The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
Hear it (MP3) 18:21
Lucky Episode 13: Out of the Cradle, Into the Fire
By M. T. Anderson
When the twins opened their eyes, they were in a living room. In a house.
It was a living room like many others, with wall-to-wall carpeting and a plate-glass window and a fake fireplace. But it was unlike many others, because it had been converted into a laboratory. There were all sorts of machines wired to other machines, and someone had written equations in chalk on the floral wallpaper.
“Where are we?” whispered Nancy.
“When are we?” Joe wondered.
But there was no time for Nancy to guess before a young couple burst into the room from two opposite doors. The robot arm quivered on Joe’s shoulder like a startled parrot.
At first, the young man and woman did not notice the kids. They were in a hurry, carrying duffel bags. The man started grabbing gadgets and devices off tables and throwing them in the bag. The woman was leaning over something on the sofa, wrapping it in a blanket.
And then the man saw them. He straightened up and his eyes narrowed.
“You’re invaders,” he said. “Aren’t you? You’ve finally come. We’ll fight you to the last.”
Nancy and Joe gasped. Now that they could see the man’s face, they recognized him. He was not as young as his baby self, Max. He was not as old as the old man in the swaying, tragic crib of time. He was somewhere in the middle. He was about thirty. He had a goatee, and wore a tweed suit, and viewed them with suspicion. And he was their father, Professor Alistair Sloppy. They stared at him in shock.
“Who are you?” Dr. Sloppy demanded.
“Please,” said Joe. “We’re not invaders.” He tried to explain. “We’re . . . we’re . . .” He held out his hand toward his father.
(His actual hand. Not the one sitting on his shoulder.)
“Honey,” said Dr. Sloppy. “We have company.”
The young woman turned. She jumped, startled. “Where did they come from?”
Joe and Nancy didn’t know what to say.
Nancy said, “We . . . um . . . we came from the circus.” Nancy looked at the woman with her long hair and her many bracelets. Nancy said, “Are you . . .” She almost couldn’t ask it. She whispered, “Are you Elizabeth Verrie-Sloppy?”
The woman nodded briskly. She said, “Libby Sloppy.”
“Libby Sloppy,” Nancy repeated, her eyes wide.
“And these,” said Libby Sloppy, revealing the swaddled package on the sofa, “are our twins. Look at them sleeping. Joe and Nancy.” Her mouth was sad. “Come on, Alistair,” she said to Dr. Sloppy. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got to get the babies out of here.”
The twin ten-year-olds looked at the twin babies in awe.
“Joe,” repeated Joe softly.
“And Nancy?” said Nancy.
Libby Sloppy nodded again. She raced out of the room. Dr. Sloppy kept throwing equipment in his duffle. “Acrobats from the circus, huh?” said their father. “Well, you’ve chosen the wrong house to do a double-back somersault into. It’s about to be invaded.” He said wearily, “We’re fleeing.”
Nancy and Joe couldn’t speak.
They looked at themselves. Their little selves. They were darling as babies. They weren’t even a year old. They had sweet little round heads and tiny hands that clamped and unclamped.
Joe said softly, “Was Joe born a little after Nancy? So she’s a little bit more old and more boring? And he’s younger and more fun?”
Without looking up from his work, Dr. Sloppy said, “They’re both wonderful babies.” His voice caught. “They’re wonderful, wonderful babies. We love them more than anything in the world. And that’s why we have to leave them somewhere and flee.”
Nancy croaked. “Leave them somewhere?”
Dr. Sloppy was distracted. He spoke without thinking as he pulled plugs out of sockets and disconnected wires from nodes. “I am an inventor,” he explained, squinting at some piping. “I invented a doorway into another dimension, so I could travel through time. But the creatures in that dimension – they’re angry at me. They’re looking for me. Evil. Irascible. Destructifying.” He glanced up at the clock. “They’ll be here any minute. We need to vamoose. Abscond. We need to hide these babies somewhere in town.” He put down a battery pack and went over to stare at the babies. Tenderly, he murmured, “We have to stash them somewhere that they’ll be safe, even if their mother and I are caught by the monsters from the other dimension.”
Libby Sloppy ran back into the room, twitching her shoulders into a black trench coat. “Come on, Alistair,” she said. “No time to cry. We’ve got to get out of here before the monsters arrive.”
Joe had been staring at the scene with his mouth open. Suddenly he twitched as if he’d just awakened. He protested, “You should . . . you should take them with you . . .”
“And love them,” said Nancy. “With your whole heart.”
The Sloppy parents stopped. They looked at the two kids. “We do,” said Dr. Sloppy. “That’s why we’ve got to save them by leaving them somewhere.” He shook his head. “If only my father were still around. We could have left them with him.” He wiped his eyes. “Oh, Poppy Sloppy,” he sighed.
“We haven’t even decided yet where we’re going to leave them,” said Libby. “Where do you think, Alistair? It’s time to make up our minds.”
Joe and Nancy stared right at her. They felt trapped in the clutch of fate. Joe, as if he was in a trance, said sadly, “You could . . . you could leave them with the circus.”
Dr. Alistair Sloppy looked up. “The circus!” He snapped. “Yes! That’s a capital idea! The Sick and Tired Circus is in town!”
“Then,” said Joe desolately, “they could learn all sorts of skills. . . . Like knife-throwing. . . . And tumbling. . . . And lion-taming. . . . So that maybe someday . . .”
“Maybe,” added Nancy, miserably, “in ten years . . .”
“They could look for you, and try to save you from the other dimension.”
“Because,” Nancy finished, “they love you so much, even though they’ve never met you, and don’t remember you. But they’ve thought about you every day of their lives.”
Dr. Alistair Sloppy was still busy, spooling wire around his hand. But Libby Sloppy had stopped what she was doing. She was just looking at the kids – the ten-year-old kids – with wide, startled eyes.
She knew. Nancy and Joe could tell that she knew.
Quietly, she said, “And will those kids be okay? At the Sick and Tired Circus?”
“What’s okay?” said Joe.
And Nancy answered, “They’ll be sad. But there will be really good times, too. Cocoa at night in the fortune-teller’s wagon. Playing catch with the elephants. Feeding soup to Decapitata, the Headless Woman. Or at least spooning it into her neck.” Nancy went over to her mother’s side. Her mother took her hand. Tears were rolling down Nancy’s cheeks. “But then some nights, they’ll cry into the Bearded Woman’s beard.”
“What’s all this about?” said Dr. Alistair Sloppy, impatiently. “Libby, we don’t have time to sit here sentimentalizing with whatever pint-sized funambulists decide to backflip into our living room in their off hours. The creatures from the other dimension will be here at any minute, and we’ll be mashed into non-Euclidean cud and served for supper.” He looked at the kids. “Thank you for your suggestion that we drop the babes off at the circus. We will consider it seriously. Do not worry yourselves about little Joe and Nancy. They will be fine. We have an ally from the other world – a fine pig named Genius Kelly. An interdimensional pig. A porker from beyond the end of time. He’ll watch over them.”
Looking not at her husband, but at Joe and Nancy, Libby Sloppy insisted gently, “The children will make it, won’t they? They’ll make it, even if their parents – Alistair and me – don’t?” She wanted to know the future. Her future. Their future.
Joe said, “Make sure Genius Kelly watches over them real good.”
Libby knelt in front of her son. She said, “Is there any other advice I should give Genius Kelly?”
Joe squinted, trying to remember everything that Genius Kelly had told them over the last, kind of confusing, day or two. “Well,” he said, “you could suggest that a really good plan would be for Genius Kelly, even though he’s on our side, to pretend that he’s a bad guy, and team up with an evil clown who’s trying to kill us, and then Genius Kelly could explain things not by himself, but through a hologram of Dr. Albert Einstein, who he makes to tell us stuff and to take care of a time-traveled baby Dr. Alistair Sloppy, who’s on roller skates.”
The adult Dr. Alistair Sloppy put down a piece of equipment and looked at Joe, concerned. “That’s Genius Kelly’s plan, you think?” he said.
Joe and Nancy nodded.
Dr. Alistair Sloppy sighed. “Who named that pig ‘Genius’?” he asked. Under his breath, he muttered something about interstellar bacon.
He had not even noticed that Joe had said “us” instead of “the babies.”
Dr. Alistair Sloppy zipped up his duffel bag. “All right, my stumpy-sized circus saltators. Mrs. Sloppy and I have to make ourselves scarce. We have to get these poor darlings off to whatever haven we’re planning before—”
“The circus,” Libby Sloppy insisted. “Just like these . . . these wonderful, beautiful children suggested. We’ll take the babies to the Sick and Tired Circus so they can learn all about how to fight dangers.”
Dr. Alistair Sloppy nodded. He struggled into his overcoat. He picked up his duffel bags full of equipment. Libby Sloppy went over and lifted the baby twins, one in each arm.
Then, for a minute, there was one of those strange times that is both heartbreaking and joyous. They stood together as a family for the first time ever, and the last time in ten years. Dr. Alistair Sloppy didn’t know it yet, of course. He just thought Nancy and Joe were circus acrobats. But Libby Sloppy did know it. She had tears in her eyes, because she was leaving behind not two of her children, but four. And that moment there in the house, waiting for creatures to invade from another dimension, had to stand in for all those other moments the four of them had missed together, and would miss, over the next ten years – the twins running home from the bus after the first day of school … making construction-paper masks on long Saturday afternoons . . . scribbling in crayon on the walls . . . telling on each other in the backseat during carrides to National Parks . . . standing before the Grand Canyon, with their father, Alistair Sloppy, taking snaps with an interdimensional camera that photographed not just the kids and the mother and the mesas, but also the glimmerings of light from other worlds, the many-eyed beings floating past invisibly in the desert air.
None of those things would happen. Not, at least, until a decade had passed.
So they stood for one last time, six and quarter people who formed a family of four.
(The quarter is the arm.)
And then the house began to shake.
“They’re coming!” cried Dr. Sloppy, wading toward the front door, his duffel bags clanking.
The house rattled. The windows wobbled.
“What?” said Joe. “Who’s coming?”
“The creatures from the other dimension!” said Libby Sloppy. She jerked her head toward the door. “Come on!” she exclaimed. “Come on, kids.”
Joe and Nancy looked at each other. They looked at the two babies, swaddled in their mother’s arms.
And Joe bravely stepped forward. “No,” he said. “You go. We’re going to stay here. We’ll delay the monsters to give you time to get away.”
Libby Sloppy looked at them like they were crazy. “You can’t stay.”
But Nancy stepped forward and stood by Joe. She shook her head. “We have to stay here. Someone’s got to make sure that those . . . those babies are safe. They’ve got to have a chance to get to the circus. So that they can have, you know, their whole future.”
Libby Sloppy looked at Nancy and Joe with pleading eyes. “Kids . . .” she whispered.
Dr. Sloppy smiled at them. “Thank you,” he said. “You’re wonderful children, to intervene this way.” He clanked back to Joe’s side and mussed up Joe’s hair a little. “If we elude the monsters, we’ll come back and check up on you,” he said. “I promise.”
The kids blinked with tears in their eyes. The house vibrated. Some plates toppled over in the kitchen and crashed. “All right,” said Dr. Alistair Sloppy, and he headed out.
“Wait!” Joe cried. “But what are the monsters? What do they look like?”
“Anything they want to!” Dr. Alistair Sloppy called from the front door. “A tree! A wolf! A clown! Anything in the world!
Libby Sloppy explained, “Their true form is—”
“No time!” said Dr. Alistair Sloppy. “They’re almost here! Come along!” And then their father was gone.
“Good-bye! Good-bye, my darlings!” said Libby Sloppy, right behind him. She stood for a moment. The door frame jiggled as the beasts approached from their dimension. Then, with wet eyes, she turned away and ran into the night.
Nancy looked after her, wanting to wail.
But there was no time to wail. Joe was already bustling around, thinking of things he could flip and throw at the monsters. “All right,” he said. “We have to be prepared. We have the skills.” He rushed off into another room.
Nancy started looking around the living room laboratory for something that might delay monsters. She knew enough from assisting magicians that she could make explosions and puffs and smoke, if she could find the right stuff. She gathered together bottles of chemicals.
Not enough. She couldn’t find the right ingredients. She yelled to her brother, “Did you find anything in there, Joe?”
“Naw,” he called back. “Just a tank.”
“A tank?!?” Nancy said. “Like a shooting tank?”
“No. Not really a tank. A trunk.”
“A trunk?!? What’s in it? Open it!”
“Not that kind of trunk. I mean, like the trunk of a body. A torso. You know, made of metal, with rivets. Like a round water tank, but with holes for legs and a head and. . . . Oh. . . . Oh! For arms!”
Nancy looked up.
Both of them had found an arm recently.
Joe had found the live robot arm in the sea. Nancy had found a dead robot arm near their pirate friend.
So . . . two robot arms and a torso.
“The Exquisite Corpse’s body!” Joe exclaimed. “This must be the robot’s trunk!”
Nancy was already racing into the bedroom to see what Joe was talking about.
Joe knelt by the tank, or the trunk. It was blackened from some explosion, but it was clearly the body of a robot with no head and no legs. Arm was skipping around happily. Joe was trying to screw Arm into the socket. “Stop it!” he said. “Stop dancing!”
Nancy rushed to the other side of the trunk. She examined the socket on the body. She hefted the dead robot arm she’d found near the pirate. She started to screw the arm in.
The house shook harder. The invaders were coming. Plaster cracked. A window shattered.
The two kids had fixed the arms in the metal body.
They stood up. They watched. They didn’t know what to do.
Pictures fell off the walls. On the other side of the door, there was a zap.
And then something was in the living room laboratory, just down the hall. Something was breathing.
Nancy and Joe looked at each other in horror.
And by their knees, glinting dully, the legless, headless robot began to move.
Audio recordings provided by National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and the Butler Center for Children's Literature at Dominican University have developed a companion educational resource center (external link) to support “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”