turned again, and it made a swipe in their direction. On an impulse, and with his usual athleticism, Wendell tugged Abbey and pulled her down an alley. She felt her feet lift off the ground as he flung her around the corner.

      Wendell pulled Abbey further down the little street, but as they moved on, the street grew darker and darker—any light in the sky snuffed by the closeness of the buildings.

      “It’s a dead end,” Abbey said.

      “I don’t think it is,” Wendell said.

      “Why?”

      “Well, for one thing we don’t seem to be running into any walls.”

      “But that doesn’t mean a wall won’t come, does it?”

       “No,” Wendell said, “but that doesn’t mean it will, either.”

      “But what if it does?

      “But what if it doesn’t?

      “But what if—” She stopped. They felt the ground shaking again. Without another word, Wendell pulled Abbey deeper into the darkness of the alley. Behind them, the monster stalked down the road, but apparently didn’t see which direction in which they went. It paused and peered into the darkness of the alley, before racing off in the other direction. With that, Wendell pulled Abbey deeper into the darkness.

     “Seriosly, Wednell,” Abbey said, “I think this is a dead end.”

      “YOU KNOW, JUST CUZ YOU THINK I’M STUDID, ABBEY, DON’T MEAN I AM!”

 The suddenness of shouting that surprised Wendell, and he shut his trap. As did Abbey. They continued in silence. And as they ran on, the street brightened and at last they could see a light at the end. They ran toward it and spilled out onto what appeared to be the main thoroughfare. On either side of the road they saw rows of old-fashioned, colonial style stores—abandoned, but recognizable as shops, thanks to the hanging signs and large display windows. Down on one end of the road was what looked to be a large, brick and granite building; and at the other end, a more residential neighborhood. Both ends of the street were entirely deserted.

     Safe from the monster, at least for the moment, Wendell and Abbey stopped to catch their breath. Wendell stooped down, hands on his knees, andlet out a high-pitched “Hoo!” as though on the right side of a marathon finish line. Abbey collapsed against a building and mopped sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her sweatshirt.

      After a moment or two, with air back in her lungs, Abbey looked over and Wendell.

     “I never said you were stupid, you know,” she said.

     “Yes you did,” Wendell said, straightening up. “A lot.”

     “Fine, I did,” Abbey said. “But I didn’t mean it.”

      Wendell looked over at her, and crooked an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

      “Yes.”

     “I don’t believe you.”

      “I know,” she said, “but it’s true . . . I had to be rude to you, I had to get you not to like me, because grampa needed it that way—because part of his lessons involved me taking on the role of monster in these reenactments, and if you liked me . . . it woulda been harder for you to fight me. But I don’t think you’re stupid. Or Nugget. And I hate both of you because of that, but that’s the way it goes.”

     A little smile spread across Wendell’s face. “Awe Abbey!” he said. “You’re in love with me!”

     “You remember I can kick your butt across the street, right?” she said, holding up a first and taking a step or two toward him.

    “Yeah,” Wendell said, backing away, the smile fading from his face. “Yeah, you can. Sorry. Sorry about that.” Abbey relaxed. “But thanks.”

     “You’re welcome,” she said.

      “And don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you’re in love with me.”

     “OK,” Abbey said, “you are stupid.”

     “Well right now I am,” Wendell said. He stepped out into the middle of the road and looked up and down. “Because I really have no idea what to do next.”

      “Next,” Abbey said, “we find Nugget.”

     Just at that moment, a thunderous sound erupted in the distance. Immediately Abbey and Wendell’s glances shot toward the noise. Coming down the round, from the residential end of the street, came Wendell’s monster, racing toward them with ridiculous speed. Without another word, Abbey grabbed Wendell’s arm and pulled him off toward the commercial-looking quarter.

                                                                                  * * *

Nugget sat looking out the window, staring at the old bank building, as the murky daylight slowly faded into murky twilight. All the while, Mrs. Prune-Applebutter kept one eye on her knitting and one eye on Nugget.

     He marveled that he hadn’t seen a single soul walking around outside—not a single monster passed by.

      “Not much to do here,” Mrs. Prune-Applebutter said. “There’s the pubs, but only a certain kind of monster frequents those. The rest of us only go out when we have to, and we don’t have to all that much. Believe it or not, most of us are homebodies.”

     Just then they heard a thunderous noise rushing from the end of the street. Instantly Mrs. Prune-Applebutter appeared at the window beside Nugget. She peered out, but saw nothing. She dragged Nugget across the room. He followed her, but kept his eyes on the glass—and just as she was about to usher Nugget into the pantry, they saw two shapes pass the window, screaming in horror. And though they moved fast, Nugget recognized them instantly. He broke free of Mrs. Prune-Applebutter’s hand and ran back to the window.

      “Abbey!” Nugget called. “Wendell!”

     But of course they couldn’t hear—and they passed just as fast as they came. Mrs. Prune-Applebutter pulled him away again. “Come away from the window, Nugget—ye’ll get us both caught here, sure.” And just as she got him away again, they saw a hideous, lizard-like beast race after the kids.

      Mrs. Prune-Applebutter swept Nugget into the pantry—a windowless room, off to the side of the fireplace.

      “You don’t understand,” Nugget said breathlessly. “I know them! That was Wendell and Abbey!” he shouted. “They’re here, Mrs. Prune-Applebutter! They’re here for me!”

      She looked down at him, her feline face attempting to look hopeful—but an undertone of skepticism bled through.

      “Well that’s great for ye, sure,” she said. “But it’s good an’ it’s bad, child. Because they may be here—but like ye, they’re now in a world of danger.”


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