The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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Wolf at the Door
By Megan McDonald
The disembodied voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere –
ricocheting off rocks, echoing through trees, speaking out of thin air. But try as they might, Nancy and Joe could not lay eyes on the Being that belonged to the spooky words that had just rasped, “What have you got there?”
“Who are you?” Nancy asked, speaking to the air. She trembled; her fingers let go of the robotic arm. It dropped to her feet.
“Show yourself,” demanded Joe, trying to muster the same courage he’d shown when he’d thrown himself between Baby Max and Genius Kelly.
“That arranged can be,” said the Voice in a half-mocking tone. “Riddle me this if you dare to see me in my true form.”
It has been said that our intrepid heroes were no strangers to riddles, but this, this lone, throaty voice seemed to speak in riddles itself.
Joe stood a bit taller. Nancy plucked up her courage. “Wol-wol-wol,” babbled the baby.
“Not now, Max,” Joe warned. “No lollipops.”
“Here, I’ll take him for a while,” Nancy offered. Joe handed the baby to his sister. She bundled him tighter, holding him close to her pounding chest, heartbeat to heartbeat.
The Voice, made only of sound and air, sent goosebumps up and down Nancy’s spine. Joe looked around wildly, trying to find a presence.
It was as if the trees themselves were speaking. “Here my riddle then goes:
Thirty white horses upon a red hill
Now they champ, now they tramp, now they stand still.”
Silence. The only sound was the toothless bite of the wind rattling the last leaves on the trees. Or was it?
Like a long-ago lullaby once sung to them by their birth parents, the twins knew the answer. But it was buried deep, in layers of memory now cobwebby with time.
“Thirty white horses? Could it be a snowstorm?” Nancy guessed.
“Upon a red hill. . . . Clouds at sunset?” Joe ventured.
“Piano keys?” Nancy called out urgently.
Joe thought of the merry-go-round that had serenaded them throughout their orphan years. “Carousel?” He uttered desperately.
With each guess, the Voice howled with laughter, mocking them.
Just when they felt the gloom of despair in the pits of their empty stomachs, the twins came to the answer, shaking off their slumber at the exact same moment.
“Teeth!” they exclaimed simultaneously, solving the riddle.
As though an incantation had been uttered, the twins heard a deafening sound crack open the earth, deep as the pit of noxious beasts they’d narrowly escaped. Up out of that crack grew a massive tree trunk, shaggy and gnarled, wreathed in a rope of ivy. The tree bent; four sinewy limbs sprung from its sides. Rough bark turned to coarse hair, yellow eyes blazed, and the great Beast before them – all teeth – lunged at them with razor-sharp fangs.
In a blinding flash of fangs, Joe and Nancy were knocked senseless to the ground. When the earth stopped spinning, Nancy gasped in disbelief at the sight of her own empty arms. Her head still splitting with lightning pain, she came to realize that something, someone, had been ripped from her. “Max? Where’s Max?” she pleaded.
The monster wolf was gone, but so was . . . the baby!
“Hurry up, Joe!” Nancy urged, still in shock. She struggled to stand, brushed foul-smelling fur from her clothes. “We have to rescue Max!”
But Joe was frantically crawling on hands and knees, desperately searching the underbrush. When he stood, his leaden feet wouldn’t lift to follow his sister. “We can’t! The key! I had it in my hand. But when I fell back, I saw it fly through the air. The note said to guard it with our lives. We can’t just walk away, or we’ll never find our true parents.”
“Then there’s only one way,” Nancy said in an almost whisper.
“Not that. No. Never,” Joe protested. The same blood that ran through Joe’s veins also coursed through Nancy’s heart. In all their eleven years, they’d never been apart, and Joe was not about to split up now.
“Joe! Look!” Nancy yelped, pointing to the arrow on his right little toe. It pointed south, in the direction of the sea.
“That’s it! The key’s been cast to the bottom of the sea.” But no sooner had he spoken, than he peered at the matching red arrow on Nancy’s right toe. For the first time in their lives, it pointed in the opposite direction. North. For the first time in their lives, they’d have to go their own separate ways. Alone. Lone. Lonely.
The twins had no choice but to utter a goodbye.
With no time to waste, Joe turned in the direction of his arrow, determined to find the key. He headed for the sea, the salt sea, salty as an ocean of tears. He knew better than to look back.
But if he had, he would have seen his sister tear a piece of cloth from the hem of her shirt to stanch the bleeding of a deep scratch caused by the monster wolf as it wrenched Baby Max from her arms. He would have seen her pick up the robotic arm, her own left arm dangling useless at her side, three perfect drops of crimson blood trailing behind her.
Nancy herself had no inkling how one menacing scratch had changed everything, to the core of her own Sloppy DNA.
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.”