The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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Anything At All
By Linda Sue Park
The reunion was a joyful one, relief on all sides spilling over into elation.
“How did you find us so fast?” Joe exclaimed.
Raised eyebrows from Angel and Sybil; Genius Kelly would have raised his eyebrows, too, if he’d had any. He settled for a snort instead.
“Wasn’t all that fast,” Angel said. “I picked up the gang a while back, and we’ve been on the lookout for you ever since.”
“You mean, you were on the lookout,” Hathi pointed out. “Credit where credit is due, dear. The rest of us were asleep.”
Nancy shook her head. “It must have been the time frame we were in,” she said. “We only just got Roberta’s legs attached and were trying to figure out what to do next when Joe spotted the cradle.”
“That is not entirely accurate,” Roberta said. “We know what to do next: we need to find that door.” She stretched out her newly attached legs in front of her and looked fondly at her articulated knees.
“Roberta, you got legs!” Angel said, grinning. “They’re lookin’ mighty fine, lady.”
“Why, thank you, Angel,” Roberta replied, crossing her ankles with a loud clank. “I must say, I am pleased to have them back. I rather missed them.”
She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was quieter. “I’m feeling a great deal better now, but I do wonder if we’ll ever find my head. I must confess that I don’t feel quite myself without it.”
“Of course we’ll find it!” Nancy said stoutly, and patted the robot on the shoulder. Nancy thought that it must be awful for Roberta, not having a head. Even if a human being could live without one, who would want to?
Besides, finding Roberta’s head would mean the completion of the Exquisite Corpse – the only chance she and Joe had of finding their parents.
“I don’t wish to alarm anyone,” Roberta said, “but I have a feeling it needs to be soon. I am currently operating by re-routing certain functions as necessary, which is putting quite a strain on my circuitry. If my hard drive should blow – well, finding my head after that wouldn’t be of any help, I’m afraid.”
Silence, as the group took in what the robot had said.
Sybil shifted her position a little. Joe sniffed at the air and his mouth began watering. What was that smell – it seemed to be coming from Sybil’s direction—
He stared at Sybil’s chin, which displayed evidence of a serious and recent encounter with, at the very least, a chocolate-like substance.
“Wh-where did you get chocolate?” Nancy asked, swallowing hard. She realized that tension had been the only thing filling her stomach. When was the last time they’d eaten?
Sybil stuck out her tongue and licked her chin. “Not, strictly speaking, chocolate,” she said. “It was the fudge part of a hot-fudge sundae made with cookie-dough ice cream.”
“AARGH!” Joe yelled, grabbing his gut in agony.
Hathi and Angel exchanged glances. “These kids need feedin’,” Angel said. “They won’t be any use if they don’t get their strength up. What’ll it be, darlin’s? Whatever you want.”
Nancy and Joe sat with their mouths agape. It was Joe who found his voice first.
“Whatever we want?” he croaked. “You mean – you mean, like, anything? Is this some kind of joke?” Because if it was, he didn’t think it was very funny.
Angel shrugged. “Well, I couldn’t rightly say,” he said. “Could be, there’s somethin’ that won’t come out of this here machine . . .” – he tapped the computer panel of the cradle – “but if there is, nobody’s asked for it yet.”
Sybil began ticking off on her fingers. “I had two doughnuts: one glazed, one with sprinkles; a double-shot espresso with cinnamon foam; a bag of caramels; and a piece of lemon-meringue pie,” she said. “And the sundae.”
Nancy’s awe was overcome by momentary concern. “That’s an awful lot of sugar,” she said.
Sybil shrugged. “Always did have a sweet tooth.”
“Peanuts,” Hathi said. “Unsalted, shell on. And eleven pounds of a delectable alfalfa-clover hay mix.”
“I had me a shrimp gumbo,” Angel said. “The real deal. Okra, and filé powder, and a roux near dark as me. Mmm-mm.”
Genius Kelly opened his mouth to speak, but Joe cut him off. He didn’t think he could bear listening to a list of what the pig had ordered and eaten. “What are you going to have, Nancy?” Joe asked, his eyes wide with eagerness.
He still couldn’t quite believe it. Those very rare times when grownups said, “You can have whatever you want,” what they really meant was, “You can have anything on the menu” or “You can have any candy bar in the display.”
But anything at all? Really and truly?
Nancy’s stomach grumbled and growled; any minute now and it would start barking. She needed something warm . . . soothing . . . nourishing. . . .
“Oatmeal,” she blurted out.
“Oatmeal?!” Joe yelped in disbelief.
Nancy ignored him. “A bowl of oatmeal. NOT instant. Homemade, and no lumps, please. With brown sugar, and raisins, and some really thick cream poured on top. The kind that looks almost yellow.”
“PIZZA!” Joe shouted. “Half cheese, half pepperoni!”
“Order up,” Angel said, mere moments later.
Both the oatmeal and the pizza were, of course, the best that had ever been made in the history of the universe. The replicator even managed to produce a canister of pressurized air to clean out Roberta’s circuitry; she let out both a sigh and a long beep of sheer delight when Angel blasted a stream of nice fresh canned air at her innards.
Sybil looked thoughtful. “We asked that computer for other things, like binoculars,” she said. “It wouldn’t make them. I wonder why it came up with the canned air?”
“I think I figured that one out,” Genius Kelly said. “I’m guessing it only does food, and the canned air is like food to her. You might say it keeps her running well.” He pointed a hoof at Roberta’s legs and chortled. Everyone else groaned and rolled their eyes – except for Roberta, of course, who emitted a sound like a raspberry.
At Hathi’s suggestion, Roberta shut down for a while to give her circuits a rest. After the oatmeal, Nancy had carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing, then chocolate-dipped strawberries and two chocolate-chip cookies with a tall glass of cold milk. Joe followed his pizza with a double order of fries and a chocolate milkshake.
“Joe,” Nancy admonished. “Vitamins. You need to eat vegetables. Or at least some fruit.”
Joe rolled his eyes, slurped his milkshake, and burped. But he was feeling so good now that he decided to oblige her. “A banana, please,” he said to Angel.
Nancy looked surprised and pleased at her brother’s acquiescence, but her expression changed rapidly when, after peeling the banana, he smushed two-thirds of it into his mouth at once. “Ugh—that’s disgusting!” she said.
It took a while for Joe to work the banana from his cheeks down into his gullet. At last he swallowed and looked at her innocently. “Nancy, I don’t get you. If I don’t eat fruit, you complain; if I do eat fruit, you still complain! Make up your mind, wouldya?”
Nancy couldn’t help laughing, and the others joined in. As their laughter died down, a little wave of sadness lapped at the contentment Nancy was feeling.
It wasn’t long ago that this would have seemed perfect to her. Good food, good friends, laughter. . . . But now she knew what was missing.
How could you miss something you’ve never really had? Neither she nor Joe had ever truly known their parents. Had she always missed them, ever since she was a baby, and just not known it? Was it them she was missing, or the idea of having parents? What if, when they were all reunited again, they didn’t get along? Worse yet, what if it never happened – if she and Joe couldn’t manage to rescue them?
Nancy felt a gentle whoosh of warm air that smelled of hay. Hathi was reaching out with her trunk to stroke Nancy’s hair.
Dear, wise Hathi, who always seemed to know how Nancy was feeling. . . . Nancy leaned her cheek against Hathi’s trunk.
“Are you ready, little one?” Hathi asked quietly.
The food and rest had revived and restored Nancy, and she could see that they were having the same effect on Joe. She sat up straight and smiled at Hathi.
“A head and a door,” Nancy said. “Let’s do it – I’m ready.”
“Me, too,” Joe said. He turned to Angel. “Except, could I get a bag of sour gummy bears – to go, please?”
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.”