Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City

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Chapter 19

Before leaving their perch on the hilltop, Selwyn gathered the collection of storks not working and gave them various tasks to complete in his absence. They nodded their small heads reverently. The crowd then dispersed and went about its business in the fields of crying babies spread out over the valley below.

You work here?Nickelan asked.

Naturally,Selwyn said, how else do you think I can afford such fine tailoring?He pulled at his lapels, which were wide and plaid. His pants were a contrasting plaid, as was his shirt and tie, giving Selwyn the appearance of a radio jammed between stations and broadcasting loud static.

You deliver babies?Nickelan was following Selwyn down the hill, the cries of the newborns drowning out Selwyns suit.

Children have to come from somewhere,Selwyn mused. Why not from me? The storks work hard, but they have no administrative skills. They need organization. All those screaming little ones would sit out on the field and rot if not for me. I provide logistics for the storksair routes, destinationsand, for a small fee, everybody is happy.

My parents told me that storks dont really deliver babies,Nickelan said, except their own, of course.

Dont believe everything your parents tell you.Selwyn smiled. You should know that by now. Parents are an almost unintelligible lot. Youre not going to tell me your dear parents make sense to you? Never. Do they even look like you? Hardly. Theyre big and fleshy with hair growing out from places it never should be found. Theyre loud and pushy and think they know everything, but really theyre just as ignorant as the rest of us, striving forward blindly.

That sounds like my parents,Nickelan admitted, but I still miss them.

Ah, yes,Selwyn said. Its part of your mission, isnt it? To find your parents, rescue them from Kid City. Then, reunited, all will be good between you. Theyll never ask you to, say, bathe again, would they?Selwyn gave Nickelan an incredulous look.

Thats not fair,Nickelan responded. You dont know my parents. Theyre a bit weird, but what grown-up isnt.Now it was Nickelans turn to give Selwyn a knowing glance.

Touché!Selwyn said loudly, but not loud enough to be heard over the cries of the babies as they cut a path through the infant fields. They walked the rest of the way in silence until reaching a thicket of woods. Our journey is almost over. Just beyond this forest well find transport to the gates of Kid City. But were not home yet. First, we have to get through Dinosaur Park. But even that is not worrying me as much as the Gatekeeper.

The Gatekeeper…” Nickelan couldnt help being absorbed in Selwyns tale.

The Gatekeeper,Selwyn repeated himself. The Gatekeeper is the fiercest, the most dangerous and cunning of all the dinosaurs of Dinosaur Park. The Gatekeeper is called the Gatekeeper because he guards the gateway into Kid City. His memory is as vast as his strength, and he knows each and every face that belongs in Kid City. Believe me, Makas and lesser beings have tried to deceive the Gatekeeper or use brute force to defeat the Gatekeeper, with equally poor results.

You said youve been to Kid City.Nickelan thought hed found a chink in Selwyns narrative armor.

Did I?Selwyn paused. I guess I did. Its true. Ive been to Kid City dozens of times, but then Im not your average grown-up. Am I?

Nickelan would have pursued this newest hole in a series of holes riddling the mysterious Selwyn Harrisongoing story, but just then something caught his eye, or rather his ear. It was a sound, but not the cries of the babies, which he hadnt heard in some time. This sound made Nickelans skin crawl in a wholly different way than the chorus of crying babies, more like an itch he couldnt scratch. Then Nickelan saw something. It appeared that the forest floor was moving beneath his feetbecause it was.

Ugh!Nickelan exclaimed, lifting up his bare feet and kicking off a phalanx of bugs that were marching up his leg.

Scared of insects?Selwyn asked. That could be a problem.

The forest floor was a moving carpet of bugs, all manner of creepy-crawly scattered beneath Nickelans feet. There was no way he could avoid crushing large tracks of insects while walking, but for every one squished underfoot thousands more took its place. What was more disturbing, the closer Selwyn and Nickelan got to the clearing ahead, the larger the insects became. Big bugs were making stomach-turning sounds as they crunched beneath Selwyn and Nickelans steps. And before them were creatures big enough that Nickelan feared he might get flattened under their giant leg segments.

Beyond the cover of the forest Nickelan witnessed a vast junkyard. Unlike the metal scrap heap on the shore of The Septic, this garbage dump was organic, filled with decaying foodstuff and rotting vegetation that fed the infestation. Some of the insects were as big as a city bus, which was an apt simile, for Selwyn was in the process of flagging one down for a ride.

Have you ever ridden a cockroach before?Selwyn asked. A roach-coach, some might say, but not me. I hate puns.

Nickelan watched the massive creature as it scuttled over. The air, festering from the landscape of perishables, was even ranker accented by the huge bug. It stinks.

You dont smell so good yourself,Selwyn commented.

Nickelan had gone underground through the drain of his bathtub. Afterwards, his hair was sleek and clean, his body scrubbed to a glossy shine, and even his fingernails were no longer encrusted with age-old dirt. That, however, was some time ago. Now Nickelan was back to his usual filthy self. His clothes were hard, his hair stood straight up as if frozen in fright and his body was covered in grime built up from many soiled adventures. Nickelan took a whiff under his arms and his eyes moistened at the sour smell. In contrast, Selwyn was not only cleanhis face and hair looking just-washed and groomedeven his garish outfit was spotless and creased as sharp as a carving knife.

There was little time to complain about his hygiene. The antenna of the cockroach was flying around Nickelan and Selwyn, snapping like a whip in the air.

Hello,Selwyn said, rubbing the tip of one long antenna in his hands. My young ward and I would like a ride to the gates of Kid City, if it wouldnt be too much of an imposition.

The cockroachs antenna did a dance in Selwyns hands communicating its approval, and then the giant bug turned, presenting Nickelan and Selwyn with its backside. Two cerci, like rearview antennae, lowered and Selwyn climbed up as if on a ladder.

Come on, boy,Selwyn said. This is the final leg of your trip.Nickelan was hesitant to step on a cockroach. That is, he had stepped on many a cockroach in the past. In fact, he had stepped on a few just moments ago. The truth was Nickelan hated bugs and preferred a great distance between him and any six-legged pest. The idea of riding on one, even if he had to, was more than Nickelan could deal with. He was paralyzed.

Come on, boy!Selwyn said again, this time reaching down for Nickelans hand and pulling him up onto the cockroachs abdomen.

No!Nickelan shouted, but Selwyn was much stronger than him. He couldnt break free of his grip. As Selwyn tugged him over the hard thorax of the cockroach, Nickelan no longer tried to pull away. He actually hugged Selwyn like a security blanket. They stopped on the plate-like pronotum, the front segment in the thorax of the insect, just before the cockroachs head.

Nickelan was almost feeling steady on his feet until he made the mistake of looking down at the cockroachs head. There was a pair of compound eyes that were so dull and flat that they obviously werent suited for more than distinguishing between light and darkness. The antennae were thrashing through the air, making a terrible racket. Below the base of the antennae, where they fitted into the cockroachs head, the insects mouthparts were chewing and scraping, making a nauseating grinding sound. Then, without notice, the cockroach moved. It ran low and swift over the rough terrain, sending Nickelan flat on his bottom.

Hold on,Selwyn said.

Ugh!Nickelan cried. The sight of an insect was enough to send shivers up his spine. To have one crawl on him made Nickelan dance spastically. But riding a cockroachthe sight, the sound, the touch and the smell of the creature all-encompassingthat was too much for Nickelan. He could almost taste the cockroach as if it were in his mouth, which made him gag uncontrollably.

You know, in some cultures the cockroach is considered a culinary delicacy,Selwyn said eruditely.

What cultures?Nickelan asked, a line of drool hanging from his lower lip and collecting in a pool on the shiny pronotum of the cockroach.

Thats a good question,Selwyn acknowledged, but we dont have time to discuss the dietary habits of foreign lands. If youre hungry, feel free to reach under the abdomen of our transport and grab a handful of the soft meat beneath. The cockroach wont mind. Its brain is quite small and only coordinates various body functions. Go onit wont feel a thing.

Nickelan gagged at the mere thought. Very well,said Selwyn. Better to concentrate on a plan to deal with the Gatekeeper.

On hands and knees, Nickelan could see his reflection in the pool of saliva under his head. He looked ragged and worn down to the bone, but Nickelan found the strength to stand and look over the harsh landscape. As Selwyn droned on, Nickelan took in the countryside deep in the Lands Between. The Pipes above were glistening with moisture and further on he could see them leaking rainwater over a densely lush forest. There were creatures, not insects, but dinosaurs, living fossils from prehistoric times. There were small dinosaurs no bigger than chickens, Pterodactyls flew near the network of Pipes overhead and packs of Raptors hunted Triceratops as they grazed on the fringes of the thick green woods. Nickelan couldnt believe his eyes. The long neck of a Brachiosaurus reached so high that it could lick the condensation of the overhead piping when thirsty.

Its unreal,Nickelan murmured.

Oh, its real,Selwyn responded. And you better start listening to me or youll discover how real. When we reach that line of trees well have to say good-bye to our cockroach ride. It cant maneuver through that dense vegetation. On the other side of the forest is the wall protecting Kid City and the Gatekeeper protecting that wall. Were almost home, but all it takes is a hungry Carnotaurus to snap you up in its jaws and Nickelan Wand is no longer the Redeemer, hes just an appetizer.

Nickelan looked Selwyn in the eye. As long as there are no more giant insects,he said, Im ready.

There are giant insects,Selwyn said. There is giant everything. You better resolve your phobias fast, boy, or at the very least lose your fear of death because it will be imminent.

As if to emphasize Selwyns sentiment, Nickelan turned to see a charging Carnotaurus. It was coming at the cockroach from the side and at great speed. The image of a dinosaur racing at Nickelan, its teeth bared, with razor-sharp claws beating the air, was too bizarre to be true. Nickelan thought he was watching a movie and was awed at the seamless special effects.

Selwyn Harris was not as calm as Nickelan. Were going to die!he screamed. Nickelan heard the outcry, but it had little effect on Nickelan. He was not sweating and there was no shortness of breath or tightness of muscles bracing to run. Nickelan,Selwyn moaned, we never got a chance to discuss strategy. This is bad, very bad.

Selwyn faced Nickelan. Theres no time. You must reach the gates of Kid City, with or without me.The Carnotaurus was almost upon them. Through the woods, boy!Selwyn ordered frantically. Race through the woods and dont stop until you reach the Gatekeeper!

Nickelan saw Selwyns mouth moving, he even heard the words he was shouting, but they entered his head and bounced therein without direction. Nickelan felt Selwyns grip on his body, but it was as if a great chasm lay between them. Then Nickelan was no longer facing Selwyn, and Nickelan was no longer standing on the hard exoskeleton of the cockroach. He was flying, not like a bird, more like a rock, or falling may be more accurate.

The cockroach was in pieces. The antennae, thorax, abdomen and its six legs were all evident, but not in any orientation that made sense. It looked like an unmade puzzle of a cockroach. Nickelan tried to place the pieces together in his head. It was difficult as they were still moving.

Then there was one less piece of the puzzle, and another. The Carnotaurus had them in its mouth. A sickening crunching sound came from the dinosaur as it dined on its meal. The sight of a dinosaur eating a giant cockroach was enough for Nickelans brain to malfunction. He just stood there and watched without fear of his own safety because what he was watching was on television. It was like the time at Springos when they watched old horror movies all afternoon. Nickelan actually took a step closer to the carnage and kneeled down in the tall grass. He spread his hands out and moved them around in search of the remote to change the channel. What else is on? That was what Nickelan thought as the Carnotaurus took the cockroachs abdomen between its massive jaws and chewed, sending a wet spray of insect guts splashing over him.

Run, boy!It was Selwyns voice. It sounded as if it came through a tinny speaker. Springo should really invest in a better television set,Nickelan thought, wiping the insect innards off his cheeks. Fool!Yes, that was definitely Selwyn speaking, Nickelan decided. What channel was he on? Run! Dont just sit there, run! Are you deaf, boy?

No, Nickelan wasnt deaf. He could definitely hear. But he was having a hard time tuning into the station. Where was the horizontal and vertical hold? The picture was slightly off. Was that a man riding the head of a dinosaur eating a cockroach? No, such imagery was absurd.

The man on top of the dinosaur was standing now and keeping balance by holding on to the two large horns that rose up from the extinct creatures skull. Yes, dinosaurs are extinct, Nickelan reminded himself. He was once terrified of dinosaurs after visiting the Museum of Natural History and seeing the fossilized bones of a huge meat-eater attacking a low-riding herbivore that it hoped to make its dinner. That night he couldnt sleep. The nightlight cast shadows of ferocious carnivores over the walls of his room and he cried for his mommy and daddy. Mr. and Mrs. Wand came in and sat with Nickelan. They told him dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. There were descendants of the dinosaurs living among us, Mr. Wand revealed, and Nickelan slipped deeper under his covers as if for protection. Chickens!Mr. Wand smiled. Theyre the closest living relative to the terrifying dinosaur.Chickensthat made Nickelan smile. He pushed his head out from under the covers and put it in his fathers lap. Mr. and Mrs. Wand stayed up with Nickelan, sandwiching him in the bed, stroking his hair until he fell asleep.

Mom and Dad!Nickelan shouted.

This is no time to cry for your mommy, boy,Selwyn yelled from high above. Nickelan looked up and saw him on top of the Carnotaurus, his arms wrapped around its mighty horns. The dinosaur had finished eating the cockroach and was now shaking its head to remove the irritating presence of Selwyn, who stubbornly wouldnt budge.

Ive got to save my parents,Nickelan said as much to himself as for Selwyns benefit.

Then get yourself to Kid City, pronto,Selwyn said. The Carnotaurus was violently rocking its head up and down, but Selwyn held firm. Run into the woods, dont stop for anything. On the other side youll find the gates of Kid City and the Gatekeeper—” The dinosaur roared, swallowing up the rest of what Selwyn was trying to convey.

The sight of the Carnotaurus trying to wrestle the small figure of Selwyn Harris from its head suddenly hit Nickelan. He felt his knees shake, his legs turn to jelly, his stomach gurgle upset in his guts, his palms sweat, his jaw drop and the hair on his head tingle. Nickelan was back in his body. This was no television program. With that realization, however, Nickelan was now frozen not in shock but fear. The end result being the same: Nickelan was in great danger.

Run!Selwyn screamed, barely audible over the thrashing and roar of his angry dinosaur host. Run through the woods.He pointed as if Nickelan couldnt see the dense line of trees several yards away. It was a mistake, for now Selwyn was flying around the Carnotaurushead like a halo, with only one arm secured to the dinosaurs horn. When you reach the Gatekeeper,Selwyn said, spinning, dont fall for any of his tricks.

What tricks?Nickelan asked.

I wish I could take the time to answer your questions,Selwyn said, or the blur that twirled around the top of the Carnotaurus said, but Ive got my own problems to deal with right now.

Nickelan remained glued to the spot. He couldnt take his eyes off the dinosaur, which towered over him and violently stomped its legs and jerked its body, fighting to free itself from the gnat-like irritation on its head. The ground shook and the various wildlife that had populated the area only minutes before had long since scattered. Nickelan was alone with the dangerous menace of an angry Carnotaurus among the shell of the cockroach, which had served as his ride and then the dinosaurs snack. His mind was about to short-circuit again, slipping back into delusional idyll, when an image of his parents popped into his head. They were standing side by side, holding hands, his mother in her flowered apron and his father tightly wrapped up in a three-piece suit. They were smiling at him, which made Nickelan smile. Then the smile fell off his face. Ive got to save my parents!he remembered.

Then, run!Selwyn cried. Run like…”

But Nickelan didnt hear Selwyn finish his simile. He was too busy running.

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