<<Read The First Intermission
“I’M breathing in,” Nugget said for the 700th time, “I’m breathing out.”
He’d been practicing the monk’s instructions for nearly an hour, and nothing had happened. Well, nothing aside from the increasing irritation that gurgled just under his skin. He breathed in and out, repeating “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out,” over and over. He stared at the kaleidoscopic drawing and waited for something—he had no idea what—to take place. Nothing did. “I’m breathing in . . . I’m breathing out . . . I’m breathing in . . . I’m breathing—”
Just then, the spirally image on the monk’s card started spinning. Nugget’s eyes widened. A rush of excitement washed over him, but he kept his eyes on the card. “I’m breathing out,” he said, “I’m breathing in.”
The little image spun faster and fast. The lamps in the room grew brighter. They grew brighter and brighter, and suddenly the room exploded in a spray of brilliant, lavender-colored light. A wave of excitement rushed over Nugget. It felt like a deep, perfect sleep—but not passive, like sleep. This was active; this was movement. It swept him away, like a tidal wave. He gave into it entirely. He twisted and bounced along a swirling tunnel of beautiful, pulsating, lavender light.
This, Nugget thought, is amazing.
He settled into the journey, for the first time in weeks he felt peaceful and placid. He felt the way he imagined the monk always felt. I could get used to this, he thought.
On and on he went. He lost track of the time, and he didn’t care. He sighed and nestled into the ride. I wish I could feel like this all the time, he thought. Even half as good as this would be a big improvement.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something odd—a small, dark blotch, infesting the lovely purpleness of the journey. Nugget looked back behind to see it, and a jolt of fear rippled in his stomach. Just as he felt the fear inside, he felt himself drop—a quick lurch downward. He looked up and the small blotch and watched as it grew farther away, but another blotch appeared in the swirling air, and fear shot through him again, sharper this time, and more insistent. As the insistence grew, he fell again, and this time he didn’t stop falling.
No no no, Nugget thought, as he reached up for something to hold onto. Of course, there was nothing to hold on to, just a swirl of purple glow surrounding him. As he dropped, the light of the tunnel grew darker and colder. Black blotches appeared here and there, larger and more frequently the further he fell. Nugget realized something had gone terribly wrong. He clenched his fists tight and tried to will himself upward.
A sudden downdraft flipped him upside down, and he finally saw the dark, swirling, spiraling abyss below. A whooshing sound filled his ears—and inside that noise, he heard something else: something dark, something haunted, something familiar. Inside the whooshing of the air, he swore he heard the monster laughing.
He fell further and further, and as his fear intensified, so did the rate of the fall. There was no telling how long before the nothingness swallowed him; no way to see what, if anything, resided there. And the more terrified he felt, the faster he fell. It overwhelmed him and he realized that fighting the fall was hopeless. There was nothing to cling to, nothing to work with. The monk hadn’t warned him of this possibility, and he gave Nugget no instructions of handling something like this.
“This is it,” Nugget said aloud.
He closed his eyes and accepted the inevitable. He relaxed and prepared for his end. And strangely, as soon as he made the choice to let go, the fear dissipated. And as soon as the fear dissipated, he felt everything pull back and slow down—as though some cosmic bungee cord had reached the ends of its elastic. The second Nugget realized there might be hope after all, he felt himself go shooting up.
Up, up, up he went, the atmosphere lightening from deep, dark shades of blue and indigo, back up to the happier, warmer, safer-feeling lavender. Up he went, past the black blotches that distracted him initially and sent him spiraling down, up back into the flow he’d started in. Warmth and relaxation overtook him again. Instantly Nugget smiled; instantly, everything became peaceful.
Another large, dark splotch appeared in the light. Nugget closed his eyes tight and ignored it. He bounded and twisted and floated along and he resisted the allure of anything that might make him fall.
Then, after a moment, he heard a voice say, “Nugget?”
Just then the energy spilled him onto the carpet in front of the monk’s stage. Nugget patted around his body to make sure he’d arrived whole, and it took a moment or two before he finally understood what had happened. He looked around and saw Wendell, Abbey, and the monk all staring at him.
“What’s wrong?” Nugget asked.
“That’s what we should be askin’ you,” Wendell said. He stepped forward and held his hand out to help Nugget off the ground. “You look pretty freaked.”
Nugget started to explain what had happened, but something stopped him. A guilty feeling formed—as though he’d done something wrong. And he recalled the monk’s instructions, and his warning that if Nugget doubted the effectiveness of the monk’s techniques, nothing would work; nothing would improve. That must’ve been what happened, Nugget thought. I got nervous—I doubted, and it stopped working. Somehow I got it going again, but that must’ve been my fault.
“We’ve lost a little time,” the monk said, “why don’t get right to work.”
Nugget agreed, but not with the confidence the monk hoped for. Nugget shoved the monk’s transportation card back into his pocket, and approached the rest of the group.
“I’d like to start with a little re-enactment,” the monk said, guiding Nugget over to the stage. It’s going to be very simple. I just want to get a sense of how you react to things. So step up there, Nugget, and stand in front of that painted screen, there—nope, the one with the trees on it. Good. And Abbey?”
Everyone turned to Abbey, who stood leering at Wendell. Surprised passed over Wendell’s face, and Abbey realized everyone was looking at her. She frowned.
“Did you say something?” she asked.
The monk jerked his head over in the direction of the stage. Abbey obeyed, with a strange look on her face. The monk positioned her a few feet from Nugget. Abbey limply let him guide her, and stood slouching with her weight on one leg, half-listening as the monk continued his explanation.
“When I say ‘go,’ Nugget, Abbey is going to attack you as though she were your monster. OK? I want you to behave exactly as you think you would if you were facing the monster. It’s that simple. Make sense?”
“Yeah,” Nugget mumbled.
“What a chipper group of students I have tonight,” the monk said.
“I’m fine,” Wendell added, happily. Abbey and Nugget rolled their eyes.
“OK, Nugget, now: before we start I want you to do this, OK? Close your eyes for me, will you do that?” Nugget closed his eyes. “I want you to think of the landscape you experienced the first time the monster attacked. Do you remember what it looked like?” Nugget nodded. “Good. Picture it. Imagine yourself there. Don’t imagine the monster; try not to relive the battle. Just close your eyes and imagine the space. Can you do that?”
“Yup,” Nugget said.
“Good,” the monk said. Keep your eyes closed and let the image form around you. And when I say ‘go,’ you can open your eyes.”
“OK,” Nugget said. He stood with his eyes closed, and imagined the landscape: the darkness, the ruined houses and foundations, the blackened sidewalks, the stony rubble. He smelled a sulfuric, eggy smell—it burnt his nostrils and throat. A trace of panic tingled in his belly, and a slight dizziness made him wobble. He swallowed back that bit of fear.
He fell so deep into his imagination, he wasn’t sure if he actually heard the monk say “ready.” He thought he heard it, but in the distance of his imagined landscape, Nugget saw—and heard—something that hadn’t been there the first time he met the monster. In the distance, Nugget saw a tall, bluish column of swirling wind and dust sweeping toward him.
“You say ‘go’ yet?” Nugget asked, his voice trembling.
In his mind’s eye, he peered—his eyes still closed—deeper into the distance to be sure he saw what he thought he saw. And he did. There, spiraling toward him, was an electric tornado of blue and indigo light. A scream escaped from Nugget’s mouth.
He opened his eyes.
Wendell, Abbey, and the monk stood slack-jawed. As they prepared for the re-enactment, the monk counted down to five. At two, they saw Nugget scream as a great whooshing sound filled the air, blowing the pages of all the open books—and suddenly, Nugget went completely gray and stiff and fell flat to the ground, like a toppling statue.
“What happened?” Wendell shouted, running to Nugget. But Abbey and the monk couldn’t answer. Wendell reached out and tried to help Nugget up, but when his hand touched Nugget’s arm, he shot back up and away from Nugget.
“What?” Abbey asked.
“He’s stone,” Wendell said. “That’s stone.”
Abbey raced up to Nugget, and felt his forehead. She looked up at Wendell, then to the monk. “He’s right,” she said. “He’s rock solid.” Her face went ashen and her eyes watery and red. She stammered, and for the first time in her life she had nothing to say. He grabbed Wendell’s arm as he got up off the ground and kept a tight grip on it.
They looked at the monk. Their hearts sank as the saw the look of complete and total astonishment on the face of the wizened old man. Never in all Abbey’s eleven-and-a-half years had she ever--ever—seen that look on her grandfather’s face. She’d never seen the lost, hollowness in the eyes, the dropped jaw, and the ghost-white skin. She’d never seen his hands tremble.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” Wendell shouted again.
Without a word, the monk drove for a pile of books on one of the tables. He began hunting through them with an animal aggression. He drew one book out of the stash, knocking three or four to the floor. He flipped through the pages, and in a minute or two he’d moved on to a second.
Wendell and Abbey looked on, Abbey never releasing her grip on Wendell’s arm.
When Nugget opened his eyes, his heart dropped. He expected to find himself back in the safe familiarity of the library. When he opened his eyes, though, he stood in exactly the spot he’d been imagining at the monk’s instruction. And, just as in his imagination, the glowing, blue tornado swept closer and closer to him.
He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
“Abbey?” he choked at last—a weak whimper, filled with desperation, but lacking enough volume for Nugget to hear himself. “Wendell?” the same. He put his hand to this throat and massaged it a little, trying to warm it up, trying to will sound to come out. “Monk?” Again, just a croak, just a hoarse sound, lacking any velocity.
Is this part of the re-enactment, he wondered. Am I supposed to stay here and tough it out, or something? Am I supposed to do what I’d normally do? What would I normally do?
The tornado spun closer and closer—maybe a football field away, now, and Nugget realized there was only one thing to do: run. And it wasn’t something he’d ever been good at or drawn to. But he turned on his heels and bolted away from the glowing tornado.
He ran awkwardly, harshly, without the skill of an athlete who knows to let his feet hit the ground gently. Nugget pumped his legs out with all his force, and smashed each foot into the ground, using all his muscle to hurl himself forward as fast and as far as he could. Again and again: lift, smash, push; lift, smash, push; alternating back and forth—each stride burning under his skin, each contact with the ground sending stinging pain through his leg. But he ran and ran. Sweat flew off his brow like a sprinkler, his breath came fast and sharp in and out of his lungs. This burns, he thought, everything burns. But he ran and he ran.
I can’t go on much longer, he thought. Instinct told him to turn and look behind. In the span of about four minutes, the distance between Nugget and the tornado decreased from the span of a football field to the span of the distance between second base and home plate. “GAHH!” Nugget screamed, and he redoubled his efforts. He pushed further, lurched faster; his feet hit the ground harder, the burning burned hotter, the breath cut sharper and deeper. And push though he might, he could already feel the whirling wind. The sting of dust and debris already stung his eyes and sucked into his mouth. He could tell already he was slowing down, even as he pushed harder and harder. His body hadn’t prepared for this kind of a race. Now, faced with the choice of running any further or being swept up into the storm, he knew he’d have to choose the storm. He couldn’t outrun it, couldn’t dodge it, couldn’t try. He slowed. He stopped. He gasped for air. He turned again to see how far the winds had come, and just at that moment they arrived and flung him up into the cyclone and sucked him inside its funnel.
The force stunned Nugget. He knew the winds would be strong, but he had no idea how strong. They pulled him into their fold so quickly, so jarringly, he felt like he’d left his limbs on the ground behind him. He felt a shoe go flying off; he felt a cold, blue rush of dirty wind shove itself deep inside his lungs.
The winds tossed him, flipped him. He went hurtling around the outside of the cyclone, and when he finally managed to look down he realized he’d been thrown at least twenty feet in the air. He saw the ground spin around below, saw the burnt out rubble of the monsterscape—then saw it disappear as the storm sucked him into its glowing, spinning, blue-indigo guts.
Once inside, Nugget recognized his turbulent surroundings. He recognized the dark blue and indigo swirling light as the hole he nearly fell into while being transported to the library by the monk’s magical card. He looked down and saw the abyss—an endless deep, dark, swirling nothingness that went on forever.
A scream erupted from his guts. He whipped his head back, flipping himself upside right—and away from the spinning pit. With no other ideas, with no wits left about him, he clawed at the glowing wind, trying to crawl through it, trying to crawl up, as though climbing a ladder. But after even only a few seconds of struggle, his arms and legs gave out. He’d worn himself out running, and his muscles wouldn’t cooperate any longer. He relaxed his muscles, and the wind tore him down deeper. And at the very moment, he heard the rumbling, basso-profundo pounding of the monster’s terrible laugh.
Terror unlike any he’d felt before ripped through Nugget’s body, and another scream erupted from him. His body seized with fear, tensing every muscle, constricting every tendon, and the cyclone pulled Nugget down into its center, down into the abyss, down deep, as fast as could be, into the unknown darkness below.
All Nugget could hear: the rush of air and the taunting, screaming laugh of the monster.
And all he could see: the darkness.
Read Chapter 8>>