Curse of the broomstaff, p.12
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.12

           Tyler Whitesides
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  It was a yellow cone. The words Caution: Wet Floor were clearly visible above the symbol of a man slipping. And, judging by the flashlight’s attention, this caution cone was definitely Glopified. Then the light beam skipped from the cone to the back wall, illuminating the dispenser. The light seemed to taunt Alan, so easily reaching his end goal.

  He flicked off the flashlight and clipped it back into his belt. “Probably some kind of defensive barrier.” Alan gestured to the caution cone.

  “So what does it do?” asked Bernard.

  “It warns you.” Everyone turned to Daisy. She shrugged like it was obvious. “Don’t slip on the wet floor.”

  “Our best chance is to approach slowly,” Alan said, getting right back to business. “I’ll try to move or disable it.”

  “Let me do it.” Penny stepped past him. “If something happens to me, at least we won’t lose the team leader.”

  Alan shook his head. “I’m the only one with experience in disabling Auran traps.”

  “Relax,” Penny said, taking a cautious step toward the cone. “You can coach me from the sidelines.”

  Penny moved painstakingly slowly, carefully reaching out a foot to probe each step. Her breathing was steady while everyone else in the bathroom seemed to stop breathing altogether. Alan couldn’t help but inch forward, giving occasional words of encouragement.

  Penny was about halfway there when Daisy spoke up, her voice echoing loudly after so much silence.

  “Why did the Toxites cross the road?”

  Walter and Bernard glanced at the girl, giving her less than a second before turning their attention back to Penny’s perilous approach.

  Spencer rolled his eyes. “Seriously?” He turned to her. “Now’s not a great time for jokes, Daisy.”

  “I’m not joking.” She pointed to the nearest bathroom stall. “I’m reading.”

  Written in sloppy paint at the top of the stall door was the joke.

  Q: Why did the Toxites cross the road?

  “Well?” Daisy said. “Why did they? What do you think?”

  “That’s a dumb joke,” Spencer muttered. “Everyone knows the answer.” Somewhat bothered by the cryptic writing on the stall, Spencer turned back to check Penny’s progress. She had arrived at the yellow cone and stood motionless before it.

  “Okay! Stop right there!” Alan called. “Whatever you do, don’t go past the cone!” In his anxiety, Alan had crept forward until he stood about halfway between Penny and the rest of the team. “I need you to inspect the base,” he instructed. “See if the cone is somehow anchored to the floor.” Penny lifted her foot to take another delicate step.

  “Whoa!” Alan shouted. “Freeze! Don’t move!”

  Penny paused, one foot in the air. A clumsier person might have tipped forward, but not Penny. She was the state champion on the balance beam. Standing like a flamingo in the middle of the bathroom was no trouble at all. But as Penny cast a glance over her shoulder to hear Alan’s instructions, she wavered.

  It was as though the floor became wildly slippery. Penny’s arms shot out for balance, but it wasn’t enough. With a shout of disbelief, she went into an uncontrollable fall. Her feet jerked out, passing the caution cone as she went down on her backside.

  As soon as Penny’s feet broke the invisible barrier, the caution cone released a ripple of magic. Daisy grabbed Spencer’s sleeve as he shielded his face from the blast. When he lowered his hands, Spencer saw what had happened.

  The floor around the caution cone had changed. It didn’t make sense, but Penny was buried in it! The floor, totally solid only seconds ago, had swallowed Penny to the waist. She squirmed in its grasp, sending ripples across the tile and liquefying everything in its wake.

  “Get back!” Alan shouted, waving his arms at the rest of the team. When Alan didn’t follow, Spencer looked down. His dad had also been caught in the wet quicksand floor. Alan’s feet were completely out of sight, and the tiles were creeping slowly up his shins.

  Bernard tried reaching out for him, but Alan shook his head. “It’s spreading!” he shouted. Walter pulled Spencer and Daisy back against the graffiti-covered stall door.

  Daisy was breathing heavily. “They weren’t kidding about the wet floor.”

  “Get a broom!” Alan was holding still, but the tiles were almost to his knees now. Bernard instantly clipped out a broom and extended the handle toward Alan.

  “Not for me.” Alan waved off the broom. “I need you to fly to the dispenser. I’ll throw you the key once you get over there. Get the map and get out before this whole room sinks.”

  “Righto, chief,” Bernard said. He took aim and tapped his bristles against the floor. The broom pulled him at an upward angle, barely clearing Alan’s head. But he hadn’t even reached the caution cone when his broom suddenly changed course.

  He shouted, the broom pitching downward as though drawn in by the caution cone. Bernard landed with a squelch between Alan and Penny, his broom sticking into the wet floor uselessly. Bernard’s rubber boots instantly disappeared as the garbologist sank thigh-deep into the liquefied tiles.

  “At least it was a soft landing!” Bernard forced a grin.

  With only her neck and head above the floor, Penny had stopped thrashing. Spencer felt a rush of urgency. If they didn’t reach the dispenser soon, she’d be gone. They had to get to the other side!

  Then it hit him. “The joke, Daisy! The joke!”

  She whirled around to read the writing on the stall door behind them. “Why did the Toxites cross the road?”

  “To get to the other side!” Spencer answered. “We have to get to the other side of the bathroom!”

  The rippling liquid floor was almost to their feet. The only safe path was a retreat back into the hallway.

  “We’re trying!” Walter said. “I don’t see how a joke is going to help you reach the dispenser.”

  “Not that side,” Spencer said. “We’ve got to get over there!” He pointed, not to the far wall with the dispenser, but across the bathroom to the opposite stall. The joke’s answer was crudely painted.

  A: To get to the other side

  “There’s got to be something over there,” Spencer said. “Something in that stall that will help get us out of here!”

  “There’s no time!” Alan said. “You have to leave or we’ll all be trapped.”

  “I have to get over there—” Spencer said, but his dad cut him off.

  “It’s a joke, Spence! A dumb joke! It’s not going to save anybody!”

  It was silent for a moment, and then Walter spoke softly at Spencer’s side. “I think your father’s right. We need to regroup in the hallway.”

  Spencer quickly bent down and untied his shoelaces. “Come on, Daisy.” She stepped forward, always a willing accomplice to Spencer’s half-baked plans.

  Spencer drew his toilet plunger and handed it to Daisy. “You know,” he said to Walter, “you would have helped me if it weren’t for my dad.” Then he pulled up his shirt and turned his bare back to Daisy.

  “Plunge me.”

  “Are you sure?” Daisy said. “I thought you hated these things.”

  “Just do it! If I think about it too long I’m going to get grossed out.” Instantly, he felt the rubber suction cup clamp onto his back. “Now throw me as hard as you can!”

  Alan shouted something in protest. Walter reached out for him. But Daisy obeyed. She pulled back and hurled Spencer across the bathroom, detaching the plunger with a twist of the handle.

  An involuntary shout left his lips as he sailed through the air. His cry was cut short as he slammed into the stall door, giving him an instant headache. He slid down the door, feeling his feet squish into the quicksand floor.

  “Sorry!” Daisy shouted. “You said as hard as I could!”

  The liquefied tiles were swallowing his shoes. The loose laces gave him one extra second to slide out before his shoes were completely overtaken by the wet floor. He threw his weight against the sta
ll door, but it wouldn’t budge. Spencer felt his feet sink deeper into the floor, and he was grateful to be wearing tall socks.

  “Use the Windex!” Bernard shouted. The garbologist was anchored at the waist, but twisted around to watch the action.

  In a flash, the blue bottle was unclipped from his belt. Spencer gave a spray, watching part of the metal door turn to glass. When the transition was complete, Spencer slammed his elbow through the glass, popping out the lock on the inside.

  The door swung open. Spencer tugged free of his sunken socks and stepped onto the solid tile in the stall.

  It looked like any bathroom stall: a single toilet and a roll of TP. Spencer scanned the walls for more writing, hoping desperately for some instructions on how to save his friends. What if his dad were right? What if it was nothing more than a dumb joke?

  Then his eyes fell to the ceramic toilet seat, and he saw the writing. Four words were scribbled out in the same hand that had painted the joke.

  Flow shot toy lit

  Spencer stared unblinking at the gibberish phrase. He muttered the words aloud, but couldn’t make sense of them. “Flow shot toy lit.”

  “Penny!” Bernard’s voice rang through the bathroom. “She’s going under!”

  Spencer felt a surge of panic take him. This was the strangest riddle he’d ever seen. Toy? In the bathroom stall? He dropped to his knees but couldn’t see anything that would help.

  Maybe the others knew something he didn’t. Scrambling onto his bare feet, Spencer shouted the four words. “Flow shot toy lit!”

  “What was that?” Walter called back.

  “Flow shot toy lit!” Spencer strung the words together in desperation.

  “You’re speaking mumbo-jumbo, kid!” Bernard shouted.

  There was a moment of silence, and Spencer feared he would never solve it soon enough to save Penny.

  Then Daisy burst out, her voice an excited squeal. “Flush a toilet! It’s a Mad Gab! Flush a toilet!”

  Spencer looked once more at the words on the seat. He mumbled them aloud, “Flow shot toy lit.” He heard it clearly now and was upset that he hadn’t realized it sooner.

  “What are you waiting for?” Daisy shrieked, her voice echoing in the restroom. “Flush it!”

  So that was exactly what he did.

  Chapter 23

  “To get to the other side.”

  The toilet flushed normally at first. The water swirled upward, filling the bowl. But as the water began to recede down the pipes, things got a little weird. Spencer felt an inescapable pull that caused him to bend toward the toilet. In a heartbeat, he was closer than he ever wanted to be, his head lowering past the rim.

  As a desperate last resort, Spencer grabbed the toilet seat, pushing away from the churning water with all his strength. His eyes were clenched tightly and he was holding his breath against the smell and germs of the toilet bowl.

  In that unfortunate position, with his head in the toilet, Spencer couldn’t help but think of Dez Rylie. If the bully were here, he would be screaming with delight. After escaping all of Dez’s swirly threats, it seemed as though Spencer was about to get one after all.

  Spencer’s hands slipped from the rim of the toilet, and he plunged face-first into the cold water. But to Spencer’s great surprise, it didn’t end there. His head, clearly too large to fit down the pipe, seemed to compress. Either that, or the pipe suddenly expanded. Whichever was the case, Spencer’s whole body was instantly flushed down the toilet.

  It was too dark to see where he was going. Spencer shot through the pipes with his arms stretched above his head. Water swirled around him and the bumps and turns nearly forced the air out of his lungs. It was like being in the world’s tiniest waterslide, going somewhere that humans were never meant to go.

  Spencer’s panic was just turning to hysteria when he saw a light at the end of the pipe. He forced his lungs to hold the last wisp of air as he streamed upward toward the exit.

  Finally, Spencer erupted from the plumbing. The momentum shot him straight into the air, high enough that he almost hit the ceiling. He crashed painfully to the hard floor, maintaining just enough consciousness to get his bearings.

  He was in another bathroom stall. The toilet next to him was still erupting like Mount Saint Helens, shooting water ten feet high. Spencer hauled himself to his feet, spitting toilet water and trying not to throw up. He put a hand to his throbbing head.

  “Spencer?” It was Daisy’s voice. “Are you okay?”

  “Where am I?” he mumbled.

  “You’re in the bathroom,” she answered.

  Daisy wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know, and Spencer didn’t care for bathroom stall conversations. He found the lock, slid it aside, and pulled back the door.

  He was indeed in the same hidden bathroom, just as Daisy had mentioned. But his quick trip through the plumbing had brought him to the farthest toilet. Here, the floor was still firm. And not five feet away was the paper-towel dispenser.

  Dripping wet, Spencer stepped out of the stall. Every eye turned from the first stall, widening in surprise at his emergence from the last stall.

  “How’d you get over there?” Daisy asked.

  “In one toilet and out the other,” said Spencer. “It worked!” Alan cried, his voice ripe with astonishment. He was still thigh-deep in the tile, but he thumped his fist on the hardened floor. Flushing that toilet had not only transported Spencer, it had also disabled the caution cone!

  “Just in time, too,” Bernard said. “There’s nothing left of Penny but a breathing tube.”

  Spencer glanced at the spot near the caution cone where Penny had been sinking. She was nowhere in sight! In her place was the cardboard paper-towel tube that had been part of the clue package. The tube was sticking straight up, about four inches out of the liquid floor.

  “It was hard enough to get that tube into Penny’s mouth,” Bernard went on. “And in case you didn’t notice, I’m fresh out of snorkels.”

  Walter and Daisy stepped away from the stall as Alan unclasped the golden chain around his neck and handed the key to the warlock. “Get that dispenser open,” Alan said. “I’ll work on chipping us out of the floor.” He drew his bottle of Windex and adjusted the nozzle.

  Spencer scanned the room for his shoes and socks, but not even a shoelace was visible anymore. Daisy appeared at his side, handing him the plunger she’d used.

  “Thanks for trusting me,” he whispered, clipping the plunger into place. “We’d all be in the floor if you hadn’t figured out that Mad Gab.”

  “We play that game at my house all the time,” Daisy said. “But it’s the first joke I don’t get.” She scrunched her eyebrows together. “Why did the Toxites cross the road?”

  “To get to the other side.”

  “Toxites.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

  “Yeah. It never made sense when it was the chicken, either,” Spencer said.

  Walter had finally reached the paper-towel dispenser. He ran his fingers across the top until he felt the keyhole. Reaching up, he slid the tiny silver key into place. There was a soft click, and the plastic cover dropped on its hinges.

  The dispenser was open.

  Chapter 24

  “Don’t tell her I did that, okay?”

  Spencer took a step toward the warlock, his eyes fixing on the roll of paper towels in the dispenser. Instead of the standard brownish-white paper of most rolls, Spencer saw a design printed on the paper towel. Intersecting lines, each labeled in miniscule writing, covered the roll.

  The map wasn’t just hidden in the dispenser. The map was actually the roll of paper towels! One of the roads on the map was highlighted, surely marking the route they should travel to find the Aurans’ secret landfill.

  Walter grabbed the paper-towel roll with both hands and pulled. With surprising ease, the roll came free. “Got it!” the warlock said, a victorious grin across his face.

  Daisy drop
ped to her hands and knees. “These tiles are fascinating! They’re so . . . square!”

  Spencer had just begun to wonder what Daisy was talking about when a wave of intense fatigue slammed into him. He staggered a few steps, trying to remain upright. Through the sleepiness, he heard Bernard shout a warning. Spencer’s eyes flicked once more to the empty paper-towel dispenser.

  There was a hole in the wall. He hadn’t noticed it before because the roll of paper towels had blocked it. Now the way was open, and there was movement coming from within the dark hole.

  Walter Jamison fired a stream of air freshener from his aerosol can just as the Toxites erupted from their entrapment. Spencer’s body was finally giving in to exhaustion when Walter’s vanilla-scented freshener wafted past his nose. The haze of Toxite fatigue cleared around him, leaving his mind fresh and alert.

  An avalanche of angry Toxites poured out of the hole. Filths hissed, exposing their savage buckteeth. Grimes slithered in every direction along the wall, and a flock of Rubbishes cut through the air.

  Rico Chavez may have given his life by releasing the first wave of angry Toxites, but the Aurans had set a double trap!

  The bathroom was swarming with deadly creatures, an endless stream entering through the hole in the dispenser. Spencer felt a Grime sear his bare foot with its venomous grip. He kicked it away and leapt up, drawing a mop from his belt.

  Spencer spun the mop handle, sending the strings forward in a wide attack. He jumped toward the dispenser, feeling the creatures bite and tear. A group of Rubbishes swooped down, seizing the mop handle in their talons. The weapon was jerked from Spencer’s grasp, leaving him vulnerable against the onslaught.

  In a flash, Daisy was at his side. The girl blocked with her dustpan shield, giving Spencer time to lunge forward and grab the dispenser cover. Instantly, his arms were crawling with Grimes. A Filth leapt onto his chest, sharp claws digging as it raked downward.

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