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By Elise Broach, Kelly Murphy
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Elise Broach
All rights reserved.
A Family Emergency
Home, for Marvin's family, was a damp corner of the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. Here, a leaking pipe had softened the plaster and caused it to crumble away. Just behind the wall, Marvin's family had hollowed out three spacious rooms, and, as his parents often remarked, it was a perfect location. It was warm, because of the hot-water pipes embedded in the wall; moist, to make burrowing easy; and dark and musty, like all the other homes the family had lived in. Best of all, the white plastic wastebasket that loomed on one side offered a constant litter of apple cores, bread crumbs, onion skins, and candy wrappers, making the cupboard an ideal foraging ground.
Marvin and his relatives were beetles. They had shiny black shells, six legs, and excellent night vision. They were medium-sized, as beetles go, not much bigger than a raisin. But they were very agile: good at climbing walls, scurrying across countertops, and slipping under closed doors. They lived in the large apartment of a human family, the Pompadays, in New York City.
One morning, Marvin awoke to find the household in an uproar. Usually the first sounds of the day were the gentle rustlings of his parents in the next room and, in the distance, the clank of pots in the Pompaday kitchen sink. But today he heard the frantic clicking of Mrs. Pompaday's high heels, and her voice, anxious and shrill. Just as he was beginning to wonder what had happened, his mother came looking for him in a great hurry.
"Marvin!" she cried. "Come quickly, darling! We have an emergency."
Marvin crawled out of the soft cotton ball that was his bed and, still only half-awake, followed her into the living room. There, his father, his uncle Albert, and his cousin Elaine were deep in conversation. Elaine ran to him and grabbed one of his legs.
"Mrs. Pompaday has lost her contact lens! Down the bathroom sink! And since you're the only one who knows how to swim, we need you to fish it out!"
Marvin drew back in surprise, but his cousin continued happily. "Oh! What if you drown?"
Marvin was not nearly as thrilled at this prospect as Elaine. "I won't drown," he said firmly. "I'm a good swimmer."
He'd practiced swimming for almost a month now, in an old juice bottle cap filled with water. He was the only member of his entire family who could swim, a skill his parents both marveled at and took credit for.
"Marvin has exceptional coordination, such fine control over his legs," Mama often remarked. "It reminds me of my days in the ballet."
"When he sets his mind to something, there's no stopping him," Papa would add smugly. "He's a chip off the old block."
But right now, these words were little comfort to Marvin. Swimming in a bottle cap was one thing — it was half an inch deep. Swimming inside a drainpipe was something else altogether. He paced the room nervously.
Mama was talking to Uncle Albert, looking mad. "Well, I should think not!" she exclaimed. "He's just a child. I say let the Pompadays call a plumber."
Papa shook his head. "It's too risky. If a plumber goes poking around in there, he'll see that the wall is rotting away. He'll say they need to replace it, and that'll be the end of Albert and Edith's home."
Uncle Albert nodded vigorously and beckoned to Marvin. "Marvin, my boy, what do you say? You'll have to go down the bathroom pipe and find that contact lens. Think you can handle it?"
Marvin hesitated. Mama and Papa were still arguing. Now Papa looked at him unhappily. "I'd go myself, son — you know I would — if I could swim."
"No one can swim like Marvin," Elaine declared. "But even Marvin may not be able to swim well enough. There's probably a lot of water in that pipe by now. Who knows how far down he'll have to go?" She paused dramatically. "Maybe he'll never make it back up to the surface."
"Hush, Elaine," said Uncle Albert.
Marvin grabbed the fragment of peanut shell that he used as a float when he swam in his own pool at home. He took a deep breath.
"I can try, at least," he said to his parents. "I'll be careful."
"Then I'm going with you," Mama decided, "to make sure you aren't foolhardy. And if it looks the least bit dangerous, we won't risk it."
And so they set off for the Pompadays' bathroom, with Uncle Albert leading the way. Marvin followed close behind his mother, the peanut shell tucked awkwardly under one of his legs.CHAPTER 2
Down the Drain
It took them a fair bit of time to reach the bathroom. First they had to crawl out of the cupboard into the bright morning light of the Pompadays' kitchen. There, baby William was banging on his high chair with a spoon, scattering Cheerios all over the floor. Ordinarily, the beetles might have waited in the shadows to snatch one and carry it off for lunch, but today there were more important tasks ahead. They scuttled along the baseboard to the living room, and then began the exhausting journey over the Oriental rug, which at least was dark blue, so they didn't have to worry about being seen.
All the way to the bathroom, Marvin could hear Mr. and Mrs. Pompaday yelling at each other.
"I don't understand why you can't just take the pipe apart and find it," Mrs. Pompaday complained. "That's what Karl would have done." Karl was Mrs. Pompaday's first husband.
"You take the pipe apart and find it. And flood the bathroom. Then we'll have to replace more than your contact lens," Mr. Pompaday fumed. He stomped to the phone. "I'm calling a plumber."
"Oh, fine," said Mrs. Pompaday. "He'll take all day to get here. I have to leave for work in twenty minutes, and I won't be able to find my way to the door without my contact lenses."
James, Mrs. Pompaday's son from her first marriage, stood in the doorway. He was ten years old, a thin boy with big feet, serious gray eyes, and a scattering of freckles across his cheeks. He would be eleven tomorrow, and Marvin and his family had been trying to think of something nice to do for his birthday, since they infinitely preferred him to the rest of the Pompaday family. He was quiet and reasonable, unlikely to make sudden movements or raise his voice.
Seeing him now, Marvin remembered how James had caught sight of him once, a few weeks ago, when Marvin was dragging home an M&M he'd found for the family dessert. Marvin had been so excited about his good luck that he'd forgotten to stay close to the baseboard. There he was, out in the open sea of cream-colored tile in the kitchen, when James's blue sneaker stopped alongside him. Marvin panicked, dropped the M&M, and ran for his life. But James only crouched down and watched him, never saying a word.
Marvin hadn't told his parents about that particular close call. He'd vowed to himself that he'd be more careful in the future.
Now James shifted thoughtfully on those same blue sneakers. "You could wear your glasses, Mom," he said.
"Oh, fine," said Mrs. Pompaday. "Wear my glasses. Fine. I guess it doesn't matter what I look like when I meet clients. Maybe I should just go to work in my bathrobe."
By this time, Uncle Albert, Marvin, and his mother had reached the door of the bedroom, and the bathroom lay just beyond. Unfortunately, the three humans were effectively blocking the route. Three jittery pairs of feet — one in sneakers, one in high heels, and one in loafers — made it hard to find a safe path.
"Stay close to me," Mama told Marvin. She hurried along the door frame. Dodging the spikes of Mrs. Pompaday's heels, Marvin and Uncle Albert followed.
They made it up the bathroom wall to the sink without mishap. Normally, the light tile would have made them easy targets for a rolled-up newspaper or the bottom of a slipper.
But the Pompadays were so engrossed in their argument that they didn't notice three shiny black beetles scrambling onto the sink.
"I'll keep a lookout," Uncle Albert said. "You two go ahead."
Marvin and his mother tumbled and slid down the smooth side of the sink to the drain. They ducked under the silver stopper and stood on the edge of the open pipe, staring into blackness.
Marvin could hear a distant trickling sound. As his eyes adjusted, he saw water, murky and uninviting, a few inches below. He thought of Cousin Elaine's grim prediction and shuddered. Why hadn't his mother taken a firmer stand against this?
"Well ... here I go," he said to Mama, who promptly grabbed his leg and held fast.
"Now don't do anything rash, darling," she told him. "Go slowly, and come right back to me if it seems dangerous."
"Okay," Marvin promised. He clutched his peanut-shell float and took a deep breath. Then he launched himself into the void.
He barely remembered to shut his eyes before the cold water closed over his head. Pedaling his legs frantically, he came bobbing back up to the surface. The cloudy water tasted vaguely of toothpaste. It smelled horrible.
"Marvin? Marvin, are you all right?" Mama's voice echoed thinly in the pipe.
"I'm fine," he called back.
He swam through the scummy water, which was littered with every nasty thing that might wash down a human's drain: bits of food, hair, slivers of soap. He wanted to throw up.
"Do you see it yet?" his mother called.
"No," Marvin answered. He suddenly realized he had no idea what a contact lens looked like.
Then, as he was about to turn back, he did see something: a thin plastic disc, stuck to the side of the pipe. It looked just like the fruit bowl Mama used at home. Out of breath, he shot back up to the surface.
"I found it, Mama!" he yelled.
"Oh, good, darling." His mother breathed a sigh of relief. "Now we'd better hurry, before someone turns on the faucet and washes us both away."
Marvin discovered he couldn't hold on to the contact lens and the peanut shell at the same time. Reluctantly, he let go of his float, took a deep breath, and plunged under the water again.
In the distance, he heard his mother cry, "Marvin! Your float!" But he moved his legs swiftly, unburdened by the peanut shell, and glided down through the dark water. He swam straight to the contact lens and clasped it with his front two legs. Pulling it away from the side of the pipe, he shot quickly back to the surface. Through the lens, he could see his mother, wavy and distorted, looming above him. She'd crawled down the side of the pipe to the water's edge, beckoning to him.
"Oh, Marvin, thank heavens. You are a wonder, darling. What leg control. I wish my old ballet crowd could see you." She took the lens from him. "Whew! The water smells positively vile. And what a fuss over this little thing! Why, it looks exactly like my fruit bowl."
Holding it gingerly on her back, Mama crawled up the pipe. She scooted under the stopper, with Marvin close behind her, and together they dragged the lens up the side of the sink.
Uncle Albert rushed down to meet them. "By George, you've done it!" he cried. "Marvin, my boy, you're a hero! A hero! Wait till I tell your aunt Edith!"
Marvin beamed modestly. He flexed his legs and shook them dry.
"Let's see, where shall we put it?" Mama asked.
They looked around. "By the faucet, maybe," Marvin suggested. "That way, it won't get washed down the drain again."
They placed the lens near the hot-water handle and dashed behind a green water glass just as James walked into the bathroom.
"After all this trouble, they'd better find it," Mama whispered grimly. Marvin kept his eyes on the contact lens. It glistened in the morning light, a faint blue color.
They could hear Mr. Pompaday on the phone with the plumber. "What's that? Oh, okay, I'll look." He bellowed, "James! Are you in the bathroom? Make yourself useful. Are the pipes in there copper or galvanized steel?"
James stood at the sink. "I don't know," he said. "But, Mom, I found your contact lens. It's right here by the faucet."
And then what a commotion: Mrs. Pompaday rushing into the bathroom in disbelief, Mr. Pompaday loudly apologizing to the plumber, and James lifting the contact lens in his outstretched palm.
"Well, I guess that's that," Mama said to Marvin as soon as the bathroom emptied. "We'd better head back and let your father know you're all right."
So Mama, Uncle Albert, and Marvin ambled home, where everyone greeted them joyfully. Papa, Aunt Edith, and Elaine all patted Marvin on his shell, but nobody wanted to hug him. He was wet and slimy, and smelled overpoweringly of the drain water.
"I think I need a bath," Marvin said.
And then Mama and Papa fussed over him, filling the bottle cap with warm water and adding a single grain of turquoise dishwashing detergent. Marvin sank into the bubbles and floated in the pool to his heart's content, until he was shiny and clean again.CHAPTER 3
The Birthday Party
The next day was Saturday, James's birthday. There was to be a party, a large one, and the Pompadays' dining room was festooned with streamers and balloons. As Marvin and his parents foraged for breakfast under the kitchen table, they listened to the plans.
"I don't want those boys eating in the living room," Mrs. Pompaday told James. "Make sure they stay at the table when it's time for the cake."
"But, Mom," James said. "I can't tell them what to do. They're not even my friends."
William banged deafeningly on his high-chair tray with a spoon and crowed at James. "Ya ya! Ya ya!" From what Marvin could tell, this was the word for James in William's very limited but forceful language.
"What a big boy you are!" Mrs. Pompaday crooned, wiping the baby's face with a washcloth. She turned to James. "What do you mean they're not your friends? Why, the Fentons live right upstairs. You see Max every day."
"They're very important clients of mine, the Fentons. I've gotten several referrals from them, and you know, that's the heart of my business. Word of mouth." Below the table, Mama and Papa looked at each other and rolled their eyes. "So I hope you'll treat Max nicely, dear," Mrs. Pompaday continued.
Mama shook her head, whispering, "Clients! Will he have a single one of his own friends at the party?" she asked.
"Of course not," Papa replied.
Marvin had seen enough of Mrs. Pompaday's parties to know that his parents were right. Whatever the occasion, the guest list was always a loose assemblage of people she worked with or wanted to work with, and for the entire party Mrs. Pompaday would float fawningly from one person to the next, confiding self-important tips about the Manhattan real estate market.
Mrs. Pompaday plucked William from the high chair and said encouragingly, "We're having a magician, remember? You know how you love magic, James."
James hesitated. "Mom ... don't you think that's the kind of thing people have at a little kid's party?"
"Nonsense, dear. Everyone loves magicians. They're like clowns."
Marvin personally hated clowns, which he had seen in abundance on television because Mr. Pompaday had an odd fascination with the circus. Clowns struck Marvin as scary and untrustworthy, with their painted faces and exaggerated expressions, always trying to get strangers to laugh.
The beetles had learned most of what they knew about the outside world from the Pompadays' endless stream of television shows. Mrs. Pompaday's favorites were hospital dramas or soap operas, while Mr. Pompaday preferred long documentaries on obscure topics. James liked cartoons, which Marvin found colorful and quite satisfying, especially when they featured a heroic or particularly energetic insect. The best thing about television in the Pompaday household was that the Pompadays tended to snack while they watched their shows, so the beetles could count on a veritable smorgasbord of popcorn kernels, raisins, and potato-chip crumbs at the end of the evening.
Marvin watched James, who was jiggling a sneaker. "Mom," James said, "do you think Dad will come?"
"I don't know, James. He said he'd try. But it's going to be a wonderful party, you'll see!" Mrs. Pompaday swept over and kissed the top of his head. "Stop moping. It's your birthday! Come help me with the goody bags."
Excerpted from Masterpiece by Elise Broach, Kelly Murphy. Copyright © 2008 Elise Broach. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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