Wanda, Tim, and Ralphie leapt with joy and ran to greet everyone while Ms. Frizzle took a look at Arnold.
“Oh, Arnold. Tsk, tsk. Maybe you really should have stayed home today,” she said with a soft chuckle, lifting his shirt to examine the bruise. “Ah, broken rib. You didn’t stay quietly by the door like I told you to, did you? This isn’t quite what I mean when I say, ‘take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.'” She gave him a wink and Arnold smiled back weakly. She had a point; this time he’d done it to himself. “Nothing to worry about; I’ll fix it right up with my handy dandy Portable Bone Re-Setter!” She went to pull something out from behind her, but her hand came back empty. Instead, she rubbed her hands together and put a palm flat on his injury, then pushed with a sloppy crack. Arnold sucked in a sharp gasp of air and fell back stiffly. “There, how’s that?”
“That wasn’t a portable anything!” he said as he the pain streaking across his body began to dull. “What did you do!?”
“Your rib was out of place, so I put it back.” She giggled to herself. “And fixed it up a bit, of course. Do you feel better?”
Arnold glanced down at his chest, the bruise miraculously beginning to shrink and fade. “I do, actually.” He sat up on his own and met her gaze. “I… thank you, Ms. Frizzle.”
“Oh, think nothing of it! After all, isn’t it my job to keep you safe?”
Behind them, Wanda, Ralphie, and Tim were excitedly talking to Dorothy Ann and Keesha, all asking questions at the same time with none being answered. Where were you? Does Ms. Frizzle know what’s going on? Where are we now? Where did those doors come from? What’s wrong with Carlos?
Wanda finally broke through the din, shouting, “How did you get here?”
“Oh,” Keesha said, suddenly remembering, “we found Phoebe at the end of the hallway by the door we just came through. You remember that huge purple mansion, Ralphie? She was just waiting there. Where is she now, anyway?”
As if called, Phoebe stepped through the door. “Hello!” A wide grin split her face as closed the door behind her. “I am very happy we are all back together again!”
Ralphie, Tim, and Wanda took a step back. “Ph– Phoebe!?” Tim stuttered. “B– but we saw… you… cave… and the mold–”
“Speaking of mold,” Keesha said, eyeing the three of them, “you guys look terrible. Ralphie, why are you all sweaty? And why are Tim, Wanda, and Arnold coated in dirt?”
“Hey, wait,” Ralphie frowned and crossed his arms. “You guys all abandoned me when I got this gem!” He held it out and Carlos, who had been silently watching from a few steps away, clutched his stomach and took a hesitant step closer. “I woke up on the floor, alone, with you all nowhere to be found. That’s right about when I ran into Ph–”
“What do you mean, ‘abandoned you?’ Ms. Frizzle gave you that thing, said something to you that we couldn’t hear, and then you said you had ‘something to do’ and just left!” Keesha said, exasperated by the accusation. “Ms. Frizzle smiled at our questions but wouldn’t say anything, so we stopped asking and followed her down that little hallway. And there was Phoebe, right by the door. A couple minutes later, here you are again, too.”
“I said what?” Ralphie’s face screwed up in a question mark. He was hopelessly baffled. “I didn’t go anywhere, I woke up on the floor! And I definitely spent more than a couple minutes in that hallway too, but I was only able to check a few of the doors! You walked the whole distance that quickly? What, did you run?”
It was Keesha’s turn to be confused. “The hallway didn’t have that many doors. We had time to check most of them but they were all locked. Ms. Frizzle told us there wasn’t anything ‘of our concern’ behind them anyway.”
“What are you two talking about?” Wanda blurted out.
“Oh, I think we’re going to find out soon enough,” Ms. Frizzled said wearily, looking up at the pitch-black sky. The light illuminating them faded and they were left in absolute darkness. The children cried out and reached blindly for one another when the air split in an eruption of discordance, wails and cackles overwhelming their senses, sending them toppling to the floor in agony. It felt like the whole world was shaking as they slammed into the ground and battered against one another. Through it all, Ms. Frizzle remained standing, a sad smile on her face though none could see it.
And as soon as it began, it stopped. In the silence that followed, a towering ring of fire surrounding an immense mouth faded into being. The mouth opened and thousands of hands rose up and out of its throat, gripping desperately to the lips and cheeks, straining, tearing at the skin. The mouth expanded and gagged as the arms slid out like thick piles of vomit, pulling something along behind them. At first it appeared a huge egg was being retched up, stretching the mouth into horrific shapes. But then the egg opened its pink eyes and stretched its own mouth wide, its blackened gums behind a shredded tongue.
The enormous jaw unhinged and belched the head– followed by a mutilated body– onto the floor before them with a splash, slick and trailing a rotted umbilical cord that lead back down the throat. Its stomach bubbled, bulged, and burst, sending grey intestines sloshing out with plumes of rancid steam. The thousands of arms that rose up out of its shoulders all rolled and popped on their joints. They folded over one another to push the colossal monstrosity up off the ground, more guts spilling out between ribbons of decaying flesh. It leveled its eyes on the class, their faces frozen in the dancing orange and red light.
“OH, HAHA. OH WOW. NO WAY. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S YOU GUYS. EVEN THE LITTLE WHINER IS HERE. NO WAY.”
“Oh no,” whimpered Arnold. “It can’t be–”
The giant screeched out some ghastly imitation of a laugh. One of the thousands of hands raised and snapped its fingers, and everything was as it had been before. No fire ring, no mouth, no rotten nightmare baby. They were lit up again and glancing around to see that everyone was okay. There was, however, someone new.
“Holy moly– is that… Janet!?” Arnold screamed and pointed.
In front of them was Janet, her head thrown back in laughter, her red hair licking out like tongues of flame. “Nothing ‘holy’ about this moly, cousin!” She gave the finger guns and sauntered over, smoothing the shoulders on her dark purple cloak. “I thought that was you that dropped in before, Ralphie. We had a good time down there, eh stud?” She winked as Ralphie paled, the full horror of his experience flooding back to him. “So what’s up, dweebs? Why are you all here?”
The class stood shocked, their brains finally overloading. Ms. Frizzle, on the other hand, stepped forward and simply said, “Hello Janet.”
Janet chuckled to herself, then glared a blazing fury at Ms. Frizzle from behind her glasses. “I don’t like repeating myself, apostate.”
Ms. Frizzle didn’t flinch. “They wanted to know and I felt it was time. I’ve turned them into raindrops, sent them inside each others’ bodies, had them fertilized by live fish; the list goes on. It seems only fair to show them where it comes from. And the heat was positively sweltering today, too.”
Janet flicked a finger and long inky needles sprang up from the ground, piercing through Ms. Frizzle’s torso. Another flick lifted her off her feet and towards Janet. “And I suppose you think you can leave this time? Just take what you want and walk out, no worries, see ya later, have a good one?” Janet clicked her tongue and wagged a finger. “Oooh! Oh my, no! I think a few people still have a choice word or two to run past you, Valerie. Before you have to be off again, of course. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.”
Ms. Frizzle kept smiling even as the needles gave a quick jerk, causing her to slide further down them. “Oh Janet, this was only ever going to be a quick stop-by. Just to check in and make sure you’re eating well.” Her cheek twitched as a needle sank into the soft skin under her chin. “No need to bring up bygones. In fact, I brought a gift for you to make up for lost time. Ralphie, if you would?”
Ralphie did a double take before realizing she was talking to him and opened his hand to show the gem. At the sight of it, Carlos’ whole body lurched and he fell forward onto his face, clutching his stomach and screaming. As the kids turned to look, Carlos launched at the gem, knocking it from Ralphie’s hand and sending them both rolling. Carlos scrambled to swipe it off the ground when Phoebe’s face cracked wide open and spewed out an insect leg as thick as a flag pole, intercepting him. He threw himself into the leg as hard as he could, snapping it at a joint and spraying putrid green fluid across the ground.
The leg retracted into Phoebe’s face with a wet slurp and a leering yellow eye burst into place. Wasp launched Phoebe’s body at the gem just as Carlos dove, and they both landed on it at the same time. They moved to wrestle with one another and then, in a blink, both disappeared.
Janet rolled her eyes. “Oh for the love of– Valerie! Could you please maintain some control over your students!? Your lessons must be losing their edge. Where are their parents, anyway?”
No sooner than Janet had begun to laugh again, Wasp blinked back, alone. It stood with its yellow eye bulging out of Phoebe’s face, staring intently at the gem now lying in her open palm. The class held their breath for a beat as Wasp looked up to regard each of them. When the eye came to rest on Janet, they stared silently for a long moment. Janet lifted an eyebrow and it bolted at her like a whip crack, slamming into her with its entire weight and pinning her to the floor. Wasp brutally forced the gem down Janet’s throat with Phoebe’s entire fist, breaking her teeth and sending spurts of blood mist into the air. Wasp extended its decomposing maw outward, opening wide and nearly splitting Phoebe’s head in two, and belched surging clouds of insects in every direction. It bit down hard on Janet’s face and pumped a geyser of insects into her eyes and nose, thrashing like an alligator in a death roll. The needles fell out of Ms. Frizzle and she floated to the floor gracefully over the chaos of shrieks and insect buzz.
“This probably won’t stick for long, so we should get moving. To the bus!”
“How!?” the children cried in unison as they ran to follow their teacher.
“Ah,” Ms. Frizzle shouted, “getting in is the tricky part– but getting out, well, that’s my specialty!” She stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled with the bus appearing in a fizzling blast of color and sparks. “Come on bus, do your stuff!”
They all piled in and, before Liz had closed the doors on Wasp tearing Janet’s chest open to expel more insects into the sucking cavity, they were already stretching and warping in another fantastical transformation! The bus spun to a blur and the darkness outside brightened until the kids could make out genuine sunshine. As the bus slowed down, their neighborhood became clearer and clearer in the afternoon light.
“Oh no,” shuddered Dorothy Ann. “What about Carlos and Phoebe! Are they–?”
“Not to worry, class!” Ms. Frizzle reached into a hidden cabinet under her seat and pulled out a small box. She opened it and took something out, a bright green glow lighting up her face, before covering the box and replacing it under her seat. Then, she vanished.
The last edges of darkness faded from the bus’s windows when Ms. Frizzle reappeared a moment later with Phoebe and an unconscious Carlos. The children gave a subdued celebration, ready for this trip to finally be over. Everyone ran over to get a closer look at Phoebe and make sure there were no seams running down her face. Satisfied with her humanity, they all sighed in immeasurable relief.
Arnold poked Carlos where he lay on the floor of the bus. “Will he be okay?”
“Er, yes… not to worry. He’s just had a bit of a, ah, reaction to the trip. He’ll be abuzz with energy before you know it!”
Wanda clapped a hand on Tim and Ralphie’s backs as they walked across the parking lot. “Wow, that sure was something, huh?”
“Is it just me, or do you guys feel like you’ve changed,” Ralphie said with his head up. “For the better, I mean.”
“I don’t know what just happened, but I don’t think I’m going to tell my parents about this one,” Tim said weakly, already weighing excuses for his torn shirt.
“I bet you could make some great art out of it,” Ralphie smiled.
“I wonder if Ms. Frizzle will ever bring any of this up again,” Wanda wondered. Ralphie shrugged and Tim crossed his arms over his chest, staring out at the horizon.
Dorothy Ann, Phoebe, and Keesha walked up to the school arm-in-arm. “I’m so happy that’s over with,” DA said with a skip.
“I think I may be dealing with this for a few years,” Keesha said to no one in particular.
“In my old hive, we never had field trips like that!”
Dorothy and Keesha stopped mid-step and stared at Phoebe. “You mean, ‘at your old school,’ right?”
“Yes, yes, of course friends! Old school! Haha, of course.” She shook her head with a playful smile, reaching a finger up to adjust the skin around her eye. A bug crawled from her sleeve and flew off. “This one can be very silly. Shall we continue?” She held out an arm to each of them. Keesha and Dorothy hesitantly took Phoebe’s arms and walked back up to the school.