Evil witches taking kids is nothing new in children’s stories. But in The Fearless Traveler’s Guide to Wicked Places, it’s a parent that gets taken.
The middle grade novel, written by Chance screenwriter Pete Begler, follows the story of Nell Perkins, an ordinary 12-year-old girl whose mother has been kidnapped and transformed into a bird by the Dark Daughters, a tribe of Nightmares who reside in the Wicked Places. In order to rescue her, Nell must enlist the help of Duke Badger, a Fearless Traveler, and journey to the Wicked Places deep within the Dreamlands.
Below, EW presents an exclusive excerpt from the novel. The Fearless Traveler’s Guide to Wicked Places will be available for purchase March 1.
Night was falling. Time to trumpet her call home, but the pure white swan racing across the darkening sky was silent as the bones of the dead.
The thought would not leave her now. She had seen them tumble from the dark cloud like bits of snow. Heard them plunk into the silent sea and sink beneath the cold water, leaving no trace. Four of her brothers and three of her sisters had already been eaten by the dense cloud the color of a rotten plum. There was no song for it. No way to understand it. Never had there been a cloud that brought not shade from the sun, not whispering snow or gentle rain, but death.
The clouds had become wolves, unrelenting beasts, chasing the swans through the sky with silent white paws and cunning noses from which they could not escape.
But I will escape the cloud, the swan thought as she pushed on alone toward home through the vast night.
I must. Two of her babies were awaiting her return.
A long hiss filled the air around her. A trumpet of fear escaped from the swan’s long white throat. Now she knew the sound of the vaporous beast that had swallowed her brothers and sisters. It was right behind her!
“Faster,” she told herself. “Faster.”
She pushed harder, beating her wings until they burned with pain, but it was too late. The sky became muddled with mist. In a few seconds she could see no sky before her and no earth below, only wisps of purple vapor. The smell of the world and all it contained disappeared just as quickly, replaced by the throat-stinging char of woodsmoke. Cold enveloped her and snow began to fall, coating her feathers. The flakes, fat and damp, quickly turned to ice and with a CRACK they tightened like a chain around her body.
Unable to fly, she began to fall.
I will drop through the cloud and crash into the sea below, she thought, and that would be her end. She would sink into the cold water and see her children no more.
A sharp pain clanged through her breast as she hit. A pained honk escaped her beak, taking her wind. The dark water did not drag her down. It was not the sea, but a stretch of ground. As she thrashed on the hard-packed snow, trying to break free of the chains of ice that bound her, the mist began to clear, and the swan saw the gossamer wisps of white where the sky should be. Her body trembled at the strange magic of it all. She was still within the cloud, yet it was like no cloud she had ever traveled through, for nestled inside was a small snow- dusted forest. And gathered in this small forest was a group of humans. All were female. They wore long dresses and stood before a crackling fire of purple flame as the snow fell around them. Their skin was pale as her own feathers and their hair raven black or golden as a finch.
The swan was ignored for a moment, but then a tall woman with raven-black hair and piercing green eyes came to inspect. Beside her was a child with dirty feet and a snarling smile. The child plucked the swan carelessly from the ground. She wrapped her nail-bitten hands around the swan’s belly and squeezed tight.
“Kitchen or the cage?” she said to the tall woman.
The woman studied the swan for a moment and grabbed her beak roughly. Finally she nodded.
“Put her in the cage.”
The child put the swan under her arm and walked toward a tall tree with a large hollow.
“You’re lucky,” the little girl sneered as she entered the hollow of the great tree. “I was hungry for swan.” For a moment all was darkness, then the swan found herself in a long narrow hallway, lit with electric lights and lined with cages. Locked behind the thick bars were animals. Bears, a lynx, coyotes, foxes. All paced in their cages and let out screams of horror as the little girl passed with the swan under her arm.
“Quiet!” she snarled and marched with authority toward the biggest cage of all.
It was vast and filled with birds. Thousands and thousands. All shapes, all sizes, of every type. All frozen in flight. Just floating in the air, wings outstretched. Alive and silent. Among them were some of her brothers and her sisters.
“Here you go,” the girl snarled, opening the door and stepping inside. Standing among the birds and just as frozen were a half-dozen young women with looks of terror on their faces. With a rough toss, the girl threw the swan into the air. The ice melted! Her wings suddenly worked!
As she opened her wings to fly she let out a long TRUMPET, but instantly she froze again. This time completely. She hung in midair with all the others as the door slammed and the sound vanished into nothing.
In the week since the bruise-colored cloud had appeared over the tiny coastal town of Mist Falls, three mothers had disappeared. The first while riding her bicycle down a leaf- swept street, the second while sitting in a parked car drinking a cup of coffee, and the last from her bedroom while her new baby napped beside her. Not a single person had witnessed the cloud take the women, but Nell Perkins knew it was true.
Even now, as she piloted her bike along the damp streets, she felt the grim cloud watching everyone from above. One had only to glance up to see that this cloud was different. It didn’t float along aimlessly like other clouds, but moved with slow scheming purpose, and while it had first appeared over the trees wispy thin, it had grown fatter with each passing day, like a bloated tick filling with blood.
Nell rode carefully, keeping a watchful eye on the leafy shadows on the cracked sidewalk, making sure to stay within their protection. She tried to tell herself that it was silly. It’s just a cloud. But another voice inside her whispered for her to stay hidden from its dark wisps, which reminded her of a ball of cotton candy lying burnt and alone in an abandoned fairground.
The truth was this wasn’t the first time people had disappeared from their small town. Over the years almost a d
ozen people had simply vanished. Most were young women, though one was a boy Nell’s age named Max. They had just started to become friends when he vanished four weeks ago. He was funny and daring and liked to play the trumpet. They had the kind of friendship built on nothing more than a love of weird jokes and an obsession with chocolate. He didn’t vanish in the same way, though it felt the same to Nell. One night he went to sleep and he didn’t wake up. He had fallen into a coma. They took him to the hospital, where he was still asleep.
As Nell pulled her bike into the schoolyard, she had the strangest thought. Maybe the cloud was behind it. Maybe it had drifted over his house while he slept and kidnapped a part of him. The thought sent a shiver up her spine and she quickly locked up her bike. The normally busy yard was empty. A few teachers were hustling the late students inside.
“Attention, students and staff!” Principal Green’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker as Nell entered. “All students and faculty are not to go to their classrooms. Report directly to the school auditorium for a special assembly.”
Nell’s stomach was tight with nerves. The assembly was her chance to tell everyone what she knew to be the truth. The cloud had kidnapped the women and maybe Max as well.
I am going to look like an idiot, she told herself, but it was too late. She had decided she did not have a choice. Nell had seen a crime and the town needed to know about it, no matter how strange it would sound. It had happened quickly and was so weird that even remembering it now caused her heart to beat loudly and her breath to quicken. She recounted the facts as though she were telling them to a policeman.
A few days ago Nell had been at the town library until nearly dinnertime, reading about whales and secretly eating chocolate-covered raisins. Perhaps she would leave that part out when she told it, but, she reasoned, it did show that she was thinking clearly and had an eye for detail. When the library closed, Nell walked outside. The sky was free of clouds and the streets empty of people. She got on her bike and headed home. As she rode she felt a great burst of happiness, like she was the last person on earth and free to do anything. Summer was coming and she had books to read and the ocean to dash into.
The mist was drifting off the sea, caressing her cheeks and dancing across her lips. Nell liked the briny taste of the salty air. She stopped her bike at the corner of Sea View and Stone Lane Road, and was taking in the view of the waves violently crashing upon the black rocks of the shore, when a high-pitched shriek rang out in the sky. Looking up she caught sight of a strange purple cloud, rising quickly from behind the large Victorian house at the end of Stone Lane Road.
The horrible cloud rose with a rumble, as if it were an animal Nell had surprised in the act of feasting on a fresh kill. All was still and utterly silent. Nell wanted to turn away, to ride as fast as she could in the other direction, but her eyes were locked on the cloud as it rose higher and higher.
As she stared, Nell wished for several things. She wished to be home, she wished she wasn’t afraid, she wished she wasn’t alone, and in a few seconds she would wish forevermore that she had closed her eyes. But her eyes were open, and Nell watched as from out of the purple cloud fell a woman’s shoe, bright white and dotted with red marks that could only be blood. Alone. A single shoe and nothing more, spit out as if it were a part not worth eating. The shoe dropped slowly, twirling as it tumbled through the air, and without a sound disappeared into a clump of leafless trees.
Without thinking to look for it, Nell raced home, trying to understand how a bloody shoe could fall from a cloud. No plane had flown overhead. No giant bird. There was only one conclusion. Someone was trapped inside the cloud. The secret weighed on her for the next several days, and she told no one. How could she? It was ridiculous. Insane. Clouds don’t kidnap people. They don’t eat young women. Keeping quiet seemed like the best choice. But when the principal announced the special assembly, Nell knew it was about the disappearances, and she knew she had to tell. Suddenly, as she walked through the halls, she felt everyone’s eyes on her, as if they knew she had a secret.
But they look at me anyway, Nell reminded herself. That much was true. On any day Nell Perkins was hard to miss. She was an uncommon-looking twelve-year-old girl, with hair so blond it almost appeared silver, large amber eyes, and a slightly crooked smile that seemed to be hiding something.
But it wasn’t the way she looked or her smile or the slightly determined way she walked that made people look. No. People looked because Nell Perkins was well known in her small town for claiming to see things that did not exist.
Not things exactly, but creatures.
“Inner animals,” Rose had called them when they first began making themselves known to Nell. They appeared right around the time Nell’s father had gotten sick and passed away. Most of the creatures had human bodies and animal heads, though others had no human parts at all and could be a frightening mixture of animal and machine. Nell had begun talking to them when she was four.
The first one to speak to her had the body of a man and the head of an elephant. Being so young, Nell didn’t think this was unusual. His name was Jim and he delivered the mail. Nell would get excited and jump up and down when she saw Jim walking toward the house. His trunk would swish from side to side, his great ears twitching and his white tusks looking fierce and dangerous in the bright sun.
Nell had also discovered that if she blinked her eyes and said her name, the person would return to normal. The mask, which had suddenly appeared, would drop away. Without his inner animal, Jim was quite bald and had a face filled with freckles. As Nell grew older she accepted the fact that almost everyone she knew, except her family, had an inner animal that would sometimes appear to say hello. It was fun for Nell to see who was hiding what. Gentle-looking old ladies could suddenly turn into alligators, tough men on motorcycles could have the faces of soft rabbits. Nell never talked about her rare skill, for she thought it was normal. Then, during her first day of kindergarten, Nell Perkins learned the truth.
All the children were sitting on the rug with eager, excited faces, trying not to squirm. Nell wasn’t sure she liked kindergarten and longed to be at home in her pajamas. The boy next to her, a redhead named Tommy Jenkins, was digging relentlessly into his nose with a pudgy finger and the whole place smelled like lima beans. Ms. Rook, the teacher, was another story. She was the prettiest person Nell had ever seen. She was explaining that good students could win gold stars and candy by following the rules when suddenly her inner animal appeared. In an instant Ms. Rook’s pretty face disappeared and her head was replaced, not by the head of an animal, but by the head of a giant doll with a cracked skull and a missing eye. Nell screamed loudly and wouldn’t stop screaming as the doll stood over her. Nell was so gripped with terror that her mind
felt blank. She couldn’t remember how to make the terrible dead-eyed face go away. Other teachers came rushing in to help and their faces were just as frightening. Faces of stone, faces of tangled thorn, and worst of all, a face made of burning flames.
“You’re special, Nell. Don’t forget that and it will all be okay,” her mother told her when Nell explained about the inner animals. For everyone else the answer was simple. Nell had an overactive imagination that encouraged her to see things that weren’t there. The cause of her condition, they concluded, lay in the fact she didn’t dream. Her nights were dark and dreamless.
“All that imagination has to go somewhere,” said Wellington Miles, a famous doctor, who began to study her. He attached multicolored wires to her head and watched her as she slept. Despite what he said about their nonexistence, the doctor’s own inner animal was that of a friendly walrus. Nell liked him very much, and he sat beside her for three nights, monitoring her sleep on a large machine and puffing on a pipe, his walrus whiskers twitching.
Nell and her family were told that her condition would diminish over time and she had to learn to live with it in the meantime. It did not diminish, but Nell learned not to tell anyone and to keep what she saw secret. Still there was only one way to make them go away. Nell was forced to say “My name is Nell Perkins” aloud several times a day. This declaration became a curse.
“My name is Nell Perkins.”
It left others thinking her strange and her feeling lonely and odd and without much confidence that she would ever be anything but a freak.
“My name is Nell Perkins.”
A shy girl who preferred books to people and whose only friend was now in a coma.
Now she was about to embarrass herself again. Nell felt a knot of fear grow in her stomach. As the teachers hustled the students into the auditorium for the big meeting Nell’s breathing began to grow fast. All eyes were on the stage, where the local chief of police was standing with Principal Green.
I can’t do it, she said to herself in desperation. I’m not going to say a thing.
Nell moved down the aisle and found herself sitting next to Todd Lincoln, a twitchy boy who dressed mostly in army fatigues and bragged about hunting deer. He turned to Nell and whispered, “My dad said the government is kidnapping people for experiments.” He twitched and continued, “Have you seen those black vans on the road lately?”
Nell admitted she had not.
“Stay away from them,” warned Todd.
“Children!” The principal stepped over to the microphone.
Mr. Green was a trim little man with a beard and glasses, and a booming voice that made it seem as if he was always giving a speech. “There has been a lot of talk going on about recent events. Rumors can be scary things, and as you head out for summer vacation we want you to feel safe and be safe and make safe choices. The best way to do that is to make sure everyone has the right information, so we asked Police Chief Byrne to give us the facts about these recent events and relieve our worries.”
“‘Recent events.’ How about ‘experiments’?” Todd Lincoln elbowed Nell.
The police won’t say what it is, Nell reasoned, because they don’t know the truth. This meant Nell alone held the secret to
the disappearances, and afraid or not, she would have to tell them. Her stomach clenched even tighter.
The police chief nodded and stepped forward. He cleared his throat. “Three women have gone missing from our town. These are the facts. In these cases rumors can cause more problems than the actual incidents. All we know is that the three women — Connie Little, Saffron Jones and Lulu Gram — are all unaccounted for. As of yet we don’t think a crime has been committed. We have seen no evidence of harm. Sometimes kids can be a great help to police. I want you to think. Do you have any information you’d like to share? Keep in mind this is a serious matter. We are only interested in facts. Things you have seen, not stories or rumors about UFOs or secret experiments.”
Before she could stop herself, Nell stood. There were two hundred students in her school, and every single one turned and stared.
“Yes?” the police chief said, smiling. Nell felt her hands go clammy. She knew at once standing up had been a mistake. How could she possibly explain? She tried to think of a different story.
Mention a man in a strange mask or a black government van, she thought.
“Have you seen something?” said the police chief.
And out it came. Nell spoke.
A hush fell over the students and Nell knew at once she
had said something wrong.
“A shoe?” the chief said to Nell, who was not sure where
to put her hands. A wet piece of candy hit Nell on the cheek and stuck.
The whole room broke out in peals of laughter. “QUIET!” shouted the police chief. The mob grew silent. “Sit down,” Todd Lincoln hissed, but to everyone’s
surprise, including her own, Nell did not sit. She plucked the wet watermelon candy from her cheek and continued.
“The cloud that is hanging above town. Haven’t you seen it? The dark purple one,” Nell said, growing less confident with each passing second. “It did it.”
“A cloud?” the police chief said, still trying to understand what this had to do with a shoe. Nell turned to the crowd and froze at the sight before her. There was a burbling sound of flesh stretching as everyone in the auditorium transformed. In an instant, Nell found herself staring not at a room of teens, but at a room of creatures with human bodies and animal heads. Pigs, hyenas, boars, dogs, cats, all still sitting as they had been moments before, dressed in the school uniform, unaware that their heads were furry and their mouths filled with razor- sharp fangs. Nell’s heart began to pound and her face grew red and hot.
“No,” she whispered to herself. “Not now.” But like it or not, IT was happening again. She was having a “moment.” The entire school was showing their inner animals. She had to make them go away as fast as possible or she would get flustered and everything would come out wrong. But that meant doing what she hated more than anything else: reminding herself loudly who she was.
“Did what?” the police chief said, his head now transformed into the head of a large frog with watery green eyes.
“My name is Nell Perkins,” Nell announced nervously, “and the cloud is stealing people. I saw the shoe fall from it. I think there was blood on it.”
A shocked and awkward silence fell over the room until a boy with the head of a hyena shouted, “My name is Nell Perkins and I’m a freak!”
The whole room erupted with laughter and the principal whispered something in the police chief’s ear. He nodded and frowned. Nell knew what he was saying. “Don’t listen to that girl. There is something wrong with her.” Nell felt her cheeks flush with shame. As she sat, everyone’s inner animal disappeared.
“That was awesome,” Todd whispered to her, but she did not agree. She sunk into her seat.
The remainder of the last day of school before summer vacation passed like a blur. Yearbooks were signed, parties were held, but Nell wanted nothing to do with any of it. She stayed in the library reading a book and drinking from a mug of tea, a privilege given to library helpers. When she finally walked out of school at the end of the day, the cloud was nowhere to be seen. The sky overhead was blue. Nell’s bike was the only one left in the rack.
“It’s okay,” Nell told herself, and felt she could handle the ride home. As she piloted her bike through the now-bright afternoon, Nell suddenly realized that school was actually out for the summer. All its pressure and battles were over for nearly three months.
“Who are you?” Nell repeated to herself as she rode. It was the title of her favorite book. It was beyond favorite. Nell was obsessed with the science-fiction story about a small town that was stricken with a virus that gave everyone amnesia. Suddenly, in the course of one day, everyone forgot who they were, what they liked, and how they were supposed to act. Friends. Enemies. Parents. Kids. Everyone was given a second chance to be whoever they wanted to be. The closest Nell got to that actually happening was the first day of summer vacation. Today. She could be anyone she wanted now.
Nell let out a scream of joy as she wheeled her bike into her front yard, past the antique sculptures of circus animals that rested here and there on the grass.
Nell’s mother, Rose, was walking out the front door. “Darling!” she shouted at Nell.
As always, Rose looked slightly unreal to Nell. Her deep
green eyes, milk-white skin, copper-red hair, and the old- fashioned clothes that she collected and always wore made her look as though she had fallen out of a deep past of enchanted forests. It was rare that Nell and her brothers even called her “Mom.” She was Rose. She was born in London, and her crisp English accent didn’t help, but what was most unreal about her to Nell was that she seemed never to be afraid.
“Who are you?” Nell smiled, staring at Rose with wide- eyed confusion as though she could not recognize her. Nell had gotten into the habit of pretending that she had amnesia and everyone and everything was a mystery. “Kale? I’ve never heard of it,” she’d say when the popular green vegetable appeared on her plate. “Make my bed? What’s a bed?” she’d remark when the command to clean her room was issued. Even Nell knew the joke was getting a little tired but still she couldn’t stop. Maybe she wanted it to be true. Maybe she hoped that she really could forget who she was and become new again. And Rose sometimes played along, but lately she gave the same response.
“You could never forget who you are, Nell, and you shouldn’t want to. You are your own person and that person is fantastic.” Today was no exception. She sighed and repeated that Nell could never forget and the book itself was wrong.
“It’s not wrong. It’s a virus,” Nell snapped, suddenly finding herself flaring with anger. “Anyone can get it.”
“Impossible. It’s ridiculous,” Rose shot back. “No parent in that town could get that virus.”
“Anyone can get it,” Nell repeated.
“Memory doesn’t just live in your brain, Nell. When you’re a parent, it fills up your entire body. It becomes your body. And that means a mother could never forget her child ever, no matter what. Now,” Rose said with a smile, “Check out these beauties. I found them at a garage sale in Newberg.”
Rose was an antiques dealer and was always buying and selling interesting things. Lying in the bed of the truck was an enormous vintage kite made of metal rods and cloth that was painted with birds of all types.
“This is a hurricane kite,” Rose said. “It was made to fly in the fiercest winds to signal to boats in the sea and police on the ground that you were still alive. It even has an anchor.” Attached to the center of the kite was a cord of thick leather that ran to a wooden spool. On the top of the spool was a metal hook shaped like a lion’s paw.
“The hook was wrapped around a tree or a metal pole and, once attached, could weather any storm,” Rose said, giddy with excitement. “Best of all, it is hand-painted. The artist is quite famous. Only three of these are known to exist. I have a buyer in Wickerton that will give me cash if I bring it right over.”
“Yes. Now. Your brothers are at Jack’s house and won’t be home until supper. It is the perfect way to start your summer vacation.”
“All right,” Nell said. She hated going on deliveries with her mother. The truck was a piece of junk. The radio didn’t work. The roof leaked when it rained and during the summer it always smelled like wet fur. But as much as she hated the deliveries, the truth was she liked to spend alone time with her mother. Nell considered her mother the bravest person she had ever met. She had seen her face down stray dogs that had tried to attack them and speak her mind to the largest of angry men. Whenever Nell was with her she felt safe, and right now, with the rain falling, she needed that feeling.
“Really,” Rose said, not sure if she was joking. “You want to come?”
“Yes,” Nell chirped. She opened the truck’s passenger door and climbed inside. An antique, hand-cranked record player sat on the front seat. Nell had seen many pass through her house, but this one was particularly beautiful. The cone where the sound came out was made of golden glass and shaped like a lily.
“A 1929 St. Oiseau gramophone,” Rose said proudly. “Does it work?”
“Find out. Turn the handle and when it begins to
move, place the needle arm on the disc.” Nell followed the instructions, watching as the disc began to spin. Gently she lifted the arm and placed it on the record. The needle touched the fat black disc and the scratchy sound of a violin drifted out. Soon a woman began to sing in French, her voice haunted and lonely.
“Isn’t it fantastic?” Rose said as the truck pulled out into the street. But Nell was hardly listening. All her thoughts were on the storm rumbling in the distance. It was coming.
They began to drive through town. A small thimble of green thread with a needle stuck out of it lay on the dashboard. It rolled back and forth as they drove. Rose didn’t care but the rattling as the thimble tumbled helplessly from side to side was driving Nell crazy. She liked things in their proper place. As Rose turned a corner the thimble rolled toward Nell and she snatched it and buried it in the pocket of her hoodie.
The truck didn’t get very far before the storm caught them. By the time they had reached the back road that ran along the woods and meadows at the far end of town, the rain was pounding down so hard it became impossible to even see out the windshield. All at once the truck began shaking. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
“Hold on,” Rose said, as the engine rattled and wheezed. Smoke began to pour from the hood, and within a few feet, the truck slowed to a stop. With a final THUMP, it died.
“It’s fine,” Rose answered. For several minutes Rose tried to start the truck without any luck, until finally she admitted the truth.
“The engine’s dead,” Rose said. “A fine time for it to die. Poor thing.”
The rain was clattering fiercely on the roof as though an army of monkeys were trying to smash its way in.
“Call a tow truck,” Nell said.
“Of course. You’re as smart as you are brave.” Rose took out her phone and stared at it with a furrowed brow. “No service.”
Nell gazed out the window. This road was empty and there were no houses around, only a large, weed-covered field with an abandoned factory at the far end. It was a lonely turn-of-the-century building, made of white bricks and leaded glass. Rose thought for a minute. All was silent save for the rain drumming the roof and the wind rattling the windows.
“We can hide out in the factory until the storm passes. It will be safer. If the road floods,” Rose said.
“But someone will come,” Nell said hopefully. “The police?”
“I don’t think we can wait, sweetie,” Rose said, her eyes on the water rushing along the road. Suddenly, a flood seemed very likely. In a heartbeat, Nell and Rose were out of the truck. Quickly, Rose untied the kite.
“Get the gramophone.”
Nell grabbed the gramophone out of the front seat. As she closed the door, a fierce blast of wind shot past them, thin and contained, like a great invisible arm. In an instant, the truck was lifted from the ground and flung hard against a tree on the other side of the road, with a shattering of glass and crushed metal.
“The truck!” Nell yelled, but what she meant was that was not right. It wasn’t normal, and it was all terribly frightening.
Nell threw herself into her mother and instantly felt her mother’s arms surround her. Rose held on tightly. She kissed Nell’s head and murmured, “It’s okay. I have you.” With her mother’s arms wrapped around her, Nell felt safe and couldn’t hear the wind or feel the rain on her cheeks. Both of them stood there for a moment thinking the same thought. It had been so long since they had hugged each other.
Finally they let go, and Rose laughed, saying no matter what happened, the day was a success.
“I have gotten a hug from the unhugger.”
The unhugger was what she called Nell, for when she had turned eleven, Nell had decided she was too old for hugs.
“Let’s walk,” Rose said, her voice steady, nodding to the factory across the meadow.
“But the truck,” Nell said.
“Let’s not worry. Let’s just walk. Nothing to worry about!” Rose said, and started moving across the weedy meadow.
Nell followed. She held the record player in her arms and Rose carried the large kite.
“Isn’t it fantastic!” Rose yelled. They were both bent low, taking hard, thudding steps, walking slowly into the wind. Each struggling step made Nell’s mother’s smile grow even wider.
“No!” Nell yelled. “It sucks!”
But Nell’s fear only made Rose laugh. What must that be like? Nell wondered. To walk through the world never afraid. To always feel right and never want to forget who you are.
“It’s so beautiful!” Rose shouted.
“You are. The storm is. Life itself is. All of it. As long as
you are not afraid. Though,” Rose hesitated, “I don’t like the look of that cloud.” Nell followed Rose’s frozen gaze upward. Her heart sank. The bruise-colored cloud had returned for her. The very same one that had dropped the shoe had appeared over the treetops as if it had been following them all along.
“That’s the cloud,” Nell said. “The cloud that kidnapped all the women.”
“What are you talking about?” Rose said.
“It’s after us.” Nell lurched forward, nearly slipping. The needle fell onto the record. They heard the scratchy sound of the violin, and the woman’s voice sang out. And, as the music played on, the cloud began to rumble.
Even though now would be the time to run, they couldn’t. Nell and Rose could do nothing but stare at the cloud above them, frozen in horror at what it was doing. It was changing. Transforming into something wicked. The cloud’s purple smoke twisted furiously in hundreds of small rumbling whirlpools until it had shaped itself into a giant skull.
“I am Nell Perkins,” Nell said, hoping it was only a moment. “And that is a regular cloud.”
“It’s not,” Rose whispered, and Nell knew for sure this was really happening. And it was wrong. Very. Very. Wrong.
“Run,” Rose commanded. “Run, Nell. Run and don’t stop! Don’t look back. Just go!”
In an instant they both took off, darting as quickly as they could across the wet field. A crack of lightning shot from the skull-shaped cloud, slashing down into the grass before them. Rose tripped and the kite was ripped from her hands. The spool of wire hit the ground and wildly unfurled. Nell put down the record player and ran to help her mother up, but was knocked over by the massive hurricane kite as it swooped past.
The kite, borne up by the mad wind, turned, swirled back, and charged to deliver another blow. Nell turned. The metal lion claw of the kite’s hook came straight for her head with a whoosh. She might have caught it in her hand, but instead, and to her everlasting shame and unhappiness, Nell ducked.
The claw passed above her head and hit Rose hard in her stomach, snagging her belt. She yelped in pain and struggled to pull the claw off her as the kite, flying high overhead, changed direction. It circled swiftly back again and again and again, wrapping the leather cord around Rose like a cowboy lassoing a calf.
Rose desperately tried to break free of the cord coiling up her middle. She was staring up at the cloud, her eyes wide in horror at what she saw inside. In desperation, she yelled to Nell a warning, but the shriek of the wind made hearing impossible.
“What?” Nell yelled. She tried to reach her mother but could not. The closer she got, the more the wind pushed her back. Blocking her. All Nell could do was watch as the hurricane kite rose higher and higher into the air, tugging the leather cord that now bound her mother’s arms tightly to her side. With a powerful yank, Rose was lifted off the ground and pulled skyward toward the base of the massive floating skull.
“Mama!” Nell screamed as her mother was reeled up, rising toward the cloud like a fish on a line. “Mama!”
It was a word Nell had not said since she was a baby, but suddenly she felt like a tiny child, set adrift in a great and terrible sea, as the only person in the world who made her feel safe was taken.
“Goodbye, my love,” Rose answered, refusing to show her fear. Her head disappeared into the cloud with a final scream as she glimpsed what awaited her inside.
“Mama,” Nell wailed helplessly, eyes on her mother’s body dangling from the cloud, her legs kicking in protest.
Nell threw up her arms and jumped. She knew it was ridiculous but couldn’t help it. Couldn’t stop. If she stopped it would be over. If she stopped she would be alone. Who would look after her and her brothers? How would she tell them she was gone?
Nell jumped and jumped and jumped. Jumped as if she could jump to the cloud and pull her mother down.
“Come back,” Nell whispered helplessly as her mother’s shoes slipped inside the cloud. “Please! Come back.”
Nell jumped again and slipped on the wet ground, hitting her head on a rock. The last thing she saw before her eyes closed was the skull-shaped cloud rolling away with her mother inside, moving slowly and lazily across the abandoned field, like a just-fed crocodile sinking back into a dark river.