They had been walking for quite a while before Wanda and Arnold began to worry that they’d never find the bus – or anyone, for that matter – ever again. The stayed close enough that their shoulders touched, making no noise beyond the occasional sniff or sigh. Wanda kept her eyes fixed straight ahead while Arnold looked about, hopeful – and equally terrified – that he might catch a glimpse of something. The silence stretched on.”So, uhh,” Arnold said very quietly, as not to surprise Wanda, “Do you think we’re getting close?”
Wanda didn’t break her gaze into the darkness. “Yeah, maybe. Maybe. Maybe Phoebe will be there, too. Maybe the whole class will be there.”
“Wanda, I don’t know about–”
“Maybe this is all a lesson! Yeah, some kind of lesson. It’ll all make sense. We’ll learn all about it when we get back and find Ms. Frizzle. She’s sure to be there, I just know it.”
“Wanda, I really don’t… I don’t think we should be making assumptions.”
She blinked and looked at him with disgust, her lip pulled up into a sneer. “Why are you being like this? Why do you always have to be so hopeless? Why can’t you just try and think positively? What’s wrong with you!?”
Arnold was taken aback. “I’m not hopeless, I just don’t think this is a lesson. I don’t think anyone will be at the bus, if we even find it. Why are you being so mean? We need a plan for if nothing is there. We need to be prepared.”
“A ‘plan?’ From you? Hah! That’s rich. I think you’re just mad that I’m right and you’re wrong, you big wimp.”
“Wanda…” Arnold motioned downwards with his eyes. She was clutching his wrist so tightly, the skin was turning white. She pulled away and crossed her arms.
“Listen to me, you baby. Don’t start getting any–”
“Shut up. Stop. Talking.”
“What the…? Arnold! What’s going on with you!?”
Arnold held his hand up to shush her when he heard it again. It was like a scratching noise, or like something shuffling across the floor. Wanda heard it too and they stood in silence, trying to locate the noise.
“Wanda,” Arnold whispered so quietly, he could barely hear himself. “The humming stopped.” It was true. No droning hum accompanied them, but neither of them could pinpoint the moment it faded. The danger of the quiet scraping felt much more immediate.
Arnold leaned in close to Wanda’s ear. “Let’s check it out. Slowly.” Wanda gave him a surprised look but nodded anyway, and they inched their way toward the sound. As they got closer, the air got colder, clammier. Their clothes clung miserably to their numbing bodies, making their movements unsteady in the dizzying emptiness. Arnold had to clench his jaw as hard as he could to keep his teeth from chattering.
An outline took shape in the distance; they exchanged a nod and continued to creep forward. It was short and facing away from them. Sitting? It was a person, sniffling and wiping their nose. Wanda choked. “Oh my gosh… is that… but how…?”
Tim spun around, his eyes wide with fear, and fell over himself trying to run to them.
“Tim, what are you doing?” Arnold took a step back as Tim bounded at him and Wanda, throwing a hand over their mouths.
He made a silent shushing face and leaned in to whisper. “Don’t talk.” He took his hands away and displayed a rip in his shirt, the skin beneath scratched but not bleeding. He pointed out into the dark and stared for a while, listening. Then he turned back to them and made a weird face, contorting his body in a way that didn’t really look like anything. Arnold thought it looked like an uppercase letter Q. Wanda thought he was trying to give directions, like a bee. They both shrugged at him.
Tim looked at them nervously, then back in that same direction into the distance. He paced a few steps back and forth before bolting upright with a finger in the air. He took out his wallet, producing a sticky note and a pencil. He scribbled something as fast as his stiff fingers would allow and handed it to them.
monster that way
tracks by sound
They read the note, gave a panicked look to each other, and both reached for Tim’s pencil at the same time, sending it bouncing between their hands. Wanda won the scramble and wrote quickly.
Where is the bus?
She handed it back to Tim and he shrugged, pointing out in the same direction once again. He took the pencil and added:
that way I think
Their panic heightened. Arnold swiped the pencil from Tim’s hand.
monster??? do we have any other options???
I dont know
where’s ms. frizzle?
Arnold and Wanda both shrugged and shook their heads. So there was no choice left, really. Either try to find the bus past the monster or, what, wander around looking for something else? Some other horrible thing or a door that will eat them? Arnold shook from head to toe, and Wanda didn’t look too happy about the plan either, but they both nodded in agreement. They looked to Tim, who slid his hands down his face in disbelief but gave a hesitant nod. Arnold pointed for Tim to lead the way, but he refused and pushed Arnold forward instead.
Arnold hunched down slightly, thinking that was what a ninja might do in this situation, and advanced with Wanda behind him and Tim in the back. They moved in complete silence.
Slowly, very slowly, the hum returned.
It initially felt distant, rumbling endlessly like a stampede but, over time, it increased in force until it was as loud as when they’d first gotten off the bus. Tim froze for a moment before continuing forward, scanning in every direction so quickly that Arnold wasn’t sure he would notice even if something was there.
The hum leveled out and Arnold increased the pace. Something shone in the distance and Arnold perked up. The bus’s headlights? They did it! As he was about to tell the other two, the distant shining distorted and started moving. Maybe the bus is coming to us, he thought. He turned around to look at Wanda and whispered, “Did you see–”
The humming intensified drastically, vibrating Arnold’s eyes in their sockets. Tim crouched down into a ball and held his hands over his nose and mouth, eyes shut tight, going completely still. Wanda held her hands over her hears, falling to her knees. Arnold focused through the vibrations, seeing that same shimmer now much closer, circling smoothly around them. It slid up closer to him, barely coming into sight, and he gasped despite himself. It was slick, reflecting oily rainbows in the faint light. It had a larger glob at the top and a main mass of thin, inky tendrils, all tangled up in itself like a pair of headphones.
One of the ropes broke away from the mass with a sucking sound and shot out at Arnold, wrapping around his leg with a grip so strong and cold he was sure his foot would shatter off. It ripped him off the ground and held him, dangling upside-down in front of the large blob that Arnold could only guess was its head. His eyes watered and nose burned from the smell of it. The humming raised in pitch as two translucent sacs inflated out of the sides of the glob’s head, blowing up like bubbles, pulsating and quivering in a breeze Arnold could not feel.
The sacs became still for a moment and the head glided smoothly from side to side, folding and sucking in on itself like a ball of hot tar. Then the head slid around the main tangled body of the creature, spiraling up and down knots of tendrils. The head came to rest back in front of Arnold’s face, bubbling and popping, spraying bits of itself on his clothes. The roiling head sizzled and burst until it separated, the two halves yawning to reveal an enormous mouth. Arnold could see the throat expand bottomlessly, a gentle intake of air whistling past his ears. Then, “DO YOU WANT TO COME OVER TONIGHT!?”
Arnold squinted his eyes against the cacophony of rancid air and deafening words erupting from the creature. “I HAVE A TELEVISION AND MY MOM IS COOL WITH NO BEDTIMES,” the monstrosity continued, it’s featureless face open and motionless as it bellowed. “DO YOU WANT TO COME HANG OUT!?”
It tossed Arnold to the side, a dull snap sounding as his body hit the floor. The creature picked up Wanda by her hair, her fingers tearing at its grip as her feet left the ground. “I HAVE THREE KINDS OF ICE CREAM AND LOTS OF SODA! CAN YOU BE THERE BY SEVEN O’CLOCK!?” Wanda could feel a blistering heat behind her eyes as she desperately tried to loosen from its tendril, her scalp in agony. “MY DAD SAYS WE CAN PLAY A GAME ON HIS XBOX!” Another of its tendrils slithered across the floor toward Tim, still motionless and barely breathing.
Pain and confusion flooded Wanda’s senses, her consciousness slipping. Just as the black edges of her vision threatened to close in completely, she felt a great impact and rush of wind just next to her, and she was suddenly face down on the ground. Screeching tires and a familiar “Beep Beep!” brought her back to her feet. She was already running to Arnold before the stars had finished streaking through vision.
“Arnold! Arnold, are you okay!?” As she came to him, he was twisted in an unnatural position but didn’t appear to be bleeding. “Arnold, we have to go! Please, Arnold!” She rolled him onto his back and his eyes opened slightly. In an instant they shot open and he grabbed for his side with a grimace, immediately pulling his hands back and grunting in pain.
“Agh! Ah… I think…” his hands tensed over his side but didn’t touch the spot. “I think I broke something… YAHH!” Wanda was already pulling him up and throwing his arm over her shoulders.
“You can whine later! We have to get on the bus!”
Wanda pointed her free hand towards their school bus, its front end smashed in over the headlight, a violent splash of black leaking down the hood. Nearby, the creature untangled, softening into a puddle and wheezing as clouds of acrid steam billowed around it. To the side, Tim had snapped out of it and was running for the safety of the bus. As they approached, the hum paused momentarily for a beat of calm before erupting in volume and tones, like a fist slammed onto a church organ. The bus doors sprang open and the children felt the first hint of relief they’d had for what felt like days.
Sitting confidently in the driver’s seat was Liz, sporting a tiny leather jacket and a giving the thumbs-up.
She closed the door behind the kids, quieting the dissonant hum that leaked in from beyond. Wanda and Tim gave her a smile before remembering Arnold’s injury. He let out a yelp while sliding into a seat and Tim lifted up his shirt to take a look. There was an oblong bruise spreading across the side of his chest, swollen and purple-black. Something poked up against the skin from beneath.
Tim gave a whistle. Wanda worried from over his shoulder, turning to look back outside. Just at the edge of visibility, countless shimmers floated around the periphery of the bus.
“Oh no… Liz! We have to get out of here!” Wanda’s urgency made Liz jump in surprise. “Liz, now! We have to go!”
“Go where!?” groaned Arnold.
“Anywhere, just GO!” Wanda hurled herself under the driver’s seat and pushed her weight on the accelerator, lurching the bus forward and sending Tim reeling backwards down the aisle. The bus squealed and launched into motion, blowing through a few of the indecipherably-shaped creatures and sending their masses splashing and splintering across the windshield, one of them screaming something about a new hot tub. Soon the hum faded behind them, leaving nothing but a shocked silence and the rumbling of the engine as they pitched directionless into the dark.