Grandma’s basement is full of jarred and preserved magical creatures! That’s how her cooking was always so scrumptious. When she passed away she probably should have put a warning label on one jar in particular, the one with the smart-looking little caterpillar that loves to eat words…
(reading time: 1 hour, 10 minutes)
There came a time when knowledge turned invisible and raced across the globe. It ran to those who searched for it and was displayed almost offensively. It was called the internet.
Deep under a house, blankets of dust, like permanent foggy twilight, obscured a glass jar. The shadow inside wanted out so badly that it tackled the side and cracked the glass. It wanted out because it sensed, no, smelled, the knowledge flying in the air. The internet called to it like a cartoon pie’s scent trail that tickled everyone’s noses. That one crack… was its last bit of energy. It was too dry now. It shrank, it shriveled, it cracked, and, finally, it fell into a death-like sleep. Not death though, for the jar had no expiration date.
“Which one’s my room Dad? The one with the squeaky floor or the one with the creepy painting?” Parker asked. His father’s torso was stuck behind an old water heater as he tried to stretch a wrench close enough to a bolt to undo it.
“Squeaky floor,” he replied, his voice as stretched as his arm. Flakes of rust fell into his hair. Parker passed through the door frame into the sweltering room and brushed the flakes off. He again noticed how his father and he shared the exact same brown puffy hair. Only eleven now, Parker was sure he’d still have the same hair when he was as old as that boiler. The age, the rust, would only be in his mind— the way it had gotten into his parents’ and convinced them that moving into a musty cave like that was a good idea.
“Dad, do you remember when you tried to make that snowman when everything was mostly melted and you had to put a bunch of sticks and straw in the bottom to keep it standing?”
“Yes,” his father replied, his patience joining in the stretching.
“And you remember how it fell apart?”
“My floor looks like that. I’ll probably fall through it and die.”
Parker’s father retracted his head and bumped it into a pipe. Dark circles pulled his eye lids down and made him look like he’d hauled the furniture off the moving truck with his eyelashes.
“That was your grandmother’s room for ninety-six years and she never fell through. That floor’s as stable as my snowmen usually are. Go finish unpacking.”
“I’m done. The only boxes in the kitchen say ‘books’.”
“Did you get your books out of there?”
“They’re all Tracey’s.”
“Son don’t you think it’s odd that you’re sister, who is three years younger than you, has more books?” Parker shrugged.
“I read more than she does,” he said.
“Reading jokes off some site on your smart phone doesn’t count. Why don’t you go look for a book. I’m sure my mom had some good ones around here.”
“This place is prehistoric; they didn’t have books back then.”
“Well then just explore. If it’s so old maybe you’ll find a dino to wrestle.” He smiled.
Parker rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh before turning to leave. What was there to explore? He entered the kitchen and circled the table a few times, wringing his oversized T-shirt that he insisted fit him just right. His phone was recharging; it hadn’t taken kindly to being used as a flashlight while Parker stuffed his things into his new room’s dark crawl space. Given how quickly the battery drained, he might as well have plugged it into a lighthouse. Tracey ambled in with her newborn sprite’s walk, unbalanced but still light on her feet. She kneeled on one of the kitchen chairs and dug a giant book with very few pages out of a cardboard box. Some of the others that were on top of it fell to the floor with a clatter they both ignored. Parker stopped pacing. Tracey licked her finger, like their mom did, before flipping pages. She did it so enthusiastically that the pages got a little too wet and she had to rub her hand off on the table cloth.
“What are you doing with your fairytale book?” he asked. She didn’t look up from the pages.
“We have a basement now. I wanna see what type of monster might live there,” she said.
“Monsters aren’t real dopey. Just animals with bigger teeth than others. What basement?”
“It’s the door with the long swooshy handle,” his sister said, swishing back and forth with the word swooshy. “But Mom says we can’t go down there without Dad. We could get Tetris.”
“It’s tetanus. Mom’s out getting groceries and Dad’s fighting the house.” As if to confirm this they both heard a clang like a head on a pipe followed by a word that was only on TV really late at night.
“I’m gonna go check it out,” Parker declared. He grabbed his phone off the counter and yanked it free of the charger. Not again, it might have thought if it were a little more intelligent. Tracey didn’t follow.
“You’ve got to prepare for monsters,” she said matter-of-factly and turned to a page filled with tree-climbing trolls and rock-faced ogres.
Little cracks marked the door’s top and bottom like dashes on a ruler. The handle was indeed swooshy; it looked like a brass breeze. Parker grabbed it. It’s cold, he noted. The door creaked when he pulled it out. As fresh air rushed in, stale basement air fell out onto him like a toppling stack of yellow newspapers. He grabbed his nose with one hand and held out his phone with the other. He clicked the screen to its brightest setting and prepared to descend into the depths.
The first three steps down went smoothly, and then the smell crept into his nose despite how tightly it was held. Yes it smelled like old paper, but there was something else underneath that. It smelled like food. Like powdery spices and stick cinnamon. He sniffed. It wasn’t so bad, kind of good even. He recalled his grandmother’s cooking, some of the best he had ever tasted. Every time they visited this house, before she had died and they decided to swap their apartment for the heirloom home, his grandma Violet was always cooking. She would hug them and pat them on the back with her oven mitts. To Parker, that memory was in what he smelled now, like a story written in the air by a magic wand. His Grandma would take off the mitts, one with a hen stitched on it and the other with a blustery rooster, wipe her forehead, and put them back on. Peach pie was his favorite.
He touched foot on the dirt floor, with no memory of the last ten steps. A little cloud swirled around his feet and almost seemed to freeze; It was like taking the first step on the moon. The light from the open door illuminated most of the burrow. There were some rakes and shovels piled against the side of the stairs. His late grandfather’s power tools hung on the wall; thick cobwebs seemed to hold them in place. It was just as he feared: boring. The smell didn’t match though. It had something new to it, something alien, making him think this dark dusty basement was just an illusion. It was one musty tile lying in the middle of a lush forest. If he just tapped a wall it would fall over and he could see the trees, the moss, the sunshine coming through the canopy, and all the little crawling running things retreating under scattered rocks. He took a few quiet steps forward, eyes toward the ceiling. He could see dust falling in a line, his father’s footsteps playing above him. Don’t interrupt now, he hoped. I’m a bloodhound. I’m gonna find the smell.
As he pretended and sniffed at the air like a dog, he bumped into a table. His games of pretend rarely lasted long, and now that he had hit the table he was no longer a bloodhound, but a pinball being bumped around inside the machine.
“Bing!” he exclaimed and rocketed off the table at an angle. He pushed off of the opposite wall. “Bing!” He shuffled across the dirt, arms to his side, and caught the wall first, and then another corner of the table. “Clang! Bing!” He hit a vertical row of pipes. The metal declared itself with a long resonating sound that stopped Parker. It sounded angry, like it didn’t appreciate him disturbing the silence. He held up his phone and watched shadows like jail bars run across something behind the pipes.
There was an entire other room behind them! Parker was in awe for a moment. Did he actually find a hidden chamber? Was he actually like those TV mystery solvers who pulled on conspicuous looking candlesticks to open secret doors? Or had he just fallen into a dream-like stupor watching one of the programs? He stuck his hand between the pipes. With no door obvious, it looked like sliding behind them was the only way in. It was much too slim an opening for his father, but not for him, or Tracey, or the little old woman with the oven mitts who used to live here. Grandma’s secret dessert vault, he thought as the smell helped him build a mental image of a room like an oven filled with golden pastries and baskets of fresh fruit.
He slid through and wiped the resulting dirt off his billowy shirt with two or three good slaps. His phone beeped and flashed a red light at him. Dying, it complained. Parker ignored it and thrusted it forward again for illumination. He was surrounded.
Every wall was lined with dusty glass jars. Four shelves from floor to ceiling with no room for any more. Bucket-sized jars on the floor had tiny labels, which reminded Parker of a man he had seen at a farmer’s market once who was very fat and wore an itty bitty nametag. One beam of phone light ricocheted and danced in Parker’s eye. The light was bouncing off a jagged line on one of the jars, catching on the one edge of bluish glass that hadn’t accumulated dust. If not for that crack, that fresh blue wound, Parker might have lost interest. He might never have gone back down and the smell of baking crust and old things would’ve been all he took back to the surface. He saw it though, and picked up the jar. His mother always had to order him to wash his hands, but with the amount of dust on the jar even he desired to shove his fists into a cool running stream. The bottom of his shirt made an excellent rag to wipe the worst of it away. There was a label in his grandmother’s handwriting, the early version that didn’t shake when she held the pen. It said:
Bookworms (dried): add water to restore freshness
Parker struggled to see into the glass. I guess they’re hard to find, he thought, since there was only one little lump at the bottom of the jar. He shook it. Don’t do that! A huge angry voice shouted. At first it seemed to be in his head but then it seemed to echo off all the jars individually. As quickly as it came, it vanished as the little object inside stopped rattling and once again sat mummified. Parker squinted. It’s shaped kind of like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe. Except… its…green.
There might have been the horrid sound of death throes if the phone had been more vocal. It perished, and the light with it.
Parker’s journal: Day One
My new teacher Mrs. Gregory says we have to keep a journal all year and write in it once for every school day. This is the first day. I bet she won’t even read these, so I can write whatever I want. Blah blah blah can’t think of anything blah…
I went back to the secret room today, with a real flashlight this time. Oh, also I took Tracey’s pink squirt gun and filled it up. (She lost my green one) I didn’t tell anyone about it so I don’t think Dad will find it unless the pipes break and he thinks he can fix them. Mom starts sneezing at the top step so she hasn’t even been down here. Sometimes I think she fakes those dust sneezes to make us clean things.
I opened the cracked jar that said bookworms on it. My hand couldn’t fit through the top so I turned it over and dumped it on the table. (Oh yeah I found a folding table down there and put it in the middle of my secret room) The dry, green Sherlock pipe fell out. It’s sort of like a big booger with bubbles in it that someone put in the hot sun. It’s got a little tiny face carved in it, with marks that look like glasses. I sprayed it with the squirt gun. (The sticker says to add water) All the dust turned into mud and fell off it. The smell got a lot stronger, but also less eatable. You know, more like cow and less like hamburger. It was almost soybeany now. And leafy.
The bookworm, which really looked like a worm now, started moving. It kind of filled in, like a sponge. Little suction cup feet showed up. It wriggled like a worm stuck on the driveway after it rains. Why would my grandma keep this thing? It’s disgusting. When it was done soaking up water it looked a lot more like a caterpillar. The little feet move two at a time like a caterpillar’s. It lifted its head and I think it looked at me. It’s a little nerd with those silver glasses-markings. Oh and its got these two curly antennae that wiggle when you poke them. It’s weird though… whenever I poked it I heard that voice yelling at me again. It’s kind of like my Grandma’s used to be when she was mad, but it kind of feels like it’s coming from the worm too.
I ripped some leaves off one of mom’s houseplants and ran back down to the basement. He wouldn’t eat them. More school in the morning. If he’s still alive I’ll try and give him some of the leftover salad from the fridge. I did a search on my phone and it says caterpillars only eat plants so we’ll see. I mean it has to eat something.
Right after the second day of school was over and the bus had unceremoniously dumped him off, Parker ran to his new home. The sunlight seemed oppressive, like it was trying to pull him out of the secret room and make him play tag, or swim, or chase the ice cream truck. He made a visor with one hand and approached the front door. A neighborhood dog, a long-haired dachshund whose haunches wiggled with its tail, was looking at the house. Grandma’s house, Parker still thought of it. Grandma’s house, but my basement.
The dog sniffed with intense interest. Parker shooed it away with his foot and headed inside. The dog watched him go in and resumed its sniffing.
“I got a new monster book,” Tracey said as Parker whizzed by her. She held it up like a stone slab with commandments on it.
“Don’t care,” Parker answered mid-run. The only thing he was careful to do was not slam the basement door. Couldn’t have any parents sniffing around like that dog. Parents ate fun for breakfast and drank secrets like mosquitoes that flew in your ears.
The bookworm was stuck to the side of its jar, crawling sluggishly across the glass. Parker tossed his backpack onto the table with it. He unzipped the bag and extracted an entomology text rented from the school library. Six other books came with it in a vomit of loose leaf paper and homework. Ms. Gregory didn’t believe in wasting time. The pictures weren’t much help. None of the caterpillars in the book matched the bookworm. The book fell open onto the table, big blocks of text holding up the pictures like stony epithets holding up the mummies they described.
Parker plucked the stubborn bookworm from the side of its jar. Each foot made a popping sound as it separated. The beast tried to nip at him with little black mandibles, sharp as wasp stingers. His child reflexes saved his fingertip and dropped the worm onto the table.
He sprinkled some leaves from his pocket over the creature, a mixture of jade, bamboo, and fern from decorative plants around the house. The worm ignored them even as they landed on his head, trudging through the green barriers toward the entomology text. Can it read? Parker wondered. Confusion broke out on his face like hives when the worm crawled onto the open page describing something called a tobacco hornworm. Its little black jaws clicked together with ecstasy while its head dropped to the paper. It gnawed the word ‘worm’ right off the page, a square perfectly excised as if by box cutter.
The bookworm then rose up on its backmost pairs of legs, seeming to stand and look directly at Parker. Something came to life in its eyes; an understanding bubbled up in them like a nearly drowned life breaking a dead sea’s icy surface and gasping for air. There was a sharpness in those tiny bead-like eyes now that reflected the intelligence in Parker’s own stare. The black mandibles glistened and opened wide. Its little mouth puckered and sputtered to adjust to the new surging thought that was lighting up the worm’s eyes. Then it said, with clarity and crispness Parker had never noticed in any particular word before, “Worm.”
Parker’s Journal: Day Two
I know what the bookworm eats now. Words. I don’t know if they taste spicy, or sweet, or sour, but he can’t get enough. I watched him swallow up strip after strip until a whole page was blank. Then I remembered that it was a stupid library book and pulled him off it by the tail. His little feet wouldn’t let go of the page. I thought I might have to break him in half to get him off. I hope the library doesn’t find out about the missing page.
Anyway, as soon as I got him off, he started running towards my other books, his little feet popping on the wood really fast. I swept my arm to get them all back into the bag at the same time and held them out of reach. I get that he’s hungry, but I need those. I mean, I still have to do like fifteen math problems tonight too. This is more important than math problems though. It might be more important than anything… ever. More important than walking on the moon or the internet or something.
After taking my book bag upstairs, I grabbed one of Mom’s magazines about log cabins and brought it down. There weren’t a whole lot of words in it but I don’t think she’ll miss it. Anyway, Bookworm ate them all. It’s something more than eating. He takes them. He eats to learn. Once he eats a word, he knows it. He can say it, but not like Tracey who says things she doesn’t understand just because she hears me say them. Bookworm knows them. After he ate a few pages out of the magazine, he talked to me. The words weren’t really right, but I think that was because he didn’t have the best ones for talking yet. All he had were words about log cabins and tobacco hornworms.
“Bring water so worms moving,” he said. I was really surprised he could talk, but parrots can talk so I guess it’s not that weird. Well it is that weird… but not impossible weird. I told him I didn’t get it. Bookworm crawled all over the magazine, looking for better words. He found a couple in an ad for some arthritis pills. “Bring water so worms rejuvenate. Bring water so life regained. Bring friends life.”
I’m a doofis. I’ve been so busy thinking about school and this one talking worm that I forgot my whole secret room was filled with jars. I didn’t look in anything else! I bet there’s a worm in every one. I would’ve dusted them off right there but my mom called us for dinner.
“Tomorrow,” I whispered at Bookworm. He nodded. Creepy.
Parker knew his grades would be lousy this year and it wasn’t just because he had to devote his time to the magic caterpillar in the basement. His new teacher, Ms. Gregory, was beautiful enough to make him admire her nineteen minutes into a twenty minute quiz, with a blank paper in front of him. He didn’t care if she took his phone when he tried to web surf in class.
Her delicate brown hand pulled away, jailing his phone between her fingers. Parker had trouble feigning sincerity as he noticed the perceptive look in her emerald eyes. She saw right through him.
“I was just using it to learn,” he reasoned.
“Please. You don’t learn from reading bulleted facts off a screen that changes every five seconds. I need you to focus. Don’t let things just fly through that smart head of yours in only two dimensions.”
He nodded. Any teacher before her would have received some powerful complaints. Instead, Parker waited patiently until the end of the day to get his phone back. When all the math, history, and Spanish was done, and his plastic wrapped lunch eaten up, she handed it back. Everyone else had filed out to the bus already. The screen was lit up and it still had the search he was in the middle of when she snatched it.
“What’s a bookwo?” she asked, eyes glittering. Could he tell her? No, Parker thought. She’ll think I’m crazy. She watched him, suspicious. “You think you can manage to keep this thing at home? Or does it have an app that makes it follow you around like a dog?”
“No ma’am.” Ma’am? He’d never called anyone ma’am. The word sounded weak and nonsensical, as if he’d called Bookworm ‘professor’.
“Okay. You’re a smart kid Parker, so get your head in the game.” She relinquished the phone and sent him out to the buses just as the first ones were pulling away. Parker fiddled with the browser the entire ride back. No useful results for ‘bookworm’. There was plenty of advice though for ‘Help, I’m in love with my teacher.”
The dachshund had friends apparently, and they had decided his grandmother’s home was their new clubhouse. Three dogs were sniffing and pawing at the house’s base. They ignored Parker as he crossed the porch and went inside.
His dad was still at work and his mom was bent over the stove, her mind absorbed by meatloaf, perhaps even turning into it. Tracey was out back reading something in the sandbox. Probably that new monster book of hers, Parker thought. That gave him an idea. Before heading to the basement he snuck into his sister’s room and grabbed a handful of storybooks from her shelf, the ones she never asked him to read to her anymore. The idea was that Bookworm might find more of the words he wanted in a book about his friends and family from other fairy tales.
Bookworm sat patiently on the table as Parker approached. His eyes didn’t blink. “Water?” the worm asked. Parker shook his head.
“Eat these first. I’m tired of cracking your code.” He dropped the four books on the table and opened them all to the first page. Without complaint Bookworm dug in, his mandibles making long tearing sounds. Each word rolled up like a party favor as they came off the page and Bookworm devoured them.
“Kids, dinner!” his mother called from the kitchen. Bookworm’s head popped up and the little bits of green flesh above his eyes furrowed. That turned the spectacle markings into sinister looking shadows, like the eyes of a creature that was always tired but could never sleep.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” Parker said. He was sure he could make it in ten minutes. Two to eat a piece of meatloaf and guzzle the glass of milk. Three to make small talk. Two to push roasted zucchini around. An extra one here or there to put a veggie-loaded fork into his mouth and then extract it, unchanged, when his mother looked away. Then he would ‘accidentally’ say damn so his mother would send him off with no dessert. Otherwise she would be suspicious why he would be rushing through a piece of cake instead of licking whipped cream slowly off the top in the rude dog-like manner he usually did.
Everything went according to plan. The zucchini was evaded. He barely tasted the meatloaf as he shoveled it into his mouth. Bookworm’s lucky. Instead of going to school he just does this. Just stuffs his face, relaxes, and gets smarter. Parker pictured himself eating his phone and, minutes later, struggling under the weight of a hot air balloon sized brain. Lucky.
By the time he got downstairs the books were stripped. Bookworm had eaten everything except the pictures. He looked bloated, but not at all uncomfortable. Parker guessed he was already growing again and was probably ten inches long now. His voice had grown deeper as well.
“Are there word books?” the worm asked. His little hands cupped each other in a gesture of contemplation.
“All books are word books,” Parker said.
“No. I want word list books. Books of words about words. Word list books of all words. Are they real?”
“Oh you mean dictionaries.”
“If that is what you call books with all the words people have.”
“Yeah it is. I think I can get you one of those. Probably tomorrow though. My dad will be home soon and I don’t want to get caught taking a book from his home office. By the way, I need you to be quiet down here. If my parents find out they’ll probably sell you or send you to the pound or something.”
“I know. I will be quiet. Can you bring water now?”
“What’s it for?”
“My friends. Your mom-mom was a bad people. She trapped us here. I want us out.”
“Why did she do that?”
“I don’t know. People are bad to us. There are not lots of us left. That’s why we are fairy tales.”
“Are all these jars bookworms?”
“No,” Bookworm said solemnly. “I’m the only one of me left. Every other friend is unique. They need rain to return to life. Your mom-mom gave us nothing and left us to pain and sleep.”
“That doesn’t sound like my grandma,” Parker said skeptically.
“Please. Water for my fairytale friends. Please. Please.”
“Alright hang on,” Parker said and headed for the stairs, which had to be taken slowly to prevent suspicious creaking. The water had to be in a container that was likely for him to be holding at any given time. With the way he guzzled apple juice and sports drinks his mom would never believe he was just drinking a glass of water. So, once upstairs, he grabbed the translucent pink water pistol from under his bed. He pulled the plastic plug out of the side and filled it in the bathroom sink, the toy filling with an agonizing slowness. When it was done Parker pulled it from the stream so fast that it sent a slash of water onto the bathroom mirror. He watched the drops slither down and distort his reflection. For a moment it felt like he was doing something bad. Nah. This is too exciting to slow down, he thought.
Bookworm hadn’t moved since he left. The creature indicated a line of jars that would be a good place to start. Parker used his arms like a net and gathered up four jars. A few others fell to the dirt floor and rolled away. He set each one down and unscrewed the lid.
The first, a tiny jar with a label almost too old to read, said ‘bugbear’. Inside, what looked like a dried potato rested. Parker squirted it liberally with his gun and moved over to the next jar. It was large and full to the brim with a hundred dried objects that looked like a cross between raisins and rain drops. The label read: ‘water sprites’. Parker gave it two squirts and watched a few drops roll off the topmost objects and sink down in. The jar started to shake the whole table. Bookworm watched in silence as Parker watered the next two jars. The third had something called a ‘homunculus’ inside and the fourth held six dried gargoyles.
Now all the jars quaked with life. Parker tossed the half-empty pistol on the table and stepped back. His shoulders collided with the shelves behind him and he wished very much for more room to back up. The jars seemed like they might explode and send glass shrapnel in all directions.
The little dried potato hopped out of its jar and puffed up. Thick brown fur grew in an instant. Little hands and feet, green and scaly like an alligator’s, popped out of its sides. A little green muzzle and some beady black eyes were the last features to show up. The end result was something that looked like a lizard forced into a brick-shaped mold and then covered in hair. At first Parker felt like Bookworm in that he had no word for what it was, but then he remembered: bugbear.
The second jar fell to the floor and life poured out of it. So water sprites can fly, Parker noted. The wingless creatures swooped about the room like they were swimming. One backstroked through the air right in front of him, giving him a very good look at its little body. The head was shaped like a falling drop of water and had big, jelly-filled bubbles for eyes. The body reminded Parker of a panhandler he had once seen on the side of the road: trembling, manic, and ready to run at the first sign of confrontation. Some of them rubbed their faces across still-sealed jars, their watery complexions wiping the dust away.
Something landed on Parker’s shoulder. He squealed and swatted at it, but the creature seemed rooted there.
“Calm!” Bookworm called out. Parker did his best to stop moving, leaving his hands suspended in the air and his neck curling against itself like a stork’s.
“What’s it doing?” Parker whispered with fright.
“Nothing,” Bookworm replied. “He likes your mind.”
The homunculus, as Parker managed to identify it, did seem to be looking directly into his ear like it was a microscope. Parker reached up, gently removed the creature, and set it down on the table beside Bookworm. It never took its eyes off the crown of Parker’s head; it just stood silently with its oversized ash-gray hands swinging slightly at its side. The hands matched its disproportionate feet, nose, ears, and lips. His brain getting tired of trying to make sense of all these strange moving shapes, Parker managed to compare it to a plastic moai he once had his picture taken in front of.
The gargoyles joined the water sprites in flight, relying on bat-like wings instead of magic to stay up. A pair of them, one with curly sheep horns and the other with a rhinoceros horn, rammed their heads together playfully. A few of them yipped like small dogs.
“They have to be quiet,” Parker said to Bookworm, who nodded.
“Quiet,” the worm calmly commanded. Without a second of disobedience, every beast in the room calmed down. The gargoyles perched on the shelves and folded their wings tightly around their bodies while the water sprites stuck themselves to the ceiling and glistened like the beginnings of icicles. The bugbear leapt off the table and waddled to a dark spot under the lowest shelf. The homunculus still stood silently and eyed Parker’s hairline. “I will keep them quiet,” Bookworm said.
“Okay… good.” Parker replied hesitantly. He didn’t want them quiet; he wanted them back in their jars. “I have to go do my homework now…”
“Bring the word book tomorrow,” Bookworm said without a hint of a question mark.
“Yeah I will. Do you guys need anything else?”
Parker squeezed past the pipes and ascended the stairs quickly. He wanted the door to be like the jar lids so he could just seal off the basement air from everything else. Instead of twisting shut, the door merely closed like always. Tendrils of bad emotion snaked out of its cracks. Maybe secret rooms should stay secret, Parker thought.
Parker struggled to line his phone up just right. He only had a few seconds to take the picture while Ms. Gregory’s back was turned.
She was busy drawing something on the chalkboard with a squeaky piece of blue chalk. The design was anchored to the edges of the board by blue threads. A few of its concentric strings dropped off into blank patches where she had drawn animals and plants. Beautiful art, Parker thought without considering the chalkboard. She was wearing a blue skirt today, with yellow plastic flowers glued to her belt. She was so beautiful, how could he not take a picture? Even though he couldn’t see her face he would at least have her shape stored away to look at later.
He pulled his phone back under the desk when she turned around. A few girls in the desks around him eyed judgingly, deciding whether or not to tattle.
“This is a food web,” Ms. Gregory explained. Her finger soundlessly rested on a patch of blue grass. “The grass,” she followed a blue line to another picture, “is eaten by the grasshopper…” Her finger bounced around the board. “…which is eaten by the shrew, which is eaten by the hawk.” She turned around to eye the web and Parker whipped his phone back out. “Everything in nature is food for something else. Eventually the hawk will die and become food for decomposers.”
Parker snapped the picture. His phone made a clicking sound. Ms. Gregory went silent. I didn’t mute it, he realized in horror. His arm felt frozen in place, as if trapped in a sweaty cast. Ms. Gregory spoke, but did not turn to face him.
“I’d like to see you after class Parker.”
His throat went cold. She’ll ask why I took the picture, he fretted as Ms. Gregory went back to describing the food web. I’ll have to tell her I love her. Then she’s going to kill me. Or worse, she’ll tell the whole class.
When the bell rang for lunch Parker stayed rooted to his desk. He listened to people filter out past him and kept his head fixed straight down.
“Look at me Parker,” Ms. Gregory said without anger.
“No,” Parker said quietly.
“Why were you taking pictures?” Silence. “I’m not that old, I know what a camera phone sounds like.”
Parker looked up, not because he was ready to face her but because the lie that popped into his head was too brilliant to pass up.
“It was for my notes. I wanted a picture of the food web.” Genius. Ms. Gregory’s expression softened some. She sat down in the desk next to Parker and glanced at the board, prompting him to do the same.
“What’s a food web Parker?” She asked.
Damn pop quizzes, he thought. He squinted at the board and tried to remember the order, but the pictures were all over the place. None of them seemed to lead directly to any other one.
“It’s when grass is eaten by grasshoppers. Then the grasshoppers get eaten by robins and robins are eaten by…” Parker skipped over the pictures. It wasn’t the frog. Or the wolf. Or the mushroom. “…hawks.” He smiled, smugly proud of his memory, especially considering he had treated the web as a backdrop.
“What else?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” He asked with a frown.
“You know which animals eat each other, but what is a food web?”
“There’s a difference?”
“Yes Parker there is. That’s your problem.” She tugged at his phone, which slipped out of his hand. “There’s more to a question than the answer.”
“What?” Parker asked. Why did he have to fall for a crazy girl?
“Learning is about thinking Parker, not memorization. Your phone can always give you the answers, but you still won’t have a clue what’s going on. What if you don’t have your phone?”
“Then I’d find a computer,” he replied. Ms. Gregory sighed.
“What do you think they did before computers?
“They read books.”
“How do you think they wrote the books?”
“I don’t know… they figured stuff out I guess.”
“Exactly,” Ms. Gregory bubbled. “Learning is about figuring stuff out. Don’t just accept answers. Figure out why it is the answer. Do you understand?”
“Yes Ms. Gregory. Can I have my phone back now?”
“Sure,” she said, enthusiasm draining away. “By the way, how is your journal going? I can’t wait to read it.”
“Fine,” Parker said over his shoulder as he walked away. The hallway leading to the cafeteria seemed dim and restless because of a flickering light. Parker’s mind rustled similarly, switching between the light of thought and the dark of panic. She is going to read them. Shoot. When she reads about Bookworm she’ll think I’m crazy. Maybe… maybe Bookworm can help me. He’s smart now. He’ll figure it out for me. She doesn’t get it. Even if I lose my phone I’ve got Bookworm. Why figure stuff out when older things already figured it out for you?
Parker had no idea just how smart Bookworm had gotten until he slipped through the pipes that afternoon and found the spine and covers of a dictionary, picked clean. Bookworm was standing next to it, taller than before and with ink smears on his lips. He was overseeing a flurry of activity that must have been going on all day, given how the room had changed.
All of the jars were shattered. Broken glass had been swept under the table into a pile that shimmered like bubbles in spring sunlight. It caught the light generated by Parker’s phone and by some new creatures Bookworm had freed. The little beasts, which looked like woman-shaped wasps with glowing orange heads, were helping the rest of the creatures move things around.
“Put the tissues up there,” Bookworm ordered. “They’ll make fine nesting material.” A group of moss-bodied little trolls obeyed, tearing up the tissues and handing them to the creatures on the next shelf up. One blew his nose into a tissue with a disgusting honk before passing it on.
Rows of ‘nests’ were being assembled on every shelf, built from things obviously stolen out of the recycling and waste baskets around the house. Parker identified flaps of cardboard from his favorite cereal box because of a yellow cartoon bear on it that stared back at him blankly with the eyes of a comrade fallen in battle. There were holey socks, mostly popped pieces of bubble wrap, strings of dental floss, and a hundred other things spun into little hollows for the fairy tale beasts to rest in.
“How did you guys get this stuff?” Parker asked sternly, which he instantly regretted when a thousand non-human eyes, unevenly distributed among the creatures, turned to him. All of the sounds of scuttling, wings flapping, and tissues ripping stopped to make way for Bookworm’s voice.
“We’ve made a few excursions into the house. Don’t fret; I made sure we weren’t seen.” Bookworm puckered his lips and licked ink from his face and mandibles with a purple vermicelli noodle of a tongue.
“You took the dictionary,” Parker said, confrontation banging around in the words like an errant bumper car.
“Yes. I didn’t see any reason to wait for you. I had to be able to communicate adequately with my servants.”
“Servants? I thought these guys were your friends. I thought you were going to do cool things… you know, like magic. Not build sleeping bags out of our trash. If my dad sees you he’ll probably call the exterminator.”
“Servant and friend are synonymous to the fairy folk,” Bookworm said coldly. The creature calculated his volume precisely, finding the golden level where it was loud enough to intimidate but not loud enough to draw attention from the humans upstairs. “And yes your father probably would. They always do. Your grandmother was one, remember?
“And you opened the rest of the jars without me,” Parker said pathetically. He had wanted to see all of them emerge, even if they were kind of creepy.
“You didn’t expect me to keep them imprisoned longer just for your entertainment did you?” Bookworm countered.
“No I guess not.” Parker remembered why he had come down. This had gotten a little out of control, but he might as well use it. “I was hoping you would help me with something Bookworm.”
The worm’s eyes narrowed for a moment and his posture loosened. He looked less like a cobra eager to strike and more like a bibliophile with a bent back.
“Of course,” he said. “Tell me about it.” Bookworm nodded to his ‘friends’ who resumed their activity. Parker was careful not to step on any of them as he approached the table. He bent over it and propped himself up with his elbows. “What troubles you boy?” the worm asked.
“I have to turn a journal in to my teacher soon. I didn’t think she was actually going to read them so I wrote about you guys… and I don’t want her to think I’m nuts.”
“Hmmm,” Bookworm hummed. “That is a conundrum. It would be an awful lot of unnecessary work to rewrite.” Bookworm rubbed his stomach with four of his limbs in thought. He twisted in place like a corkscrew and Parker heard a few pops from the worm’s back. The sounds made him want to throw up. Without untwisting, Bookworm made a suggestion. “Parker do you know why there is knowledge in the air?”
“Huh?” Parker was beginning to think ‘not making sense’ was the day’s theme.
“Many years ago I was in your grandmother’s infernal jar and I hadn’t dried out completely yet. I felt something. I sensed a vast amount of knowledge flying through the air like a vapor I could not see. Do you know what it is? If you do I might be able to use it. It might contain the answer to your problem.”
Parker chewed on his lower lip in thought. Bookworm just stared.
Knowledge in the air? Parker considered. Maybe he’s picking up signals like radio or TV. Except… those are all older than a few years. Parker pulled out his phone and had his index finger a quarter inch from the screen when he realized. Duh.
“It’s probably the internet,” he said proudly. Who says I can’t figure things out? He thought.
“I see,” Bookworm said. “So this internet… can you bring it to me?”
“Uhm well… I’ve kind of got it right here, but I don’t think you can eat the words off it like you do with books. You can try I guess. Just don’t break my phone.” Parker refreshed the search engine page on his phone and held it out to Bookworm, who felt it delicately with his antennae before reaching out.
The phone rotated between the creature’s little sets of hands as he examined its metal shell.
“What a peculiar tome,” he mused to himself. He pointed the phone’s screen up and tapped it with his sickle-like mandibles. Worried about cracks, Parker mentioned the phone’s warranty. Bookworm paid no attention. The gluttonous green scholar opened his mouth and breathed deeply. The screen hissed briefly, sounding like a phonograph’s death rattle. Then a string of electric blue words, size ten font and sans-serif, flew out of the screen and into Bookworm’s mouth. He siphoned it up greedily, sucking on it like sauce drowned pasta. It seemed to nourish him more like sugar water though. His eyes started to sparkle and his motions grew spasmodic, stopping only momentarily to reflect on the discovery.
“Oh this is wonderful. The sheer volume of information. This device is attached to a bottomless pool of knowledge. It’s a book with a trillion pages that are all laid on top of each other. Leave your phone with me Parker.” He started sucking out the electric words once more.
“Are you going to figure out the answer?” Parker asked, none too happy about having his phone so rudely borrowed.
“Hmm?” Bookworm asked, apparently having forgotten all about Parker’s problem. “Oh yes of course. Run along. Go write in your journal and I’ll have your answer later.” The sucking grew louder. Parker turned to leave the secret nest, trying not to think about globs of gray matter getting sucked through a crazy straw. He said one more thing over his shoulder before squeezing by the pipes.
“Don’t eat the picture of Ms. Gregory I have on there.”
Parker’s Journal: Day Four
If I wanted to stop Bookworm… how could I? He’s taken over the whole room. Every jar is empty. Everything Grandma caught is running around now. I don’t know the names for most of the things I saw down there. There were tiny blue-green fairy horses with bee wings. There was some kind of peapod-snake with people faces sticking out of each part. Gargoyles. Water sprites. Snow angels. I still don’t why Grandma had all those things in jars.
I probably won’t have to stop him. He’s not really doing anything bad. Still gives me the creeps though. Now that he’s eating the internet he’ll probably know everything. He can do my homework for me. I can bring him to school in my backpack and just slip him all the worksheets. It’ll be even better than my phone. Although… I guess Ms. Gregory wouldn’t like that. Dad and Mom sure would be disappointed too. They’ve got Tracey though. They can be happy about how perfect she is and happy about how right I am all the time.
After all, I found fairytale creatures. There’s got to be some kind of prize for that.
Parker was in the middle of his classic ‘feign disgust’ technique when he saw something troubling. The food he pretended to hate was a generous helping of salad with slices of glistening cucumber on it. This made it especially easy to fake his distaste since the cucumber looked exactly like a cross section of Bookworm. Parker’s tongue was all the way out of his mouth and he was three quarters of the way through his repulsed moan when he saw a little green hand waving at him from around the corner of the dining room.
“Just eat it,” his mother said. Parker’s tongue rolled back up and choked him a little. The little green hand was attached to the bugbear, which was desperately trying to get his attention without making noise. Its stubby, almost nonexistent, limbs flailed wildly as it hopped back and forth like an over caffeinated cheerleader.
Parker gave it the slightest nod and shooed it away with the hand he had under the table. The bugbear stopped jumping but kept waving him forward with its claws. Something’s wrong, Parker realized.
He glanced around at his family. Both his parents were absorbed in a conversation where blame for a recent dent in the mini van’s door was seesawing between them. Tracey had brought the thick new monster book she’d found to the table and was scanning a line with her delicate index finger.
Parker ate the cucumber slices and all the surrounding lettuce. He ate the gooey square of lasagna despite the steam rising from it. He ate a quarter of a baked potato. He drank a glass of milk. And he did it all in under two minutes and took another second or two to excuse himself from the dinner table. He barely heard his dad call after him.
“If you don’t slow down next time I’ll make you drink your milk by the spoonful!”
The bugbear led him into the basement so quickly that it tossed itself down the stairs. After landing right on its face the little creature hoisted itself up, ignored the dirt angel it had made upon impact, and waddled through the nearby pipes. Parker squeezed through them a second later to find every fairy tale creature silent and staring at one of the middle shelves with worried eyes.
Parker’s phone sat on the shelf looking unharmed. Its screen was still lit but the browser had been closed.
Next to it, what looked to Parker like a blue water balloon was heaving and quaking. The swollen mass groaned and tried to hold itself together, as if one poke from a cotton swab would make it burst and send its liquid contents spilling over the shelf in a horrendous waterfall. The mass’s head pulled itself around to Parker with little suction cup feet. Bookworm did not look his best.
“This infernal thing,” he gurgled and pointed at the phone. “This internet. It’s poison. A trick. It…” Bookworm stopped to splutter and moan. His distended stomach quaked again. The skin was stretched so tight that Parker could see a fluid, full of electric blue words, sloshing around inside. “It’s not knowledge,” Bookworm continued when he seemed a little more certain that he wasn’t going to explode. “It looks like it at first. The words of geniuses are in there. They’re trapped in layer after layer of slime… It’s all the words of screeching vultures and howling monkeys. It’s like a series of tubes filled with sludge that dilute the one tube of ambrosia.” Bookworm wobbled to his feet, his stomach hanging down against the shelf like a bag of heavy cream. “No more of that. Take it away boy. I don’t want to taste the internet ever again. It’s enough that I have to smell it the rest of my life.” Bookworm kicked the phone to Parker, losing his balance in the process. He flopped back to the shelf and held his bloated gut in agony.
“Are you going to be okay?” Parker asked with genuine concern. Just because he’s creepy doesn’t mean I want him to die, he thought.
“I’ll survive. I’ve lost what little respect I had for humanity though,” Bookworm said and belched painfully.
“Good,” Parker said. “So… did you get the answer to my problem?”
“Hmm?” Bookworm burbled. “Oh that… yes, just add chapter headings to your journal entries and she’ll think you’re writing a story.”
Parker had the sneaking suspicion that Bookworm had had that answer all along; he said as much.
“You’d better be glad I did. I wasn’t going to find it in this mess,” Bookworm declared as he gripped his balloon of a stomach. Some of the words inside him flashed bold and then sank back into the fluid. “Now get out of here. I’ve had enough of you humans for one day.”
“Fine by me, bug-face,” Parker said and stuck out his tongue. He pocketed his phone in an affronted manner and marched out of the room. He had to admit, the chapter idea was good.
Fuming over his last encounter with the ungrateful worm, he didn’t visit his secret room for three days. Sleep came in worried fits because every few minutes he was certain he heard things crawling under the floor. There was no telling how much trouble he would be in if his parents found the fairy tale zoo in the basement, so he kept quiet. He stared at the basement door with the swooshy handle every time he passed by, hoping that an immature version of Schrodinger’s cat was going on inside, that there was just as much chance that the creatures had short life spans and were already rotting away as there was of them flourishing and building their own little water park out of the plumbing.
Behind that door and behind Parker’s eyes, the secret festered. Eventually he had to compare the dangers of the Bookworm to the prospect of a failing grade on the next day’s math test. In a decision that would’ve been seconded by any young boy who had earned his share of grass stains and skinned elbows, Parker chose the disgusting green creepy crawly over an honest study effort.
He was relieved to see that the basement wasn’t flooded with new monsters when he opened the door. It was still just the stairs leading down into the dark. Parker even spotted the dust imprint the bugbear had left behind the last time.
When he squeezed past the pipes he found that all the creatures were sleeping peacefully in their nests. Bookworm was on a high shelf, munching on a purple bookmark. He tossed the bit of cardboard aside when he noticed Parker approaching. The worm, now almost three feet long, gripped the edge of the shelf with his back feet and leaned down and over. His little suction cup hands gripped each other. To Parker they looked like the hands of a stern monk, hidden in giant sleeves.
“Hello Parker,” Bookworm said.
“Hey Bookworm,” Parker started nervously. “How have you guys been doing down here?”
“We’ve been living lavishly, despite the lack of assistance that now characterizes you.”
“What?” Parker growled. “I brought you everything you wanted. I got the water. I got the books. You didn’t ask for anything else.”
“We asked for many things over the past few days. You weren’t present to hear our requests. They floundered and died in the air, as we would have if we hadn’t taken the initiative to forage beyond this room.” Bookworm’s mandibles clicked menacingly.
“Yeah well you guys would all be raisins in jars if it wasn’t for me.”
“Yes you did bring us the water. You brought us a few meager drops of the substance that covers three quarters of the planet and that regularly falls from the sky. Oh thank you so much for your labors, Hercules.”
“Maybe I should just put you guys back then. This is my house anyway, so you guys belong to me.” Parker wilted as soon as he finished the sentence. He had said exactly the wrong thing. He looked around and noticed that many of the creatures were now awake and giving him scalding looks. There were a few slow growls from the room’s darkest corners.
“Belong to you do we?” Bookworm challenged. “You perform the same function as a flash flood and all of a sudden we are your playthings? No Parker. You are our plaything.”
The homunculus leapt out from the dark recesses of a shelf and landed on Parker’s shoulder. By the time he swatted at it the beast was already moving again. It forced its left leg into Parker’s ear. The knobby appendage knocked around inside his head, giving him an instant standing-under-a-church-bell headache.
It’s in my head, Parker thought. Get it out get it out get it out get it out. Then Parker couldn’t think anymore. The words in his head were pushed apart by the intruding ashen body. The homunculus forced its whole being into the impossibly small space of his ear canal. It felt like a snake made of splinters as it bored deeper into his mind. Memories and feelings were trampled under its progress. The beast unfolded itself in the open space of his mind and sat calmly on top of his soul, like someone preparing to meditate.
Parker was smothered by its presence, but fully aware. He watched in terror as his body backed up against the shelves and stood there of its own accord. No, the homunculus is doing this. It’s controlling me.
Suction cup feet popped against his skin. Bookworm was now crawling around his head and neck, inspecting his paralyzed form.
“You see now why I had you revive the homunculus right away,” Bookworm gloated. “I didn’t know when would be the best time for him to take control of you.” He sliced off a strand of Parker’s hair with a razor sharp mandible. He couldn’t even flinch in response. “The homunculus is a magical nervous system parasite,” Bookworm continued. He sounded overjoyed to hear himself speak. “They’re also incredibly jealous fairy folk— always wanting a bigger and better body. He’ll probably want to jump ship into your father when he gets the chance.”
You’re not getting my family, Parker hissed in his head and tried to thrash. All he felt were the magical hands of the homunculus gripping him ever tighter.
“The ankle biters are famished,” Bookworm said and gestured to a shelf with an antennae tip. Parker, now aware that his influence was limited to his eyes, struggled to look over. Dozens of pale blue and sharp-tongued fairies scurried around under their snail shells and laughed at Parker. “Your first task will be to bring them some toenail clippings. Those are their favorite…” Bookworm stared into Parker’s darting eyes. “I think I’ll go with you,” the worm said, “to supervise.” He crawled down the neck of Parker’s shirt to hide his body, which left only his head exposed. “It’ll be an added bonus to watch you rooting through the trash for them,” he crooned.
Parker’s left foot, under new management, jerked up. The homunculus slapped it back to the ground loudly and pulled them forward. Each step was painful; the soles of his feet felt tight and raw like post-belly-flop skin.
The homunculus pulled him through the pipes. Bookworm’s body compressed against his in the tight space; goose bumps broke out on Parker’s skin. Maybe if I throw up it’ll wash the homunculus away, he postulated. A fatal sense of defeat made him feel even more compressed. The basement seemed the darkest it had ever been. Parker felt like a werewolf who wanted to confine himself in an inaccessible cave to avoid unwittingly mauling the ones he loved.
His feet landed on the first step. The second. The third. The monsters were clawing their way into his world, his life. They were creeping parasitic vines climbing into reality and sucking the nutrients from his childhood. I should’ve known Grandma wouldn’t trap nice things, Parker conceded. Ms. Gregory was right. I needed to figure it out. Too late now though. I got the question wrong.
Parker noticed he could still cry. Tears streaked down his face and rolled over the edges of his emotionally blank lips. My eyes. I’ve still got my eyes.
His stolen foot was about to rest on the next step when Parker twisted with everything he had. Every drop of will left in him forced his eyes closed and to the side. With no sight, the homunculus missed the step. All three of them rolled back down the stairs. Parker’s shirt flew up and over his head. Bookworm held to Parker’s skin so tightly before being flung off that it left red welts.
The old wood tore some skin off one of his shins. A jagged harpoon of a splinter embedded itself in an ear lobe. Then the rest of his head collided with a step. The force of it sent the homunculus tumbling out and onto the dirt floor. Parker’s head was his own again.
With feet eager for revenge, he immediately stomped the knobby little beast. Its limbs cracked like old twigs. A few droplets of Parker’s blood, launched during the fall, landed on the dirt and became gritty wet splashes. Time to go.
Bookworm snapped at Parker as he ran by, managing to cut his leg. The worm stared after him, blood dripping from each mandible.
Parker didn’t stop to dwell on his incredible luck until the basement door was firmly shut behind him and he was safely slumped against the opposite wall. His breath came in stinging bellow-puffs as the flow of blood from his various cuts coagulated into a gooey trickle.
“What did you do!?” Parker’s mom exclaimed, her hands already stretching out to examine his wounds. She dropped to her knees and gripped his shoulder.
“I fell down the stairs,” Parker said. His mother uttered a few ‘oh dears’.
“Aaron!” She turned her head and shouted to Parker’s father. “Aaron, grab the first aid kit. Parker fell down the basement stairs. She turned back to him and picked a piece of dirt out of one of his cuts. Parker didn’t even have to listen to what she said next. He knew she was telling him that he was never to go into the basement unsupervised again. He agreed quietly.
I lied, Parker thought. I am going back down there. I just have to figure everything out first. Have to be smart, not just right.
A pile of composition books sixteen high sat on the edge of Ms. Gregory’s desk. Parker’s was the fourth from the bottom. Inside it, his ‘story’, all the way up to the encounter with the homunculus three days ago, was painstakingly recorded.
Parker picked at the collage of bandages on his legs. He would definitely start paying attention in class once his insides stopped squirming. That meant his secret room needed to go back to just being some curious pipes on the wall. He counted down to the lunch bell. Three… two… one… Brrriiinnggg!
“Did you like my journal?” he asked Ms. Gregory as the last student managed to locate his brown bag lunch and scurry out. She set her pen down and pulled Parker’s composition book out from the pile. She knew which one it was, he realized, not knowing if that was good or bad. Then she smiled, and it became joyously clear.
“It’s wonderful. Such a creative story. I can’t wait to see how it ends. And it really shows how you took what I said to heart.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, not sure how confident to seem.
“Well the Bookworm is just like you. You’re so young but you’ve got a great grasp on this thing called a metaphor.” Parker resisted the urge to pull out his phone and do a thesaurus search. Luckily, she obliged him with an explanation. “This bookworm monster you made just eats knowledge up. He doesn’t earn it. Just like you and your phone. Oh and the homunculus shows the dangers of an idle brain. So when you beat him, it’s a way of saying you’ve grown as a person.”
“Oh,” Parker said. He logged that statement away, determined to fully decode it when he had the time. “I haven’t beaten him yet though.”
“I know,” she said with a grin and handed his journal to him. He took the book and opened to the first entry, seeing a bright blue 100+ at the top. She had used a marker that smelled like blueberries. “That’s why I can’t wait to read the end.”
“How do you think it should end?” he asked, trying to keep the desperation in his voice buried.
“I’ll leave that to you, you’re the author.”
When the bus dropped him off in front of his house that evening, a light rain had set in. He ran to the porch but didn’t open the front door. Every day since the homunculus he’d been terrified of opening it and finding the floor covered in crawling glowing fairy tale things.
Lost in thought, he didn’t notice when the dog licked his hand. He looked up at the local mutt, with its black collar and white fur. The Shih Tzu’s paws were dyed brown by mud. It stared back with its moist and enthusiastic eyes. The little dog’s whole body wiggled as it walked to the front door and sniffed.
A food web, Parker thought. A few weak but glistening ideas in his head fused, like dew droplets converging down a twig. He leaned over the porch steps and looked about. Five dogs were congregated at the house’s edge, all smelling at the ground. No. The basement. Everything is food for something else. Another dew drop joined up in his head. His idea grew clearer and crystalline. Everything is food. Parker saw the food web in his head, blue lines connecting all the players in the puzzle. The dogs. Bookworm. The other creatures. His grandmother.
He pet the Shih Tzu’s head giddily and then rushed inside. His wet shoes squeaked on the wooden floor.
“Take those off before you come in,” Parker’s dad called from the other room. His son rushed back to the door and tore them off, flinging bits of mud onto the wall. “Oh and if you’ve been feeding those dogs outside you need to quit it. They’re peeing all over my yard.”
“Got it,” Parker shouted. He was about to rocket upstairs when the curious fact of his father’s presence hit him. He peeked into several rooms until he found his father in his home office, eyes glued to the computer screen and foot tapping impatiently. “Why aren’t you at work Dad?”
Parker’s father’s first response was to yank a flash drive out of the laptop’s side, cap it, and pocket the item.
“I forgot some files this morning— just stopped by to grab them. Your mom’s saying hi to some of the new neighbors so she should back in twenty minutes. I’m heading out in a sec. You need anything? Want me to pick up some fast food on the way home?
For some reason, Parker felt particularly touched by the offer. He wanted to break out in tears, bury his face in his father’s arm and cry so prodigiously that it made the rain jealous.
It’s not right to ask for help this time, he thought resolutely. It’s my mistake to fix. I’ll probably see him when he gets back.
“Yeah that’d be great,” Parker said. His eyes felt like leaf-dammed gutters. “Hey Dad… did Grandma ever write her recipes down? You know, for her pies and lasagnas and stuff? Parker’s father pulled his eyes away from the screen and rubbed his stubbly chin in silent thought.
“You know I don’t think she ever did. If there’s a recipe book around here she probably kept it hidden. My mom never let anyone watch her cook. She said it would ruin the magic. Kind of like seeing how a magician gets the rabbit out of the hat I guess.”
Parker pictured a green, fanged, spider-legged rabbit biting the hand that dared try to pull it out.
“Why do you ask?” his father said as he stood and slipped his jacket on.
“I wondered if Mom could read them and learn how to cook like Grandma,” Parker lied with a smile. His dad burst into laughter, almost falling over as he tried to tie his second shoe. After steadying himself he leaned down and grabbed Parker by the shoulder.
“That’s a great idea son but I need you to never ever suggest it to your mother. If you do you might be the main ingredient next time she does cook. Oh and definitely don’t tell her how hard I laughed if you do. Seeya kiddo.” And with that his father was off. The last thing Parker heard was the front door slam shut and his father shooing away the two or three dogs that barked.
He stood in the silence of the house. Here was a perfect twenty minute window of opportunity, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. He felt like some stiff dead thing just waiting for the wind to blow him over. In the quiet, sterile clean his mother had brought to the formerly cozy and slightly mildewed house, nothing challenged him to move. Piles of warm blankets did not call out to him. The smell of baked goods did not entice him to stay behind. The house was now a war zone: Parker’s brain vs. Bookworm’s.
He rubbed the moisture out of his eyes and climbed the stairs to Tracey’s room. His sister was perched on the edge of her bed, little sock heels bouncing off the lacey comforter, and monster book spread out across her lap.
“Hey Tracey,” he said quietly. She looked up at him. “Is that your new monster book?” If I’m right she’ll say yes.
“Uhuh,” she said.
“Did Mom buy it for you?” Please say no.
“No, I found it in Grandma’s stuff.”
“Can I see it?”
“Sure.” She hefted the open book into the air in a welcoming gesture. Parker sat down next to her and lowered the book into his own lap. He read quietly.
Cubed gargoyle meat is gamey and metallic. Goes well with mushrooms, carrots, gravies, and stews. Make sure to drain all the black fluid before adding them to any mix
It was, as Parker had suspected, his grandmother’s handwriting. He flipped a few pages and scanned a few more lines.
Step 3: Caramelize the honey sprites by sprinkling with brown sugar and cinnamon before heating them at 250 degrees.
They’re all food, Parker concluded. That’s why her cooking was always the best. She used fairy tale things as ingredients. He looked in the book’s table of contents and then flipped to the last page. The bulk of the previous pages slamming onto his thigh made a heavy Whupf sound, like a sandbag falling over.
When preparing bookworms, remember that the flesh takes on a more complex flavor as they grow. Be sure to harvest within the first week before they pupate. And don’t listen to the crafty buggers.
Parker handed the old book, which in his fading excitement he realized smelled exactly like the secret room, back to his sister. Pupate? What does that mean? It sounded bad enough to make him stand up from the bed and rub his arms as if they were cold. Whatever it meant, he knew he had to stop Bookworm now. With his food theory confirmed, Parker set off to recruit his army. He stopped in the door frame and said,
“Hey… just stay in your room for a little bit okay? I have to do something.”
“What is it?” his sister asked in a tone that threatened she might follow him relentlessly if he didn’t say.
“I’m making dinner. I want it to be a surprise for Mom and Dad. You promise to stay here?”
All five of the dogs were overjoyed to be let into the house. They practically bowled Parker over as they congregated around the basement door with him, their blunt claws scratching away at the hard wood floor.
“I hope you guys are hungry!” Parker shouted as he flung the door open. An avalanche of canines took over the stairs before hitting the floor and creating a huge dirt cloud. The dachshund followed slightly behind the rest, yapping playfully. Parker followed behind them, not sure how he was going to help. As a precaution against intruding beasties, his hands were clamped firmly over his ears.
Despite this, he heard the commotion that erupted from behind the pipes. Dogs barked, sprites squeaked, gargoyles growled, fairy horses whinnied, gremlins hissed, and some noise Parker could not even begin to put a physical form to joined the cacophony. He shimmied past the pipes to observe the chaos, careful to stand in the corner of the room next to the exit.
The dogs were having the times of their lives. The dachshund had cornered a group of beasts under a shelf that looked like daddy long leg spiders had crossbred with beef jerky. The biggest dog, a giant schnauzer, jumped in the air and snapped at winged things, which either poofed out of existence when they hit the dog’s teeth, or were swallowed whole. Parker had to shuffle away from the pipes to avoid the number of creatures streaming past him in an effort to escape.
Let them go, he thought. I bet there are a lot more fairy-eating things outside. They can’t do much without their leader. Parker looked around for Bookworm in the fray.
A young chocolate Labrador dug a hairy-scaly-feathered-moldy thing out of a shallow divot in the floor and promptly crunched it down to nothing. The shih tzu was in a tug of war with an anklebiter over one of its own legs. Seemingly devoid of blood, the fairy tale creatures left behind nothing but colorful smoke when eaten or destroyed. I bet they don’t even die, Parker thought with a grimace. They just show up again somewhere else. And then they try to take over. They take our food, and our bodies, and even the stuff we know. They don’t die they just…
And then he saw it. Above the growing haze of dust, the ripped wings, and the wagging tails— a swollen purple mass fixed to the front of three high shelves. Ropes of slime held it in place while the main structure was composed of what appeared to be lacquered pages from various books. Ink swirled on the mass’s surface like the eyes of storms, occasionally forming menacing words and then receding into formlessness. Overpower, the cocoon said. Coerce. Conceal. Devour. Assimilate. Enslave.
Parker wanted nothing more than to stop the words. He hoped a dog would quickly take note and lick the horrid ink away before chowing down on the hideous sack. Something worse broke that hope. It was the voice he had first heard when he rattled Bookworm’s jar. It stomped its way into his head once more, resonating off every object both real and imagined.
“Foolish boy,” the voice said. Even though the sound came form everywhere, Parker’s eyes naturally fixed on the purple mass of paper and mucus. He felt like he was about to witness an execution and that the guillotine might just get out of control and decapitate everyone nearby. He lowered his hands since they were already in his head.
“You cannot stop me,” the voice continued. “I have tasted the brilliance of man… and excreted the waste. My body has purified your knowledge. I have used it to cleanse myself. I am not a grub. I am not a juvenile thing wriggling on a rainy sidewalk. I am not a household pest any longer. I am not Bookworm. I am imago. I am… a thought moth!”
The mass split open, spilling pale frothy liquid in a nauseating torrent. A segmented shining body crawled forth and rested atop the mass. Like no moth he’d ever seen, its body was hairless and sharp with a pair of scorpion claws at the front and an earwig-like vice on the back. Its purple compound eyes betrayed none of the emotions that Bookworm’s face used to show. The thought moth’s wings unfurled with the stretching sound of a gas-bloated corpse. They were veined and thick as vellum, with more menacing words forming and flashing on them. Knowledge. Feast. Dessicate.
When Parker’s stunned mind tried to identify the font size of the words, he finally noticed how big the moth was. With wings like that it could probably pick him up and fly away with ease.
“It’s time for you to feed me one last time Parker,” the mouthless voice called. The moth hung on the shelves for another moment, enjoying the frozen expression of terror on the boy’s face. Then it shot off the wall and came at him, all stabbing crab legs and flapping wings. As Parker put up his hands defensively he saw the creature’s mouthpart unfold like a bullwhip. The two collided and fell to the floor, fairy tale things fleeing from their thrashing forms. Parker held the creature up and away but its long sharp tongue reached down and touched his forehead.
A new kind of pain surged through Parker. A few of his precious memories, his sixth birthday at the zoo, the time he rolled down grassy summer hills with Tracey, ten instances of licking the spoon when his mom made brownies, dissolved as if dipped in acid. The vacuum left by them scarred, crusted, and cracked like some magma beast dying halfway through a molt. It hurt so unusually.
He’s eating my thoughts, Parker managed to realize. Should have figured. He’s not a baby anymore. He can take knowledge from where it starts now.
Parker struggled to stay conscious as the thought moth siphoned him away. He grabbed one claw and pushed it up, making enough room for his other hand to grab the engorged mouth part and squeeze. Some of his lost thoughts shot back into him, along with a few foreign ones. The moth pinched him on the bicep, which tore straight through his clothes and drew blood. The beast disentangled itself and fluttered back to a high shelf to gain its bearings. Parker could sense its anger, even though the eyes were as blank as ever.
The foreign thoughts dripped over his regular ones. He saw Bookworm dictating information to a young woman, who recorded diligently in a familiar looking book. The woman pretended to hand over a tome to the worm, who reached out to grab it. Then she yanked it away and came in with her other hand, trapping the worm in a jar.
“You did it,” Parker whispered. “You did it!” He yelled this time. The thought moth perched deathly still. “You lied to the other fairies. You told my Grandma all their weaknesses so she could catch them. You sold your friends out for a book.”
The dogs gnawed on the last stragglers the whole time, only having difficulty with the bugbear. The fuzzy brick of a fairy was apparently much stronger than it looked and kept slapping the dogs away. When it heard Parker accuse the moth, it looked up at its former master and snarled.
“He lies,” the moth’s voice pleaded. “Trust me.” The bugbear’s only response was the clicking of its claws. There was another moment where everything except the dogs’ mouths was still. Then a hate triangle broke out between the three of them.
Parker shot up and bolted for the pipes. The moment he banged his cheek against the first of them, the thought moth launched itself, tearing down shelves in the process. Halfway through its glide the bugbear jumped an incredible distance and latched onto one of its wings with its mouth. The two spiraled out of control and rammed Parker, who was pushed through the pipes by the force. Please let them kill each other, Parker pleaded to the cruel god of dark basements. Of course if there was such a thing, his grandmother had probably baked it into a quiche already.
Daring not to look back, Parker rolled away from the pipes and fled up the stairs. A few ankle biters and dust bunnies were knocked away by his strides. The brightly lit portal of the door beckoned him forward. He fought away the urge to relax when his left foot hit the polished floor. Not safe yet. Clean doesn’t mean safe.
He flung the door as hard as he could. It would have slammed violently had one little moth claw not been in the frame. The claw’s owner pulled itself frantically through the opening even as Parker tried to force it shut.
“All knowledge is mine!” the moth shouted as it gouged tiny holes in the wall with its spear-like limbs.
Ms. Gregory’s voice rippled in Parker’s panicked head. Figure it out. He wants all knowledge? He can have it then.
Parker released his grip on the door and bolted down the hallway. He heard the desperate swooping and flapping of the moth behind him. Just got to get to the office. He left it on, I know he did.
“No!” Parker shouted. His little sister hung onto the banister at the bottom of the stairs. She barely had time to be frightened before the moth swooped over her brother’s head and reached all of its claws and its mouth out at once.
Parker grabbed at one of its legs, forcing it to fall short. Its limbs thrashed, cutting right through the bandages on his legs and reopening the old wounds.
“You want me. I’m smarter than her anyway,” he said through gritted teeth. The effort of holding the moth back started to take its toll. His muscles felt like dry, torn sponges.
“Fine by me,” the moth responded. It twisted in his grip and stabbed downward with its mouth. Parker rolled out of the way and heard the tip of the creature splinter the wood. The moth wriggled furiously to free itself from the floor, giving Parker just enough time to enter his father’s office. A second later, the moth was in the air behind him, reaching out once more. Enjoy your meal, Parker thought. He leapt onto the desk, grabbed the active laptop his father had forgotten to turn off, and rolled backward holding it up like a shield.
He saw the moth’s claws grab the screen’s edges. The tip of its mouth stabbed through, cracking the screen. Responding instantly, a web page opened on the screen. As quickly as it had appeared, it seemed to get sucked away into the moth’s mouth. Then another appeared and vanished. And another. And a hundred more. And then a search engine full of pages appeared and drained away.
“Nooooo!” the moth called out and tried to dislodge itself from the computer. The glut of information confused it and its legs started to move out of concert. One claw clipped off the other. Its abdomen quaked audibly.
Parker released the computer, sending it and the moth hurtling into the ceiling. It bounced off, took out a row of books on the shelf, and crashed back to the floor. Parker stood and grimly watched its death throes.
The thought moth couldn’t stop itself from digesting the tide of internet ‘knowledge’. The inky blood in its wings stopped forming words and quickly filled with random punctuation marks until they were entirely black. They started to shrivel as the rest of the body continued to swell. The purple luster of the moth faded to a briny blue and its skin cracked open. The abdomen bulged, expanding in bursts like someone blowing up a balloon. The monster’s voice turned to a piercing shriek, which forced Parker to cover his ears once more even though that did nothing to quiet it.
“You have to earn it,” he spat at the moth. The computer screen grew as bright as a camera flash and then popped like an incandescent bulb. The thought moth’s abdomen exploded into a cloud of blue fog filled with words. Its body ceased to twitch. Silence settled in.
Tracey, giving the squished bug a wide berth, entered the office and ran to her brother. They hugged. A few curious dogs ambled in too and laid down, stomachs full.
Parker heard his mother walk in through the open front door. Here’s the real test, he thought. Can I figure out how to explain this?