When Lily Gefelty got out of bed on the morning of the big game, she looked out the window to see what kind of a day it was going to be. She discovered that it was the kind of day when a million beetles crawl out of the ground and swarm the streets, forecasting evil.
She didn’t know about the evil yet, of course. She just saw the million beetles, brown and restless, dropping from trees and mobbing fire hydrants. She was not usually disgusted by beetles or anything else. But these did not seem natural.
She went to look up beetles online. Her eyes narrowed. She blew her bangs off her face. No question: It wasn’t the time of year for beetles.
No, not the time of year for beetles—but as it turned out, it was indeed the time of year for evil. On that fall day, a white van had rolled into town, filled with wickedness. It had turned off the highway at dawn. It headed for Lily’s school. It was headed for the town of Pelt’s big game.
Quite often, when evil comes to town, animals get restless. Horses whinny. Dogs bark at the windows. Dolphins hide their shiny pates and chitter. And in this case, the bugs, which had just settled down for the winter, crawled back out of their dens, filled with unease.
Of course, Lily didn’t know that evil was in a white van, ordering sausage egg croissants at an O’Dermott’s drive-thru. Neither did her friend Katie Mulligan, who knew a thing or two about evil.
When Katie and Lily were dropped off at the school gym, where the day’s big match was going to take place, Katie complained, “These beetles are disgusting,” kicking a few out of the way as she stepped out of her mom’s car. The hard little bugs rolled a few times and skittered into a sewage drain.
“It’s like a plague,” said Lily, watching the beetles shiver.
“Are waterproof shoes also anti-beetle?” asked Katie, lifting her heels. “I mean, do they fend beetles off?”
“I don’t know,” said Lily.
“Shoes,” said Katie, “should come with a complete fending list. ‘These shoes fend the following.’”
Lily was thoughtful. “It’s pretty late in the fall for beetles.”
“Oh, lordy,” said Katie. “I hope that these beetles aren’t signs of a coming evil.”
“Hello, chums!” called Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, crunching across the school lawn in Wellington boots. “What-ho and tippy tippy dingle and all.”
“Eww, Jasper,” said Katie, “you’re crunching on june bugs.”
Jasper inspected the soles of his boots. “Aha,” he said. “I had noticed a jaunty crispness to my stride this morning.”
“Um, Jasper,” said Lily, “do you have lead weights taped to your eyelids?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Jasper. With a show of great concentration, he held out his arms, puffed out his breath, and slowly raised and lowered his lids. “I want every muscle in my body to be ready for the big match today.”
“Who’re you playing against?” asked Lily.
“The Delaware team. From Edgar R. Burroughs High in distant Ogletown, Delaware: Dela ware’s state champions. They are, frankly,” he said, lowering his lids and raising them again, “frankly supposed to be terrors. I do not mind telling you, they have left the wreckage of many another school’s athletic department in their wake. Mothers weeping on the bleachers.”
“Wow,” said Katie. “You’ve really gotten into this, haven’t you? I never knew you were so into sports.”
“A healthy mind in a healthy body,” said Jasper. “That is what I strive for.” His lids opened and closed, opened and closed.
Pelt—where Jasper, Katie, and Lily lived—was not a very exciting place. It was a small town with a library, police department, some old Victorian houses covered in aluminum siding, and a street of failing stores down near the docks. To pep up business on Main Street, store owners had put mannequins out on the sidewalk, advertising dusty sweaters or pillbox hats, but the mannequins were just assaulted by gulls.
There was not much to do in Pelt. There was a museum in town, but it wasn’t very exciting. Its main exhibits were on how people used to churn butter. Now, I have enjoyed my share of incredibly dull museums,* but even I found the Pelt Museum unbearable. No one really went there except third-grade field trips during their “Making of Margarine” unit. There was also an opera house in town, but it was closed and dogs lived there. At night, sighing came from the upper windows.
Given that there was not much to do in Pelt, people cared a lot about the schools’ drama clubs and athletic teams. Sporting events were very well attended, and before big matches, games, and meets everyone put signs on their lawns cheering on the Pelt teams. The Pelt Observer always ran big stories about competitions with nearby towns.
Unfortunately, most of the Pelt athletic teams were not very good. It was a small town with a small high school and junior high, so there weren’t many athletes to draw from. Their best pitcher, for example, had broken his arm playing football the previous season.
Perhaps this is why the town had become so fanatical about their competitive staring matches. Pelt’s high school varsity Stare-Eyes team was well on its way to becoming state champion.
The rules were simple: Pair people off to stare at each other’s faces. First person to blink or smile loses. As is said of many games: a moment to learn, a lifetime to master.
Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, could stare like no one else. The Pelt school system had even gone so far as to recruit him as one of their key players, even though he actually wasn’t in school anymore, having received his Ph.D. in Ægyptology some years before.
Jasper was the hero of a series of largely forgotten adventure stories for boys in which he invented startling devices and rolled up his sleeves to plunge into adventure from dizzying heights. His powers of staring were almost super human. This is because, in the course of Jasper Dash and the Sponge-Cake of Zama, he had spent almost a year studying meditation and martial arts at a secret mountaintop monastery in somewhere like Nepal or Tibet. Now he stared like a force of nature. He could remain unmoving for hours. No one had ever out-stared him.
I should mention that Katie Mulligan was also the star of her own series—the Horror Hollow Series—which took place in Horror Hollow, a small, deeply haunted suburb of Pelt. Katie was brave and outspoken, especially when confronting algae that needed to be told off or blood-sucking babysitters climbing down the neighbors’ walls with tots in their arms.
Lily Gefelty, the third friend in this little group, did not appear in any series of books except for this one, and for that reason she was shier than her friends. She observed things constantly and thought complicated things about what she saw. She watched through her long bangs, blowing them out of the way when there was something she wanted to inspect particularly closely. She admired her friends and wanted their series to become famous again, even though Katie’s books were a few years out of date and Jasper’s books were now sold mainly in large sets to J. P. Barnigan’s American Family Restaurants, a mall chain that purchased books with matching bindings so they could put them up on shelves next to old-time football helmets, oars, snowshoes, cricket bats, parasols, and rustic apple-peelers. This created a mood of hearty, antique good cheer. Often I have skimmed through the titles of the Jasper Dash series while eating J. P. Barnigan’s deep-fried Onion Tumbleweed (appetizer) and drinking a pint of flat Cherry Coke.
Lily yearned for adventure. Though she loved her little town with her whole heart and both of her lungs, sometimes she wished that she could go to exciting places and take part in exciting events like her friends. She had never explored the basements of Inca temples like Jasper or been hunted through the bayous of Louisiana by the panting, fanged Rougarou like Katie on Labor Day weekend. Lily was a little frightened of those things—were-beasts and booby traps—but she wanted to be by the side of her two friends, leading a life less drab than Pelt’s, meeting new people, seeing the world, enthusing about its strangeness and variety. Indeed, though she didn’t know it, she was about to have an adventure with her friends that would take her to the far ends of the earth.
And what did our heroes look like? A good question in any age. Katie was blond and burned easily. Lily was a little stockier than Katie and wore clothes that hid most of her. Jasper looked like the outline on the GO CHILDREN SLOW sign, that is:
and in fact had been the model for that sign. It had been one of the proudest moments of his career, for he had a deep and abiding hatred of all traffic infractions and jaywalking.
It is of course the oldGO CHILDREN SLOW sign on which he had appeared, not to be confused with:
which showed Jasper’s archenemy, interdimensional criminal Bobby Spandrel, whose spherical, silver, featureless head was said to contain just one giant eyeball and whose empty cuffs shot forth photons and flames.*
The only eyeballs on display at the moment, however, were Jasper’s own, as he stared with disturbing intensity at his two friends, holding open his weighted lids. “This contest against the Delaware team might well be the greatest struggle our school’s athletic department has ever seen.”
Lily asked, “Have your practices been going well?” She was always good at asking her friends questions when they were dying to talk.
Jasper nodded. “In the last two weeks, indeed, our ragtag band of blinkers and yawners has become a family—and a tightly knit fighting force, when need be. Coach Meyers has seen to that. He has been stern but caring.”
“You mean Doctor Meyers?” said Katie. “The optometrist?”
“He is a fierce but fair man. He knows with almost a sixth sense when our corneas are losing their sap.”
“He did a good job teaching me to put in my contacts,” said Lily. “He told me that putting them in was an art, not a science.”
“So, um, with the team,” said Katie, “Choate Brinsley is the captain now, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is.”
“What’s he like? Super nice?”
Jasper shrugged, dislodging a beetle that had landed on his shoulder. “He’s a sportsman and a gentleman,” he said.
Lily watched Katie closely. She knew that Katie had a crush on Choate Brinsley.
Jasper mentioned, “I went to Choate’s house recently for a rousing game of electronical soccer. He has a device that plays soccer on a screen.”
“You went to his house?” exclaimed Katie. “What was it like?”
Jasper shrugged and considered. “Sound, though hard to defend from the west. To truly make it attack-proof, you’d have to have folding metallic adamantine shutters that slammed down over the glass doors in the kitchen.”
“I mean, what was his room like? Did he have any pictures up?”
Jasper looked bewildered. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said. “I really have to go. It’s time to get into our uniforms.”
“Okay,” said Katie. “But what were the pictures in his room?”
“There was a movie poster,” said Jasper. “I really must go. Beetles are crawling on my duffel bag.” He shook the bag. Insects flopped onto the sidewalk. “Until later, chums?”
Lily held out her hand. “On the field of battle,” she said.
Jasper smiled, grasped her hand, and shook it. “On the field of battle,” he said, then saluted, turned, and jogged toward the gym doors.
“I can’t believe he didn’t tell me he went to Choate’s house,” said Katie.
“Look at the beetles,” said Lily.
“I’m tired of looking at the beetles,” said Katie.
“They’re going away,” said Lily.
Katie turned and inspected the school parking lot. It was true. Suddenly, the beetles were trundling into holes. Some dug furiously with their little pincers. Some slipped into the bark of trees. Some wedged themselves between bricks.
Other cars were pulling up by the curb and kids were getting out. They didn’t seem to notice that the morning’s insect plague was almost over.
Beetles whirred through the air. They landed near their nesting places. They hid. They seemed terrified.
“I wonder why they’re all going away?” said Katie.
Lily hunkered down and watched a line of ladybugs flee into a storm drain.
There was a screech of tires from the street. Lily and Katie looked up. A white van had turned into the parking lot. The windows were tinted.
By the time it pulled into a spot, bucked back out, and pulled in at a better angle, there was not a beetle to be seen. The plague was over. But the danger was just beginning.
* The Joliet Insulation Museum. The Syracuse Burn-Pit. The Unsteady Walking Hall of Fame.
* Faithful readers will know that Jasper defeated Bobby Spandrel’s evil, pernicious plans in such novels as Jasper Dash and the Cowpoke Caper, Jasper Dash in the Bladder-Jungles of Venus,Jasper Dash’s Far-Out Hippie Adventure,Jasper Dash and the Hydrogen Snails of Pluto, and Jasper Dash and His Resounding Electric Handshake. Whether he met Bobby Spandrel in Cairo, Egypt, or Cairo, Kentucky, Jasper always managed to smash his way into Spandrel’s secret headquarters and short-circuit the villain’s laser-guns before Spandrel and his evil crew blew up Fort Knox or knocked down the Eiffel Tower or kidnapped a spaceship of Martian orphans or carved Bobby Spandrel’s spherical likeness into the side of Mount Rushmore beside the presidents’ faces.
© 2009 M. T. Anderson