1 What Lies Ahead?
Being a boy feels really weird, Marlo thought as she dangled her brother’s gross feet off the backseat of the stagecoach taking her to Fibble, the circle of Heck for kids who lie. Her borrowed body felt alternately simpler and more complicated—frustrating in its sheer, dull straightforwardness. Just like boys, she reflected. Marlo tried her best not to overanalyze the skin she ached to jump out of: just thinking about being her younger brother, Milton—at least on the outside—made her skin crawl. Or his. Whatever.
Marlo was still fuzzy on the particulars of her current situation, but flashes of what had happened, and who she truly was, floated to the top of her brain like the cryptic messages of a Magic 8 Ball. She remembered graduating from Madame Pompadour’s Infernship program and becoming Satan’s Girl Friday the Thirteenth. Then she remembered Milton—though for some reason, at the time, she’d had no idea that the little twerp hopping around in his Stargate Atlantis underwear was her brother—storming the Surly Gates of h-e-double-hockey-sticks with Annubis, the dog god, and dragging her from her Deceptionist post to the Break Down Room with Principal Bubb and her demon guards in hot pursuit, before drugging her with a moldy cheese sandwich.
It was here that things got a little strange.
When Marlo had come to, she hadn’t felt quite . . . herself. Annubis had once presided over Heck’s Assessment Chamber, where souls were weighed on the Scales of Justice, so he had the power to pluck people’s spiritual essence from their bodies with his bare paws. He must have switched Milton’s soul with mine, Marlo presumed. To what end, Marlo could not be sure. But as she dredged the sludgy slough of her mind—still yawning and stretching from its peculiar nap—Marlo knew that her little brother was essentially a good kid, so whatever Milton’s specific intent, his heart was sure to be in the right place (even if his soul wasn’t). Marlo also knew that Milton had an ulcer, not because of any prior knowledge as his sister, but because of the waves of pain radiating from the pit of Milton’s stomach.
The man sitting across from her in the musty stagecoach coughed. He leered at her with a freaky smirk: a knowing grin that was totally one-sided.
“How long are we going to play this little game?” the old, dough-faced man said as he ran his fingers through his slicked-back hair. Marlo swallowed down the bile that kept creeping up her throat.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” she replied in her brother’s squeaky voice. “And I’m not afraid of anything.”
The man laughed mirthlessly.
“You could have fooled me,” he said, training his beady black eyes on Marlo. “You seemed plenty afraid back in Limbo.”
Her stomach suddenly felt as if it housed an unchaperoned, all-ages dance club. He must have been some teacher in Limbo, Marlo speculated. One of Milton’s teachers . . . and that’s who he thinks I am, naturally, because that’s who I am. But I can’t blow my cover, or else I’ll screw up whatever Milton has planned.
“Yeah, of course I remember you . . . sir,” Marlo replied. “You were my, um, teacher. Back in Limbo.”
The stagecoach shuddered. The hoofbeats of the Night Mares pulling the carriage clattered uncertainly before regaining their confident rhythm.
The man squinted so hard at Marlo that it looked as if the bags beneath his eyes would burst.
“What’s my name, then?” he asked, suspiciously, as he leaned in close to Marlo and stared into her borrowed hazel eyes.
“What, did you forget?” Marlo replied, using her patent-pending “tact-evasion” technique. “Didn’t your momma sew it in the lining of your jacket?”
“I can tell you’re covering up something,” the man spat back. “I can see it in your—”
Suddenly, the stagecoach bumped and shook so violently that the old man slammed his head into the top of the carriage.
“Oww!” he yelped as the demon driver—a swollen, bespectacled creature with goat horns and a white goatee rimmed around his orange duck bill—leaned into the carriage.
“Are you injured, Mr. Nixon?” the demon quacked. “I mean, Mr. President, sir.”
Mr. Nixon rubbed the swirling slick of hair atop his head.
“Pardon me, Mr. Nixon?” Marlo said, making Milton’s voice smugger than it had ever sounded before. “You were saying that you saw something in my oww?”
Mr. Nixon’s ashen face flushed red.
“I pardon no one! I’m the one that gets pardoned!”
The stagecoach fishtailed wildly, sending Marlo and Mr. Nixon crashing to the floor. The carriage skidded to a stop. Marlo crawled up off the floor and gazed out the window.
They were on the edge of a vast, frozen mound of water that shimmered weakly beneath the filmy crust. The swollen sea of frost resembled a massive Hostess Sno Ball dipped in crystal. Studding the distended icy knoll were clumps of scraggly bushes that—when rustled by the breeze—almost seemed to . . . talk. What they said, Marlo couldn’t make out. It just sounded like yammering nonsense.
Marlo pushed open the door and hopped onto the ice, steadying herself with the carriage. The horizon was clogged with a thick, gently seething bank of sparkling pea-soup smoke. The glimmering, billowing murk spewed from a towering structure in the distance perched atop the summit of the swollen, frozen sea.
Through a fleeting crack in the clouds Marlo could see that the structure was a cluster of grand, gaudy tents propped up on massive, swaying stilts. The wound in the cloud bank quickly healed, leaving Marlo dazzled, disoriented, and wanting to disgorge whatever her brother had last eaten all over his freaky skinny-long feet.
Mr. Nixon moaned as he rose from the floor. He crouched through the open stagecoach door, waving “V” for victory signs at the nonexistent crowd that roared in his mind, and joined Marlo. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Fibble: The Fourth Circle of Heck by Dale E. Basye; illustrated by Bob Dob. Copyright © 2011 by Dale E. Basye. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.