Read an Excerpt
1 • Scamming the Fat
Virgil’s stomach rumbled like a gastric earthquake, registering somewhere between a 6.7 and 9.4 on the digestive Richter scale. He was starving, but that was only half of it. His belly was also waging a protest against Blimpo’s aptly named Gymnauseum.
No matter where Virgil looked across the strobe-lit gym, the checkered pattern of the walls—painted in Pepto-Bismol pink and vomit-green hues—wobbled in sickening throbs. Between the hunger and the nausea, Virgil’s stomach was currently more active than the rest of his body had ever been.
Like Virgil, the other boys in the bleachers were hunched over with hunger at the sight of their seldom-seen-yet-surprisingly-appetizing vice principals on the raised platform below. It was, apparently, the first time in years that the vice principals had descended from the floating castle that bobbed above Blimpo, tethered to the Circle’s inner courtyard. Virgil could instantly see why. Even the girthy girls perched across the auditorium—normally separated from the boys in Girls’ Blimpo but brought together for this special assembly—were rubbing their distended bellies with want.
The Burgermeister sat imperiously on an over-stuffed, wheat-colored throne. His face was a pinkish-brown gray, as plump and shiny as a roasted frankfurter, with a lattice of crisscrossed marks that made him seem flame broiled. Grease stains darkened his plush, ketchup-colored armrests; his round, pickle-colored head cushion; and the lettuce-green blanket he kept on his lap.
Next to him, melted in a conical chair, was Lady Lactose, a vision of creamy arrogance, patting the vanilla hair scooped high atop her head in soft spirals.
Virgil wiped his drool-slick lips. Teachers, principals, and most every flavor of authority figure usually filled him with dread. But now, as he stared down at the Burgermeister and Lady Lactose, he was filled with the barely controlled urge to tie a bib around his neck and tuck into his vice principals with a fork and a spoon. It was as if he were at the Gobble ’n’ Hobble back home in Dallas, that all-you-can-eat (and more) place that made you sign a waiver before it granted access to its legendary Bonanza Buffet.
The potent aroma of just-grilled hamburger and just-churned ice cream wafted from the stage. Considering the inedible slop the kids were served in the Cafeterium—or as the boys had dubbed it, the Lose-Your-Lunch Room—the smell made Virgil ravenous. And, judging from the bellyaching he heard gurgling from his fellow students, he was not alone.
The Burgermeister slicked back his greasy, poppy-seed-flecked hair until it looked like a rearing tidal wave. He leaned into the microphone set before him.
“Guten morgen, students of Blimpo,” the Burgermeister said as he wiped his oily meat hooks on his checkered lederhosen. “How geht es you all? You wundern vermutlich why you’re here?”
“More like wondering what you just said,” muttered Hugo DeWitt, a boy with a dark crew cut and massive cheeks that nearly swallowed his nose and mouth, seated next to Virgil.
Lady Lactose scowled at the wave of confusion that spread slowly throughout the crowd like a spill soaked up by a paper towel. She tilted the microphone toward her. The pained squeak of the metal reverberated throughout the Gymnauseum.
“May I?” Lady Lactose asked the meaty monarch.
The Burgermeister nodded.
“Of course, my sweet.”
Lady Lactose glared at the baffled boys and girls.
“The Burgermeister and I are very busy pseudo-people, and we didn’t call this assembly to simply chew the fat. If we had, we’d be here all day, by the looks of it.”
A small drip of milk leaked down Lady Lactose’s forehead. The Burgermeister took her hand.
“Try not to lose your cool,” he cautioned.
Lady Lactose sighed and blotted her forehead with a lace napkin.
“What I meant to say . . . children . . . is that the Burgermeister and I have a very special announcement that involves all of you . . . every bit of you, actually.”
She motioned for Dr. Kellogg, a short man just over five feet tall seated nearby, to approach the stage.
Clad completely in white, from his galoshes to his tie, Dr. Kellogg took each step in spry little jumps. Even his hair and goatee gleamed as white and shiny as vanilla Frostee-Freeze. He hopped up onto the stage.
“Children, your beloved health education teacher,” Lady Lactose announced.
Dr. Kellogg raised a megaphone to his whiskery chin. “Good day, students,” he said with elfish vigor. “You are about to become part of a great experiment, a new chapter not only for Blimpo, but also for Heck—perhaps, even, for all of the underworld!”
He clapped his white-gloved hands. The double doors on either side of the Gymnauseum burst open. A team of demons in white laboratory smocks heaved nine massive objects covered in gray tarps toward the stage.
“Thank you, diligent yet forsaken creatures!” the doctor declared as the demons grumbled and skulked away.
Dr. Kellogg beamed.
“In an attempt to liberate ourselves from the Transdimensional Power Grid and from our dependence on fickle paranormal energy sources, we—the vice principals and I—have uncovered a new source of power.”
A skinny man in white greasepaint and a black-and-white striped shirt crept from behind the thrones of the Burgermeister and Lady Lactose.
“That must be the vice principals’ flunky, the French Fried Fool,” Hugo muttered to Virgil, licking his lips.
The French Fried Fool smiled, accentuating his expression by framing his face with open, wriggling hands. Golden, deep-fried dreadlocks peeked out from beneath his harlequin cap.
“Yes, Fool,” Lady Lactose said loudly and slowly, as if the man’s silence was a medical condition that affected his ability to hear and discern. “You may have the honor—”
The French Fried Fool hopped into the air like a flea on a hot plate. Lady Lactose raised her fudge-tinted eyebrows as he put his gloved fingers in his mouth, drew in a deep exaggerated breath, and then pretended to whistle.
Eight men dressed just like the French Fried Fool flounced into the Gymnauseum. Each stopped in front of one of the mysterious concealed objects and walked in place. The French Fried Fool dove off the stage and took his place beside the ninth tarp-covered thingamajig. Dr. Kellogg raised the megaphone to his mouth.
“And this new energy source is . . . ,” he declared with a grand, sweeping gesture as the group of fools yanked off the tarps.
“. . . you.”
Virgil leaned closer, hoping that a few inches might help him make out what the odd contraptions were. They didn’t.
The gray metal machines resembled human-sized hamster wheels set within huge circular cast-iron enclosures. They opened slowly on either side, their walls like big pie tins, until the sides rested on the Gymnauseum floor. The machines reminded Virgil of the tire-shaped carrying case he used to tote his Hot Wheels around in when he was a little kid, back when he was alive.
“Behold, the DREADmills,” Dr. Kellogg said as one end of his thin mouth curled up with secret amusement. “Dynamic Regenerative Energy Accumulation Devices. The focus of Blimpo’s new Fatness to Fitness Center!”
A large dark girl with a kinky orange-brown halo of hair shot her hand up.