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CHAPTER 4: THE FIRST BATTLE


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“ARE you still with me, Nugget?” Mrs. Weldingham asked.

It was a good question. And (this was a first) Nugget wasn’t sure he knew the answer.

     “Yeah,” he said, even though he’d been struggling to pay attention to his teachers all day. Since he woke that morning, terrible visions had plagued him. They felt like daydreams, in the way that one falls so deeply into a daydream that it becomes realer than reality. But daydreams are pleasant; these were terrible. These were more like daymares. For example, he imagined the house caving in on him while he lay listening to the alarm that morning. As his school bus trundled over Bread-and-Butter Brook, he imagined the bridge collapsing. He imagined being trampled to death by his classmates as they ran for recess. And when Mrs. Weldingham called on him that afternoon, he was lost in imagining a sudden sinkhole opening up and swallowing the school. And though he felt stupid having been caught not paying attention, he was glad his teacher had pulled him out of the depths.

     “OK,” Mrs. Weldingham said. “Than what’s the answer?”

     Ah, Nugget thought, she’s asked me a question. Marvelous.

     He looked around at his classmates—a sea of twenty kids, who, most of the time, held little interest in him. Now, all eyes focused on him alone.

     Natasha Gall—the second-smartest person in fifth grade—smirked a gleeful smirk. Her face, so bright and shiny with hope, reveled in the potential for Nugget’s first educational humiliation. Nugget watched as she strained to keep her hand down on the desk. He knew the second he stammered the wrong answer, Natasha would send that hand flying into the air. She would wave it like mad, and chant “oo! oo! Mrs. Weldingham! oo! OOOOOO!!!” until allowed to demonstrate her superior knowledge.

     Andrew Killingly and Davis Powell smirked too, but not because they knew the answer. They smirked because they knew exactly how Nugget felt. Granted, they lacked sympathy with his plight. They enjoyed the fun that comes from watching others suffer—what the Germans call schaedenfreude. They enjoyed watching the kid with all the answers stand on the verge of being called to the front of the room to stand with the “SMILE AND DO THE RIGHT THING!” flag raised up the air for twenty-five minutes. Andrew and Davis enjoyed Nugget’s struggle, because they knew all too well the burning sensation that sets in after 10 minutes holding a big, heavy flag in the air. And they knew the excruciating pain that consumes the body after 15 minutes holding it. They knew, all too well, the bizarre feeling of having a feather-light arm when, after 25 minutes, the flag is placed in its holder above the chalkboard.

     Wendell Washington didn’t smirk. But, then, he didn’t have to. His position as king of the fifth grade entitled him to owlish behavior. Nobody ever knew what Wendell was thinking, and perhaps that’s why he was so popular and so worshipped by his classmates. All the boys did precisely as Wendell told them. And so great was Wendell’s power, that often his instructions remained incomplete. His minions were left guessing what he wanted them to do, and they fully expected and deserved ridicule and shaming if they returned with the wrong task completed. Nugget remained immune to Wendell’s power, but Nugget remained immune to the charms of nearly everyone his age. (Nugget’s great goal in life was to be thirty—though now he worried he’d never get that far.) But Nugget knew that, as leader of the pack, Wendell had to be enjoying this struggle.

     “Um,” Nugget said. “It’s, uh . . .”

     Mrs. Weldingham stood silently, waiting for the answer. Even she smirked a little—just the tiniest bit, just the smallest trace of a smile lurked there behind her big, pasty moon face. Her lips contorted visibly enough that Nugget knew she rooted for his downfall, too. (Maybe it sounds cruel of Mrs. Weldingham to behave this way, but one has to consider how often Nugget corrected her grammar.) She stood watching him, hand on hip, swathed in her black-and-white flower print polyester mumu. She held a piece of chalk halfway up the board, as though she had turned away from writing to have her picture taken. Nugget knew, though, that the hand wasn’t reaching for the chalkboard. The second he snapped the wrong answer, the chalk would crash to the floor and Mrs. Weldingham’s hand would stretch for the long, metal, sword-like pole of the big, yellow “SMILE AND DO THE RIGHT THING!” flag.

     “Nugget?” Mrs. Weldingham asked. “You don’t need me to repeat the question, do you? Because that would be unlike you, wouldn’t it? And you did say—correct me if I’m wrong—that you were listening to me, yes?”

     “Yes.”

     “Than what,” Mrs. Weldingham said, her body edging ever so slightly closer to the terrible happy-face flag, “is your answer?”

     “It’s—” Cold sweat trickled off his neck. The familiar granite heap formed in his gut. He felt that same weak, hot-chilly, shaky feeling. The walls closed in around him, the ceiling sank down. His eyes went fuzzy. “Um . . . .”

     “Are you are telling me that you, Nugget Silverfish, do not know the answer? Or,” Mrs. Weldingham said, “are you saying that yooooouu weren’t listeniiiiiinnnng???”

                         BOOOOOOM!

An explosion rocked the room, shot up from the floor below, and swallowed Mrs. Weldingham in a cloud of back dust. Nugget’s classmates disappeared, the walls and ceiling crumbled in an avalanche around Nugget, the air sucked out of the room, the whole place went dark and desolate. The teacher’s desk erupted, and in its place appeared, in a spray of broken wood and metal, the form of the goat-legged, horn-headed, spindly-armed, giant-pawed hairy-scary beast we’ve come to know as Clementine (even though that was not his real name). He wore a big, blue-bloody bandage strapped in a diagonal from the top of his head to under his right ear, covering his eye—the one Nugget knocked out when he threw the broken sidewalk shard at the monster’s face.

     “MWAHAHAHAHAHA!! MWAAAAHAHAHAHAAHAAAAAH!!” Clementine’s laugh filled the blank landscape around Nugget. “I TOLD YOU I’D MAKE YOU PAY, NUGGET! MWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”

     Before Nugget could dodge him, Clementine flung out his huge paw and swung it at Nugget, batting him off his chair. Nugget flew nearly five feet before landing on the pitch-black rubble of what was once his classroom. On impact, he felt his lungs go flat as the air shot out of them. He let out a deep, bellowing sound as he gasped for air, managing to inhale enough oxygen inside him to muster the strength for another, deeper inhalation.

     Gaaawwwng-gaaawwwng. Nugget looked up. Gaaawwwng-gaawwng. The beast’s footsteps echoed as he stomped toward the boy.

     “For most kids, Nugg-oh,” the monster said, “the constant fear is enough.” He stomped ever closer to Nugget. “You couldn’t be content with that, though. You wanted to play me.” Closer and closer still. Nugget tried to scramble away, but his shoelace had wound itself around the frame of a smashed metal desk chair. Wriggle though he did, the shoe would not come free of his foot, nor the lace free of the chair. Gaaaawwng-Gaaawwnng. “DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU DID TO MY EYE?? YOU THINK THESE THINGS JUST HEAL ON THEIR OWN? DO YOU THINK WE’VE GOT WALK-IN CLINICS WHERE I LIVE? HUNH?? THIS IS NEVER GONNA HEAL! YOU SCARRED ME FOR LIFE, AND NOW I’M GONNA SCAR YOU FOR LIFE, NUGGET!”

     Clementine lifted has paw, stretching back like a pitcher about to hurl a lightning fastball. He released and the paw went flying at Nugget—flying fast, fast, with the velocity of a wrecking ball, and Nugget cowered and tugged at his shoe and anticipated the blinding pain of the impact, and just as it was about to hit Nugget yanked with all his strength and the shoe released his foot, and Nugget tumbled over and away just enough for the monster’s paw to miss him and with just enough time for Nugget to look up and see rage redden the monster’s already blood-shot eyes.

     Clementine wound up again, but Nugget bounded up in time and dashed away—back behind the monster, back toward the teacher’s desk. This time, the power of the monster’s swing nearly knocked the beast over. He stumbled and caught himself on a pile of rubble, knocking it over, but giving Nugget enough time to put distance between them.

     “You know, Nugget,” the monster said, catching his breath, “that the harder you make this on me, the harder you make it on you. Know what I’m sayin’, Kiddo?”

     “Yeah,” Nugget said, glad to be farther away from the monster, but knowing full well it was only a matter of moments before the monster did indeed reach him and inflict the promised scar. “Yeah, I know, monster. I know.” He thought fast—messy, but fast. He tried to remember his weekend research, and the stack of monster-slaying stories he’d read. What can I use as a weapon??

     Gawwwwng-gawwwng. Nugget looked up. Clementine approached again, ready to engage. Gawwwwng-gawwwg.

     Nugget looked into the wreckage of his teacher’s desk: pens, paper clips, staples. All sharp—all tiny and pointless. Just like me, Nugget thought. Tiny and pointless.

     “Watcha thinkin’ about, Nugget?” the monster asked as he gawng-gawnged along. “About how right now your classmates are watching you freak out in front of them? How they’re probably screaming with laughter as they watch you shake and sweat and whimper? About how you’re never going to live this down—how their ridicule and taunting will last into college--if I let you make it that far? About how none of them will ever believe what’s really happening, how you’re being stalked by me? Are you thinkin’ about how crazy they’d think you are if they knew? Because the do, Nugget. They think you’re crazy.” Gawng-gawng. He lumbered closer and closer to Nugget, stomping in his leaden way—somewhat slowly, given his awkward, misshapen bulk, but not slow enough that Nugget could find a weapon. “Can you feel them looking at you, Nugget? Can you feel their taunting” Gaaawwng-gaaawwng.

     “I’m used to it,” Nugget said, continuing his search. “They already thought I was strange.”

     “Not strange like this, though.” Gaaaawwng-gaaaawng.

     Nugget kept sorting through the rubble of his teacher’s desk: corrected tests, knick-knacks, binder clips, highlighters—nothing to attack a beast. Why is her desk so devoid of magical swords or mythical crossbows, Nugget thought. Doesn’t she know I’m at war, here?

     Nugget looked up then, just in time to see the monster winding up for another swat. He dropped to the floor and ducked behind the remains of Mrs. Weldingham’s desk. The monster’s giant paw struck the pile of wood and metal with hurricane force, sending shards of desk everywhere, but missing Nugget again by the smallest of fractions.

     “Stay still!” Clementine bellowed. Another swat, another miss as Nugget scrambled away—toward what used to be the corner of the classroom with the big bookcase.

     “Don’t get mad at me,” Nugget said. “Just because you’re bad at killing kids.”

     Clementine laughed again, long, loud, and deep. The sound shook the bowels of the earth and the rafters of the heavens. “Oh, I’m not bad at killing anything, Nugget,” Clementine said. “I’m pretty great at it, actually. If I wanted you dead, kiddo, you’d be dead. But if you died, what would I eat? Hmm? Ever think of that? No, kid, killing you would be too easy for you and too inconvenient for me.” Clementine smiled at Nugget and leaned back against another pile of broken desks. “You talk big all you want, Nugget, but I can still smell your fear. I can still feel your mind working. And the more time you spend dodging the inevitable, the more time you spend fearing it. You’re like a fear-farm at harvest time, Nugget.” He laughed again. “Kill you? No, my friend. I’ll never kill you. Never. I’ll torture you until you can’t handle it anymore, until your fear is so great that it consumes you, until you’re nothing but fear. But I’ll never, ever kill you . . . what kind of monster do you think I am?”

     BAM! With sudden, surprising speed, Clementine reached out again and made another swipe with his claw—this one making contact with Nugget’s ankle. A big, red swath of blood formed across the spot.

     “Oooo,” Clementine said. “That’s gonna leave a scar for certain . . . but it’s not visible enough. No, let’s try again—let’s try for your face!” Another swing—another miss. A near miss, as always. And this one was pure luck, because this time something else distracted Nugget completely. This time Nugget moved at the right time simply because something caught his eye. There, in the corner—in the opposite corner of what used to be the classroom—Nugget saw something yellow and bright in the dark, dusty rubble of the monsterscape. And as Clementine’s claw made for Nugget’s face yet again, Nugget dove across the room for it—for that big, long, pointy metal flagpole with the “SMILE AND DO THE RIGHT THING!” flag attached.

     “You’re a slippery little creep, aren’t you?” the monster asked.

     “Yeah,” Nugget said. “I am.” He reached just a little more and grasped the flagpole in his hands and leapt to his feet and held it high above his head.

     “What’s that?” Clementine asked. “You throwin’ a parade for me?”

     “Yeah,” Nugget said. “And it’s gonna march RIGHT OVER YOUR GRAVE!” He hoisted the pole high with his left hand, like a javelin. He screamed “AAAAAH!!” and he ran at the monster—who was too stunned to move even an inch—and Nugget thrust his left arm forward and made to stab the beast through the heart--

     —but at the last moment his arm went shooting off to the side, missing the monster completely. Nugget’s arm went so far out of the way, in fact, that it threw him entirely off balance, and he fell flat on his face and he slid three or four feet behind the monster. There was a moment of panting and catching his breath before Nugget realized what had happened.

     Even Clementine looked confused—for a moment. For just a moment.

     And then a big grin spread across his face, and the big, booming laugh echoed hard and hearty across space.

     “Aawwwwwwe,” Clementine cooed, “look at da widdle warrior doing battle wiff da big scaaawy monstewwww.”

     Nugget got to his feet again and gritted his teeth. While the monster laughed, he hoisted the pole over his head—this time gripping it tight with both hands—and ran at the monster again, ready to stab the beast in the face. As he got close, he prepared to thrust the pointed pole into the monster’s flesh, he felt his left arm tug away again. With a mind of its own, his arm went where it wanted and now Nugget found himself caught in a battle with the beast and with his left arm. He pulled with his right arm and the tug-o-war was so great he lost his momentum and nearly ran straight into the monster’s first. Only another last-minute tug left from his arm saved him from a face-on collision with the giant, dirty claws.

     “What is going ON?” Nugget cried. “Why isn’t this working??”

     “BECAUSE YOU’RE A FOOL!” the monster bellowed.

     Nugget grunted and gripped the pole with his right hand. It felt weaker, but enough anger filled him that he wielded it more strongly than he might have otherwise. He turned and ran at the monster again—and, had everything gone as it should have—Nugget would have wound up hitting Clementine right in his good eye, blinding him completely. But again, at the last possible moment, his left arm reached up and pulled the right one down and away, and he fell to the ground and slid across the floor. This time he hit the ground so hard and slid so fast that he knocked his head into the shrapnel of a broken desk. His head conked against the metal so hard that he went dizzy and understood suddenly why people in cartoons see birds when they get clocked in the skull. It was only a moment before he recovered his wits, but in that time Clementine managed to gather steam and direction. He batted his enormous paw at Nugget and sent him flying across the room again—and, again, Nugget slammed into the remnants of a broken desk.

     This time he couldn’t recover quickly. This time the dizziness stuck.

     Gaaaawwwg-gaaawwwng. Gaaawwng-gaaawwng.

     The monster stalked closer and closer, faster and faster, moving with greater ease than ever, and with more determination. Before Nugget could fully understand what happened, the monster stood above him. He lifted his paw again, readying to throw what would be his most forceful swipe yet—and then he paused.

     “You scar me for life, Nugget? And it’s only fair that I scar you.”

     SWIPE! The claw came fast and furious, scratching deep into Nugget’s face--

     —And then everything went black.    


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