At 6:30 A.M. Stuart Fishback snapped awake to the sound of his alarm clock. He opened one eye, rolled over and pressed a button on his nightstand, triggering a robotic arm to smack the alarm clock, brush it into the trash, and unroll the blinds. Sunlight flooded the room, making him squint. For a moment he thought it was Saturday, a day to work in his invention shed, but then he realized it was Tuesday, a school day. He hated school days.
Stuart trudged to the bathroom and splashed his face with icy water. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a tired, skinny kid with dark hair sticking up on the side of his head. I look like a freak, he thought. He grabbed a gadget from the bathroom closet. The Hair Smasher was a hot-water bottle wrapped in a washcloth and stuck inside one of his mom’s shower caps. He pulled it onto his head and waited. In five minutes his hair would be smashed flat, but in the meantime he had to endure his little brother’s giggling.
Marvin had just turned 4 years old—too young for kindergarten and too old to be put back in the crib. Stuart hated him. Marvin followed Stuart like a shadow. He was a creepy little clone, a little monster that tried to walk, talk, and dress exactly like him.
Worst of all, Marvin tinkered with Stuart’s things, either taking them apart or smashing them for the fun of it. It drove Stuart nuts. He longed for the days when he and his parents could put that little monster in his crib and keep him out of trouble.
Stuart glared at Marvin. “Do you want one lump of sugar or two?”
Marvin stopped grinning and shook his head. “I don’t want no shoogah, Stooaht.” But it was too late. Stuart trapped his brother in a headlock and rubbed Marvin’s scalp with his knuckles.
“That’s one lump,” Stuart said. He let up for a moment and then grinded Marvin’s head again. “That’s another. Do you want more?”
“No, Stooaht.” The kid wasn’t crying, but Stuart knew he soon would be if he kept it up.
Stuart released him. “Okay, scram.”
Marvin ran off and Stuart got dressed in peace. In the kitchen, his dad packed lunches. Stuart filled a bowl with cold cereal and milk and Marvin pulled up a chair beside him. As Marvin loaded up his bowl with the same kind of cereal, Stuart rolled his eyes. That kid never quits.
After breakfast, Stuart ran out to catch the school bus, but when he reached the curb, he realized he’d forgotten two things: to get his backpack, and second, to remove the Hair Smasher from his head. He raced back inside the house. At the top of the stairs, he pulled the Hair Smasher off his head and took a peek at his hair in the bathroom mirror. Flat as a pancake. Excellent, he thought.
In the hallway, he noticed that his bedroom door was cracked open, and he always kept it closed to keep Marvin from messing with his inventions. He stepped inside to make sure the little jerk hadn’t wrecked anything and as he looked around, his mom called, “Hurry up, Stuart, or you’ll miss your bus.”
Stuart grabbed his backpack and as he turned to leave, he had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. His room was different from how he had left it. Then, he noticed that the blinds were shut. How had that happened? He knew he had left them open.
Had someone been in here? It must have been Marvin, he thought. He opened the blinds, looked around, and shrugged. It’s just my imagination, he thought and started for the door, but then froze in his tracks. Suddenly he was certain something or someone was behind the door. He could hear it breathing and he noticed a sweet, rotting odor that reminded him of the half-eaten yogurt he’d left in his locker at school once.
Stuart grabbed his homemade, super-atomic squirt gun from the bookshelf and tiptoed to the door, holding his breath and his finger on the trigger. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. No one’s here, he thought. It’s nothing. Stuart grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door away from the wall. What he saw behind the door made him drop his weapon on his foot and squirt himself in the groin.
An eight-foot-tall creature with a bald head, ghostly white skin, and sunken eyes glared back at him. It looked like a corpse dressed up for its own funeral. A dusty pinstriped suit sagged on a bone-thin frame, and a black bowtie dipped to one side. The droopy arms and bony fingers seemed to have been stretched like taffy.
Stuart would have screamed, if he wasn’t breathless and he would have bolted for the hallway if he weren’t paralyzed. Instead, he stared, wide-eyed at the monster. Scream, Stuart told himself. Scream like you’ve never screamed in your life. His parents, after all, were just downstairs. They would hear him, he thought. SCREAM, you moron!
Stuart took a deep breath and opened his mouth, and just then the creature clapped an enormous, bony hand over his lips before he could utter a sound.
“No, you don’t. Not a peepo, creepo,” the monster said, his voice more nervous than sinister. His breath reminded Stuart of a cat-litter box that hasn’t been changed for two weeks, and his cold hand felt like it had spent a year in a damp grave. Stuart struggled to break free but the monster overpowered him.
Stuart’s mother called from downstairs, “Get a move on, Stuart. It’s time to go.” Stuart called out to her but only managed muffled sounds. He struggled to break free and then he heard her again, “Okay, we’re leaving you here, Stuart. You better be out the door in two minutes. Two minutes. Do you hear me?”
He heard the front door close, followed by the sound of his parents’ station wagon pulling out of the driveway. Soon they would be miles away and he would be doomed, he thought.
As the car’s engine grew faint, the only sounds Stuart heard were the pounding of his heart and the huffing breaths of a monster in need of a breath mint.
The grip over Stuart’s mouth made it hard for him to breathe and he knew if he didn’t do something soon he’d be monster food. He bit down hard on the monster’s hand and a disgusting grapefruit-and-onion flavor flooded his mouth. Gross, monster blood, Stuart thought.
“YEEOWWW!” the monster howled, sending a set of wooden dentures skidding across the floor. The teeth came to a rest in a disgusting pool of saliva. Stuart could see that the creature was embarrassed. It snatched the dentures off the floor and popped them into its mouth, and as it did, Stuart realized he was no longer frightened.
He picked up his water gun and aimed it at the monster’s face. “Who are you?” Stuart asked.
The monster flared his nostrils, seemingly annoyed. “I’m the Clobberer, of course.”
Stuart squinted. “The what?”
The monster raised his voice as if yelling would make Stuart remember. “The Clobberer. You know, Claw-ber-rer. Do you need me to spell it?”
Stuart shrugged. “I’ve never heard of you.”
The monster looked surprised. “You mean you haven’t you heard this song around the campfire at night? The Clobberer’s coming. The Clobberer’s coming. Lock up your doors. Run for your life. Ready or not, there’s going to be strife.” The monster looked at Stuart, waiting for a reply.
“Nope. Never heard it.”
The monster rolled his eyes. “You obviously don’t camp very often.”
“So what are you, a zombie?”
“Of course not. I don’t eat people. That’s disgusting. I’m a tremble, we eat bugs and berries.”
Stuart lowered his gun. “A tremble? What are trembles?”
The Clobberer looked stunned. “You’ve never heard of trembles? Are you kidding me? Next you’ll tell me that you haven’t heard of Hornblotters either, and how they cover you in maple syrup, roll you in nuts, and gobble you up? Or how Gas Hounds send blood chilling toots into the night sky?”
“What are you talking about?” Stuart asked.
“I’m talking about monsters far scarier than me.”
Stuart raised his eyebrows. “That doesn’t sound too hard.”
The Clobberer turned away from Stuart and his shoulders began to shake. He slumped to the floor and Stuart found himself feeling sorry for him.
“Hey, don’t take it so hard. Whatever I said, I didn’t mean anything,” Stuart said.
The monster looked up at him with moist, bloodshot eyes, then pulled a dirty handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose, honking like a goose. “I never scare anyone.”
“That’s not true,” Stuart said, shaking his head. “I was scared when you were hiding behind my door.”
“Yes, that was a little creepy, wasn’t it?” the monster said, wiping his nose.
Stuart sat beside him. “Sure. I could hardly breathe. And then when I saw you standing there, I freaked out.”
The monster looked at the wet patch of Stuart’s pants. “I guess you did.”
“No, that was my squirt gun,” Stuart said, turning away.
“Yeah, sure it was. So I was scary, huh?”
“Yep. And you smell bad, too. Like a garbage truck full of cabbage and onions.” Stuart was laying it on thick, but he didn’t mind. It seemed like this guy could use a friend.
The Clobberer grinned. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” His smile faded. “It doesn’t matter. I won’t live to see another night.”
Stuart watched a worm wiggle out of the monster’s breast pocket. “Why not?”
“I missed the boat again,” the monster said.
“The one that gets me back to the Land of Nightfall.” The Clobberer turned to Stuart. “All monsters have to catch the boat before dawn or they get stuck on this side. I must have fallen asleep.”
“There’s no boat around here. There’s no water for miles, except in my fish tank,” Stuart said.
The Clobberer pointed to his toy chest. “It’s right over there.”
Stuart looked at the hockey skates and baseball mitt sticking out of the chest. “That’s a boat?”
“You bet. At the right time of day it takes you straight to the Land of Nightfall where all the monsters live.”
Stuart walked over to the chest and brushed some toys aside. “This takes you where?”
The Clobberer shook his head. “The Land of Nightfall. Jeez, take the wax out of your ears. Well, I guess you wouldn’t know about it unless you’ve been there, and you’re really not supposed to know about, being a human.”
Stuart realized this monster wasn’t the brightest guy around. “But you’re telling me about it.”
“No, I’m not,” the Clobberer said. “I would never say a word about it to a human. It’s against monster code.”
“No,” Stuart egged him on. “And you wouldn’t tell me how a toy box turns into a taxi cab with nightly trips to Monster Land?”
“Not a taxi,” The Clobberer said. “A boat. You’re not a very good listener, are you? I came last night to scare you, but you never woke up. I must have drifted off. I can’t believe I let it happen. When you woke up, I hid behind your door.”
“Can’t you just return to the Land of Nightfall now?”
The Clobberer shook his head. “Don’t you remember? I missed the boat. I can’t take this toy box anywhere now. Not until dark, anyway.”
“So, you’ll just have to wait in my room then?”
“Yes. I have to stay out of sight. It’s against monster code to be seen in daylight. And now that I’m late for my morning meeting, my master will know that I was missing. He’s gonna have me for breakfast when I get back.”
“Who’s your master?” Stuart asked.
The Clobberer scowled at Stuart. “The Hideous Stoag. He controls every monster in the Land of Nightfall. No one crosses the master. I’m going to be fizzled like a grilled piffle sandwich when he finds me.”
The monster suddenly broke out in tears with great and ghastly sobbing that Stuart thought was loud enough to wake the neighbors.
“Okay, okay, take it easy,” Stuart said. “It won’t do any good to sit here crying. I always say if you’re not happy, try something else.” In truth, Stuart had just made this up. But it seemed to work, because the monster raised his chin and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“Like what?” the monster asked.
Stuart looked around his room for something they could do. Boxes of wires, nuts, bolts and springs caught his attention. He doubted the monster would want to invent things with him. Then Stuart saw the CD player and raised his eyebrows. “How about a little music?”
A look of terror swept across the Clobberer’s face. He inched away from the stereo and pressed his back against the wall. “No music. Please.”
Stuart grinned. “Why not? You’re not afraid of a little music, are you?”
“Please don’t,” the monster said. “I’m begging you.”
Stuart looked through his CDs and found some funky music. He put it in the CD player and cranked up the volume. The rhythm made the Clobberer’s right foot tap, and then his head started nodding. The monster got to his feet, and his hips rocked from side to side. He tried to hold down his right hand with his left, but it was no use. The monster danced like a marionette controlled by invisible strings.
“Stop the music,” he said, smiling. “Please, it tickles.”
Stuart laughed and got to his feet and danced, watching the Clobberer shake his bottom like a wet dog.
The song ended and the Clobberer pleaded, “Please, turn it off. I can’t stop dancing as long as there’s music playing.”
“You’re kidding?” Stuart said.
“Nope,” the Clobberer said. As he spoke, another song began to play and the Clobberer started dancing again. Stuart turned the music on and off a half dozen times, making the monster stop and start dancing. Stuart turned off the music and bent over, his stomach sore from laughing.
The Clobberer struggled to catch his breath. “Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
Stuart grinned. “Okay.”
“Promise me another thing,” the monster said.
Stuart looked at him, holding back a laugh. “What?”
“You’ll never tell a soul about me or the Land of Nightfall.”
Stuart nodded his head, but the fingers of his right hand were crossed behind his back. “No problem.”
“And one more thing,” the Clobberer said with lowered eyebrows. “You never saw me dance. If kids found out, it would ruin my career as a monster.”
Stuart didn’t like to lie, even to the Clobberer, but he couldn’t help himself. “I promise,” he said. This was one secret he knew he’d never be able to keep. He wanted to stay and talk more, but he knew if he skipped school, he’d be in big trouble. “Look, I’ve got to get going. Try not to trash the house while I’m gone.”
“I won’t touch a thing,” the Clobberer said, leaning on a shelf and tipping it over. Three inventions fell to the ground and broke into a dozen pieces. “Oops. Sorry about that.”
“That’s okay. If I don’t see you later, good luck with the Hideous Toad,” Stuart said.
The Clobberer shook his hand, “That’s Hideous Stoag. And thanks.”
“Call me Stuart.”
The monster grinned. “Okay, Stuart.”
He closed his bedroom door and left this strange friend to play solitaire in his room. This was no typical day, Stuart thought. Not in the least.
Keeping the Clobberer a secret turned out to be harder than Stuart had thought. When he stepped into his homeroom, Ms. Zilly glared at him. “Nice of you to show up, Mr. Fishback,” she said with sarcasm. She was in a horrible mood as usual. Her green eyes were like lasers beneath her straight black bangs. She handed him a tardy slip and then sent him to his desk, directly behind his best friend Jack Parker.
Jack grinned at Stuart and passed him a note when Ms. Zilly wasn’t looking. The note said, “Where’ve you been, Fishy?”
Stuart wrote, “I can’t talk about it,” and passed the note back. Seconds later another note landed on the floor beside Stuart’s desk. It read, “Did you wet the bed?”
Stuart held back a giggle. He knew that passing notes was risky, especially with Jack’s wisecrack remarks. If he wasn’t careful, Jack would have him laughing.
Stuart wrote, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” and slipped Jack the note while the teacher’s back was turned.
Another note landed on Stuart’s desk. “Try me,” Jack wrote.
“I was trapped in my room by a monster,” Stuart wrote.
When Jack read the message, he choked and Ms. Zilly turned to him, glaring. Stuart had no doubt that Jack was her least favorite student and Stuart couldn’t blame her. It was Jack’s nature to make loud outbursts and crack jokes. Stuart often wished that Jack would put a cork in it, but that didn’t seem possible. Jack was the class clown, a loud mouth, a goofball, and like a wild stallion, he wasn’t meant to be controlled by anyone. A constellation of freckles orbited Jack’s nose, and since he fell off his bike and lost a front tooth, he sported a jack-o-lantern smile with pride. He was grinning at Ms. Zilly now, which was not a good idea, Stuart thought.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Parker?” Ms. Zilly inquired.
Jack shook his head. “Nope. No problem here. Just a scratchy throat, that’s all.”
Ms. Zilly squinted and then returned to her lesson. The moment her back was turned, Jack passed another note that read, “What in the heck are you talking about?”
As Stuart wrote a response, a shadow fell on his paper. Ms. Zilly was upon him. To his horror, she snatched the note, raised an eyebrow, and read their correspondence aloud.
“I was trapped in my room by a monster,” Ms. Zilly said and looked up at the boys. “What nonsense is this?”
Stuart shrugged. “It’s nothing, just a joke.”
“You’re quite a comedian aren’t you?” Stuart knew better than to answer her.
“It’s my fault, Ms. Zilly,” Jack said. “Not Stuart’s.”
“That will be enough, Mr. Parker. Both of you go sit in a corner.” She directed Jack to one corner and Stuart to another. Their classmates pointed at them and smirked, but it didn’t bother Stuart. It was better than being sent to the principal’s office.
They spent the morning in their new seating arrangements until the bell rang and they were excused to lunch and recess. On the way to the lunchroom, Stuart told Jack everything that had happened.
“If a monster’s in your room, I want to see it.” Jack said, stepping in front of him and blocking the way.
“Now?” Stuart said. “We can’t. I’m already in trouble. I’ve got a tardy slip, remember?” Stuart pushed him aside and stepped into the cafeteria. The smell of macaroni and cheese and tuna casserole met him as he passed by the kids lined up for hot lunch.
“So what?” Jack said. He followed Stuart to a table and sat beside him. “Have you forgotten that it gets dark after school? Once that happens, the monster’s ship will sail and I’ll miss him. If I’m gonna see him, we gotta get going.”
Stuart considered Jack’s proposal. He knew that his parents would ground him for a month and take away his video games if he skipped school. Stuart shook his head. “No way,” he said.
Jack grabbed Stuart’s shirt and looked him in the eyes. “Look, Fishy. If I had a monster in my house, I’d show you.”
As unlikely as that scenario was, Stuart knew Jack was telling the truth. Best friends did that kind of thing for one another. How could he refuse? He agreed to give Jack one look, just as long as they got back before recess ended.
Jack yelped with excitement and minutes later, the two boys skirted by the principal’s office and slipped out the front doors unnoticed. They ran all the way to Stuart’s house and Stuart led him upstairs to have a look.
The two boys entered Stuart’s bedroom quietly, sneaking up on the monster snoozing on Stuart’s bed. Stuart tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Clobberer, it’s me, Stuart.”
The monster opened his eyes and then his mouth. He screamed, sending Jack backward. He hit the ground and backed against the wall.
“Take it easy,” Stuart said, “it’s just me and my buddy, Jack.”
Jack nodded. His face was flushed and Stuart could tell he was terrified.
“I told you not to freak out,” Stuart scowled at Jack.
Jack turned to him and said, “What would you do if a monster screamed at you?”
Stuart laughed. “You should have seen yourself. You shot over there faster than a cannonball.”
“Very funny,” Jack said catching his breath. “Hysterical.”
“What’s he doing here?” the Clobberer asked. “I told you no one can no about me.”
“Oh, it’s alright. It’s just Jack. He won’t tell anyone. Right, Jack?”
Jack nodded his head and stood up. “I won’t tell. I promise.”
“And you can’t say a word about the Land of Nightfall or how monsters come an go in your toy chests.”
“Yes, I promise.” Jack nodded and then turned to Stuart and raised his eyebrows.
“He won’t tell anyone.”
“Okay then,” the Clobberer said. “So, is it dark outside yet?”
“Nope,” Jack answered. “It’s lunchtime. It won’t be dark for hours.”
The monster sighed. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
“What’s your world like?” Jack asked.
“It’s lovely,” the Clobberer said. “We have wonderful graveyards, rat-infested tunnels, all-you-can-eat bug restaurants, racket ball courts.”
Jack sat beside the monster. “Cool. I want to see it. Can I go with you?”
“No, you can’t go with me. It’s a monster world. You’d be eaten alive. Seriously.”
“Ah, come on. Let me go with you,” Jack said.
Jack was quiet for a moment. “I’ll let you borrow my skateboard?”
“I don’t skateboard,” the monster said.
“I have video games.”
“Not interested,” the monster said.
“I have fresh worms from my worm bin?”
The monster raised his eyebrows and then shook his head. “You can’t go with me. No humans can go there. It’s not safe. Don’t even think about it.”
Jack sniffed the monster’s coat. “Pee-you, you stink.”
“Thank you,” the monster said. “So kind of you to mention it.”
“Huh?” Jack looked at Stuart and raised his eyebrows.
Stuart answered, “He wants to stink. He’s a monster, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” Jack said. “Do you go to lots of kids houses?”
“Yes,” the monster said.
“Ever been to mine?” Jack probed.
“Yes,” the monster said. “You live down the street and your older brothers are still afraid of me.”
“They’ve seen you?” Jack asked.
“Sure, why do you think they scream at night?”
Jack laughed. “You made them do that? That’s great. Do it again tonight.”
“I won’t be doing anything tonight except answering to the Hideous Stoag.”
Jack looked confused.
Stuart shook his head and said, “That’s his master, the king of the monster world, I guess.”
The Clobberer nodded. “That’s right. He’s the meanest of them all.”
“Oh man, I have got to see him,” Jack said.
“No, you must never get near him. You will be mashed like a grogglewump and covered in caterpillar cream.
“You’re funny,” Jack said.
“You smell like raisins,” the monster responded, angrily.
Stuart tugged Jack’s flannel shirt. “Jack, we’ve got to go. You’ve seen him, now let’s split.”
“One more question,” Jack said. “Do you get paid for scaring kids?”
“Sort of. I am a servant of the Stoag. Whatever he says, I have to do?”
Jack grinned. “What if he tells you to kiss another monster?”
“I kiss the monster.”
“What if he tells you to bring him a bride?”
“I bring it to him.”
Stuart grabbed Jack’s arm. “Come on, Jack, we’ve got to go. Now. Let’s go.” He dragged Jack out of the room.
“I’ll see you around,” Jack called as they headed out the door.
“See you, Jack,” the Clobberer said.
The two headed to school, Jack talking nonstop about the monster and how they have to go with him to the Land of Nightfall and how they have to sick him on their enemies, especially Jack’s older brothers. Once inside the school, they dashed down the hallway. Stuart heard the unmistakable voice of Mr. Beaks, the principal. Stuart wanted to run, but resisted the urge.
“And where are you two going?” Mr. Beaks’ voice was shrill and scratchy. It reminded Stuart of an angry parrot.
We’re busted, he thought. He turned and saw the man’s tall, thin frame a few paces behind them. He’d never known a person could be so pale and he wondered if he might be a tremble like the Clobberer.
“Why aren’t you two outside playing with the other children?”
Why aren’t you in a haunted house? Stuart thought.
“We’re on our way out. We’re slow eaters,” Jack responded.
“Is that right?” He glanced at his watch. “It takes you 35 minutes to eat a sandwich and drink some milk?” Mr. Beaks held his eyes on Jack’s without blinking.
Jack nodded. “I pack a really big lunch.”
If Mr. Beaks bought the story, he didn’t show it. “I’d like to see this lunch of yours sometime.”
Jack forced a smile. “Sure thing, Mr. Beaks. Can we go now?”
The principal’s eyes met Stuart’s. Those black orbs had some kind of magic in them. Stuart was certain that if he looked at them much longer he’d be hypnotized.
Jack distracted Stuart. “Um, can we go now? We’d like to get some fresh air and exercise. It’s good for kids, you know. Helps build muscles,” Jack said, flexing his biceps.
Mr. Beaks was unmoved by his argument. “I’ll be watching you, boys.”
Jack grabbed Stuart by the arm and led him down the hall as quickly as possible without running.
“Jeez,” Jack said, pushing open the door to the playground. “That was close.”
Throughout the day, Stuart jotted down everything he could remember about the monster in his sketchbook. After school, he and Jack sat on the curb waiting for their school bus. Jack looked at the picture Stuart had drawn of the Clobberer.
“His nose was a little longer, I think,” Jack said.
Stuart rubbed the picture with his eraser and added an inch to the nose. “How’s that?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah, that’s more like it.”
As they talked darkness fell and Stuart imagined the Clobberer was getting ready to sail back to the Land of Nightfall.
The Clobberer stepped into the toy box and shut his eyes. As the room became dark, he and the toy box sailed from sight.
The chest floated on through dark caves and foggy bays before reaching a swamp with a wooden dock. The Clobberer stepped onto the dock and stepped quickly passed the torches that lined it, hoping no one would see his return. No one appeared to be around. He soon discovered that the monsters had convened for the evening at their meeting hall, and as he drew nearer, their voices became louder.
The Clobberer did his best to slip into the group unnoticed but as he approached on tiptoes, he sneezed and all heads turned to him. Snoshers and jawsers, hornblotters and freckled gadzooks—monsters of every description glared his way.
“It’s the Slobberer,” said a ferritwitch. “Where you been, Slobberpus?” She cackled and other monsters laughed.
Despite the fact that he had prepared what to say, he was at a loss for words. His voice stuck in his throat like a chicken bone. A bogtroll pointed at him, “You’ve been gone all day, haven’t you, Slob-face?”
And in the center of the ring of monsters, the master’s eyes focused on him as well. The sight of the master made the hair stand up on the back of the Clobberer’s neck and he felt dread take hold of his stomach and strangle it.
“Yes, Clobberer, where have you been all day?” The master said. He was a giant, menacing frog, but as he moved forward, he transformed into a cobra.
Wanting to run, but knowing there was nowhere to hide, the Clobberer said, “Your monsterness, I was hiding in a boy’s room. I missed the boat because I overslept.”
“You overslept,” the Hideous Stoag said, emitting fire from his mouth. “Since when are you supposed to be sleeping in a child’s house?”
The Clobberer looked at his feet and kicked a pebble across the dirt floor. When he looked up, the master was now more wolf than reptile. The Clobberer flinched at the sight. “Well, um, I was waiting to scare the boy, but he kept sleeping, which is weird because kids usually get up for a drink of water or a snack or something but—”
“Did he see you in the daylight?” the Hideous Stoag asked, his body now part wolf and part bat.
The Clobberer shook his head. “Well, yeah, but only briefly.”
The Hideous Stoag roared, “How did you let this happen?”
“It wasn’t my fault. Honest. He was snooping around before he went to school and he found me hiding.” The Clobberer looked away from the master’s eyes and noticed that all the monsters were enjoying his predicament. He knew he should stop talking but out of nervousness he couldn’t.
“He’s nothing to worry about though. I’m sure he and his friend Jack won’t repeat a word of what I told him either. That kid Jack sure asks a lot of questions, but I—”
“What did you tell him?” The Hideous Stoag said.
The Clobberer shrugged. “Oh, nothing much, really. I may have said something about the Land of Nightfall. I mentioned you, of course. It would be rude not to, you know.”
“You idiot,” the Hideous Stoag said. “Children cannot know our secrets.”
The Clobberer shook his head and held up a hand. “Don’t worry, they won’t tell anyone. They promised.”
The Hideous Stoag’s hot breath scalded the Clobberer’s face, burning his eyebrows. “Children can’t be trusted, Clobberer.” The Hideous Stoag turned to the monsters and said, “Make those boys wish they never heard about the Land of Nightfall.”
The monsters growled, cackled and shouted with excitement.
“No,” the Clobberer said, causing all the monsters to face him. Now that he had their attention, he lost his voice. Sweat tricked down his forehead. He cleared his throat and said, “You can’t.”
The monsters looked at him as if he were crazy. No one ever disagreed with the Hideous Stoag and lived to tell about it. The Clobberer felt his danger grow. He had to come up with something fast. “One of the boys is clever,” he said. “He’s fearless, in fact. When I tried to scare him, um, well, uh—he laughed.”
The monsters gasped.
“Then he—er, well—he danced with me.”
The monsters erupted into nervous chatter, horrified by the idea that a boy was unafraid of them.
The Hideous Stoag regained order by turning himself into a fifty-foot flame. “All children are afraid of monsters, you miserable, whimpering fools. Are you going to let a puny kid get the best of you?” The Hideous Stoag’s forked tongue swiped the air and porcupine quills sprouted from his skin.
“You are monsters. You paralyze children with fear. The thought of you keeps them indoors at night. It has them turn on nightlights and shiver under their covers.” The Hideous Stoag grew larger as he spoke, becoming a twenty-five-foot blob of gelatin dripping with ooze.
“Make the Boy Who Danced with Monsters wish he’d never met the Clobberer. Give him a nightmare he’ll never forget. And don’t come back until you do.”
The monsters roared and howled.
Their master raised his oozing hands. “All of you. Be gone.”
His minions scurried off like happy rats on their way to a meal. As the Clobberer turned to dash away, his master stopped him.
“Not you, Clobberer. I have a special job for you.” The master wrapped a green octopus arm around the Clobberer, making escape impossible.
When the Clobberer was leaving Stuart’s room earlier that day, Stuart’s family stepped inside their favorite Chinese restaurant, the Shining Dragon.
“Anything special happen at school today?” his mother asked after they were seated.
He considered telling her about his visit with the Clobberer, but decided against it. First of all, she wouldn’t believe him, and second, she’d be upset that he left school during the day. He also considered handing her his tardy slip, since they were in a public place and she wouldn’t make as much of a scene.
“Mm—no, not really,” he said and dipped a piece of barbecued pork in hot mustard. He watched Marvin do the same thing. Then Stuart bit into it and immediately felt his eyes water. He wouldn’t have been surprised if flames shot out of his nostrils. Now it was Marvin’s turn. His face went beet red.
“BLEUAWKK!” Marvin screamed.
Stuart couldn’t stop laughing. Serves you right for copying me, he thought.
When dinner arrived, Stuart speared a pot sticker with his fork and something rolled across the plate. An eyeball looked up at him and he reeled back from the table.
“What is it, honey?” his mother said.
“There’s an eyeball on my plate.”
“What’s so odd about that?” his father asked. “If you lived in China this would probably be a delicacy.” He poked it with his fork and the eyeball looked around nervously.
“Are you sure?” his mother asked.
“Of course. It’s nothing to get excited about—probably a goat eyeball.” He dipped the eyeball into the hot mustard and popped the whole, slimy thing into his mouth.
“Oh, that’s gross.” Stuart said, and decided he wasn’t going to eat anything tonight or possibly ever again.
His father grinned and helped himself to a large helping of noodles and vegetables.
“How is everything?” the waiter asked.
Stuart looked up and noticed the waiter’s sharp fangs. He was some kind of vampire with pointy green ears. The waiter grinned and raised an eyebrow. Then he turned to Stuart’s parents. “Would you care for anything else? Something to drink, perhaps?”
“No thanks,” Mr. Fishback said. “We’re fine.”
His parents didn’t seem to have noticed that they were speaking to a monster. As soon as the waiter left, they struck up a conversation about some guy who was running for president.
Marvin was aware of the monsters in the room, however. He grinned and pointed. “Look, Stooaht, it’s Frankenstein.”
A giant with bolts in his neck and scars on his face stood at the door, taking people’s coats. A waiter with two heads and horns on each one carried a plate of food from the kitchen. At a nearby table, a kid sobbed as his parents made him eat a plate of noodles. From the way the noodles wiggled, Stuart was sure they were live worms.
Marvin must have thought the monsters were people were in costume, because he laughed whenever they came near. Stuart wondered why the adults didn’t notice them. Are they too grown up to believe in monsters? Or was it some kind of brain trick, like one of those black-and-white pictures that can either be a pretty lady or a witch, depending on how long you looked at it. He imagined adults only saw what their minds chose to see.
He was surprised the monsters didn’t try to grab him or anyone else. For some reason, they weren’t able to. Stuart figured that adults were some kind of safety zone, like the base in a game of tag.
After dinner, a werewolf brought them their bill and fortune cookies. Stuart’s dad passed Stuart a cookie and he opened it out of habit. The message made him gasp. It read: See you tonight, kid.
“What’s your fortune say?” his mother said.
Stuart crumpled it up and stared at his mother. She wouldn’t believe him, he thought. “It said I’ll get a promotion soon,” Stuart said.
His parents laughed and Marvin cracked up, too, even though he didn’t know what a promotion was.
Stuart kept close to his parents as his dad tipped the werewolf and his mom thanked that Frankencreature for opening the door. Stuart had never seen anything so strange in all his life. He planned to write down all of this when he got home. He also decided that this was the last time he’d let his parents take him out for Chinese food.
As Stuart lay in bed that night, he knew something big was about to happen. He could feel it in his stomach. Trouble was headed his way and it would be here soon. After his parents tucked him in bed and turned out the light, he climbed out of bed and got ready for battle. An idea sprang to mind and a broad grin spread across his face.
Stuart took a huge sheet of bubble wrap from the garage and carried it upstairs. He passed his mother on the way, plastic trailing behind him like a royal wedding gown.
“What are you doing with that, Stuart?”
“Oh, I need it for school tomorrow,” he said and kept moving. “I didn’t want to forget it in the morning.”
“Ok. Go back to bed,” she said.
He wrapped six bungie cords around his toy box and pushed it out the window. It fell in his front yard, but didn’t break open. Next came the bubble wrap. There was enough to cover his entire floor, and that’s just what he did. Then he poured honey and scattered tacks on top of it.
If anything came into his room now, it would be in for a big surprise. Each step would sound like a pack of firecrackers blasting off. His parents would hear them coming and the monsters would be powerless against him. Since monsters couldn’t get him as long as adults were around, he planned to stay near them, even if it meant sleeping in his parents’ room.
As his parents watched television downstairs, Stuart unrolled a sleeping bag in his parents’ closet, crawled inside, and drifted off to sleep.
Hours later, Stuart awoke. Curious to see if anything had happened, he slipped out of the closet and snuck down the hall. Nothing had changed in his room, but in the hallway, he noticed his brother’s blanket on the floor. Silly kid, Stuart thought. He won’t be able to sleep without it.
Stuart picked up the tattered blanket and pushed open his brother’s door. In the soft glow of a nightlight, everything appeared to be in order—except one thing, Marvin wasn’t in his bed. Had he wandered downstairs, spooked by a nightmare? Stuart wondered.
Stuart raced downstairs. When he didn’t find him there, he began to worry. He searched the entire house, even the basement and the garage. Marvin wasn’t anywhere.
Feeling panicked, he returned to Marvin’s room and noticed that Marvin’s toy box was gone. He looked on Marvin’s bed and found a fortune cookie with a note sticking out. He pulled out the note, and in glow of a nightlight read three terrifying words: He’s ours now.
Stuart’s stomach rolled over and the weight of guilt settled on his shoulders. He hadn’t thought of his brother’s toy box. Marvin was gone and it was all his fault. He knew what he had to do. The problem was: he didn’t know if he had the guts.
While Stuart covered his floor with bubble wrap earlier that evening, the Clobberer was talking with his master.
“Clobberer, what are the rules for missing the boat?” the Hideous Stoag
wrapped a green, gelatinous octopus arm around the Clobberer’s shoulders.
“Public humiliation and certain death.” The Clobberer said, loathing the words.
“And how many times have you missed the boat?”
The Clobberer looked at his hand, counted five fingers and then, raised his other hand and counted them as well. “Um more than ten, I think.”
“More than ten.” The Hideous Stoag’s voice was menacing yet calm, which made it all the more frightening. “And yet, you are still living. Why is that?”
The Clobberer felt a ray of hope. “Because you gave me another chance.”
“Yes. I gave you one more chance and you failed again, Clobberer. I have no choice but to turn you into a pile of hashed rats.”
The Clobberer knew that the Hideous Stoag could do this with the blink of an eye. There was nothing he could do to stop it. He closed his eyes and prepared for the worst.
“What are you willing to do to keep me from destroying you right this minute?”
“Anything,” the Clobberer said. He opened one eye and instantly regretted it. The Hideous Stoag had become a gigantic, furry, eight armed, octowolf.
“Anything?” The Hideous Stoag asked, bands of saliva stretching between his canine teeth.
The Clobberer recognized the opportunity. “You name it, I’ll do it. I’ll make you worm stew. I’ll polish your scales. I’ll read ghost stories to you. I’ll poach some lizard eggs and fix you a nice cup of stinkbug tea—”
“I will tell you what to do.” Hideous Stoag tightened his octowolf grip on the Clobberer’s shoulders and neck muscles. “You’ll bring me someone the Boy Who Danced with Monsters loves. A friend. A sister. A brother. And you will do it tonight. Do you understand me?”
The Clobberer nodded and winced as the rubbery arm tightened on his shoulders. The pain was excruciating. “Yes. Ouch. Oh, yes, I understand.”
“Fail me not, Clobberer.” The Hideous Stoag released him and the Clobberer watched his master transform into a 30-foot slug. “Go,” he roared, and the Clobberer ran.
The Clobberer stopped running just short of the swamp and tried to catch his breath. He was amazed that he had escaped with his life, but saddened by what was ahead of him.
How could he give the Hideous Stoag someone that Stuart loved? It wasn’t right. But what options did he have? Certain death didn’t sound like a good idea. And as much as he liked Stuart, he had no choice.
It would all work out, he told himself, and he began thinking of people close to Stuart that the boy could live without. There was that younger brother. He seemed like someone Stuart might appreciate not having around. Then there was that friend Jack.
Right then the Clobberer realized that Stuart had broken his promise. Stuart had brought that questioning kid over to see him. Suddenly, he didn’t feel so bad about handing Stuart’s brother over to the Hideous Stoag. That Marvin kid would be easy game. All he had to do was hand him a lollypop and walk off with him.
The Clobberer stepped into the toy chest and started paddling back to Marvin’s room.
He found the little tyke sound asleep and scooped him into his arms. Marvin stirred and the Clobberer told him to go back to sleep. “It’s only a dream, sweety peety pooky booky lamb chop puddle cakes,” he said.
Marvin smiled, closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep. Moments later, the Clobberer carried him to the toy chest and sailed away.
The clock read 12:20 A.M. Stuart sat on his brother’s bed and considered his options, or rather, his only option: get Marvin back, and fast. One thing he knew for certain: he would not go alone.
Stuart rolled up the sheet of bubble wrap, put on some clothes, and loaded his backpack with wires, tools, and his sketchbook. Then he headed down the street to Jack’s house.
Jack’s room was on the ground floor of a small brick house. Stuart tapped on the window and a moment later Jack pulled open the blinds. “Fishy, what the heck are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Get out here, Jack. We’ve got trouble.”
“What are you talking about, Fishy?” Jack rubbed his eyes and squinted at him.
Stuart kept his voice down, but made it stern. “Marvin’s gone, Jack. The monsters took him.”
The sleepiness left Jack’s face. “I’ll be right out.” Jack joined him out by the street and Stuart told him what had happened and what they had to do.
“Shouldn’t we tell our parents or call the police?” Jack asked.
“No way. Our parents aren’t going to believe in monsters and the Land of Nightfall,” Stuart said. “The police won’t either. Besides, adults probably can’t go there. You have to believe in spooks to even see them. If we’re going to get Marvin back, we’ve got to do it ourselves.”
Jack smiled. “Too cool. This is going to be great.”
Stuart put his hands in his pockets and rubbed the fur of his lucky rabbit’s foot. “You are a freak, you know that?” Stuart said.
“I know. Let’s get going,” Jack said. “Want to take your toy box or mine?”
“Let’s take mine,” Stuart said. “It’s in my front yard.”
“That’s convenient,” Jack said.
The two boys found the chest, slightly dented, in Stuart’s yard. Jack paused. “How are we gonna overpower a bunch of monsters, Fishy?”He seemed to be considering their challenge for the first time.
“I’ve got some stuff in my backpack that might help,” Stuart said.
Jack looked inside. “Wires and wrenches? That’s all you’ve got? Do you have a plan?”
“No. Do you?”
Jack shook his head, and then smiled. “I sure hope this works.” He picked some toys out of the toy chest and climbed inside. “Come on, Fishy. Let’s go.”
Stuart stepped into the toy chest and sat in front of Jack. Nothing happened. The two boys were sitting in Stuart’s front yard in the middle of the night.
“We look like a couple of idiots,” Jack said. “How does this thing work?”
“I don’t know,” Stuart said. “I forgot to ask.”
“Well, don’t just sit here, think Fishy. You’re the one who gets straight As, not me.”
Stuart thought for a moment. A magic word might work. He tried abracadabra and a bunch of others. Nothing worked. Then he got an idea. He dipped a hockey stick toward the ground and it sunk in, as if the earth were water. He handed Jack the other hockey stick. “Start paddling, Jack.” The boys paddled across the lawn and disappeared into the night.
Stuart and Jack had paddled for about ten minutes when they saw a tall figure floating in a small toy chest in the darkness ahead, crying. Instantly, Stuart knew who it was. He turned to Jack. “Come on, it’s the Clobberer.”
The Clobberer looked surprised. “What are you doing here?” He asked, wiping tears from his eyes. “You have to go back. It’s not safe for children. You’ll be munched and crunched if you stay here. Or worse.”
Stuart looked him in the eye. “They’ve got Marvin. I’ve got to get him back or my parents will have a fit.”
The Clobberer tilted his head. “That can’t be. He must be hiding somewhere in your house. Did you try looking in the bathroom?”
“Of course I did,” Stuart said, lowering his eyebrows.
“How about under the sink?”
Stuart shook his head. “Look, he’s not under the sink. He’s somewhere in the Land of Nightfall. His toy box is gone and the monsters left this note.” Stuart held the fortune out to the Clobberer who read it.
“You can’t believe everything you read in fortune cookies,” he said and handed it back.
Stuart paddled closer to the Clobberer. “I’m telling you, Marvin is here and I know it. Come on Jack. Let’s get a move on.” Jack and Stuart paddled toward shore.
The Clobberer hollered after them. “Wait. If you’re gonna go, you should at least know what you’re getting yourselves into.”
Stuart and Jack stopped and turned to watch the Clobberer paddle toward them. “This place is crawling with monsters. Big ones, short ones, bumpy ones, scaly ones, ones with fangs, some with warts—”
“Okay, okay. We get the picture,” Stuart said.
“If you keep heading in that direction you’ll wind up in Bogtroll Caverns, where they will turn you into a pot of goatstone stew.” The Clobberer pointed a bony finger the other way. “And if you go that way, you’ll be in Snoshers Gulch. That will be the snoshy end of both of you.”
Stuart was raging now. “Just tell us where to go.”
The Clobberer looked to the left. “That way is bad. Definitely bad.” He looked to the right. “That way’s not much better. Terrible, actually. And whatever you do, don’t go this way.” He pointed straight ahead.
“That’s every direction,” Jack said. “Where the heck are we supposed to go, up?”
“Heavens, no,” the Clobberer said. “If you go up in the sky, winged whizzpoppers will gobble you up like moth balls. Do you have a piece of paper? I’ll draw you a map.”
Stuart pulled his sketch book out of his backpack and handed it and a pencil to the Clobberer. The monster started drawing rapidly and when he handed the book back, a crude map covered two pages and showed different sections of The Land of Nightfall.
The Clobberer slid a long finger across the map. “This is Cackler’s Cove, it’s crawling with ferritwiches. Not a nice place to be. That’s Wormwood forest and its filled with man-eating creepy crawlies. Lots of fanged frizlers there too. Steer clear of it. This is Cemeteria and Corpseboro over this way. Ghoulish places. You’ll want to avoid them.
“Be sure to stay away from Blood Island. I know it sounds lovely, but it's terrible. Trust me. And you’ll want to keep away from Tootsville, also known as Gas Town. It stinks wonderfully, but don't go there. The monsters there eat just about anything and it gives them indigestion. You can’t miss it if you’re downwind.”
He moved his finger across the page. “And this is my little corner of the world, Trembleville. My house is on the west side. It’s small, but it’s really quite charming. Perhaps you could pop by for some gnat bisquits and thorn thistle tea.”
“Tea? We don’t have time for tea. My brother’s probably in a mummy’s oven.”
“More likely a ferriwitch’s cauldron,” The Clobberer said. “Mummies aren’t good in the kitchen. They prefer to dine out.”
“We really don’t have time for this,” Stuart said. “We’ve got to get going.” Stuart and Jack looked at the map and then at each other.
“Which direction should we go?” Jack asked.
Stuart turned to the Clobberer. “I think you left something off this map, Clobberer.”
The Clobberer took the book and looked it over. “No, it’s all there. Oh, wait, there’s Gila Meala Desert too. Sorry, I left out that part by mistake.”
“I’m talking about your master’s place. I think you left it off the map on purpose. He’s the one who has my brother, isn’t he?”
The Clobberer gulped and cleared his throat. “No, of course not.” His voice cracked and he cleared it again. “I just forgot.”
Stuart handed the Clobberer a pencil. “Show me where Marvin is. And don’t play any games.”
The Clobberer’s hand began to shake. “You can’t go there. He’ll sprinkle grubworms on you and eat you for a snack.”
Stuart’s head started to throb. He hadn’t realized how much he cared about his twit of a brother until now. Suddenly that little squirt meant the world to him. He would do or give anything right now to see him again and to get him out of here. “Where is he, Clobberer? Put it on the map.”
“I’m telling you, you’re making a big mistake. Huge. Whopping. Barvantuan.” The Clobberer drew for a minute or two and handed the book back. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Stuart grabbed the book and studied it. Then he and Jack paddled toward the place on the map.
“Wait,” the Clobberer called.
They stopped paddling and turned to him. “What?” Stuart said.
“I’m going with you. You won’t make it far without me.”
Stuart wasn’t sure that the Clobberer would be much help. He was big, not too bright, and prone to making mistakes. Having him along could increase their chances of getting caught by the monsters. Stuart turned to Jack. “Should we bring him?”
Jack shrugged. “We might as well. If we have to make a run for it, he might know the fastest way out of here.”
Stuart was certain that the Clobberer knew this place a lot better than he or Jack did, and a bad guide seemed better than no guide at all. He waved the Clobberer toward them. “Hurry up. We don’t have all day.”
The Clobberer paddled after them.