<<Read Chapter 4

“Nugget, can you hear me?” The voice sounded far away, familiar, and guilty.

     Where am I? he thought as he came to. He felt his body waking, but he couldn’t will his eyelids open.

     “Nugget, are you there?” He couldn’t place the voice. He couldn’t even place his location. All he sensed was darkness and the desire to curl into a ball and sleep until his base-drum headache went away—however many years that would take.

     “He’s moving,” came a second voice.

     “See?” said the first. “He’s fine.”

     Nugget jolted and took in a deep, sharp breath of air. His eyelids fluttered and he forced them open—but the light flooded his pupils and he clamped them shut again.

     “I’m not sure he’s fine,” said the second voice, “but he’s certainly alive.

     After some blinking and shielding his face with his hands, Nugget’s eyes adjusted enough to make out the faces of Mrs. Weldingham (moonish and cow-like) and Nurse Kellogg (pleasant and fresh) hanging above, looking down like big paper lanterns illuminating some strange and unpleasant festival.

     “How’re you feeling, Nugget?” Nurse Kellogg asked.

     “Bad,” Nugget said. “And confused. What am I doing here?” He tried to hoist himself up on his elbows, but Nurse Kellogg prevented him.

     “You’re in the nurse’s office,” Mrs. Weldingham said.

     “Obviously,” Nugget shot back. “I mean how’d I get here?”

     The two women looked to each other, and then back at Nugget. They both started speaking at the same time, but Mrs. Weldingham’s more aggressive temperament overwhelmed the nurse.

     “You fell,” she said, gruffly. Then, after catching herself, smooth as silk: “And you banged your dear little head.”

     “Fell how?” Nugget asked.

     Again the two women looked at each other; again they spoke at the same time. This time, Nurse Kellogg won the upper hand.

     “Do you remember Mrs. Weldingham calling on you while you were daydreaming, Nugget?”

     He remembered that part, but everything Nurse Kellogg said after sounded foreign. She explained that Nugget had been unable to answer the question, and Mrs. Weldingham called Nugget to the front of the room to hold the flag in the air for twenty-five minutes.

     “As I always do with naughty students who refuse to pay attention,” Mrs. Weldingham added, “and without incident!”

     “You stood still and silent for a good seven minutes or so,” Nurse Kellogg continued, “But after that you started whimpering and gasping. If I were a decent person and not some kind of cruel monster, I would have asked if you were OK. But nobody bothered. And then, after ten minutes, you apparently hoisted the flag in the air like a sword and screamed and fell to the ground.”

     Mrs. Weldingham chimed in. “You scraped your face on the side of my desk and gave yourself quite a gash on the cheek—then you hit your head on the dustbin and passed out. At which point I raced to your side and demanded that Wendell run for Nurse Kellogg, here, so she could baby you like a dainty flower, instead of the man-child you are.”

     “Oh,” Nugget said, with a sidelong glance at his teacher. Then, to the nurse, he asked, “Can I go back to sleep now?”

     “It’s better if you don’t,” Nurse Kellogg said. “I need to make sure you don’t have a concussion, so I need to examine you. Your mom’s on her way, but she’s stuck in traffic. That gives us enough time . . . if Mrs. Weldingham could excuse us, please?”

     Mrs. Weldingham considered Nurse Kellogg for a moment, and then she studied Nugget. She pouted and sashayed out of the room, closing the door behind her.

     “Nut bag,” Nurse Kellogg said, forgetting Nugget could hear her. She blushed and smiled. “In the best possible way, I mean. She works very hard.” And with that she went about examining Nugget.

                                                                                         * * *

In the small waiting room outside Nurse Kellogg’s office, Nugget sat still and quiet while Mrs. Silverfish sat in traffic ten minutes away. Free from worry for the moment—as free as he could be—Nugget replayed the battle with Clementine. The bizarre experience left him with many questions, but one haunted him above all: why had his left arm betrayed him?

     At first he thought that the monster may have had some kind of power that protected him from attacks, and he’d used that power to push Nugget away. But then Nugget remembered the look of astonishment on the monster’s face as the flagpole surged past him. It surprised the beast as much as Nugget.

     Then, Nugget thought that perhaps Abbey’s theories had infected him, and somehow he’d psyched himself out so much that he couldn’t bring himself to do damage to the monster. But in the heat of the moment, Nugget hadn’t even thought of Abbey.

     He wracked his brain, attempting to discover the cause. The pungent, stabbing smell of something vaguely familiar wafted around him—just the slightest, softest breeze of something unusual, but recognizable. He couldn’t place it any more than he could place why his arm had taken on a mind of its down. Then something—the germ of an idea, the flash of a realization—formed in the back of his brain. It grew slowly, and Nugget had to push and delve deep into the back of his mind’s eye. Up came the idea, up, up, and it grew, and nearly formed itself fully. In just another moment the quandary would solve itself, just one more moment and--


     The waiting room door opened, surprising Nugget and pushing the nearly formed idea right out of his mind. Nugget looked up.

    “Wendell?” Nugget asked.

     It was. Wendell poked his head into the nurse’s waiting room. Nugget’s heart sank. He’d hoped he could put off the inevitable taunting a day or two. He had hoped that, despite their deep, primal need to ridicule, the kids could wait a while before destroying him. But, no. Not only could they not wait a few days, they couldn’t wait a few hours. Nugget readied himself for the onslaught. Two battles with monsters in one day, and, he assumed, two embarrassing losses.

     “You OK?” Wendell asked.

     “Can we get this over with, please?” Nugget asked. “G’ahead: gimme your best shot.”

     Wendell squinted at Nugget. He started to say something, but the sound of footsteps in the hall startled him. He slid into the room and closed the door behind him. Great, Nugget thought, now nobody’ll be able to hear me scream.

     Wendell leaned up against the door and ran his hand through his hair. “Uh,” he said, “look . . .” But he didn’t finish the thought. He turned back to the door, tiptoed up to peek through the frosted glass on top, and then turned to face Nugget again. His brown eyes darted back and forth, the way eyes do when their owner is thinking too hard. He twisted his hands and shifted in his shoes. “Uh,” he said again, “can you--do you—would you mind if I asked . . . what happened to you today?”

     Nugget studied Wendell. The boy standing before him now looked much different from the king Nugget knew and hated. This kid—nervous, fidgety, and anxious—appeared, suddenly, geekier than Nugget ever dreamt himself to me. So much for the monarchy, he thought.

     “I guess I fainted,” Nugget said. “And hit my head. But I don’t remember.”

     “No,” Wendell said, tying his hands into sailor’s knots, “I mean . . . I just wondered if . . . if anything happened to you . . . inside the faint.”

     “Inside the—” Nugget stopped. They looked at each other. Wendell’s eyes stared big and wide. He twisted his feet into an awkward, clumsy pose, as little beads of sweat bubbled out on his forehead. And, most telling, he gnawed on his lip like a hungry animal desperate for a scrap of food. Nugget recognized the habit. Nugget suffered that habit himself. And then Nugget thought, He’s just like me. And so Nugget took a big, fat gamble.

     “A monster attacked me,” he told Wendell. “And I battled it and I lost.”

     Wendell’s eyes went wider, and his shoulders dropped. Nugget knew in that moment he’d guessed correctly.

     “You—” Wendell started. He turned and peeked up and out the window again. “You . . . saw a monster? Like . . . like a monster?

     “Yeah,” Nugget said. “I saw, like, a monster.”

     Wendell rushed across the room and flung himself into a chair near Nugget.

     “Nugget, you got no idea how glad I am you said that.”

     “Well,” Nugget said, “I’m glad my being a freak makes you happy.”

     “No!” Wendell said, “it doesn’t . . . well I mean it does, but . . . look, this monster, this thing you saw, that you battled with, does it—did it say it lives on your fear and, like, promised to keep doin’ that until you can’t make enough fear to feed it?”

     “Something like that,” Nugget said. “Why?”

     “Nugget,” Wendell said, “I’ve got one, too!”

     All of a sudden Nugget felt the room brighten.

     Wendell explained that he’d only seen his monster once—that he knew of. He wasn’t sure if there had been a second time, or if he’d just caught his stepfather in bad light. But either way he always felt the monster there. “Ever since I met him I’ve been fightin’ back this, like, anxious feelin’ all the time, this terror, like somethin’ bad’s gonna happen. And I never tell anyone about ‘cause I don’t want people thinkin’ I’m a wuss. I got a reputation to uphold. But . . . all the time I feel like the roof’s gonna cave in on me. And when I . . . well, when I saw you standin’ up there lookin’ like that today, I thought . . . holy crap, he’s got a monster, too. And I felt good I wasn’t the only one. Ya know?”

     “Yeah,” Nugget said. “I think I do.”

     “But yours comes and attacks you?”

     “Well,” Nugget said, feeling suddenly a little awesome, “I kinda hit it in the eye with a big slab of sidewalk and blinded it a little, so . . . now it wants revenge.”

     “SHUT UP!” Wendell said. “What happened?”

     Nugget related the story of his first encounter—and Clementine’s promise to pay him back for the lost eye. He told Wendell how he hurt his arm in the process. He told him about the monk, and how the salve healed his arm, and how Abbey broke into the house. He told Wendell all about Abbey’s bizarre theories. He talked about his own theories on killing monsters, and then talked about his latest defeat.

     “And what I don’t understand,” Nugget said finally, “is what went wrong. I mean I was so close so many times—and my arm just . . . went its own way and I can’t figure out why or how.”

     “Hunh,” Wendell said. “That’s wicked strange.” He considered it for a moment. “Hey, you don’t think that weird gunk the old man gave you had anythin’ to do with it, do you? If it worked that fast takin’ the pain away, maybe it had other stuff goin’ on, too.”

     The realization clicked like a puzzle piece. Nugget knew at once that the salve the monk gave him had everything to do with his arm’s sudden and strange betrayal. Abbey and the old man told him violence wouldn’t work, and made it clear they wanted him to do things their way. Of course anything powerful enough to take that amount of pain away as quickly as it had would be powerful enough to sway his hand—and if monsters were possible, than anything was. Then he remembered the faint smell that wafted through the waiting room just moments before Wendell entered—the stinging smell of mint and camphor, and Nugget recognized it as the scent of the balm.

     “They set me up,” Nugget said. “Abbey and the old man set me up.”

     “What’re you gonna do?” Wendell asked.

     “I dunno,” Nugget said. “But I hafta do something, right? I mean . . . I have to talk to them at least.”

     “Maybe they know somethin’ we don’t.”

     “Maybe,” Nugget said. “Or maybe they’re just crazy and they need to get told off.”

     “Oh, I could handle that for ya.”

     “Really?” Nugget asked, staring at Wendell. “You wanna help?”

     “Why not?”

      “Well, I dunno,” Nugget said. “Aren’t you the guy who threw my backpack in the gutter last year?”

     “Well,” Wendell said, looking away. “I didn’t throw it in the gutter as much as I sorta . . . let Andy do it and stood back and laughed while he did. But . . . I mean people change, right? And for a fellow victim of a fear-eating monster? Sometimes I think you don’t pick your friends, Nugget . . . sometimes I think circumstances pick ‘em for ya.”

     “That’s unusually profound,” Nugget said. “What book didja get that from?”

     “You want me to mess ‘em up?” Wendell asked.

     Nugget didn’t know how to respond. He wasn’t exactly sure that Abbey and the monk were evil, necessarily. Just that we were a little pushy and wanted things their way. “But something’s going on,” Nugget said, “and I need to find out what.”

     “OK, so I’ll meet you at the library Saturday mornin’ and we’ll find out what.”

     Nugget looked at Wendell. He thought, there’s every chance this kid’s setting me up. In a war, you can’t trust anybody, and this kid . . . well, if I had to pick someone to distrust, he’d be at the top of the list . . . on the other hand, if it got out what a wimp he is, and how he feels like the roof is always about to cave in on him, he wouldn’t be the king of anything anymore . . . And he, if he’s on the level he might be able to keep them from making fun of me for passing out.  Nugget scrunched up his face as he made his decision. “OK,” Nugget said, at last. “I’ll meet you there at 10.”

     Just then the door flew open and a frazzled shape appeared in the frame.

     “GAH!” the boys shouted, jolting out of their seats.

     “Mom?” Nugget said, recognizing the bedraggled shape.

      Mrs. Silverfish stormed into the room, jabbering about traffic and how she couldn’t get anyone on the phone, and how worried she was, and how she’d been freaking out the whole time she sat stuck, and how she had to sign in at the front door, and on and on, until she couldn’t breathe and had to sit down because breathlessness made her dizzy.

     “Are you OK??” she managed to ask at last. “Are you all right?”

     “I’m OK, mom,” Nugget said. “I’m better than you are, anyway.”

     “Oh, I’m fine, I’m just so relieved you’re OK. Are you sure you’re OK? Are you sure?

     As Nugget talked his mother down from the heights, he wished the nurse would return from lunch so she could stab Mrs. Silverfish with a tranquilizer dart, or something. But Wendell found a card with some breathing exercises on it, and he led Mrs. Silverfish through them. In short order her blood pressure returned to normal and her frantic energy relaxed. She thanked Wendell for his help.

     “No problem,” he told her.

     “And what’s your name again?” she asked.

     “Wendell Washington.”

     Mrs. Silverfish craned her head down and peered at him. “Aren’t you the young man who tried to flush my son’s books down the toilet last year?”

     Wendell smiled and laughed a little. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t so much flush them down the toilet, as I . . . let Davis Powell do it, and I just sorta stood back and watched while he did--but people can change.

     “Mmmm,” Mrs. Silverfish said. “Well, I guess we’ll see about that. Come on, Nugget. Let’s go home.”

     Without another word, she stood and left the room. Nugget started after her.

     “Ten o’clock, Saturday,” Wendell called. “And we’ll see what’s up with those . . . librarians.

     Nugget nodded. “Ten o’clock Saturday, indeed.” And out he went.

     Wendell waited until Nugget and Mrs. Silverfish's footsteps faded completely, then he dashed to the door and peeked to see if anyone else was around. No one. He turned back into the room and closed the door behind him. He considered the nurse's waiting room. He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes, at least, before Nurse Kellogg returned. Wendell smiled. Now, he thought, a little research . . . and off he went to explore. 

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