The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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Legs on the Run
By Shannon Hale
They continued out of the forest, the only sounds the creak of the howdah on Hathi’s back, the soft thuds of the elephant’s feet on the ground, and Joe’s calls of “a little to the right, Hathi” and “straight ahead” as he consulted the red arrow on his toe. Roberta was motionless, as if in rest mode. There were blankets in the howdah, and Nancy snuggled in, warm between Sybil and Joe. She let her mind go soft and slept some.
When the east began to wake with light, so did her mind, but she kept her eyes shut and thought. Boppo hadn’t seemed like much, what with his fascination with gobs of spiced meat and tendency to nap on the go, but he’d found Roberta’s heart and brain before she and Joe could. And as soon as the regional conference and snack time was over, that pack of eggy monsters they’d left in the forest would robe themselves again in their guises of villains, cads, and scalawags and be on the hunt.
“We have to find Roberta’s legs before they do,” Joe said, sensing her thoughts.
“And maybe her head, too?” said Nancy. “I’m confused, if she already has her brain, does she need a head?”
“Those yolk-ers back there said that Roberta’s memory should know the legs’ location.”
“But Roberta’s brain was removed before they were hidden,” said Sybil, yawning like a tiger.
“That is most accurate,” Roberta said in a crisp British accent. Her boxy torso sat on the floor of the howdah, the arms crossed, and she looked as exquisitely dignified as a metal-box-with-arms can.
“But . . . but you did say something about the legs. . . .” Joe scrunched up his nose, trying to remember. “You said they can run through time.”
No one replied. Hathi had just entered a village.
The elephant paraded past bungalow homes with front porches, parks with swings nudged by a breeze, but not a person in sight. The arrows pointed them in toward the village center, ma and pop stores surrounding a grassy square where a massive chestnut tree held court.
“What happened here?” said Joe. “It’s so empty.”
“And familiar . . .” It took Nancy a moment to recall: she’d seen that chestnut tree in Sybil’s crystal ball, her parents beneath it, handing their babies over to Ringmaster.
“An elephant never forgets.” Hathi lifted her trunk and breathed in deeply. “The Sick and Tired Circus raised its big top here ten years ago.”
There was a dark shape under the tree, whuffling around. Nancy clutched the scar on her left arm, afraid it was the Wolf, until the shape lifted its head and oinked.
“Genius Kelly!” said Joe.
A sudden pain flashed in Nancy’s left arm and her head was awash with images – something coming, coming quickly, coming toward them . . .
“Go!” said Nancy.
Without question, Hathi went faster, running like an earthquake toward the pig and the tree. Joe gripped the edge of the box and stared back to see which terror was chasing them now.
Around the corner, passing the abandoned hardware store, came the Wolf. In its speed, it was all sleek silver fur and teeth, and it looked exactly like the very last thing you’d want coming straight for you. The Wolf’s teeth were gritty black, stained with the supermarket-brand cookies Plenty Sassy had served (Good Time Bites: 23% wax, 77% fun!). But even if Joe had known the dark grit was simply cookie crumbs and not the grimy blood of helpless victims (as he naturally supposed), it still wouldn’t have softened the impression of a dastardly, inter-dimensional demon with death on its mind.
Hathi had reached the chestnut tree, and an elephant knows when she’s been outrun. She turned to face the predator, standing between wolf and pig, her trunk raised.
It’s going to leap, Nancy thought – no, knew. It’s going to leap, knock me out of the way, grab Roberta in its mouth and gnaw her to bits, and my parents will be trapped forever. I have to stop him. But I can’t. I can’t . . .
“Nancy!” Joe yelled. “Lollipop!”
Nancy felt at her waist – she still had it! The knife she’d been carrying in her belt since Baby Max picked it off one of Dubenski’s thieves. No, babies should not play with knives . . . but Nancy thought “thank you” all the same.
The Wolf leapt for the howdah, claws and teeth first. Nancy aimed the dagger, trying to imagine the creature’s throat was just a circus balloon she used to pop from a distance for the amazed crowd. She threw it. Bulls-eye. Or rather, wolfs-throat.
No clapping crowd now, just the Wolf’s howl, a sound like time itself ripping. It dropped to the ground and clawed at the knife in its pelt.
“You can never defeat us,” said Nancy, shaking hands placed firmly on her hips. “Interdimensional badness always loses in the end, and you just lost.”
“Yeah,” said Joe.
“Perhaps I did,” the Wolf said, its eyes beginning to look like glass, its jaw starting to hang slack. “But I am not alone.”
The rend in the Wolf’s throat opened wider, screaming like a zipper. The eggy being inside slurped and slid out and rose up, just out of reach of Hathi’s seven-foot trunk. Lurid yellow light began to pulse from its center, like a beacon of ovular horror.
Hathi trumpeted at it. “Stop that, you repulsive roe!”
“I don’t need to consult the ball to see that’s no good,” said Sybil.
Nancy leapt from Hathi’s back and dropped beside Genius Kelly, who was hiding behind one of Hathi’s great pillar legs and staring at the egg in the sky.
“How did you come here?” Nancy asked.
“I followed my arrow to this spot, but . . . it’s empty,” he whimper-oinked.
Nancy removed her sock and walked around, and sure enough her toe arrow pointed forward, then as she passed over an ordinary spot on the grass, the arrow swung around and pointed backward again.
Joe was gathering chestnuts for Hathi to shoot with her trunk at the globby alien. The chestnuts struck and entered the slurpy mass but didn’t affect its eerie pulsing light.
“That’s one nutty omelet,” Joe breathed. He didn’t know what the alien was doing up there, but fear pricked every goosebump on his skin.
“Joe, we need you!” Nancy called.
She explained her plan. The three arrowed-ones stood several feet from one another in a rough circle, then began to walk forward, following the direction of their own toe arrows, working to triangulate the exact location. Joe considered that if he actually used the word “triangulate” out loud, he’d never get invited to parties, but he went along with the plan anyway.
“There!” said Nancy when she was standing shoulder to shoulder with Joe and Genius. “All our arrows are pointing to that spot. Something should be right here.”
She swished her hand around, wondering if there was a piece of the Exquisite Corpse hovering invisible before her, but she felt nothing. “Could it be buried?”
“Then our arrows would point down,” said Joe. They were amazingly accurate little arrows.
Roberta darted through Joe’s legs and hopped about on her hands, speaking impatiently. “Here, something is here! Or near. Nearly here . . .”
“Joe, remember what Roberta said earlier about the legs?”
Joe met eyes with his sister and nodded. “The legs could be in this spot, but running through time, so if we wait here—”
“They’ll come our way again.”
Sybil was hunched over her crystal ball. Her hood fell back, exposing a head of white frizz as crazy as a clown’s wig. “I might have been a cobbler, or a fine purveyor of persimmon punch,” she mumbled. “Instead I have the misfortune of foretelling our coming doom.”
Genius Kelly’s head whipped toward Sybil, his snout quivering.
“Doom?” It was Genius Kelly’s least favorite word, followed closely by “loin-chop.”
Sybil didn’t need to explain. They could all see the motion in her ball – the clawing, snapping, galloping mass of creatures leaping over each other to arrive first.
“They’re coming,” said Joe. “For us. Egg Man up there is broadcasting our position, I’d bet the tattooed lady’s serpentined limbs.”
“Maybe we’ll have Roberta’s legs before the rabble arrives,” Nancy said, dredging up some of that Sloppy pluck.
“Keep a keen eye, children,” said Hathi. She winked her small, gray one and pointed her trunk to the spot they surrounded.
Nancy grabbed Joe’s hand. It was hot and sweaty. Or was that her own? Roberta lifted up one of her arms and Nancy reached out, but pulled it back as soon as her fingers touched the half-formed robot. Something had felt wrong, the way it feels when the dentist deadens your gums and you probe those numb places with your tongue. Nancy looked at the thin white scar the Wolf had left on her arm and shuddered. It was changing her. Her Sloppy DNA should make her immune to the dangerous mechanisms protecting every part of Roberta. So what had happened when the Wolf cut her? Had there been poison on his claws? Did part of his eggy mass get inside her wound and began to change her very DNA? Was she . . . oh no . . . was she becoming one of them?
“Joe, you hold Roberta’s hand,” Nancy said, trying to sound calm.
“Right,” said Joe. “And we’ll grab those legs as soon as they appear, which will be long before the arrival of the squids with human heads, maniacal clowns, werewolves, and those other things we saw at their conference – poison butterflies, vampires, dental technicians—”
“Don’t think about it,” said Nancy. “Think about the house we’ll live in with Mom and Dad when this is all over.”
A house. A real house, not a tent or boxcar. Maybe Nancy could have a bed – her first. In her mind, the essential purpose of a bed was to provide a place where one might be Tucked In, and at that moment, bracing against the arrival of foes known and new, being Tucked In sounded like the most glorious event in all the world.
Joe fantasized about a couch. He’d read about couches and caught glimpses of them through windows whenever the Sick and Tired Circus passed through towns. The circus had chairs and stools, but they are furniture of solitude. There were benches too, which are more social, but the hard seat and lack of back says, “Rest for a moment if you must, then move along.” But a couch says, “Here, take a load off, sit close and comfy with some family, and stay as long as you like.” A couch is where a boy can plop down to read a book with a mother. A couch is the foundation of a good fort, where a boy and his father can hide beneath blankets and plan infiltrations of the kitchen.
“Bed,” Nancy said dreamily.
“Couch,” Joe said wistfully.
“Doom,” Genius Kelly said emphatically.
And around the corner from the hardware store, howls, snarls, yips and whoops chorused.
Nancy’s dagger was still stuck in the fake wolf skin on the grass, where it had sloughed off the now-pulsing Egg Man.
“It’s too late,” she said, going for the knife. “The legs didn’t appear. We need to fight now.”
“No, wait,” said Hathi.
“Wait,” Sybil agreed. “We’ll buy you time.” She stood up, stowed her ball in her robe, and brushed off her hands. “Your parents knew – most problems are solved by time.”
Genius Kelly whimpered. He looked at the two ladies – one gray-haired, one gray-skinned – then sighed. “Yes, wait for the legs. We’ll hold off the rabble.”
Hathi broke a wooden park bench with one crunch of her foreleg and hoisted a lethal-looking piece in her trunk. She turned toward the oncoming enemy. Sybil was at her side. When her hands twitched, vines peeked up out of the ground and tensed forward, like hounds awaiting their master’s call. Genius Kelly wobbled up between them, set his front hoof, and growled.
“We can’t let them fight alone,” said Nancy.
“Watch ,” Roberta warned. “Watch with all vigilance. Watch.” She gave a long, piercing whine of a beep, as if in her alarm, she reverted briefly to her voiceless, brainless self.
Nancy took Joe’s hand again. The air between them was suddenly colder, and yet it wobbled like the heat haze over a summer street.
Joe stared at that air, stared at it violently, refusing to look behind him, though every cell in his body was aware of the trumpeting and screaming, snarls and slaps, yelps and snorgles, and one very distinct oink. There was a sharp cry like a hurt elephant and Joe almost broke, but though his lower lip quivered just a little, he kept his gaze on that empty spot of grass.
Then with no more warning, two metallic legs shivered into view, one slightly forward, one back, as if they were indeed running.
“Now!” shouted Nancy, the legs already flickering out.
Nancy, Joe, and Roberta leapt forward, pouncing on the legs. Their momentum should have pulled them forward, the three of them pinning the legs to the grass. But instead came the unexpected, stomach-squeezing, throat-clamping, scream-inducing tug to the side, as if what they’d grabbed was a roller coaster car zipping at high speed. It was wrong and it was scary and it didn’t stop. The world was a mangled blur of colors and darkness, the noise was like being locked in a dryer on high.
Nancy screamed. Her scream went on and on, dragging out of her even after she was certain her mouth was shut and her breath held. Her scarred arm couldn’t bear to touch those legs, but she squeezed Joe’s hand tight as if a buoy in a tossing sea.
Finally, the ground found them with a thud. Joe groaned, a metal knee in his gut. He still held Roberta’s hand with his right and Nancy’s with his left, and they appeared to be in the same place as before: the village center under the tall chestnut tree, empty buildings staring back. But the light was different – no longer morning, but high noon. The air was as chilly as the dairy aisle, and most importantly, Sybil, Genius Kelly, and Hathi, as well as the mob of danger-cloaked eggy villains, were gone.
Roberta stood up – yes, stood. A no-nonsense android who has been missing her legs for ten years won’t waste time snapping them back on. She put her hands on her hip-region and squared her shoulder-type area toward Joe and Nancy, as if meeting them with the steely gaze she surely would have if she’d had a head.
“I should think, mes enfants, that now is the time to find a door.”
Audio recordings provided by National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and the Butler Center for Children's Literature at Dominican University have developed a companion educational resource center (external link) to support “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”