<<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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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!”
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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