Curse of the broomstaff, p.20
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       Curse of the Broomstaff, p.20

           Tyler Whitesides
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  “He’s not hurting us,” Daisy explained. “Bookworm saved my life.”

  “Bookworm?” Alan asked.

  “That’s what I’m calling him,” said Daisy. In response, the Thingamajunk bent low and flashed its wormy imitation of a smile. The Rebels all pulled back in disgust.

  Just then, Penny and V drifted down from the mattresses, landing skillfully with brooms in hand. Instinctively, V began a strain of loudmouthed trash-talking when she saw the Thingamajunk, but Daisy quickly cut her off.

  “What’s going on here?” the Auran demanded.

  “Looks to me like Daisy made a friend,” Bernard said.

  V shook her head. “Impossible. You can’t make friends with a Thingamajunk. It’s got to be a trap. This one must be smarter than the others. It’s going to wait until we turn our backs and then attack when we’re least prepared. We should destroy it now while it’s outnumbered!”

  The Thingamajunk began slinking away from V as her voice rose. Daisy reached out a hand for the garbage being.

  “Don’t listen to them,” she said. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.” Daisy took a step closer. “Do you speak English?”

  The Thingamajunk shook its lunch-box head, grunting a few times in response.

  “I don’t think that was English,” Daisy said, looking to her companions for affirmation.

  “Definitely not,” Bernard said.

  Spencer stepped forward to ask Bookworm another question. “Do you understand us when we speak to you?”

  The Thingamajunk nodded, grunting something that sounded like “garblar.”

  “Garblar,” Daisy said. “Maybe that means ‘yes.’”

  “Why did you save Daisy from that vacuum hose?” Spencer asked.

  The Thingamajunk reached up to its mouth and plucked out the pink retainer. It held the object for all to see, nodding excitedly.

  “You liked my gift?” Daisy asked.

  “Oh, please!” V rolled her eyes. “You gave it a gift?”

  Bookworm popped the retainer back into its mouth and gave another smile.

  “Has anything like this ever happened before with a Thingamajunk?” Walter asked the Aurans.

  “Never,” Rho answered. “We’re always fighting them off. Thingamajunks don’t help people.”

  “Maybe that’s because you trash-talk them all the time,” Daisy said. “Maybe you hurt their feelings and that makes them mad.”

  V shrugged incredulously. “They’re made of garbage. Garbage doesn’t have feelings.”

  Daisy was going red in the face, trying to mount some defense for her rescuer. Whether Bookworm had feelings or not, Daisy had changed something about the Thingamajunk. She’d shown it a bit of kindness, given it a simple gift, and now the garbage figure was standing behind her like a bodyguard.

  “Whatever,” Rho said, diffusing the tension. “We should keep moving.”

  Daisy glared at V and then looked once more at the Thingamajunk. “I have to go now, Bookworm. Thanks for saving me.” She held out her hand again, and this time the garbage figure accepted it. The Thingamajunk shook her hand so hard that she nearly came off the ground.

  “Will I see you again?” Daisy asked.

  “Garblar,” grunted Bookworm. Then he leapt backward, his body losing cohesion and falling into loose pieces of trash on the trail.

  “Daisy,” Spencer said. “Good job.”

  She looked at him. “What do you mean?”

  “I think you just got yourself a guardian Thingamajunk.”

  Chapter 42

  “We’re going under.”

  It was midafternoon when they finally stopped again, and Spencer was grateful for a break. V’s pace had been relentless. They hadn’t even stopped for lunch, instead eating their light meal as they hiked along.

  V hadn’t mentioned the Thingamajunk incident again. She stayed at the head of the group with her eyes on the trail and the Spade over her shoulder. But Daisy talked nonstop. She asked Bernard lots of questions about garbage. Despite her newfound interest, Bernard pointed out that he had never actually worked with living garbage before and couldn’t claim to be an expert. But Daisy wasn’t going to give up easily. She was convinced that she would see Bookworm again.

  When V finally stopped, it was to study the landscape ahead. The area was blackened and charred. For the first time in what seemed like days, Spencer saw bare dirt without garbage. But scattered across the land were hundreds of propane tanks.

  The tanks were lying haphazardly across the dirt, some half buried in the blackened soil, others tipped carelessly on their sides. Spencer had seen propane tanks at Aunt Avril’s house, hooked up to the fancy grill on the back patio. They were full of gas, and Alice was always telling Max to stay away from them. She said a single spark could ignite the gas and . . . well, the evidence was right in front of Spencer.

  The propane tanks were spurting huge columns of yellow fire. They flared up sporadically, jetting flames in any direction at any time.

  “We’re not going through there?” Walter said as a propane tank launched a twenty-foot streamer of fire straight into the air.

  “The propane tanks have been tainted with Glop,” Rho explained. “They seem to have an endless fuel source, and they ignite randomly, making it almost impossible to pass through without getting burned to a crisp.”

  “Which is why we’re not passing through,” V said, her eyes flicking left and right along the edge of the burn field. “We’re going under.”

  “We’re looking for a marker,” Rho said. “Something that the Auran scouts would have left behind to show the way into the tunnels.”

  “There.” Bernard pointed away to the left. “That empty water bottle.”

  The team moved over to a bottle standing upright on a large rock. “How do you know that’s the marker, and not just some old piece of trash bottle?” Penny asked.

  “First of all,” Bernard said, “it’s a twenty-ounce bottle with a narrow base and a heavy lid. The fact that it’s standing upright means it was carefully placed here. It couldn’t have landed like this coincidentally, since this bottle model is notoriously top-heavy when empty.”

  That seemed like a reasonable explanation, but Bernard swiped his finger around the rim of the water bottle and continued. “And secondly,” he said, “it’s still damp, which means someone was drinking out of this less than an hour ago.”

  Rho picked up the bottle. “He’s right,” she said. “This is Gia’s.”

  V clipped the Spade into her janitorial belt and drew out a pushbroom. Warning everyone to stand back, she struck the rock. It spiraled skyward, revealing a dark opening into an underground tunnel.

  “Everybody in,” she said. The Rebels dropped down one by one. Spencer noted how the air felt different below ground. It was dry and cool, a refreshing contrast to the Texas afternoon in the landfill. Quiet, too, though Spencer could still hear an occasional whoosh as one of the propane tanks ignited overhead.

  In a moment they were on their way, V moving into the lead once more. The tunnel was surprisingly large. Even Alan, who was the tallest among them, could stand up straight.

  “How did the scouts know there would be a tunnel?” Spencer asked.

  “It’s actually an old garden hose,” Rho answered. “Somebody threw it away and, after a while here, the Glop changed it. The hose generally stays in the same area near the propane tanks, but the entrance is in a slightly different place each time.”

  Spencer expected it to grow unbearably dark, but as they moved deeper into the tunnel, he noticed how portions of the garden hose had rotted away above their heads, letting dusty columns of light into the dark passageway.

  The tunnel snaked along, making a number of turns and bends. They had been walking in silence for several minutes when Daisy suddenly spoke out.

  “What’s that?” she said, pointing toward the roof of the garden hose. There was a skylight hole rotted above them, the biggest Spencer had seen since entering. A
glimpse of fire and a ray of natural sunlight filtered through. But the hole wasn’t what Daisy was asking about.

  Covering the opening was a massive spiderweb, at least a dozen feet across. Like most things in the landfill, there was something very strange about it. Instead of the usual white, cottony fibers of a spider’s web, this seemed to be made of . . .

  “Bubble gum,” Rho said.

  A vast amount of prechewed gum had been stretched together to form a complex web. It was multicolored, mostly pink and green and blue. The gum web sagged over the hole in the roof, as if it were waiting for an unsuspecting victim to fall into its sticky snare.

  Spencer was disgusted. He could practically see the germs crawling to and fro.

  “What kind of spider makes a web out of bubble gum?” Daisy asked.

  “Doesn’t matter,” V said. “The exit isn’t far ahead. Let’s keep moving.”

  Spencer took an uneasy step forward. Suddenly, the ground cracked under his feet. He tried to leap backward, but the garden hose was caving in too fast. The floor of the tunnel was collapsing! Everyone was caught in the free fall as the tunnel gave way beneath them.

  A loud squelching sound came from overhead, and Spencer saw a strand of gum lash out. He felt the sticky rope latch onto his back. As his friends tumbled down into darkness, Spencer alone was flung upward toward the light.

  Spencer stuck to the bubble-gum web, feeling the prechewed gum adhere to his clothes and hands. He thrashed wildly, but the action only caused him to get more tangled in the disgusting, chewy mess.

  “Spencer!” Walter’s voice drifted up from the darkness below. The cave-in had settled, and Spencer knew his friends could see him silhouetted against the midafternoon light like a fly in a web.

  “Hang on, Spencer!” his dad shouted. “We’re coming for you!”

  Then Spencer felt the strands of bubble-gum webbing vibrate around him. Something else was climbing onto the web. Spencer turned his head sideways, putting his cheek dangerously close to a string of Bubblicious.

  It wasn’t a spider coming for him. It was another person. Agile and strong, the figure maneuvered across the top of the gum web until he was poised behind Spencer. A razorblade flashed in the firelight, cutting Spencer free one strand at a time.

  Spencer held still, thinking that he would plummet down to his friends at any moment. But as the last stretchy piece of gum was severed, the stranger seized Spencer by the backpack and hauled him out of the tunnel.

  They rolled onto the charred dirt above, where a plume of fire streamed dangerously close to Spencer’s head. He was reaching for his weapons, preparing to fight off his assailant, when Spencer finally got a glimpse of him.

  It was a thin boy, tall and wiry. He wore a singed pair of jeans and a shirt with the sleeves cut off. His hair was stark white and buzzed almost to his scalp. And around his neck was a bronze dustpan.

  It was another Dark Auran.

  Chapter 43

  “Being an Auran just got gross.”

  The Dark Auran kicked the nearest propane tank, spinning it sideways and launching a stream of fire across the opening. The bubble-gum web was instantly charred and the Rebels’ way out was cut off.

  Spencer drew a plunger from his belt. The heat was intense here, with random spurts of fire dancing around them. “I’m armed,” Spencer said. “You don’t want to fight me.”

  The boy laughed. “Spare me the bravado,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

  “So that’s why you collapsed the tunnel and dragged me up into a burning field?” Spencer said. “Because you don’t want to hurt me?”

  “It was risky, I’ll admit,” said the boy. “But Aryl told me you’d be worth it.”

  “You won’t get away with this,” Spencer said. “My friends will find me.”

  “Of course they will,” he said. “But in order to reach you, they’ll have to go all the way back to the entrance and maneuver their way through the fire bursts. That should give us a bit of time to talk.”

  The Dark Auran sat cross-legged on the ground, his face sweaty and blackened from working so close to the fire tanks.

  “I’m Olin,” he said. “Aryl told me that he began a promising conversation with you last night. But unfortunately, you ran out of time.” He smiled. “I’m here to finish the chat.”

  “I had nothing more to say to Aryl,” Spencer said. “I’ve kept it a secret. The girls still don’t know what I am.”

  “And what exactly are you?” Olin said. “Like them? Or like us?”

  “I don’t have your powers,” Spencer said. “And if they lead me to where you are now, then I never want them.”

  Olin rolled his eyes. “Of course you do. You’re one of us, Spencer. You just haven’t explored your abilities.”

  “And I don’t need to,” Spencer argued. “I can live out my life just the way I am.”

  Olin held up a finger. “You’re afraid.”

  “I’m not afraid!”

  “Deep inside, you know that the moment you embrace your full powers as an Auran, you give up any chance of living a normal life.”

  Spencer had no argument to this. Olin had pinpointed his feelings better than Spencer could in his own heart. He knew it was true. Being an ageless kid was bad enough. Adding more powers to his situation would only increase the responsibilities in his future. Maybe he was afraid of reaching his full potential.

  “Don’t fight it,” Olin said. “You made yourself an Auran, Spencer. Why not be the best Auran you can possibly be?” Olin let him think about it before adding, “The powers within you could turn the tides for your Rebel friends. You would be the secret weapon.”

  Spencer wanted to go home. He wanted to walk up the stairs of Aunt Avril’s house, shut his bedroom door, and sit in his tidy bedroom. Well, he really wanted to take a long, hot shower first.

  Spencer hadn’t made himself an Auran on purpose. He would gladly give up his position if he could. But there was no backing out. Only moving forward. If his inner powers could help the Rebels overthrow the BEM and save the world, then surely it would be worth it for him to learn about them.

  “I know how to use bronze objects to see the warlocks,” Spencer said. “But that’s all I can do.”

  “Weak,” Olin said. “Every Auran has that power. The girls have been doing it for hundreds of years. I’m asking you to dig deeper. To discover powers that only the Dark Aurans have.”

  “Like what?”

  The Dark Auran rapped gently on the bronze Pan around his neck. “I need you to remove this.”

  Spencer stared. It looked just the same as Aryl’s had, equally dented and likely very uncomfortable. He tried to imagine what life would be like wearing a Pan, cursed to wander the landfill forever powerless.

  “But isn’t it Glopified?” Spencer asked. “How can I take it off?”

  Olin leaned forward, his voice soft and intense. “I want you to de-Glopify it, Spencer.”

  De-Glopify? He’d never heard of anything like this. Sure, old Glopified weapons got maxed out after too much use, but Olin was talking about something entirely different. He was talking about removing the magic from the Pan.

  “I can’t de-Glopify,” Spencer finally said. “Even if I could, why would I set you free? Didn’t they Pan you for a reason? Because you’re dangerous or something?” ”“They Panned us because we stole something that they weren’t worthy to have.”

  Spencer wondered what could possibly be so important. Whatever the Dark Aurans had stolen had led to almost two hundred years of imprisonment. “Why don’t the Aurans just order you to give it back? Isn’t that what they do? Boss you around?”

  Olin made a disgusted face. “They’d like to have that kind of control, but we’re not easy to track down. The only way they could find what we stole would be to get the three of us together. We make sure that never happens.” Olin sighed. “They still manage to snag one of us from time to time. They grab onto the Pan and give us orders. ‘Glo
pify this,’ they say. ‘De-Glopify that.’”

  Spencer was curious now. If the Dark Aurans had the power to Glopify and de-Glopify, then that indeed made them powerful. Spencer was already imagining himself with those powers, thinking of all the ways he could aid the Rebels.

  “Who do you think made the Spade?” Olin pointed his thumbs at his chest. “I did. And the Glopified foundation for the Auran building, and the traps for the thirteen clues. . . . We did it all, because the other Aurans forced us.” He paused, his eyes boring into Spencer. “Who do you think made the Vortex?”

  Spencer felt his blood run cold. Olin knew about the Vortex? No, more than that. Olin had created the Vortex. “I have a friend who—” Spencer started, but the Dark Auran cut him off.

  “Marv,” Olin said. “Trapped in the Vortex. I know.”

  Spencer was going to ask how he knew; then he remembered that Aryl had stolen Walter’s notebook of ideas from the truck. There were plenty of sketches about Operation Vortex in there.

  “Let me cut you a deal,” Olin said. “I’ll teach you how to harness your Glopifying powers so you can un-Pan me. Do that, and I’ll tell you how to get Marv out of the Vortex.”

  It was an uncomfortable proposition. Un-Panning a Dark Auran didn’t seem like the best idea. “What will you do when you’re free?” Spencer asked.

  “McDonald’s,” Olin said. The answer caught Spencer off guard, and Olin chuckled. “I can’t tell you how many fast food bags come through the garbage. But I’ve never had a real hamburger, only scraps I can dig out of the trash. So that’s what I’ll do.” Olin leaned back. “I’ll free the other two Dark Aurans and we’ll get out of here. We’ll find McDonald’s and have a burger.”

  Spencer stared at the boy with a sudden surge of pity. Eating scraps out of the garbage for hundreds of years was a horrible existence. Whatever the Dark Aurans had stolen couldn’t be that important.

  “Okay,” Spencer said, making a quick decision. “Teach me my powers.”

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