Jack, Stuart, and the Clobberer drifted through a nightmarish landscape. Skeleton-like trees lined the shores of the lake, and the jagged mountains in the distance reminded Stuart of shark’s teeth.
“Look over there,” Jack said as they approached a deserted campground.
Stuart saw a dozen tents that resembled teepees. “Who lives there?” he asked.
“It’s a bogtroll hunting camp,” the Clobberer said, paddling backward. “They’re probably out trapping dinner.”
“Come on,” Jack said. “Let’s go ashore and take a look. It will be fun.”
“It will be deadly,” the Clobberer said. “Those tents are made from the skin of fire-bellied snithers. That stuff makes you break out in a rash that catches fire if you scratch it. It doesn’t seem to bother the bogtrolls though. They make socks and underwear out of the stuff.”
“Whoa, what are they cooking?” Jack asked.
A large black cauldron was propped over a smoldering campfire.
“Probably bloodgoats and mashmongers,” the Clobberer said. “They’ll boil up just about anything for a stew. You two would do nicely, I’m sure.”
“Let’s get a move on,” Stuart said, paddling faster.
They entered an area of countless lily pads and Stuart became certain that they were being watched. He looked behind him, but no one was there. He looked to his right. Nothing but trees on the shoreline. Then he wondered if something in the water was looking at him.
“Hey, Clobberer, is there something in this lake you should tell us about?”
The Clobberer shook his head. “No. Nothing I can think of. Just keep paddling.”
Stuart looked around them, “I could swear we’re being watched by something in the water.”
Jack leaned over, peering into the water and nearly tipping the toy chest over. “I don’t see anything.”
“Watch out, Jack. You’re going to sink us,” Stuart said, holding on to the sides of the toy chest. He looked at the water and watched the flowers of the lily pads open and close. He realized they weren’t flowers, but eyes. Hundreds of eyes, and all were watching them.
“Um, guys? I think we’ve got a problem,” Stuart said no longer paddling.
Jack looked up at him. “What, Fishy?”
“The lily pads,” Stuart said. “They’re watching us.”
“Cripes,” Jack said. “What the heck are those?”
The Clobberer dipped his hockey stick into the water and paddled quickly. “Oh, it’s nothing. Come on fellas, let’s go. Nothing to see here.”
Suddenly the toy chest was lifted high above the lake. “Whoa,” Jack said. “Something’s got us.”
That was when Stuart saw what was beneath them. A sea serpent covered in tentacled-eyes raised its head and turned to face him. The toy chest rested on its back.
“Crud! What do we do now, Fishy?” Jack said.
“How am I supposed to know?” Stuart said. He looked down at the Clobber, floating on the lake below. “Do something, Clobberer.”
The Clobberer paddled away quickly, “Uh, sorry boys. I’ve got to go.”
The sea serpent turned toward the Clobberer, seemingly attracted to the movement. Seconds later it crashed into the Clobberer’s toy chest, sending him flying. The Clobberer disappeared underwater and then popped up, gagging and struggling for a breath. Toys littered the water around him. The monster swam to the overturned toy chest, righted it and climbed back in.
“Where did it go?” Jack asked, looking frightened for the first time Stuart could remember.
“I think it’s under us,” Stuart said. “It’s attracted to movement, so we’ve got to freeze.”
The sea serpent rose up near them, one hundred eyes looking in every direction.
“It doesn’t see us,” Jack said.
“Shhhh,” Stuart said, reaching slowly into his backpack. He pulled out a slingshot and a marble, and then shot the beast directly in the head. It reared back and roared. Then Stuart sent a baseball flying in the opposite direction. It skipped across the water and the sea serpent gave chase, like a giant reptilian golden retriever. “Now, paddle,” Stuart said. “Let’s go. Let’s go.”
They entered a swift moving channel that took them away quickly. “We’re safe. Nice job, Fishy,” Jack said.
“Thanks. Where this water taking us?” Stuart asked.
The Clobber said, “This is the River Vile. Don’t worry, we’re in good shape now that we’re away from that beast.”
They had floated quietly for no more than fifteen minutes when Stuart sensed something large pass overhead that seemed like a silent, low-flying airplane. “Did anyone else notice that?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?” Jack said.
“Something big just sailed over our heads.”
The Clobberer paddled on. “Oh, that’s probably just some birds.”
It occurred to Stuart that the birds in the Land of Nightfall could be far more sinister than ordinary birds. “What kind of birds?” he said.
“Gravens. They’re sometimes roost around here.”
Stuart grew irritated. “Okay. What are gravens?”
“Just blackbirds,” the Clobberer said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Stuart didn’t trust him. “What kind of blackbirds?”
The Clobberer turned to him. “Oh, you know, the giant, man-eating kind.”
Stuart gritted his teeth and whispered, “Are you telling me that airplane thingy was a man-eating bird? And there’s more of them?”
The Clobberer nodded his head. “Yeah, you’re getting it.”
Jack gulped. “That’s just great.”
“We’ve got to get out of here without becoming birdseed,” Stuart said.
The Clobberer nodded his head. “Good idea.”
Jack looked around. “Maybe they’ve already had their dinner.”
Stuart ducked his head as a graven passed by. “They seem to be looking for a meal right now—hey, what the?”
Something had grabbed Stuart by the backpack. His feet left the toy chest and he felt himself climbing high into the air. Stuart swung his arms and thrashed about. His hands slipped out of his backpack and he fell into the river.
“Swim for shore, Fishy,” Jack screamed, paddling toward him.
“I’m right behind you,” the Clobberer called.
As the boys reached shore they were met by three gravens. The birds were a big as a house and resembled giant crows with spikes on their heads. Stuart knew that crows would eat just about anything. He’d seen them happily munch on dead squirrels and kids’ lunch sacks, so he knew they weren’t picky.
The gravens walked toward them, and Stuart looked for a way to escape. He realized he’d either have try to swim away or make a run for the cover of trees. Then he heard a loud squawk from one of the birds.
The bird turned away and Stuart saw the Clobberer behind it, holding onto its tail feather and tugging with all his might. He pulled the feather clean out of the giant bird, shrieked and took flight. The other birds flew away with it in fear.
The boys cheered and ran to the Clobberer. The feather he held was twice his height and as black as night.
“Hey,” Stuart said. “You didn’t run away. How come?"
The Clobberer shrugged. “I thought you could use a hand.”
Jack slapped the Clobberer on the back. “Fantastic. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
The Clobberer smiled. “Me neither.”
“Come on,” Stuart said. “Let’s make a dash for the trees.”
The trio pulled their toy chests onto the shore of the Vile River and followed the Clobberer through the trees to a clearing on the edge of a hill. From the ridge they saw a town below. Stuart held up the map. “What place is this?”
“It’s Undead End. Not the friendliest town, but I’ve seen worse.” The Clobberer pointed to the map. “When we cut through here, you’ll want to blend in. Just hold out your hands and moan. Otherwise they’ll eat you.” The Clobberer headed down the hill. “Follow me.”
Jack called down to him. “This is gonna be sweet.”
Stuart shook his head, “You’re twisted, Jack. Do you know that?”
Jack laughed and the two boys followed the tall thin monster into the torch-lit town.
They entered a neighborhood of rundown houses and unpaved streets lined by torches and parked cars that looked like they’d just rolled out of a demolition derby. The first zombie sighting took Stuart by surprise.
An undead man approached, walking an undead dog. The man must have been in a farm accident because a garden hoe was lodged in his shoulder and his flattened dog looked as if it had been run over by a tractor.
Stuart held out his arms and did his best zombie moan. Jack and the Clobberer struck up a zombie pose as well, and the real zombie passed by with glazed over eyes. When they were a safe distance away, the Clobberer smiled. “Nice work, fellas. Keep that up and we’ll be out of here in no time.”
Stuart noticed a mini-mart and gas station ahead. A zombie in a service-station uniform washed a car’s smashed windshield while another filled the car’s tank.
The Clobberer turned to Stuart, “Hang on a minute? I’m gonna run in for something.”
“No. Let's go.” Stuart said. But it was too late. The Clobberer zombie-walked into the mini mart. He came out a couple minutes later carrying a plastic shopping bag.
“You guys hungry? I’m starving.” The Clobberer opened the bag, took a handful of things that looked like fingers, and offered them to the boys.
Jack shook his head. “No thanks. I’m on a no-finger diet.”
“Oh, these aren’t fingers. They’re knucklegrubs, juicy caterpillars with a slightly bitter finish. Scrumptious.” Crumbs sprayed from the Clobberer’s mouth as he spoke. “The great thing about Undead End is everything is free. Zombies aren’t smart like us, you know. So, whatever you see, you can take. You sure you don’t want something? They’ve got snakedogs?”
“I’ll pass. Thanks,” Jack said.
“Me too,” Stuart said.
“Suit yourselves,” the Clobberer said.
Stuart thought there might be a thing or two inside the service station that would come in handy. “You guys stay right here. I’ll be right back.”
The Clobberer called after him. “That’s more like it. Hey, grab me some twiggywiggles, will you? And some fire-ant punch.”
Stuart zombie-walked into the service station and zombied out with his hands full. “Can you help me with this stuff? It’s heavy.”
“Hey, where are my snacks?” the Clobberer asked. “What good is all that junk?”
“Just take something, will you?”
Jack and the Clobberer put the tools and wires in their pockets and Stuart loaded the rest into his pack. As they walked on, a zombie shuffled toward them.
“Watch this,” Jack said. When the zombie passed him, Jack put out his foot, tripping him. The zombie fell and turned to him. Its eyes were filled with rage. It moaned at Jack and reached out its hands, taking hold of his leg.
“What did you do that for?” Stuart asked.
“I wanted to see how dumb they are,” Jack said. “Crud, he’s got my leg. Help, Fishy.”
Stuart kicked the zombie’s hand, making it release Jack. The monster got onto one knee and clawed after them.
“Did you see that? What an idiot,” Jack said, laughing.
“You’re the idiot,” Stuart said. “Look what you’ve done. Now he’s after us.”
The zombie was already on his feet and coming after them. Stuart noticed another zombie nearby turn and come at them.
“Run,” Stuart said, taking off.
“Cool,” Jack said, jogging after him, laughing. “This is just like in the movies.”
“No, don’t run,” the Clobberer called after them. “That’s like ringing the dinner bell. Every zombie around here will be after you.”
It was too late. Stuart could see zombies coming from houses, shops and parked cars in all directions.
“Oops. My bad,” Jack said. “What do we do now?”
Stuart looked at the Clobberer for suggestions. A zombie grabbed the Clobberer’s jacket. “Run!” The Clobberer shouted.
“I thought you said not to run,” Jack said.
“Forget what I said. Run,” the Clobberer shrieked, shaking free of the zombie’s grip.
They ran to an intersection and saw a bus with a sign that read: Stoagavia.
The Clobberer sped up. “Let’s climb aboard. It’s going our way.”
“But it’s loaded with zombies,” Stuart said.
“When we get on, we can blend in,” the Clobberer said. “Come on. That’s an express bus to Stoagavia. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
They sprinted onto the bus and zombie-walked to their seats. The driver closed the doors on the pounding fists and outstretched hands of a dozen zombies. Stuart sighed, relieved to be headed out of Undead End. He never thought he’d be happy about being on a bus with a bunch of drooling, blood-oozing, fly-ridden zombie. The idea made him grin. Jack grinned back and gave him a thumbs-up sign as the bus rolled on.
“This is our stop,” the Clobberer said as the bus slowed. “Come on, fellas.”
“This is where the Hideous Stoag lives?” Stuart asked. He expected the king of all monsters would live in a castle or a cave, but certainly not this.
He stepped off the bus to find a theme park with a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, flashing lights, and music. Stuart was drawn toward it and as he walked closer, he recognized the genius of its design. What a perfect trap for a kid, he thought. This Hideous Stoag is no dummy.
Jack jumped off the bus. “Cool,” he said. “This place is great.”
“Hold on, Jack,” Stuart said. “This isn’t an ordinary theme park.”
“That’s right,” the Clobberer said. “If you go in, you’ll never come out.”
“Lucky us,” Stuart said and turned to the Clobberer. “Marvin’s in here somewhere?” The Clobberer nodded his head. “Then we have to go in,” Stuart said.
Jack pulled Stuart’s arm. “Come on, Fishy. This will be fun.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Stuart said, following Jack. “Take us straight to my brother and no messing around, okay?”
The Clobberer nodded. “You got it. I’ll take you right to him.”
“Look,” Jack said, pointing to a ride with eight wildly moving arms. “It’s an octopus ride. Let’s go for a spin.”
“Are you crazy?” Stuart asked. “That’s a real octopus, Jack. And it’s eating the people in the cars.”
The Clobberer winced. “Maybe we should stick to the kiddie rides. How about the scarish wheel?”
Stuart looked up, watching the tall wheel turn. Its cars flipped upside down, dumping passengers to the ground, screaming.”
“On second thought, I’ll think I’ll skip the rides,” Jack said.
“Good idea, Jack.” Stuart glared at the Clobberer. “Can we get on with it?”
“This way.” The Clobberer said, leading them through the park.
They walked carefuly through the park and stopped when they reached a lake with an island in the middle. Stuart could make out a building with three chimneys, billowing smoke into the reddish sky. The air smelled of burning hair and a foul smelling gas.
“What’s on that island?” Stuart asked, stepping onto an old wooden dock.
The Clobberer pointed a long finger. “That’s Doomsday Island. It’s where the hideous one keeps his prisoners.”
Jack stepped up to the wooden railing and stood beside the Clobberer. “What kind of prisoners?
“Kids, mostly. They’re brought to this place from your world. And after they come here, they’re not the same.”
Stuart thought of his brother. “Is that where Marvin is? And what do you mean, they’re not the same?” He could feel his blood starting to boil.
The Clobberer avoided eye contact. “Marvin’s here all right. And there’s a good chance he won’t look exactly like he used to.”
“What do you mean?” Stuart asked squeezing his hands into fists.
“I’m just giving you a little warning so you don’t get all fudge-wangled when you see him.”
“Come on, Clobberer. What happens to the kids on that island?”
“They get, how do I put this? Altered. Anyway, it’s not a big deal. You’ll hardly notice.”
Stuart felt blood rush to his temples and he growled, “What do you mean, altered?”
“All right, I’ll tell you. But only if you promise not to go buzzonkers. Do you promise?” Stuart took a deep breath, trying to steady his nerves. “Yes, I promise. Now spill it.”
The Clobberer kicked a pebble into the lake and then looked Stuart in the eyes. “This is where they turn kids into monsters.”
“This island has a monster factory?” Jack asked, grinning. “Cool.”
“Yes, it’s a state of the art monster production center,” the monster said proudly.
“What?” Stuart shouted. “My brother’s being turned into a monster.” He was furious and disgusted at the same time.
The Clobberer waved a bony finger at him. “Easy, there. You said you weren’t going to go buzzonkers.”
“What do you expect? My brother is about to be turned into a freakazoid.”
“No, not a freakazoid,” the Clobberer said. “More likely a frigglewump, because he’s pretty small. You can only do so much with the little tikes. I had a summer job here once and I hated it. All that screaming and crying gets to you day after day. And just try to get blood off your clothes. It’s impossible.”
Stuart glared at the Clobberer. “Do you mind?”
“Oh yeah, your brother. Sorry. Stick close to me. We’ll get him out of there.”
“Are we gonna end up as monsters, too?” Jack asked. “That would be awesome.”
The Clobberer scratched his chin. “Well, there’s a 50/50 chance, or a 70/30 chance, or maybe it’s more like a 90% thing. Math’s not really my specialty.”
Stuart interrupted. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
The Clobberer grabbed a torch and led them onto a raft. The three paddled across the lake, landing at a dock on the island. Stuart followed the Clobberer on shore, dreading what he would find.
A path led to the large stone building with three enormous smoke stacks, belching out horrid puffs of black smoke. Two windows above the gated door transformed the building into a face with menacing eyes and a mouth filled with teeth. It occurred to Stuart that he and Jack might not make it out of here. Had his brother not been sitting in there, Stuart would have ran away and never looked back. Unfortunately, that was not an option.
The Clobberer pulled the two boys aside. “Okay, I’ve got a plan.”
“Great,” Stuart said. “This I have to hear.”
“I’ll pretend I brought you here. All you have to do is act like you’re my prisoners. The workers will let me take you to the holding cell, and that’s where we’ll find your brother.”
Stuart was amazed. The plan might actually work. “Okay,” Stuart said and took a deep breath. “Let’s get on with it. Lead the way.”
Stuart followed the Clobberer and Jack, looking up at the ominous building ahead.
Outside the front door to the monster factory, the Clobberer tied a rope around the boys’ wrists. “I’m gonna give this rope a tug from time to time, and you guys act terrified. Okay?”
“Got it,” Jack said.
“All right. Move it, you lazy, good-for-nothing humans,” the Clobberer said, pulling open the door and leading them inside.
They entered a small, brightly lit room with bare walls and a high ceiling. One wall opposite them had a window in it with a female monster seated behind it. It looked like some sort of reception desk. The monster was a cross between a witch and a rat, and her long rodent nose twitched as she shuffled paperwork. It’s a ferritwitch, Stuart thought.
The Clobberer pulled the boys up to the window. “I’ve got a couple of wild ones to take to the back,” he said.
“Can I see your badge?” the ferritwitch asked.
“Sure,” the Clobberer said. He dug through his pockets, unable to produce anything. “I must have left it in my other trousers.”
“What’s your I.D. number?” The ferritwitch said, annoyed.
The Clobberer looked up at the ceiling, squinted and said, “uh…3428. No, um 93428. Make that 093428. Scratch that, it doesn’t have an 8. Does it?”
Clearly he had gotten on the ferritwitch’s nerves, Stuart thought. She furrowed her brow at him and flashed her sharp yellow teeth. “What’s your name?”
“The Clobberer. Mr. Clobberer. Some call me Slobberer, but I hate that—”
“229 Lost Eyeball Lane, Clobberland.”
The ferritwitch typed the information into her computer. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Here you are. It says you haven’t shown up for work in a dozen years.”
“Oh, yeah. I meant to. But I got distracted.”
“For twelve years?” She pressed an intercom button. “Guards, we have three prisoners up front.”
Four ogres entered the room and led them into the heart of the factory. Monsters of all shapes and sizes were running the place. They wore green overalls, yellow lab coats, black hardhats and red goggles. Stuart passed by several loud machines, engines of some type, he thought, and many doors that were closed off. The tour ended with a push into a jail cell with steel bars. Inside were a dozen frightened children. Marvin was not among them.
“Great job, Clobberer. Now what are we going to do?” Stuart asked.
“Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.” The Clobberer shook the bars, but they didn’t budge. “I’m sure they’ll let me out of here. After all, I was a good employee. I was promoted to assistant blood cleaner-upper once. Not everyone reaches that level, you know.”
The Clobberer turned to the ogres. “Hey, let us out. I’m not a criminal. I was nominated for employee of the month. Or at least I should have been.”
“That ought to convince them,” Jack said, shaking his head.
Stuart wasn’t impressed either. “It’s no use. They’re not letting any of us out of here.”
The Clobberer sat down and became quiet in thought. Stuart looked at the kids’ faces and saw fear in each one of them. They looked like they had given up the fight, and looking around at the steel bars that imprisoned him, he could see why.
Stuart studied the frightened faces around him and wondered what he could learn from these kids. Some were as young as Marvin and others appeared to be his age. One of the oldest kids was a girl. She seemed tired and scared. “How long have you been in here?” Stuart asked.
“I was brought here in the middle of the night a few hours ago,” she said.
“Have you seen a little kid named Marvin? He’s my brother. He’s four, and the monsters took him tonight too.”
“I don’t know if it was your brother, but I did see a little boy.” The girl wiped a tear from the cheek of what might have been a younger sister. “He came here tonight, but he didn’t get tossed in with us. They took him into that room over there.” She pointed across the hall and the little girl beside her began to cry.
Two dark metal doors sealed the room closed. Stuart wondered what was on the other side. A ring of keys hung from a hook on the wall beside the door and Stuart wondered if one of them could open those doors.
“It’s okay, Rachel,” the older girl said, stroking the younger one’s hair. She turned to Stuart. “I’m Reese. My sister’s a little scared.”
Stuart smiled at the little girl. “We’re all gonna get out of here. I promise.” Stuart looded at Reese. “I’m Stuart and this is my friend Jack. That’s the Clobberer.”
Jack said hello and the Clobberer gave her a toothy grin.
“Enchanted,” the Clobberer said. “Lovely to meet you.” He tried to kiss her hand, but she yanked it away.
“He’s harmless. Except for getting you stuck in places like this,” Stuart said. He looked at the room across from their cell. “What’s that room used for?”
“That’s the changing room. Kids go in there and come out as monsters. It’s awful.”
Reese’s sister started to cry. Stuart watched Reese try to sooth her.
“It’s going to be okay,” Stuart said. “We’ll find a way out.” As soon as he uttered the words, his mind searched for ways to do it.
Stuart turned to the Clobberer. “Why do they want to turn kids into monsters?”
The Clobberer avoided eye contact. “I can’t tell you. If I did that, I’d be in worse shape than I’m in now. My lips are zipped.”
Stuart rolled his eyes. “You’re in a jail cell on Doomsday Island. How can it get any worse? Tell me what you know, Clobberer or I’ll tell them about the music.”
The Clobberer looked desperate. “You wouldn’t.”
“But you promised.”
“My fingers were crossed behind my back. Besides, we’ve got to get out of here.”
The Clobberer looked around the room. “Okay. Okay. But you cannot breathe a word of this to anyone.”
The kids nodded at him and scooted in closer to listen.
“Here’s the dealy-oh. My master wants to rule your world and not just mine. But he can’t do it with ordinary monsters because of adults. If you haven’t noticed, monsters are powerless around grown ups.”
“I knew it,” Stuart said.
The Clobberer continued, “So he needs kidmonsters.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “Like Marvin?”
“Yeah.” The Clobberer nodded. “His plan is to start bringing them in by the busload.”
“And drop them off at this theme park?” Jack asked.
“That’s right,” the Clobberer said.
“That’s brilliant,” Stuart added.
“And once they become monsters, they’ll love this place,” the Clobberer said. “What could make them happier than having all the rides and snakedogs they want, free of charge?”
Stuart began to put the pieces together. “I think I know what’s going on,” Stuart said. “Your master thinks you told me about his plans. I bet he took Marvin, to lure me here. He’s afraid I will warn other kids about his plan. I’m right aren’t I?”
The Clobberer suddenly became quiet.
“Come on, Clobberer. Admit it.”
The Clobberer looked away. “I don’t know anything about it.”
Jack grinned. “The plan is kind of silly, if you ask me. I mean, how much damage can a bunch of kidmonsters do?”
Stuart thought of the time he’d sent his babysitter home in tears when a chemistry experiment in the living room went awry. No one was hurt, but the green color never came out of the carpet, not to mention the sitter’s hair and sweater. “I wouldn’t underestimate them,” Stuart said.
The Clobberer checked his fingernails and cleaned a bit of gunk out from under his thumbnail. “If you think kids get away with a lot these days, wait until you see kidmonsters.”
“What do they do?” Stuart said.
The Clobberer rolled his eyes. “You mean, what don’t they do? Kidmonsters are megabundles of trouble. They’re sneaky and fast. They work in packs, like wolves. And they’re much smarter than regular monsters, since they’re part human. The best parts is, grown-ups can’t tell that they’re monsters.”
The Clobberer fished his hand into his pocket and pulled out a stick of some kind of wriggling animal skin. He popped it into his mouth and kept talking. “Your folks won’t even see it coming. Their kid shows up with fangs and fur, and the parents don’t notice the difference. And that leaves kidmonsters free to run-a-muck. Imagine what a few little monsters could do to your school? They’d make a total wreck of the place.”
Stuart recognized the genius of the plan. It seemed foolproof.
“Once the kidmonsters take over, you’ll have zombies, ferritwiches, and bogtrolls running wild in your streets. And the Hideous Stoag will be running the place. If your parents don’t like the president they have now, just wait until they meet the new commander in chief.”
Stuart glared at him. “We’ve got to stop him.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “How are we gonna do that from in here? We’re next in line to be monstrified.”
Stuart turned to Reese. “Do you think we’re too late to help Marvin?”
Reese hesitated. Her eyes grew wide and she stared at the door. “I think it’s happening right now.”
A bright red light shone beneath the closed double doors, making Stuart squint. He heard a terrified scream that was painfully similar too his kid brother. It was followed by flashes of white light and a thunderous boom. Next Stuart heard a sizzling sound and smelled something that reminded him of an accident he had with a birthday cake once—hair burning.
When the red and white lights stopped flashing, and the boom stopped booming, and the sizzling stopped sizzling, all that remained was the sounds of kids crying in the cell.
“Now’s the worst part,” Reese said. Stuart couldn’t imagine how it could get any worse, until the door opened. Now he understood.
Out came a parade of kidmonsters. What made them frightening wasn’t the horns, scales, fur, or fangs, but instead the idea that they were no longer who they once were. Stuart could see it in their uncaring, evil little eyes.
He tried to spot his brother and wondered if he would still recognize him. Suddenly Marvin walked out.
He had a crocodile’s mouth, rough scaly skin and a croc's tail. The little creep was now a real monster with dark and cruel eyes. Stuart wondered what his mom and dad would do if they saw Marvin looking like this. It wouldn’t be pretty, he thought.
Marvin and the other kidmonsters passed by the cell, and Stuart rushed to the bars. “Hey, Marvin. Over here. Marvin, it’s me, Stuart.”
Marvin stepped up to the bars, looked into Stuart’s eyes, and then gnashed his teeth, as if he despised him.
“Stop that, Marvin, it’s me, Stuart.”
Marvin growled at Stuart and turned away. Stuart looked behind Marvin and realized something terrible was coming out of that room.
A shadow stretched across the floor, creating a shape unlike anything Stuart had ever seen. Then a creature entered the room—an oozing blob of brown jello-like stuff. Stuart watched it sprout huge silvery wings and a giant rat’s tail.
Stuart called out, “Marvin. Get us out of here. Quick. Grab those keys.”
Marvin took the keys from the wall and dangled them in front of Stuart, just out of his reach.
“Come on you little creep,” Stuart said. “Give them to me or I’ll pound you.” His threat didn’t work. Marvin laughed and trained his eyes on the transforming creature. Its body grew long and ratlike and with the wings and eyes of a giant housefly.
Marvin clapped his hands and jumped up and down. “It’s a rat,” he said.
Stuart was looking at the largest rat, or fly, he or anyone had ever seen—its head nearly touched the ceiling and its body spanned the length of the room. Stuart felt his hair standing on end.
“It’s the Hideous Stoag,” the Clobberer said under his breath.
Stuart turned to the Clobberer. “That thing is your master?”
The Clobberer nodded. “That’s him all right. And I’d step away from the bars if I were you. There’s no telling what he’ll do.”
The Hideous Stoag turned his rat face toward the cell and Stuart took a step back. The giant compound eyes studied him.
“Get away from me, Stoag,” Stuart said.
“Who are you to tell me what to do, boy?”
The Clobberer stood up. “Master, that’s the boy.”
“Oh, so you are the Boy Who Danced with Monsters. Well done, Clobberer. I imagined him to be more fearsome.”
“He is, Master. He’s very clever, too.”
“You shall be rewarded, Clobberer. I will grant you your life.”
The giant ratfly had already begun to transform. Its skin turned to scales and its body became a giant python. “Open the door, guards. Let the Clobberer free.”
Stuart was having trouble understanding all of this. Had the Clobberer intentionally brought them here? Was he the one who had kidnapped Marvin? Stuart turned to the Clobberer. “You did this?”
The Clobberer, looked away. “I didn’t think you’d come for your brother. Honest. I tried to spare your life. Remember when I told you not to come here? But you wouldn’t listen. You should have stayed in the Land of the Living.”
Stuart spoke through clenched jaws, “And let my brother become a monster? Why’d you do it?”
The Clobberer shook his head. “I had no choice.”
Stuart felt the muscles flexing in his face, chest, and arms. “No one made you do this. You had a choice. You could have said no, but you didn’t. And now look at us. Look at what you’ve done.”
The Clobberer scanned the sad faces around him and Stuart could see shame in the Clobberer’s expression.
The guards unlatched the door, and the Clobberer stepped out. “Sorry, Stuart. You just don’t understand the way things work here. No one crosses the Master.” He stepped through the cell door and the r guards locked it behind him. The Clobberer turned to the Hideous Stoag. “Thank you, Master. Am I free to go?”
“You may go, Clobberer. Your work is done.” The Hideous Stoag’s snakehead was becoming wolf-like as he spoke. He approached the cell and looked at Stuart. “Boy Who Danced with Monsters, you’re nothing but a frightened child, aren’t you? Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you and your brother. You’ll like working for me.”
“I’ll never work for you,” Stuart growled.
“Spirited. I admire that.” The Hideous Stoag turned to the guards. “Make sure the transformation happens before I return. I’m eager to put these new troops to work.”
The snakewolf licked its chops and slithered out of the room with Marvin and a line of kidmonsters following close behind.
“Marvin, bring me those keys. Come back here, squirt,” Stuart called.
His brother turned to him and threw the keys into a corner of the room, far away from Stuart’s cell. Transfixed by the shape-shifting monster, Marvin followed the parade of kidmonsters out of the room.
Stuart didn’t know how much time they had left, so he seized the opportunity. He opened his backpack and laid everything out on the ground. He turned to the kids around him. “Unload your pockets. Let’s see if we’ve got anything that can get us out of here.”
Jack and the other kids did as they were told and then huddled around the pile of junk. There were wires, batteries, a Swiss army knife, some string, a long rope, a flashlight, two wrenches, glue, tape, a sketchbook, a pencil, some beef jerky, a half-eaten bag of chips, and a black permanent marker.
Jack looked curiously at the mound of odds and ends. “Can you do anything with this stuff, Fishy?”
Beads of sweat rolled down Stuart’s forehead and his palms were clammy. “I sure hope so.”
Jack looked at the assortment of gadgets and raised his eyebrows. “Me, too.”
Stuart focused on the keys on the floor. If he could make a long pole with a hook on the end, he might be able to reach them, he thought. A metal handled broom rested beside the cell. He grabbed it, then looked at his junk pile.
“Anybody have a magnet on them?”
The kids replied with blank expressions.
Of course they didn’t. “Okay, I need everyone’s shoe laces. Hurry.”
The kids scrambled to remove their shoelaces and handed them over. Stuart tied them together and attached the line to the end of the broom. He fashioned a hook out of wire and secured it to the end of the shoe string. It was a pathetic looking fishing pole, but it would have to do.
Stuart extended the broom handle out through the bars and cast the shoelace string toward the keys. The laces were long enough to reach the wall, but his aim was off by several feet. He cast the line again. Another miss.
The kids watched his every move and Reese bit her fingernails. “Hurry, Stuart,” she said.
Stuart felt their eyes on him. This had to work. If it didn’t, they didn’t stand much chance against the guards. He took a deep breath and thought of nothing but the keys. I can do this. I can do this. Then he cast the line and watched his hook land dead center of the big, round key ring. He had done it. The kids cheered.
Jack patted him on the back. “Nice job, Fishy. Now bring them in, buddy.”
Stuart pulled the line gently, trying to hook the key ring. He hoped it wouldn’t just glide over the ring. To his surprise, the hook caught. He pulled it an inch and the key ring moved with the taught string. Now just keep it on the hook, he thought, pulling the keys toward him slowly. A moment later, the key ring was in his hands.
The children cheered and he tried the keys in the lock. None of them worked. Stuart looked back at the other door, expecting it to be thrown open by the guards. Sweat trickled down his temples.
The fifth and last key slid into the lock and he turned it to the right. The cell door swung open and the children wasted no time leaving the cell.
“How will we get out of this factory?” Reese said. “It’s crawling with monsters.”
Stuart thought for a moment and then an idea came to him. “Everyone, hide in the changing room. I’ll let you out when the coast is clear.”
“Cool. Let’s check out that monster machine,” Jack said.
“No, there’s no time for that now. Reese, you take the kids in there. Jack, you and I will take care of the guards.” Stuart turned to Reese. “Make sure the kids don’t touch anything, okay? We don’t want any of them turning into monsters.”
Reese nodded. “I’m on it.”
Stuart watched her lead the children into the changing room. He closed the door behind them and put his mind to the next task. It was a stretch, but it just might work.
“I’ve got an idea,” Stuart said. “Come back into the cell.”
Jack followed Stuart into it. “Shouldn’t we get out of here?” Jack asked. “I mean this is back where we started.”
Stuart picked up the permanent marker and handed it to Jack. “Draw a circle the size of a pizza. Right here.” Stuart pointed to the floor.
“Whatever,” Jack said and started drawing. When he was finished, Stuart started yelling to get the guards’ attention. They soon returned to the room.
“Hey,” an ogre said. “Where are all the kids?”
Stuart looked around, confused. “What others? We were the only one in here.”
The guards looked angry. “No you weren’t. There were a dozen of you nasty kids in there.” The guards came closer to the cell. “What’s that black spot on the floor?”
Stuart moved in front of it, blocking their view. “What black spot? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
One of the monsters roared at him and pointed his finger at the floor. “That one right behind you.”
Then the other ogre chimed in. “It’s a hole. Isn’t it? They’ve escaped down dat hole.”
Stuart looked around the cell, but kept himself between them and the black circle he’d drawn the floor. “I don’t see any hole.”
The monsters were furious now. “I’ll show you,” the guard said, throwing open the door. “Move aside so I can look down that hole.”
A guard pushed Stuart aside to get a look, and Stuart and Jack jumped out of the cell and locked the door. The monsters turned to find themselves imprisoned.
“Hey,” they roared. “Let us out right now.”
Stuart smiled and shook his head. “No.”
“You have to,” the monster said.
Stuart nodded. “Tell you what. If you do one thing for me, I’ll let you out. Pass me your uniforms.”
“We can’t do that.”
Stuart grinned. “Suit yourself. Have fun in the cell.” He turned to leave.
“Wait,” the guards called. When Stuart looked back, the two monsters were stripping down to their skivvies. They passed their green overalls, yellow lab coats, and red goggles to him through the bars.
Stuart shook his head. “Now your hard hats.”
The black hard hats narrowly squeezed through the steel bars. Two monsters stood before him wearing nothing but their underpants.
“Thanks. That ought to do it.” Stuart turned and headed for the room where the kids were hiding.
The monsters pounded on the cell bars. “Hey, you promised.”
Stuart smiled. “Sorry, I lied.” He opened the door and told the kids to follow him. When the kids found the two half-naked ogres trapped in the cell, they hooted with laughter.
Reese laughed so hard tears rolled down her cheeks. “Unbelievable,” she said. “How’d you do it?”
Stuart beamed. “Something I learned from cartoons.” He handed Jack a uniform. “Here, put this on.”
Stuart and Jack dressed in the monster’s uniforms and tied a rope around all of the kids’ wrists. “Follow us, kids,” he said, leading them to the door. “We’re getting out of here.”